Disease in the Wool Sacks

Empty wool sacks were stacked high in the huge, corrugated iron wool shed, returned from wool stores in the city and ready to be refilled next shearing season. When their father, Fred, took the kids with him on a visit to the shed they would play on the piled wool sacks, jump on them, hide under them, put them over their heads.

Fred was the manager of Tara sheep station, outside Barcaldine. It was 1929, and his second child, my mother Pat, was nine years old.

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Bottle tree and canvas water bag, Tara homestead, 2000

Wool prices were strong. Later that year, Wall Street would crash and the Great Depression would loom. Life would change suddenly for millions world-wide; but for now, Fred’s four children enjoyed a fine and privileged childhood, with a big homestead and garden, dogs and ponies, peacocks, a billy goat cart, fresh meat, milk, vegetables and fruit produced on the station, and the occasional visit to town, a few kilometres away.

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Pat on her pony, in front of the old Tara homestead c.1929

 

Living on a sheep station in central western Queensland, where the air is dry, populations are small and distances are huge, the children were healthy, rarely suffering so much as a common cold.

Then Pat caught diphtheria.

Before effective and widespread vaccination, this was a dreaded disease, especially among children. According to Queensland Health,

With respiratory diphtheria a person can experience a sore throat, fever, enlarged lymph nodes and swelling of the soft tissues on both sides of the neck sometimes referred to as a ‘bull neck’. Within two or three days a membrane (a white or grey film) forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it difficult for the person to swallow and breathe.[1]

This is a bacterial disease, and that grey film is toxic.

There were vaccines, but they could be problematic. In 1928, there had been a tragic occurrence in Bundaberg when a batch of the diphtheria vaccination had become contaminated, and twelve children died.

Dangerously ill, Pat was admitted to the isolation ward of Barcaldine’s Victoria Hospital, along with three other infected children.

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Barcaldine Hospital, c. 1930

One evening she or one of the other children reached a crisis, and Dr James Cook, who had been the hospital superintendent since 1898[2], was called urgently to the isolation ward. According to the local newspaper: …in going across to the isolation ward in the dark about 8 p.m. the doctor fell over a form or some other obstacle and sustained a severe wrench or dislocation to his hip. The Doctor is now an inmate of the hospital.[3]

Dr Cook was months in hospital in Brisbane and never returned to work.

As Pat recovered, the family could only wave to her from outside the hospital fence. Her mother sent baskets of fruit and vegetables to the hospital from the Tara gardens. In time she was well enough to go home, but her heart muscle had been strained.

In 1976, and because her heart had weakened by her childhood diphtheria, Pat died of a heart attack, aged just fifty-six.

The isolation wing at Barcaldine’s Victoria Hospital had been built in 1921, after the Spanish Influenza viral epidemic swept the world.

In mid-1919, ten years before Pat had her battle with diphtheria, the ‘flu had come to Barcaldine. Her grandfather Frank, manager of the Queensland National Bank in Barcaldine, caught it, along with his wife and son. Frank died. According to the family story, Frank was already ill with kidney disease – a “pre-existing condition”, in our current language. Pat’s father Fred, Frank’s son-in-law, wrote to his brother about the death.

…he died about 11.15 on Wednesday night, and from what I can understand, just previous to dying he suffered great agony. I believe the cause of death was heart failure as at the latter end only half of his heart was working.

A report in Barcaldine’s newspaper, The Western Champion, seems familiar today, as we again face a world-wide epidemic.[4]

A proclamation was issued by the Government on Friday, ordering that, from the 30th of May and until the 31st of July next or such later date as may be prescribed every Church, Sunday school, school, or college, place of public amusement or resort, theatre, hall, dancing room, gymnasium, or other place or premises where people regularly or occasionally congregate for worship, education, meeting, amusement, entertainment, dancing, physical culture, or athletics shall be closed to the public.

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Women wearing surgical masks during influenza epidemic, Brisbane 1919 “Influenza pandemic”, nma.gov.au

In Barcaldine alone there were over one hundred sufferers. Anyone with symptoms was told to report to Dr Cook, and if deemed to have the ‘flu they were put into isolation in their own homes or in the isolation hospital established in the Shire Hall. Patients were urged to strictly obey the doctor’s orders.

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Barcaldine Shire Hall State Library of Queensland

The Queensland public were reassured that the epidemic would run its course and if they followed instructions the effects would be minimised.

All so familiar to us now, a century later. The media of communication have changed, though, and this week on the Barcaldine Regional Council’s Facebook page, C.E.O. Steven Boxall has been speaking via YouTube about washing hands and safe distances, local closures, and new procedures at the airport.

Typhoid fever, scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, the plague, polio, tuberculosis, influenza: Australia has had to cope with many epidemics, and quarantine stations were set up in every state to prevent both the arrival of diseases in the country and their spread.

