When Dad came Home from Changi

Down at the Brisbane River that Sunday morning, my mother Pat waited with her family, all eyes straining to see the ship due to dock at Hamilton Wharf at midday.

It was October 7, 1945, and they were waiting for the Largs Bay, which was bringing home the men of the 2/26 Battalion AIF, who since February 1942 had been prisoners of the Japanese in Changi, Singapore, and on the Thai-Burma Railway. Among them was my father Maurice.

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“Australian POWs embarking for home on the Largs Bay at Singapore docks”, by Ernest Buckmaster. Oil painting. Copyright Australian War Memorial Collection

My brother John, then three and a half years old, was going to meet his daddy for the first time. Pat had shown him photos of his father every since he was born. Now Daddy was coming home.

Pat’s young brother Bob saw the ship first, coming slowly up the river, accompanied by a tug and a few small boats. A string of flags ran down to the bow and smoke billowed from the funnel. The Largs Bay was red with rust and not a pretty sight, but its dirty hull was a thing of beauty to the people of Brisbane.

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HMT Largs Bay, Brisbane River, 7 Oct 1945

Pat’s sister, my Aunt Betty, told me that all over the ship, flapping in the breeze, there seemed to be bundles of rags. It was the men, crowded at every vantage point, on the gun turrets, on the lifeboats, waving their hats and shirts and cheering.

Most of the 2/26 were Queenslanders, and they had dreamed of this moment for years. In their worst times – dodging the planes strafing them through rubber plantations; dragging their diseased and starved bodies through mud and tropical rain; trying, with wet wood, to burn their friends’ cholera-infected corpses; squatting by muddy creeks scraping dysentery and pus from their mates’ rags with pieces of bamboo; dragging carts of gravel to build Changi Airport – they had talked about home. Roast dinners and Yatala pies. Beer. Clean sheets and fresh underwear. Loving families.

They had imagined this slow journey up the Brisbane River, past low, wooded banks where mangroves gradually gave way to houses, the jacarandas in bloom, and finally the wharf where their families waited.

The Courier-Mail reported that there were 10,000 people outside the gates of Hamilton Wharf that day. Orders had been given to keep the public out to allow for an orderly disembarkation, but when they heard the band playing and their men shouting as the ship came closer, the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and wives forced back the police manning the gates, and rushed on to the wharf.

The ex-POWs packed the ship’s rails, cheering the crowd on and calling down to their families. Some had their heads out of the portholes. The police struggled to control the sobbing, laughing, resolute mob.

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Maurice knew what to look for. Pat had written him a letter the previous day, hearing that the pilot was carrying mailbags to the ship at the mouth of the river.

“I will be wearing a red and blue frock and a white tam,” she’d written. “John will wear his red jumper and he’ll be waving a flag. There’ll be some excitement, I can tell you!”

For Pat, this moment was the culmination of weeks of anxiety and anticipation.

The Japanese surrender had been signed on September 2. Pat wrote to Maurice, for the first time in years knowing that he would actually get her letter. “It must have been hell, darling, and I can’t say what is in my heart about it all. I just want you at home again so I can look after you and help you forget it all. You deserve happiness from now for always.”

When Changi was liberated, the men were in a dire condition. They needed medical attention, careful feeding, and clothes. Charla Smith’s father was there. “My father, Morris Fink, was in the Ordinance division of the Australian Army, sent to repatriate the POWs from Changi. He said he had to fit the soldiers with uniforms, and nothing would fit them. He had tears rolling down his face.”

I’m pleased Charla’s dad Morris was there to help people like my dad Maurice.

At last, on September 21, Maurice was able to write a letter to Pat from “NO LONGER Changi Gaol.” He wrote, “My darling adored one, here I come!”

On the ship there was plenty of food and a bottle of beer per man every day, and care was taken to prepare them for their return home.

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Menu and booklet, HMT Largs Bay

However, when the wharf had finally been cleared and the men started down the gangplank, the onlookers were shocked. They were gaunt and haggard, and yellow from anti-malaria drugs. The young men who had left on the troop train in 1941 were hard to recognise now.

Many of them had not returned. Almost half had died in combat, in prison, or on the railway.

