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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Burketown

Rosevale is beautiful. The old one-teacher school (now closed) and the even older principal’s residence are set on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, with a view over dairy farms to Cunningham’s Gap. We lived in that house for the two years that Con was Principal of the school, but after that I wanted a change.

“Let’s apply for a transfer to somewhere up north. It would be exciting and adventurous. Not the Gulf of Carpentaria, though! I don’t want to go there. It’s probably hot, dry, flat and miserable in the Gulf Country.”

Burketown, a small, isolated town in the heart of the Gulf Country, was where they sent us. It was hot, dry and flat. But it was rarely miserable. Just different.

These days, there are conveniences in Burketown that were unimaginable when we were there: mains power, street lights, treated water, sewerage, a swimming pool complex, a coffee shop, even a green and shady caravan park.

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Burketown Caravan Park today. From its Facebook page

For us, shade would be a luxury.

We moved to Burketown in January 1973, with our two small children. The car and our pets went on the train with us from Brisbane to Mt Isa: the dog in the dog box in the Guards Van, cats in the luggage van in pet packs and our HR Holden on a flat-car.

From Townsville to Mt Isa there were no sleeping berths available, so we curled up on a couple of seats at one end of the Buffet Car, with people coming and going all night.

On the train we met a pink-cheeked Irish family, just arrived in Australia and travelling to work at Mount Isa Mines. Arriving next day, we all stepped out of the train into what seemed like an oven. I sometimes think of that Irish family and wonder how they coped.

A couple of days later, we flew to Burketown with Bush Pilots Airways in a twenty-seater Twin Otter. It was a mail run, stopping at Mornington Island and a couple of cattle stations, swooping over the station landing fields to chase horses away before setting down.

At Mornington Island more passengers boarded, a couple of them sitting cross-legged in the aisle. One woman was wearing a broad felt hat with a tape measure as a hatband. I was in southeast Queensland no longer.

At the tiny Burketown airport, the shire clerk met us, and he drove us into town. We left our suitcases in the principal’s house, a neat, new highset house of the style used all over the State for Queensland Government employees. Next door was the recently-built school.

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Burketown State School, with the Principal’s house in the background, 1974

Awaiting the arrival by road of our furniture, we checked in at the pub.

The Burketown pub, known as the Albert Hotel, was in those days a square concrete two-storey building. It had been built originally as Customs House for the then-thriving port on nearby Albert River. The sleeping areas were accessed via an outdoor staircase. We were warned that when the bar closed, the generator, which thumped away all day in the neighbouring shed, would be switched off, and there would be no lights until morning.

There is no quiet like that of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere when the generators stop.

Stars never seem brighter than on a clear night in a town with no streetlights.

There is no heat like that of a tropical night in the middle of summer without fans.

The publican also warned us that there would be no breakfast, as his wife, the cook, was away in Cairns. Next morning in the hotel kitchen I cooked bacon and eggs for us all.

In our three years in Burketown, we got to know the Albert Hotel well, along with its eccentric regulars, animal and human.

A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Whacko sat on top of the doorway into the bar, chewing the heads off matches.

Fishermen and locals spun endless yarns, not only to the new schoolteachers, but also to visiting politicians and media.

A film crew asked a group of locals playing euchre how long they’d been playing. “A couple of weeks,” came the laconic reply.

Once we found a large fresh-water crocodile tied to a post outside the door, like a dog waiting for its owner.

On our second evening in Burketown, when the bar was full and card games in progress, our furniture van arrived and pulled up in front of the pub. The card players offered to help with the unloading.

South-east Queensland had suffered a heatwave over Christmas of 1972 and into the New Year. Con and I had been busy during those hot weeks before leaving the south. Driving round Brisbane with little kids in the back seat, trying to buy a kerosene fridge and a thirty-two volt washing machine, had taken precedence over sorting our belongings. In the end, we’d instructed the removalists to pack everything; and so the blokes from the Burketown pub, in their footie shorts, singlets and thongs, carried electric heaters and winter coats into a house without electricity in the middle of a Gulf Country summer.

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Burketown general store, 1975. So hot inside, condensed milk would caramelise in the can

In our time, there was a hospital, general store, shire offices, fuel depot, school and hotel and not much more in Burketown, and barely a tree or blade of grass; but it was a friendly and welcoming place. The locals told us what sounded like tall stories, but I learned to believe the lot. Crazy things happened here all the time.

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Con and our children in Burketown

We never regretted the move to the Gulf, in spite of insect plagues, the trials of operating the thirty-two-volt generator, kerosene fridge and petrol iron, the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the rough dirt roads, the isolation. Sometimes it was lonely, though. I would stand on the verandah, looking north to where the Gulf lay, out of sight beyond endless desolate salt flats and mangroves, and feel sorry for Burke and Wills, who got this far and then turned back, to die of starvation.

It can feel like the end of the world, up in the Gulf Country.

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Looking north from the Principal’s house, 1974

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