Carnarvon Gorge

We’d bought supplies at the IGA in Clermont– bacon, eggs, bread, fruit. Now I was standing at the barbecue in the camp kitchen, the bacon beside me on the bench. A flash of wings and it was gone. A kookaburra flew off with a full beak. Hm. Just eggs for tea then.

Carnarvon Gorge is a famously spectacular place, with a clear, permanent creek, fine sandstone cliffs, palm trees, cycads and rock paintings.

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Con and I were staying in a cabin at Takarakka Bush Resort, in a bend of Carnarvon Creek five kilometres from the start of the main gorge walking track. It was winter, and the temperature fell overnight to near freezing.

This was Con’s first visit, but I first went there as a teenager with my family, and I wrote about it for my school magazine.

Beside the creek, under the trees, blady grass grows four feet high, and through the grass winds a narrow track, running down to meet the creek bed near a neat pile of stones. Across the creek, where the track begins again, stands another pile.

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There are now stairs to the hanging gorges we scrambled up to fifty years ago. Guardrails and security cameras protect the ancient Aboriginal images on the “Art Gallery” cliffs: stencilled hands and boomerangs, crosshatching and engravings in the sandstone.

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There are public toilets in the gorge now. People no longer camp in the Cathedral Cave. Fifty years ago, we spread our blankets under that high, wide arch, on soft sand eroded from the roof above and mattresses of the dry palm fronds that lie everywhere in the gorge.

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As we lay huddled under our rugs with two great fires between us and the freezing night, we could see beside and above us, from one end of the cave to the other, ancient Aboriginal prints and images, even a child’s tiny handprints.

That night, years ago, a film crew had gathered piles of palm fronds, lit them, and filmed the arch above us in the glow of the fires.

The marks on the Art Gallery cliffs have ritual significance, but the Cathedral Cave art seems more domestic. Excavations in the floor of the cave have revealed that people were camping here at least twenty thousand years ago.

In Takarakka, people cook and eat together at the camp kitchen. We talked to friendly and interesting people from Canberra and Sydney, France and Austria, while the kookaburras lurked on the rafters above us.

On our first day, walking up one of the outer gorges, Mickey Creek Gorge, we met a man coming down the track with a bush walking stick. “You have it,” he said to me. “I’ve finished with it.”

It was a fine piece of eucalyptus, straight and carefully trimmed, and I accepted it with pleasure.

“We’re leaving tomorrow, so you can take my map of the gorge, too. The National Parks office doesn’t provide them anymore.”

A map is useful. The Carnarvon Gorge walks are well sign-posted, with distances marked, but it’s good to plan your walking day ahead of time.

Back at the car park after the walk, I leaned my stick against a nearby rock, near others left by returning walkers. The next day, I saw a woman using it in the main gorge. I hope she, too, left it for someone else to use.

Carnarvon Creek is cold and clear as it runs over its stony bed. There are platypuses in the creek, and birds in the bushland.

The white sandstone cliffs of the gorge can be seen from a distance as you drive in. When I was at university, visiting with a group of students, we climbed up to Battleship Spur where we could look down on the gorge and its branches curving like white ribbons below us.

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We lay on the grass and went to sleep, and when we woke up it almost evening. Darkness fell before we could get back to the base camp in the gorge, and we spent all night marooned on a point of high land with cliffs falling away on both sides in the gloom, singing songs and telling stories with only a small fire for light and warmth.

Next morning, we found our way down to our campsite and gear. The porridge we cooked in a billy for breakfast was the best thing I’d ever eaten.

When we turned for home, I was sad at the thought of leaving this gorge, with its creek, its greenery, and its vast cliffs.

In the camp kitchen on the evening before Con and I left for home, I asked if anyone wanted our left-over eggs. A young Austrian couple took them and made pancakes for everyone.

We also offered our map of the gorge, and an Irish backpacker put his hand up. We gave it to him and he poured us a glass of red wine, and we drank together to the pleasures of the bush.

