Bridges of Brisbane

I’m with my grandson Angus on a CityCat ferry, heading downstream from its UQ terminus to photograph the bridges of central Brisbane as evening comes down over the river. The muddy old Brisbane River, MAIWAR in Turrball language, is at its most beautiful.

High above us as we waited at the ferry wharf was the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, opened in 2006 to link Yeronga to the University of Queensland. Carrying only buses, cyclists and pedestrians and known to everyone as the Green Bridge, its four tall towers are visible from kilometres away.

Eleanor Schonell (Green) Bridge

On board the CityCat we’ve moved through the cabin to the bow, holding the rail as its powerful engines send the boat surging down the river and round its slow curves, past the university sports fields and old, timber houses high on the opposite banks.

Go-Between, Merivale and William Jolly Bridges, looking downstream

Coming down the Milton Reach towards the CBD, the wind in our hair, we can see three bridges at once.

Closest to us is the graceful white span of the Go-Between Bridge, opened in 2010 to connects West End to the Inner-City Bypass at Milton.

Approaches to the Go-Between Bridge from under the Coronation Drive overpass

Beyond the Go-Between Bridge is the coat-hanger arch of the Merivale Bridge, the railway bridge which connects South Brisbane Station to the north side of the river, crossing Melbourne Street behind the old Hotel Terminus, where you might once have spent the night after getting off the Sydney train at South Brisbane Station. Until the bridge opened in 1978, to catch a train onwards to Cairns or Cunnamulla or Longreach, you’d have needed to cross the river to Roma Street Station, probably via the William Jolly road bridge, known to most as Grey Street Bridge.

Opening in 1932 to link South Brisbane to the CBD at Roma Street, Grey Street Bridge, with its graceful cream art deco arches, is one of Brisbane’s best-loved bridges and the most celebrated by artists.

The Grey Street Bridge, Vida Lahey. Bridge under construction. artrecord.com
Grey Street arrangement Jon Molvig. Museum of Brisbane

From under the Grey Street Bridge, around the bend of the river at Kurilpa Point, the spectacular Kurilpa pedestrian bridge comes into view, with its many white masts like drinking straws or a sailing ship’s spars.

Kurilpa Bridge, from under Grey Street Bridge

Opened in 2009, it joins Kurilpa Point (from the Turrball word for place of the water rats) to the CBD at Tank Street.

Kurilpa Bridge. australiandesignreview.com

Now we’re approaching the slim, elegant span of Victoria Bridge, opened in 1969.

Victoria Bridge

As a teenager, I used to cross the old Victoria Bridge by tram, and it made me nervous to see the sign limiting the number of trams per span of the bridge. Instead of two or three, there were often five or six going each way.

“Out with the old, in with the new… The Victoria Bridges in December 1969”. reddit.com

Now Victoria Bridge carries only buses, cycles and pedestrians across the river between South Brisbane and the top of Queen Street. It’s beautiful this evening, lit up with colours that are reflected in the timeless ripples and eddies of the river.

Downstream from Victoria Bridge our CityCat negotiates an obstacle course of construction barges. A spectacular footbridge, the Neville Bonner Bridge, is due for completion in 2022, linking South Bank Parklands to the ambitious Queens Wharf development with its hotel and apartments, casino, shops and parks. Let’s hope tourism dollars will return to Brisbane soon to pay for it.

Image of how the Neville Bonner Bridge and the new Queens Wharf development are expected to look. queenswharfbrisbane.com.au

 The Goodwill Bridge, opened in 2001 to carry cyclists and pedestrians from South Bank to Gardens Point, is next, with a stylish design and a little coffee bar on one of its viewing platforms.

Goodwill Bridge, with the Captain Cook Bridge in the background.

I love how it looks it in the evening light, looking back to the CBD buildings and the lights of Victoria Bridge.

Goodwill Bridge, looking upstream.

At Gardens Point the clean line of Captain Cook Bridge links the Pacific Motorway to the Riverside Expressway. Opened in 1973, in the time of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, when modernisation was everything and cars were king, the bridge has no pedestrian or cycle access. We travel under it and watch joggers and evening pedestrians in the riverside parkland, and climbers spread-eagled under the lights on Kangaroo Point Cliffs.

A CityCat coming towards the Captain Cook Bridge, with the Kangaroo Point Cliffs in the background.

Ahead the tall, lit-up buildings of Petrie Bight come into view, and on the next bend the Story Bridge.

Petrie Bight buildings and the Story Bridge

The heritage-listed Story Bridge is the most iconic of Brisbane bridges. A massive steel structure, it was built as part of public works programs during the Great Depression and opened in 1940. (See my story Brisbane Icons: Fig Trees and the Story Bridge.)

Sunset fades from the sky and the lights of the bridge and the high-rises shine on the water.  Howard Smith Wharves, with hotel, restaurants and bars are bright and noisy, slide by.

Under the Story Bridge. On the roof of a hotel at Howard Smith Wharves, people relax beside a pool.

The bridge is high above us as we steady our cameras against the movement of the speeding ferry.

Under the bridge at evening

The Story Bridge looks magnificent reflected in our wake.

Looking back at the Story Bridge and the lights of Howard Smith Wharves

At the next CityCat stop, Mowbray Park, we disembark to catch another ferry back upstream.

To see more of Brisbane’s bridges, Angus and I might take a cruise upriver one day, under the bridges at Indooroopilly and Jindalee.

The utilitarian-designed Centenary Bridge, opened in 1964, carries the busy Centenary Highway between Fig Tree Pocket and Jindalee.

