The Banana Cup

fullsizeoutput_473eThere’s a jockey mounted on a banana on the cover of the race book for the Banana Industry Cup.

Everyone working here at the Innisfail Turf Club in Far North Queensland is wearing a banana-yellow t-shirt, including Olive at the TAB and the two sweating blokes working the barbecue.

There are women in feathers and heels and bright colours, ready for Fashions on the Field.

IMAG0871
Olive Simeon who has been working at the Innisfail Races TAB for forty years

For me, it’s just another race meeting; but for Con it is more than that. He grew up just down the road from the Innisfail racecourse.

“When I was eleven,” he tells me, not for the first time, “I had a job washing beer glasses at the races. I’d rinse them and upend them on a towel, then I’d walk around the bookies’ stands to collect the empties.”

As he went about his job, young Con would listen to the race callers.

“They were my idols. I’d fantasize about becoming a race caller. I didn’t sing in the shower – I’d practise calling races.”

One race day when Con was twelve, the regular Innisfail caller failed to arrive. The club secretary beckoned him over. ‘Connie, the first race is due in a few minutes. Can you call it for us?’

“In minutes I was up on the balcony, microphone in front of me. The horses were around at the start. I had no binoculars, so I checked the colours in the book. There were only two horses, thank heavens – Wee Thorn and Paul Denis.

“‘They’re off!’ I heard. It was my own boyish voice, coming through the loudspeakers!”

The real caller never arrived, so he called the next three races too, more confident each time.

“It was a busy afternoon, because I had to keep dashing back to the bar to wash glasses.”

Innisfail is an ancient name for Ireland, and around here it’s as green as Ireland.

IMG_4918
Innisfail Racecourse

Wherever there are Irish there is horse racing.

As for me, I come from staid English, Scottish and German stock. Although one of my ancestors confessed to a love of gambling on cards, he gave it up when he got religion.

To many Irish, horse racing is a religion.

Since he called his first race here, Con has visited one hundred and seven racetracks – and counting.

It was the wet season when we flew into Burketown for the first time, leaving our car behind in Mount Isa. Con had been transferred to Burketown as principal of the school, and we were picked up at the airport by the shire clerk. On the way into town, he told Con, “Of course, you’ll be treasurer of the Race Club.”

“Will I?” said Con, startled.

“Yes. The school principal is always treasurer of the Race Club.”

For the next three years, we were involved with the Burketown Race Club – Con as Treasurer, and I helping out with catering for the Race Ball. The races were held once a year. The racetrack was dirt, and bough sheds covered with fresh branches provided the only shade. It was hot and dusty, with lots of flies. Country race meetings are the only places where glamorous net fascinators may have a real purpose.

People came from a hundred kilometres around, the women dressed in smart race gear, sometimes with rollers in their hair so as to look good for the ball that night.

After the ball, there was another race down the track, with locals in their underwear; but we didn’t take part.

The Burketown Races were the highlight of the local social calendar. In recent years, rationalisations in the racing industry have meant that many small towns have lost their race meetings, along with many other services. It’s a shame.

When I met Con, I had never been to a horse race. Now I’ve been to ninety-three racetracks, but I still don’t follow racing. It’s just that when we travel, we go together. Consequently, after we visited the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, we went to the nearby Hawker Races, a colourful, lively and dusty affair.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Horse trailers lined up at the Hawker Races, Flinders Ranges, S.A.

We’ve been to the James Cook Museum in Cooktown, and Cooktown Botanic Gardens, one of Queensland’s oldest, and then the Cooktown Races. It’s hot at the Cooktown Races, because the racing administrators, for their own reasons, have changed its place in the racing calendar from May to November, even though it’s in the tropics. Still the horses run, and a large group of ladies, some with children and grandchildren in tow, turn out in the sun for Fashions on the Field.

fullsizeoutput_38ea
Fashions in the Field at Cooktown Races

Tolga, Charleville, Roma, Bundaberg, Cairns, Townsville.

fullsizeoutput_4745
Kids on the fence at the Tolga (Atherton) Races

Kilcoy, Gatton, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe. Mount Isa, Yeppoon, Dalby, Warwick.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Looking down the straight at the Mount Isa Races

There will be more.

Con still follows racing, although he rarely puts more than five dollars on a horse. He loves the atmosphere, and the craic; and because he has the memory of an old Irish storyteller, he remembers all his wins. He can recite Melbourne Cup winners from first to last.

And every few years he goes back to the Innisfail races, to see people he grew up with, still sitting there in the betting room with their form guides. “G’day, Connie,” they say. “Haven’t seen you for a while. Where ya been? What do you like in the Cup?”

Tolga Qld Comparing notes
Checking the fields at Tolga

Burketown

Rosevale is beautiful. The old one-teacher school (now closed) and the even older principal’s residence are set on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, with a view over dairy farms to Cunningham’s Gap. We lived in that house for the two years that Con was Principal of the school, but after that I wanted a change.

