Sweet Potato

At lunch time, behind the school, Con and his mates used to dig up sweet potatoes.

“We gave the big ones to the nuns, but us kids would eat the small ones, raw. They were sweet and juicy.”

Con went to the Good Counsel Convent school in Innisfail, run by the Good Samaritan Sisters (the Good Sammies, as they were affectionately known.) The red volcanic soil of Innisfail is ideal for growing sweet potatoes, but they’ll grow happily anywhere in Queensland, if there’s warmth, soft soil and good rain. They’re a staple across the South Pacific. They flourished in Nambour, too: in my family’s backyard.

Our yard, on a then new sub-division on Mapleton Road, sloped down towards a farm with a bull paddock. The fence was flimsy. Once, when plumbers were working on our septic tank, they occupied their smoko time with teasing the bull. My mother watched out the bedroom window, expecting the bull to break through the fence at any moment and chase the plumbers up the slope. She was disappointed when it didn’t happen.

“I’d have liked to see them trying to run up that slope, catching their feet in the sweet potato vines,” she said.

In Con’s tropical Innisfail yard there were banana plants, papaws, mangoes, passionfruit vines and citrus trees. It’s still the same in the North.

Citrus growing by the beach, Tully Heads
Loaded mango tree outside the police station in Chillagoe, west of Cairns

Our garden in Nambour, a 1500 km drive south and officially in the sub-tropics, had bananas and papaws, too, and also loquats, guavas, rosella plants, a mulberry bush and a big mango tree, left over from farm days. Across the state, a group of fine old mango trees, Moreton Bay figs and hoop pines often indicates that a farmhouse once stood there.

Mango tree flourishing beside a derelict farmhouse, Babinda

In Nambour, we never got to eat our guavas, because we would forget about them until we could smell the fruit. By then, it was too late – they’d be full of fruit fly grubs.

There was a flourishing choko vine on our fence. I haven’t eaten chokos since Mum used to cook them, serving them in white sauce to give them some flavour.

In these days of supply chain problems, we should all have a choko vine along the fence, along with all the other fruits and veggies that grow so well in Queensland.

Bananas growing beside a West End house

Sadly, in old migrant suburbs like West End, because of high property values and the move towards denser housing, many fine backyard fruit and vegetable gardens are disappearing.

Papaws, West End

The Sunshine Coast hinterland north of Brisbane is perfect for growing tropical fruits and citrus in the backyard. In our Woodford yard, as well as an old mango tree there were macadamias, lemons, bananas, and a large custard apple tree of the bullock heart variety.

Looking from under our Woodford mango tree towards the custard apple tree. In the background are macadamias and bananas

Huge productive avocado trees grow almost wild in Maleny backyards.

Dragon fruit vines smother Brisbane gum trees and loaded passionfruit vines festoon suburban fences; but the biggest passionfruit vine I ever saw was growing over the toilet block in the yard of the Silkwood Hotel, north of Tully. It provided shade over people enjoying a drink in the beer garden, and masses of fruit; possibly nourished by the septic tank.

In the beer garden of the Silkwood Hotel, under that enormous passionfruit vine

We tend to take all this splendid bounty for granted, since it grows in spite of us and requires no care. Fruits that are rarities in cold climate countries are part of our everyday environment in much of Queensland, and visitors are amazed by them. When taking a drive around the Glasshouse Mountains with overseas visitors we stopped beside a pineapple farm with its neat rows of plants and young, green pineapples. Pines, as we used to call them. Our German friend looked at them in amazement. “So that’s how they grow!” he said.

“Mixed Farm with Sunflowers, Glasshouse Mountains”, painted by Anne Marie Graham

I feel the same amazement when I visit Europe and see apple trees in fruit, hanging over people’s garden walls, or when I look at photos of my granddaughter picking apples in her Opa’s Berlin garden.

Picking apples in a Berlin garden

In York, U.K., in my friend’s wintery garden there was an enormous pear tree. It had one yellow pear still hanging on it on, metres above the ground. I’d had no idea that pear trees grew so big, and that you could just grow them in your back yard.

That big Nambour mango tree is long gone now, making way for brick and concrete; and in the old bull paddock there is a sprawl of houses. I’d be willing to bet sweet potato vines are still flourishing somewhere nearby, though.

When I first had a meal at my future mother-in-law Min’s house in Innisfail she said, “Do you like sweet potato?”

I didn’t, but of course I said yes. From then on, it was always on the menu when we ate there.

Years later when we visited, Min, now elderly, looked exhausted.

“What have you been doing, Mum?” Con asked.

“Well, I didn’t have any sweet potato, and I know Rose loves it, so I walked into town to buy some,” she replied.

A kilometre each way in the tropical heat.

It wasn’t the right time to tell her the truth. That time never came.

Every now and then I buy sweet potatoes, in Min’s memory, and put them in the potato basket and forget about them. By the time I notice them again they have sprouted, so I throw them out in the garden to rot away and nourish the soil.

Thrown-out sweet potato that won’t die

They don’t rot, though; they keep growing until I trip over the vines.

Passionfruit vine growing over a telephone booth, Bingil Bay

The Mabo Decision 30 years on… the legacy lives on

A fine Queensland story. We lived in Townsville around the time the Mabo Native Title case began to be formulated, and one evening we had the experience of meeting Eddie Koiki Mabo, when he worked as groundsman at JCU.

The Queensland Museum Network Blog

By Leitha Assan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Cultures

From its inception in Townsville in 1981 to the High Court victory on 3 June 1992, 2022 marks 30 years since the historical landmark Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court of Australia.The High Court ruled that the Meriam people were entitled to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of their Islands, effectively recognising their Native Title. Native Title is the recognition by Australian law of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people’s traditional laws and customs that are connected to lands and waters.

