Life in Cairns was incredibly exciting after living on a coral island for 3 months. Being able to walk to a bus stop, get on a bus and travel to the next town felt like a massive injection of freedom. Leonie quickly found a job waitressing at a classy bistro down by the harbour working evenings so I had to forage the area on my own. Things were looking grim, but leaning on my ‘lemons to lemonade’ personality I devised a strategy.

We bought 2 ancient sit-up-and-beg bicycles cheaply at the Sunday market. With the sugar cane ripening the milling season about to get under way I cycled three times a week to the local mills. Eventually I secured a job at Gordonvale mill, Mulgrave, and started work hooking up the empty cane bins or operating the bin tippler which upended the cane bins onto a massive conveyor. Looking like bags on a luggage carousel the cane was transported  into the bowels of the mill to be crushed and processed into sugar.

Of course this introduced me to sugar cane, a sort of monster grass that the region is famous for. Because of the tropical climate things grow at an awesome pace. Folk in the area must need to cut their lawns a couple of times a week. I would wander into the cane fields just to be in the midst of the cane, giant blades of swishing grass. Before modern cutting machinery the cane was cut by hand, one of the toughest jobs in the world, I spoke to people at the mill who could remember cutting cane by hand and it sounded a hideous job for little pay.

The mill had to be productive, which meant constant input of raw cane, slowing of the input meant drastic change for the engineers as they toiled to accommodate the flow. I rotated jobs with a couple of blokes, one hour hooking up bins, one hour off, then one hour operating the tippler. It didn’t take a lot of skill to seamlessly infiltrate the bin into the tippler, press a button and wait as the drum rolled tipping the cane onto the conveyor belt, press another button to return the bin upright and then press another button to shunt the bin out of the tippler. At least it didn’t seem like a lot of skill to me…arrogance of youth..

Night shift was a destroyer. It always felt good to go into work in the cooler evenings, meet up with the lads, have the craic and then take over from the previous shift. Seemless. By  1 or 2 a.m. the eyes began to droop and I hated my hour on the tippler, it was stuffy and uber noisy, cracking din of splintered cane being crushed. I always wanted to sleep then, instant, deep and soul satisfying sleep, sleep beckoned like the addict’s needle.

I did achieve Hall of Fame for Mill Idiots though. One night I was sitting at the console, pressing buttons and getting right into the zone, I was almost overfilling the conveyor in my mind making the bosses ecstaticly wealthy with my talent. Cocky so-and-so I managed to turn a full drum with one empty bin still exiting OMG! The adrenalin rush was overwhelming,, panic and fear surged up into my throat, dried out my tongue and prevented me from shouting ‘STOP THE MILL before the conveyor runs empty.’

I was not a popular bunny that night. The mill did stop for a few hours whilst the bin was disentangled, and I didn’t get any bonuses on pay day!

Picture credit Australian Daily Telegraph

Night shift became a challenge but was immensely rewarding, it allowed me to experience tropical nights with little distraction.

Outside of the building the vast night skies loomed, the Southern Sky spreadeagled to be seen in a profound and uplifting display. New stars and constellations had me thumbing through books and charts, each night I was eager to get in and identify more. As I sat at the console practising meditation I taught myself to become more tolerant and focused entirely on getting through that hour so that I could dash outside and feel the immensity of a pure night sky.

A tropical night is incredibly noisy, the air vibrant with life, swarms of insects and Australia’s great array of nocturnal creatures scurrying about their business. I suppose the noise of Cane Toads will stick with me most intensely. Brought in to control the rodent problems amongst the canefields, the toads themselves proliferated to such an extent that they are now the problem, no doubt the rodents survived and thrived as well.

Frank was the ‘unhooker’. As the cane bins came to the mill his job was to unhook the chains with a kind of boat hook on a pole. That was it, that was what Frank did, all night, every night. On my hour off I would frequently drift down to his station, seated on a stool as he unhooked the bins Frank would tell me tales of his life, how he was injured in a car accident and developed a distinctive limp, how he travelled from Tassie to the Tablelands to Cairns migrating with the seasonal work. Frank wasn’t highly educated but he was intuitive, a natural and his acute appreciation of the night was humbling. One night as he sat there telling me a convoluted tale of a journey from Sydney to Coober Pedy and a year he spent opal mining we both got a jolt. A massive snake was intertwined in the grill of a bin, it’s mouth protruding in strike pose. We both lurched backwards, Frank toppled off his stool, scrabbled on the floor ready to run, when we hit the door to his hut we turned and realised the snake was dead, some joker had fixed it up in the cane fields to give people a fright, it worked.

I sat with Frank and enjoyed a lunar eclipse. My memory doesn’t recall the detail too well, but I remember Frank explaining everything about the event. Cane burns were a regular feature of the night sky, the cane fields were torched in a controlled burn to remove much of the husk before it was cut. I once went with Frank to watch a burn, an unstoppable intensity with associated roar and flurry of escaping insects and wildlife that generated immense fear in me.  Walsh’s Pyramid caught fire too. Walshs Pyramid (Bundadjarruga) (922 m) is an independent peak with a distinct pyramidal appearance, it’s the highest freestanding natural pyramid in the world. We watched the apocalyptic scene unfold for a few nights, as fires flared and smouldered along the steep flanks of the mountain, realising with trepidation that men were up there trying to stop the fires penetrate down to the properties. The thing about Frank was his ability to appreciate the space and magnificence of the world where he lived, I would often see him gazing up into the skies, arms resting on his knees with the unhooker casually cradled in his arms. I wondered often what went on in his mind as he stared into the vastness. Frank was special…Frank was killed in a car accident. I hadn’t felt such a loss before. Never had I expected to hold such powerful emotions for a man.

It’s the people we meet in life who make the experience so special.

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