A quick weekend in Townsville

Having spent Christmas on Norfolk Island with a lovely trip to Phillip Island, I got back to North West Queensland but hadn’t quite shaken the travel bug. There was nothing happening in Mount Isa that first weekend so I decided to do a quick 900km trip to Mount Isa-On-Sea, or Townsville as it is sometimes known.  I set off early on Friday morning and got to the coast by 4pm. I took a detour 9km to the summit of Mt Stuart to take in the view of Castle Hill, the city and Magnetic Island in the distance.

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Named for Clarendon Stuart, Townsville’s first district surveyor in 1859, it has an elevation of 584 metres with great views in every direction. Below is the view through the haze of the Hervey Range north-west of Townsville.

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The summit is composed of granite formed 265 million years ago. Mt Stuart is high enough to have its own ecosystem including endemic grass trees. Also called blackboys for their distinctive colour, Xanthorrhoea johnsonii can grow to five metres with spikes containing thousands of tiny white flowers. Bushfires blacken the trunks but do not kill the plants. The highly resinous leaves depend on fire for survival and it stimulates flowering.

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After walking around the summit track I drove the short distance to town and checked into a hotel. The following morning was the event that was the excuse for the weekend. That was the parkrun at Riverway. I got up early Saturday morning and drove the 10km to the suburb of Thuringowa. The course runs alongside the Ross River and this was the view from the Federation Footbridge at Black Weir near the start line.

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I enjoy parkruns every Saturday morning, mostly at Mount Isa. But I’ve become a parkrun tourist and Riverway was the 14th different course I’ve done. It was a lovely course with beautiful riverside views though the stifling humidity ensured there would be no Personal Best time. The organisers didn’t manage to get a photo of me, but I’m in the pack here somewhere.

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After a shower back at the hotel, I set out for breakfast and then some exploration. I’ve travelled to Townsville numerous times before but I think it is an underrated town especially compared to its more glamorous neighbour Cairns. Below is the Victoria Bridge, a heritage-listed swing bridge over the Ross Creek. The central-pivoting swing bridge was constructed in 1888 and is one of only two of its type in Australia. To the right is Townsville’s tallest building, the Hotel Grand Chancellor, nicknamed the “Sugar Shaker”.

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Across the creek is Townsville’s newest attraction, the 25,000-seater North Queensland Stadium (with Mt Stuart in the background). The stadium opens in February and as the sign says Elton John will play there on leap year day. It will be the permanent home of the North Queensland Cowboys rugby league team.

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Next up was a walk to Castle Hill via the Goat Track. To get to that I had to walk up Hale St with the heritage-listed Sacred Heart Catholic cathedral in a commanding position in the foreground. Built between 1896 and 1902, it is a substantial brick building of Gothic style.

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The Goat Track to the top of Castle Hill is only 1.3km long but with a thousand steps to negotiate, it is a tough undertaking especially in the middle of a humid summer. As the name suggests, wild goats lived on the hill but ravaged native vegetation. In the 1880s the Townsville Herald voiced public outrage at the denudation of Castle Hill and the Townsville Municipal Council established a Recreation Reserve of 228 hectares.

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The path is hard work even for Townsville’s many fitness fanatics. But the views from its many lookouts at the top make the effort worthwhile, such as this one straight out east over the beachside suburbs, Cleveland Bay and Magnetic Island.

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Townsville exists because of its port. The Burdekin River’s seasonal flooding made the establishment of a seaport further north essential to the growing cattle industry in the 19th century. Cattle remains important but Townsville’s proximity to Asia is strategically important in the 21st century. The Port of Townsville operates eight berths and is the largest container and automotive port in Northern Australia. Much of Mount Isa’s mineral wealth ends up here.

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The height of Mt Stuart and its dominant position west of town can be clearly appreciated from the top of Castle Hill. Like Mt Stuart, Castle Hill itself is a pink granite monolith 286 metres high (some 300m shorter than Mt Stuart).town10

The view north of Castle Hill shows Cape Pallerenda. Now a conservation park, Cape Pallarenda was once a quarantine station in the early 1900s and a strategic defence location in World War II. Visitors can walk and ride the Cape Pallarenda Trails to see the World War II structures on the headland. This photo also shows the WWII communications and observation post on Castle Hill itself.

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After another necessary shower, I headed out again, this time to The Strand, the city’s long strip along the coast. I was keen to cool down with a swim in one of the netted areas which keep out the summertime marine stingers. But even here the lifeguards had closed the beach. The reason: sightings of crocodiles. Fair enough, I doubt if a bit of netting would be much impediment to a big hungry reptile.

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I walked further along the Strand and found this monument which was not there last I was here. This is the Ocean Siren, the inaugural sculpture in what is planned to be the Southern Hemisphere’s first Museum of Underwater Art. Installed just before Christmas, British marine sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor’s Ocean Siren is an environmental warning modelled on local Wulgurukaba Traditional Owner Takoda Johnson. It reacts to live water temperature data from the Davies Reef weather station and changes colour in response to live variations in water temperature.

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Hot and sweaty for the third time that day, I finally found a place to swim. This was at the safe Strand Rockpool. The pool was shut down with an algal bloom infection in September but was open and packed when I came calling in January. And not a croc in sight.

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Refreshed after a dip I continued north to Jezzine Barracks at Kissing Point. Kissing Point Fort was built in 1891 as a two-gun battery and part of the coastal defence scheme being established to protect Queensland from fear of attack from imagined European enemies such France and Russia. The Barracks complex was built in the second world war to counter a more real enemy: Japan. Along the path is a large-scale map of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Townsville was the largest Allied operational base in the South West Pacific and played an important support role in that battle.

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Townsville was bombed three times in WWII. The first raid on the night of 25-26 July 1942 saw Japanese flying boats dropping six bombs, all landing in the sea. In the second raid on 28 July an airboat dropped eight bombs which landed near Many Peaks Range. The following night the same pilot returned and six allied aircraft unsuccessfully attempted to intercept him before he jettisoned seven bombs in Cleveland Bay and an eighth near the Animal Health Station at Oonoonba, causing the only casualty: a coconut tree.

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Tired after my exertions and sweating profusely yet again, I retreated towards my hotel, for yet another shower and the comfort of air conditioning. The following day it was back on the road west to the Isa, a quick 1800km round trip in three days. But Townsville, I’ll be back. There’s at least two other parkrun venues to be explored.

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