Friday, May 12, 2006

Up, up & away

How far up am I? Twenty thousand feet? Fifteen thousand? I didn’t listen to the pilot. I’m en route from Cairns to Sydney and very happy about that. In Sydney I get to see my girlfriend whom I dimly remember from my days on the North Coast (which seem so long ago now).

Last night I went from Mackay to Cairns in a little plane with propellers, and we ‘cruised’ at thirteen thousand feet. ‘We are now cruising at thirteen thousand feet,’ said the pilot. It didn’t feel so much like cruising, despite the pleasant views of the tropical north enabled by the low altitude. It was pretty bumpy in places.

So the budget is upon us, with much fanfare and applause. Not much grizzling yet, as everyone gets a tax cut. I think mine is about $14 a week. I really would rather that $14 had gone to some decent public transport for the North Coast. It’s extraordinary that there isn’t a train line between Northern NSW and Brisbane – Australia’s fastest growing region, most dangerous stretch of highway, etc etc. I fantasise about a fast comfortable train with secure car parking. I’d catch the train on Tuesday mornings, it’d probably only take about an hour and a half to get to Brisbane (it’s a very modern train in my fantasy). I get to know the other Brisbane commuters and we exchange civil greetings but maintain a discreet distance as we doze our way to our day jobs. One group of more sociable regulars pull out a pack of cards and play – uno? Poker? Something simple. I think they have thermos of tea with them, too.

Yesterday on my plane flights I sat next to
  • Townsville-Mackay: A sugar cane mill person from an hour north of Townsville who was on his way to a conference on a new technology that seemed to be some kind of x-ray for assessing the quality of the sugar cane without actually crushing it. He moved up with his wife a few years ago. She wasn’t so keen on the move as she actually had a career in Sydney, but now they have small kids at home and she’s thinking about going back to study corporate law.
  • Mackay – Townsville: An older man who did something financial for the energy company, on his way to an inservice on a new accounting/bookkeeping tool they were using. Queensland electricity companies are still publicly owned, I hadn’t realised that, but the government has just decided to sell it off. My informant didn’t think there was much point to this. He didn’t care very much though.
  • Townsville – Cairns: a young fitter and turner on his way to the tin mine of Cooktown. He gave me a new career idea: apparently lots of women work in the mines, driving huge trucks. They prefer women apparently, because women are easier on the gears and the mine owners end up having to do less maintenance. The truck drivers earn about $100,000 a year! He works fourteen days on and fourteen days off, but he has another mine that he goes to, a phosphate mine near Mt Isa, that has twelve day rosters, so sometimes he’ll skip the fourteen days off and go out there instead. He also occaasinally works at a lead mine. ‘I don’t like that much,’ he said. ‘You get covered in black lead dust, you have to wear full gloves, masks, goggles, long sleeves all the time. They say it’s not bad for you but I don’t believe them.’

Of the places I’ve visited in the last few days I liked Townsville the best. Cairns is a tourist town, all glitzy high rise at the waterfront dropping away rapidly to seedy boarded up shopfronts and people in footy beanies carrying pizzas and beers home for a night in front of the telly. Mackay seemed to be a cute enough country town, but Townsville trumped it with cafes on the waterfront that look across the sea to Magnetic Island and a gorgeous strand along which the entire population seems to picnic, walk dogs, play with kids and generally congregate.

Aha, I’ve hit on the difference – I found the ‘heart’ of Townsville while I was there, the gathering place where people look happy to be there. I didn’t find that in Cairns or Mackay – I was only in each one for a day so it would be unfair to imply they didn’t have one – but that is what has drawn me to Townsville.

Where is the heart where I live? I think it’s a bit harder to have a heart when you are a tourist town. People come and go, the faces are unfamiliar. For the men, the general store is a heart – the bottle shop is an unofficial pub, tolerating (encouraging?) people to sit around out the back and drink and chat. At the end of the day there are always a bunch of solid farming/labouring types drinking in the lean-to at the back of the shop

A heart is just a place to go an be, where you might know some of the people there but you’re not going to be with them, you are just enjoying the space together. When I lived in Melbourne the Merri Creek was one heart, and Brunswick St another. Hmm…I need to find one.

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