More than 450 ex-POWs were loaded into cars provided by the RACQ, and driven past cheering crowds outside the wharf and lined three-deep through Fortitude Valley on the way to the Story Bridge. They were taken to the Moorooka Leave and Transit Depot, and there the families went to meet them.

In the Depot’s crowded Recreation Hall, Maurice climbed on to a table to look for his family. Years later no one could remember the details of their meeting, but Maurice’s father took a photo.

Moorooka Daepot

There is Pat, dark-haired, a little tense in her brightly-patterned dress. Maurice is next to her, uniformed and smiling broadly. Behind Pat is her sister Betty with her arm around fourteen-year-old Bob. Maurice’s mother Nan is holding John’s shoulders.

Behind Nan are Pat’s parents. Next is Nancy, Maurice’s young sister, clutching his slouch hat, then Pat’s brother, Don, in his faded AIF uniform, and Maurice’s Air Force brother Alec.

The Depot on Beaudesert Road had been used for processing Australian personnel in transit between the war zones to the north and the southern states. The YMCA ran the canteen there, and men who had come from fighting in New Guinea remember the Moorooka Depot as the place where they had their first drink of fresh, cold milk in many months.

Emotional scenes took place in that crowded hall. Husbands and wives hugging, mothers crying and fathers blowing their noses. Servicemen, like Maurice, introduced to their own children.

Pat had arranged for her mother to look after John. She’d booked a night at the Bellevue Hotel, with its verandahs, iron lace and jacaranda trees. Long gone now.

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Bellevue Hotel, George St, Brisbane Photo: State Library of Queensland

Next day, they left for the Surfers Paradise Hotel, where they’d spent their honeymoon. They were resuming their married life in style. Maurice was twenty-seven, Pat twenty-five.

Bob and John still remember the day in 1945 that Maurice came home, but the rest of them in that tiny black-and-white photo are gone. Pat died in 1976, and Maurice lived on through Parkinson’s Disease, which took him back to his Changi weight before he died in 1996.

They were brave, tough, good and loving people, like so many who lived through the painful years of the war. I miss them.

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Burdekin Bridge

 

We drive north through Home Hill, past Inkerman Sugar Mill and up on to the steel framed Burdekin Bridge.

We’ve been across this impressive road and rail bridge, one of the longest multi-span bridges in the country, many times, by both train and car. We’ve looked upstream from the train, across sand flats where the local lads drive doughnuts in the sand and flocks of birds wheel in the air. We’ve driven across in the car, as we’re doing today, hoping not to meet a wide load coming in the opposite direction.

Now, for the first time, I notice that there is a walkway along the eastern, downstream side.

I am fond of infrastructure, Con less so; but he is tolerant of my whims, knowing that they often lead us to interesting places. At the northern end of the bridge, we turn right across the highway and follow a dirt track down to the base of the bridge. A steep set of stairs leads up to the walkway, which extends all the way over the river. Catching my breath after the climb, I stand and look down at the stream below, shining in the sun.

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Looking downstream from the Burdekin Bridge, towards the delta

The Burdekin River bed is a kilometre wide here, not far from the delta. The river drains the second largest catchment in Australia, and its floods are legendary. Today, as is normal in the dry season, the water is meandering across an expanse of sand and sparse vegetation. Below where I’m standing, it’s running through a channel just fifty metres wide. Wooden stumps mark the site of the old rail bridge downstream.

Trains used to cross the river on that low bridge. Old photos show them steaming through shallow floodwaters, the track invisible under them. The road crossing went directly over the sand and across a causeway even lower than the rail bridge. Every wet season, floods would cut both road and rail, leaving North Queensland isolated.

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Steam train crossing the flooded Burdekin River Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

In 1945, a wave coming downstream washed an entire freight train off the tracks. Two years later work began at last on the present Burdekin Bridge, one of North Queensland’s most ambitious pieces of infrastructure. Just forty-six metres shorter than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it took ten years to build, its caissons sinking thirty metres into the delta sands.

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Burdekin Bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Council website

By November 1956, when the Olympic Torch Relay came to the Burdekin on its way south, the new bridge still wasn’t completed. It was the beginning of the wet season, and the road crossing was flooded. The Torch and runner crossed the river by train, before dawn, the engine driver blowing his whistle the whole way.

