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.
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.
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.
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.
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.