We left Cairns early Thursday morning, led by our cheerful tour guide Paul from On The Wallaby. Headed towards the Tablelands, we stopped at a lookout point to appreciate the view of the Great Barrier Reef from approximately 600m above sea level. While most of the group napped, Paul pointed out the changes in the landscape as we entered a rainforest climate. Even though it is the dry season, with all the green plants and brightly colored flowers, drought was nowhere to be seen.
Just as the group was waking up, we arrived at Jaques Coffee Plantation. We were greeted by Linda, the woman behind this family owned and operated business alongside her husband. We started our tour in the movie theatre, watching a film that showed the ups and downs the Jaques family has encountered with their coffee business since moving from Tanzania East Africa. The movie took us on a musically themed emotional roller coaster as we saw the family lose everything due to the recession, work hard to recover, only to once again lose it all from government mandated fruit fly spray. Thankfully they didn’t stop believing and now successfully bring in 65,000 visitors to their plantation a year. She then showed us the first coffee harvesting machine, which is designed to only harvest ripe beans. This machine allows one man to harvest one tree per second compared to the 300 workers required for handpicking beans. The group jumped in “The Bean Machine” to get a first-hand look at the plantation and its 85,000 plants. Linda then explained the process of roasting to perfect the flavor. They are very lucky to have no need to use pesticides and only need NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizer. Linda told us how her newest project is dehydrating the leaves into tea. They also take the coffee cherry skins, high in antioxidants, to a local winery. We ended the tour getting a taste of their fantastic coffee and even a sample of coffee liqueur. As we left Linda showed off the 80 solar panels above the parking structure, offsetting their carbon tax.
We headed down the road to Mt. Uncle Farming Co. Paul showed me the plethora of mango trees with macadamia, avocado, and citrus trees on the way. We were met by Rob, whose family owns the business. He was very passionate about banana farming and improving the sustainability of his plantation. They use drip irrigation, which is highly efficient due to the ability of the roots to move to the water. The water comes from Tinaroo Dam but they also have a pond full of recycled water. They produce 850 tonnes of bananas per year. He admitted there is a lot of packaging waste and even created a 100% recyclable “banana blankee”, which unfortunately was too advanced for Australia at this point in time. Rob stated there is nearly more profit in waste than the fruit, creating fibers for food and ointment and flour from banana byproducts. They use the flour created in Bridges Tearoom and Café, where we enjoyed a delicious pizza lunch. We were also lucky enough to meet with Mark, Rob’s brother and Mt. Uncle Distillery owner. They use steam to heat the distiller although they wish they could afford to install solar panels.
After filling up on pizza, we started our two hour drive to Tyrconnell. Paul seemed pleased to point out road kill, mostly kangaroos and wallaby but even including an eagle. We were greeted by Andy, Cate, and their three very excited sons. We took a hike, led by seven year old Jono, to the lookout point arriving just in the time for the breathtaking sunset. We made it back for an amazing dinner of steak, potatoes, pumpkin, and salad ending with sticky date pudding for dessert. The full moon lit up the night more than the blazing fire. We were given the option to sleep outside, which after finding a giant spider in my tent seemed like the best choice.
The next morning, after breakfast, Cate discussed with us life on Tyrconnell. Having three young boys education was a challenge. Last year they decided to make the switch from School of Distance Education to the local school, costing them $10,000 in petroleum from the commute. They do not regret the decision, giving their children the needed social aspect of school lost in homeschooling. The school now gives the family a place to take their recycling, reducing the amount of rubbish burned on their property. Located too far away to connect to a grid, the family received rebates to offset the cost of solar panels. These solar panels produce 3 kilowatts, enough to power their house and mining demonstrations provided to visitors. We were lucky enough to watch Andy power up the 100 year old quartz smasher, renovated by his father. It was great to see the history of the largest mine in the area preserved for the educational and aesthetic value.
After the mine tour, we went to Nerada Tea Plantation. We learned that due to their location getting 2.5 to 4 meters of rain per year, no irrigation is needed. The roots dig as deep as 9 meters to find a water source. They unfortunately don’t capture and reuse the evaporated water lost in production. They use cooper sulfate as a herbicide so cannot be certified organic, although some say that is organic enough for them. We ended our tour and headed to On The Wallaby Lodge where we enjoyed a pasta dinner and a night of cards.