Cairns

I’m walking along the Cairns Esplanade, past the hospital. It’s a classic tropical scene with coconut palms, figs trees and lush plantings. The tide is out, and beyond a narrow strip of sand, mud stretches two hundred metres out to the waterline. Sea birds stalk on their long legs and webbed feet, pecking for worms and crabs. A blue sky is reflected in patterns of mud and water, and the calm sea behind gleams like pewter, right across Trinity Bay to the forests of the Yarrabah Range.

D39C46BE-AFC8-41F4-A8A7-DE5B186AF171
Trinity Bay, Cairns, from the Esplanade

Opposite the hospital, a man in a yellow work vest stops me. “There’s a helicopter coming in,” he says. “It won’t take long, but we need to keep people away from the helipad for a few minutes.”

I stand with other walkers and watch. I hadn’t noticed before, but there is a helipad set into the broad grassy parkland across the road from the hospital buildings. “That’s strange,” I say to the man in the yellow vest. “Usually hospital helipads are on the roof of the hospital.”

“They can’t do that here,” he replies. “It’s too close to the flight path from the airport.”

Guards have stopped cyclists on the bike track, too. Across the road, in the hospital entrance, another uniformed man, wearing earmuffs, waits beside a wheeled stretcher. I hear a helicopter coming in from the west, and soon it lowers itself on to the helipad. It’s a large Queensland Government Air rescue helicopter.

cairns helicopter 3
The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter ready to evacuate a patient from a remote property to Cairns Hospital

Crew in navy blue uniforms climb out of the helicopter as the traffic is stopped and the stretcher is brought across the road from the hospital. A middle-aged man in a high-vis work shirt and straggly goatee beard is loaded on, sitting propped up as he is wheeled back to the hospital.

The helicopter takes off, the men in yellow vests disappear, and we all continue our walking, jogging or cycling along the Esplanade as if nothing had happened.

cairns hospital
Jogger passing Cairns Hospital helicopter pad

Cairns Hospital services a huge geographical area, most of it wild and sparsely populated. Patients are transported here from as far away as Croydon, over five hundred kilometres to the west, from Thursday Island, eight hundred kilometres to the north, and even further. From here, patients requiring the most complex care are transferred to Brisbane, eighteen hundred kilometres south. The hospital can provide up to five hundred beds, making it a major regional facility. And its windows offer a view of palm trees and the Coral Sea.

I’ve been a patient here myself. Years ago, Con and I lived at Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, as it was known then, a forty-five-minute drive from Cairns. I’d worked hard one day hacking at the guinea grass and weeds that grew along the creek running by our house, and went to bed as usual that evening; but by next morning I was unconscious, and Con drove me urgently to the emergency department here at Cairns. At four o’clock that afternoon I woke up in the Intensive Care ward, startled by the sight in the next bed of a man wrapped completely in plaster and bandages, his limbs in hoists. He’d been in a plane crash.

While I’d been unconscious, I’d had an encephalogram and a lumbar puncture. The doctors concluded that I’d been bitten by some unknown tropical insect and had had a nasty response.

For the following twelve months I suffered debilitating attacks of vertigo, and it still troubles me from time to time. In North Queensland, it’s not just obvious things like crocodile attacks and jellyfish stings that can hurt you.

Con is a North Queenslander by birth. A tropical plant, as I tell him. He was born in Innisfail, an hour’s drive south of Cairns.

“Did you come to Cairns much when you were a kid?” I ask him.

“Sometimes. We’d come up here in the old man’s Ford ute, to rugby league games.”

“I didn’t know your dad was involved with rugby league.”

“Yes, he was president of Innisfail Rugby League Club for a while. League was strong there.”

Rugby league is strong everywhere in Queensland, but in regional areas there’s a special enthusiasm. In Townsville, in recent mayoral elections, an informal vote had an extra name pencilled on to the voting slip, with a “1” in the box and next to it, “Johnathan Thurston”, then star of the North Queensland Cowboys.

cairns thurston
Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections
cairns thurston 2
Johnathan Thurston, North Queensland Cowboys

Cairns has always been a lively place, both busy regional centre and tourist hotspot, the best-known place to come if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef. As an American woman said to me at Uluru, “I went to Cairns first, then here. The Reef and the Rock – that’s all I want to see in Australia. I’m off home now.”

