Driving from Brisbane and heading for Cairns a year or so ago we turned off the Bruce Highway at Childers to visit some relations in Bundaberg, planning to spend the night in a motel in the centre of the city. After waving goodbye to Con’s cousin I tapped the motel’s name into my phone. The sat nav directed us through the suburbs as I expected it to; but then it sent us north across the Burnett River.
I know the Bundaberg CBD is on the south bank of the river. Just as the CBDs are in those other two major Queensland river cities, Rockhampton and Mackay.
Putting on my glasses I had a closer look at the phone. Distance to the motel: 620 kilometres.
I’d accidentally booked a motel in Mackay.
All the Bundaberg motels had No Vacancy signs, and we ended up driving back to Childers for the night.
On another trip I booked a place in Gayndah when I meant to book one in Gin Gin. There are so many Colonial Motels, Country Comfort Motels, Seaview and Ocean View, Heritage and Midtown Motels across the country, it’s easy to get confused.
That Bundaberg motel mistake happened a few years ago, and last year we took a more leisurely trip north and decided to visit Bundaberg to stay for a few days. I booked a room in the Matilda Motel, making sure it was the one in Bundaberg, not the Matilda Motel in Winton or the one in Dubbo…
The fine old sugar town of Bundaberg is known for its ginger beer, but it’s Bundaberg Rum the town promotes itself by. Once a thriving port, it has some beautiful civic buildings, banks and hotels, and heritage listed bridges.
We took in dinner and the Trivia Night at the Old Bundy Tavern, overlooking the river. This elegant brick hotel with its verandahs and stained glass windows was built in 1917 as the Hotel Bundaberg.
Best of all for me, as a fan of old infrastructure, is a wonderful 1902 brick water tower in East Bundaberg, heritage listed and still in use.
There’s a sugar industry museum in beautiful old Fairymead House; and you can take a ride on a cane train. I love a train ride.
All of Queensland’s old river port cities, Mackay, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Maryborough and Brisbane itself, are built on flood plains. The Burnett River has a catchment area of some 33,000 square kilometres, including Gayndah and Monto, and it all flows down to Bundaberg. The city has been flooded many times. The worst happened in January 2013, and it was apocalyptic. The CBD flooded and an estimated 600 businesses were inundated, as well as many houses.
People living in North Bundaberg were told to leave their homes. Evacuation was mandatory, but many people said, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. North Bundaberg never floods.”
This flood was different, and higher, and in the end hundreds had to be rescued by helicopter.
In 2014, the year after the flood, we drove through Gayndah and visited the small museum there and heard how that same Burnett River flood ripped trees out of the riverbanks, filled the museum with mud and flowed through the shed full of prized old agricultural machinery. “Backpackers helped us clean up. We couldn’t have done it without them,” the museum staff told us.
Last year it was Maryborough’s turn to go under. Twice, within six weeks. These old regional river cities are beautiful, but beware the floods.
Lately, vast areas of Queensland have been covered in brown water. The dust from our recent western trip is still on our tyres, but many of the roads we drove on are now cut by floods. The Cunningham Highway and the border rivers areas went under last week: Warwick, Stanthorpe, Texas, Yelarbon. Inglewood was inundated and 800 people, the entire population, were evacuated in the middle of the night.
It’s hot and sunny in all these areas today, and people are cleaning up that stinking mud.
Goondiwindi waited anxiously for the flood to reach them.
The water in the Macintyre River rose overnight, and the question was, as always: will the levee bank keep the water out of town? It did, but was a near thing. Many outlying houses and farms went under.
Two months ago we were in Winton, and the entire countryside was in drought. Since then, they’ve had around 100mm of rain. The dry desert jump-up we drove up to in September, the location for the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, had waterfalls cascading down its cliffs two weeks ago.
If your peaches and apricots are ready to pick, or your beautiful wheat crop due for harvest, these storms and flooding rains have been a disaster; but still, to have the rivers and farm dams overflowing with brown water after so long a drought is a miracle.
In the hilly, rainforest country of coastal Queensland, brown flood water is soon gone from rivers and creeks and they return to their normal clear and beautiful condition.