More than 100 years after European settlement, a group of Islanders – namely Reverend Dave Passi, Deacon Sam Passi Snr, James Rice, one Meriam woman, Celuia Mapo Salee and led by Eddie Koiki Mabo – won a landmark legal battle against the Queensland and Australian governments. They proved that Islanders are the customary owners of land on Mer, Waier…

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Breached! — The Eternal Traveller

Interesting times along Pumicestone Passage, as local blogger The Eternal Traveller tells us. Queensland’s shifting sand islands are always on the move.

https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=%211m18%211m12%211m3%211d227603.82078583835%212d153.00129156397605%213d-26.957090214481568%212m3%211f0%212f0%213f0%213m2%211i1024%212i768%214f13.1%213m3%211m2%211s0x6b93969ba2f07c5b%3A0x2f2634a069ccf88a%212sBribie+Island%215e0%213m2%211sen%212sau%214v1653699601414%215m2%211sen%212sau

Bribie Island, Queensland The calm waters of Pumicestone Passage separate the quiet coastal suburb of Golden Beach from the narrow strip of land just offshore that is Bribie Island. The island hugs the coast from the northern end of Brisbane to Caloundra, creating a barrier between the open ocean of Moreton Bay and Pumicestone Passage. […]

Breached! — The Eternal Traveller

My Life in Bugs

I’m walking through a forest of scribbly gums, eucalypts iconic in Australia because of the scribbles on their trunks that fascinate children and adults. May Gibbs used scribbly gums, among other iconic images, to illustrate the children’s classic, “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”.

Scribbly gum in”Snugglepot and Cuddlepie Meet Mr Lizard”, May Gibbs

The scribbles are caused by the meandering path of the larvae of the scribbly gum moth through the bark of its host.

Scribbles on a scribbly gum, J C Trotter Memorial Park, Burbank

I’m not an entomologist or an arachnologist, but you can’t spend your life in Queensland, or indeed Australia, without coming in personal contact with insects and spiders.

I’ve been stung by bees and wasps, bitten by bull ants and green ants, had my blood sucked by leeches, ticks and march flies, and been irritated by mosquitoes, mites, fleas and cockroaches.

Mosquitoes like blood. As a child I slept under a mosquito net, and I’d put my finger against the net just to feel the sting, then squash the mozzie through the net. Mozzies carry Ross River fever. Con and our Lizzie have both had it and suffered for months with fatigue, fevers, and muscular aches and pains, missing weeks of work and feeling miserable.

Keeping the mozzies away

In Burketown we were plagued by flying ants. Nothing would stop them: they’d come under the doors and round the edges of the screens. We would turn off the lights, but they’d still get in.

Flying ants don’t bite; but under the house and out in the yard were nests of biting meat ants. Our little kids would wander on to a nest of meat ants and stand there howling to be rescued. Meat ant bites hurt like a burn.

Green ants are tasty. If you pinch them on the thorax and bite off the abdomen you get a burst of delicious lemon liquid. They can bite, if you annoy them, as we would when we shook down mandarines from Con’s mother’s fine Innisfail tree, full of green ants and their nests.

Green ant nest magneticislandtours.net.au

March flies are merciless. In a beautiful rainforest creek one summer, we stayed under water up to our chins and pulled our hats down low to avoid their bites. From Stradbroke Island to Fraser Island and all the way up the coast, at certain times of the year, march flies can ruin your day wherever you are. They’re slow and easy to swat; but unless your house has insect screens the floor will soon be littered with dead flies and you’ll have to get the vacuum cleaner out.

Locals of western Queensland ignore the little sticky flies that get into eyes, nose and mouth and settle in hundreds on shirts, but they drive me mad. My dad swallowed one once, at the church in Jandowae, in the middle of giving a sermon. Prince Charles once had the same problem, on a visit to Central Australia. Queensland doesn’t have a monopoly on annoying insects.

Handy Australian tool souvenirsaustralia.com

After a day of walking in the Bunya Mountains with my brothers, I found a tick high on my thigh and quite fat with my blood. The Bunyas are famous for ticks. My brother pulled it off for me, and I returned the favour the next morning when he found one on the back of his neck.

Another story about my dad: in going over our female dog Lassie for ticks, he was about to get his tweezers on to a pale, tick-looking lump on her belly when he noticed that she had two rows of identical lumps nearby. Poor Lassie nearly had a bad day.

I’ve been frightened of huntsman spiders since I was a child in Nambour. We used to call them tarantulas. Playing dress-ups one day, I had one leg in a pair of cowboy costume pants when a huntsman ran out of them and up my arm. My mother heard me screaming and came running.

“All that fuss over a tarantula!” she said, unsympathetically. “They won’t bite you!”

Huntsmen can grow almost as big as my hand, and they don’t stay in a web. They hide behind picture frames or under clothes on the floor, then run around the house at night, hunting cockroaches.

Huntsmen love to run around the house kidspot.com.au

One night I was woken by the feel of something running lightly across my face. I’m sure it was a huntsman. I’d rather have the cockroaches that disappear under the bench when I turn on the kitchen light, or crunch under my feet in the dark.

Redback spiders do have a dangerous bite. They don’t run around the house, though, like huntsmen. Redbacks hide away in cracks and dark places.

Redback spider biosciences.unimelb.edu.au

One Easter, leaving our house in Burketown for the holidays, I sprayed a can of strong insect killer around before closing the door. When we came back, dead redbacks were dangling in their webs from under our dining room table. We’d had our knees under that table every night for years.

It seems a redback can kill a huntsman many times its size:

https://au.news.yahoo.com/mum-captures-battle-between-redback-and-huntsman-spiders-37267377.html

Con tells me an insect story.

