Mackay Crocodiles

“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.

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Mackay Conservation Group explores Reliance Creek National Park

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.

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Qld Government’s “Crocwatch” map

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.

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The Pioneer River at Marian

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.

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Mackay District Hospital, 1910 (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

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.

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Cutting sugar cane (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

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 don’t burn, we thought.

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Eungella Range: fire damage from December 2018

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.

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Coomera Falls, Binna Burra, 2018

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.

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Cape Hillsborough (Image: Queensland.com)

The Banana Cup

fullsizeoutput_473eThere’s a jockey mounted on a banana on the cover of the race book for the Banana Industry Cup.

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.

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Olive Simeon who has been working at the Innisfail Races TAB for forty years

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.

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Innisfail Racecourse

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.

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Horse trailers lined up at the Hawker Races, Flinders Ranges, S.A.

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.

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Fashions in the Field at Cooktown Races

Tolga, Charleville, Roma, Bundaberg, Cairns, Townsville.

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Kids on the fence at the Tolga (Atherton) Races

Kilcoy, Gatton, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe. Mount Isa, Yeppoon, Dalby, Warwick.

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Looking down the straight at the Mount Isa Races

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?”

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Checking the fields at Tolga

Currumbin Swell

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Swell 2019 – Lizzie and Rose look at “Tide”, by Shirin Abedinirad

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.

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My grandmother’s house at Currumbin

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.

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Swell 2015
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Swell 2018
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Swell 2015
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Swell 2018
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Swell 2015

Last Saturday, we arrived in the late afternoon, and the setting sun, shining sadly through the smoke of hinterland bushfires, made everything glow.

 

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Little Tree Frog, Jay Sikora. Swell 2019

When the full, harvest moon came up, it was red.

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Lizzie and The Big Fish, Oliver Howes. Swell 2019

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.

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GC CBD, Barbara Licha. Swell 2019

Quarantine Cove

Daily reports of the sick from the emigrant Ship Minerva

January 24th1838

Mrs Szillmann, 21, Native of Germany, fell ill with typhus on 13 January. In extreme danger.

February 9th1838

Blew a hurricane all night accompanied with torrents of rain & occasional showers of hail – wind still high, temperature of the atmosphere very low. The rain penetrated all the tents except those which were lined.

Last night was most unfavourable to those poor women in the Lazaretto, some of whom had their beds wet thro’. They are however still slowly gaining strength. Mrs Szillmann, who is very weak, complains today of a cough.

Just inside Sydney Harbour, behind North Head, is Quarantine Cove. I went there as a child in my father’s cousin’s boat. “We’re not allowed ashore,” said cousin Cedric. “It’s a quarantine station.”

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Quarantine Cove, Sydney Harbour

None of us knew then that Cedric’s and my Dad’s great-grandparents (my great-great-grandparents) had spent two months at Quarantine Cove, one hundred and twenty years earlier: Clara Louise and Johann Leopold Zillman.

The Australian government has always taken quarantine seriously, even in the early years. Ships with sick crew or passengers – cholera, smallpox, typhus or typhoid fever – were required to “perform quarantine” until health authorities declared them no longer a threat.

Spring Cove, inside North Head, was first selected to isolate diseased convicts, and in 1837 the whole of North Head was marked off as a quarantine area. It stayed that way until 1986.

It was called Quarantine Cove, and ships carrying disease would be moored there, yellow warning flags flying. Tents and crude buildings were erected to provide a hospital and housing.

Until the late 1850s, so-called Fever Ships were a horror of the transportation of convicts and immigrants to Australia. One of the most common and feared fevers was typhus. Typhus is spread by lice, and the crowded, cramped conditions below decks on long voyages provided ideal conditions.

On 23 January 1838, the immigrant ship Minerva arrived at The Heads, after a non-stop, nineteen-week voyage from Scotland. It was a fever ship. The first typhus victim had died just two weeks into the voyage, and a total of twenty-eight passengers, out of two hundred and five, died either on the voyage or after arrival. The Minerva was placed into quarantine.

It was a tragic situation. Children were orphaned. The ship’s doctor and all of his family caught the fever, he alone recovering.

Clara and Johann were members of a group of German nationals on their way to start a Protestant Christian mission to the Aborigines of Moreton Bay. It would be the first free European settlement in what would become Queensland.

