Syphoning Petrol

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.

Flat country, long distances

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.

Armraynald Station homestead and outbuildings from the air paraway.com.au

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.

Burke and Wills Roadhouse mapio.net

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.

Flinders catchment floods, January 2019 news.com.au

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.

Stranded cattle, Gulf Country floods, January 2019 abc.net.au

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.

Burketown

Rosevale is beautiful. The old one-teacher school (now closed) and the even older principal’s residence are set on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, with a view over dairy farms to Cunningham’s Gap. We lived in that house for the two years that Con was Principal of the school, but after that I wanted a change.

“Let’s apply for a transfer to somewhere up north. It would be exciting and adventurous. Not the Gulf of Carpentaria, though! I don’t want to go there. It’s probably hot, dry, flat and miserable in the Gulf Country.”

Burketown, a small, isolated town in the heart of the Gulf Country, was where they sent us. It was hot, dry and flat. But it was rarely miserable. Just different.

These days, there are conveniences in Burketown that were unimaginable when we were there: mains power, street lights, treated water, sewerage, a swimming pool complex, a coffee shop, even a green and shady caravan park.

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Burketown Caravan Park today. From its Facebook page

For us, shade would be a luxury.

We moved to Burketown in January 1973, with our two small children. The car and our pets went on the train with us from Brisbane to Mt Isa: the dog in the dog box in the Guards Van, cats in the luggage van in pet packs and our HR Holden on a flat-car.

From Townsville to Mt Isa there were no sleeping berths available, so we curled up on a couple of seats at one end of the Buffet Car, with people coming and going all night.

On the train we met a pink-cheeked Irish family, just arrived in Australia and travelling to work at Mount Isa Mines. Arriving next day, we all stepped out of the train into what seemed like an oven. I sometimes think of that Irish family and wonder how they coped.

A couple of days later, we flew to Burketown with Bush Pilots Airways in a twenty-seater Twin Otter. It was a mail run, stopping at Mornington Island and a couple of cattle stations, swooping over the station landing fields to chase horses away before setting down.

At Mornington Island more passengers boarded, a couple of them sitting cross-legged in the aisle. One woman was wearing a broad felt hat with a tape measure as a hatband. I was in southeast Queensland no longer.

At the tiny Burketown airport, the shire clerk met us, and he drove us into town. We left our suitcases in the principal’s house, a neat, new highset house of the style used all over the State for Queensland Government employees. Next door was the recently-built school.

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Burketown State School, with the Principal’s house in the background, 1974

Awaiting the arrival by road of our furniture, we checked in at the pub.

The Burketown pub, known as the Albert Hotel, was in those days a square concrete two-storey building. It had been built originally as Customs House for the then-thriving port on nearby Albert River. The sleeping areas were accessed via an outdoor staircase. We were warned that when the bar closed, the generator, which thumped away all day in the neighbouring shed, would be switched off, and there would be no lights until morning.

There is no quiet like that of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere when the generators stop.

Stars never seem brighter than on a clear night in a town with no streetlights.

There is no heat like that of a tropical night in the middle of summer without fans.

The publican also warned us that there would be no breakfast, as his wife, the cook, was away in Cairns. Next morning in the hotel kitchen I cooked bacon and eggs for us all.

In our three years in Burketown, we got to know the Albert Hotel well, along with its eccentric regulars, animal and human.

A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Whacko sat on top of the doorway into the bar, chewing the heads off matches.

Fishermen and locals spun endless yarns, not only to the new schoolteachers, but also to visiting politicians and media.

A film crew asked a group of locals playing euchre how long they’d been playing. “A couple of weeks,” came the laconic reply.

Once we found a large fresh-water crocodile tied to a post outside the door, like a dog waiting for its owner.

On our second evening in Burketown, when the bar was full and card games in progress, our furniture van arrived and pulled up in front of the pub. The card players offered to help with the unloading.

South-east Queensland had suffered a heatwave over Christmas of 1972 and into the New Year. Con and I had been busy during those hot weeks before leaving the south. Driving round Brisbane with little kids in the back seat, trying to buy a kerosene fridge and a thirty-two volt washing machine, had taken precedence over sorting our belongings. In the end, we’d instructed the removalists to pack everything; and so the blokes from the Burketown pub, in their footie shorts, singlets and thongs, carried electric heaters and winter coats into a house without electricity in the middle of a Gulf Country summer.

