Losing a Wheel

A few kilometres south of Gin Gin, as dusk approached, we were travelling at one hundred kilometres an hour when a wheel came off the car and bounced off through the bush beside us. I watched it go.

Sparks flew up from the road as the axle scraped a track through the bitumen.

It was 1976, and we were driving from Townsville to Brisbane for a family wedding. Before starting out, we’d had our blue HR Holden serviced, including rotation of the tyres. On the rear passenger side, the mechanic had failed to re-tighten the wheel nuts.

Pulled over on to the verge, we considered what to do. It would be dark soon, and we had our young kids with us. We needed to get a message to the RACQ agent back in Gin Gin.

Around this time, a number of travellers had been murdered when pulled over on the Bruce Highway, not far north of here. People were nervous about stopping for strangers; but luckily a family in a car following us saw what happened and stopped to help. Generously, they interrupted their journey to turn around and go back to town.

It was an anxious wait in those days before mobile phones, when stranded motorists relied on passing strangers to contact the RACQ; and a great relief when assistance arrived. Less than an hour after the wheel had come off, the tow truck came to take us and the car to Gin Gin.gin gin 2

Roadside assistance: it’s good to have that backup on road trips. I’ve heard only one bad story connected with roadside assistance, and it came from an unpleasant man met by chance in South Australia.

It was a glorious, starry night at Rawnsley Park in the Flinders Ranges, and there was a fire pit outside the accommodation units. I knocked on doors and invited others to join us for a glass of wine round the fire. We were looking forward to a pleasant evening.

But one man was obnoxious.

First, he embarrassed a nice young German couple by making Hitler jokes.

Then he told us of a great trick he’d played on a policeman he’d come across, broken down beside an isolated country road.

“I hated this cop – he’d pulled me up a couple of times for speeding – but I stopped and asked him if he was okay.

“‘Yeah, I’m right,’ he said. ‘I waved down another bloke and asked him to call in at the RAA in town and get them to send someone out. Thanks anyway.’

“I fixed him, though,” said our obnoxious companion. “called in at the RAA in town and cancelled the call-out. Said the problem was fixed. That cop is probably still out there waiting!”

He got a laugh out of telling the story, but we gave up on the evening. A good campfire ruined.

Back in 1976, after losing the wheel, we spent two nights at the Gin Gin Motel, waiting for repairs

Gin Gin Sabrina Lauriston, Touurism and Events Qld
Gin Gin Main Street

It wasn’t the first un-planned stopover we’d had. In 1970, we took our first long car trip as a family. Living at Rosevale, southwest of Ipswich, we were travelling to Innisfail for Christmas with our eight months old baby, Matt.

All went well as we drove north in the blue Holden, until we stopped for fuel in Rockhampton. There was none. The tanker drivers were on strike, we were told.

“We’ve got enough fuel to get through to Marlborough,” Con said. “They’ll probably have some there. Let’s give it a try.”

An hour or so later we pulled in to the Marlborough service station.

“We’ve got no fuel, mate,” said the man behind the desk. “The tanker’s coming through in the morning. You’ll have to wait until then.”

In the nearby motel, all the rooms had been taken by other stranded travellers. Our only choice was the Marlborough Hotel, in the tiny township a kilometre or so to the east, beside the railway line.

We checked into the last available room in the basic, single-storey pub, grateful to get it: Con and I and baby Matt in a room with two sagging single beds and a washbasin in the corner.

That Saturday night in Marlborough, ringers and stockmen from the surrounding countryside came into town for a night out at the pub, the only drinking place for one hundred kilometres. We were welcomed in the bar, and little Matt was passed round and admired. Later, I washed his baby bottles in hard water in the dingy, concrete-floored communal bathroom out the back.

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Marlborough Hotel from the back

I shared my narrow bed with the baby. The sound of boots tramping along the verandah outside was occasionally drowned out by the rumble of a freight train on the track just across the road. Next morning, we made our way back to the highway service station, where mercifully the petrol tanker had arrived.

The Marlborough Hotel still offers accommodation. According to its web page, fifty dollars a double will buy you a bed and “continental” breakfast; or you can camp out the back and use that dire bathroom for five dollars. I hope they’ve softened the water.

Flat tyres, lost wheels, petrol strikes, bogs, floods, blown-up engines and broken fan belts: we’ve experienced them all over the years. With improved technology and better roads, breakdowns don’t happen so often now, but with gaps in phone coverage, even on the highways, there are still times when travellers need help from passing strangers. It’s wonderful how generously that help is given.

Repairs done and a new wheel on the Holden, we set off again from Gin Gin, heading south. I could picture the wheel bouncing away through the bush, and when we came to those scrapes in the bitumen we pulled over and went searching for it. And there it was, in the long, dry grass among the gum trees, waiting for us.

I can still see that bouncing wheel; but of all of this, our two kids remember only that while we were waiting in Gin Gin, little Lizzie walked in front of a heavy wooden swing in the playground. It hit her under the chin and knocked her over, and even today she can tell you that story, and show you the scar.