“A bee stung me when I was driving north over the Isis River bridge. It flew in the window, landed on my neck and stung me.

“The funny thing is, though – when we were driving back south, a couple of weeks later, it happened again. At the exact same spot – the Isis River bridge! Another bee flew in the window and stung me!”

“I don’t remember that. Sounds a bit unlikely to me.”

“Well, maybe it didn’t actually sting me the second time. But it flew in the window. The Isis River bridge, south of Childers.”

Perhaps there were beehives in the bush near the river. Beekeepers set out their hives near flowering eucalypts.

Native bees also exist, in their many varieties, throughout bushland and gardens, playing a vital role in fertilisation.

Native blue-banded bee pollinatorlink.org

Native bees don’t sting. My brother Mike Fox, local expert, gave me a native beehive in a paint can for my birthday one year. Sadly, it was soon ruined by an invasion of sawflies, a kind of fly or wasp.

Queensland has beautiful insects as well as annoying ones. Christmas beetles are rare now, but they were common in my childhood. We would hold them in our hands and enjoy the tickle of their claws.  

Christmas beetle brisbaneinsects.com

There are jewel bugs – beautiful but stinking when disturbed.

Jewel bugs abc.net.au

There are dragon flies; and there are some wonderful moths and butterflies, especially in the tropics.

Looking out from our Yarrabah FNQ verandah one morning, I saw something moving strangely on the ground. It was brown, as big as a bird, but fluttering like a butterfly. It turned out to be an astonishing tropical insect: a Hercules moth, the largest moth in the world. They commonly grown to 27cms in wingspan, and sometimes larger. I feel privileged to have seen one.

Hercules moth projectnoah.org

At Bingil Bay, near Mission Beach, I saw my first Cairns Birdwing butterfly – a gorgeous sight.

Cairns Birdwing butterfly tripadvisor.ca

Ulysses butterflies, sadly listed as endangered, flit like bright blue lights through the rainforests of Tully Gorge.

Ulysses butterfly brettacorp.org.au

At Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory, within Flecker Botanical Gardens in Cairns, they breed many varieties of Queensland butterflies. You can see them in all stages, from eggs to adult butterflies, among the gorgeous orchids and flowering plants. 

Looking at butterflies, Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory

In South Queensland, my favourite butterfly is the Evening Brown that I sometimes see at dusk, fluttering around close to the ground and blending in with the leaf litter on bushland tracks.

Evening Brown butterfly brisbaneinsects.com

Yesterday I finally worked out what has been eating my callistemon plants down to bare branches.

Sawfly larvae on my callistemon bush

Dozens of disgusting-looking, squirming grubs were grouped together among the poor, chewed leaves, waving their ugly heads.

Mike identified them as the larvae of sawflies.

“They won’t sting you,” he said.

“I don’t care. They’re ugly, they killed my bees, and now they’re killing my callistemons. I’m going to turn the hose on them, hard. Let the ants have them.”

So I did.

You can tell I’m not an entomologist.

Main picture: J C Trotter Memorial Park, Burbank

Relics of War

Beside the road to Carnarvon Gorge is a damaged aircraft wing mounted on steel pylons, next to a wing tip set into the ground.

D-C47 Air Crash Memorial, Carnarvon Gorge Road Photo: tripadvisor.com.au

Nearby, on 16 November 1943, this USAAF Dakota C-47 broke up in a severe storm and crashed. Five Americans and fourteen Australian soldiers died. This is their memorial.

There were many plane crashes across Queensland during the years of World War Two. Traces of crash sites, wartime airstrips, military bases and hospitals, radar stations, fortifications and ammunition dumps are located across the state, from Torres Strait to the New South Wales border. A Queensland government website lists the wartime sites: https://www.ww2places.qld.gov.au/place?id=1686  Some, like the memorial beside Carnarvon Gorge Road, have been cared for by dedicated locals. Others have become tourist attractions. Many are lost in the scrub.

1942 was a year of great anxiety for Australians, especially in the northern states.

The British fortress city of Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, a terrible shock to Australians. My father became a Prisoner of War. Two weeks later in Brisbane, my mother, in great distress, gave birth to her first baby, two months premature.

Now Russia has invaded Ukraine, and civilians and the military are preparing valiantly for what must come. Many have become refugees, and many have died. Unlike in Ukraine, tanks can’t drive across our borders. Troops can’t just march in. Nevertheless, in 1942, Queenslanders were frightened.

Trenches were dug in parks, school yards and house yards. There were air raid sirens and drills, and saltwater pipelines were laid through city streets for fire-fighting, and black-out warnings in place.

Con’s father, a sergeant, spent his wartime years driving army trucks across Cape York Peninsula, delivering fuel to military airfields and outposts.

Con as a wartime baby, with his father in uniform, in Innisfail

“There are old wartime airfields all over the Cape,” a pilot once told me, and as I was in a small plane over the Peninsula at the time, this gave me comfort. If we got into trouble, we would always find somewhere to land. We might have to chase cattle and kangaroos off the strip first.

Relics of Brisbane’s preparations for war can still be found across the city.

With my grandson Gus, I recently visited the remains of World War 2 Naval installation RAN No. 9 in the old suburb of Myrtletown, Pinkenba.

In 1943, from here near the mouth of the Brisbane River, an indicator loop was laid under the river and a Photo Electric beam installed to shine over it, to detect enemy craft. The concrete block house, once vital to the defence of Brisbane, still stands in long grass in the Myrtletown Reserve. Nearby information boards give details.