The missionaries had been selected for their religious devotion and their useful trades: farmers, bricklayers, gardeners, a cabinetmaker. Johann, twenty-five years old, was a blacksmith, and his twenty-one-year-old wife Clara was listed as a schoolmistress. Clara and Johann had been among six couples married just two days before leaving Berlin to make the voyage to Australia.

Clara survived the typhus. On 7 April the last of the survivors were released from Spring Cove, and in June she and her husband travelled north to begin work at the mission in Brisbane. By then she was pregnant with the first of her eleven children.

The government granted the mission six hundred and forty acres of land in what is now Nundah, about eight kilometres from the Convict Station on the Brisbane River.  Known as German Station, the mission was well situated for the missionaries’ objectives of teaching and converting the local Turrbal people. The area was rich in bush produce and was at a crossroads for travelling Indigenous groups.

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German Station Park, Nundah, on part of the old German Station, next to Nundah Historical Cemetery

Running through it was a creek lined with majestic eucalypts and tea-trees and teeming with fish. The missionaries named it Kedron Brook. Some of those huge gum trees and paperbarks are still standing. Turrbal people camped here in large numbers, as well as on the present site of Nundah Cemetery.

The missionaries were devout and hard-working: clearing the scrub, building slab houses, a church and school on what they called Zion Hill, a pine-covered rise next to the present-day Toombul Shopping Centre. They established gardens and orchards and a dairy.

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Sketch of the Zion Hill settlement, gardens, stock and people by C.F. Gerler, a missionary. John Oxley Library

The plan was to learn the local language and customs and teach reading, writing and the Bible, as well as practical skills. In return the Aboriginal people would help with building and gardening.

The local people were open to the benefits of what the missionaries were offering but clashes soon developed over the produce of the gardens, established as they were on traditional lands. By 1840, shots were being fired and there were raids on the mission.

According to his son’s memoirs, Johann Zillman and other irate missionaries would sit up all night guarding the sweet potato fields. Johann even wrote to his father-in-law in Germany asking him to send him a gun. Clara’s father sent him a Bible instead, with the inscription, “My son, I cannot send you a gun, but instead I am sending you a Sword of the Spirit wherewith you shall be able to quench the fiery darts of the wicked.”

It became obvious that the local Aboriginal people were not interested in Christianity, and financial support for the mission dried up. By 1850 its role was abandoned. When the convict era ended, land became available for sale at German Station. Johann bought some, and leased further blocks for cattle raising. Zillmere and Zillman Waterholes are named after the family.

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Zillman Waterholes, Zillmere

In the mission years my great-great-grandmother Clara would have suffered the nervous tensions of living in the midst of a people utterly foreign to her and potentially threatening. Her many children grew up playing with the local children, falling in the creek, getting lost in the bush and no doubt being bitten, stung and scratched by all manner of things frightening to a woman from Berlin, no matter how devout she was.

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Sketch of Clara Zillman

Clara Zillman died at the age of sixty and is buried along with Johann Leopold in leafy Nundah Cemetery. Pictures that survive from the time don’t do justice to the young, adventurous pair who married in Berlin, almost died on the long voyage to Australia, took on a brave enterprise, and lived on to become part of a new state.

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Grave of Clara Louise and Johann Leopold Zillman, Nundah Cemetery

Several years ago, my daughter Lizzie asked me to drive to Sydney with her. A friend was getting married.

“It’s at a hotel in Manly”, she said. “It’s called Q Station”.

I looked up Google Earth and found North Head, Quarantine Cove, and Q Station, a hotel occupying century-old heritage listed Quarantine Station buildings – no longer the tents and huts of Minerva’s time.

A month later we checked into Q Station. There were harbour views from the verandahs, with the tall buildings of the city centre in the distance. We walked down to the sweet little beach, with penguin footprints in the sand.

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Footprints of little penguins, Quarantine Cove

Lizzie swam round the old wharf, braving Sydney Harbour sharks and cutting herself on oyster shells.

On the rock face lining the road leading up from the wharf, the names and crests of ships that were quarantined here are carved into the soft sandstone. Over a thousand such inscriptions have been discovered. Perhaps they include the Minerva, and the names of my sick, frightened, determined ancestors who lived here for a time, over one hundred and eighty years ago.

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Inscriptions at Quarantine Cove

 

This information comes from:

  • “Minerva in Quarantine”, George and Shelagh Champion, historical articles from the History of Manly, manly.nsw.gov.au
  • “Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane – An Historical Guide”, Dr Ray Kerklove
  • “150 Years 1838 – 1988, Nundah Families”, Nundah Historic Cemetery Preservation Assoc. Inc.
  • Writings of J.H.L. Zillman

Snake Stories

A red-bellied black snake was stretched along the pipe at the back of the laundry tubs, behind the taps. I could see its glossy colours.

