Toowong Cemetery is a miniature of Brisbane’s inner suburbs. It has main roads and side streets, steep hills, valleys, outlooks, hoop pines and fig trees, butcher birds and lorikeets. Wealthier citizens inhabit the hilltops, and the humbler spill down into the gullies. There are elaborate memorials, and neglected graves covered in cobblers’ pegs.
Many of the family names on the gravestone are from the colonial past. This place is a history book of Brisbane.
It’s spooky after dark. I walked through with friends one evening at dusk, and I wouldn’t want to be there alone. Strange people lurk in Toowong Cemetery.
There is quite a lot of my DNA buried here, but I have ancestors in graveyards outside Brisbane, too. A few years ago, my cousin Nadine and I went on a ten-day, ten-cemetery family history road trip to find them.
Nadine researched the names and burial places of family members in the cemeteries of Warwick, Texas, Dirranbandi, Saint George, Mitchell, Barcaldine, Longreach, Roma, Dalby and Toowoomba: a three thousand kilometre loop by road. She is fascinated by family history, and I’m always happy to take a road trip, looking for stories along the way.
So off we go. Most of the graves we visit are of people we never knew: great-great-grandparents, great uncles and aunts and distant cousins. Some, though, are of our own generation.
At Dirranbandi, we stop and ask for directions to the cemetery. It’s along the river, on the outskirts of town. Crows croak, the ground is dusty, and at the gate a woman on her way out warns us there are lots of burrs in there.
Our little cousins, Peter and Judith, have been lying next to each other for over half a century in this sad, hot, dry place, in this hard countryside. Peter died of peritonitis, aged four, and Judith a few years later, aged five, drowned in the river. The bush can be cruel.
We pick bottlebrush from the cemetery’s few shrubs to place on their graves; and back in the car we pick burrs out of our clothes and shoes and skin.
Our seventh cemetery is Longreach. As we drive there from Barcaldine, the sides of the road look like The Somme after a battle, with bodies lying everywhere – the bodies of kangaroos, hit by vehicles.
I drive, and Nadine looks at the map.
“The cemetery is in Raven Road. Go past Thrush Road and turn into Lark Street. If we get to Falcon Street, we’ve gone too far. What’s with these street names?”
“All the streets in Longreach are named after birds. The water birds run east-west and the land birds run north-south.”
“Well, that doesn’t work. There’s a Sparrow Street running east-west. And here’s a Crane Street, running north-south!”
“I don’t know. Just so long as we can find Raven Road, and the cemetery. We don’t want to drive all over town searching for it, like we did in Dirranbandi…”
In the cemetery we tread carefully. The dusty soil is falling away, leaving cracks in the ground around the graves, and it would be easy to misstep and sprain an ankle. The ground is so dry it’s shrinking.
There is a smell of death in the air. It’s probably a dead kangaroo nearby; but disconcerting, in a cemetery.
We find a distant uncle’s grave. It is marked by a substantial block of sandstone, crafted by the well-known A.L.Petrie Monumental Sculptors, of Brisbane. A stone like this must have been expensive to bring out here, over a thousand kilometres from Brisbane. The inscription indicates that it was placed here by his friends and admirers; but days earlier we’d found his own mother’s grave in Roma Cemetery, with no marker on it at all.
Mysteries of the past.
Last time I was in this cemetery, twenty years ago, Con and I were looking for the grave of Leonard Pitkin. Con’s mother Min had been married twice, the first time to Len, and it was his grave we trying to locate. A phone call to the local council had provided us with the grave number, and we eventually found the spot; but there was no name on the grave, no headstone.
Len and Min had moved out here in the early 1920s, looking for work, and in 1923 he died here of typhoid fever. Min was pregnant, and her father made the long journey by train from Mackay to take her home.
There are many unmarked graves in the cemeteries of western Queensland. In the early days, people worked hard, far from their homes, building roads and railways and wrangling stock, or cooking over open fires while wearing long dresses. Life was primitive, and accidents and illnesses were common. Many graves here are marked only by a rusted steel number peg and a sprinkling of red gravel.
