A fine Queensland story. We lived in Townsville around the time the Mabo Native Title case began to be formulated, and one evening we had the experience of meeting Eddie Koiki Mabo, when he worked as groundsman at JCU.
By Leitha Assan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Cultures
From its inception in Townsville in 1981 to the High Court victory on 3 June 1992, 2022 marks 30 years since the historical landmark Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court of Australia.The High Court ruled that the Meriam people were entitled to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of their Islands, effectively recognising their Native Title. Native Title is the recognition by Australian law of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people’s traditional laws and customs that are connected to lands and waters.
More than 100 years after European settlement, a group of Islanders – namely Reverend Dave Passi, Deacon Sam Passi Snr, James Rice, one Meriam woman, Celuia Mapo Salee and led by Eddie Koiki Mabo – won a landmark legal battle against the Queensland and Australian governments. They proved that Islanders are the customary owners of land on Mer, Waier…
Bribie Island, Queensland The calm waters of Pumicestone Passage separate the quiet coastal suburb of Golden Beach from the narrow strip of land just offshore that is Bribie Island. The island hugs the coast from the northern end of Brisbane to Caloundra, creating a barrier between the open ocean of Moreton Bay and Pumicestone Passage. […]
I’m walking through a forest of scribbly gums, eucalypts iconic in Australia because of the scribbles on their trunks that fascinate children and adults. May Gibbs used scribbly gums, among other iconic images, to illustrate the children’s classic, “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”.
The scribbles are caused by the meandering path of the larvae of the scribbly gum moth through the bark of its host.
I’m not an entomologist or an arachnologist, but you can’t spend your life in Queensland, or indeed Australia, without coming in personal contact with insects and spiders.
I’ve been stung by bees and wasps, bitten by bull ants and green ants, had my blood sucked by leeches, ticks and march flies, and been irritated by mosquitoes, mites, fleas and cockroaches.
Mosquitoes like blood. As a child I slept under a mosquito net, and I’d put my finger against the net just to feel the sting, then squash the mozzie through the net. Mozzies carry Ross River fever. Con and our Lizzie have both had it and suffered for months with fatigue, fevers, and muscular aches and pains, missing weeks of work and feeling miserable.
In Burketown we were plagued by flying ants. Nothing would stop them: they’d come under the doors and round the edges of the screens. We would turn off the lights, but they’d still get in.
Flying ants don’t bite; but under the house and out in the yard were nests of biting meat ants. Our little kids would wander on to a nest of meat ants and stand there howling to be rescued. Meat ant bites hurt like a burn.
Green ants are tasty. If you pinch them on the thorax and bite off the abdomen you get a burst of delicious lemon liquid. They can bite, if you annoy them, as we would when we shook down mandarines from Con’s mother’s fine Innisfail tree, full of green ants and their nests.
March flies are merciless. In a beautiful rainforest creek one summer, we stayed under water up to our chins and pulled our hats down low to avoid their bites. From Stradbroke Island to Fraser Island and all the way up the coast, at certain times of the year, march flies can ruin your day wherever you are. They’re slow and easy to swat; but unless your house has insect screens the floor will soon be littered with dead flies and you’ll have to get the vacuum cleaner out.
Locals of western Queensland ignore the little sticky flies that get into eyes, nose and mouth and settle in hundreds on shirts, but they drive me mad. My dad swallowed one once, at the church in Jandowae, in the middle of giving a sermon. Prince Charles once had the same problem, on a visit to Central Australia. Queensland doesn’t have a monopoly on annoying insects.
After a day of walking in the Bunya Mountains with my brothers, I found a tick high on my thigh and quite fat with my blood. The Bunyas are famous for ticks. My brother pulled it off for me, and I returned the favour the next morning when he found one on the back of his neck.
Another story about my dad: in going over our female dog Lassie for ticks, he was about to get his tweezers on to a pale, tick-looking lump on her belly when he noticed that she had two rows of identical lumps nearby. Poor Lassie nearly had a bad day.
I’ve been frightened of huntsman spiders since I was a child in Nambour. We used to call them tarantulas. Playing dress-ups one day, I had one leg in a pair of cowboy costume pants when a huntsman ran out of them and up my arm. My mother heard me screaming and came running.
“All that fuss over a tarantula!” she said, unsympathetically. “They won’t bite you!”
Huntsmen can grow almost as big as my hand, and they don’t stay in a web. They hide behind picture frames or under clothes on the floor, then run around the house at night, hunting cockroaches.
