Mackay Crocodiles

“Daily Mercury”, Mackay. 30 July 1913

The search for Mr George Noble, who wandered from his home near The Leap at the beginning of the month, has now been abandoned without the slightest trace of the missing man having been discovered. The missing man might have been taken by alligators, his farm being situated between Reliance and Constant Creeks, the waters of which are infested with these reptiles. Native dogs also frequent the neighbourhood and may have attacked the man once he became helpless through exposure. Mr Noble was a man of 78 years of age and in his declining years had become rather childish. He evidently lost his way through wandering off on a bye-track.

Reliance Creek National Park now protects one of the last patches of scrub along the creek, not far from its estuary between Mackay and Cape Hillsborough. A century ago, although already surrounded by farms and sugarcane fields, this area, dense with vines and palms, would have been a dangerous place to be lost.

mackay reliance creek nat park mackay conservation group
Mackay Conservation Group explores Reliance Creek National Park

In 1883, George and Jane Noble had emigrated to Mackay from Newcastle on Tyne, England, with their children. They settled on the farm at The Leap, amongst the cane fields and wilderness north of Mackay. It was thirty years later, in his old age, that George disappeared. The search involved local people, police and a tracker, but nothing was ever found.

Perhaps somewhere out in the Reliance Creek estuary there is a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth lying hidden under the sand, lost by poor old George Noble, his Geordie accent stilled forever, far from the Tyne.

George and Jane Noble were the great-grandparents of my husband Con, and only a vague story of the old man wandering off and disappearing was passed down in the family.

Every year in Northern Australia, people are taken by crocodiles. North Queenslanders have lost access to many of their old favourite swimming holes because of them. Endlessly cynical about governments in the south, they say whenever an appeal for crocodile culling is turned down, “When the first croc appears in the Noosa River, they’ll change their minds!”

Or the beaches of the Gold Coast. Perhaps the Brisbane River, near the Tower of Power, home of state government administration, poised above the river at 1 William Street. A crocodile under the mangrove boardwalk there would cause a stir.

Queensland has a service called “Crocwatch” that people ring to report crocodile sightings. Every year there are many such calls, from Torres Strait to Rockhampton. This year, someone said they saw a crocodile at Tin Can Bay, which is scarily close to south Queensland waters.

mackay croc-country
Qld Government’s “Crocwatch” map

This year there have been twenty-five recorded crocodile sightings in the Mackay region, near swimming enclosures along the coast, up the creeks and the Pioneer River, and one in Constant Creek, near where George disappeared.

On trips north to Cairns we’ve often spent a night in Mackay, where the cattle country to the south changes to the land of sugarcane, coconut palms and rainforest. It’s fine old city, and a good place to break a journey. This is spectacular country, from the beautiful beaches, up the sprawling Pioneer Valley to the rainforest-covered ranges of Finch-Hatton and Eungella. The climate has extremes – from cyclones and floods to the occasional fall of snow on the ranges.

This year, just before reaching Mackay we turned west on the road to Walkerston, then right on to Mackay Eungella Road, and drove up the Pioneer River valley, through picturesque small towns – Marian, Mirani, Pinnacle, Finch Hatton.

581BB516-EEB8-4002-A387-BF2A77F5ED33_1_201_a
The Pioneer River at Marian

Con’s mother Min grew up here. George Noble’s son Bill and his wife Mary became cane farmers in this valley, still one of Queensland’s richest sugarcane areas. Bill farmed at Alexandra, on the Palms Estate, a large area of farms located about ten kilometres south-west of Mackay, somewhere between Walkerston and the river.

In 1908 it was from this family farm that Bill and Mary drove away in a buggy to Mackay Hospital. Mary was to have an operation for a goitre in her neck. She died under the anaesthetic. She and Bill had six children under nine, and it was hard times for the bereaved family.

F46C1516-64C7-4F34-87DF-B8C1873CFE45_4_5005_c
Mackay District Hospital, 1910 (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min was the second-eldest child, and she told us stories about life on the farm.

She spoke of the time her little brother, Jim, lost two fingers in a chaff cutter.

She spoke of city men, desperate for work as the Great Depression started to bite, who came here with soft hands and cut cane with blood running down their arms until their blisters turned into calluses.

9E6749DF-53E1-42A7-B261-B9DD605A9341_4_5005_c
Cutting sugar cane (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min spoke of going to dances at nearby Walkerston or Marian. During the Wet, when the roads were cut, to get there they would travel along the cane train tracks on a pumper trolley.

This year it’s dry in the Pioneer Valley, like most of the state. Last December, for the first time, bushfires got into the iconic rainforest on the Eungella range. It was a shock to us all. Rainforest don’t burn, we thought.

CFE12488-DC2A-407A-AE05-7FBDFF5E4B4F
Eungella Range: fire damage from December 2018

The barman in the Finch Hatton pub, where we enjoyed a beer and toasted sandwiches, looked up at the hillside across the road and said, “It was burning right to the top of that range. Up the Gorge as well. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’ll grow back, though. It always does.”

I hope he’s right, but rainforest trees, unlike eucalypts, are not adapted to burning. This September, South-east Queensland’s Binna Burra rainforest also burned, along with its heritage-listed lodge. Perhaps we’ll have to become accustomed to fires in ancient forests.

