The Queensland Border

Our Andy’s gone with cattle now –
Our hearts are out of order
With drought he’s gone to battle now
Across the Queensland border

Henry Lawson 1888

Illustration: Andy’s Gone with Cattle, Pro Hart

Queensland has been thought of by southerners as a frontier sort of state with a beautiful but challenging climate; a place to go to for work, pleasure or adventure. Now, Queensland’s southern border crossings are swamped with people trying to get into the state to avoid COVID-19.

Until this year, the border had not closed since 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic; but this winter, Queensland is like toilet paper was several months ago in the supermarkets: some people will lie, argue, go to enormous trouble and make fools of themselves to get it.

At one o’clock tomorrow morning, the border will, to quote the premier, “snap shut”.

The border crossings across the state have checkpoints manned with local and out-of-town police and defence force personnel. Lots of great stories will come out of these checkpoints when the crisis is over. Tiny towns along the border rivers won’t have had so many people in them for years, if ever. Barringun, on the border south of Cunnamulla on the Mitchell Highway, had a population of seven at the last census. Further east, Hebel, south of Dirranbandi on the Castlereagh Highway, has less than a hundred people. Mungindi, on the Carnarvon Highway south of Saint George and split by the border, has less than a thousand. They all have border checkpoints.

Today, according to ABC Western Queensland’s Facebook page, Queensland Police are warning that quarantine accommodation in these small towns may well be overwhelmed, and therefore border crossings closed completely. They’re recommending that travellers cross at the larger towns, further east.

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A far western border checkpoint  ABC Western Queensland

Along the border west of the coastal ranges, only Goondiwindi, on the junction of the Cunningham and Newell Highways, has more than a thousand people – 6,355 at the 2016 census.

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Border road closed, across the Macintyre River at Goondiwindi Queensland Country Life

This morning, driving through cold rain, my brother Mike returned from New South Wales through Goondiwindi, ahead of tonight’s border closure. After one a.m. tomorrow the only way into Queensland (except for special permit holders, freight transports, essential workers and locals of border towns) will be through Brisbane Airport. Mike joined the queue and waited just thirty minutes to enter Queensland, a much shorter time than many are experiencing, especially at Gold Coast border crossings.

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Queueing at the Goondiwindi checkpoint this morning Photo Mike Fox

West of the Gold Coast and Border Ranges, the checkpoints are on the few main highways. Many smaller crossings right along the border are closed to through traffic already. Others, including streets in small towns, are blocked completely.

Wallangarra, on the New England Highway, once a railway town with an army camp and a meatworks, now has fewer than four hundred people; but currently it has a busy border checkpoint. Jennings, its twin town across the border in New South Wales, has a population of less than 300. Minor streets connecting the towns are closed with concrete blocks.

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Street blocked between Wallangarra and Jennings abc.net.au

This will be a cold night at the Wallangarra checkpoint. The temperature will go down to single figures early tomorrow morning, with rain.

The Queensland railway ends at Wallangarra, with the border line painted across the station platform.

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Wallangarra Station, looking north along the platform over the border line, the Queensland side painted maroon commons.wikimedia.org

This line was once was the only rail connection between Brisbane and Sydney, and at Wallangarra every passenger and item of goods had to be detrained and moved across the platform to another train for the New South Wales Great Northern Line, now defunct, because the railway gauges are different. New South Wales tracks are Standard Gauge – four feet eight and a half inches (1435mm) apart, while Queensland uses narrow gauge: three feet six inches (1067mm). Now interstate trains on the North Coast Line use the standard gauge all the way from Sydney to Brisbane.

Except when a pandemic closes the borders, and the trains stop.

East of Wallangarra, the next border highway checkpoint is on the Mount Lindesay Highway, near Mount Lindesay.

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Border checkpoint, Mount Lindesay http://www.beaudeserttimes.com.au

It will be just as cold there, early tomorrow morning, when the border shuts. I admire the people who’ve manned the border checkpoints, day and night, in all weathers, since Queensland first closed its borders in March. They deserve our respect and thanks. They’ve been patient and alert; and while most road users have been polite, some have been abusive.

And, because so many of us, north and south, need to travel for work, and love to travel for pleasure, I hope all of this disruption will one day be a distant memory.

And may good angels send the rain
On desert stretches sandy
And when the summer comes again
God grant ’twill bring us Andy.

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Checkpoint mypolice.qld.gov.au/darlingdowns

Rail Trails

“We power on, trying to sense the walls beside us, ears and eyes straining for anyone coming from the other direction. It’s like holding your breath with your eyes.”

