Rocky

In southeastern Rockhampton, between the river and the swamp, lies the suburb of Depot Hill. Depot Hill residents know all about floods.

In 2011, when Rocky experienced some of its worst-ever flooding, the entire city was isolated. The airport was submerged, and so was the highway. The main northern railway line, which passes by Depot Hill, was awash. Built on low, swampy land near the Fitzroy River, in spite of its name the Hill is always at risk. As the waters rose, it was decided that the suburb should be evacuated.

“I’m staying put,” said one old lady to the television cameras. “I’ve been here for sixty years, and my house has never flooded.”

Power to the area was cut, but still people stayed. Most of the houses there are high-set, and the media showed locals sitting on their front steps, drinking beer and watching the floodwaters.

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Depot Hill during the 2011 floods ABC Capricornia: Alice Roberts

The Sydney Morning Herald reported it:

An old pine desk is drying beside Del Moss’s house in Depot Hill – drawers pulled out, in case they swell. ”It floated past yesterday. And it’s better than mine,” the 75-year-old says. ”Three lounge suites went past the other day. It was like the Sydney to Hobart watching them. If you don’t laugh, I suppose, you cry.” [Sydney Morning Herald”, 08-01-2011]

Livestock from the nearby Common took refuge on the Hill. One photo showed a house above the flood level with a goat on the landing and a donkey and a camel in the front yard.

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Camel in the Cyclone Debbie floods, Rockhampton, 2017

Four years later, in 2015, Rocky flooded again. This time, Cyclone Marcia was to blame. Since the previous floods, one Depot Hill grandmother had invested in a kayak for getting to the shops. Depot Hill people are proud of the way they cope, but this time it exhausted even the most stoic – not just at the Hill, but across the damaged city, with thousands of households without power, its citizens cleaning up in a heat wave.

Rockhampton Regional Libraries are a great asset to the city. Following the visit of Cyclone Marcia, the Library, via its Facebook page, invited the city in.

         With most of us still without power, a great place to spend the day will be Rockhampton Regional Library. Open again tonight until 10pm! Enjoy our air conditioning, watch a movie, grab a coffee, charge your devices, read a book, access free Wi-Fi, have a chat to the ladies from the Red Cross or visit the nurses for a health check. We have it all at the library today and would love to see you here!

Founded in 1858, Rockhampton is one of Queensland’s oldest cities, and, lying as it does on the Tropic of Capricorn, most of the time it has an ideal climate. Like Cairns, Townsville, and other coastal cities, it was first developed as a port, servicing the pastoral industry. The railway was built west from Rockhampton before the coastal line was completed, and long before the Bruce Highway came into existence.

Rocky has a notable collection of substantial old buildings, as well as typical old-style, high-stumped, timber tropical housing, such as those of Depot Hill.

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A house at Depot Hill in dry times

Rockhampton Art Gallery has one of the finest regional collections in Australia, including a magnificent collection of mid-twentieth century Australian art. The city has renowned Botanic Gardens, as well as the splendid Kershaw Gardens.

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The famous banyan trees of Rockhampton Botanic Gardens

As a city that services beef cattle country, Rocky is also known for its many statues of bulls, in parks and median strips – in recent years often photographed surrounded by floodwaters. There’s also a steady business in supplying replacement testicles for these bulls, as they are always losing them, sawn off in the dead of night. Rocky’s bulls’ balls are evidently prized as collectables.

In April 2017, the floods were on again, when Cyclone Debbie, one of the most widespread and expensive of all, made its slow and devastating way down the coastal ranges, from Airlie Beach all the way to Lismore.

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The swollen Fitzroy River after Cyclone Debbie, April 2017 ABC

This time most of the water came down the Fitzroy from the ranges to the west, and the floods were predicted to reach the highest level for sixty years. It didn’t reach that peak in Rockhampton, but once again the city was in clean-up mode for weeks. Once again, calls were made to build a levee to protect the city. Maybe that will happen one day; but in the meantime, the people of Rockhampton will stay prepared.

This is a tough old city.

Rockhampton bull Debbie RACQ Helicopter

Burdekin Bridge

 

We drive north through Home Hill, past Inkerman Sugar Mill and up on to the steel framed Burdekin Bridge.

