Going to the Melbourne Cup

We’d parked our camper-trailer under wattle trees in full bloom, at Girraween National Park, on the Granite Belt.

camper girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk
Girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk

The tiny Coleman camper held two double beds, plus a single when we dropped the table down. It had a small fridge and gas stove, a sink with a pump tap, a hard roof and sturdy canvas walls with zip-down, screened plastic windows.

After spending the day walking with our three kids among the spring-time wild-flowers of one of Queensland’s most beautiful and popular national parks, we were lying in bed in the dark, telling jokes and laughing.

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Wildflowers at Girraween National Park

Suddenly there was the sound of a long, musical fart. “Who farted?” said Con, indignantly. Ironic, coming from the family’s master of flatulence.

“That wasn’t a fart”, said one of the kids. “That was a Girraween Giggle.”

That set everyone off with real giggles, and I happily put my hand on Con’s leg, under the doona.

Con was immediately distracted from farts, and we concentrated instead on a problem that all parents face when they share a camper with their children.

Tents are different. A tent might be the same size as a camper-trailer, but it doesn’t jiggle or squeak. Even with its jacks wound down tight under all four corners, a camper does. It’s not unusual, when walking through a caravan park or camping area, to pass a jiggling, squeaking camper.

From our home in Lowood, in the Brisbane Valley, we were now on our way south to go to the Melbourne Cup. We’d bought the lightest of camper-trailers, weighing just five hundred and fifty kilograms, because we didn’t know how to reverse a trailer and didn’t want to learn. For that whole trip, we pushed it into position by hand in every new caravan park.

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Our camper-trailer

We were driving the Golden Holden, the Kingswood we’d bought to replace the old blue and white HR Holden.

Con had just completed his duties as a volunteer at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.

con c'wealth games 1982
Con on duty as a volunteer at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, Brisbane

At the closing party, only two days earlier, his wallet had been stolen, and so we were travelling under a handicap. In those days, he received a salary, I worked casually, and we had little in the bank – only a Christmas Club account into which I put money occasionally. We lived from pay to pay, with a credit card (Bankcard) for emergencies.

Now the Bankcard had been stolen, plus Con’s driver’s license, his only form of identification. Both our Bankcards had been cancelled. New cards and license had yet to be issued.

In 1982, shopping for groceries or fuel on credit involved a phone call from the business owner to a Sydney number for verification of our Bankcard balance. It seems primitive now, but in those days it was an amazing service. And just as we were about to begin an extensive interstate road trip, this service was closed to us, because we had no card.

Con was on long service leave, and so fortnightly deposits would continue to be made into his savings account. He’d sent his signature to a bank in Richmond, Sydney, where we were going to visit family friends; but he would have no form of identification to enable us to withdraw funds before then.

We banked with the National Bank – now NAB. In those days there was a branch of the National Bank in almost every Queensland town, because the National Bank had taken over the old Queensland National Bank and its many branches throughout the state. In New South Wales they were less common.

Con visited the Lowood bank manager and told him of our predicament – we would be travelling interstate with no means of withdrawing money – and he gave Con a card with his signature on it to show along the way. Off we went.

On the long haul up to the Granite belt, at Braeside, south of Warwick on the New England Highway, the engine of the Golden Holden blew up.

When I first went to Stanthorpe, the road from Warwick was largely gravel, a winding, narrow road up the range where overtaking was impossible, and accidents were common. By 1982 that road was gone, replaced by a long, smooth ascent. Too long for the Holden with a camper-trailer in tow.

We were broken-down beside the road, with steam rising off a seized-up engine, three kids and a camper and very little money.

The RACQ towed us to Stanthorpe, and we arranged to have a new engine installed. Then we went to the bank. Contacted by the Stanthorpe branch, the manager at Lowood opened my Christmas Fund account and forwarded the funds. It was enough to pay for the new engine.

Two days later we were in Armidale. No National Bank there. I made rissoles for dinner out of the cheapest meat I could buy: sausage mince. Con put fifty cents on Kingston Town for the Cox Plate, and another fifty cents on Triumphal Arch in the Moonee Valley Gold Cup, and took the daily double.

In the caravan park we listened to the races on his little radio. First Kingston Town won. “He’ll win the Melbourne Cup!” said Con, with great excitement, “and we’ll be there to see it!”

Next, Triumphal Arch came in first, and Con, with delight, picked up nine dollars from the TAB. It was enough to get us through to Muswellbrook.