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Burketown general store, 1975. So hot inside, condensed milk would caramelise in the can

In our time, there was a hospital, general store, shire offices, fuel depot, school and hotel and not much more in Burketown, and barely a tree or blade of grass; but it was a friendly and welcoming place. The locals told us what sounded like tall stories, but I learned to believe the lot. Crazy things happened here all the time.

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Con and our children in Burketown

We never regretted the move to the Gulf, in spite of insect plagues, the trials of operating the thirty-two-volt generator, kerosene fridge and petrol iron, the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the rough dirt roads, the isolation. Sometimes it was lonely, though. I would stand on the verandah, looking north to where the Gulf lay, out of sight beyond endless desolate salt flats and mangroves, and feel sorry for Burke and Wills, who got this far and then turned back, to die of starvation.

It can feel like the end of the world, up in the Gulf Country.

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Looking north from the Principal’s house, 1974

Reading Queensland

I like reading books about places. It adds extra layers of enjoyment to my travels, in Queensland and beyond. They can be learned and literary books, or lighter romances and mysteries; but sharing in the experiences of others, especially when they’re good observers, helps me to get under the surface of a place.

These are just a few of my favourite books about Queensland.

Please add other titles in the comments section. I’m always looking for more.

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Fiction

  • “The Commandant”, Jessica Anderson. Fine, literary, perceptive novel of convict imagesBrisbane under Captain Logan. Brutality and death in the penal colony as observed by the Logan womenfolk. 

 

  • Affection”, Ian Townsend. 2010. Historical novel set in Townsville in 1900 when the affectioncity was under threat of the plague. Doctors enforce unpopular measures to prevent it. (Dilemma of scientists: if they succeed in preventing a threatened disaster, people will say it wasn’t a danger in the first place.)

 

 

  • “Carpentaria”, Alexis Wright. A magnificent literary saga of the Gulf of Carpentaria, written by an Indigenous Australian with a unique and fullsizeoutput_3e0caccomplished voice and an authentic image of the land, its people and its mythology. In the tradition of Xavier Herbert.

 

 

  • “The Birdwatcher”, William McInnes. A sweet, wise, grown-up love story set in Far 9780733632976North Queensland. Some ‘60s nostalgia, poetry, and lots of birds.

 

 

 

  • “My Island Homicide”, Catherine Titasey. Set on Thursday Island, this is a likeableimages romance/detective novel. Authentic language and background in a fascinating part of Queensland.

 

 

  • “Ryders Ridge”, Charlotte Nash. An enjoyable rural romance set inryders north-west Queensland. Red dirt, big hats, doctors.

 

 

 

  • “The Grazier’s Wife”, Barbara Hannay. 2017. A multi-generation rural romance setthe-grazier-s-wife on the Atherton Tableland. Cattle, rainforest, Singapore, antiques, a secret will.

 

 

  • “Boy Swallows Universe”, Trent Dalton. 2018. Enjoyable, scary, boy swallowsuplifting, suspenseful story of growing up in a crime-affected family in Brisbane. Darra and Bracken Ridge, Boggo Road Gaol and City Hall. Violence and love.

 

 

  • “Border Watch”, Helene Young. 2011. A FNQ romantic thriller Northern-Heat1written by an ex- airline captain and Border Patrol pilot. One of several novels by this author set in Queensland including “Safe Harbour”, 2014, and “Northern Heat”, 2015, which is set in Cooktown.

 

 

Non-fiction

  • “Lonely Planet – Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef”, and “Lonely Planet – Australia”. The first covers the tourist areas and the coast; the second covers the inland areas of the state. Lots of interesting local information.

 

  • “A History of Queensland”, Raymond Evans. 2007. Interesting scholarly in-depth account by a well-known historian ofimages Qld life and development from earliest human habitation to the 2000s. 

 

 

  • “Love in the Age of Drought”, Fiona Higgins. 2009. The memoir of a loveSydney woman who marries a farmer from Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs. Love, drought, life in a small town, the black soil plains west of the Bunya Mountains. I lived here as a teenager.

 

 

  • “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. Affectionate, memoir-style look at Brisbane, its history, condon brisbanearts, way of life and unique qualities as a lively sub-tropical city, by a journalist who knows the city well: its good and its bad. (Part of the “Secret Life of Your City” series about State Capitals.)

 

 

  • “Birdsville”, Evan McHugh. 2009. Dust storms, bogs, sand dunes, race meetings, rescues,images locusts, building a golf course in the desert: a Sydney freelance writer and his graphic designer wife spend twelve months in Birdsville.

