John Oxley’s name is scattered all over Brisbane: suburb, station and school, a creek, roads, streets, avenues, crescents and lanes; parks, businesses and the State Library of Queensland’s historical research collection, the John Oxley Library.
As Surveyor General of New South Wales, which extended to the tip of Cape York, John Oxley sailed north from Sydney in 1823 to find a site for a new penal settlement. It was on this trip that he explored and named the Brisbane River. The local Turrbal people called it Maiwar.
I’ve visited some of the sites where Oxley came ashore.
Where Mount Ommaney Creek flows into the Brisbane River there is a fruit bat colony. The bats shriek and squabble, even in the middle of the day, when they’re supposed to be sleeping. A walking track follows the curves of the hill through bushland above the river. Feral deer live here, and the trees wear knitted jumpers to protect their bark.
John Oxley and his crew rowed upstream in a whaleboat to Mount Ommaney and beyond. By the entrance to the walking track, a plaque has been placed to mark the spot where he came ashore and climbed to the top of the hill to take bearings.
Just fourteen kilometres as the crow flies from the CBD, Mount Ommaney is fifty kilometres by river, and further still from where Oxley had moored his cutter Mermaid, at the southern end of Pumicestone Passage at Bribie Island: “within 150 yards of the shore, in the very place where Captain Flinders had anchored twenty-two years before…”
Oxley also named the Bremer River, Mermaid Reach, Seventeen Mile Rocks, Breakfast Creek, and Canoe Creek, now known as Oxley Creek.
The following year he was back again, coming up-river with botanist Alan Cunningham and others to find a site for the convict settlement that would be more suitable than Redcliffe, where it had first been established. They camped at Mount Ommaney for the night, probably down by the creek which these days flows through the plush fairways of the McLeod Country Golf Club.
On their way back down river, Oxley and his group landed along the Toowong/Milton Reach looking for a good water source, a necessity for settlement. Coming ashore near the mouth of Western Creek and following it upstream, they found water “in abundance and of excellent quality, being at this season a chain of ponds watering a fine valley.”
Matthew Condon, in his book “Brisbane”, has awakened my interest in Oxley’s chain of ponds, and following his path I go looking for it.
Western Creek, in Oxley’s time a beautiful place, forested and rich in resources, now empties into the river through a concrete drain near the remains of the floating restaurant once known as “Oxley’s on the River”, which was ruined in the 2011 floods. On the river walkway, a display panel describes Oxley and his exploration of the creek; and further along Coronation Drive is a large granite boulder with a plaque that reads,
On 28 September 1824, Lieutenant John Oxley, Surveyor-General of New South Wales, landed hereabouts to obtain fresh water from a nearby stream declaring it to be “by no means an ineligible station for a first settlement up the river”.
I cross under Coronation Avenue beside the concrete drain, which flows out from under the John Oxley Centre office complex. Beyond the building I find it again, before it disappears under the road and the railway bridge to emerge again in Milton Park, then vanish under Frew Park. This was once the home of Milton Tennis Courts. Now it has shady trees, a playground and barbecues. A nostalgic bronze sculpture of children catching yabbies shows where the creek used to flow.
Across the road, in front of Milton State School, is low-lying Gregory Park, once known as Red Jacket Swamp. The creeks and swamps when Oxley came this way were rich with mud crabs, fish, wild ducks, waterlilies and reeds, used by the large and settled Indigenous population.
The creek still flows under these lowlands, and the river seeks it out every flood time. Brown water surges up through the parks and into the shops and homes of Baroona Road and Nash Street, Rosalie, and the television news shows people carrying furniture and possessions through the flood waters to higher ground.
At North Quay, several hundred metres down-river from the mouth of Western Creek, is another stone memorial, dating from the 1920s, claiming to mark the spot where Oxley came ashore looking for water, and, according to the wording of the plaque, “discovered the site of this city.”
To look at the memorial, I walk up from the river path to the busy road leading to the CBD and Riverside Expressway. In 1825 the penal colony was permanently established on this high ground, along what became William Street, down towards the convict-tended food gardens that were to become the City Botanic Gardens.
Soon the local Indigenous population’s hunting and ceremonial grounds would be lost and ruined. The creeks and lagoons would disappear under the developing city.
Now, the massive Queens Wharf development is rising next to 1 William Street, the Queensland Government’s hulking “Tower of Power”, where the old settlement sprawled with its barracks, commandant’s house, cottages and church.
