Up early to race out to Gracemere to enjoy Rocky’s finest. The Gracemere Saleyards are the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. There is an open Saleyards complex and an arena for the sale of blue blood stock to be paraded before potential buyers. An official in an Akubra hat explains that we can walk on all the raised catwalks except those marked for staff. Looking around we notice that all the men and most of the women here are wearing Akubra hats and the men certainly all have bowed legs. They must learn to ride before they can even walk around here. As we look down from the catwalk the auctions are conducted at great speed and with military precision. The cattle are brought in the night before and each pen is marked with owner, locality, number and gender of cattle. Sorry beasts. Eg. Smith, Collinsville…
As Con drives, I’m looking online for a place to spend the night. Bowen will be a convenient place to break our trip.
In 1963, on a road trip with my family, we put up Dad’s old army tent in a caravan park in Bowen. It was a depressing spot, squeezed up against a fence, down by the wharf.
Bowen the Beautiful – No Place More So! said the tourist brochure.
“Oh really?” we scoffed.
I’ve since taken a closer look at Bowen. Queens Beach is indeed beautiful, and Horseshoe Bay is one of the sweetest spots in the country.
I like the way the coconut palms here wear upside-down skirts to stop the coconuts from falling on people’s heads.
I like to walk around Mullers Lagoon and stand under the shady umbrella of the biggest fig tree I’ve ever seen.
Herbert Street, which sweeps grandly down the hill to the harbor, was named after Queensland’s first premier, and Bowen itself after Sir George Bowen, the first governor. This was North Queensland’s first port and first major settlement, retaining its stature until Townsville was developed, two hundred kilometres to the north. It still has a feeling of the important centre it was intended to be.
Bowen has had time in the spotlight. We last visited in 2007 while scenes of Baz Luhrmann’s epic movie Australiawere being filmed here, with Bowen’s harbour standing in for Darwin Harbour, and the Grand View Hotel, since lavishly renovated, made over as a bombed-out ruin.
Bowen also boomed with the mining boom, and perhaps is now suffering, as Mackay is, from the consequent bust.
I’m fussy about motels. Con and I have stayed at some dodgy ones over the years. An old-style air-conditioner in the corner roars all night, too far from the bed for us to feel the cool air it may or may not be producing. The bed is hard, the sheets are short, and the bedspread is a multi-patterned affair, designed to hide stains.
The room is never quite dark. There are tiny lights on smoke detectors, air-conditioner, clock, television and microwave. Security lights peek through the curtains where they don’t meet properly no matter how hard you yank them together; headlights flash across the ceiling as people arrive late or leave early.
The milk in the small, noisy fridge is the long-life variety, and the freezer section isn’t cold enough to actually freeze anything.
Everything reeks of that scented cleaning product found only in motels.
Things have improved a great deal in recent times, and very few motels have all of the above. These days, road workers, railway workers and tradies stay in country motels. It’s common to see loaded utes and work boots outside rooms, with a bloke in a high-visibility shirt having a beer next door. These hard-working people want a good night’s sleep. Now there is always hot water in motel showers. The television works, the air-conditioning is efficient, the beds reasonably comfortable.
The bedspreads haven’t changed, though.
Up to a third of travelling time is spent in accommodation, so it should be a pleasurable experience. Location, security, comfort and affordability are essential, but atmosphere, charm and hospitality also rank high with me.
I don’t mean a Bed and Breakfast place packed with crocheted doilies, potpourri and milk churns painted with roses. A friend told me about a B&B where the bed was decorated with boy and girl rag dolls, leaning against the ubiquitous stack of ornate pillows and cushions. When she and her partner came back from dinner, the covers had been turned down and the boy and girl dolls were cuddled up together in bed.
Not really my style.
Here in Bowen, on a previous trip, we stayed in one of the best motels I’ve ever come across, for hospitality, amenities and comfort: the Bluewater Harbour Motel. We won’t stay there tonight, because it’s off the highway and we’re in a hurry.
In the end, I decide on the Ocean View. I’ve noticed this place over the years, positioned above the highway south of town, next to the Big Mango, with an outlook over the sea and the islands. According to the online description, it also provides dinner.