We’d sent a photo of Len’s grave to his daughter Joy, Con’s elder sister. She’d never seen her father’s burial place. She arranged for a headstone and came out on the train to place flowers on the spot where her father had been lying unacknowledged for over sixty years.
A few days after our Longreach visit, Nadine and I are at the Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery. Founded in 1850 and heritage listed, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Queensland, built to hold forty-five thousand graves. This cemetery, unlike the others we’ve visited, has avenues with of tall trees, mossy or lichen-covered: kauri and hoop pine, London plane trees, camphor laurels and eucalypts.
Lichen makes the inscriptions hard to read. No lichen in Dirranbandi or Longreach. We find the headstone of a distant cousin we never knew, take photos, and move on.
Our last graveyard of the long trip is the Toowoomba Garden Cemetery. The grave we visit is fresh, the red earth bare and the headstone newly planted. This is where our cousin David had been buried just three months earlier, after losing his battle with cancer. David was the brother of little Peter and Judith. This was someone we had known and loved. This wasn’t family history research. This was personal.
So many cemeteries we’ve visited on this long trip, and this would be the last. And the saddest.
When I’m planted in Queensland earth, I’d like it to be in Brisbane’s Mount Gravatt Cemetery. It’s a serene place with gum trees and lots of bird calls – like a country town cemetery, but greener; with pale headed rosellas and king parrots, magpies and kookaburras. And no burrs.
It’s December in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the chimneys of Tully Sugar Mill are quiet. Crushing has finished for the year. Behind the town, the rainforests of Mount Tyson are cloaked in rain.
This is Golden Gumboot country. The Golden Gumboot is an unofficial, hotly contested yearly competition for the highest rainfall, between the Far North Queensland towns of Tully and Babinda.
Tully, 140 kilometres south of Cairns, has at the start of its main street a concrete gumboot 7.9 metres high with a frog crawling up it. Having survived two fierce cyclones, the boot was recently refurbished by means of a state government grant and given a spectacular coat of gold paint. There is a staircase to the top, and a viewing platform. 7.9 metres is the amount of rain that fell here in 1950: the highest annual rainfall ever recorded in a populated area of Australia. Tully’s average annual rainfall, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, is 4 metres.
Tully has a Golden Gumboot Festival each year whatever the totals are; but in recent decades Babinda, 80 kilometres further north, has had the higher rainfall, averaging 4.28 metres annually, compared to Tully’s 4.09 metres. It’s Babinda that has the Golden Gumboot bragging rights.
To give an idea of what these numbers signify, Brisbane has an average rainfall of just over one metre a year.
Babinda nestles close to the rainforest-covered slopes of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain. If you can see the top of Mount Bartle Frere, so locals say, it’s going to rain. If you can’t, it is raining.
People in these northern towns and farms face a challenging climate, economic threats and agricultural tribulations. Bananas and papaws are major industries around here, but the focus of Tully’s economy is its sugar mill. Chinese-owned, it is the economic heart of this working town. Tully Mill crushes the second highest tonnage of any in the country.
Banana crops, papaw trees and sugar cane are vulnerable to disease, and all are at the mercy of the market – and the weather. Because the rainfall in this region is so reliable, farmers don’t irrigate.
The locals are down-to-earth and practical. They drive twin-cab utes, often with a pig dog cage on the back, and there are boats parked in many back yards. Men dress in boots, work shorts, polo shirts and hi-vis. Women favour denim shorts, black singlet tops and rubber thongs.
The locals relish an earthy form of humour. For instance, a visitor to Tully might talk about driving up the main street, Butler Street; but to a local, it’s “going up the Butt.”
Both Babinda and Tully have spectacular tourist draw cards nearby. The famous Tully Gorge, where white-water
rafting tours ride the outpour of water from the Kareeya hydro-electricity plant, runs right up against the ranges of the Atherton Tableland and the three hundred metre drop of Tully Falls. The falls lie directly below Tully Falls Lookout on the map, but the distance between the two by road is over two hundred kilometres.
Electric-blue Ulysses butterflies flit through the forests along the gorge.