Centenary Bridge, looking from Jindalee to Fig Tree Pocket

From under the bridge, shady walkways lead downstream past mighty riverside eucalypts and fig trees, the treasures of Brisbane’s riverside parks.

At Indooroopilly, on a deep bend of the river, there are four bridges: the road bridge, two rail bridges and a cycle and pedestrian bridge.

Under the Indooroopilly bridges

I lived at Indooroopilly with my family (see my story Gully of Leeches) when there were just two bridges. I used to ride my bike to school across the white, art deco Walter Taylor road bridge, under its towers and past the tollbooth. The northern tower of the bridge famously included an apartment, where washing was sometimes strung to dry high above the traffic.

Walter Taylor Bridge, commonly known as the Indooroopilly Bridge. queenslanddecoproject,com

Until it opened in 1936, the only bridge at Indooroopilly was the Albert Railway Bridge carrying the Ipswich Line. Another rail bridge was opened in 1957, and in 1998 a pedestrian and cycle bridge on the downstream side.

If we’d stayed on the downstream CityCat, Angus and I would have come within sight of the twin Gateway Bridges, officially named after Sir Leo Hielscher, lit up dramatically and arching high above the river.

Fishing, upstream from the Gateway Bridges

Opened in 1986 and 2010, the upstream bridge takes northbound traffic, while the downstream one carries southbound traffic as well as a cycle and pedestrian path.

Under the Gateway Bridges

Con and I walked one winter’s day from beneath the southern end of the bridge, up to the top. From the viewing platform there, we could see down to the river mouth and Moreton Bay. It was a long slog to the top of the bridge, but not too steep, as it was built to carry heavily laden semi-trailers.

Other cycle and pedestrian bridgesare in the planning stages, to link Saint Lucia and Toowong to West End, and Kangaroo Point to the City Botanic Gardens.

I can remember when old Maiwar was treated with little respect, as a flood-prone dumping-ground that people crossed in a hurry in cars, buses and trams. Now it has been reclaimed for pedestrians, cyclists and ferries, and its banks and its bridges are sources of pleasure and pride for Brisbanites.

How would you like to be

Down by the Seine with me

Oh what I’d give for a moment or two

Under the bridges of Paris with you…

(Eartha Kitt 1953)

The Seine in Paris has 37 bridges, but crossing approximately thirty-five kilometres of the river in Brisbane there are just sixteen. The Brisbane River is wider than the Seine, and not as easily bridged, or tamed; and the bridges of Brisbane are not as classically elegant as the bridges of Paris, made famous by Eartha Kitt in her sexy version of this famous song.

But I love our Brisbane bridges.

All are spectacular; some are iconic; and old Maiwar flowing beneath them is beautiful.

Looking upstream from the Centenary Bridge

“The Worst Time of Year for a Journey”

In 1974 we flew to Cairns for the Easter break, little Lizzie and Matt and I. We’d left our car in Cairns after the Christmas holidays because all roads back to Burketown were flooded and impassable, that historically wet summer. My plan was to pick up the car and drive to Townsville, collecting Granny O’Brien at Innisfail on the way.

Con was on his way from Burketown to Townsville in a friend’s ute, with two other men. It would be one of the first cars to attempt the bush roads after the wet season, and he had a story to tell that Good Friday evening in Townsville: of getting hung up on rocks when crossing a place called Fiery Creek on a road that hadn’t seen a grader since before the Wet; of dragging out rocks and mud from under the ute; of a fellow-traveller with a bad hangover, throwing up in the bushes while the others got plastered in mud.

I also had a story to tell. Our Holden hadn’t been used for months, and something had gone wrong with the brakes. To avoid over-heating them I’d had to crawl at a nervous 50kph the whole 350 kilometres to Townsville, including over the steep Cardwell Range. Granny and I and the two children arrived in Townsville exhausted and in the dark.

…and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place…

During COVID restrictions last year, our family began socially distanced fire pit gatherings in Lizzie’s suburban backyard, with poetry readings for entertainment. Last month she chose a poem which reminded her of the road trips from her childhood. It was that classic of English literature: “The Journey of the Magi”, by T.S. Eliot.

COVID fire pit

I’ve know this poem since school, with its religious imagery and sombre, unsettling power; but Lizzie read it with a new, entertaining twist. She compared the harrowing, winter journey of the Three Wise Men to our old trips around Queensland. It is just so true.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

“Three Wise Men”, Henry Collier fineartamerica.com

There wasn’t much cold in our trips, but we often travelled at the worst time of the year, the hot, wet season – and the ways were indeed often deep with water or mud. At Christmas and New Year we moved to or from isolated parts of the state in either punishing heat or pouring rain, or both, as Con was transferred from school to school as principal. For a break from isolation, for visits to family and a taste of coastal comforts, we took holidays at that time of year too.

Like the Magi’s, our journeys weren’t always easy.

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

Living and working in an isolated place, you may have nowhere to stay when you’re away on holiday. After a week or so with relations or friends, sharing beds and mattresses on the floor, you long for a place of your own.

For Christmas 1973, we’d driven the 2100-kilometre trip from Burketown to Brisbane, with our small children, staying with family; but we soon yearned for the holiday flat we’d booked in Cairns, a three-day trip north. In January 1974 we set off, in the face of warnings of floods and cyclones, just a few weeks before Brisbane suffered catastrophic floods.

On the old Marlborough Stretch, a 240-kilometre section of the Bruce Highway that looped west through lonely cattle country between Marlborough and Sarina, the rivers and creeks north and south of us flooded. We were marooned.

