Rural Spain and rural Queensland – both sadly in a cycle of loss of population, loss of services and therefore more loss of population. Greater mechanisation and fewer jobs. Pleasant towns with empty shops and under-utilised public buildings.A blog from an Australian wanting to build a house in the Spanish countryside.
The Spanish seem to think so. Google “depopulation rural Spain” and there’s a lot to read. It may have been happening since Franco’s time, when an industrialization drive got people moving to the city. 388 more words
Years ago, when we were driving back from Cairns on the inland roads, I saw off to the east, across flat plains, a row of interesting mountain peaks.
They reminded me of the volcanic plugs that make up the Glasshouse Mountains that I’ve known all my life, and I thought how interesting it would be to get a closer look at them.
We drove on, heading for the Carnarvon Ranges, and by the time we’d arrived home in Brisbane I’d forgotten where I’d seen those distant peaks.
That is why last year, driving home to Brisbane once again and wanting to get off the busy Bruce Highway, we headed inland down the Boyne River Valley, through Many Peaks, on a short cut to meet the Burnett Highway at Monto. Over the years I’d heard of Many Peaks. This must be where I could get close to those mysterious mountains.
We’d discovered that Many Peaks, a tiny town with a population of less than one hundred, has an old pub, and we planned to stop there for lunch.
We left the Bruce Highway at Calliope, south of Rockhampton, for the Dawson Highway heading west to Biloela, then paused at the turn-off to Many Peaks and Monto and had a think. It was raining, and we knew the road was partly gravel.
Going via Biloela would be 195 kilometres and boring. Via Many Peaks, 137 kilometres and interesting. We turned off.
This turned out to be mountainous, forested country, with the road following the Boyne River Valley: no plains, and no volcanic plugs to be seen. The paddocks were wet, and brown from drought, and there had been fires through,
And the pub was shut that day.
There were loaded timber trucks on the muddy road, and they gave no ground for our Subaru.
One section of the road, sealed but narrow, goes up the side of a mountain. If we’d met a semi-trailer on its way down, loaded with timber, we would have had nowhere to go but over the edge. When we reached the top and a section of wider road, there was just such a truck lurking around the corner.
In bed that night in a Monto Caravan Park cabin, still thinking about that frightening mountain road, I suddenly realised that the timber trucks would have been in contact by UHF radio. That semi-trailer was waiting, probably impatiently, for our Subaru to make it up the hill before it started down the narrow stretch. We hadn’t been in danger at all.
We never did get to have a counter lunch at the Many Peaks Hotel; and I believe it has since closed down for good.
I’ve since discovered that the intriguing volcanic peaks I was looking for are actually part of the Peak Range National Park, off the Peak Downs Highway, deep in coal mining country south-west of Mackay – a long way north of the Boyne Valley. Next week I’m finally going to take a closer look at them.
We’ve booked an apartment in Palm Cove, north of Cairns, to spend time with the family. With recent COVID-19 cases popping up in South East Queensland, nobody can predict what the next couple of weeks will bring; but we’re planning to go anyway.
We’ll take face masks, but I doubt if we’ll wear them. Considering that fewer than one person in a hundred is wearing a mask in Brisbane, they won’t be a feature in the regions, so far almost untouched by the virus. Locals may well regard face masks as a typical southerners’ fad.
We won’t be in a hurry, not like those driving for work. In the regions, it’s all about work, and on the western roads tradies’ utes and mining company vehicles will fly past us at 120kms per hour.
Peak Range National Park is 280 kilometres south-west of Mackay via the Peak Downs Highway, and 944 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. We’ll travel via Gympie, Kilkivan, and the Burnett Highway, then west to Emerald on the Capricorn Highway and north to Clermont, deep into coal mining country.
Next day, driving up the Peak Downs Highway towards Mackay, we’ll pass the Peaks I’ve been looking for.
Closest to the road, I’ve read, is Wolfgang Peak – notorious for bats in its caves and many large spiders.
There are Mounts Castor and Pollux and half a dozen others, including the flat-topped Lord’s Table. In 1845, Ludwig Leichhardt’s expedition passed through here and gave them names – although I’m sure they already had names, and stories, many thousands of years old.
This national park is undeveloped, and only keen climbers attempt the peaks. I won’t get to meet the spiders and the bats; but I’m looking forward to walking in from the highway and getting as close as I can to Wolfgang Peak.
They say there are big, scary mining trucks on these roads, but after run-ins with those big, scary timber trucks on our last trip, we’ll know how to stay out of their way. I hope.
A Canadian poet came to Brisbane for a poetry festival. She wanted to know what sounds are unique to this place. I began to think about the familiar, iconic sounds of Brisbane.
Many are bird calls.
There is the familiar “whoop, whoop, whoop” of a pheasant coucal calling from a gully; the sound of the common koel, the “storm bird” that visits South East Queensland every summer and calls endlessly for a mate – “ko-el, ko-el, ko-el…”; the musical tweets and burbles of the red-eyed figbird.
This is a city of creeks and parks, bushland, and many varieties of fig trees, both native and exotic; and wherever there are fig trees, there are figbirds, noisily getting on with their lives.
