“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.

The Queensland Border

Our Andy’s gone with cattle now –
Our hearts are out of order
With drought he’s gone to battle now
Across the Queensland border

Henry Lawson 1888

Illustration: Andy’s Gone with Cattle, Pro Hart

Queensland has been thought of by southerners as a frontier sort of state with a beautiful but challenging climate; a place to go to for work, pleasure or adventure. Now, Queensland’s southern border crossings are swamped with people trying to get into the state to avoid COVID-19.

Until this year, the border had not closed since 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic; but this winter, Queensland is like toilet paper was several months ago in the supermarkets: some people will lie, argue, go to enormous trouble and make fools of themselves to get it.

At one o’clock tomorrow morning, the border will, to quote the premier, “snap shut”.

The border crossings across the state have checkpoints manned with local and out-of-town police and defence force personnel. Lots of great stories will come out of these checkpoints when the crisis is over. Tiny towns along the border rivers won’t have had so many people in them for years, if ever. Barringun, on the border south of Cunnamulla on the Mitchell Highway, had a population of seven at the last census. Further east, Hebel, south of Dirranbandi on the Castlereagh Highway, has less than a hundred people. Mungindi, on the Carnarvon Highway south of Saint George and split by the border, has less than a thousand. They all have border checkpoints.

Today, according to ABC Western Queensland’s Facebook page, Queensland Police are warning that quarantine accommodation in these small towns may well be overwhelmed, and therefore border crossings closed completely. They’re recommending that travellers cross at the larger towns, further east.

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A far western border checkpoint  ABC Western Queensland

Along the border west of the coastal ranges, only Goondiwindi, on the junction of the Cunningham and Newell Highways, has more than a thousand people – 6,355 at the 2016 census.

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Border road closed, across the Macintyre River at Goondiwindi Queensland Country Life

This morning, driving through cold rain, my brother Mike returned from New South Wales through Goondiwindi, ahead of tonight’s border closure. After one a.m. tomorrow the only way into Queensland (except for special permit holders, freight transports, essential workers and locals of border towns) will be through Brisbane Airport. Mike joined the queue and waited just thirty minutes to enter Queensland, a much shorter time than many are experiencing, especially at Gold Coast border crossings.

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Queueing at the Goondiwindi checkpoint this morning Photo Mike Fox

West of the Gold Coast and Border Ranges, the checkpoints are on the few main highways. Many smaller crossings right along the border are closed to through traffic already. Others, including streets in small towns, are blocked completely.

Wallangarra, on the New England Highway, once a railway town with an army camp and a meatworks, now has fewer than four hundred people; but currently it has a busy border checkpoint. Jennings, its twin town across the border in New South Wales, has a population of less than 300. Minor streets connecting the towns are closed with concrete blocks.

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Street blocked between Wallangarra and Jennings abc.net.au

This will be a cold night at the Wallangarra checkpoint. The temperature will go down to single figures early tomorrow morning, with rain.

The Queensland railway ends at Wallangarra, with the border line painted across the station platform.

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Wallangarra Station, looking north along the platform over the border line, the Queensland side painted maroon commons.wikimedia.org

This line was once was the only rail connection between Brisbane and Sydney, and at Wallangarra every passenger and item of goods had to be detrained and moved across the platform to another train for the New South Wales Great Northern Line, now defunct, because the railway gauges are different. New South Wales tracks are Standard Gauge – four feet eight and a half inches (1435mm) apart, while Queensland uses narrow gauge: three feet six inches (1067mm). Now interstate trains on the North Coast Line use the standard gauge all the way from Sydney to Brisbane.

Except when a pandemic closes the borders, and the trains stop.

East of Wallangarra, the next border highway checkpoint is on the Mount Lindesay Highway, near Mount Lindesay.

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Border checkpoint, Mount Lindesay http://www.beaudeserttimes.com.au

It will be just as cold there, early tomorrow morning, when the border shuts. I admire the people who’ve manned the border checkpoints, day and night, in all weathers, since Queensland first closed its borders in March. They deserve our respect and thanks. They’ve been patient and alert; and while most road users have been polite, some have been abusive.

