Bindy Eyes

Out the back of the Mauro homestead was a pit toilet, a scary place for a townie child like me. What if I fell down the hole?

Mum liked to tell the story of when she was little, out at Barcaldine, and a goat fell down the pit toilet. They sent the jackeroo down to get it out.

When my mother Pat was a child, her father Fred was manager of a sheep station not far from Barcaldine. Even after leaving the land, many of Fred’s descendants maintained all their lives a sense of belonging to the bush – even his second daughter, Betty, who married an American after the war and spent most of her life in Seattle.

Betty liked living near the Pacific Ocean, knowing that on the other side of the water were the beaches and plains of home.

Between the wars Fred took up ownership of a sheep station, through a land ballot I believe; a place called Dunwold, outside Dirranbandi. While still a teenager his eldest son, my uncle Jim, went out there to manage the property. The family next bought a property near Texas, on the New South Wales border, and Fred’s second son, Don, took it over.

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Crossing into Queensland

When I was young, perhaps four or five, my family went to visit Dunwold, flying to Saint George in a DC3, where Uncle Jim picked us up from the airstrip. Both my uncles considered that we coastal kids needed a bit of toughening up, and at Dunwold I was taken out to watch a sheep being slaughtered. To my great relief, something intervened – perhaps my mother – and I was spared the sight of the killing.

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Dunwold homestead, in the early days

We visited Uncle Don more often. His property, Mauro, was closer to our home in Nambour – only a five- or six-hour drive. Mauro was just over the Dumaresq River, which here forms the border between Queensland and New South Wales: the wriggly part. Mauro is in New South Wales, but Texas, in Queensland, is its nearest town.

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Texas, on the wriggly bit of the border

The Dumaresq (pronounced Dumaresk or Dumerrik, depending on who is saying it) rises in the Great Dividing Range near Stanthorpe and Tenterfield and flows west into the Macintyre River, which in turn flows past Goondiwindi, still forming part of the border. These are known as the Border Rivers.

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Border bridge on the Dumaresque River

Border towns borrow a little from each state. One wintery morning in Goondiwindi, which is in Queensland and therefore sells the Courier-Mail in all the shops, I visited the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop. The ladies in charge were sitting around a table doing the Sydney Morning Herald crosswords. “We get the Herald in specially”, they said. “It has better crosswords that the Courier-Mail.”

The Macintyre River continues further west, joining the Barwon River. The Barwon flows into the Darling River and on into the Murray.

These western rivers have dangerous floods, although the countryside has been drought-stricken for years now. I remember as a child sitting in our family’s Vanguard stuck in the middle of flooded Camp Creek, near Mauro, with my feet up on the seat and floodwater flowing through the car. A tractor towed us out.

All of Fred’s descendants who lived at or visited Mauro will have strong memories of the place. I remember it as if I’m looking at a photo album. Here was the pepperina tree beside the house. When I smell the leaves of a pepper tree, it takes me straight back there. Outside of the house yard, the ground was thick with prickles – bindy eyes, as we called them. We coastal kids had never before experienced those savage, dry-country prickles.

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Khaki weed

I think it was actually khaki weed, a broad-leaved prickly plant. Bindii is the nasty prickle that grows in my Brisbane lawn – little clusters of carrot-like leaves with prickles in the middle that break off and stick into the skin and make the children go carefully on tiptoes down the concrete car tracks.

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Bindii

The worst prickle I’ve come across is the aptly named goat’s head, found in the Gulf Country around Burketown. Standing on the thorns of a goat’s head is like standing on a couple of thumb tacks.

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Goat’s heads

At Mauro there was a shearing shed, a hundred metres or so from the homestead, with chutes where shearers pushed skinny-looking shorn sheep down into the pens below, slotted tables where roustabouts threw the fleeces, and the wool press that did the baling. There was a strong smell of sheep droppings, fallen between the floorboards and piled up under the shed. We didn’t often visit the shed during shearing, because, Uncle Don said, the men didn’t want to have to curb their language.

Behind the house yard at Mauro was the dam. We went swimming there once. The soft mud at the bottom oozed between our toes.

There was an ant bed tennis court beside the house, surfaced with crushed and rolled termite mounds, and peacocks screamed at dusk on the fences.

Besides sheep Mauro produced fodder crops, and Italian share farmers grew tobacco. We sometimes visited them, peering into the dark barns where the tobacco leaves were hung to dry.

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Tobacco barns near Texas Qld

During the 1950s we also visited my mother’s friend on a property outside Saint George and watched them “pulling” the mulga. Whether it was for land clearing or for cattle feed, I don’t know. It was impressive, though. Two army tanks, fifty metres or so apart, dragged a heavy chain between them, pulling down the scrub as they went. Perhaps they were bulldozers, but I remember them as tanks. So soon after the War there was probably plenty of army surplus equipment available for jobs like this.