There is another Brisbane sound familiar to many of us: the distinctive “c’thunk, c’thunk, c’thunk” of cars crossing the expansion joints of the Story Bridge. According to writer Simon Cleary in his 2008 novel “The Comfort of Figs”, it’s more of a “thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump” sound. Due to resurfacing in the last few years the sound has changed; but anyone who has spent time on or under the iconic bridge will remember it.
I know the sound well, because I’ve climbed the Story Bridge.
A student at the time, I was in a bushwalking club, and although it was illegal, climbing the bridge was an annual club tradition.
We went up at night, inside the steep, angled box girders leading to the northern shoulder of the bridge. It was quite easy and safe, funnelling up inside the steel girder and round the elbow. The scary part was climbing out of the girder and crawling, in the dark, up a narrow, unprotected, two-metre-long ladder over the void. The ladder leads to a trapdoor on to the walkway that runs along the top of the bridge superstructure.
Once we were on the walkway, all we needed was a head for heights.
We went from one tower of the bridge to the other, upstream and downstream sides, high above the traffic and the city lights. It was exhilarating.
By the time we got back to the trapdoor and the narrow ladder back down into the girders, my legs were rubbery, and the ladder was even more frightening.
A couple of weeks later, some of us did it again, just for the heck of it.
Last week I walked across the bridge with Con. He (having heard about it many times) asked me where we went up, and I showed him, and pointed out the tiny ladder high above.
The lower ends of those girders, where they meet the bridge deck, are enclosed with steel mesh now. If I climbed the bridge again, and I’d like to, I’d pay for the safe, supervised and tethered experience, entering by an enclosed stairway where the southern slope meets the decking.
In “The Comfort of Figs”, Cleary describes, vividly and in detail, the construction of the Story Bridge; and the book, of course, is also about fig trees.
Many of the sprawling, shady fig trees so plentiful in Brisbane’s parks are weeping figs, an Asian variety. There are fewer of the enormous, iconic Moreton Bay figs, tall and wide with great buttress roots reaching out around them. Ironically, considering the name, they are more popular in the parks of the southern states. I’ve seen them in Warrnambool and even in Adelaide.
Next to a motel at Swan Hill in north-west Victoria, there’s a Moreton Bay fig tree claimed to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and known as the Burke and Wills tree. It was planted in 1860, when Burke and Wills camped nearby on their hopeless expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Stressed by drought, it has been heavily pruned to help it survive. I think it would be happier growing back here where it belongs.
Brisbane’s McCaskie Park, in Blamey Street, Kelvin Grove, is a fig tree arboretum, I’ve discovered. Many are weeping figs, exotic trees from Asia, matching the row of magnificent specimens along Kelvin Grove Road.
There is also an old Moreton Bay fig, with typical huge buttress roots and thick, sprawling branches, some of which have been lopped. In 1996, this tree was under threat of destruction because of planned road works nearby. In spite of its size, and because of lobbying by the local community, it was transplanted to its present spot.
Moreton Bay fig trees can be identified by their leaves – larger than other fig leaves, green on top and brown underneath. A fine example grows in a place of honour in the City Botanic Gardens, facing Old Government House. Planted in the 1800s, it is listed by the National Trust for its beauty and its historical significance.
Robbie, the young man whose search for his father’s story forms the heart of “The Comfort of Figs”, loves Moreton Bay fig trees. Propagating them under his house, he takes a kind of comfort in using them subversively. Robbie works for Parks and Gardens, but also has a mission of his own: to plant Moreton Bay figs in camphor laurel trees.
My grandparents once lived on Laurel Avenue, Chelmer – a street famous for its fine old camphor laurels.
They are majestic trees, but invasive. Listed among the top ten weed species of South East Queensland, these exotics aggressively populate bushland areas and gardens, replacing blue gums and other koala food trees, and their seeds are toxic to birds.
Camphor laurels grow all along Brisbane’s Bulimba Creek, and while they are attractive trees and create lovely shady spots along the creek, only a few paper barks and gum trees manage to survive amongst them.
There are also camphor laurels all over the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.
“My grandfather planted most of them,” says Con, with a touch of pride, plus a large slice of exaggeration. His grandfather owned a dairy farm outside Mullumbimby, and planted the camphor laurels for shade and for their timber. They thrived like cane toads. There are so many now that removal would be impossible, and would leave the countryside bare.
Early every morning, before starting work, Robbie drives to Laurel Avenue, Chelmer. He chooses a camphor laurel and parks under it, climbs on top of his car and plants a little Moreton Bay fig tree in a fork of the tree, hoping it will grow and send its roots down to the ground below.
These are strangler figs that can engulf whole trees and anything else that stands in their path, then grow into mighty trees themselves. Who knows? This might be a way to solve the camphor laurel problem.
I could have told the visiting poet of many iconic Brisbane sounds. Fruit bats squalling in a mango tree. City Cats growling up the river. Hail stones on an iron roof. The chattering of rainbow lorikeets settling down for the night in a eucalyptus tree.
She may have been confused, though, if I’d mentioned the Story Bridge. We know it was named after J.D. Story, a prominent Queensland public servant, and think nothing of it, but to a stranger it must seem odd.
“Story Bridge? These people must really enjoy a quality narrative…”
Not every place in the world can grow a Moreton Bay fig tree.