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Old and new: the last Sunlander to cross the old bridge Photo: Burdekin Shire Library Service

Con was a boy in 1957 when the new Burdekin Bridge was opened. It was a huge event for North Queenslanders, and he remembers it.  “Until then, every wet season, North Queensland was cut off by road and rail. When the old bridge was twenty feet under floods, all kinds of food, clothing, newspapers, magazines and produce bound for the far North sat on the south bank of the Burdekin until the water went down.”

It was the magazines that hurt the most.

“I missed out on my boys’ magazines, Champion and Hotspur. They were supposed to come up on the train from Brisbane.

“One year, my mum didn’t get her Women’s Weekly until Easter!”

The Burdekin Bridge carries one set of train lines and two narrow lanes of road traffic. When a long wide load crosses, carrying transportable housing or a steel bucket for the mines, police have to stop the on-coming traffic.

“It’s crazy. They should build another one beside it,” say the locals. “Like they did with the Gateway Bridge in Brisbane. They won’t, though – all the money goes down south.”

That’s an old cry for North Queenslanders, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Even though this high bridge doesn’t flood, many sections of road and railway north and south of here still do, every wet season, in spite of all the improvements made over the years.

Living in North Queensland is never going to be as easy as living in Kenmore or Maroochydore. There, you never have to miss the Women’s Weekly.

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From the train on the Burdekin Bridge, looking upstream at birds, and doughnuts in the sandy riverbed

 

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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Willy Wagtails

The farmhouse has sugarcane fields on three sides and a cane train track opposite. As we turn off the old Bruce Highway, our son Joe opens the gate and the dog runs barking to greet us.

Later, we stand in the yard and talk, watching evening fall over the mountains as our grandsons have a final play on the swings. A cane train rumbles by. Flocks of starlings swoop down and settle on the grass, then fly off to the power lines. The air is full of birdcalls and the whooshing sound of the breeze in the cane fields, as constant as waves on a beach.

One birdcall is insistent – the chatter of willy wagtails. Above the front door is a tiny, round nest, with three pointed beaks sticking over its rim. The wagtails have babies. The parents are chattering to warn off potential threats.

Like everyone else in Queensland, I’ve known birds all my life – pelicans, crows, magpies, pee-wees and rainbow lorikeets – but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to take an interest. Bird-watching is one of those hobbies, like family history, that comes upon us as we have leisure to take notice of the smaller, less urgent things in life.

Years ago, I bought a Simpson and Day bird book, now stained and worn. Swamp hens and crested pigeons, honeyeaters and wattlebirds, apostle birds and blue-faced honeyeaters, spangled drongos and the common koel: now we know them all, by sight and by their calls.

One of my favourites, and one of the prettiest, quirkiest and most commonly-seen, is the crested pigeon, that stripy, colourful bird with pink feet and a jaunty crest of feathers on its head that walks around making soft whoops, and when disturbed takes off with a creaking, metallic sound in its wings.

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Willy wagtail and crested pigeon, raku ware by Linda Bates, Cadaghi Pottery, NQ

The Simpson and Day has become our travel log, reminding us that in Halls Gap we saw a spotted pardalote, and when walking out to Nobby’s Head, Newcastle, we came across a flock of ruddy turnstones, pecking among pebbles on the shoreline.fullsizeoutput_40df

We see interesting birds everywhere on our regular road trips. Everywhere, that is, except in those temperate climate towns that have filled their parks and gardens with exotic trees – liquidambers, oaks, poplars, willows, plane trees – and cleared out all the eucalypts. They’re beautiful in autumn, those foreign trees, but our native birds don’t like them. In those towns, sparrows and Indian mynahs are often the only birds to be seen.

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Plane trees in the park, Coonabarabran, NSW

Now, waking up on our first morning, I listen to the hissing whistle of old friends – tiny, beautiful, blue and yellow sunbirds.

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Olive-backed sunbird en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive-backed_sunbird

I also hear unfamiliar calls – bell-like whistles and cheeps. Con and I take a stroll down the cane train track and spot, perched on long fronds of grass, the birds making those mysterious sounds – beautiful little fellows with orange chests and black and white stripes. Chestnut-breasted mannikins.

