I am the Little White Sugar-Girl. I am about four years old. We always paid an annual Christmas-cake visit to my grandfather at his sugarcane farm at Kalkie, outside Bundaberg. I call him the Golden-Syrup Man, so golden-brown is he from a lifetime of working in the subtropical sun. The first thing I always look for is the dirty little Santa Claus nailed over the kitchen door. It’s always been there and somehow it worries me—a tarnished memory. Why didn’t he take it down? It surely must have hurt him to be constantly reminded of happier days.
‘Give me a ride to the melons, Poppy’, I beg, holding my arms up to him. Wincing in pain, he takes me onto his shoulders as he gingerly walks out to the melon patch. He puts me down gently among the green carpet of rockmelon and watermelon vines, grunting with relief. He tells me the plantar warts under his feet are giving him gip. We bend down and inspect the melons. He shows me how to test them for ripeness—the rockies for that sweet-cloying smell and an oozy patch of softness at the stem, and he thunks the watermelon with his thick knuckles for the satisfying hollow sound. He cracks open the watermelon with his cane knife and we sit comfortably on the red volcanic soil, up against the rock wall, in the shade of the cane, and gorge on the bright red flesh, sticky juice running down our arms. Next on the menu is a stick of sugarcane to gnaw on. I watch him disappear into the cane and reappear carrying the fattest stalk he can find, which he hacks into portions with his sharp cane knife—one portion for me and another for himself—and we settle down again to chomp and chew and suck the sugar-juice out until there’s nothing left but the white fibrous pulp.
I didn’t know then how hard I was smiling inside.
Maybe I could find that First Smile again if I could find the Golden-Syrup Man, but he is long dead. Nobody even told me he had died. Nobody invited me to his funeral.
The Golden-Syrup Man built the little wooden house and shed over a century ago. He walked from the house to the shed, where he found a greasy old length of rope and then hanged himself with it.
I am running out of the house; my bare feet love the coolth of the hard, shiny dirt-floor kitchen as I run. I am walking along a red-dirt track towards what is known as the Hummock, a volcanic core looming up above the verdure of cane. I am wandering and wondering between fields of tall green stalks. Wandering along beside me, on both sides, are stonewalls. Everything else is so big, but they are about the same height as I am, and I feel some connection; somehow, they seem kindred. I can’t help caressing the warm grey-black, pock-marked orbs about the same size as my head—hundreds of friends to play with, but friends with no eyes, no ears, no faces, no voices. I have to imagine them, imagine what they are saying. I am taking a big risk getting so close, touching them, because my mother, the White-Sugar Princess, has warned me of the dangers lurking inside the warmth of the walls. I imagine the angry yellow eyes of disturbed snakes, watching me as they prepare to lunge. The rattle of the licorice-black elephant beetles is a warning signal. Still, I can’t help myself and it is a chance to practise courage and, besides, no one’s looking.
The Golden-Syrup Man told me the walls had been built long, long ago by people he called ‘Kanakas’ and I imagined they must have been mythical-magical beings from another planet to have piled up such beautiful rocks in such a careful, clever, jigsaw way. I had to be careful of them as well. What if these ‘Kanakas’ still lurked somewhere in all that sugarcane? Was that them whispering and sighing in the rasping of the cane leaves?
All these years later in 2011 I decided to make my way to Bundaberg, to this town where my parents were married, to the place of my First Smile, to the place where my grandfather killed himself, to this place I knew so well. I bought an old 1984 Toyota HiAce camper van and lumbered from Brisbane to Bundaberg on the A1, the Bruce.
I am in the back seat of the family’s Toyota station wagon. It is 1965. Every Christmas we head north, on the Old Bruce, to celebrate the Yuletide Season with my mother’s family, proud and comfortable in their sugarcane wealth. The Old Bruce is a living thing for me—its gangliated nerve-line fleshed out, even cinematic, with images and memories. From Brisbane to Bundaberg is a hard day’s drive. It is a basic, sealed dual carriageway wending like a cow trail, parting scrubby bush archways or memorial avenues of trees commemorating the First World War dead.
