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.
I’m with my grandson Angus on a CityCat ferry, heading downstream from its UQ terminus to photograph the bridges of central Brisbane as evening comes down over the river. The muddy old Brisbane River, MAIWAR in Turrball language, is at its most beautiful.
High above us as we waited at the ferry wharf was the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, opened in 2006 to link Yeronga to the University of Queensland. Carrying only buses, cyclists and pedestrians and known to everyone as the Green Bridge, its four tall towers are visible from kilometres away.
On board the CityCat we’ve moved through the cabin to the bow, holding the rail as its powerful engines send the boat surging down the river and round its slow curves, past the university sports fields and old, timber houses high on the opposite banks.
Coming down the Milton Reach towards the CBD, the wind in our hair, we can see three bridges at once.
Closest to us is the graceful white span of the Go-Between Bridge, opened in 2010 to connects West End to the Inner-City Bypass at Milton.
Beyond the Go-Between Bridge is the coat-hanger arch of the Merivale Bridge, the railway bridge which connects South Brisbane Station to the north side of the river, crossing Melbourne Street behind the old Hotel Terminus, where you might once have spent the night after getting off the Sydney train at South Brisbane Station. Until the bridge opened in 1978, to catch a train onwards to Cairns or Cunnamulla or Longreach, you’d have needed to cross the river to Roma Street Station, probably via the William Jolly road bridge, known to most as Grey Street Bridge.
Opening in 1932 to link South Brisbane to the CBD at Roma Street, Grey Street Bridge, with its graceful cream art deco arches, is one of Brisbane’s best-loved bridges and the most celebrated by artists.
From under the Grey Street Bridge, around the bend of the river at Kurilpa Point, the spectacular Kurilpa pedestrian bridge comes into view, with its many white masts like drinking straws or a sailing ship’s spars.
Opened in 2009, it joins Kurilpa Point (from the Turrball word for place of the water rats) to the CBD at Tank Street.
Now we’re approaching the slim, elegant span of Victoria Bridge, opened in 1969.
As a teenager, I used to cross the old Victoria Bridge by tram, and it made me nervous to see the sign limiting the number of trams per span of the bridge. Instead of two or three, there were often five or six going each way.
Now Victoria Bridge carries only buses, cycles and pedestrians across the river between South Brisbane and the top of Queen Street. It’s beautiful this evening, lit up with colours that are reflected in the timeless ripples and eddies of the river.
Downstream from Victoria Bridge our CityCat negotiates an obstacle course of construction barges. A spectacular footbridge, the Neville Bonner Bridge, is due for completion in 2022, linking South Bank Parklands to the ambitious Queens Wharf development with its hotel and apartments, casino, shops and parks. Let’s hope tourism dollars will return to Brisbane soon to pay for it.
The Goodwill Bridge, opened in 2001 to carry cyclists and pedestrians from South Bank to Gardens Point, is next, with a stylish design and a little coffee bar on one of its viewing platforms.
I love how it looks it in the evening light, looking back to the CBD buildings and the lights of Victoria Bridge.
At Gardens Point the clean line of Captain Cook Bridge links the Pacific Motorway to the Riverside Expressway. Opened in 1973, in the time of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, when modernisation was everything and cars were king, the bridge has no pedestrian or cycle access. We travel under it and watch joggers and evening pedestrians in the riverside parkland, and climbers spread-eagled under the lights on Kangaroo Point Cliffs.
Ahead the tall, lit-up buildings of Petrie Bight come into view, and on the next bend the Story Bridge.
The heritage-listed Story Bridge is the most iconic of Brisbane bridges. A massive steel structure, it was built as part of public works programs during the Great Depression and opened in 1940. (See my story Brisbane Icons: Fig Trees and the Story Bridge.)
Sunset fades from the sky and the lights of the bridge and the high-rises shine on the water. Howard Smith Wharves, with hotel, restaurants and bars are bright and noisy, slide by.
The bridge is high above us as we steady our cameras against the movement of the speeding ferry.
The Story Bridge looks magnificent reflected in our wake.
At the next CityCat stop, Mowbray Park, we disembark to catch another ferry back upstream.