In my story Horror Stretch I’ve described it all – how we spent one night in the car, the next in a broken-down caravan behind a roadhouse. The roadhouse managers charged us to toast the bread we provided for breakfast and shared with other travellers. Then we started north again to wait on the banks of Funnel Creek with all the other travellers for the floods to go down.

Funnel Creek in flood 1974 Pic: Doug Rumsey queenslandplaces.com.au

Hospitality and tourism staff these days are usually well-trained locals or cheerful young foreign backpackers, but you can still encounter lonely, fed-up people, slipshod service, even hostility. The concept of “service” is part of the problem. As in, “You city people come through here expecting us to wait on you. We’re not your servants!”

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

If we stayed in a pub, back then, the beer would be cold, but for “The Ladies”, it was Johnny Walker, brandy, gin or sweet sherry – in the Ladies Lounge.

There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Barista coffee?

“Where do you think you are, mate? Queen Street?”

In a 21st century country motel you’ll probably have a good bed and hot water in the shower, and even a decent air-conditioner; but you may find the pool is green, and the promised free Wi-Fi works only next to the office, not down in Room 23.


Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Often before a long trip, by car in Australia or flying overseas, I’ve thought, “Why are we doing this?

“Why are we leaving our safe home to trust ourselves to bad roads and bad drivers; to a twenty-four-hour flight in a crowded plane; to the risk of lost luggage, tedious queues, passport controls, sickness in a foreign country?

“Why are we spending money we should be saving on a frivolity like travel?”

It is folly; but it’s interesting and exciting. We see things we could never have imagined if we’d stayed home. Snow on the Grand Canyon. Oak trees in Richmond Park, UK.

Snow falling at the Grand Canyon USA

And sometimes it’s the only way we can see our far-flung family.

Measuring an oak tree in Richmond Park UK with the family. This one is 3 hundred years old by our measure…

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

These days the highway from Marlborough to Sarina is shorter, flood-proof and closer to the coast. There is one thing I miss about the old road, though. At the northern end, we would abruptly leave the dry country behind and wind down into the green Tropics- to palm trees and cane fields, sugar mills and rain trees and the relief of safe arrival.

View from the Sarina Range queenslandplaces.com.au

Perhaps one day we’ll brave the “Horror Stretch” again, just for that arrival into Sarina, humid and smelling of vegetation. Not too much of the wet, though.


All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again…

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…

Our grown-up children remember those long trips, with all their delights and discomforts, stresses and miseries and fun. Now they and their children are travellers too, and we all tend to feel discontented if we have to stay in one place for too long.

For months of this last year, Matt and his family have been locked down in the COVID-plagued European cold. They’d love to be in a hot, crowded car, coming down into the green, sunny Queensland tropics once again.

The Journey of the Magi

T S Eliot, 1927

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Islands

You don’t need special tools to husk and crack a coconut. You can do it with a rock.

I went with my family many years ago on a boat trip to Green Island, off Cairns, but for some reason we had no money. Not for us a café lunch with the other tourists. Instead we set off to walk around the small coral island, just one and a half kilometres, with only a packet of Arnotts wheatmeal biscuits to share.

Green Island postcard from the 1960s, about the time Dad cracked open the coconut queenslandplaces.com.au

There was food lying around, though – coconuts fallen from the palms that ringed the island. My dad, always the boy scout, set about opening one of them with a rock – slicing through the husk, then cracking the shell. Fresh coconut meat for lunch.

Back at the wharf with the other, well-fed tourists we felt the slight smugness of those who choose the more adventurous path.

Years later, I went again to Green Island with my own children. It was 1982, and Hayles Cruises had just begun a fast catamaran service to the island. A cold meat and salad buffet was served on the way.

Joe was not quite six at the time, and all he remembers of the day is not the glass-bottomed boat or the underwater observatory, but that to eat our lunch we were provided with double-bowled plastic cats’ dishes. Catamaran. Get it?

Green Island with a modern tourist catamaran greenislandresort.com.au

Queensland has a long coastline and many islands, spread over more than two thousand kilometres, from Torres Strait to Moreton Bay – rocky islands that are an extension of the mainland, coral islands and sand islands. Coconuts grow as far south as the Great Barrier Reef stretches, to the Bundaberg area. Some were planted on the islands by European expeditioners so there would be food for seafarers marooned there in the future.

Queensland’s islands attract tourists and people looking for an idyllic way of life, artists and academics of various disciplines and the occasional filmmaker and politician. The ageing James Mason and teenaged Helen Mirren starred in the 1969 movie “Age of Consent”, filmed on Dunk Island, off Mission Beach, surely one of the most idyllic islands of them all. It was great for the locals to see one of their own beautiful places on the big screen. Con and I watched it at the Airdome Theatre in Innisfail.

“Age of Consent” promotion, 1969 amazon.com

We watched it again last year, and found that our values have changed. The story of a naïve young girl persuaded to take off her clothes to model for the much older artist, and then having an affair with him, seems most unsavoury now.

I first saw Dunk Island (Coonanglebah in the local Indigenous language) from a holiday flat at Mission Beach, a much cheaper option than staying at the island resort. Islands are expensive.

Torres Strait, Australia’s most northerly region, has around 274 islands and coral cays, many uninhabited, with dry and rocky Thursday Island (Waiben to the locals) the administrative centre. There is a story about a group of marine scientists from the United States who went to the Strait to study dugongs. For weeks they went out in boats, searching the seagrass beds for dugongs, and found none. When it was time to leave, they were invited to a local feast. The main course was dugong.