We have a tradition of singing the glass-bottles-hanging-on-the-wall song when we see the volcanic cores of the Glasshouse Mountains appear soft and misty in the distance. Tibrogargan: how I love whispering that name, ‘tib-row-gagaga-an’—although I never use the word ‘Mount’. That hunched creature looming up in the distance seems more a god than a mountain.
This journey in 2011 I don’t just drive on into the vanishing point, at the end of perspective, to the horizon; I stop and Google to find out what I can about Tibrogargan.
Tibrogargan is sacred to the Jinibara people as the father and Beewah nearby is the pregnant mother and all the other mountains are their children.
The Jinibara people ask that these sacred places not be climbed and on the website this is noted along with access points for bushwalkers, hikers and rock climbers.
From Tibrogargan on in our journey I let myself enter a phantasmagoric world of monsters and chimeras, of fear and magic—a myth-making fuelled by a menacing and melancholy sense that something is wrong here.
My heart sinks when the Toyota passes the dead-dream enterprises—derelict and abandoned tourist traps—reptile parks, broken signs for gemstone outlets, roadside cafes with their papered-over windows and rusty petrol pumps. To my dismay, we never break our journey in ‘the Fruit Garden of Queensland’, enticed by the ‘pick-your-own-fruit’ opportunities with their honesty boxes.
We break our journey to eat our sandwiches and drink tea from our thermos at the Main Roads–provided ‘Shelter’ at Burpengary. There is something faerie about this place—the ferny creek bank, the splashy tinkle-tinkle of the creek over rocks, the misty view, the rustic rubble-stone shelter. All provided for our convenience by the Main Roads Department.
‘Shelter’: how I cherish the word. It gives me a sense of security, somehow eases my anxiety; someone out there is looking after us and concerned about our comfort and welfare. How proud my parents are of this progress, of our Main Roads Department.
Having grown up steeped in all the murky corruption, amnesic evasions and violence of Queensland in the 1950s and 1960s, this trip I wanted to trace myself back and back and settle that perennial question, What is wrong here?; pull out some of those prickling bindi-eye awns. I wanted to see if it was possible to develop a new relationship with the people and history of where I was born as a third- and fourth-generation white Australian from the ubiquitous mix of Irish fleeing the potato famines and The Troubles, the English from poverty and the Satanic Mills, the Scandinavians from the depredations of the Schleswig-Holstein Wars. I wanted to find Pop’s melon patch. And I wanted to find that Little White Sugar-Girl chomping on sugarcane and find where I’d left that First Smile. I wanted to run my hands over those ‘Kanaka’ stone walls again and listen for those voices whispering and sighing in the cane, for a way to understand, a way to be, in this whispering landscape.
As I approached the township of Childers, driving along the Bruce out of the Wallum scrub and into sugarcane, I felt the ancient power of Sugarcane exert itself on me—its nurturing presence and also its claustrophobic menace.
Despite now being heritage listed, Childers didn’t seem to have changed much except for some tarting up of the main street. It was still the same dusty old one-horse town I remembered…
I am back curled up in the smell of the cracked leather seats and the clank and rumble of the family’s big old black Humber Snipe. It’s Saturday morning and we are driving from nearby Isis Central Sugar Mill, where my father works, to do our shopping in Childers.
Wandering along the main street I am intrigued to see a series of rust-red sculptures in the well-kept ‘Millennium Park’. The sculptures stand dignified and understated, sheltered beneath a canopy of overhanging trees on the grassy lawn. There’s a depiction of a cane cutter bending, cane knife in hand, cutting a clump of sugarcane, or is it flames he’s standing among? Nearby there’s a family group—mother, father, child—posed before sugarcane or flames. I walk further into the park towards a series of chimney-stacks; metal flames shoot out from their funnels. There are inscriptions and stories affixed to the chimney-stacks. This is the ‘Kanaka Memorial’. ‘Kanaka’—the name my grandfather used for the people who built his rock walls! Reading the inscriptions I begin to hear the voices of those people I so wondered about as a child.