Babinda has The Boulders, a famous swimming hole and granite boulder-strewn creek of matchless beauty. We called in there for a swim a few years ago, floating in that clear pool in the rain as if in a cool, green heaven.
“We used to come to The Boulders for picnics,” Con told me, kicking against the gentle flow of the water. Con grew up in Innisfail, which lies between Tully and Babinda, looking out towards Mount Bartle Frere. Innisfail, famous for its papaws, averages a mere 3.4 metres of rainfall annually.
“Downstream from the main swimming hole there’s a place we called the Chute, which was like a fast water slide. It was great. And the Devil’s Pool – you’d have to be crazy to jump in there, but people did.”
This is a dangerous place for people who venture too close to where the creek is sucked down among huge granite boulders. Adventurous young men have died here.
“When I played for Innisfail Brothers League team and we had a game in Babinda, we’d come to The Boulders afterwards for a swim. We played at the Babinda showgrounds, and there was no such luxury as showers there.”
I first visited The Boulders with my family during a road trip from the south. My dad climbed up on a large boulder and swung out on a rope swing before performing a cartwheeling belly flop into the creek. He swam ashore with his chest scarlet from hitting the water. We were laughing; he didn’t see the funny side.
In 2011, Cyclone Yasi brought disaster to a thousand kilometres of Queensland coast, its eye crossing the coast at Mission Beach, the closest coastal town to Tully.
Yasi’s devastation still shows in an occasional roofless building and in the thinned rainforest on the hillsides. Mission Beach people were isolated for days. A couple of years after Yasi I spoke to a young Frenchwoman living there. I asked her how she had fared.
“During the cyclone, I got a call from my family in Paris,” she told me. “My mother had died. I wanted to get out, to get to the airport in Cairns and fly home. The roads were blocked with debris. The army was clearing them with chainsaws, but no one was allowed in or out.
“I finally managed to get a ride out to the highway with the police, and a bus to Cairns, but the funeral was over long before I reached home.”
We visited friends at South Mission Beach in their beautiful timber house on the hill, and stood on their verandah looking down through greenery towards the tranquil beach where Yasi made landfall.
“Did you leave, when Yasi was coming?” I asked.
“No, we stayed here. We bunkered down in the bathroom, but it was scary. The noise was incredible. The glass doors at the back blew out, and the garden was a mess of shredded trees and debris. We couldn’t get down the road for smashed branches and tree trunks.”
In the Tully branch of Cassowary Coast Libraries there is a display of local historical photographs. Looking at them and seeing the difficulties involved in land clearing, timber felling, road building and transport in the old days, and considering the difficulties they still face today from the weather and the markets, it’s easy to see why the locals need to be tough.
2019 has been drier than usual, even here in the Wet Tropics. The Cassowary Coast Council, which includes Tully and Innisfail, has announced Level 3 water restrictions. The beautiful creek at The Boulders is at its lowest level for years. Babinda and Tully have both recorded much less than their average rainfalls, and little rain is forecast for the rest of the year.
The Wet Tropics is still the greenest place in the state. Sugar, banana and pawpaw farmers are watching the forecasts, though. They must wonder what the future will bring.
Out the back of the Mauro homestead was a pit toilet, a scary place for a townie child like me. What if I fell down the hole?
Mum liked to tell the story of when she was little, out at Barcaldine, and a goat fell down the pit toilet. They sent the jackeroo down to get it out.
When my mother Pat was a child, her father Fred was manager of a sheep station not far from Barcaldine. Even after leaving the land, many of Fred’s descendants maintained all their lives a sense of belonging to the bush – even his second daughter, Betty, who married an American after the war and spent most of her life in Seattle.
Betty liked living near the Pacific Ocean, knowing that on the other side of the water were the beaches and plains of home.
Between the wars Fred took up ownership of a sheep station, through a land ballot I believe; a place called Dunwold, outside Dirranbandi. While still a teenager his eldest son, my uncle Jim, went out there to manage the property. The family next bought a property near Texas, on the New South Wales border, and Fred’s second son, Don, took it over.
