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Leapfrogging through the cane fields – Brisbane to Cairns #3

Our progression north was bringing us closer to an exciting point where travel, genealogy and storytelling collided. Along the way, we made a brief stop at Rockhampton, visiting their botanical gardens and zoo and took in the views from the top of Mt Archer, but Townsville drew me onwards.

We drove past vast swathes of sugar cane with their feather ‘arrow’ tops (similar to Austroderia toetoe), making short stops in Sarina, Bowen, and Ayr – sugar cane towns with endless criss-crossing narrow gauge tracks for the cane trains, numerous mills, gorgeous beaches, and the Lucinda Jetty some six kilometres long.

In between we visited Airlie Beach, a beachside resort with shade-covered open-air pools from toddler to adult size, parks, cafés, restaurants, and shops offering any number of ways to be entertained and the chance to see the Great Barrier Reef.

And no – before you ask – we did not see any cane toads or snakes or spiders or any other such like creepy crawlies ( well, I didn’t. The OH said he saw a Huntsman in the door well of the motorhome as he got out for the final time at the depot. We quickly made our escape). Eventually, GPS guided us down the hill to our destination in Townsville and we parked on The Strand – we’d arrived, just like Brigid and Sally…

In 1886, at the age of seventeen, great-grandmother left her home in County Clare and sailed to Brisbane as part of the Domestic Servant scheme. In 1902 she married in Townsville and came to New Zealand.
Those three snippets led to my novel, Brigid The Girl from County Clare, but Brigid had skills great-grandmama did not.

Finding historical information about the ship, and life in Brisbane at the time was just a matter of research but where exactly great-grandmother fitted remained a mystery. What I do know is that a month after her arrival, Brisbane was devastated by flooding. It was too good to ignore and became a catalyst to what happened next to Brigid.

Townsville, on the other hand was where Brigid’s fictional friend Sally became a barmaid working for at the Queen’s Hotel on The Strand. Now listed as a heritage building it sadly is no longer a hotel, but it is as magnificent now as it was in its heyday, and The Strand is as grand to walk along.

But Cairns was calling, and another place where genealogy and storytelling met.

After that, we decided to take a detour through the Atherton Tablelands rather than continue on the Bruce Highway. We loved that route, despite the fact it rained. Thankfully, not heavily, and the mist added to the picturesque scenery. The road was windy as it climbed into the hills but gave us a panoramic view of open farmland as we rounded the corners. We stopped at a farm gate and bought some locally grown and deliciously sweet bananas, and continued to our stop for the night – Paronella Park.

The village of Mena Creek was a surprise with an impressive (if slightly soggy) campground, a traditional pub (where we had a great meal), a school and a store, but Paronella Park itself was the greatest surprise. In the early 1900s José Paronella had a dream… On a five hectare site beside Mena Creek Falls he built his castle, picnic area by the falls, tennis courts, bridges, a tunnel, and wrapped it up in an amazing range of 7,500 tropical plants and trees. It opened in 1935. Today it is mostly elegant ruins and the garden he planted has grown to be acres of trees, waterfalls, secret groves, and fountains. Highly recommended as a stopover, it is beautiful by day and spectacular by night under the light show.

The next day we left the hills and returned to the savannah and cane fields making our way into Mareeba, a place we wanted to visit out of curiosity because great-grandfather once worked and lived there. With no information to go on, other than he was a carter, we visited the Mareeba Heritage Centre. We had lunch at their café, and toured their museum and historical village to get a feel for what the place was like at the time he was there. The goldfields of Herberton were a likely attraction, and by the turn of the century Mareeba was a significant railhead.

We then descended the winding road through tropical rainforest into Cairns where the temperatures were now hovering around 27 degrees even if the morning started off significantly cooler.

Our holiday was coming to an end, but we managed to day trip on the Skyrail taking a gondola up to the historic village of Kuranda, visited Birdworld, the Koala Gardens and the Butterfly Sanctuary, and travelled back on the Heritage Railway. A great trip seeing a different side of Queensland.

Our final excursion was the joy of travelling along the coastline between Cairns and Port Douglas and having lunch at the beach. There wasn’t time to do any other explorations – we’ll save them for next time, but there was time for one last treat – dinner out on our last evening.

We choose Bellocale Italian Seafood Restaurant and were not disappointed. The meal was delicious, but we were there at 6pm on a Wednesday evening and many diners who had not booked were turned away such was their reputation.

I hope you enjoyed the highlights of travelling along with me as we navigated our way between Brisbane and Cairns. We have plans to return to the areas that we loved most – but that’s for another winter.

Next week – I’m wondering how Sarah is getting on at The Welsh Back in Bristol in the 1850s.

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