To see more of Brisbane’s bridges, Angus and I might take a cruise upriver one day, under the bridges at Indooroopilly and Jindalee.
The utilitarian-designed Centenary Bridge, opened in 1964, carries the busy Centenary Highway between Fig Tree Pocket and Jindalee.
From under the bridge, shady walkways lead downstream past mighty riverside eucalypts and fig trees, the treasures of Brisbane’s riverside parks.
At Indooroopilly, on a deep bend of the river, there are four bridges: the road bridge, two rail bridges and a cycle and pedestrian bridge.
I lived at Indooroopilly with my family (see my story Gully of Leeches) when there were just two bridges. I used to ride my bike to school across the white, art deco Walter Taylor road bridge, under its towers and past the tollbooth. The northern tower of the bridge famously included an apartment, where washing was sometimes strung to dry high above the traffic.
Until it opened in 1936, the only bridge at Indooroopilly was the Albert Railway Bridge carrying the Ipswich Line. Another rail bridge was opened in 1957, and in 1998 a pedestrian and cycle bridge on the downstream side.
If we’d stayed on the downstream CityCat, Angus and I would have come within sight of the twin Gateway Bridges, officially named after Sir Leo Hielscher, lit up dramatically and arching high above the river.
Opened in 1986 and 2010, the upstream bridge takes northbound traffic, while the downstream one carries southbound traffic as well as a cycle and pedestrian path.
Con and I walked one winter’s day from beneath the southern end of the bridge, up to the top. From the viewing platform there, we could see down to the river mouth and Moreton Bay. It was a long slog to the top of the bridge, but not too steep, as it was built to carry heavily laden semi-trailers.
Other cycle and pedestrian bridgesare in the planning stages, to link Saint Lucia and Toowong to West End, and Kangaroo Point to the City Botanic Gardens.
I can remember when old Maiwar was treated with little respect, as a flood-prone dumping-ground that people crossed in a hurry in cars, buses and trams. Now it has been reclaimed for pedestrians, cyclists and ferries, and its banks and its bridges are sources of pleasure and pride for Brisbanites.
How would you like to be
Down by the Seine with me
Oh what I’d give for a moment or two
Under the bridges of Paris with you…
(Eartha Kitt 1953)
The Seine in Paris has 37 bridges, but crossing approximately thirty-five kilometres of the river in Brisbane there are just sixteen. The Brisbane River is wider than the Seine, and not as easily bridged, or tamed; and the bridges of Brisbane are not as classically elegant as the bridges of Paris, made famous by Eartha Kitt in her sexy version of this famous song.
But I love our Brisbane bridges.
All are spectacular; some are iconic; and old Maiwar flowing beneath them is beautiful.
In 1974 we flew to Cairns for the Easter break, little Lizzie and Matt and I. We’d left our car in Cairns after the Christmas holidays because all roads back to Burketown were flooded and impassable, that historically wet summer. My plan was to pick up the car and drive to Townsville, collecting Granny O’Brien at Innisfail on the way.
Con was on his way from Burketown to Townsville in a friend’s ute, with two other men. It would be one of the first cars to attempt the bush roads after the wet season, and he had a story to tell that Good Friday evening in Townsville: of getting hung up on rocks when crossing a place called Fiery Creek on a road that hadn’t seen a grader since before the Wet; of dragging out rocks and mud from under the ute; of a fellow-traveller with a bad hangover, throwing up in the bushes while the others got plastered in mud.
I also had a story to tell. Our Holden hadn’t been used for months, and something had gone wrong with the brakes. To avoid over-heating them I’d had to crawl at a nervous 50kph the whole 350 kilometres to Townsville, including over the steep Cardwell Range. Granny and I and the two children arrived in Townsville exhausted and in the dark.
…and so we continued And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place…
During COVID restrictions last year, our family began socially distanced fire pit gatherings in Lizzie’s suburban backyard, with poetry readings for entertainment. Last month she chose a poem which reminded her of the road trips from her childhood. It was that classic of English literature: “The Journey of the Magi”, by T.S. Eliot.
