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.
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.
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.
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.
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 other thing Pomona is famous for 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. Although the length of the run is barely 4km, the course goes up the 400 metre precipice of Mount Cooroora, an extinct volcanic plug that overlooks the town and dominates the 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 lived. 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 several 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 pub. Most conversation 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 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. 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, south towards Eumundi, east towards Noosa and the long beach on the North Shore, north towards Gympie and west into the endless rugged interior. But what effort it took me to get there. I was spooked. Tomorrow was going to be a 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 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 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. 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. 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 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 I was pleased to see 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 I 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 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.
Cloncurry is my newspaper’s catchment, about 120km east of Mount Isa on the Barkly Hwy. I’ve driven there a few times and that drive through the Selwyn Ranges is one of the most beautiful and rugged I’ve seen anywhere in Australia. On Friday I was invited down to the John Flynn Place museum for the opening of a new exhibit and the launch of a book about Flynn’s life.
The Selwyn Ranges are comprised of ancient eroded proterozoic (an era that stretches from 2.5 billion to 541 million years ago) rocks which, except for a few small outcrops, are concealed beneath the plains.
This is not a northern Australia variation of the dreaded drop bears; there are no car-munching cattle on the Barkly Hwy. But cattle are a concern in these parts, freely roaming the unfenced roads. They are especially difficult to see at night and they do a lot of damage to cars on collision. It is recommended you keep off the highway after dark for this reason.
The Leichhardt, named for German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt has two branches. The west branch flows through Mount Isa, the east flows 30km to the east. The two branches meet up to the north and drain into the Gulf of Carpentaria near Burketown. Leichhardt passed through this country on his first trip from Moreton Bay to Port Essington (in what now the Northern Territory). He may also have come this way on his third trip from Moreton Bay to Swan River in WA to avoid the inland deserts. He and his party disappeared with little trace in 1848.
This monument, halfway between Isa and Cloncurry is to the Kalkadoon people, whose country this is. The Kalkadoons offered fierce resistance to white settlers to the region until they were eventually defeated by an armed force of 200 native police, officers and settlers at Battle Mountain in 1884.
Barely 500m down the road from the Kalkadoon Monument is another monument which partly explains why the Kalkadoons lost their land. The monument recognises the spot the expedition of Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills passed on January 22, 1861 as they headed north from Cooper’s Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria. As is well documented Burke and Wills died on the way back. However the many recovery missions quickly increased the European knowledge of the region and opened it up to white settlers.
This is normally very arid country but the rolling hills are surprisingly lush and green after summer rains.
A couple of blocks back from the highway in Cloncurry is John Flynn Place museum and art gallery, opened in 1988. As the museum website says, John Flynn Place honours an Australian visionary and those who joined his campaign for better living conditions in remote Australia: “The museum recounts an era of technological advance, when aviation and radio overcame the isolation of vast tracts of the continent.” Cloncurry plays an important role in the story. This was where Flynn began his Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1928 and pioneered outback radio communication. Flynn was a long term campaigner for an aerial medical service to provide a “mantle of safety” for the people of the bush, and his vision became a reality when his supporter, H V McKay, left a large bequest for “an aerial experiment”.
In 1927, QANTAS and the Aerial Medical Service signed an agreement to operate an aerial ambulance from Cloncurry. The first pilot took off from Cloncurry on 17 May 1928 flying this single engine, timber and fabric bi-plane named Victory. Victory was leased by QANTAS for two shillings per mile flown. The last piece of Flynn’s jigsaw was the invention of a pedal-operated generator to power a radio receiver. By 1929 people living in isolation were able to call on the Flying Doctor to assist them in an emergency. The School of the Air was established in Alice Springs in 1951, the year of Flynn’s death.
Everald Compton (seen here in front of a portrait of Flynn) was a teenager when Flynn died and he never met him, but he still considers Flynn a major influence on his own eventful life. The seniors’ rights campaigner has written a book about Flynn called The Man on the Twenty Dollar Notes and he was in Cloncurry to launch the book. “I’ve been a fan of John Flynn since I was a little boy in Sunday School and I’ve always been fascinated about what he did,” he said. “He invented the pedal radio, founded the Flying Doctors, founded the School of the Air, built 25 hospitals around the bush, and was involved with John Bradfield in trying to water the whole of Australia.”
