“It’s the Freedom!”

Two powerful rigs at the Marlborough Roadhouse, Central Queensland

All the cupboard doors flew open on the way north. When we stopped for lunch, cans of baked beans were rolling around on the floor among plastic plates and cups and packets of biscuits. On the way home, the door fell off on to the road.

This was my first and only experience of caravanning. I was seven. It was a rented plywood van pulled by the family Vanguard, from Nambour to Yeppoon. The grey Vanguard: what an ugly car that was.

Caravan holiday with Vanguard

We never went caravanning again. From then on, it was Dad’s old army tent, from Melbourne to Cairns, out west to Barcaldine and beyond. I remember nothing but pleasure on those economical tent holidays. I was hitched on road trips, but not on caravans; unlike so many other grey-haired people today.

One winter, Con and I took a trip to western Queensland and spent a night at Nardoo Station campground, north of Cunnamulla. At Happy Hour, twenty or so grey nomads sat chatting, drinks in hand, resting their feet on the warm stones of the fire pit. All of them were on long trips with caravans or motor homes.

After Happy Hour – the fire pit at Nardoo Station

I spoke to people from all over the eastern states that evening, from the Adelaide Hills to the suburbs of Sydney.  When I asked them why they made these extended journeys each winter, they all said the same thing. “It’s the freedom.”

Freedom from family obligations, from work, from lawn mowing. It’s a fine thing to leave it all behind, liberated from routine and drudgery, and stimulated by new sights and sounds, friends and stories; perhaps feeling really alive for the first time in years.

Then Happy Hour was over, and everyone disappeared back into their campers and vans to watch television.

In the United States, retirees who migrate south for the winter are called snowbirds. Seniors from cold states leave home before the first snow of winter and travel to Florida or Arizona, to Palm Springs or Sun City. Thousands drive their recreational vehicles to the same RV resort each year. The parks advertise themselves as “Snowbird Friendly” and they attract so many large campers and caravans the shining roofs turn the countryside white.

Snowbirds at Quartzsite, Arizona Photo from San Diego Reader

In Australia, the move is from south to north, from May to October. Thousands of units of all shapes, sizes and capabilities head up the main roads, many of them travelling on or over the speed limit, others cruising along with semi-trailers and work vehicles packing up behind them, waiting for a passing lane.

Caravans are fancier these days – friends of mine bought one recently and had to take it back straight away because the wine cooler wasn’t working – but not everyone wants a huge, luxury caravan. There are different cultures amongst grey nomads, and different values. Younger retirees call themselves adventure travellers, and tow sturdy off-road camper trailers. They tackle the Birdsville Track and Tanami Desert, and scorn cheesey camper slogans: “Adventure before Dementia”, or “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.

I met one such couple who had camped at the basic, unpowered campgrounds of Karijini National Park in Western Australia’s Pilbara, a most beautiful place.

Back on the coast at Karratha, they’d told other travellers about Karijini.

“It’s wonderful!” they said to a woman in a neighbouring van. “Are you going there?”

“No,” she said. “We don’t have the battery capacity.”

“Can’t you run the lights off the car battery?”

“Yes, but not the TV. I can’t miss ‘Home and Away’.”

Each year, travelling retirees bring millions of dollars to country town economies; but they are careful with their money. The most they spend in any one town may be a few dollars for groceries, a meal at the RSL Club, and fuel. Like backpackers, they watch every dollar.

There’s a story, true or not, of a couple of men going into the bar of a country hotel. They order schooners of beer. To their astonishment, the publican charges them only ten cents a glass. They drink their beers and order another round, and the same thing happens.

The publican explains. “I won Gold Lotto, and I decided I’d buy this pub and charge everyone just ten cents a beer.”

“What a great idea!” says one of the visitors. “But tell me, those blokes sitting at the end of the bar, they haven’t ordered a drink the whole time we’ve been here. Why is that?”

“They’re grey nomads,” said the publican. “They’re waiting for the half-price drinks at Happy Hour.”


The Immigrant Rose


“I spent my wedding night there,” I tell my cousin Nadine as we drive past the Horse and Jockey Motor Inn.

“Really? Is there a plaque?”

We’re in Warwick, where our great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Margetts, was for thirty-two years the medical officer at Warwick Hospital, as well as running his own practice.

We’ve learned quite a lot about Doctor Margetts. He was often involved in dramatic events that were reported in detail in the Warwick papers.

One day in 1878 he was called to attend a horrible accident: a five-year-old girl playing near a vat of hot tar had been scalded. He went at once, but there was nothing to be done – the little girl died before he got there.

The doctor attended many tragic accidents: men killed in falls from horses; people crushed by overturned drays; women burned in kitchen accidents, their long dresses caught in flames; snake bites, drownings, accidents to workers building the railway. There were inquests to be conducted into sudden deaths and suicides, and a time when he had the care, in the lock-up, of a man who had cut his own throat. Warwick was a wild town.

