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.

Black Soil

Flat land, straight road. I’m driving from Roma to Dalby on the Warrego Highway, following the railway line through tiny towns with enormous grain silos. The road has an uneven surface. It’s difficult to keep a road surface level in this landscape of soft, deep black soils, especially as road trains come this way. In drought times, as it is now, trucks haul hay to the dry farms to the west, and they haul cattle east to sale yards or agistment.

There are no passing lanes. I choose a good spot, take a deep breath and bowl past a truck hauling two trailers of cattle. East of Roma, that’s the limit: two trailers, up to 36.5 metres total.

West of Roma, road trains can have three or even four trailers and be up to 53.5 metres long. Passing them on a dual carriage road takes nerve for a city driver like me, although local utes and SUVs fly past them.

Road train drivers may be direct descendants of the drivers of horse and bullock teams that did the haulage a hundred years ago, on the gravel roads and dirt tracks of the time. George Lambert’s 1899 three-metre-long painting, the heroic Across the Black Soil Plains, is one of the treasures of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The painting depicts a horse team straining to haul a load of wool bales across New South Wales plains country much like the country I’m driving through today. This ground is muddy, though. The horses and the teamster’s legs are muddy, and the load is leaning dangerously. The scene defines hard, frustrating labour.

across black soil plains
Across the Black Soil Plains, George Lambert. 1899. Art Gallery of New South Wales

After rain, this fine, black soil becomes notoriously sticky.

Con and I found out just how treacherous it can get when we visited a homestead in black soil country near Barcaldine. We drove there in our Falcon: a great car for long journeys on bitumen, but not so good in mud.

While we were having a cup of tea there was a shower of rain. We said our goodbyes and started to drive back to the gate, five hundred metres away. The Falcon went its own way on the slimy black soil and slid off the edge into the muddy paddock. A station hand in a Toyota ute tried to tow us out, but the car was too heavy. They hitched another Toyota to the first one, and both of them strained, exhaust fumes gushing.

Slowly, the car slithered its way down the muddy track behind the straining utes. They towed us across the road, facing back towards town. The Falcon had black mud up to the windows. The driveway into the station looked like a ploughed field – they would need a grader to fix it. There was nothing Con and I could say or do except apologise and head back, shamefaced, to town.

It took us hours to get the mud off the car – out of the wheel nuts and tyres, off the panels, the number plate, grill and headlights, the floor, even the seatbelts. Months later we were still finding pockets of black soil under the seats.

Here on the Warrego Highway, shiny-leafed brigalow scrub lines the road on both sides. Every so often a patch of prickly pear cactus provides a reminder of the heart-breaking scourge of these farm lands in the late 1800s and early last century. Prickly pear from the Americas was introduced in the 1800s, and soon it was choking the land. There were forests of prickly pear, and by 1920, 23 million hectares of land was affected.

prickly pear, dulacca, 1910
Prickly pear, Dulacca, 1910. State Library of Queensland: Picture Queensland

Con is looking at the map to pass the time while I drive.

“Wallumbilla, Yuleba, Dulacca, Miles: all these tiny towns. And Baking Board: that’s appropriate. Not a hill in sight. The only landmarks are the grain silos. But according to the map, believe it or not, the Great Dividing Range is just north of here.”

fullsizeoutput_3f18

This country is not flat, although it looks that way from the road. It is gently rolling downs country, rich agricultural land producing cattle, fodder crops and wheat.

East of Chinchilla, at the tiny township of Boonarga, we pass the Cactoblastis Memorial Hall. In 1925, as the result of government-sponsored research, three thousand cactoblastis moth eggs were imported from South America and distributed around the Chinchilla area. The larvae killed the prickly pear. Those larvae were local heroes. This is the only hall I know that was dedicated to a bug.

Cactoblastis_Memorial_Hall,_Boonarga_(2006)
Cactoblastis Memorial Hall, Boonarga

On the outskirts of Dalby, a road turns left to Jandowae. I lived in Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs, when I was a teenager. It was small and friendly, cold in winter and blazing hot in summer: a complete change from where my family had lived until then, in Nambour and Brisbane. We all loved it.

“I got my driver’s licence in Jandowae,” I tell Con. “It was easy – there was hardly any traffic, and lots of space, and the policeman who tested me was a family friend. There’s no hill for thirty kilometres, so I didn’t have to demonstrate a hill start. That was lucky, because I wasn’t good at hill starts. Nowhere to practise.”

Soft, deep, fertile black and brown soils make up a large part of Queensland’s geology. If you’re driving along a country highway and notice that the power poles and fence posts are slightly crooked, leaning at strange angles, you’re driving through black soil country.

It’s fine country for grazing and for cultivation. A great deal of Australia’s food comes from black soil country; and under the plains lie the priceless, ancient water reserves of the Great Artesian Basin.

Unfortunately, there are also huge reserves of coal and gas underneath this country. The Galilee Basin is said to be one of the largest untapped coal reserves on the planet, and nine huge mines are planned for the region.

I hope they know what they’re doing. It seems a terrible shame to risk ruining fine land and priceless water with gas wells and open-cut coal mining. You can’t grow food in a mine pit.

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.

IMG_20180910_161225_resized_20180910_041345488

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