The troglodytes that make news placement decisions at News Corp tabloids accidentally stumbled on a good thing this week: they opened up an honest discourse on Australian history. That certainly wasn’t the intention when the Daily Telegraph and others decided on Wednesday it was time to party like it was 1999 and re-open the culture wars. As Waleed Aly said the Tele’s front page was a longstanding part of the lies Australia tells itself about its history.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the grubby paper (later humorously renamed the Tele Nullius) and its story. The Whitewash headline, picture of Captain James Cook and its contention that the University of New South Wales rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia has been widely deconstructed and destroyed elsewhere. The story featured quotes from a right-wing historian, a right-wing lobby group and a right-wing politician. Needless Indigenous people were not represented. It was simply foolish fodder which the paper believes reflects its audience’s view.
There was a similar if more half-hearted effort I saw in the Courier-Mail aimed at Queensland universities and I would imagine the other capital city tabloids also joined in the dog-whistle exposing “political correctness gone mad.” But once the usual suspects of shock jocks, right-wing columnists and radio has-beens finished fulminating at “liberal” universities imposing their dogma, the story brought up manylivelyconsideredresponses – including Aly’s, which accepted the obvious conclusion that Australia was, indeed, invaded. Even politicians stood up to the nonsense, for once. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal Australians was part of our history. “It must be taught and appreciated by all Australians,” she said.
Ignorance of that knowledge might have been acceptable 50 years ago when the Indigenous experience was still written out of Australian history. For almost a century, the established story had been of a peaceful settlement of an empty continent. The original settler stories were bowdlerised of all their resistance, violence and guns leaving heroic settlers whose only enemy was the land itself which they “tamed”. Anthropologist Bill Stanner was among the first to question this narrative in his 1968 Boyer Lectures where he questioned the Great Australian Silence about its Indigenous history. It was a structural matter, according to Stanner. “A view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape,” he said. “What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”
His talk was backed up by a sociologist, Charles Rowley, whose trilogy The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971) was a game changer in a presenting a new view of Aboriginal Australia. Historians were stung into action, led by Henry Reynolds who delved into the Queensland records and looked at first hand testimony in books and newspapers to show how the colony with the largest Indigenous population was invaded and eventually taken over, thanks to a political squatter class who directly benefitted from the takeover with the help of a native police force. Lyndell Ryan did a similar job for Tasmania, as did Heather Goodall in NSW, and gradually a picture built up across Australia of a land violently taken over.
Yet this picture was slow to infiltrate the mainstream and when it did it was fiercely resisted. The cult of forgetfulness was strong. A cosy image of a settler society was comforting and this new history was too confronting. Because it had been outside the official history for so long, many suspected this new narrative and questioned the motivations of the historians. In 1996 new Prime Minister John Howard tapped into those feelings saying (white) Australians deserved to feel “relaxed and comfortable” about their history. But the only way they could do that was to attack the new history (ignoring it was no longer an option). Howard was enthusiastically supported in this culture war by the stormtroopers in the Murdoch empire and for the next decade there was an exhausting and unsatisfying battle of tit-for-tat. But the effect was tangible as the new history was pushed to the sidelines with a preference on glorifying white military history at Gallipoli and elsewhere.
Just as in the “climate science wars” which followed a similar trajectory, few professional historians disputed the new narrative. The main one was the curmudgeonly Keith Windschuttle – the only historian News Corp bothered to contact in this week’s kerfuffle. The title of Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History said more about his research than the historians of Tasmanian history he was attempting to debunk. His counter-history of a land of little violence was soundly and rigorously rebuffed many times.
The political history wars gradually disappeared with the exit of Howard in 2007. Kevin Rudd was no Keating and his famous 2008 apology steered clear of an outright admission of invasion and war. But he gave no momentum to the culture war. Even with the return of Tony Abbott in 2013 it never re-gained traction. Abbott had a muddled view of history, his love of British culture occasionally getting him in trouble when it clashed with his obvious interest and empathy in Indigenous affairs. But politically it has not been an issue. Quietly in the background, historians go on with their research gathering overwhelming evidence. The university guidelines so derided by the Murdoch papers are merely an attempt to bring the language up to date. Murdoch will be dead sometime in the next 20 years and the influence of his rags will die with him. But the story of Indigenous Australia is only getting stronger. Like a stone in a shoe it will continue to nag Australia until it deals with the problem as an adult nation: with a foundation treaty between the federal government and its Indigenous people acknowledging 130 years of invasion and war, and another century of dealing with its painful aftermath.