Cemetery Birds

Toowong Cemetery is a miniature of Brisbane’s inner suburbs. It has main roads and side streets, steep hills, valleys, outlooks, hoop pines and fig trees, butcher birds and lorikeets. Wealthier citizens inhabit the hilltops, and the humbler spill down into the gullies. There are elaborate memorials, and neglected graves covered in cobblers’ pegs.

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From Toowong Cemetery, looking over the Western Freeway

Many of the family names on the gravestone are from the colonial past.  This place is a history book of Brisbane.

It’s spooky after dark. I walked through with friends one evening at dusk, and I wouldn’t want to be there alone. Strange people lurk in Toowong Cemetery.

There is quite a lot of my DNA buried here, but I have ancestors in graveyards outside Brisbane, too. A few years ago, my cousin Nadine and I went on a ten-day, ten-cemetery family history road trip to find them.

Nadine researched the names and burial places of family members in the cemeteries of Warwick, Texas, Dirranbandi, Saint George, Mitchell, Barcaldine, Longreach, Roma, Dalby and Toowoomba: a three thousand kilometre loop by road. She is fascinated by family history, and I’m always happy to take a road trip, looking for stories along the way.

So off we go. Most of the graves we visit are of people we never knew: great-great-grandparents, great uncles and aunts and distant cousins. Some, though, are of our own generation.

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Along the road to Dirranbandi

At Dirranbandi, we stop and ask for directions to the cemetery. It’s along the river, on the outskirts of town. Crows croak, the ground is dusty, and at the gate a woman on her way out warns us there are lots of burrs in there.

Our little cousins, Peter and Judith, have been lying next to each other for over half a century in this sad, hot, dry place, in this hard countryside. Peter died of peritonitis, aged four, and Judith a few years later, aged five, drowned in the river. The bush can be cruel.

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In the Dirranbandi Cemetery

We pick bottlebrush from the cemetery’s few shrubs to place on their graves; and back in the car we pick burrs out of our clothes and shoes and skin.

Our seventh cemetery is Longreach. As we drive there from Barcaldine, the sides of the road look like The Somme after a battle, with bodies lying everywhere – the bodies of kangaroos, hit by vehicles.

I drive, and Nadine looks at the map.

“The cemetery is in Raven Road. Go past Thrush Road and turn into Lark Street. If we get to Falcon Street, we’ve gone too far. What’s with these street names?”

“All the streets in Longreach are named after birds. The water birds run east-west and the land birds run north-south.”

“Well, that doesn’t work. There’s a Sparrow Street running east-west. And here’s a Crane Street, running north-south!”

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The bird streets of Longreach

“I don’t know. Just so long as we can find Raven Road, and the cemetery. We don’t want to drive all over town searching for it, like we did in Dirranbandi…”

In the cemetery we tread carefully. The dusty soil is falling away, leaving cracks in the ground around the graves, and it would be easy to misstep and sprain an ankle. The ground is so dry it’s shrinking.

There is a smell of death in the air. It’s probably a dead kangaroo nearby; but disconcerting, in a cemetery.

We find a distant uncle’s grave. It is marked by a substantial block of sandstone, crafted by the well-known A.L.Petrie Monumental Sculptors, of Brisbane. A stone like this must have been expensive to bring out here, over a thousand kilometres from Brisbane. The inscription indicates that it was placed here by his friends and admirers; but days earlier we’d found his own mother’s grave in Roma Cemetery, with no marker on it at all.

Mysteries of the past.

Last time I was in this cemetery, twenty years ago, Con and I were looking for the grave of Leonard Pitkin. Con’s mother Min had been married twice, the first time to Len, and it was his grave we trying to locate. A phone call to the local council had provided us with the grave number, and we eventually found the spot; but there was no name on the grave, no headstone.

Len and Min had moved out here in the early 1920s, looking for work, and in 1923 he died here of typhoid fever. Min was pregnant, and her father made the long journey by train from Mackay to take her home.