We’ve stayed in many parts of Cairns over the years, but the western stretch of the Esplanade (the ‘Nade to locals) is my favourite – beyond the tourist restaurants and biggest hotels, across the road from the seaside parklands and within walking distance of the centre of town. Towards Trinity Inlet and the cruise boat terminals is the spectacular swimming lagoon, built to relieve the frustrations of locals and tourists who find themselves beside the sea on a hot day, but unable to swim in it because of the mud – and the crocodiles.

cairns lagoon
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

The tropical plantings along Shield Street and Abbott Street are lush and beautiful, and it’s a treat to wander through Rusty’s Bazaar markets, with its tropical produce and hippy vibe; but I avoid the cheerless souvenir shops selling nothing made in Cairns, or even in Australia.

cairns_rustys-markets_own
Rusty’s Bazaar

More interesting are the renowned Cairns Botanic Gardens at Edge Hill, the Tanks Arts Centre now occupying the old fuel tanks tucked in behind the hill during the war, and Centenary Lakes, with its boardwalks and walking tracks and a wonderful, wild Nature Playground.

cairns tanks
Tanks Arts Centre

Joe, like his father, is a tropical plant, born in Townsville and just ten days old when we moved to Yarrabah. I’ll never forget the day we first drove over the range and down the steep descent into the town, stopping at the lookout to admire the view over Mission Bay to Fitzroy Island. The Yarrabah Range is covered in rainforest. It is beautiful, and the road is steep. Here and there beside the road are large stones, known as handbrakes, which can be used to put behind the wheels of your car if you break down halfway up the hill. Occasionally a cassowary strolls out of the forest and across the road.

In Yarrabah, we lived in a Queensland government residence, with a view out to sea, the steep, forested hillside behind us, and the sound of a waterfall close by. It was a tropical paradise; although for the local people life was, and is, often hard. I would drive to Cairns once a fortnight, to do the banking and grocery shopping, and I always took little Joe with me, to visit Rusty’s Bazaar and eat icecream on the Esplanade. Now Joe lives in the north, and he takes his own children to Cairns, to play in the waterpark and watch the birds on the mudflats.

It’s amazing what a pull this place has, with its brooding greenery and humid tropical air, its rain-forested hillsides and calm sea. If you were born a local, or even spend a few years here, it has the atmosphere of home.

I can recommend the hospital, too.

cairns cent lakes
Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

Isabel’s Death

There’s a white cross on the grave, and the ground around it is bare and dry. Three people are buried here, the last dying a hundred years ago, in the great influenza epidemic of 1919. That was my great-grandfather, Frank Matthews.

 

fullsizeoutput_440d

The first to be laid to rest here was my great-grandmother Isabel, in 1903.

Frank and Isabel and their children had been living in Sandgate, in the old Queensland National Bank building on Eagle Terrace, looking out across the Bay. In 1901, Frank received a transfer to Barcaldine, a thousand miles away by steam boat and train; a town that twenty years earlier had not existed.

Isabel Turbayne Matthews
Isabel Matthews

Isabel and Frank were both, like so many Australians then and now, the children of migrants who had travelled much further than a thousand miles to make a better life for themselves and their children. They packed up their goods and the children and Topsy the cat, and with Isabel’s sister Jessie to help out, embarked on the steamship going north, beginning a trip into the heat, hazards and discomforts of the Outback.

Isabel wrote home to her family.

A terrible choking comes in my throat, whenever I think of you all standing on the wharf, and our leaving you all for perfect strangers…

Phyllis, my grand-mother, was five years old. She helped to keep an eye on three-year-old James and baby Evie as they travelled north, the ship anchoring one evening in Keppel Bay, at the mouth of the Fitzroy River.

Here they trans-shipped to a tender for the trip up-river to Rockhampton, Isabel and Jessie laying the children to sleep in their clothes on the dusty bunks. Just before four in the morning the exhausted family got to bed in a hotel in the city, only to discover when they woke up that the weekly passenger train to Barcaldine had left the night before.

There was nothing else to do but travel by goods train, and we could not even get sleeping cars. It seemed as though we would have to sit up for two nights, but we were so tired we managed to curl up with the children and get some sleep. The train crawled along, and it took us twenty-seven hours to come from Rockhampton to Barcaldine.   