We’re excited, but Joe snorts in disgust.

He regards bird watching as an old people’s habit, involving irritating language and sudden halts to stare at the sky or peer into the undergrowth, mutterings about crested shrike-tits, or white-browed babblers.

“Hear that che-che-che?” I ask Joe. “That’s a crimson finch!”

He grunts and returns to his on-line news stream.

I could tell him about a chiming wedgebill we heard in a car park at Shark Bay, Western Australia. It said, “Why did you get drunk?” just as the bird book told us it would. Joe wouldn’t want to know.

He can’t help liking the willy-wagtails, though, being a new parent himself. Mother and father bird are on duty all day long, bringing insects back to the nest to feed those three wide-open little beaks, and angrily hunting away anyone or anything that comes near the nest.

A couple of days later they move their three fuzzy babies out of the nest and into a shrub near the front fence. Next morning, in spite of all the protection and feeding, there are only two babies to be seen; and the next day, just one. The predators of the cane fields have been busy.

In the evening, we take a walk again, down the headland between the cane fields. A pigeon flies over, and Con turns his binoculars to the sky. “It’s a bronzewing!” he says with pleasure.

From deep in a scrub-filled gully, we hear the familiar, dying-away “Woop woop woop woop woop” of a pheasant coucal.

I’ll send Joe a bird book of his own. He won’t use it, but we grandparents will, whenever we visit. And we’ll show our little grandsons some of the interesting and beautiful creatures that surround us everywhere in Australia, whether we notice them or not.

Burketown

Rosevale is beautiful. The old one-teacher school (now closed) and the even older principal’s residence are set on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, with a view over dairy farms to Cunningham’s Gap. We lived in that house for the two years that Con was Principal of the school, but after that I wanted a change.

“Let’s apply for a transfer to somewhere up north. It would be exciting and adventurous. Not the Gulf of Carpentaria, though! I don’t want to go there. It’s probably hot, dry, flat and miserable in the Gulf Country.”

Burketown, a small, isolated town in the heart of the Gulf Country, was where they sent us. It was hot, dry and flat. But it was rarely miserable. Just different.

These days, there are conveniences in Burketown that were unimaginable when we were there: mains power, street lights, treated water, sewerage, a swimming pool complex, a coffee shop, even a green and shady caravan park.

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Burketown Caravan Park today. From its Facebook page

For us, shade would be a luxury.

We moved to Burketown in January 1973, with our two small children. The car and our pets went on the train with us from Brisbane to Mt Isa: the dog in the dog box in the Guards Van, cats in the luggage van in pet packs and our HR Holden on a flat-car.

From Townsville to Mt Isa there were no sleeping berths available, so we curled up on a couple of seats at one end of the Buffet Car, with people coming and going all night.

On the train we met a pink-cheeked Irish family, just arrived in Australia and travelling to work at Mount Isa Mines. Arriving next day, we all stepped out of the train into what seemed like an oven. I sometimes think of that Irish family and wonder how they coped.

A couple of days later, we flew to Burketown with Bush Pilots Airways in a twenty-seater Twin Otter. It was a mail run, stopping at Mornington Island and a couple of cattle stations, swooping over the station landing fields to chase horses away before setting down.

At Mornington Island more passengers boarded, a couple of them sitting cross-legged in the aisle. One woman was wearing a broad felt hat with a tape measure as a hatband. I was in southeast Queensland no longer.

At the tiny Burketown airport, the shire clerk met us, and he drove us into town. We left our suitcases in the principal’s house, a neat, new highset house of the style used all over the State for Queensland Government employees. Next door was the recently-built school.

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Burketown State School, with the Principal’s house in the background, 1974

Awaiting the arrival by road of our furniture, we checked in at the pub.

The Burketown pub, known as the Albert Hotel, was in those days a square concrete two-storey building. It had been built originally as Customs House for the then-thriving port on nearby Albert River. The sleeping areas were accessed via an outdoor staircase. We were warned that when the bar closed, the generator, which thumped away all day in the neighbouring shed, would be switched off, and there would be no lights until morning.

There is no quiet like that of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere when the generators stop.

Stars never seem brighter than on a clear night in a town with no streetlights.

There is no heat like that of a tropical night in the middle of summer without fans.