There are many unmarked graves in the cemeteries of western Queensland. In the early days, people worked hard, far from their homes, building roads and railways and wrangling stock, or cooking over open fires while wearing long dresses. Life was primitive, and accidents and illnesses were common. Many graves here are marked only by a rusted steel number peg and a sprinkling of red gravel.

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Len’s grave, in Longreach Cemetery

We’d sent a photo of Len’s grave to his daughter Joy, Con’s elder sister. She’d never seen her father’s burial place. She arranged for a headstone and came out on the train to place flowers on the spot where her father had been lying unacknowledged for over sixty years.

A few days after our Longreach visit, Nadine and I are at the Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery. Founded in 1850 and heritage listed, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Queensland, built to hold forty-five thousand graves. This cemetery, unlike the others we’ve visited, has avenues with of tall trees, mossy or lichen-covered: kauri and hoop pine, London plane trees, camphor laurels and eucalypts.

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Drayton and Toowoomba Cemetery

Lichen makes the inscriptions hard to read. No lichen in Dirranbandi or Longreach. We find the headstone of a distant cousin we never knew, take photos, and move on.

Our last graveyard of the long trip is the Toowoomba Garden Cemetery. The grave we visit is fresh, the red earth bare and the headstone newly planted. This is where our cousin David had been buried just three months earlier, after losing his battle with cancer. David was the brother of little Peter and Judith. This was someone we had known and loved. This wasn’t family history research. This was personal.

So many cemeteries we’ve visited on this long trip, and this would be the last. And the saddest.

When I’m planted in Queensland earth, I’d like it to be in Brisbane’s Mount Gravatt Cemetery. It’s a serene place with gum trees and lots of bird calls – like a country town cemetery, but greener; with pale headed rosellas and king parrots, magpies and kookaburras. And no burrs.

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Pale headed rosella

Queensland Songs

Song making is an ancient Queensland art. Songs have always been part of every Indigenous celebration and every mourning ceremony, and song lines were like maps guiding people across country.

By contrast, whitefeller Queensland songs range from nineteenth century convict times to the twenty-first century.

The best of those Queensland songs, the most evocative of its time and place, is the haunting Moreton Bay, about convict life in Brisbane in the late 1820s under the notorious commandant, Captain Patrick Logan.

 

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Convict Brisbane

 

The first European settlement was built along what became William Street. Captain Logan’s house was here, and this part of Brisbane is still the home of government offices.

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Convict era Brisbane seen from south of the river. Image: State Library of Qld

The huge state government building at 1 William Street is near the site of the commandant’s house.

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Looking upstream towards 1 William Street as it was nearing completion

Now the Queens Wharf high-rise development is going up on William Street.

The flogging triangle was located in the convict barracks at the top of what is now Queen Street.

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Convict life in Brisbane Image: Museum of Brisbane

The Brisbane River loops around this raised stretch of land, down past what is now the City Botanical Gardens, past the New Farm, and past Eagle Farm. Convicts worked on all these farms.

Moreton Bay

 One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin’s island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I’ve been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails

For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay

Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan’s yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind

Western Queensland has always been a tough place: even more so in the years of the Great Depression, when people, especially men, had to leave home and travel in harsh conditions to find work and collect rations. In Sergeant Small, a swaggie jumps a train in Mitchell, heading for Roma. When he arrives there, he is tricked by the local sergeant into revealing his hiding place, ends up in court and is sentenced to thirty days.

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Passengers on Mitchell Railway Station Image: State Library of Qld

 

The “Weddings Parties Anything” version captures the spirit of the time.

Sergeant Small

I went broke in western Queensland in 1931,
Nobody would employ me so my swaggy days begun
I headed out to Charleville, out to the western towns,
I was on my way to Roma, destination Darling Downs

And my pants were getting ragged, my shoes were getting thin,
When we stopped in Mitchell, a goods train shunted in,
The engine blew her whistle, I was looking up to see,
She was on her way to Roma, that was very plain to me.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

As I sat and watched her, inspiration seemed to grow,
And I remembered the government slogan, ‘It’s a railway that you own’
So by the time the sun was setting, and night was going nigh,
So I gathered my belongings and I caught her on the fly.