In the rolling downs and flat country that makes up most of the state, the black soil country and red dirt country, the creeks and rivers rarely run clear; but these muddy western rivers and creeks are clean of pollution and rich with life. Locals and travellers love to camp on their banks to fish and swim.
In Longreach, tourist boats explore the Thomson River; and Goondiwindi has a 210ha Water Park, a stretch of creek designated for power boats, water-skiing and swimming. Not this week though.
After leaving Winton in early October, we drove south into the Channel Country and spent the night at Windorah, near Cooper Creek.
In the garden of the small but interesting local museum sits the flood boat that was used over many years on the intricate channels of the Channel Country, carrying supplies to the marooned and rescuing people, and their animals too.
Leaving Windorah, we headed down the quiet Kyabra Creek Road, a recently sealed short cut leading to the tiny town of Eromanga. Eromanga is growing famous for the massive dinosaur fossils discovered in the area, and for its Natural History Museum, where they are preserved and assessed. Dinosaur tourism provides a financial boost to much of western Queensland.
We met no traffic along the way, saw no sign of habitation, until we reached Kyabra Creek. There, we were startled to come across a large encampment of caravans, tents and four-wheel drive vehicles along the banks of a wide, milk coffee coloured lagoon.
Children were swimming in the muddy water, and along the banks there were fishing rods, kayaks and canoes. Teenagers zoomed around on trail bikes. Such freedom! It was the opposite to a neat, regimented coastal holiday park experience.
And the water was the opposite to the clear water of a Wet Tropics creek where you can look straight through sparkling water and count the stones on the bottom.
An hour later, lunching on BLTs on the verandah of the old Royal Hotel (better known as the Eromanga Pub) we learned what was happening out on Kyabra Creek.
It was the Eromanga Mates Reunion. All those people had come, some from far away, for a four-day get-together to relive their childhood and meet up with other ex-locals. They have a Facebook page that shows how much fun they had that weekend, on the banks of the brown, muddy lagoon.
Two days later, on a Sunday morning in Charleville, we parked near a row of heavily-laden four-wheel drives, stopped at the bakery, with adults checking their loads and standing around talking while kids played chasey on the footpath. I think they’d been to the Eromanga Reunion, and they were on their way back to the coast in time for the new school term.
Many years ago, a little cousin of mine slipped into a brown western creek and drowned before anyone could find her, and so they scare me a bit. But this month there will be little western Queensland children playing in puddles for the first time in their lives; and their big brothers and sisters will be bomb-diving into muddy farm dams that haven’t seen water for years.
Wet season, Ingham, 2021. The Herbert River overflowed repeatedly, spreading across the flat country around the town, flooding houses and cane fields. Opened in January, a Facebook page, “Ingham floods 2021”, gained 3.7 thousand members and in April was still posting updates on floods.
This was nothing new. Ingham, 112 kilometres north of Townsville and one of North Queensland’s most prosperous towns, has been flooded in seven of the last ten years. The Herbert River catchment runs off the southern Atherton Tablelands and its tributaries pick up water from 9,000 square kilometres of high rainfall country.
Ingham is where luxuriant tropical scenery begins, north of the drier country around Townsville: sugar cane, green hills, creeks. It’s always green here, on the edge of the Wet Tropics.
“Did I tell you about my first visit to Ingham?” I ask Con as I clean the windscreen. He is filling up with fuel at the service station on Ingham’s main street, the one we’ve been stopping at for years on our journeys north.
“Don’t think so,” he says over the sound of the pump.
“I was sixteen, on a camping road trip from South Queensland with my family, and we stopped here for the night so Dad could visit an old army mate. Dad had old army mates all over the state. We got to Ingham in the middle of a downpour. The river was flooding. The caravan park was awash.”
Con goes to pay for the fuel, and I finish cleaning the back windscreen.
“Anyway,” I continue as we pull out into the traffic, “Dad’s army mate invited us to spend the night. It was great. A big, comfortable house, dry beds and tropical fruit for breakfast: that’s what Ingham means to me. It was such a relief to get out of the wet.”
For Con, growing up in Innisfail, torrential rain was part of life.
