Bridges of Brisbane

I’m with my grandson Angus on a CityCat ferry, heading downstream from its UQ terminus to photograph the bridges of central Brisbane as evening comes down over the river. The muddy old Brisbane River, MAIWAR in Turrball language, is at its most beautiful.

High above us as we waited at the ferry wharf was the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, opened in 2006 to link Yeronga to the University of Queensland. Carrying only buses, cyclists and pedestrians and known to everyone as the Green Bridge, its four tall towers are visible from kilometres away.

Eleanor Schonell (Green) Bridge

On board the CityCat we’ve moved through the cabin to the bow, holding the rail as its powerful engines send the boat surging down the river and round its slow curves, past the university sports fields and old, timber houses high on the opposite banks.

Go-Between, Merivale and William Jolly Bridges, looking downstream

Coming down the Milton Reach towards the CBD, the wind in our hair, we can see three bridges at once.

Closest to us is the graceful white span of the Go-Between Bridge, opened in 2010 to connects West End to the Inner-City Bypass at Milton.

Approaches to the Go-Between Bridge from under the Coronation Drive overpass

Beyond the Go-Between Bridge is the coat-hanger arch of the Merivale Bridge, the railway bridge which connects South Brisbane Station to the north side of the river, crossing Melbourne Street behind the old Hotel Terminus, where you might once have spent the night after getting off the Sydney train at South Brisbane Station. Until the bridge opened in 1978, to catch a train onwards to Cairns or Cunnamulla or Longreach, you’d have needed to cross the river to Roma Street Station, probably via the William Jolly road bridge, known to most as Grey Street Bridge.

Opening in 1932 to link South Brisbane to the CBD at Roma Street, Grey Street Bridge, with its graceful cream art deco arches, is one of Brisbane’s best-loved bridges and the most celebrated by artists.

The Grey Street Bridge, Vida Lahey. Bridge under construction. artrecord.com
Grey Street arrangement Jon Molvig. Museum of Brisbane

From under the Grey Street Bridge, around the bend of the river at Kurilpa Point, the spectacular Kurilpa pedestrian bridge comes into view, with its many white masts like drinking straws or a sailing ship’s spars.

Kurilpa Bridge, from under Grey Street Bridge

Opened in 2009, it joins Kurilpa Point (from the Turrball word for place of the water rats) to the CBD at Tank Street.

Kurilpa Bridge. australiandesignreview.com

Now we’re approaching the slim, elegant span of Victoria Bridge, opened in 1969.

Victoria Bridge

As a teenager, I used to cross the old Victoria Bridge by tram, and it made me nervous to see the sign limiting the number of trams per span of the bridge. Instead of two or three, there were often five or six going each way.

“Out with the old, in with the new… The Victoria Bridges in December 1969”. reddit.com

Now Victoria Bridge carries only buses, cycles and pedestrians across the river between South Brisbane and the top of Queen Street. It’s beautiful this evening, lit up with colours that are reflected in the timeless ripples and eddies of the river.

Downstream from Victoria Bridge our CityCat negotiates an obstacle course of construction barges. A spectacular footbridge, the Neville Bonner Bridge, is due for completion in 2022, linking South Bank Parklands to the ambitious Queens Wharf development with its hotel and apartments, casino, shops and parks. Let’s hope tourism dollars will return to Brisbane soon to pay for it.

Image of how the Neville Bonner Bridge and the new Queens Wharf development are expected to look. queenswharfbrisbane.com.au

 The Goodwill Bridge, opened in 2001 to carry cyclists and pedestrians from South Bank to Gardens Point, is next, with a stylish design and a little coffee bar on one of its viewing platforms.

Goodwill Bridge, with the Captain Cook Bridge in the background.

I love how it looks it in the evening light, looking back to the CBD buildings and the lights of Victoria Bridge.

Goodwill Bridge, looking upstream.

At Gardens Point the clean line of Captain Cook Bridge links the Pacific Motorway to the Riverside Expressway. Opened in 1973, in the time of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, when modernisation was everything and cars were king, the bridge has no pedestrian or cycle access. We travel under it and watch joggers and evening pedestrians in the riverside parkland, and climbers spread-eagled under the lights on Kangaroo Point Cliffs.

A CityCat coming towards the Captain Cook Bridge, with the Kangaroo Point Cliffs in the background.

Ahead the tall, lit-up buildings of Petrie Bight come into view, and on the next bend the Story Bridge.

Petrie Bight buildings and the Story Bridge

The heritage-listed Story Bridge is the most iconic of Brisbane bridges. A massive steel structure, it was built as part of public works programs during the Great Depression and opened in 1940. (See my story Brisbane Icons: Fig Trees and the Story Bridge.)

Sunset fades from the sky and the lights of the bridge and the high-rises shine on the water.  Howard Smith Wharves, with hotel, restaurants and bars are bright and noisy, slide by.

Under the Story Bridge. On the roof of a hotel at Howard Smith Wharves, people relax beside a pool.

The bridge is high above us as we steady our cameras against the movement of the speeding ferry.

Under the bridge at evening

The Story Bridge looks magnificent reflected in our wake.

Looking back at the Story Bridge and the lights of Howard Smith Wharves

At the next CityCat stop, Mowbray Park, we disembark to catch another ferry back upstream.

To see more of Brisbane’s bridges, Angus and I might take a cruise upriver one day, under the bridges at Indooroopilly and Jindalee.

The utilitarian-designed Centenary Bridge, opened in 1964, carries the busy Centenary Highway between Fig Tree Pocket and Jindalee.

Centenary Bridge, looking from Jindalee to Fig Tree Pocket

From under the bridge, shady walkways lead downstream past mighty riverside eucalypts and fig trees, the treasures of Brisbane’s riverside parks.

At Indooroopilly, on a deep bend of the river, there are four bridges: the road bridge, two rail bridges and a cycle and pedestrian bridge.

Under the Indooroopilly bridges

I lived at Indooroopilly with my family (see my story Gully of Leeches) when there were just two bridges. I used to ride my bike to school across the white, art deco Walter Taylor road bridge, under its towers and past the tollbooth. The northern tower of the bridge famously included an apartment, where washing was sometimes strung to dry high above the traffic.

Walter Taylor Bridge, commonly known as the Indooroopilly Bridge. queenslanddecoproject,com

Until it opened in 1936, the only bridge at Indooroopilly was the Albert Railway Bridge carrying the Ipswich Line. Another rail bridge was opened in 1957, and in 1998 a pedestrian and cycle bridge on the downstream side.

If we’d stayed on the downstream CityCat, Angus and I would have come within sight of the twin Gateway Bridges, officially named after Sir Leo Hielscher, lit up dramatically and arching high above the river.

