Snake Stories

A red-bellied black snake was stretched along the pipe at the back of the laundry tubs, behind the taps. I could see its glossy colours.

I’d been washing up while little Matt played outside the back door. Hearing him bumping something down the three steps that led to the yard and the laundry shed of the old house, I dried my hands and went to see what he was up to.

Matt had dragged a chair over to the concrete laundry tubs and climbed up on it, and he was reaching out, laughing, to the snake.

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Red-bellied black snake

We were living in the school residence at Rosevale, south-west of Ipswich. Local farmers had warned us that the Rosevale valley was notorious for snakes – both brown and red-bellied black.

Trying not to startle either Matt or the snake, I called out, softly, “Come here, Matt. I’ve got a bikkie for you.”

He turned and climbed down. I grabbed him and ran back up the stairs and watched the snake slither away out of sight into the long grass behind the shed.

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The old school residence, Rosevale. Laundry shed on left.

Another day Matt was playing in the yard with the cats. Suddenly they stood frozen, ears forward, staring at a patch of long grass, and the two deadly brown snakes sunning themselves there. Con ran to get the hoe.

Snakes are protected by law, and snake catchers will come to your house and take the snake away for release into the bush; but there are many who still consider that the only good snake is a dead snake, and delight in going into battle with sticks, hoes and mattocks or whatever is handy.

As children, my brothers and I entertained ourselves by leaving a rubber snake on the back landing where our father would be bound to find it.

He did. He grabbed a big stick and killed it.

Rubber snakes bounce in a most lifelike manner when hit with a stick. Dad heroically beat that rubber snake to death, and carefully lifted it on the stick to examine it. He said, “It’s a young brown. Dangerous things, those.” That was before he noticed us laughing.

He didn’t think it was funny.

I’ve played that trick on Con. He didn’t think it was funny either.

Most encounters with snakes happen in the bush. Walking down the zigzag track in the rainforest of the Palmerston, west of Innisfail, I met a large brown snake crossing the track. I met the same snake again on the next leg of the path down the hill. You don’t know how high you can jump until you almost put your foot on a snake.

All Australians have snake stories. They are a favourite topic of conversation, and we particularly love to tell them to foreigners. The English are best, and Americans. They respond with such horror.

An American visiting Brisbane asked a local, “Why are so many Brisbane house on stilts?”

“It’s because of the snakes. They can just slither straight under the house instead of coming inside.”

To white farmers and squatters of the nineteenth century, often living in primitive conditions in what was to them hostile bush, snakes were a deadly enemy. Henry Lawson wrote about it in his spare, atmospheric story “The Drover’s Wife”. Living in isolated bushland, alone with her young children in a slab hut, protected only by her kangaroo-dog Alligator, a woman sits up all night with the dog, her children bedded down on the rough kitchen table, waiting for a snake to re-emerge through cracks in the wall.

Alligator and the drover’s wife kill the snake between them, after a fierce struggle; and she lifts it on the point of her stick and throws it on the fire.

We have a love-hate relationship with snakes. They eat chooks, they kill dogs, and sometimes they kill people; but they’re part of our environment, a feature of legends and stories, from ancient Aboriginal culture to the Bible and modern literature and painting.

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Giant carpet snake “Gubulla Munda”, Ayr, North Queensland

Rainbow serpent legends exist all over the country, and snakes are a common theme in Aboriginal art.

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“Bloody Big Snake”, Shepparton Art Gallery, Victoria

Some say the rainbow serpent is a carpet snake: the “Kabul” that gives its name to Caboolture.

A carpet snake once ate a litter of kittens under our house at Yarrabah, then coiled up on the front door mat to sleep off the feed. There are carpet snakes living in my Brisbane back yard, too. I know when there’s one about by the screeching of noisy miner birds, harassing a snake on a tree branch or curled up behind a staghorn fern. They’re beautiful creatures, and we like to have them around.

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Carpet snake

It’s best not to walk out on our verandah at night without shoes, though. Carpet snakes like to slither across the boards and into the wattle tree. Sometimes we see a long, patterned snakeskin hanging across its branches.

No wonder birds don’t visit the bird bath I hung there.

Not even a kookaburra can win against a carpet snake.

snake kookaburra

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…

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