We check in in the late afternoon, and eat our simple meal on the verandah, looking past a flowering frangipani at the lights of Bowen across the bay.
This is not exactly the Bowen Hilton, but it is comfortable, the situation is beautiful, and it turns out that the manager was best man at Con’s niece’s wedding. In North Queensland, that’s the way of things. Everyone is connected.
It’s all good. But next time we come, I want to have a shot at the Bowen Arrow.
January 2000. Blazing heat and a bright blue sky. Oak Street was still strung with Christmas lights, but nothing much was happening in Barcaldine. The tourist season had not yet begun.
You forget, on the Coast, what it is like to drive in the West: on-coming drivers lift a finger off the wheel in laconic greeting, emus and kangaroos lurk in the roadside scrub; trees in the paddocks are levelled off along the bottom where sheep and cattle have reached up to pull at the leaves.
Con and I had driven two days from Brisbane and arrived on what would have been my mother’s eightieth birthday. She was born here in Barcie. The town is important in my family history. I’d driven through in previous years, but now I wanted to spend a bit more time here.
That Sunday evening, we asked the motel manager where we could eat.
“The pub,” she said. “Or the servo.”
In the Central West, Barcaldine, population eleven hundred, is a classic country town, a flat grid of streets with a row of pubs looking out across the railway line: Globe, Commercial, Shakespeare, Artesian, Railway, and Union Hotels. The streets are named after trees. Barcaldine was the first town to provide town water from an artesian bore, and it still calls itself the Garden City of the West.
This is an important town on the tourist route, situated on the junction of the Capricorn and Landsborough Highways. Barcaldine is also important in the history of politics and industrial relations in Australia. Troops were based here during the great shearers’ strike of 1891, and this was where Australian soldiers first wore emu feathers on their slouch hats.
Meetings of the striking shearers famously took place outside the railway station, under an old eucalyptus tree, a ghost gum, that came to be known as the Tree of Knowledge. By 2000 the tree was showing its age.
Six years after our visit, causing distress locally and nationally, the Tree of Knowledge was poisoned.
If anyone knows who the poisoner was, they’re not telling.
Then, in 2009, the astonishing Tree of Knowledge Memorial was opened on the site where the old tree had stood, outside the station, across the road from the Artesian Hotel. Built with Commonwealth funds, the Memorial consists of a high cube of timber, startling in that flat country with its traditional roof-lines. Inside, above the dead trunk and branches, old railway sleepers hang suspended, outlining a ghostly image of flourishing foliage. At night the tree is lit up in green, a moving and spectacular sight.
Eucalypts propagated from the old Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine are flourishing next to the State Library of Queensland, in Brisbane. Don’t tell the poisoner from Barcie that they’re there.
Back in 2000, a publican gave me a local perspective on the political significance of Barcaldine’s hotels.
“The Shakespeare was the pub for the squatters, and the Globe was the workers’ pub. During the Shearers’ Strike there were heated meetings on both sides. They say the Australian Workers Party, later to become the Labor party, grew out of a meeting at the back of the Globe, and the Country Party began in the lounge of the Shakespeare.”
Six hotels are a lot for a small town to support. By 2011 the Globe was up for sale, possibly to be demolished. Huge old timber hotels with deep verandahs are the architectural treasures of Queensland country towns. So many of them have been lost through fire; I was sad to think that such a building, with so much history, could be pulled down.
I paid another visit to Barcie in 2015, with my cousin Nadine, searching for family history. To my delight, I discovered that the Globe has been preserved. It was bought by the local Council, and the designers of the Tree of Knowledge Memorial were commissioned to renovate it. It now stands in its original form, preserved and enclosed by elegant metal screening. What used to be the bar is now the Information Centre. Upstairs is an art gallery.
During our 2000 visit, Con and I saw in the bar of the original Globe some large Hugh Sawrey paintings, based on Banjo Paterson poems. Con, loving horse racing as he does, especially liked “Old Pardon, the son of Reprieve”.
In 2015, over dinner in the motel restaurant, Nadine and I talked to the waitress about our family history trip, and I mentioned the spectacular preservation job on the Globe.