“Let’s apply for a transfer to somewhere up north. It would be exciting and adventurous. Not the Gulf of Carpentaria, though! I don’t want to go there. It’s probably hot, dry, flat and miserable in the Gulf Country.”

Burketown, a small, isolated town in the heart of the Gulf Country, was where they sent us. It was hot, dry and flat. But it was rarely miserable. Just different.

These days, there are conveniences in Burketown that were unimaginable when we were there: mains power, street lights, treated water, sewerage, a swimming pool complex, a coffee shop, even a green and shady caravan park.

burketown caravan park fbook page
Burketown Caravan Park today. From its Facebook page

For us, shade would be a luxury.

We moved to Burketown in January 1973, with our two small children. The car and our pets went on the train with us from Brisbane to Mt Isa: the dog in the dog box in the Guards Van, cats in the luggage van in pet packs and our HR Holden on a flat-car.

From Townsville to Mt Isa there were no sleeping berths available, so we curled up on a couple of seats at one end of the Buffet Car, with people coming and going all night.

On the train we met a pink-cheeked Irish family, just arrived in Australia and travelling to work at Mount Isa Mines. Arriving next day, we all stepped out of the train into what seemed like an oven. I sometimes think of that Irish family and wonder how they coped.

A couple of days later, we flew to Burketown with Bush Pilots Airways in a twenty-seater Twin Otter. It was a mail run, stopping at Mornington Island and a couple of cattle stations, swooping over the station landing fields to chase horses away before setting down.

At Mornington Island more passengers boarded, a couple of them sitting cross-legged in the aisle. One woman was wearing a broad felt hat with a tape measure as a hatband. I was in southeast Queensland no longer.

At the tiny Burketown airport, the shire clerk met us, and he drove us into town. We left our suitcases in the principal’s house, a neat, new highset house of the style used all over the State for Queensland Government employees. Next door was the recently-built school.

b'town 74 school, principal's house
Burketown State School, with the Principal’s house in the background, 1974

Awaiting the arrival by road of our furniture, we checked in at the pub.

The Burketown pub, known as the Albert Hotel, was in those days a square concrete two-storey building. It had been built originally as Customs House for the then-thriving port on nearby Albert River. The sleeping areas were accessed via an outdoor staircase. We were warned that when the bar closed, the generator, which thumped away all day in the neighbouring shed, would be switched off, and there would be no lights until morning.

There is no quiet like that of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere when the generators stop.

Stars never seem brighter than on a clear night in a town with no streetlights.

There is no heat like that of a tropical night in the middle of summer without fans.

The publican also warned us that there would be no breakfast, as his wife, the cook, was away in Cairns. Next morning in the hotel kitchen I cooked bacon and eggs for us all.

In our three years in Burketown, we got to know the Albert Hotel well, along with its eccentric regulars, animal and human.

A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Whacko sat on top of the doorway into the bar, chewing the heads off matches.

Fishermen and locals spun endless yarns, not only to the new schoolteachers, but also to visiting politicians and media.

A film crew asked a group of locals playing euchre how long they’d been playing. “A couple of weeks,” came the laconic reply.

Once we found a large fresh-water crocodile tied to a post outside the door, like a dog waiting for its owner.

On our second evening in Burketown, when the bar was full and card games in progress, our furniture van arrived and pulled up in front of the pub. The card players offered to help with the unloading.

South-east Queensland had suffered a heatwave over Christmas of 1972 and into the New Year. Con and I had been busy during those hot weeks before leaving the south. Driving round Brisbane with little kids in the back seat, trying to buy a kerosene fridge and a thirty-two volt washing machine, had taken precedence over sorting our belongings. In the end, we’d instructed the removalists to pack everything; and so the blokes from the Burketown pub, in their footie shorts, singlets and thongs, carried electric heaters and winter coats into a house without electricity in the middle of a Gulf Country summer.

fullsizeoutput_3f74
Burketown general store, 1975. So hot inside, condensed milk would caramelise in the can

In our time, there was a hospital, general store, shire offices, fuel depot, school and hotel and not much more in Burketown, and barely a tree or blade of grass; but it was a friendly and welcoming place. The locals told us what sounded like tall stories, but I learned to believe the lot. Crazy things happened here all the time.

fullsizeoutput_3f95
Con and our children in Burketown

We never regretted the move to the Gulf, in spite of insect plagues, the trials of operating the thirty-two-volt generator, kerosene fridge and petrol iron, the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the rough dirt roads, the isolation. Sometimes it was lonely, though. I would stand on the verandah, looking north to where the Gulf lay, out of sight beyond endless desolate salt flats and mangroves, and feel sorry for Burke and Wills, who got this far and then turned back, to die of starvation.

It can feel like the end of the world, up in the Gulf Country.

fullsizeoutput_3fa3
Looking north from the Principal’s house, 1974

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.

lotus creek roadhouse
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.

noel weckert
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.

IMG_7928
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.

fullsizeoutput_3ef3

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