A day in Townsville

Townsville is the largest city in northern Queensland and although I’d passed through here on a number of occasions, I’d never stayed the night here before. The first time I was here was one Easter in the early 2000s when all accommodation was booked out (I can’t remember which year but the city was recovering from a cyclone). The next time I stayed on Magnetic Island and most recently I came driving through in the middle of the day and while I drove to the top of Castle Hill, I spent the night further up the coast. This time I was determined to walk up Castle Hill which was not too far from my motel.trip8.JPG

Castle Hill is a stunning pink granite monolith that dominates the city and the shoreline below. There is a 2.6km road to the summit but I was determined to walk up via the goat track from the centre of town. The walk was tough but the view from the top was its own reward. trip9.JPG

Below was the town squeezed between the rock, the river and the sea. Townsville was established as the need for a port north of the regularly flooding Burdekin River. Built on the traditional home of the Wulgurukaba people, the town was named in 1866 for merchant and entrepreneur Robert Towns.trip11.JPG

Straight across Cleveland Bay is Magnetic Island, both of which were named by James Cook in his 1770 voyage up the coast of eastern Australia. Cook said the island affected the compass aboard the Endeavour (“the compass would not travis well when near it”, he claimed) but no navigator since has observed any similar magnetic qualities of the island. It is magnetic to tourists (myself included) who flock there by boat for its beauty and peacefulness. The walk across the top of the island is awe-inspiring too.trip13.JPG

Once I was finished admiring the view from the top of Castle Hill I came back down to sea level and went for a walk along the Strand, beginning at the Breakwater Marina, a great sheltering spot for hundreds of boats.


Then it was a long walk north along the Strand and the beachfront. The cloudy and windy weather was unusual for May and it meant the beaches were deserted but the views out to Magnetic Island were still enchanting.trip15.JPG

There was another reason no one was in the water. It’s bad enough with sharks and crocodiles in the water waiting to kill you but November to May is marine stinger season. Stingers are box jellyfish found in Australian tropical waters which can cause potent toxic stings leading to serious illness and death in some cases. Most northern beaches have an emergency supply of vinegar nearby which kills the stinging cells. There is usually a small netted-area where you can swim free from threats of stingers.trip20.JPG

Further past the Strand is the hill which holds Kissing Point Fort. Constructed in 1889-91, it is significant as one of the few remaining fixed coastal defences constructed in Australia in the 19th century. Kissing Point Fort is significant in the initial phase of Australia assuming responsibility for its own defence after British land forces left in 1870. The Fort was erected against perceived threats of 19th century foreign invasion but played a role in a real 20th century invasion when Japanese planes strafed Townsville in 1942. Lights flashing from the Fort disoriented the invaders enough for them to drop most of their payload in Cleveland Bay. The Fort was left to decay after the war until the Army and local citizens carried out conservation works in 1979-80 and from 1980 part of the Fort became the North Queensland Military Museum. The old Jezzine Barracks had a $40m facelift a couple of years ago.


Beyond the Fort is a clifftop boardwalk celebrating the Indigenous heritage of Kissing Point, or Garabarra. The traditional owners of Garabarra are the Wulgurukaba and the Bindal peoples, who retain an enduring ‘connection to country’ despite the impact of non-Aboriginal settlement in the area. For thousands of years Garabarra was the centre of a common food foraging area for local Aboriginal people – an area with immeasurable cultural and spiritual values, commemorated in thoughtful sculptures along the coast. The connection is still strong today and in 2012 the Wulgurukaba won native title rights to part of Magnetic Island (which was once linked to the mainland via a spit).

Mount Isa to Townsville

It’s 900km from Mount Isa to Townsville, a west-to-east stretch across northern Queensland along the Barkly and Flinders Highways. The roads are mostly long and straight (once you’ve passed the Selwyn Ranges between Isa and Cloncurry,  photos of which can be found here). The photo below was taken on some lonely stretch between Julia Creek and Richmond.trip1.JPG

Hughenden is the biggest town between Cloncurry and Charters Towers and roughly the half way mark of my journey. The rich Flinders grass in the region makes it an important pastoral centre.


Prairie is a tiny settlement 50km east of Hughenden, complete with a ghostly railway station now moved away from the track, a pub where you can tie your horse out the front and a racecourse that has an annual meet. The town gets its name from its prairie-like setting.


Half way between Hughenden and Charters Towers is the beautiful sandstone formations of White Mountains National Park. The Park is a rugged area of 108,000ha with some of the most diverse botany in Queensland. It also marks where the Great Dividing Range crosses the highway.trip5.JPG

Charters Towers was the archetypal Australian wild west town founded on the wealth of gold and its stock exchange was so self confident it was known as The World. There are many beautiful buildings from its 19th century heyday including the Australian Bank of Commerce built in 1891.


I was pleased to arrive in Townsville some 10 hours after leaving Mount Isa. Once I was settled in to my accommodation. I went in search of food and drink and stopped to check out the view of Castle Hill which dominates the town. I was determined to walk up to the top. But that was a story for another day.