At Redcliffe there’s a handsome monument, above the low red cliffs, commemorating both Oxley and Matthew Flinders; and at Bribie Island, on the shore of Pumicestone Passage, looking out to where both Flinders and Oxley moored their ships, the Bribie Island Seaside Museum gives details of their journeys.
His arduous journeys of exploration damaged John Oxley’s health. He was so ill after the second Brisbane River trip he could hardly walk, and four years later he died, in financial hardship, at his property outside Sydney.
Often these “explorers” were motivated by grants of money and land, and Oxley was eager for both; but ever since primary school, when we traced their expeditions on maps of Australia using coloured dots and dashes, I’ve wondered at their fortitude.
As an adult, I’ve also pondered on the disasters that followed for the locals in these lands, whose people had lived in and managed them for millennia.
 From the account of J. Uniacke, who came with Oxley’s first expedition to the area, on the Mermaid. Uniacke’s full account is printed in “Discovery of the Brisbane River, 1823 – Oxley, Uniacke and Pamphlet – 175 Years in Retrospect”, Marc Serge Rivière (1998) Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Brisbane. Page 70
 “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon (2010) University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney.
 “Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane”, Dr Ray Kerkhove. Boolarong Press, Salisbury: 2015. Pages 129-131
H.Q. 27 Aust. Inf. Bde.,
Malaya. 18 Dec 41
Remember how Magdalena used always to lead us to the riverbank at Kangaroo Point, whenever we went out at night in the faraway days before we were married?
We were very very much in love even then, weren’t we? We must have been, to go on like we did. Every time we went home, we made up our minds we would NOT go there again – but we always did.
Fortunately, “Magdalena the Second” – my army motorbike – has not developed any such bad habits…
My dad was twenty-three when he wrote this letter to my mum. War with Japan had been declared and the army in Malaya was at battle stations. Less than two months later, the defending troops would be forced back upon Singapore. With its surrender, Dad, with around 80,000 British and Australian troops trapped on the island, would become a prisoner of war.
With Dad overseas, Mum was living back home with her parents, at Annerley in Brisbane. She was twenty-one. They’d known each other for a year, been married for six months and apart from each other for four, since my father’s embarkation. My mother was pregnant; her baby would be born, premature, two weeks after the fall of Singapore. He would be three and a half years old before they saw each other again.
The Magdalena mentioned in Dad’s letter was his second-hand two-door Ford Tudor. Black, I think, but I’ve got only old photos to go on.
When they’d started courting, Dad was a lieutenant, “C” Company, 2/26 Battalion Australian Infantry Forces. He was based at the new army camp at Redbank, south-west of Brisbane. The 2/26th was raised in Queensland in late 1939, with most of its enrolment made up of men from southern Queensland and Northern New South Wales.
Dad was born in Nambour. Mum was a country girl from Barcaldine. She’d lived with her family in Landsborough before they moved to Brisbane, and it was on the Sunshine Coast, through mutual friends, that she’d met Dad.
Mum had a job at the Carlton Theatrette, in Queen Street. In the evening Dad would drive in from Redbank, pick her up from work in Magdalena, and take her home. They’d drive up Queen Street and across the Victoria Bridge to head out to Annerley. Via the Kangaroo Point cliffs.
I doubt if they ever went far past first base, as the saying is. They were a conscientious young couple. I like to think of them there, in each other’s arms, whenever I take a stroll along the clifftops at Kangaroo Point.
Dad’s battalion was sent to Bathurst for training, and when he came back to Brisbane on a short leave they went parking again in Magdalena, on Coronation Drive for a change. With the engagement ring already in his pocket, he asked Mum to marry him.
Should they marry, with Dad destined to embark for overseas very soon, perhaps never to return? My mother’s parents had faced the same choice in 1915, in the First World War; and they’d made the same decision.
Dad and Mum were married at Kangaroo Point, in the old stone church of Saint Mary. I go there sometimes, to the quiet garden at the back of the church, to look at a plaque placed there by the family in their memory.
For the duration of the war, Magdalena sat up on blocks under the family beach house at Alexandra Headland. Petrol rationing meant that running an extra car was not feasible. I don’t know what happened to her in the end, because when Dad came home and he and Mum moved back to Nambour, they bought a cute little Morris soft-top runabout.
New life, new car.
I’m walking along the Cairns Esplanade, past the hospital. It’s a classic tropical scene with coconut palms, figs trees and lush plantings. The tide is out, and beyond a narrow strip of sand, mud stretches two hundred metres out to the waterline. Sea birds stalk on their long legs and webbed feet, pecking for worms and crabs. A blue sky is reflected in patterns of mud and water, and the calm sea behind gleams like pewter, right across Trinity Bay to the forests of the Yarrabah Range.
