For Brisbane children, gullies are places of adventure. I grew up next to one myself, off Priory Street, Indooroopilly; and I loved it.
Indooroopilly translates from the local Yugara language as Gully of Leeches. The Priory Street gully is the one the name refers to.
The Priory is an elegant nineteenth-century house on a hill in Indooroopilly, looking down over the four bridges that cross the Brisbane River here: the road bridge, two rail bridges and a cycle and pedestrian bridge.
The house was built in the 1880s, on a large piece of land which included a deep, scrubby, rain-forested gully running down to the river. The first railway bridge had already been built here, linking Brisbane to Ipswich and beyond, and opening up all the land along the line to development, and to the building of expensive riverside residences.
The back driveway of The Priory crossed the gully on a wooden bridge and curved up to join Priory Street. When part of the Priory land was subdivided and sold off, my parents built a house here – a small brick house built looking down on the gully, on what had been the end of that old back driveway.
For my two younger brothers and me – especially my brothers – our gully was an endless source of amusement. Last week, as we enjoyed a social distancing takeaway coffee in a Tarragindi park, they reminded me of the things they got up to there as boys.
There’s a special time of fun for children, once they are old enough to go out and play alone, and before the start of high school and puberty: between about eight and twelve. I still remember the fine games we played then: Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, exploring, trolley (aka billycart) riding down our then-gravel street, and a game we invented, called coffee tin and walking stick. It was a lawless kind of hockey, played with an International Roast tin and a couple of old walking sticks, in the front yard of that little brick house. No wonder the neighbours complained to our harassed mother about our noise.
After talking to my brothers, I went back last week to see the gully. It hasn’t changed much, except there’s more rubbish in it. It has a darker, more menacing air now.
It’s still deep, and clogged with vegetation – bamboo, palms, trees draped with cat’s claw creepers. A smelly creek runs down it. It was always a bit smelly, with run-off from storm water and the greywater sullage that seeped through our back yards in those pre-sewerage days, but as kids we didn’t care.
At the upstream end of the gully there is a large storm water pipe coming from the darkness under the Rankin Street Park. One day we kids screamed “Help!” into it, just to hear the reverberation. All the neighbours heard it and rushed out to investigate. I tested it, and I was pleased to discover it still echoes.
At its lower end, the gully flows under the road in more large pipes. They were big enough for us kids to crawl through, but it was dangerous. They opened out on to a slimy concrete slab hanging above the river, and if we’d slipped, depending on the tide level we’d have gone either straight into the river or on to the rocks below.
Just downstream from the gully outflow was an old boat ramp, in our time used by a water-ski club, but possibly built for the ferry that crossed the river here before 1936, when the Indooroopilly Toll Bridge with its distinctive white towers was opened. Now there’s major construction underway round this curve of the river: an impressive new river walk way and bike path.
My brothers knew every inch of the gully, and of the surrounding streets and parks. They knew the overhang where some older kid had left cigarettes and matches and a Playboy magazine; where to find stinking roger weed to make arrows for their home-made bows; where to stand to throw rocks on the roof of the water ski clubhouse; how to pull loose boards from the base of the bridge cables and climb in among them, those huge steel cables left over from the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. They could light a double bunger in one of those useful coffee tins, jam the lid on and throw it so it would explode just before it hit the river. That takes careful timing.
In a hilly place like Brisbane, there are gullies everywhere, and most kids have access to a bushland reserve, rainforest gully or rocky creek bed not too far from where they live.
In nearly every wild spot there are signs of children having fun: cubby houses, rope swings, hand-made mountain bike jumps, rocks piled up to dam the creeks, boards and branches laid across them to make bridges.
Some gullies are dry, many are built over, and others have small, permanent creeks in them, fed by rain and by storm water drains carrying run-off from people’s roofs and gardens. Many gullies and areas of bushland are cared for by enthusiastic volunteer bush care groups, supported by the City Council.
That hasn’t happened in the old gully that gave Indooroopilly its name. This hilly suburb is a wonderful mix of old timber houses both fine and humble, restored to splendour or resting quietly under their gnarled frangipanis and poinsettias; but it is also being subjected to the rampant building of apartment blocks – even, it seems, around the beautiful old Priory. Priory Street itself is full of them, and where our little house once stood there are two modern houses now. Perhaps the apartment dwellers are busy professional people, or the elderly, or students – not people interested in restoring bushland. The cat’s claw creeper that infested the gully when we were kids is taking over on every side now.
I live on the side of a Brisbane gully that is now a street, a rat-run between two busy roads, and the sound of the television is sometimes drowned out by the roar of a speeding car or motorbike. Every so often, though, after heavy rain, the creek that once ran here re-asserts itself, flowing down from the hillsides and up from the stormwater drains, draining other, smaller gullies to flood the road. My street still wants to be a Brisbane bushland gully of ferns and fig-trees, eucalypts and wattles; but on this dry side of town, I doubt if it was ever a gully of leeches.