One night I was woken by the feel of something running lightly across my face. I’m sure it was a huntsman. I’d rather have the cockroaches that disappear under the bench when I turn on the kitchen light, or crunch under my feet in the dark.
Redback spiders do have a dangerous bite. They don’t run around the house, though, like huntsmen. Redbacks hide away in cracks and dark places.
One Easter, leaving our house in Burketown for the holidays, I sprayed a can of strong insect killer around before closing the door. When we came back, dead redbacks were dangling in their webs from under our dining room table. We’d had our knees under that table every night for years.
It seems a redback can kill a huntsman many times its size:
“A bee stung me when I was driving north over the Isis River bridge. It flew in the window, landed on my neck and stung me.
“The funny thing is, though – when we were driving back south, a couple of weeks later, it happened again. At the exact same spot – the Isis River bridge! Another bee flew in the window and stung me!”
“I don’t remember that. Sounds a bit unlikely to me.”
“Well, maybe it didn’t actually sting me the second time. But it flew in the window. The Isis River bridge, south of Childers.”
Perhaps there were beehives in the bush near the river. Beekeepers set out their hives near flowering eucalypts.
Native bees also exist, in their many varieties, throughout bushland and gardens, playing a vital role in fertilisation.
Native bees don’t sting. My brother Mike Fox, local expert, gave me a native beehive in a paint can for my birthday one year. Sadly, it was soon ruined by an invasion of sawflies, a kind of fly or wasp.
Queensland has beautiful insects as well as annoying ones. Christmas beetles are rare now, but they were common in my childhood. We would hold them in our hands and enjoy the tickle of their claws.
There are jewel bugs – beautiful but stinking when disturbed.
There are dragon flies; and there are some wonderful moths and butterflies, especially in the tropics.
Looking out from our Yarrabah FNQ verandah one morning, I saw something moving strangely on the ground. It was brown, as big as a bird, but fluttering like a butterfly. It turned out to be an astonishing tropical insect: a Hercules moth, the largest moth in the world. They commonly grown to 27cms in wingspan, and sometimes larger. I feel privileged to have seen one.
At Bingil Bay, near Mission Beach, I saw my first Cairns Birdwing butterfly – a gorgeous sight.
Ulysses butterflies, sadly listed as endangered, flit like bright blue lights through the rainforests of Tully Gorge.
At Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory, within Flecker Botanical Gardens in Cairns, they breed many varieties of Queensland butterflies. You can see them in all stages, from eggs to adult butterflies, among the gorgeous orchids and flowering plants.
In South Queensland, my favourite butterfly is the Evening Brown that I sometimes see at dusk, fluttering around close to the ground and blending in with the leaf litter on bushland tracks.
Yesterday I finally worked out what has been eating my callistemon plants down to bare branches.
Dozens of disgusting-looking, squirming grubs were grouped together among the poor, chewed leaves, waving their ugly heads.
Mike identified them as the larvae of sawflies.
“They won’t sting you,” he said.
“I don’t care. They’re ugly, they killed my bees, and now they’re killing my callistemons. I’m going to turn the hose on them, hard. Let the ants have them.”
Beside the road to Carnarvon Gorge is a damaged aircraft wing mounted on steel pylons and a wing tip set into the ground.
Nearby, on 16 November 1943, this USAAF Dakota C-47 broke up in a severe storm and crashed. Five Americans and fourteen Australian soldiers died. This is their memorial.
There were many plane crashes across Queensland during the years of World War Two. Traces of crash sites, wartime airstrips, military bases and hospitals, radar stations, fortifications and ammunition dumps are located across the state, from Torres Strait to the New South Wales border. A Queensland government website lists the wartime sites: https://www.ww2places.qld.gov.au/place?id=1686 Some, like the memorial beside Carnarvon Gorge Road, have been cared for by dedicated locals. Others have become tourist attractions. Many are lost in the scrub.
1942 was a year of great anxiety for Australians, especially in the northern states.
The British fortress city of Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, a terrible shock to Australians. My father became a Prisoner of War. Two weeks later in Brisbane, my mother, in great distress, gave birth to her first baby, two months premature.
Now Russia has invaded Ukraine, and civilians and the military are preparing valiantly for what must come. Many have become refugees, and many have died. Unlike in Ukraine, tanks can’t drive across our borders. Troops can’t just march in. Nevertheless, in 1942, Queenslanders were frightened.