When driving over the Cardwell Range, we often stop at the lookout for one of Queensland’s most spectacular sights: Hinchinbrook Island (Pouandai) – a place of beauty and mystery.

Pouandai (Hinchinbrook Island) seen from the Cardwell Range lookout

Fifty-two uninhabited kilometres of cloud-capped granite mountains, jungle and waterfalls, mangroves and crocodiles and long, long beaches.

Hinchinbrook Island frugalfrolicker.com

Lizzie and I went there on the ferry from Lucinda and walked up the white, sandy beach, sadly littered with plastic bottles and rubbish washed up by the sea, and into the forest to visit beautiful Mulligan Falls for a swim.

Swimming at Mulligan Falls

Hinchinbrook Island used to have a resort. Ruined by financial difficulties, and then by Cyclone Yasi in 2011, it is now derelict, like the lush resort on Dunk Island. If you want to stay on Hinchinbrook, perhaps to hike the rugged Thorsborne Trail, you have to book ahead, and take everything you need on your back.

My kids recall with pleasure a family boat trip around the Whitsunday Islands, off Airlie Beach and Proserpine, during our 1982 trip.

South Molle Island before Cyclone Debbie queenslandplaces.com.au

We called at Hook Island, and then South Molle Island – memorable to the kids because of its magnificent swimming pool.

These islands are a tourism magnet – or they were before Cyclone Debbie arrived. Cyclone Debbie, in January 2017, wiped out the South Molle Resort. It now lies rotting away in the heat, its fine pool derelict.

South Molle Resort pool three years after Cyclone Debbie newsflare.com

The climate is challenging. It’s also extremely expensive to build and maintain isolated island resorts to the high standards expected by modern tourists. Many of these idyllic places may never recover, but in the Whitsundays, Hayman, Daydream, and Hamilton Islands have reopened for business.

Fraser Island (K’gari), the world’s largest sand island, is 122 kilometres long, and World Heritage listed for its variety of outstanding natural features – rainforest, long sandy beaches, gorgeous freshwater lakes perched in its sand dunes.

Two of Sidney Nolan’s iconic Fraser Island paintings in Queensland Art Gallery

With friends in a 4WD we drove up that wonderful stretch of beach past people swimming and sunbathing and fishing in the surf.

Fraser Island queensland.com

Crossing the island on sand tracks we visited Lake Mackenzie and the beautiful clear water of Eli Creek, and stayed the night at Kingfisher Bay Resort.

Late last year, a bushfire started from an illegal campfire in the national park in the northern part of Fraser Island was allowed to burn through much of the precious bushland before serious firefighting began. Professional firefighting resources were not brought in until “assets” were under threat – Kingfisher Bay Resort, for instance. If the World Heritage forests of Fraser Island are not its chief “assets”, however that is defined, I don’t know what is.

Fraser Island burning couriermail.com.au

Do insurance companies contribute heavily to fire brigades? Maybe that has something to do with it. National parks don’t make insurance claims.

I hope one day I’ll get to visit Lady Musgrave Island (Wallanginji), a tiny, protected coral cay at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. I’d like to snorkel in the clear waters of the lagoon, spot green and loggerhead turtles, dolphins and birds, as our Lizzie and her family did a couple of years ago. For them, it was an unforgettable experience

Snorkelling with turtles at Wallanginji

You can camp there, with a permit, and I’ve heard that large sea turtles have been known to crawl through campsites and under tents, single-mindedly heading for a sandy spot to lay their eggs or on their way back to the sea.

Camping at Wallanginji (Lady Musgrave Island)

So many Queensland islands to write about, and I haven’t even started on the Moreton Bay islands, some of the most beautiful of them all.

No coconuts there though.

A Dugong Sanctuary…

Clairview is a nice place to spend the night and break a journey up the Bruce Highway. A cabin by the sea, a meal on the deck of the tavern, a park for the kids to play in, a paddle in the calm waters… and, according to this article, its a dugong sanctuary! Who knew?

XPLORE - Out & About

The waters surrounding Clairview on the sunny Capricorn Coast was declared a Dugong Sanctuary in 1997. Even the casual observer can spot these magnificent mammals from the shoreline as they feed on the sea grasses.

Photos: Janet & Baz

Ps: We photographed this magnificent Dugong in another location (we weren’t so lucky to get up this close at Clairview!)


About us…

We love the colours of the Australian Outback, the red earth touching a blue sky on a faraway horizon; and the fabulous coastline of our sunburnt country, where a golden sandy beach is washed over by a warm turquoise blue sea…

A few years ago we graduated from work and re-entered the classroom of life where an education is guaranteed and all that is needed is an open mind.

Cheers, Baz & Janet

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Hazards Under the House

In the soft soil under his childhood house, Brisbane writer Matthew Condon built a little city with timber off-cuts, rocks and old plastic flowerpots. He dug a ditch for the river and filled it with tap water, watching the water soak away into the dirt.[1]

His house sat on a slope, and he was probably playing where the floor above was close above his head, not where there was space for the laundry and the car. He could hear footsteps and the television from the house above, which gave him a sense of security and belonging in this secret space that adults never visited.

There was a space like that under my childhood house in Nambour, too, with little cone-shaped antlion traps in the dirt, designed to trap passing insects. You could drop a small ball of spit into the little trap and hope to lure out the antlion lurking underneath, or try to tease it out by tickling the soil softly with a twig.

Antlion trap en.wikipedia.org

“Grandfather Noble lived under our house in Velution Street,” Con tells me. “The ground was mainly dirt there, too, but there was a concrete pad with his bed and a wardrobe.”

