History on the Map

There was a young maid from Dungowrin

Who fondly recalled her deflowerin’.

“Gee it was beaut, in the back of Bob’s ute!”

But her sister preferred it while showerin’.

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.

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Eubenangee Swamp, north of Innisfail

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.

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Bottlebrush Callistemon

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.

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Measuring an oak tree in Richmond Park, U.K.

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.

 

 

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Plains west of Richmond, Qld

 

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.

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The Leap, Mackay

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.

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Image: from the Northern Land Council website

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”.

There once was a young man from Bli Bli…

Rocky

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.

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Depot Hill during the 2011 floods ABC Capricornia: Alice Roberts

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.

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Camel in the Cyclone Debbie floods, Rockhampton, 2017

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.

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A house at Depot Hill in dry times

Rockhampton Art Gallery has one of the finest regional collections in Australia, including a magnificent collection of mid-twentieth century Australian art. The city has renowned Botanic Gardens, as well as the splendid Kershaw Gardens.

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The famous banyan trees of Rockhampton Botanic Gardens

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.

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The swollen Fitzroy River after Cyclone Debbie, April 2017 ABC

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.

This is a tough old city.

Rockhampton bull Debbie RACQ Helicopter

Burdekin Bridge

 

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.

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Looking downstream from the Burdekin Bridge, towards the delta

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.

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Steam train crossing the flooded Burdekin River Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

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.

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Burdekin Bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Council website

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.

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Old and new: the last Sunlander to cross the old bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

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.

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From the train on the Burdekin Bridge, looking upstream at birds, and doughnuts in the sandy riverbed

 

Horror Stretch

Murder.

Travellers shot in their cars or sleeping bags.

Frightening reports in the papers.

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.

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Lotus Creek Service Station after Cyclone Debbie, March 2017. Rockhampton Morning Bulletin

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.

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Back row, 4th from left – skydiver Noel Weckert. South Australian Skydivers

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.

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Gulf Country under floods

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.

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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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