Trenches were dug in parks, school yards and house yards. There were air raid sirens and drills, and saltwater pipelines were laid through city streets for fire-fighting, and black-out warnings in place.
Con’s father, a sergeant, spent his wartime years driving army trucks across Cape York Peninsula, delivering fuel to military airfields and outposts.
“There are old wartime airfields all over the Cape,” a pilot once told me, and as I was in a small plane over the Peninsula at the time, this gave me comfort. If we got into trouble, we would always find somewhere to land. We might have to chase cattle and kangaroos off the strip first.
Relics of Brisbane’s preparations for war can still be found across the city.
With my grandson Gus, I recently visited the remains of World War 2 Naval installation RAN No. 9 in the old suburb of Myrtletown, Pinkenba.
In 1943, from here near the mouth of the Brisbane River, an indicator loop was laid under the river and a Photo Electric beam installed to shine over it, to detect enemy craft. The concrete block house, once vital to the defence of Brisbane, still stands in long grass in the Myrtletown Reserve. Nearby information boards give details.
Among the mangroves on the riverbank nearby lie the remains of the SS Koopa, which also played its part. A small section of the hull tipped sideways above the mud at the mouth of Boggy Creek; a few sad, rusted steel parts.
After Pearl Harbour was bombed, on 7 December 1941, the US “Pensacola” Convoy on its way to the Philippines was abruptly diverted to Brisbane, and on 23 December, nine large warships quietly dropped anchor in Moreton Bay.
No one knew, until the Koopa came down the river.
The SS Koopa was a much-loved excursion steamer that took passengers down the Bay to Redcliffe and Bribie Island, both before and after the War. My family took a trip on it when I was four. All I remember is a band playing on the wharf, an on-board kiosk down steep steps, and going to sleep under a seat.
To quote the book “The Battle of Brisbane”: The first Australian civilians to greet the Americans were in the SS Koopa… Joan Staines, an 18-year-old secretary, said: ‘We came out of the river and suddenly saw all these huge ships at anchor. My father said, “Cripes, it’s the bloody Yanks.”’
Up to one million US servicemen would be stationed in Queensland during the next four years. In 1941 the population of the entire state was not much more than that. As Prime Minister John Curtin made clear at the time, it was the Americans, not the British, that we would be looking to for help in the Pacific War.
The SS Koopa was requisitioned from 1942 to 1945, stationed at Toorbul and in the Milne Bay area of PNG, before becoming a Moreton Bay excursion boat again. Eventually, she was brought here to Myrtletown and broken up. Those rusting scraps of steel are all that is left.
Brisbane’s Archerfield Airport was an important RAAF base, also used by the Dutch and British air forces and the USAAF.
Many of its WW2 buildings have been redeveloped for business, those fine old sheds and the “igloo” hangars with their curved roofs.
One smaller igloo, now used by a mechanic, was a mess hall during the War. Another one nearby, almost derelict and used for storage, was once perhaps a dance hall or the Officers’ Club.
Just down the road from Archerfield Airport is an old quarry now filled with water. On one side, partly submerged, are concrete air raid shelters built during the war in case of air raids on the airfield. In 1992, some military aircraft and equipment, dumped here after the War, were salvaged from the water.
In 1942, bomb shelters were rapidly constructed in Brisbane, Townsville, Mackay, Cairns and coastal towns.
Many are still in use, converted to bus shelters, park shelters and public toilets. They are Queensland’s most common and visible relics of WW2.
There was concern that Mount Isa might be a target, and in 1942 miners carved out a fully functioning underground hospital in the hills near the Base Hospital, complete with electricity, operating theatre, delivery room and wards.
Newstead, Brisbane, is now gentrifying, but in the 1940s it was a place of warehouses and industry. In Stratton Street, Newstead, old wartime igloos have been redeveloped for entertainment purposes: The Triffid, a much-loved music venue https://thetriffid.com.au, and the upmarket Stratton Bar and Kitchen https://www.stratton.bar.
The iconic curved igloo roof is celebrated in The Triffid’s logo:
A few years ago, Con and I spent a night in a railway carriage at Possum Park, twenty kilometres north of Miles. During the War this was a top-secret RAAF munitions dump, situated, so it’s said, on the notorious Brisbane Line from which Australia would have been defended in the event of a Japanese invasion. 3CR RAAF Kowguran had its own railway branch line and a system of twenty underground concrete bunkers dug into a hill, reportedly storing up to 2500 tons of bombs and ammunition.
