Monday, 3 September 2018

Sweet Days, Hot Nights Festival, Home Hill, QLD

Home Hill is a small country town in the Burdekin Shire, 1.5 hours south of Townsville. We were in the area house sitting. The area's main agricultural trade is sugar cane. The street we were staying was the first as you came into town, and thus, across the road from us were acres and acres of sugar cane. Our stay in this area coincided with a festival called Sweet Days, Hot nights, that went over a couple of days in the beginning June. It included the first fire of the sugar cane harvest season, and hand cane-cutting championships.
Burdekin shire is one of the few places left in Australia that still burn the sugar cane before harvesting. They do this because of the ample water in the region which makes the sugar cane too leafy to harvest efficiently. Every year, not only are the sugar mills billowing with smoke, but paddocks are too. The paddock is lit on fire the evening before harvesting when winds have eased, and the temperature not as hot. Because there is so much ash in the air, locals refer to it as black/ Burdekin snow.
The first fire for this year was kicked off at the Sweet Days, Hot Night Festival on the Wednesday night. For us who had never been up close to a burning cane field, it was incredible to watch, and feel the intense heat that got generated from the fire. We were only 10-20 meters away! Once it had died off, the fire fighters put the rest of the smouldering out. 
On this night was also 'The BUUURNING MAAAAAAAAN' (The Burning Man). I had to write it like this because the commentator/ Burdekin Shire Mayor on the night kept saying it loudly and drawn out like this every time. It was a sculpture of a person made from hay, straw, and sugar cane. The idea of it was that you write your troubles on a piece of paper and stick the paper to it. Then, when it got lit up, your troubles went away. The Burning Man was inspired by an American version of the same thing. Farmers use it to bring good luck to the coming harvest. I am saying all this, but am simply quoting the Mayor. With much of Australia in drought, many farmers can only wish that it was as simple as a burning man, or doing a rain dance. My heart truly goes out to them.
Three days later on Saturday came the second part of the festival; the Hand Cane-Cutting Championships. As mentioned previously, the cane fields are usually burnt the day before harvesting. Tractors and machinery are much tougher in the heat when it comes to the next day. The fields may still be hot, but they can handle it. People's hands and bodies are not so tough. The first fire was the fields in which the hand cane-cutting would occur, so it had to be cooled off for a few days first. There were many divisions throughout the day such as women, men, and older men. Later in the day, the winners from the heats and divisions, (not women as they had their own competition), competed against each other. Not surprisingly, the older divisions, (50+), obliterated the younger ones, (below 35). Farm machinery has not been around for all that long. The oldies had a far greater stamina than the younger blokes. Not very often that happens! They can remember times-a-past where the farmer would get grumpy, and sometimes dock pay, for every inch or centimetre the stalk was cut higher than the ground. They were neat in presentation of how the sugar cane was laid on the ground in piles.
If you are in Home Hill, Ayr, or anywhere else in the Burdekin Shire towards the end of May, beginning of June, I would recommend visiting the Sweet Days, Hot Nights Festival. It brings an insight to the agricultural background of the area, and an insight to the past of how Australia used to harvest its sugar.
Happy Travels
 - Jeni