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Kahlua and Milk

In Goondiwindi, in the Gunsynd Lounge, my cousin Nadine orders a Kahlua and milk.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” I tell the barman.

“Hah! You’re a bad woman at heart,” says my cousin.

Nadine and I are on a family history road trip: ten days, from the Darling Downs to the Central West. We’re eating – and drinking – at the Vic. The Victoria Hotel is double storied, with black and white timbers and a slightly crooked corner tower. It’s an outstanding feature of Goondiwindi’s main street. On one trip, Con and I spent the night at the Vic. I loved it, but Con hated it because he had to walk down the hall to go to the bathroom.

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Country hotels with their wide, hardwood verandahs, grand staircases and ornate fretwork are Australia’s most spectacular buildings. Built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they had to be big. Travelling for work was common, and bush people would come to town for race meetings and agricultural shows. Hotels provided the accommodation.

People travel for work and pleasure more than ever now, but most of them, like Con, want ensuite bathrooms and comfortable beds. They want air-conditioning and a car park out front. They don’t want stairs or noisy bar rooms.

I like climbing the stairs that take you up to the long hallways, the verandahs and a view over the street. I’m not so keen on the noisy bar underneath. Con and I spent one Thursday night in the magnificent old George Hotel in Ballarat, Victoria, with a cozy fireplace in the lounge, an ensuite bedroom and breakfast on the wide verandah overlooking the heritage buildings of the main street; but in the bedside table there were complimentary earplugs. We didn’t stay on to hear the Friday night disco in the bar.

One year we went to Esk for the races and spent the night in the Grand Hotel. The party in the Beer Garden went on for most of the night, and we tried to sleep to the sound, much repeated, of “Living next door to Alice,” followed by the shouted chorus of “Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?”

The hotel bars are often empty in these days of random breath checks, and many hotels have closed. During the day there might be one or two drinkers, nursing a beer and waiting for someone to come in so they can tell them about how things were in the old days or show off for tourists.

The poker machine room always has customers. At the Purple Pub in Normanton, it’s the only room with air-conditioning.

Overnight guests have the run of these fine old buildings. As a guest you are allowed up the grand staircase, past the “House Guests Only” sign, to the upstairs lounge, with its television and sagging couches. You can pad down the hallway in your night attire to a huge, tiled bathroom, or clean your teeth in the washbasin in the corner of your room. You can have breakfast on the verandah and lean over the railing to watch the affairs of the street below.

The enormous, heritage listed State Hotel at Babinda was erected in 1917 by the Queensland government. Constructed from local timbers, it has an entrance and staircase of golden silky oak, many bedrooms, and verandahs with a view up the main street to the rain-forested hills behind the town.

State Hotel Babinda ca. 1924

I’d like to stay there sometime. If I suggest it to Con, I know what he’ll say.

“Does it have ensuites?”

The pub is still the heart of many a tiny town. A few years ago, we spent a comfortable night in the hotel at Laura, now named the Quinkan Hotel – the only accommodation in town apart from the caravan park. It’s a plain, single storey pub – no grand staircase or sprawling verandahs – but the owners have found it worth their while to provide comfortable beds, modern air-conditioning and flat-screen televisions. The mining engineers and geologists who stay here like to be comfortable.

It was November when we visited Laura, and the many mango trees shading the front of the pub and lining the street were laden with ripe fruit. I’ll always associate the Laura Hotel with the smell of mangoes and the thud, thud, thud of the fruit hitting the ground.

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Country pubs. Every one of them is memorable.

At the Vic in Goondiwindi, last time we were there together, Con ordered a glass of beer. The glass was sponsored by Saint Mary’s, the local Catholic Parish: What? I asked for a glass of water. It’s a miracle!

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You wouldn’t find that at the Brisbane Hilton.

