Mackay Crocodiles

“Daily Mercury”, Mackay. 30 July 1913

The search for Mr George Noble, who wandered from his home near The Leap at the beginning of the month, has now been abandoned without the slightest trace of the missing man having been discovered. The missing man might have been taken by alligators, his farm being situated between Reliance and Constant Creeks, the waters of which are infested with these reptiles. Native dogs also frequent the neighbourhood and may have attacked the man once he became helpless through exposure. Mr Noble was a man of 78 years of age and in his declining years had become rather childish. He evidently lost his way through wandering off on a bye-track.

Reliance Creek National Park now protects one of the last patches of scrub along the creek, not far from its estuary between Mackay and Cape Hillsborough. A century ago, although already surrounded by farms and sugarcane fields, this area, dense with vines and palms, would have been a dangerous place to be lost.

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Mackay Conservation Group explores Reliance Creek National Park

In 1883, George and Jane Noble had emigrated to Mackay from Newcastle on Tyne, England, with their children. They settled on the farm at The Leap, amongst the cane fields and wilderness north of Mackay. It was thirty years later, in his old age, that George disappeared. The search involved local people, police and a tracker, but nothing was ever found.

Perhaps somewhere out in the Reliance Creek estuary there is a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth lying hidden under the sand, lost by poor old George Noble, his Geordie accent stilled forever, far from the Tyne.

George and Jane Noble were the great-grandparents of my husband Con, and only a vague story of the old man wandering off and disappearing was passed down in the family.

Every year in Northern Australia, people are taken by crocodiles. North Queenslanders have lost access to many of their old favourite swimming holes because of them. Endlessly cynical about governments in the south, they say whenever an appeal for crocodile culling is turned down, “When the first croc appears in the Noosa River, they’ll change their minds!”

Or the beaches of the Gold Coast. Perhaps the Brisbane River, near the Tower of Power, home of state government administration, poised above the river at 1 William Street. A crocodile under the mangrove boardwalk there would cause a stir.

Queensland has a service called “Crocwatch” that people ring to report crocodile sightings. Every year there are many such calls, from Torres Strait to Rockhampton. This year, someone said they saw a crocodile at Tin Can Bay, which is scarily close to south Queensland waters.

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Qld Government’s “Crocwatch” map

This year there have been twenty-five recorded crocodile sightings in the Mackay region, near swimming enclosures along the coast, up the creeks and the Pioneer River, and one in Constant Creek, near where George disappeared.

On trips north to Cairns we’ve often spent a night in Mackay, where the cattle country to the south changes to the land of sugarcane, coconut palms and rainforest. It’s fine old city, and a good place to break a journey. This is spectacular country, from the beautiful beaches, up the sprawling Pioneer Valley to the rainforest-covered ranges of Finch-Hatton and Eungella. The climate has extremes – from cyclones and floods to the occasional fall of snow on the ranges.

This year, just before reaching Mackay we turned west on the road to Walkerston, then right on to Mackay Eungella Road, and drove up the Pioneer River valley, through picturesque small towns – Marian, Mirani, Pinnacle, Finch Hatton.

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The Pioneer River at Marian

Con’s mother Min grew up here. George Noble’s son Bill and his wife Mary became cane farmers in this valley, still one of Queensland’s richest sugarcane areas. Bill farmed at Alexandra, on the Palms Estate, a large area of farms located about ten kilometres south-west of Mackay, somewhere between Walkerston and the river.

In 1908 it was from this family farm that Bill and Mary drove away in a buggy to Mackay Hospital. Mary was to have an operation for a goitre in her neck. She died under the anaesthetic. She and Bill had six children under nine, and it was hard times for the bereaved family.

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Mackay District Hospital, 1910 (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min was the second-eldest child, and she told us stories about life on the farm.

She spoke of the time her little brother, Jim, lost two fingers in a chaff cutter.