And, because so many of us, north and south, need to travel for work, and love to travel for pleasure, I hope all of this disruption will one day be a distant memory.

And may good angels send the rain
On desert stretches sandy
And when the summer comes again
God grant ’twill bring us Andy.

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Checkpoint mypolice.qld.gov.au/darlingdowns

Glimpsing Bradman

On Boxing Day, 1936, in a soft-topped Essex motorcar and towing a trailer full of camping gear, my father Maurice, his two younger brothers, his father, E.B., and his grandfather C.B. left Nambour to drive to Melbourne. The Third Test was due to begin in January 1937, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and they wanted to see Don Bradman bat.

It was to be a two-week road trip – touring, as they called it then – through New South Wales and Victoria. The family often went touring. They didn’t know this would be their last long trip together.

My Dad, Maurice, then an eighteen-year-old, kept a trip journal, full of details that seem quaint to travellers in the twenty-first century: border crossings, road conditions, camping, communications, access to funds along the way.

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Maurice’s trip journal 1936-1937

Now, in June 2020, the year of COVID-19, southerners are stopped at the border, not allowed to cross into Queensland without a special permit.

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“Long delays as Queensland-NSW border closed for first time since Spanish flu in 1919” The Guardian, 26 Mar 2020

In 1936, cars and trucks going from Queensland to New South Wales were stopped and inspected at border gates. New South Wales didn’t want Queenslanders bringing cattle ticks south with them to infest stock. They still don’t.

Queensland has always been seen by southerners as a wild, bizarre place, a frontier region with its own quirky rules. We are the state of cyclones, cane toads, crocodiles, cattle ticks and mad politicians, and we’re oddly proud of that.

In normal times in the twenty-first century, cars drive straight across the borders without a pause; but still, when I cross into New South Wales on the Pacific Motorway, speeding past the big red border sculpture along the Tugun Bypass, or down through the rugged border mountains near Mount Lindesay, or at Wallangarra on the New England Highway, or Goondiwindi on the Newell, it feels like an event, with a little sense of visiting a foreign country; and crossing back into Queensland feels like coming home.

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Qld-N.S.W Border, Tugun goldcoastbulletin.com.au

In 1936, Queensland travellers were advised to obtain an Interstate Motorists Permit before travelling south. Dad’s family crossed the border at Mount Lindesay, and in Armidale, their first stop in New South Wales, according to Maurice’s journal they sought the cop-shop, where a policeman was persuaded to come out and search for engine-numbers, chassis-numbers etc., and to give us an interstate pass and windscreen sticker.

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The Border Gate at Mt Lindesay Frank Hurley, c.1961

They slept that night on the floor of a fruit packing shed outside Armidale, on the property of a family friend. From then on, nights were spent in their tent in what were called Tourist Camping Parks, or at likely spots beside the road wherever it suited them, as you could do in those less regulated days.

In 1936, the population of Australia was less than six million. Now, over twenty million people call Australia home, driving nearly twenty million vehicles, and so we can’t just set up camp wherever we want to anymore.

Roads were narrow and often steep and winding. Even major roads were rough and unsealed in places. There were many railway level crossings on the New England Highway; and instead of speeding high over the Hawkesbury River on the M1 as we do now, travellers crossed by Peat’s Ferry. It nine years later when the river was bridged at that point.

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Launch of the new Peat’s Ferry, 1930 records.nsw.gov.au

Thirty-seven other cars went on the ferry with the family’s Essex, and as they waited in line to board, Maurice and his brothers ate a bottle of local oysters, sold to waiting travellers by enterprising boys. Hawkesbury River oysters. That hasn’t changed.

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Essex Super Six Model E, 1931 – probably the model used on this road trip commons.wikipedia.org

Road trip communications are different now, in ways that were unimaginable then. We use our phones to check directions and distances, traffic conditions and weather; to book accommodation, and listen to music, talking books and podcasts; all while travelling. To check weather conditions before heading to Mount Kosciusko, E.B. booked a trunk call to the weather bureau from Canberra Post Office, and to communicate with home they sent telegrams.