Everyone would have known the doctor, grey bearded and bushy moustached, driving out in his buggy to make a house call, visiting the hospital or walking down Albion Street to Church on Sundays with his wife and grown children. Not everyone liked him, though. His disputes in the Parish Council and feuds with local businessmen were also reported in the paper.

Dr Frederick Margetts driving a buggy, probably outside his fence. State Library of Queensland

“He was pig-headed,” says Nadine.

“Very argumentative. Let’s find somewhere for lunch.”

Frederick and Ann Margetts hadn’t planned to emigrate. They’d lived for over twenty years in the small town of Ilchester, Somerset, in a house on the market place where Frederick ran his practice and their six children were born. Then, in 1862, middle-aged and, seemingly, settled for life, they moved to Queensland.

In the market square of Ilchester, Somerset, with the Margetts house and surgery in the background – brown, with two doors

People left nineteenth-century England for lots of reasons – poverty, over-crowding, political unrest, a quest for security for their children – just as migrants and refugees do today. It takes courage and enterprise to move across the world for the chance of a better life.

Frederick and Ann moved for their children. Their eldest son George was consumptive, and the medical advice of the time said his best chance for survival was to live in a warm, dry environment.  The new state of Queensland was advertising in English newspapers for migrants, offering employment, land and a good climate; and Warwick was described as “the Garden of Queensland”. Moving to Warwick seemed a good idea for the whole family.

They embarked on the migrant ship City of Brisbane. Keen gardeners, amongst their luggage they took a rose bush. A white scrambling rose, it survived one hundred and forty days at sea to flourish in the new family garden in Warwick.

The move didn’t help George. He died the following year and was the first to lie in the Margetts plot in Warwick cemetery.

The family endured their share of troubles. In 1870, twenty-five-year-old Edmund was badly injured when his spirited young horse stumbled and rolled on him. Even then, there were reckless young men speeding in the streets of Warwick.

Margetts home Warwick
The Margetts family house in Warwick  Photo courtesy of Helen Lees

“It’s a pretty town,” says Nadine. “Fine old sandstone buildings, and lots of flowers and trees in the main street. And they call it the City of Roses! We can claim some credit for that.”

The Margetts were among the first Warwick residents to plant shade trees along the streets, and in 1876 Frederick was one of the organisers of the first Warwick Flower Show.

He and Ann spent the rest of their lives in Warwick, and today many of their descendants live on the Darling Downs. It was one of them who told me, several years ago, that there is still a family rose bush to be seen, on what had been Edmund Margetts’s farm. I went searching for it.

On a gentle slope where kangaroos bounded away through the long brown grass and curious cattle wandered across the paddock to watch, I found a broken-down picket fence. A few stumps and an old tap show where the farmhouse once stood.

Nearby was a strong and healthy rose bush, two metres high, growing without fertilizer or irrigation, struck from a piece of the rose that travelled across the world in a migrant ship, so many years ago.

I took some cuttings, and now the family rose is growing in my Brisbane garden. Its flowers are sweetly scented and plentiful, but its thorns are vicious. This is not a modern, well-behaved, grafted rose. It’s a survivor.

You have to be, to leave your homeland and put down roots in a strange country on the other side of the world.


Reading Queensland

I like reading books about places. It adds extra layers of enjoyment to my travels, in Queensland and beyond. They can be learned and literary books, or lighter romances and mysteries; but sharing in the experiences of others, especially when they’re good observers, helps me to get under the surface of a place.

These are just a few of my favourite books about Queensland.

Please add other titles in the comments section. I’m always looking for more.



  • “The Commandant”, Jessica Anderson. Fine, literary, perceptive novel of convict imagesBrisbane under Captain Logan. Brutality and death in the penal colony as observed by the Logan womenfolk. 



  • Affection”, Ian Townsend. 2010. Historical novel set in Townsville in 1900 when the affectioncity was under threat of the plague. Doctors enforce unpopular measures to prevent it. (Dilemma of scientists: if they succeed in preventing a threatened disaster, people will say it wasn’t a danger in the first place.)



  • “Carpentaria”, Alexis Wright. A magnificent literary saga of the Gulf of Carpentaria, written by an Indigenous Australian with a unique and fullsizeoutput_3e0caccomplished voice and an authentic image of the land, its people and its mythology. In the tradition of Xavier Herbert.



  • “The Birdwatcher”, William McInnes. A sweet, wise, grown-up love story set in Far 9780733632976North Queensland. Some ‘60s nostalgia, poetry, and lots of birds.




  • “My Island Homicide”, Catherine Titasey. Set on Thursday Island, this is a likeableimages romance/detective novel. Authentic language and background in a fascinating part of Queensland.



  • “Ryders Ridge”, Charlotte Nash. An enjoyable rural romance set inryders north-west Queensland. Red dirt, big hats, doctors.




