Syphoning Petrol

I stood by the side of the road, watching Con as he sucked petrol through a plastic tube. He’d done it before, so he knew when the moment came to stop sucking and put his thumb over the end of the tube to stop any air from getting in, then quickly push the tube into the car’s petrol tank.

He was syphoning from a five-gallon petrol can balanced on the boot of the car, with another one in reserve.

When he was fifteen, Con’s older brother Jim had taught told him how to go about it, in their father’s Shell depot in Innisfail.

“You have to judge it just right. If it doesn’t work the first time and you have to do it again, you’ll end up with a mouthful of petrol.”

He did end up with a mouthful of petrol, the first time he tried it. Jim took him next door to the “Goondi Hill” and bought him a beer.

“That’s only one thing that’ll get rid of the taste of petrol. Beer. Get into it.”

The petrol tank of our second-hand Holden sedan didn’t hold enough to get us the 476 kilometres from Burketown to Julia Creek. We’d drive south from Burketown on the gravel road and take a left-hand turn at Augustus Downs, past Talawanta Station, to meet the bitumen at Donor’s Hill, on the Normanton road. From there the road would take us southeast to Julia Creek. In all that distance there was no roadhouse or petrol station: just a few tracks disappearing off into the bush to cattle stations.

Flat country, long distances

Gulf of Carpentaria cattle stations are vast places, famous in the north west: Armraynald, Floraville, Augustus Downs, Talawanta, Donor’s Hill. It’s these stations, often over a thousand square kilometres in area, that appear on the road map, rather than towns or localities. The stations are small towns in themselves, with the big homestead, staff accommodation, stores, sheds, workshops, yards, trucks and machinery and an airstrip with the inevitable windsock flying. On the roof of the largest shed, the name of the station is painted in large block letters to guide the Flying Doctor and the other planes and helicopters that are so vital to life out here.

Armraynald Station homestead and outbuildings from the air paraway.com.au

Sometimes the planes buzz the homestead to let the staff know that they need to drive out and chase cattle off the landing strip.

In our day, Lawn Hill station, further west, kept a full-time pilot, with his own cottage. To locals, this is nothing unusual; but to outsiders like us, extraordinary.

The people in the Gulf were generous with their assistance and their time when we came to grief on these rough and isolated roads. We were twice rescued by local passers-by. Once, it happened on the road north of Julia Creek. Con had been given a ride down from Burketown at the end of the wet season to pick up our car, which we’d left in the Julia Creek school yard. On his way home, up the Normanton road, the car stopped and refused to start again.

Luckily, along came a couple of blokes, father and son, who towed the Holden to their fencing camp, off the road in the bush.

“Where are you heading, mate?” asked the father.

“Burketown”, said Con.

“Well, you’d better camp out here with us,” said the father. “We’ll cook you a couple of steaks over the fire.”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind a trip to Burketown,” said the son. “We’ll drive you home, have a few drinks at the pub and spend the night there.”

They covered our car with leafy branches to keep it out of sight and drove Con home: almost two hundred kilometres. A few days later, the local mechanic drove out in his truck to collect the car and bring it to Burketown for repair.

The following year, when on the way east after the Wet season, we got bogged at the Talawanta waterhole, west of Donor’s Hill Station. We tried to dig ourselves out of the mud, but couldn’t manage it. We needed help. With two little kids in the car, we had no choice but to wait for someone to come along.

After an hour or so, a couple of stockmen appeared in a Holden ute, avoiding the bog, and they tried to tow us out. The tow rope broke. They offered to drive Con the thirty-odd kilometres to Donor’s Hill to get help. It was late in the afternoon, and watching them disappear down the dusty road, I realised the kids and I might be in for a long, lonely wait.

A few metres off the road, in the edge of the bush, I swept a patch of earth clear of leaf litter and branches and spread out a blanket for little Matt and Lizzie to play on. I gave them some toys from the car and something to eat. In the far west, no one travels without water and basic food supplies. Before dark fell, I lit a fire and put a billy on for tea.