I’ve know this poem since school, with its religious imagery and sombre, unsettling power; but Lizzie read it with a new, entertaining twist. She compared the harrowing, winter journey of the Three Wise Men to our old trips around Queensland. It is just so true.
A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.
There wasn’t much cold in our trips, but we often travelled at the worst time of the year, the hot, wet season – and the ways were indeed often deep with water or mud. At Christmas and New Year we moved to or from isolated parts of the state in either punishing heat or pouring rain, or both, as Con was transferred from school to school as principal. For a break from isolation, for visits to family and a taste of coastal comforts, we took holidays at that time of year too.
Like the Magi’s, our journeys weren’t always easy.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it.
Living and working in an isolated place, you may have nowhere to stay when you’re away on holiday. After a week or so with relations or friends, sharing beds and mattresses on the floor, you long for a place of your own.
For Christmas 1973, we’d driven the 2100-kilometre trip from Burketown to Brisbane, with our small children, staying with family; but we soon yearned for the holiday flat we’d booked in Cairns, a three-day trip north. In January 1974 we set off, in the face of warnings of floods and cyclones, just a few weeks before Brisbane suffered catastrophic floods.
On the old Marlborough Stretch, a 240-kilometre section of the Bruce Highway that looped west through lonely cattle country between Marlborough and Sarina, the rivers and creeks north and south of us flooded. We were marooned.
In my story Horror Stretch I’ve described it all – how we spent one night in the car, the next in a broken-down caravan behind a roadhouse. The roadhouse managers charged us to toast the bread we provided for breakfast and shared with other travellers. Then we started north again to wait on the banks of Funnel Creek with all the other travellers for the floods to go down.
Hospitality and tourism staff these days are usually well-trained locals or cheerful young foreign backpackers, but you can still encounter lonely, fed-up people, slipshod service, even hostility. The concept of “service” is part of the problem. As in, “You city people come through here expecting us to wait on you. We’re not your servants!”
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
If we stayed in a pub, back then, the beer would be cold, but for “The Ladies”, it was Johnny Walker, brandy, gin or sweet sherry – in the Ladies Lounge.
There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
“Where do you think you are, mate? Queen Street?”
In a 21st century country motel you’ll probably have a good bed and hot water in the shower, and even a decent air-conditioner; but you may find the pool is green, and the promised free Wi-Fi works only next to the office, not down in Room 23.
Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.
Often before a long trip, by car in Australia or flying overseas, I’ve thought, “Why are we doing this?
“Why are we leaving our safe home to trust ourselves to bad roads and bad drivers; to a twenty-four-hour flight in a crowded plane; to the risk of lost luggage, tedious queues, passport controls, sickness in a foreign country?
“Why are we spending money we should be saving on a frivolity like travel?”
It is folly; but it’s interesting and exciting. We see things we could never have imagined if we’d stayed home. Snow on the Grand Canyon. Oak trees in Richmond Park, UK.
And sometimes it’s the only way we can see our far-flung family.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
These days the highway from Marlborough to Sarina is shorter, flood-proof and closer to the coast. There is one thing I miss about the old road, though. At the northern end, we would abruptly leave the dry country behind and wind down into the green Tropics- to palm trees and cane fields, sugar mills and rain trees and the relief of safe arrival.
Perhaps one day we’ll brave the “Horror Stretch” again, just for that arrival into Sarina, humid and smelling of vegetation. Not too much of the wet, though.
All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again…
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…
Our grown-up children remember those long trips, with all their delights and discomforts, stresses and miseries and fun. Now they and their children are travellers too, and we all tend to feel discontented if we have to stay in one place for too long.
For months of this last year, Matt and his family have been locked down in the COVID-plagued European cold. They’d love to be in a hot, crowded car, coming down into the green, sunny Queensland tropics once again.
The Journey of the Magi
T S Eliot, 1927
A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.’ And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no information, and so we continued And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
You don’t need special tools to husk and crack a coconut. You can do it with a rock.
