On the Queensland Railway Lines

We’re travelling north from Bowen on the Bruce Highway. The road follows the railway line.

Road trips provide lots of opportunities for reminiscing, and as I drive, we talk about our train trips of the past.

At school I learned off by heart the towns along the “Sunshine Route”, the railway trip from Brisbane to Cairns: Brisbane, Nambour, Gympie, Maryborough, Bundaberg, and onwards. One thousand, seven hundred kilometres: promoted by Queensland’s developing tourism industry as a great, romantic train journey, from the city in the south, through pineapple fields, cattle country and sleepy towns to the green mountains and purple-tipped cane fields of the far north.

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Poster for the Sunshine Route

This railway line was not built just for tourists. Until the main north-south railway line was finally completed in 1924 with the opening of the Daradgee Bridge north of Innisfail, Cairns was isolated from the rest of the country except by sea. There was no highway. In a state dependent on farming and mining, the railway was vital.

Like everyone over a certain age who grew up in North Queensland, Con has lots of stories about trains.

“When I was eleven, the old man took me to Brisbane by Sunlander. It was new, diesel, and air-conditioned – the wonder of the ages. We had a second-class sleeper and ate in the dining car. I’d always been second-class sitting on the trains before. None of our family ever went first-class. We’d have gone third class if there was one.”

My first long train trip was a Y.A.L. trip from Brisbane to Cairns. The Young Australia League was founded early last century with the aim of promoting national pride in young people and educating them through travel. I tell Con about it as we drive.

“They took us to Kuranda and Ellis Beach. That was the first time I’d seen coconut palms. We went to Green Island, and I bought a piece of coloured coral set in plaster with ‘Cairns’ written on it.”

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I slept on a top bunk, and I recall the clicketty-clack of the wheels at night, and the sight of embankment gravel rushing past below the toilet bowl.

“I had a bit of coral like that, too!” says Con. “I was proud of it, and I gave it to Mum. She put it in the china cabinet with the good cups. I don’t know where it ended up.”

He continues as we pass the Abbot Point turnoff.

“My next trip was by myself. I was seventeen, and I went to Brisbane, to Teachers’ College. I had a rail voucher for a first-class sleeping berth. I was hoping I’d meet a beautiful girl on the train, and we’d fall madly in love and make good use of the berth. No luck with that.”

“What a disappointment!”

“It wasn’t all wasted, though. When the train pulled in at Tully I went to the railway refreshment rooms and bought my first packet of cigarettes. By the time we got to Townsville I’d made myself sick, but I persevered. I smoked for the next forty years.”

We stop at the roadhouse at Guthalungra for fuel. Back on the road, we pass through Gumlu, still following the train line.

“Each Teachers’ College holiday the trains were bursting with students. Drinking was banned, but that was just a challenge to us. I looked older than my age, twenty-one at least (the legal drinking age), so I’d get off at stations with a blanket wrapped around me and head for the refreshment rooms bar. The hard part was climbing back on to the train without the bottles clinking under the blanket.”

“A thousand teenage students from North Queensland travelled on those trains, drinking, laughing, cuddling, playing cards and singing. You get through a lot of songs on a forty-hour train trip.”

Last century, nearly every country town had trainlines, carrying cattle and sheep, bananas and oranges and mail, and the products of the mines. Most closed as roads improved and road transport took over, but you can sometimes see the line of the old tracks on Google Earth: Rockhampton to Yeppoon, Monto to Gayndah, Dalby to Bell, Cloncurry to Dajarra.

They look like ghost tracks now, or like the outlines of ancient Roman forts as seen from the air in the green English landscape.

Most of the trains live on only in memory, but their comforts and discomforts are celebrated in song –:

On the Queensland railway lines,

There are stations where one dines,

Private individuals

Also run refreshment stalls.

Bogan-Tungan, Rollingstone,

Mungar, Murgon, Marathon,

Garthanungra, Pinkenba,

Wanko, Yaamba; ha, ha, ha!