This year’s COVID-19 epidemic is another in a long line. Who knows what it will bring in its wake?

They never found out how Pat caught diphtheria, out on that isolated property. Perhaps it was a visiting carrier. Throat swabs of suspected carriers were carried out frequently.

However, according to the Queensland Health website, while the disease is known to be spread in “respiratory droplets or direct contact with respiratory secretions or infected exudate of infected person or carrier”, it can also be spread through “contact with articles soiled with discharges from lesions of infected people.”[5]

According to the family, it was in the wool sacks.

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Shearing stations, Tara station woolshed, 2000

[1] http://conditions.health.qld.gov.au/HealthCondition/condition/14/33/40/diphtheria

 

[2] https://barcaldine-peopleplacesthings.org/government-services/victoria-hospital/

[3] The Western Champion, 18 May 1929.

[4] The Western Champion, 7 June 1919

[5] https://www.health.qld.gov.au/cdcg/index/diphtheria

Gympie

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Gympie park. queensland.com

Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, Tower Bridge, the Great Pyramid of Giza: between Nambour and Gympie, nestled in a wide bend of the road and standing out of the long grass, there was once a group of these metre-high “Famous Sights”. As we passed on the highway I would look out for them, huddled there incongruously in the paddock.

Someone’s hopes and energies went into casting the concrete, welding the steel, painting the details. Like other would-be tourist attractions along the highways – a life-sized dinosaur at Palmwoods, concrete teepees near Slacks Creek, a Big Pineapple beside a Gympie service station – the Famous Sights are long gone now.

Instead of winding up and over the way it used to, with traffic backed up behind slow caravans and farm trucks on the steep curves and blind corners, the modern highway to Gympie cuts through these beautiful, productive green hills north of Nambour, typical of southern Queensland’s coastal hinterland.

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“Nambour Country”, John Rigby Caboolture Art Gallery

The Famous Sights are bypassed; or maybe the new motorway was built over the top of them. Perhaps a bulldozer crushed them under its tracks – an apocalyptic sight worthy of a movie.

 

“It’s easier to get to Gympie these days,” Con says. “Not like when we came in the Galloping Ghost.”

In the late 1960s, when we were engaged, Con and I drove to Gympie for a weekend Apex Conference at which he was to make a speech. We went in Con’s car, the Galloping Ghost, a 1956 Austen A90, the first car he’d ever owned.

We’d arranged to stay with Con’s elderly Uncle Jack. Jack ushered me to his sister’s bedroom, where I was to sleep. Holy pictures adorned the walls and the old-fashioned dresser.

After the Saturday evening event, it seemed tame to just go back to Uncle Jack’s place.

“Let’s go down to Rainbow Beach,” said Con. “It’s only an hour’s drive.”

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Rainbow Beach. Surf Club towards the bottom left. gympie.qld.com.au

We parked in the dark near the surf club, looking out over the sea, and went for a walk on the beach in the moonlight. There was some cuddling, then Con started the Ghost to drive back to Gympie.

That’s when we discovered that we had parked in sand, blown up into the club’s carpark. We were bogged to the axles, with no way of extricating ourselves. We spent the night in the car, and at daybreak Con, still wearing his suit, pounded on the door of the surf club. Two sleepy lifesavers came out, grumbling, and pushed us out of the sand.

Uncle Jack looked at us with silent disapproval when we sheepishly got back to his place, still in our party clothes.

Gympie, with its history and its heritage buildings, reminds me of other gold-mining towns I’ve visited. Although not as grand as Ballarat and Bendigo, it has charm; and it is promoted as “the town that saved Queensland”. Until gold was discovered here in 1867, Queensland, with its long distances, small population and agricultural economy, was broke. Gympie gold made all the difference. Railways were built to open up the inland, and impressive government offices arose in Brisbane, including the massive Treasury Building, now the Treasury Casino.

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At the Gympie Gold Mining and Historical Museum

People who live and work in modern Gympie don’t have it easy. Unemployment rates are high, and every summer, it seems, the Mary River floods the lower parts of town, and business people have to hose mud out of their premises.

A few years ago, we revisited Gympie to go to the races. The O’Brien Cup, in fact. There are lots of Irish in Gympie. Irish communities everywhere, even fifth and sixth generation Australians like these, love horseracing, and they love to celebrate their Irish background.

gympie irish craic

The night before the races we drove two hours from Brisbane after work, checked into a motel, and then wondered where to go for dinner. That’s a common issue for travellers in country towns. And there is a common solution.

“The R.S.L. Club has a Courtesy Bus,” said the motel manager. “I’ll give them a ring. What time would you like to be picked up?”

Locals know where to find good places to eat, but clubs are easier for a tired newcomer, with guaranteed cheap food and cold drinks, and no need to book ahead; and these days it’s not just Fisherman’s Basket or Roast of the Day, eaten to the sound of the pokies.

