Drunks on a Train

 

The Inlander to Mount Isa is not running: service is suspended because of the coronavirus. It’s the same for The Spirit of the Outback, the Westlander, Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Gulflander.

Reduced services on the Spirit of Queensland to Cairns, and Tilt Trains to Rockhampton and Bundaberg.

As I have no current train stories available, I’ve asked Con for an old one. He tells me it’s all true.

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Mount Isa country

Con’s Inlander story

When I was eighteen, Mum and I caught the Inlander from Townsville to Mount Isa: a 24 hour trip.

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Con aged 18

We booked sleepers, but Queensland Railways decreed that a man could not share a sleeping compartment with a woman unless they were married; not even mother and son. Each second-class compartment consisted of three single berths, so Mum would share a compartment with two other women at one end of our carriage, and I was to share with two men at the other.

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The old Townsville Railway Station Pic: Dept of the Environment and Science

At the fine old Townsville Railway Station, we boarded our train early and I sat alone in my compartment, wondering what my travelling companions would be like. Just as I was resigning myself to a solitary journey, I saw a stocky male figure walking along the platform, lugging a suitcase.

“It must be heavy,” I thought. “He’s staggering under its weight. No, he’s drunk. Oh Lord – he’s coming into this carriage.”

Like a homing pigeon he wobbled into my compartment. He frowned at me with eyes like boiled lollies. “I’m Frank,” he slurred. Accent not Australian – something European. I later found out it was Hungarian.

We exchanged hellos, while his beery breath and his sweat fought hard to dominate the air-conditioning. He told me he worked as a miner in The Isa. In those days, lots of new arrivals went to Mount Isa for work.

A commotion in the doorway heralded the arrival of two more blokes, dressed like stockmen or drovers – broad-brimmed hats, checked shirts, boots – lugging battered leather carry-alls. Steve and Steve, they told us.  They’d been at Magnetic Island and were on their way back to their droving base the other side of Dajarra.

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“Group of stockmen enjoying smoko, ca. 1960” Robin Smith photo, SLQ

There were three sleeping berths and four of us. The taller Steve told us when they went to buy tickets, only one berth was available. They bought it, plus a ticket for a second-class sitter.

“One of us will sleep on the floor here, if you blokes don’t mind.”

I didn’t mind. Frank grunted, and the Steves took this for agreement. Steve and Steve had also had a few beers before boarding the train, and this had made them noisy and cheerful, in contrast to Frank whose drinking had made him surly and argumentative.

The train pulled out of Townsville and before we got to Stuart, only a few miles out of town, there was an argument. Steve and Steve wanted everyone to be happy. Frank seemed to enjoy being gloomy, and when the Steves produced bottles of warm beer to share around, Frank said he wanted to go to sleep. He climbed up on the top bunk and lay there, staring unsmilingly at the roof.

In those days, sing-a-longs were more common than they are now; and so we started to sing to pass the time. The Steves sang along enthusiastically, banging on their swags to keep the beat.

We sang Waltzing Matilda, Click Go the Shears, Red River Valley, and Santa Lucia. Frank recognized this last one and climbed down from his bunk to join in. He drank some warm beer, and during a break in the music he told us of songs his mob would play and sing out in the bush in Hungary, and how beautiful the stars were out there, away from the smoke and lights of the city.

“It must be like the skies at night out in the West,” said a Steve. Frank told us that the skies in Hungary were the same as Australian skies, but upside down, like all the skies north of the Equator. The younger Steve couldn’t get hold of this concept. Frank patiently explained it, but Young Steve furrowed his brow and thought hard, still confused.

Big Steve suggested that on their next cattle drive, young Steve might stand on his head and look up at the sky full of stars that way, to give him an idea of how the sky in Hungary might appear.

Steve the Elder and I went along to try to buy some beer from the dining car. The lady in charge told us that she would not sell us any alcohol because a) consumption of alcohol was permissible only in the dining car, and it was now closed; and b) we had obviously been drinking already and were not sober enough to purchase more. Steve became agitated, questioning the lady’s parentage and her morals. I apologised and took him back to our home on the range.

“What about another song, Con?”