Males and females, high and dry

Hang around at Durikai;

Boora-Mugga, Djarawong,

Giligulgul, Wonglepong.

Pies and coffees, baths and showers,

Are supplied at Charters Towers;

At Mackay the rule prevails

Of restricting showers to males.

Iron rations come in handy,

On the way to Dirranbandi,

Passengers have died of hunger,

During halts at Garradunga.

Let us toast before we part,

Those who travel stout at heart,

Drunk or sober rain or shine,

On the Queensland railway line.

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Apple and Grape

“What if you go into labour? I’ll be on the back of the truck – I won’t be able to help you!”

It was 1970, and my husband Con was Master of Ceremonies at the Stanthorpe Apple and Grape Harvest Street Festival. He stood at the microphone on top of a semi-trailer in Maryland Street, describing events and announcing winners, with thousands of people partying around him. No place for a woman soon to give birth.

In the end I watched events from the verandah of the Country Club Hotel.

stanthorpe country club hotel

Con remembers lots of things about that day, such as the hotly-contested Packing Case Relay.

“There was a team of back-packers from one of the big orchards, all in matching t-shirts,” he says. “They were pretty sure of themselves. They’d even trained for it, carrying the packing cases on their shoulders in the approved style.

“They were beaten by a team of local lads wearing work boots and carrying the cases any way they liked! It was a great win.”

He remembers the facial hair competitions.

“Your father entered in the Best Side Levers competition.”

“No! My dad had competition-grade side levers? I don’t remember that!”

“Your dad didn’t win – Jimmy Esplin won. There was a Best Beard competition, too. They made me one of the judges. I was about the only man in town with a beard, which made me the expert!”

“Which horse won the Melbourne Cup that year?”

“Baghdad Note. Why?”

Con remembers, with advantages, every good joke he’s ever heard, and every Melbourne Cup winner by year, and he can tell me who won the Best Side Levers competition at the 1970 Apple and Grape Harvest Festival; but he can’t remember that we agreed to baby-sit the grandchildren next Saturday night or that the wattle tree out the front needs pruning. We’ve been debating for years over which of us has the worse memory.

“I remember Dad’s whiskers,” says my brother Mike. “He grew them especially for the competition. Don’t remember much else though, because I was busy on the High School fundraiser down the street – Bash a Bomb. We’d dragged in a broken-down car, and we charged people for the chance to bash it with sledge hammers. It was very popular! Don’t think it would go down so well these days.”

Con’s reminiscences continue.

“One float in the procession had a girl on top of a Mini-Minor, sitting on a swing. The driver kept lagging behind, then accelerating, then braking again. Every time he braked, the girl nearly flew out of the swing.

“Her boyfriend got sick of it. He opened the door of the Mini, told the driver to get out, and drove it himself for the rest of the parade.”

Matt was born a week after the Festival, and in the winter that followed our hot water pipes froze and burst, and the nappies iced up while soaking in the laundry tubs and hung stiff and frozen on the clothesline.

Frosty Stanthorpe weather is beautiful, and by nine in the morning, I could put the baby out on the verandah, naked, to soak up the sun.

Stanthorpe is an attractive town, unique in the State, with its granite boulders, wild flowers and autumn colours. The houses have the snug architecture of a cold climate, and the sweet smell of wood smoke hangs over the town for months of the year. Locals are proud of living in Queensland’s coldest town.

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Wild flowers and boulders

The Apple and Grape Harvest Festival still draws a crowd, every second year in early autumn when the harvesting season begins. The next Festival will be in 2020, from 28 February until 8 March. There will be a Wine Fiesta, Gala Ball, Fun Run, Grand Parade, Grape Crushing and fireworks, the National Busking Championships, and according to the website, lots more.stanthorpe apple and grape logo

There’s no mention on the website of Bomb Bashing or Side Levers, though, so I don’t know how successful it will be.

Losing a Wheel

A few kilometres south of Gin Gin, as dusk approached, we were travelling at one hundred kilometres an hour when a wheel came off the car and bounced off through the bush beside us. I watched it go.