Halfway between heaven and hell: the story of Kashmir

Kashmir is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and also one of the most dangerous. Located in the shadows of Himalaya where three nuclear powers meet, parts of the ancient kingdom of Kashmir are claimed by all three. The provincial war of control between India and Pakistan erupted again this week. India has issued a new map of the region which shows all of Kashmir as being part of India  and bans “wrong” information, including disputed international borders.

Disputes over Jammu and Kashmir are nothing new; it has long been this way. Writing about Kashmir in 2002, Pakistani-born writer Tariq Ali describes the area as “trapped in [a] Neither-Nor predicament”. Home of the Nila Naga (the earliest Kashmiris) and ruled in turn by Shahs, Moghuls, Afghan and Sikhs it was acquired by the British East India company and was sold at profit to corrupt local warlords. It will split between India and Pakistan in 1947 and remains an open sore for both countries today. According to the Nilamata Purana, (the Nila Naga Myth of the Indigo Goddess) the name Kashmir is a corruption of words that mean “a land desiccated from water”. But Kashmir has been desiccated more by blood than water.

Islam first arrived in Kashmir in the eight century. The prophet’s armies that had carried all before them for a hundred years were defeated here finding it impossible to penetrate the great mountains’ southern slopes. It would take another 500 years to establish Muslim rule. It occurred fortuitously; a Buddhist chief named Rinchana from a neighbouring area fell under the influence of a Sufi teacher and began to practice Islam. The Kashmir rulers’ Turkish missionary army gladly switched sides to their new co-religionist and then took over themselves when Rinchana died. Army leader Shah Mir established a dynasty that lasted to the 20th century.

Though Shah Mir and his descendents did not entirely suppress Indian religions, they did practice forced conversions. Slowly the population embraced Islam. By the time Zain-al-Abidin was Sultan of Kashmir in the late 15th century the population ratio of Muslims to non-Muslims was 85 to 15. It remains roughly that ratio today. Zain-al-Abidin takes much of the credit. He ended forced conversions and rebuilt Hindu temples his father had destroyed. He visited Iran and Central Asia and brought back the arts of book-binding, wood-carving and the making of carpets and shawls. Shawl is a Persian word but the costume would soon become the uniform of Kashmiri men.

Kashmiri fortunes declined after Zain-al-Abidin died. A succession of weak rulers hobbled by court intrigue left the kingdom ripe for conquest. In 1583 Moghul emperor Akbar dispatched his favourite general to annex Kashmir who took the province without bloodshed. The Moghuls were greeted with relief by a suffering populace unhappy with weak and corrupt governments. The Kashmiri Shah struck a deal with the Moghuls handing over effective power but retaining the monarchy and the symbolic right to strike coins in his own image.

Angered Kashmir nobles replaced the Shah with his son. Akbar had to send a large expeditionary force to crush his rule and take direct control. The Moghuls were enchanted by the physical beauty of their new conquest. Akbar’s son Jehangir wrote of Kashmir: “if on Earth there be a paradise of bliss, it is this”. But the Moghul empire went into decline. Kashmir fell under Afghan rule in 1752. They stayed in power until Sikh hero Maharaja Ranjit Singh extended his military triumphs from the Punjab by capturing Kashmiri capital Srinagar.

Singh’s empire was secular and he abolished capital punishment. He is a rare figure revered in India and Pakistan. But Kashmiri historians say his 27 year reign was disastrous. He closed the Srinagar mosques and imposed a hefty tax burden on the people. Mass poverty led to mass emigration. A Kashmiri Diaspora fled to Punjabi cities where they still live. Meanwhile new and stranger colonists were coming to claim Kashmir.

These new interlopers were businessmen. Britain followed the Dutch model and granted the East India Company semi-sovereign powers to look after imperial interests in the sub-continent. Based in Calcutta, they expanded rapidly and gained the whole of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, generally regarded as the start of British rule in India. The Company wheedled and bribed their way through a succession of Indian rulers and rajahs. Singh’s death in 1839 saw his kingdom plunge into disorder. The Company increased its military strength and broke diplomatic relations with the Sikhs. In 1846, the first Anglo-Sikh war resulted in a decisive defeat for Singh’s descendents.

The resulting Treaty of Lahore signed away Kashmir to the British company. But the Brits immediately did a deal to sell most of the land to Gulab Singh for 75 lakh rupees (lakh is the Indian word for a 100,000). Gulab Singh was the Dogra ruler of neighbouring Jammu. The Dogras did as previous rulers had done and squeezed every rupee of tax out of Kashmir to make back the money they gave the British. Company rule was ended by the Indian Mutiny of 1857 bringing in direct rule. London did not directly interfere with Dogra rule of Kashmir and Jammu but a “British Resident” was the real power.