We’ve done over 100,000 kilometres in our Forester, with one puncture. We have it serviced every 12,000 kilometres or so. On highways, cruise control is set at 100 or 110 kph. Maurice and his family, on their 1936-37 trip of 3397 miles (5467 kilometres), changed three tyres because of punctures, stopped three times for grease-ups and oil changes, broke a spring, had the steering adjusted and repairs done to the trailer, and were pleased when on one straight road in Victoria they reached fifty miles (eighty kilometres) an hour.

As we all had to before the arrival of Bank Cards in the late 1970s, they’d sent specimen signatures ahead from their home branch of the Commonwealth Bank so they could withdraw money along the way. No ATMs or plastic cards then.

On 4 January 1937, Maurice and his group at last got to the M.C.G. to see Bradman. They arrived late. As Maurice put it, We went there on the day on which the world’s record cricket crowd – 87,000 – was present. We were among the 17,000 for which there was no room. We caught glimpses of the play – sometimes three quarters of a wicket keeper, or a single fieldsman and a patch of grass. One of the batsmen we could sometimes glimpse was Bradman.     

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Bradman at the crease, Third Test, second innings, Melbourne January 1937 20 Great Ashes Moments No. 4, The Guardian, 9 May 2013

Next day they had to leave for home. With no car radio, they stopped along the way to hear the progress of the Test: in a café in Wangaratta, and again in a park at Albury, where people lay on the bank of the Murray in bathers, listening to the broadcast description of Bradman’s and Fingleton’s fine stand blaring forth from a speaker hung in a tree in the park.

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The Murray River near Albury, 1930s. flickr.com

Next day, at a loudspeaker at a small refreshment stall at Hume Dam, we heard Bradman score the single which took his score to two hundred.

Bradman ended up scoring 270 runs – a record for a number seven batsman; and England lost the Test.

Sixteen days after leaving Nambour, Maurice and the family arrived back home. Maurice typed up the story, added maps and illustrations and had the journal sturdily bound.

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Maurice’s hand-drawn map of the journey through N.S.W.

A month later, he started university. Three years later, he joined the 2/26th infantry battalion. He shipped out of Melbourne in 1941, bound for Singapore, part of the troop build-up in the face of the threat of invasion by Japan.

The following February, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army, and in 1943 Maurice was among the thousands of prisoners of war who were packed into rice wagons and taken north by train to work as slaves, building the infamous Thai-Burma railway.

In October 1945, twenty-seven years old, thin, jaundiced and exhausted, Maurice came home again to Nambour, to Mum, and to their little son.

At once, he bought a new car; and within two years, he and Mum were off on another road trip – the first of a new generation. My earliest memory is standing in the back seat of that little car, as kids did in those less regulated days, looking between my parents’ shoulders at a long, narrow road leading off into the distance.

My Dad got me addicted to road trips early. I’ve never gotten over it.

Good to Go!

This year, when it comes to travel, Queenslanders have few choices. Because of the pandemic, no overseas or interstate travel is allowed, flights within the state are few and expensive, and most long-distance train services are on hold.

So, if we want to travel, we’ll need to hit the road, and we’re being urged to do just that, now that COVID-19 seems to be under control here: to take a road trip, explore Queensland, and support regional tourism. Let’s do it.

This a big state, with huge distances to travel. We can’t do it all in a weekend; but the school holidays are coming up soon. Let’s go – and let’s take the kids!

Queensland has many fascinating, beautiful and well-known places to visit. Here are some of my favourites, and they are places that kids will enjoy.

Chillagoe

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Chillagoe is an old mining town on the Burke Development Road, in dry, rugged country 205 kilometres west of Cairns. With a population of about 250, it’s an interesting place with a wild west feel to it, with caves, strange and rare karst rock formations, heritage-listed ruins of a copper smelter, and the extraordinary Tom Prior Ford Museum.

In the Chillagoe-Mungara Caves National Park, take a tour led by a competent National Parks guide through the spectacular Chillagoe limestone caves.