Most of all I remember the noise.

I last visited Mauro in the early 1980s. Con, because we were only going for a couple of days, hadn’t brought proper shoes – just the standard North Queensland driving footwear of the time, rubber thongs. When Don asked him to help shift irrigation pipes, Con wore his thongs. Don was wearing elastic-sided boots.

When Con came back to the house he sat down on the back step and took off his thongs. They had new soles on them: a centimetre-thick matt of prickles; and he sat there glumly pulling them out of the sides of his feet. There are many reasons why westerners wear elastic-sided boots, and prickles, whether bindii, khaki weed or goat’s heads, are high on the list.

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Goat’s heads in thongs

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.

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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

Australian Stories

 

Most of us Australians left sacred sites on the other side of the world – the River Jordan, the Ganges, the Thames. Our ancestors who came from overseas brought the stories with them, but many of us still hold a yearning for the places. Ancient stories, the myths that bind us to the earth, are always attached to places.

Indigenous Australians who know their sacred places and the stories that go with them have a feeling of deep belonging that might elude the rest of us, no matter how much dust in our hair or dirt under our fingernails, or how many generations of our ancestors have lived here.

The mythology of Australia that we, as a nation, have taken most to our hearts is based on stories of foreign places: Gallipoli, and the battlefields of France and Belgium. In Canberra last week, I went to see the sixty-two thousand knitted red poppies that are flowing across the lawns surrounding the Australian War Memorial. It’s a beautiful sight, just like the poppy-strewn fields of France. The poppies stand for the Australians who died.

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At the Australian War Memorial

This striking display is there to commemorate 11 November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day.

No one who fought in the First World War is alive now, and few who fought in the Second World War. My father was a prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma Railway, and after he came home, he always attended the ANZAC Day Service at the Nambour Cenotaph. For him it was personal. He remembered the faces of the men who’d died and suffered around him.

The War Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore overlooks the countryside Dad and his battered company fought across, in 1942, in the last days before the surrender. That story is not often told.

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The memorial in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore

Now, for Australians, the iconic story of Australians in World War Two is the story of Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track.

In Australian culture, these foreign places – Gallipoli, the battlefields of France and Belgium, the Kokoda Track – symbolize all our deaths in war. The people who served in these places have become a source of inspiration – the embodiment of courage, toughness, sacrifice, and a dry and cheeky humour that we regard as our own.

These foreign places have become our own iconic places. Huge numbers of Australians make pilgrimages overseas to visit them; and at home, every town has its local equivalent: a war memorial. Here the ceremonies take place year after year, with symbols and rituals, music and costume, and the re-telling of uplifting stories.

For veterans and their families, war memorials and ANZAC Day commemorations are personal, not matters of mythology; and on most war memorials there are lists of names. In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there are more than one hundred thousand names on the bronze panels of the Roll of Honour, all of them people who have died as the result of war service.

The Western Queensland town of Roma has trees for memorials. Wide-trunked, beautiful bottle trees line the streets. By 1920, ninety-three had been planted to commemorate ninety-three local men who died in the First World War. Each tree had a plaque with the name of a soldier, date of his death, and the words “Lest we forget”. Most of the trees still stand, giving Roma’s streetscapes a unique dignity and charm.

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Memorial bottle tree in Roma

The War Memorial in Barcaldine is restrained and elegant – a granite and marble clock tower, standing in the middle of an intersection. It has four clock faces, each surrounded by a marble wreath, and the names of the two hundred and ninety-two locals who went away to fight in World War One. My grandfather’s name is among them. He was one of the lucky ones; thirty-eight died overseas.

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War Memorial in Barcaldine

 

My father’s name is one of the many on the National Freedom Wall in Mount Coot-tha Botanical Gardens, and on the Ex-prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat.

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Looking out from the National Freedom Wall, Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens

I remember Dad’s few stories of the war, mainly funny ones. I also remember when, in his seventies and suffering from Parkinsons Disease, barely able to articulate anymore, he suddenly spoke clearly. He said, “It’s hard to burn bodies with wet wood.”

His mind had gone back to the days on the Railway, when cholera struck the camps and men who helped burn infected bodies in the morning could themselves be dead and burned by evening.

Stories. I remember them when I see his name on these memorial walls.

We can’t spread our thoughts over all of the suffering of Australians in time of war. Instead, we focus on the battles of World War One. When we take part in the events of ANZAC Day and Armistice Day, when we stand before eternal flames and war memorials, they symbolize the pain of all the wars. The stories and the familiar rituals bring us together, not to go shopping, or to eat or drink or surf, but to think about something bigger than the individual, something that encourages higher aspirations.

