Thirty kilometres to the south, the seaside town of Sarina lies in wait, rousing weary drivers and snoozing navigators with the ecstatic greens of the Pioneer Valley cane plantations, ambushing those not yet ready for the gaudy tropical climes of Mackay. It irrigates the dust-clogged brains of travellers who have become accustomed to the Taipan brown of Central Queensland. By the time you have torn the sleep from your eyes, Sarina is vaporising into your rear-view and there is nothing but a vast emerald sugar plain that seems to stretch for hundreds of miles before you (and it does). The ethereal outline of the Eungella Range creeps into view, but at this distance its modest peaks are bathed in a dark blue hue and hang like pockets of textured sky on the horizon.
The Bruce Highway shrinks under the two metre-high cane and closes a little, as an ever-increasing volume of sugar and beef steams down on you in the brutal twin-trailer semis that shift the land. Diesel and tortured chain-link joints grind and rend the atmosphere as the trucks hurtle through the air-stream jetting past your eardrum. A gust of industrial-strength produce ignites an olfactory bomb-blast in the front seat of your car and the gaudy highway signage reads ‘Welcome to Mackay'.
This place is, after all, the northernmost tip of Ross Gibson‘s land gone wrong from his book Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (UQP, 2002). What he doesn't know is there's no ‘badland' here – just bad people. This may be the tip of Capricorn, but it's also the arse end of Cancer; it's not what he thinks it is.
This is my spiritual home, the home of my people, and when we aren't whining about ‘getting out of this shit-hole' we love the place. To me the ‘badlands' are the bedtime stories of Dengue fever, oppressive heat and catastrophic cyclones that we sold to the toga party set last time we were at St Lucia and wanted to freak them out. Generations of Mackaysians have made the long migration south for study or work, and each one has done their small part to make sure they didn't come here. Only in the bullet train years of 2000 and beyond have canny tour operators and Virgin Blue marketers begun to spoil the mythology that kept this Capricornian badland safe – safe from all but a few hardy trailer travellers migrating up the Cape.
The Capricorn that graces our signs, stamps and stationery is the half-goat, half-fish of Greek mythology. After waging war on the elder gods, the young immortal Pan shape-shifts to fish-form in order to escape the immense and far-reaching tendrils of Typhon. The beast is sent to ensnare the rebellious Pan but fails to locate the mischievous god who now bears the form of the sea-goat. This place has always attracted sea-goats of a sort – hardy people, rebellious and defiant; hedonistic drunkards in times of plenty and adaptable shape-shifters in times of adversity.
From Typhon we get typhoon, the cyclones that stalk our coast. But even after the near-obliteration of 1918, this town re-emerged on the banks of the Pioneer River and grew steadily in the sun. This is not an easy place to live sometimes, and maybe in the early days it really was a ‘badland', but it's only the outsiders who can't roll with the punches, only the outsiders who make it the ‘badland'. Then again, maybe in the early days that's how we were too.
THE STREETS ARE WIDER UP HERE, THE TRAFFIC EMPTIER. There is little interest in the goings on of down south. This is not the Brisbane that despises Sydney and secretly yearns for Oxford Street. This is the Mackay that knows it is better than Rocky and couldn't give a shit about Paddington. Mackay is a city that insists on calling itself a town, in a state full of towns that insist on calling themselves cities.
Things happen a little differently here, and the glaring weekend sun bids me drive down Town Beach. The pitted grey asphalt leads me past Mackay's answer to an industrial zone. Shitty mega-fencing warehouses, mechanics' workshops and wreckers' yards languish below rust-stained signage while vast expanses of corrugated iron panels and concrete retaining walls strategically block the unwelcome distraction of the million-dollar riverside views. These are the city centre's only absolute waterfront properties, close enough to the river mouth to funnel sea breezes into the back streets and close enough to the café district to get iron filings in your affogato. Minutes away, the beach is deserted. Despite a balmy twenty-two degrees and the stinger-free tides of winter, the weather is deemed unfit for human recreation. One of a small throng of pre-teen skater boys sees me eyeing the break.
‘Farken' too farken' cold fa' swimmin ya' mad cunt.'
Smiling, I toss my boardies back into the car.