“My husband and I used to own the Globe,” she says. “We sold it to the Council.”
“What happened to the Hugh Sawrey paintings? Did the Council buy them, too? Will they go into the new art gallery?”
“We’ve got them packed away. Still deciding what to do with them.”
The Glasshouse Mountains are beautiful and mysterious. They’ve been sitting there since long before James Cook came past in his little ship and named them, and for many thousands of years they’ve had their own Indigenous names and their own stories.
Moreton Bay Regional Council has three art galleries that specialise in exhibitions of the way artists represent local places. One of these, the Caboolture Art Gallery, has shown a range of artists’ depictions of the Glasshouse Mountains, including Indigenous artists, such as Melinda Serico.
Many artists try to capture the atmosphere of the Glasshouses, but Lawrence Daws is my favourite. He lived near the mountains for years, and his paintings show the quality of the light, the glimmer of creeks and farm dams, the familiar shapes of Tibrogargan, Beerwah, Coonowrin and the other peaks.
I can see the beauties of landscape for myself, as I did when from the slopes of Ngun Ngun I took this photo of Tibrogargan; but seeing them through the eyes of an artist gives me an extra layer of appreciation.
It’s difficult to paint rainforests effectively: the trees are so tall, the undergrowth so thick. Queensland artist William Robinson found ways to paint the forests of Beechmont, in the beautiful hills near Lamington National Park, which puts us above and below the forest, looking up at towering trees and down at the valleys below, all on the same canvas. He painted the birds and animals, magnificent skies, and the stars and moon reflected in mountain pools.
Mount Barney, on the New South Wales border, is iconic to bushwalkers.
Hulking and multi-peaked, with hidden valleys and forested slopes, it is a challenge to climb, and to paint. John Rigby painted a colourful image of Mount Barney in all its jagged beauty.
My artist mother, Pat Fox, spent time on Cape York in the 1970s, and she took a photo, now faded, of a well-known waterhole near Weipa.
Back home, she painted the scene, showing the reflection of saplings and trees in the still water. Comparing the two images shows how she heightened the impact through her choice of colour and composition.
It was a road trip through New South Wales, not Queensland, that taught me to appreciate how interesting it is to see landscape paintings and also visit the landscapes they represent. It was between Cowra and Bathurst, where the Mid-western Highway of New South Wales curves through rolling hills near Carcoar, and a river winds past the distinctive shapes of weeping willows and poplars.
Con was driving while I sat musing on the passing landscape, brown now at the end of a long summer. The land seemed familiar, but couldn’t be: I’d never been this way before.
Then I realised. Brett Whiteley painted this country. We’ve got a print of it on the wall at home.
The painting is called “Summer at Carcoar”. As well as characteristic lush curves of road and river, there are magpies and a wren, a burrowing mouse, and a fox with head and tail above the tall, gold-brown grass. It’s a beautiful picture, the pride of the Newcastle Art Gallery. I’ve since found out that Brett Whiteley often painted the country round Bathurst.
That day, for the first time, it occurred to me that there is delight in seeing the actual country painted by artists, and that it doesn’t need to be Monet’s Garden at Giverny, or Van Gogh’s Arles.
The steamer left Brisbane for Ipswich on a Monday morning in September. The “Ipswich” was a side-wheeler with a rudder at each end, and a shallow draft for navigating difficult areas such as Seventeen Mile Rocks and the shoals of the Bremer River.
Paddlewheels splashing rhythmically and smoke pouring from the tall funnel, the steamer made its way upstream, following the slow bends of the Brisbane River, past thickly-wooded, vine-draped banks that would one day become the suburbs of St Lucia, Chelmer and Fig Tree Pocket.
James Matthews probably stood on deck with a mug of coffee, watching the passing scenery and talking to his new boss, Benjamin Glennie.
It was 1861, and the newly-independent state of Queensland was actively seeking English migrants. James, my great-great-grandfather, was one of them. Aged twenty-three and ordained only yesterday, he had come to Queensland to work in Warwick as a curate.
For years Archdeacon Benjamin Glennie, now the rector of Warwick, had been the only Church of England clergyman on the Darling Downs. The eccentric Glennie loathed riding, so his travels around his huge parish were mostly done on foot, and this is how he and James would be travelling from Ipswich to Warwick. On foot.
