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.”
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.
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.
The notorious stinging tree, the gympie-gympie, that hurts so much you want to die. The rough bark of hoop pines.
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.
There are beautiful trees in Queensland.
Moreton bay figs. Paper barks and casuarinas.
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.
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.
Roma famously has made a feature of bottle trees.
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.
Darling Downs, Rockhampton, even the suburbs of Brisbane.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Our Matt woke up early on Thursday, ready to drive across Germany to Berlin for Christmas – the first visit to the girls’ grandparents for two years. Sunrise was at 8.30am, and the back garden was under four degrees of frost.
It would be a cold drive. He scraped ice off the car before they began, and he’d need to watch out for perilous black ice on the roads.
His girls already know the rules of living in a cold climate. Don’t lick an icy fence or your tongue will stick. Don’t eat snow – you never know if a dog has lifted its leg there. Or a drunk. When skating, look out for the signs of thin ice; and learn how to wrap a long scarf around your neck.
In Queensland we’re used to heat, at Christmas and through the months that follow. I’ve seen Sydney people reduced to sweating exhaustion by Brisbane heat and humidity, and the further north you go the hotter it gets.
Here are some things we know about Queensland summer.
It’s cooler under the house; especially if you hose the concrete.
Park the car under a shady tree, even if you have to drive around the block to find one. But not in a storm.
Leave the car windows down a crack to let air circulate while you’re doing your Christmas shopping. But not if there’s a storm coming.
Never run out of talcum powder. Prickly heat and chafe will ruin your day.
Plan before opening the fridge. It’s a crime to stand in front of an open fridge door, wondering what you might like to eat. Think of the icecream and the prawns.
On the subject of prawns, take the scraps to a bin far away. If you’re putting them in the freezer, double-bag them.
Have an adequate supply of stubby coolers/holders.
Keep up the supply of ice for the drinks.
Sand is hot. Walk quickly, on tiptoes.
Bitumen melts. Your thongs may stick to it.
Bras are optional on a hot day, clothes minimal.
Don’t swim in the middle of the day.
Swim between the flags.
No matter how hot it is and how clear and beautiful the water looks, take notice of the crocodile and stinger warnings. Achtung!
March flies hurt. You may have to stay under water up to your chin and pull your hat down low.
Eat that icecream quickly or it will melt and run down your arm.
Fans, fans, fans – even in the air-conditioning.
Drink lots of water. Your wee should be a pale lemon colour. Really!
In a cyclone, shelter in the bathroom – it’s the safest place.
Wear a hat. Akubras are good.
In Berlin, it’s snowing. Beautiful.
Drunks and homeless people may die of hyperthermia in snowy Europe. Here in Queensland, kids will play under sprinklers and dogs will be given frozen treats; and stubby holders will be in use on our verandah.
And phone calls will be made to family coming for Christmas lunch.
“Can you pick up a couple more bags of ice at the servo on your way?”
Lately, vast areas of Queensland have been covered in brown water. The dust from our recent western trip is still on our tyres, but many of the roads we drove on are now cut by floods. The Cunningham Highway and the border rivers areas went under last week: Warwick, Stanthorpe, Texas, Yelarbon. Inglewood was inundated and 800 people, the entire population, were evacuated in the middle of the night.
It’s hot and sunny in all these areas today, and people are cleaning up that stinking mud.
Goondiwindi waited anxiously for the flood to reach them.
The water in the Macintyre River rose overnight, and the question was, as always: will the levee bank keep the water out of town? It did, but was a near thing. Many outlying houses and farms went under.
Two months ago we were in Winton, and the entire countryside was in drought. Since then, they’ve had around 100mm of rain. The dry desert jump-up we drove up to in September, the location for the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, had waterfalls cascading down its cliffs two weeks ago.
If your peaches and apricots are ready to pick, or your beautiful wheat crop due for harvest, these storms and flooding rains have been a disaster; but still, to have the rivers and farm dams overflowing with brown water after so long a drought is a miracle.