“Floods were fun for us kids,” he says. “Floods meant swimming in your own backyard and not having to wear shoes to school.”
We’re on the Bruce Highway, passing through cane fields on the flat country north of Ingham, and as we cross the Herbert River, Con tells me a story of driving to Ingham when he was young. I like his dramatic stories of growing up in FNQ.
“Mum, Jim and I drove through here at Easter the year I turned fourteen, in Jim’s 1939 Ford, heading south from Innisfail to Townsville. My brother Jim was driving trucks when he was seventeen, delivering fuel to cane farmers around Innisfail on narrow, unsealed roads and through flooded creeks, so the fact that it was pouring rain when we set off didn’t worry us. We were Innisfailites – we had webbed feet.
“There was a minor concern, though: the car had a slow leaking radiator. Every few miles, we would have to refill it with water; but there were plenty of creeks along the way. At Moresby, only eight miles south of Innisfail, we stopped for the first time and I was sent over to the river with a bucket to bring back water for the radiator. Jim poured it in while the engine was running then screwed down the cap. We set out again.
“The rain kept up, and I kept scouting for water. The road was mainly bitumen, a bit patchy, and the car was high enough off the ground to manage the washouts and the water running across it.
“Just out of Cardwell, on a stretch of road awash with sand and water, we met a tiny Triumph sports car. The driver was travelling alone, and he asked us what conditions were like further up the road. He didn’t like what we told him – torrential rain and creeks running across the roads – but he pointed the little car’s nose to the north and kept going.
“We filled the radiator again at the bottom of the Cardwell Range and made it to the top, and then Jim checked the temperature gauge. We needed water again, and soon.
“On the way down the other side, we prayed for a creek. We came to one, all right – ten metres below the road, with scrub-covered cliffs leading down to it. No chance of getting water there. Going downhill was easier on the engine, though; and at the bottom of the range, we found another creek, and I did my job with the bucket again.
“There were no more hills between there and Townsville, so we thought our troubles were over. But north of Ingham, and with still over 120 kilometres to travel, we came out on to the Herbert River flood plain. There were road works. It was chaos.
“The bitumen had disappeared, leaving churned-up mud. Cars were buried up to their axles on the sides of the road, and farmers were trying to pull them out with tractors.”
“You know, people complain about the state of the Bruce Highway, and it’s true you can never drive the length of it, 1700 kilometres from Brisbane to Cairns, without being held up by road works. But what a lot of improvements we’ve seen over the years! I’ll always stick up for the Bruce.”
Con continues his story.
“I looked at Jim. He clenched his hands around the steering wheel and set the car on the safest course he could find through that madness of mud, bogs, cars and tractors, until we were once again on bitumen, and Ingham was only a few miles ahead.
“We made it through to Townsville a couple of hours later. They hadn’t had the heavy rain we’d come through, thank God. Townsville is a dry old dump.”
Country towns can have such disdain for one another. But of course, so can big cities. Sydney and Melbourne, for instance.
“At a garage in Hermit Park, Jim bought a can of Radiator Cement. It plugged up the holes, and on the way home a few days later we didn’t need to fill it once. The sun shone, and the muddy stretch north of Ingham had hardened. The old Ford charged over the Range, and at Cardwell we bought fish and chips, as we always did, and ate them sitting in the car on the oceanfront. By mid-afternoon, in bright sunshine, we were home in Innisfail.
“The next day on my way to school I saw the Triumph sports car driving down Rankin Street. He’d made it through. A gutsy effort. But so was ours.”
“Good story! Let’s stop in Cardwell for fish and chips.”
We’ve had lots of good Ingham experiences. Our Lizzie and Russ lived there for a time in the late 1990s, and we stayed with them in their typical North Queensland house.
Lizzie took me down to Lucinda, the nearby sugar port famous for its jetty, 5.76kms long. Near the beach is a large sign describing some of the creatures that can kill you if you go swimming there.
We went by boat across to rugged, mysterious Hinchinbrook Island for a walk along the beach and swim in Mulligan’s Falls.
Descendants of the migrants that flocked to the cane fields in the twentieth century have given Ingham its distinctive Italian culture. Every year, the Australian Italian Festival is held here. Lou’s Italian Deli in the main street of Ingham is a wonder to behold.
