Greetings from Sarina, a small sugar cane town in Central Queensland.
When I say that the sunsets smell like sugar here, it’s not a metaphor. The mill runs constantly and spews out char and molasses and rum and such.
Last night I rocked up to town before dusk and wasn’t keen on camping in one of the caravan parks––they tend to be hostile places to be a solo female. I much prefer to sleep alone in the roadside wild.
I followed my nose up a hill, searching for a good, flat spot to stealth camp.
I paused in the middle of a residential road to think and to write. This happens often. Then I felt two sets of eyes to my left: two kids playing in their yard had paused to take me in––the bicycle, bags, ridiculous magpie-deterring helmet, neon vest, and neck of a guitar sticking out the back (more on that in a future post). I’m embracing the spring cyclist look: Medusa-met-a-porcupine on my head. It keeps the magpies away.
I waved and the kids behind the fence waved back. Across the street children ran circles on top of a trampoline in the golden light, bouncing. A neighborhood cat criss-crossed the road. No cars.
“Hi!” I said. “This is an odd question, but do you know of somewhere where I might be able to fill up on water?” I was empty. Camping without water is difficult.
The preteen girl with pigtails looked at her younger brother and then up at me. “We have a hose you can use!”
“Ah, thank you so much! I really appreciate it.” I wheeled my bicycle closer to their fence and did my best to dismount without falling over. When you’re tired at the end of a long day, getting on and off a fully loaded bicycle can be a (hilarious) challenge.
The girl unraveled the hose and brought the nozzle up to the edge of the fence. We talked as the stream of water jetted into my plastic jug. School holidays are coming up, I learn. This is a small town where everyone knows everyone else. A long time ago her family used to live in Melbourne, but she doesn’t remember that. Her brother watched silently, thinking. I gave them both cards with the name of the blog. If you’re reading this––thank you. I so much appreciate your help.
Water is a gift. So are spontaneous stories, no matter how small.
Their dad called them in for dinner. “I have to go,” the girl said. “Good luck.” Across the street the trampoline was empty. I rode on, searching for trees and flat ground.
Speaking of trees, over the weekend, a 13-year-old introduced me to the film My Neighbor Totoro. Go watch it if you haven’t done so already. It’s a gorgeous story.
Eventually I found a playground surrounded by houses that might work as a campsite, but what if one of the neighbors objected? Then where would I go?
All of the roads I followed led to more houses rather than trees. I looped back down towards town, pausing to admire the sugar sky––the golden hour.
That’s when I found a woman watering her plants.
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked, cycling closer.
“Of course!” she said.
“Do you know of a place where I could camp around here? I don’t feel comfortable in caravan parks and am looking for somewhere to pitch a tent. Do you know if your neighbors would be okay with a cyclist sleeping in the playground?”
She thought for a second, hose in hand. The water pooled in the grass. I pictured the swing sets and my tent behind them. I do love swings.
“The neighbors are great, but you should really spend the night with us,” she replied. “Come set up your tent. Have you eaten?”
And that’s how I met Tina. And her husband Gus (who is so gentle and uses more silence than words when he speaks, but when he says something it’s brilliant) and her two kids Chloe and Casey. Chloe is going into 10th grade and Casey’s in elementary school. They have guinea pigs that keep multiplying and a rambunctious puppy and a cat named Doris.
My great grandmother’s name was Doris. I keep thinking of her as the cat brushes up against my legs. She was British and proper and I was a horrible child who found it hilarious to sneak up from behind and yell “Boo!” Doris would jump up in the air and say, “Oh, goodness me!”
Great Nana, I’m really sorry.
My grandparents eventually made a “No Boo Chart.” For every day that I didn’t “boo” my great nana, I got a sticker. When I filled up the page, my grandparents would take me to the toy store to buy a coloring book or a dinosaur.
That night I slept in my five billion star hotel. I woke up with this sun in my leadlight window. Bliss.
Gus suggested that I spend an extra day in Sarina to learn more about the industry here. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Tina and I went to a meditation group in the morning (what a wonderful surprise!) and then set about exploring the sights.
First stop: Coal.
I have been cycling next to railway lines that carry, oh, 125 of these carriages in a single go. And 40 trains pass per day, all full to the brim. SO MUCH COAL.
Behold: the infinity train.
It’s a money maker, that black stuff. And most of it goes from the mines straight to the sea. Can you say export commodity ten times fast? How about ten million times? The scale of this operation is mind-boggling.
Twenty minutes later Tina and I made it to the coal terminal at Hay Point. You wouldn’t know it’s there unless you were looking for it––the terminal is well protected by the surrounding hills.
See those little blips on the horizon? Ships line up at sea to take the coal to power plants in China or Japan or India. They could go anywhere, really.
And of course, because I am collecting stories about water and climate change, I was fixated on the spray of water bending light into rainbows near a hive of big machine activity. Even from a distance, I could hear the trucks reversing and revving their engines. Something was being made. At the coal terminal, movement abounds.
The answer to what exactly that “something” was came in the form of a storyteller in a sundress. Her husband is on contract to build two dams for the ever enlarging coal terminal.
And what could they possibly need all that water for?
“To spray the coal. To keep down the dust.” The woman went on for a bit about how the “bloody greenies” were protesting these dams for years, but they finally got approved. And now her husband has good work.
The more I travel, the more I realize how deeply intertwined water and climate change are. They are twin issues––one story that can’t be told without the others in the wings.
Stories have feathers. Lift. Physical properties that render them vulnerable and invincible at the same time.
Tomorrow morning I’m off to Mackay. No idea where I’ll sleep for the night, but I think I can figure it out. Here’s to spontaneity and to listening.