Images: Victoria Hotel, Goondiwindi; State Hotel Babinda c. 1924 (State Library of Qld, “Picture Queensland”); the Laura Hotel; beer glass from the Vic, Goondiwindi.

Goodbye, Sunlander

 

We’re waiting at the railway crossing at Silkwood. Standing in the middle of the tracks, Con is listening for an old, familiar rumble. It’s 2014, and the Sunlander is coming through, heading south on its final trip.

“Did you know,” Con said, “I saw the Sunlander on its first trip. I was eleven. I ran down Goondi Hill and watched it go over the level crossing.

“Before that it was the Sunshine Express. It had no air-con, just fans, and the carriages were gritty with soot. You’d put your head out the window and get cinders in your eye. My mum would twist up the corner of her hanky and spit on it, and she’d make me roll my eye back so she could get the cinders out.”

“I read that the old Sunshine Express steam engine is still operating. They use it to pull excursion trains out of Brisbane. It looks beautiful – bright paint, shiny brass.”

“Tell that to any North Queenslander my age, and they’ll just remember forty-hour train trips and soot!”

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It’s hot in the sun. I move to the shade of a tree, but the grass there is alive with green ants. I do the North Queensland green ant dance, brushing them off as I skip back into the sunlight. Con is still standing in the middle of the track.

“You be careful”, I tell him.

“What? You think I’ll get run over? It’s the Sunlander, not the Sapsan.”

We travelled on the Sapsan a few years ago – the glamorous red train that covers seven hundred kilometres in four hours, between Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

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A headlight appears in the distance, and soon we hear that diesel engine rumble. Con steps off the track, the crossing lights flash, and as the train comes through the driver sounds the horn. There is a sign on the front, Farewell the Sunlander. Brisbane – Cairns, 1953-2014. The train is crowded, and the passengers seem to be having a good time; but they are only on this trip out of nostalgia. Normally they would drive or fly.

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In 2010, Con and I went by Amtrak train down the west coast of the United States and across the country to New York. Along the way, we had the time and the opportunity to speak to locals: a journalist returning from a stressful west coast assignment, taking the long train trip home across the Rockies and the prairies to clear his mind; young brothers setting off on a grand railway tour of their country; older people travelling with nostalgia for past journeys.

One elderly man sat down for breakfast and asked for eggs “over easy”.

The waiter told him, apologetically, “We don’t cook eggs to order anymore, sir.”

Things weren’t like this in the old days, when rail travel was king in the USA. Now, people fly, and freight is what pays.

Queensland has long distances and a small population, and it’s not like a small, crowded country in Europe or Asia where roads are congested and the trains are always full. Here, the railway was vital when the roads were bad, and extra trains were often scheduled to cope with the numbers of passengers; but now many railway embankments are over-grown with weeds, tracks have been pulled up, station buildings turned into local museums.

In 2016, Con and I went north on the Spirit of Queensland, which replaced the Sunlander. It’s a beautiful, comfortable train. Not a cinder in sight. But compromises have been made, now that passenger numbers are few.

There are no sleeping cabins. Because we were going all the way to Far North Queensland, we wanted beds, and the rail beds, seats that convert into beds, are only available in First Class. At night, our carriage became a dormitory.

Those making shorter trips, getting on and off at places like Bundaberg, Bowen or Townsville, sat up all the way, just as they would on a plane.

I was comfortable in my rail bed.

Not Con, though. “It’s like sleeping in a coffin! The Sunlander had proper cabins and bunks! I’ll never do this again!”

There is no dining car – just a club car selling light refreshments. In First Class, proper meals and drinks were delivered to us in our seats.

For us, the Spirit of Queensland was an extravagance. It cost far more than flying or driving, but it had advantages. At twenty-four hours Brisbane to Cairns, it was faster than going by car and saved the cost of meals and a motel. We got off at Innisfail – more convenient than flying into Cairns, ninety kilometres to the north, and then having to take a bus or hire a car.