The publican also warned us that there would be no breakfast, as his wife, the cook, was away in Cairns. Next morning in the hotel kitchen I cooked bacon and eggs for us all.

In our three years in Burketown, we got to know the Albert Hotel well, along with its eccentric regulars, animal and human.

A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Whacko sat on top of the doorway into the bar, chewing the heads off matches.

Fishermen and locals spun endless yarns, not only to the new schoolteachers, but also to visiting politicians and media.

A film crew asked a group of locals playing euchre how long they’d been playing. “A couple of weeks,” came the laconic reply.

Once we found a large fresh-water crocodile tied to a post outside the door, like a dog waiting for its owner.

On our second evening in Burketown, when the bar was full and card games in progress, our furniture van arrived and pulled up in front of the pub. The card players offered to help with the unloading.

South-east Queensland had suffered a heatwave over Christmas of 1972 and into the New Year. Con and I had been busy during those hot weeks before leaving the south. Driving round Brisbane with little kids in the back seat, trying to buy a kerosene fridge and a thirty-two volt washing machine, had taken precedence over sorting our belongings. In the end, we’d instructed the removalists to pack everything; and so the blokes from the Burketown pub, in their footie shorts, singlets and thongs, carried electric heaters and winter coats into a house without electricity in the middle of a Gulf Country summer.

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Burketown general store, 1975. So hot inside, condensed milk would caramelise in the can

In our time, there was a hospital, general store, shire offices, fuel depot, school and hotel and not much more in Burketown, and barely a tree or blade of grass; but it was a friendly and welcoming place. The locals told us what sounded like tall stories, but I learned to believe the lot. Crazy things happened here all the time.

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Con and our children in Burketown

We never regretted the move to the Gulf, in spite of insect plagues, the trials of operating the thirty-two-volt generator, kerosene fridge and petrol iron, the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the rough dirt roads, the isolation. Sometimes it was lonely, though. I would stand on the verandah, looking north to where the Gulf lay, out of sight beyond endless desolate salt flats and mangroves, and feel sorry for Burke and Wills, who got this far and then turned back, to die of starvation.

It can feel like the end of the world, up in the Gulf Country.

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Looking north from the Principal’s house, 1974

Black Soil

Flat land, straight road. I’m driving from Roma to Dalby on the Warrego Highway, following the railway line through tiny towns with enormous grain silos. The road has an uneven surface. It’s difficult to keep a road surface level in this landscape of soft, deep black soils, especially as road trains come this way. In drought times, as it is now, trucks haul hay to the dry farms to the west, and they haul cattle east to sale yards or agistment.

There are no passing lanes. I choose a good spot, take a deep breath and bowl past a truck hauling two trailers of cattle. East of Roma, that’s the limit: two trailers, up to 36.5 metres total.

West of Roma, road trains can have three or even four trailers and be up to 53.5 metres long. Passing them on a dual carriage road takes nerve for a city driver like me, although local utes and SUVs fly past them.

Road train drivers may be direct descendants of the drivers of horse and bullock teams that did the haulage a hundred years ago, on the gravel roads and dirt tracks of the time. George Lambert’s 1899 three-metre-long painting, the heroic Across the Black Soil Plains, is one of the treasures of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The painting depicts a horse team straining to haul a load of wool bales across New South Wales plains country much like the country I’m driving through today. This ground is muddy, though. The horses and the teamster’s legs are muddy, and the load is leaning dangerously. The scene defines hard, frustrating labour.

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Across the Black Soil Plains, George Lambert. 1899. Art Gallery of New South Wales

After rain, this fine, black soil becomes notoriously sticky.

Con and I found out just how treacherous it can get when we visited a homestead in black soil country near Barcaldine. We drove there in our Falcon: a great car for long journeys on bitumen, but not so good in mud.

While we were having a cup of tea there was a shower of rain. We said our goodbyes and started to drive back to the gate, five hundred metres away. The Falcon went its own way on the slimy black soil and slid off the edge into the muddy paddock. A station hand in a Toyota ute tried to tow us out, but the car was too heavy. They hitched another Toyota to the first one, and both of them strained, exhaust fumes gushing.