Opposite the hospital, a man in a yellow work vest stops me. “There’s a helicopter coming in,” he says. “It won’t take long, but we need to keep people away from the helipad for a few minutes.”
I stand with other walkers and watch. I hadn’t noticed before, but there is a helipad set into the broad grassy parkland across the road from the hospital buildings. “That’s strange,” I say to the man in the yellow vest. “Usually hospital helipads are on the roof of the hospital.”
“They can’t do that here,” he replies. “It’s too close to the flight path from the airport.”
Guards have stopped cyclists on the bike track, too. Across the road, in the hospital entrance, another uniformed man, wearing earmuffs, waits beside a wheeled stretcher. I hear a helicopter coming in from the west, and soon it lowers itself on to the helipad. It’s a large Queensland Government Air rescue helicopter.
Crew in navy blue uniforms climb out of the helicopter as the traffic is stopped and the stretcher is brought across the road from the hospital. A middle-aged man in a high-vis work shirt and straggly goatee beard is loaded on, sitting propped up as he is wheeled back to the hospital.
The helicopter takes off, the men in yellow vests disappear, and we all continue our walking, jogging or cycling along the Esplanade as if nothing had happened.
Cairns Hospital services a huge geographical area, most of it wild and sparsely populated. Patients are transported here from as far away as Croydon, over five hundred kilometres to the west, from Thursday Island, eight hundred kilometres to the north, and even further. From here, patients requiring the most complex care are transferred to Brisbane, eighteen hundred kilometres south. The hospital can provide up to five hundred beds, making it a major regional facility. And its windows offer a view of palm trees and the Coral Sea.
I’ve been a patient here myself. Years ago, Con and I lived at Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, as it was known then, a forty-five-minute drive from Cairns. I’d worked hard one day hacking at the guinea grass and weeds that grew along the creek running by our house, and went to bed as usual that evening; but by next morning I was unconscious, and Con drove me urgently to the emergency department here at Cairns. At four o’clock that afternoon I woke up in the Intensive Care ward, startled by the sight in the next bed of a man wrapped completely in plaster and bandages, his limbs in hoists. He’d been in a plane crash.
While I’d been unconscious, I’d had an encephalogram and a lumbar puncture. The doctors concluded that I’d been bitten by some unknown tropical insect and had had a nasty response.
For the following twelve months I suffered debilitating attacks of vertigo, and it still troubles me from time to time. In North Queensland, it’s not just obvious things like crocodile attacks and jellyfish stings that can hurt you.
Con is a North Queenslander by birth. A tropical plant, as I tell him. He was born in Innisfail, an hour’s drive south of Cairns.
“Did you come to Cairns much when you were a kid?” I ask him.
“Sometimes. We’d come up here in the old man’s Ford ute, to rugby league games.”
“I didn’t know your dad was involved with rugby league.”
“Yes, he was president of Innisfail Rugby League Club for a while. League was strong there.”
Rugby league is strong everywhere in Queensland, but in regional areas there’s a special enthusiasm. In Townsville, in recent mayoral elections, an informal vote had an extra name pencilled on to the voting slip, with a “1” in the box and next to it, “Johnathan Thurston”, then star of the North Queensland Cowboys.
Cairns has always been a lively place, both busy regional centre and tourist hotspot, the best-known place to come if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef. As an American woman said to me at Uluru, “I went to Cairns first, then here. The Reef and the Rock – that’s all I want to see in Australia. I’m off home now.”
We’ve stayed in many parts of Cairns over the years, but the western stretch of the Esplanade (the ‘Nade to locals) is my favourite – beyond the tourist restaurants and biggest hotels, across the road from the seaside parklands and within walking distance of the centre of town. Towards Trinity Inlet and the cruise boat terminals is the spectacular swimming lagoon, built to relieve the frustrations of locals and tourists who find themselves beside the sea on a hot day, but unable to swim in it because of the mud – and the crocodiles.
The tropical plantings along Shield Street and Abbott Street are lush and beautiful, and it’s a treat to wander through Rusty’s Bazaar markets, with its tropical produce and hippy vibe; but I avoid the cheerless souvenir shops selling nothing made in Cairns, or even in Australia.
More interesting are the renowned Cairns Botanic Gardens at Edge Hill, the Tanks Arts Centre now occupying the old fuel tanks tucked in behind the hill during the war, and Centenary Lakes, with its boardwalks and walking tracks and a wonderful, wild Nature Playground.