European trains go so fast you can’t see the scenery. Not a problem on the Sunlander – or the Spirit of Queensland.

From Ingham to Innisfail, we crawled along. The problem? The rails were hot.

Really? December in Far North Queensland, and the rails were hot?

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Images: The Sunshine Express loco today; the SAPSAN in St Petersburg; the final trip of the Sunlander; the Spirit of Queensland at Roma Street Station

Crocodile Watch

Rollingstone Creek is deep and clear, with a sandy bottom. The water is blessedly cool on this tropical summer’s morning.

My sister-in-law Margaret is sitting on a folding chair in the shade, watching for crocodiles.

This swimming hole, so innocent-looking, is a few hundred metres upstream from an estuary where crocs are known to lurk. We wallow in the shallows, close to the bank, and Margaret watches the water.

It’s mid-January, and hot. So hot. That’s why we’re risking the crocodiles.

Balgal Beach, where we’re staying, is a quiet spot north of Townsville. Like the other Queensland beaches sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef, it has no surf. Not many people swim at northern beaches in summer, in spite of the heat and the picture postcard beauty of places like Balgal, Bingil Bay and Etty Bay. From October to March, stinger nets are set up on popular beaches. Swimming outside of them you risk being killed by a box jellyfish.

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Occasionally the television news shows a crocodile in one of the stinger nets, making people a little nervous – especially tourists. No much fazes the hardy locals.

The quiet northern beach towns are ideal for early-morning walks, fishing, bird watching, or a peaceful retirement; and in the caravan park at Balgal Beach contented campers and caravaners with interstate number plates sit reading in the shade of the trees.

Perhaps they’ll buy fish and chips for dinner and eat looking out over the water towards Palm Island, while gangs of red-tailed black cockatoos screech and quarrel in the fig trees above.

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There are many gorgeous swimming spots in North Queensland, year-round, where even in July daytime temperatures rarely drop below twenty-five degrees. They’re in creeks running through rainforest, tumbling over granite boulders and falling into clear pools. Famous places like The Boulders at Babinda, or hidden creeks only locals know about. You just have to find a spot above the range of the crocodiles.

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North of Tully there’s a swimming hole called Alligator’s Nest, at the junction of two clear creeks, in spite of its name beyond the reach of crocs. It was a cool and drizzling July day when we went there, and the creek was deserted. I had no swimmers, but I went in anyway, in my skin. It was a perfect swim.

I’ve enjoyed many perfect swims. One was at Wineglass Bay, on the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania. Con and I climbed the steep track to the famous look-out spot, then down the other side to the bay. It took us an hour and a half, and when we came out of the scrub on to the beach, the only sign of human life was a yacht moored in a little hook of the bay, off to the south. The clear water looked wonderfully inviting. Again, I went in in my skin. It was cold –  but perfect.

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The clear pools and red gorges of Karijini National Park, in Western Australia’s iron ore country, have many perfect swimming spots, although they’re much too popular for skinny dipping; but the place I love the most, even more than the creeks of North Queensland, is Greens Pool, on the southern coast of WA.

Greens Pool is a wide stretch of calm water sheltered from the Southern Ocean by a string of granite boulders. Other boulders stand in a group in the middle of the Pool, bigger than elephants, and you can leap off them into the deep, clear, salty water. Breakers send up spray over the protective rocks beyond the Pool. The water is cold, but the initial shock is soon forgotten in the pleasure of it all.

In South Queensland, the water is warm. I remember a perfect day in the surf at Alexandra Headlands, when I was twelve. The waves were smooth, no dumpers, a gorgeous green. I lay on my back, and each wave lifted me gently to its crest then glided me down the other side. The sun shone through the water, dappling the sand below.

Across the road from my childhood holiday house at Maroochydore was a small beach we kids considered our own, with a jetty at one end. At high tide, the river would reach up close under the jetty, and my brothers and I would bomb-dive off it with delight.