I’d been washing up while little Matt played outside the back door. Hearing him bumping something down the three steps that led to the yard and the laundry shed of the old house, I dried my hands and went to see what he was up to.

Matt had dragged a chair over to the concrete laundry tubs and climbed up on it, and he was reaching out, laughing, to the snake.

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Red-bellied black snake

We were living in the school residence at Rosevale, south-west of Ipswich. Local farmers had warned us that the Rosevale valley was notorious for snakes – both brown and red-bellied black.

Trying not to startle either Matt or the snake, I called out, softly, “Come here, Matt. I’ve got a bikkie for you.”

He turned and climbed down. I grabbed him and ran back up the stairs and watched the snake slither away out of sight into the long grass behind the shed.

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The old school residence, Rosevale. Laundry shed on left.

Another day Matt was playing in the yard with the cats. Suddenly they stood frozen, ears forward, staring at a patch of long grass, and the two deadly brown snakes sunning themselves there. Con ran to get the hoe.

Snakes are protected by law, and snake catchers will come to your house and take the snake away for release into the bush; but there are many who still consider that the only good snake is a dead snake, and delight in going into battle with sticks, hoes and mattocks or whatever is handy.

As children, my brothers and I entertained ourselves by leaving a rubber snake on the back landing where our father would be bound to find it.

He did. He grabbed a big stick and killed it.

Rubber snakes bounce in a most lifelike manner when hit with a stick. Dad heroically beat that rubber snake to death, and carefully lifted it on the stick to examine it. He said, “It’s a young brown. Dangerous things, those.” That was before he noticed us laughing.

He didn’t think it was funny.

I’ve played that trick on Con. He didn’t think it was funny either.

Most encounters with snakes happen in the bush. Walking down the zigzag track in the rainforest of the Palmerston, west of Innisfail, I met a large brown snake crossing the track. I met the same snake again on the next leg of the path down the hill. You don’t know how high you can jump until you almost put your foot on a snake.

All Australians have snake stories. They are a favourite topic of conversation, and we particularly love to tell them to foreigners. The English are best, and Americans. They respond with such horror.

An American visiting Brisbane asked a local, “Why are so many Brisbane house on stilts?”

“It’s because of the snakes. They can just slither straight under the house instead of coming inside.”

To white farmers and squatters of the nineteenth century, often living in primitive conditions in what was to them hostile bush, snakes were a deadly enemy. Henry Lawson wrote about it in his spare, atmospheric story “The Drover’s Wife”. Living in isolated bushland, alone with her young children in a slab hut, protected only by her kangaroo-dog Alligator, a woman sits up all night with the dog, her children bedded down on the rough kitchen table, waiting for a snake to re-emerge through cracks in the wall.

Alligator and the drover’s wife kill the snake between them, after a fierce struggle; and she lifts it on the point of her stick and throws it on the fire.

We have a love-hate relationship with snakes. They eat chooks, they kill dogs, and sometimes they kill people; but they’re part of our environment, a feature of legends and stories, from ancient Aboriginal culture to the Bible and modern literature and painting.

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Giant carpet snake “Gubulla Munda”, Ayr, North Queensland

Rainbow serpent legends exist all over the country, and snakes are a common theme in Aboriginal art.

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“Bloody Big Snake”, Shepparton Art Gallery, Victoria

Some say the rainbow serpent is a carpet snake: the “Kabul” that gives its name to Caboolture.

A carpet snake once ate a litter of kittens under our house at Yarrabah, then coiled up on the front door mat to sleep off the feed. There are carpet snakes living in my Brisbane back yard, too. I know when there’s one about by the screeching of noisy miner birds, harassing a snake on a tree branch or curled up behind a staghorn fern. They’re beautiful creatures, and we like to have them around.

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Carpet snake

It’s best not to walk out on our verandah at night without shoes, though. Carpet snakes like to slither across the boards and into the wattle tree. Sometimes we see a long, patterned snakeskin hanging across its branches.

No wonder birds don’t visit the bird bath I hung there.

Not even a kookaburra can win against a carpet snake.

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Great Northern

 

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Great Northern Hotel, Townsville

The Great Northern Hotel, Townsville, is a fine old corner building with iron lace on its verandahs.