The 20th century was late in arriving to the Himalayan valleys. Not until the 1920s did young Kashmiris educated abroad bring in new ideas of nationalism, anti-colonialism and socialism. In 1924 Kashmir had its first strike; workers in a state-owned silk factory demanded a pay rise and the dismissal of a corrupt clerk. When union leaders were arrested, workers resisted and the Dogra Army put down the strike with British support. Sullen resistance to Dogra rule continued through the decade. Police stirred up a hornet’s nest by stopping Friday prayers in a Jammu mosque claiming the imam was preaching sedition. It triggered protests in Srinagar and elsewhere. A speaker described the Dogra as “a dynasty of blood-suckers” and was arrested. His trial attracted thousands demanding to attend proceedings. Police killed 21 people and arrested several leading Kashmiri citizens including a man named Sheik Abdullah.

This event would prove to be the founding moment of Kashmiri nationalism. After Abdullah was released, he set about creating a political movement. The All-Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference was founded in Srinagar in 1932. Despite the name, the AJK MC was open to Muslims and non-Muslims. Although the Hindus were a minority, Abdullah knew it was stupid to offend the Pandits, upper class Brahmins which Britain used to administrate the province.

To demonstrate secular credentials, Abdullah invited nationalist Indian leader Nehru to Kashmir. Nehru brought Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the man known as “the Frontier Gandhi”. Khan was the eloquent Muslim equivalent of Gandhi. The three men formed a potent partnership. Abdullah promised liberation from the hated Dogra. Nehru preached struggle against the British Empire and Khan spoke of the need to throw fear to the wind. “You who live in the valley”, he told his audience, “must learn to scale the highest peaks”.

The bond between the Nehru and Abdullah proved crucial during the independence struggle. Few politicians in the 1930s believed the subcontinent would be divided along religious lines. Even the most ardent Muslim separatist would have been happy with regional autonomy along federal lines. But old certainties were shattered by World War II. The British Empire including India was suddenly at war with Germany. Nehru was furious he was not consulted in the decision. His Congress party split with Nehru and Gandhi reluctantly supporting Britain while hardliner Subhas Chandra Bose argued for an alliance with Japan. The fall of Singapore in 1942 left Indians convinced the Japanese would take their country via Bengal. Congress threatened to switch sides.

A desperate Britain offered a “blank cheque” to Nehru to not desert the cause. Gandhi wondered “what is the point of a blank cheque from a bank that is already failing?” As a result the Congress launched the Quit India movement. As a result of the civil disobedience its entire leadership including Gandhi and Nehru were thrown in jail. Uneasy with Gandhi’s use of Hindu imagery, Mohammed Ali Jinnah left the Congress in the 1930s to set up the Muslim League which backed the war effort. Pakistan was his reward for war loyalty.

As the war ended in 1945, Nehru and Khan revisited Abdullah to find the Muslim-Hindu divide had stoked up in Kashmir. Just as in the divided provinces of Punjab and Bengal, violence erupted between rival factions. In the NWFP, Muslim League forces defeated Khan’s anti-partition troops. Khan lived until the 1980s but would spend most of his remaining days in a Pakistani prison. Khan’s defeat rocked Abdullah whose power in Kashmir grew as the British began to withdraw. Nonetheless the Dogra still held official power. In constitutional terms Kashmir was a “princely state” whose maharaja held the right to choose to confederate with India or Pakistan.

Other Muslim-ruled princely states such as Hyderabad and Junagadh chose India. But they had Hindu majority populations, Kashmir had not. Jinnah negotiated directly with the Dogra maharaja to join Pakistan. Abdullah was outraged he was not involved. The maharajah baulked and Kashmir’s status remained unresolved when midnight struck on 14 August 1947 creating Pakistan and India. A line of control in Kashmir was established between the two countries. Both sides held armies commanded by British officers. Last British Viceroy Mountbatten made it clear to Jinnah that he would not tolerate a violent take-over of Kashmir.

Nevertheless Jinnah secretly plotted to take over the disputed province while Kashmir’s maharaja plotted with the Congress Party. Once the British found out about Pakistan’s invasion plans they told Nehru who pressurised the maharaja to join India using the invasion as a pretext. Mountbatten ordered Indian army units to prepare to airlift to Srinagar. Once Pakistan invaded, the maharaja’s regime quickly collapsed. The undisciplined Pakistani army raped, looted and pillaged assaulting Muslims and Hindus. Indian troops landed outside Srinagar and waited for reinforcements. The Pakistanis invaded the city but overlooked the airport which was occupied by the Indian Army. The exiled maharaja signed the accession papers to India and demanded help to repel the invasion.

It was a stand-off; it would now depend on which side Sheik Abdullah supported. He regarded Jinnah’s Muslim League as a reactionary organisation who would prevent social and political reforms in Kashmir. In 1947 he attended another rally with Nehru at his side. Abdullah publicly backed the Indian presence provided Kashmiris were allowed to determine their own future. What Abdullah wanted was an independent Kashmir but the 1947 wars ended that hope.

