“The Worst Time of Year for a Journey”

In 1974 we flew to Cairns for the Easter break, little Lizzie and Matt and I. We’d left our car in Cairns after the Christmas holidays because all roads back to Burketown were flooded and impassable, that historically wet summer. My plan was to pick up the car and drive to Townsville, collecting Granny O’Brien at Innisfail on the way.

Con was on his way from Burketown to Townsville in a friend’s ute, with two other men. It would be one of the first cars to attempt the bush roads after the wet season, and he had a story to tell that Good Friday evening in Townsville: of getting hung up on rocks when crossing a place called Fiery Creek on a road that hadn’t seen a grader since before the Wet; of dragging out rocks and mud from under the ute; of a fellow-traveller with a bad hangover, throwing up in the bushes while the others got plastered in mud.

I also had a story to tell. Our Holden hadn’t been used for months, and something had gone wrong with the brakes. To avoid over-heating them I’d had to crawl at a nervous 50kph the whole 350 kilometres to Townsville, including over the steep Cardwell Range. Granny and I and the two children arrived in Townsville exhausted and in the dark.

…and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place…

During COVID restrictions last year, our family began socially distanced fire pit gatherings in Lizzie’s suburban backyard, with poetry readings for entertainment. Last month she chose a poem which reminded her of the road trips from her childhood. It was that classic of English literature: “The Journey of the Magi”, by T.S. Eliot.

COVID fire pit

I’ve know this poem since school, with its religious imagery and sombre, unsettling power; but Lizzie read it with a new, entertaining twist. She compared the harrowing, winter journey of the Three Wise Men to our old trips around Queensland. It is just so true.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

“Three Wise Men”, Henry Collier fineartamerica.com

There wasn’t much cold in our trips, but we often travelled at the worst time of the year, the hot, wet season – and the ways were indeed often deep with water or mud. At Christmas and New Year we moved to or from isolated parts of the state in either punishing heat or pouring rain, or both, as Con was transferred from school to school as principal. For a break from isolation, for visits to family and a taste of coastal comforts, we took holidays at that time of year too.

Like the Magi’s, our journeys weren’t always easy.

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

Living and working in an isolated place, you may have nowhere to stay when you’re away on holiday. After a week or so with relations or friends, sharing beds and mattresses on the floor, you long for a place of your own.

For Christmas 1973, we’d driven the 2100-kilometre trip from Burketown to Brisbane, with our small children, staying with family; but we soon yearned for the holiday flat we’d booked in Cairns, a three-day trip north. In January 1974 we set off, in the face of warnings of floods and cyclones, just a few weeks before Brisbane suffered catastrophic floods.

On the old Marlborough Stretch, a 240-kilometre section of the Bruce Highway that looped west through lonely cattle country between Marlborough and Sarina, the rivers and creeks north and south of us flooded. We were marooned.

In my story Horror Stretch I’ve described it all – how we spent one night in the car, the next in a broken-down caravan behind a roadhouse. The roadhouse managers charged us to toast the bread we provided for breakfast and shared with other travellers. Then we started north again to wait on the banks of Funnel Creek with all the other travellers for the floods to go down.

Funnel Creek in flood 1974 Pic: Doug Rumsey queenslandplaces.com.au

Hospitality and tourism staff these days are usually well-trained locals or cheerful young foreign backpackers, but you can still encounter lonely, fed-up people, slipshod service, even hostility. The concept of “service” is part of the problem. As in, “You city people come through here expecting us to wait on you. We’re not your servants!”

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

If we stayed in a pub, back then, the beer would be cold, but for “The Ladies”, it was Johnny Walker, brandy, gin or sweet sherry – in the Ladies Lounge.

There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Barista coffee?

“Where do you think you are, mate? Queen Street?”

In a 21st century country motel you’ll probably have a good bed and hot water in the shower, and even a decent air-conditioner; but you may find the pool is green, and the promised free Wi-Fi works only next to the office, not down in Room 23.


Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Often before a long trip, by car in Australia or flying overseas, I’ve thought, “Why are we doing this?

