The freshly painted orange spikes and jade-green top of the Big Pineapple loomed above the crowd as they fanned themselves in the afternoon heat. Clad in their finest ‘Queensland casual’ – a sea of Hawaiian shirts, belted cargo bottoms, coral lipstick and bedazzled sandals – the former staff and supporters of the Big Pineapple had gathered to celebrate the highs and lows of its 40-year history.
Having recently moved to Woombye, a lush sub-tropical farming community on the Sunshine Coast, I had sought an invitation to the Big Pineapple reunion as both a writer and curious local. Within walking distance of my house on Kiel Mountain, which hugs the eastern edge of the plantation, the Big Pineapple is central to this community’s identity. So much so, in fact, that when asked by friends from Sydney (where I lived until three months ago) where I’m now based, I’ve learned to respond like the other locals with ‘Well, do you know the Big Pineapple?’ After the obvious jokes about me living in the Big Pineapple – like a tropical fruit version of the lady who lives in a shoe – most people respond with a smile.
You see, I come from the generation of children who experienced the height of the ‘Big Thing’ craze in Australian tourism. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the key to attracting a viable tourist crowd was to take something iconic from your town – a Banana, a Redback Spider, a Prawn, a Wine Bottle – and create a monstrously oversized replica of it. This, in turn, would attract hordes of people, bringing much-needed tourist dollars to rural areas and creating ready-made family holiday snaps.
When I was eight or so, my family was swept up in this tourist trend when making the great summer migration from Sydney to Queensland. Setting off in our yellow Toyota Corolla station wagon, three kids in the back and no air conditioning, we were promised the magic of bright monolithic replicas of fruit to break up the long trip north. The first stop was the Big Banana at Coffs Harbour that claimed to be ‘A Whole Bunch of Fun!’ I was vaguely disappointed by its claims to largesse, though I still begged to be bought a souvenir magnet.
The most impressive by far was the Big Pineapple. Established by Bill and Lyn Taylor in 1971, it had been, by the time I first visited, a bright fibreglass beacon on the Queensland tourist map for over 20 years. As one of the first ‘agri-tourist’ destinations in Australia, and one of the first ‘Big’ attractions, it sought to teach and entertain its visitors about agriculture and tropical produce by exposing them to a real, working pineapple farm. The lure was a giant replica of a pineapple perched above the plantation.
When I had visited in the early 1990s, the Sunrise Plantation (as it was then known) was in its heyday. Crowds of tourists – up to 10,000 a day – were wooed by the Big Pineapple experience. Bought by Rupert Murdoch in 1987, the year before Brisbane’s hosting of the World Exhibition in 1988 (‘Expo 88’), the tourist attraction had undergone a major expansion. The Pineapple itself was renovated and space made for the anticipated increase in visitors. It was a Field of Dreams moment. Visitor numbers soared, fuelling further expansions.
The core agricultural element of the attraction was added to by all sorts of tourist trappings. Visitors could ride the novelty train that looped around the sloped pineapple farm, stopping at an animal nursery where silky chickens were dyed blue, pink and green, much to the children’s delight. Ladies dressed in pink and orange Hawaiian-themed Mu Mu dresses sold ice cream parfaits to customers in the Polynesian-themed restaurant. All sorts of Pineapple paraphernalia were for sale: from pineapple-shaped cheese platters and candleholders, to tea towels, aprons, shot glasses and umbrellas.
The Big Pineapple itself was, of course, the star attraction. Visitors would line up for hours in order to climb the wooden steps that wound through the Pineapple’s core, taking them past glass cases displaying in miniature the full process of pineapple production: how the fruit was grown and picked, through to the canning process and distribution. Once visitors reached the top of the Pineapple, a 16-metre platform allowed a magnificent view of the subtropical bushland and working plantation, where the pineapples perched like tropical fruit hats on top of the rows of spiked shrubs.
When I moved to Woombye in late 2011, however, the Big Pineapple was no longer operational. Despite being heritage listed in 2009, the Big Pineapple had fallen into disrepair. Its spikes had faded to a sherbet orange, the train track had rusted and the once-productive pineapple farm was no longer harvested. After being sold by Murdoch in 1996 to Sydney-based businessmen Graham Hayes, the Big Pineapple had been plagued by allegations of mismanagement and issues with the tax office. After years of uncertainty regarding its future, the Big Pineapple was closed for good in October 2010.
