Glimpsing Bradman

On Boxing Day, 1936, in a soft-topped Essex motorcar and towing a trailer full of camping gear, my father Maurice, his two younger brothers, his father, E.B., and his grandfather C.B. left Nambour to drive to Melbourne. The Third Test was due to begin in January 1937, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and they wanted to see Don Bradman bat.

It was to be a two-week road trip – touring, as they called it then – through New South Wales and Victoria. The family often went touring. They didn’t know this would be their last long trip together.

My Dad, Maurice, then an eighteen-year-old, kept a trip journal, full of details that seem quaint to travellers in the twenty-first century: border crossings, road conditions, camping, communications, access to funds along the way.

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Maurice’s trip journal 1936-1937

Now, in June 2020, the year of COVID-19, southerners are stopped at the border, not allowed to cross into Queensland without a special permit.

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“Long delays as Queensland-NSW border closed for first time since Spanish flu in 1919” The Guardian, 26 Mar 2020

In 1936, cars and trucks going from Queensland to New South Wales were stopped and inspected at border gates. New South Wales didn’t want Queenslanders bringing cattle ticks south with them to infest stock. They still don’t.

Queensland has always been seen by southerners as a wild, bizarre place, a frontier region with its own quirky rules. We are the state of cyclones, cane toads, crocodiles, cattle ticks and mad politicians, and we’re oddly proud of that.

In normal times in the twenty-first century, cars drive straight across the borders without a pause; but still, when I cross into New South Wales on the Pacific Motorway, speeding past the big red border sculpture along the Tugun Bypass, or down through the rugged border mountains near Mount Lindesay, or at Wallangarra on the New England Highway, or Goondiwindi on the Newell, it feels like an event, with a little sense of visiting a foreign country; and crossing back into Queensland feels like coming home.

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Qld-N.S.W Border, Tugun goldcoastbulletin.com.au

In 1936, Queensland travellers were advised to obtain an Interstate Motorists Permit before travelling south. Dad’s family crossed the border at Mount Lindesay, and in Armidale, their first stop in New South Wales, according to Maurice’s journal they sought the cop-shop, where a policeman was persuaded to come out and search for engine-numbers, chassis-numbers etc., and to give us an interstate pass and windscreen sticker.

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The Border Gate at Mt Lindesay Frank Hurley, c.1961

They slept that night on the floor of a fruit packing shed outside Armidale, on the property of a family friend. From then on, nights were spent in their tent in what were called Tourist Camping Parks, or at likely spots beside the road wherever it suited them, as you could do in those less regulated days.

In 1936, the population of Australia was less than six million. Now, over twenty million people call Australia home, driving nearly twenty million vehicles, and so we can’t just set up camp wherever we want to anymore.

Roads were narrow and often steep and winding. Even major roads were rough and unsealed in places. There were many railway level crossings on the New England Highway; and instead of speeding high over the Hawkesbury River on the M1 as we do now, travellers crossed by Peat’s Ferry. It nine years later when the river was bridged at that point.

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Launch of the new Peat’s Ferry, 1930 records.nsw.gov.au

Thirty-seven other cars went on the ferry with the family’s Essex, and as they waited in line to board, Maurice and his brothers ate a bottle of local oysters, sold to waiting travellers by enterprising boys. Hawkesbury River oysters. That hasn’t changed.

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Essex Super Six Model E, 1931 – probably the model used on this road trip commons.wikipedia.org

Road trip communications are different now, in ways that were unimaginable then. We use our phones to check directions and distances, traffic conditions and weather; to book accommodation, and listen to music, talking books and podcasts; all while travelling. To check weather conditions before heading to Mount Kosciusko, E.B. booked a trunk call to the weather bureau from Canberra Post Office, and to communicate with home they sent telegrams.

We’ve done over 100,000 kilometres in our Forester, with one puncture. We have it serviced every 12,000 kilometres or so. On highways, cruise control is set at 100 or 110 kph. Maurice and his family, on their 1936-37 trip of 3397 miles (5467 kilometres), changed three tyres because of punctures, stopped three times for grease-ups and oil changes, broke a spring, had the steering adjusted and repairs done to the trailer, and were pleased when on one straight road in Victoria they reached fifty miles (eighty kilometres) an hour.

As we all had to before the arrival of Bank Cards in the late 1970s, they’d sent specimen signatures ahead from their home branch of the Commonwealth Bank so they could withdraw money along the way. No ATMs or plastic cards then.

On 4 January 1937, Maurice and his group at last got to the M.C.G. to see Bradman. They arrived late. As Maurice put it, We went there on the day on which the world’s record cricket crowd – 87,000 – was present. We were among the 17,000 for which there was no room. We caught glimpses of the play – sometimes three quarters of a wicket keeper, or a single fieldsman and a patch of grass. One of the batsmen we could sometimes glimpse was Bradman.     

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Bradman at the crease, Third Test, second innings, Melbourne January 1937 20 Great Ashes Moments No. 4, The Guardian, 9 May 2013

Next day they had to leave for home. With no car radio, they stopped along the way to hear the progress of the Test: in a café in Wangaratta, and again in a park at Albury, where people lay on the bank of the Murray in bathers, listening to the broadcast description of Bradman’s and Fingleton’s fine stand blaring forth from a speaker hung in a tree in the park.

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The Murray River near Albury, 1930s. flickr.com

Next day, at a loudspeaker at a small refreshment stall at Hume Dam, we heard Bradman score the single which took his score to two hundred.