I grew up on beaches. I love the water.

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That day in Rollingstone Creek, though, it was a comfort to have Margaret watching for crocs.

Photos: Bingil Bay; Balgal Beach; a North Qld creek; Weano Gorge, Karajini NP; Alexandra Headlands.

Windmills and Whale Tails

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Hervey Bay: famous for senior citizens and whale watching. Its whale sculptures are beautiful, too.

On Main Street an eight-metre-tall, iron bark and stainless-steel humpback whale called Nala is breaching. A life-sized aluminium whale’s tail, flukes outspread, stands in the middle of an Esplanade roundabout garden – Nala’s baby.

This is public art at its most engaging.

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Some public art in regional areas is dismal. It’s as if the council wanted a piece of sculpture to enhance the town and commissioned the mayor’s brother-in-law to knock something together with chicken wire and concrete.

Things are changing.

Fine public art is popping up across Queensland, some of it by internationally-renowned sculptors.

In Boonah, south-west of Brisbane, a larger than life sized Clydesdale horse stands in a park at the entrance to town. Scottish sculptor Andy Scott is most famous for his thirty-metre-high horses’ heads, “The Kelpies” – Scotland’s best-known works of public art. He built the Boonah horse to celebrate the draught horses that once worked here. Made from galvanized steel bars, the horse stands alertly, its ears pricked, as if ready to trot forward to greet the visitor.

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Towns need a visual focal point like this horse, something iconic to use in advertising material, something to attract business and tourism. Something to be proud of.

Across Queensland there are many intriguing pieces of public art by Christopher Trotter, and there’s one of them in Boonah, too: a quirky town clock, with a steam whistle that blows on the hour. It’s constructed in steam-punk style from old printing press parts, water pipes, bits of agricultural machinery and horse shoes.

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Trotter’s sculptured plants and fungi, sinuous and organic, made from pipes, tractor seats, cement mixer bowls and scraps of farm machinery, decorate the entrance to the Mackay Botanical Gardens in North Queensland.

On the banks of the Condamine River in Warwick, on the southern Darling Downs, is a plump, granite sculpture of Tiddalik, the frog of Aboriginal legend who swallows all the water in the land, then lets it gush out in a flood. Carved from a fifteen tonne granite boulder, when the Condamine floods Tiddalik goes under water.

My daughter Lizzie and her family, driving back to Brisbane on the New England Highway, were delayed by floods there.

She sent me a text: “The Condamine is lapping at the bridge, all the locals out to see it, the statue of Tiddalik with only his eyes visible above the floodwater.”

Mitchell, west of Roma, has an attractive main street of old pubs, bottle trees and parks. There are murals on its bridge pylons, decorative ceramic pavers, mosaics of fish and birds on the sidewalk, and concrete kangaroos reclining in front of the shops.

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There’s a fine windmill in the small historical park in the main street. If art is something that evokes a response from its viewers and brings to mind a way of life and landscape, then this windmill is art.

The focus on art in Mitchell interests me, and I spoke to a local resident to find out how it came to be there.

“It was in the old Booringa Shire Council days, before we amalgamated with Roma,” he said. You could tell that amalgamation with Roma had been unpopular with this former council worker.

“The old council wanted to make the most of the main street, so they put some money and thought into it, and this is the result. We need tourists to stop for a while, spend a little money in the town.”

The large amounts of money put into public art by local councils and government bodies (sometimes only after much heated debate about costs) are an investment in much-needed tourism.

In Emerald, there’s a giant copy of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” on a ten metre high easel. Childers has quaint bronze owls in the main street. Cairns has attractive water-front sculptures. The tiny town of Ravenswood, between Ayr and Charters Towers, has gorgeous ceramic tiles of birds, animals and plants all over its picnic tables, so beautiful they deserve far more people to see them.

