Queensland at Christmas

We were slow to put up a Christmas tree that year. Matt, seven years old, got anxious. Maybe we weren’t going to have a tree? He couldn’t bear the thought.

At the time we were living in Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, in a house was just a hundred metres from the edge of the Coral Sea, at the bottom of a steep hillside covered in tropical forest. Following the coconut palm-lined beach, a dirt track led around to the Point, a popular fishing spot.

Looking over Yarrabah

Matt went under the house and found the old blockbuster, heavier and blunter than an axe and nearly as big as he was. He dragged the blockbuster down the dirt road past our house and out along Point Road to a spot where casuarina pines were growing; then he set about chopping one down.

Half an hour later, Matt arrived back at our front door, accompanied by a local man who had been walking along the track with his family on the way back from fishing. He had been amused to find little Mattie trying to chop down a tree twice as tall as he was, and kindly chopped it down for him. Then he brought Matt, the blockbuster and the tree home to our house.

It was a surprise to me, because I thought Matt had been playing under the house the whole time.

We always have some kind of Christmas tree. If we’re away from home I’ll find something green to hang a few baubles on and put presents under. An artificial plant in a holiday apartment at Maroochydore (holiday apartments always have some kind of artificial greenery, it seems), shrubs outside our cabin the year we spent Christmas in a caravan park at Dorrigo, N.S.W.

Christmas at Dorrigo, NSW

One year I found a dead tree branch, sprayed it white, planted it in a basket full of rocks and hung tinsel and decorations on it. I felt smug about my creativeness, but my kids weren’t impressed. Kids have their standards about what a Christmas tree should look like.

Living in Woodford, west of Caboolture and not far from the sprawling Caribbean pine plantations of the Glasshouse Mountains area, before Christmas we would drive down a dirt track in the pine forest until we found a suitable-sized tree, one that had seeded beside the track. Those exotic species sprout everywhere, even in people’s roof guttering and plant pots.

Glasshouse Mountains pine forest Qld Parks and Wildlife Service

We would chop the tree down and bring it home for a Christmas tree. The kids didn’t like that much, either – Caribbean pines smell good, but they’re not lush and thick, and they don’t have a traditional Christmas tree shape.

Eventually I got tired of chopping down trees, and to the scorn and outrage of the family, I bought a plastic one. We’ve now been using that same plastic tree for thirty years and three generations.

2020 – another generation decorates the old plastic tree

Sometimes in Queensland we have a fairly mild Christmas, as we did in Brisbane in 2020: 28C and cloudy. Occasionally we get a wet Christmas.  It’s safest, though, wherever you are in the state, to plan for heat. That Christmas evening in Dorrigo we ate under a fine, cool mist; but we arrived back in Brisbane a couple of days later to find that candles we’d left on the sideboard had melted and drooped in the heat.

One memorable 25 December in Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs, when I was a teenager, the temperature must have been in the mid-40s. My mother was trying to cook a traditional Christmas roast dinner in our wood-burning stove, but it wasn’t drawing properly and she couldn’t get the oven hot enough. My brother climbed on to the corrugated iron roof in the blazing sunshine to try and unblock the chimney. The whole kitchen was like an oven. The plastic tea towel rack melted and sagged and the tea towels slid off on to the floor.

Mum cooked a hot roast dinner every Christmas, roast veges and all, then a hot Christmas pudding. That year in Jandowae she said, “Never again.” It was cold meats and salads from then on; but she still did the pudding.

The further you go from the coast in Queensland, the hotter it’s likely to be – well into the 40s in such places as Quilpie and Thargomindah; but usually it’s a dry heat.  The coastal hinterland can deliver something special: high temperatures plus humidity. That’s what we got one year at Rosevale, south west of Ipswich.

It was the Christmas of 1972, and Con and I had a full house. Family camped in the field next door, devoured by mosquitoes every night; and the back yard toilet had to be emptied more often than usual.

That was Con’s regular job. He would dig a hole in the paddock beyond the back fence and bury the contents of the toilet pan. On Christmas Eve he conscripted my brother John to help him (the same one who’d gotten on the roof on a previous Christmas to clear the chimney – a useful bloke).

The pan was full almost to the brim. “Tread carefully”, Con warned him as they carried it across the yard, one on either handle. “We don’t want it to spill.”

“I was never more sure-footed in my life,” said John.