Sparks flew up from the road as the axle scraped a track through the bitumen.

It was 1976, and we were driving from Townsville to Brisbane for a family wedding. Before starting out, we’d had our blue HR Holden serviced, including rotation of the tyres. On the rear passenger side, the mechanic had failed to re-tighten the wheel nuts.

Pulled over on to the verge, we considered what to do. It would be dark soon, and we had our young kids with us. We needed to get a message to the RACQ agent back in Gin Gin.

Around this time, a number of travellers had been murdered when pulled over on the Bruce Highway, not far north of here. People were nervous about stopping for strangers; but luckily a family in a car following us saw what happened and stopped to help. Generously, they interrupted their journey to turn around and go back to town.

It was an anxious wait in those days before mobile phones, when stranded motorists relied on passing strangers to contact the RACQ; and a great relief when assistance arrived. Less than an hour after the wheel had come off, the tow truck came to take us and the car to Gin Gin.gin gin 2

Roadside assistance: it’s good to have that backup on road trips. I’ve heard only one bad story connected with roadside assistance, and it came from an unpleasant man met by chance in South Australia.

It was a glorious, starry night at Rawnsley Park in the Flinders Ranges, and there was a fire pit outside the accommodation units. I knocked on doors and invited others to join us for a glass of wine round the fire. We were looking forward to a pleasant evening.

But one man was obnoxious.

First, he embarrassed a nice young German couple by making Hitler jokes.

Then he told us of a great trick he’d played on a policeman he’d come across, broken down beside an isolated country road.

“I hated this cop – he’d pulled me up a couple of times for speeding – but I stopped and asked him if he was okay.

“‘Yeah, I’m right,’ he said. ‘I waved down another bloke and asked him to call in at the RAA in town and get them to send someone out. Thanks anyway.’

“I fixed him, though,” said our obnoxious companion. “called in at the RAA in town and cancelled the call-out. Said the problem was fixed. That cop is probably still out there waiting!”

He got a laugh out of telling the story, but we gave up on the evening. A good campfire ruined.

Back in 1976, after losing the wheel, we spent two nights at the Gin Gin Motel, waiting for repairs

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Gin Gin Main Street

It wasn’t the first un-planned stopover we’d had. In 1970, we took our first long car trip as a family. Living at Rosevale, southwest of Ipswich, we were travelling to Innisfail for Christmas with our eight months old baby, Matt.

All went well as we drove north in the blue Holden, until we stopped for fuel in Rockhampton. There was none. The tanker drivers were on strike, we were told.

“We’ve got enough fuel to get through to Marlborough,” Con said. “They’ll probably have some there. Let’s give it a try.”

An hour or so later we pulled in to the Marlborough service station.

“We’ve got no fuel, mate,” said the man behind the desk. “The tanker’s coming through in the morning. You’ll have to wait until then.”

In the nearby motel, all the rooms had been taken by other stranded travellers. Our only choice was the Marlborough Hotel, in the tiny township a kilometre or so to the east, beside the railway line.

We checked into the last available room in the basic, single-storey pub, grateful to get it: Con and I and baby Matt in a room with two sagging single beds and a washbasin in the corner.

That Saturday night in Marlborough, ringers and stockmen from the surrounding countryside came into town for a night out at the pub, the only drinking place for one hundred kilometres. We were welcomed in the bar, and little Matt was passed round and admired. Later, I washed his baby bottles in hard water in the dingy, concrete-floored communal bathroom out the back.

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Marlborough Hotel from the back

I shared my narrow bed with the baby. The sound of boots tramping along the verandah outside was occasionally drowned out by the rumble of a freight train on the track just across the road. Next morning, we made our way back to the highway service station, where mercifully the petrol tanker had arrived.

The Marlborough Hotel still offers accommodation. According to its web page, fifty dollars a double will buy you a bed and “continental” breakfast; or you can camp out the back and use that dire bathroom for five dollars. I hope they’ve softened the water.