And Brisbane is the only city with an enormous bridge honouring our love of a good yarn.
Queensland has been thought of by southerners as a frontier sort of state with a beautiful but challenging climate; a place to go to for work, pleasure or adventure. Now, Queensland’s southern border crossings are swamped with people trying to get into the state to avoid COVID-19.
Until this year, the border had not closed since 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic; but this winter, Queensland is like toilet paper was several months ago in the supermarkets: some people will lie, argue, go to enormous trouble and make fools of themselves to get it.
At one o’clock tomorrow morning, the border will, to quote the premier, “snap shut”.
The border crossings across the state have checkpoints manned with local and out-of-town police and defence force personnel. Lots of great stories will come out of these checkpoints when the crisis is over. Tiny towns along the border rivers won’t have had so many people in them for years, if ever. Barringun, on the border south of Cunnamulla on the Mitchell Highway, had a population of seven at the last census. Further east, Hebel, south of Dirranbandi on the Castlereagh Highway, has less than a hundred people. Mungindi, on the Carnarvon Highway south of Saint George and split by the border, has less than a thousand. They all have border checkpoints.
Today, according to ABC Western Queensland’s Facebook page, Queensland Police are warning that quarantine accommodation in these small towns may well be overwhelmed, and therefore border crossings closed completely. They’re recommending that travellers cross at the larger towns, further east.
Along the border west of the coastal ranges, only Goondiwindi, on the junction of the Cunningham and Newell Highways, has more than a thousand people – 6,355 at the 2016 census.
This morning, driving through cold rain, my brother Mike returned from New South Wales through Goondiwindi, ahead of tonight’s border closure. After one a.m. tomorrow the only way into Queensland (except for special permit holders, freight transports, essential workers and locals of border towns) will be through Brisbane Airport. Mike joined the queue and waited just thirty minutes to enter Queensland, a much shorter time than many are experiencing, especially at Gold Coast border crossings.
West of the Gold Coast and Border Ranges, the checkpoints are on the few main highways. Many smaller crossings right along the border are closed to through traffic already. Others, including streets in small towns, are blocked completely.
Wallangarra, on the New England Highway, once a railway town with an army camp and a meatworks, now has fewer than four hundred people; but currently it has a busy border checkpoint. Jennings, its twin town across the border in New South Wales, has a population of less than 300. Minor streets connecting the towns are closed with concrete blocks.
This will be a cold night at the Wallangarra checkpoint. The temperature will go down to single figures early tomorrow morning, with rain.
The Queensland railway ends at Wallangarra, with the border line painted across the station platform.
This line was once was the only rail connection between Brisbane and Sydney, and at Wallangarra every passenger and item of goods had to be detrained and moved across the platform to another train for the New South Wales Great Northern Line, now defunct, because the railway gauges are different. New South Wales tracks are Standard Gauge – four feet eight and a half inches (1435mm) apart, while Queensland uses narrow gauge: three feet six inches (1067mm). Now interstate trains on the North Coast Line use the standard gauge all the way from Sydney to Brisbane.
Except when a pandemic closes the borders, and the trains stop.
East of Wallangarra, the next border highway checkpoint is on the Mount Lindesay Highway, near Mount Lindesay.
It will be just as cold there, early tomorrow morning, when the border shuts. I admire the people who’ve manned the border checkpoints, day and night, in all weathers, since Queensland first closed its borders in March. They deserve our respect and thanks. They’ve been patient and alert; and while most road users have been polite, some have been abusive.
And, because so many of us, north and south, need to travel for work, and love to travel for pleasure, I hope all of this disruption will one day be a distant memory.
And may good angels send the rain
On desert stretches sandy
And when the summer comes again
God grant ’twill bring us Andy.
The air feels different here in the Wet Tropics. The sun is hotter, it’s more humid, and in the wet season mould grows on everything.
The hilly town of Innisfail, ninety kilometres south of Cairns, is situated at the junction of two beautiful rivers: the North Johnstone and the South Johnstone. No one swims in them. This is the home of the Johnstone River crocodile, otherwise known as the freshwater crocodile or freshie, which doesn’t eat people; but the saltie, or saltwater crocodile, does eat people – and it also inhabits these rivers.
The first time I visited Innisfail, I came up from Brisbane on a Greyhound bus. Con and I were engaged, and we were travelling north together so I could meet his family. It took us over thirty hours to get here.
With roads much improved now – motorways, passing lanes, highway redirection – you can (in theory) drive here in eighteen hours, but the bus still detours to drop off and pick up passengers at tourist spots – Noosa, Hervey Bay, Proserpine, Mission Beach – so it still takes a long time. The train takes about twenty-four hours, and if you pay the rather enormous cost of a railbed you can sleep for eight hours of that. We usually drive, stopping for one or two nights on the way, perhaps at Rockhampton and Ayr, or at Sarina, south of Mackay.
Con grew up in Innisfail but left long ago. We’ve been back many times to visit, and each time he gives me a guided tour of his special places. Including pubs.
“Dad’s Shell fuel depot was over there, near the Goondi Hill Hotel.