She spoke of city men, desperate for work as the Great Depression started to bite, who came here with soft hands and cut cane with blood running down their arms until their blisters turned into calluses.

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Cutting sugar cane (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min spoke of going to dances at nearby Walkerston or Marian. During the Wet, when the roads were cut, to get there they would travel along the cane train tracks on a pumper trolley.

This year it’s dry in the Pioneer Valley, like most of the state. Last December, for the first time, bushfires got into the iconic rainforest on the Eungella range. It was a shock to us all. Rainforest don’t burn, we thought.

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Eungella Range: fire damage from December 2018

The barman in the Finch Hatton pub, where we enjoyed a beer and toasted sandwiches, looked up at the hillside across the road and said, “It was burning right to the top of that range. Up the Gorge as well. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’ll grow back, though. It always does.”

I hope he’s right, but rainforest trees, unlike eucalypts, are not adapted to burning. This September, South-east Queensland’s Binna Burra rainforest also burned, along with its heritage-listed lodge. Perhaps we’ll have to become accustomed to fires in ancient forests.

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Coomera Falls, Binna Burra, 2018

When you take the winding Mackay Eungella Road up the range, the scars of last year’s fire are still visible, although green is emerging. Over the range and down to Broken River, the forest is untouched, with platypuses in the river and whip birds scratching among the leaf litter; but we’ve had a shocking taste of how things may be in the future.

Crocodile attacks might be the least of worries for the people of Queensland, both north and south.

Mackay, though, is beautiful, in all its faces; and one of the loveliest sights in Queensland is that of kangaroos on the spectacular beaches of Cape Hillsborough, only a few kilometres north of where old George Noble’s specs may still lie hidden in the sand.

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Cape Hillsborough (Image: Queensland.com)

Snake Stories

A red-bellied black snake was stretched along the pipe at the back of the laundry tubs, behind the taps. I could see its glossy colours.

I’d been washing up while little Matt played outside the back door. Hearing him bumping something down the three steps that led to the yard and the laundry shed of the old house, I dried my hands and went to see what he was up to.

Matt had dragged a chair over to the concrete laundry tubs and climbed up on it, and he was reaching out, laughing, to the snake.

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Red-bellied black snake

We were living in the school residence at Rosevale, south-west of Ipswich. Local farmers had warned us that the Rosevale valley was notorious for snakes – both brown and red-bellied black.

Trying not to startle either Matt or the snake, I called out, softly, “Come here, Matt. I’ve got a bikkie for you.”

He turned and climbed down. I grabbed him and ran back up the stairs and watched the snake slither away out of sight into the long grass behind the shed.

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The old school residence, Rosevale. Laundry shed on left.

Another day Matt was playing in the yard with the cats. Suddenly they stood frozen, ears forward, staring at a patch of long grass, and the two deadly brown snakes sunning themselves there. Con ran to get the hoe.

Snakes are protected by law, and snake catchers will come to your house and take the snake away for release into the bush; but there are many who still consider that the only good snake is a dead snake, and delight in going into battle with sticks, hoes and mattocks or whatever is handy.

As children, my brothers and I entertained ourselves by leaving a rubber snake on the back landing where our father would be bound to find it.

He did. He grabbed a big stick and killed it.

Rubber snakes bounce in a most lifelike manner when hit with a stick. Dad heroically beat that rubber snake to death, and carefully lifted it on the stick to examine it. He said, “It’s a young brown. Dangerous things, those.” That was before he noticed us laughing.

He didn’t think it was funny.

I’ve played that trick on Con. He didn’t think it was funny either.

Most encounters with snakes happen in the bush. Walking down the zigzag track in the rainforest of the Palmerston, west of Innisfail, I met a large brown snake crossing the track. I met the same snake again on the next leg of the path down the hill. You don’t know how high you can jump until you almost put your foot on a snake.

All Australians have snake stories. They are a favourite topic of conversation, and we particularly love to tell them to foreigners. The English are best, and Americans. They respond with such horror.