There would have been carpet snakes and cane toads as well as mosquitoes under that old Innisfail house. I hope Grandfather had a mozzie net.

“Grandfather always smoked a pipe, and he had a bone-handled knife for cutting up his tobacco. I wonder where it is now? He’d come upstairs for meals.

“Grandfather was kind to me. I was ten when he died, and I wish I could remember more about him.

Con a baby in arms, Grandfather Noble on the right, in front of the house at Velution St, Innisfail

“And when we moved across to East Innisfail we played cards under the house. That’s where I learned to play crib. We’d play all day down there, my brother Jim, Old Con, Uncle George and I.”

The house in Coronation Drive, East Innisfail, today

“Under the house” is a Queensland concept, a tropical thing. There were many reasons for building these timber houses on stumps, with open space underneath. It made them easy to move from place to place and it provided some protection from pests. It kept the dwelling space above flood waters. If built high enough, it doubled the amount of usable shelter. There was more chance of catching a breeze.

A typical un-altered Queensland house, at Woolloongabba

You might have to watch out, though, or you’d bump your head on the beams supporting the bare floorboards above. Another under the house hazard.

Visitors – from Britain or the USA, for instance – might see the many houses up on stumps and ask why.

“It’s because of the snakes. If there’s a space under the house they’ll crawl right through and disappear. Otherwise, they’ll come inside.”

That’s a story to tease tourists with, but it has some truth in it. Rosevale, outside Ipswich, was notorious for snakes, and we lived there in an old timber house on low stumps. Out in the yard one day, toddler Matt saw our cat staring fixedly at a patch of long grass. He started over to see what she was looking at.

The cat suddenly reared back. Con snatched Matt up in his arms and then watched in horror as two long brown snakes slid out of the grass, across the concrete path, and disappeared into that low, dark space under the house.

Our Joe went down one night, bare footed, to get a bottle of wine from the fridge under his North Queensland house, and glimpsed something scaly underneath the fridge. It turned out to be a deadly taipan sheltering in the warmth there, its belly full of eggs.

A coastal taipan, like the one under Joe’s house smuggled.com

If the house is high enough the hot water system will be set up down there, and usually the laundry, too. It’s a place for storage, for drying the washing in wet weather, and for children to play – riding their scooters round the posts, drawing with chalk on the concrete, building roads and rivers in the dirt. You can park the car there, and the lawn mower. You can entertain friends there, or sit with a cold drink and a book, because under the house has one particularly fine feature: it’s always cooler than upstairs.

Playing under the house

Many sprawling new housing developments consist of houses on concrete slabs, including in regional areas – Kingaroy, Atherton, Roma. Those houses are easy to air-condition, but people must miss having that extra space underneath; and sometimes new house slabs go under floods even before building begins.

In Townsville, since the construction of the Ross River Dam upstream, hundreds of new houses have been built on low land; and when extreme rainfall in early 2019 forced the release of water from the dam, many hundreds of them were flooded, to the despair of their owners.

New houses, Townsville, 2019 floods thenewdaily.com.au

In the older houses on stumps anything under the house was wrecked, but the living areas were spared.

An older, high-set house, Townsville floods 2019 news-mail.com.au

Nowadays, people often decide to lift their houses up high and build in underneath. Perhaps you own an old house near the river and want to lift the living space above flood level, or you’ve bought a house in town and moved it out on to a block of land in the country. You’ll need to check the building regulations. If you want to build in under your house, you will need to allow 2100mm minimum ceiling height for utility rooms and hallways, and 2400mm for living spaces; and you’ll need to replace those old hardwood or concrete posts with steel.

Old houses that have been hoisted up high on steel posts look silly, like a long-legged lady with her skirts hitched up. That’s until they’ve been built in underneath, painted grey and white and turned into lush “Hamptons” style dwellings that look great on a real estate website.

A house at Tennyson, close to the flood-prone Brisbane River, lifted high and ready for renovation

I ask my grandson Jim if there is anything hazardous about being under his house, with its old concrete posts a little under regulation height. Maybe snakes or spiders?  

He puts his hand on a beam perfectly positioned for hitting your head.

“Just this,” he answers wryly.

Our Burketown house was a government-built dwelling, regulation height. Under the house was dirt and gravel, with a meat-ant nest in one corner, but there were clothes wires strung between the steel posts. Washing hung there at night would be dry by morning.

The concrete-floored laundry was down there, with concrete tubs and a gas-fired clothes boiler. It also held our 32-volt wringer-style washing machine, powered by a generator with storage batteries in a shed down the back.

A wringer-style washing machine, like ours

One night I left a load of sheets in the machine, soaking in the rinse water, and in the morning went down to put them through the wringer before hanging them out to dry.

During the night, a big green tree frog had hopped into the water. The first I knew of it was the sight and sound of that frog disappearing feet-first through the wringer rollers.

A frog being crushed in a wringer makes a horrible noise.

It had gone through before I had time to click the rollers apart.

I told Marg from down the road about it, sitting on the back steps with a mug of tea.

“That’s nothing,” said Marg, a typical frankly-spoken Gulf Country local.

“I heard of a woman who got her tits caught in a wringer.”

Not so difficult to imagine in the heat of the Tropics, where many a woman, reaching a certain age, decides that a bra is unnecessary torture. In the Gulf Country I heard so many bizarre and unbelievable stories that turned out to be true I decided I might as well just believe the lot; including this one.

