Hazards Under the House

In the soft soil under his childhood house, Brisbane writer Matthew Condon built a little city with timber off-cuts, rocks and old plastic flowerpots. He dug a ditch for the river and filled it with tap water, watching the water soak away into the dirt.[1]

His house sat on a slope, and he was probably playing where the floor above was close above his head, not where there was space for the laundry and the car. He could hear footsteps and the television from the house above, which gave him a sense of security and belonging in this secret space that adults never visited.

There was a space like that under my childhood house in Nambour, too, with little cone-shaped antlion traps in the dirt, designed to trap passing insects. You could drop a small ball of spit into the little trap and hope to lure out the antlion lurking underneath, or try to tease it out by tickling the soil softly with a twig.

Antlion trap en.wikipedia.org

“Grandfather Noble lived under our house in Velution Street,” Con tells me. “The ground was mainly dirt there, too, but there was a concrete pad with his bed and a wardrobe.”

There would have been carpet snakes and cane toads as well as mosquitoes under that old Innisfail house. I hope Grandfather had a mozzie net.

“Grandfather always smoked a pipe, and he had a bone-handled knife for cutting up his tobacco. I wonder where it is now? He’d come upstairs for meals.

“Grandfather was kind to me. I was ten when he died, and I wish I could remember more about him.

Con a baby in arms, Grandfather Noble on the right, in front of the house at Velution St, Innisfail

“And when we moved across to East Innisfail we played cards under the house. That’s where I learned to play crib. We’d play all day down there, my brother Jim, Old Con, Uncle George and I.”

The house in Coronation Drive, East Innisfail, today

“Under the house” is a Queensland concept, a tropical thing. There were many reasons for building these timber houses on stumps, with open space underneath. It made them easy to move from place to place and it provided some protection from pests. It kept the dwelling space above flood waters. If built high enough, it doubled the amount of usable shelter. There was more chance of catching a breeze.

A typical un-altered Queensland house, at Woolloongabba

You might have to watch out, though, or you’d bump your head on the beams supporting the bare floorboards above. Another under the house hazard.

Visitors – from Britain or the USA, for instance – might see the many houses up on stumps and ask why.

“It’s because of the snakes. If there’s a space under the house they’ll crawl right through and disappear. Otherwise, they’ll come inside.”

That’s a story to tease tourists with, but it has some truth in it. Rosevale, outside Ipswich, was notorious for snakes, and we lived there in an old timber house on low stumps. Out in the yard one day, toddler Matt saw our cat staring fixedly at a patch of long grass. He started over to see what she was looking at.

The cat suddenly reared back. Con snatched Matt up in his arms and then watched in horror as two long brown snakes slid out of the grass, across the concrete path, and disappeared into that low, dark space under the house.

Our Joe went down one night, bare footed, to get a bottle of wine from the fridge under his North Queensland house, and glimpsed something scaly underneath the fridge. It turned out to be a deadly taipan sheltering in the warmth there, its belly full of eggs.

A coastal taipan, like the one under Joe’s house smuggled.com

If the house is high enough the hot water system will be set up down there, and usually the laundry, too. It’s a place for storage, for drying the washing in wet weather, and for children to play – riding their scooters round the posts, drawing with chalk on the concrete, building roads and rivers in the dirt. You can park the car there, and the lawn mower. You can entertain friends there, or sit with a cold drink and a book, because under the house has one particularly fine feature: it’s always cooler than upstairs.

Playing under the house

Many sprawling new housing developments consist of houses on concrete slabs, including in regional areas – Kingaroy, Atherton, Roma. Those houses are easy to air-condition, but people must miss having that extra space underneath; and sometimes new house slabs go under floods even before building begins.

In Townsville, since the construction of the Ross River Dam upstream, hundreds of new houses have been built on low land; and when extreme rainfall in early 2019 forced the release of water from the dam, many hundreds of them were flooded, to the despair of their owners.

New houses, Townsville, 2019 floods thenewdaily.com.au

In the older houses on stumps anything under the house was wrecked, but the living areas were spared.