Control Building for the indicator loop (nearer window) and Photo Electric beam, Myrtletown Reserve

Among the mangroves on the riverbank nearby lie the remains of the SS Koopa, which also played its part. A small section of the hull tipped sideways above the mud at the mouth of Boggy Creek; a few sad, rusted steel parts.

Gus looks at the sad remains of SS Koopa

After Pearl Harbour was bombed, on 7 December 1941, the US “Pensacola” Convoy on its way to the Philippines was abruptly diverted to Brisbane, and on 23 December, nine large warships quietly dropped anchor in Moreton Bay.

No one knew, until the Koopa came down the river.

The SS Koopa was a much-loved excursion steamer that took passengers down the Bay to Redcliffe and Bribie Island, both before and after the War. My family took a trip on it when I was four. All I remember is a band playing on the wharf, an on-board kiosk down steep steps, and going to sleep under a seat.

SS Koopa in peacetime Photo: Yvonne Darcy peterlud.wordpress.com

To quote the book “The Battle of Brisbane”: The first Australian civilians to greet the Americans were in the SS Koopa… Joan Staines, an 18-year-old secretary, said: ‘We came out of the river and suddenly saw all these huge ships at anchor. My father said, “Cripes, it’s the bloody Yanks.”’[1]

Up to one million US servicemen would be stationed in Queensland during the next four years. In 1941 the population of the entire state was not much more than that. As Prime Minister John Curtin made clear at the time, it was the Americans, not the British, that we would be looking to for help in the Pacific War.

The SS Koopa was requisitioned from 1942 to 1945, stationed at Toorbul and in the Milne Bay area of PNG, before becoming a Moreton Bay excursion boat again. Eventually, she was brought here to Myrtletown and broken up. Those rusting scraps of steel are all that is left.

Brisbane’s Archerfield Airport was an important RAAF base, also used by the Dutch and British air forces and the USAAF.

Archerfield Airport “igloo” building today

Many of its WW2 buildings have been redeveloped for business, those fine old sheds and the “igloo” hangars with their curved roofs.

Wartime sheds and “igloo”, Archerfield Airport

One smaller igloo, now used by a mechanic, was a mess hall during the War. Another one nearby, almost derelict and used for storage, was once perhaps a dance hall or the Officers’ Club.

Just down the road from Archerfield Airport is an old quarry now filled with water. On one side, partly submerged, are concrete air raid shelters built during the war in case of air raids on the airfield. In 1992, some military aircraft and equipment, dumped here after the War, were salvaged from the water.

Partly-submerged air raid shelters, Beatty Rd, Archerfield

In 1942, bomb shelters were rapidly constructed in Brisbane, Townsville, Mackay, Cairns and coastal towns.

Air raid shelters in Ann St, Brisbane, 1942 Photo: State Library of Qld
Air raid shelter in a park in Babinda, FNQ. Now a public toilet

Many are still in use, converted to bus shelters, park shelters and public toilets. They are Queensland’s most common and visible relics of WW2.

Bomb shelter in Nundah, Brisbane, now a public toilet plus bus shelter

There was concern that Mount Isa might be a target, and in 1942 miners carved out a fully functioning underground hospital in the hills near the Base Hospital, complete with electricity, operating theatre, delivery room and wards.

Photo: Mt Isa Underground Hospital and Museum

Now, interested people can visit the Mount Isa Underground Hospital and Museum. https://undergroundhospital.com.au/hospital/

Photo: WW2 Secret Base

Charleville has a “WW2 Secret Base”, where over 3000 US soldiers were stationed, with B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters. A tag-along car tour takes visitors around the sights. https://book.bookeasy.com/agent/wwii-secret-base–tour/8305037/tours/wwii-secret-base/140066#/tours/140066

Newstead, Brisbane, is now gentrifying, but in the 1940s it was a place of warehouses and industry. In Stratton Street, Newstead, old wartime igloos have been redeveloped for entertainment purposes: The Triffid, a much-loved music venue https://thetriffid.com.au, and the upmarket Stratton Bar and Kitchen https://www.stratton.bar.

The iconic curved igloo roof is celebrated in The Triffid’s logo:

A few years ago, Con and I spent a night in a railway carriage at Possum Park, twenty kilometres north of Miles. During the War this was a top-secret RAAF munitions dump, situated, so it’s said, on the notorious Brisbane Line from which Australia would have been defended in the event of a Japanese invasion. 3CR RAAF Kowguran had its own railway branch line and a system of twenty underground concrete bunkers dug into a hill, reportedly storing up to 2500 tons of bombs and ammunition.

“Soldiers storing explosives at 3CR RAAF Kowguran during WW2. Note the ventilation shafts” Photo: ozatwar.com

Now surrounded by gardens, some of the bunkers and the troop train carriages have become tourist accommodation.

Con at the entrance to a WW2 explosives storage bunker, Possum Park

Much of Queensland’s wartime industry was located in the suburb of Rocklea, and many of the old sheds and factory buildings are still there, some derelict and some repurposed, many heritage listed. There were large munitions factories here, and at least one of them remains.

WW2 Munitions Factory, Assembly St, Rocklea

Recently it caught fire, and one end of the enormous building was burnt out. Gus and I, always curious about these things, went to have a look. We walked the 100-metre length of the old factory, past an overgrown bomb shelter, and stared, fascinated, through the chain-link fences and locked gates.

Overgrown bomb shelter, Rocklea

Huge steel beams had been twisted in the heat of the fire, and the roof had collapsed.

After the Munitions factory fire, Rocklea

“It would be great to fly a drone right through there,” said Gus. “We could get a look at what it was like inside.”

WW2 fort, Bribie Island Photo: visitbrisbane.com.au (Main photo: Fort complex, Magnetic Island – en.wikipedia.org)

WW2 coastal fortifications still stand on Bribie Island and Magnetic Island, attracting visitors.