Slowly, the car slithered its way down the muddy track behind the straining utes. They towed us across the road, facing back towards town. The Falcon had black mud up to the windows. The driveway into the station looked like a ploughed field – they would need a grader to fix it. There was nothing Con and I could say or do except apologise and head back, shamefaced, to town.

It took us hours to get the mud off the car – out of the wheel nuts and tyres, off the panels, the number plate, grill and headlights, the floor, even the seatbelts. Months later we were still finding pockets of black soil under the seats.

Here on the Warrego Highway, shiny-leafed brigalow scrub lines the road on both sides. Every so often a patch of prickly pear cactus provides a reminder of the heart-breaking scourge of these farm lands in the late 1800s and early last century. Prickly pear from the Americas was introduced in the 1800s, and soon it was choking the land. There were forests of prickly pear, and by 1920, 23 million hectares of land was affected.

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Prickly pear, Dulacca, 1910. State Library of Queensland: Picture Queensland

Con is looking at the map to pass the time while I drive.

“Wallumbilla, Yuleba, Dulacca, Miles: all these tiny towns. And Baking Board: that’s appropriate. Not a hill in sight. The only landmarks are the grain silos. But according to the map, believe it or not, the Great Dividing Range is just north of here.”

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This country is not flat, although it looks that way from the road. It is gently rolling downs country, rich agricultural land producing cattle, fodder crops and wheat.

East of Chinchilla, at the tiny township of Boonarga, we pass the Cactoblastis Memorial Hall. In 1925, as the result of government-sponsored research, three thousand cactoblastis moth eggs were imported from South America and distributed around the Chinchilla area. The larvae killed the prickly pear. Those larvae were local heroes. This is the only hall I know that was dedicated to a bug.

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Cactoblastis Memorial Hall, Boonarga

On the outskirts of Dalby, a road turns left to Jandowae. I lived in Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs, when I was a teenager. It was small and friendly, cold in winter and blazing hot in summer: a complete change from where my family had lived until then, in Nambour and Brisbane. We all loved it.

“I got my driver’s licence in Jandowae,” I tell Con. “It was easy – there was hardly any traffic, and lots of space, and the policeman who tested me was a family friend. There’s no hill for thirty kilometres, so I didn’t have to demonstrate a hill start. That was lucky, because I wasn’t good at hill starts. Nowhere to practise.”

Soft, deep, fertile black and brown soils make up a large part of Queensland’s geology. If you’re driving along a country highway and notice that the power poles and fence posts are slightly crooked, leaning at strange angles, you’re driving through black soil country.

It’s fine country for grazing and for cultivation. A great deal of Australia’s food comes from black soil country; and under the plains lie the priceless, ancient water reserves of the Great Artesian Basin.

Unfortunately, there are also huge reserves of coal and gas underneath this country. The Galilee Basin is said to be one of the largest untapped coal reserves on the planet, and nine huge mines are planned for the region.

I hope they know what they’re doing. It seems a terrible shame to risk ruining fine land and priceless water with gas wells and open-cut coal mining. You can’t grow food in a mine pit.

Horror Stretch

Murder.

Travellers shot in their cars or sleeping bags.

Frightening reports in the papers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Central Queensland place names Funnel Creek, Lotus Creek and Connors River held a weight of menace. Across that decade, several travellers were murdered by strangers when pulled up alongside the Bruce Highway between Marlborough and Sarina. The Marlborough Stretch became known as the Horror Stretch.

In his 2002 book “Seven Versions of an Australian Badland”, historian Ross Gibson writes in detail about those random murders and the other violent acts that occurred in this region over the previous century.

He writes, “This stretch of country is an immense, historical crime scene.”

Gibson also describes its cyclones and floods; and it was because of floods that Con and I once found ourselves stranded here with our children.

In the early January of 1974, on our way north to Cairns, we drove the Horror Stretch, as we had done before; but this year was different. This year was very wet indeed. Later that month, Australia Day weekend, record floods would inundate Brisbane.

From our home in Burketown, we had driven down to Brisbane for Christmas – 2200 kilometres of bitumen and gravel, with two young children and no car air-conditioning. But we were young, and we were used to it.