“There were lots of hotels back then. As well as the Goondi, there were the Commonwealth, Innisfail, Crown, White Horse (we called that the Blonde Donk), Grand Central (that’s an arcade now), Riverview, Exchange (that’s near the canecutter statue), Federal, Imperial and Queens hotels. It was a lively town.”
The white marble Canecutters Memorial was erected beside the river in 1959 by Innisfail’s Italian community, to celebrate Queensland’s centenary.
Many of Innisfail’s hotels are gone now, either closed down, or blown down by a cyclone.
We drive twenty-four kilometres to Paronella Park, where Con went to dances as a young man. “It had a mirror ball in the ballroom. It was great!”
He took me there on that first visit, borrowing his mum’s little Datsun. Built by Spanish immigrant Jose Paronella, the Park, with its fantastic castle, walkways, staircases and bridges gently rotting away in the rainforest beside Mena Creek’s waterfall, was first opened in 1925 as pleasure gardens. It even had its own hydroelectric system, using the force of the nearby falls.
Damaged by floods and cyclones, picturesque Paronella Park has been listed with the National Trust, and it has now been developed for modern tourism, its hydro system restored. Chosen as the setting for a recent feature movie, “Celeste”, it’s unique and authentic, a FNQ treasure. Nowadays we go there with our grandchildren.
We drive out to Etty Bay, sixteen kilometres from Innisfail, one of Australia’s prettiest beaches, where rainforest and coconut palms shade the coral sand, and cassowaries wander.
Sometimes we spend a night in the caravan park and eat a fish and chips dinner at the kiosk.
Con is sentimental about Etty Bay.
“There’s another little beach up here,” he says, climbing over the oyster shell strewn rocks at the northern end of the beach. “We used to call it Second Beach.
“And look – here’s another beach! It’s tiny, but it’s a beach all right! We called it Third Beach!!
“We opened the oysters with a screwdriver. They were small, but they were the best oysters I ever ate!”
Innisfail is a pretty town. The Johnstone Shire Hall, built in the 1930s on the side of a hill, has a top-floor ball room and concert hall. Con takes me up the steep stairs to take a look. People are setting up for a concert, and the double door at the back of the stage is open.
There is a lift platform outside the door, suspended far above the ground, for winching equipment, pianos and sound systems up to the stage. “Workplace Health and Safety was never much of a consideration when I was in shows here,” Con tells me.
We visit Con’s old school, and the Catholic church, a spectacular building at the top of the town, dressed with Italian marble, with an altar constructed by Irish Trappist monks. Innisfail is an old name for Ireland, and lots of Irish migrated to this green countryside. Italians came, too, to cut cane and take up farming. Innisfail has the lively and well-stocked Oliveri’s Italian delicatessen, where old families meet up on a Sunday morning for coffee and chat.
Chinese immigrants came here, too, working in the cane and the bananas, and going into business. The Innisfail Temple, also known as the Joss House, is still the spiritual home of the Chinese community here. Taam Sze Pui (Tom See Poy) came from southern China in the 1880s and set up one of North Queensland’s largest and most successful department stores, See Poy and Sons. Tom See Poy named his sons after North Queensland rivers – Johnstone, Gilbert and Herbert.
Con tells me about the time he worked in Men’s Wear at See Poy’s one Christmas holidays, as well as singing carols in the shop and changing into a Santa Claus suit to ask children what they wanted for Christmas.
The fine old department store is gone. Now Woolworths, Coles and Bunnings supply the town. Roadside stalls sell fresh, seasonal produce along the highway, and in March, the Innisfail Feast of the Senses Festival celebrates the local tropical fruit.
In regional areas like this, improved roads and large operators have undermined some local businesses. It’s easy to drive to Cairns for clothes and household goods, or a show or movie. Both of Innisfail’s two movie theatres are gone. Mechanical harvesters cut the cane; and backpackers pick the fruit.
Ironically, though, disasters have brought money into Innisfail. Since Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Cyclone Yasi in 2011, there are new, shiny roofs, new parkland and a walkway along the river. The old art deco buildings in the centre of town and the water tower on the hill have been painted in bright colours.
The bridge where the rivers join has been rebuilt in art deco style. There is now a Tropical Art Deco Festival in Innisfail. Who knew that these old buildings, always taken for granted, had such potential for charm?
We drive down Coronation Avenue, beside the river, where Con’s family lived. All is green and lush, and the air is so humid it’s like being in a cloud – only hot. At the end of the street is Con O’Brien Park, named after his father, old Con. I take his photo with the sign; then we get back in the car and head south, before the rain begins.
What a grand scheme! Keen cycling groups from the Gladstone to Gayndah area are promoting the proposed rail trail joining Calliope near Gladstone, to Gayndah. Tunnels, wooden trestle bridge and arched stone bridge, magnificent scenery, great tourism potential – and some of it is almost ready to go!
I was in Monto and Gayndah a couple of years ago when I first became aware of this ambitious project. It will be a shot in the arm for all the small towns along the route.
At the bottom of George Street, Brisbane, in the curve of the river, there was a convict farm growing maize and vegetables. In time, the New Farm was established as well, and later the Eagle Farm.
