Mackay Crocodiles

“Daily Mercury”, Mackay. 30 July 1913

The search for Mr George Noble, who wandered from his home near The Leap at the beginning of the month, has now been abandoned without the slightest trace of the missing man having been discovered. The missing man might have been taken by alligators, his farm being situated between Reliance and Constant Creeks, the waters of which are infested with these reptiles. Native dogs also frequent the neighbourhood and may have attacked the man once he became helpless through exposure. Mr Noble was a man of 78 years of age and in his declining years had become rather childish. He evidently lost his way through wandering off on a bye-track.

Reliance Creek National Park now protects one of the last patches of scrub along the creek, not far from its estuary between Mackay and Cape Hillsborough. A century ago, although already surrounded by farms and sugarcane fields, this area, dense with vines and palms, would have been a dangerous place to be lost.

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Mackay Conservation Group explores Reliance Creek National Park

In 1883, George and Jane Noble had emigrated to Mackay from Newcastle on Tyne, England, with their children. They settled on the farm at The Leap, amongst the cane fields and wilderness north of Mackay. It was thirty years later, in his old age, that George disappeared. The search involved local people, police and a tracker, but nothing was ever found.

Perhaps somewhere out in the Reliance Creek estuary there is a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth lying hidden under the sand, lost by poor old George Noble, his Geordie accent stilled forever, far from the Tyne.

George and Jane Noble were the great-grandparents of my husband Con, and only a vague story of the old man wandering off and disappearing was passed down in the family.

Every year in Northern Australia, people are taken by crocodiles. North Queenslanders have lost access to many of their old favourite swimming holes because of them. Endlessly cynical about governments in the south, they say whenever an appeal for crocodile culling is turned down, “When the first croc appears in the Noosa River, they’ll change their minds!”

Or the beaches of the Gold Coast. Perhaps the Brisbane River, near the Tower of Power, home of state government administration, poised above the river at 1 William Street. A crocodile under the mangrove boardwalk there would cause a stir.

Queensland has a service called “Crocwatch” that people ring to report crocodile sightings. Every year there are many such calls, from Torres Strait to Rockhampton. This year, someone said they saw a crocodile at Tin Can Bay, which is scarily close to south Queensland waters.

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Qld Government’s “Crocwatch” map

This year there have been twenty-five recorded crocodile sightings in the Mackay region, near swimming enclosures along the coast, up the creeks and the Pioneer River, and one in Constant Creek, near where George disappeared.

On trips north to Cairns we’ve often spent a night in Mackay, where the cattle country to the south changes to the land of sugarcane, coconut palms and rainforest. It’s fine old city, and a good place to break a journey. This is spectacular country, from the beautiful beaches, up the sprawling Pioneer Valley to the rainforest-covered ranges of Finch-Hatton and Eungella. The climate has extremes – from cyclones and floods to the occasional fall of snow on the ranges.

This year, just before reaching Mackay we turned west on the road to Walkerston, then right on to Mackay Eungella Road, and drove up the Pioneer River valley, through picturesque small towns – Marian, Mirani, Pinnacle, Finch Hatton.

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The Pioneer River at Marian

Con’s mother Min grew up here. George Noble’s son Bill and his wife Mary became cane farmers in this valley, still one of Queensland’s richest sugarcane areas. Bill farmed at Alexandra, on the Palms Estate, a large area of farms located about ten kilometres south-west of Mackay, somewhere between Walkerston and the river.

In 1908 it was from this family farm that Bill and Mary drove away in a buggy to Mackay Hospital. Mary was to have an operation for a goitre in her neck. She died under the anaesthetic. She and Bill had six children under nine, and it was hard times for the bereaved family.

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Mackay District Hospital, 1910 (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min was the second-eldest child, and she told us stories about life on the farm.

She spoke of the time her little brother, Jim, lost two fingers in a chaff cutter.

She spoke of city men, desperate for work as the Great Depression started to bite, who came here with soft hands and cut cane with blood running down their arms until their blisters turned into calluses.

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Cutting sugar cane (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min spoke of going to dances at nearby Walkerston or Marian. During the Wet, when the roads were cut, to get there they would travel along the cane train tracks on a pumper trolley.

This year it’s dry in the Pioneer Valley, like most of the state. Last December, for the first time, bushfires got into the iconic rainforest on the Eungella range. It was a shock to us all. Rainforest doesn’t burn, we thought.

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Eungella Range: fire damage from December 2018

The barman in the Finch Hatton pub, where we enjoyed a beer and toasted sandwiches, looked up at the hillside across the road and said, “It was burning right to the top of that range. Up the Gorge as well. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’ll grow back, though. It always does.”

I hope he’s right, but rainforest trees, unlike eucalypts, are not adapted to burning. This September, South-east Queensland’s Binna Burra rainforest also burned, along with its heritage-listed lodge. Perhaps we’ll have to become accustomed to fires in ancient forests.

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Coomera Falls, Binna Burra, 2018

When you take the winding Mackay Eungella Road up the range, the scars of last year’s fire are still visible, although green is emerging. Over the range and down to Broken River, the forest is untouched, with platypuses in the river and whip birds scratching among the leaf litter; but we’ve had a shocking taste of how things may be in the future.

Crocodile attacks might be the least of worries for the people of Queensland, both north and south.

Mackay, though, is beautiful, in all its faces; and one of the loveliest sights in Queensland is that of kangaroos on the spectacular beaches of Cape Hillsborough, only a few kilometres north of where old George Noble’s specs may still lie hidden in the sand.