And as we came into Roma, I tucked my head down low,
And a voice said ‘any room mate?’ and I answered, ‘Plenty ‘bo’
Then at this tip this noble man, the voice of Sergeant Small,
Said, ‘I’ve trapped you very nicely, you’re headed for a fall’

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

The Judge was very kind to me, he gave me thirty days,
He said, ‘Maybe that would help to cure my rattler jumping ways’
So if your down and outback, let me tell you what I think,
Just stay off the Queensland railways, it’s a shortcut to the clink.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

 

Songs that evoke a familiar place and atmosphere often find a lasting place in the culture.

Sounds of Then, better known as This is Australia, written by Mark Callaghan, was inspired by his memories of living with his family in the canefields east of Bundaberg. After its release in 1985 by the rock band Gang Gajang, it soon became an iconic Australian song. As Callaghan said in a 2002 interview with Debbie Kruger, “The song is actually about how smells and sounds and sensations can rekindle a memory – which is what music does so successfully for people.”

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From Sounds of Then (This is Australia)

…That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings home the heavy days,
Brings home the night time swell,

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.
That certain texture, that certain beat,
Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think that this is Australia.

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,
In brick veneer on financed beds.
In a room of silent hardiflex
That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings forth the heavy days,
Brings forth the night time sweat
Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.
This is Australia…

Songwriters: Mark Callaghan / Graham Bidstrup / Chris Bailey / Geoff Stapleton / Robert James / Kay Bee

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Cattle and Cane, from Brisbane band the Go-Betweens, 1983, has the same lovely, nostalgic Queensland feel:

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Cattle and Cane

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father’s watch
he left it in the showers
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Songwriters: Robert Derwent Garth Forster / Grant William Mclennan

Cattle and Cane lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

For something contemporary, and a completely different view of Queensland as seen from south of the border, here is comedian Sammy J’s 2019 song, inspired by the result of this year’s Federal Election: Queensland, we’re breaking up with you.

NAPLAN’s Queensland Stories

There were all kinds of gates, all kinds of messages, all kinds of mysterious lights.

What I loved best were the farm gates, the messages about fishing with the family and friends, the lighthouses shining warning beams out to sea.

I love stories with a sense of place. Although due to kids’ enjoyment of fantasy in books and movies many of these stories are loaded with zombies, stalkers, flying saucers and murderers, often the setting shines through, and the setting is somewhere in Queensland.

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I love a good Queensland story.

The more we read stories about our own place in the world, the more we engage with it and want to care for it. That’s my theory, and my reason for writing Queensland stories.

I’ve just finished reading around five hundred Queensland narratives, and although many were generic in style and story, among them were authentic gems.

For nearly a month, in shifts, day and night, seven days a week, hundreds of us read and marked Queensland children’s NAPLAN stories. (NAPLAN: National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy). When I tell people what I’ve been doing, they look at me as if I’m mad. But I love it. And I consider it a privilege, being given a glimpse into the lives of so many anonymous Queenslanders.

Queensland has such a variety of landscape and seascape, from mangrove-lined shore to spinifex-coated outcrop, from rainforest to city high rise, with vast distances of scrub and farmland in between.

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Hot artesian bores, surf, and clear, rocky creeks.

Murray Falls

I never know where the students are from, whether they’re boys or girls, or what age they are, but sometimes they give me clues. It’s unlikely a city kid will write authentically about tractors and water point monitoring, about farm accidents or cattle getting out an unfastened gate. As I read, I’m charmed by these details.

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Every year, there is criticism of NAPLAN testing, and sometimes it comes in sardonic form in what the students write themselves. But of course, an education system needs to be tested, to maintain its quality. That’s a necessity; and this seems a pretty gentle way to do it.

This year, the students were asked to write narratives, and they were given some ideas to help them. The topics were general, but there was plenty of room for individual creativity; and occasionally I came across settings so vividly evoked that I was transported far away from the air-conditioning and my computer screen.