An older, high-set house, Townsville floods 2019 news-mail.com.au

Nowadays, people often decide to lift their houses up high and build in underneath. Perhaps you own an old house near the river and want to lift the living space above flood level, or you’ve bought a house in town and moved it out on to a block of land in the country. You’ll need to check the building regulations. If you want to build in under your house, you will need to allow 2100mm minimum ceiling height for utility rooms and hallways, and 2400mm for living spaces; and you’ll need to replace those old hardwood or concrete posts with steel.

Old houses that have been hoisted up high on steel posts look silly, like a long-legged lady with her skirts hitched up. That’s until they’ve been built in underneath, painted grey and white and turned into lush “Hamptons” style dwellings that look great on a real estate website.

A house at Tennyson, close to the flood-prone Brisbane River, lifted high and ready for renovation

I ask my grandson Jim if there is anything hazardous about being under his house, with its old concrete posts a little under regulation height. Maybe snakes or spiders?  

He puts his hand on a beam perfectly positioned for hitting your head.

“Just this,” he answers wryly.

Our Burketown house was a government-built dwelling, regulation height. Under the house was dirt and gravel, with a meat-ant nest in one corner, but there were clothes wires strung between the steel posts. Washing hung there at night would be dry by morning.

The concrete-floored laundry was down there, with concrete tubs and a gas-fired clothes boiler. It also held our 32-volt wringer-style washing machine, powered by a generator with storage batteries in a shed down the back.

A wringer-style washing machine, like ours

One night I left a load of sheets in the machine, soaking in the rinse water, and in the morning went down to put them through the wringer before hanging them out to dry.

During the night, a big green tree frog had hopped into the water. The first I knew of it was the sight and sound of that frog disappearing feet-first through the wringer rollers.

A frog being crushed in a wringer makes a horrible noise.

It had gone through before I had time to click the rollers apart.

I told Marg from down the road about it, sitting on the back steps with a mug of tea.

“That’s nothing,” said Marg, a typical frankly-spoken Gulf Country local.

“I heard of a woman who got her tits caught in a wringer.”

Not so difficult to imagine in the heat of the Tropics, where many a woman, reaching a certain age, decides that a bra is unnecessary torture. In the Gulf Country I heard so many bizarre and unbelievable stories that turned out to be true I decided I might as well just believe the lot; including this one.

Snakes, mozzies, cane toads, floods, concussion – and the wringer.

“Under the house” is a fine Queensland institution, but it has its hazards.


[1] “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. UNSW Press, Sydney

Bindy Eyes

Out the back of the Mauro homestead was a pit toilet, a scary place for a townie child like me. What if I fell down the hole?

Mum liked to tell the story of when she was little, out at Barcaldine, and a goat fell down the pit toilet. They sent the jackeroo down to get it out.

When my mother Pat was a child, her father Fred was manager of a sheep station not far from Barcaldine. Even after leaving the land, many of Fred’s descendants maintained all their lives a sense of belonging to the bush – even his second daughter, Betty, who married an American after the war and spent most of her life in Seattle.

Betty liked living near the Pacific Ocean, knowing that on the other side of the water were the beaches and plains of home.

Between the wars Fred took up ownership of a sheep station, through a land ballot I believe; a place called Dunwold, outside Dirranbandi. While still a teenager his eldest son, my uncle Jim, went out there to manage the property. The family next bought a property near Texas, on the New South Wales border, and Fred’s second son, Don, took it over.

texas dumaresque border
Crossing into Queensland

When I was young, perhaps four or five, my family went to visit Dunwold, flying to Saint George in a DC3, where Uncle Jim picked us up from the airstrip. Both my uncles considered that we coastal kids needed a bit of toughening up, and at Dunwold I was taken out to watch a sheep being slaughtered. To my great relief, something intervened – perhaps my mother – and I was spared the sight of the killing.

texas dunwold
Dunwold homestead, in the early days

We visited Uncle Don more often. His property, Mauro, was closer to our home in Nambour – only a five- or six-hour drive. Mauro was just over the Dumaresq River, which here forms the border between Queensland and New South Wales: the wriggly part. Mauro is in New South Wales, but Texas, in Queensland, is its nearest town.