We should never let this degenerate into flag-waving, patriotic theatre, the glorification of war, or divisive, bitter discourse. We shouldn’t let politics or the marketplace intrude. They intrude almost everywhere else.

We should also acknowledge the wars on our own soil – the Frontier Wars that happened here in Australia from 1788 onwards, as Indigenous people fought for their land and lifestyle, and suffered the heart-breaking loss and destruction of their own ancient, sacred places.

My favourite memorial stands among trees, looking out over the sea, in a sandy park in Cardwell, Far North Queensland. It’s the memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea, which happened right off this coast. This was a crucial sea and air battle of 1942, fought with bombs and long-range guns. People living in the North listened in awe to the rumble of artillery far out at sea.

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The Memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea, Cardwell FNQ

This battle was fought in defence of our own place, our own stories. And not a poppy in sight.

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Barcaldine

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Oak Street Barcaldine 2015. Tree of Knowledge Memorial in the background

January 2000. Blazing heat and a bright blue sky. Oak Street was still strung with Christmas lights, but nothing much was happening in Barcaldine. The tourist season had not yet begun.

You forget, on the Coast, what it is like to drive in the West: on-coming drivers lift a finger off the wheel in laconic greeting, emus and kangaroos lurk in the roadside scrub; trees in the paddocks are levelled off along the bottom where sheep and cattle have reached up to pull at the leaves.

Con and I had driven two days from Brisbane and arrived on what would have been my mother’s eightieth birthday. She was born here in Barcie. The town is important in my family history. I’d driven through in previous years, but now I wanted to spend a bit more time here.

That Sunday evening, we asked the motel manager where we could eat.

“The pub,” she said. “Or the servo.”

In the Central West, Barcaldine, population eleven hundred, is a classic country town, a flat grid of streets with a row of pubs looking out across the railway line: Globe, Commercial, Shakespeare, Artesian, Railway, and Union Hotels. The streets are named after trees. Barcaldine was the first town to provide town water from an artesian bore, and it still calls itself the Garden City of the West.

This is an important town on the tourist route, situated on the junction of the Capricorn and Landsborough Highways. Barcaldine is also important in the history of politics and industrial relations in Australia. Troops were based here during the great shearers’ strike of 1891, and this was where Australian soldiers first wore emu feathers on their slouch hats.

Meetings of the striking shearers famously took place outside the railway station, under an old eucalyptus tree, a ghost gum, that came to be known as the Tree of Knowledge. By 2000 the tree was showing its age.

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The Tree of Knowledge and railway station, Barcaldine, Qld, 1987. Image from collection of State Library of Queensland

Six years after our visit, causing distress locally and nationally, the Tree of Knowledge was poisoned.

If anyone knows who the poisoner was, they’re not telling.

 

 

Then, in 2009, the astonishing Tree of Knowledge Memorial was opened on the site where the old tree had stood, outside the station, across the road from the Artesian Hotel. Built with Commonwealth funds, the Memorial consists of a high cube of timber, startling in that flat country with its traditional roof-lines. Inside, above the dead trunk and branches, old railway sleepers hang suspended, outlining a ghostly image of flourishing foliage. At night the tree is lit up in green, a moving and spectacular sight.

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Inside the Tree of Knowledge Memorial

Eucalypts propagated from the old Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine are flourishing next to the State Library of Queensland, in Brisbane. Don’t tell the poisoner from Barcie that they’re there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in 2000, a publican gave me a local perspective on the political significance of Barcaldine’s hotels.

“The Shakespeare was the pub for the squatters, and the Globe was the workers’ pub. During the Shearers’ Strike there were heated meetings on both sides. They say the Australian Workers Party, later to become the Labor party, grew out of a meeting at the back of the Globe, and the Country Party began in the lounge of the Shakespeare.”

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The New Shakespeare Hotel, 1920 Image from the collection of the State Library of Qld

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six hotels are a lot for a small town to support. By 2011 the Globe was up for sale, possibly to be demolished. Huge old timber hotels with deep verandahs are the architectural treasures of Queensland country towns. So many of them have been lost through fire; I was sad to think that such a building, with so much history, could be pulled down.

I paid another visit to Barcie in 2015, with my cousin Nadine, searching for family history. To my delight, I discovered that the Globe has been preserved. It was bought by the local Council, and the designers of the Tree of Knowledge Memorial were commissioned to renovate it. It now stands in its original form, preserved and enclosed by elegant metal screening. What used to be the bar is now the Information Centre. Upstairs is an art gallery.

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The renewed Globe Hotel, 2015, from the rear

This exciting renovation is currently being showcased at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale as part of the Australian exhibit titled “Repair”.

During our 2000 visit, Con and I saw in the bar of the original Globe some large Hugh Sawrey paintings, based on Banjo Paterson poems. Con, loving horse racing as he does, especially liked “Old Pardon, the son of Reprieve”.

