My earliest memories are of deep red earth and horned black beetles with spiky feet that clung to my fingertips. In the late sixties in Far North Queensland, Christmas beetles shone like baubles and cane toads leapt up the front steps onto the verandah of the family home where I played around adults’ feet stained red from the dirt. The verandah wrapped around three sides of the biggest house I’d ever seen, that stood on top of a hill up a long driveway that stretched for miles through sugarcane fields topped with soft purple flowers.
My father’s family had farmed cane in Innisfail on the stolen lands of the Mamu people in Far North Queensland since the early days of white settlement. Their old farm is now called Shaw’s Corner and sits on a bend in the Johnstone River with views over cane fields and lush deep rainforest all the way to Queensland’s tallest mountain – Mt Bartle Frere – a forbidding presence often swallowed by clouds. Innisfail was famous for rain and sugar cane, but I didn’t know that then. For me, the whole place sang of magic, deep and old.
When my father started work as a Maths teacher at Innisfail High, I was about to turn three, my brother was almost one and half and my little sister was already swelling my exhausted mother’s belly. For some months we stayed with my father’s parents on the farm, and I played on the verandah and in the yard and sometimes ran between the rows of cane and got lost, crying out to be found in the forest of sweet-smelling stalks. The mill pumped clouds of steam that reeked of molasses, which my grandfather, Poppa, fed to the milking cows on a salt lick. He let me try it, sticky and black, as salty as it was sweet.
Sensitive weed grew all over the farm, up and down both sides of the driveway, which made bare feet dangerous. These weeds closed their fern-like fronds when you touched them, like a shy child, and I spent hours watching the fronds curl away from my fingertip. The weed had sweet small purple flowers but when you stood on them the prickles hurt. ‘Don’t be such a sensitive weed!’ Poppa would yell when I cried from the pain.
After a while, we moved to the family’s beach cottage at nearby Flying Fish Point, on the coast east of Innisfail. I was excited: Flying Fish Point, images of florescent-finned fish leaping from the water and taking to the skies like fairies filled my head. We lived in a small shanty made of fibro, except one inside room that was lined with panels of wood that made it as dark as the rainforest that surrounded the cottage on the hill. In the forest, the ‘Gotcha plant’ would snag my legs with thorns that swung out like evil hands from the trees. The forest was alive, I had no doubt of that.
The rainforest ran down from the wilderness behind the house all the way to the sea, just a hundred metres away at the bottom of the hill. I wandered down through the damp leafy mulch and sweet smell of rot into the harsh light of the seashore, out onto the rough golden sand littered with driftwood and shells, to paddle on the edges of the sea. The water was sometimes clear and bright like a precious green-blue jewel but was often murky, mixed with red earth washed down by rain. Cassowaries – giant prehistoric birds with hard brown helmets and blue and red wattles – roamed the beaches, their guttural grunts warning me to keep away from their claws.
Every afternoon in summer, storms rolled in; heavy green clouds that lit the world gold as sweat poured down our backs and behind our knees. Flash! CRASH! Lightning strikes jagged through the sky all the way to the earth and rain bucketed from above, thundering on the tin roof, drowning out all sound but the heavy heartbeat of the rain itself. A powerful force that everything fed upon, rich and green and lush. On the hottest days, my mother would sit my brother and I in a cold bath and feed us fresh coconut as we soaped each other’s backs and drew pictures in the suds with our fingers. We ate mangoes in the bath too, juice dripping from our elbows and burning raw around our mouths.
At cane harvest season the towering cane fields, purple with flowers, were burnt to clear the fields of weeds and vermin. Soot blackened men raced about with torches and whole fields went up in flames that roared like train engines but louder. Fire! We stood, clinging to our mother’s skirts, watching animals flee before the flames, swarming from the fields, snakes and lizards and rats and bandicoots and wallabies and bugs, escaping with their lives as fire devoured all in its path and rained white ash for miles around – tropical snow. Then men came in with harvesters, giant yellow metal dinosaurs with long necks that spat out rubbish and fed cane into cane trains that rattled past on rail lines running through the property all the way to the mill.
When my father wasn’t teaching, we’d go for adventures – swimming in the rapids at the Johnstone River where it turned a sharp corner on the family property, or later, when we were bigger, at local waterfalls –the most beautiful places on earth. With my father we swam in deep, dark, swimming holes so cold, even on the hottest of days, they made your teeth chatter and your brain ache if you stayed under too long. He taught us to swim right out into the blackest depths, to leap off boulders and swing from trees, to scale the slippery smooth granite and slide down waterfalls as if they were show rides. We scrambled from waterfall to waterfall, squeezing ourselves behind the fall to where small green frogs leapt upon us and stuck to our skin.