I learn that they were no magical, mythical beings but Pacific Islanders, some 60,000 of whom were brought to Queensland to slave as indentured labourers on the sugar plantations. The flames from the chimney-stacks represent both the sugarcane mills where the cane was crushed and cooked as well as the burn-off of the cane fields, which was done just before harvesting.
I smell the cane burn-off—a burnt offering to a gluttonous God.
I am back in Isis Central Mill during the roar of the Crushing. There is the stench and the acrid smoke and infernal flames of the burn-off. I see people bending and slashing and cutting the cane. I see them struggling as they carry bundles of cane on their backs to the mill. They are feeding it into the ravenous black-hole mouth of Sugarcane’s demigod, Gargantua, with his massive, synchronised knife-teeth. Day and night Gargantua slices and smashes and gourmandises on the crushed and pulverised cane. The sticky-sweet incense to Sugarcane smothers everything. All this provoked terror and magic in my imagination. ‘Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum!’ I whisper. ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’.
I am going in and out of time zones—1870s, 1950s, 1960s, 2011. Layer upon layer of images flash up and overlap. When I look down into Gargantua’s voracious mouth it is bodies, ’Kanaka’ bodies, being crushed and slashed and juiced.
Now I’ve plucked out another awn.
I consult Mr Google again and ask about the original inhabitants of Childers.
The Aboriginal people around Childers were the Dundaburra group, of the Kubi Kubi tribe, one of the hosts of the great bunya nut festivals. A tribal name infamous in the records of massacres; recipients, in 1842, of the notorious Kilcoy-flour—flour laced with arsenic and strychnine.
Carrying these painful images of innocence, ignorance, blood and murder, I’m on the Bruce again. I stop at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it township of Apple Tree Creek. I pull the van into the little cemetery hidden away in the bush. I stand in the dead-dry grass in the hot desolation of a country cemetery. Stillness. Silence. Heat. Cicadas crackle the air, their static signalling something to the deaf cobalt sky and to me. I turn away from all the squiffy, bone-grey headstones and rusty miniature fences towards an area barren except for a couple of stunted trees and the remains of three marked graves.
The bloke in the nearby pub told me it was the ‘Pagan Graveyard’. He said that he believed many Aborigines and ‘Kanakas’ were buried there. However, I only see three headstones: one for an ‘A. Appo’, another for someone called ‘Cecilia’ and one for an Aboriginal woman named ‘Queen Maria’. The photo in the pub shows her wearing a breastplate proclaiming her, ‘Maria: Queen of Childers’, and tells me she would confront passers-by with the words, ‘Penny for my country’.
I stand chattering with the cicadas: ‘I know this place. Why do I know this place? I know this place. Why do I know this place?’ Again this uneasy What-is-wrong-with-this-picture? feeling. I look around and see, up to my right, an old wooden hall painted bitumen-black: ‘Apple Tree Creek Memorial Hall’.
I am in colonial dress, complete with calico apron and mob cap. My brother is in his little buliman red-coat costume. There is tinkly music playing. We are in the hall, bedecked with coloured lights and crêpe-paper streamers, at the Apple Tree Creek annual fancy-dress ball. My brother and I are twirling frantically around and around. And we are afraid!
We are afraid of the Boogieman. The White-Sugar Princess tells us that he is an old black man who wanders around at night grabbing naughty children and carrying them off in the sugar-bag he carries over his shoulder. For me he is made of molasses, a shapeless homunculus like the Tar Baby in our Queensland School Reader.