It was fun, setting up that little camp, soon with no light but for a torch and the firelight. Eventually, headlights appeared to the West, and a Toyota, seeing our bogged car and the light of the campfire, pulled up. Two men got out, and I watched a little nervously as they approached.

I’d met one of them in Burketown – the representative of a Stock and Station agency. I told them I’d be okay by myself until Con came back with help, but they stayed to keep me company. They had some prawns, and a cold carton of VB beer, so we had a little picnic together, and I was grateful.

Con, meanwhile, had been dropped off at Donor’s Hill, and waited for the manager to come in from working with the cattle. The manager wanted his dinner, but instead he and his wife, people we’d never met and certainly had no claim on, brought Con back in their 4WD to pull us out of the bog.

This happened years ago. These days, the road from Burketown to Julia Creek and Cloncurry is more direct, going south past Nardoo and missing Donors’ Hill. Halfway to Julia Creek, where the modern-day Wills Developmental Road crosses the Burke Developmental Road leading north to Normanton, you can buy petrol, and even a hot meal, at the Burke and Wills Roadhouse.

Burke and Wills Roadhouse mapio.net

But life can still be brutal out here. Both Donor’s Hill Station and Burke and Wills Junction lie within the western section of the Flinders River catchment; and in January 2019, record rainfall caused the river to flood across its wide, flat plains. It rained for a week, and the cattle that didn’t drown had nowhere to go.

Flinders catchment floods, January 2019 news.com.au

Across that vast catchment, an estimated 500,000 cattle died of drowning, exposure and starvation, with station people unable to get out to save them. After the waters went down, the stink of rotting carcasses was appalling, flies and other insects swarmed, and the station people worked through it all in the heat, burying their animals in huge pits while grieving for prize herds.

Stranded cattle, Gulf Country floods, January 2019 abc.net.au

We lived in the Gulf for only three years, but we came away with an appreciation for the generosity and toughness of the people who live and work there that will never leave us.

 And if we lived there now, we wouldn’t attempt those muddy, post-wet-season roads in a Holden sedan. We’d drive a big, powerful, air-conditioned four-wheel drive.

Bull Dust and Corrugations

The Lynd Junction and its roadhouse lie in the hard, dry Great Dividing Range country north-west of Charters Towers. North west from The Lynd, the Gregory Development Road is unsealed gravel, with corrugations, and bull dust.

It’s over forty years since I drove on a road with corrugations, and I’m actually enjoying it. I can feel the shudder of the corrugations through the steering wheel, and I remember the need to moderate my speed on banked corners to avoid juddering across the road and into the ditch. I watch out for bull dust holes.

We’re driving our Forester through the small towns of Einasleigh and Forsayth to visit Cobbold Gorge, eventually to end up back on the coast, visiting family. Finding different routes to Far North Queensland is a pleasant challenge.

The first time I drove on a corrugated gravel road, I was on the way to Camooweal, and it was not all fun.

camooweal
Camooweal abc.net.au

Camooweal is a small town on the Barkly Highway, just twelve kilometres from the Northern Territory border but within the Mount Isa City Council jurisdiction. The 188 kilometres of highway between the two is referred to locally as the world’s longest Main Street.

Last year, police were stopping vehicles here to make sure they weren’t bringing fireworks, legal in The Northern Territory, into Queensland, where they’re illegal for private use.

camooweal operation bright sky 2018 anti-fireworks
Police check for fireworks, Camooweal mypolice.qld.gov.au

As part of the state’s corona virus measures, there’s currently a checkpoint at Camooweal, manned by police and army, stopping people from crossing into Queensland.

camooweal police and army checkpoint corona virus Qld Country Life
Camooweal police and army checkpoint – corona virus Queensland Country Life

It was in 1973, having lived in the Gulf Country for just six months and unused to local driving conditions, that I drove to Camooweal from Burketown and experienced my first corrugations. There was no highway.