On Christmas Day, desperate from the heat, we pumped up the kids’ little inflatable pool next to the tank stand and all got in it, under the hose: three generations squeezed in together.

Three generations in the paddling pool – Rosevale, Christmas Day, 1972

That Christmas Day was reportedly Brisbane’s hottest on record: 39C. As the hinterland is regularly hotter in summer by several degrees, Rosevale would have reached 42C at least. 

At the State Library of Queensland, a year or so ago, there was a display of old photos of Queenslanders doing typical Queenslander things. Among them, to my delight, was a photo of a Beaudesert family on that same Christmas Day in 1972, trying to keep cool the same way we were at Rosevale, just an hour’s drive away.

Same day, an hour’s drive away State Library of Qld: “Rolley and Croker families at Beaudesert 1972”

These days as a family we’re spoilt at Christmas, with a cold lunch of ham and salads, fans and air-conditioning, and even indoor, flushing toilets.

We still have an inflatable back-yard pool, though – and the old plastic Christmas Tree. Some traditions should never die.

Backyard Christmas 2020 – NQ Cowboys shirt, Brisbane Broncos shorts. Can’t get much more Queensland than that.

Artists’ Eyes

 

The Glasshouse Mountains are beautiful and mysterious. They’ve been sitting there since long before James Cook came past in his little ship and named them, and for many thousands of years they’ve had their own Indigenous names and their own stories.

Moreton Bay Regional Council has three art galleries that specialise in exhibitions of the way artists represent local places. One of these, the Caboolture Art Gallery, has shown a range of artists’ depictions of the Glasshouse Mountains, including Indigenous artists, such as Melinda Serico.

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Many artists try to capture the atmosphere of the Glasshouses, but Lawrence Daws is my favourite. He lived near the mountains for years, and his paintings show the quality of the light, the glimmer of creeks and farm dams, the familiar shapes of Tibrogargan, Beerwah, Coonowrin and the other peaks.

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Golden Summer, Lawrence Daws

I can see the beauties of landscape for myself, as I did when from the slopes of Ngun Ngun I took this photo of Tibrogargan; but seeing them through the eyes of an artist gives me an extra layer of appreciation.

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Tibrogargan II, Lawrence Daws

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It’s difficult to paint rainforests effectively: the trees are so tall, the undergrowth so thick. Queensland artist William Robinson found ways to paint the forests of Beechmont, in the beautiful hills near Lamington National Park, which puts us above and below the forest, looking up at towering trees and down at the valleys below, all on the same canvas. He painted the birds and animals, magnificent skies, and the stars and moon reflected in mountain pools.

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Sunset and Misty Morn, Beechmont, William Robinson

Mount Barney, on the New South Wales border, is iconic to bushwalkers.

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Mount Barney under cloud

Hulking and multi-peaked, with hidden valleys and forested slopes, it is a challenge to climb, and to paint. John Rigby painted a colourful image of Mount Barney in all its jagged beauty.

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Mount Barney, John Rigby

My artist mother, Pat Fox, spent time on Cape York in the 1970s, and she took a photo, now faded, of a well-known waterhole near Weipa.

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Back home, she painted the scene, showing the reflection of saplings and trees in the still water. Comparing the two images shows how she heightened the impact through her choice of  colour and composition.

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It was a road trip through New South Wales, not Queensland, that taught me to appreciate how interesting it is to see landscape paintings and also visit the landscapes they represent. It was between Cowra and Bathurst, where the Mid-western Highway of New South Wales curves through rolling hills near Carcoar, and a river winds past the distinctive shapes of weeping willows and poplars.

Con was driving while I sat musing on the passing landscape, brown now at the end of a long summer. The land seemed familiar, but couldn’t be: I’d never been this way before.

Then I realised. Brett Whiteley painted this country. We’ve got a print of it on the wall at home.

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Summer at Carcoar, Brett Whiteley

The painting is called “Summer at Carcoar”. As well as characteristic lush curves of road and river, there are magpies and a wren, a burrowing mouse, and a fox with head and tail above the tall, gold-brown grass. It’s a beautiful picture, the pride of the Newcastle Art Gallery. I’ve since found out that Brett Whiteley often painted the country round Bathurst.

That day, for the first time, it occurred to me that there is delight in seeing the actual country painted by artists, and that it doesn’t need to be Monet’s Garden at Giverny, or Van Gogh’s Arles.