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The Immigrant Rose

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“I spent my wedding night there,” I tell my cousin Nadine as we drive past the Horse and Jockey Motor Inn.

“Really? Is there a plaque?”

We’re in Warwick, where our great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Margetts, was for thirty-two years the medical officer at Warwick Hospital, as well as running his own practice.

We’ve learned quite a lot about Doctor Margetts. He was often involved in dramatic events that were reported in detail in the Warwick papers.

One day in 1878 he was called to attend a horrible accident: a five-year-old girl playing near a vat of hot tar had been scalded. He went at once, but there was nothing to be done – the little girl died before he got there.

The doctor attended many tragic accidents: men killed in falls from horses; people crushed by overturned drays; women burned in kitchen accidents, their long dresses caught in flames; snake bites, drownings, accidents to workers building the railway. There were inquests to be conducted into sudden deaths and suicides, and a time when he had the care, in the lock-up, of a man who had cut his own throat. Warwick was a wild town.

Everyone would have known the doctor, grey bearded and bushy moustached, driving out in his buggy to make a house call, visiting the hospital or walking down Albion Street to Church on Sundays with his wife and grown children. Not everyone liked him, though. His disputes in the Parish Council and feuds with local businessmen were also reported in the paper.

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Dr Frederick Margetts driving a buggy, probably outside his fence. State Library of Queensland

“He was pig-headed,” says Nadine.

“Very argumentative. Let’s find somewhere for lunch.”

Frederick and Ann Margetts hadn’t planned to emigrate. They’d lived for over twenty years in the small town of Ilchester, Somerset, in a house on the market place where Frederick ran his practice and their six children were born. Then, in 1862, middle-aged and, seemingly, settled for life, they moved to Queensland.

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In the market square of Ilchester, Somerset, with the Margetts house and surgery in the background – brown, with two doors

People left nineteenth-century England for lots of reasons – poverty, over-crowding, political unrest, a quest for security for their children – just as migrants and refugees do today. It takes courage and enterprise to move across the world for the chance of a better life.

Frederick and Ann moved for their children. Their eldest son George was consumptive, and the medical advice of the time said his best chance for survival was to live in a warm, dry environment.  The new state of Queensland was advertising in English newspapers for migrants, offering employment, land and a good climate; and Warwick was described as “the Garden of Queensland”. Moving to Warwick seemed a good idea for the whole family.

They embarked on the migrant ship City of Brisbane. Keen gardeners, amongst their luggage they took a rose bush. A white scrambling rose, it survived one hundred and forty days at sea to flourish in the new family garden in Warwick.

The move didn’t help George. He died the following year and was the first to lie in the Margetts plot in Warwick cemetery.

The family endured their share of troubles. In 1870, twenty-five-year-old Edmund was badly injured when his spirited young horse stumbled and rolled on him. Even then, there were reckless young men speeding in the streets of Warwick.

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The Margetts family house in Warwick  Photo courtesy of Helen Lees

“It’s a pretty town,” says Nadine. “Fine old sandstone buildings, and lots of flowers and trees in the main street. And they call it the City of Roses! We can claim some credit for that.”

The Margetts were among the first Warwick residents to plant shade trees along the streets, and in 1876 Frederick was one of the organisers of the first Warwick Flower Show.

He and Ann spent the rest of their lives in Warwick, and today many of their descendants live on the Darling Downs. It was one of them who told me, several years ago, that there is still a family rose bush to be seen, on what had been Edmund Margetts’s farm. I went searching for it.

On a gentle slope where kangaroos bounded away through the long brown grass and curious cattle wandered across the paddock to watch, I found a broken-down picket fence. A few stumps and an old tap show where the farmhouse once stood.

Nearby was a strong and healthy rose bush, two metres high, growing without fertilizer or irrigation, struck from a piece of the rose that travelled across the world in a migrant ship, so many years ago.

I took some cuttings, and now the family rose is growing in my Brisbane garden. Its flowers are sweetly scented and plentiful, but its thorns are vicious. This is not a modern, well-behaved, grafted rose. It’s a survivor.