In 2015, over dinner in the motel restaurant, Nadine and I talked to the waitress about our family history trip, and I mentioned the spectacular preservation job on the Globe.

“My husband and I used to own the Globe,” she says. “We sold it to the Council.”

“What happened to the Hugh Sawrey paintings? Did the Council buy them, too? Will they go into the new art gallery?”

“We’ve got them packed away. Still deciding what to do with them.”

I hope those paintings make it back to the Globe.

Miles to Go

The Grand View Hotel at Cleveland is a fine pub, Queensland’s oldest licensed hotel. We ran trivia nights, Con and I, at the Grand View.

One evening before the quiz began we came across several blokes in the bar, wearing high visibility gear, enjoying an after-work drink. Finding that we were there to run the trivia, one of them said to me, “So you think you know a lot, do you?”

“I know everything,” I replied. (It’s true. If you’re the one who makes up the questions, you do know all the answers.)

“Oh, really?” he scoffed. “What’s my favourite colour, then?”

“Maroon”, I answered, and he had to concede.

Maroon is the favourite colour for most blokes you’ll meet after work in a Queensland pub.

Con likes maroon, too. Our present car is maroon, and so were the two that went before it. We have covered many kilometres in red cars.

forester wattleWe composed our pub trivia questions ourselves, and they often had a local slant.

“Thenus orientalis is a famous product of Moreton Bay and surrounding waters. What is it?”

Moreton Bay bug. Easy when you know.

“In Longreach the streets are named after trees, and in Barcaldine they’re named after birds. True or false?”

False – it’s the other way around. As the town that pioneered artesian water supply, Barcaldine was proud to call itself the Garden City of the West, and named its streets after trees.

A classic Longreach joke is that a new police officer in town arrested a drunk in Cassowary Street. He couldn’t spell it, so he took him over to Duck Street to charge him.

I enjoyed thinking up questions with a Queensland flavour. Queensland is my home: the Glasshouse Mountains, red dirt and mango sap, hot sand, soldier crabs and mangrove pencils; long, straight roads, rainbow lorikeets, wattle. Floods, droughts, and perfect spring days.

IMG_20180120_180203_resized_20180120_090804411Australians are great travellers. For all of us, journeys lie in the not-too-distant past.

Three branches of my family came here from Britain in the 1860s, when the new state of Queensland was recruiting migrants. They came to Queensland for opportunities denied them at home. And for the climate.

A fourth branch of my family emigrated from Germany in 1838. They were missionaries, come to minister to Aborigines in the Brisbane area.

They all made long sea voyages and they went on travelling once they got here. My great-great-grandfather, within days of arriving in the country, went by river to Ipswich and walked from there, up Cunningham’s Gap, to take up a position in Warwick.

His son, in turn, took his young family, by steamer and goods train, from Brisbane to Barcaldine, where he had been transferred as bank manager.

My father’s travelling began with family car trips in the 1920s and 1930s. A few years later, Dad was on a trip of another kind – up through Malaya as a Prisoner of War, travelling in railway rice wagons, to work on the Thai-Burma railway.

I was born on the Sunshine Coast, but Con and I were married in Stanthorpe, where we were both working in the local state school. Born in Innisfail, until his transfer to Stanthorpe he’d lived in Far North Queensland all his life. As my children themselves have done, I married someone whose hometown was far away. We’d be doing plenty of travelling.

Together we’ve lived in the Darling Downs and the Granite Belt, the Ipswich area, Gulf Country, Cairns region and Townsville. I’ve explored the state by road, rail and air. I’ve taken the Sunlander to Cairns, the Inlander to Mount Isa and the Spirit of the Outback on its twenty-four hour journey from Longreach to Brisbane. I’ve flown over Cape York in a small plane, I’ve done the Gulf circuit with Bush Pilots, bumping over rough station landing strips and dodging cattle to drop off mail and supplies, and I’ve twice been to Mount Isa with the Flying Doctor. It hasn’t always been easy, or pleasant; but it has been magnificent.

Many Australians have been to Paris, New York or Bali, but not nearly as many have been to Cooktown, Burketown or Ravenswood. As well as watching the sun set over Manhattan, sending a pink glow down its canyons of glass, I’ve seen soft evening light fall across the tidal flats of the Gulf of Carpentaria. I’ve flown across the winter darkness of northern Siberia, with the sun low in the southern sky all day; but I’ve also admired the dawn light shining through steam rising from a hot bore drain at Cunnamulla.

And still, I look at a map of Queensland and think about all the roads I haven’t yet been down, all the places I have yet to see. Quilpie, Birdsville, Coen, Baralaba, Lady Elliott Island – the whole state is out there to be explored.

I need to get a move on. I’ve got miles to go yet.

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