After the song, Frank gave out cigarettes and lit them for us. Steve the Elder squinted through the smoke at him and said with sincerity, “You might be a wog, mate, but as far as Steve and I are concerned, you’re fair dinkum.”

Frank clasped his hand in a fierce grip. “We are now true friends,” he proclaimed.

“That is so beautiful,” sobbed young Steve, “I think I’m going to cry.”

All four of us were singing “We’ll Meet Again”, holding each other’s hands and with tears in our eyes, when the conductor hammered on the door. He was accompanied by the lady from the dining car. “That’s them!” she snapped, “and that one (indicating Steve) has a foul mouth.”

The conductor told us that we weren’t allowed to drink in our compartment and to watch our language.

When the train stopped at Charters Towers, Frank got off and went to the Railway Refreshment Room, returning with a large paper bag containing half a dozen bottles of Abbott’s Lager. He’d also bought more cigarettes in case we ran short.

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Taking the precaution of closing the door and pulling down the window blind, we continued our journey with songs, smokes, and warm Abbott’s beer.

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Just after midnight, when I was standing up with a bottle of beer in one hand and a smoke in the other, belting out Stand Up and Fight with passion, we were interrupted by a knock at the door. Fearing the worst, we attempted to hide the empty bottles, spilling beer over the floor.

I opened the door, and there was Mum.

“Connie, you haven’t got your ‘jamas on yet.”

She looked at the three drunks sprawled around the tiny sleeper compartment and commented that we looked to be having a good time but shouldn’t stay up too late or we’d be tired in the morning. She gave me a good night kiss and left.

Frank insisted that young Steve take his sleeping berth while he himself camped on the floor. Young Steve became emotional again, declaring us to be mates for life as he scrambled up to the top berth.

At 8 a.m. we pulled into Hughenden. Frank bounced up from the floor, charged out of the compartment, and walked briskly along the platform to the small Refreshment Room.

“If he comes back with more beer I’ll faint,” moaned Steve the Elder. He didn’t. He came back with more smokes. We couldn’t face them either.

I went off to have breakfast with Mum. She asked if I’d slept well, and I told her the rhythm of the train had lulled me to sleep as soon as I lay down.

Back in our compartment, we were all subdued, even Frank. The long day wore on, as we talked vaguely and slept. Arriving at The Isa in the late afternoon, we shook hands and wished one another good luck.

I never saw the Steves again, but I caught a glimpse of Frank in the street a few days later. He gave a friendly wave but didn’t stop.

Perhaps it was just as well. But for one night, despite an awkward beginning, we four – the drovers, the miner and the young schoolteacher – had a train trip to remember.

Drunks on a train – it still happens, and not just in Queensland. On an AMTRAK train in the USA a few years ago, we heard an announcement over the public address system, warning everyone that drunks would be put off the train. “Remember: Bud does not make you weiser!”

Queensland trains are more sophisticated now, and seat-back screens provide entertainment for those long, long journeys. There are no sleeping compartments or dining cars any more, and Railway Refreshment Rooms have all but disappeared. Smoking would probably have you put off the train.

I wouldn’t want to travel on a train full of drunks; but I doubt if travellers today will have such good stories to tell their families in years to come.

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21st Century Inlander

Townsville

During our first road trip north as a family, in December 1970, Con and I and baby Matt stopped on the Strand, Townsville, for a break. On the Strand an artificial waterfall comes tumbling down a cliff into landscaped gardens at the bottom, and I sat there with the baby enjoying the cool spray.

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“The Waterfall on the Strand, Townsville” c.1970-2000 Murray Views Collection, Centre for the Government of Queensland.

Con was looking across the road at the Tobruk Memorial Baths.

“Did you know,” he said, “in 1956, Australia’s Olympic swimmers trained in that pool? Lorraine Crapp, Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose – they were all here!”

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Tobruk Memorial Baths, Townsville c.1952. Qld State Archives

North Queenslanders were pleased to have the country’s best swimmers here in Townsville through the winter before the Melbourne Olympics. Even before the Olympics began, they were breaking records. Con remembers it well.

Lorraine Crapp broke four world records in one race here, in August 1956. In breaking the five-minute barrier for the four hundred metres freestyle,she broke three other world records – 200 metres, 220 yards and 440 yards. It made headlines around the world.And Dawn Fraser set new world records in the one hundred metres.