Joe, like his father, is a tropical plant, born in Townsville and just ten days old when we moved to Yarrabah. I’ll never forget the day we first drove over the range and down the steep descent into the town, stopping at the lookout to admire the view over Mission Bay to Fitzroy Island. The Yarrabah Range is covered in rainforest. It is beautiful, and the road is steep. Here and there beside the road are large stones, known as handbrakes, which can be used to put behind the wheels of your car if you break down halfway up the hill. Occasionally a cassowary strolls out of the forest and across the road.
In Yarrabah, we lived in a Queensland government residence, with a view out to sea, the steep, forested hillside behind us, and the sound of a waterfall close by. It was a tropical paradise; although for the local people life was, and is, often hard. I would drive to Cairns once a fortnight, to do the banking and grocery shopping, and I always took little Joe with me, to visit Rusty’s Bazaar and eat icecream on the Esplanade. Now Joe lives in the north, and he takes his own children to Cairns, to play in the waterpark and watch the birds on the mudflats.
It’s amazing what a pull this place has, with its brooding greenery and humid tropical air, its rain-forested hillsides and calm sea. If you were born a local, or even spend a few years here, it has the atmosphere of home.
I can recommend the hospital, too.
Toowong Cemetery is a miniature of Brisbane’s inner suburbs. It has main roads and side streets, steep hills, valleys, outlooks, hoop pines and fig trees, butcher birds and lorikeets. Wealthier citizens inhabit the hilltops, and the humbler spill down into the gullies. There are elaborate memorials, and neglected graves covered in cobblers’ pegs.
Many of the family names on the gravestone are from the colonial past. This place is a history book of Brisbane.
It’s spooky after dark. I walked through with friends one evening at dusk, and I wouldn’t want to be there alone. Strange people lurk in Toowong Cemetery.
There is quite a lot of my DNA buried here, but I have ancestors in graveyards outside Brisbane, too. A few years ago, my cousin Nadine and I went on a ten-day, ten-cemetery family history road trip to find them.
Nadine researched the names and burial places of family members in the cemeteries of Warwick, Texas, Dirranbandi, Saint George, Mitchell, Barcaldine, Longreach, Roma, Dalby and Toowoomba: a three thousand kilometre loop by road. She is fascinated by family history, and I’m always happy to take a road trip, looking for stories along the way.
So off we go. Most of the graves we visit are of people we never knew: great-great-grandparents, great uncles and aunts and distant cousins. Some, though, are of our own generation.
At Dirranbandi, we stop and ask for directions to the cemetery. It’s along the river, on the outskirts of town. Crows croak, the ground is dusty, and at the gate a woman on her way out warns us there are lots of burrs in there.
Our little cousins, Peter and Judith, have been lying next to each other for over half a century in this sad, hot, dry place, in this hard countryside. Peter died of peritonitis, aged four, and Judith a few years later, aged five, drowned in the river. The bush can be cruel.
We pick bottlebrush from the cemetery’s few shrubs to place on their graves; and back in the car we pick burrs out of our clothes and shoes and skin.
Our seventh cemetery is Longreach. As we drive there from Barcaldine, the sides of the road look like The Somme after a battle, with bodies lying everywhere – the bodies of kangaroos, hit by vehicles.
I drive, and Nadine looks at the map.
“The cemetery is in Raven Road. Go past Thrush Road and turn into Lark Street. If we get to Falcon Street, we’ve gone too far. What’s with these street names?”
“All the streets in Longreach are named after birds. The water birds run east-west and the land birds run north-south.”
“Well, that doesn’t work. There’s a Sparrow Street running east-west. And here’s a Crane Street, running north-south!”
“I don’t know. Just so long as we can find Raven Road, and the cemetery. We don’t want to drive all over town searching for it, like we did in Dirranbandi…”
In the cemetery we tread carefully. The dusty soil is falling away, leaving cracks in the ground around the graves, and it would be easy to misstep and sprain an ankle. The ground is so dry it’s shrinking.
There is a smell of death in the air. It’s probably a dead kangaroo nearby; but disconcerting, in a cemetery.
We find a distant uncle’s grave. It is marked by a substantial block of sandstone, crafted by the well-known A.L.Petrie Monumental Sculptors, of Brisbane. A stone like this must have been expensive to bring out here, over a thousand kilometres from Brisbane. The inscription indicates that it was placed here by his friends and admirers; but days earlier we’d found his own mother’s grave in Roma Cemetery, with no marker on it at all.
Mysteries of the past.