In the hilly, rainforest country of coastal Queensland, brown flood water is soon gone from rivers and creeks and they return to their normal clear and beautiful condition.
In the rolling downs and flat country that makes up most of the state, the black soil country and red dirt country, the creeks and rivers rarely run clear; but these muddy western rivers and creeks are clean of pollution and rich with life. Locals and travellers love to camp on their banks to fish and swim.
In Longreach, tourist boats explore the Thomson River; and Goondiwindi has a 210ha Water Park, a stretch of creek designated for power boats, water-skiing and swimming. Not this week though.
After leaving Winton in early October, we drove south into the Channel Country and spent the night at Windorah, near Cooper Creek.
In the garden of the small but interesting local museum sits the flood boat that was used over many years on the intricate channels of the Channel Country, carrying supplies to the marooned and rescuing people, and their animals too.
Leaving Windorah, we headed down the quiet Kyabra Creek Road, a recently sealed short cut leading to the tiny town of Eromanga. Eromanga is growing famous for the massive dinosaur fossils discovered in the area, and for its Natural History Museum, where they are preserved and assessed. Dinosaur tourism provides a financial boost to much of western Queensland.
We met no traffic along the way, saw no sign of habitation, until we reached Kyabra Creek. There, we were startled to come across a large encampment of caravans, tents and four-wheel drive vehicles along the banks of a wide, milk coffee coloured lagoon.
Children were swimming in the muddy water, and along the banks there were fishing rods, kayaks and canoes. Teenagers zoomed around on trail bikes. Such freedom! It was the opposite to a neat, regimented coastal holiday park experience.
And the water was the opposite to the clear water of a Wet Tropics creek where you can look straight through sparkling water and count the stones on the bottom.
An hour later, lunching on BLTs on the verandah of the old Royal Hotel (better known as the Eromanga Pub) we learned what was happening out on Kyabra Creek.
It was the Eromanga Mates Reunion. All those people had come, some from far away, for a four-day get-together to relive their childhood and meet up with other ex-locals. They have a Facebook page that shows how much fun they had that weekend, on the banks of the brown, muddy lagoon.
Two days later, on a Sunday morning in Charleville, we parked near a row of heavily-laden four-wheel drives, stopped at the bakery, with adults checking their loads and standing around talking while kids played chasey on the footpath. I think they’d been to the Eromanga Reunion, and they were on their way back to the coast in time for the new school term.
Many years ago, a little cousin of mine slipped into a brown western creek and drowned before anyone could find her, and so they scare me a bit. But this month there will be little western Queensland children playing in puddles for the first time in their lives; and their big brothers and sisters will be bomb-diving into muddy farm dams that haven’t seen water for years.
The Witches Kitchen, the restaurant of the Union Hotel in Barcaldine, is a lively place where locals come for birthday dinners or special family meals.
Early in the day, though, the restaurant is closed and quiet. One morning, from where I was staying in the cosy motel section behind the Union, I walked through to the empty dining room with my breakfast muesli, and sat there for a time, reading.
Suddenly, the street door opened and in walked two cheerful young men in bright matching shirts that seemed to be covered in flames.
I suppose that for a fire safety certificate, every hotel, shop, hall, school or office building across the state must have its fire extinguishers checked and signed off on regularly. That’s what these two were here for. Based in Rockhampton, six hours’ drive east of Barcaldine, they worked for a firm called Buddy’s Fire, spending their days driving round the Central West checking fire equipment.
My friend Yvonne used to travel for Helena Rubenstein. She drove across most of the state, Cunnamulla to Mount Isa, her station wagon loaded with samples, visiting local pharmacies in country towns to take their orders for cosmetics and skin care products. It was an adventurous life for a lone woman on those long, rough roads. And there were no mobile phones. Even today, phone coverage in western Queensland is patchy.