You have to be, to leave your homeland and put down roots in a strange country on the other side of the world.

 

Reading Queensland

I like reading books about places. It adds extra layers of enjoyment to my travels, in Queensland and beyond. They can be learned and literary books, or lighter romances and mysteries; but sharing in the experiences of others, especially when they’re good observers, helps me to get under the surface of a place.

These are just a few of my favourite books about Queensland.

Please add other titles in the comments section. I’m always looking for more.

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Fiction

  • “The Commandant”, Jessica Anderson. Fine, literary, perceptive novel of convict imagesBrisbane under Captain Logan. Brutality and death in the penal colony as observed by the Logan womenfolk. 

 

  • Affection”, Ian Townsend. 2010. Historical novel set in Townsville in 1900 when the affectioncity was under threat of the plague. Doctors enforce unpopular measures to prevent it. (Dilemma of scientists: if they succeed in preventing a threatened disaster, people will say it wasn’t a danger in the first place.)

 

 

  • “Carpentaria”, Alexis Wright. A magnificent literary saga of the Gulf of Carpentaria, written by an Indigenous Australian with a unique and fullsizeoutput_3e0caccomplished voice and an authentic image of the land, its people and its mythology. In the tradition of Xavier Herbert.

 

 

  • “The Birdwatcher”, William McInnes. A sweet, wise, grown-up love story set in Far 9780733632976North Queensland. Some ‘60s nostalgia, poetry, and lots of birds.

 

 

 

  • “My Island Homicide”, Catherine Titasey. Set on Thursday Island, this is a likeableimages romance/detective novel. Authentic language and background in a fascinating part of Queensland.

 

 

  • “Ryders Ridge”, Charlotte Nash. An enjoyable rural romance set inryders north-west Queensland. Red dirt, big hats, doctors.

 

 

 

  • “The Grazier’s Wife”, Barbara Hannay. 2017. A multi-generation rural romance setthe-grazier-s-wife on the Atherton Tableland. Cattle, rainforest, Singapore, antiques, a secret will.

 

 

  • “Boy Swallows Universe”, Trent Dalton. 2018. Enjoyable, scary, boy swallowsuplifting, suspenseful story of growing up in a crime-affected family in Brisbane. Darra and Bracken Ridge, Boggo Road Gaol and City Hall. Violence and love.

 

 

  • “Border Watch”, Helene Young. 2011. A FNQ romantic thriller Northern-Heat1written by an ex- airline captain and Border Patrol pilot. One of several novels by this author set in Queensland including “Safe Harbour”, 2014, and “Northern Heat”, 2015, which is set in Cooktown.

 

 

Non-fiction

  • “Lonely Planet – Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef”, and “Lonely Planet – Australia”. The first covers the tourist areas and the coast; the second covers the inland areas of the state. Lots of interesting local information.

 

  • “A History of Queensland”, Raymond Evans. 2007. Interesting scholarly in-depth account by a well-known historian ofimages Qld life and development from earliest human habitation to the 2000s. 

 

 

  • “Love in the Age of Drought”, Fiona Higgins. 2009. The memoir of a loveSydney woman who marries a farmer from Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs. Love, drought, life in a small town, the black soil plains west of the Bunya Mountains. I lived here as a teenager.

 

 

  • “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. Affectionate, memoir-style look at Brisbane, its history, condon brisbanearts, way of life and unique qualities as a lively sub-tropical city, by a journalist who knows the city well: its good and its bad. (Part of the “Secret Life of Your City” series about State Capitals.)

 

 

  • “Birdsville”, Evan McHugh. 2009. Dust storms, bogs, sand dunes, race meetings, rescues,images locusts, building a golf course in the desert: a Sydney freelance writer and his graphic designer wife spend twelve months in Birdsville.

 

 

  • “Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s frontier killing times”, Timothy Bottoms. 2013. imagesHarrowing account of the acts of violence that accompanied pastoralists’/investors’ seizure of Queensland pastoral land from Aboriginal inhabitants.