In 1855, after the convict era ended, the New South Wales Government established Botanic Gardens on the George Street land, and appointed Walter Hill, trained in London’s Kew Gardens, as Superintendent. In 1859 he was appointed government botanist. For twenty-six years, until he retired and afterwards, Walter Hill worked at introducing, propagating and sharing plants species across Queensland, Australia and the world. He propagated the first macadamia tree in cultivation, which is still standing today in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens and still producing nuts.
He also experimented with varieties of sugar cane, and helped refine it – the first sugar to be produced in Queensland.
He collected native plants, and especially loved bunya and hoop pines, planting hundreds of them, along with fig trees. His avenue of bunya pines still dominates the riverside walk in the Gardens.
It was Walter Hill who successfully grew, in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, what is said to be the first jacaranda tree in Australia – later the subject of Queensland Art Gallery’s most loved painting. He sent seeds from this tree, a native plant of Brazil, far and wide and transformed the parks, gardens, and street plantings of Queensland. The tree blew down in a storm in 1980.
Walter Hill travelled Queensland, collecting native plant species and setting aside land in Toowoomba, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Cardwell, Cairns and other regional towns for agricultural study and botanical gardens. Some of them were never developed, but the ones in Rockhampton, Cairns and Toowoomba have become magnificent, much-loved and much-visited places, popular sites for weddings and functions, and home to fine plant and sculpture collections.
There’s some wonderful art in botanic gardens. It isn’t always widely known, and it often comes as a surprise.
On a visit to Kew Gardens, which could be considered the oldest and greatest of botanic gardens, I was astonished by the colourful paintings of the nineteenth century English botanical artist Marianne North – 833 paintings, the product of thirteen years of world travels and literally covering the walls of a charming, specially designed 1880s building.
One large group of paintings depicts the plants and forests of tropical Queensland.
The nineteenth century was a time of scientific fascination with plants and animals. From the 1850s onwards, botanists, naturalists and “Acclimatisation Societies” in Australia, New Zealand, and across the British Empire sent huge numbers of plants and animals all over the world to see how they would thrive in different conditions.
Echidnas to London, wombats to Paris; possums to New Zealand.
In New Zealand, when some of the introduced species got out of hand, stoats, ferrets and weasels were introduced to control them.
The delicate balance of nature would never be the same again.
One of the earliest botanic gardens in Queensland was in Cooktown. It was established in 1878 and revitalised in the late twentieth century, as tourism grew. Now, heritage listed and with interesting plant collections, it holds in its art gallery a collection of Vera Scarth-Johnson’s botanical paintings. I bought a print of the Cooktown orchid, Queensland’s floral emblem.
In many parts of Queensland there are now botanic gardens established by local councils, such as those in the Gold Coast and Hervey Bay; all of them supported by groups of keen volunteers.
Others are privately owned and run, such as the Maleny Botanic Gardens. My favourite of these is the Myall Park Botanic Garden, outside Glenmorgan, 380 kilometres west of Brisbane. This garden has been devoted to the collection, propagation and study of plants that thrive in arid and semi-arid conditions – especially the grevillea.
We found this treasure by accident, when travelling to Roma via Tara and Meandarra to Surat and the Carnarvon Highway. It was begun in the 1940s, on a sheep station owned by the Gordon family, and spreads over a large area, with paths and information boards, a gallery and interesting shop, and accommodation.
Different sections are devoted to different species, there is a bird hide, there are sculptures and artwork across the park, and the gallery features the botanical paintings of Dorothy Gordon.
This garden is where the well-known and hardy red-flowering Robyn Gordon grevillea cultivar emerged by chance in the 1960s and was widely planted across Australia and beyond. Touchingly, it is named in memory of one of the Gordon family daughters, who died tragically young.
Walter and Jane Hill also had a daughter, Ann, who died young, in 1871. She was their only child; and there is a plant associated with her death, too. Ann was buried in Toowong Cemetery, only the second person to be buried there; and near her grave, to shade it, Walter planted a hoop pine. Today it is enormous.
The plant collections of Queensland’s botanic gardens are developed on scientific principles, these days with an emphasis on native species. The plants are interesting, but I love the gardens most for their beauty, and their history.
Cooktown is a small town a long way from anywhere: 328 kilometres north of Cairns, at the end of the bitumen. When we visited it hadn’t occurred to me that it has a Botanic Gardens; but does, and it’s a beauty. Old, too. Planting first began there in 1868, and it was made official in 1878.
The Cooktown Botanic Gardens has an art gallery, café and information centre, and as always for a Botanic Gardens, its plantings are based on scientific, cultural and historical principles. It includes local species used throughout the centuries by the local Indigenous people, as well as threatened species.
It also includes examples of the plants collected in 1770 by the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on Captain James Cook’s visit on HMB Endeavour, and drawn by botanist and natural history artist Sydney Parkinson. Some of these specimens, pressed, are in the collection of the Queensland Herbarium, at Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane.
We visited Cooktown in mid-November, in the build-up to the wet season. Not surprisingly, it was hot in the Gardens.
Our motel overlooked the Endeavour River, named by Captain Cook, and I couldn’t help thinking about the history of this place that we’ve heard about all our lives. The Endeavour was beached for repairs just below us, and behind us was the granite hill that Cook and his companions climbed to look out over the sea and its treacherous reefs their wounded ship had picked its way through to reach this small harbour and would have to thread through again on its way out.