B7CBC891-E637-45A3-B20B-297C5AE3214C
Coomera Falls, Binna Burra, 2018

When you take the winding Mackay Eungella Road up the range, the scars of last year’s fire are still visible, although green is emerging. Over the range and down to Broken River, the forest is untouched, with platypuses in the river and whip birds scratching among the leaf litter; but we’ve had a shocking taste of how things may be in the future.

Crocodile attacks might be the least of worries for the people of Queensland, both north and south.

Mackay, though, is beautiful, in all its faces; and one of the loveliest sights in Queensland is that of kangaroos on the spectacular beaches of Cape Hillsborough, only a few kilometres north of where old George Noble’s specs may still lie hidden in the sand.

mackay cape hills kanga(Queensland.com)
Cape Hillsborough (Image: Queensland.com)

Willy Wagtails

The farmhouse has sugarcane fields on three sides and a cane train track opposite. As we turn off the old Bruce Highway, our son Joe opens the gate and the dog runs barking to greet us.

Later, we stand in the yard and talk, watching evening fall over the mountains as our grandsons have a final play on the swings. A cane train rumbles by. Flocks of starlings swoop down and settle on the grass, then fly off to the power lines. The air is full of birdcalls and the whooshing sound of the breeze in the cane fields, as constant as waves on a beach.

One birdcall is insistent – the chatter of willy wagtails. Above the front door is a tiny, round nest, with three pointed beaks sticking over its rim. The wagtails have babies. The parents are chattering to warn off potential threats.

Like everyone else in Queensland, I’ve known birds all my life – pelicans, crows, magpies, pee-wees and rainbow lorikeets – but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to take an interest. Bird-watching is one of those hobbies, like family history, that comes upon us as we have leisure to take notice of the smaller, less urgent things in life.

Years ago, I bought a Simpson and Day bird book, now stained and worn. Swamp hens and crested pigeons, honeyeaters and wattlebirds, apostle birds and blue-faced honeyeaters, spangled drongos and the common koel: now we know them all, by sight and by their calls.

One of my favourites, and one of the prettiest, quirkiest and most commonly-seen, is the crested pigeon, that stripy, colourful bird with pink feet and a jaunty crest of feathers on its head that walks around making soft whoops, and when disturbed takes off with a creaking, metallic sound in its wings.

IMG_20190312_161559_resized_20190312_042723766
Willy wagtail and crested pigeon, raku ware by Linda Bates, Cadaghi Pottery, NQ

The Simpson and Day has become our travel log, reminding us that in Halls Gap we saw a spotted pardalote, and when walking out to Nobby’s Head, Newcastle, we came across a flock of ruddy turnstones, pecking among pebbles on the shoreline.fullsizeoutput_40df

We see interesting birds everywhere on our regular road trips. Everywhere, that is, except in those temperate climate towns that have filled their parks and gardens with exotic trees – liquidambers, oaks, poplars, willows, plane trees – and cleared out all the eucalypts. They’re beautiful in autumn, those foreign trees, but our native birds don’t like them. In those towns, sparrows and Indian mynahs are often the only birds to be seen.

fullsizeoutput_40dc
Plane trees in the park, Coonabarabran, NSW

Now, waking up on our first morning, I listen to the hissing whistle of old friends – tiny, beautiful, blue and yellow sunbirds.

sunbird Cinnyris_jugularis_(male)_-Singapore_Botanic_Gardens-8
Olive-backed sunbird en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive-backed_sunbird

I also hear unfamiliar calls – bell-like whistles and cheeps. Con and I take a stroll down the cane train track and spot, perched on long fronds of grass, the birds making those mysterious sounds – beautiful little fellows with orange chests and black and white stripes. Chestnut-breasted mannikins.

We’re excited, but Joe snorts in disgust.

He regards bird watching as an old people’s habit, involving irritating language and sudden halts to stare at the sky or peer into the undergrowth, mutterings about crested shrike-tits, or white-browed babblers.

“Hear that che-che-che?” I ask Joe. “That’s a crimson finch!”

He grunts and returns to his on-line news stream.

I could tell him about a chiming wedgebill we heard in a car park at Shark Bay, Western Australia. It said, “Why did you get drunk?” just as the bird book told us it would. Joe wouldn’t want to know.

He can’t help liking the willy-wagtails, though, being a new parent himself. Mother and father bird are on duty all day long, bringing insects back to the nest to feed those three wide-open little beaks, and angrily hunting away anyone or anything that comes near the nest.

A couple of days later they move their three fuzzy babies out of the nest and into a shrub near the front fence. Next morning, in spite of all the protection and feeding, there are only two babies to be seen; and the next day, just one. The predators of the cane fields have been busy.

In the evening, we take a walk again, down the headland between the cane fields. A pigeon flies over, and Con turns his binoculars to the sky. “It’s a bronzewing!” he says with pleasure.

From deep in a scrub-filled gully, we hear the familiar, dying-away “Woop woop woop woop woop” of a pheasant coucal.

I’ll send Joe a bird book of his own. He won’t use it, but we grandparents will, whenever we visit. And we’ll show our little grandsons some of the interesting and beautiful creatures that surround us everywhere in Australia, whether we notice them or not.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