THE town of Innisfail could not have commemorated its centennial and a half birthday more exquisitely than having Riverfest 2023 bring the whole town together in grand camaraderie.
Thousands of people flooded the Esplanade at Johnstone River to participate in the celebration and among the array of stalls were Italian and Greek food, while Sikhs handed out free sugar cane juice. Each of these communities have family roots that go back as old as the town itself.
The heritage building, housing the Innisfail District Historical Society, sat strategically at the entrance of the festival site.
It remained open to the public with ancient artefacts on display and the book created especially for Innisfail’s 150th birthday entitled, ‘A Time Line Of History 150 years of settlement”, was for sale.
Innisfail Hot Rod Cars put on a show and the Filipino, Hmong and Punjabi communities presented cultural dances.
Local musicians showed off their incredible talent on the aptly named Canecutters stage, as sugar cane took centre stage in the celebration.
One of the festival organisers, Liz Fabian, said other events took place at different times and venues such as the mullet throwing competition, rowing regatta and Riverfest Queen contest at the Brother’s League Club.
“Also at the Brother’s League Club, on the eve of Riverfest, participants of the Innisfail Sugar/Harvest Festivals from 1954-2009 had a reunion,” Liz said.
“The winner of this year’s Riverfest Queen is Rikki-Lee Broccardo.”
A long line of families and children waited to enter the driver’s cab of MSF Sugar’s locomotive.
They eagerly took in all the bells and whistles they had never seen despite the train being a familiar feature all over cane-county.
The driver demonstrated how he would manoeuvre the train, pulling a long line of carriages carrying freshly harvested sugar cane to the mill.
Children were offered free colouring books with informative and educational chapters entitled ‘Stay off the lines. It could be train time.’, ‘Watch out. There could be cane trucks about.’
Gurmit Kaur, who has been living in Innisfail for 31 years with her family and is now raising a family of her own here, said sugar cane farms not only drew Italians and Irish, but also Sikhs from Punjab.
Alongside her father and sister, Gurmit handed out leaflets on the Australian Sikh migration.
“According to the records of The Australian Sikh Heritage Association, the first Sikhs arrived in Brisbane in 1844,” she said.
“It is also recorded that a man called Indur Singh arrived in Cairns in 1897 as a cane cutter.
“Today many Sikhs own sugar cane, banana and paw paw farms here in Innisfail and surrounding towns.
“The name Punjab, where Sikhs originate from, means the land of the five rivers, so we’re very much a community of farmers – it’s in our blood.”
Another stall at Riverfest had a group of Sikh men handing out free sugar cane juice, freshly pressed from a machine.
People were fascinated to see the machine turning the sugar cane into pulp and were surprised and grateful they were offered free cups of juice.
A spokesperson for the stall said Sikhs have always been community-minded and by offering free cane juice, they were merely giving back to a town that had welcomed them with open arms.
Another machine that fascinated the crowd was one that made granita at The Feast of the Three Saints’ stall.
Water, sugar and lemon juice were blended with ice in a large stainless-steel drum to produce this traditional Italian sorbet.
The Greek Orthodox Church also had a barrage of authentic traditional sweets from halva to baklava on sale made by the ladies of the church, the recipes no doubt being passed down from generation to generation.
Liz thanked the Rotary Club and local businesses who came out in full force to sponsor the festival, which concluded at 8pm with a firework display and lighted boats floating on the Johnstone River.