Burdekin Bridge

 

We drive north through Home Hill, past Inkerman Sugar Mill and up on to the steel framed Burdekin Bridge.

We’ve been across this impressive road and rail bridge, one of the longest multi-span bridges in the country, many times, by both train and car. We’ve looked upstream from the train, across sand flats where the local lads drive doughnuts in the sand and flocks of birds wheel in the air. We’ve driven across in the car, as we’re doing today, hoping not to meet a wide load coming in the opposite direction.

Now, for the first time, I notice that there is a walkway along the eastern, downstream side.

I am fond of infrastructure, Con less so; but he is tolerant of my whims, knowing that they often lead us to interesting places. At the northern end of the bridge, we turn right across the highway and follow a dirt track down to the base of the bridge. A steep set of stairs leads up to the walkway, which extends all the way over the river. Catching my breath after the climb, I stand and look down at the stream below, shining in the sun.

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Looking downstream from the Burdekin Bridge, towards the delta

The Burdekin River bed is a kilometre wide here, not far from the delta. The river drains the second largest catchment in Australia, and its floods are legendary. Today, as is normal in the dry season, the water is meandering across an expanse of sand and sparse vegetation. Below where I’m standing, it’s running through a channel just fifty metres wide. Wooden stumps mark the site of the old rail bridge downstream.

Trains used to cross the river on that low bridge. Old photos show them steaming through shallow floodwaters, the track invisible under them. The road crossing went directly over the sand and across a causeway even lower than the rail bridge. Every wet season, floods would cut both road and rail, leaving North Queensland isolated.

burdekin steam train Steam train crossing the flooded Burdekin River Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

In 1945, a wave coming downstream washed an entire freight train off the tracks. Two years later work began at last on the present Burdekin Bridge, one of North Queensland’s most ambitious pieces of infrastructure. Just forty-six metres shorter than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it took ten years to build, its caissons sinking thirty metres into the delta sands.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Burdekin Bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Council website

By November 1956, when the Olympic Torch Relay came to the Burdekin on its way south, the new bridge still wasn’t completed. It was the beginning of the wet season, and the road crossing was flooded. The Torch and runner crossed the river by train, before dawn, the engine driver blowing his whistle the whole way.

Burdekin Bridge last Sunlander (lower burd histl soc) Old and new: the last Sunlander to cross the old bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

Con was a boy in 1957 when the new Burdekin Bridge was opened. It was a huge event for North Queenslanders, and he remembers it.  “Until then, every wet season, North Queensland was cut off by road and rail. When the old bridge was twenty feet under floods, all kinds of food, clothing, newspapers, magazines and produce bound for the far North sat on the south bank of the Burdekin until the water went down.”

It was the magazines that hurt the most.

“I missed out on my boys’ magazines, Champion and Hotspur. They were supposed to come up on the train from Brisbane.

“One year, my mum didn’t get her Women’s Weekly until Easter!”

The Burdekin Bridge carries one set of train lines and two narrow lanes of road traffic. When a long wide load crosses, carrying transportable housing or a steel bucket for the mines, police have to stop the on-coming traffic.

“It’s crazy. They should build another one beside it,” say the locals. “Like they did with the Gateway Bridge in Brisbane. They won’t, though – all the money goes down south.”

That’s an old cry for North Queenslanders, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Even though this high bridge doesn’t flood, many sections of road and railway north and south of here still do, every wet season, in spite of all the improvements made over the years.

Living in North Queensland is never going to be as easy as living in Kenmore or Maroochydore. There, you never have to miss the Women’s Weekly.

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From the train on the Burdekin Bridge, looking upstream at birds, and doughnuts in the sandy riverbed

 

Willy Wagtails

The farmhouse has sugarcane fields on three sides and a cane train track opposite. As we turn off the old Bruce Highway, our son Joe opens the gate and the dog runs barking to greet us.

Later, we stand in the yard and talk, watching evening fall over the mountains as our grandsons have a final play on the swings. A cane train rumbles by. Flocks of starlings swoop down and settle on the grass, then fly off to the power lines. The air is full of birdcalls and the whooshing sound of the breeze in the cane fields, as constant as waves on a beach.