“Why are we leaving our safe home to trust ourselves to bad roads and bad drivers; to a twenty-four-hour flight in a crowded plane; to the risk of lost luggage, tedious queues, passport controls, sickness in a foreign country?

“Why are we spending money we should be saving on a frivolity like travel?”

It is folly; but it’s interesting and exciting. We see things we could never have imagined if we’d stayed home. Snow on the Grand Canyon. Oak trees in Richmond Park, UK.

Snow falling at the Grand Canyon USA

And sometimes it’s the only way we can see our far-flung family.

Measuring an oak tree in Richmond Park UK with the family. This one is 3 hundred years old by our measure…

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

These days the highway from Marlborough to Sarina is shorter, flood-proof and closer to the coast. There is one thing I miss about the old road, though. At the northern end, we would abruptly leave the dry country behind and wind down into the green Tropics- to palm trees and cane fields, sugar mills and rain trees and the relief of safe arrival.

View from the Sarina Range queenslandplaces.com.au

Perhaps one day we’ll brave the “Horror Stretch” again, just for that arrival into Sarina, humid and smelling of vegetation. Not too much of the wet, though.


All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again…

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…

Our grown-up children remember those long trips, with all their delights and discomforts, stresses and miseries and fun. Now they and their children are travellers too, and we all tend to feel discontented if we have to stay in one place for too long.

For months of this last year, Matt and his family have been locked down in the COVID-plagued European cold. They’d love to be in a hot, crowded car, coming down into the green, sunny Queensland tropics once again.

The Journey of the Magi

T S Eliot, 1927

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Cairns

I’m walking along the Cairns Esplanade, past the hospital. It’s a classic tropical scene with coconut palms, figs trees and lush plantings. The tide is out, and beyond a narrow strip of sand, mud stretches two hundred metres out to the waterline. Sea birds stalk on their long legs and webbed feet, pecking for worms and crabs. A blue sky is reflected in patterns of mud and water, and the calm sea behind gleams like pewter, right across Trinity Bay to the forests of the Yarrabah Range.

D39C46BE-AFC8-41F4-A8A7-DE5B186AF171
Trinity Bay, Cairns, from the Esplanade

Opposite the hospital, a man in a yellow work vest stops me. “There’s a helicopter coming in,” he says. “It won’t take long, but we need to keep people away from the helipad for a few minutes.”

I stand with other walkers and watch. I hadn’t noticed before, but there is a helipad set into the broad grassy parkland across the road from the hospital buildings. “That’s strange,” I say to the man in the yellow vest. “Usually hospital helipads are on the roof of the hospital.”

“They can’t do that here,” he replies. “It’s too close to the flight path from the airport.”

Guards have stopped cyclists on the bike track, too. Across the road, in the hospital entrance, another uniformed man, wearing earmuffs, waits beside a wheeled stretcher. I hear a helicopter coming in from the west, and soon it lowers itself on to the helipad. It’s a large Queensland Government Air rescue helicopter.

cairns helicopter 3
The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter ready to evacuate a patient from a remote property to Cairns Hospital

Crew in navy blue uniforms climb out of the helicopter as the traffic is stopped and the stretcher is brought across the road from the hospital. A middle-aged man in a high-vis work shirt and straggly goatee beard is loaded on, sitting propped up as he is wheeled back to the hospital.

The helicopter takes off, the men in yellow vests disappear, and we all continue our walking, jogging or cycling along the Esplanade as if nothing had happened.

cairns hospital
Jogger passing Cairns Hospital helicopter pad

Cairns Hospital services a huge geographical area, most of it wild and sparsely populated. Patients are transported here from as far away as Croydon, over five hundred kilometres to the west, from Thursday Island, eight hundred kilometres to the north, and even further. From here, patients requiring the most complex care are transferred to Brisbane, eighteen hundred kilometres south. The hospital can provide up to five hundred beds, making it a major regional facility. And its windows offer a view of palm trees and the Coral Sea.