Last time I was in this cemetery, twenty years ago, Con and I were looking for the grave of Leonard Pitkin. Con’s mother Min had been married twice, the first time to Len, and it was his grave we trying to locate. A phone call to the local council had provided us with the grave number, and we eventually found the spot; but there was no name on the grave, no headstone.
Len and Min had moved out here in the early 1920s, looking for work, and in 1923 he died here of typhoid fever. Min was pregnant, and her father made the long journey by train from Mackay to take her home.
There are many unmarked graves in the cemeteries of western Queensland. In the early days, people worked hard, far from their homes, building roads and railways and wrangling stock, or cooking over open fires while wearing long dresses. Life was primitive, and accidents and illnesses were common. Many graves here are marked only by a rusted steel number peg and a sprinkling of red gravel.
We’d sent a photo of Len’s grave to his daughter Joy, Con’s elder sister. She’d never seen her father’s burial place. She arranged for a headstone and came out on the train to place flowers on the spot where her father had been lying unacknowledged for over sixty years.
A few days after our Longreach visit, Nadine and I are at the Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery. Founded in 1850 and heritage listed, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Queensland, built to hold forty-five thousand graves. This cemetery, unlike the others we’ve visited, has avenues with of tall trees, mossy or lichen-covered: kauri and hoop pine, London plane trees, camphor laurels and eucalypts.
Lichen makes the inscriptions hard to read. No lichen in Dirranbandi or Longreach. We find the headstone of a distant cousin we never knew, take photos, and move on.
Our last graveyard of the long trip is the Toowoomba Garden Cemetery. The grave we visit is fresh, the red earth bare and the headstone newly planted. This is where our cousin David had been buried just three months earlier, after losing his battle with cancer. David was the brother of little Peter and Judith. This was someone we had known and loved. This wasn’t family history research. This was personal.
So many cemeteries we’ve visited on this long trip, and this would be the last. And the saddest.
When I’m planted in Queensland earth, I’d like it to be in Brisbane’s Mount Gravatt Cemetery. It’s a serene place with gum trees and lots of bird calls – like a country town cemetery, but greener; with pale headed rosellas and king parrots, magpies and kookaburras. And no burrs.
It’s December in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the chimneys of Tully Sugar Mill are quiet. Crushing has finished for the year. Behind the town, the rainforests of Mount Tyson are cloaked in rain.
This is Golden Gumboot country. The Golden Gumboot is an unofficial, hotly contested yearly competition for the highest rainfall, between the Far North Queensland towns of Tully and Babinda.
Tully, 140 kilometres south of Cairns, has at the start of its main street a concrete gumboot 7.9 metres high with a frog crawling up it. Having survived two fierce cyclones, the boot was recently refurbished by means of a state government grant and given a spectacular coat of gold paint. There is a staircase to the top, and a viewing platform. 7.9 metres is the amount of rain that fell here in 1950: the highest annual rainfall ever recorded in a populated area of Australia. Tully’s average annual rainfall, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, is 4 metres.
Tully has a Golden Gumboot Festival each year whatever the totals are; but in recent decades Babinda, 80 kilometres further north, has had the higher rainfall, averaging 4.28 metres annually, compared to Tully’s 4.09 metres. It’s Babinda that has the Golden Gumboot bragging rights.
To give an idea of what these numbers signify, Brisbane has an average rainfall of just over one metre a year.
Babinda nestles close to the rainforest-covered slopes of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain. If you can see the top of Mount Bartle Frere, so locals say, it’s going to rain. If you can’t, it is raining.
People in these northern towns and farms face a challenging climate, economic threats and agricultural tribulations. Bananas and papaws are major industries around here, but the focus of Tully’s economy is its sugar mill. Chinese-owned, it is the economic heart of this working town. Tully Mill crushes the second highest tonnage of any in the country.
Banana crops, papaw trees and sugar cane are vulnerable to disease, and all are at the mercy of the market – and the weather. Because the rainfall in this region is so reliable, farmers don’t irrigate.
The locals are down-to-earth and practical. They drive twin-cab utes, often with a pig dog cage on the back, and there are boats parked in many back yards. Men dress in boots, work shorts, polo shirts and hi-vis. Women favour denim shorts, black singlet tops and rubber thongs.
The locals relish an earthy form of humour. For instance, a visitor to Tully might talk about driving up the main street, Butler Street; but to a local, it’s “going up the Butt.”