Just south of town is the TYTO Wetlands, with paths and walkways for birdwatching and the impressive Information Centre and Regional Art Gallery.
Spectacular to see, in this richest of all sugar cane areas, is the vast Victoria Mill, with its kilometres of cane trains and lines of cane bins, its huge old rain trees and tall, steaming chimneys.
With Joe and Isabel, two years ago, we drove further south to visit Jourama, part of the lush and spectacular Paluma Range National Park, and swam with turtles and eels in beautiful Waterview Creek.
Instead of just stopping for petrol and hurrying on, I’d like to get to know Ingham better; to visit Wallaman Falls, Australia’s tallest single-drop waterfall, and maybe have a beer at Lees Hotel, which claims to be the original “Pub With No Beer”.
We’ll visit in the Dry Season, though, when the weather up here is perfect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
And sometimes it’s the only way we can see our far-flung family.
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.
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.
I stood by the side of the road, watching Con as he sucked petrol through a plastic tube. He’d done it before, so he knew when the moment came to stop sucking and put his thumb over the end of the tube to stop any air from getting in, then quickly push the tube into the car’s petrol tank.
He was syphoning from a five-gallon petrol can balanced on the boot of the car, with another one in reserve.
When he was fifteen, Con’s older brother Jim had taught told him how to go about it, in their father’s Shell depot in Innisfail.
“You have to judge it just right. If it doesn’t work the first time and you have to do it again, you’ll end up with a mouthful of petrol.”
He did end up with a mouthful of petrol, the first time he tried it. Jim took him next door to the “Goondi Hill” and bought him a beer.
“That’s only one thing that’ll get rid of the taste of petrol. Beer. Get into it.”
The petrol tank of our second-hand Holden sedan didn’t hold enough to get us the 476 kilometres from Burketown to Julia Creek. We’d drive south from Burketown on the gravel road and take a left-hand turn at Augustus Downs, past Talawanta Station, to meet the bitumen at Donor’s Hill, on the Normanton road. From there the road would take us southeast to Julia Creek. In all that distance there was no roadhouse or petrol station: just a few tracks disappearing off into the bush to cattle stations.
Gulf of Carpentaria cattle stations are vast places, famous in the north west: Armraynald, Floraville, Augustus Downs, Talawanta, Donor’s Hill. It’s these stations, often over a thousand square kilometres in area, that appear on the road map, rather than towns or localities. The stations are small towns in themselves, with the big homestead, staff accommodation, stores, sheds, workshops, yards, trucks and machinery and an airstrip with the inevitable windsock flying. On the roof of the largest shed, the name of the station is painted in large block letters to guide the Flying Doctor and the other planes and helicopters that are so vital to life out here.
Sometimes the planes buzz the homestead to let the staff know that they need to drive out and chase cattle off the landing strip.
In our day, Lawn Hill station, further west, kept a full-time pilot, with his own cottage. To locals, this is nothing unusual; but to outsiders like us, extraordinary.
The people in the Gulf were generous with their assistance and their time when we came to grief on these rough and isolated roads. We were twice rescued by local passers-by. Once, it happened on the road north of Julia Creek. Con had been given a ride down from Burketown at the end of the wet season to pick up our car, which we’d left in the Julia Creek school yard. On his way home, up the Normanton road, the car stopped and refused to start again.
Luckily, along came a couple of blokes, father and son, who towed the Holden to their fencing camp, off the road in the bush.
“Where are you heading, mate?” asked the father.
“Burketown”, said Con.
“Well, you’d better camp out here with us,” said the father. “We’ll cook you a couple of steaks over the fire.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind a trip to Burketown,” said the son. “We’ll drive you home, have a few drinks at the pub and spend the night there.”
They covered our car with leafy branches to keep it out of sight and drove Con home: almost two hundred kilometres. A few days later, the local mechanic drove out in his truck to collect the car and bring it to Burketown for repair.
The following year, when on the way east after the Wet season, we got bogged at the Talawanta waterhole, west of Donor’s Hill Station. We tried to dig ourselves out of the mud, but couldn’t manage it. We needed help. With two little kids in the car, we had no choice but to wait for someone to come along.