One birdcall is insistent – the chatter of willy wagtails. Above the front door is a tiny, round nest, with three pointed beaks sticking over its rim. The wagtails have babies. The parents are chattering to warn off potential threats.

Like everyone else in Queensland, I’ve known birds all my life – pelicans, crows, magpies, pee-wees and rainbow lorikeets – but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to take an interest. Bird-watching is one of those hobbies, like family history, that comes upon us as we have leisure to take notice of the smaller, less urgent things in life.

Years ago, I bought a Simpson and Day bird book, now stained and worn. Swamp hens and crested pigeons, honeyeaters and wattlebirds, apostle birds and blue-faced honeyeaters, spangled drongos and the common koel: now we know them all, by sight and by their calls.

One of my favourites, and one of the prettiest, quirkiest and most commonly-seen, is the crested pigeon, that stripy, colourful bird with pink feet and a jaunty crest of feathers on its head that walks around making soft whoops, and when disturbed takes off with a creaking, metallic sound in its wings.

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Willy wagtail and crested pigeon, raku ware by Linda Bates, Cadaghi Pottery, NQ

The Simpson and Day has become our travel log, reminding us that in Halls Gap we saw a spotted pardalote, and when walking out to Nobby’s Head, Newcastle, we came across a flock of ruddy turnstones, pecking among pebbles on the shoreline.fullsizeoutput_40df

We see interesting birds everywhere on our regular road trips. Everywhere, that is, except in those temperate climate towns that have filled their parks and gardens with exotic trees – liquidambers, oaks, poplars, willows, plane trees – and cleared out all the eucalypts. They’re beautiful in autumn, those foreign trees, but our native birds don’t like them. In those towns, sparrows and Indian mynahs are often the only birds to be seen.

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Plane trees in the park, Coonabarabran, NSW

Now, waking up on our first morning, I listen to the hissing whistle of old friends – tiny, beautiful, blue and yellow sunbirds.

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Olive-backed sunbird en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive-backed_sunbird

I also hear unfamiliar calls – bell-like whistles and cheeps. Con and I take a stroll down the cane train track and spot, perched on long fronds of grass, the birds making those mysterious sounds – beautiful little fellows with orange chests and black and white stripes. Chestnut-breasted mannikins.

We’re excited, but Joe snorts in disgust.

He regards bird watching as an old people’s habit, involving irritating language and sudden halts to stare at the sky or peer into the undergrowth, mutterings about crested shrike-tits, or white-browed babblers.

“Hear that che-che-che?” I ask Joe. “That’s a crimson finch!”

He grunts and returns to his on-line news stream.

I could tell him about a chiming wedgebill we heard in a car park at Shark Bay, Western Australia. It said, “Why did you get drunk?” just as the bird book told us it would. Joe wouldn’t want to know.

He can’t help liking the willy-wagtails, though, being a new parent himself. Mother and father bird are on duty all day long, bringing insects back to the nest to feed those three wide-open little beaks, and angrily hunting away anyone or anything that comes near the nest.

A couple of days later they move their three fuzzy babies out of the nest and into a shrub near the front fence. Next morning, in spite of all the protection and feeding, there are only two babies to be seen; and the next day, just one. The predators of the cane fields have been busy.

In the evening, we take a walk again, down the headland between the cane fields. A pigeon flies over, and Con turns his binoculars to the sky. “It’s a bronzewing!” he says with pleasure.

From deep in a scrub-filled gully, we hear the familiar, dying-away “Woop woop woop woop woop” of a pheasant coucal.

I’ll send Joe a bird book of his own. He won’t use it, but we grandparents will, whenever we visit. And we’ll show our little grandsons some of the interesting and beautiful creatures that surround us everywhere in Australia, whether we notice them or not.

Uniquely North Queensland

 

It’s a muggy night. Around three in the morning I get up to turn on the ceiling fan. At once there’s an appalling clanking, roaring and rattling. A flashing light blasts through the bedroom and a hooter sounds close by.

It’s not a fan disaster. It’s just a cane train. Dozens of empty bins are rattling down the line, pushed by two locos, out to the cane fields ready for the morning’s harvest.

