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.
What an adventure for you all. Nicely written, Bud. I enjoyed reading it.
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Thank you, Debbie. It’s amazing that people still have a sense of dread about those murders. And I still have a dread of flooded creeks, and imagine our car floating off that bridge!
I remember this time very well. In 1974 we did a family caravan trip up the QLD coast to Cairns. Caravan parks weren’t as plentiful then as they are now and, on the return journey, we had to stop for a night along the highway. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen my dad with a gun. As a 13 year old, I didn’t even know he carried a shotgun under the bed in the van. That night he got it out and put it within easy reach.
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That’s interesting! It’s amazing how, even now, people particularly remember those frightening murders, in that area.
That was a very good description of an adventure you would not want to repeat.
I lived there in the 70s and every year those creeks came up and many were stranded for days.
One year a refrigeratored semi trailer tried to cross Connnors river but was swept downstream and lodged against trees.Men with ropes managed to get to the truck and open the fridge doors.The current was extremely strong.
When the doors were open the load tumbled out. Frozen chickens, not wrapped in plastic. That night everyone ate well but after the flood subsided was another matter.
Hanging in the tree hung rotting chickens. It was however quite a funny sight.
Back in the 70’s our family use to travel from Townsville to Sydney every year to spend Christmas with the family. We spent a few days stranded at Rockhampton one year during the floods and remember my brother and I being horrified at the sight and smell of dead, bloated cows hanging in trees. Another year we got stranded between Connors River and Funnel Creek for a few days. All we had eat were some stale Sao biscuits and warm, watery orange cordial. I remember walking down to the creek from our spot in the queue, counting all the cars on the way. We were 74 cars back from the creek and the queue stretched out way behind us.
I remember how miserable it was on our journeys if we stopped at night in a rest area during the Queensland Summers. It was usually raining but too hot to keep the windows all the way up. If you opened them enough to let some air in you were kept awake by mozzies the size of a B52 bomber whining in your ear and we’d wake up covered in bites. Good times! Mum never liked the idea of stopping along that stretch of the highway overnight though, especially with the murders that happened in that area.
I came across your story after finding photos online taken during the floods at Funnel Creek in 1974, showing the line of cars and a truck towing cars through the floodwaters. Bought back so many memories. Thankyou for sharing yours 🙂
Wow! Thanks for your comments – so many vivd memories! So true about overnighting in a car in the heat and rain, with the mozzies! And the SAOs!!
I’ve never come across dead animals in trees thank goodness, although I know it happens.
And the lines of cars, sweltering in the humidity, waiting for the flood to go down!
It amazes me that my kids like long road trips, after their experiences when young!
I was stranded in that traffic at lotus creek that same Christmas I was only 6 but I remember it well ,we played games on the side of the rd with the other kids wow what a memory my mother still has the letter she wrote to my grandmother when we made it to Mackay detailing our adventure
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It’s interesting to hear from someone else who went through that same experience. So many Queenslanders must have stories about being stuck in floods. Cyclones, fires, droughts, snakes, crocodiles – it can be a wild place to live, if you venture beyond Noosa and Toowoomba!
My girlfriend and I at the time travelled that stretch in 1975 and 1976 to visit my sister and BIL in Townsville. They lived in the same street as the WECKERTS about 5 doors up. I remember it well. Sabadell St., Kirwan….
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The whole of Townsville would have been shocked about those murders. Many people still would be. Thanks for your comment. It’s amazing how many people remember the events on the Horror Stretch, even now. Cheers