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Diver, Cairns

The little town of Millaa Millaa, on the southern Atherton Tableland is in lush, hilly country once famous for dairy. In the main street is the statue called “The Reluctant Cow”. There’s a farmer straining to push a cow into the milking bail, a cattle dog and an upset milk bucket. When we were there a kid from South Australia was helping the farmer to push while his family took a photo.

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Regional public art at its most loveable.

Photos: Windmill, Mitchell; “Nala”, Hervey Bay; Horse, Boonah; “Blumbergville Clock”, Boonah; Kangaroos, Mitchell; Sunflowers, Emerald; “Diver”, Cairns; “The Reluctant Cow”, Millaa Millaa.

Speeding Tickets

 

We were on our way to Rockhampton in the old red Falcon. The Bruce Highway to Rocky was at last almost free of road works, after years of major upgrades. Constant speed limits still applied: one hundred kilometres per hour signs, then eighty, sixty, forty, and back up again. Construction had finished, but road marking was still going on, and so the speed zones were still in place.

North of Gympie, we failed to notice a forty kph sign. A police car appeared out of nowhere, and a handsome young policeman with a Welsh accent wrote Con a ticket for three points and two hundred and twenty dollars.

Considering that we are not tradies in a hurry, over-confident young drivers or hoons, Con and I have forfeited a lot of points over the years. We’ve both come close to losing our licenses at times, and it’s usually for going over the limit in a speed zone such as this.

We drove on, cautiously, and stopped for the night at Childers.

Childers has a quaint streetscape, with heritage buildings, trees, sculpture and mosaics, charming even with the Bruce Highway running through it. The traffic keeps the Childers pedestrians nimble, those pensioners, grey nomads, hippies and backpackers. We checked into a motel and dined at The Federal Hotel, a pretty, heritage listed building.

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Next morning, Con did the Walk of Shame, down to the Police Station to pay his speeding fine. He likes to get these things over with.

“Can you remember your first speeding fine?” I asked him, when we were back on the highway.

“Yes, I can!” he said, with bitterness. “It was May 1977, in the Golden Holden. Nothing but trouble, that car!”

The Golden Holden was the same colour as the foil in Con’s cigarette packets. He was a great smoker in those days.

“It was our first trip south in the new car – going to a wedding, do you remember?”

Over the years, Con and I have travelled Queensland, north to south or south to north, for four weddings and four funerals. We could make a movie of it.

“Between Marlborough and Yaamba, a policeman stepped out of the long grass and pulled me over. ‘You were clocked on radar at one hundred and thirty. That’s three points and one hundred and thirty dollars.’ Only one hundred and thirty dollars. Those were the days…

“Next ticket – 1998. First long trip in the Falcon, and I got caught twice. The first was at Kuttabul, north of Mackay – a speed camera. The other one was south of Rocky, on the way home. A cop in a patrol car waved his finger to me to stop. Three points each time!”

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“I remember. You were still down those six points when we started the round-Australia trip.”

“Yes. And just after we started, a few kilometres the other side of Cunningham’s Gap, I overtook a semi-trailer. I was going one hundred and twenty k’s when I came back over to the left. There was a white police van parked beside the road, and I knew I was done again.”

That would have meant that Con was nine points down before we’d even left the state. One more ticket, and I would have had to drive the whole way around Australia, so I said I was driving at the time, and took the points myself.

Back then Con did most of the long-distance driving because he has always been better at overtaking than me. I remember with pleasure, though, that I drove the straight stretch on the Nullarbor Plain, one hundred and forty-six kilometres without a curve; the longest straight stretch of sealed road in the country.

“Do you think I should overtake this truck?” I’d asked, about halfway along.

“If you can’t overtake here,” Con had responded dryly, “you won’t overtake anywhere.”

Now, on the way to Rockhampton, he continued to list his speeding tickets.