When I was young, perhaps four or five, my family went to visit Dunwold, flying to Saint George in a DC3, where Uncle Jim picked us up from the airstrip. Both my uncles considered that we coastal kids needed a bit of toughening up, and at Dunwold I was taken out to watch a sheep being slaughtered. To my great relief, something intervened – perhaps my mother – and I was spared the sight of the killing.
We visited Uncle Don more often. His property, Mauro, was closer to our home in Nambour – only a five- or six-hour drive. Mauro was just over the Dumaresq River, which here forms the border between Queensland and New South Wales: the wriggly part. Mauro is in New South Wales, but Texas, in Queensland, is its nearest town.
The Dumaresq (pronounced Dumaresk or Dumerrik, depending on who is saying it) rises in the Great Dividing Range near Stanthorpe and Tenterfield and flows west into the Macintyre River, which in turn flows past Goondiwindi, still forming part of the border. These are known as the Border Rivers.
Border towns borrow a little from each state. One wintery morning in Goondiwindi, which is in Queensland and therefore sells the Courier-Mail in all the shops, I visited the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop. The ladies in charge were sitting around a table doing the Sydney Morning Herald crosswords. “We get the Herald in specially”, they said. “It has better crosswords that the Courier-Mail.”
The Macintyre River continues further west, joining the Barwon River. The Barwon flows into the Darling River and on into the Murray.
These western rivers have dangerous floods, although the countryside has been drought-stricken for years now. I remember as a child sitting in our family’s Vanguard stuck in the middle of flooded Camp Creek, near Mauro, with my feet up on the seat and floodwater flowing through the car. A tractor towed us out.
All of Fred’s descendants who lived at or visited Mauro will have strong memories of the place. I remember it as if I’m looking at a photo album. Here was the pepperina tree beside the house. When I smell the leaves of a pepper tree, it takes me straight back there. Outside of the house yard, the ground was thick with prickles – bindy eyes, as we called them. We coastal kids had never before experienced those savage, dry-country prickles.
I think it was actually khaki weed, a broad-leaved prickly plant. Bindii is the nasty prickle that grows in my Brisbane lawn – little clusters of carrot-like leaves with prickles in the middle that break off and stick into the skin and make the children go carefully on tiptoes down the concrete car tracks.
The worst prickle I’ve come across is the aptly named goat’s head, found in the Gulf Country around Burketown. Standing on the thorns of a goat’s head is like standing on a couple of thumb tacks.
At Mauro there was a shearing shed, a hundred metres or so from the homestead, with chutes where shearers pushed skinny-looking shorn sheep down into the pens below, slotted tables where roustabouts threw the fleeces, and the wool press that did the baling. There was a strong smell of sheep droppings, fallen between the floorboards and piled up under the shed. We didn’t often visit the shed during shearing, because, Uncle Don said, the men didn’t want to have to curb their language.
Behind the house yard at Mauro was the dam. We went swimming there once. The soft mud at the bottom oozed between our toes.
There was an ant bed tennis court beside the house, surfaced with crushed and rolled termite mounds, and peacocks screamed at dusk on the fences.
Besides sheep Mauro produced fodder crops, and Italian share farmers grew tobacco. We sometimes visited them, peering into the dark barns where the tobacco leaves were hung to dry.
During the 1950s we also visited my mother’s friend on a property outside Saint George and watched them “pulling” the mulga. Whether it was for land clearing or for cattle feed, I don’t know. It was impressive, though. Two army tanks, fifty metres or so apart, dragged a heavy chain between them, pulling down the scrub as they went. Perhaps they were bulldozers, but I remember them as tanks. So soon after the War there was probably plenty of army surplus equipment available for jobs like this.
Most of all I remember the noise.
I last visited Mauro in the early 1980s. Con, because we were only going for a couple of days, hadn’t brought proper shoes – just the standard North Queensland driving footwear of the time, rubber thongs. When Don asked him to help shift irrigation pipes, Con wore his thongs. Don was wearing elastic-sided boots.