And there’s always a Courtesy Bus.

That evening in Gympie, the R.S.L. bus picked us up from the motel and delivered us soberly to the Club, in Mary Street, with its old pub buildings and Federation-era facades. An elegant 1880s building has on one corner of its roof the figure of a kangaroo holding the Australian coat of arms, and on the other, an emu.

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Gympie buildings. flickr.com

 

We had a typical club dinner and listened to a duo playing old songs, then went out to catch the bus home.

This ride was more interesting. Everyone was cheerful and relaxed, and there was singing, laughter and craic all through the dark suburbs of Gympie, people dropped off at their front doors, yells of “Ta mate!” as they left the bus. Irish all the way.

As a young man, Con’s father came to Gympie in the 1920s, cutting timber. An old photo shows him grinning at the camera, arms folded, sitting on an upturned packing crate on a railway station platform. In the background logs are stacked ready for the mill, and beyond is the scrub.

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Old Con at Amamoor Station, 1920s

He and his two friends are wearing work boots, long pants and braces, crisp white shirts with the sleeves rolled up, their hair slicked down. They’re probably waiting for the train to town – to Gympie. The sign on the station building says “Amamoor”.

Nowadays Amamoor, twenty kilometres south of Gympie, is famous as the home of the Gympie Music Muster, one of Australia’s biggest Country Music festivals, held on the banks of Amamoor Creek, surrounded by the hills that produced the timber that Con’s dad helped to fell.

Gympie Music Muster 2018 Drone.
Drone footage of the Gympie Music Muster. gympietimes.com.au

A couple of years ago we turned off the Bruce Highway to search for the site of the photo. The tall timbers have disappeared; but the small station building seems unchanged after nearly a century, and the sign still says “Amamoor”.

For many of us travelling up the Bruce, Gympie is just a place to get through with the minimum of hold-up, and usually all we see is the busy highway. But like every town along the way, there’s more to it than service stations and speed zones.

If you should drive down to Rainbow Beach in the dark, though, be careful where you park.

Oxley’s Brisbane

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.

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Rare portrait of John Oxley Archive, State Library of New South Wales

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.

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Trees wearing jumpers on Mount Ommaney

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.

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Plaque at Mount Ommaney

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…”[1]

Oxley also named the Bremer River, Mermaid Reach, Seventeen Mile Rocks, Breakfast Creek, and Canoe Creek, now known as Oxley Creek.

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Where Oxley Creek meets the river, at Graceville

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.

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“Yabbies”, Milton. Flood warning sign in the background

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[4].

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.

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Western Creek floods, Rosalie, January 2011

 

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.”

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North Quay plaque

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.

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Pumicestone Passage, Bribie Island, near where Oxley and Flinders both moored their ships. Glasshouse Mountains in the background

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, aged forty-two, 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.

[1] 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

[2] Angus Veitch has posted details of Western Creek, John Oxley and the chain of ponds, including quotes from Oxley’s journal, on his interesting 2018 web page,  http://www.oncewasacreek.org/

[3] “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon (2010) University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney.

[4] “Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane”, Dr Ray Kerkhove. Boolarong Press, Salisbury: 2015. Pages 129-131

Cuddling in Magdalena

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…

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Dad and Mum sitting together on Magdalena, with Dad’s brother, at Alexandra Headland. Dad’s army cap on the roof.

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.

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View from Kangaroo Point Cliffs 1950 State Library of Queensland

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.

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View from Kangaroo Point Cliffs today visitbrisbane.com.au

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.

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Married at St Mary’s Kangaroo Point

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.

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Dad and Mum, with her sister and mother and the Morris, Auchenflower, late 1940s

 

Cairns

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.

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Trinity Bay, Cairns, from the Esplanade

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.

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The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter ready to evacuate a patient from a remote property to Cairns Hospital

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.

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Jogger passing Cairns Hospital helicopter pad

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.

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Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections
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Johnathan Thurston, 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.

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Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

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.

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Rusty’s Bazaar

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.

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Tanks Arts Centre

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.

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Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

Cemetery Birds

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.

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From Toowong Cemetery, looking over the Western Freeway

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.

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Along the road to Dirranbandi

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.

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In the Dirranbandi Cemetery

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!”

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The bird streets of Longreach

“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.

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Len’s grave, in Longreach Cemetery

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.

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Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery

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.

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Pale headed rosella

Golden Gumboot

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.

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Wet Tropics

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.

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Tully’s Golden Gumboot with renewed gold

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.

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Towards Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest

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.”

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Up Butler Street, Tully, towards Mount Tyson

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.

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Tully Gorge seen from Tully Falls Lookout, 200km away by road

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.

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Innisfail banana farm

“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.

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The Boulders, Babinda

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.

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Cyclone Yasi crossing the coast

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.”

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A local’s comment on Cyclone Yasi

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.

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Ulysses butterflies

 

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