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.”