Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Atherton Region

Rocky Creek Field
What a surprising day ... no, what a remarkable day. We set out this morning after mundane tasks like washing had been completed and we had no way of knowing what twists and turns would bring us to such a moving conclusion by the afternoon.

The plan was to visit Jaques Coffee Plantation, located to the east of Mareeba but along the way, we wanted to investigate a war memorial Sue had observed on the roadside as we drove towards Atherton yesterday afternoon. Located beside the main road between Mareeba and Atherton and adjacent to the rail line which had once boasted a siding here named Rocky Creek, this was the site of an Army Field Hospital which combined the resources of a number of medical units which made it, in 1944, the largest hospital - army or civilian - in the southern hemisphere. It specialised in the treatment of malaria, even experimenting to find cures using paid recruits from among the healthy troops. Apart from a few building, the rest of the accommodation, including wards, were under canvass.

As family members of Sue's mob know, their father suffered from and was treated for malaria whilst on the Atherton Tablelands when stationed there with the 2/3rd Commandos during their prolonged 17 month posting from late 1943 on. Therefore, as we walked among the cement floor spaces of buildings such as latrines, kitchens and ablutions, we knew we were walking through the same space in another time as John Gibbens.

It is a moving place, especially with the addition of new plaques attached to large granite rocks bearing the details of the units who who lived and worked in the Atherton region every year on VJ Day. The 2/3rd Commandos are yet to make their appearance in this field of honour as their ghosts wait for families to put forward the money needed to pay for their recognition. This is something which needs to be redressed.

We stopped to make further inquiries from the Historical Society in Mareeba and they suggested we speak with the volunteers at the Tolga Historical Museum, which we decided to do in the afternoon on the way back to Atherton.

Jacques Coffee Plantation, a unique business which holds a niche place in a competitive market and has reached this position through great tenacity. The Jacques left East Tanzania, under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and came to Australia in the early 1980's, hitting the road with a caravan unit piggybacked on a ute, looking for the best place to grow coffee in Australia. They settled on site near to this eventual one and had the business growing until the economic crisis of the middle to late 80's wiped them out. They came to the present site and started again and again, they had a strong growing business in their fifth year of the new operation and about to reap their first harvest when the Qld Dept of Primary Industry claimed they had a fruit fly infestation and destroyed every coffee tree on the plantation. Amazingly, they started again and have battled to establish themselves for a third time, with their two sons now taking the primary role in running the business.

Jacques now have 80% of the Australian grown coffee market, with bulk of the rest coming from the Byron Bay area. All other "Australian" coffee producers do not use Australian grown beans, importing theirs cheaply from overseas and roasting them in Australia. We were given an overview of the operation via a audio visual presentation which was also home grown and a tour of the plantation followed. Our visit finished with coffee and coffee liqueur back at the visitors centre.

We had lunch in a park in Mareeba and then dropped in on the Tolga Historical Society's building, an old railway carriage on the main highway. Here we met Bill, a Vietnam vet and volunteer. After initially thinking he might not be able to help us, he proved to be quite a conversationalist. Sue and I then moved off to examine materials that were available on walls and in folders. It was then I made the discovery of an Army topographical map of the area from 1944 which showed the location of units at that time. Spanning the map for signs of the 2/3rd Commandos, my eyes fixed on a simple, handwritten inscription in the top right corner of the map ... "2/3rd Comm camp". Confirming with Bill that I was looking at the place where the unit would have been "encamped", excitement rose in both Sue and I and grew as we ascertained from Bill where this location was.

Just ten minuted later, we were standing at the end of Mapee Rd, where it now extends across the main irrigation channel bringing water from the Barron River westward and becomes another road. In 1944, the irrigation channel didn't exist and the raised knoll, perhaps 100 metres long and 20 metres wide was where Mapee Rd ended and the tents of the 2/3rd Commandos stood. Running past the camp to the east and north was Dinner Creek, referred to in one of the unit books I have read. We wandered through the area, hopeful of finding some artifact, some treasure to confirm the already irrefutable evidence. After 45 minutes it looked as though such cream on top would not be possible until I almost fell upon eight sawn tree trucks, all about eight feet long and four inches in diameter - the rough dimensions of tent props cut from the environment to hold up the A frame simple tents of the day. They had been push piled to one end of the area and they were all old, old wood. On one, I found initials carved now only shallowly, but unmistakable. I stood a while, looked about me and wiped my eyes, obviously made misty from the strain of the visual search.

DC3 or C47 troup carrier
What this means for Sue's family is for them to decide and that includes Sue. I can't presume to speak for them but for me, this was a powerful moment, eight years after I started searching for information to help Sue. It has more significance than that though. This search for information about John was the first task of substance I attempted after believing I had so little left to offer that suicide was the only answer left. Wanting to help, then wanting to meet a dead man, became obsessions and ultimately, life ropes. To stand for a second time in the one day in his space, even though a different time, was a very powerful connection to make. Today, I feel I finally met my father in law.

We returned via Mareeba Airport and happened upon a DC-3 or as the Yanks called them, a C-47, painted in the livery of the USAF. Its part of the collection of Warbird Adventures. This was an opportune time to retell Sue the story of her Dad's unit and their leading of the attack on Wau Airport, in New Guinea, at that time held and fortified by the Japanese. The unit flew in on American DC-3's, who made a touch and go landing and takeoff, with the men of the 2/3rd jumping from the cargo door travelling at 30-40 miles an hour with guns blazing to return the fire of the Japanese who held the airfield. Thinking this old gal was a mock up, I eventually came back to camp and before writing my blog, researched and found the old girl on the internet. This one served in the Phillipines as one of the famous Jungle Skipper squadron which flew at the tree tops delivering troops and cargo.

The rest of the day was anti-climax, although I got to kiss a cassowary and Sue nearly threw up from
the smell of dairy cows, or more correctly, their excrement. It seems the dairy farmer's daughter has moved on!

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