Muswellbrook had a CBC bank, which was tied in with the National. Con produced the card he’d got from the bank manager at Lowood and withdrew fifty dollars, enough to see us through to Richmond. It was a high old time that night in the caravan park at nearby Lake Glenbawn.

camper lake glenbawn ezytrail
Lake Glenbawn ezytrailscampertrailers.com.au

Con had some beers, and I drank a little bottle of Ben Ean. Ben Ean Moselle “Shorts” were popular in those days.

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Advertisement for “Ben Ean Shorts” theconversation.com

A couple of days later, at Richmond National Bank, our holiday was saved. There was a call from Lowood bank while we were there – the manager offering us an overdraft. A few days later our replacement cards arrived, and our financial life had been restored to as much order as we ever managed to achieve. On we went, to Melbourne and the Cup.

Kingston Town came second.

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Old poster showing Kingston Town being beaten by Gurner’s Lane, Melbourne Cup 1982 leski.com.au

Our camper served us well on that trip, and for several more years. By then, the kids had grown. The trailer seemed too crowded, and its canvas showed signs of wear. When I went back to full-time work, we traded it in for a second car, although we were sorry to see it go.

We never forgot the Girraween Giggle.

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The Golden Holden and the camper-trailer at Jerilderie, Vic.

Apple and Grape

“What if you go into labour? I’ll be on the back of the truck – I won’t be able to help you!”

It was 1970, and my husband Con was Master of Ceremonies at the Stanthorpe Apple and Grape Harvest Street Festival. He stood at the microphone on top of a semi-trailer in Maryland Street, describing events and announcing winners, with thousands of people partying around him. No place for a woman soon to give birth.

In the end I watched events from the verandah of the Country Club Hotel.

stanthorpe country club hotel

Con remembers lots of things about that day, such as the hotly-contested Packing Case Relay.

“There was a team of back-packers from one of the big orchards, all in matching t-shirts,” he says. “They were pretty sure of themselves. They’d even trained for it, carrying the packing cases on their shoulders in the approved style.

“They were beaten by a team of local lads wearing work boots and carrying the cases any way they liked! It was a great win.”

He remembers the facial hair competitions.

“Your father entered in the Best Side Levers competition.”

“No! My dad had competition-grade side levers? I don’t remember that!”

“Your dad didn’t win – Jimmy Esplin won. There was a Best Beard competition, too. They made me one of the judges. I was about the only man in town with a beard, which made me the expert!”

“Which horse won the Melbourne Cup that year?”

“Baghdad Note. Why?”

Con remembers, with advantages, every good joke he’s ever heard, and every Melbourne Cup winner by year, and he can tell me who won the Best Side Levers competition at the 1970 Apple and Grape Harvest Festival; but he can’t remember that we agreed to baby-sit the grandchildren next Saturday night or that the wattle tree out the front needs pruning. We’ve been debating for years over which of us has the worse memory.

“I remember Dad’s whiskers,” says my brother Mike. “He grew them especially for the competition. Don’t remember much else though, because I was busy on the High School fundraiser down the street – Bash a Bomb. We’d dragged in a broken-down car, and we charged people for the chance to bash it with sledge hammers. It was very popular! Don’t think it would go down so well these days.”

Con’s reminiscences continue.

“One float in the procession had a girl on top of a Mini-Minor, sitting on a swing. The driver kept lagging behind, then accelerating, then braking again. Every time he braked, the girl nearly flew out of the swing.

“Her boyfriend got sick of it. He opened the door of the Mini, told the driver to get out, and drove it himself for the rest of the parade.”

Matt was born a week after the Festival, and in the winter that followed our hot water pipes froze and burst, and the nappies iced up while soaking in the laundry tubs and hung stiff and frozen on the clothesline.

Frosty Stanthorpe weather is beautiful, and by nine in the morning, I could put the baby out on the verandah, naked, to soak up the sun.

Stanthorpe is an attractive town, unique in the State, with its granite boulders, wild flowers and autumn colours. The houses have the snug architecture of a cold climate, and the sweet smell of wood smoke hangs over the town for months of the year. Locals are proud of living in Queensland’s coldest town.

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Wild flowers and boulders

The Apple and Grape Harvest Festival still draws a crowd, every second year in early autumn when the harvesting season begins. The next Festival will be in 2020, from 28 February until 8 March. There will be a Wine Fiesta, Gala Ball, Fun Run, Grand Parade, Grape Crushing and fireworks, the National Busking Championships, and according to the website, lots more.stanthorpe apple and grape logo

There’s no mention on the website of Bomb Bashing or Side Levers, though, so I don’t know how successful it will be.

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