Both Babinda and Tully have spectacular tourist draw cards nearby. The famous Tully Gorge, where white-water
rafting tours ride the outpour of water from the Kareeya hydro-electricity plant, runs right up against the ranges of the Atherton Tableland and the three hundred metre drop of Tully Falls. The falls lie directly below Tully Falls Lookout on the map, but the distance between the two by road is over two hundred kilometres.
Electric-blue Ulysses butterflies flit through the forests along the gorge.
Babinda has The Boulders, a famous swimming hole and granite boulder-strewn creek of matchless beauty. We called in there for a swim a few years ago, floating in that clear pool in the rain as if in a cool, green heaven.
“We used to come to The Boulders for picnics,” Con told me, kicking against the gentle flow of the water. Con grew up in Innisfail, which lies between Tully and Babinda, looking out towards Mount Bartle Frere. Innisfail, famous for its papaws, averages a mere 3.4 metres of rainfall annually.
“Downstream from the main swimming hole there’s a place we called the Chute, which was like a fast water slide. It was great. And the Devil’s Pool – you’d have to be crazy to jump in there, but people did.”
This is a dangerous place for people who venture too close to where the creek is sucked down among huge granite boulders. Adventurous young men have died here.
“When I played for Innisfail Brothers League team and we had a game in Babinda, we’d come to The Boulders afterwards for a swim. We played at the Babinda showgrounds, and there was no such luxury as showers there.”
I first visited The Boulders with my family during a road trip from the south. My dad climbed up on a large boulder and swung out on a rope swing before performing a cartwheeling belly flop into the creek. He swam ashore with his chest scarlet from hitting the water. We were laughing; he didn’t see the funny side.
In 2011, Cyclone Yasi brought disaster to a thousand kilometres of Queensland coast, its eye crossing the coast at Mission Beach, the closest coastal town to Tully.
Yasi’s devastation still shows in an occasional roofless building and in the thinned rainforest on the hillsides. Mission Beach people were isolated for days. A couple of years after Yasi I spoke to a young Frenchwoman living there. I asked her how she had fared.
“During the cyclone, I got a call from my family in Paris,” she told me. “My mother had died. I wanted to get out, to get to the airport in Cairns and fly home. The roads were blocked with debris. The army was clearing them with chainsaws, but no one was allowed in or out.
“I finally managed to get a ride out to the highway with the police, and a bus to Cairns, but the funeral was over long before I reached home.”
We visited friends at South Mission Beach in their beautiful timber house on the hill, and stood on their verandah looking down through greenery towards the tranquil beach where Yasi made landfall.
“Did you leave, when Yasi was coming?” I asked.
“No, we stayed here. We bunkered down in the bathroom, but it was scary. The noise was incredible. The glass doors at the back blew out, and the garden was a mess of shredded trees and debris. We couldn’t get down the road for smashed branches and tree trunks.”
In the Tully branch of Cassowary Coast Libraries there is a display of local historical photographs. Looking at them and seeing the difficulties involved in land clearing, timber felling, road building and transport in the old days, and considering the difficulties they still face today from the weather and the markets, it’s easy to see why the locals need to be tough.
2019 has been drier than usual, even here in the Wet Tropics. The Cassowary Coast Council, which includes Tully and Innisfail, has announced Level 3 water restrictions. The beautiful creek at The Boulders is at its lowest level for years. Babinda and Tully have both recorded much less than their average rainfalls, and little rain is forecast for the rest of the year.
The Wet Tropics is still the greenest place in the state. Sugar, banana and pawpaw farmers are watching the forecasts, though. They must wonder what the future will bring.
Out the back of the Mauro homestead was a pit toilet, a scary place for a townie child like me. What if I fell down the hole?
Mum liked to tell the story of when she was little, out at Barcaldine, and a goat fell down the pit toilet. They sent the jackeroo down to get it out.
When my mother Pat was a child, her father Fred was manager of a sheep station not far from Barcaldine. Even after leaving the land, many of Fred’s descendants maintained all their lives a sense of belonging to the bush – even his second daughter, Betty, who married an American after the war and spent most of her life in Seattle.
Betty liked living near the Pacific Ocean, knowing that on the other side of the water were the beaches and plains of home.
Between the wars Fred took up ownership of a sheep station, through a land ballot I believe; a place called Dunwold, outside Dirranbandi. While still a teenager his eldest son, my uncle Jim, went out there to manage the property. The family next bought a property near Texas, on the New South Wales border, and Fred’s second son, Don, took it over.
When I was young, perhaps four or five, my family went to visit Dunwold, flying to Saint George in a DC3, where Uncle Jim picked us up from the airstrip. Both my uncles considered that we coastal kids needed a bit of toughening up, and at Dunwold I was taken out to watch a sheep being slaughtered. To my great relief, something intervened – perhaps my mother – and I was spared the sight of the killing.