Cane trains. Humidity. Crocodile warnings. Mountains that are taller, greener and closer than anywhere else. These are the obvious indicators that you’re in the wet tropics. I like some of the less obvious clues as well.

I look for the old cane cutters’ barracks on scenic back roads. There are several barracks along the beautiful route, once part of the Bruce Highway, that winds from the small town of Silkwood through the cane farms of Japoonvale and Mena Creek, past the tourist attraction of Paronella Park and on to Innisfail.

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Old barracks used as a shed

North Queensland cutters’ barracks are unmistakable. They were built to union specifications and would accommodate a gang of six or eight cutters plus a cook: single-storeyed, often concrete buildings with a row of sleeping rooms opening on to a basic verandah, and at the end of the building a kitchen/living room. Outside is a square concrete tank stand with a bathroom under it. These days, fifty years and more after the disappearance of manual cane cutting, most barracks are overgrown, deserted, or used for sheds; but they tell a story of North Queensland’s past.

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Barracks at Japoonvale

Sugar cane is grown in Central and Southern Queensland, too, as well as Northern New South Wales; but North Queenslanders are scornful of the southern crops. “Call that sugar cane? It’s nothing but guinea grass!”

In the North, there are few iconic timber Queenslander-style houses, with fretwork and sprawling verandahs. Instead, houses are built of termite-proof materials such as concrete, brick, corrugated iron and fibro; and some of the older, elevated houses have a quaint local feature.  When the Hills Hoist appeared, in the 1950s, many North Queensland householders installed a narrow concrete elevated walkway off the kitchen and laundry, with the rotary clothesline at the end.

No longer was it necessary to hang out clothes in the muddy yard. Now you could do the washing upstairs and push the trolley straight out to the clothes line. Unique domestic architecture of the North.

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Only in NQ

Gardens are also different in the North. In her yard in Innisfail, Con’s mother Min had citrus trees (full of green-ant nests), ferns, orchids, papaws, bananas, bromeliads, even azaleas; but around many North Queensland houses there is little but mown grass, palm trees and a hedge of red cordylines. Vegetation flourishes here, and gardening is a matter of machetes rather than hoses; so why so few lush, tropical-style gardens like Min’s?

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A lush NQ garden

For people who live among cane fields, it’s a practical decision. My son Joe, standing on his wide expanse of lawn, explained it, as we listened to the rustling sound of wind in the tall cane just beyond the fence.

“We keep the yard clear to discourage creatures living in the cane from coming near the house: rats, taipans, wild pigs. There’s lots of wildlife in cane paddocks.  Leptospirosis – Weil’s disease – is not unknown up here. People can die of it. It’s spread through contact with urine from infected animals, especially rats and mice.

“I don’t have all this lawn because I like using the ride-on mower. That’s just a side benefit.”

There is a 1980s miniseries, Fields of Fire, set in Silkwood, with references to local places: Japoonvale, Mena Creek, Innisfail.

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Fields of Fire is a saga of the sugar industry in North Queensland. Its story plays out among the cane cutting gangs of the late 1930s, Italian immigrants, industrial strife and the switch to mechanical harvesters. The town in the series has Silkwood signs on its railway station and shops, but as I watched it recently, I noticed a few things that don’t fit with my images of the Far North.

The cane cutters’ barracks are different.

There are timber farmhouses with fretwork around the verandahs.

There is something that doesn’t exist in NQ – a surf beach.

And something rare in the North – jacaranda trees.

It turns out that the show was filmed in Northern New South Wales, in the cane fields around Grafton. Hence the jacarandas. The town with its “Silkwood” signs was the historic river port town of Ulmara, and the surf beach was near Yamba.

I can imagine the disgust of the North Queenslanders as they watched it, back in the ‘80s. “If they wanted to make a show about Far North Queensland, why couldn’t they make it here? Bloody southerners, they can’t think past the Harbour Bridge.”

I guess for a Sydney production company, Grafton was the Far North. It all depends where you’re looking from. But it’s not the same. North Queensland is unique.

 

(For further information about cane cutters’ barracks, see the book “The Cane Barracks Story: the cane pioneers and their epic jungle sagas”, by Eugenie Navarre)

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