Flat tyres, lost wheels, petrol strikes, bogs, floods, blown-up engines and broken fan belts: we’ve experienced them all over the years. With improved technology and better roads, breakdowns don’t happen so often now, but with gaps in phone coverage, even on the highways, there are still times when travellers need help from passing strangers. It’s wonderful how generously that help is given.

Repairs done and a new wheel on the Holden, we set off again from Gin Gin, heading south. I could picture the wheel bouncing away through the bush, and when we came to those scrapes in the bitumen we pulled over and went searching for it. And there it was, in the long, dry grass among the gum trees, waiting for us.

I can still see that bouncing wheel; but of all of this, our two kids remember only that while we were waiting in Gin Gin, little Lizzie walked in front of a heavy wooden swing in the playground. It hit her under the chin and knocked her over, and even today she can tell you that story, and show you the scar.

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Lizzie and Matt on the swings on another trip

Isabel’s Death

There’s a white cross on the grave, and the ground around it is bare and dry. Three people are buried here, the last dying a hundred years ago, in the great influenza epidemic of 1919. That was my great-grandfather, Frank Matthews.

 

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The first to be laid to rest here was my great-grandmother Isabel, in 1903.

Frank and Isabel and their children had been living in Sandgate, in the old Queensland National Bank building on Eagle Terrace, looking out across the Bay. In 1901, Frank received a transfer to Barcaldine, a thousand miles away by steam boat and train; a town that twenty years earlier had not existed.

Isabel Turbayne Matthews
Isabel Matthews

Isabel and Frank were both, like so many Australians then and now, the children of migrants who had travelled much further than a thousand miles to make a better life for themselves and their children. They packed up their goods and the children and Topsy the cat, and with Isabel’s sister Jessie to help out, embarked on the steamship going north, beginning a trip into the heat, hazards and discomforts of the Outback.

Isabel wrote home to her family.

A terrible choking comes in my throat, whenever I think of you all standing on the wharf, and our leaving you all for perfect strangers…

Phyllis, my grand-mother, was five years old. She helped to keep an eye on three-year-old James and baby Evie as they travelled north, the ship anchoring one evening in Keppel Bay, at the mouth of the Fitzroy River.

Here they trans-shipped to a tender for the trip up-river to Rockhampton, Isabel and Jessie laying the children to sleep in their clothes on the dusty bunks. Just before four in the morning the exhausted family got to bed in a hotel in the city, only to discover when they woke up that the weekly passenger train to Barcaldine had left the night before.

There was nothing else to do but travel by goods train, and we could not even get sleeping cars. It seemed as though we would have to sit up for two nights, but we were so tired we managed to curl up with the children and get some sleep. The train crawled along, and it took us twenty-seven hours to come from Rockhampton to Barcaldine.   

But since we arrived and had a good night’s rest, we have quite regained our good spirits.                                   

They stayed in the then-new Shakespeare Hotel, on the corner of Oak and Beech Streets.

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Several days later, they moved into the bank residence, a low timber building with the bank chambers at one end.  The bank house faced across dusty Oak Street to the railway line, but there were lattice-enclosed verandahs around the bedrooms and the back of the house, opening on to Willow Street, and a patch of lawn.

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Original Qld National Bank house, Oak St, Barcaldine

That summer, the countryside was in the middle of a dreadful drought. The grid of flat streets and simple houses that made up Barcaldine was lashed by westerly winds like blasts from a furnace. On the remnants of lagoons around the town, hundreds of birds perished from the heat.

On the sheep stations, men cut scrub to feed the stock until the land was almost bare.  The town was over-run by goats. Fire and infectious disease threatened constantly.

Isabel must have thought often of cool Moreton Bay breezes and the family she’d left behind.

Two years after they arrived in Barcaldine, she died.

According to one family story, she was dressing for dinner. Raising her arms, perhaps to pin up her hair, she fell down with a brain haemorrhage. Others maintain that she was having a shower at the time. It would have been a warm shower, more of a dribble than a gush, and as it was from the town’s artesian bore, the water would have reeked of sulphur.