According to article 370 of the constitution, India recognised Kashmir’s “special status” but nothing more. In 1948 a realistic Abdullah backed “provisional accession” keeping Kashmir autonomous leaving India responsible for defence, foreign affairs and communications. Hardline Indian nationalists baulked at this special status. Nehru authorised a coup in 1953 to dismiss his old friend Abdullah. The unrest that followed made Kashmiris suspicious of Indian rule. Abdullah remained a thorn in India’s side.

After release from prison, he flew to the Pakistani controlled side of Kashmir where a large crowd cheered him. He was arrested again after meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai. China launched its own assault on northern Kashmir resulting in a new administration of the region called Aksai Chin, which survives today. Encouraged by the disturbances Pakistan launched another assault on Kashmir in 1965 hoping to spark an uprising. India responded by attacking Lahore. Eventually Washington asked Moscow to put pressure on India to end the war.

Devastated by defeat in Bangladesh new Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Bhutto sued for peace with India. In 1972 he agreed to the status quo in Kashmir and got back 90,000 POWs captured after the fall of Dhaka in East Pakistan. Abdullah made peace with Delhi and was appointed Chief Minister of Kashmir by Indira Gandhi in 1977. When Bhutto was executed two years later, Pakistan’s last hope of peacefully taking Kashmir disappeared. Abdullah died in 1983, a tired and broken man resigned to Kashmir’s fate. The end of the cold war escalated the war between the two sides as the US and USSR lost interest in a Himalayan pawn.

The border and the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir passes through some of the planet’s most difficult terrain. The continual low-level sniping between the two sides has led to a significant loss of human rights in Kashmir. A Medecins Sans Frontieres study in 2005 found that Kashmiri women are among the worst sufferers of sexual violence in the world. Since the violence escalated in 1989, sexual violence has been routinely perpetrated on Kashmiri women, with over one in ten respondents saying they were victims of sexual abuse.

Many people now see independence as the only way out of Kashmir’s nightmare. In 2001 the former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Justice Rajinder Sachar said restoring pre-1953 special status to Jammu and Kashmir was the only solution to the problem. Sachar called both Indian and Pakistani governments hypocrites and said armed conflicts could not solve this complex issue and only political dialogue could reach a solution. “When France and Germany which have a bitter history of conflicts can become good friends and work towards better future, “ he said, “then the same is possible in case of India and Pakistan.”

Cyrus Field and the Transatlantic Cable

Cyrus Field (Photo: atlantic-cable.com)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of when Britain and America were permanently connected by the transatlantic cable and it should be the occasion to remember its forgotten architect. Cyrus West Field deserves to be better remembered as a giant figure in the history of international communications. In 1844 Samuel Morse said a telegraph line would be established across the Atlantic linking Britain and the US in real time. It was to be over 20 years before Cyrus Field could prove him right.

Ten years before Morse’s prediction, the 15-year-old Field was starting his working life as an office boy in New York’s first department store, A. T. Stewart Co. Cyrus did well enough that his salary was doubled each year until he left to join a paper manufacturing company. By 1839, aged 20, he was a partner in the paper wholesaler E. Root and Company. He proved an extremely savvy paper merchant. Profits from business ventures allowed him to retire at 33 with a quarter of a million dollars. His wealth allowed him to concentrate on a sudden burning passion: laying the first telegraphic cable across the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1854, he was approached by Frederick Gisborne, the developer of the cross-Newfoundland telegraph line. Gisborne was in financial strife and he tried to persuade Field to invest in his company. Field was not keen but the meeting produced an epiphany. As his brother Henry Field reported after Gisborne left the meeting, “Mr Field took the globe which was standing in the library and began to turn it over. It was while thus studying the globe that the idea first occurred to him, that the telegraph might be carried further still, and be made to span the Atlantic Ocean.”

The globe showed Field that it might be possible to link Europe and North America via the two nearest land points: Newfoundland and the west of Ireland. It would shorten the time for messages to cross the ocean by two weeks.

Any cable living on the bottom of the ocean would need good waterproofing and electrical insulation. Samuel Canning had recently identified Gutta-percha, a resin from the Isonandra Gutta tree in Malaya as a suitable insulating material.

Field also knew that the transatlantic project would require an enormous amount of capital. From his home in Gramercy Park, he galvanised his wealthy neighbours and created what he called a “castle cabinet”. His first stop was neighbour, industrialist, and inventor of jello, Peter Cooper. Cooper was intrigued by the project and said it offered the possibility of “a mighty power for the good of the world”.

Field obtained other crucial backers in Gisborne, banker Moses Taylor, shipowner Marshall Roberts and his long-term ally from the paper business Chandler White. These were all powerful men who could see the financial value in urgent cross-Atlantic communication. The final member of his castle cabinet was Samuel Morse himself, whom the US Supreme Court had just confirmed as sole patent of the electric telegraph.

