Travellers shot in their cars or sleeping bags.
Frightening reports in the papers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Central Queensland place names Funnel Creek, Lotus Creek and Connors River held a weight of menace. Across that decade, several travellers were murdered by strangers when pulled up alongside the Bruce Highway between Marlborough and Sarina. The Marlborough Stretch became known as the Horror Stretch.
In his 2002 book “Seven Versions of an Australian Badland”, historian Ross Gibson writes in detail about those random murders and the other violent acts that occurred in this region over the previous century.
He writes, “This stretch of country is an immense, historical crime scene.”
Gibson also describes its cyclones and floods; and it was because of floods that Con and I once found ourselves stranded here with our children.
In the early January of 1974, on our way north to Cairns, we drove the Horror Stretch, as we had done before; but this year was different. This year was very wet indeed. Later that month, Australia Day weekend, record floods would inundate Brisbane.
From our home in Burketown, we had driven down to Brisbane for Christmas – 2200 kilometres of bitumen and gravel, with two young children and no car air-conditioning. But we were young, and we were used to it.
In those days, the Burketown water supply was untreated. We had a rainwater tank for drinking, but our bath water came from a lagoon where the local kids swam. It is not surprising that when, over Christmas, I began to feel ill, a doctor diagnosed hepatitis A.
There was nowhere for us in Brisbane, with me suffering from an infectious disease.
“I could have you taken into custody,” said the doctor. “If you don’t undertake to keep yourself away from people, that’s what I’ll do!”
We had a holiday apartment waiting for us in Cairns, and so we set out on the three-day journey north, in spite of warnings of flood rains along the way.
We crossed Lotus Creek on our second day on the road, 120 kilometres north of Marlborough and driving through rain, dipping down on to the narrow, single-lane bridge, with swirling, brown waters close beneath its decking, then up past the roadhouse on the north bank.
Twenty kilometres further on we crossed the Connors River, with even higher water; but when we reached Funnel Creek, we were stopped. Water was racing over the bridge and halfway up the flood marker.
“We’re going back,” called out one of the other travellers pulled up at the flooded bridge. “Connors River is coming up. If it goes over the bridge there, we’ll be stranded.”
Worried, we turned back too, crossed Connors River safely and spent that night in the car, parked beside the road, just south of the river. The rain poured down, so we had to close the windows, except for a crack. It was hot, and there were mosquitoes.
We locked the car doors and tried not to think of how many people had been murdered along this road. Fourteen months later, skydiving couple Noel and Sophie Weckert would be shot by strangers here at Connors River.
Next morning, we drove further south, hoping to get back to Marlborough; but now the water was over the bridge at Lotus Creek. We were marooned.
There were a dozen carloads of people caught there, congregated at the Lotus Creek Roadhouse. The manager let us have an old caravan out the back for that night. It was broken-down and dusty, with grimy mattresses and no bedding, but it was more comfortable than the car. And it felt safer.
There wasn’t much food at the roadhouse, but we had our own supplies – including the only bread available for breakfast next morning. We shared it with other travellers, but the manager charged us for toasting it.
After breakfast, we drove north again and joined the queue waiting at the Connors River for the water to go down. It was a long, hot wait. People shared stories about floods, snakes and breakdowns. Some dozed in their cars. Our small children squatted in the gutter beside the car, playing with a toy truck.
The water was still over the bridge when cars began to cross. We took our turn, with a towel draped across the grill to minimize the wet coming in over the engine. As we drove up the slope on the other side, I bailed water out the window with an icecream container.
We did stupid things as young parents.
Having made it through to Cairns, a couple of weeks later we flew back to Burketown. The day Brisbane flooded, we were flying over the Gulf Country, across a sea of floodwater, the winding Carpentaria rivers marked only by the tops of trees along their banks. Our final leg home from the airstrip was in a tinnie.
The highway doesn’t follow the Horror Stretch now – it takes a shorter, more easterly route past Saint Lawrence, and it’s a wide, well-made road and a pleasant, high-speed drive, with pasture and bush land, spectacular ranges in the background and station homesteads out of sight up dirt tracks and behind gates and grids. In a good season, tall grass stands golden along the road edges, bright against the blue mountain ranges.
Many still remember the murders of the Horror Stretch, though; and there have been even more frightening outback murders in the fifty-odd years since. There’s horror in the idea of a madman emerging from the dark lonely bush to murder a stranger.
That said, more travellers have died when driving voluntarily through floodwaters. Crossing flooded Connors River with young children in the car is the memory that gives me nightmares.