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Chillagoe limestone caves athertontablelands.com.au

17 kilometres out of town to the west are the Mungara caves, where you can rove through a labyrinth of caves and gorges, past amazing rock formations and Aboriginal art sites.

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Rock paintings at Mungara Caves

They say that the designers of the film “Avatar” based their flying rock islands on the cliffs of Mungara.

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Also in the national park, the atmospheric old smelter ruins look spectacular in evening light amongst the red hills.

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Copper smelter ruins

In the town creek there is a beautiful swimming hole. In summer, so hot here in the tropical inland, it must be irresistible.

On the edge of town, visit Tom Prior’s amazing and eccentric collection of old Fords, in his original mechanic’s shed, open to the public by contribution. I like this kind of museum – years of work by an expert and passionate collector, displayed in its authentic setting.

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Tom Prior’s Ford Museum

Carisbrooke Station

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The Winton area, in Western Queensland, beyond the black soil plains and in the land of spinifex and red bluffs (jump-ups, in local terms), looks wonderful on film. Think of Aaron Pedersen, the lean, gruff detective of 2013 movie “Mystery Road”, poised on the red rock bluffs of Carisbrooke Station, ready for a shoot-out with the villains.

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Aaron Pedersen in “Mystery Road” filmink.com.au

Winton, 1358 kilometres from Brisbane, now has its own film festival: the “Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival”. Also the “Way out West” Music Festival, Outback Writers Festival, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs centre (a must), Waltzing Matilda Centre – and Camel Racing. But the real beauty lies out of town.

Several years ago we took a three-generations family road trip from Brisbane, ending up with a farm stay on Carisbrooke Station. In the late afternoon, tired and hungry, we turned off the Kennedy Development Road forty kilometres west of Winton and drove down a deserted gravel road, trusting that we would eventually find our home for the night. The kids yelled out in excitement when a mob of kangaroos bounded across the road in front of us. Until now, all they’d seen was roadkill.

When we finally pulled in front of our accommodation, we knew that the trip had been worth it. The whole huge bowl of the sky was filled with the reds and pinks of sunset.

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Carisbrooke Station sunset

The corrugated iron workers’ quarters we’d booked had four simple bedrooms, a kitchen/living room, and a barbecue out the front so we could keep looking at that wonderful sky while dinner cooked, until the sunset faded and a million starts appeared in the clear, dry air.

Farmer and guide Charlie took us up on to the jump-up next day, to explore, boil the billy and look out over that magnificent countryside.

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Charlie boiling the billy

We drove up to join the red gravel Winton-Jundah Road and visit Lark Quarry Conservation Park, site of the famous dinosaur stampede – inspiration for the stampede of large and small dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park”.

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Site of the Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede

On the road back to Winton, we met one of the mining road trains that we’d been warned used this road. It was trailing a huge cloud of dust. People have died in head-to-head collisions in these dust clouds.

Pulling off the road, we waited while the trucks thundered past and red dust blocked the sun, settling on the cars and into every crack and crevice.

Next day, back in Longreach, the cars were loaded on the Spirit of the Outback and we started the twenty-four-hour train journey back to Brisbane.

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Cars loaded on the train at Longreach

It’s a loss for the tourist industry in Longreach and Cairns and elsewhere that travellers can no longer drive one way and load their cars on to the train for the return journey. For working families and school kids, time is limited. To spend three more days driving back to Brisbane would have made our family trip impossible.

Charleville

Years ago, so I’m told, when the Commonwealth government was granting money to outback towns to develop tourist attractions, Charleville, 745 kilometres west of Brisbane, was offered money for a Cobb and Co. Museum. The locals thought it over, and had a better idea. At the local high school were teachers keen on astronomy, and there were other enthusiasts in the district. The climate in Western Queensland is perfect for star-gazing – open skies and dry, clear air. Why not start an observatory instead? So the Cosmos Centre was established at Charleville, and Toowoomba got the Cobb and Co. Museum.