This was a seven-hour trip of 340 kilometres, north to south, entirely on dirt roads; partly smooth, well-graded gravel, but for much of the way consisting of corrugations and bull dust. The last ninety kilometres into Camooweal, known locally as the “short cut”, is still notorious today.

Corrugations are unpleasant to drive on, especially if you’re not used to it, or if you’re in the wrong kind of vehicle, such as our HR Holden.

camooweal corrugations cook
Corrugations – Cook Shire cook.qld.gov.au

There was also the bull dust. When vehicles drive these roads in the wet season, sometimes getting bogged, they leave deep ruts in the mud. These ruts dry out after the Wet and set like concrete. In the Dry, they fill with fine, dry dust, often making them invisible to the driver. Hitting those hard ruts at speed is nasty, and dangerous.

camooweal bulldust
Bull dust hole outbacktravelaustralia.com.au

You can also be bogged in bull dust beside the road – as I found out.

It was July, the middle of the dry season, and the Border School Sports were on, at Camooweal State School. School groups were coming from an area the size of Victoria – from Dajarra to Burketown, as well as tiny Northern Territory communities such as Lake Nash.

Con was the principal of Burketown school, and he and his assistant teacher and a group of parents were taking most of the school’s seventy-odd children to the Border Sports. Many of the kids travelled that rough road sitting on mattresses in the back of a truck – in my memory, a council tip truck. Between Burketown and Camooweal, the only oasis, apart from the occasional dirt track leading to a cattle station, was the Gregory Downs Hotel, 120 kilometres down the road.

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Matt next to our Holden, outside the Gregory Downs Hotel

I drove our car. With three-year-old Matt and seventeen-month-old Lizzie, and a grade one child from the school who suffered from epilepsy, I set off ahead of the truck. That way, if I came to grief, the people in the truck would be able to rescue me.

We must have stopped to eat along the way, but I don’t remember that. I just remember that somewhere down the road, and quite a long way ahead of the truck, I pulled off for a toilet stop and got bogged in bull dust.

I knew that when the truck came along and saw me bogged, I would be teased for getting stuck, so I determinedly set about pushing sticks and bark down in front of the wheels to provide some grip. Eventually I was able to ease the car out of the bull dust and back on to the road. I was proud of myself.

Unfortunately, it happened again, further down the road, and this time I couldn’t get out before the truck came along. And they laughed at me, of course, before getting me out of the bull dust bog.

By the time the long-suffering kids in the truck reached Camooweal, they were coated in dust. Parents who came with us cooked up saveloys for dinner, and the kids took the mattresses out of the truck and spread them on the floor of the classrooms to sleep.

camooweal school yard
Children playing in the Camooweal State School sports field camoowealss.eq.edu.au

It was cold. These were coastal kids, not used to desert country in mid-winter. Next morning after their porridge breakfast they huddled together like brolgas in the cold as they lined up for the march past.

The sports went all day, and the Burketown kids did well. One more sleep, and we set off for home again. This time, to my relief, our convoy avoided the “short cut”.  We drove the first seventy kilometres on the Barkly Highway’s bitumen, before heading off on the dirt road north to Burketown.

By the time Con and I left Burketown we’d had lots more road adventures: breakdowns, a cattle strike, wet bogs, dry gullies, rough surfaces and bull dust. Of course, this is everyday life for the people of the West. They know these lonely roads better than I know the Bruce Highway. The roads have improved, though; and vehicles are more comfortable.

And these days, kids probably don’t go on school excursions in the back of council tip trucks.

Gympie

gympie gazebo
Gympie park. queensland.com

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

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

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

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“Nambour Country”, John Rigby Caboolture Art Gallery

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the Gympie Gold Mining and Historical Museum

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

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

gympie irish craic

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

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

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

And there’s always a Courtesy Bus.

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

gympie kangaroo building
Gympie buildings. flickr.com

 

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

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

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

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Old Con at Amamoor Station, 1920s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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