Now surrounded by gardens, some of the bunkers and the troop train carriages have become tourist accommodation.
Much of Queensland’s wartime industry was located in the suburb of Rocklea, and many of the old sheds and factory buildings are still there, some derelict and some repurposed, many heritage listed. There were large munitions factories here, and at least one of them remains.
Recently it caught fire, and one end of the enormous building was burnt out. Gus and I, always curious about these things, went to have a look. We walked the 100-metre length of the old factory, past an overgrown bomb shelter, and stared, fascinated, through the chain-link fences and locked gates.
Huge steel beams had been twisted in the heat of the fire, and the roof had collapsed.
“It would be great to fly a drone right through there,” said Gus. “We could get a look at what it was like inside.”
WW2 coastal fortifications still stand on Bribie Island and Magnetic Island, attracting visitors.
As Gus and I have found, these old sites are fascinating. For amateur researchers there are plenty to explore.
In Queensland and Australia there were bombings, but the threatened invasions didn’t happen. These places were never the scenes of such appalling tragedies as are taking place right now in Ukraine, where the enemy can walk across the border at will.
We were lucky. And we had a powerful ally.
 “The Battle of Brisbane”, Peter A Thompson and Robert Macklin. 2000. ABC Books, Sydney. Page 31
The recent weather event and flooding in Queensland and northern New South Wales has sadly destroyed many homes and the personal items they contain including photos, important documents and valuables. All hope is not lost, if you act quickly now you may have a chance of recovering some of this items. While for many the immediate focus will be cleaning out homes, there is a chance to recover some important items. Remember if there is an opportunity to freeze items such as images and photographs, that will give you time to work on them in the future.
Here are some tips from the team at Queensland Museum on how to preserve a flood-damaged item:
Safety is priority – if it’s flooded, forget it!
Only enter a flooded site when it is safe to do so. Wear protective equipment including closed-in shoes, gloves, face masks and safety glasses.
In the Boyd’s Hotel, Mount Isa, Con sang the whole of “American Pie” from beginning to end. All eight minutes of it. People cheered.
It was 1974, and Don McLean’s famous folk rock song, brought out in 1971, was already a classic.
Con remembers the occasion well.
“When I’d finished, the publican offered me a regular gig – $300 a week plus keep!”
Con was principal of Burketown school at the time, and we’d made the long drive down for a Teachers’ Union conference. The evening get-together was held at this popular pub, known locally as Boydies.
Boyd’s Hotel was typical of Mount Isa hotels back then: a rough and tumble place. There was a notorious lounge bar out the back, known locally as the Snakepit.
In those days, as in so many places, Aboriginal patrons were not allowed in the front bar of Boyd’s. They had to go to the Snakepit.
A North West Star history column relates what happened when, in 1977, Senator Neville Bonner went to the Boyd for a beer.
…when Queensland Senator Neville Bonner popped into the pub for a quiet one in December, 1977, he was told by a barmaid, “We don’t serve darkies here.”
“I walked down the street from my motel, picked up a paper and dropped into the hotel for a cold beer”, he said.
“I sat at the bar reading and it was a few minutes before a barmaid came over to me and said, I’m sorry, I can’t serve you.”
He told her he was an Australian citizen and that she must be joking.
Senator Bonner was Aboriginal and, the unwritten rule at Boydies was, Aboriginals were expected to drink in the Snake Pit, not the public bar, let alone the private bar where he was sitting.
Finally sense prevailed and Senator Bonner was given a cold, froth topped pulled beer but not before he asked the manager, “Are you aware you’re liable to a penalty of $5,000 under the Race Discrimination Act for refusing to serve a person because of their colour or nationality?”
Twenty-five years later, when we next visited Mount Isa, the city’s hospitality scene had changed. Instead of a hotel, we went to the Irish Club for dinner.
The Mount Isa Irish Club, known to everyone simply as The Irish, was astonishing to us; and in a tough mining city with a famously high beer consumption, in a harsh desert climate, with many hard workers a long way from home, it’s flourishing.
From outside, the Irish Club looks like an enormous shed, but inside there is a whole, air-conditioned world: multiple bars and eating places, a nightclub and piano bar, bingo hall and a coffee shop in a restored Melbourne tram.
There’s a Dublin street with street lamps and a traditional Irish pub. There’s a collection of Waterford crystal, and any amount of Irish decor. The sports bar has a huge screen and many smaller screens, as well as half a dozen billiard tables, and there are currently 157 poker machines to choose from. Over the top? A little. But the Isa is that kind of place.
