During our first road trip north as a family, in December 1970, Con and I and baby Matt stopped on the Strand, Townsville, for a break. On the Strand an artificial waterfall comes tumbling down a cliff into landscaped gardens at the bottom, and I sat there with the baby enjoying the cool spray.
Con was looking across the road at the Tobruk Memorial Baths.
“Did you know,” he said, “in 1956, Australia’s Olympic swimmers trained in that pool? Lorraine Crapp, Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose – they were all here!”
North Queenslanders were pleased to have the country’s best swimmers here in Townsville through the winter before the Melbourne Olympics. Even before the Olympics began, they were breaking records. Con remembers it well.
“Lorraine Crapp broke four world records in one race here, in August 1956. In breaking the five-minute barrier for the four hundred metres freestyle,she broke three other world records – 200 metres, 220 yards and 440 yards. It made headlines around the world.And Dawn Fraser set new world records in the one hundred metres.
“Exciting times for us North Queenslanders, and for Australian swimming!”
The Australian team went on to win gold in every freestyle event at the Melbourne Olympics. Australia’s first real taste of Olympic glory.
In 1976, Con and I and our two kids moved to Townsville, for a year, so he could study at the College of Advanced Education. It was hot and wet, and rain water pooled in the backyard of our rented house. Thousands of tadpoles hatched in the puddles. When the rain stopped, the puddles dried up and the tadpoles rotted in the sun, stinking, just outside the back door.
After the rainy season the city returned to its usual dry, dusty condition. In winter, the mornings were cold. We were in the tropics, but not the lush, green tropics of Mackay or Cairns. Townsville is backed by magnificent ranges, but apart from the pink granite bulk of Castle Hill and its surrounds it is flat. It was a city of cyclists in those days. Now, it’s a much bigger and busier place.
The Townsville CAE was near James Cook University. Those were interesting times at James Cook. It was a time of energy and change. All over the world, there was a developing push for the rights of Indigenous peoples, and academics at James Cook were writing and teaching about the history and issues of race relations in the North. Among them Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, and those dynamic men helped change the face of race relations in Australia.
Eddie Koiki Mabo, a leading figure in the Townsville Torres Strait and Indigenous community, was working as a groundsman at James Cook. Over lunch, in 1974, Eddie Mabo shared stories of his home island with Reynolds and Loos, and it was during these sessions that he discovered that what he had always considered his family’s land belonged, in fact, to the government.
Sixteen years later, Eddie Mabo’s land claim on his ancestral home, the Island of Mer in Torres Strait, resulted in the High Court decision overturning the legal doctrine of terra nullius, or “this land belongs to no one”, under which Captain Cook claimed Australia for Britain. A history-making event.
The Mabo claim thus began at James Cook, around the time we were in Townsville. At the end of 1976, Con was awarded a Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education, and I had a baby. I was unaware of history on the way to being made nearby.
While we were living in Townsville, we often came down to the Strand rock pool, or further north to Rowes Bay or Pallarenda Beach, to swim with the kids and hold beach birthday parties. I remember dry grass and coconut palms along the waterfront.
In 2007, Con and I were back in Townsville yet again, staying in what locals call the Sugar Shaker, the landmark hotel tower in the centre of town. The CBD had changed. What been David Jones Department Store, North Queensland’s most luxurious shopping place, was now the home of a new north Queensland icon – Cowboys Rugby League Club. This is a passionate rugby league town.
South Queensland was in drought at that time, and Brisbane was on Level 5 water restrictions; but here in the Townsville Mall, a council worker was hosing the pavement. In the suburbs, sprinklers watered lawns and footpaths. This is no longer a dusty, brown city.
One morning I went for a walk north from the city centre, along the Strand. The coconut palms were still there, lining the beach, but now there was greenery everywhere, and a water park with a bucket tipping water on to the screaming children below.
Townsville, with an assured supply of water from the Ross River Dam and the rainforested Paluma Range to the north, had decided to make itself beautiful, turning its public spaces into the lush, green environment that visitors expect of the tropics.
Early this year, though, record-breaking rains forced Ross River Dam to open its floodgates; and suburbs that didn’t exist when we lived there in 1976 were flooded for weeks.
Townsville is unlike anywhere else in the country, except perhaps Darwin. Like Darwin it is a tropical city with a port of strategic importance. Like Darwin, it was bombed during the War, and like Darwin it has suffered catastrophic damage from cyclones.
Townsville is a Defence Forces centre, a place of research into all things tropical, a tourist hot spot, and also a place of high unemployment and crime. It was interesting in the 1970s, and for all its stresses and strains, it still is.