Great Northern

 

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Great Northern Hotel, Townsville

The Great Northern Hotel, Townsville, is a fine old corner building with iron lace on its verandahs.

Northern is a good name for a North Queensland pub, but there’s also a Great Northern Hotel in Newcastle, New South Wales, and another in Byron Bay. For a Sydneysider, Newcastle is north, and Byron Bay is a long way north.

It’s all about where you’re standing.

The Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay

There is also a Great Northern Hotel in Cairns, but to a patron of the Great Northern Hotel in north London, or the Best Northern in Ontario, Canada, the thought of anything in Australia being named “northern” would be absurd.

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Great Northern Hotel, London

Staying in New Zealand a few years ago, at Invercargill, as far south as I’m ever likely to go, I was startled to find there, on the northern side of the railway line, the Northern Hotel. It makes sense to the locals.

Compass point names pop up everywhere, and they sometimes require a bit of re-orientation for a visitor. As a Queenslander living in Kalgoorlie for several months, I found it difficult to adjust to the idea of going east to the desert and west to the ocean.

When Con and I drive south, over the border to Murwillumbah or Lismore, we’re driving to the Northern Rivers. That name feels right to a Sydneysider, but not to a Queenslander. Our northern rivers are the Mitchell, Herbert and Burdekin, not the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence.

Australia’s interstate clichés involve the compass points, too.

Queenslanders talk about “southerners” with a hint of scorn. Detached from such manly and heroic matters as crocodiles and floods, there are too many of them scuttling about in Sydney and Melbourne, boasting of their Harbour Bridge and their coffee culture. We call them Cockroaches, especially at Rugby League State of Origin, when it’s all about the Queensland Maroons versus the New South Wales Blues.

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State of Origin time

In Sydney and Melbourne, people think of Queensland as the Deep North, a backward place of no account, of cane toads, cyclones and annoying politicians: Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer.

In Tasmania the locals speak about the rest of Australia as “mainlanders”, pretentious sneerers who make cliched jokes about Tasmanians and sometimes leave them off the map entirely, then flock down in the summer to enjoy the state’s arts, history and food.

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“Greetings from Tasmania” post card Image: My Word, Hobart. utas.edu.au

Adelaide people enjoy a slight snootiness that goes back to their roots as a settlement of the free and well-heeled, not convicts. South Australia is the state of Don Dunstan, festivals, and wine. Lined up to collect his winnings at the Hawker races in South Australia, Con struck up a conversation with a woman from Adelaide. They started to talk about wine.

“We produce wine in Queensland,” Con said.

“No you don’t,” she said.

To Western Australia, the rest of the country is “over east”, a place that is both far away and unaware that its prosperity rides on W.A.’s mineral wealth and hard work.

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W.A. wealth – iron ore train in the Pilbara

Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world. Migrants from Europe reach Perth and decide to stay there, as if to say, “We’ve been travelling so long we can’t stand the thought of going any further.” Perth has a more British feel than the east coast cities, and more English accents in its streets. There are also more South Africans in Perth, just as there are more New Zealanders in the eastern states.

From Perth, a week in Bali costs less than a week on the Gold Coast, and it’s a shorter flight. Even by air, crossing the country is a major undertaking. It’s no wonder the compass points are so important in our interstate thinking.

Once we flew east from Perth to Brisbane via Melbourne, on the “red eye” which departed at midnight, W.A. time. At half past five in the morning, during the brief stopover at Tullamarine, exhausted and dreading another two hours in the air, I tried to buy a newspaper to fill the time to Brisbane.

The airport shops were shut, but nearby in the queue for a Sydney flight there was a dignified, suited gentleman reading The Age. I walked across, told him my problem, and asked him if he needed the puzzles page. He graciously pulled his paper apart and gave it to me. I thanked him and went back to my boarding gate.

A few minutes later he appeared next to me in the Brisbane queue, and handed me the puzzles page from The Australian as well.

I was grateful. Those puzzles got me all the way north to Brisbane. Southerners can be nice, even to us Queensland Cane Toads.

History on the Map

There was a young maid from Dungowrin

Who fondly recalled her deflowerin’.

“Gee it was beaut, in the back of Bob’s ute!”

But her sister preferred it while showerin’.

A few years ago, The West Australian ran a competition for limericks using local place names. This was Con’s favourite, and the competition winner.

Western Australia has lots of place names that end in “in” and “up”: Balingup, Dwellingup; Mukinbudin, Burracoppin. I think Dungowrin was a made-up one, though. Poetic license.