In Rockhampton, beginning one of her long trips, Yvonne bought, on impulse, a cane lounge. She squeezed her new cane lounge into the car with the sample cases and set out for the west.
After leaving Charleville, on the then lonely, gravel road to Quilpie, she punctured a tyre. Unable to change it, and not knowing how long she would be there in the sun, she pulled the lounge out of the boot, hauled it across to a shady brigalow tree and sat down to wait for someone to come along and rescue her, looking, I’ve no doubt, carefully made up and elegant as befitted her trade.
Eventually, she says, a car pulled up and the Marlboro Man got out.
It wasn’t really the Marlboro Man, of course – just a handsome young man in a big white hat who took her to the next town to get the tyre repaired, then home to have dinner with his wife and family. Then off she went again, delivering cosmetics and glamour to the country women of Queensland.
Yvonne tells me that she’d usually eat her evening meal in her motel room. That way she’d avoid the attentions of lonely men looking for another kind of adventure. The one time she let herself be lured into the hotel room of a traveller in jewellery, to “look at his samples”, it was his family jewels he took out to show her. She grabbed her bag and ran.
On regional Queensland’s long, long roads, workers are hauling fuel, mining equipment, cattle or supplies in three-trailer road trains. They’re driving graders for the local council or droving cattle. They’re flying past our Subaru in utes and four-wheel drives, their big vehicles filling the parking bays at motels, work boots sitting outside unit doors; and before we wake up in the morning they’re gone.
Last month, driving through mining country on the Gregory Developmental Road north of Clermont, Con and I met a “Wide Load” pilot vehicle. Soon after, a police car came towards us, on our side of the road, urging us off on to the gravel verge. With a crest on the road five hundred metres ahead, we still couldn’t see anything coming, so we eased our way along with two wheels on the bitumen, until another police car waved us further off the road. Pulling over, we stopped and waited.
Five minutes later, a monster appeared over the crest. On the back of a semi-trailer loomed a ten-metre-wide mine bucket, taking up the entire width of the road. The truck was moving along at a good pace, and we were in awe, as we’ve often been, at the skill and confidence needed to drive the huge loads that travel western roads.
A week later, we were in the small Channel Country town of Windorah, 1200 kilometres west of Brisbane. The Western Star Hotel Motel is famous in the area, and we had our dinner there, out under the verandah roof.
Near us, a group of workers in dusty high vis were eating together and enjoying one another’s company before heading off to their rooms for an early night. Leaving first thing in the morning, they’d try to beat the worst of the heat as they worked long days on road surfacing, or bridge repairs.
Windorah is one of just three small towns in Barcoo Shire, which covers 62,000 square kilometres and has a total population of around three hundred people. The Shire Council is currently advertising for an experienced grader driver, offering above award wages and five weeks annual leave, uniforms, subsidised accommodation – and ten-to-twelve-hour working days.
Con and I were off in the morning too, driving east to Quilpie then on to Charleville. Bitumen all the way now – not like it was in Yvonne’s day. Those flame-covered young men have it easier than she did; but with heat, isolation, and those long, long roads, driving into the sun and coping with breakdowns and a lack of phone coverage, it has never been easy working on western Queensland’s roads.
Main photo: a cattle road train passing a sand dune, heading west from Windorah towards the setting sun
I’ve never been to Wyandra, but it seems that like many western towns it has a lot of old character houses and cottages with no one living in them – an indication of loss of population. I like these sketches of the old houses of Wyandra.
There is nothing quite like tiny towns. Those little dots on the map that most people drive through very quickly. Yet, we have found time and again that if we stay a night or two those little dots leave big imprints on our hearts.
Wyandra in Western Queensland was one of those places. With a population of 99 (2016) and 1 galah it’s located on the Mitchell Highway (Matilda Way) roughly halfway between Charleville and Cunnamulla. One blink and you’d miss it.