 

 

  • Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. tom petrieRe-published 2014. This important 1904 book details life in Brisbane and South-east Qld from 1837, when little Tom Petrie arrived at the convict settlement of Moreton Bay with his family. Local Aboriginal people, their foods, customs and language, as well as convict life and early white exploration.

 

  • “Cairns: City of the South Pacific. A history 1770-1995”, Timothy Bottoms. cairns-city-of-the-south-pacific-history-productInteresting, ambitious, detailed work.

Artists’ Eyes

 

The Glasshouse Mountains are beautiful and mysterious. They’ve been sitting there since long before James Cook came past in his little ship and named them, and for many thousands of years they’ve had their own Indigenous names and their own stories.

Moreton Bay Regional Council has three art galleries that specialise in exhibitions of the way artists represent local places. One of these, the Caboolture Art Gallery, has shown a range of artists’ depictions of the Glasshouse Mountains, including Indigenous artists, such as Melinda Serico.

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Many artists try to capture the atmosphere of the Glasshouses, but Lawrence Daws is my favourite. He lived near the mountains for years, and his paintings show the quality of the light, the glimmer of creeks and farm dams, the familiar shapes of Tibrogargan, Beerwah, Coonowrin and the other peaks.

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Golden Summer, Lawrence Daws

I can see the beauties of landscape for myself, as I did when from the slopes of Ngun Ngun I took this photo of Tibrogargan; but seeing them through the eyes of an artist gives me an extra layer of appreciation.

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Tibrogargan II, Lawrence Daws

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It’s difficult to paint rainforests effectively: the trees are so tall, the undergrowth so thick. Queensland artist William Robinson found ways to paint the forests of Beechmont, in the beautiful hills near Lamington National Park, which puts us above and below the forest, looking up at towering trees and down at the valleys below, all on the same canvas. He painted the birds and animals, magnificent skies, and the stars and moon reflected in mountain pools.

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Sunset and Misty Morn, Beechmont, William Robinson

Mount Barney, on the New South Wales border, is iconic to bushwalkers.

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Mount Barney under cloud

Hulking and multi-peaked, with hidden valleys and forested slopes, it is a challenge to climb, and to paint. John Rigby painted a colourful image of Mount Barney in all its jagged beauty.

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Mount Barney, John Rigby

My artist mother, Pat Fox, spent time on Cape York in the 1970s, and she took a photo, now faded, of a well-known waterhole near Weipa.

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Back home, she painted the scene, showing the reflection of saplings and trees in the still water. Comparing the two images shows how she heightened the impact through her choice of  colour and composition.

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It was a road trip through New South Wales, not Queensland, that taught me to appreciate how interesting it is to see landscape paintings and also visit the landscapes they represent. It was between Cowra and Bathurst, where the Mid-western Highway of New South Wales curves through rolling hills near Carcoar, and a river winds past the distinctive shapes of weeping willows and poplars.

Con was driving while I sat musing on the passing landscape, brown now at the end of a long summer. The land seemed familiar, but couldn’t be: I’d never been this way before.

Then I realised. Brett Whiteley painted this country. We’ve got a print of it on the wall at home.

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Summer at Carcoar, Brett Whiteley

The painting is called “Summer at Carcoar”. As well as characteristic lush curves of road and river, there are magpies and a wren, a burrowing mouse, and a fox with head and tail above the tall, gold-brown grass. It’s a beautiful picture, the pride of the Newcastle Art Gallery. I’ve since found out that Brett Whiteley often painted the country round Bathurst.

That day, for the first time, it occurred to me that there is delight in seeing the actual country painted by artists, and that it doesn’t need to be Monet’s Garden at Giverny, or Van Gogh’s Arles.

The same pleasures are to be found here at home.

Windmills and Whale Tails

 

Hervey Bay: famous for senior citizens and whale watching. Its whale sculptures are beautiful, too.

On Main Street an eight-metre-tall, iron bark and stainless-steel humpback whale called Nala is breaching. A life-sized aluminium whale’s tail, flukes outspread, stands in the middle of an Esplanade roundabout garden – Nala’s baby.

This is public art at its most engaging.