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Lizzie and Matt on the swings on another trip

Horror Stretch

Murder.

Travellers shot in their cars or sleeping bags.

Frightening reports in the papers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Central Queensland place names Funnel Creek, Lotus Creek and Connors River held a weight of menace. Across that decade, several travellers were murdered by strangers when pulled up alongside the Bruce Highway between Marlborough and Sarina. The Marlborough Stretch became known as the Horror Stretch.

In his 2002 book “Seven Versions of an Australian Badland”, historian Ross Gibson writes in detail about those random murders and the other violent acts that occurred in this region over the previous century.

He writes, “This stretch of country is an immense, historical crime scene.”

Gibson also describes its cyclones and floods; and it was because of floods that Con and I once found ourselves stranded here with our children.

In the early January of 1974, on our way north to Cairns, we drove the Horror Stretch, as we had done before; but this year was different. This year was very wet indeed. Later that month, Australia Day weekend, record floods would inundate Brisbane.

From our home in Burketown, we had driven down to Brisbane for Christmas – 2200 kilometres of bitumen and gravel, with two young children and no car air-conditioning. But we were young, and we were used to it.

In those days, the Burketown water supply was untreated. We had a rainwater tank for drinking, but our bath water came from a lagoon where the local kids swam. It is not surprising that when, over Christmas, I began to feel ill, a doctor diagnosed hepatitis A.

There was nowhere for us in Brisbane, with me suffering from an infectious disease.

“I could have you taken into custody,” said the doctor. “If you don’t undertake to keep yourself away from people, that’s what I’ll do!”

We had a holiday apartment waiting for us in Cairns, and so we set out on the three-day journey north, in spite of warnings of flood rains along the way.

We crossed Lotus Creek on our second day on the road, 120 kilometres north of Marlborough and driving through rain, dipping down on to the narrow, single-lane bridge, with swirling, brown waters close beneath its decking, then up past the roadhouse on the north bank.

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Lotus Creek Service Station after Cyclone Debbie, March 2017. Rockhampton Morning Bulletin

Twenty kilometres further on we crossed the Connors River, with even higher water; but when we reached Funnel Creek, we were stopped. Water was racing over the bridge and halfway up the flood marker.

“We’re going back,” called out one of the other travellers pulled up at the flooded bridge. “Connors River is coming up. If it goes over the bridge there, we’ll be stranded.”

Worried, we turned back too, crossed Connors River safely and spent that night in the car, parked beside the road, just south of the river. The rain poured down, so we had to close the windows, except for a crack. It was hot, and there were mosquitoes.

We locked the car doors and tried not to think of how many people had been murdered along this road. Fourteen months later, skydiving couple Noel and Sophie Weckert would be shot by strangers here at Connors River.

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Back row, 4th from left – skydiver Noel Weckert. South Australian Skydivers

Next morning, we drove further south, hoping to get back to Marlborough; but now the water was over the bridge at Lotus Creek. We were marooned.

There were a dozen carloads of people caught there, congregated at the Lotus Creek Roadhouse. The manager let us have an old caravan out the back for that night. It was broken-down and dusty, with grimy mattresses and no bedding, but it was more comfortable than the car. And it felt safer.

There wasn’t much food at the roadhouse, but we had our own supplies – including the only bread available for breakfast next morning. We shared it with other travellers, but the manager charged us for toasting it.

After breakfast, we drove north again and joined the queue waiting at the Connors River for the water to go down. It was a long, hot wait. People shared stories about floods, snakes and breakdowns. Some dozed in their cars. Our small children squatted in the gutter beside the car, playing with a toy truck.

The water was still over the bridge when cars began to cross. We took our turn, with a towel draped across the grill to minimize the wet coming in over the engine. As we drove up the slope on the other side, I bailed water out the window with an icecream container.

We did stupid things as young parents.

Having made it through to Cairns, a couple of weeks later we flew back to Burketown. The day Brisbane flooded, we were flying over the Gulf Country, across a sea of floodwater, the winding Carpentaria rivers marked only by the tops of trees along their banks. Our final leg home from the airstrip was in a tinnie.

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Gulf Country under floods

The highway doesn’t follow the Horror Stretch now – it takes a shorter, more easterly route past Saint Lawrence, and it’s a wide, well-made road and a pleasant, high-speed drive, with pasture and bush land, spectacular ranges in the background and station homesteads out of sight up dirt tracks and behind gates and grids. In a good season, tall grass stands golden along the road edges, bright against the blue mountain ranges.

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Many still remember the murders of the Horror Stretch, though; and there have been even more frightening outback murders in the fifty-odd years since. There’s horror in the idea of a madman emerging from the dark lonely bush to murder a stranger.

That said, more travellers have died when driving voluntarily through floodwaters. Crossing flooded Connors River with young children in the car is the memory that gives me nightmares.

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