It’s 1876, and a travelling photographer has set up his equipment at Wallumbilla Station homestead.
The house is a rough dwelling of wide, unpainted wooden boards. Untreated tree trunks support the verandah roof. For this important occasion the best carpet has been brought outside, and three chairs – two for the parents and a child’s chair for the second youngest child, Charles, aged two. The youngest, a baby, is lying on her mother’s lap. That’s Maude Isabella, known as Isabel: my great-grandmother. (See my story “Isabel’s Death”.)
I’ve seen many photographs of my ancestors, going back five generations, but this photo, of David and Janet Turbayne is the most interesting. There’s so much to see.
The parents are holding feather dusters discreetly by their sides. That’s to whisk away the small, sticky, annoying western flies that will be bound to settle on faces during the long process of posing and keeping still for the photograph. People in these old photos always look solemn, because it’s hard to keep a smile in place for the twenty seconds or longer the camera shutter needs to be open.
Isabel’s face is blurry. No one can keep a baby still. Little Charles is blurry, too. Wilfred, aged five, has his head on a cheeky angle. Ellen is seven, and she’s mastered the art of standing straight and still. The eldest child, Jessica, has her hand on her mother’s shoulder. All her life, Jessie will be the responsible one helping raise her brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, and their children too.
Look at David, forty-two years old and dapper, with fine whiskers, and holding his prized rifle. The following year, he was to begin one of Queensland’s earliest rifle clubs, the Maranoa Rifle Club.
Janet is eight years younger than David, thirty-four when this photo was taken. She has already given birth to five children and will have four more by the time she is forty. Her expression, as far as we can see it, is enigmatic. She is dressed nicely in a skirt and jacket with a pleated flounce.
Standing behind the family are an Aboriginal man and young girl, the girl dressed as a domestic servant and the man in outdoor clothing. I hope that including the servants in the photo is an indication that, in spite of the all-pervasive racism among white people in this time and place, there is affection here, or at least respect. David Turbayne was interested enough in local Indigenous matters to make a collection of words in the local Bigambul language, which has now largely disappeared. That list is now housed in Canberra, as part of the collection of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
Several years ago, my cousin Nadine Schofield, also a descendant of Janet and David and their daughter Isabel, created a Turbayne Family Facebook page (now closed). It was through this page that another Isabelle made contact.
This Isabelle is descended from a William (Billy) Turbane, born in Wallumbilla around 1871. Billy’s mother, Nellie, was Aboriginal, and his death certificate states that his father was Dick Tobane (Bank Manager).
David Turbayne later became a bank manager.
Was my great-great-grandfather David having relations with a local woman, who gave birth to their son the same year that his wife Janet gave birth to my great-grandmother? Or was Billy given the name of the station manager, a common practice at the time?
Isabelle, Nadine and I have all had DNA tests to follow up this interesting, typically Queensland story, and the results have proved that we’re not related. I’m disappointed. Many more of us Queenslanders, of all backgrounds, are linked by blood than we’ll ever know.
Janet and David Turbayne were both born in Scotland, a long way from Wallumbilla Station, forty-five kilometres east of Roma. They lived in many parts of Queensland, from Cardwell in the north to Sandgate in the south. David succumbed to cancer aged just fifty-six, but Janet lived to a grand age, dying in 1929. Perhaps all her life she missed the mists and snows and romantic highlands of Scotland; but she was buried in the flat, hard, dry soil of Roma.
Nadine, a great sleuth of family history, discovered through her research that Janet’s grave had no headstone. Why she, mother of nine, was buried in an unmarked grave we’ll never know. But it is unmarked no longer.
In 2019, ninety years after Janet’s death, Nadine arranged for a headstone to be installed on our great-great-grandmother’s grave. We went out to Roma, a small group of her descendants, to that barren, drought-stricken cemetery, to honour her there with a quiet family ceremony, and flowers.