In those days, the Burketown water supply was untreated. We had a rainwater tank for drinking, but our bath water came from a lagoon where the local kids swam. It is not surprising that when, over Christmas, I began to feel ill, a doctor diagnosed hepatitis A.

There was nowhere for us in Brisbane, with me suffering from an infectious disease.

“I could have you taken into custody,” said the doctor. “If you don’t undertake to keep yourself away from people, that’s what I’ll do!”

We had a holiday apartment waiting for us in Cairns, and so we set out on the three-day journey north, in spite of warnings of flood rains along the way.

We crossed Lotus Creek on our second day on the road, 120 kilometres north of Marlborough and driving through rain, dipping down on to the narrow, single-lane bridge, with swirling, brown waters close beneath its decking, then up past the roadhouse on the north bank.

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Lotus Creek Service Station after Cyclone Debbie, March 2017. Rockhampton Morning Bulletin

Twenty kilometres further on we crossed the Connors River, with even higher water; but when we reached Funnel Creek, we were stopped. Water was racing over the bridge and halfway up the flood marker.

“We’re going back,” called out one of the other travellers pulled up at the flooded bridge. “Connors River is coming up. If it goes over the bridge there, we’ll be stranded.”

Worried, we turned back too, crossed Connors River safely and spent that night in the car, parked beside the road, just south of the river. The rain poured down, so we had to close the windows, except for a crack. It was hot, and there were mosquitoes.

We locked the car doors and tried not to think of how many people had been murdered along this road. Fourteen months later, skydiving couple Noel and Sophie Weckert would be shot by strangers here at Connors River.

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Back row, 4th from left – skydiver Noel Weckert. South Australian Skydivers

Next morning, we drove further south, hoping to get back to Marlborough; but now the water was over the bridge at Lotus Creek. We were marooned.

There were a dozen carloads of people caught there, congregated at the Lotus Creek Roadhouse. The manager let us have an old caravan out the back for that night. It was broken-down and dusty, with grimy mattresses and no bedding, but it was more comfortable than the car. And it felt safer.

There wasn’t much food at the roadhouse, but we had our own supplies – including the only bread available for breakfast next morning. We shared it with other travellers, but the manager charged us for toasting it.

After breakfast, we drove north again and joined the queue waiting at the Connors River for the water to go down. It was a long, hot wait. People shared stories about floods, snakes and breakdowns. Some dozed in their cars. Our small children squatted in the gutter beside the car, playing with a toy truck.

The water was still over the bridge when cars began to cross. We took our turn, with a towel draped across the grill to minimize the wet coming in over the engine. As we drove up the slope on the other side, I bailed water out the window with an icecream container.

We did stupid things as young parents.

Having made it through to Cairns, a couple of weeks later we flew back to Burketown. The day Brisbane flooded, we were flying over the Gulf Country, across a sea of floodwater, the winding Carpentaria rivers marked only by the tops of trees along their banks. Our final leg home from the airstrip was in a tinnie.

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Gulf Country under floods

The highway doesn’t follow the Horror Stretch now – it takes a shorter, more easterly route past Saint Lawrence, and it’s a wide, well-made road and a pleasant, high-speed drive, with pasture and bush land, spectacular ranges in the background and station homesteads out of sight up dirt tracks and behind gates and grids. In a good season, tall grass stands golden along the road edges, bright against the blue mountain ranges.

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Many still remember the murders of the Horror Stretch, though; and there have been even more frightening outback murders in the fifty-odd years since. There’s horror in the idea of a madman emerging from the dark lonely bush to murder a stranger.

That said, more travellers have died when driving voluntarily through floodwaters. Crossing flooded Connors River with young children in the car is the memory that gives me nightmares.

Australian Stories

 

Most of us Australians left sacred sites on the other side of the world – the River Jordan, the Ganges, the Thames. Our ancestors who came from overseas brought the stories with them, but many of us still hold a yearning for the places. Ancient stories, the myths that bind us to the earth, are always attached to places.

Indigenous Australians who know their sacred places and the stories that go with them have a feeling of deep belonging that might elude the rest of us, no matter how much dust in our hair or dirt under our fingernails, or how many generations of our ancestors have lived here.