We’ve been across this impressive road and rail bridge, one of the longest multi-span bridges in the country, many times, by both train and car. We’ve looked upstream from the train, across sand flats where the local lads drive doughnuts in the sand and flocks of birds wheel in the air. We’ve driven across in the car, as we’re doing today, hoping not to meet a wide load coming in the opposite direction.

Now, for the first time, I notice that there is a walkway along the eastern, downstream side.

I am fond of infrastructure, Con less so; but he is tolerant of my whims, knowing that they often lead us to interesting places. At the northern end of the bridge, we turn right across the highway and follow a dirt track down to the base of the bridge. A steep set of stairs leads up to the walkway, which extends all the way over the river. Catching my breath after the climb, I stand and look down at the stream below, shining in the sun.

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Looking downstream from the Burdekin Bridge, towards the delta

The Burdekin River bed is a kilometre wide here, not far from the delta. The river drains the second largest catchment in Australia, and its floods are legendary. Today, as is normal in the dry season, the water is meandering across an expanse of sand and sparse vegetation. Below where I’m standing, it’s running through a channel just fifty metres wide. Wooden stumps mark the site of the old rail bridge downstream.

Trains used to cross the river on that low bridge. Old photos show them steaming through shallow floodwaters, the track invisible under them. The road crossing went directly over the sand and across a causeway even lower than the rail bridge. Every wet season, floods would cut both road and rail, leaving North Queensland isolated.

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Steam train crossing the flooded Burdekin River Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

In 1945, a wave coming downstream washed an entire freight train off the tracks. Two years later work began at last on the present Burdekin Bridge, one of North Queensland’s most ambitious pieces of infrastructure. Just forty-six metres shorter than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it took ten years to build, its caissons sinking thirty metres into the delta sands.

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Burdekin Bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Council website

By November 1956, when the Olympic Torch Relay came to the Burdekin on its way south, the new bridge still wasn’t completed. It was the beginning of the wet season, and the road crossing was flooded. The Torch and runner crossed the river by train, before dawn, the engine driver blowing his whistle the whole way.

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Old and new: the last Sunlander to cross the old bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

Con was a boy in 1957 when the new Burdekin Bridge was opened. It was a huge event for North Queenslanders, and he remembers it.  “Until then, every wet season, North Queensland was cut off by road and rail. When the old bridge was twenty feet under floods, all kinds of food, clothing, newspapers, magazines and produce bound for the far North sat on the south bank of the Burdekin until the water went down.”

It was the magazines that hurt the most.

“I missed out on my boys’ magazines, Champion and Hotspur. They were supposed to come up on the train from Brisbane.

“One year, my mum didn’t get her Women’s Weekly until Easter!”

The Burdekin Bridge carries one set of train lines and two narrow lanes of road traffic. When a long wide load crosses, carrying transportable housing or a steel bucket for the mines, police have to stop the on-coming traffic.

“It’s crazy. They should build another one beside it,” say the locals. “Like they did with the Gateway Bridge in Brisbane. They won’t, though – all the money goes down south.”

That’s an old cry for North Queenslanders, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Even though this high bridge doesn’t flood, many sections of road and railway north and south of here still do, every wet season, in spite of all the improvements made over the years.

Living in North Queensland is never going to be as easy as living in Kenmore or Maroochydore. There, you never have to miss the Women’s Weekly.

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From the train on the Burdekin Bridge, looking upstream at birds, and doughnuts in the sandy riverbed

 

Horror Stretch

Murder.

Travellers shot in their cars or sleeping bags.

Frightening reports in the papers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Central Queensland place names Funnel Creek, Lotus Creek and Connors River held a weight of menace. Across that decade, several travellers were murdered by strangers when pulled up alongside the Bruce Highway between Marlborough and Sarina. The Marlborough Stretch became known as the Horror Stretch.

In his 2002 book “Seven Versions of an Australian Badland”, historian Ross Gibson writes in detail about those random murders and the other violent acts that occurred in this region over the previous century.

He writes, “This stretch of country is an immense, historical crime scene.”

Gibson also describes its cyclones and floods; and it was because of floods that Con and I once found ourselves stranded here with our children.