Wet season, Ingham, 2021. The Herbert River overflowed repeatedly, spreading across the flat country around the town, flooding houses and cane fields. Opened in January, a Facebook page, “Ingham floods 2021”, gained 3.7 thousand members and in April was still posting updates on floods.
This was nothing new. Ingham, 112 kilometres north of Townsville and one of North Queensland’s most prosperous towns, has been flooded in seven of the last ten years. The Herbert River catchment runs off the southern Atherton Tablelands and its tributaries pick up water from 9,000 square kilometres of high rainfall country.
Ingham is where luxuriant tropical scenery begins, north of the drier country around Townsville: sugar cane, green hills, creeks. It’s always green here, on the edge of the Wet Tropics.
“Did I tell about my first visit to Ingham?” I ask Con as I clean the windscreen. He is filling up with fuel at the service station on Ingham’s main street, the one we’ve been stopping at for years on our journeys north.
“Don’t think so,” he says over the sound of the pump.
“I was sixteen, on a camping road trip from South Queensland with my family, and we stopped here for the night so Dad could visit an old army mate. Dad had old army mates all over the state. We got to Ingham in the middle of a downpour. The river was flooding. The caravan park was awash.”
Con goes to pay for the fuel, and I finish cleaning the back windscreen.
“Anyway,” I continue as we pull out into the traffic, “Dad’s army mate invited us to spend the night. It was great. A big, comfortable house, dry beds and tropical fruit for breakfast: that’s what Ingham means to me. It was such a relief to get out of the wet.”
For Con, growing up in Innisfail, torrential rain was part of life.
“Floods were fun for us kids,” he says. “Floods meant swimming in your own backyard and not having to wear shoes to school.”
We’re on the Bruce Highway, passing through cane fields on the flat country north of Ingham, and as we cross the Herbert River, Con tells me a story of driving to Ingham when he was young. I like his dramatic stories of growing up in FNQ.
“Mum, Jim and I drove through here at Easter the year I turned fourteen, in Jim’s 1939 Ford, heading south from Innisfail to Townsville. My brother Jim was driving trucks when he was seventeen, delivering fuel to cane farmers around Innisfail on narrow, unsealed roads and through flooded creeks, so the fact that it was pouring rain when we set off didn’t worry us. We were Innisfailites – we had webbed feet.
“There was a minor concern, though: the car had a slow leaking radiator. Every few miles, we would have to refill it with water; but there were plenty of creeks along the way. At Moresby, only eight miles south of Innisfail, we stopped for the first time and I was sent over to the river with a bucket to bring back water for the radiator. Jim poured it in while the engine was running then screwed down the cap. We set out again.
“The rain kept up, and I kept scouting for water. The road was mainly bitumen, a bit patchy, and the car was high enough off the ground to manage the washouts and the water running across it.
“Just out of Cardwell, on a stretch of road awash with sand and water, we met a tiny Triumph sports car. The driver was travelling alone, and he asked us what conditions were like further up the road. He didn’t like what we told him – torrential rain and creeks running across the roads – but he pointed the little car’s nose to the north and kept going.
“We filled the radiator again at the bottom of the Cardwell Range and made it to the top, and then Jim checked the temperature gauge. We needed water again, and soon.
“On the way down the other side, we prayed for a creek. We came to one, all right – ten metres below the road, with scrub-covered cliffs leading down to it. No chance of getting water there. Going downhill was easier on the engine, though; and at the bottom of the range, we found another creek, and I did my job with the bucket again.
“There were no more hills between there and Townsville, so we thought our troubles were over. But north of Ingham, and with still over 120 kilometres to travel, we came out on to the Herbert River flood plain. There were road works. It was chaos.
“The bitumen had disappeared, leaving churned-up mud. Cars were buried up to their axles on the sides of the road, and farmers were trying to pull them out with tractors.”