Northern is a good name for a North Queensland pub, but there’s also a Great Northern Hotel in Newcastle, New South Wales, and another in Byron Bay. For a Sydneysider, Newcastle is north, and Byron Bay is a long way north.

It’s all about where you’re standing.

The Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay

There is also a Great Northern Hotel in Cairns, but to a patron of the Great Northern Hotel in north London, or the Best Northern in Ontario, Canada, the thought of anything in Australia being named “northern” would be absurd.

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Great Northern Hotel, London

Staying in New Zealand a few years ago, at Invercargill, as far south as I’m ever likely to go, I was startled to find there, on the northern side of the railway line, the Northern Hotel. It makes sense to the locals.

Compass point names pop up everywhere, and they sometimes require a bit of re-orientation for a visitor. As a Queenslander living in Kalgoorlie for several months, I found it difficult to adjust to the idea of going east to the desert and west to the ocean.

When Con and I drive south, over the border to Murwillumbah or Lismore, we’re driving to the Northern Rivers. That name feels right to a Sydneysider, but not to a Queenslander. Our northern rivers are the Mitchell, Herbert and Burdekin, not the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence.

Australia’s interstate clichés involve the compass points, too.

Queenslanders talk about “southerners” with a hint of scorn. Detached from such manly and heroic matters as crocodiles and floods, there are too many of them scuttling about in Sydney and Melbourne, boasting of their Harbour Bridge and their coffee culture. We call them Cockroaches, especially at Rugby League State of Origin, when it’s all about the Queensland Maroons versus the New South Wales Blues.

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State of Origin time

In Sydney and Melbourne, people think of Queensland as the Deep North, a backward place of no account, of cane toads, cyclones and annoying politicians: Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer.

In Tasmania the locals speak about the rest of Australia as “mainlanders”, pretentious sneerers who make cliched jokes about Tasmanians and sometimes leave them off the map entirely, then flock down in the summer to enjoy the state’s arts, history and food.

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“Greetings from Tasmania” post card Image: My Word, Hobart. utas.edu.au

Adelaide people enjoy a slight snootiness that goes back to their roots as a settlement of the free and well-heeled, not convicts. South Australia is the state of Don Dunstan, festivals, and wine. Lined up to collect his winnings at the Hawker races in South Australia, Con struck up a conversation with a woman from Adelaide. They started to talk about wine.

“We produce wine in Queensland,” Con said.

“No you don’t,” she said.

To Western Australia, the rest of the country is “over east”, a place that is both far away and unaware that its prosperity rides on W.A.’s mineral wealth and hard work.

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W.A. wealth – iron ore train in the Pilbara

Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world. Migrants from Europe reach Perth and decide to stay there, as if to say, “We’ve been travelling so long we can’t stand the thought of going any further.” Perth has a more British feel than the east coast cities, and more English accents in its streets. There are also more South Africans in Perth, just as there are more New Zealanders in the eastern states.

From Perth, a week in Bali costs less than a week on the Gold Coast, and it’s a shorter flight. Even by air, crossing the country is a major undertaking. It’s no wonder the compass points are so important in our interstate thinking.

Once we flew east from Perth to Brisbane via Melbourne, on the “red eye” which departed at midnight, W.A. time. At half past five in the morning, during the brief stopover at Tullamarine, exhausted and dreading another two hours in the air, I tried to buy a newspaper to fill the time to Brisbane.

The airport shops were shut, but nearby in the queue for a Sydney flight there was a dignified, suited gentleman reading The Age. I walked across, told him my problem, and asked him if he needed the puzzles page. He graciously pulled his paper apart and gave it to me. I thanked him and went back to my boarding gate.

A few minutes later he appeared next to me in the Brisbane queue, and handed me the puzzles page from The Australian as well.

I was grateful. Those puzzles got me all the way north to Brisbane. Southerners can be nice, even to us Queensland Cane Toads.

History on the Map

There was a young maid from Dungowrin

Who fondly recalled her deflowerin’.

“Gee it was beaut, in the back of Bob’s ute!”

But her sister preferred it while showerin’.

A few years ago, The West Australian ran a competition for limericks using local place names. This was Con’s favourite, and the competition winner.

Western Australia has lots of place names that end in “in” and “up”: Balingup, Dwellingup; Mukinbudin, Burracoppin. I think Dungowrin was a made-up one, though. Poetic license.