An American visiting Brisbane asked a local, “Why are so many Brisbane house on stilts?”

“It’s because of the snakes. They can just slither straight under the house instead of coming inside.”

To white farmers and squatters of the nineteenth century, often living in primitive conditions in what was to them hostile bush, snakes were a deadly enemy. Henry Lawson wrote about it in his spare, atmospheric story “The Drover’s Wife”. Living in isolated bushland, alone with her young children in a slab hut, protected only by her kangaroo-dog Alligator, a woman sits up all night with the dog, her children bedded down on the rough kitchen table, waiting for a snake to re-emerge through cracks in the wall.

Alligator and the drover’s wife kill the snake between them, after a fierce struggle; and she lifts it on the point of her stick and throws it on the fire.

We have a love-hate relationship with snakes. They eat chooks, they kill dogs, and sometimes they kill people; but they’re part of our environment, a feature of legends and stories, from ancient Aboriginal culture to the Bible and modern literature and painting.

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Giant carpet snake “Gubulla Munda”, Ayr, North Queensland

Rainbow serpent legends exist all over the country, and snakes are a common theme in Aboriginal art.

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“Bloody Big Snake”, Shepparton Art Gallery, Victoria

Some say the rainbow serpent is a carpet snake: the “Kabul” that gives its name to Caboolture.

A carpet snake once ate a litter of kittens under our house at Yarrabah, then coiled up on the front door mat to sleep off the feed. There are carpet snakes living in my Brisbane back yard, too. I know when there’s one about by the screeching of noisy miner birds, harassing a snake on a tree branch or curled up behind a staghorn fern. They’re beautiful creatures, and we like to have them around.

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Carpet snake

It’s best not to walk out on our verandah at night without shoes, though. Carpet snakes like to slither across the boards and into the wattle tree. Sometimes we see a long, patterned snakeskin hanging across its branches.

No wonder birds don’t visit the bird bath I hung there.

Not even a kookaburra can win against a carpet snake.

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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.

Walking to Warwick

 

The steamer left Brisbane for Ipswich on a Monday morning in September. The “Ipswich” was a side-wheeler with a rudder at each end, and a shallow draft for navigating difficult areas such as Seventeen Mile Rocks and the shoals of the Bremer River.

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The “Ipswich”. Photo from the John Oxley Library collection, SLQ

 

Paddlewheels splashing rhythmically and smoke pouring from the tall funnel, the steamer made its way upstream, following the slow bends of the Brisbane River, past thickly-wooded, vine-draped banks that would one day become the suburbs of St Lucia, Chelmer and Fig Tree Pocket.

James Matthews probably stood on deck with a mug of coffee, watching the passing scenery and talking to his new boss, Benjamin Glennie.

It was 1861, and the newly-independent state of Queensland was actively seeking English migrants. James, my great-great-grandfather, was one of them. Aged twenty-three and ordained only yesterday, he had come to Queensland to work in Warwick as a curate.

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James Matthews

For years Archdeacon Benjamin Glennie, now the rector of Warwick, had been the only Church of England clergyman on the Darling Downs. The eccentric Glennie loathed riding, so his travels around his huge parish were mostly done on foot, and this is how he and James would be travelling from Ipswich to Warwick. On foot.

Forty years later, in memory of Archdeacon Glennie, James described the trip in detail.[1]

On Monday morning, we started on our journey to Warwick, travelling to Ipswich in the steamer of the same name. The voyage occupied five hours.

The next morning the real work of our journey began. The Archdeacon’s old black horse was brought round and packed with a couple of valises and a pair of large saddle bags, consisting largely of my belongings, and off we trudged, the Archdeacon leading his horse.

That day they walked south for twenty kilometres, down the present-day Ipswich-Boonah Road. The two men would have encountered bullock teams dragging wool from the sheep stations, travellers on horseback and on foot, and the occasional buggy. Many would have recognised Benjamin Glennie. Perhaps they offered them a ride.