“You know, people complain about the state of the Bruce Highway, and it’s true you can never drive the length of it, 1700 kilometres from Brisbane to Cairns, without being held up by road works. But what a lot of improvements we’ve seen over the years! I’ll always stick up for the Bruce.”
Con continues his story.
“I looked at Jim. He clenched his hands around the steering wheel and set the car on the safest course he could find through that madness of mud, bogs, cars and tractors, until we were once again on bitumen, and Ingham was only a few miles ahead.
“We made it through to Townsville a couple of hours later. They hadn’t had the heavy rain we’d come through, thank God. Townsville is a dry old dump.”
Country towns can have such disdain for one another. But of course, so can big cities. Sydney and Melbourne, for instance.
“At a garage in Hermit Park, Jim bought a can of Radiator Cement. It plugged up the holes, and on the way home a few days later we didn’t need to fill it once. The sun shone, and the muddy stretch north of Ingham had hardened. The old Ford charged over the Range, and at Cardwell we bought fish and chips, as we always did, and ate them sitting in the car on the oceanfront. By mid-afternoon, in bright sunshine, we were home in Innisfail.
“The next day on my way to school I saw the Triumph sports car driving down Rankin Street. He’d made it through. A gutsy effort. But so was ours.”
“Good story! Let’s stop in Cardwell for fish and chips.”
We’ve had lots of good Ingham experiences. Our Lizzie and Russ lived there for a time in the late 1990s, and we stayed with them in their typical North Queensland house.
Lizzie took me down to Lucinda, the nearby sugar port famous for its jetty, 5.76kms long. Near the beach is a large sign describing some of the creatures that can kill you if you go swimming there.
We went by boat across to rugged, mysterious Hinchinbrook Island for a walk along the beach and swim in Mulligan’s Falls.
Descendants of the migrants that flocked to the cane fields in the twentieth century have given Ingham its distinctive Italian culture. Every year, the Australian Italian Festival is held here. Lou’s Italian Deli in the main street of Ingham is a wonder to behold.
Just south of town is the TYTO Wetlands, with paths and walkways for birdwatching and the impressive Information Centre and Regional Art Gallery.
Spectacular to see, in this richest of all sugar cane areas, is the vast Victoria Mill, with its kilometres of cane trains and lines of cane bins, its huge old rain trees and tall, steaming chimneys.
With Joe and Isabel, two years ago, we drove further south to visit Jourama, part of the lush and spectacular Paluma Range National Park, and swam with turtles and eels in beautiful Waterview Creek.
Instead of just stopping for petrol and hurrying on, I’d like to get to know Ingham better; to visit Wallaman Falls, Australia’s tallest single-drop waterfall, and maybe have a beer at Lees Hotel, which claims to be the original “Pub With No Beer”.
We’ll visit in the Dry Season, though, when the weather up here is perfect.
Our first stop is one of the Koala Drinkers we are using to assess the value of providing water for wildlife to maintain and strengthen populations of vulnerable Koala Phascolarctos cinereus and other species in isolated urban bushland habitats.
I am really impressed when one of these sharp eyed nature lovers spotted a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets Trichoglossus haematodus entering a nest hollow in a dead tree. There is a shortage of tree hollows in the Reserve so it was a real pleasure to identify another active nest hollow.
It’s only about sixty kays north to Hebel and the Queensland border, and then maybe another hour to the site of this day’s food safari: Dirranbandi. I’d been told that Dirran, as the locals know it, is home to some points of interest: it’s the birthplace of Les Norton, the big-boned bloodnut who scarpered town after a pub fight and became a famous Kings Cross bouncer; there is a statue of the Cunnamulla Fella made out of horseshoes; and it has the best Russian bakery in south-west Queensland. Oh, and the best pizzas in the west too!
I’d also been led to believe that the name Dirranbandi was something to do with processionary caterpillars, but apparently not.
The main street is very chipper and well maintained, if not very long. They’ve made the most of their connections to the outside world. I’m guessing that Dirranbandi was once quite the place.
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