Queensland has wonderful Indigenous place names, too: Pimpimbudgie, Eubenangee, Dirranbandi, Bli Bli. The only place names unique to Australia are Indigenous names. They are both beautiful and inspirational.

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Eubenangee Swamp, north of Innisfail

Perhaps Henry Lawson’s poetic use of language was influenced by a childhood spent near Wattamondara and the Weddin Mountains. Dorothea McKellar was inspired by the country around Gunnedah, Narrabri and Coonabarabran when, homesick in England, she wrote the iconic poem, “My Country”.

English names like Cambridge and Oxford have literal roots, both being river crossing places. Aboriginal place names do too, of course. Sometimes their meaning has been lost, at least to people with non-Indigenous backgrounds like me, and they are just beautiful-sounding words; but I learned as a child on the Sunshine Coast that Nambour referred to the red-flowering bottlebrush that grows along local creeks, and Maroochydore means place of black swans.

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Bottlebrush Callistemon

As Europeans spread across the country, ancient names from Indigenous mythology were sometimes replaced with names from European mythologies, like Lethe Brook, south of Proserpine, where Con and I were held up by floodwaters in 1974.  The creek was named after a river in Hades, the town after Persephone, abducted by Hades and taken to live in the Underworld.

Many Queensland sheep stations and towns were given English, Scottish or Irish names: Stonehenge, Hyde Park, Lochiel, Doncaster. Killarney, Connemara. These names seem totally inappropriate when you look at the countryside. Like the town of Richmond, west of Townsville.

Wherever the British colonized, they established places called Richmond: New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica; at least six places in the United States, and six in Australia. Of all of them, Richmond in Queensland is perhaps least like the town of Richmond in England, the treasured ancient town on the Thames, home of Plantagenet kings, with a Green that once held jousting competitions. Soft green grass, a sprawling park with deer and ancient oak trees. An oak can be measured by how many people it takes to reach around its trunk: one hundred years per person.

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Measuring an oak tree in Richmond Park, U.K.

England’s Richmond is about as far as the imagination can stretch from the dinosaur bones, galahs and donga motels of Queensland’s Richmond. But our Richmond has sprawling plains and vast, starry skies. Its population has to be tough, to cope with droughts, isolation, and appalling floods.

 

 

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Plains west of Richmond, Qld

 

The British themselves had a history of invasion. They had been conquered by the Romans, and then Angles, Saxons and Jutes from northern Europe. Next, the Vikings. In 1066, the invading Normans under William the Conqueror defeated the Saxon/English King Harold. The Normans took over the country, stripped land from the locals and distributed it to their own people, and imposed their own language, social systems and government.

The English in turn invaded Ireland, allotting estates to their own people, renaming the landscape and imposing their religion. In battle after bloody battle, they also forced their government on the Scots.

I wonder if all this bloody history entered the thoughts of the English, Irish and Scots who invaded Aboriginal lands, took the country for their flocks, killed Indigenous people almost at will, and put their names on the landscape of Australia. They must surely have been aware of the irony.

Occupation of the land by Europeans was often accompanied by violence. The Aboriginal inhabitants suffered by far the greatest losses, and across Australia there are place names indicating this: Skeleton Creek, Murdering Gully, Battle Mountain, and The Leap, just north of Mackay, where it is said an Aboriginal woman, chased by the Native Mounted Police, jumped to her death with her child in her arms.

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The Leap, Mackay

You can see our history written on the map, in place names; but some of those names need changing, and gradually that’s happening.

Two mountains near Rockhampton have been renamed. Mount Wheeler, probably named after the notorious, murderous Lieutenant Wheeler who ran the Native Police when white people were moving into this area, has been officially renamed Gai-i (pronounced guy-ee), its name in the local Darumbal language. And Mount Jim Crow, with a name loaded with over a century of racist connotations here and overseas, is now officially known as Baga.

South of Home Hill, Yellow Gin Creek, according to the Northern Land Council’s website, runs through a region of creeks, wetlands and coastline, traditionally an important food-gathering area for the local Juru people. Its road sign has always always a reminder to me of bad days not so very long ago when talking about Indigenous Australians in racist terms was a social norm.

Now, that place name has been reclaimed and adapted by the Juru people. When a new bridge over the creek was completed, it was given a new sign. Youngoorah, which means ‘women” in the local language. Beautiful.

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Image: from the Northern Land Council website

Our history is written in the place names on the map, for those who want to see it.

It is a history both good and bad.

It goes back a lot further than two hundred years.

