How the Sikhs went bananas in Woolgoolga
As you enter Coff’s Harbour, tucked between Sydney and Brisbane, it is not hard to guess why the big banana stands as a landmark. The area grows one of the best varieties of bananas in Australia. And the fruit has a dominant Indian connection.
In the early part of the 19th century when the British still ruled India, a few adventurous men from Punjab decided to cash in on the shortage of farm labourers in Australia. Their journey led them first to Queensland, then south to Coff’s Harbour, and finally in nearby Woolgoolga, New South Wales.
Familiar to farming these men slowly acquired small parcels of land and began working hard to make their fortunes. By the 1940s, they had laid the foundation of the first Australian Sikh Community in Australia here at Woolgoolga, 20 km north of Coff’s Harbour. Today, some of the wealthiest Indians reside in Woolgoolga.
Undeterred by the spells of Autumn rain, which otherwise made for a good excuse for a sleep-in at the beach resort we had booked ourselves in, we decided to explore the town known for its great beaches, pristine scenery, nature walks and great fishing.
After a drive around Coff’s Harbour, we headed off to Woolgoolga or Woopi as locals call it. A winding road took us to a majestic gurudwara perched on top of the hill. It is, in fact, the second Sikh shrine built in Australia, in 1970. The first gurudwara, constructed in 1968, still stands nearby, a mere shadow to the new one.
Over hot chai and tikkas, head priest Gurmandip Singh said the gurudwara was a meeting place not only for the 1,200 Sikh residents of Woolgoolga but also of the local community.
It was easy to locate Satpal Singh Gill, 38, whose great grandfather travelled to Australia around 1910. “He worked in the Wollombi area and earned enough money to invest in small farms for banana cultivation,” Gill proudly says. “We were the second family to have moved to Australia,” he adds.
The traditional life of Sikhs here hasn’t changed much. Kirpal Singh, 50, a banana grower, says they’ve maintained their traditions. “Every farm is in close proximity. Work starts at 7 am and by 4 pm we are at home and have time to socialise and keep our culture alive.”
Through the 70s and 80s, many among those born in Coffs Harbour went back to Punjab and got married. With banana cultivation on the decline, many of the original growers have diversified into blueberries and macadamia nut plantations.
Woolgoola winds in and out of hamlets comprising not more than two Indian groceries, the two gurudwaras and lovely houses and farms. After a day’s tour, we head off to the beach, but that piece of Sikh history in a quiet, serene part of Australia visits the mind and overstays its welcome.