In commemoration of Steve Irwin Day (November 15), Queensland Museum reflects on the species they’ve named in honour of the Wildlife Warriors. From a striking new species of snail, to a discovery of miniscule arachnid proportions, we’re admiring the Irwin legacy and the creatures they inspire.
At a Snail’s Pace
2009 sparked the start of the Irwin tribute, as a new species and genus of snail came into detection. Determined as a rare breed of tree snail, Queensland Museum honorary and snail whisperer, Dr John Stanisic, sited the unexpected location of the gastropod.
“So far it has only been found in three locations, all on the summits of high mountains in far north Queensland and at altitudes above 1,000 metres, which is quite unusual for Australian land snails”
Dr John Stanisic, 2009
The snail itself presented a distinguished colour scheme of creamy yellow, orange-brown and chocolate, creating an overall khaki…
Well, not actually in the house. I was born in the hospital down the road.
The doctor who’d delivered me dropped in on Dad on his way home. They were old army comrades, so the doctor walked straight into the house, into the bedroom and shook Dad awake.
“You have a baby daughter,” he told him.
“That’s good,” said Dad, and went straight back to sleep.
Dad was an excellent sleeper.
Ours was a post-war weatherboard house, almost ground-level at the front and on high stumps at the back. For the first year or so the timber was oiled brown, because there was a paint shortage post-war. My earliest memories are of that house, and I love that simple wooden style still, with the elegance of its horizontal lines of overlapping boards, layered to keep the rain out. No fretwork or iron lace, just some battens, perhaps, or geometrical woodwork trims. It’s how they built through the depression, wartime and post-war years.
As a teenager, my mother lived in Landsborough, in a late nineteenth century timber house. It’s still there, beside the road to Maleny. It has verandahs round three sides, pretty timber fretwork on the many verandah posts, a fancy front door, French doors on to the verandah, and a separate kitchen out the back.
In the vandalistic years of the 1960s and 1970s I mourned for these charming houses as Brisbane bulldozers knocked them down to be replaced by brick six-pack blocks of flats or pretentious mansions.
Now they are valued, for their charm and for their timber. Irreplaceable hardwoods from Queensland forests.
There are mid-twentieth century weatherboard houses by the thousands across Brisbane and the regions, and they have proved their durability.
They sprawl across the outer-inner suburbs (or is it inner-outer?) such as Kedron, Holland Park, Moorooka and Tarragindi. Many of them are simple housing commission houses, now valued for their location and for their solid timber construction. In the old streets of Holland Park the street plantings of the period, jacarandas and poinsettias, are now gnarled, shady and beautiful; and young families build cubby houses in huge backyard mango trees.
My Dad’s family lived in a 1920s-30s weatherboard beauty in Nambour, with gables, timber arches and a handsome staircase.
It was sold for removal, years ago. That’s another feature of timber houses: they can be cut up, loaded on a truck, moved to another town and put back together again. I’m always amused when driving through Burpengary at the sight of all the houses perched up on blocks there, ready for sale, just like items in a shop. Many of these houses come from the rapidly developing suburbs of Brisbane, and they’re often moved to subdivisions in nearby regional areas. A tricky business, always undertaken at night when the roads are quiet.
In Woodford, the old school house we’d been living in was sold for removal, to make way for a new administration block for the school.
Many grand, two-storied, verandahed country hotels were built of timber, because there was so much hardwood available in Queensland forests early last century. Now it would be impossibly expensive, and the hardwood would probably be imported from Papua New Guinea or Indonesia’s threatened forests.
In Killarney, on the south-eastern Darling Downs, Killarney Hotel is proof of the durability of hardwoods. I spent a couple of nights in that fine old weatherboard building, several years ago, and heard from the publican about all the times that the Condamine River, only a couple of hundred metres behind the hotel, has risen up and flooded it. And yet it stands, still providing beer and beds.
I like the charming timber public buildings in the regions, such as the spectacular Surat Shire Hall, built in 1929; the School of Arts, Mount Morgan, built in 1924 and setting up for early voting when we visited; Ravenswood Courthouse, a tropical-style government building dating from 1884 and now a museum; quaint Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Theodore, dedicated in 1934, that I spotted on a recent road trip down the Leichhardt Highway; the pretty Emerald Railway Station, dating from 1900.
With the distances involved and cost of transport, with economic stress and the problem of termites, in some parts of the state, especially in the tropics, other building materials have been used in preference to timber. Concrete is popular in the north, and so is fibro; and earlier last century, corrugated iron. I’m pleased I haven’t had to spend a summer in a house made of corrugated iron.
Starting with the Nambour house where I was born, I’ve lived in twelve timber houses, including six school residences dating from the early 1900s to the late 1970s. I now live in a mid-1970s house of brick and weatherboard, so I haven’t gone all that far from my origins.
There won’t be many more of these Queensland hardwood houses built.
Perhaps we should all plant eucalypts in our back yards. In a hundred years’ time, they’ll be worth their enormous weight in gold.
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.
P.S. We took our road trip north, and had a great trip, with no confrontation with heavy vehicles.
I found the Peak Range, a spectacular sight from both the Dawson and Peak Downs Highways. According to an information board, the peak closest to the road is not in fact Wolfgang Peak, at least not to locals. It’s Wolfang Peak. That’s a better name for it, because a wolf’s fang is what it looks like.
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.
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