“The Worst Time of Year for a Journey”

In 1974 we flew to Cairns for the Easter break, little Lizzie and Matt and I. We’d left our car in Cairns after the Christmas holidays because all roads back to Burketown were flooded and impassable, that historically wet summer. My plan was to pick up the car and drive to Townsville, collecting Granny O’Brien at Innisfail on the way.

Con was on his way from Burketown to Townsville in a friend’s ute, with two other men. It would be one of the first cars to attempt the bush roads after the wet season, and he had a story to tell that Good Friday evening in Townsville: of getting hung up on rocks when crossing a place called Fiery Creek on a road that hadn’t seen a grader since before the Wet; of dragging out rocks and mud from under the ute; of a fellow-traveller with a bad hangover, throwing up in the bushes while the others got plastered in mud.

I also had a story to tell. Our Holden hadn’t been used for months, and something had gone wrong with the brakes. To avoid over-heating them I’d had to crawl at a nervous 50kph the whole 350 kilometres to Townsville, including over the steep Cardwell Range. Granny and I and the two children arrived in Townsville exhausted and in the dark.

…and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place…

During COVID restrictions last year, our family began socially distanced fire pit gatherings in Lizzie’s suburban backyard, with poetry readings for entertainment. Last month she chose a poem which reminded her of the road trips from her childhood. It was that classic of English literature: “The Journey of the Magi”, by T.S. Eliot.

COVID fire pit

I’ve know this poem since school, with its religious imagery and sombre, unsettling power; but Lizzie read it with a new, entertaining twist. She compared the harrowing, winter journey of the Three Wise Men to our old trips around Queensland. It is just so true.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

“Three Wise Men”, Henry Collier fineartamerica.com

There wasn’t much cold in our trips, but we often travelled at the worst time of the year, the hot, wet season – and the ways were indeed often deep with water or mud. At Christmas and New Year we moved to or from isolated parts of the state in either punishing heat or pouring rain, or both, as Con was transferred from school to school as principal. For a break from isolation, for visits to family and a taste of coastal comforts, we took holidays at that time of year too.

Like the Magi’s, our journeys weren’t always easy.

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

Living and working in an isolated place, you may have nowhere to stay when you’re away on holiday. After a week or so with relations or friends, sharing beds and mattresses on the floor, you long for a place of your own.

For Christmas 1973, we’d driven the 2100-kilometre trip from Burketown to Brisbane, with our small children, staying with family; but we soon yearned for the holiday flat we’d booked in Cairns, a three-day trip north. In January 1974 we set off, in the face of warnings of floods and cyclones, just a few weeks before Brisbane suffered catastrophic floods.

On the old Marlborough Stretch, a 240-kilometre section of the Bruce Highway that looped west through lonely cattle country between Marlborough and Sarina, the rivers and creeks north and south of us flooded. We were marooned.

In my story Horror Stretch I’ve described it all – how we spent one night in the car, the next in a broken-down caravan behind a roadhouse. The roadhouse managers charged us to toast the bread we provided for breakfast and shared with other travellers. Then we started north again to wait on the banks of Funnel Creek with all the other travellers for the floods to go down.

Funnel Creek in flood 1974 Pic: Doug Rumsey queenslandplaces.com.au

Hospitality and tourism staff these days are usually well-trained locals or cheerful young foreign backpackers, but you can still encounter lonely, fed-up people, slipshod service, even hostility. The concept of “service” is part of the problem. As in, “You city people come through here expecting us to wait on you. We’re not your servants!”

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

If we stayed in a pub, back then, the beer would be cold, but for “The Ladies”, it was Johnny Walker, brandy, gin or sweet sherry – in the Ladies Lounge.

There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Barista coffee?

“Where do you think you are, mate? Queen Street?”

In a 21st century country motel you’ll probably have a good bed and hot water in the shower, and even a decent air-conditioner; but you may find the pool is green, and the promised free Wi-Fi works only next to the office, not down in Room 23.


Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Often before a long trip, by car in Australia or flying overseas, I’ve thought, “Why are we doing this?

“Why are we leaving our safe home to trust ourselves to bad roads and bad drivers; to a twenty-four-hour flight in a crowded plane; to the risk of lost luggage, tedious queues, passport controls, sickness in a foreign country?

“Why are we spending money we should be saving on a frivolity like travel?”

It is folly; but it’s interesting and exciting. We see things we could never have imagined if we’d stayed home. Snow on the Grand Canyon. Oak trees in Richmond Park, UK.

Snow falling at the Grand Canyon USA

And sometimes it’s the only way we can see our far-flung family.

Measuring an oak tree in Richmond Park UK with the family. This one is 3 hundred years old by our measure…

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

These days the highway from Marlborough to Sarina is shorter, flood-proof and closer to the coast. There is one thing I miss about the old road, though. At the northern end, we would abruptly leave the dry country behind and wind down into the green Tropics- to palm trees and cane fields, sugar mills and rain trees and the relief of safe arrival.

View from the Sarina Range queenslandplaces.com.au

Perhaps one day we’ll brave the “Horror Stretch” again, just for that arrival into Sarina, humid and smelling of vegetation. Not too much of the wet, though.


All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again…

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…

Our grown-up children remember those long trips, with all their delights and discomforts, stresses and miseries and fun. Now they and their children are travellers too, and we all tend to feel discontented if we have to stay in one place for too long.

For months of this last year, Matt and his family have been locked down in the COVID-plagued European cold. They’d love to be in a hot, crowded car, coming down into the green, sunny Queensland tropics once again.

The Journey of the Magi

T S Eliot, 1927

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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.

rockhampton depot hill floods 2011 abc
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.

rockhampton camel debbie
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.

IMG_20180703_085012_resized_20180714_112257698
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.

IMG_20180703_091017_resized_20180714_112352448
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.

Rockhampton swollen Fitzroy 2017
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.

burdekin downstream
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.

burdekin steam train
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

Burdekin Bridge last Sunlander (lower burd histl soc)
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.

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

 

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