Captain Cook’s expedition (we call him Captain because he was captain of the Endeavour, but his naval rank was Lieutenant) arrived in mid-June and stayed throughout July, when the weather in the tropics is perfect. They spent nearly seven weeks here, on Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific, 250 years ago this month. When I read these sections of Cook’s journal, I realised for the first time just what an extraordinary episode this was, an encounter between two cultures entirely unknown to each other. The party of eighty-seven Europeans – explorers, astronomers, botanists, officers and crew – knew nothing of the Indigenous culture or language, and the local Guugu Yimithirr of the area had no idea what these strange intruders were doing here.
Cook was an extraordinary seaman, navigator and cartographer. His orders from the British government for this three-year voyage of discovery were both scientific and strategic: to carry out astronomical observations, and to investigate and take possession of the rumoured Great Southern Lands for Britain.
All the way up the east coast of Australia, Banks and Solander had been desperate to do some serious study of the wealth of plants and animals that Europeans had never seen before. In what is now Cooktown they finally got their chance, although they and everyone else on Endeavour nearly died getting there.
According to the captain’s journal it was a clear, moonlight night when on 10 June 1770, the Endeavour, surrounded by coral reefs, struck a reef and stuck fast. Cook’s journal entry for 11 June, written in the utmost haste, shows how desperate the situation was.
The crew threw overboard the ship’s cannons, ballast, and anything else that could be spared to reduce weight, and manned the pumps desperately for twenty-four hours before the ship could be floated and dragged off the reef. A fothering sail was prepared, packed with wool and oakum, and dragged under the hull to be lashed over the hole.
Too far from shore to swim, on a small ship alone in unknown waters and utterly beyond help, it was equivalent to a dangerous situation on a space craft.
The ship picked its way through further reefs, taking water all the time, until they found the mouth of what Cook named the Endeavour River, and moored the ship alongside a steep beach on the southern side of the river.
When they looked at the damage to the hull it was discovered that a piece of coral had broken off and blocked the hole, probably saving them.
The Endeavour and its company stayed at the Endeavour River until repairs were completed. Banks and Solander collected plant specimens; and the Europeans saw their first kangaroo.
The local Guugu Yimithirr people did not make them welcome. It’s a perilous business, going uninvited into a foreign land and helping yourself to whatever you need. Eight years later, in Hawaii, it was probably taking advantage of local hospitality without any awareness of local customs and sensitivities that led to Cook’s death. There were misunderstandings and clashes on the Endeavour River, too.
The locals especially resented Cook’s party catching and eating turtles, which were of course a traditional local food with rituals around their capture, preparation and sharing. They probably thought of it as stealing. They showed their displeasure, and Cook’s party retaliated.
19 July: …those that came on board were very desirous of having some of our turtle and took the liberty to haul two to the gang way to put over the side… being disappointed in this they grew a little troublesome, and were for throwing everything overboard they could lay their hands upon; I offer’d them some bread to eat, which they rejected with scorn as I believe they would have done anything else excepting turtle – soon after this they all went ashore. Mr Banks, myself and five or six more of our people being ashore at the same time, immediately upon their landing one of them took a handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had ashore and before we well know’d what he was going about he made a large circuit round about us and set fire to the grass, and in an Instant the whole place was in flames… they went to a place… where all our nets and a good deal of linnen were laid out to dry, here they again set fire to the grass… I was obliged to fire a musquet loaded with small shott at one of the ring leaders which sent them off. Notwithstanding my firing in which one must have been a little hurt because we saw some a few drops of blood on some of the linnen he had gone over, they did not go far for we soon after heard their voices in the woods…
On 22 August 1770, on a small island he named Possession Island at the tip of Cape York, Captain Cook took possession of the whole eastern coast of what is now Australia on behalf of the British Government. Cook noted in his journal:
… I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New South Wales together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were answerd by the like number from the Ship.
After Cook’s return to England the British government decided that this land belonged to no one – terra nullius – and therefore was free for them to use without treaty or reparation. It’s suggested that it was Banks, by all accounts both arrogant and influential, who gave them that impression.
We visited the James Cook Museum, occupying a spectacular old nineteenth century Sisters of Mercy Convent building, and looked at the displays telling the stories of this place where such an extraordinary clash of cultures occurred two hundred and fifty years ago. We visited Finch Bay, with its granite boulders like whales and a backpacker standing naked in the creek, braving the crocodiles as she washed her clothes; we watched another sunset over the Endeavour River, and next morning drove away back to Cairns.
The English knew what it was to have foreigners arrive in ships. Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans: they were all invaders who took land and goods, killed any who opposed them, and disrupted local culture, language and spirituality. Britain did the same to Ireland; and the Guugu Yimithirr people were to be left in peace for only a few more generations before the same disaster happened to them.
The tiny Coleman camper held two double beds, plus a single when we dropped the table down. It had a small fridge and gas stove, a sink with a pump tap, a hard roof and sturdy canvas walls with zip-down, screened plastic windows.
After spending the day walking with our three kids among the spring-time wild-flowers of one of Queensland’s most beautiful and popular national parks, we were lying in bed in the dark, telling jokes and laughing.