Fishing, upstream from the Gateway Bridges

Opened in 1986 and 2010, the upstream bridge takes northbound traffic, while the downstream one carries southbound traffic as well as a cycle and pedestrian path.

Under the Gateway Bridges

Con and I walked one winter’s day from beneath the southern end of the bridge, up to the top. From the viewing platform there, we could see down to the river mouth and Moreton Bay. It was a long slog to the top of the bridge, but not too steep, as it was built to carry heavily laden semi-trailers.

Other cycle and pedestrian bridgesare in the planning stages, to link Saint Lucia and Toowong to West End, and Kangaroo Point to the City Botanic Gardens.

I can remember when old Maiwar was treated with little respect, as a flood-prone dumping-ground that people crossed in a hurry in cars, buses and trams. Now it has been reclaimed for pedestrians, cyclists and ferries, and its banks and its bridges are sources of pleasure and pride for Brisbanites.

How would you like to be

Down by the Seine with me

Oh what I’d give for a moment or two

Under the bridges of Paris with you…

(Eartha Kitt 1953)

The Seine in Paris has 37 bridges, but crossing approximately thirty-five kilometres of the river in Brisbane there are just sixteen. The Brisbane River is wider than the Seine, and not as easily bridged, or tamed; and the bridges of Brisbane are not as classically elegant as the bridges of Paris, made famous by Eartha Kitt in her sexy version of this famous song.

But I love our Brisbane bridges.

All are spectacular; some are iconic; and old Maiwar flowing beneath them is beautiful.

Looking upstream from the Centenary Bridge

Hazards Under the House

In the soft soil under his childhood house, Brisbane writer Matthew Condon built a little city with timber off-cuts, rocks and old plastic flowerpots. He dug a ditch for the river and filled it with tap water, watching the water soak away into the dirt.[1]

His house sat on a slope, and he was probably playing where the floor above was close above his head, not where there was space for the laundry and the car. He could hear footsteps and the television from the house above, which gave him a sense of security and belonging in this secret space that adults never visited.

There was a space like that under my childhood house in Nambour, too, with little cone-shaped antlion traps in the dirt, designed to trap passing insects. You could drop a small ball of spit into the little trap and hope to lure out the antlion lurking underneath, or try to tease it out by tickling the soil softly with a twig.

Antlion trap en.wikipedia.org

“Grandfather Noble lived under our house in Velution Street,” Con tells me. “The ground was mainly dirt there, too, but there was a concrete pad with his bed and a wardrobe.”

There would have been carpet snakes and cane toads as well as mosquitoes under that old Innisfail house. I hope Grandfather had a mozzie net.

“Grandfather always smoked a pipe, and he had a bone-handled knife for cutting up his tobacco. I wonder where it is now? He’d come upstairs for meals.

“Grandfather was kind to me. I was ten when he died, and I wish I could remember more about him.

Con a baby in arms, Grandfather Noble on the right, in front of the house at Velution St, Innisfail

“And when we moved across to East Innisfail we played cards under the house. That’s where I learned to play crib. We’d play all day down there, my brother Jim, Old Con, Uncle George and I.”

The house in Coronation Drive, East Innisfail, today

“Under the house” is a Queensland concept, a tropical thing. There were many reasons for building these timber houses on stumps, with open space underneath. It made them easy to move from place to place and it provided some protection from pests. It kept the dwelling space above flood waters. If built high enough, it doubled the amount of usable shelter. There was more chance of catching a breeze.

A typical un-altered Queensland house, at Woolloongabba

You might have to watch out, though, or you’d bump your head on the beams supporting the bare floorboards above. Another under the house hazard.

Visitors – from Britain or the USA, for instance – might see the many houses up on stumps and ask why.

“It’s because of the snakes. If there’s a space under the house they’ll crawl right through and disappear. Otherwise, they’ll come inside.”

That’s a story to tease tourists with, but it has some truth in it. Rosevale, outside Ipswich, was notorious for snakes, and we lived there in an old timber house on low stumps. Out in the yard one day, toddler Matt saw our cat staring fixedly at a patch of long grass. He started over to see what she was looking at.

The cat suddenly reared back. Con snatched Matt up in his arms and then watched in horror as two long brown snakes slid out of the grass, across the concrete path, and disappeared into that low, dark space under the house.

Our Joe went down one night, bare footed, to get a bottle of wine from the fridge under his North Queensland house, and glimpsed something scaly underneath the fridge. It turned out to be a deadly taipan sheltering in the warmth there, its belly full of eggs.

A coastal taipan, like the one under Joe’s house smuggled.com

If the house is high enough the hot water system will be set up down there, and usually the laundry, too. It’s a place for storage, for drying the washing in wet weather, and for children to play – riding their scooters round the posts, drawing with chalk on the concrete, building roads and rivers in the dirt. You can park the car there, and the lawn mower. You can entertain friends there, or sit with a cold drink and a book, because under the house has one particularly fine feature: it’s always cooler than upstairs.

Playing under the house

Many sprawling new housing developments consist of houses on concrete slabs, including in regional areas – Kingaroy, Atherton, Roma. Those houses are easy to air-condition, but people must miss having that extra space underneath; and sometimes new house slabs go under floods even before building begins.

In Townsville, since the construction of the Ross River Dam upstream, hundreds of new houses have been built on low land; and when extreme rainfall in early 2019 forced the release of water from the dam, many hundreds of them were flooded, to the despair of their owners.

New houses, Townsville, 2019 floods thenewdaily.com.au

In the older houses on stumps anything under the house was wrecked, but the living areas were spared.

An older, high-set house, Townsville floods 2019 news-mail.com.au

Nowadays, people often decide to lift their houses up high and build in underneath. Perhaps you own an old house near the river and want to lift the living space above flood level, or you’ve bought a house in town and moved it out on to a block of land in the country. You’ll need to check the building regulations. If you want to build in under your house, you will need to allow 2100mm minimum ceiling height for utility rooms and hallways, and 2400mm for living spaces; and you’ll need to replace those old hardwood or concrete posts with steel.

Old houses that have been hoisted up high on steel posts look silly, like a long-legged lady with her skirts hitched up. That’s until they’ve been built in underneath, painted grey and white and turned into lush “Hamptons” style dwellings that look great on a real estate website.

A house at Tennyson, close to the flood-prone Brisbane River, lifted high and ready for renovation

I ask my grandson Jim if there is anything hazardous about being under his house, with its old concrete posts a little under regulation height. Maybe snakes or spiders?  

He puts his hand on a beam perfectly positioned for hitting your head.

“Just this,” he answers wryly.

Our Burketown house was a government-built dwelling, regulation height. Under the house was dirt and gravel, with a meat-ant nest in one corner, but there were clothes wires strung between the steel posts. Washing hung there at night would be dry by morning.