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Lorraine Crapp Thurlow

“Exciting times for us North Queenslanders, and for Australian swimming!”

The Australian team went on to win gold in every freestyle event at the Melbourne Olympics. Australia’s first real taste of Olympic glory.

 

In 1976, Con and I and our two kids moved to Townsville, for a year, so he could study at the College of Advanced Education. It was hot and wet, and rain water pooled in the backyard of our rented house. Thousands of tadpoles hatched in the puddles. When the rain stopped, the puddles dried up and the tadpoles rotted in the sun, stinking, just outside the back door.

After the rainy season the city returned to its usual dry, dusty condition. In winter, the mornings were cold. We were in the tropics, but not the lush, green tropics of Mackay or Cairns. Townsville is backed by magnificent ranges, but apart from the pink granite bulk of Castle Hill and its surrounds it is flat. It was a city of cyclists in those days. Now, it’s a much bigger and busier place.

The Townsville CAE was near James Cook University. Those were interesting times at James Cook. It was a time of energy and change. All over the world, there was a developing push for the rights of Indigenous peoples, and academics at James Cook were writing and teaching about the history and issues of race relations in the North. Among them Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, and those dynamic men helped change the face of race relations in Australia.

JCU Associate Professor Noel Loos with some of his publications from the NQ Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Noel Loos, James Cook University, 2017, with some of his publications

Eddie Koiki Mabo, a leading figure in the Townsville Torres Strait and Indigenous community, was working as a groundsman at James Cook. Over lunch, in 1974, Eddie Mabo shared stories of his home island with Reynolds and Loos, and it was during these sessions that he discovered that what he had always considered his family’s land belonged, in fact, to the government.

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Eddie Koiki Mabo http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info – torres strait

Sixteen years later, Eddie Mabo’s land claim on his ancestral home, the Island of Mer in Torres Strait, resulted in the High Court decision overturning the legal doctrine of terra nullius, or “this land belongs to no one”, under which Captain Cook claimed Australia for Britain. A history-making event.

The Mabo claim thus began at James Cook, around the time we were in Townsville. At the end of 1976, Con was awarded a Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education, and I had a baby. I was unaware of history on the way to being made nearby.

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Off to Townsville CAE for Con to receive his Diploma, November 1976

While we were living in Townsville, we often came down to the Strand rock pool, or further north to Rowes Bay or Pallarenda Beach, to swim with the kids and hold beach birthday parties. I remember dry grass and coconut palms along the waterfront.

In 2007, Con and I were back in Townsville yet again, staying in what locals call the Sugar Shaker, the landmark hotel tower in the centre of town. The CBD had changed. What been David Jones Department Store, North Queensland’s most luxurious shopping place, was now the home of a new north Queensland icon – Cowboys Rugby League Club. This is a passionate rugby league town.

South Queensland was in drought at that time, and Brisbane was on Level 5 water restrictions; but here in the Townsville Mall, a council worker was hosing the pavement. In the suburbs, sprinklers watered lawns and footpaths. This is no longer a dusty, brown city.

One morning I went for a walk north from the city centre, along the Strand. The coconut palms were still there, lining the beach, but now there was greenery everywhere, and a water park with a bucket tipping water on to the screaming children below.

Townsville, with an assured supply of water from the Ross River Dam and the rainforested Paluma Range to the north, had decided to make itself beautiful, turning its public spaces into the lush, green environment that visitors expect of the tropics.

Early this year, though, record-breaking rains forced Ross River Dam to open its floodgates; and suburbs that didn’t exist when we lived there in 1976 were flooded for weeks.

Townsville is unlike anywhere else in the country, except perhaps Darwin. Like Darwin it is a tropical city with a port of strategic importance. Like Darwin, it was bombed during the War, and like Darwin it has suffered catastrophic damage from cyclones.

Townsville is a Defence Forces centre, a place of research into all things tropical, a tourist hot spot, and also a place of high unemployment and crime. It was interesting in the 1970s, and for all its stresses and strains, it still is.

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Townsville today http://www.queensland.com

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.

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