Barcaldine’s Western Champion printed the story the following Saturday, revealing that Isabel had never regained consciousness.

Frank was not at home when she collapsed. As bank manager, he was often out of town, visiting sheep stations in the area. He went duck-shooting and patronised the local race-meetings, and he could “keep one down” with the best of them.

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Duck shooters, Barcaldine. Frank Matthews second from right

The night of Isabel’s collapse, he was at Dunraven Station, fifteen miles out of town. The doctor sent a messenger for him, crossing Lagoon Creek in the dark, riding through gidyea scrub and across the open downs. Frank was home by two in the morning, but there was nothing anyone could do.

Isabel was only twenty-seven years old when she died.

Two years later, Frank married Isabel’s sister Vida, who had come out to help Jessie look after the children. Frank was excommunicated from the Church of England for marrying his dead wife’s sister. It was a scandal.

Poor young Vida – coping with Frank and Phyllis and the little ones, and soon to watch her own first child, little curly-haired Janet, die of gastro-enteritis. Many Barcaldine babies did, back then, what with the heat, an uncertain water supply and the open drain that ran down Oak Street.

Isabel, Frank and little Janet share the grave under that white cross.

Nearly a century later, I began to research Isabel’s life and death: visiting Barcaldine, trawling through old newspapers on film in the State Library, and collecting family stories, letters and photographs.

Barcaldine, 1910 Jim, Frank, Phyllis and John, Vida, David and Evie Matthews
Frank and his second wife, Vida, in the bank house garden in 1910. My grandmother Phyllis is seated in the middle, holding Vida’s youngest.

In 2015 I went back to Barcaldine with my cousin Nadine, and on that bare grave we placed two little pots of artificial greenery, with loving messages written on the pots. Maybe they’re there still.

Afterwards, we walked up Oak Street for a pub crawl. It was Rugby League Grand Final night, with two Queensland teams competing, the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys. The epic game was played in Sydney, but Nadine and I watched it in five different Barcie hotels: Union, Railway, Artesian (“The Artie”), Shakespeare and Commercial. Some were cheering for the Broncos, but most were ardent Cowboys supporters – people in the regions supporting the regional team.

For the thrilling finish we were at the Artie, and with ecstatic locals we watched that moment when, in extra time, Johnathon Thurston kicked the winning field goal.

After a final Kahlua and milk, Nadine and I meandered back down Oak Street to our motel; past the Shakespeare Hotel, across Beech Street and Willow Street, past the spot where our great-grandmother Isabel had died one hundred and twelve years earlier in the long-gone bank house.

I have a great affection for Barcaldine, and not just because of its attractive old streetscape, its position in the centre of the state, its importance in Queensland’s pastoral and political history, its interesting museums.

I like it most of all because my family’s story links me to this place. Stories are powerful that way.

Tara Homestead 2000 shearing shed

NAPLAN’s Queensland Stories

There were all kinds of gates, all kinds of messages, all kinds of mysterious lights.

What I loved best were the farm gates, the messages about fishing with the family and friends, the lighthouses shining warning beams out to sea.

I love stories with a sense of place. Although due to kids’ enjoyment of fantasy in books and movies many of these stories are loaded with zombies, stalkers, flying saucers and murderers, often the setting shines through, and the setting is somewhere in Queensland.

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I love a good Queensland story.

The more we read stories about our own place in the world, the more we engage with it and want to care for it. That’s my theory, and my reason for writing Queensland stories.

I’ve just finished reading around five hundred Queensland narratives, and although many were generic in style and story, among them were authentic gems.

For nearly a month, in shifts, day and night, seven days a week, hundreds of us read and marked Queensland children’s NAPLAN stories. (NAPLAN: National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy). When I tell people what I’ve been doing, they look at me as if I’m mad. But I love it. And I consider it a privilege, being given a glimpse into the lives of so many anonymous Queenslanders.