Twenty years ago we spent a couple of months in Kalgoorlie, that other famous mining town; and its fine old hotels were just as spectacular, and just as busy.
The Irish also offers a range of accommodation, catering for everyone from business travellers to sporting and tour groups and backpackers; a gym, and an enormous bottle shop.
Being a city of shift workers, Mount Isa never sleeps. The Irish is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, just like those grand hotels in Kalgoorlie.
If The Irish isn’t to your taste, you can go to its main rival – The Buffs. The Carpentaria Buffalo Club was founded by the Royal Antideluvian Order of Buffalos Lodge, and it is almost as huge as the Irish. Con and I went there too. In the name of research.
Old-style hotels linger on in Queensland country towns, and it’s those pubs that I enjoy, rather than the bright lights and glitter of the clubs; but many have had to reinvent themselves to stay viable. When we went to revisit Boydies, we got a shock to find it would no longer sell us a beer. It no longer exists, although the original building still stands on the corner of West Street and Rodeo Drive. Redearth Boutique Hotel has taken it over, and it is a very different establishment, providing the amenities that modern corporate travellers expect in accommodation.
Next door to the Redearth, and joined to it, is what was once the Mount Isa Hotel, now the Isa Hotel, focussing on eating, drinking and entertainment.
To celebrate Mount Isa’s coming centenary, ABC North West Queensland recently posted an interesting video on Facebook, filmed during the 1970s, around the time we were there. It brought back memories, and says a lot about the atmosphere of the place. I doubt if things have changed much, even today. https://www.facebook.com/ABCNorthWestQLD/videos/344122070925685
Normally, when we lived at Burketown, we drove to the Isa, and catching a glimpse of the tall, red and white striped Mount Isa mine chimney stack, after a long, dusty trip, was as exciting as it would have been to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Mount Isa meant fresh milk, electricity, comfort, air conditioning, shopping and streetlights.
Now, the Isa has an even taller chimney stack and a much larger population.
Like most of western Queensland in the last couple of years, Mount Isa is currently chronically short of workers, across all fields, from mining to the hospitality industry. A Facebook page, Mount Isa Jobs and Vacancies, shows how widespread the need.
I wonder if they need a singer at the Irish. Someone who knows every verse of “American Pie”. We could live in the backpackers’ accommodation, and I could work behind the bar.
It’s seven in the morning, and somebody’s knocking down a house.
I’ve heard this noise before, in this suburb of post-war public housing – humble buildings with large backyards. With Brisbane changing and property prices increasing at an appalling rate, these places have become very valuable.
Last year, a plain 1960s brick house a couple of hundred metres up the street from us sold for $870,000. Within weeks, the house had been demolished. The price was for the land alone – an ordinary suburban block.
Young couples and families wanting to own their own home will be out bidden at auction by developers and investors. Often, it seems, the house will then be demolished. In its place will be built a large, two-storied structure that takes up almost the whole block: probably a grey and white painted, gabled “Hamptons style” place like thousands of other new Brisbane homes. It’s this style that has sent grey and white paint spreading across the suburbs of Brisbane like some kind of contagious disease.
Alongside them are those box-shaped places that seem entirely out of harmony with traditional Brisbane houses.
Many of the houses that are demolished are not as comfortable or elegant as their replacements will be. I’m sorry to see them go, though, along with their mango trees and old-fashioned gardens of crotons and random brickwork.
A quarter of a century ago, we bought our house in what was then an “inner-outer” suburb, eleven kilometres by road from the CBD.
We now live in one of Brisbane’s “outer-inner” suburbs, with views of the tall buildings of the CBD; but we haven’t moved. The city has changed and sprawled.
In art, television series and novels, Brisbane houses are quaint, in the style called ‘Queenslander”, built in colonial years or the early 20th century, with verandahs, fretwork or cast iron, and frangipani trees.
Throughout the older, inner suburbs, this is true. There are houses like this sprinkled through the outer suburbs and beyond, as well: original farmhouses, country mansions of colonial times, and some that have been transported from the inner suburbs to make way for apartment blocks and modern mansions with multi-car garages, multiple bathrooms, pools and tennis courts.
However, far more Brisbane houses, thousands and thousands of them, are still the simple post-WW2 Housing Commission houses that were built from the 1950s onwards to cope with population growth and the results of wartime shortages of materials and labour. They don’t get the attention or respect that they deserve. Over 10,000 houses were built across the state through the Housing Commission in the post war period alone, most of them in Brisbane; and most of them still exist today.
