Australian rugby league footballer Billy Slater shares his childhood memories of home town Innisfail. Interview by Mal Chenu.
What are your fondest memories of Innisfail?
I loved the beach, the fishing, the creeks and the climate. It was always exciting when the annual show came around.
Describe growing up there.
Riding my bike around to mates’ houses and playing footy in the backyard was pretty much my childhood. It was a great place to grow up. Rugby league was huge – just about all the kids played. I developed a passion for horses through my grandfather, worked as a stablehand and got a broken-down ex-racehorse called Whiskey. I rode her through the cane fields and we did showjumping. She was probably my best friend as a kid.
What took you away?
I left school at 16 and went to Sydney to work as a stablehand and ride trackwork for Gai Waterhouse at Tulloch Lodge. It was a great experience.
How often do you go back?
Mum and Dad still live in Innisfail and I go back as often as I can – it will always be home to me. I was born on the Sunshine Coast but we moved to Innisfail when I was three.
Has it changed much?
Well, they have traffic lights now! Cyclone Larry hit Innisfail in 2006 and many of the old buildings were destroyed. A lot of it had to be rebuilt. It was a real test for the region and brought the people closer together.
What’s your favourite thing to do there now?
Catching up with family is the main reason I go back. I love getting out on the reef and diving and fishing. The old man likes to get down to the Garradunga Hotel and I enjoy sitting at the bar having a beer and a chat with him and a few of the local farmers. My favourite place is Josephine Falls – you walk through rainforest to get to it and there are rocks that form a big natural water slide. I love taking my family [wife Nicole and children Tyla Rose, 8, and Jake, 7] there.
Is there anything you miss about Innisfail?
Being outdoors and the climate. I took the beauty of the place for granted and I really missed it when I moved to Melbourne. There are so many stunning spots, like the beach at Etty Bay where cassowaries walk right past you.
What are some things every visitor should do?
Get down to Callendar Park and watch our league side, the Innisfail Leprechauns, go around – they get a lot of support and it’s a great atmosphere. Spend a day at Josephine Falls or one of the other creeks or waterholes. Paronella Park in Mena Creek, just south-west of town, has beautiful waterfalls and rainforest. And, of course, there’s the Great Barrier Reef – it takes just half an hour or so to get out there. Spend a day on Dunk Island [off nearby South Mission Beach] if you can.
SEE ALSO: Dave Hughes on Growing Up in Warrnambool