texas map south qld
Texas, on the wriggly bit of the border

The Dumaresq (pronounced Dumaresk or Dumerrik, depending on who is saying it) rises in the Great Dividing Range near Stanthorpe and Tenterfield and flows west into the Macintyre River, which in turn flows past Goondiwindi, still forming part of the border. These are known as the Border Rivers.

texas Dumaresq-River-Reserve-Texas002-9.51-AM31-Jan-18
Border bridge on the Dumaresque River

Border towns borrow a little from each state. One wintery morning in Goondiwindi, which is in Queensland and therefore sells the Courier-Mail in all the shops, I visited the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop. The ladies in charge were sitting around a table doing the Sydney Morning Herald crosswords. “We get the Herald in specially”, they said. “It has better crosswords that the Courier-Mail.”

The Macintyre River continues further west, joining the Barwon River. The Barwon flows into the Darling River and on into the Murray.

These western rivers have dangerous floods, although the countryside has been drought-stricken for years now. I remember as a child sitting in our family’s Vanguard stuck in the middle of flooded Camp Creek, near Mauro, with my feet up on the seat and floodwater flowing through the car. A tractor towed us out.

All of Fred’s descendants who lived at or visited Mauro will have strong memories of the place. I remember it as if I’m looking at a photo album. Here was the pepperina tree beside the house. When I smell the leaves of a pepper tree, it takes me straight back there. Outside of the house yard, the ground was thick with prickles – bindy eyes, as we called them. We coastal kids had never before experienced those savage, dry-country prickles.

texas khaki weed
Khaki weed

I think it was actually khaki weed, a broad-leaved prickly plant. Bindii is the nasty prickle that grows in my Brisbane lawn – little clusters of carrot-like leaves with prickles in the middle that break off and stick into the skin and make the children go carefully on tiptoes down the concrete car tracks.

texas Bindii1-800x600
Bindii

The worst prickle I’ve come across is the aptly named goat’s head, found in the Gulf Country around Burketown. Standing on the thorns of a goat’s head is like standing on a couple of thumb tacks.

texas goats heads
Goat’s heads

At Mauro there was a shearing shed, a hundred metres or so from the homestead, with chutes where shearers pushed skinny-looking shorn sheep down into the pens below, slotted tables where roustabouts threw the fleeces, and the wool press that did the baling. There was a strong smell of sheep droppings, fallen between the floorboards and piled up under the shed. We didn’t often visit the shed during shearing, because, Uncle Don said, the men didn’t want to have to curb their language.

Behind the house yard at Mauro was the dam. We went swimming there once. The soft mud at the bottom oozed between our toes.

There was an ant bed tennis court beside the house, surfaced with crushed and rolled termite mounds, and peacocks screamed at dusk on the fences.

Besides sheep Mauro produced fodder crops, and Italian share farmers grew tobacco. We sometimes visited them, peering into the dark barns where the tobacco leaves were hung to dry.

bindii tobacco barns
Tobacco barns near Texas Qld

During the 1950s we also visited my mother’s friend on a property outside Saint George and watched them “pulling” the mulga. Whether it was for land clearing or for cattle feed, I don’t know. It was impressive, though. Two army tanks, fifty metres or so apart, dragged a heavy chain between them, pulling down the scrub as they went. Perhaps they were bulldozers, but I remember them as tanks. So soon after the War there was probably plenty of army surplus equipment available for jobs like this.

Most of all I remember the noise.

I last visited Mauro in the early 1980s. Con, because we were only going for a couple of days, hadn’t brought proper shoes – just the standard North Queensland driving footwear of the time, rubber thongs. When Don asked him to help shift irrigation pipes, Con wore his thongs. Don was wearing elastic-sided boots.

When Con came back to the house he sat down on the back step and took off his thongs. They had new soles on them: a centimetre-thick matt of prickles; and he sat there glumly pulling them out of the sides of his feet. There are many reasons why westerners wear elastic-sided boots, and prickles, whether bindii, khaki weed or goat’s heads, are high on the list.

texas bindii thongs
Goat’s heads in thongs

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