After an hour or so, a couple of stockmen appeared in a Holden ute, avoiding the bog, and they tried to tow us out. The tow rope broke. They offered to drive Con the thirty-odd kilometres to Donor’s Hill to get help. It was late in the afternoon, and watching them disappear down the dusty road, I realised the kids and I might be in for a long, lonely wait.
A few metres off the road, in the edge of the bush, I swept a patch of earth clear of leaf litter and branches and spread out a blanket for little Matt and Lizzie to play on. I gave them some toys from the car and something to eat. In the far west, no one travels without water and basic food supplies. Before dark fell, I lit a fire and put a billy on for tea.
It was fun, setting up that little camp, soon with no light but for a torch and the firelight. Eventually, headlights appeared to the West, and a Toyota, seeing our bogged car and the light of the campfire, pulled up. Two men got out, and I watched a little nervously as they approached.
I’d met one of them in Burketown – the representative of a Stock and Station agency. I told them I’d be okay by myself until Con came back with help, but they stayed to keep me company. They had some prawns, and a cold carton of VB beer, so we had a little picnic together, and I was grateful.
Con, meanwhile, had been dropped off at Donor’s Hill, and waited for the manager to come in from working with the cattle. The manager wanted his dinner, but instead he and his wife, people we’d never met and certainly had no claim on, brought Con back in their 4WD to pull us out of the bog.
This happened years ago. These days, the road from Burketown to Julia Creek and Cloncurry is more direct, going south past Nardoo and missing Donors’ Hill. Halfway to Julia Creek, where the modern-day Wills Developmental Road crosses the Burke Developmental Road leading north to Normanton, you can buy petrol, and even a hot meal, at the Burke and Wills Roadhouse.
But life can still be brutal out here. Both Donor’s Hill Station and Burke and Wills Junction lie within the western section of the Flinders River catchment; and in January 2019, record rainfall caused the river to flood across its wide, flat plains. It rained for a week, and the cattle that didn’t drown had nowhere to go.
Across that vast catchment, an estimated 500,000 cattle died of drowning, exposure and starvation, with station people unable to get out to save them. After the waters went down, the stink of rotting carcasses was appalling, flies and other insects swarmed, and the station people worked through it all in the heat, burying their animals in huge pits while grieving for prize herds.
We lived in the Gulf for only three years, but we came away with an appreciation for the generosity and toughness of the people who live and work there that will never leave us.
And if we lived there now, we wouldn’t attempt those muddy, post-wet-season roads in a Holden sedan. We’d drive a big, powerful, air-conditioned four-wheel drive.
John Oxley’s name is scattered all over Brisbane: suburb, station and school, a creek, roads, streets, avenues, crescents and lanes; parks, businesses and the State Library of Queensland’s historical research collection, the John Oxley Library.
As Surveyor General of New South Wales, which extended to the tip of Cape York, John Oxley sailed north from Sydney in 1823 to find a site for a new penal settlement. It was on this trip that he explored and named the Brisbane River. The local Turrbal people called it Maiwar.
I’ve visited some of the sites where Oxley came ashore.
Where Mount Ommaney Creek flows into the Brisbane River there is a fruit bat colony. The bats shriek and squabble, even in the middle of the day, when they’re supposed to be sleeping. A walking track follows the curves of the hill through bushland above the river. Feral deer live here, and the trees wear knitted jumpers to protect their bark.
John Oxley and his crew rowed upstream in a whaleboat to Mount Ommaney and beyond. By the entrance to the walking track, a plaque has been placed to mark the spot where he came ashore and climbed to the top of the hill to take bearings.
Just fourteen kilometres as the crow flies from the CBD, Mount Ommaney is fifty kilometres by river, and further still from where Oxley had moored his cutter Mermaid, at the southern end of Pumicestone Passage at Bribie Island: “within 150 yards of the shore, in the very place where Captain Flinders had anchored twenty-two years before…”
Oxley also named the Bremer River, Mermaid Reach, Seventeen Mile Rocks, Breakfast Creek, and Canoe Creek, now known as Oxley Creek.