Cycling through a tunnel on the rail trail near Matarraña, Spain. Scary, but exciting, according to Con O’Brien, author of The Ebro Drift blog.

The Matarraña trail is just one of thousands of rail trails all over the world. Rail tracks no longer in use are pulled up, railbeds resurfaced, bridges and tunnels checked for safety. In some places old station buildings are converted to cafes or guesthouses. Railway gradient is perfect for cyclists and walkers, the countryside is interesting, and whether for long journeys or short sections, the trails provide great opportunities to exercise and travel at the same time.

Rail trails are international tourism magnets.

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Railway track just visible through the wildflowers on The High Line, NYC

In New York City, I walked on the High Line, a disused elevated freight railway line converted to almost two and a half spectacular kilometres of wildflower parkland, walkway and art space, stretching above west Manhattan. The line came very close to demolition before concerted pressure by far-seeing activists and the public saved it. Now, ten years later, the High Line is a much-loved public amenity and major tourist attraction.

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The “Rec Trail” through Cannery Row, past bust of Ed Ricketts

In California I visited Monterey’s Cannery Row, the setting for John Steinbeck’s classic novel of off-beat characters living there in the 1940s. The Southern Pacific Railway ran through here, but since the 1980s its track has become the “Rec Trail”, an eighteen-mile-long recreation trail for walkers and cyclists. The Cannery Row section passes depictions of scenes from the famous book, old carriages, items of railway equipment, and the Monterey Aquarium. Beside a road crossing stands a bronze bust of Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, “Doc” in the novel, who was killed by a train on this spot.

There are plenty of rail trails in Australia, and more are appearing all the time. The Rail Trails Australia web site shows, state by state, just how many trails are either in development or in use throughout the country. They range from rough gravel tracks to smooth bitumen with a white line down the middle, from short urban paths to trails hundreds of kilometres long. Many of them have tunnels. In Queensland, Boyne Burnett Inland Rail Trail aims to connect Monto, Eidsvold, Mundubbera and Gayndah and more, and includes heritage listed bridges and numerous tunnels.

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Tunnel on the proposed Boyne Burnett Inland Rail Trail

The hundred-and-sixty-kilometre Brisbane Valley Rail Trail has been popular with cyclists, walkers and horse riders for years. It connects Ipswich and Yarraman, passing through small towns along the way, with their coffee shops, bakeries and quaint country pubs. Watch out for magpies, though. They can be ferocious enough to ruin a cyclist’s helmet.

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Walkers in an old fettlers’ hut on the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail

At the Gold Coast, traces can still be found of the old branch line through Southport to Tweed Heads. The footbridge at Currumbin Creek was once the rail bridge, and Coolangatta’s Lanham Street walking path runs up though a cutting and past the Police Station on a curve that once approached the railway station on Chalk Street.

The trail that interests me most, and which has lots of tourist potential, is the one, currently under consideration, which would link Wallangarra, on the Queensland and New South Wales border, with the fine old city of Armidale, two hundred and ten kilometres to the south. While on the Queensland side the line is still functioning, if only for heritage steam train trips, south of Wallangarra it lies derelict, its standard gauge tracks and infrastructure still in place.

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Wallangarra Station, looking north. Disused NSW tracks on the right hand side

This is heroic country, with steep hills, wide blue vistas, granite boulders piled up and bulging out of hillsides, with an heroic climate to match, ranging from winters of sleet, snow and frost to oven-like summer temperatures. There are golden brown paddocks, kangaroos, sheep, and gum trees.

The railway line follows the New England Highway, over it, under it and alongside, almost all the way. There are villages and towns along the line, bridges and culverts and old railway stations, some of them heritage listed and lovingly preserved by local groups.

Ready for the stream of travellers a rail trail would bring, year-round.

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Old rail bridge beside the New England Highway, north of Tenterfield

Every time I drive the New England Highway, admiring its gorgeous, so-Australian scenery, its old towns and quaint buildings, I’m torn between wishing the railway line (the first to connect Brisbane and Sydney) was still running, and hoping it can be transformed into a new, money-making concern for the future. Some locals are doubtful. “We don’t want the track pulled up. Maybe they’ll bring the trains back some day.”

That’s not going to happen.

Many others are eager for the New England Rail Trail to be established, bringing jobs and tourism dollars to the towns along the way. They lobby the state government, and they have a Facebook page with an engaging title – NERT Inc.

The trail is listed on the Australian Rail Trail web page as “Possible”.

I say good luck to all of the Rail Trail lobbyists, opening up our landscapes to the world.

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From Rail Trails Australia – a cutting on the proposed New England Rail Trail

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