Forty years later, in memory of Archdeacon Glennie, James described the trip in detail.
On Monday morning, we started on our journey to Warwick, travelling to Ipswich in the steamer of the same name. The voyage occupied five hours.
The next morning the real work of our journey began. The Archdeacon’s old black horse was brought round and packed with a couple of valises and a pair of large saddle bags, consisting largely of my belongings, and off we trudged, the Archdeacon leading his horse.
That day they walked south for twenty kilometres, down the present-day Ipswich-Boonah Road. The two men would have encountered bullock teams dragging wool from the sheep stations, travellers on horseback and on foot, and the occasional buggy. Many would have recognised Benjamin Glennie. Perhaps they offered them a ride.
They spent that night with squatter William Watkins at Peak Mountain Station, near present-day Peak Crossing, its homestead set on a rise with a spectacular view towards Flinders Peak.
The following day we walked as far as Balbi’s, an accommodation house at the foot of the Range.
All that Wednesday, covering over thirty kilometres over flat land and gentle hills, they would have seen ahead of them, through the trees, glimpses of blue mountain ranges.
In 1861 there were Aboriginal people living in this area – probably Ugarapul people. The two men must have met them on the road, but James left no mention of it.
Ironically, most of the roads walked by Benjamin Glennie and James Matthews would have been based on ancient trails of the Indigenous people who had been walking this country side for many thousands of years.
The two travellers spent that night in Balbi’s Inn, at the bottom of the range, beside the road to Spicer’s Gap. I’ve driven up that rough, gravel road myself, to sit at Governor’s Chair Lookout and enjoy its fine views east towards Brisbane and the coast.
On Thursday we crossed the Range, going through Cunningham’s Gap. There had been a heavy thunderstorm, the mountain streams were swollen, and we had to “double-bank” to get over. The Archdeacon got into the saddle and I jumped up behind.
Wheeled traffic went over Spicer’s Gap, but riders and foot-travellers often took the bridle trail through Cunningham’s Gap. It would have been a tough journey up hill, but Benjamin Glennie was fit – according to James’s account he would vault a fence rather than stoop to go under it – and James was young. Looming cliffs and tall trees, the sound of bellbirds and whipbirds, cool air smelling of the rainforest: today they are still exhilarating, even though the way up the range is now a harsh slash through the forest, made noisy by semitrailers.
From the top of the Range, they followed Gap Creek west to William Jubb’s Inn, a low building overlooking the stream. These days, a farmhouse occupies the old inn site beside the Cunningham Highway.
On crossing the last creek, I fell off into the water. Fortunately I had not far to walk to the inn, where Jubb rigged me out in a suit of his clothes while mine were being dried. He was a much bigger man than me. There was no one near with a camera, I am thankful to say.
On Friday we lunched with Arnold Wienholt at his station Maryvale, in the afternoon proceeding onward to Glengallan, where we were put up for the night by that prince of squatters, John Deuchar.
All the land between Ipswich and Warwick was held by just six or seven squatters, members of the colony’s aristocracy. The Deuchars of Glengallan Station were famous for lavish hospitality in the sprawling cedar house where the two travellers spent that night. A few years later a new homestead was built, the elegant, now restored mansion visible from the highway.
After breakfast on Saturday morning we wended our way to Warwick, where we arrived in time for midday dinner, taking care to walk through the principal streets of the town so as to announce that the parsons had arrived and there would be church tomorrow.
Perhaps one day that walk to Warwick by Benjamin Glennie and James Matthews will be recreated. They were walking for a spiritual purpose, so it would be a kind of Queensland “Camino”, like the pilgrims’ pathways through Europe and Spain that are now so hugely popular. Great walks exist in Queensland, too, along ancient Indigenous pathways. We should pay more attention to them. Although they don’t pass through quaint medieval towns, they are just as old. The bridle trail through the forests of Cunningham’s Gap was probably one of them.
James Matthews married a Warwick girl named Mary Margetts. According to a family story he met her on the Spicers Gap road, a year or so after his long walk, when Mary’s hat blew away, and James caught it.