 

 

  • “Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s frontier killing times”, Timothy Bottoms. 2013. imagesHarrowing account of the acts of violence that accompanied pastoralists’/investors’ seizure of Queensland pastoral land from Aboriginal inhabitants.

 

 

  • Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. tom petrieRe-published 2014. This important 1904 book details life in Brisbane and South-east Qld from 1837, when little Tom Petrie arrived at the convict settlement of Moreton Bay with his family. Local Aboriginal people, their foods, customs and language, as well as convict life and early white exploration.

 

  • “Cairns: City of the South Pacific. A history 1770-1995”, Timothy Bottoms. cairns-city-of-the-south-pacific-history-productInteresting, ambitious, detailed work.

Counting Prawns

The bitumen is too narrow for two vehicles. One of them at least will need to go on to the sloping, gravel shoulder.

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The Savannah Way

I’m with Joe, in the front passenger seat of his ageing Commodore, driving from Cairns to Karumba, a distance of over seven hundred and fifty kilometres. We’re driving through a plague of grasshoppers.

IMG_1313
Grasshoppers

West of Mount Surprise the Gulf Development Road narrows to a single strip of bitumen.

Joe has never driven on a road like this.

“When we meet on-coming traffic, what should I do?” he asks.

Joe’s driving has all been on motorways and city streets, and he is expert at changing lanes and reverse parking. Now he needs to learn another skill.

“When you see an oncoming vehicle, put two wheels off the bitumen,” I tell him. “Give them lots of room.”

Out of the mirage ahead of us a Toyota ute appears, heading our way, at speed. At one hundred kilometres an hour, Joe puts two wheels on to the shoulder and we fly along the gravel, past the Toyota, and back on to the bitumen.

“Maybe, next time, you should reduce speed before you do that,” I suggest to Joe.

“Good idea,” he says, drily.

Con and Joe and I going to visit our daughter Lizzie and her family. They’re living in Karumba, a small town on the mud banks of the Norman River, close to where it flows into the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria. Russ, a scientific assistant, spends his days sitting in a shed overlooking the river, with a microscope and tweezers, counting juvenile prawns by species: banana, king, tiger.

This is crocodile country, so no one swims in the river or in the Gulf. There are box jellyfish in these waters too. On Google Earth, the Norman River and its tributaries look like twisting tree branches or a beautiful abstract painting. Up close, it looks dangerous.

Karumba exists because of prawning and fishing. Prawns and barramundi come off the trawlers already frozen and go straight into freezer trucks destined for the southern markets.

In the winter months retirees come from the south for the fishing. That’s what Karumba is about. Prawns and fishing.

Con and I last came this way in the 1970s, on the way west to Burketown, driving our old Holden sedan. When we’d passed through Croydon, over five hundred kilometres into the trip, the sun was low and shone directly into our eyes.

The road had once been sealed, but the bitumen had worn away to sharp-edged tracks running through bull-dust. Half-blinded by the sun, Con bogged the car half off the road, and we had to wait with our young children for a tow.

Today this road is part of the Savannah Way, stretching three thousand, seven hundred kilometres from Cairns to Broome, in Western Australia, and although still narrow it is well maintained.

We’re following the line of the Gulflander, the rail motor that connects Croydon and Normanton with a once a week service. Built in the late 1880s to service the Croydon gold rush, now it’s a tourist attraction, a welcome sight to travellers on this lonely road as it goes rocking slowly on its way.

Mid-afternoon we meet the Burke Development Road and turn north towards Normanton. Karumba is seventy kilometres further north again, and just on dusk we pull in at Lizzie’s place, a cabin behind the motel in the shade of a poinciana tree. The front of the car is plastered with dead grasshoppers.

We spend a week in Karumba, visiting the barramundi farm and going up-river with Russ to glimpse the low scrub on the barren river flats, crocodile slides showing clearly in the muddy banks. We collect hermit crabs at low tide with our grandsons, visit the tavern, admire the town brolga and swim in the motel pool before heading back to Cairns.

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Collecting hermit crabs, low tide, Gulf of Carpentaria

Lizzie and her family are enjoying their few months here, but she worries about cyclones. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says. “No hill, no safe building. A tidal surge would go right over the town and wipe it out.”

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The Norman River at Karumba

A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, Tropical Cyclone Charlotte crosses the coast at Karumba. Only one building is damaged. While Lizzie, Russ and the boys shelter in the bathroom, that poinciana tree falls and crushes their cabin. No one is hurt, so they put it down as just another Gulf Country adventure.

poinciana
Before the cyclone: that Karumba poinciana

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