As Gus and I have found, these old sites are fascinating. For amateur researchers there are plenty to explore.

In Queensland and Australia there were bombings, but the threatened invasions didn’t happen. These places were never the scenes of such appalling tragedies as are taking place right now in Ukraine, where the enemy can walk across the border at will.

We were lucky.


[1] “The Battle of Brisbane”, Peter A Thompson and Robert Macklin. 2000. ABC Books, Sydney. Page 31

How to preserve a flood-damaged item

So much damage, and more rain to come. This is timely advice from the Queensland Museum.

The Queensland Museum Network Blog

The recent weather event and flooding in Queensland and northern New South Wales has sadly destroyed many homes and the personal items they contain including photos, important documents and valuables. All hope is not lost, if you act quickly now you may have a chance of recovering some of this items. While for many the immediate focus will be cleaning out homes, there is a chance to recover some important items. Remember if there is an opportunity to freeze items such as images and photographs, that will give you time to work on them in the future.

Here are some tips from the team at Queensland Museum on how to preserve a flood-damaged item:

Safety is priority – if it’s flooded, forget it!

Only enter a flooded site when it is safe to do so. Wear protective equipment including closed-in shoes, gloves, face masks and safety glasses.

Set up a…

View original post 350 more words

The Isa

In the Boyd’s Hotel, Mount Isa, Con sang the whole of “American Pie” from beginning to end. All eight minutes of it. People cheered.

It was 1974, and Don McLean’s famous folk rock song, brought out in 1971, was already a classic.

We still have the old “American Pie” album we played so often

Con remembers the occasion well.

“When I’d finished, the publican offered me a regular gig – $300 a week plus keep!”

Con was principal of Burketown school at the time, and we’d made the long drive down for a Teachers’ Union conference. The evening get-together was held at this popular pub, known locally as Boydies.

“Boydies” Image Tourism Queensland

Boyd’s Hotel was typical of Mount Isa hotels back then: a rough and tumble place. There was a notorious lounge bar out the back, known locally as the Snakepit.

In those days, as in so many places, Aboriginal patrons were not allowed in the front bar of Boyd’s. They had to go to the Snakepit.

A North West Star history column relates what happened when, in 1977, Senator Neville Bonner went to the Boyd for a beer.

…when Queensland Senator Neville Bonner popped into the pub for a quiet one in December, 1977, he was told by a barmaid, “We don’t serve darkies here.”

“I walked down the street from my motel, picked up a paper and dropped into the hotel for a cold beer”, he said.

“I sat at the bar reading and it was a few minutes before a barmaid came over to me and said, I’m sorry, I can’t serve you.”

He told her he was an Australian citizen and that she must be joking.

Senator Bonner was Aboriginal and, the unwritten rule at Boydies was, Aboriginals were expected to drink in the Snake Pit, not the public bar, let alone the private bar where he was sitting.

Finally sense prevailed and Senator Bonner was given a cold, froth topped pulled beer but not before he asked the manager, “Are you aware you’re liable to a penalty of $5,000 under the Race Discrimination Act for refusing to serve a person because of their colour or nationality?”

Twenty-five years later, when we next visited Mount Isa, the city’s hospitality scene had changed. Instead of a hotel, we went to the Irish Club for dinner.

The Irish Image North West Star

The Mount Isa Irish Club, known to everyone simply as The Irish, was astonishing to us; and in a tough mining city with a famously high beer consumption, in a harsh desert climate, with many hard workers a long way from home, it’s flourishing.

From outside, the Irish Club looks like an enormous shed, but inside there is a whole, air-conditioned world: multiple bars and eating places, a nightclub and piano bar, bingo hall and a coffee shop in a restored Melbourne tram.

Inside the Melbourne tram at the Irish. Image from that classic website, pokiesnearme.net.au

There’s a Dublin street with street lamps and a traditional Irish pub. There’s a collection of Waterford crystal, and any amount of Irish decor. The sports bar has a huge screen and many smaller screens, as well as half a dozen billiard tables, and there are currently 157 poker machines to choose from. Over the top? A little. But the Isa is that kind of place.

Twenty years ago we spent a couple of months in Kalgoorlie, that other famous mining town; and its fine old hotels were just as spectacular, and just as busy.

Kalgoorlie’s Exchange Hotel – one of many spectacular pubs in town Image kayak.com.au

The Irish also offers a range of accommodation, catering for everyone from business travellers to sporting and tour groups and backpackers; a gym, and an enormous bottle shop.

Being a city of shift workers, Mount Isa never sleeps. The Irish is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, just like those grand hotels in Kalgoorlie.

Mine workers coming off shift, Mount Isa Image northweststar.com.au

If The Irish isn’t to your taste, you can go to its main rival – The Buffs. The Carpentaria Buffalo Club was founded by the Royal Antideluvian Order of Buffalos Lodge, and it is almost as huge as the Irish. Con and I went there too. In the name of research.

Carpentaria Buffalo Club Image pokiesnearme.net.au

Old-style hotels linger on in Queensland country towns, and it’s those pubs that I enjoy, rather than the bright lights and glitter of the clubs; but many have had to reinvent themselves to stay viable. When we went to revisit Boydies, we got a shock to find it would no longer sell us a beer. It no longer exists, although the original building still stands on the corner of West Street and Rodeo Drive. Redearth Boutique Hotel has taken it over, and it is a very different establishment, providing the amenities that modern corporate travellers expect in accommodation.

Redearth Boutique Hotel – once Boyd’s Hotel Image isahotel.com.au

Next door to the Redearth, and joined to it, is what was once the Mount Isa Hotel, now the Isa Hotel, focussing on eating, drinking and entertainment.