People journey, and people love. Some things will never change.
Excerpts from “A Few Personal Reminiscences of the Late Archdeacon Glennie” printed in “The Church Chronicle”, June 1, 1900.
It’s a muggy night. Around three in the morning I get up to turn on the ceiling fan. At once there’s an appalling clanking, roaring and rattling. A flashing light blasts through the bedroom and a hooter sounds close by.
It’s not a fan disaster. It’s just a cane train. Dozens of empty bins are rattling down the line, pushed by two locos, out to the cane fields ready for the morning’s harvest.
Cane trains. Humidity. Crocodile warnings. Mountains that are taller, greener and closer than anywhere else. These are the obvious indicators that you’re in the wet tropics. I like some of the less obvious clues as well.
I look for the old cane cutters’ barracks on scenic back roads. There are several barracks along the beautiful route, once part of the Bruce Highway, that winds from the small town of Silkwood through the cane farms of Japoonvale and Mena Creek, past the tourist attraction of Paronella Park and on to Innisfail.
North Queensland cutters’ barracks are unmistakable. They were built to union specifications and would accommodate a gang of six or eight cutters plus a cook: single-storeyed, often concrete buildings with a row of sleeping rooms opening on to a basic verandah, and at the end of the building a kitchen/living room. Outside is a square concrete tank stand with a bathroom under it. These days, fifty years and more after the disappearance of manual cane cutting, most barracks are overgrown, deserted, or used for sheds; but they tell a story of North Queensland’s past.
Sugar cane is grown in Central and Southern Queensland, too, as well as Northern New South Wales; but North Queenslanders are scornful of the southern crops. “Call that sugar cane? It’s nothing but guinea grass!”
In the North, there are few iconic timber Queenslander-style houses, with fretwork and sprawling verandahs. Instead, houses are built of termite-proof materials such as concrete, brick, corrugated iron and fibro; and some of the older, elevated houses have a quaint local feature. When the Hills Hoist appeared, in the 1950s, many North Queensland householders installed a narrow concrete elevated walkway off the kitchen and laundry, with the rotary clothesline at the end.
No longer was it necessary to hang out clothes in the muddy yard. Now you could do the washing upstairs and push the trolley straight out to the clothes line. Unique domestic architecture of the North.
Gardens are also different in the North. In her yard in Innisfail, Con’s mother Min had citrus trees (full of green-ant nests), ferns, orchids, papaws, bananas, bromeliads, even azaleas; but around many North Queensland houses there is little but mown grass, palm trees and a hedge of red cordylines. Vegetation flourishes here, and gardening is a matter of machetes rather than hoses; so why so few lush, tropical-style gardens like Min’s?
For people who live among cane fields, it’s a practical decision. My son Joe, standing on his wide expanse of lawn, explained it, as we listened to the rustling sound of wind in the tall cane just beyond the fence.
“We keep the yard clear to discourage creatures living in the cane from coming near the house: rats, taipans, wild pigs. There’s lots of wildlife in cane paddocks. Leptospirosis – Weil’s disease – is not unknown up here. People can die of it. It’s spread through contact with urine from infected animals, especially rats and mice.
“I don’t have all this lawn because I like using the ride-on mower. That’s just a side benefit.”
There is a 1980s miniseries, Fields of Fire, set in Silkwood, with references to local places: Japoonvale, Mena Creek, Innisfail.
Fields of Fire is a saga of the sugar industry in North Queensland. Its story plays out among the cane cutting gangs of the late 1930s, Italian immigrants, industrial strife and the switch to mechanical harvesters. The town in the series has Silkwood signs on its railway station and shops, but as I watched it recently, I noticed a few things that don’t fit with my images of the Far North.
The cane cutters’ barracks are different.
There are timber farmhouses with fretwork around the verandahs.
There is something that doesn’t exist in NQ – a surf beach.
And something rare in the North – jacaranda trees.
It turns out that the show was filmed in Northern New South Wales, in the cane fields around Grafton. Hence the jacarandas. The town with its “Silkwood” signs was the historic river port town of Ulmara, and the surf beach was near Yamba.
