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-1900s, 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

Queensland Songs

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

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

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

 

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Convict Brisbane

 

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

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

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

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Looking upstream towards 1 William Street as it was nearing completion

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

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

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Convict life in Brisbane Image: Museum of Brisbane

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

Moreton Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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Passengers on Mitchell Railway Station Image: State Library of Qld

 

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

Sergeant Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

lighning over cane

From Sounds of Then (This is Australia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cattle and cane

Cattle and Cane

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

Songwriters: Robert Derwent Garth Forster / Grant William Mclennan

Cattle and Cane lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

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

Reading Queensland

I like reading books about places. It adds extra layers of enjoyment to my travels, in Queensland and beyond. They can be learned and literary books, or lighter romances and mysteries; but sharing in the experiences of others, especially when they’re good observers, helps me to get under the surface of a place.

These are just a few of my favourite books about Queensland.

Please add other titles in the comments section. I’m always looking for more.

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Fiction

  • “The Commandant”, Jessica Anderson. Fine, literary, perceptive novel of convict imagesBrisbane under Captain Logan. Brutality and death in the penal colony as observed by the Logan womenfolk. 

 

  • Affection”, Ian Townsend. 2010. Historical novel set in Townsville in 1900 when the affectioncity was under threat of the plague. Doctors enforce unpopular measures to prevent it. (Dilemma of scientists: if they succeed in preventing a threatened disaster, people will say it wasn’t a danger in the first place.)

 

 

  • “Carpentaria”, Alexis Wright. A magnificent literary saga of the Gulf of Carpentaria, written by an Indigenous Australian with a unique and fullsizeoutput_3e0caccomplished voice and an authentic image of the land, its people and its mythology. In the tradition of Xavier Herbert.

 

 

  • “The Birdwatcher”, William McInnes. A sweet, wise, grown-up love story set in Far 9780733632976North Queensland. Some ‘60s nostalgia, poetry, and lots of birds.

 

 

 

  • “My Island Homicide”, Catherine Titasey. Set on Thursday Island, this is a likeableimages romance/detective novel. Authentic language and background in a fascinating part of Queensland.

 

 

  • “Ryders Ridge”, Charlotte Nash. An enjoyable rural romance set inryders north-west Queensland. Red dirt, big hats, doctors.

 

 

 

  • “The Grazier’s Wife”, Barbara Hannay. 2017. A multi-generation rural romance setthe-grazier-s-wife on the Atherton Tableland. Cattle, rainforest, Singapore, antiques, a secret will.

 

 

  • “Boy Swallows Universe”, Trent Dalton. 2018. Enjoyable, scary, boy swallowsuplifting, suspenseful story of growing up in a crime-affected family in Brisbane. Darra and Bracken Ridge, Boggo Road Gaol and City Hall. Violence and love.

 

 

  • “Border Watch”, Helene Young. 2011. A FNQ romantic thriller Northern-Heat1written by an ex- airline captain and Border Patrol pilot. One of several novels by this author set in Queensland including “Safe Harbour”, 2014, and “Northern Heat”, 2015, which is set in Cooktown.

 

 

Non-fiction

  • “Lonely Planet – Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef”, and “Lonely Planet – Australia”. The first covers the tourist areas and the coast; the second covers the inland areas of the state. Lots of interesting local information.

 

  • “A History of Queensland”, Raymond Evans. 2007. Interesting scholarly in-depth account by a well-known historian ofimages Qld life and development from earliest human habitation to the 2000s. 

 

 

  • “Love in the Age of Drought”, Fiona Higgins. 2009. The memoir of a loveSydney woman who marries a farmer from Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs. Love, drought, life in a small town, the black soil plains west of the Bunya Mountains. I lived here as a teenager.

 

 

  • “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. Affectionate, memoir-style look at Brisbane, its history, condon brisbanearts, way of life and unique qualities as a lively sub-tropical city, by a journalist who knows the city well: its good and its bad. (Part of the “Secret Life of Your City” series about State Capitals.)

 

 

  • “Birdsville”, Evan McHugh. 2009. Dust storms, bogs, sand dunes, race meetings, rescues,images locusts, building a golf course in the desert: a Sydney freelance writer and his graphic designer wife spend twelve months in Birdsville.

 

 

  • “Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s frontier killing times”, Timothy Bottoms. 2013. imagesHarrowing account of the acts of violence that accompanied pastoralists’/investors’ seizure of Queensland pastoral land from Aboriginal inhabitants.