Queensland has such a variety of landscape and seascape, from mangrove-lined shore to spinifex-coated outcrop, from rainforest to city high rise, with vast distances of scrub and farmland in between.

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Hot artesian bores, surf, and clear, rocky creeks.

Murray Falls

I never know where the students are from, whether they’re boys or girls, or what age they are, but sometimes they give me clues. It’s unlikely a city kid will write authentically about tractors and water point monitoring, about farm accidents or cattle getting out an unfastened gate. As I read, I’m charmed by these details.

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Every year, there is criticism of NAPLAN testing, and sometimes it comes in sardonic form in what the students write themselves. But of course, an education system needs to be tested, to maintain its quality. That’s a necessity; and this seems a pretty gentle way to do it.

This year, the students were asked to write narratives, and they were given some ideas to help them. The topics were general, but there was plenty of room for individual creativity; and occasionally I came across settings so vividly evoked that I was transported far away from the air-conditioning and my computer screen.

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Queensland, bigger than Texas

Nice to read comments on Queensland from a seasoned traveller from that mysterious place called “Down South”!

itchingforhitching

The 2nd largest state in Australia, after Western Australia (but that’s not big, it’s mammoth)

Qld is 1.853 million square kilometres, that’s pretty damned big

It’s two and a half times larger than Texas

The state population was 5million as at May 2018

The state capital Brisbane has a population of over 2.4 mill (2018) and is the third most populace city in Australia, not to be forgotten are the flanking areas of the Gold Coast to the south and the Sunshine Coast to the north which between them have a population of one million. When you’ve got a caravan on the back and umpteen lanes of traffic around you that drive from Noosa down to Coolangatta certainly feels like one big city.

As at 2018 there were 12.2 million head of cattle in Qld (Meat and Livestock Australia) and that’s a lot of bull.

And while we’re on the…

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Rocky

In southeastern Rockhampton, between the river and the swamp, lies the suburb of Depot Hill. Depot Hill residents know all about floods.

In 2011, when Rocky experienced some of its worst-ever flooding, the entire city was isolated. The airport was submerged, and so was the highway. The main northern railway line, which passes by Depot Hill, was awash. Built on low, swampy land near the Fitzroy River, in spite of its name the Hill is always at risk. As the waters rose, it was decided that the suburb should be evacuated.

“I’m staying put,” said one old lady to the television cameras. “I’ve been here for sixty years, and my house has never flooded.”

Power to the area was cut, but still people stayed. Most of the houses there are high-set, and the media showed locals sitting on their front steps, drinking beer and watching the floodwaters.

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Depot Hill during the 2011 floods ABC Capricornia: Alice Roberts

The Sydney Morning Herald reported it:

An old pine desk is drying beside Del Moss’s house in Depot Hill – drawers pulled out, in case they swell. ”It floated past yesterday. And it’s better than mine,” the 75-year-old says. ”Three lounge suites went past the other day. It was like the Sydney to Hobart watching them. If you don’t laugh, I suppose, you cry.” [Sydney Morning Herald”, 08-01-2011]

Livestock from the nearby Common took refuge on the Hill. One photo showed a house above the flood level with a goat on the landing and a donkey and a camel in the front yard.

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Camel in the Cyclone Debbie floods, Rockhampton, 2017

Four years later, in 2015, Rocky flooded again. This time, Cyclone Marcia was to blame. Since the previous floods, one Depot Hill grandmother had invested in a kayak for getting to the shops. Depot Hill people are proud of the way they cope, but this time it exhausted even the most stoic – not just at the Hill, but across the damaged city, with thousands of households without power, its citizens cleaning up in a heat wave.

Rockhampton Regional Libraries are a great asset to the city. Following the visit of Cyclone Marcia, the Library, via its Facebook page, invited the city in.

         With most of us still without power, a great place to spend the day will be Rockhampton Regional Library. Open again tonight until 10pm! Enjoy our air conditioning, watch a movie, grab a coffee, charge your devices, read a book, access free Wi-Fi, have a chat to the ladies from the Red Cross or visit the nurses for a health check. We have it all at the library today and would love to see you here!

