Tropical storming and sugar in Mackay, Far North Queensland

11.12am, Sunday 19th June, Mackay Airport, Far North Queensland, Australia.

Howdy folks, it’s your drowned rat lookalike traveller her, with all my gear spread out to dry before the plane gets here to take us down to Brisbane. It’s a full on tropical storm out there, and between dropping off the rental car and the airport building….I got drenched! Even with my lightweight tropical rain hoodie on! What a strange luggage pack for this trip – everything from the thermal vest and woollen scarf for Tasmania and Melbourne… the lightweight over the top of everything rain top. Glad it all went in though – I’ve used it all!

It’s been threatening to do this for days….since Cairns…..and it’s belting the coastline today. The Virgin jet left this morning for Brisbane with the visiting Gold Coast basketball side on board – they played here last night – and hopefully our little Dash 8 will do the same. There’s a fair bit of lightning around, so fingers crossed!

This whole area is a huge sugar producing hub for Austrlai, and June through December is their ‘vintage’ or crushing season. So yesterday we went out to the Farleigh Mill, north of Mackay, to see how it all happens. 

The cane is harvested in the field – they literally ‘mow’ the cane down in the field, chop it up into 6 inch pieces called ‘billets’, and load them into mesh train cars – each one holding about 6 tons. The loaded open mesh rail cars are built into  ‘trains’ on sidings around the countryside, then picked up and taken to the mill by these tough little ‘toy town’ size locomotive engines. 

By mowing the cane, it ‘pushes’ another plant from the root system still in the ground, and you can get up to seven crops from the one planting season.

The cane trains are dropped off at the mill, and they are shunted automatically two at a time into a rotating combination weigh ridge and unloader. Once the weight is recorded, the whole thing does a 360 degree revolution, and 12 ton of cane goes up the elevator and into the hammer mill. The juice is extracted, then cleaned up three times until hitting the heaters and being crystallised in this weird 5 hour process in ‘the pans’. You have to climb up and in to the belly of this huge, hot, mechanical beast…..but the smells get you. As you walk towards the mill, it smells like caramelised toffee. Above the crushers and where it’s heated up to get the juice out, it smells like steamed cabbage – really vegetal. But then, when you climb up to the top of the mill, where the crystallising pans are, and the magic happens… smells fabulous… warm brown sugar, toffee, molasses, honey, and fudgey toffee!! The pans are regularly sampled, and some of the sticky brown liquid put on a slide, and under the microscope to see the level of crystallisation that’s occurred. Wow! Even though my hands were filthy from the gangway rails, I couldn’t help myself… was like warm not quite set toffee…with a bit of a natural praline crunch. We need to be able to buy this by the litre! Spread on buttered toast I reckon…..just for starters.

Then you start working your way back down to ground level, stopping first at the giant whizzing thing that throws the molasses out of solution, keeping the semi dry brown crystals – and that’s the raw sugar folks – and dumping that on to a conveyor. That’s taken to storage, then down to the docks, as the majority of the sugar produced at Farleigh Mill then goes on to be refined elsewhere. But for my money….ill take my sugar now just as it is on the conveyor…..warm brown sweet almost golden syrup flavoured rough crystals. Couldn’t help myself there either – I batted away a whole dose of erratically flying bees drunk on the stuff away so that I could get a handful as a snack.

So thanks to our local guide Jacquie from Reeforest Tours – what a great way to spend the morning! Yes, you have to have proper shoes, long sleeves, long pants, wear a hair net, safety glasses and a hair net & hard hat – at all times. But you get to see a hulking, tough, slightly rusty, steaming hot mechanical meccano set make sugar crystals from the fresh cane – it has to be crushed within 12 hours of being cut or you start to lose sugar content – and taste it on the way through. And I liked it.Because then you can take that sugar, add a few other things, and make these! Cream buns never go out of fashion – thanks to the Crusty Bakery Bakehouse….Mackay, Mackay Sugar, and Reeforest Tours!

Now let’s hope we fly! The Dash 8 going to Rockhampton has been delayed, so we will probably have the same problem. Let’s hope I still make the connection in Brisbane! See ya when we’re back in the Barossa.

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