The following year he was back again, coming up-river with botanist Alan Cunningham and others to find a site for the convict settlement that would be more suitable than Redcliffe, where it had first been established. They camped at Mount Ommaney for the night, probably down by the creek which these days flows through the plush fairways of the McLeod Country Golf Club.
On their way back down river, Oxley and his group landed along the Toowong/Milton Reach looking for a good water source, a necessity for settlement. Coming ashore near the mouth of Western Creek and following it upstream, they found water “in abundance and of excellent quality, being at this season a chain of ponds watering a fine valley.”
Matthew Condon, in his book “Brisbane”, has awakened my interest in Oxley’s chain of ponds, and following his path I go looking for it.
Western Creek, in Oxley’s time a beautiful place, forested and rich in resources, now empties into the river through a concrete drain near the remains of the floating restaurant once known as “Oxley’s on the River”, which was ruined in the 2011 floods. On the river walkway, a display panel describes Oxley and his exploration of the creek; and further along Coronation Drive is a large granite boulder with a plaque that reads,
On 28 September 1824, Lieutenant John Oxley, Surveyor-General of New South Wales, landed hereabouts to obtain fresh water from a nearby stream declaring it to be “by no means an ineligible station for a first settlement up the river”.
I cross under Coronation Drive to beside the concrete drain, which flows out from under the John Oxley Centre office complex. Beyond the building I find it again, before it disappears under the road and the railway bridge to emerge again in Milton Park, then vanish under Frew Park. This was once the home of Milton Tennis Courts. Now it has shady trees, a playground and barbecues. A nostalgic bronze sculpture of children catching yabbies shows where the creek used to flow.
Across the road, in front of Milton State School, is low-lying Gregory Park, once known as Red Jacket Swamp. The creeks and swamps when Oxley came this way were rich with mud crabs, fish, wild ducks, waterlilies and reeds, used by the large and settled Indigenous population.
The creek still flows under these lowlands, and the river seeks it out every flood time. Brown water surges up through the parks and into the shops and homes of Baroona Road and Nash Street, Rosalie, and the television news shows people carrying furniture and possessions through the flood waters to higher ground.
At North Quay, several hundred metres down-river from the mouth of Western Creek, is another stone memorial, dating from the 1920s, claiming to mark the spot where Oxley came ashore looking for water, and, according to the wording of the plaque, “discovered the site of this city.”
To look at the memorial, I walk up from the river path to the busy road leading to the CBD and Riverside Expressway. In 1825 the penal colony was permanently established on this high ground, along what became William Street, down towards the convict-tended food gardens that were to become the City Botanic Gardens.
Soon the local Indigenous population’s hunting and ceremonial grounds would be lost and ruined. The creeks and lagoons would disappear under the developing city.
Now, the massive Queens Wharf development is rising next to 1 William Street, the Queensland Government’s hulking “Tower of Power”, where the old settlement sprawled with its barracks, commandant’s house, cottages and church.
At Redcliffe there’s a handsome monument, above the low red cliffs, commemorating both Oxley and Matthew Flinders; and at Bribie Island, on the shore of Pumicestone Passage, looking out to where both Flinders and Oxley moored their ships, the Bribie Island Seaside Museum gives details of their journeys.
His arduous journeys of exploration damaged John Oxley’s health. He was so ill after the second Brisbane River trip he could hardly walk, and four years later, aged forty-two, he died, in financial hardship, at his property outside Sydney.
Often these “explorers” were motivated by grants of money and land, and Oxley was eager for both; but ever since primary school, when we traced their expeditions on maps of Australia using coloured dots and dashes, I’ve wondered at their fortitude.
As an adult, I’ve also pondered on the disasters that followed for the locals in these lands, whose people had lived in and managed them for millennia.
From the account of J. Uniacke, who came with Oxley’s first expedition to the area, on the Mermaid. Uniacke’s full account is printed in “Discovery of the Brisbane River, 1823 – Oxley, Uniacke and Pamphlet – 175 Years in Retrospect”, Marc Serge Rivière (1998) Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Brisbane. Page 70
 Angus Veitch has posted details of Western Creek, John Oxley and the chain of ponds, including quotes from Oxley’s journal, on his interesting 2018 web page, http://www.oncewasacreek.org/
 “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon (2010) University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney.