Spurred by my own childhood memories of the Big Pineapple and a realisation of how important it was to my newly adopted community, I started looking for answers. One of the first people I contacted was Kerry Brown, Sunshine Coast local and author of Our Sweetest Icon: Sunshine Plantation’s Big Pineapple 1971–2011. An avid supporter of the tourist attraction, she was the key organiser of the reunion, taking the opportunity to launch her book. A feathered blonde with bright blue eyes, she greeted me at the reunion dressed in a vintage Big Pineapple Mu Mu, before whipping off to meet and greet the other hundred or so guests, many of whom she seemed to know by name. Like me, she had been baffled by how something so iconic, so downright family friendly, could fall apart so completely. Or, as she put it, ‘How could train rides and ice cream go so wrong?’
The Big Pineapple had flourished in a more innocent era. The increasingly sophisticated tastes of tourists and a rapidly changing Australia led to a steady decline in visitors to Queensland. No longer were crowds attracted to the kitsch family fun of oversized fruit. The Sunshine Coast, in particular, isn’t the rural outpost it once was, changing in the past 40 years from a landscape dominated by cane fields and fruit plantations to a vision of sprawling suburbia. When the local sugar-cane mill was shut down in 2003, a cornerstone of agricultural industry was lost. What followed was accelerated subdivision and hasty development, each housing estate eroding the agricultural backbone of the area. For example, in Maroochydore, the nearest tourist centre, a sleepy beachside town of fish and chip shops and iconic weatherboard Queenslanders has transformed into row upon row of glittering high-rises and overpriced cafes. And in a state plagued by floods and the ever-rising value of the Australian dollar, the Sunshine Coast has lost much of its lustre for local and overseas visitors.
The locals, however, still strongly identify with the area’s rural roots and, it seems, the Big Pineapple represents this history. Apart from stints in Brisbane and overseas, my partner, Karim, has lived on Kiel Mountain all his life. Coming from Sydney, and with only a brief childhood experience of the area, it was hard to understand just how central the Big Pineapple was to this community. Karim had his debutante in the Sunrise Plantation restaurant; our neighbour told me her first job was at the Big Pineapple when it opened in the 1970s. According to Our Sweetest Icon, everything from bingo nights to weddings were held at the Pineapple. It employed hundreds of locals and provided a source of entertainment and belonging for many more. In 1978, when a fire gutted the Sunrise Plantation restaurant, a determined community rebuilt it within three months. When the Big Pineapple shut down in 2010, some believed it was gone for good, but many others believed it would be revived. This was not the first challenge faced by the Big Pineapple, and this was not a community that would give up hope.
In 2011, that hope was rewarded. After a few false starts and much speculation, it was confirmed that three millionaire developers from Brisbane had agreed to buy the property. The Sunshine Coast Daily published the news under the heading ‘Porsche lovers buy Big Pineapple’, hinting a certain unease with these wealthy outsiders buying up the iconic attraction.
Which brings us to the reunion. That afternoon, despite some misgivings, the former staff and friends of the Big Pineapple were buzzing with the good news. In an act of good faith, the Pineapple had already received a lick of paint by the new owners, the Farmer’s Market had shifted back from the church carpark down the road, and a new generation of children were stamping up and down the wooden steps of the Pineapple’s core.
It is still to be seen whether these developers from Brisbane can match the expectations of this community. The newly appointed General Manager of the Big Pineapple, Paul Ziebarth, indicated in an October 2011 interview with the ABC that the focus of the attraction will shift to the more marketable concept of ‘sustainable agriculture’, forming a ‘showcase of sub-tropical agriculture based on pineapples’. Although the heritage-listed Big Pineapple itself cannot be demolished, it is unclear whether the entire property will be kept as a working farm, or fall prey to subdivision and development.
The mood at the reunion, nonetheless, was festive. A calypso band played as the crowd moved inside from a gathering afternoon storm to the restaurant, where the former parfait bar served up plates of party pies, mustard-coloured cans of XXXX beer and, of course, tray after tray of cubed pineapple. As the locals mingled, the conversation focused on how the Big Pineapple should, and would, rise from the ashes once again. I couldn’t help but hope they were right.