“It’s 2001, I’m going to Gympie for Uncle Frank’s funeral, and I get pinged for doing eighty-two in the eighty zone. I lost a point, and they sent me a form suggesting a driving counseling course. Ha!”

I’m pleased I didn’t get spotted last year, overtaking a semitrailer on the Marlborough stretch at one hundred and forty. No overtaking lanes on the Marlborough Stretch. Or the time I accidently set the cruise control to one hundred and twenty instead of one hundred and ten. That was a quick trip.

 

Kerbside Pickup

 

The office chairs look miserable. Their gas has gone. They’ve let their owners down, and they’ve been carted out here and left on the kerbside in the rain.

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First thing in the morning come utes and trucks, driving slowly down every street, studying the piles of junk. They pick up all sorts of things: furniture, steel, building materials, fridges, swing sets.

During the day, the occasional car drives past, does a u-turn and comes back for a closer look. A woman gets out and glances around to see if anyone is watching, grabs a lamp stand, stows it in the boot and drives off.

It’s a popular neighbourhood sport, checking out the piles of stuff. If you see something you like, you’d better grab it. The good stuff goes fast.

No one takes the office chairs.

At night, people come with torches and go through the piles secretively, as though they’re doing something shameful. In fact, they’re taking part in a recycling activity that is both useful and entertaining.

Someone came by night to my kerbside pile and added their own rubbish to mine. What was that about? I don’t want their broken gym equipment and bags of old clothes mixing with my nice collection of discarded doors, broken fans and plant pots.

Not many huge, old-style television sets this year, for a change. Everyone must have finished upgrading to flat screen.

Barbecues, broken plastic toys, cardboard boxes.  Most hopeless are the worn-out mattresses and dodgy-looking couches. No one ever takes them up. Not even by stealth, in the dead of night.

 

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Along with the office chairs, they wait in the rain for the garbage truck.

Brisbane Gardens

 

My neighbour has a Bali garden: outdoor rooms, statues, tropical vegetation.

Across the road, there’s a bare front yard: grass, a couple of shrubs. The old bloke living there digs weeds out of his lawn with a dinner fork, and he hates trees.

Lots of people hate trees. Dirty, dangerous things, trees.

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Up the street, there’s a place that’s been landscaped in the popular Tuscan style: clipped shrubs, citrus in pots, a lavender hedge of sorts. Lavender doesn’t flourish in a sub-tropical climate.

A new, box-shaped house in the next street has geometrical-leafed plants to suit its style: pointed mother-in-law’s tongues and spiky yukka. Is there any imported plant more ubiquitous than the yukka? It’s not only because it suits the geometrical look; it’s also because yukka thrives without any attention in dry conditions and severe heat. It’s the only plant that survives in the blazing sunlight reflected off brickwork outside my eastward-facing front door.

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Myself, I have a mainly native garden, designed to attract birds and butterflies, with birdbaths and local plants: callistemon, wattle, banksia, native groundcovers. I live in a 1970s house, and this was the style of the time.

 

Gardens vary as fashions change. Gladioli were plants of the 1950s, when the post-war suburban delight in all things prosperous and showy brought about a flourishing on speciality plant and flower breeding.

I’ve never liked gladioli, with their lack of scent and lurid colouring. At a Barry Humphries show in the late 1960s, Edna Everage threw plastic gladioli into the audience and told us to hold them erect and make them quiver. They were for her a symbol of “refined” suburbia.

Before that period, during the Great Depression and the War and earlier, what I think of as “cuttings” gardens flourished in the spreading urban areas.  Up and down any street, the same varieties of geranium, coleus, bougainvillea, bromeliad and frangipani demonstrated that people were sharing their plants, not buying them in nurseries the way we do today. Garden design was an economical, amateur matter. Roma Street Parklands uses many of the plant types used in those old-fashioned Brisbane gardens.

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These days, busy modern home-owners like low-maintenance, landscape-designed gardens. Lawn is of a carefully-chosen, manageable variety, and nothing gets overgrown, which is a pity.