 “Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane”, Dr Ray Kerkhove. Boolarong Press, Salisbury: 2015. Pages 129-131
A few years ago, The West Australian ran a competition for limericks using local place names. This was Con’s favourite, and the competition winner.
Western Australia has lots of place names that end in “in” and “up”: Balingup, Dwellingup; Mukinbudin, Burracoppin. I think Dungowrin was a made-up one, though. Poetic license.
Queensland has wonderful Indigenous place names, too: Pimpimbudgie, Eubenangee, Dirranbandi, Bli Bli. The only place names unique to Australia are Indigenous names. They are both beautiful and inspirational.
Perhaps Henry Lawson’s poetic use of language was influenced by a childhood spent near Wattamondara and the Weddin Mountains. Dorothea McKellar was inspired by the country around Gunnedah, Narrabri and Coonabarabran when, homesick in England, she wrote the iconic poem, “My Country”.
English names like Cambridge and Oxford have literal roots, both being river crossing places. Aboriginal place names do too, of course. Sometimes their meaning has been lost, at least to people with non-Indigenous backgrounds like me, and they are just beautiful-sounding words; but I learned as a child on the Sunshine Coast that Nambour referred to the red-flowering bottlebrush that grows along local creeks, and Maroochydore means place of black swans.
As Europeans spread across the country, ancient names from Indigenous mythology were sometimes replaced with names from European mythologies, like Lethe Brook, south of Proserpine, where Con and I were held up by floodwaters in 1974. The creek was named after a river in Hades, the town after Persephone, abducted by Hades and taken to live in the Underworld.
Many Queensland sheep stations and towns were given English, Scottish or Irish names: Stonehenge, Hyde Park, Lochiel, Doncaster. Killarney, Connemara. These names seem totally inappropriate when you look at the countryside. Like the town of Richmond, west of Townsville.
Wherever the British colonized, they established places called Richmond: New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica; at least six places in the United States, and six in Australia. Of all of them, Richmond in Queensland is perhaps least like the town of Richmond in England, the treasured ancient town on the Thames, home of Plantagenet kings, with a Green that once held jousting competitions. Soft green grass, a sprawling park with deer and ancient oak trees. An oak can be measured by how many people it takes to reach around its trunk: one hundred years per person.
England’s Richmond is about as far as the imagination can stretch from the dinosaur bones, galahs and donga motels of Queensland’s Richmond. But our Richmond has sprawling plains and vast, starry skies. Its population has to be tough, to cope with droughts, isolation, and appalling floods.
The British themselves had a history of invasion. They had been conquered by the Romans, and then Angles, Saxons and Jutes from northern Europe. Next, the Vikings. In 1066, the invading Normans under William the Conqueror defeated the Saxon/English King Harold. The Normans took over the country, stripped land from the locals and distributed it to their own people, and imposed their own language, social systems and government.
The English in turn invaded Ireland, allotting estates to their own people, renaming the landscape and imposing their religion. In battle after bloody battle, they also forced their government on the Scots.
I wonder if all this bloody history entered the thoughts of the English, Irish and Scots who invaded Aboriginal lands, took the country for their flocks, killed Indigenous people almost at will, and put their names on the landscape of Australia. They must surely have been aware of the irony.
Occupation of the land by Europeans was often accompanied by violence. The Aboriginal inhabitants suffered by far the greatest losses, and across Australia there are place names indicating this: Skeleton Creek, Murdering Gully, Battle Mountain, and The Leap, just north of Mackay, where it is said an Aboriginal woman, chased by the Native Mounted Police, jumped to her death with her child in her arms.
You can see our history written on the map, in place names; but some of those names need changing, and gradually that’s happening.
Two mountains near Rockhampton have been renamed. Mount Wheeler, probably named after the notorious, murderous Lieutenant Wheeler who ran the Native Police when white people were moving into this area, has been officially renamed Gai-i (pronounced guy-ee), its name in the local Darumbal language. And Mount Jim Crow, with a name loaded with over a century of racist connotations here and overseas, is now officially known as Baga.
