Bindy Eyes

Out the back of the Mauro homestead was a pit toilet, a scary place for a townie child like me. What if I fell down the hole?

Mum liked to tell the story of when she was little, out at Barcaldine, and a goat fell down the pit toilet. They sent the jackeroo down to get it out.

When my mother Pat was a child, her father Fred was manager of a sheep station not far from Barcaldine. Even after leaving the land, many of Fred’s descendants maintained all their lives a sense of belonging to the bush – even his second daughter, Betty, who married an American after the war and spent most of her life in Seattle.

Betty liked living near the Pacific Ocean, knowing that on the other side of the water were the beaches and plains of home.

Between the wars Fred took up ownership of a sheep station, through a land ballot I believe; a place called Dunwold, outside Dirranbandi. While still a teenager his eldest son, my uncle Jim, went out there to manage the property. The family next bought a property near Texas, on the New South Wales border, and Fred’s second son, Don, took it over.

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Crossing into Queensland

When I was young, perhaps four or five, my family went to visit Dunwold, flying to Saint George in a DC3, where Uncle Jim picked us up from the airstrip. Both my uncles considered that we coastal kids needed a bit of toughening up, and at Dunwold I was taken out to watch a sheep being slaughtered. To my great relief, something intervened – perhaps my mother – and I was spared the sight of the killing.

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Dunwold homestead, in the early days

We visited Uncle Don more often. His property, Mauro, was closer to our home in Nambour – only a five- or six-hour drive. Mauro was just over the Dumaresq River, which here forms the border between Queensland and New South Wales: the wriggly part. Mauro is in New South Wales, but Texas, in Queensland, is its nearest town.

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Texas, on the wriggly bit of the border

The Dumaresq (pronounced Dumaresk or Dumerrik, depending on who is saying it) rises in the Great Dividing Range near Stanthorpe and Tenterfield and flows west into the Macintyre River, which in turn flows past Goondiwindi, still forming part of the border. These are known as the Border Rivers.

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Border bridge on the Dumaresque River

Border towns borrow a little from each state. One wintery morning in Goondiwindi, which is in Queensland and therefore sells the Courier-Mail in all the shops, I visited the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop. The ladies in charge were sitting around a table doing the Sydney Morning Herald crosswords. “We get the Herald in specially”, they said. “It has better crosswords that the Courier-Mail.”

The Macintyre River continues further west, joining the Barwon River. The Barwon flows into the Darling River and on into the Murray.

These western rivers have dangerous floods, although the countryside has been drought-stricken for years now. I remember as a child sitting in our family’s Vanguard stuck in the middle of flooded Camp Creek, near Mauro, with my feet up on the seat and floodwater flowing through the car. A tractor towed us out.

All of Fred’s descendants who lived at or visited Mauro will have strong memories of the place. I remember it as if I’m looking at a photo album. Here was the pepperina tree beside the house. When I smell the leaves of a pepper tree, it takes me straight back there. Outside of the house yard, the ground was thick with prickles – bindy eyes, as we called them. We coastal kids had never before experienced those savage, dry-country prickles.

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Khaki weed

I think it was actually khaki weed, a broad-leaved prickly plant. Bindii is the nasty prickle that grows in my Brisbane lawn – little clusters of carrot-like leaves with prickles in the middle that break off and stick into the skin and make the children go carefully on tiptoes down the concrete car tracks.

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Bindii

The worst prickle I’ve come across is the aptly named goat’s head, found in the Gulf Country around Burketown. Standing on the thorns of a goat’s head is like standing on a couple of thumb tacks.

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Goat’s heads

At Mauro there was a shearing shed, a hundred metres or so from the homestead, with chutes where shearers pushed skinny-looking shorn sheep down into the pens below, slotted tables where roustabouts threw the fleeces, and the wool press that did the baling. There was a strong smell of sheep droppings, fallen between the floorboards and piled up under the shed. We didn’t often visit the shed during shearing, because, Uncle Don said, the men didn’t want to have to curb their language.

Behind the house yard at Mauro was the dam. We went swimming there once. The soft mud at the bottom oozed between our toes.

There was an ant bed tennis court beside the house, surfaced with crushed and rolled termite mounds, and peacocks screamed at dusk on the fences.

Besides sheep Mauro produced fodder crops, and Italian share farmers grew tobacco. We sometimes visited them, peering into the dark barns where the tobacco leaves were hung to dry.

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Tobacco barns near Texas Qld

During the 1950s we also visited my mother’s friend on a property outside Saint George and watched them “pulling” the mulga. Whether it was for land clearing or for cattle feed, I don’t know. It was impressive, though. Two army tanks, fifty metres or so apart, dragged a heavy chain between them, pulling down the scrub as they went. Perhaps they were bulldozers, but I remember them as tanks. So soon after the War there was probably plenty of army surplus equipment available for jobs like this.