Queensland has wonderful Indigenous place names, too: Pimpimbudgie, Eubenangee, Dirranbandi, Bli Bli. The only place names unique to Australia are Indigenous names. They are both beautiful and inspirational.

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Eubenangee Swamp, north of Innisfail

Perhaps Henry Lawson’s poetic use of language was influenced by a childhood spent near Wattamondara and the Weddin Mountains. Dorothea McKellar was inspired by the country around Gunnedah, Narrabri and Coonabarabran when, homesick in England, she wrote the iconic poem, “My Country”.

English names like Cambridge and Oxford have literal roots, both being river crossing places. Aboriginal place names do too, of course. Sometimes their meaning has been lost, at least to people with non-Indigenous backgrounds like me, and they are just beautiful-sounding words; but I learned as a child on the Sunshine Coast that Nambour referred to the red-flowering bottlebrush that grows along local creeks, and Maroochydore means place of black swans.

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Bottlebrush Callistemon

As Europeans spread across the country, ancient names from Indigenous mythology were sometimes replaced with names from European mythologies, like Lethe Brook, south of Proserpine, where Con and I were held up by floodwaters in 1974.  The creek was named after a river in Hades, the town after Persephone, abducted by Hades and taken to live in the Underworld.

Many Queensland sheep stations and towns were given English, Scottish or Irish names: Stonehenge, Hyde Park, Lochiel, Doncaster. Killarney, Connemara. These names seem totally inappropriate when you look at the countryside. Like the town of Richmond, west of Townsville.

Wherever the British colonized, they established places called Richmond: New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica; at least six places in the United States, and six in Australia. Of all of them, Richmond in Queensland is perhaps least like the town of Richmond in England, the treasured ancient town on the Thames, home of Plantagenet kings, with a Green that once held jousting competitions. Soft green grass, a sprawling park with deer and ancient oak trees. An oak can be measured by how many people it takes to reach around its trunk: one hundred years per person.

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Measuring an oak tree in Richmond Park, U.K.

England’s Richmond is about as far as the imagination can stretch from the dinosaur bones, galahs and donga motels of Queensland’s Richmond. But our Richmond has sprawling plains and vast, starry skies. Its population has to be tough, to cope with droughts, isolation, and appalling floods.

 

 

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Plains west of Richmond, Qld

 

The British themselves had a history of invasion. They had been conquered by the Romans, and then Angles, Saxons and Jutes from northern Europe. Next, the Vikings. In 1066, the invading Normans under William the Conqueror defeated the Saxon/English King Harold. The Normans took over the country, stripped land from the locals and distributed it to their own people, and imposed their own language, social systems and government.

The English in turn invaded Ireland, allotting estates to their own people, renaming the landscape and imposing their religion. In battle after bloody battle, they also forced their government on the Scots.

I wonder if all this bloody history entered the thoughts of the English, Irish and Scots who invaded Aboriginal lands, took the country for their flocks, killed Indigenous people almost at will, and put their names on the landscape of Australia. They must surely have been aware of the irony.

Occupation of the land by Europeans was often accompanied by violence. The Aboriginal inhabitants suffered by far the greatest losses, and across Australia there are place names indicating this: Skeleton Creek, Murdering Gully, Battle Mountain, and The Leap, just north of Mackay, where it is said an Aboriginal woman, chased by the Native Mounted Police, jumped to her death with her child in her arms.

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The Leap, Mackay

You can see our history written on the map, in place names; but some of those names need changing, and gradually that’s happening.

Two mountains near Rockhampton have been renamed. Mount Wheeler, probably named after the notorious, murderous Lieutenant Wheeler who ran the Native Police when white people were moving into this area, has been officially renamed Gai-i (pronounced guy-ee), its name in the local Darumbal language. And Mount Jim Crow, with a name loaded with over a century of racist connotations here and overseas, is now officially known as Baga.

South of Home Hill, Yellow Gin Creek, according to the Northern Land Council’s website, runs through a region of creeks, wetlands and coastline, traditionally an important food-gathering area for the local Juru people. Its road sign has always always a reminder to me of bad days not so very long ago when talking about Indigenous Australians in racist terms was a social norm.

Now, that place name has been reclaimed and adapted by the Juru people. When a new bridge over the creek was completed, it was given a new sign. Youngoorah, which means ‘women” in the local language. Beautiful.

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Image: from the Northern Land Council website

Our history is written in the place names on the map, for those who want to see it.

It is a history both good and bad.

It goes back a lot further than two hundred years.

And there could be lots of limericks from Queensland place names, even if they don’t end in “in” or “up”.