I can imagine the disgust of the North Queenslanders as they watched it, back in the ‘80s. “If they wanted to make a show about Far North Queensland, why couldn’t they make it here? Bloody southerners, they can’t think past the Harbour Bridge.”
I guess for a Sydney production company, Grafton was the Far North. It all depends where you’re looking from. But it’s not the same. North Queensland is unique.
(For further information about cane cutters’ barracks, see the book “The Cane Barracks Story: the cane pioneers and their epic jungle sagas”, by Eugenie Navarre)
The bitumen is too narrow for two vehicles. One of them at least will need to go on to the sloping, gravel shoulder.
I’m with Joe, in the front passenger seat of his ageing Commodore, driving from Cairns to Karumba, a distance of over seven hundred and fifty kilometres. We’re driving through a plague of grasshoppers.
West of Mount Surprise, the Gulf Development Road narrows to a single strip of bitumen.
Joe has never driven on a road like this.
“When we meet on-coming traffic, what should I do?” he asks.
Joe’s driving has all been on motorways and city streets, and he is expert at changing lanes and reverse parking. Now he needs to learn another skill.
“When you see an oncoming vehicle, put two wheels off the bitumen,” I tell him. “Give them lots of room.”
Out of the mirage ahead of us a Toyota ute appears, heading our way, at speed. At one hundred kilometres an hour, Joe puts two wheels on to the shoulder and we fly along the gravel, past the Toyota, and back on to the bitumen.
“Maybe, next time, you should reduce speed before you do that,” I suggest to Joe.
“Good idea,” he says, drily.
Con and Joe and I going to visit our daughter Lizzie and her family. They’re living in Karumba, a small town on the mud banks of the Norman River, close to where it flows into the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria. Russ, a scientific assistant, spends his days sitting in a shed overlooking the river, with a microscope and tweezers, counting juvenile prawns by species: banana, king, tiger.
This is crocodile country, so no one swims in the river or in the Gulf. There are box jellyfish in these waters, as well as crocodiles. On Google Earth, the Norman River and its tributaries look like twisting tree branches or a beautiful abstract painting. Up close, it looks dangerous.
Karumba exists because of prawning and fishing. Prawns and barramundi come off the trawlers already frozen and go straight into freezer trucks destined for the southern markets.
In the winter months retirees come from the south for the fishing. That’s what Karumba is about. Prawns and fishing.
Con and I last came this way in the 1970s, on the way west to Burketown, driving our old Holden sedan. When we’d passed through Croydon, over five hundred kilometres into the trip, the sun was low and shone directly into our eyes.
The road had once been sealed, but the bitumen had worn away to sharp-edged tracks running through bull-dust. Half-blinded by the sun, Con bogged the car half off the road, and we had to wait with our young children for a tow.
Today this road is part of the Savannah Way, stretching three thousand, seven hundred kilometres from Cairns to Broome, in Western Australia, and although it’s narrow it is well maintained.
We’re following the line of the Gulflander, the rail motor that connects Croydon and Normanton with a once a week service. Built in the late 1880s to service the Croydon gold rush, now it’s a tourist attraction, a welcome sight to travellers on this lonely road as it goes rocking slowly on its way.
Mid-afternoon we meet the Burke Development Road and turn north towards Normanton. Karumba is seventy kilometres further north, and just on dusk we pull in at Lizzie’s place, a cabin behind the motel in the shade of a poinciana tree. The front of the car is plastered with dead grasshoppers.
We spend a week in Karumba, visiting the barramundi farm and going up-river with Russ to glimpse the low scrub on the barren river flats, crocodile slides showing clearly in the muddy banks. We collect hermit crabs at low tide with our grandsons, visit the tavern, admire the town brolga and swim in the motel pool before heading back to Cairns.
Lizzie and her family are enjoying their few months here, but she worries about cyclones. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says. “No hill, no safe building. A tidal surge would go right over the town and wipe it out.”
A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, Tropical Cyclone Charlotte crosses the coast at Karumba. Only one building is damaged. While Lizzie, Russ and the boys shelter in the bathroom, that poinciana tree falls and crushes their cabin. No one is hurt, so they put it down as just another Gulf Country adventure.
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