Founded in 1858, Rockhampton is one of Queensland’s oldest cities, and, lying as it does on the Tropic of Capricorn, most of the time it has an ideal climate. Like Cairns, Townsville, and other coastal cities, it was first developed as a port, servicing the pastoral industry. The railway was built west from Rockhampton before the coastal line was completed, and long before the Bruce Highway came into existence.

Rocky has a notable collection of substantial old buildings, as well as typical old-style, high-stumped, timber tropical housing, such as those of Depot Hill.

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A house at Depot Hill in dry times

Rockhampton Art Gallery has one of the finest regional collections in Australia, including a magnificent collection of mid-twentieth century Australian art. The city has renowned Botanic Gardens, as well as the splendid Kershaw Gardens.

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The famous banyan trees of Rockhampton Botanic Gardens

As a city that services beef cattle country, Rocky is also known for its many statues of bulls, in parks and median strips – in recent years often photographed surrounded by floodwaters. There’s also a steady business in supplying replacement testicles for these bulls, as they are always losing them, sawn off in the dead of night. Rocky’s bulls’ balls are evidently prized as collectables.

In April 2017, the floods were on again, when Cyclone Debbie, one of the most widespread and expensive of all, made its slow and devastating way down the coastal ranges, from Airlie Beach all the way to Lismore.

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The swollen Fitzroy River after Cyclone Debbie, April 2017 ABC

This time most of the water came down the Fitzroy from the ranges to the west, and the floods were predicted to reach the highest level for sixty years. It didn’t reach that peak in Rockhampton, but once again the city was in clean-up mode for weeks. Once again, calls were made to build a levee to protect the city. Maybe that will happen one day; but in the meantime, the people of Rockhampton will stay prepared.

This is a tough old city.

Rockhampton bull Debbie RACQ Helicopter

Townsville

During our first road trip north as a family, in December 1970, Con and I and baby Matt stopped on the Strand, Townsville, for a break. On the Strand an artificial waterfall comes tumbling down a cliff into landscaped gardens at the bottom, and I sat there with the baby enjoying the cool spray.

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“The Waterfall on the Strand, Townsville” c.1970-2000 Murray Views Collection, Centre for the Government of Queensland.

Con was looking across the road at the Tobruk Memorial Baths.

“Did you know,” he said, “in 1956, Australia’s Olympic swimmers trained in that pool? Lorraine Crapp, Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose – they were all here!”

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Tobruk Memorial Baths, Townsville c.1952. Qld State Archives

North Queenslanders were pleased to have the country’s best swimmers here in Townsville through the winter before the Melbourne Olympics. Even before the Olympics began, they were breaking records. Con remembers it well.

Lorraine Crapp broke four world records in one race here, in August 1956. In breaking the five-minute barrier for the four hundred metres freestyle,she broke three other world records – 200 metres, 220 yards and 440 yards. It made headlines around the world.And Dawn Fraser set new world records in the one hundred metres.

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Lorraine Crapp Thurlow

“Exciting times for us North Queenslanders, and for Australian swimming!”

The Australian team went on to win gold in every freestyle event at the Melbourne Olympics. Australia’s first real taste of Olympic glory.

 

In 1976, Con and I and our two kids moved to Townsville, for a year, so he could study at the College of Advanced Education. It was hot and wet, and rain water pooled in the backyard of our rented house. Thousands of tadpoles hatched in the puddles. When the rain stopped, the puddles dried up and the tadpoles rotted in the sun, stinking, just outside the back door.

After the rainy season the city returned to its usual dry, dusty condition. In winter, the mornings were cold. We were in the tropics, but not the lush, green tropics of Mackay or Cairns. Townsville is backed by magnificent ranges, but apart from the pink granite bulk of Castle Hill and its surrounds it is flat. It was a city of cyclists in those days. Now, it’s a much bigger and busier place.