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Big Sky Observatory at the Cosmos Centre, Charleville queensland.com

On a cold winter night we went to the Cosmos Centre for a session at their Big Sky Observatory. We sat with blankets over our knees, among families and children, taking turns to look through telescopes operated by remote control to focus on particular galaxies and planets, while the well-informed staff told us what we were looking at. Above us the Milky Way sprawled across the sky.

Next day, we visited another Charleville highlight, the Bilby Experience: a not-for-profit centre dedicated to the preservation of those cute local creatures, with a chance to get up close to them, support their protection and buy a bilby t-shirt.

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Charleville Bilby Experience abc.net.au

In Charleville we stayed at the famous and spectacular 1920s Corones Hotel. For children, having the run of a big, old country pub is great experience.

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Corones Hotel, Charleville

Con and I slept in a room with a private terrace, original furniture and tiled bathroom, once occupied by visiting celebrities such as solo aviator Amy Johnson, and singer Gracie Fields, brought in to entertain the American troops stationed here during the war. Harry Corones, the Greek immigrant who built the hotel, was an ardent supporter and original shareholder in QANTAS, which began here in central-western Queensland.

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Original Souvenir Booklet for Corones Hotel guests

With its 60 metres long central corridor, its original bar room and ballroom, stained glass and brass and timber fittings, this once-luxurious hotel, the wonder of the west, has seen hard times, but new owners are bringing it back to life.

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Fine details in Corones Hotel

We took a guided tour of the old hotel – startled to find that our (untidy) room would be part of the tour.

These fine old country towns have suffered from changing conditions, the downturn in the wool industry, loss of banks and shops and young people; but they are full of staunch locals and interesting sights. When the premier says, “Queensland, you’re good to go!!” it’s places like these she is urging us to visit.

And when we get home to the coastal towns and cities where most of us live, and we begin to wash the dust off the car, we’ll pause, and feel a sense of pride that we’ve been out there, far from home, supporting our fellow Queenslanders, and having fine adventures along the way. And the kids will never forget it.

If they need reminding, they just need to go to the movies.

 

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On the road

 

Wool Sacks Epidemic

Empty wool sacks were stacked high in the huge, corrugated iron wool shed, returned from wool stores in the city and ready to be refilled next shearing season. When their father, Fred, took the kids with him on a visit to the shed they would play on the piled wool sacks, jump on them, hide under them, put them over their heads.

Fred was the manager of Tara sheep station, outside Barcaldine. It was 1929, and his second child, my mother Pat, was nine years old.

ED6609A7-13BD-4BC0-A354-C102157AC36F Bottle tree and canvas water bag, Tara homestead, 2000

Wool prices were strong. Later that year, Wall Street would crash and the Great Depression would loom. Life would change suddenly for millions world-wide; but for now, Fred’s four children enjoyed a fine and privileged childhood, with a big homestead and garden, dogs and ponies, peacocks, a billy goat cart, fresh meat, milk, vegetables and fruit produced on the station, and the occasional visit to town, a few kilometres away.

4EA2895E-2A5F-4839-988F-0A3E49D2BC70_1_201_a Pat on her pony, in front of the old Tara homestead c.1929

 

Living on a sheep station in central western Queensland, where the air is dry, populations are small and distances are huge, the children were healthy, rarely suffering so much as a common cold.

Then Pat caught diphtheria.

Before effective and widespread vaccination, this was a dreaded disease, especially among children. According to Queensland Health,

With respiratory diphtheria a person can experience a sore throat, fever, enlarged lymph nodes and swelling of the soft tissues on both sides of the neck sometimes referred to as a ‘bull neck’. Within two or three days a membrane (a white or grey film) forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it difficult for the person to swallow and breathe.[1]

This is a bacterial disease, and that grey film is toxic.

There were vaccines, but they could be problematic. In 1928, there had been a tragic occurrence in Bundaberg when a batch of the diphtheria vaccination had become contaminated, and twelve children died.