The concrete-floored laundry was down there, with concrete tubs and a gas-fired clothes boiler. It also held our 32-volt wringer-style washing machine, powered by a generator with storage batteries in a shed down the back.

A wringer-style washing machine, like ours

One night I left a load of sheets in the machine, soaking in the rinse water, and in the morning went down to put them through the wringer before hanging them out to dry.

During the night, a big green tree frog had hopped into the water. The first I knew of it was the sight and sound of that frog disappearing feet-first through the wringer rollers.

A frog being crushed in a wringer makes a horrible noise.

It had gone through before I had time to click the rollers apart.

I told Marg from down the road about it, sitting on the back steps with a mug of tea.

“That’s nothing,” said Marg, a typical frankly-spoken Gulf Country local.

“I heard of a woman who got her tits caught in a wringer.”

Not so difficult to imagine in the heat of the Tropics, where many a woman, reaching a certain age, decides that a bra is unnecessary torture. In the Gulf Country I heard so many bizarre and unbelievable stories that turned out to be true I decided I might as well just believe the lot; including this one.

Snakes, mozzies, cane toads, floods, concussion – and the wringer.

“Under the house” is a fine Queensland institution, but it has its hazards.


[1] “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. UNSW Press, Sydney

Brisbane’s Suburban Charm

“I hate Brisbane. It’s nothing but traffic, traffic lights, bitumen, powerlines and car yards. Everyone’s in a rush. It’s ugly. It’s impersonal. In the country, everyone knows everyone else. I can’t wait to get back home.”

That’s what people from Queensland’s farms and regional towns sometimes say, after a reluctant and fleeting visit. They’re right about the ugly side of the city; but that’s not the whole story. Brisbane is a beautiful place, once you turn off those main roads with their frantic traffic.

It’s a city of hills and creeks and gullies. David Malouf wrote, “Brisbane is hilly. Walk two hundred metres in almost any direction outside the central city and you get a view – a new view. It is all gullies and sudden vistas.”

The hills can be a challenge. David Malouf also wrote, “Brisbane is a city that tires the legs and demands a certain sort of breath.”

It’s because of its terrain that Brisbane has so much green space. The creeks and river rise up in heavy rain and flood the banks, and debris across parks and walkways marks just how far the water came up. You can’t build houses on these flood plains. Instead there are sports fields, playgrounds, plantings, fig trees, bushland and pathways.

A disc golf goal on a course beside the creek at Moorooka

Scattered along the pathways and suburban streets are cute little street libraries and honesty boxes of home-made jams and pickles.

Street Library in an old fridge, Kelvin Grove

You can go from the top of Mount Coot-tha to the river, and even to Moreton Bay, on walking tracks or cycle paths along the creeks. Without leaving the city, you can find an octopus on the sand at Redcliffe or explore the mangroves at Wynnum.

An octopus washed up on Suttons Beach, Redcliffe
Along the mangrove boardwalk, Wynnum

Some quiet suburban streets and cul de sacs are secret heavens. I walk down them on a typically beautiful Brisbane day, and think, “People here must feel smug – they’ve found a perfect place to live.” Down every gully there is a green and peaceful park, often lovingly nurtured and developed by a local Bush Care group, and in many, a flourishing community vegetable garden.

Community garden, Moorooka

Almost anything will grow in a Brisbane backyard, from avocado trees to cacti, and there are mango trees and bananas, lemon and lime trees and hedges of rosemary.

In the occasional yard there is nothing growing but grass, which must take dedicated mowing over years on the part of the owners, in a climate where wattles and eucalypts, African tulips and coral trees, cassias and camphor laurels will grow without encouragement on any empty piece of land.

There are quirky sights in the suburbs, such as on an otherwise boring, 1960s block of flats in West End, where a creative solution to clothes drying has full-sized rotary clothes hoists, as normally seen in back yards, planted on each balcony.

Creative clothes line solution at West End

There are gardens with old-fashioned flower beds, charming letterboxes and quaint creatures among the plants.

Cute front yard at Tarragindi
At Holland Park, a letter box that matches the house

There is a collection of old engines in a sprawling Sunnybank yard.

Old steam engine, part of a collection at Sunnybank

There’s a skeleton guarding a rooftop not far from Greenslopes Hospital.

Skeleton on a roof at Greenslopes

Last year, in that strange time of lockdowns and isolation, Con and I went exploring on foot, and we saw the suburbs of Brisbane in more detail than ever before.

There are trees flowering all year round, but they are most spectacular in Spring: jacarandas, silky oaks, flame trees and poinsettia, and the natives: sterculia, huge spreading tallow woods and gums.

Jacarandas in Norman Park
Sterculia in bloom, Mt Gravatt

I’ve begun a new Pandemic project: to collect all the colours of frangipani. They grow easily from a broken-off piece, left to dry in a dark place. Carrying a plastic bag to stop the sticky sap dripping, and seeking low branches hanging over front fences, I now have acquired pieces of red, yellow, apricot and deep pink-flowering trees. I’ll plant them in a row in a new stretch of garden beside the house. They’ll be a reminder of a challenging time, when I found comfort in walking the suburbs of a beautiful city.

Frangipani, Woolloongabba

Brisbane Icons: Fig Trees and the Story Bridge

A Canadian poet came to Brisbane for a poetry festival. She wanted to know what sounds are unique to this place. I began to think about the familiar, iconic sounds of Brisbane.

Many are bird calls.

There is the familiar “whoop, whoop, whoop” of a pheasant coucal calling from a gully; the sound of the common koel, the “storm bird” that visits South East Queensland every summer and calls endlessly for a mate – “ko-el, ko-el, ko-el…”; the musical tweets and burbles of the red-eyed figbird.

Green figbird en.wikipedia.org

This is a city of creeks and parks, bushland, and many varieties of fig trees, both native and exotic; and wherever there are fig trees, there are figbirds, noisily getting on with their lives.

There is another Brisbane sound familiar to many of us: the distinctive “c’thunk, c’thunk, c’thunk” of cars crossing the expansion joints of the Story Bridge. According to writer Simon Cleary in his 2008 novel “The Comfort of Figs”, it’s more of a “thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump” sound. Due to resurfacing in the last few years the sound has changed; but anyone who has spent time on or under the iconic bridge will remember it.

I know the sound well, because I’ve climbed the Story Bridge.

A student at the time, I was in a bushwalking club, and although it was illegal, climbing the bridge was an annual club tradition.

We went up at night, inside the steep, angled box girders leading to the northern shoulder of the bridge. It was quite easy and safe, funnelling up inside the steel girder and round the elbow. The scary part was climbing out of the girder and crawling, in the dark, up a narrow, unprotected, two-metre-long ladder over the void. The ladder leads to a trapdoor on to the walkway that runs along the top of the bridge superstructure.