The Townsville CAE was near James Cook University. Those were interesting times at James Cook. It was a time of energy and change. All over the world, there was a developing push for the rights of Indigenous peoples, and academics at James Cook were writing and teaching about the history and issues of race relations in the North. Among them Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, and those dynamic men helped change the face of race relations in Australia.

JCU Associate Professor Noel Loos with some of his publications from the NQ Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Noel Loos, James Cook University, 2017, with some of his publications

Eddie Koiki Mabo, a leading figure in the Townsville Torres Strait and Indigenous community, was working as a groundsman at James Cook. Over lunch, in 1974, Eddie Mabo shared stories of his home island with Reynolds and Loos, and it was during these sessions that he discovered that what he had always considered his family’s land belonged, in fact, to the government.

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Eddie Koiki Mabo http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info – torres strait

Sixteen years later, Eddie Mabo’s land claim on his ancestral home, the Island of Mer in Torres Strait, resulted in the High Court decision overturning the legal doctrine of terra nullius, or “this land belongs to no one”, under which Captain Cook claimed Australia for Britain. A history-making event.

The Mabo claim thus began at James Cook, around the time we were in Townsville. At the end of 1976, Con was awarded a Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education, and I had a baby. I was unaware of history on the way to being made nearby.

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Off to Townsville CAE for Con to receive his Diploma, November 1976

While we were living in Townsville, we often came down to the Strand rock pool, or further north to Rowes Bay or Pallarenda Beach, to swim with the kids and hold beach birthday parties. I remember dry grass and coconut palms along the waterfront.

In 2007, Con and I were back in Townsville yet again, staying in what locals call the Sugar Shaker, the landmark hotel tower in the centre of town. The CBD had changed. What been David Jones Department Store, North Queensland’s most luxurious shopping place, was now the home of a new north Queensland icon – Cowboys Rugby League Club. This is a passionate rugby league town.

South Queensland was in drought at that time, and Brisbane was on Level 5 water restrictions; but here in the Townsville Mall, a council worker was hosing the pavement. In the suburbs, sprinklers watered lawns and footpaths. This is no longer a dusty, brown city.

One morning I went for a walk north from the city centre, along the Strand. The coconut palms were still there, lining the beach, but now there was greenery everywhere, and a water park with a bucket tipping water on to the screaming children below.

Townsville, with an assured supply of water from the Ross River Dam and the rainforested Paluma Range to the north, had decided to make itself beautiful, turning its public spaces into the lush, green environment that visitors expect of the tropics.

Early this year, though, record-breaking rains forced Ross River Dam to open its floodgates; and suburbs that didn’t exist when we lived there in 1976 were flooded for weeks.

Townsville is unlike anywhere else in the country, except perhaps Darwin. Like Darwin it is a tropical city with a port of strategic importance. Like Darwin, it was bombed during the War, and like Darwin it has suffered catastrophic damage from cyclones.

Townsville is a Defence Forces centre, a place of research into all things tropical, a tourist hot spot, and also a place of high unemployment and crime. It was interesting in the 1970s, and for all its stresses and strains, it still is.

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Townsville today http://www.queensland.com

Julia Creek Dirt N Dust Festival

Great story and photos about Julia Creek, which held their festival again this year, just a couple of months after the dreadful, destructive floods that killed up to 700,000 head of stock and destroyed fences and other infrastructure and closed the railway line.

Woolly Days

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Julia Creek is a small town of about 300 people situated 650km inland from Townsville. It’s normally a fairly quiet place except for one weekend in April when it swells to ten times its population for the Dirt N Dust Festival.

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Dirt N Dust Festival is centred around one of the toughest triathlons in Australia and also has a music festival, a rodeo and races that brings people from all corners to pack the town. The festival started in the 1990s as locals looked for ways to put the town on the map. The triathlon began with a handful of competitors but gained traction when organisers hit on the idea of coming it with the other events on the same weekend. It’s now one of the highest funded Tourism Queensland projects outside Brisbane.

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The fun started on Friday afternoon with some celebrity bog snorkeling. Bog snorkeling is an ancient Irish…

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