To celebrate Mount Isa’s coming centenary, ABC North West Queensland recently posted an interesting video on Facebook, filmed during the 1970s, around the time we were there. It brought back memories, and says a lot about the atmosphere of the place. I doubt if things have changed much, even today. https://www.facebook.com/ABCNorthWestQLD/videos/344122070925685

Normally, when we lived at Burketown, we drove to the Isa, and catching a glimpse of the tall, red and white striped Mount Isa mine chimney stack, after a long, dusty trip, was as exciting as it would have been to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Mount Isa meant fresh milk, electricity, comfort, air conditioning, shopping and streetlights.

Chimney stacks, Mount Isa Mines Image abc.net.au

Now, the Isa has an even taller chimney stack and a much larger population.

Like most of western Queensland in the last couple of years, Mount Isa is currently chronically short of workers, across all fields, from mining to the hospitality industry. A Facebook page, Mount Isa Jobs and Vacancies, shows how widespread the need.

“Mount Isa Jobs and Vacancies”, Facebook page, February 2022
Workers needed now at The Irish Club, Mount Isa Image Facebook

I wonder if they need a singer at the Irish. Someone who knows every verse of “American Pie”. We could live in the backpackers’ accommodation, and I could work behind the bar.

Sounds like fun.


[1] https://www.northweststar.com.au/story/4774876/a-popular-place-to-be/

Mount Isa never sleeps Image outbackqueensland.com.au

Those Post-War Houses

It’s seven in the morning, and somebody’s knocking down a house.

I’ve heard this noise before, in this suburb of post-war public housing – humble buildings with large backyards. With Brisbane changing and property prices increasing at an appalling rate, these places have become very valuable.

Last year, a plain 1960s brick house a couple of hundred metres up the street from us sold for $870,000. Within weeks, the house had been demolished. The price was for the land alone – an ordinary suburban block.

Young couples and families wanting to own their own home will be out bidden at auction by developers and investors. Often, it seems, the house will then be demolished. In its place will be built a large, two-storied structure that takes up almost the whole block: probably a grey and white painted, gabled “Hamptons style” place like thousands of other new Brisbane homes. It’s this style that has sent grey and white paint spreading across the suburbs of Brisbane like some kind of contagious disease.

Magnificent new Hamptons style, Holland Park

Alongside them are those box-shaped places that seem entirely out of harmony with traditional Brisbane houses.

Box style, Holland Park. Hamptons style under construction next door. Post-war house on the right

Many of the houses that are demolished are not as comfortable or elegant as their replacements will be. I’m sorry to see them go, though, along with their mango trees and old-fashioned gardens of crotons and random brickwork.

A quarter of a century ago, we bought our house in what was then an “inner-outer” suburb, eleven kilometres by road from the CBD.

We now live in one of Brisbane’s “outer-inner” suburbs, with views of the tall buildings of the CBD; but we haven’t moved. The city has changed and sprawled.

In art, television series and novels, Brisbane houses are quaint, in the style called ‘Queenslander”, built in colonial years or the early 20th century, with verandahs, fretwork or cast iron, and frangipani trees.

Beautiful old Brisbane house: iron lace, fretwork and frangipanis. Woolloongabba
Splendid “Queenslander”, Graceville, 1920s-30s

Throughout the older, inner suburbs, this is true. There are houses like this sprinkled through the outer suburbs and beyond, as well: original farmhouses, country mansions of colonial times, and some that have been transported from the inner suburbs to make way for apartment blocks and modern mansions with multi-car garages, multiple bathrooms, pools and tennis courts.

However, far more Brisbane houses, thousands and thousands of them, are still the simple post-WW2 Housing Commission houses that were built from the 1950s onwards to cope with population growth and the results of wartime shortages of materials and labour. They don’t get the attention or respect that they deserve. Over 10,000 houses were built across the state through the Housing Commission in the post war period alone, most of them in Brisbane; and most of them still exist today.

Queensland’s Labor government of the day constructed these houses across enormous swathes of what were then outer suburbs. A huge undertaking in social housing, the Commission was set up to acquire and develop and build on, farmland, bushland, and superfluous wartime facilities such as the vast Military Hospital in Holland Park and the Leave and Transit Centre at Moorooka, and to manage sales and rental of the finished houses and cheap housing loans.

“129 acres of bushland being cleared for the Queensland Housing Commission, Belmont, 1950” State Library of Queensland

From 1950, 1000 houses were built at Carina, another 1000 at Coopers Plains. Thousands were built at Inala, Wavell Heights, Stafford, Chermside, Mount Gravatt, Zillmere and other outer suburbs, as they were then. Expensive real estate now.

One of the many designs for Queensland Housing Commission houses, 1950 State Library of Queensland

The houses were built to a variety of plans, two and three bedroom, some with sleepouts or small verandahs. They were built of a variety of materials: brick, chamfer board, weather board, and fibro, with corrugated steel or tiled roofs; and they could be bought for around £2,000.

“Housing Commission houses at Norman Park, Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1950” State Library of Queensland

A famous 1950 photograph shows rows of newly constructed Housing Commission houses, built on both sides of a gently sloping dip in the land. Close together and almost identical, each has a long, treeless back yard and, startlingly, an outdoor toilet, a reminder of the fact that Brisbane wasn’t sewered back then. The location details are included with the photo, held by the State Library, and last week I went to see what changes have occurred there in the seventy-plus years since it was taken.

Standing on the site of a demolished house on Walker Avenue in what is now the suburb of Morningside, near the spot where the 1950 photo was taken, I looked north-west along that low valley, between Agnew Street and Moolabar Street.

The same view today, from Walker Street. The house on the right is the house in the centre foreground of the 1950 photo above.

