Tully, Northern Queensland, Australia. The sugar mill belches smoke as thick and flocculent as candy floss. Along Highway 1 from Innisfail, the narrow gauge tracks incise the bluey tarmac and serpentine trains heavy with the sweetness of cut cane, trundle through the endless fields. Sugar cane – the humanity’s biggest crop, weightier than rice and wheat combined. Strange that a world dedicated to producing so much sweetness should nevertheless seem so sour.
And seldom sourer than in Tully, which, to be frank, is a dump. The old 1950s storefronts are warped and mildewed, the tiny grid of commercial premises feels mired in desuetude. Within a few blocks the Queensland equivalents of pound shops and greasy spoons have given way to overgrown subdivisions and clapboard houses on knock-kneed stilts. Obese, hydrocephalic types crawl along the sidewalks, looking as if they’re on their way to audition for a remake of Deliverance.
The only tourist attractions in Tully are the sugar mill – which does a tour – and the Big Boot. The Big Boot is the same height as the flood waters which covered Tully during the early 1970s, and from its 6 metre summit there are commanding views of… the sugar mill. I’m all for the sugar mill tour but the adolescents are revolting – they want to go white water rafting. You can see their point, beyond Tully the Walter Hill range of mountains pushes a 1000 metres up into the cloudy skies, rocky summits draped in rainforest, vertiginous gorges, tumultuous cataracts – a vast wilderness of adrenaline.
I don’t want to go white water rafting. I’m not scared – I can’t even get close to being scared; it’s just that I’d sooner have my penis severed, varnished and put on sale in a provincial gift shop than entrust my frail form to a tiny rubber boat bouncing down the Tully River, which, given that this is the wettest dry season Northern Queensland has ever seen, is approaching full spate. Still – it’s not about me, is it? So we go white water rafting.
We’re issued with wet suits and crash helmets and climb into bus which jolts us through the cane fields and then up a winding road that coils between dripping trees festooned with lianas. The guides are all limber fellows with plenty of piercings and pigtails, they keep up a running commentary the whole way there: if you fall in stay on your back so that if you hit anything it’ll be your bottom that takes the impact; choose yourselves a team and get acquainted – your lives will depend upon each other; you must listen to the guide in your boat and do what he says – again, your lives depend upon it. This isn’t, it occurs to me, recreation at all, it’s survival.
Our team is me, my three adolescents, and a mismatched couple from Brisbane: Kurt and Pauline. Kurt is a rugged, good looking chap. As we carry our raft over the rocks to the river he tells me that the choice was between this and parasailing. Pauline, on the other hand, is so frail, pretty and anaemic, that her choices – which manifestly were ignored – must have been between a well-heated art gallery and dabbing eau de cologne on her blue-veined temples.
Our raft guide, a Kiwi called Dan with bleached bits in his hair, urges us to pick a name for our team. “Somethin’ rousing!” He enjoins us “So that when we’ve shot a rapids we can shout it out.” “Er, how about Deliverance.” I suggest in a desultory fashion, and Kurt, to my considerable relief, sniggers appreciatively. “Yeah, OK,” says Dan “although what I had in mind was, like, ‘Doggy Style’. So that I could shout out ‘How d’you like to do it?’ – and youse guys would all clash your paddles and shout ‘Oooh-ooh! Doggy style!'”. As we slip in the brown-and-white, sinewy embrace of the Tully River, I don’t exactly feel that Dan and I are on the same wavelength. But realistically it’s too late for a meeting of minds, because we’re in the raft, floating towards the rapids and he’s telling me what to do not only for my own survival – but to stop the rest of the team from being dashed to pieces on the rocks.
The strange thing is that it works – the team that is. We paddle when Dan shouts “Paddle!” we back-paddle when he shouts that. We shift from side to side of the raft, and as it teeters then plunges over falls we get down in it with our paddles held to attention. At the rapid called ‘Wet & Moisty’ I fall out of the raft – and the team gets me back in. At ‘Double D-Cup’ my daughter falls out midway through the cataract and yet is hauled to safety. Whatever our differences concerning nomenclature – it’s clear that Dan has the measure of the Tully Gorge.