That little ladder , high on the bridge

Once we were on the walkway, all we needed was a head for heights.

We went from one tower of the bridge to the other, upstream and downstream sides, high above the traffic and the city lights. It was exhilarating.

By the time we got back to the trapdoor and the narrow ladder back down into the girders, my legs were rubbery, and the ladder was even more frightening.

A couple of weeks later, some of us did it again, just for the heck of it.

Last week I walked across the bridge with Con. He (having heard about it many times) asked me where we went up, and I showed him, and pointed out the tiny ladder high above.

The lower ends of those girders, where they meet the bridge deck, are enclosed with steel mesh now. If I climbed the bridge again, and I’d like to, I’d pay for the safe, supervised and tethered experience, entering by an enclosed stairway where the southern slope meets the decking.

Staircases on the southern slope

In “The Comfort of Figs”, Cleary describes, vividly and in detail, the construction of the Story Bridge; and the book, of course, is also about fig trees.

Many of the sprawling, shady fig trees so plentiful in Brisbane’s parks are weeping figs, an Asian variety. There are fewer of the enormous, iconic Moreton Bay figs, tall and wide with great buttress roots reaching out around them. Ironically, considering the name, they are more popular in the parks of the southern states. I’ve seen them in Warrnambool and even in Adelaide.

Next to a motel at Swan Hill in north-west Victoria, there’s a Moreton Bay fig tree claimed to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and known as the Burke and Wills tree. It was planted in 1860, when Burke and Wills camped nearby on their hopeless expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Stressed by drought, it has been heavily pruned to help it survive. I think it would be happier growing back here where it belongs.

Swan Hill’s Burke and Wills Moreton Bay fig, before pruning tripadvisor.com.au

Brisbane’s McCaskie Park, in Blamey Street, Kelvin Grove, is a fig tree arboretum, I’ve discovered. Many are weeping figs, exotic trees from Asia, matching the row of magnificent specimens along Kelvin Grove Road.

Weeping fig trees on Kelvin Grove Road, Brisbane

There is also an old Moreton Bay fig, with typical huge buttress roots and thick, sprawling branches, some of which have been lopped. In 1996, this tree was under threat of destruction because of planned road works nearby. In spite of its size, and because of lobbying by the local community, it was transplanted to its present spot. 

Moreton Bay fig tree in McCaskie Park, Kelvin Grove

Moreton Bay fig trees can be identified by their leaves – larger than other fig leaves, green on top and brown underneath. A fine example grows in a place of honour in the City Botanic Gardens, facing Old Government House. Planted in the 1800s, it is listed by the National Trust for its beauty and its historical significance.

Robbie, the young man whose search for his father’s story forms the heart of “The Comfort of Figs”, loves Moreton Bay fig trees. Propagating them under his house, he takes a kind of comfort in using them subversively. Robbie works for Parks and Gardens, but also has a mission of his own: to plant Moreton Bay figs in camphor laurel trees.

My grandparents once lived on Laurel Avenue, Chelmer – a street famous for its fine old camphor laurels.

Laurel Avenue, Chelmer, with camphor laurels in fresh, spring foliage homehound.com.au

They are majestic trees, but invasive. Listed among the top ten weed species of South East Queensland, these exotics aggressively populate bushland areas and gardens, replacing blue gums and other koala food trees, and their seeds are toxic to birds.

Camphor laurels grow all along Brisbane’s Bulimba Creek, and while they are attractive trees and create lovely shady spots along the creek, only a few paper barks and gum trees manage to survive amongst them.

Sprawling camphor laurels dominate Bulimba Creek

There are also camphor laurels all over the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

“My grandfather planted most of them,” says Con, with a touch of pride, plus a large slice of exaggeration. His grandfather owned a dairy farm outside Mullumbimby, and planted the camphor laurels for shade and for their timber. They thrived like cane toads. There are so many now that removal would be impossible, and would leave the countryside bare.

Early every morning, before starting work, Robbie drives to Laurel Avenue, Chelmer. He chooses a camphor laurel and parks under it, climbs on top of his car and plants a little Moreton Bay fig tree in a fork of the tree, hoping it will grow and send its roots down to the ground below.

These are strangler figs that can engulf whole trees and anything else that stands in their path, then grow into mighty trees themselves. Who knows? This might be a way to solve the camphor laurel problem.

I could have told the visiting poet of many iconic Brisbane sounds. Fruit bats squalling in a mango tree. City Cats growling up the river. Hail stones on an iron roof. The chattering of rainbow lorikeets settling down for the night in a eucalyptus tree.

She may have been confused, though, if I’d mentioned the Story Bridge. We know it was named after J.D. Story, a prominent Queensland public servant, and think nothing of it, but to a stranger it must seem odd.

Story Bridge? These people must really enjoy a quality narrative…”

Not every place in the world can grow a Moreton Bay fig tree.

And Brisbane is the only city with an enormous bridge honouring our love of a good yarn.

Bridge climbers these days kangaroopoint.com.au

The First Jacaranda

At the bottom of George Street, Brisbane, in the curve of the river, there was a convict farm growing maize and vegetables. In time, the New Farm was established as well, and later the Eagle Farm.

In 1855, after the convict era ended, the New South Wales Government established Botanic Gardens on the George Street land, and appointed Walter Hill, trained in London’s Kew Gardens, as Superintendent. In 1859 he was appointed government botanist. For twenty-six years, until he retired and afterwards, Walter Hill worked at introducing, propagating and sharing plants species across Queensland, Australia and the world. He propagated the first macadamia tree in cultivation, which is still standing today in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens and still producing nuts.

He also experimented with varieties of sugar cane, and helped refine it – the first sugar to be produced in Queensland.

He collected native plants, and especially loved bunya and hoop pines, planting hundreds of them, along with fig trees. His avenue of bunya pines still dominates the riverside walk in the Gardens.

It was Walter Hill who successfully grew, in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, what is said to be the first jacaranda tree in Australia – later the subject of Queensland Art Gallery’s most loved painting. He sent seeds from this tree, a native plant of Brazil, far and wide and transformed the parks, gardens, and street plantings of Queensland. The tree blew down in a storm in 1980.

botanical jacaranda best03-Original-Thumb-1-1
“Under the Jacaranda”, Godfrey Rivers, 1903 Queensland Art Gallery collection

 Walter Hill travelled Queensland, collecting native plant species and setting aside land in Toowoomba, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Cardwell, Cairns and other regional towns for agricultural study and botanical gardens. Some of them were never developed, but the ones in Rockhampton, Cairns and Toowoomba have become magnificent, much-loved and much-visited places, popular sites for weddings and functions, and home to fine plant and sculpture collections.

botanic mackay
Main building at Mackay Botanic Garden mackayregionalbotanicgardens.com.au

There’s some wonderful art in botanic gardens. It isn’t always widely known, and it often comes as a surprise.