Dangerously ill, Pat was admitted to the isolation ward of Barcaldine’s Victoria Hospital, along with three other infected children.

diphtheria victoria hosp c 1930 Barcaldine Hospital, c. 1930

One evening she or one of the other children reached a crisis, and Dr James Cook, who had been the hospital superintendent since 1898[2], was called urgently to the isolation ward. According to the local newspaper: …in going across to the isolation ward in the dark about 8 p.m. the doctor fell over a form or some other obstacle and sustained a severe wrench or dislocation to his hip. The Doctor is now an inmate of the hospital.[3]

Dr Cook was months in hospital in Brisbane and never returned to work.

As Pat recovered, the family could only wave to her from outside the hospital fence. Her mother sent baskets of fruit and vegetables to the hospital from the Tara gardens. In time she was well enough to go home, but her heart muscle had been strained.

In 1976, and because her heart had weakened by her childhood diphtheria, Pat died of a heart attack, aged just fifty-six.

The isolation wing at Barcaldine’s Victoria Hospital had been built in 1921, after the Spanish Influenza viral epidemic swept the world.

In mid-1919, ten years before Pat had her battle with diphtheria, the ‘flu had come to Barcaldine. Her grandfather Frank, manager of the Queensland National Bank in Barcaldine, caught it, along with his wife and son. Frank died. According to the family story, Frank was already ill with kidney disease – a “pre-existing condition”, in our current language. Pat’s father Fred, Frank’s son-in-law, wrote to his brother about the death.

…he died about 11.15 on Wednesday night, and from what I can understand, just previous to dying he suffered great agony. I believe the cause of death was heart failure as at the latter end only half of his heart was working.

A report in Barcaldine’s newspaper, The Western Champion, seems familiar today, as we again face a world-wide epidemic.[4]

A proclamation was issued by the Government on Friday, ordering that, from the 30th of May and until the 31st of July next or such later date as may be prescribed every Church, Sunday school, school, or college, place of public amusement or resort, theatre, hall, dancing room, gymnasium, or other place or premises where people regularly or occasionally congregate for worship, education, meeting, amusement, entertainment, dancing, physical culture, or athletics shall be closed to the public.

diphtheria flu masks 1919 Women wearing surgical masks during influenza epidemic, Brisbane 1919 “Influenza pandemic”, nma.gov.au

In Barcaldine alone there were over one hundred sufferers. Anyone with symptoms was told to report to Dr Cook, and if deemed to have the ‘flu they were put into isolation in their own homes or in the isolation hospital established in the Shire Hall. Patients were urged to strictly obey the doctor’s orders.

diphtheria barcie shire hall slq Barcaldine Shire Hall State Library of Queensland

The Queensland public were reassured that the epidemic would run its course and if they followed instructions the effects would be minimised.

All so familiar to us now, a century later. The media of communication have changed, though, and this week on the Barcaldine Regional Council’s Facebook page, C.E.O. Steven Boxall has been speaking via YouTube about washing hands and safe distances, local closures, and new procedures at the airport.

Typhoid fever, scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, the plague, polio, tuberculosis, influenza: Australia has had to cope with many epidemics, and quarantine stations were set up in every state to prevent both the arrival of diseases in the country and their spread.

This year’s COVID-19 epidemic is another in a long line. Who knows what it will bring in its wake?

They never found out how Pat caught diphtheria, out on that isolated property. Perhaps it was a visiting carrier. Throat swabs of suspected carriers were carried out frequently.

However, according to the Queensland Health website, while the disease is known to be spread in “respiratory droplets or direct contact with respiratory secretions or infected exudate of infected person or carrier”, it can also be spread through “contact with articles soiled with discharges from lesions of infected people.”[5]

According to the family, it was in the wool sacks.

38DD8C81-CFB9-4039-9845-95CA56A0280B Shearing stations, Tara station woolshed, 2000

[1] http://conditions.health.qld.gov.au/HealthCondition/condition/14/33/40/diphtheria

 

[2] https://barcaldine-peopleplacesthings.org/government-services/victoria-hospital/

[3] The Western Champion, 18 May 1929.

[4] The Western Champion, 7 June 1919

[5] https://www.health.qld.gov.au/cdcg/index/diphtheria

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