I went with my family many years ago on a boat trip to Green Island, off Cairns, but for some reason we had no money. Not for us a café lunch with the other tourists. Instead we set off to walk around the small coral island, just one and a half kilometres, with only a packet of Arnotts wheatmeal biscuits to share.
There was food lying around, though – coconuts fallen from the palms that ringed the island. My dad, always the boy scout, set about opening one of them with a rock – slicing through the husk, then cracking the shell. Fresh coconut meat for lunch.
Back at the wharf with the other, well-fed tourists we felt the slight smugness of those who choose the more adventurous path.
Years later, I went again to Green Island with my own children. It was 1982, and Hayles Cruises had just begun a fast catamaran service to the island. A cold meat and salad buffet was served on the way.
Joe was not quite six at the time, and all he remembers of the day is not the glass-bottomed boat or the underwater observatory, but that to eat our lunch we were provided with double-bowled plastic cats’ dishes. Catamaran. Get it?
Queensland has a long coastline and many islands, spread over more than two thousand kilometres, from Torres Strait to Moreton Bay – rocky islands that are an extension of the mainland, coral islands and sand islands. Coconuts grow as far south as the Great Barrier Reef stretches, to the Bundaberg area. Some were planted on the islands by European expeditioners so there would be food for seafarers marooned there in the future.
Queensland’s islands attract tourists and people looking for an idyllic way of life, artists and academics of various disciplines and the occasional filmmaker and politician. The ageing James Mason and teenaged Helen Mirren starred in the 1969 movie “Age of Consent”, filmed on Dunk Island, off Mission Beach, surely one of the most idyllic islands of them all. It was great for the locals to see one of their own beautiful places on the big screen. Con and I watched it at the Airdome Theatre in Innisfail.
We watched it again last year, and found that our values have changed. The story of a naïve young girl persuaded to take off her clothes to model for the much older artist, and then having an affair with him, seems most unsavoury now.
I first saw Dunk Island (Coonanglebah in the local Indigenous language) from a holiday flat at Mission Beach, a much cheaper option than staying at the island resort. Islands are expensive.
Torres Strait, Australia’s most northerly region, has around 274 islands and coral cays, many uninhabited, with dry and rocky Thursday Island (Waiben to the locals) the administrative centre. There is a story about a group of marine scientists from the United States who went to the Strait to study dugongs. For weeks they went out in boats, searching the seagrass beds for dugongs, and found none. When it was time to leave, they were invited to a local feast. The main course was dugong.
When driving over the Cardwell Range, we often stop at the lookout for one of Queensland’s most spectacular sights: Hinchinbrook Island (Pouandai) – a place of beauty and mystery.
Fifty-two uninhabited kilometres of cloud-capped granite mountains, jungle and waterfalls, mangroves and crocodiles and long, long beaches.
Lizzie and I went there on the ferry from Lucinda and walked up the white, sandy beach, sadly littered with plastic bottles and rubbish washed up by the sea, and into the forest to visit beautiful Mulligan Falls for a swim.
Hinchinbrook Island used to have a resort. Ruined by financial difficulties, and then by Cyclone Yasi in 2011, it is now derelict, like the lush resort on Dunk Island. If you want to stay on Hinchinbrook, perhaps to hike the rugged Thorsborne Trail, you have to book ahead, and take everything you need on your back.
My kids recall with pleasure a family boat trip around the Whitsunday Islands, off Airlie Beach and Proserpine, during our 1982 trip.
We called at Hook Island, and then South Molle Island – memorable to the kids because of its magnificent swimming pool.
These islands are a tourism magnet – or they were before Cyclone Debbie arrived. Cyclone Debbie, in January 2017, wiped out the South Molle Resort. It now lies rotting away in the heat, its fine pool derelict.
The climate is challenging. It’s also extremely expensive to build and maintain isolated island resorts to the high standards expected by modern tourists. Many of these idyllic places may never recover, but in the Whitsundays, Hayman, Daydream, and Hamilton Islands have reopened for business.
Fraser Island (K’gari), the world’s largest sand island, is 122 kilometres long, and World Heritage listed for its variety of outstanding natural features – rainforest, long sandy beaches, gorgeous freshwater lakes perched in its sand dunes.