You can see it on Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/DnQ5hdUAG1ZtegMz7

Those long back yards are now full of trees. No dunnies in sight. Perhaps a few have been kept, out of a sense of history, hidden among the banana plants and palm trees.

Walking up Moolabar Street and down Agnew Street I saw that many of those little houses, built close to their neighbours, are still there, although mostly extended and altered.

Moolabar Street houses – new and old, grey and white
Agnew Street – new and old, grey and white

Many are charming.

Cute originals

Some look as if they are rental properties, waiting for the owners to redevelop them. Some of them have gone, replaced by large, two-story houses that make the most of those long blocks.

This is now a suburb much in demand in the real estate industry, and the value of those quarter-acre blocks has soared. The average sale price of houses in Morningside is over $955,000, according to recent figures on www.realestate.com.au.

This story is repeated over most of the sprawling public housing developments of the 1950s and 1960s, and these changes are not unique to Brisbane. In many cities, older suburbs are redeveloped as populations grow and middle classes want more than basic housing.

Still, there are thousands of those little post war Queensland Housing Commission houses to be seen across Brisbane’s inner-outer suburbs.

Post-war houses in Mt Gravatt East, as far as the eye can see

Some look virtually untouched, sitting there with only a mango tree or jacaranda in the yard, or surrounded by a carefully tended garden.

Almost unchanged for 70 years

Some have been lifted up, built under, moved aside, or extended with verandahs and extra rooms.

Up there on top of the brickwork is an old Housing Commission house, Mt Gravatt East

I look out for them as I walk around the suburbs. I like them. Maybe one day I’ll move out of our family-sized house and into a cute and snug post-war cottage.

If I can afford to buy one.

Bottle Trees

Stanford University Campus, in California, is famous for its important collection of exotic trees. Among them are some iconic Queenslanders: bunya pines and bottle trees.

I first became aware of the Stanford trees when reading “The Overstory”, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by American writer Richard Powers.

In the novel, Neelay Mehta, a young master coder and online game designer, is working at Stanford University. While thinking of fresh images and surreal graphics for a new game, one evening he crosses the campus in search of vending machine snacks. Turning a corner into the central quadrangle he sees something that amazes him: a tree that is “bulbous and elephantine …the most mind-boggling organism he has ever seen… A living hallucination from a nearby star system at the other end of a wormhole in space.”

As he reads on a placard, it’s Brachychiton rupestris – familiar to us all as the Queensland bottle tree.

Finding a bottle tree, something I’ve regarded with delight since I was a child, in a dense, powerful American novel was startling. It was as if I’d suddenly come across an old friend from the mid-west of Queensland in this glamorous Californian campus.

Bottle tree, Stanford Central Quadrangle trees.stanford.edu

The writer of “The Overstory”, like my own children, would have grown up with “The Lorax”, by Dr Seuss. In the book the Lorax introduces himself: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Powers does that too: he speaks for the protection of trees.

Queensland has many wonderful and bizarre tree varieties, from desert country to tropical rainforest, that could provide inspiration for fantasy novels, movies, and games. Strangler figs slowly devouring neighbouring trees, their roots snaking out across the ground around them, or dangling towards the earth. Ancient eucalypts covered in burls.

Burls on an old eucalypt, Coomera Circuit, Binna Burra

The notorious stinging tree, the gympie-gympie, that hurts so much you want to die. The rough bark of hoop pines.

Bark on a hoop pine, Brisbane City Botanical Gardens

The long, twisted, prickly leaves of bunyas; and bottle trees, tall and commanding on the bare hillsides of the ranges, slim and gently curved, or fat as teapots.

Bottle tree like a teapot, Mitchell

There are beautiful trees in Queensland.

Scribbly gums.

Scribbly gum, J.C. Trotter Memorial Park, Burbank

Moreton bay figs. Paper barks and casuarinas.

Mangroves.

Mangroves in the Brisbane River, Bulimba

Tallowwood trees: rich red trunks, clusters of white flowers, and generous sprawling branches that provide more shade than most eucalypts.

Koalas like tallowwoods, too.

There’s a fine old tallowwood in Yeronga Park, Brisbane. When the evening light touches it, its trunk glows.

Tallowwood tree, Yeronga Park

Best of all, bottle trees. Born in Barcaldine, my mother grew up with bottle trees in the garden and across the countryside. As children, we’d look out for them on our many road trips. The younger ones can look like a tall white wine bottle; the old ones, anything from a port bottle to a malevolent goblin.

Gus and bottle tree, Queens Park, Toowoomba

Roma famously has made a feature of bottle trees.

Roma’s largest bottle tree

They’re used in the street plantings of many other regional towns as well: Mitchell, Blackall, Tambo, right across the central west, and further afield.

I like the young bottle trees of Taroom

Darling Downs, Rockhampton, even the suburbs of Brisbane.

A bottle tree goblin, one of three in a row in a Brisbane suburban street

Last year I planted a bottle tree in my garden, bought from a street-side trailer in Roma.

Bottle trees are notoriously slow growers, so I won’t live to see it look like a port bottle. Maybe one of those small, 250 ml wine bottles they sometimes serve in country pubs.

Online information about the trees of Stanford, over 43,000 of them, includes maps and many photos. Visitors can take guided tours of the campus trees. The university’s unofficial mascot is a tree, and students dress up as them.

Stanford students dressed as trees trees.stanford.edu

There is still a Queensland bottle tree in Stanford’s central quad; but the huge old tree described in “The Overstory” isn’t there anymore.

Perhaps it died of old age; or perhaps amidst the sumptuous Spanish Mission style architecture, arched sandstone colonnades and wonderful trees of Stanford it died of homesickness for the dry hills and plains of Queensland’s central west.  