South of Home Hill, Yellow Gin Creek, according to the Northern Land Council’s website, runs through a region of creeks, wetlands and coastline, traditionally an important food-gathering area for the local Juru people. Its road sign has always always a reminder to me of bad days not so very long ago when talking about Indigenous Australians in racist terms was a social norm.
Now, that place name has been reclaimed and adapted by the Juru people. When a new bridge over the creek was completed, it was given a new sign. Youngoorah, which means ‘women” in the local language. Beautiful.
Our history is written in the place names on the map, for those who want to see it.
It is a history both good and bad.
It goes back a lot further than two hundred years.
And there could be lots of limericks from Queensland place names, even if they don’t end in “in” or “up”.
In southeastern Rockhampton, between the river and the swamp, lies the suburb of Depot Hill. Depot Hill residents know all about floods.
In 2011, when Rocky experienced some of its worst-ever flooding, the entire city was isolated. The airport was submerged, and so was the highway. The main northern railway line, which passes by Depot Hill, was awash. Built on low, swampy land near the Fitzroy River, in spite of its name the Hill is always at risk. As the waters rose, it was decided that the suburb should be evacuated.
“I’m staying put,” said one old lady to the television cameras. “I’ve been here for sixty years, and my house has never flooded.”
Power to the area was cut, but still people stayed. Most of the houses there are high-set, and the media showed locals sitting on their front steps, drinking beer and watching the floodwaters.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported it:
An old pine desk is drying beside Del Moss’s house in Depot Hill – drawers pulled out, in case they swell. ”It floated past yesterday. And it’s better than mine,” the 75-year-old says. ”Three lounge suites went past the other day. It was like the Sydney to Hobart watching them. If you don’t laugh, I suppose, you cry.” [Sydney Morning Herald”, 08-01-2011]
Livestock from the nearby Common took refuge on the Hill. One photo showed a house above the flood level with a goat on the landing and a donkey and a camel in the front yard.
Four years later, in 2015, Rocky flooded again. This time, Cyclone Marcia was to blame. Since the previous floods, one Depot Hill grandmother had invested in a kayak for getting to the shops. Depot Hill people are proud of the way they cope, but this time it exhausted even the most stoic – not just at the Hill, but across the damaged city, with thousands of households without power, its citizens cleaning up in a heat wave.
Rockhampton Regional Libraries are a great asset to the city. Following the visit of Cyclone Marcia, the Library, via its Facebook page, invited the city in.
With most of us still without power, a great place to spend the day will be Rockhampton Regional Library. Open again tonight until 10pm! Enjoy our air conditioning, watch a movie, grab a coffee, charge your devices, read a book, access free Wi-Fi, have a chat to the ladies from the Red Cross or visit the nurses for a health check. We have it all at the library today and would love to see you here!
Founded in 1858, Rockhampton is one of Queensland’s oldest cities, and, lying as it does on the Tropic of Capricorn, most of the time it has an ideal climate. Like Cairns, Townsville, and other coastal cities, it was first developed as a port, servicing the pastoral industry. The railway was built west from Rockhampton before the coastal line was completed, and long before the Bruce Highway came into existence.
Rocky has a notable collection of substantial old buildings, as well as typical old-style, high-stumped, timber tropical housing, such as those of Depot Hill.
As a city that services beef cattle country, Rocky is also known for its many statues of bulls, in parks and median strips – in recent years often photographed surrounded by floodwaters. There’s also a steady business in supplying replacement testicles for these bulls, as they are always losing them, sawn off in the dead of night. Rocky’s bulls’ balls are evidently prized as collectables.
In April 2017, the floods were on again, when Cyclone Debbie, one of the most widespread and expensive of all, made its slow and devastating way down the coastal ranges, from Airlie Beach all the way to Lismore.
This time most of the water came down the Fitzroy from the ranges to the west, and the floods were predicted to reach the highest level for sixty years. It didn’t reach that peak in Rockhampton, but once again the city was in clean-up mode for weeks. Once again, calls were made to build a levee to protect the city. Maybe that will happen one day; but in the meantime, the people of Rockhampton will stay prepared.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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