When Con came back to the house he sat down on the back step and took off his thongs. They had new soles on them: a centimetre-thick matt of prickles; and he sat there glumly pulling them out of the sides of his feet. There are many reasons why westerners wear elastic-sided boots, and prickles, whether bindii, khaki weed or goat’s heads, are high on the list.
“I remember the day Mum put the bunya pine down her bra,” says my brother Rick. He and my other brother Mike and I are in the Bunyas Mountains together, on a nostalgic visit, sitting on the verandah of a small but comfortable cottage and reminiscing. King parrots and crimson rosellas cluster round us, pecking at bird seed.
I can’t imagine putting anything as prickly as a bunya pine down my bra.
We’re discussing a trip to the Bunyas we went on years ago, camping with our parents. Dad had pitched the old canvas tent on what was then known as the Lucerne Patch, a camping field running down to the edge of the rainforest. That evening there was a sudden storm, with heavy rain threatening to swamp the tent. Mum and we three kids held on to the tent poles while Dad frantically dug a trench along the uphill side to divert the flood.
Dad’s trench saved us from a night spent in wet bedding, and next day the sun was out. We walked along the forest tracks, under majestic pines and enormous fig trees laden with ferns and orchids.
Along the way, our mother spotted a baby bunya pine. The ground was soft after the rainstorm, and so in spite of signs that said not to interfere with vegetation or wildlife in a National Park she carefully dug it out. Because she didn’t want to be caught doing the wrong thing, so the family story goes, she hid it in her bra.
The iconic bunya pines, Araucaria bidwilli, endemic to the Blackall Range and Bunya Mountains National Park, command respect. Straight and rough-barked, bunya pines can grow close to fifty metres tall and a metre in diameter.
For thousands of years, great bunya festivals were held here. This was a meeting place for local Aboriginal groups and those from further away, travelling here every three years for ritual and ceremony, resolving of disputes, feasting, dance, song, trading, socialising and above all harvesting the bunya nuts.
Development of surrounding lands by white farmers, and the relocation of Indigenous people to reserves, tragically put a stop to the bunya festivals by 1902.
According to Tom Petrie, his father Andrew Petrie “discovered” the bunya pine and “gave some specimens to a Mr. Bidwill, who forwarded them to the old country, and hence the tree was named after him, not after the true discoverer.”
These trees had been known and celebrated in this place for centuries before the Petries came along.
In the mid-1800s, Tom Petrie himself as a boy was the first free (i.e. not an escaped convict) white person to attend a bunya festival. As an old man, he described it in detail to his daughter, who wrote out his memoirs. Many of the bunya pines have what seem to be notches in them and some believe that they were cut to help the young men who, with the aid of a loop of strong vine around the tree, would climb up to get the big cones that hold the nuts; but according to Tom Petrie they would never cut a bunya because it would hurt the tree. They would climb using just the vine, aided by the roughness of the bark. It would take great skill and courage to climb so high that way.
By the 1850s, an avenue of bunya pines had been planted in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, where they’re still standing today, along the path above the river.
My brothers and I have been walking those same soft forest tracks again today, and we worked out which leaves belong to the bunya pines, and which to the equally mighty hoop pines, Araucaria cunninghamii, that grow here too. They were first collected by Alan Cunningham, botanist and explorer, in the 1820s.
It’s easy to tell the trees apart, if you crane your neck upwards. The mature bunyas have a dome-shaped top, while the hoops have a pointed top. The leaves are different too. Hoop pine leaves are smooth and closely woven, and bunya leaves are twisted and prickly. Maybe Mum wrapped that little bunya tree in a hanky.
“She put the tree in a pot, and it grew,” says Rick. “For years we used it as a Christmas tree.”
“That’s right – I’d forgotten the Christmas tree! Didn’t she eventually plant it behind the house at Ashgrove, down by the creek?”
“Yes, she did. I wonder if it’s still there.”
This year, the forest is in drought, like most of Queensland. Dry leaves are lying thick on the ground. Many trees are suffering, and some of the tracks are closed. As we sit on the cottage verandah that evening, we hear a menacing cracking sound in the distance, then a deep, booming thump. The sound of a forest giant falling.
“When we get back to Brisbane, let’s go and look for Mum’s bunya pine,” said Mike.