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Some public art in regional areas is dismal. It’s as if the council wanted a piece of sculpture to enhance the town and commissioned the mayor’s brother-in-law to knock something together with chicken wire and concrete.

Things are changing.

Fine public art is popping up across Queensland, some of it by internationally-renowned sculptors.

In Boonah, south-west of Brisbane, a larger than life sized Clydesdale horse stands in a park at the entrance to town. Scottish sculptor Andy Scott is most famous for his thirty-metre-high horses’ heads, The Kelpies – Scotland’s best-known works of public art. He built the Boonah horse to celebrate the draught horses that once worked here. Made from galvanized steel bars, the horse stands alertly, its ears pricked, as if ready to trot forward to greet the visitor.

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Towns need a visual focal point like this horse, something iconic to use in advertising material, something to attract business and tourism. Something to be proud of.

Across Queensland there are many intriguing pieces of public art by Christopher Trotter, and there’s one of them in Boonah, too: the quirky Blumbergville Town Clock, with a steam whistle that blows on the hour. It’s constructed in steam-punk style from old printing press parts, water pipes, bits of agricultural machinery and horse shoes.

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Trotter’s sculptured plants and fungi, sinuous and organic, made from pipes, tractor seats, cement mixer bowls and scraps of farm machinery, decorate the entrance to the Mackay Botanical Gardens in North Queensland.

On the banks of the Condamine River in Warwick, on the southern Darling Downs, is a plump, granite sculpture of Tiddalik, the frog of Aboriginal legend who swallows all the water in the land, then lets it gush out in a flood. Carved from a fifteen tonne granite boulder, when the Condamine floods Tiddalik goes under water.

My daughter Lizzie and her family, driving back to Brisbane on the New England Highway, were delayed by floods there.

She sent me a text: “The Condamine is lapping at the bridge, all the locals out to see it, the statue of Tiddalik with only his eyes visible above the floodwater.”

Mitchell, west of Roma, has an attractive main street of old pubs, bottle trees and parks. There are murals on its bridge pylons, decorative ceramic pavers, mosaics of fish and birds on the sidewalk, and concrete kangaroos reclining in front of the shops.

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There’s a fine windmill in the small historical park in the main street. If art is something that evokes a response from its viewers and brings to mind a way of life and landscape, then this windmill is art.

The focus on art in Mitchell interests me, and I spoke to a local resident to find out how it came to be there.

“It was in the old Booringa Shire Council days, before we amalgamated with Roma,” he said. You could tell that amalgamation with Roma had been unpopular with this former council worker.

“The old council wanted to make the most of the main street, so they put some money and thought into it, and this is the result. We need tourists to stop for a while, spend a little money in the town.”

The large amounts of money put into public art by local councils and government bodies (sometimes only after much heated debate about costs) are an investment in much-needed tourism.

In Emerald, there’s a giant copy of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” on a ten metre high easel. Childers has quaint bronze owls in the main street. Cairns has attractive water-front sculptures. The tiny town of Ravenswood, between Ayr and Charters Towers, has gorgeous ceramic tiles of birds, animals and plants all over its picnic tables, so beautiful they deserve far more people to see them.

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Diver, Cairns

The little town of Millaa Millaa, on the southern Atherton Tableland is in lush, hilly country once famous for dairy. In the main street is the statue called “The Reluctant Cow”. There’s a farmer straining to push a cow into the milking bail, a cattle dog and an upset milk bucket. When we were there a kid from South Australia was helping the farmer to push while his family took a photo.

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Regional public art at its most loveable.

Photos: Windmill, Mitchell; “Nala”, Hervey Bay; Horse, Boonah; “Blumbergville Clock”, Boonah; Kangaroos, Mitchell; Sunflowers, Emerald; “Diver”, Cairns; “The Reluctant Cow”, Millaa Millaa.

Cherries to North Queensland

I once posted a coconut. I wrote the address on its husk with a black marker, took it to the post office, stuck on the stamps and off it went.