And there could be lots of limericks from Queensland place names, even if they don’t end in “in” or “up”.

There once was a young man from Bli Bli…

Queensland Songs

Song making is an ancient Queensland art. Songs have always been part of every Indigenous celebration and every mourning ceremony, and song lines were like maps guiding people across country.

By contrast, whitefeller Queensland songs range from nineteenth century convict times to the twenty-first century.

The best of those Queensland songs, the most evocative of its time and place, is the haunting Moreton Bay, about convict life in Brisbane in the late 1820s under the notorious commandant, Captain Patrick Logan.

 

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Convict Brisbane

 

The first European settlement was built along what became William Street. Captain Logan’s house was here, and this part of Brisbane is still the home of government offices.

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Convict era Brisbane seen from south of the river. Image: State Library of Qld

The huge state government building at 1 William Street is near the site of the commandant’s house.

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Looking upstream towards 1 William Street as it was nearing completion

Now the Queens Wharf high-rise development is going up on William Street.

The flogging triangle was located in the convict barracks at the top of what is now Queen Street.

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Convict life in Brisbane Image: Museum of Brisbane

The Brisbane River loops around this raised stretch of land, down past what is now the City Botanical Gardens, past the New Farm, and past Eagle Farm. Convicts worked on all these farms.

Moreton Bay

 One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin’s island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I’ve been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails

For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay

Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan’s yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind

Western Queensland has always been a tough place: even more so in the years of the Great Depression, when people, especially men, had to leave home and travel in harsh conditions to find work and collect rations. In Sergeant Small, a swaggie jumps a train in Mitchell, heading for Roma. When he arrives there, he is tricked by the local sergeant into revealing his hiding place, ends up in court and is sentenced to thirty days.

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Passengers on Mitchell Railway Station Image: State Library of Qld

 

The “Weddings Parties Anything” version captures the spirit of the time.

Sergeant Small

I went broke in western Queensland in 1931,
Nobody would employ me so my swaggy days begun
I headed out to Charleville, out to the western towns,
I was on my way to Roma, destination Darling Downs

And my pants were getting ragged, my shoes were getting thin,
When we stopped in Mitchell, a goods train shunted in,
The engine blew her whistle, I was looking up to see,
She was on her way to Roma, that was very plain to me.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

As I sat and watched her, inspiration seemed to grow,
And I remembered the government slogan, ‘It’s a railway that you own’
So by the time the sun was setting, and night was going nigh,
So I gathered my belongings and I caught her on the fly.

And as we came into Roma, I tucked my head down low,
And a voice said ‘any room mate?’ and I answered, ‘Plenty ‘bo’
Then at this tip this noble man, the voice of Sergeant Small,
Said, ‘I’ve trapped you very nicely, you’re headed for a fall’

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

The Judge was very kind to me, he gave me thirty days,
He said, ‘Maybe that would help to cure my rattler jumping ways’
So if your down and outback, let me tell you what I think,
Just stay off the Queensland railways, it’s a shortcut to the clink.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

 

Songs that evoke a familiar place and atmosphere often find a lasting place in the culture.

Sounds of Then, better known as This is Australia, written by Mark Callaghan, was inspired by his memories of living with his family in the canefields east of Bundaberg. After its release in 1985 by the rock band Gang Gajang, it soon became an iconic Australian song. As Callaghan said in a 2002 interview with Debbie Kruger, “The song is actually about how smells and sounds and sensations can rekindle a memory – which is what music does so successfully for people.”

lighning over cane

From Sounds of Then (This is Australia)

…That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings home the heavy days,
Brings home the night time swell,

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.
That certain texture, that certain beat,
Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think that this is Australia.

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,
In brick veneer on financed beds.
In a room of silent hardiflex
That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings forth the heavy days,
Brings forth the night time sweat
Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.
This is Australia…

Songwriters: Mark Callaghan / Graham Bidstrup / Chris Bailey / Geoff Stapleton / Robert James / Kay Bee

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Cattle and Cane, from Brisbane band the Go-Betweens, 1983, has the same lovely, nostalgic Queensland feel:

cattle and cane

Cattle and Cane

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father’s watch
he left it in the showers
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Songwriters: Robert Derwent Garth Forster / Grant William Mclennan

Cattle and Cane lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

For something contemporary, and a completely different view of Queensland as seen from south of the border, here is comedian Sammy J’s 2019 song, inspired by the result of this year’s Federal Election: Queensland, we’re breaking up with you.

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