With friends in a 4WD we drove up that wonderful stretch of beach past people swimming and sunbathing and fishing in the surf.
Crossing the island on sand tracks we visited Lake Mackenzie and the beautiful clear water of Eli Creek, and stayed the night at Kingfisher Bay Resort.
Late last year, a bushfire started from an illegal campfire in the national park in the northern part of Fraser Island was allowed to burn through much of the precious bushland before serious firefighting began. Professional firefighting resources were not brought in until “assets” were under threat – Kingfisher Bay Resort, for instance. If the World Heritage forests of Fraser Island are not its chief “assets”, however that is defined, I don’t know what is.
Do insurance companies contribute heavily to fire brigades? Maybe that has something to do with it. National parks don’t make insurance claims.
I hope one day I’ll get to visit Lady Musgrave Island (Wallanginji), a tiny, protected coral cay at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. I’d like to snorkel in the clear waters of the lagoon, spot green and loggerhead turtles, dolphins and birds, as our Lizzie and her family did a couple of years ago. For them, it was an unforgettable experience
You can camp there, with a permit, and I’ve heard that large sea turtles have been known to crawl through campsites and under tents, single-mindedly heading for a sandy spot to lay their eggs or on their way back to the sea.
So many Queensland islands to write about, and I haven’t even started on the Moreton Bay islands, some of the most beautiful of them all.
Clairview is a nice place to spend the night and break a journey up the Bruce Highway. A cabin by the sea, a meal on the deck of the tavern, a park for the kids to play in, a paddle in the calm waters… and, according to this article, its a dugong sanctuary! Who knew?
The waters surrounding Clairview on the sunny Capricorn Coast was declared a Dugong Sanctuary in 1997. Even the casual observer can spot these magnificent mammals from the shoreline as they feed on the sea grasses.
Photos: Janet & Baz
Ps: We photographed this magnificent Dugong in another location (we weren’t so lucky to get up this close at Clairview!)
We love the colours of the Australian Outback, the red earth touching a blue sky on a faraway horizon; and the fabulous coastline of our sunburnt country, where a golden sandy beach is washed over by a warm turquoise blue sea…
A few years ago we graduated from work and re-entered the classroom of life where an education is guaranteed and all that is needed is an open mind.
In the soft soil under his childhood house, Brisbane writer Matthew Condon built a little city with timber off-cuts, rocks and old plastic flowerpots. He dug a ditch for the river and filled it with tap water, watching the water soak away into the dirt.
His house sat on a slope, and he was probably playing where the floor above was close above his head, not where there was space for the laundry and the car. He could hear footsteps and the television from the house above, which gave him a sense of security and belonging in this secret space that adults never visited.
There was a space like that under my childhood house in Nambour, too, with little cone-shaped antlion traps in the dirt, designed to trap passing insects. You could drop a small ball of spit into the little trap and hope to lure out the antlion lurking underneath, or try to tease it out by tickling the soil softly with a twig.
“Grandfather Noble lived under our house in Velution Street,” Con tells me. “The ground was mainly dirt there, too, but there was a concrete pad with his bed and a wardrobe.”
There would have been carpet snakes and cane toads as well as mosquitoes under that old Innisfail house. I hope Grandfather had a mozzie net.
“Grandfather always smoked a pipe, and he had a bone-handled knife for cutting up his tobacco. I wonder where it is now? He’d come upstairs for meals.
“Grandfather was kind to me. I was ten when he died, and I wish I could remember more about him.
“And when we moved across to East Innisfail we played cards under the house. That’s where I learned to play crib. We’d play all day down there, my brother Jim, Old Con, Uncle George and I.”
“Under the house” is a Queensland concept, a tropical thing. There were many reasons for building these timber houses on stumps, with open space underneath. It made them easy to move from place to place and it provided some protection from pests. It kept the dwelling space above flood waters. If built high enough, it doubled the amount of usable shelter. There was more chance of catching a breeze.
You might have to watch out, though, or you’d bump your head on the beams supporting the bare floorboards above. Another under the house hazard.