On March 10, 1854, the cabinet agreed to take over Gisborne’s company. They formed a new company called the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company (N.Y.N.L.T.C., or given the difficult of remembering the initials called simply “the Company”). They managed to raise the extraordinary amount of $1.5 million in private funding for the project, an amount equal to roughly 2.5 percent of what was then the total expenditure of the US government. Yet this colossal amount wasn’t enough and Field was forced to travel many times to Britain to drum up more support.

By July 1857, all 2,500 nautical miles of the first transatlantic cable was manufactured and ready to load. No one ship could shoulder the entire load so the British and American navies provided one each carrying half a cable. They went to the middle of the Atlantic where their cables were spliced and set off in opposite directions. The USS Niagara was a modern ship and much faster than the ancient hulk of HMS Agamemnon. But it was the Niagara that hit trouble. It had laid 400 miles of cable when a huge wave struck and snapped the cable.

Field took this defeat in his stride and tried again twice in 1858. The second voyage failed again with a snapped cable. But the third time they got lucky. Once again it was the Niagara and the Agamemnon who faced off across the Atlantic. This time the cable held and the two ships successfully made shore. North America and Europe were linked.

This was an occasion of great, if shortlived, joy. In August 1858 Field arranged for Queen Victoria to send the first transatlantic message to President James Buchanan. The Queen’s 99 word message to Washington took almost 18 hours to transmit. Despite the slowness, New York erupted in celebrations, lauding Field, Morse, modern technology, and American ingenuity in general.

Compared to 2 weeks, 18 hours was a vast improvement. But it was still a work in progress. Field posed for Mathew Brady, who would achieve greatest success for his realistic Civil War photography. Brady added two key props for his portrait of Field – a length of wire cable and a globe.

But the cable would provide Field’s undoing again. Victoria’s message took too long to transmit and it was getting worse. The cable finally broke after three weeks. Celebration turned to anger. The Boston Courier newspaper suggested that the entire project had been part of an elaborate stock fraud and the cable had never worked. Their front page screamed a conspiracy theory headline: “Was the Atlantic cable a humbug?”

When the British cable in the Red Sea failed a year later, a committee of enquiry was asked to find out why underwater cables were humbug. Field and his electrician Dr Edward Whitehouse gave evidence. Serious problems emerged from the design of the cable. The cause was twofold. The first cause was the hastiness of the project due to Field’s relentless monomania, proving both a plus and a minus to the project. The second was Whitehouse’s excessive voltage to the cable. Whitehouse was trying to overcome the problem of low current which slowed down the operation.

Scottish physicist William Thomson solved that problem with his mirror galvanometer. The mirror galvanometer was a long distance receiver which could detect signals a thousand times fainter than other receivers.

But the cable project was put on hold for five years by the Civil War. A new attempt was undertaken in 1865 with much-improved material. This time just one ship was used to lay the cable, the massive SS Great Eastern designed by Brunel. Built since Field last laid the cable, it was the largest steamship in the world and completed the job in July 1866. The new connection was successful, more durable than before and many times faster. Even more public confidence resulted when a second cable was established shortly afterwards. The modern age had safely begun.

Field’s finest hour would herald an astonishing downfall in his fortunes. With the profits from the Atlantic Cable company, Cyrus Field invested in New York’s elevated railroad. The railroads were successful, but Field was double-crossed by business partners, Jay Gould and his friend Russell Sage, who had well earned their nicknames of “robber barons”. Field suffered the ultimate indignity when his remaining fortune was stolen by his son. Field died in 1892, almost penniless.

But his cable had profound impact. It brought London and Wall St into each others sphere of instantaneous communication and influence. News and information could now spread quickly across the world from San Francisco to Singapore. Field remains relatively unknown but his transatlantic cable was one of the major birth pangs of the global village.

A visit to Gregory Downs

This weekend was my first trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria with two events in the tiny town of Gregory demanding my attention, the Gregory Downs Jockey Club’s annual meet on Saturday and the Gregory Canoe Challenge on Sunday, the so-called “saddle and paddle” weekend.


There’s two ways of getting there, the “short” way about 307km but with 200km of dirt road, or the long way by bitumen via Cloncurry, about 450km, which was the way I took. This photo was taken on the highway to Cloncurry early Saturday morning. I had a quick job to do in Cloncurry where the Queensland Country Women’s Association were meeting.


Once finished in Cloncurry it was on the long road north to the Gulf via the Burke Development Road which ends up in Normanton and Karumba. I’d never been up this way before. About 60km north of Cloncurry is the ghost settlement of Quamby. They still have a rodeo here but “the pub in the scrub” is derelict.


About 100km north of Cloncurry is Dismal Creek, which is not as bad as it sounds. I’ve been unable to find out how it got its name. My initial feeling was that it was named by Burke and Wills on their trek north (or perhaps south when despondency really started to kick in) but I can find no evidence to back that up. The Queensland Place Names Register was no help.

greg4.JPGAbout 180km north of Cloncurry is the Four Ways junction which links Julia Creek, Cloncurry, Normanton and Burketown (via Gregory). At the Four Ways is one of the few roadhouses that makes the map of Australia, the Burke and Wills Roadhouse, a memorable name I would have been familiar with as a child looking at the world atlas. greg5.JPG

The attached licenced Bull Bar “dedicated to riding bulls, throwing bulls, catching bulls and talking bull shit” (as a wall sign says) has these two blasts from the past. But payphones are not just historic antiquities here, they are necessities with no mobile coverage north of Cloncurry.


