North Queensland

What can I say about North Queensland? I was born there. I spent a major part of my life there. It's a great place. I would like to go back there to live one day.

I have lots of fond memories of North Queensland. Three of the most stark relate to a trip I made in the summer of 1983. I drove a van full of Apple ][s from Townsville to Julia Creek, giving demonstrations along the way.

  • I learnt that the six-pack was a unit of measurement of distance. This was before the days of the 0.05 alcohol limit, and before any sort of breath-testing was done in North Queensland. A distance was measured by how many six-packs were consumed during its passing. That is, you drank while you drove. Townsville to Charters Towers was a one and a half six-pack trip. Townsville to Ayr was one six-pack.
  • During the trip, I had to stop frequently for micturition. As this was high summer, and I was out west, I discovered that evaporation rates were extraordinarily high. If any urine hit the ground, it evaporated within seconds. It was dry out there.
  • During these frequent stops, I experienced my most poignant moments. There I was, miles from nowhere. It was hot, it was dry, it was quiet. There was no other traffic on the road. The road stretched ahead and behind in a perfectly straight black ribbon. The only sound was the occasional harsh cark from a distant crow. The land was flat, completely flat, stretching from horizon to horizon. The land was a dusty brown: brown trees, brown grass, red and ochre soil. The memory of those moments is one of the few things that makes me homesick.

Atherton Tableland

I like the Atherton Tableland a lot. It's only a short drive north from Townsville, or a short drive south from Cairns. It's green and lush and always a bit damp. Lots of little towns, and lots of little waterfalls. I love the place. There's a smell about the land from the volcanic soil. One year when I was a kid, Mum and Dad took us three boys up around the Tableland. I had just discovered Dune, the book by Frank Herbert, and one of the main elements of the book was the spice, the melange. I read that book all through the trip on Tablelands, and ever since, the smell of the volcanic earth has been associated with the spice of Dune. I've gone back to the Tablelands many times since then, and every year the smell gets fainter. You have to go small unvisited places that are off the beaten track, and there the smell is strong.

I like to visit the Tableland every time I come North. It's refreshing to drive around and potter past so many waterfalls that you forget which one you're at. And you can never tell which waterfall is which when you look at thirty photos two months later. Lots of little motels to stay at, lots of wonderful old pubs to stay at. In 1995, we stayed at the old pub in Yungaburra. All polished wood and old-world breakfasts and it was great. While we were there, I had a look at the real estate agent's list of properties. There was one that took my eye: 80 acres of rainforest, adjoining a National Park, a house, a shed, a tractor, some dairy cattle, and all this for $80,000. Compare this with a tiny block of land and a moderate house in Sydney for $300,000, or a one bedroom unit in Sydney for $140,000. When I do decide to retire, I hope that bargains like this are still available in the Atherton Tableland. The people are great, the land is wonderful, and it's very, very peaceful. It's a bit damp, though, and Anne reckons I'd get sick of the damp after six months.

Paronella Park

South of Cairns at Mena Creek, off the lower highlands, is this wonderful old place called Paronella Park. When I was small, Mum and Dad took me there several times. I think it was pretty much intact when I saw it then. It was a large house and a huge garden with lots of running water and small castles and lots of funny stonework everywhere. A Spaniard had built it. I was so impressed by it when I was small, that I had recurring dreams of it until I was about 35. The dreams were always about the water and being on a small boat and moving down the waterway. No relation to reality, but Paronella Park inspired this escapist fantasy.

The man who built it died, and then there was a flood and part of hydro plant was destroyed and some of the stonework and bridgework. And then sometime in the 60s, I think, it burned down, and that was the end of Paronella Park.

In 1995, Anne and I were touring through North Queensland, and we were coming back along the coast from Cairns, when I spotted a sign that said Paronella Park. This jolted my memory, so we took a detour and visited it. The roads were awful and we worried about getting stuck many times, but eventually we found it. A young couple had bought the Park and were slowly doing it up. We had a look around and it was pretty much as I remembered it, with the lawns and the waterways and the stoneworks, and even the tunnel. What wasn't the same, was the big house. I remember that it was almost like a museum, stuffed with curios and all sorts of strange things. Now it's an empty shell, wrecked by the fire.

I wish good fortune to the people who bought Paronella Park. I will go and visit it each time we go North, just to see what has happened since the last time. I hope they can bring it back to its former glory.

This is a small version of one of Tony Smith's photos. It originally linked to Tony's site, but that appears to have disappeared. [Paronella Park castle]

Townsville

I lived in Townsville for 17 years. I had my ups and downs. It was a nice place to live. It was flat and dry and dusty in summer and very, very hot in summer. Lots of pubs, lots of food places, lots of fun.

I left in 1988, and came back in 1995 and it looked very different. More modern, more busy, people moving at a faster pace. I don't think I could live in Townsville again.

Ayr

I was born in Ayr. It's a little town about 100km south of Townsville. When I knew it, there were about 5,000 people living there and about another 5,000 living in the surrounding district. So it's a small country town. It's not a poor town. On the contrary, it's quite a wealthy little town. The wealth comes from the sugar cane.