In the early January of 1974, on our way north to Cairns, we drove the Horror Stretch, as we had done before; but this year was different. This year was very wet indeed. Later that month, Australia Day weekend, record floods would inundate Brisbane.

From our home in Burketown, we had driven down to Brisbane for Christmas – 2200 kilometres of bitumen and gravel, with two young children and no car air-conditioning. But we were young, and we were used to it.

In those days, the Burketown water supply was untreated. We had a rainwater tank for drinking, but our bath water came from a lagoon where the local kids swam. It is not surprising that when, over Christmas, I began to feel ill, a doctor diagnosed hepatitis A.

There was nowhere for us in Brisbane, with me suffering from an infectious disease.

“I could have you taken into custody,” said the doctor. “If you don’t undertake to keep yourself away from people, that’s what I’ll do!”

We had a holiday apartment waiting for us in Cairns, and so we set out on the three-day journey north, in spite of warnings of flood rains along the way.

We crossed Lotus Creek on our second day on the road, 120 kilometres north of Marlborough and driving through rain, dipping down on to the narrow, single-lane bridge, with swirling, brown waters close beneath its decking, then up past the roadhouse on the north bank.

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Lotus Creek Service Station after Cyclone Debbie, March 2017. Rockhampton Morning Bulletin

Twenty kilometres further on we crossed the Connors River, with even higher water; but when we reached Funnel Creek, we were stopped. Water was racing over the bridge and halfway up the flood marker.

“We’re going back,” called out one of the other travellers pulled up at the flooded bridge. “Connors River is coming up. If it goes over the bridge there, we’ll be stranded.”

Worried, we turned back too, crossed Connors River safely and spent that night in the car, parked beside the road, just south of the river. The rain poured down, so we had to close the windows, except for a crack. It was hot, and there were mosquitoes.

We locked the car doors and tried not to think of how many people had been murdered along this road. Fourteen months later, skydiving couple Noel and Sophie Weckert would be shot by strangers here at Connors River.

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Back row, 4th from left – skydiver Noel Weckert. South Australian Skydivers

Next morning, we drove further south, hoping to get back to Marlborough; but now the water was over the bridge at Lotus Creek. We were marooned.

There were a dozen carloads of people caught there, congregated at the Lotus Creek Roadhouse. The manager let us have an old caravan out the back for that night. It was broken-down and dusty, with grimy mattresses and no bedding, but it was more comfortable than the car. And it felt safer.

There wasn’t much food at the roadhouse, but we had our own supplies – including the only bread available for breakfast next morning. We shared it with other travellers, but the manager charged us for toasting it.

After breakfast, we drove north again and joined the queue waiting at the Connors River for the water to go down. It was a long, hot wait. People shared stories about floods, snakes and breakdowns. Some dozed in their cars. Our small children squatted in the gutter beside the car, playing with a toy truck.

The water was still over the bridge when cars began to cross. We took our turn, with a towel draped across the grill to minimize the wet coming in over the engine. As we drove up the slope on the other side, I bailed water out the window with an icecream container.

We did stupid things as young parents.

Having made it through to Cairns, a couple of weeks later we flew back to Burketown. The day Brisbane flooded, we were flying over the Gulf Country, across a sea of floodwater, the winding Carpentaria rivers marked only by the tops of trees along their banks. Our final leg home from the airstrip was in a tinnie.

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Gulf Country under floods

The highway doesn’t follow the Horror Stretch now – it takes a shorter, more easterly route past Saint Lawrence, and it’s a wide, well-made road and a pleasant, high-speed drive, with pasture and bush land, spectacular ranges in the background and station homesteads out of sight up dirt tracks and behind gates and grids. In a good season, tall grass stands golden along the road edges, bright against the blue mountain ranges.

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Many still remember the murders of the Horror Stretch, though; and there have been even more frightening outback murders in the fifty-odd years since. There’s horror in the idea of a madman emerging from the dark lonely bush to murder a stranger.

That said, more travellers have died when driving voluntarily through floodwaters. Crossing flooded Connors River with young children in the car is the memory that gives me nightmares.