That’s what we do. We drive out to the old house in Joffre Street, Ashgrove, and there it is, towering over the houses, down near the creek.
Only it doesn’t have a dome shape. It has a point. After all these years of family legend, is it actually a bunya pine at all? It’s not a full-grown tree yet – too young to have a dome, perhaps.
Maybe it’s a hoop pine. Much less prickly to put in a bra. We knock on the door to ask if we can go out in the back yard and check the leaves, but there’s no one home.
Hoop pines are beautiful too, with their rough bark and hoop-like stripes. They’re everywhere in Brisbane, standing like sentinels on hilltops, in parks and suburban gardens and motorway plantings.
The bunya pine, though, is the iconic one; and its home forest, now suffering from drought, is an ancient and spiritual place. This year, Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral burned down and the world mourned. The Cathedral will be rebuilt – just as it was. It won’t be so easy to rebuild the old, old forests of the Bunya Mountains.
 “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. First published 1904. This edition 2014: Watson Ferguson and Company, Brisbane. Page 9
“Daily Mercury”, Mackay. 30 July 1913
The search for Mr George Noble, who wandered from his home near The Leap at the beginning of the month, has now been abandoned without the slightest trace of the missing man having been discovered. The missing man might have been taken by alligators, his farm being situated between Reliance and Constant Creeks, the waters of which are infested with these reptiles. Native dogs also frequent the neighbourhood and may have attacked the man once he became helpless through exposure. Mr Noble was a man of 78 years of age and in his declining years had become rather childish. He evidently lost his way through wandering off on a bye-track.
Reliance Creek National Park now protects one of the last patches of scrub along the creek, not far from its estuary between Mackay and Cape Hillsborough. A century ago, although already surrounded by farms and sugarcane fields, this area, dense with vines and palms, would have been a dangerous place to be lost.
In 1883, George and Jane Noble had emigrated to Mackay from Newcastle on Tyne, England, with their children. They settled on the farm at The Leap, amongst the cane fields and wilderness north of Mackay. It was thirty years later, in his old age, that George disappeared. The search involved local people, police and a tracker, but nothing was ever found.
Perhaps somewhere out in the Reliance Creek estuary there is a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth lying hidden under the sand, lost by poor old George Noble, his Geordie accent stilled forever, far from the Tyne.
George and Jane Noble were the great-grandparents of my husband Con, and only a vague story of the old man wandering off and disappearing was passed down in the family.
Every year in Northern Australia, people are taken by crocodiles. North Queenslanders have lost access to many of their old favourite swimming holes because of them. Endlessly cynical about governments in the south, they say whenever an appeal for crocodile culling is turned down, “When the first croc appears in the Noosa River, they’ll change their minds!”
Or the beaches of the Gold Coast. Perhaps the Brisbane River, near the Tower of Power, home of state government administration, poised above the river at 1 William Street. A crocodile under the mangrove boardwalk there would cause a stir.
Queensland has a service called “Crocwatch” that people ring to report crocodile sightings. Every year there are many such calls, from Torres Strait to Rockhampton. This year, someone said they saw a crocodile at Tin Can Bay, which is scarily close to south Queensland waters.
This year there have been twenty-five recorded crocodile sightings in the Mackay region, near swimming enclosures along the coast, up the creeks and the Pioneer River, and one in Constant Creek, near where George disappeared.
On trips north to Cairns we’ve often spent a night in Mackay, where the cattle country to the south changes to the land of sugarcane, coconut palms and rainforest. It’s fine old city, and a good place to break a journey. This is spectacular country, from the beautiful beaches, up the sprawling Pioneer Valley to the rainforest-covered ranges of Finch-Hatton and Eungella. The climate has extremes – from cyclones and floods to the occasional fall of snow on the ranges.
This year, just before reaching Mackay we turned west on the road to Walkerston, then right on to Mackay Eungella Road, and drove up the Pioneer River valley, through picturesque small towns – Marian, Mirani, Pinnacle, Finch Hatton.