I have some very happy memories of those days. We lived in the town, not out on a farm. We lived in East Ayr, only one block from the cane fields. I remember riding my pushbike to Alva Beach on the weekends to play on the mudflats. Stopping on the way home to steal some stalks of cane, and then sitting on the back steps chewing the cane, and sucking down the juice and spitting out all the leftover fibres. I can still taste the raw cane juice while writing this. And when they burnt the cane at night, watching the night sky lit with great red and orange glows. And when they burnt the cane in the daytime and the wind was right, having the black thrash, the black snow, waft down and cover the lawn with black. We would grab our tennis racquets and go out and whack the black thrash as it came down and watch it turn to a fine black powder. And when the crushing season was on, going near the sugar mills, at Kalamia or Inkerman, and smelling that overpowering smell that came from the mills. I remember the cane.

Two of my childhood memories of Ayr relate to the weather. We used to get a fairly heavy wet season in summer, from December to February. This was usually in school holidays, so I would play in the warm rain and splash through the puddles and do all the normal things. When it rained, the giant worms would come up to the surface and squirm about in the puddles. They were normal earthworms, except they were anything from three feet to six feet long. I would see one fully outstretched, moving somewhere, and I would prod it and it would contract to about a foot, and then slowly expand again. There were always lots of these when I lived there, but ten years later when I occasionally visited, they were not to be seen. I can only assume that the chemicals on the cane, the cane toads, and the urbanisation of the area drove them away. Whenever I told this to people in Sydney, they would nod knowingly and smile and you could see them thinking "Here's Henry with another of his tall tales." I even started to doubt my memories, until March 97 when the ABC showed something and there was an Aboriginal holding up a giant worm, saying it was as good as a hamburger or something, and sucking that worm down as fast as he could get it. Vindicated. My memories were right. The giant worms did exist. I never thought of eating them though.

In the late 1980s, I saw two surprising newspaper items about Ayr. Both items were about new Australian records set in Ayr. Within one month, two guys were stopped for drink driving. Both set new Australian records with their levels. One guy was 0.49, and the other was 0.47. That's impossible! you might cry. They would be clinically dead! I hear you say. Not so. These two had been slowly pickling themselves for forty or fifty years and had developed such an incredible tolerance for alcohol, that it was their usual state at the end of a good night.

Alcohol and North Queensland

Did I mention alcohol and North Queensland? I think the two are inseparable. When I lived there, alcohol was a central part of my life. I drank daily, and in large quantities. I remember certain milestones, like the night I consumed a large bottle Cointreau in one sitting, and the first night I drank a carton of beer. My regular Saturday night consisted of an entire Big Rooster chicken dinner, with a six-pack, a bottle of wine and a bottle of port. One or two six-packs a night with dinner was normal drinking. It was a part of the culture. Everyone drank, and everyone drank far too much. I didn't think there was anything wrong with the quantities I was drinking. It was normal for up there.

When I moved to Sydney, things changed. I was on my own, and I mixed with people who didn't drink much or at all. And slowly my consumption reduced. When I got married, and the mortgage kicked in, my alcohol consumption decreased even further. Now, I have a bottle of wine maybe once or twice a month. And maybe a glass of port occasionally while in the bath. I don't miss the alcohol. I shudder with horror when I think of my earlier habits, and I wonder just how much damage I have done to my brain and body. I guess I'll find that out over the next twenty years.

North Queensland People

In 1996, we had a Brit working with us in Sydney. Marcus used to shake his head at me many times. He finally went on the obligatory car trip around Australia, and he ended up in North Queensland. He spent a little bit of time up there and we when he came back, word was passed on to me that he had met other North Queenslanders and they were a strange breed and now he knew where I was coming from. He's not the only one who thinks North Queenslanders are strange. Most Australians do.

There's also something about the accent. At work, I've been told "You must come from North Queensland, it's the way you say off." I never noticed this, but apparently we say "orf" rather than "off". And we have this tendency to make a statement and finish with "eh?". As in "Nice day today, eh?". And, so the story goes, the further north you go, the more "eh"s get added. In Cairns, it's "Nice day today, eh, eh?" I can believe the first "eh", but the story of the double "eh" seems apocryphal. I can't remember hearing it, so it's probably just another jealous bloody Southerner having a lend of people from God's Own Country.

Southerners

There are distinctions in Queensland. Queensland is the whole state. North Queensland goes from about Bowen to Ingham. Far North Queensland is Ingham to Cairns. I can't remember what further north is called. There's reasons for this split between the North and rest of the state. The secession movement was strong in the North for many many years, where the North reckoned the south of the state was sucking the money out of the North and giving nothing back. The North generates a lot of money. Compare the roads and the bureaucratic infrastructure of the south and the north, and you might even reckon that the claim was true. There was also the problem in the Second World War when Australia thought that the Japanese might actually invade the North, and they drew up the Brisbane line. South of the line, they would fight for; north of the line, they would abandon. That rankled.

When a North Queenslander talks about Southern bastards, he could be talking about the people from the southern part of Queensland or about the people from New South Wales, Victoria, anywhere south of Bowen. It depends on the amount of contempt or venom in the statement. Mild is reserved for the other States, medium is for Southern Queensland, and great is reserved for the masters in Canberra.

A Quote

Dr Paul Wilson, reader in Sociology, Qld University, 1975, said:

Queensland is very much a frontier society where the people take on many of the characteristics of traditional frontier societies ... independence, aggressiveness, a distaste for status or position. They only respect what you say or what you do. They thus have a lack of respect for centralism and people in high positions. Being cut off from others, they develop a characteristic conservatism ... It will be many years before this frontier attitude changes. I don't see it as being unhealthy, but it can have nasty side effects. Queenslanders are not so tolerant and are more likely to comdemn people who are different. But it does have good effects; they can remain unimpressed by wealth and judge a man by what he is.