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

Cherries to North Queensland

I once posted a coconut. I wrote the address on its husk with a black marker, took it to the post office, stuck on the stamps and off it went.

I’d picked up the coconut at Etty Bay, near Innisfail, where cassowaries stroll, rainforest trees shade the beach and coconuts fall on the sand. To me, on my first visit to Far North Queensland, it was like a scene from a tropical fantasy.

I sent the coconut to my younger brother, Mike, in Stanthorpe. No coconuts there.

It’s fascinating to see fruit growing when until then we’ve only seen it in shops. German tourists, touring the Sunshine Coast hinterland, exclaim in wonder at pineapples plants in a field. “So that’s how they grow!” they say in amazement.

As a young man, Con was transferred from Thursday Island, off the northerly tip of Queensland, to Stanthorpe, a half hour’s drive from the New South Wales border: over three thousand kilometres away, into a very different climate. For the first time, he was living in an area producing not bananas, papaws and sugar cane but stone fruit, apples and grapes – all of which lose their leaves in autumn and lie dormant through the winter.

When winter came, he caused loud laughter in the pub when he said, “All the peach trees are dead! What a disaster for the farmers!”

A couple of years ago, we bought a box of cherries to take with us to Far North Queensland at Christmas – expensive, Southern New South Wales cherries, fat and dark, bought at a fancy Brisbane fruit shop.

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“There are cherries in North Queensland shops, you know,” said Con.

I do know that. You can buy almost any fruit anywhere in Australia these days: avocadoes in Kalgoorlie, blueberries in Cairns. But still northerners send cartons of mangoes to family in the south, and south Queenslanders take Granite Belt fruit to relations in the north. It’s a tradition my friend Carol says she could do without, as she drives across Brisbane to collect a box of mangoes sent down on the train by her aunt in Ayr.

“What am I going to do with a whole box of mangoes, anyway? If I want to eat a mango I can buy it at my local fruit shop!”

For this trip to the north, I’d decided to avoid the busy Bruce Highway. We’d drive west to Toowoomba, then head north to Yarraman to join the D’Aguilar Highway. We’d take the Burnett Highway to Ban Ban Springs, then turn east, eventually reaching the Bruce Highway and turning north to spend the night at Gin Gin.

These minor highways are good, sealed roads, with beautiful bush scenery along the way, blue ranges in the distance and very little traffic.

It was a humid day, and by the time we left home we were irritable. “Why can we never, ever get in the car without having to go back for something?” Con grumbled as I headed back inside for my sunglasses, left on the kitchen table.

“Did you check that the iron is turned off?” he said as I got back in the car.

“No, I didn’t. You go and check if you’re so worried.”

It wasn’t until we were driving along the Gatton bypass, just thirty kilometres from Toowoomba, that I remembered something else we’ve forgotten.

“The cherries! Oh, no! We left them at home in the fridge!”

“Bugger it!” said Con. “That’s really annoying!”

He thinks a bit. “Do you want to go back?”

“No. That would be just too silly.”

The cherries would be rotten by the time we got home, in three weeks’ time. We’d planned to give some to Con’s brother and sister-in-law, at Balgal Beach, north of Townsville. The rest were for our son Joe, his partner Izzy and little Danny, our grandson, who live near Innisfail.

Fifteen minutes later we were still heading west, and still thinking about the cherries. They’d haunt us all the way, I knew. I made a suggestion.

“Let’s keep going to Toowoomba, have a coffee, then drive back to Brisbane, collect the cherries and head directly north on the Bruce Highway. We’ll still get to Gin Gin tonight. And while we’re home we can return that overdue library book I forgot.”

That’s what we did.

We were in Toowoomba by ten o’clock, back in Brisbane by midday, and by half past twelve we were on Highway One heading north. The cherries were in the boot, an old towel over them to keep them cool.

Two days later, at Balgal Beach, in a house noisy with the sound of warm tropical rain on the roof, we filled a bowl with their lush, dark sweetness and put it on the kitchen table, where anyone passing could take one.

At Joe and Izzie’s place, passionfruit were hanging heavy on every vine, and roadside stalls were loaded high with watermelons; but the cherries were welcomed with delight, and Danny boy sat in the empty cherry box and grinned, his chin red with cherry juice.

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