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Cape Hillsborough (Image: Queensland.com)

Major Mitchelling

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Wisteria arbour, Mitchell

St George to Mitchell is 210 kilometres. My cousin Nadine is driving, and she stays close to the 110kph speed limit, eating up the distance.

It’s a lonely road. At the service station in St George they’d warned us to keep an eye out for animals: kangaroos and cattle, emus and wild pigs. A big kangaroo leaps across the road ahead of us, but Nadine is alert, and feathers her foot on the brake. They say you should never swerve to miss a kangaroo, or brake violently, because you’ll lose control of the car and roll or hit a tree. Hitting a kangaroo is less likely to injure you than swerving, although it won’t be much good for the kangaroo.

“Dad used to call this kind of trip Major Mitchelling,” I tell Nadine. My family spent a lot of time on country roads, and Dad especially loved travelling through unknown territory.

I remember Major-General Sir Thomas Mitchell from primary school social studies lessons. In the 1840s, he led an exploration party up this way – hence the name of the town we’re heading for. At school we used to trace maps of Australia, marking with dotted lines the journeys of the European explorers. Major Mitchell was one of the big ones. He was a rugged and determined traveller, notoriously bad-tempered, and a great mapmaker.

A soldier and draughtsman, Thomas Mitchell was involved in fighting in Spain, fought at the battle of Waterloo, then after the defeat of Napoleon worked at doing sketches of the European battlefields. In 1827 he came to Australia to succeed John Oxley as Surveyor-General.

The colonial government was keen to discover grazing lands and rivers, and to “open up” the country. Between 1831 and 1835 Major Mitchell and the men who went with him, including convicts and Aboriginal guides, ranged from the Barwon River in what is now northern New South Wales to the southern Victorian coast.

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Mitchell’s expeditions (Wikipedia)

Mitchell’s exploration parties were resented by the Aboriginal people whose land he was intent on opening up. They knew what happened once white people came to stay: streams polluted by cattle hooves and wool washing; sacred places destroyed; women raped and abused; disease and alcohol, and mass shooting if anyone fought back.

It wasn’t until recent times that such events were even mentioned; but Mitchell wrote in his journal about “treacherous savages”. Treachery depends on who writes the history. The resistance fighters of Nazi-occupied Europe, who did whatever they could to trick, ambush and destroy the invader, are not described in our histories as treacherous.

Mitchell was exploring for the government, to map and survey the land and make it available for grazing and white settlement. Wealthy and powerful pastoral companies were keen to exploit the vast inland plains; and strong in the colonial mind was Captain Cook’s declaration that Australia was a land that belonged to no one. Terra Nulius.

They were tough, those explorers. Nadine and I are driving this mildly-lonely stretch in a modern, air-conditioned car, on a sealed road, in spring. Those men were travelling through dry, hostile territory, in extremes of weather and distance, eating miserable food and drinking dodgy water, dependent on the health of their horses if they were to return to civilization, and always watched and often harried by angry locals. No wonder Mitchell was bad-tempered.

In late 1846, Mitchell led an expedition into what is now Queensland, looking for rivers. He named the Balonne River after a local indigenous word, and followed it northwards, naming the site of St George. The Balonne meets the Maranoa River, and Mitchell’s party followed it further north.

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Maranoa River at Mitchell

We’re following the Maranoa today, over to our right, not far away. All we see, though, is flat, monotonous eucalypt bushland along the road verges, with cleared, grassy paddocks beyond. The grass is mainly what became known as Mitchell grass, astrebla pectinate, one of the premier grazing grasses of inland Australia.

 Occasionally a dirt track, flanked by a mailbox and a station name, leads off through the trees.

“Look!” says Nadine, pointing off to the right. “I don’t believe it!”

There, alongside a track leading off into the trees, is a sign saying “Coffee Shop”.

There is a story to be found there. But it’s getting late.

By five o’clock, we’ve checked in to a motel. The receptionist suggests the Mitchell Hotel for dinner.

“We thought we’d go across the road to the Courthouse Hotel. I liked it last time I was here.”

“You’d be better off at the Mitchell. I’ve had bad reports of the Courthouse.”

One of the features of Mitchell is the Great Artesian Spa, and that’s where I go, for a swim before dark. Sheltered from the road by coloured glass and greenery are two pools. I dip into the cold pool and soak in the hot one, where warm bore water gushes from a pipe and steam rises from the water.

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Family enjoying the Great Artesian Spa, Mitchell

“Where do you suggest we go to eat?” I ask the ladies in the spa shop. “I thought we might go to the Mitchell Hotel.”

“Go to the Courthouse. Better atmosphere there.”

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Courthouse Hotel, morning, Mitchell

Dinner, at the Courthouse, is a friendly, cosy affair, and afterwards we cross the Main Street to the Mitchell Hotel for a drink. Nadine orders Kahlua and milk, which causes a bit of a stir, with milk having to be fetched from the kitchen. We strike up a conversation with a couple of blokes in the bar, and before we leave, we each put ten dollars through the pokies.

Mitchell is a quaint country town, with attractive old timber buildings, art works, bottle trees and a wisteria arbour.

Major Mitchell camped by the river near here, then continued far to the north, eventually turning back only when he reached the Belyando River, a tributary of the Burdekin.

Tomorrow Nadine and I will head west, across the Mitchell grass plains.

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West of Mitchell

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