Snakes, mozzies, cane toads, floods, concussion – and the wringer.

“Under the house” is a fine Queensland institution, but it has its hazards.


[1] “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. UNSW Press, Sydney

Native Solitary Bee Home Trial

Interesting project trialling different types of bee homes in Brisbane parks. It’s all good unless a possum decides to take up residence!

Pollinator Link

By: Michael Fox

Australia has over 2,000 species of solitary native bees of which twelve have been identified within Mt Gravatt Conservation Reserve. My first introduction to these special locals was wondering about the green insect flying past while we were having coffee outside. A video captured this female Leafcutter Bee flying into the back of the cat’s scratching post with pieces of leaf rolled between her legs to make a nest for her eggs. Solitary native bees do not form colonies and make honey.

Guardian Bee Home with Bunnings Bee Home

The initial aim of the Pollinator Link® project was to create wildlife links between urban bushland with Water, Food and Shelter in backyards, balcony gardens, schoolyards, etc. Pollinator Link® team is proactively increasing invertebrate diversity with the Guardian Bee Home project and promoting the importance of Plant Local to Feed Local.

The support of Cr…

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Brisbane’s Suburban Charm

“I hate Brisbane. It’s nothing but traffic, traffic lights, bitumen, powerlines and car yards. Everyone’s in a rush. It’s ugly. It’s impersonal. In the country, everyone knows everyone else. I can’t wait to get back home.”

That’s what people from Queensland’s farms and regional towns sometimes say, after a reluctant and fleeting visit. They’re right about the ugly side of the city; but that’s not the whole story. Brisbane is a beautiful place, once you turn off those main roads with their frantic traffic.

It’s a city of hills and creeks and gullies. David Malouf wrote, “Brisbane is hilly. Walk two hundred metres in almost any direction outside the central city and you get a view – a new view. It is all gullies and sudden vistas.”

The hills can be a challenge. David Malouf also wrote, “Brisbane is a city that tires the legs and demands a certain sort of breath.”

It’s because of its terrain that Brisbane has so much green space. The creeks and river rise up in heavy rain and flood the banks, and debris across parks and walkways marks just how far the water came up. You can’t build houses on these flood plains. Instead there are sports fields, playgrounds, plantings, fig trees, bushland and pathways.

A disc golf goal on a course beside the creek at Moorooka

Scattered along the pathways and suburban streets are cute little street libraries and honesty boxes of home-made jams and pickles.

Street Library in an old fridge, Kelvin Grove

You can go from the top of Mount Coot-tha to the river, and even to Moreton Bay, on walking tracks or cycle paths along the creeks. Without leaving the city, you can find an octopus on the sand at Redcliffe or explore the mangroves at Wynnum.

An octopus washed up on Suttons Beach, Redcliffe
Along the mangrove boardwalk, Wynnum

Some quiet suburban streets and cul de sacs are secret heavens. I walk down them on a typically beautiful Brisbane day, and think, “People here must feel smug – they’ve found a perfect place to live.” Down every gully there is a green and peaceful park, often lovingly nurtured and developed by a local Bush Care group, and in many, a flourishing community vegetable garden.

Community garden, Moorooka

Almost anything will grow in a Brisbane backyard, from avocado trees to cacti, and there are mango trees and bananas, lemon and lime trees and hedges of rosemary.

In the occasional yard there is nothing growing but grass, which must take dedicated mowing over years on the part of the owners, in a climate where wattles and eucalypts, African tulips and coral trees, cassias and camphor laurels will grow without encouragement on any empty piece of land.

There are quirky sights in the suburbs, such as on an otherwise boring, 1960s block of flats in West End, where a creative solution to clothes drying has full-sized rotary clothes hoists, as normally seen in back yards, planted on each balcony.

Creative clothes line solution at West End

There are gardens with old-fashioned flower beds, charming letterboxes and quaint creatures among the plants.

Cute front yard at Tarragindi
At Holland Park, a letter box that matches the house

There is a collection of old engines in a sprawling Sunnybank yard.

Old steam engine, part of a collection at Sunnybank

There’s a skeleton guarding a rooftop not far from Greenslopes Hospital.

Skeleton on a roof at Greenslopes

Last year, in that strange time of lockdowns and isolation, Con and I went exploring on foot, and we saw the suburbs of Brisbane in more detail than ever before.

There are trees flowering all year round, but they are most spectacular in Spring: jacarandas, silky oaks, flame trees and poinsettia, and the natives: sterculia, huge spreading tallow woods and gums.

Jacarandas in Norman Park
Sterculia in bloom, Mt Gravatt

I’ve begun a new Pandemic project: to collect all the colours of frangipani. They grow easily from a broken-off piece, left to dry in a dark place. Carrying a plastic bag to stop the sticky sap dripping, and seeking low branches hanging over front fences, I now have acquired pieces of red, yellow, apricot and deep pink-flowering trees. I’ll plant them in a row in a new stretch of garden beside the house. They’ll be a reminder of a challenging time, when I found comfort in walking the suburbs of a beautiful city.

Frangipani, Woolloongabba

Queensland at Christmas

We were slow to put up a Christmas tree that year. Matt, seven years old, got anxious. Maybe we weren’t going to have a tree? He couldn’t bear the thought.

At the time we were living in Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, in a house was just a hundred metres from the edge of the Coral Sea, at the bottom of a steep hillside covered in tropical forest. Following the coconut palm-lined beach, a dirt track led around to the Point, a popular fishing spot.

