Swagman #15 – The Sugar Drive to Cairns – Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Swagman #15 – The Sugar Drive to Cairns
Cairns, Queensland, Australia

After it was agreed that we would just head straight to Cairns, the planning
process took the backseat and we set out on the long car ride up the
remainder of the coast. We drove north, straight past Rainbow
Beach and into Hervey Bay. We were both a bit disappointed by Hervey Bay,
probably the result of high expectations. It is one of the departure points
for Fraser Island and I had heard so much that there was no way it could
live up to what I expected. We had a quick lunch of $5 roasts, after which I
tried a fried Mars bar (surprisingly delicious), and walked everything off
on the beach for about an hour before jumping back into the car. From there
it was one long drive, stopping only to sleep, through Bundaberg (of Bundy
Rum fame) and into Rockhampton, beef capital of Australia.

Rockhampton the road stretches out even further and and there is more of
nothing, at turns arid and the suddenly lush, hundreds of cows and then
finally nothing but sugar cane in all directions standing tall. And if it’s
not fully grown it is just starting to sprout, and always in the distance
there is the trail of smoke and the distinct smell of burning sugar cane.
Thinking of it now, everything was sweet. The fields were always there, the
farmers were always harvesting, their dogs chasing after their trucks when
they went out to the fields. Signs all around for fresh fruit – mangos,
bananas, rock melon, watermelon – all sold at a small little wagon by the
side of the road kilometers away from the nearest house.

There were signs
everywhere warning of kangaroos, but unfortunately the only ones we saw were
the dead ones on the side of the road, at least one every half hour. They
only come bouncing out into the road at night, so when the sun went down we
were gratefully pulling into Mackay, where the hotels and motels are up
against each other lining the road into town, competing for business. We
settled on a room for $50 with a sweet old lady who went into complete
detail on the last American who had stayed for a night – a young couple from
Pennsylvania. It was dinner and a movie in the room and then we were off
again early the next day, a 4-5 hour drive up to Townsville where we camped
beneath a mango tree and then off again straight into Cairns the next

We did little in Cairns but rest and drink, for there is really very little
to do in Cairns but rest, drink, and risk your life on sky diving, bungee
jumping, and any of the latest adventure crazes sweeping through. The city
itself is small, barely larger than a town, and even lacks a beach, opting
instead for long stretches of mud flats. It is, I believe officially, the
end of the backpacker trail, although most will continue up to Daintree and
Cape Tribulation. We toyed with this idea, but were not keen to jump back
into the car. Time was also winding down – I was only a week away from the
expiration of my Australian visa. I would have to extend it just to make it
back down the coast.

So we camped at night and spent long days at the pool. I managed to stub my
toe on a lounge chair and split my toe nail right down the center, which
felt about as pleasant as it sounds. Nikki performed some quick first aid,
and I practically limped into the Immigration office with an enormous
bandage on my big toe keeping the nail in place. Despite my appearance my
visa extension was granted, for a surprisingly high fee, and I now have
another month in this wonderful country.

After relaxing for a few days we decided that we ought to actually see
something in Cairns, so we drove north of the city to the Tjapukai
Aboriginal Cultural Park
. A visit to the park takes about 2-3 hours and
includes, in order: Aboriginal song and dances, medicine and herbs, a lesson
on the didgeridoo, boomerang (mine came back!) and spear throwing, and
finally a theater show that explains the creation and one that shows the
effects of European occupation in the 20th century.

The park is well worth a visit to balance the, um, less educational effects
of Cairns. According their website, the park is the largest private
enterprise employer of Aboriginal people in Australia and is in the Guinness
Book of World Records as the longest running show in Australia. While it is
definitely a pleasant day out and an excellent way to learn about Aboriginal
beliefs and lifestyle, the final film on European occupation is a bitter way
to end the day, and in that way has the most effective impact.

As a race, the Aboriginal people managed to survive and thrive on one of the
most inhospitable terrains on Earth without leaving a scar on the land. They
cared for the land in such a way that it is impossible to even tell how long
they have been here, with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 years. To
them the land is sacred, and they are merely inhabitants, not owners. This
belief was not echoed by the European settlers in the late 1700’s, who decided
that they could rightfully claim the land in the name of the King of England. Much like
the indians in North America, the Aboriginals were pushed away, were killed off
by foreign diseases like small pox, were even hunted by the settlers. The
Aboriginal people in Tasmania were entirely wiped out by settlers.
The lifestyle they were forced to endure throughout the years is shameful to
look back on, and continued right up until as recently as the 1960s and
1970s. They were segregated, children were taken from their parents to give
them a better life in orphanages (now known as the “Stolen Generation”), and
a majority became addicted to alcohol and opium. Even now, especially in
North Queensland, the alcoholism continues to be a problem.

There are so many different opinions on the matter by now that is difficult
to form a complete opinion. Many claim that there is still a great deal of
racism against the Aborigines today. I asked an Australian that I met in
Fiji about them, and he simply said “They just can’t adapt to our society.”
Which, in a way, is true. It is amazing that a culture that was able to
adapt to the harshest climates, terrain, and most deadly creatures in the
world could not adapt to modern first-world culture. For more info, and
seemingly skewed opinions on Aboriginal history, go to:

Australian Aboriginal History
Aboriginal history and heritage