 

 

  • Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. tom petrieRe-published 2014. This important 1904 book details life in Brisbane and South-east Qld from 1837, when little Tom Petrie arrived at the convict settlement of Moreton Bay with his family. Local Aboriginal people, their foods, customs and language, as well as convict life and early white exploration.

 

  • “Cairns: City of the South Pacific. A history 1770-1995”, Timothy Bottoms. cairns-city-of-the-south-pacific-history-productInteresting, ambitious, detailed work.

Relay Excitement

On Saturday, the Commonwealth Games Baton Relay is coming to a park near our Brisbane home, just four days before the Opening Ceremony on the Gold Coast. This relay is the longest in history, covering two hundred and thirty thousand kilometres and visiting every Commonwealth nation and territory. That’s quite something.

We went to the 1982 Commonwealth Games, held in Brisbane. It was wonderful. We were all excited.com games brisbane

That was when people first began to talk about Brisbane “coming of age”. They talked about it again in 1988, during Expo. In 2018 we must have really come of age at last, because no one talks about it anymore. (Now we even have an international TV series located in Brisbane, “Harrow”. It’s fun to do what people in New York and London have always been able to do – play “Spot the location”.)

I’ve been reading up on the 2018 Baton Relay. It’s traveling all over Queensland, and most of the way it goes by air: Cooktown one day, Mount Isa the next.

Each Baton bearer carries the torch for two hundred metres. They don’t have to be sports people. The list of criteria includes words like aspire, inspire, contribute and achieve. In each town there is a celebration when the baton arrives. A lovely thing to think about – all those parties. Yesterday Augathella, today Barcaldine, next week up north to Yarrabah and Ingham and Emerald. I hope Ingham has dried out before then.

The first big relay in Australia was the 1956 Olympic Torch Relay to Melbourne. The Relay began in Cairns on the ninth of November, when the flame was flown in from Greece, and it caused excitement all down the east coast, arriving right on time in Melbourne, thirteen days later. The torch bearers endured conditions unthinkable today.

The most testing sections of the Relay were in Queensland, the worst of it during a rainy day and night between Mackay and Rockhampton.

The road trip to Cairns to set up the Relay was an epic in itself, beginning in Melbourne nineteen days earlier, the convoy of army trucks and Holdens manned largely by university students who’d never been to Queensland. I was astonished, when reading about it, that when the convoy headed north from Rockhampton, it took the coastal route via Saint Lawrence, following the train line. Now the main highway, back then this route was a dreadful track of creek crossings, potholes, swamps and cattle grids: wild country to the Melbournites in the convoy.

In the end, the convoy had to be loaded on to a train to make the journey to Sarina and rejoin the Bruce Highway.

In the 1956 Relay, the Torch was carried all the way on foot, continuously, regardless of weather or time of day or night. To qualify, the torch bearers had to be able to run a mile in under seven minutes. Men only. Runners were dropped off at marker pegs a mile apart, to wait, unlit torch in hand, for the previous runner to arrive. When they’d run their section they would pass the torch in to the support truck and be tossed a commemorative medal before the truck disappeared on its way.

From Mackay to Rockhampton, the Relay followed the Bruce Highway, much of it gravel road back then, and wisely avoided the Saint Lawrence road. Bringing the torch through was not easy, all the same. It was dark and raining. Each young runner in his white uniform would wait by his marker for the previous runner to emerge from the gloom, torch in hand, to pass on the flame.bowen ol torch

The torch weighed one point eight kilograms, and it felt very heavy after a mile held at arm’s length. If the runners held it too close to their bodies, sparks blew in their faces.

People came out with hot soup for the runners down that dark, muddy road and cheered them on. Souvenir hunters followed after the support trucks, pulling up the markers, although this was banned. There must still be relay markers in sheds and cupboards all down the coast. Family members clearing out Dad’s or Granddad’s bits and pieces may puzzle over what they could be.

For the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the Torch Relay was transported by camel, Flying Doctor plane, and underwater on the Great Barrier Reef. It was a far slicker operation than that journey down through Queensland in 1956. Rutted, muddy roads, encounters with snakes and dogs, rainy nights, leeches, mosquitoes: those Melbourne University students went home with enough stories of the wild north to create legends in the south.

This year’s Commonwealth Games Baton Relay is much easier for its Baton bearers. It is a masterpiece of smooth organization, and it has brought pleasure and excitement to people across the world on its journey to Queensland and the Gold Coast. Not so much adventure, though!

Photo “1956 Melbourne Olympic Torch carried through a street in Bowen Qld” – from Picture Queensland, State Library of Queensland: digital image collection

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