Visitors – from Britain or the USA, for instance – might see the many houses up on stumps and ask why.
“It’s because of the snakes. If there’s a space under the house they’ll crawl right through and disappear. Otherwise, they’ll come inside.”
That’s a story to tease tourists with, but it has some truth in it. Rosevale, outside Ipswich, was notorious for snakes, and we lived there in an old timber house on low stumps. Out in the yard one day, toddler Matt saw our cat staring fixedly at a patch of long grass. He started over to see what she was looking at.
The cat suddenly reared back. Con snatched Matt up in his arms and then watched in horror as two long brown snakes slid out of the grass, across the concrete path, and disappeared into that low, dark space under the house.
Our Joe went down one night, bare footed, to get a bottle of wine from the fridge under his North Queensland house, and glimpsed something scaly underneath the fridge. It turned out to be a deadly taipan sheltering in the warmth there, its belly full of eggs.
If the house is high enough the hot water system will be set up down there, and usually the laundry, too. It’s a place for storage, for drying the washing in wet weather, and for children to play – riding their scooters round the posts, drawing with chalk on the concrete, building roads and rivers in the dirt. You can park the car there, and the lawn mower. You can entertain friends there, or sit with a cold drink and a book, because under the house has one particularly fine feature: it’s always cooler than upstairs.
Many sprawling new housing developments consist of houses on concrete slabs, including in regional areas – Kingaroy, Atherton, Roma. Those houses are easy to air-condition, but people must miss having that extra space underneath; and sometimes new house slabs go under floods even before building begins.
In Townsville, since the construction of the Ross River Dam upstream, hundreds of new houses have been built on low land; and when extreme rainfall in early 2019 forced the release of water from the dam, many hundreds of them were flooded, to the despair of their owners.
In the older houses on stumps anything under the house was wrecked, but the living areas were spared.
Nowadays, people often decide to lift their houses up high and build in underneath. Perhaps you own an old house near the river and want to lift the living space above flood level, or you’ve bought a house in town and moved it out on to a block of land in the country. You’ll need to check the building regulations. If you want to build in under your house, you will need to allow 2100mm minimum ceiling height for utility rooms and hallways, and 2400mm for living spaces; and you’ll need to replace those old hardwood or concrete posts with steel.
Old houses that have been hoisted up high on steel posts look silly, like a long-legged lady with her skirts hitched up. That’s until they’ve been built in underneath, painted grey and white and turned into lush “Hamptons” style dwellings that look great on a real estate website.
I ask my grandson Jim if there is anything hazardous about being under his house, with its old concrete posts a little under regulation height. Maybe snakes or spiders?
He puts his hand on a beam perfectly positioned for hitting your head.
“Just this,” he answers wryly.
Our Burketown house was a government-built dwelling, regulation height. Under the house was dirt and gravel, with a meat-ant nest in one corner, but there were clothes wires strung between the steel posts. Washing hung there at night would be dry by morning.
The concrete-floored laundry was down there, with concrete tubs and a gas-fired clothes boiler. It also held our 32-volt wringer-style washing machine, powered by a generator with storage batteries in a shed down the back.
One night I left a load of sheets in the machine, soaking in the rinse water, and in the morning went down to put them through the wringer before hanging them out to dry.
During the night, a big green tree frog had hopped into the water. The first I knew of it was the sight and sound of that frog disappearing feet-first through the wringer rollers.
A frog being crushed in a wringer makes a horrible noise.
It had gone through before I had time to click the rollers apart.
I told Marg from down the road about it, sitting on the back steps with a mug of tea.
“That’s nothing,” said Marg, a typical frankly-spoken Gulf Country local.
“I heard of a woman who got her tits caught in a wringer.”
Not so difficult to imagine in the heat of the Tropics, where many a woman, reaching a certain age, decides that a bra is unnecessary torture. In the Gulf Country I heard so many bizarre and unbelievable stories that turned out to be true I decided I might as well just believe the lot; including this one.
Snakes, mozzies, cane toads, floods, concussion – and the wringer.
“Under the house” is a fine Queensland institution, but it has its hazards.
 “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. UNSW Press, Sydney
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