We visited Uncle Don more often. His property, Mauro, was closer to our home in Nambour – only a five- or six-hour drive. Mauro was just over the Dumaresq River, which here forms the border between Queensland and New South Wales: the wriggly part. Mauro is in New South Wales, but Texas, in Queensland, is its nearest town.
The Dumaresq (pronounced Dumaresk or Dumerrik, depending on who is saying it) rises in the Great Dividing Range near Stanthorpe and Tenterfield and flows west into the Macintyre River, which in turn flows past Goondiwindi, still forming part of the border. These are known as the Border Rivers.
Border towns borrow a little from each state. One wintery morning in Goondiwindi, which is in Queensland and therefore sells the Courier-Mail in all the shops, I visited the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop. The ladies in charge were sitting around a table doing the Sydney Morning Herald crosswords. “We get the Herald in specially”, they said. “It has better crosswords that the Courier-Mail.”
The Macintyre River continues further west, joining the Barwon River. The Barwon flows into the Darling River and on into the Murray.
These western rivers have dangerous floods, although the countryside has been drought-stricken for years now. I remember as a child sitting in our family’s Vanguard stuck in the middle of flooded Camp Creek, near Mauro, with my feet up on the seat and floodwater flowing through the car. A tractor towed us out.
All of Fred’s descendants who lived at or visited Mauro will have strong memories of the place. I remember it as if I’m looking at a photo album. Here was the pepperina tree beside the house. When I smell the leaves of a pepper tree, it takes me straight back there. Outside of the house yard, the ground was thick with prickles – bindy eyes, as we called them. We coastal kids had never before experienced those savage, dry-country prickles.
I think it was actually khaki weed, a broad-leaved prickly plant. Bindii is the nasty prickle that grows in my Brisbane lawn – little clusters of carrot-like leaves with prickles in the middle that break off and stick into the skin and make the children go carefully on tiptoes down the concrete car tracks.
The worst prickle I’ve come across is the aptly named goat’s head, found in the Gulf Country around Burketown. Standing on the thorns of a goat’s head is like standing on a couple of thumb tacks.
At Mauro there was a shearing shed, a hundred metres or so from the homestead, with chutes where shearers pushed skinny-looking shorn sheep down into the pens below, slotted tables where roustabouts threw the fleeces, and the wool press that did the baling. There was a strong smell of sheep droppings, fallen between the floorboards and piled up under the shed. We didn’t often visit the shed during shearing, because, Uncle Don said, the men didn’t want to have to curb their language.
Behind the house yard at Mauro was the dam. We went swimming there once. The soft mud at the bottom oozed between our toes.
There was an ant bed tennis court beside the house, surfaced with crushed and rolled termite mounds, and peacocks screamed at dusk on the fences.
Besides sheep Mauro produced fodder crops, and Italian share farmers grew tobacco. We sometimes visited them, peering into the dark barns where the tobacco leaves were hung to dry.
During the 1950s we also visited my mother’s friend on a property outside Saint George and watched them “pulling” the mulga. Whether it was for land clearing or for cattle feed, I don’t know. It was impressive, though. Two army tanks, fifty metres or so apart, dragged a heavy chain between them, pulling down the scrub as they went. Perhaps they were bulldozers, but I remember them as tanks. So soon after the War there was probably plenty of army surplus equipment available for jobs like this.
Most of all I remember the noise.
I last visited Mauro in the early 1980s. Con, because we were only going for a couple of days, hadn’t brought proper shoes – just the standard North Queensland driving footwear of the time, rubber thongs. When Don asked him to help shift irrigation pipes, Con wore his thongs. Don was wearing elastic-sided boots.
When Con came back to the house he sat down on the back step and took off his thongs. They had new soles on them: a centimetre-thick matt of prickles; and he sat there glumly pulling them out of the sides of his feet. There are many reasons why westerners wear elastic-sided boots, and prickles, whether bindii, khaki weed or goat’s heads, are high on the list.
“I remember the day Mum put the bunya pine down her bra,” says my brother Rick. He and my other brother Mike and I are in the Bunyas Mountains together, on a nostalgic visit, sitting on the verandah of a small but comfortable cottage and reminiscing. King parrots and crimson rosellas cluster round us, pecking at bird seed.
I can’t imagine putting anything as prickly as a bunya pine down my bra.
