Tully Sugar Mill, Qld

It’s sugarcane harvest season in Far North Queensland. The Tully Sugar Mill is the only mill still conducting tours.

The road to Tully from Port Douglas is called the Cassowary Coast Region, not that we saw any cassowaries , but we passed many banana plantations, sugarcane fields and sugarcane trains. The trains run on narrow gauge tracks, of which is there is over 4,000 km in Queensland, 250 locomotives, 52,000 cane bins.  The trains can go at 40km/h and can be up to 1km long, and they haul 36 million tones of sugar cane each season. The crushing season runs for 26 weeks each year, 24 hours a day.

The abandoned caravan park in Tully is now a free camp, just register at the information centre on the way into town. Not a lot of shade but you can have a slab site and there is a dump point. No power or water or amenities (they are all locked up). Leaving the van hitched we walked over to the Mill for the tour and then to the Tigers Leagues Club for dinner.  It’s a very quiet town.

Apart from the Mill, the other big attraction in Tully is the Giant Golden Gumboot. The Golden Gumboot is a competition for the wettest town in Australia. Originally a rubber gum boot was awarded to which town had the highest rainfall for the year. The average rainfall in Tully is 4,490mm. Its record is 7,900mm in 1950, which is the height of this gumboot. Of that, 1,320 fell in just 48 hours. The inside of the gumboot has pictures of the various floods over the years.

We opted for the twilight tour of the mill.

I had been on one with my family in about 1964, no safety gear back then. Here’s my brother and me with a farmer harvesting the cane as they did back then.

First the trains arrive with the bins: each bin has the name of farm that the cane came from.

The bins enter this round thing called a “weigh bridge tippler” that weighs each full bin, then tips it to empty it, then weighs it empty so as to calculate the net weight. Not sure if it tips 360o our not.

The dirt and rubbish is removed from the cane and the cane is re-weighed. The dirt is given back to the farmers for the price of haulage.  This is a truck taking the soil back to the farmers.

This is the bin of metal stuff that turns up in the cane: it fills every week.

The cane is sent on this conveyer belt for crushing ; the juice is then pumped away for processing into raw sugar.

The fibrous waste is called bagasse.

Bagasse is stored and then recycled as fuel for the mill boiler plant furnaces. 800,000 tonnes of bagasse is produced each year. It takes 800 tonnes of bagasse to get the furnaces running at the start of the season, and then 100 tonnes per hour to keep them burning.

The boiler plant provides steam to power the entire factory including the electricity generating turbines. They sell their excess power back to the grid.

Only one of their many chimneys expels any smoke (about 10% smoke), all the rest is pure steam.

Then all this stuff happens to clarify the extracted juice and it becomes a syrup. They seed the syrup to create sugar crystals.

The sugar crystals are separated from the syrup in centrifuges, called big birds: metal drums with holes in the side that spins fast like a washing machine. The dark syrup, now called molasses, is spun off leaving damp sugar crystals behind. The molasses is reseeded a few times to generate more sugar crystals, and the process is repeated.

The left over molasses is stored in tanks and sold for animal feed and alcohol production.

The sugar crystals are then dried in big round tumble driers.

Once dry, it is put onto this conveyor belt and taken to storage bins.

Trucks drive under the bins and fill up with sugar. Each truck carries 45 tonnes of sugar and takes it to the bulk sugar terminal at Mourilyan Harbour where it is loaded onto ships for export. All the sugar from Tully Sugar Mill goes overseas, none is sold in Australia.

“In August 1935, 2000 sugar cane cutters and mill hands in North Queensland struck for nine weeks. They demanded that cane be burnt before cutting to prevent the outbreak of Weil’s disease (Leptospirosis). The strike was immortalised in Jean Devanny’s novel Sugar Heaven. A form of plague spread by rats, the disease had stricken hundreds of cane cutters working in the canefields of North Queensland. Some died as a result.”  Antibiotics are used to treat Leptospirosis but back then they were not available.

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in the 1920s but it wasn’t until 1941 that Australian scientist Howard Florey developed penicillin as an anti-biotic. Professor Florey helped set up a medical research institute at Canberra which became known as the John Curtin School of Medical Research. In 1943, Australia was the first country in the world to make penicillin available to the general public.

Cheers til next time, Helen and Tim