I crawl through the central business district at a slow idle. ‘Up town', the strip of shops is busy with the lunchtime rush as scores of townies scour the outlets for their singular most important dose of retail therapy for the week. They shuffle up and down the mall, they complain about the cold, they scrutineer a million products that they have all scrutineered a thousand times before, and they leave as unfulfilled as when they came. Cane-cockies and cow-folk join the throng, pushing prams, ogling windows and sizing up new frocks. Even as the threat of ‘coppin a floggin' looms, their hyperactive children scream and run, fight and play. Hurling themselves between the massive primordial palms that line Main Street.
Meanwhile, on every street corner the significant spend of miners and fisherman brings the pubs to a rowdy chorus. A cacophony of voices engaged in their own personal brand of obnoxious, self-righteous bullshit. Though the visitors tend to lack a certain je ne sais quoi, the weekly excitement and bustle of the Saturday crowd seems to draw even more locals. Many of them are returning from netball courts and footy grounds across the suburbs and seeking little more than a Mars bar and a cold pot, but like good sea-goats they adapt and stay for hours, just to feed off the energy.
By mid-arvo, my old crew is half-cut. They line the veranda, well supplied with Jimmy's and VBs (the nectar of the gods). Even as the afternoon storm gathers, they belt out melodies on detuned Matons and one badly abused Fender. Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan are the order of the day, as they were in the mid-'90s. Despite this, someone has picked up a bit of Pete Murray from watching Max Sessions on Fox and is belting out ‘Beautiful'. The infectious chorus is recognised and duly butchered by several melodramatic voices that can best be described as untrained. From the strained humming and half-guessed lyrics of the verse, they erupt into a howling, chest-beating rendition of the chorus that is soon being repeated incessantly. Strangely, the irony is not lost on them and the brooding afternoon air buckles with laughter. The only recess comes when the maestro ditches his guitar to answer the phone. He immediately begins pacing the steps, loudly organising the night's festivities with an unknown accomplice.
No one even makes mention of a dense blanket of purple and black clouds filling the horizon. A storm's not a storm until it has lasted two days. A sheet of rain moves visibly across the suburbs but leaves the veranda bathed in sunshine.
I stare across at the crew, a veritable microcosm of the Mackaysian demographic – black to white, poor to rich, hard times to good times. The Solomon Islander is in his element. His dextrous finger-picking composition echoes the influence of B.B. King, his heartfelt blues, his pain in verse. Schoolin' never sat well with him and he hasn't been able to keep down a job since his cousin topped himself years ago. He dreams of starting a covers band and belting out ‘Howlin' Wolf' for unappreciative pub crowds across the country. It's not easy when you only work the cane-haul – especially when you have a four-year-old to feed.
The red-headed boys own the house – or at least they might as well. It's their mum's, of course, but they're not here for lack of funds. She loves their mates and they love her. Why would you leave? Mum does a round of party pies and king prawns then disappears up the hallway. The older brother is getting fat these days, but he's happy. He's an ambo driver and I ask him what it's like. Full of goat-speak and swagger, he laughs and tells me about ambos in Brissie.
‘Narnsty, those poor fucks spend almost as much time in the emergency room as I do in the fucken' Macca's drive-thru ... And that's a fucking lot nowadays, let me tell you.' He stares gingerly at his paunch.
The younger brother wanders back, still on the mobile.
‘Nah mate, nah mate ... come out you sly-dog ... come out or I'll smack ya one, ya sly-dog. Faaak yeeeah.'
He's just come back from the mines and is fucking loaded. Materially there is little that gives away his new-found wealth. Wife-beater, boardies and double pluggers, still the style of choice. Only the freshly bought bottles of Bundy Black are a dead giveaway.
I stare out across the dying embers of the day as I scoff down my third piece of steak (no rabbit food). The rain has stopped in time for sunset and now the light snow of cane ash wafts in from the west. Tiny black butterflies adrift on thermal updrafts. No time for contemplation. The sea-goats and I prepare for the festivities to come. It's a simple formula; a fool-proof path to self-fulfilment. It involves gettin' smashed, gettin' into fights and maybe, just maybe, gettin' laid. Like I said, there's no ‘badland' here, just bad people.
All hail the sea goats. ♦