We’re discussing a trip to the Bunyas we went on years ago, camping with our parents. Dad had pitched the old canvas tent on what was then known as the Lucerne Patch, a camping field running down to the edge of the rainforest. That evening there was a sudden storm, with heavy rain threatening to swamp the tent. Mum and we three kids held on to the tent poles while Dad frantically dug a trench along the uphill side to divert the flood.
Dad’s trench saved us from a night spent in wet bedding, and next day the sun was out. We walked along the forest tracks, under majestic pines and enormous fig trees laden with ferns and orchids.
Along the way, our mother spotted a baby bunya pine. The ground was soft after the rainstorm, and so in spite of signs that said not to interfere with vegetation or wildlife in a National Park she carefully dug it out. Because she didn’t want to be caught doing the wrong thing, so the family story goes, she hid it in her bra.
The iconic bunya pines, Araucaria bidwilli, endemic to the Blackall Range and Bunya Mountains National Park, command respect. Straight and rough-barked, bunya pines can grow close to fifty metres tall and a metre in diameter.
For thousands of years, great bunya festivals were held here. This was a meeting place for local Aboriginal groups and those from further away, travelling here every three years for ritual and ceremony, resolving of disputes, feasting, dance, song, trading, socialising and above all harvesting the bunya nuts.
Development of surrounding lands by white farmers, and the relocation of Indigenous people to reserves, tragically put a stop to the bunya festivals by 1902.
According to Tom Petrie, his father Andrew Petrie “discovered” the bunya pine and “gave some specimens to a Mr. Bidwill, who forwarded them to the old country, and hence the tree was named after him, not after the true discoverer.”
These trees had been known and celebrated in this place for centuries before the Petries came along.
In the mid-1800s, Tom Petrie himself as a boy was the first free (i.e. not an escaped convict) white person to attend a bunya festival. As an old man, he described it in detail to his daughter, who wrote out his memoirs. Many of the bunya pines have what seem to be notches in them and some believe that they were cut to help the young men who, with the aid of a loop of strong vine around the tree, would climb up to get the big cones that hold the nuts; but according to Tom Petrie they would never cut a bunya because it would hurt the tree. They would climb using just the vine, aided by the roughness of the bark. It would take great skill and courage to climb so high that way.
By the 1850s, an avenue of bunya pines had been planted in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, where they’re still standing today, along the path above the river.
My brothers and I have been walking those same soft forest tracks again today, and we worked out which leaves belong to the bunya pines, and which to the equally mighty hoop pines, Araucaria cunninghamii, that grow here too. They were first collected by Alan Cunningham, botanist and explorer, in the 1820s.
It’s easy to tell the trees apart, if you crane your neck upwards. The mature bunyas have a dome-shaped top, while the hoops have a pointed top. The leaves are different too. Hoop pine leaves are smooth and closely woven, and bunya leaves are twisted and prickly. Maybe Mum wrapped that little bunya tree in a hanky.
“She put the tree in a pot, and it grew,” says Rick. “For years we used it as a Christmas tree.”
“That’s right – I’d forgotten the Christmas tree! Didn’t she eventually plant it behind the house at Ashgrove, down by the creek?”
“Yes, she did. I wonder if it’s still there.”
This year, the forest is in drought, like most of Queensland. Dry leaves are lying thick on the ground. Many trees are suffering, and some of the tracks are closed. As we sit on the cottage verandah that evening, we hear a menacing cracking sound in the distance, then a deep, booming thump. The sound of a forest giant falling.
“When we get back to Brisbane, let’s go and look for Mum’s bunya pine,” said Mike.
That’s what we do. We drive out to the old house in Joffre Street, Ashgrove, and there it is, towering over the houses, down near the creek.
Only it doesn’t have a dome shape. It has a point. After all these years of family legend, is it actually a bunya pine at all? It’s not a full-grown tree yet – too young to have a dome, perhaps.
Maybe it’s a hoop pine. Much less prickly to put in a bra. We knock on the door to ask if we can go out in the back yard and check the leaves, but there’s no one home.
Hoop pines are beautiful too, with their rough bark and hoop-like stripes. They’re everywhere in Brisbane, standing like sentinels on hilltops, in parks and suburban gardens and motorway plantings.
The bunya pine, though, is the iconic one; and its home forest, now suffering from drought, is an ancient and spiritual place. This year, Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral burned down and the world mourned. The Cathedral will be rebuilt – just as it was. It won’t be so easy to rebuild the old, old forests of the Bunya Mountains.
 “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. First published 1904. This edition 2014: Watson Ferguson and Company, Brisbane. Page 9