Bottle trees where they belong Wikipedia

Fishing

A wallaby stamped its foot and woke me.

We were camped on a high bank on a bend in the Leichhardt River, not far from Burketown. In that time and that climate, for us camping meant a ground sheet and a tarp. Con and I and little Matt and Lizzie had been invited to visit some Finnish fishermen at their camp.

The wallaby was only two metres away from me, staring at me. It stamped its foot again. It was quite unafraid but looked resentful at having its place invaded.

Soon the wallaby hopped away, and the fishermen got a campfire going, with a barbecue grill over it. They filleted one of their fresh barramundi catch and threw it on the plate. I’ve rarely eaten anything that tasted as good as that barbecued barra straight from the river.

Leichhardt River en.wikipedia.org

Their gravlax was good too – raw barra sliced thin, wrapped in little bundles and pickled with lemon juice and onions.

When we moved to Burketown, a local fisherman brought us a barramundi and filleted it for me on the back landing. Barramundi and prawns – that’s one way those locals expressed friendship to a newcomer.

I’m not a fishing person, but fishing was my grandfather’s favourite thing in the world. Living in Nambour, he would drive to Tin Can Bay with friends, put up a tent and go fishing. For bait they’d dig yabbies and eugaries at low tide out of the wet sand, then fish with rods off the surf beach at Inskip Point.

My grandfather (standing) and others digging for bait, 1940

I’ve got the little Box Brownie photos taken when my dad joined them on their 1940 fishing trip. He helpfully put little crosses above himself in the photos.

The angling party, Inskip Point, 1940.

There are ardent fishers all around Australia, on inland rivers and lakes and around the coast. The only things that change around the country are the types of fish and the discomforts involve in catching them: heat, cold, storms, crocodiles.

Our Joe in Far North Queensland sometimes goes fishing himself, but usually buys from a mate, a devoted fisherman out of Mission Beach who catches more than he can eat. He charges Joe a flat rate of $20 a kilogram for filleted fish.

“Rosy job fish,” Joe tells me. “Red emperor, cobia, coral trout, longnose emperor, Spanish mackerel, black nannygai, finger mark, tusker, saddle tailed sea perch.

“We use the Spanish mackerel for curry.

“Best are finger mark and tusker.”

“I was thinking of lashing out on some barramundi for Christmas,” I tell him.

“Don’t do it on our account. We used barra for curry, too.”

Baby Joe with a barramundi, Yarrabah

None of these fish, caught wild, would sell for less than $30-$60 in a Brisbane fish shop.

In 2018, Con and I spent a night at the Commercial Hotel, Tara, on the Western Darling Downs. It was the eve of the local fishing competition, to be held at the Tara Lagoon on the edge of town, and talk in the bar was all about fishing. All native fish caught would be returned to the lagoon; the exotic carp, a major pest, would not. The Tara Fish Re-Stocking Association was running the competition.

Tara Fishing Competition at Tara Lagoon. September 29, 2018 courier-mail.com.au

That reminded me of Hamar Midgley.

Hamar Midgley was a woodworker and furniture maker in Nambour, where my family lived; and he loved fishing. The Midgley house was a timber Queenslander on what is now National Park Road, with a paddock out the back running down to the creek. I remember some magnificent Guy Fawkes parties and bonfires in the paddock.

The Midgleys were good family friends who lived a close-to-the-earth lifestyle and would never be wealthy. Then Hamar was offered the perfect job. I remember him saying with delight to my father one day, “They’re going to pay me to go fishing!”

Hamar Midgley had become, through his own dedication and research, a leading amateur expert on Australian native fish species. Much of Queensland’s fishing is done in freshwater lakes, dams, rivers and creeks, and it was Hamar who made that possible. In the early 1960s he carried out Australia’s first official release of native fish into a waterway, at Borumba Dam, south-west of Gympie. Now, over fifty lakes, dams and waterways in Queensland alone have been stocked with native fish.

“Hamar in his dinghy and bush hat with a long tom, Jabiru, NT” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

For over forty years, Hamar worked as a full-time fisheries consultant for the Queensland Government, travelling out west with Mary to waterways unknown except to locals. In the early 2000s I visited them at their home at Bli Bli, on the Sunshine Coast. Mary told me of their research, camped far from amenities and recording of the dawn chorus of bushland birds. What a glorious life.

“Hamar and Mary at a bush camp sorting the catch-of-the-day” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

In 1994 Hamar was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Science from UQ for his research into Queensland’s fresh water fish species. He died in 2014, but it’s largely thanks to his work that fishing in Queensland’s inland waterways is flourishing.

Not so on some of the wild rivers in the Far North. At the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel, we met a group of recreational fishermen heading home. They’d just returned, disappointed, four hundred kilometres down the dirt road from the Mitchell River on western Cape York.

Disappointed fishing party at the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel Motel

“There were no fish,” they told us. “Big fishing concerns are flouting the rules. You’re not allowed to stretch nets right across the river, so they put one most of the way across, then another from the opposite bank a bit further upstream, then another from the same side, making a zigzag of nets across the river.

“For us blokes who head up there for a fishing weekend, there’s not much point anymore.”

How can fishing be regulated in the wild country of Cape York, with its small population and huge distances? There are no fishing clubs keeping an eye on things up there.

Back on the Leichhardt River those Finns also complained about rule breaking fishermen reducing fish stocks.

That barramundi was memorable. Still, the best fish I ever ate was a humble catfish. My uncle pulled it out of the Balonne River, somewhere near Dirranbandi, with a hand-held fishing line. He filleted it, built a fire on the riverbank under the gum trees and fried it on the spot. It was perfect.

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