I walk the streets of Brisbane every week of the year, and what delights me most is to see a garden with a gnarled old frangipani tree dropping fragrant blooms over a battered picket fence, or purple bougainvillea scrambling high into a backyard tree. You can keep your tidy yukkas and clipped hedges. And especially, you can keep your mother-in-law’s tongues. I’m a mother-in-law, and I don’t like the implication.

Sugar Town

 

Narrow country roads, sugar cane fields, flecks of soot in the air. This was Nambour, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland: my childhood home.

Now the sugar cane has gone from around here, replaced by housing estates and turf farms.

Back then, farmers burned the cane before harvesting. The cane fires blazed in the still evening air, spreading across the paddocks, and flecks of black fell out of the sky night and day. In crushing season, the smell of sugar filled the town, and narrow-gauge, coal-burning cane tram engines rumbled across the main street on their way out to the fields and back, whistles blowing in warning. Lengths of cane lay across long lines of flat cars towed to the mill yard, with a plume of purple cane flower sticking up out of the last truck as a flag.

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We kids would pick up half-burned lengths of cane fallen from the trucks, and bend and crack them until the sugar juice ran out into our mouths and down our chins.

In Queensland, only the Railway Department call their rolling stock trains. The narrow-gauge sugar mill engines and trucks are referred to as trams. In North Queensland, brightly-painted, chunky diesel locomotives, known as locos, still drag long rows of cane bins to the mills, crossing the highway while tourists take photos.

Until the twenty-first century, sugar mills seemed to Queenslanders to be as permanent as mountains, indicators of employment and prosperity. Now, in Babinda, Far North Queensland, where until recent years a steam-belching mill stood alongside the Bruce Highway, there is nothing to see but long grass and concrete foundations; and at Mourilyan, south of Innisfail, only the old mill sheds still stand, roosting spaces for Indian mynah birds.

Moreton Central Sugar Mill in Nambour seemed enormous to us kids, with its chimneys, high corrugated iron roofs, towers and sheds, and the unloading deck for the cane trucks. We were taken on tours of its mysterious and noisy workings. I looked with horrid fascination into the pit where the trucks rolled over and tipped the cane into devouring steel crushers. The pleasant scent of sugar became a foul stink inside the mill.

There’s something special about sugar towns, though: green and tropical, with palms and fig trees, the impressive mill manager’s house, and tram lines running along the street to the great mill buildings. It’s a nostalgic pleasure for me when we drive north towards Tully in crushing season and see from a distance the clouds of steam billowing from the chimneys of its busy mill, white against the forest green of the mountains behind.

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I recently drove down to see South Queensland’s only remaining sugar mill, the Rocky Point mill near the small bayside town of Jacob’s Well, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I’d never been there before, but it was instantly familiar. Old trees and palms, a magnificent house, and the looming mill with its tram lines and chimneys.

Moreton Central stayed in operation until 2003, when the last of the locos pulled a train of empty bins into the mill yard. The Sunshine Coast street directory no longer shows the cane tramlines as it used to do: North Branch, Maroochy, Petrie Creek. The locos with their familiar, local names – Petrie, Dunethin, Coolum – have gone; and Nambour has lost something picturesque, as well as its long-time economic heart.

A few years ago, Con and I drove back from the far north in rain all the way down the Bruce Highway. Just before dark, rather than face the city peak hour in the wet, we turned off the motorway and checked into a motel in Nambour for the night.

When the rain eased off, I walked up Mill Street, and found that the sugar mill was gone. Demolished. There is a Coles Supermarket on the site now. Only the cane tram tracks and traffic lights remain, down Howard Street, as a reminder. Coles has bought the old mill administration buildings and restored them; and those once-terrifying steel crushers have been welded into an attractive industrial sculpture, standing in the middle of the garden roundabout in Mill Street. Nambour has moved on.

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