Con’s mother Min grew up here. George Noble’s son Bill and his wife Mary became cane farmers in this valley, still one of Queensland’s richest sugarcane areas. Bill farmed at Alexandra, on the Palms Estate, a large area of farms located about ten kilometres south-west of Mackay, somewhere between Walkerston and the river.
In 1908 it was from this family farm that Bill and Mary drove away in a buggy to Mackay Hospital. Mary was to have an operation for a goitre in her neck. She died under the anaesthetic. She and Bill had six children under nine, and it was hard times for the bereaved family.
Min was the second-eldest child, and she told us stories about life on the farm.
She spoke of the time her little brother, Jim, lost two fingers in a chaff cutter.
She spoke of city men, desperate for work as the Great Depression started to bite, who came here with soft hands and cut cane with blood running down their arms until their blisters turned into calluses.
Min spoke of going to dances at nearby Walkerston or Marian. During the Wet, when the roads were cut, to get there they would travel along the cane train tracks on a pumper trolley.
This year it’s dry in the Pioneer Valley, like most of the state. Last December, for the first time, bushfires got into the iconic rainforest on the Eungella range. It was a shock to us all. Rainforest doesn’t burn, we thought.
The barman in the Finch Hatton pub, where we enjoyed a beer and toasted sandwiches, looked up at the hillside across the road and said, “It was burning right to the top of that range. Up the Gorge as well. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“It’ll grow back, though. It always does.”
I hope he’s right, but rainforest trees, unlike eucalypts, are not adapted to burning. This September, South-east Queensland’s Binna Burra rainforest also burned, along with its heritage-listed lodge. Perhaps we’ll have to become accustomed to fires in ancient forests.
When you take the winding Mackay Eungella Road up the range, the scars of last year’s fire are still visible, although green is emerging. Over the range and down to Broken River, the forest is untouched, with platypuses in the river and whip birds scratching among the leaf litter; but we’ve had a shocking taste of how things may be in the future.
Crocodile attacks might be the least of worries for the people of Queensland, both north and south.
Mackay, though, is beautiful, in all its faces; and one of the loveliest sights in Queensland is that of kangaroos on the spectacular beaches of Cape Hillsborough, only a few kilometres north of where old George Noble’s specs may still lie hidden in the sand.
Everyone working here at the Innisfail Turf Club in Far North Queensland is wearing a banana-yellow t-shirt, including Olive at the TAB and the two sweating blokes working the barbecue.
There are women in feathers and heels and bright colours, ready for Fashions on the Field.
For me, it’s just another race meeting; but for Con it is more than that. He grew up just down the road from the Innisfail racecourse.
“When I was eleven,” he tells me, not for the first time, “I had a job washing beer glasses at the races. I’d rinse them and upend them on a towel, then I’d walk around the bookies’ stands to collect the empties.”
As he went about his job, young Con would listen to the race callers.
“They were my idols. I’d fantasize about becoming a race caller. I didn’t sing in the shower – I’d practise calling races.”
One race day when Con was twelve, the regular Innisfail caller failed to arrive. The club secretary beckoned him over. ‘Connie, the first race is due in a few minutes. Can you call it for us?’
“In minutes I was up on the balcony, microphone in front of me. The horses were around at the start. I had no binoculars, so I checked the colours in the book. There were only two horses, thank heavens – Wee Thorn and Paul Denis.
“‘They’re off!’ I heard. It was my own boyish voice, coming through the loudspeakers!”
The real caller never arrived, so he called the next three races too, more confident each time.
“It was a busy afternoon, because I had to keep dashing back to the bar to wash glasses.”
Innisfail is an ancient name for Ireland, and around here it’s as green as Ireland.
Wherever there are Irish there is horse racing.
As for me, I come from staid English, Scottish and German stock. Although one of my ancestors confessed to a love of gambling on cards, he gave it up when he got religion.
To many Irish, horse racing is a religion.
Since he called his first race here, Con has visited one hundred and seven racetracks – and counting.
It was the wet season when we flew into Burketown for the first time, leaving our car behind in Mount Isa. Con had been transferred to Burketown as principal of the school, and we were picked up at the airport by the shire clerk. On the way into town, he told Con, “Of course, you’ll be treasurer of the Race Club.”