The country becomes scrubbier as we head west on the Wills Development Road to Gregory, about 150km from Four Ways.


When John Lort Stokes came exploring in these parts in 1841, he got excited about the prospect of civilisation here in what he called the Plains of Promise whose “whose pleasing appearance prompted him to foretell the spread of ‘many christian hamlets’ throughout the area.” They are still waiting for the hamlets, christian or otherwise.


Finally we get to Gregory, which used to be called Gregory Downs until 2013. I don’t know about the turtles but the flowing water is the main reason to visit here. There’s not much else except a pub, general store and a racecourse. There was a school which closed down some years ago.


First stop was the annual Gregory Downs Jockey Club races. Despite the remoteness of the location there was a big crowd present, people up for the canoe races, weekenders from Mount Isa, everyone from Burketown and Doomadgee and all the surrounding stations.greg10.JPG

The six races on the sand were enjoyed by all with many close finishes.


Everyone dressed up for the occasion and the fashions on the field gave the judges a hard time.greg12.JPG

Some enjoyed the day more than others, but pretty much everyone had a good time at Gregory Downs.


When the races finished it was time for a quick libation at the Gregory Downs Hotel Motel.


The pub was quiet thanks to the races taking all their custom.


There was time for a quick check down by the river where the 43km marathon canoe race was due to finish on Sunday. The Gregory Canoe Classic attracts long distance paddlers from across Australia to its dangerous rapids.greg16.JPG

The Gregory Downs sunset in the clouds was impressive. Then it was time to head back to the track to get a feed from the race club before dragging out the swag for a warm night’s sleep.


Early in the morning, I drove 43km down the Camooweal road to The Knobbies where the canoe race starts.


Near the start is Carnage Leap, the first of many rapids expected to make inroads on the field.


But most of the excellent competitors I saw handled Carnage Leap in their stride. That was the point I had to leave the Canoe Classic, worried as I was about running out of petrol in a remote area. I said goodbye to the Gregory and set off back to Mount Isa.


It was time for the long road home via the so-called short cut. This is the “main road” between Camooweal and Burketown. Not exactly a highway and about 150km of bone-jarring dirt before you get to the main road to Mount Isa. But that’s where the adventure ends.

Julia Creek Dirt N Dust Festival

julia creek.JPG

Julia Creek is a small town of about 300 people situated 650km inland from Townsville. It’s normally a fairly quiet place except for one weekend in April when it swells to ten times its population for the Dirt N Dust Festival.


Dirt N Dust Festival is centred around one of the toughest triathlons in Australia and also has a music festival, a rodeo and races that brings people from all corners to pack the town. The festival started in the 1990s as locals looked for ways to put the town on the map. The triathlon began with a handful of competitors but gained traction when organisers hit on the idea of coming it with the other events on the same weekend. It’s now one of the highest funded Tourism Queensland projects outside Brisbane.


The fun started on Friday afternoon with some celebrity bog snorkeling. Bog snorkeling is an ancient Irish dark art, inexplicably omitted from the annals of Ulster and other early chronicles. The Dirt N Dust version brought together Cairns Ironman champion Liz Blatchford (who was favourite to win the women’s tri) and Andrew “Reidy” Reid, apparently a star of Bondi Rescue, for those that know their TV. I hadn’t heard of either but they were both lovely people and up for a laugh.


Also on Friday afternoon, the kids did their mini-triathlon which was still tough in plus 35 degree heat.


On Saturday morning the big event started. The swim leg and start of the bike leg were 30km out of town so all 250 plus bikes had to be put on cattle trucks to take to the transition area.


They came from everywhere to compete in Dirt N Dust including this trio from Canada.


Pictured is Amanda Gowing, last year’s female winner, at Eastern Creek. Swimmers have to do 800m in the syrupy creek with visibility down to 30cm. The guy in the canoe, Steve Carson, is the guide for Tristan Bowen, a blind 16-year-old (not pictured) from Mount Isa who is doing his first Dirt N Dust.dnd92.jpg

This is Liz Blatchford showing why she was the favourite, well clear of the pack in the 25km bike leg. She even managed a smile despite battling head winds all the way back to Julia Creek. Only three men crossed the finish line ahead of her.


This is eventual men’s winner Connor McKay, 18, of Townsville on the run leg of 5km which does three circuits of Julia Creek’s main street. He did the combined event in a time of 1hr 9mins and 1sec.


Steve Carson leads blind Tristan Bowen on a tandem in the bike leg.


Steve and Tristan also did the run leg tied together by a rope. But Steve let Tristan free to cross the finish line by himself in a time of 2:36:57.