Suddenly there was the sound of a long, musical fart. “Who farted?” said Con, indignantly. Ironic, coming from the family’s master of flatulence.
“That wasn’t a fart”, said one of the kids. “That was a Girraween Giggle.”
That set everyone off with real giggles, and I happily put my hand on Con’s leg, under the doona.
Con was immediately distracted from farts, and we concentrated instead on a problem that all parents face when they share a camper with their children.
Tents are different. A tent might be the same size as a camper-trailer, but it doesn’t jiggle or squeak. Even with its jacks wound down tight under all four corners, a camper does. It’s not unusual, when walking through a caravan park or camping area, to pass a jiggling, squeaking camper.
From our home in Lowood, in the Brisbane Valley, we were now on our way south to go to the Melbourne Cup. We’d bought the lightest of camper-trailers, weighing just five hundred and fifty kilograms, because we didn’t know how to reverse a trailer and didn’t want to learn. For that whole trip, we pushed it into position by hand in every new caravan park.
We were driving the Golden Holden, the Kingswood we’d bought to replace the old blue and white HR Holden.
At the closing party, only two days earlier, his wallet had been stolen, and so we were travelling under a handicap. In those days, he received a salary, I worked casually, and we had little in the bank – only a Christmas Club account into which I put money occasionally. We lived from pay to pay, with a credit card (Bankcard) for emergencies.
Now the Bankcard had been stolen, plus Con’s driver’s license, his only form of identification. Both our Bankcards had been cancelled. New cards and license had yet to be issued.
In 1982, shopping for groceries or fuel on credit involved a phone call from the business owner to a Sydney number for verification of our Bankcard balance. It seems primitive now, but in those days it was an amazing service. And just as we were about to begin an extensive interstate road trip, this service was closed to us, because we had no card.
Con was on long service leave, and so fortnightly deposits would continue to be made into his savings account. He’d sent his signature to a bank in Richmond, Sydney, where we were going to visit family friends; but he would have no form of identification to enable us to withdraw funds before then.
We banked with the National Bank – now NAB. In those days there was a branch of the National Bank in almost every Queensland town, because the National Bank had taken over the old Queensland National Bank and its many branches throughout the state. In New South Wales they were less common.
Con visited the Lowood bank manager and told him of our predicament – we would be travelling interstate with no means of withdrawing money – and he gave Con a card with his signature on it to show along the way. Off we went.
On the long haul up to the Granite belt, at Braeside, south of Warwick on the New England Highway, the engine of the Golden Holden blew up.
When I first went to Stanthorpe, the road from Warwick was largely gravel, a winding, narrow road up the range where overtaking was impossible, and accidents were common. By 1982 that road was gone, replaced by a long, smooth ascent. Too long for the Holden with a camper-trailer in tow.
We were broken-down beside the road, with steam rising off a seized-up engine, three kids and a camper and very little money.
The RACQ towed us to Stanthorpe, and we arranged to have a new engine installed. Then we went to the bank. Contacted by the Stanthorpe branch, the manager at Lowood opened my Christmas Fund account and forwarded the funds. It was enough to pay for the new engine.
Two days later we were in Armidale. No National Bank there. I made rissoles for dinner out of the cheapest meat I could buy: sausage mince. Con put fifty cents on Kingston Town for the Cox Plate, and another fifty cents on Triumphal Arch in the Moonee Valley Gold Cup, and took the daily double.
In the caravan park we listened to the races on his little radio. First Kingston Town won. “He’ll win the Melbourne Cup!” said Con, with great excitement, “and we’ll be there to see it!”
Next, Triumphal Arch came in first, and Con, with delight, picked up nine dollars from the TAB. It was enough to get us through to Muswellbrook.
Muswellbrook had a CBC bank, which was tied in with the National. Con produced the card he’d got from the bank manager at Lowood and withdrew fifty dollars, enough to see us through to Richmond. It was a high old time that night in the caravan park at nearby Lake Glenbawn.
Con had some beers, and I drank a little bottle of Ben Ean. Ben Ean Moselle “Shorts” were popular in those days.
A couple of days later, at Richmond National Bank, our holiday was saved. There was a call from Lowood bank while we were there – the manager offering us an overdraft. A few days later our replacement cards arrived, and our financial life had been restored to as much order as we ever managed to achieve. On we went, to Melbourne and the Cup.
Kingston Town came second.
Our camper served us well on that trip, and for several more years. By then, the kids had grown. The trailer seemed too crowded, and its canvas showed signs of wear. When I went back to full-time work, we traded it in for a second car, although we were sorry to see it go.
On Boxing Day, 1936, in a soft-topped Essex motorcar and towing a trailer full of camping gear, my father Maurice, his two younger brothers, his father, E.B., and his grandfather C.B. left Nambour to drive to Melbourne. The Third Test was due to begin in January 1937, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and they wanted to see Don Bradman bat.
It was to be a two-week road trip – touring, as they called it then – through New South Wales and Victoria. The family often went touring. They didn’t know this would be their last long trip together.
My Dad, Maurice, then an eighteen-year-old, kept a trip journal, full of details that seem quaint to travellers in the twenty-first century: border crossings, road conditions, camping, communications, access to funds along the way.