The mythology of Australia that we, as a nation, have taken most to our hearts is based on stories of foreign places: Gallipoli, and the battlefields of France and Belgium. In Canberra last week, I went to see the sixty-two thousand knitted red poppies that are flowing across the lawns surrounding the Australian War Memorial. It’s a beautiful sight, just like the poppy-strewn fields of France. The poppies stand for the Australians who died.

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At the Australian War Memorial

This striking display is there to commemorate 11 November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day.

No one who fought in the First World War is alive now, and few who fought in the Second World War. My father was a prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma Railway, and after he came home, he always attended the ANZAC Day Service at the Nambour Cenotaph. For him it was personal. He remembered the faces of the men who’d died and suffered around him.

The War Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore overlooks the countryside Dad and his battered company fought across, in 1942, in the last days before the surrender. That story is not often told.

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The memorial in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore

Now, for Australians, the iconic story of Australians in World War Two is the story of Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track.

In Australian culture, these foreign places – Gallipoli, the battlefields of France and Belgium, the Kokoda Track – symbolize all our deaths in war. The people who served in these places have become a source of inspiration – the embodiment of courage, toughness, sacrifice, and a dry and cheeky humour that we regard as our own.

These foreign places have become our own iconic places. Huge numbers of Australians make pilgrimages overseas to visit them; and at home, every town has its local equivalent: a war memorial. Here the ceremonies take place year after year, with symbols and rituals, music and costume, and the re-telling of uplifting stories.

For veterans and their families, war memorials and ANZAC Day commemorations are personal, not matters of mythology; and on most war memorials there are lists of names. In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there are more than one hundred thousand names on the bronze panels of the Roll of Honour, all of them people who have died as the result of war service.

The Western Queensland town of Roma has trees for memorials. Wide-trunked, beautiful bottle trees line the streets. By 1920, ninety-three had been planted to commemorate ninety-three local men who died in the First World War. Each tree had a plaque with the name of a soldier, date of his death, and the words “Lest we forget”. Most of the trees still stand, giving Roma’s streetscapes a unique dignity and charm.

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Memorial bottle tree in Roma

The War Memorial in Barcaldine is restrained and elegant – a granite and marble clock tower, standing in the middle of an intersection. It has four clock faces, each surrounded by a marble wreath, and the names of the two hundred and ninety-two locals who went away to fight in World War One. My grandfather’s name is among them. He was one of the lucky ones; thirty-eight died overseas.

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War Memorial in Barcaldine

 

My father’s name is one of the many on the National Freedom Wall in Mount Coot-tha Botanical Gardens, and on the Ex-prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat.

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Looking out from the National Freedom Wall, Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens

I remember Dad’s few stories of the war, mainly funny ones. I also remember when, in his seventies and suffering from Parkinsons Disease, barely able to articulate anymore, he suddenly spoke clearly. He said, “It’s hard to burn bodies with wet wood.”

His mind had gone back to the days on the Railway, when cholera struck the camps and men who helped burn infected bodies in the morning could themselves be dead and burned by evening.

Stories. I remember them when I see his name on these memorial walls.

We can’t spread our thoughts over all of the suffering of Australians in time of war. Instead, we focus on the battles of World War One. When we take part in the events of ANZAC Day and Armistice Day, when we stand before eternal flames and war memorials, they symbolize the pain of all the wars. The stories and the familiar rituals bring us together, not to go shopping, or to eat or drink or surf, but to think about something bigger than the individual, something that encourages higher aspirations.

We should never let this degenerate into flag-waving, patriotic theatre, the glorification of war, or divisive, bitter discourse. We shouldn’t let politics or the marketplace intrude. They intrude almost everywhere else.

We should also acknowledge the wars on our own soil – the Frontier Wars that happened here in Australia from 1788 onwards, as Indigenous people fought for their land and lifestyle, and suffered the heart-breaking loss and destruction of their own ancient, sacred places.

My favourite memorial stands among trees, looking out over the sea, in a sandy park in Cardwell, Far North Queensland. It’s the memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea, which happened right off this coast. This was a crucial sea and air battle of 1942, fought with bombs and long-range guns. People living in the North listened in awe to the rumble of artillery far out at sea.

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The Memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea, Cardwell FNQ

This battle was fought in defence of our own place, our own stories. And not a poppy in sight.

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