Queensland’s Labor government of the day constructed these houses across enormous swathes of what were then outer suburbs. A huge undertaking in social housing, the Commission was set up to acquire and develop and build on, farmland, bushland, and superfluous wartime facilities such as the vast Military Hospital in Holland Park and the Leave and Transit Centre at Moorooka, and to manage sales and rental of the finished houses and cheap housing loans.
From 1950, 1000 houses were built at Carina, another 1000 at Coopers Plains. Thousands were built at Inala, Wavell Heights, Stafford, Chermside, Mount Gravatt, Zillmere and other outer suburbs, as they were then. Expensive real estate now.
The houses were built to a variety of plans, two and three bedroom, some with sleepouts or small verandahs. They were built of a variety of materials: brick, chamfer board, weather board, and fibro, with corrugated steel or tiled roofs; and they could be bought for around £2,000.
A famous 1950 photograph shows rows of newly constructed Housing Commission houses, built on both sides of a gently sloping dip in the land. Close together and almost identical, each has a long, treeless back yard and, startlingly, an outdoor toilet, a reminder of the fact that Brisbane wasn’t sewered back then. The location details are included with the photo, held by the State Library, and last week I went to see what changes have occurred there in the seventy-plus years since it was taken.
Standing on the site of a demolished house on Walker Avenue in what is now the suburb of Morningside, near the spot where the 1950 photo was taken, I looked north-west along that low valley, between Agnew Street and Moolabar Street.
Those long back yards are now full of trees. No dunnies in sight. Perhaps a few have been kept, out of a sense of history, hidden among the banana plants and palm trees.
Walking up Moolabar Street and down Agnew Street I saw that many of those little houses, built close to their neighbours, are still there, although mostly extended and altered.
Many are charming.
Some look as if they are rental properties, waiting for the owners to redevelop them. Some of them have gone, replaced by large, two-story houses that make the most of those long blocks.
This is now a suburb much in demand in the real estate industry, and the value of those quarter-acre blocks has soared. The average sale price of houses in Morningside is over $955,000, according to recent figures on www.realestate.com.au.
This story is repeated over most of the sprawling public housing developments of the 1950s and 1960s, and these changes are not unique to Brisbane. In many cities, older suburbs are redeveloped as populations grow and middle classes want more than basic housing.
Still, there are thousands of those little post war Queensland Housing Commission houses to be seen across Brisbane’s inner-outer suburbs.
Some look virtually untouched, sitting there with only a mango tree or jacaranda in the yard, or surrounded by a carefully tended garden.
Some have been lifted up, built under, moved aside, or extended with verandahs and extra rooms.
I look out for them as I walk around the suburbs. I like them. Maybe one day I’ll move out of our family-sized house and into a cute and snug post-war cottage.
Stanford University Campus, in California, is famous for its important collection of exotic trees. Among them are some iconic Queenslanders: bunya pines and bottle trees.
I first became aware of the Stanford trees when reading “The Overstory”, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by American writer Richard Powers.
In the novel, Neelay Mehta, a young master coder and online game designer, is working at Stanford University. While thinking of fresh images and surreal graphics for a new game, one evening he crosses the campus in search of vending machine snacks. Turning a corner into the central quadrangle he sees something that amazes him: a tree that is “bulbous and elephantine …the most mind-boggling organism he has ever seen… A living hallucination from a nearby star system at the other end of a wormhole in space.”
Finding a bottle tree, something I’ve regarded with delight since I was a child, in a dense, powerful American novel was startling. It was as if I’d suddenly come across an old friend from the mid-west of Queensland in this glamorous Californian campus.
The writer of “The Overstory”, like my own children, would have grown up with “The Lorax”, by Dr Seuss. In the book the Lorax introduces himself: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Powers does that too: he speaks for the protection of trees.
Queensland has many wonderful and bizarre tree varieties, from desert country to tropical rainforest, that could provide inspiration for fantasy novels, movies, and games. Strangler figs slowly devouring neighbouring trees, their roots snaking out across the ground around them, or dangling towards the earth. Ancient eucalypts covered in burls.
The notorious stinging tree, the gympie-gympie, that hurts so much you want to die. The rough bark of hoop pines.
The long, twisted, prickly leaves of bunyas; and bottle trees, tall and commanding on the bare hillsides of the ranges, slim and gently curved, or fat as teapots.