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Sandstone rose sculpture, Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens, Brisbane

On a visit to Kew Gardens, which could be considered the oldest and greatest of botanic gardens, I was astonished by the colourful paintings of the nineteenth century English botanical artist Marianne North – 833 paintings, the product of thirteen years of world travels and literally covering the walls of a charming, specially designed 1880s building.

botanic marianne north
Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens hotenough.com

One large group of paintings depicts the plants and forests of tropical Queensland.

1697AC8C-FF97-4DAB-9E66-744BCA5C5874_1_201_a
Marianne North’s Australian and Queensland paintings (obscured by reflections)

The nineteenth century was a time of scientific fascination with plants and animals. From the 1850s onwards, botanists, naturalists and “Acclimatisation Societies” in Australia, New Zealand, and across the British Empire sent huge numbers of plants and animals all over the world to see how they would thrive in different conditions.

Echidnas to London, wombats to Paris; possums to New Zealand.

In New Zealand, when some of the introduced species got out of hand, stoats, ferrets and weasels were introduced to control them.

The delicate balance of nature would never be the same again.

 One of the earliest botanic gardens in Queensland was in Cooktown. It was established in 1878 and revitalised in the late twentieth century, as tourism grew. Now, heritage listed and with interesting plant collections, it holds in its art gallery a collection of Vera Scarth-Johnson’s botanical paintings. I bought a print of the Cooktown orchid, Queensland’s floral emblem.

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Print of Cooktown Orchid by Vera Scarth-Johnson, from the Cooktown Botanic Gardens Gallery

In many parts of Queensland there are now botanic gardens established by local councils, such as those in the Gold Coast and Hervey Bay; all of them supported by groups of keen volunteers.

Others are privately owned and run, such as the Maleny Botanic Gardens. My favourite of these is the Myall Park Botanic Garden, outside Glenmorgan, 380 kilometres west of Brisbane. This garden has been devoted to the collection, propagation and study of plants that thrive in arid and semi-arid conditions – especially the grevillea.

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Tank stand sculpture, Myall Park Botanic Garden

We found this treasure by accident, when travelling to Roma via Tara and Meandarra to Surat and the Carnarvon Highway. It was begun in the 1940s, on a sheep station owned by the Gordon family, and spreads over a large area, with paths and information boards, a gallery and interesting shop, and accommodation.

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Decorative pavers leading to a bird hide, Myall Park

Different sections are devoted to different species, there is a bird hide, there are sculptures and artwork across the park, and the gallery features the botanical paintings of Dorothy Gordon.

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Botanical paintings of Dorothy Gordon

This garden is where the well-known and hardy red-flowering Robyn Gordon grevillea cultivar emerged by chance in the 1960s and was widely planted across Australia and beyond. Touchingly, it is named in memory of one of the Gordon family daughters, who died tragically young.

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A “Robyn Gordon” grevillea flowering in a park beside a busy Brisbane road

Walter and Jane Hill also had a daughter, Ann, who died young, in 1871. She was their only child; and there is a plant associated with her death, too. Ann was buried in Toowong Cemetery, only the second person to be buried there; and near her grave, to shade it, Walter planted a hoop pine. Today it is enormous.

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Hoop pine and grave of Ann Hill and her parents, Toowong Cemetery

The plant collections of Queensland’s botanic gardens are developed on scientific principles, these days with an emphasis on native species. The plants are interesting, but I love the gardens most for their beauty, and their history.

The art to be found there is a bonus.

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Grevillea plate from Myall Park Botanic Garden Gift-shop

Going to the Melbourne Cup

We’d parked our camper-trailer under wattle trees in full bloom, at Girraween National Park, on the Granite Belt.

camper girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk Girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk

The tiny Coleman camper held two double beds, plus a single when we dropped the table down. It had a small fridge and gas stove, a sink with a pump tap, a hard roof and sturdy canvas walls with zip-down, screened plastic windows.

After spending the day walking with our three kids among the spring-time wild-flowers of one of Queensland’s most beautiful and popular national parks, we were lying in bed in the dark, telling jokes and laughing.

DC5F6A51-E21B-4121-B73E-AF5E0BE20DE8 Wildflowers at Girraween National Park

Suddenly there was the sound of a long, musical fart. “Who farted?” said Con, indignantly. Ironic, coming from the family’s master of flatulence.

“That wasn’t a fart”, said one of the kids. “That was a Girraween Giggle.”

That set everyone off with real giggles, and I happily put my hand on Con’s leg, under the doona.

Con was immediately distracted from farts, and we concentrated instead on a problem that all parents face when they share a camper with their children.

Tents are different. A tent might be the same size as a camper-trailer, but it doesn’t jiggle or squeak. Even with its jacks wound down tight under all four corners, a camper does. It’s not unusual, when walking through a caravan park or camping area, to pass a jiggling, squeaking camper.

From our home in Lowood, in the Brisbane Valley, we were now on our way south to go to the Melbourne Cup. We’d bought the lightest of camper-trailers, weighing just five hundred and fifty kilograms, because we didn’t know how to reverse a trailer and didn’t want to learn. For that whole trip, we pushed it into position by hand in every new caravan park.

909736BE-2351-45DE-9F31-A4791CC61E40_4_5005_c Our camper-trailer

We were driving the Golden Holden, the Kingswood we’d bought to replace the old blue and white HR Holden.

Con had just completed his duties as a volunteer at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.

con c'wealth games 1982 Con on duty as a volunteer at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, Brisbane

At the closing party, only two days earlier, his wallet had been stolen, and so we were travelling under a handicap. In those days, he received a salary, I worked casually, and we had little in the bank – only a Christmas Club account into which I put money occasionally. We lived from pay to pay, with a credit card (Bankcard) for emergencies.

Now the Bankcard had been stolen, plus Con’s driver’s license, his only form of identification. Both our Bankcards had been cancelled. New cards and license had yet to be issued.

In 1982, shopping for groceries or fuel on credit involved a phone call from the business owner to a Sydney number for verification of our Bankcard balance. It seems primitive now, but in those days it was an amazing service. And just as we were about to begin an extensive interstate road trip, this service was closed to us, because we had no card.

Con was on long service leave, and so fortnightly deposits would continue to be made into his savings account. He’d sent his signature to a bank in Richmond, Sydney, where we were going to visit family friends; but he would have no form of identification to enable us to withdraw funds before then.

We banked with the National Bank – now NAB. In those days there was a branch of the National Bank in almost every Queensland town, because the National Bank had taken over the old Queensland National Bank and its many branches throughout the state. In New South Wales they were less common.