  • “The Grazier’s Wife”, Barbara Hannay. 2017. A multi-generation rural romance setthe-grazier-s-wife on the Atherton Tableland. Cattle, rainforest, Singapore, antiques, a secret will.



  • “Boy Swallows Universe”, Trent Dalton. 2018. Enjoyable, scary, boy swallowsuplifting, suspenseful story of growing up in a crime-affected family in Brisbane. Darra and Bracken Ridge, Boggo Road Gaol and City Hall. Violence and love.



  • “Border Watch”, Helene Young. 2011. A FNQ romantic thriller Northern-Heat1written by an ex- airline captain and Border Patrol pilot. One of several novels by this author set in Queensland including “Safe Harbour”, 2014, and “Northern Heat”, 2015, which is set in Cooktown.




  • “Lonely Planet – Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef”, and “Lonely Planet – Australia”. The first covers the tourist areas and the coast; the second covers the inland areas of the state. Lots of interesting local information.


  • “A History of Queensland”, Raymond Evans. 2007. Interesting scholarly in-depth account by a well-known historian ofimages Qld life and development from earliest human habitation to the 2000s. 



  • “Love in the Age of Drought”, Fiona Higgins. 2009. The memoir of a loveSydney woman who marries a farmer from Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs. Love, drought, life in a small town, the black soil plains west of the Bunya Mountains. I lived here as a teenager.



  • “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. Affectionate, memoir-style look at Brisbane, its history, condon brisbanearts, way of life and unique qualities as a lively sub-tropical city, by a journalist who knows the city well: its good and its bad. (Part of the “Secret Life of Your City” series about State Capitals.)



  • “Birdsville”, Evan McHugh. 2009. Dust storms, bogs, sand dunes, race meetings, rescues,images locusts, building a golf course in the desert: a Sydney freelance writer and his graphic designer wife spend twelve months in Birdsville.



  • “Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s frontier killing times”, Timothy Bottoms. 2013. imagesHarrowing account of the acts of violence that accompanied pastoralists’/investors’ seizure of Queensland pastoral land from Aboriginal inhabitants.



  • Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. tom petrieRe-published 2014. This important 1904 book details life in Brisbane and South-east Qld from 1837, when little Tom Petrie arrived at the convict settlement of Moreton Bay with his family. Local Aboriginal people, their foods, customs and language, as well as convict life and early white exploration.


  • “Cairns: City of the South Pacific. A history 1770-1995”, Timothy Bottoms. cairns-city-of-the-south-pacific-history-productInteresting, ambitious, detailed work.

Building homes for Brisbane birds

This is a great project for Brisbane wildlife, and applicable across the state.

Pollinator Link

By: Michael Fox

Building team - 12 Sept 2018 Home Building team: (l-r) Frank, Mabanza, myself, Andy, Salinda, Greg, Jackson, Dulcie, Ryan and Jack

Meet the proud team building new homes for Brisbane birds.

Yesterday, I joined Frank, Mabanza, Andy, Salinda, Greg, Jackson, Dulcie, Ryan, Jack and Chris Lockhart SQW Project Supervisor at the Hendra Pony Club site for our second workshop making nest boxes.

Skilling Queenslanders for Work project of the Nundah Community Living Association Inc. is training and inspiring participants in environmental habitat restoration.

Presenting SQW - 12 Sept 2018 Introducing Pollinator Link

A nest box building workshop for future habitat heroes is a great opportunity to share the Pollinator Link® vision.

I first introduced participants to the threat of urban habitat loss and opportunities for creation for of a new city wide wildlife habitat by providing Water, Food and Shelter in backyards, balcony gardens, school yards and council parks to complement the island habitats like Mt Gravatt Conservation Reserve

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Gracemere Saleyards

I like this article about the Gracemere Saleyards. The Roma Saleyards are interesting too. Provides a glimpse for a traveller into the real life of a place.


Winter 2018, Rockhampton, Qld

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…

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Bowen Arrow

“Bowen Arrow. That’s a good name for a motel!”

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.

Coconut palms, Bowen

I like to walk around Mullers Lagoon and stand under the shady umbrella of the biggest fig tree I’ve ever seen.

Mullers Lagoon, Bowen

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 Australia were 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.

Security barriers around the set of Australia in Bowen

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.

big mango.jpeg
The Big Mango, Bowen

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.


Oak Street Barcaldine 2015. Tree of Knowledge Memorial in the background

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.

Image 13-8-18 at 10.36 pm
The Tree of Knowledge and railway station, Barcaldine, Qld, 1987. Image from collection of State Library of Queensland

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.

Tree of knowledge 2
Inside the Tree of Knowledge Memorial

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.”

shakespeare hotel
The New Shakespeare Hotel, 1920 Image from the collection of the State Library of Qld












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.

The renewed Globe Hotel, 2015, from the rear

This exciting renovation is currently being showcased at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale as part of the Australian exhibit titled “Repair”.

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.”

I hope those paintings make it back to the Globe.

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