“Will I?” said Con, startled.
“Yes. The school principal is always treasurer of the Race Club.”
For the next three years, we were involved with the Burketown Race Club – Con as Treasurer, and I helping out with catering for the Race Ball. The races were held once a year. The racetrack was dirt, and bough sheds covered with fresh branches provided the only shade. It was hot and dusty, with lots of flies. Country race meetings are the only places where glamorous net fascinators may have a real purpose.
People came from a hundred kilometres around, the women dressed in smart race gear, sometimes with rollers in their hair so as to look good for the ball that night.
After the ball, there was another race down the track, with locals in their underwear; but we didn’t take part.
The Burketown Races were the highlight of the local social calendar. In recent years, rationalisations in the racing industry have meant that many small towns have lost their race meetings, along with many other services. It’s a shame.
When I met Con, I had never been to a horse race. Now I’ve been to ninety-three racetracks, but I still don’t follow racing. It’s just that when we travel, we go together. Consequently, after we visited the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, we went to the nearby Hawker Races, a colourful, lively and dusty affair.
We’ve been to the James Cook Museum in Cooktown, and Cooktown Botanic Gardens, one of Queensland’s oldest, and then the Cooktown Races. It’s hot at the Cooktown Races, because the racing administrators, for their own reasons, have changed its place in the racing calendar from May to November, even though it’s in the tropics. Still the horses run, and a large group of ladies, some with children and grandchildren in tow, turn out in the sun for Fashions on the Field.
Tolga, Charleville, Roma, Bundaberg, Cairns, Townsville.
Kilcoy, Gatton, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe. Mount Isa, Yeppoon, Dalby, Warwick.
There will be more.
Con still follows racing, although he rarely puts more than five dollars on a horse. He loves the atmosphere, and the craic; and because he has the memory of an old Irish storyteller, he remembers all his wins. He can recite Melbourne Cup winners from first to last.
And every few years he goes back to the Innisfail races, to see people he grew up with, still sitting there in the betting room with their form guides. “G’day, Connie,” they say. “Haven’t seen you for a while. Where ya been? What do you like in the Cup?”
There’s a back way up Elephant Rock. My brothers and I found it when we were kids, before the concrete steps were put in, and the fenced platform on top.
“Dreadful!” said my grandmother when they did that. Gran’s house in Woodgee Street, Currumbin, had a fine view of Elephant Rock. “Absolute vandalism!” she said.
It was disappointing to us, too. All the fun of our cops and robbers games around the Rock was gone.
My grandparents’ house had a three-bedroom flat under it, and all of us cousins stayed there from time to time for holidays. There was a laneway from the house down to the beautiful, quiet beach, and we often went to swim there, or in Currumbin Creek, near the sand mining plant.
At other times, we’d walk down Woodgee Street to the Currumbin Bird Sanctuary – much smaller then, with free entry. We’d go at bird feeding time and stand with tin plates of bread and honey loaded down with rainbow lorikeets, with squawking birds on our heads and shoulders and arms. You never went hatless or shirtless to feed the birds.
Con and I were back at Currumbin last Saturday. Every year in September the Swell Sculpture Festival is held along Currumbin Beach and its foreshore. Many of the pieces are designed to frame the sea and sand, and whether serious or whimsical, solid or transparent, there is a wonderful range of ingenuity and imagination on display. This is the third time we’ve gone to see the Swell sculptures.
Last Saturday, we arrived in the late afternoon, and the setting sun, shining sadly through the smoke of hinterland bushfires, made everything glow.
When the full, harvest moon came up, it was red.
Swell is especially beautiful in the early evening, when most of the crowds have gone and the light is perfect. And after dark the sculptures are lit up.
My grandparents’ house has gone now, replaced by two modern houses, but that hidden lane still leads down to the beach. I bet kids still use it. They might even look at the Swell sculptures. But they’ll never have the fun we had, finding sneaky climbing routes to the top of Elephant Rock.
Although the rock itself seems to have shrunk since we were kids. It’s strange the way that happens.