There are beautiful trees in Queensland.
Moreton bay figs. Paper barks and casuarinas.
Tallowwood trees: rich red trunks, clusters of white flowers, and generous sprawling branches that provide more shade than most eucalypts.
Koalas like tallowwoods, too.
There’s a fine old tallowwood in Yeronga Park, Brisbane. When the evening light touches it, its trunk glows.
Best of all, bottle trees. Born in Barcaldine, my mother grew up with bottle trees in the garden and across the countryside. As children, we’d look out for them on our many road trips. The younger ones can look like a tall white wine bottle; the old ones, anything from a port bottle to a malevolent goblin.
Roma famously has made a feature of bottle trees.
They’re used in the street plantings of many other regional towns as well: Mitchell, Blackall, Tambo, right across the central west, and further afield.
Darling Downs, Rockhampton, even the suburbs of Brisbane.
Last year I planted a bottle tree in my garden, bought from a street-side trailer in Roma.
Bottle trees are notoriously slow growers, so I won’t live to see it look like a port bottle. Maybe one of those small, 250 ml wine bottles they sometimes serve in country pubs.
Online information about the trees of Stanford, over 43,000 of them, includes maps and many photos. Visitors can take guided tours of the campus trees. The university’s unofficial mascot is a tree, and students dress up as them.
There is still a Queensland bottle tree in Stanford’s central quad; but the huge old tree described in “The Overstory” isn’t there anymore.
Perhaps it died of old age; or perhaps amidst the sumptuous Spanish Mission style architecture, arched sandstone colonnades and wonderful trees of Stanford it died of homesickness for the dry hills and plains of Queensland’s central west.
We were camped on a high bank on a bend in the Leichhardt River, not far from Burketown. In that time and that climate, for us camping meant a ground sheet and a tarp. Con and I and little Matt and Lizzie had been invited to visit some Finnish fishermen at their camp.
The wallaby was only two metres away from me, staring at me. It stamped its foot again. It was quite unafraid but looked resentful at having its place invaded.
Soon the wallaby hopped away, and the fishermen got a campfire going, with a barbecue grill over it. They filleted one of their fresh barramundi catch and threw it on the plate. I’ve rarely eaten anything that tasted as good as that barbecued barra straight from the river.
Their gravlax was good too – raw barra sliced thin, wrapped in little bundles and pickled with lemon juice and onions.
When we moved to Burketown, a local fisherman brought us a barramundi and filleted it for me on the back landing. Barramundi and prawns – that’s one way those locals expressed friendship to a newcomer.
I’m not a fishing person, but fishing was my grandfather’s favourite thing in the world. Living in Nambour, he would drive to Tin Can Bay with friends, put up a tent and go fishing. For bait they’d dig yabbies and eugaries at low tide out of the wet sand, then fish with rods off the surf beach at Inskip Point.
I’ve got the little Box Brownie photos taken when my dad joined them on their 1940 fishing trip. He helpfully put little crosses above himself in the photos.
There are ardent fishers all around Australia, on inland rivers and lakes and around the coast. The only things that change around the country are the types of fish and the discomforts involve in catching them: heat, cold, storms, crocodiles.
Our Joe in Far North Queensland sometimes goes fishing himself, but usually buys from a mate, a devoted fisherman out of Mission Beach who catches more than he can eat. He charges Joe a flat rate of $20 a kilogram for filleted fish.
“I was thinking of lashing out on some barramundi for Christmas,” I tell him.
“Don’t do it on our account. We used barra for curry, too.”
None of these fish, caught wild, would sell for less than $30-$60 in a Brisbane fish shop.
In 2018, Con and I spent a night at the Commercial Hotel, Tara, on the Western Darling Downs. It was the eve of the local fishing competition, to be held at the Tara Lagoon on the edge of town, and talk in the bar was all about fishing. All native fish caught would be returned to the lagoon; the exotic carp, a major pest, would not. The Tara Fish Re-Stocking Association was running the competition.
Hamar Midgley was a woodworker and furniture maker in Nambour, where my family lived; and he loved fishing. The Midgley house was a timber Queenslander on what is now National Park Road, with a paddock out the back running down to the creek. I remember some magnificent Guy Fawkes parties and bonfires in the paddock.
The Midgleys were good family friends who lived a close-to-the-earth lifestyle and would never be wealthy. Then Hamar was offered the perfect job. I remember him saying with delight to my father one day, “They’re going to pay me to go fishing!”