Con visited the Lowood bank manager and told him of our predicament – we would be travelling interstate with no means of withdrawing money – and he gave Con a card with his signature on it to show along the way. Off we went.

On the long haul up to the Granite belt, at Braeside, south of Warwick on the New England Highway, the engine of the Golden Holden blew up.

When I first went to Stanthorpe, the road from Warwick was largely gravel, a winding, narrow road up the range where overtaking was impossible, and accidents were common. By 1982 that road was gone, replaced by a long, smooth ascent. Too long for the Holden with a camper-trailer in tow.

We were broken-down beside the road, with steam rising off a seized-up engine, three kids and a camper and very little money.

The RACQ towed us to Stanthorpe, and we arranged to have a new engine installed. Then we went to the bank. Contacted by the Stanthorpe branch, the manager at Lowood opened my Christmas Fund account and forwarded the funds. It was enough to pay for the new engine.

Two days later we were in Armidale. No National Bank there. I made rissoles for dinner out of the cheapest meat I could buy: sausage mince. Con put fifty cents on Kingston Town for the Cox Plate, and another fifty cents on Triumphal Arch in the Moonee Valley Gold Cup, and took the daily double.

In the caravan park we listened to the races on his little radio. First Kingston Town won. “He’ll win the Melbourne Cup!” said Con, with great excitement, “and we’ll be there to see it!”

Next, Triumphal Arch came in first, and Con, with delight, picked up nine dollars from the TAB. It was enough to get us through to Muswellbrook.

Muswellbrook had a CBC bank, which was tied in with the National. Con produced the card he’d got from the bank manager at Lowood and withdrew fifty dollars, enough to see us through to Richmond. It was a high old time that night in the caravan park at nearby Lake Glenbawn.

camper lake glenbawn ezytrail Lake Glenbawn ezytrailscampertrailers.com.au

Con had some beers, and I drank a little bottle of Ben Ean. Ben Ean Moselle “Shorts” were popular in those days.

fcamper ben ean Advertisement for “Ben Ean Shorts” theconversation.com

A couple of days later, at Richmond National Bank, our holiday was saved. There was a call from Lowood bank while we were there – the manager offering us an overdraft. A few days later our replacement cards arrived, and our financial life had been restored to as much order as we ever managed to achieve. On we went, to Melbourne and the Cup.

Kingston Town came second.

camper melb cup taa poster Old poster showing Kingston Town being beaten by Gurner’s Lane, Melbourne Cup 1982 leski.com.au

Our camper served us well on that trip, and for several more years. By then, the kids had grown. The trailer seemed too crowded, and its canvas showed signs of wear. When I went back to full-time work, we traded it in for a second car, although we were sorry to see it go.

We never forgot the Girraween Giggle.

DEE87E2C-5900-4320-B8CA-BD4A6DE9A956_4_5005_c The Golden Holden and the camper-trailer at Jerilderie, Vic.

Gympie

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Oxley’s Brisbane

John Oxley’s name is scattered all over Brisbane: suburb, station and school, a creek, roads, streets, avenues, crescents and lanes; parks, businesses and the State Library of Queensland’s historical research collection, the John Oxley Library.

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Rare portrait of John Oxley Archive, State Library of New South Wales

As Surveyor General of New South Wales, which extended to the tip of Cape York, John Oxley sailed north from Sydney in 1823 to find a site for a new penal settlement. It was on this trip that he explored and named the Brisbane River. The local Turrbal people called it Maiwar.

I’ve visited some of the sites where Oxley came ashore.

Where Mount Ommaney Creek flows into the Brisbane River there is a fruit bat colony. The bats shriek and squabble, even in the middle of the day, when they’re supposed to be sleeping. A walking track follows the curves of the hill through bushland above the river. Feral deer live here, and the trees wear knitted jumpers to protect their bark.

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Trees wearing jumpers on Mount Ommaney

John Oxley and his crew rowed upstream in a whaleboat to Mount Ommaney and beyond. By the entrance to the walking track, a plaque has been placed to mark the spot where he came ashore and climbed to the top of the hill to take bearings.

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Plaque at Mount Ommaney

Just fourteen kilometres as the crow flies from the CBD, Mount Ommaney is fifty kilometres by river, and further still from where Oxley had moored his cutter Mermaid, at the southern end of Pumicestone Passage at Bribie Island: “within 150 yards of the shore, in the very place where Captain Flinders had anchored twenty-two years before…”[1]

Oxley also named the Bremer River, Mermaid Reach, Seventeen Mile Rocks, Breakfast Creek, and Canoe Creek, now known as Oxley Creek.

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Where Oxley Creek meets the river, at Graceville

The following year he was back again, coming up-river with botanist Alan Cunningham and others to find a site for the convict settlement that would be more suitable than Redcliffe, where it had first been established. They camped at Mount Ommaney for the night, probably down by the creek which these days flows through the plush fairways of the McLeod Country Golf Club.

On their way back down river, Oxley and his group landed along the Toowong/Milton Reach looking for a good water source, a necessity for settlement. Coming ashore near the mouth of Western Creek and following it upstream, they found water “in abundance and of excellent quality, being at this season a chain of ponds watering a fine valley.”[2]

Matthew Condon, in his book “Brisbane”, has awakened my interest in Oxley’s chain of ponds, and following his path I go looking for it.[3]

Western Creek, in Oxley’s time a beautiful place, forested and rich in resources, now empties into the river through a concrete drain near the remains of the floating restaurant once known as “Oxley’s on the River”, which was ruined in the 2011 floods. On the river walkway, a display panel describes Oxley and his exploration of the creek; and further along Coronation Drive is a large granite boulder with a plaque that reads,

On 28 September 1824, Lieutenant John Oxley, Surveyor-General of New South Wales, landed hereabouts to obtain fresh water from a nearby stream declaring it to be “by no means an ineligible station for a first settlement up the river”.

I cross under Coronation Avenue beside the concrete drain, which flows out from under the John Oxley Centre office complex. Beyond the building I find it again, before it disappears under the road and the railway bridge to emerge again in Milton Park, then vanish under Frew Park. This was once the home of Milton Tennis Courts.  Now it has shady trees, a playground and barbecues. A nostalgic bronze sculpture of children catching yabbies shows where the creek used to flow.

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“Yabbies”, Milton. Flood warning sign in the background

Across the road, in front of Milton State School, is low-lying Gregory Park, once known as Red Jacket Swamp. The creeks and swamps when Oxley came this way were rich with mud crabs, fish, wild ducks, waterlilies and reeds, used by the large and settled Indigenous population[4].

The creek still flows under these lowlands, and the river seeks it out every flood time. Brown water surges up through the parks and into the shops and homes of Baroona Road and Nash Street, Rosalie, and the television news shows people carrying furniture and possessions through the flood waters to higher ground.