Bradman ended up scoring 270 runs – a record for a number seven batsman; and England lost the Test.

Sixteen days after leaving Nambour, Maurice and the family arrived back home. Maurice typed up the story, added maps and illustrations and had the journal sturdily bound.

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Maurice’s hand-drawn map of the journey through N.S.W.

A month later, he started university. Three years later, he joined the 2/26th infantry battalion. He shipped out of Melbourne in 1941, bound for Singapore, part of the troop build-up in the face of the threat of invasion by Japan.

The following February, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army, and in 1943 Maurice was among the thousands of prisoners of war who were packed into rice wagons and taken north by train to work as slaves, building the infamous Thai-Burma railway.

In October 1945, twenty-seven years old, thin, jaundiced and exhausted, Maurice came home again to Nambour, to Mum, and to their little son.

At once, he bought a new car; and within two years, he and Mum were off on another road trip – the first of a new generation. My earliest memory is standing in the back seat of that little car, as kids did in those less regulated days, looking between my parents’ shoulders at a long, narrow road leading off into the distance.

My Dad got me addicted to road trips early. I’ve never gotten over it.

On the Queensland Railway Lines

We’re travelling north from Bowen on the Bruce Highway. The road follows the railway line.

Road trips provide lots of opportunities for reminiscing, and as I drive, we talk about our train trips of the past.

At school I learned off by heart the towns along the “Sunshine Route”, the railway trip from Brisbane to Cairns: Brisbane, Nambour, Gympie, Maryborough, Bundaberg, and onwards. One thousand, seven hundred kilometres: promoted by Queensland’s developing tourism industry as a great, romantic train journey, from the city in the south, through pineapple fields, cattle country and sleepy towns to the green mountains and purple-tipped cane fields of the far north.

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Poster for the Sunshine Route

This railway line was not built just for tourists. Until the main north-south railway line was finally completed in 1924 with the opening of the Daradgee Bridge north of Innisfail, Cairns was isolated from the rest of the country except by sea. There was no highway. In a state dependent on farming and mining, the railway was vital.

Like everyone over a certain age who grew up in North Queensland, Con has lots of stories about trains.

“When I was eleven, the old man took me to Brisbane by Sunlander. It was new, diesel, and air-conditioned – the wonder of the ages. We had a second-class sleeper and ate in the dining car. I’d always been second-class sitting on the trains before. None of our family ever went first-class. We’d have gone third class if there was one.”

My first long train trip was a Y.A.L. trip from Brisbane to Cairns. The Young Australia League was founded early last century with the aim of promoting national pride in young people and educating them through travel. I tell Con about it as we drive.

“They took us to Kuranda and Ellis Beach. That was the first time I’d seen coconut palms. We went to Green Island, and I bought a piece of coloured coral set in plaster with ‘Cairns’ written on it.”

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I slept on a top bunk, and I recall the clicketty-clack of the wheels at night, and the sight of embankment gravel rushing past below the toilet bowl.

“I had a bit of coral like that, too!” says Con. “I was proud of it, and I gave it to Mum. She put it in the china cabinet with the good cups. I don’t know where it ended up.”

He continues as we pass the Abbot Point turnoff.

“My next trip was by myself. I was seventeen, and I went to Brisbane, to Teachers’ College. I had a rail voucher for a first-class sleeping berth. I was hoping I’d meet a beautiful girl on the train, and we’d fall madly in love and make good use of the berth. No luck with that.”

“What a disappointment!”

“It wasn’t all wasted, though. When the train pulled in at Tully I went to the railway refreshment rooms and bought my first packet of cigarettes. By the time we got to Townsville I’d made myself sick, but I persevered. I smoked for the next forty years.”

We stop at the roadhouse at Guthalungra for fuel. Back on the road, we pass through Gumlu, still following the train line.

“Each Teachers’ College holiday the trains were bursting with students. Drinking was banned, but that was just a challenge to us. I looked older than my age, twenty-one at least (the legal drinking age), so I’d get off at stations with a blanket wrapped around me and head for the refreshment rooms bar. The hard part was climbing back on to the train without the bottles clinking under the blanket.”

“A thousand teenage students from North Queensland travelled on those trains, drinking, laughing, cuddling, playing cards and singing. You get through a lot of songs on a forty-hour train trip.”

Last century, nearly every country town had trainlines, carrying cattle and sheep, bananas and oranges and mail, and the products of the mines. Most closed as roads improved and road transport took over, but you can sometimes see the line of the old tracks on Google Earth: Rockhampton to Yeppoon, Monto to Gayndah, Dalby to Bell, Cloncurry to Dajarra.

They look like ghost tracks now, or like the outlines of ancient Roman forts as seen from the air in the green English landscape.

Most of the trains live on only in memory, but their comforts and discomforts are celebrated in song –:

On the Queensland railway lines,

There are stations where one dines,

Private individuals

Also run refreshment stalls.

Bogan-Tungan, Rollingstone,

Mungar, Murgon, Marathon,

Garthanungra, Pinkenba,

Wanko, Yaamba; ha, ha, ha!

Males and females, high and dry

Hang around at Durikai;

Boora-Mugga, Djarawong,

Giligulgul, Wonglepong.

Pies and coffees, baths and showers,

Are supplied at Charters Towers;

At Mackay the rule prevails

Of restricting showers to males.

Iron rations come in handy,

On the way to Dirranbandi,

Passengers have died of hunger,

During halts at Garradunga.

Let us toast before we part,

Those who travel stout at heart,

Drunk or sober rain or shine,

On the Queensland railway line.

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