But since we arrived and had a good night’s rest, we have quite regained our good spirits.                                   

They stayed in the then-new Shakespeare Hotel, on the corner of Oak and Beech Streets.

fullsizeoutput_440f

Several days later, they moved into the bank residence, a low timber building with the bank chambers at one end.  The bank house faced across dusty Oak Street to the railway line, but there were lattice-enclosed verandahs around the bedrooms and the back of the house, opening on to Willow Street, and a patch of lawn.

fullsizeoutput_4413
Original Qld National Bank house, Oak St, Barcaldine

That summer, the countryside was in the middle of a dreadful drought. The grid of flat streets and simple houses that made up Barcaldine was lashed by westerly winds like blasts from a furnace. On the remnants of lagoons around the town, hundreds of birds perished from the heat.

On the sheep stations, men cut scrub to feed the stock until the land was almost bare.  The town was over-run by goats. Fire and infectious disease threatened constantly.

Isabel must have thought often of cool Moreton Bay breezes and the family she’d left behind.

Two years after they arrived in Barcaldine, she died.

According to one family story, she was dressing for dinner. Raising her arms, perhaps to pin up her hair, she fell down with a brain haemorrhage. Others maintain that she was having a shower at the time. It would have been a warm shower, more of a dribble than a gush, and as it was from the town’s artesian bore, the water would have reeked of sulphur.

Barcaldine’s Western Champion printed the story the following Saturday, revealing that Isabel had never regained consciousness.

Frank was not at home when she collapsed. As bank manager, he was often out of town, visiting sheep stations in the area. He went duck-shooting and patronised the local race-meetings, and he could “keep one down” with the best of them.

fullsizeoutput_4418
Duck shooters, Barcaldine. Frank Matthews second from right

The night of Isabel’s collapse, he was at Dunraven Station, fifteen miles out of town. The doctor sent a messenger for him, crossing Lagoon Creek in the dark, riding through gidyea scrub and across the open downs. Frank was home by two in the morning, but there was nothing anyone could do.

Isabel was only twenty-seven years old when she died.

Two years later, Frank married Isabel’s sister Vida, who had come out to help Jessie look after the children. Frank was excommunicated from the Church of England for marrying his dead wife’s sister. It was a scandal.

Poor young Vida – coping with Frank and Phyllis and the little ones, and soon to watch her own first child, little curly-haired Janet, die of gastro-enteritis. Many Barcaldine babies did, back then, what with the heat, an uncertain water supply and the open drain that ran down Oak Street.

Isabel, Frank and little Janet share the grave under that white cross.

Nearly a century later, I began to research Isabel’s life and death: visiting Barcaldine, trawling through old newspapers on film in the State Library, and collecting family stories, letters and photographs.

Barcaldine, 1910 Jim, Frank, Phyllis and John, Vida, David and Evie Matthews
Frank and his second wife, Vida, in the bank house garden in 1910. My grandmother Phyllis is seated in the middle, holding Vida’s youngest.

In 2015 I went back to Barcaldine with my cousin Nadine, and on that bare grave we placed two little pots of artificial greenery, with loving messages written on the pots. Maybe they’re there still.

Afterwards, we walked up Oak Street for a pub crawl. It was Rugby League Grand Final night, with two Queensland teams competing, the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys. The epic game was played in Sydney, but Nadine and I watched it in five different Barcie hotels: Union, Railway, Artesian (“The Artie”), Shakespeare and Commercial. Some were cheering for the Broncos, but most were ardent Cowboys supporters – people in the regions supporting the regional team.

For the thrilling finish we were at the Artie, and with ecstatic locals we watched that moment when, in extra time, Johnathon Thurston kicked the winning field goal.

After a final Kahlua and milk, Nadine and I meandered back down Oak Street to our motel; past the Shakespeare Hotel, across Beech Street and Willow Street, past the spot where our great-grandmother Isabel had died one hundred and twelve years earlier in the long-gone bank house.

I have a great affection for Barcaldine, and not just because of its attractive old streetscape, its position in the centre of the state, its importance in Queensland’s pastoral and political history, its interesting museums.

I like it most of all because my family’s story links me to this place. Stories are powerful that way.

Tara Homestead 2000 shearing shed

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