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Western Creek floods, Rosalie, January 2011

 

At North Quay, several hundred metres down-river from the mouth of Western Creek, is another stone memorial, dating from the 1920s, claiming to mark the spot where Oxley came ashore looking for water, and, according to the wording of the plaque, “discovered the site of this city.”

oxley memorial north quay
North Quay plaque

To look at the memorial, I walk up from the river path to the busy road leading to the CBD and Riverside Expressway. In 1825 the penal colony was permanently established on this high ground, along what became William Street, down towards the convict-tended food gardens that were to become the City Botanic Gardens.

Soon the local Indigenous population’s hunting and ceremonial grounds would be lost and ruined. The creeks and lagoons would disappear under the developing city.

Now, the massive Queens Wharf development is rising next to 1 William Street, the Queensland Government’s hulking “Tower of Power”, where the old settlement sprawled with its barracks, commandant’s house, cottages and church.

At Redcliffe there’s a handsome monument, above the low red cliffs, commemorating both Oxley and Matthew Flinders; and at Bribie Island, on the shore of Pumicestone Passage, looking out to where both Flinders and Oxley moored their ships, the Bribie Island Seaside Museum gives details of their journeys.

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Pumicestone Passage, Bribie Island, near where Oxley and Flinders both moored their ships. Glasshouse Mountains in the background

His arduous journeys of exploration damaged John Oxley’s health. He was so ill after the second Brisbane River trip he could hardly walk, and four years later, aged forty-two, he died, in financial hardship, at his property outside Sydney.

Often these “explorers” were motivated by grants of money and land, and Oxley was eager for both; but ever since primary school, when we traced their expeditions on maps of Australia using coloured dots and dashes, I’ve wondered at their fortitude.

As an adult, I’ve also pondered on the disasters that followed for the locals in these lands, whose people had lived in and managed them for millennia.

[1] From the account of J. Uniacke, who came with Oxley’s first expedition to the area, on the Mermaid. Uniacke’s full account is printed in “Discovery of the Brisbane River, 1823 – Oxley, Uniacke and Pamphlet – 175 Years in Retrospect”, Marc Serge Rivière (1998) Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Brisbane. Page 70

[2] Angus Veitch has posted details of Western Creek, John Oxley and the chain of ponds, including quotes from Oxley’s journal, on his interesting 2018 web page,  http://www.oncewasacreek.org/

[3] “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon (2010) University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney.

[4] “Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane”, Dr Ray Kerkhove. Boolarong Press, Salisbury: 2015. Pages 129-131

Cemetery Birds

Toowong Cemetery is a miniature of Brisbane’s inner suburbs. It has main roads and side streets, steep hills, valleys, outlooks, hoop pines and fig trees, butcher birds and lorikeets. Wealthier citizens inhabit the hilltops, and the humbler spill down into the gullies. There are elaborate memorials, and neglected graves covered in cobblers’ pegs.

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From Toowong Cemetery, looking over the Western Freeway

Many of the family names on the gravestone are from the colonial past.  This place is a history book of Brisbane.

It’s spooky after dark. I walked through with friends one evening at dusk, and I wouldn’t want to be there alone. Strange people lurk in Toowong Cemetery.

There is quite a lot of my DNA buried here, but I have ancestors in graveyards outside Brisbane, too. A few years ago, my cousin Nadine and I went on a ten-day, ten-cemetery family history road trip to find them.

Nadine researched the names and burial places of family members in the cemeteries of Warwick, Texas, Dirranbandi, Saint George, Mitchell, Barcaldine, Longreach, Roma, Dalby and Toowoomba: a three thousand kilometre loop by road. She is fascinated by family history, and I’m always happy to take a road trip, looking for stories along the way.

So off we go. Most of the graves we visit are of people we never knew: great-great-grandparents, great uncles and aunts and distant cousins. Some, though, are of our own generation.

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Along the road to Dirranbandi

At Dirranbandi, we stop and ask for directions to the cemetery. It’s along the river, on the outskirts of town. Crows croak, the ground is dusty, and at the gate a woman on her way out warns us there are lots of burrs in there.

Our little cousins, Peter and Judith, have been lying next to each other for over half a century in this sad, hot, dry place, in this hard countryside. Peter died of peritonitis, aged four, and Judith a few years later, aged five, drowned in the river. The bush can be cruel.

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In the Dirranbandi Cemetery

We pick bottlebrush from the cemetery’s few shrubs to place on their graves; and back in the car we pick burrs out of our clothes and shoes and skin.

Our seventh cemetery is Longreach. As we drive there from Barcaldine, the sides of the road look like The Somme after a battle, with bodies lying everywhere – the bodies of kangaroos, hit by vehicles.

I drive, and Nadine looks at the map.

“The cemetery is in Raven Road. Go past Thrush Road and turn into Lark Street. If we get to Falcon Street, we’ve gone too far. What’s with these street names?”

“All the streets in Longreach are named after birds. The water birds run east-west and the land birds run north-south.”

“Well, that doesn’t work. There’s a Sparrow Street running east-west. And here’s a Crane Street, running north-south!”

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The bird streets of Longreach

“I don’t know. Just so long as we can find Raven Road, and the cemetery. We don’t want to drive all over town searching for it, like we did in Dirranbandi…”

In the cemetery we tread carefully. The dusty soil is falling away, leaving cracks in the ground around the graves, and it would be easy to misstep and sprain an ankle. The ground is so dry it’s shrinking.

There is a smell of death in the air. It’s probably a dead kangaroo nearby; but disconcerting, in a cemetery.

We find a distant uncle’s grave. It is marked by a substantial block of sandstone, crafted by the well-known A.L.Petrie Monumental Sculptors, of Brisbane. A stone like this must have been expensive to bring out here, over a thousand kilometres from Brisbane. The inscription indicates that it was placed here by his friends and admirers; but days earlier we’d found his own mother’s grave in Roma Cemetery, with no marker on it at all.

Mysteries of the past.

Last time I was in this cemetery, twenty years ago, Con and I were looking for the grave of Leonard Pitkin. Con’s mother Min had been married twice, the first time to Len, and it was his grave we trying to locate. A phone call to the local council had provided us with the grave number, and we eventually found the spot; but there was no name on the grave, no headstone.

Len and Min had moved out here in the early 1920s, looking for work, and in 1923 he died here of typhoid fever. Min was pregnant, and her father made the long journey by train from Mackay to take her home.

There are many unmarked graves in the cemeteries of western Queensland. In the early days, people worked hard, far from their homes, building roads and railways and wrangling stock, or cooking over open fires while wearing long dresses. Life was primitive, and accidents and illnesses were common. Many graves here are marked only by a rusted steel number peg and a sprinkling of red gravel.