Looking over Yarrabah

Matt went under the house and found the old blockbuster, heavier and blunter than an axe and nearly as big as he was. He dragged the blockbuster down the dirt road past our house and out along Point Road to a spot where casuarina pines were growing; then he set about chopping one down.

Half an hour later, Matt arrived back at our front door, accompanied by a local man who had been walking along the track with his family on the way back from fishing. He had been amused to find little Mattie trying to chop down a tree twice as tall as he was, and kindly chopped it down for him. Then he brought Matt, the blockbuster and the tree home to our house.

It was a surprise to me, because I thought Matt had been playing under the house the whole time.

We always have some kind of Christmas tree. If we’re away from home I’ll find something green to hang a few baubles on and put presents under. An artificial plant in a holiday apartment at Maroochydore (holiday apartments always have some kind of artificial greenery, it seems), shrubs outside our cabin the year we spent Christmas in a caravan park at Dorrigo, N.S.W.

Christmas at Dorrigo, NSW

One year I found a dead tree branch, sprayed it white, planted it in a basket full of rocks and hung tinsel and decorations on it. I felt smug about my creativeness, but my kids weren’t impressed. Kids have their standards about what a Christmas tree should look like.

Living in Woodford, west of Caboolture and not far from the sprawling Caribbean pine plantations of the Glasshouse Mountains area, before Christmas we would drive down a dirt track in the pine forest until we found a suitable-sized tree, one that had seeded beside the track. Those exotic species sprout everywhere, even in people’s roof guttering and plant pots.

Glasshouse Mountains pine forest Qld Parks and Wildlife Service

We would chop the tree down and bring it home for a Christmas tree. The kids didn’t like that much, either – Caribbean pines smell good, but they’re not lush and thick, and they don’t have a traditional Christmas tree shape.

Eventually I got tired of chopping down trees, and to the scorn and outrage of the family, I bought a plastic one. We’ve now been using that same plastic tree for thirty years and three generations.

2020 – another generation decorates the old plastic tree

Sometimes in Queensland we have a fairly mild Christmas, as we did in Brisbane in 2020: 28C and cloudy. Occasionally we get a wet Christmas.  It’s safest, though, wherever you are in the state, to plan for heat. That Christmas evening in Dorrigo we ate under a fine, cool mist; but we arrived back in Brisbane a couple of days later to find that candles we’d left on the sideboard had melted and drooped in the heat.

One memorable 25 December in Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs, when I was a teenager, the temperature must have been in the mid-40s. My mother was trying to cook a traditional Christmas roast dinner in our wood-burning stove, but it wasn’t drawing properly and she couldn’t get the oven hot enough. My brother climbed on to the corrugated iron roof in the blazing sunshine to try and unblock the chimney. The whole kitchen was like an oven. The plastic tea towel rack melted and sagged and the tea towels slid off on to the floor.

Mum cooked a hot roast dinner every Christmas, roast veges and all, then a hot Christmas pudding. That year in Jandowae she said, “Never again.” It was cold meats and salads from then on; but she still did the pudding.

The further you go from the coast in Queensland, the hotter it’s likely to be – well into the 40s in such places as Quilpie and Thargomindah; but usually it’s a dry heat.  The coastal hinterland can deliver something special: high temperatures plus humidity. That’s what we got one year at Rosevale, south west of Ipswich.

It was the Christmas of 1972, and Con and I had a full house. Family camped in the field next door, devoured by mosquitoes every night; and the back yard toilet had to be emptied more often than usual.

That was Con’s regular job. He would dig a hole in the paddock beyond the back fence and bury the contents of the toilet pan. On Christmas Eve he conscripted my brother John to help him (the same one who’d gotten on the roof on a previous Christmas to clear the chimney – a useful bloke).

The pan was full almost to the brim. “Tread carefully”, Con warned him as they carried it across the yard, one on either handle. “We don’t want it to spill.”

“I was never more sure-footed in my life,” said John.

On Christmas Day, desperate from the heat, we pumped up the kids’ little inflatable pool next to the tank stand and all got in it, under the hose: three generations squeezed in together.

Three generations in the paddling pool – Rosevale, Christmas Day, 1972

That Christmas Day was reportedly Brisbane’s hottest on record: 39C. As the hinterland is regularly hotter in summer by several degrees, Rosevale would have reached 42C at least. 

At the State Library of Queensland, a year or so ago, there was a display of old photos of Queenslanders doing typical Queenslander things. Among them, to my delight, was a photo of a Beaudesert family on that same Christmas Day in 1972, trying to keep cool the same way we were at Rosevale, just an hour’s drive away.

Same day, an hour’s drive away State Library of Qld: “Rolley and Croker families at Beaudesert 1972”

These days as a family we’re spoilt at Christmas, with a cold lunch of ham and salads, fans and air-conditioning, and even indoor, flushing toilets.

We still have an inflatable back-yard pool, though – and the old plastic Christmas Tree. Some traditions should never die.

Backyard Christmas 2020 – NQ Cowboys shirt, Brisbane Broncos shorts. Can’t get much more Queensland than that.

Syphoning Petrol

I stood by the side of the road, watching Con as he sucked petrol through a plastic tube. He’d done it before, so he knew when the moment came to stop sucking and put his thumb over the end of the tube to stop any air from getting in, then quickly push the tube into the car’s petrol tank.

He was syphoning from a five-gallon petrol can balanced on the boot of the car, with another one in reserve.

When he was fifteen, Con’s older brother Jim had taught told him how to go about it, in their father’s Shell depot in Innisfail.

“You have to judge it just right. If it doesn’t work the first time and you have to do it again, you’ll end up with a mouthful of petrol.”