Hamar Midgley had become, through his own dedication and research, a leading amateur expert on Australian native fish species. Much of Queensland’s fishing is done in freshwater lakes, dams, rivers and creeks, and it was Hamar who made that possible. In the early 1960s he carried out Australia’s first official release of native fish into a waterway, at Borumba Dam, south-west of Gympie. Now, over fifty lakes, dams and waterways in Queensland alone have been stocked with native fish.
For over forty years, Hamar worked as a full-time fisheries consultant for the Queensland Government, travelling out west with Mary to waterways unknown except to locals. In the early 2000s I visited them at their home at Bli Bli, on the Sunshine Coast. Mary told me of their research, camped far from amenities and recording of the dawn chorus of bushland birds. What a glorious life.
In 1994 Hamar was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Science from UQ for his research into Queensland’s fresh water fish species. He died in 2014, but it’s largely thanks to his work that fishing in Queensland’s inland waterways is flourishing.
Not so on some of the wild rivers in the Far North. At the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel, we met a group of recreational fishermen heading home. They’d just returned, disappointed, four hundred kilometres down the dirt road from the Mitchell River on western Cape York.
“There were no fish,” they told us. “Big fishing concerns are flouting the rules. You’re not allowed to stretch nets right across the river, so they put one most of the way across, then another from the opposite bank a bit further upstream, then another from the same side, making a zigzag of nets across the river.
“For us blokes who head up there for a fishing weekend, there’s not much point anymore.”
How can fishing be regulated in the wild country of Cape York, with its small population and huge distances? There are no fishing clubs keeping an eye on things up there.
Back on the Leichhardt River those Finns also complained about rule breaking fishermen reducing fish stocks.
That barramundi was memorable. Still, the best fish I ever ate was a humble catfish. My uncle pulled it out of the Balonne River, somewhere near Dirranbandi, with a hand-held fishing line. He filleted it, built a fire on the riverbank under the gum trees and fried it on the spot. It was perfect.
Our Matt woke up early on Thursday, ready to drive across Germany to Berlin for Christmas – the first visit to the girls’ grandparents for two years. Sunrise was at 8.30am, and the back garden was under four degrees of frost.
It would be a cold drive. He scraped ice off the car before they began, and he’d need to watch out for perilous black ice on the roads.
His girls already know the rules of living in a cold climate. Don’t lick an icy fence or your tongue will stick. Don’t eat snow – you never know if a dog has lifted its leg there. Or a drunk. When skating, look out for the signs of thin ice; and learn how to wrap a long scarf around your neck.
In Queensland we’re used to heat, at Christmas and through the months that follow. I’ve seen Sydney people reduced to sweating exhaustion by Brisbane heat and humidity, and the further north you go the hotter it gets.
Here are some things we know about Queensland summer.
It’s cooler under the house; especially if you hose the concrete.
Park the car under a shady tree, even if you have to drive around the block to find one. But not in a storm.
Leave the car windows down a crack to let air circulate while you’re doing your Christmas shopping. But not if there’s a storm coming.
Never run out of talcum powder. Prickly heat and chafe will ruin your day.
Plan before opening the fridge. It’s a crime to stand in front of an open fridge door, wondering what you might like to eat. Think of the icecream and the prawns.
On the subject of prawns, take the scraps to a bin far away. If you’re putting them in the freezer, double-bag them.
Have an adequate supply of stubby coolers/holders.
Keep up the supply of ice for the drinks.
Sand is hot. Walk quickly, on tiptoes.
Bitumen melts. Your thongs may stick to it.
Bras are optional on a hot day, clothes minimal.
Don’t swim in the middle of the day.
Swim between the flags.
No matter how hot it is and how clear and beautiful the water looks, take notice of the crocodile and stinger warnings. Achtung!
March flies hurt. You may have to stay under water up to your chin and pull your hat down low.
Eat that icecream quickly or it will melt and run down your arm.
Fans, fans, fans – even in the air-conditioning.
Drink lots of water. Your wee should be a pale lemon colour. Really!
In a cyclone, shelter in the bathroom – it’s the safest place.
Wear a hat. Akubras are good.
In Berlin, it’s snowing. Beautiful.
Drunks and homeless people may die of hyperthermia in snowy Europe. Here in Queensland, kids will play under sprinklers and dogs will be given frozen treats; and stubby holders will be in use on our verandah.
And phone calls will be made to family coming for Christmas lunch.
“Can you pick up a couple more bags of ice at the servo on your way?”
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