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Len’s grave, in Longreach Cemetery

We’d sent a photo of Len’s grave to his daughter Joy, Con’s elder sister. She’d never seen her father’s burial place. She arranged for a headstone and came out on the train to place flowers on the spot where her father had been lying unacknowledged for over sixty years.

A few days after our Longreach visit, Nadine and I are at the Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery. Founded in 1850 and heritage listed, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Queensland, built to hold forty-five thousand graves. This cemetery, unlike the others we’ve visited, has avenues with of tall trees, mossy or lichen-covered: kauri and hoop pine, London plane trees, camphor laurels and eucalypts.

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Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery

Lichen makes the inscriptions hard to read. No lichen in Dirranbandi or Longreach. We find the headstone of a distant cousin we never knew, take photos, and move on.

Our last graveyard of the long trip is the Toowoomba Garden Cemetery. The grave we visit is fresh, the red earth bare and the headstone newly planted. This is where our cousin David had been buried just three months earlier, after losing his battle with cancer. David was the brother of little Peter and Judith. This was someone we had known and loved. This wasn’t family history research. This was personal.

So many cemeteries we’ve visited on this long trip, and this would be the last. And the saddest.

When I’m planted in Queensland earth, I’d like it to be in Brisbane’s Mount Gravatt Cemetery. It’s a serene place with gum trees and lots of bird calls – like a country town cemetery, but greener; with pale headed rosellas and king parrots, magpies and kookaburras. And no burrs.

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Pale headed rosella

Romancing the Bunya

A king parrot is standing on my battered old Simpson and Day bird book. Not on the parrot page, either. He looks as if he’s researching the rufous fantails we’ve been watching in the forest.

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King parrot

“I remember the day Mum put the bunya pine down her bra,” says my brother Rick. He and my other brother Mike and I are in the Bunyas Mountains together, on a nostalgic visit, sitting on the verandah of a small but comfortable cottage and reminiscing. King parrots and crimson rosellas cluster round us, pecking at bird seed.

I can’t imagine putting anything as prickly as a bunya pine down my bra.

We’re discussing a trip to the Bunyas we went on years ago, camping with our parents. Dad had pitched the old canvas tent on what was then known as the Lucerne Patch, a camping field running down to the edge of the rainforest. That evening there was a sudden storm, with heavy rain threatening to swamp the tent. Mum and we three kids held on to the tent poles while Dad frantically dug a trench along the uphill side to divert the flood.

Dad’s trench saved us from a night spent in wet bedding, and next day the sun was out. We walked along the forest tracks, under majestic pines and enormous fig trees laden with ferns and orchids.

Along the way, our mother spotted a baby bunya pine. The ground was soft after the rainstorm, and so in spite of signs that said not to interfere with vegetation or wildlife in a National Park she carefully dug it out. Because she didn’t want to be caught doing the wrong thing, so the family story goes, she hid it in her bra.

The iconic bunya pines, Araucaria bidwilli, endemic to the Blackall Range and Bunya Mountains National Park, command respect. Straight and rough-barked, bunya pines can grow close to fifty metres tall and a metre in diameter.

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Bunya pines

For thousands of years, great bunya festivals were held here. This was a meeting place for local Aboriginal groups and those from further away, travelling here every three years for ritual and ceremony, resolving of disputes, feasting, dance, song, trading, socialising and above all harvesting the bunya nuts.

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Bunya leaves, cones and fruit

 

Development of surrounding lands by white farmers, and the relocation of Indigenous people to reserves, tragically put a stop to the bunya festivals by 1902.

According to Tom Petrie, his father Andrew Petrie “discovered” the bunya pine and “gave some specimens to a Mr. Bidwill, who forwarded them to the old country, and hence the tree was named after him, not after the true discoverer.”[1]

These trees had been known and celebrated in this place for centuries before the Petries came along.

In the mid-1800s, Tom Petrie himself as a boy was the first free (i.e. not an escaped convict) white person to attend a bunya festival. As an old man, he described it in detail to his daughter, who wrote out his memoirs. Many of the bunya pines have what seem to be notches in them and some believe that they were cut to help the young men who, with the aid of a loop of strong vine around the tree, would climb up to get the big cones that hold the nuts; but according to Tom Petrie they would never cut a bunya because it would hurt the tree. They would climb using just the vine, aided by the roughness of the bark. It would take great skill and courage to climb so high that way.

By the 1850s, an avenue of bunya pines had been planted in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, where they’re still standing today, along the path above the river.

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Avenue of bunya pines in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens  Image: Monuments Australia

My brothers and I have been walking those same soft forest tracks again today, and we worked out which leaves belong to the bunya pines, and which to the equally mighty hoop pines, Araucaria cunninghamii, that grow here too. They were first collected by Alan Cunningham, botanist and explorer, in the 1820s.

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Hoop pine

It’s easy to tell the trees apart, if you crane your neck upwards. The mature bunyas have a dome-shaped top, while the hoops have a pointed top. The leaves are different too. Hoop pine leaves are smooth and closely woven, and bunya leaves are twisted and prickly. Maybe Mum wrapped that little bunya tree in a hanky.

“She put the tree in a pot, and it grew,” says Rick. “For years we used it as a Christmas tree.”

“That’s right – I’d forgotten the Christmas tree! Didn’t she eventually plant it behind the house at Ashgrove, down by the creek?”

“Yes, she did. I wonder if it’s still there.”

This year, the forest is in drought, like most of Queensland. Dry leaves are lying thick on the ground. Many trees are suffering, and some of the tracks are closed. As we sit on the cottage verandah that evening, we hear a menacing cracking sound in the distance, then a deep, booming thump. The sound of a forest giant falling.

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Bunya leaves

“When we get back to Brisbane, let’s go and look for Mum’s bunya pine,” said Mike.

That’s what we do. We drive out to the old house in Joffre Street, Ashgrove, and there it is, towering over the houses, down near the creek.

Only it doesn’t have a dome shape. It has a point. After all these years of family legend, is it actually a bunya pine at all? It’s not a full-grown tree yet – too young to have a dome, perhaps.

Maybe it’s a hoop pine. Much less prickly to put in a bra. We knock on the door to ask if we can go out in the back yard and check the leaves, but there’s no one home.

Hoop pines are beautiful too, with their rough bark and hoop-like stripes. They’re everywhere in Brisbane, standing like sentinels on hilltops, in parks and suburban gardens and motorway plantings.

The bunya pine, though, is the iconic one; and its home forest, now suffering from drought, is an ancient and spiritual place. This year, Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral burned down and the world mourned. The Cathedral will be rebuilt – just as it was. It won’t be so easy to rebuild the old, old forests of the Bunya Mountains.

[1] “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. First published 1904. This edition 2014: Watson Ferguson and Company, Brisbane. Page 9

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