I see the Boogieman before me. He is bending over a cooking fire and making camp for the night. I am fixated on his sugar-bag, stamped with the words ‘Isis Central Sugar Mill’. I am still afraid. But when he empties his sugarbag what falls out are—clothes, soap, candles, matches, a bit of towel, a pocket-knife, plug tobacco, tea, sugar, enamel mug, plate and cutlery, bits of string, clean rags, a cane knife. No naughty children. No bones of children. No blood-spattered cane knife.
He is a ‘walkabout Kanaka’, out of indenture and free to travel.
I’ve pulled out one bindi-eye awn.
Bundaberg at last and as I drive into the town two threatening images from my past still torment me.
It’s Christmas and the White-Sugar Princess and I are visiting ‘poor old Mrs Sky Ring’ in her gloomy, dilapidated colonial home. I am transfixed before a glass cabinet full of stuffed birds and tiny creatures, products of her dead husband’s hobby, taxidermy. The birds are fierce eyed, their talons and beaks caked with the paint-blood of the smaller creatures that they are tearing apart: fur and feathers everywhere.
I drive on.
There’s the red-brick water tower with its array of windows—some glassed, others bricked up. Who or what is still behind those bricked-up windows scratching to get out?
On my way to my grandfather’s farm in Kalkie I take the scenic route beside Bundaberg’s Burnett River.
It’s Christmas and we are shooting along the river, like a bunch of yahoos, in my uncle’s new, you-beaut speedboat, to picnic on Paddy’s Island.
I Google Paddy’s Island—Burra-ya Bung (Many dead) in the Kalkie language.
Hundreds of people from the Gooreng Gooreng nation were massacred here in 1850. In the Bundaberg Regional Heritage Tourism Study the word ‘alleged’ prefaces this information, but searching further I find the testimony of William Henry Walsh, a settler who participated in the massacre.
The speedboat was carrying us along a river of blood.
Another bindi-eye awn is drawn out.
I drive to Kalkie, but there is no sign of my grandfather’s farm. Everything is suffocated and obliterated under what looks like a bumper cash-crop to feed Gargantua.
Maybe I’ll find something on Google? I enter ‘Bundaberg sugar plantations’. The State Heritage Register lists ‘Sunnyside sugar plantation’, where seven graves of Islanders have been discovered. The men’s names are: Coora, Tartal, Yantircca, Byeena, Beeteah, Charlie, Neeoo. The Bundaberg Regional Heritage Tourism Study dissuades tourists, designating ‘Sunnyside’ as ‘Not considered to threshold for local heritage significance’.
I sit in my van within a Sugarcane cathedral. Concealing the sky, it’s planted to the edge of the road on both sides and stretches to the vanishing point on the horizon. I have entered the Realm of Sugarcane Itself.
As I sit grieving and musing, an old man in faded work clothes, head down, cane-knife slung over his shoulder, emerges from the cane and trudges along the road towards me. His tall, gaunt, nut-brown figure ambles along, then turns again into the cane and disappears. His walk and demeanour are so like my grandfather’s I’m not sure if I am hallucinating the Golden-Syrup Man. I know I have to follow him into the cane—pay my dues to Sugarcane—into the fetid, dank humidity, the overpowering and claustrophobic dimness.
I know he is just ahead of me because the cane is swaying and rasping its blades together. The sound of the blades sharpening themselves on each other becomes tumultuous—thousands of cane knives being sharpened. I move deeper and deeper into the cane. I hear whips cracking and chains clanking and I see Islanders bowing and bending, from sunup to sundown, to their new God, Sugarcane. I hear men yahooing and galloping hooves thundering around me. I hear horses neighing and whinnying and I see a flash and a flare, then I hear the blast of Schneider rifles firing and I smell gunpowder.
Hunkering down on the blood-red soil I listen and Listen. Where there were silences there will never be silence again as the answer to my what’s-wrong question is answered and answered and answered over and over again.
But my First Smile is lost forever.