Local Aboriginal legends told of star-crossed lovers who leapt to their deaths at a swimming hole called The Boulders, an eerie place where lives could easily be lost, especially in the ‘Devil’s Hole’ where young men tested their courage by leaping into a tumult from a small opening, hoping they would survive the roaring waters in the cave below. With my father, we swam right up to the entrance of that cave and peered inside to where raging rapids crashed like surf against smooth boulder walls. We weren’t allowed to jump into the ‘Devil’s Hole’, but we were allowed to slide down ‘The Chute’, which took you along a narrow tube not much wider than your child-body, a funnel of rushing water that sometimes pushed you under, until, what felt like minutes later, you were pushed out the end, still alive. Really alive. More alive than you’d ever felt before – tingling with cold and grateful for every hot, heavy breath.
For my mother, life in the far north wasn’t magical at all. It was hard work and isolation and mildew and rain and more rain and heat and more heat and mud and rain and loneliness. My sister was born and then my mother had three children, aged three and under. Mildew grew on the walls and on shoes in the cupboard. Where I saw adventure, she saw danger. Where I saw fun, she saw mess and more work scrubbing walls. While I was outside running free, she was trapped inside.
So, even though I would have happily stayed living in the rainforest by the sea forever, we returned to Brisbane and found a home in the suburbs. We had a creek at the bottom of our yard, not clean and clear and cold, but brown and smelling of sewerage pumped into it further upstream. We visited Innisfail every year after we left, and I cherished those returns to what felt like home. Then, when I was in my mid-teens, my father died, and we didn’t travel north anymore.
I went back, not so long ago, and found the old farm. The Shaw’s Corner sign was there, sun-bleached but still standing, even though no Shaw lives there anymore. The homestead is gone, a modern prefab in its place. Even the old mango tree out the back which seemed as if it had stood there since the dawn of time, had disappeared. The driveway had shrunk, only fifty metres or so, not the endless slow climb I’d found it when young. The tractor shed was still there and I snuck in and collected a bag full of red earth. I put it in bottles when I got home and gave one to each of my siblings, because that red earth is our ancestral home, even if it was only for a few generations. I felt most at home on that red earth where I belonged to more than just my family. Or a house. I belonged in the magic of that place.
Flying Fish Point had become just another suburb of Innisfail. The house where I sat and ate fresh coconut in the bathtub still stood and cassowaries still roamed the streets. The sea rolled in, murky with the rains and as I walked along the shore, gritty sand under my feet, collecting pieces of driftwood, it still felt like home.
On the way to Cairns, I stopped in at my favourite waterfall to have a swim. The big lagoon and all access to the higher falls had been prohibited, fences put up everywhere to protect people from themselves. I slid under that fence and swam in the icy golden pool and wished all the tourists away, wished myself back in time, to when it was just me and my brothers and sisters and my father leading us up along the smooth boulders, up into the wilderness where frogs leapt on our arms and the waterfalls were playgrounds. Back to when the world was full of magic and courage and joy. The magic had faded with adulthood, but sensitive weed still closed at my touch, the forest still reached out to catch me as I went by, and the land still thrummed with the red pulse of life.
I grew up in a paradise where fish flew and giant birds wore helmets, where the air smelt of sugar and the earth was red like blood. The air was heavy to breathe and ceiling fans blew hot. A land where waterholes were as cold as iced water and killed young men and people of all colours lived, but the land belonged to blacks though my world was white. My earliest memories are of a place where night was enchanted and storms came in green and gold and rain thrummed on the roof so loudly no one could speak but only listen to the voice of the storm. Crocodiles lurked in the shadows and snakes and toads ran in front of fire that roared and wept ash.
My siblings and I all treasure these places and hold them as sacred. I have a photograph of the falls at my writing desk. My brother has a similar photo in his bedroom. My sisters too. This devotion to country comes from just a few generations of loving these places. How deep must that belonging and love go for the Mamu people who have loved this country for tens of thousands of years? The people who understand this wild land and speak the language of the forests, who know its rhythms and seasons and have lived them for millennia.
Inside my bones, deep in my body, I hold those precious early days in the darkness of the rainforest and the golden light of storms. The thunder of rain on the roof echoes in my heart and red earth colours the blood in my veins. I smell Flying Fish Point in every newspaper-wrapped package of fish and chips, in any whiff of salty sea breeze, the pungent rot of mulch, the stink of a crushed bug. I find comfort in the soft mauve of sugarcane flowers, soft as light, swaying in the breeze.