Now, in June 2020, the year of COVID-19, southerners are stopped at the border, not allowed to cross into Queensland without a special permit.
In 1936, cars and trucks going from Queensland to New South Wales were stopped and inspected at border gates. New South Wales didn’t want Queenslanders bringing cattle ticks south with them to infest stock. They still don’t.
Queensland has always been seen by southerners as a wild, bizarre place, a frontier region with its own quirky rules. We are the state of cyclones, cane toads, crocodiles, cattle ticks and mad politicians, and we’re oddly proud of that.
In normal times in the twenty-first century, cars drive straight across the borders without a pause; but still, when I cross into New South Wales on the Pacific Motorway, speeding past the big red border sculpture along the Tugun Bypass, or down through the rugged border mountains near Mount Lindesay, or at Wallangarra on the New England Highway, or Goondiwindi on the Newell, it feels like an event, with a little sense of visiting a foreign country; and crossing back into Queensland feels like coming home.
In 1936, Queensland travellers were advised to obtain an Interstate Motorists Permit before travelling south. Dad’s family crossed the border at Mount Lindesay, and in Armidale, their first stop in New South Wales, according to Maurice’s journal they sought the cop-shop, where a policeman was persuaded to come out and search for engine-numbers, chassis-numbers etc., and to give us an interstate pass and windscreen sticker.
They slept that night on the floor of a fruit packing shed outside Armidale, on the property of a family friend. From then on, nights were spent in their tent in what were called Tourist Camping Parks, or at likely spots beside the road wherever it suited them, as you could do in those less regulated days.
In 1936, the population of Australia was less than six million. Now, over twenty million people call Australia home, driving nearly twenty million vehicles, and so we can’t just set up camp wherever we want to anymore.
Roads were narrow and often steep and winding. Even major roads were rough and unsealed in places. There were many railway level crossings on the New England Highway; and instead of speeding high over the Hawkesbury River on the M1 as we do now, travellers crossed by Peat’s Ferry. It nine years later when the river was bridged at that point.
Thirty-seven other cars went on the ferry with the family’s Essex, and as they waited in line to board, Maurice and his brothers ate a bottle of local oysters, sold to waiting travellers by enterprising boys. Hawkesbury River oysters. That hasn’t changed.
Road trip communications are different now, in ways that were unimaginable then. We use our phones to check directions and distances, traffic conditions and weather; to book accommodation, and listen to music, talking books and podcasts; all while travelling. To check weather conditions before heading to Mount Kosciusko, E.B. booked a trunk call to the weather bureau from Canberra Post Office, and to communicate with home they sent telegrams.
We’ve done over 100,000 kilometres in our Forester, with one puncture. We have it serviced every 12,000 kilometres or so. On highways, cruise control is set at 100 or 110 kph. Maurice and his family, on their 1936-37 trip of 3397 miles (5467 kilometres), changed three tyres because of punctures, stopped three times for grease-ups and oil changes, broke a spring, had the steering adjusted and repairs done to the trailer, and were pleased when on one straight road in Victoria they reached fifty miles (eighty kilometres) an hour.
As we all had to before the arrival of Bank Cards in the late 1970s, they’d sent specimen signatures ahead from their home branch of the Commonwealth Bank so they could withdraw money along the way. No ATMs or plastic cards then.
On 4 January 1937, Maurice and his group at last got to the M.C.G. to see Bradman. They arrived late. As Maurice put it, We went there on the day on which the world’s record cricket crowd – 87,000 – was present. We were among the 17,000 for which there was no room. We caught glimpses of the play – sometimes three quarters of a wicket keeper, or a single fieldsman and a patch of grass. One of the batsmen we could sometimes glimpse was Bradman.
Next day they had to leave for home. With no car radio, they stopped along the way to hear the progress of the Test: in a café in Wangaratta, and again in a park at Albury, where people lay on the bank of the Murray in bathers, listening to the broadcast description of Bradman’s and Fingleton’s fine stand blaring forth from a speaker hung in a tree in the park.
Next day, at a loudspeaker at a small refreshment stall at Hume Dam, we heard Bradman score the single which took his score to two hundred.
Bradman ended up scoring 270 runs – a record for a number seven batsman; and England lost the Test.
Sixteen days after leaving Nambour, Maurice and the family arrived back home. Maurice typed up the story, added maps and illustrations and had the journal sturdily bound.
A month later, he started university. Three years later, he joined the 2/26th infantry battalion. He shipped out of Melbourne in 1941, bound for Singapore, part of the troop build-up in the face of the threat of invasion by Japan.
The following February, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army, and in 1943 Maurice was among the thousands of prisoners of war who were packed into rice wagons and taken north by train to work as slaves, building the infamous Thai-Burma railway.
In October 1945, twenty-seven years old, thin, jaundiced and exhausted, Maurice came home again to Nambour, to Mum, and to their little son.
At once, he bought a new car; and within two years, he and Mum were off on another road trip – the first of a new generation. My earliest memory is standing in the back seat of that little car, as kids did in those less regulated days, looking between my parents’ shoulders at a long, narrow road leading off into the distance.
My Dad got me addicted to road trips early. I’ve never gotten over it.
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