Two of the oldest competitors compare notes at the end of the race. Dale Rackham who competed in the 70-74 age group and the oldest competitor Fred Schneider aged 80.


Afterwards everyone frocked up for a day at the races. With everyone still on a high from the tri, the party really started there and moved on to the bullride that night in the centre of town.IMG_3419.JPG

Sadly for me I had to drive back to Mount Isa on Saturday afternoon so couldn’t kick on with the party. But Dirt N Dust was great fun and I’ll be back.

Pomona’s King of the Mountain race

Cooroora Mountain, Pomona.

In Roman mythology Pomona was goddess of fruit and nut trees and was associated with abundance. In Queensland geography, Pomona is a small town 150km north of Brisbane. It takes its name from the principal island of the Scottish Orkneys and also shares its name with a small suburb of Los Angeles where Hollywood producers used to trial new films. The theory was if the film flopped in Pomona, it would flop nationally. Thus California’s Pomona was the testing ground for Middle America.

Queensland’s Pomona also has a connection with the movies. It is home to the Majestic Theatre, possibly the world’s only silent movie theatre. Every Thursday night for 30 years, now-retired proprietor Ron West provided an organ accompaniment to Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik.

The Majestic is one of two things Pomona is famous for. The other is the King of the Mountain race which happens every year on the fourth Sunday in July. It began in 1959 as a pub bet as to whether it could be done in under an hour and although the length of the run is barely 4km, what makes it unique is the course goes up the 400 metre precipice of nearby Mount Cooroora. Cooroora is an extinct volcanic plug that overlooks the town and dominates the local landscape.

I’ve  done the King of the Mountain race once. That was in 2001 and it was a horrible mistake, though it worked out well in the end. I was familiar with the region especially nearby Kin Kin where some close friends live. As a runner, I was often encouraged to take part in KOTM but had never agreed. Then one foolish night in the Kin Kin Country Life Hotel after one or two too many schooners of VB, I finally said yes and entered the race that year. Before I could sober up and retract, the entry forms were thrust in front of my face and I had to hand over the $65 entry fee. The steep cost of entry alone should have been a warning. This was well in excess of normal “fun run” prices. In fact it is deliberately priced to scare away the occasional runner.

I had only four weeks to prepare. I was reasonably fit having done many a 5 or 10 kilometre race but had no practice running up hills. Living in Brisbane I didn’t have easy access to Pomona’s mountain so my training regime involved running up the side of the small but steep hill on Ivory Street next to the Medina Hotel at the Story Bridge. I started with five circuits and by the time my training was finished I was up to 15 circuits of the hill.

I went up to Kin Kin on the Friday night of race weekend. As I drove through Pomona, the bunting was up and the grassy square of Stan Topper Park was transformed into a fairground. It was too dark to see the mountain looming ominously above. My stomach churned and I quickly put the town behind me. I met my Kin Kin friends and we made a bee-line to the Country Life Hotel. Most conversation that night was about the race and how I was going to do. Some had unreasonable expectations of my winning; I was more concerned about finishing and if possible avoid finishing last. The party moved on from the pub to someone’s house in nearby bushland. In the spirit of Pomona, the goddess of abundance, I got very drunk as well as consuming a large amount of herbal jolliness. This was later to become a worry when someone asked the throwaway question “was there drug testing in the race?”

I was genuinely concerned even if I could only be accused of having taken performance distracting drugs. The other question I was asked was equally important: “have you been to the top of the mountain yet?” I had to admit that no, I hadn’t. I immediately decided a Saturday morning recce was in order. I found a moment of brief sense enough to call a halt to proceedings and cleared my head with a 1 kilometre walk back to where I was staying.

On Saturday morning I drove down to Pomona after breakfast. The festival was hotting up, there were lots of visitors milling around and I could hear people directing events with megaphones. I ignored all this and drove to the start of the walking path that led to the mountain. I parked the car and walked about 800 metres to the base of the mountain. I seemed to be going down as much as up in the early stages. This would be an uphill climb on the way back tomorrow and I would need to make sure I had some energy left for this exertion. Then I got to the mountain. It looked more like a cliff and almost immediately it got difficult. There were concrete steps drilled into the rocks as well as a chain. Then the steps disappeared and then the chain disappeared too. I was scrabbling up bare rocks. Half way up I had to stop. I was sweating profusely and dog-tired. I scrambled up another 100 metres but my legs were turning to jelly. I had to stop again. At last, the chain reappeared to help me climb these monstrous rocks. After several more fitful efforts, I finally got to the top. I felt a mixture of elation and utter fear for the day after.

The view was extraordinary up here, south towards Eumundi, east towards Noosa and the long beach on the North Shore, north towards Gympie and west into the rugged endless interior. But what effort it took me to get there. I was spooked. Tomorrow was going to be a very long day. After a lengthy rest, I was finally ready for the descent. This was difficult in its own way. Gravity was working against me, and determined to get me down faster than I wanted. I gingerly inched my way down and was deeply glad to be on “terra firmer” at the base of the mountain. I was not surprised I didn’t see a single soul going up or down. No-one in their right mind would attempt this willingly. On the bright side, a check of the watch showed me that like the pub bet, I could do the run in under an hour.