He did end up with a mouthful of petrol, the first time he tried it. Jim took him next door to the “Goondi Hill” and bought him a beer.

“That’s only one thing that’ll get rid of the taste of petrol. Beer. Get into it.”

The petrol tank of our second-hand Holden sedan didn’t hold enough to get us the 476 kilometres from Burketown to Julia Creek. We’d drive south from Burketown on the gravel road and take a left-hand turn at Augustus Downs, past Talawanta Station, to meet the bitumen at Donor’s Hill, on the Normanton road. From there the road would take us southeast to Julia Creek. In all that distance there was no roadhouse or petrol station: just a few tracks disappearing off into the bush to cattle stations.

Flat country, long distances

Gulf of Carpentaria cattle stations are vast places, famous in the north west: Armraynald, Floraville, Augustus Downs, Talawanta, Donor’s Hill. It’s these stations, often over a thousand square kilometres in area, that appear on the road map, rather than towns or localities. The stations are small towns in themselves, with the big homestead, staff accommodation, stores, sheds, workshops, yards, trucks and machinery and an airstrip with the inevitable windsock flying. On the roof of the largest shed, the name of the station is painted in large block letters to guide the Flying Doctor and the other planes and helicopters that are so vital to life out here.

Armraynald Station homestead and outbuildings from the air paraway.com.au

Sometimes the planes buzz the homestead to let the staff know that they need to drive out and chase cattle off the landing strip.

In our day, Lawn Hill station, further west, kept a full-time pilot, with his own cottage. To locals, this is nothing unusual; but to outsiders like us, extraordinary.

The people in the Gulf were generous with their assistance and their time when we came to grief on these rough and isolated roads. We were twice rescued by local passers-by. Once, it happened on the road north of Julia Creek. Con had been given a ride down from Burketown at the end of the wet season to pick up our car, which we’d left in the Julia Creek school yard. On his way home, up the Normanton road, the car stopped and refused to start again.

Luckily, along came a couple of blokes, father and son, who towed the Holden to their fencing camp, off the road in the bush.

“Where are you heading, mate?” asked the father.

“Burketown”, said Con.

“Well, you’d better camp out here with us,” said the father. “We’ll cook you a couple of steaks over the fire.”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind a trip to Burketown,” said the son. “We’ll drive you home, have a few drinks at the pub and spend the night there.”

They covered our car with leafy branches to keep it out of sight and drove Con home: almost two hundred kilometres. A few days later, the local mechanic drove out in his truck to collect the car and bring it to Burketown for repair.

The following year, when on the way east after the Wet season, we got bogged at the Talawanta waterhole, west of Donor’s Hill Station. We tried to dig ourselves out of the mud, but couldn’t manage it. We needed help. With two little kids in the car, we had no choice but to wait for someone to come along.

After an hour or so, a couple of stockmen appeared in a Holden ute, avoiding the bog, and they tried to tow us out. The tow rope broke. They offered to drive Con the thirty-odd kilometres to Donor’s Hill to get help. It was late in the afternoon, and watching them disappear down the dusty road, I realised the kids and I might be in for a long, lonely wait.

A few metres off the road, in the edge of the bush, I swept a patch of earth clear of leaf litter and branches and spread out a blanket for little Matt and Lizzie to play on. I gave them some toys from the car and something to eat. In the far west, no one travels without water and basic food supplies. Before dark fell, I lit a fire and put a billy on for tea.

It was fun, setting up that little camp, soon with no light but for a torch and the firelight. Eventually, headlights appeared to the West, and a Toyota, seeing our bogged car and the light of the campfire, pulled up. Two men got out, and I watched a little nervously as they approached.

I’d met one of them in Burketown – the representative of a Stock and Station agency. I told them I’d be okay by myself until Con came back with help, but they stayed to keep me company. They had some prawns, and a cold carton of VB beer, so we had a little picnic together, and I was grateful.

Con, meanwhile, had been dropped off at Donor’s Hill, and waited for the manager to come in from working with the cattle. The manager wanted his dinner, but instead he and his wife, people we’d never met and certainly had no claim on, brought Con back in their 4WD to pull us out of the bog.

This happened years ago. These days, the road from Burketown to Julia Creek and Cloncurry is more direct, going south past Nardoo and missing Donors’ Hill. Halfway to Julia Creek, where the modern-day Wills Developmental Road crosses the Burke Developmental Road leading north to Normanton, you can buy petrol, and even a hot meal, at the Burke and Wills Roadhouse.

Burke and Wills Roadhouse mapio.net

But life can still be brutal out here. Both Donor’s Hill Station and Burke and Wills Junction lie within the western section of the Flinders River catchment; and in January 2019, record rainfall caused the river to flood across its wide, flat plains. It rained for a week, and the cattle that didn’t drown had nowhere to go.

Flinders catchment floods, January 2019 news.com.au

Across that vast catchment, an estimated 500,000 cattle died of drowning, exposure and starvation, with station people unable to get out to save them. After the waters went down, the stink of rotting carcasses was appalling, flies and other insects swarmed, and the station people worked through it all in the heat, burying their animals in huge pits while grieving for prize herds.

Stranded cattle, Gulf Country floods, January 2019 abc.net.au

We lived in the Gulf for only three years, but we came away with an appreciation for the generosity and toughness of the people who live and work there that will never leave us.

 And if we lived there now, we wouldn’t attempt those muddy, post-wet-season roads in a Holden sedan. We’d drive a big, powerful, air-conditioned four-wheel drive.

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