They spent that night with squatter William Watkins at Peak Mountain Station, near present-day Peak Crossing, its homestead set on a rise with a spectacular view towards Flinders Peak.

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Peak Station today

The following day we walked as far as Balbi’s, an accommodation house at the foot of the Range. 

All that Wednesday, covering over thirty kilometres over flat land and gentle hills, they would have seen ahead of them, through the trees, glimpses of blue mountain ranges.

In 1861 there were Aboriginal people living in this area – probably Ugarapul people. The two men must have met them on the road, but James left no mention of it.

Ironically, most of the roads walked by Benjamin Glennie and James Matthews would have been based on ancient trails of the Indigenous people who had been walking this country side for many thousands of years.

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Towards Cunninghams Gap

 

The two travellers spent that night in Balbi’s Inn, at the bottom of the range, beside the road to Spicer’s Gap. I’ve driven up that rough, gravel road myself, to sit at Governor’s Chair Lookout and enjoy its fine views east towards Brisbane and the coast.

On Thursday we crossed the Range, going through Cunningham’s Gap. There had been a heavy thunderstorm, the mountain streams were swollen, and we had to “double-bank” to get over. The Archdeacon got into the saddle and I jumped up behind.   

Wheeled traffic went over Spicer’s Gap, but riders and foot-travellers often took the bridle trail through Cunningham’s Gap. It would have been a tough journey up hill, but Benjamin Glennie was fit – according to James’s account he would vault a fence rather than stoop to go under it – and James was young. Looming cliffs and tall trees, the sound of bellbirds and whipbirds, cool air smelling of the rainforest: today they are still exhilarating, even though the way up the range is now a harsh slash through the forest, made noisy by semitrailers.

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“Forest, Cunningham’s Gap” Conrad Martens, 1856. Watercolour. QAG collection

From the top of the Range, they followed Gap Creek west to William Jubb’s Inn, a low building overlooking the stream. These days, a farmhouse occupies the old inn site beside the Cunningham Highway.

On crossing the last creek, I fell off into the water. Fortunately I had not far to walk to the inn, where Jubb rigged me out in a suit of his clothes while mine were being dried. He was a much bigger man than me. There was no one near with a camera, I am thankful to say.

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The site of Jubb’s Inn, above Gap Creek. Cunninghams Gap in the background

On Friday we lunched with Arnold Wienholt at his station Maryvale, in the afternoon proceeding onward to Glengallan, where we were put up for the night by that prince of squatters, John Deuchar.

 

All the land between Ipswich and Warwick was held by just six or seven squatters, members of the colony’s aristocracy. The Deuchars of Glengallan Station were famous for lavish hospitality in the sprawling cedar house where the two travellers spent that night. A few years later a new homestead was built, the elegant, now restored mansion visible from the highway.

After breakfast on Saturday morning we wended our way to Warwick, where we arrived in time for midday dinner, taking care to walk through the principal streets of the town so as to announce that the parsons had arrived and there would be church tomorrow.

Perhaps one day that walk to Warwick by Benjamin Glennie and James Matthews will be recreated. They were walking for a spiritual purpose, so it would be a kind of Queensland “Camino”, like the pilgrims’ pathways through Europe and Spain that are now so hugely popular. Great walks exist in Queensland, too, along ancient Indigenous pathways. We should pay more attention to them. Although they don’t pass through quaint medieval towns, they are just as old. The bridle trail through the forests of Cunningham’s Gap was probably one of them.

James Matthews married a Warwick girl named Mary Margetts. According to a family story he met her on the Spicers Gap road, a year or so after his long walk, when Mary’s hat blew away, and James caught it.

People journey, and people love. Some things will never change.

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Rose on the old trail along Gap Creek

 

 

 

[1]Excerpts from “A Few Personal Reminiscences of the Late Archdeacon Glennie” printed in “The Church Chronicle”, June 1, 1900.

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