The rest of the day passed without incident. Unlike the previous night’s shenanigans, I kept a low profile on the Saturday night and went to bed relatively early. I didn’t have a great night’s sleep, the memories of the climb up that dreaded hill kept coming back to haunt me.

Sunday arrived and I was a bundle of nerves. I pushed and prodded at my breakfast plate without making an impression. The race time was 3pm but entrants had to be there at 2pm to register. A friend gave me a lift to Pomona after midday and I left the property to cheers of good luck. The rest of the crew would come down later to watch the race. I was dropped off in a town which suddenly had ten times its usual population of a thousand people. The central streets were roped off. The fun run, the real fun run, had already taken place and it was sensible enough to skirt but not actually tackle the mountain. I registered and found out there was only 60 entrants. I got a sheet which told me the terrifying 439 metre height of the mountain. The start and finish were at Stan Topper Park and the run to and from the mountain would take a different route to the one I took yesterday. At least there was no drug testing.

Butterflies increased as the start time approached. Kids played in the bouncy castles and took donkey rides without concern. The racers gathered around the start point and then came an unexpected and unwelcome development. Each racer was introduced by name and had to run a little catwalk of 20 metres or so while the announcer introduced them. Thus I found out the calibre of my competitors. “Here’s (name forgotten), a New Zealand commonwealth games hopeful”…”here’s (name equally forgotten), a Champion British fell runner” “here’s (name etc) an Australian under 17s 5000 metres record holder” and then near the end “here’s Derek Barry, er, we don’t know a lot about Derek…he could be a dark horse.”

Loud applause rang in my ears but I wanted the ground to rise up and swallow me. As I warmed up, I saw another “dark horse” that looked equally out of his class. This was a guy dressed up in a half-cat half-kangaroo costume who was introduced to the crowd as “Feral Foulpuss”. He may have looked silly but he had done the run before. I asked him how he got to the top of the mountain in that gear. He said a mate at the edge of town minded the costume while he does the climb in more traditional running attire.

Finally the starter’s gun rang and we were off. For the first time in 48 hours I relaxed and concentrated on my running. To my surprise I was well able to handle the early pace and was tucked in halfway up the field. We left the town behind and cheers gradually died out as we moved into the forest. It was still noisy as an overhead helicopter circled the route and marshals barked instructions into walkie-talkies. We got to the start of the mountain and to my pleasant surprise no-one was running. Some were walking, some were scrabbling but everyone was taking this lump of rock seriously. Around the same point as I had my crisis yesterday I needed to take a break again. I kept going until about 150 metres short of the summit, I had a severe breakdown. I stopped for at least a minute and saw most of the field hurtle past me. As I started up again, I had to stop and admire the leaders going past me on their descent, graceful as gazelles, sure-footedly picking their path and defying gravity with death-defying leaps down the treacherous rocks. I made it to the top and allowed a moment’s elation grip me. No time to admire the view today, it was a quick turnaround for the descent.

It was on the way down where the veterans made up the time. While us newbies carefully picked a path down they seemed to know exactly where to land on each step and most bounded past me. By the time I got back to the bottom, I was alone. But I was not last. As I shepherded my resources for the last kilometre run, I could hear the heavy breathing behind me. That person had a tail! It was Feral Foulpuss. I was determined not to be beaten by a stock cartoon character that was half mammal, half marsupial and totally ridiculous. I redoubled my efforts but could feel he was making ground. But then he had to stop and put on the rest of his costume and I knew I had him beaten. I came out of the forest and into the crowded town. I was cheered by name by people I did not know “Well done Derek,  not long to go”. And sure enough I turned into the straight and saw the clock over the finish line. It was ticking towards 40 minutes. I found some unknown reserve of energy to sprint across the line in 39 minutes and 40 seconds to great applause amid the promptings of a frenzied MC.

A friend immediately thrust a can of VB into my hand. I turned and saw Feral in all his glory hopping over the finish line. He wasn’t last either. There were another 10 or 11 stragglers. The last (and oldest) competitor crossed the line in 55 minutes. I found out that the winner, a New Zealander winning for the fourth time, had clocked a sensational time of around 24 minutes. The effect of my achievement and that single beer sent me spiralling into la-la-land. After a quick change and a medal ceremony I wandered into the packed Pomona pub where I wore my ceremonial t-shirt and my finisher’s medal with great pride. It was one of the best feelings of my life. I told anyone willing to listen I would be back next year. I wasn’t and still haven’t been back. But some day I will return to Stan Topper Park on the fourth Sunday of July and celebrate the monarchs of the mountain with the goddess of fruit and nuts in the town of the oldest silent cinema in the world.

This story was originally posted on the old Woolly Days blog in 2006.