I’d picked up the coconut at Etty Bay, near Innisfail, where cassowaries stroll, rainforest trees shade the beach and coconuts fall on the sand. To me, on my first visit to Far North Queensland, it was like a scene from a tropical fantasy.

I sent the coconut to my younger brother, Mike, in Stanthorpe. No coconuts there.

It’s fascinating to see fruit growing when until then we’ve only seen it in shops. German tourists, touring the Sunshine Coast hinterland, exclaim in wonder at pineapples plants in a field. “So that’s how they grow!” they say in amazement.

As a young man, Con was transferred from Thursday Island, off the northerly tip of Queensland, to Stanthorpe, a half hour’s drive from the New South Wales border: over three thousand kilometres away, into a very different climate. For the first time, he was living in an area producing not bananas, papaws and sugar cane but stone fruit, apples and grapes – all of which lose their leaves in autumn and lie dormant through the winter.

When winter came, he caused loud laughter in the pub when he said, “All the peach trees are dead! What a disaster for the farmers!”

A couple of years ago, we bought a box of cherries to take with us to Far North Queensland at Christmas – expensive, Southern New South Wales cherries, fat and dark, bought at a fancy Brisbane fruit shop.

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“There are cherries in North Queensland shops, you know,” said Con.

I do know that. You can buy almost any fruit anywhere in Australia these days: avocadoes in Kalgoorlie, blueberries in Cairns. But still northerners send cartons of mangoes to family in the south, and south Queenslanders take Granite Belt fruit to relations in the north. It’s a tradition my friend Carol says she could do without, as she drives across Brisbane to collect a box of mangoes sent down on the train by her aunt in Ayr.

“What am I going to do with a whole box of mangoes, anyway? If I want to eat a mango I can buy it at my local fruit shop!”

For this trip to the north, I’d decided to avoid the busy Bruce Highway. We’d drive west to Toowoomba, then head north to Yarraman to join the D’Aguilar Highway. We’d take the Burnett Highway to Ban Ban Springs, then turn east, eventually reaching the Bruce Highway and turning north to spend the night at Gin Gin.

These minor highways are good, sealed roads, with beautiful bush scenery along the way, blue ranges in the distance and very little traffic.

It was a humid day, and by the time we left home we were irritable. “Why can we never, ever get in the car without having to go back for something?” Con grumbled as I headed back inside for my sunglasses, left on the kitchen table.

“Did you check that the iron is turned off?” he said as I got back in the car.

“No, I didn’t. You go and check if you’re so worried.”

It wasn’t until we were driving along the Gatton bypass, just thirty kilometres from Toowoomba, that I remembered something else we’ve forgotten.

“The cherries! Oh, no! We left them at home in the fridge!”

“Bugger it!” said Con. “That’s really annoying!”

He thinks a bit. “Do you want to go back?”

“No. That would be just too silly.”

The cherries would be rotten by the time we got home, in three weeks’ time. We’d planned to give some to Con’s brother and sister-in-law, at Balgal Beach, north of Townsville. The rest were for our son Joe, his partner Izzy and little Danny, our grandson, who live near Innisfail.

Fifteen minutes later we were still heading west, and still thinking about the cherries. They’d haunt us all the way, I knew. I made a suggestion.

“Let’s keep going to Toowoomba, have a coffee, then drive back to Brisbane, collect the cherries and head directly north on the Bruce Highway. We’ll still get to Gin Gin tonight. And while we’re home we can return that overdue library book I forgot.”

That’s what we did.

We were in Toowoomba by ten o’clock, back in Brisbane by midday, and by half past twelve we were on Highway One heading north. The cherries were in the boot, an old towel over them to keep them cool.

Two days later, at Balgal Beach, in a house noisy with the sound of warm tropical rain on the roof, we filled a bowl with their lush, dark sweetness and put it on the kitchen table, where anyone passing could take one.

At Joe and Izzie’s place, passionfruit were hanging heavy on every vine, and roadside stalls were loaded high with watermelons; but the cherries were welcomed with delight, and Danny boy sat in the empty cherry box and grinned, his chin red with cherry juice.

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