The same pleasures are to be found here at home.

Miles to Go

The Grand View Hotel at Cleveland is a fine pub, Queensland’s oldest licensed hotel. We ran trivia nights, Con and I, at the Grand View.

One evening before the quiz began we came across several blokes in the bar, wearing high visibility gear, enjoying an after-work drink. Finding that we were there to run the trivia, one of them said to me, “So you think you know a lot, do you?”

“I know everything,” I replied. (It’s true. If you’re the one who makes up the questions, you do know all the answers.)

“Oh, really?” he scoffed. “What’s my favourite colour, then?”

“Maroon”, I answered, and he had to concede.

Maroon is the favourite colour for most blokes you’ll meet after work in a Queensland pub.

Con likes maroon, too. Our present car is maroon, and so were the two that went before it. We have covered many kilometres in red cars.

forester wattleWe composed our pub trivia questions ourselves, and they often had a local slant.

“Thenus orientalis is a famous product of Moreton Bay and surrounding waters. What is it?”

Moreton Bay bug. Easy when you know.

“In Longreach the streets are named after trees, and in Barcaldine they’re named after birds. True or false?”

False – it’s the other way around. As the town that pioneered artesian water supply, Barcaldine was proud to call itself the Garden City of the West, and named its streets after trees.

A classic Longreach joke is that a new police officer in town arrested a drunk in Cassowary Street. He couldn’t spell it, so he took him over to Duck Street to charge him.

I enjoyed thinking up questions with a Queensland flavour. Queensland is my home: the Glasshouse Mountains, red dirt and mango sap, hot sand, soldier crabs and mangrove pencils; long, straight roads, rainbow lorikeets, wattle. Floods, droughts, and perfect spring days.

IMG_20180120_180203_resized_20180120_090804411Australians are great travellers. For all of us, journeys lie in the not-too-distant past.

Three branches of my family came here from Britain in the 1860s, when the new state of Queensland was recruiting migrants. They came to Queensland for opportunities denied them at home. And for the climate.

A fourth branch of my family emigrated from Germany in 1838. They were missionaries, come to minister to Aborigines in the Brisbane area.

They all made long sea voyages and they went on travelling once they got here. My great-great-grandfather, within days of arriving in the country, went by river to Ipswich and walked from there, up Cunningham’s Gap, to take up a position in Warwick.

His son, in turn, took his young family, by steamer and goods train, from Brisbane to Barcaldine, where he had been transferred as bank manager.

My father’s travelling began with family car trips in the 1920s and 1930s. A few years later, Dad was on a trip of another kind – up through Malaya as a Prisoner of War, travelling in railway rice wagons, to work on the Thai-Burma railway.

I was born on the Sunshine Coast, but Con and I were married in Stanthorpe, where we were both working in the local state school. Born in Innisfail, until his transfer to Stanthorpe he’d lived in Far North Queensland all his life. As my children themselves have done, I married someone whose hometown was far away. We’d be doing plenty of travelling.

Together we’ve lived in the Darling Downs and the Granite Belt, the Ipswich area, Gulf Country, Cairns region and Townsville. I’ve explored the state by road, rail and air. I’ve taken the Sunlander to Cairns, the Inlander to Mount Isa and the Spirit of the Outback on its twenty-four hour journey from Longreach to Brisbane. I’ve flown over Cape York in a small plane, I’ve done the Gulf circuit with Bush Pilots, bumping over rough station landing strips and dodging cattle to drop off mail and supplies, and I’ve twice been to Mount Isa with the Flying Doctor. It hasn’t always been easy, or pleasant; but it has been magnificent.

Many Australians have been to Paris, New York or Bali, but not nearly as many have been to Cooktown, Burketown or Ravenswood. As well as watching the sun set over Manhattan, sending a pink glow down its canyons of glass, I’ve seen soft evening light fall across the tidal flats of the Gulf of Carpentaria. I’ve flown across the winter darkness of northern Siberia, with the sun low in the southern sky all day; but I’ve also admired the dawn light shining through steam rising from a hot bore drain at Cunnamulla.

And still, I look at a map of Queensland and think about all the roads I haven’t yet been down, all the places I have yet to see. Quilpie, Birdsville, Coen, Baralaba, Lady Elliott Island – the whole state is out there to be explored.

I need to get a move on. I’ve got miles to go yet.

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