There once was a young man from Bli Bli…

Queensland Songs

Song making is an ancient Queensland art. Songs have always been part of every Indigenous celebration and every mourning ceremony, and song lines were like maps guiding people across country.

By contrast, whitefeller Queensland songs range from nineteenth century convict times to the twenty-first century.

The best of those Queensland songs, the most evocative of its time and place, is the haunting Moreton Bay, about convict life in Brisbane in the late 1820s under the notorious commandant, Captain Patrick Logan.

 

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Convict Brisbane

 

The first European settlement was built along what became William Street. Captain Logan’s house was here, and this part of Brisbane is still the home of government offices.

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Convict era Brisbane seen from south of the river. Image: State Library of Qld

The huge state government building at 1 William Street is near the site of the commandant’s house.

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Looking upstream towards 1 William Street as it was nearing completion

Now the Queens Wharf high-rise development is going up on William Street.

The flogging triangle was located in the convict barracks at the top of what is now Queen Street.

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Convict life in Brisbane Image: Museum of Brisbane

The Brisbane River loops around this raised stretch of land, down past what is now the City Botanical Gardens, past the New Farm, and past Eagle Farm. Convicts worked on all these farms.

Moreton Bay

 One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin’s island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I’ve been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails

For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay

Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan’s yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind

Western Queensland has always been a tough place: even more so in the years of the Great Depression, when people, especially men, had to leave home and travel in harsh conditions to find work and collect rations. In Sergeant Small, a swaggie jumps a train in Mitchell, heading for Roma. When he arrives there, he is tricked by the local sergeant into revealing his hiding place, ends up in court and is sentenced to thirty days.

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Passengers on Mitchell Railway Station Image: State Library of Qld

 

The “Weddings Parties Anything” version captures the spirit of the time.

Sergeant Small

I went broke in western Queensland in 1931,
Nobody would employ me so my swaggy days begun
I headed out to Charleville, out to the western towns,
I was on my way to Roma, destination Darling Downs

And my pants were getting ragged, my shoes were getting thin,
When we stopped in Mitchell, a goods train shunted in,
The engine blew her whistle, I was looking up to see,
She was on her way to Roma, that was very plain to me.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

As I sat and watched her, inspiration seemed to grow,
And I remembered the government slogan, ‘It’s a railway that you own’
So by the time the sun was setting, and night was going nigh,
So I gathered my belongings and I caught her on the fly.

And as we came into Roma, I tucked my head down low,
And a voice said ‘any room mate?’ and I answered, ‘Plenty ‘bo’
Then at this tip this noble man, the voice of Sergeant Small,
Said, ‘I’ve trapped you very nicely, you’re headed for a fall’

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

The Judge was very kind to me, he gave me thirty days,
He said, ‘Maybe that would help to cure my rattler jumping ways’
So if your down and outback, let me tell you what I think,
Just stay off the Queensland railways, it’s a shortcut to the clink.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

 

Songs that evoke a familiar place and atmosphere often find a lasting place in the culture.

Sounds of Then, better known as This is Australia, written by Mark Callaghan, was inspired by his memories of living with his family in the canefields east of Bundaberg. After its release in 1985 by the rock band Gang Gajang, it soon became an iconic Australian song. As Callaghan said in a 2002 interview with Debbie Kruger, “The song is actually about how smells and sounds and sensations can rekindle a memory – which is what music does so successfully for people.”

lighning over cane

From Sounds of Then (This is Australia)

…That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings home the heavy days,
Brings home the night time swell,

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.
That certain texture, that certain beat,
Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think that this is Australia.

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,
In brick veneer on financed beds.
In a room of silent hardiflex
That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings forth the heavy days,
Brings forth the night time sweat
Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.
This is Australia…

Songwriters: Mark Callaghan / Graham Bidstrup / Chris Bailey / Geoff Stapleton / Robert James / Kay Bee

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Cattle and Cane, from Brisbane band the Go-Betweens, 1983, has the same lovely, nostalgic Queensland feel:

cattle and cane

Cattle and Cane

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father’s watch
he left it in the showers
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Songwriters: Robert Derwent Garth Forster / Grant William Mclennan

Cattle and Cane lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

For something contemporary, and a completely different view of Queensland as seen from south of the border, here is comedian Sammy J’s 2019 song, inspired by the result of this year’s Federal Election: Queensland, we’re breaking up with you.

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

Gin Gin Sabrina Lauriston, Touurism and Events Qld
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.

19 Carisbrooke Station

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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