Most of all I remember the noise.

I last visited Mauro in the early 1980s. Con, because we were only going for a couple of days, hadn’t brought proper shoes – just the standard North Queensland driving footwear of the time, rubber thongs. When Don asked him to help shift irrigation pipes, Con wore his thongs. Don was wearing elastic-sided boots.

When Con came back to the house he sat down on the back step and took off his thongs. They had new soles on them: a centimetre-thick matt of prickles; and he sat there glumly pulling them out of the sides of his feet. There are many reasons why westerners wear elastic-sided boots, and prickles, whether bindii, khaki weed or goat’s heads, are high on the list.

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Goat’s heads in thongs

Kahlua and Milk

In Goondiwindi, in the Gunsynd Lounge, my cousin Nadine orders a Kahlua and milk.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” I tell the barman.

“Hah! You’re a bad woman at heart,” says my cousin.

Nadine and I are on a family history road trip: ten days, from the Darling Downs to the Central West. We’re eating – and drinking – at the Vic. The Victoria Hotel is double storied, with black and white timbers and a slightly crooked corner tower. It’s an outstanding feature of Goondiwindi’s main street. On one trip, Con and I spent the night at the Vic. I loved it, but Con hated it because he had to walk down the hall to go to the bathroom.

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Country hotels with their wide, hardwood verandahs, grand staircases and ornate fretwork are Australia’s most spectacular buildings. Built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they had to be big. Travelling for work was common, and bush people would come to town for race meetings and agricultural shows. Hotels provided the accommodation.

People travel for work and pleasure more than ever now, but most of them, like Con, want ensuite bathrooms and comfortable beds. They want air-conditioning and a car park out front. They don’t want stairs or noisy bar rooms.

I like climbing the stairs that take you up to the long hallways, the verandahs and a view over the street. I’m not so keen on the noisy bar underneath. Con and I spent one Thursday night in the magnificent old George Hotel in Ballarat, Victoria, with a cozy fireplace in the lounge, an ensuite bedroom and breakfast on the wide verandah overlooking the heritage buildings of the main street; but in the bedside table there were complimentary earplugs. We didn’t stay on to hear the Friday night disco in the bar.

One year we went to Esk for the races and spent the night in the Grand Hotel. The party in the Beer Garden went on for most of the night, and we tried to sleep to the sound, much repeated, of “Living next door to Alice,” followed by the shouted chorus of “Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?”

The hotel bars are often empty in these days of random breath checks, and many hotels have closed. During the day there might be one or two drinkers, nursing a beer and waiting for someone to come in so they can tell them about how things were in the old days or show off for tourists.

The poker machine room always has customers. At the Purple Pub in Normanton, it’s the only room with air-conditioning.

Overnight guests have the run of these fine old buildings. As a guest you are allowed up the grand staircase, past the “House Guests Only” sign, to the upstairs lounge, with its television and sagging couches. You can pad down the hallway in your night attire to a huge, tiled bathroom, or clean your teeth in the washbasin in the corner of your room. You can have breakfast on the verandah and lean over the railing to watch the affairs of the street below.

The enormous, heritage listed State Hotel at Babinda was erected in 1917 by the Queensland government. Constructed from local timbers, it has an entrance and staircase of golden silky oak, many bedrooms, and verandahs with a view up the main street to the rain-forested hills behind the town.

State Hotel Babinda ca. 1924

I’d like to stay there sometime. If I suggest it to Con, I know what he’ll say.

“Does it have ensuites?”

The pub is still the heart of many a tiny town. A few years ago, we spent a comfortable night in the hotel at Laura, now named the Quinkan Hotel – the only accommodation in town apart from the caravan park. It’s a plain, single storey pub – no grand staircase or sprawling verandahs – but the owners have found it worth their while to provide comfortable beds, modern air-conditioning and flat-screen televisions. The mining engineers and geologists who stay here like to be comfortable.

It was November when we visited Laura, and the many mango trees shading the front of the pub and lining the street were laden with ripe fruit. I’ll always associate the Laura Hotel with the smell of mangoes and the thud, thud, thud of the fruit hitting the ground.

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Country pubs. Every one of them is memorable.

At the Vic in Goondiwindi, last time we were there together, Con ordered a glass of beer. The glass was sponsored by Saint Mary’s, the local Catholic Parish: What? I asked for a glass of water. It’s a miracle!

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You wouldn’t find that at the Brisbane Hilton.

Images: Victoria Hotel, Goondiwindi; State Hotel Babinda c. 1924 (State Library of Qld, “Picture Queensland”); the Laura Hotel; beer glass from the Vic, Goondiwindi.

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