I’ve been a patient here myself. Years ago, Con and I lived at Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, as it was known then, a forty-five-minute drive from Cairns. I’d worked hard one day hacking at the guinea grass and weeds that grew along the creek running by our house, and went to bed as usual that evening; but by next morning I was unconscious, and Con drove me urgently to the emergency department here at Cairns. At four o’clock that afternoon I woke up in the Intensive Care ward, startled by the sight in the next bed of a man wrapped completely in plaster and bandages, his limbs in hoists. He’d been in a plane crash.

While I’d been unconscious, I’d had an encephalogram and a lumbar puncture. The doctors concluded that I’d been bitten by some unknown tropical insect and had had a nasty response.

For the following twelve months I suffered debilitating attacks of vertigo, and it still troubles me from time to time. In North Queensland, it’s not just obvious things like crocodile attacks and jellyfish stings that can hurt you.

Con is a North Queenslander by birth. A tropical plant, as I tell him. He was born in Innisfail, an hour’s drive south of Cairns.

“Did you come to Cairns much when you were a kid?” I ask him.

“Sometimes. We’d come up here in the old man’s Ford ute, to rugby league games.”

“I didn’t know your dad was involved with rugby league.”

“Yes, he was president of Innisfail Rugby League Club for a while. League was strong there.”

Rugby league is strong everywhere in Queensland, but in regional areas there’s a special enthusiasm. In Townsville, in recent mayoral elections, an informal vote had an extra name pencilled on to the voting slip, with a “1” in the box and next to it, “Johnathan Thurston”, then star of the North Queensland Cowboys.

cairns thurston
Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections

cairns thurston 2
Johnathan Thurston, North Queensland Cowboys

Cairns has always been a lively place, both busy regional centre and tourist hotspot, the best-known place to come if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef. As an American woman said to me at Uluru, “I went to Cairns first, then here. The Reef and the Rock – that’s all I want to see in Australia. I’m off home now.”

We’ve stayed in many parts of Cairns over the years, but the north-western stretch of the Esplanade (the ‘Nade to locals) is my favourite – beyond the tourist restaurants and biggest hotels, across the road from the seaside parklands and within walking distance of the centre of town. Towards Trinity Inlet and the cruise boat terminals is the spectacular swimming lagoon, built to relieve the frustrations of locals and tourists who find themselves beside the sea on a hot day, but unable to swim in it because of the mud – and the crocodiles.

cairns lagoon
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

The tropical plantings along Shield Street and Abbott Street are lush and beautiful, and it’s a treat to wander through Rusty’s Bazaar markets, with its tropical produce and hippy vibe; but I avoid the cheerless souvenir shops selling nothing made in Cairns, or even in Australia.

cairns_rustys-markets_own
Rusty’s Bazaar

More interesting are the renowned Cairns Botanic Gardens at Edge Hill, the Tanks Arts Centre now occupying the old fuel tanks tucked in behind the hill during the war, and Centenary Lakes, with its boardwalks and walking tracks and a wonderful, wild Nature Playground.

cairns tanks
Tanks Arts Centre

Joe, like his father, is a tropical plant, born in Townsville and just ten days old when we moved to Yarrabah. I’ll never forget the day we first drove over the range and down the steep descent into the town, stopping at the lookout to admire the view over Mission Bay to Fitzroy Island. The Yarrabah Range is covered in rainforest. It is beautiful, and the road is steep. Here and there beside the road are large stones, known as handbrakes, which can be used to put behind the wheels of your car if you break down halfway up the hill. Occasionally a cassowary strolls out of the forest and across the road.

In Yarrabah, we lived in a Queensland government residence, with a view out to sea, the steep, forested hillside behind us, and the sound of a waterfall close by. It was a tropical paradise; although for the local people life was, and is, often hard. I would drive to Cairns once a fortnight, to do the banking and grocery shopping, and I always took little Joe with me, to visit Rusty’s Bazaar and eat icecream on the Esplanade. Now Joe lives in the north, and he takes his own children to Cairns, to play in the waterpark and watch the birds on the mudflats.

It’s amazing what a pull this place has, with its brooding greenery and humid tropical air, its rain-forested hillsides and calm sea. If you were born a local, or even spend a few years here, it has the atmosphere of home.

I can recommend the hospital, too.

cairns cent lakes
Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

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.

IMG_20180910_161225_resized_20180910_041345488

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.

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