Ten favourite albums 1: Horslips Dancehall Sweethearts

cover_722152612018_rThere’s this game doing the rounds on Facebook about people naming their ten favourite albums. The viral nature of the game is exposed with the second half of the rules. With each album you must tag a friend to do the same. In theory each person playing the game spawns ten more. Unsurprisingly sooner or later a friend nominated me to do it but it’s not something I use Facebook for so I ignored the request (possibly a feeble attempt to stick it to Zuckerberg, but there you go).

Nonetheless I couldn’t get the question out of my mind. Love of music is so personal and so changing listing a top 10 seemed an impossible task. But I am a sucker for a good list and I felt I had to give it a go. A top 10 is hard, though I have an all-time favourite album and that will make the list in due course. I also have favourite artists and bands (Bowie and Radiohead) but which albums to choose from them? I’ve scribbled down a provisional top 10 but that may change as I get through it.

You can all relax, however. I’m not nominating anyone else to do the same. You don’t need my permission.

1. Dancehall Sweethearts, Horslips

My memories of Ireland in the 1970s, like the TV of the time, are in black and white. The country was grim, poor, and inward looking – still gradually emerging from fog of war in the 1920s that kept the nation looking awkwardly back into its history rather than into the future for inspiration. By the mid 1970s most of the De Valera generation that dominated Ireland since those war times were finally dead and although war was still front of mind of those in the north of the island, the Republic of Ireland was slowly finding its feet, albeit at a time when the world was reeling with the effect of the Oil Shock. The sixties zeitgeist had left a small mark on conservative Catholic consciousness. Art was always an Irish stronghold. The great literary figures of Joyce, Shaw, Yeats and others had long lampooned Irish hypocrisies but left the masses cold. What could inspire as well as teach was Irish music.

Traditional music always had a place in Irish culture but in his short lifetime Sean O’Riada was in the vanguard of a new experiment placing Irish music firmly in the world canon leaning on other folk cultures such as middle Europe. Traditional music exploded in Dublin in the 1960s as younger artists began to see the possibilities of merging trad, folk and other new genres. Planxty (some of whose members will also appear later in my list) were a pivotal band bringing traditional music bang up to date with alternative arrangements and instruments and provocative ideas to go with older songs.

The band Horslips founded almost by accident in 1972 as a straightforward Irish rock band. But several of its members such as Jim Lockhart were university-educated and had studied O’Riada. Their first singles mixed rock and trad and had good radio airplay and their debut album “Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part” with its Gaelic motifs and octagonal cover was full of traditional airs that pretty much invented a new genre “celtic rock”.

Their second album a year later The Táin took that idea one step further – a concept album based on the early Irish legend of Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), about a war between Ulster and Connacht over a prize bull. The album featured what would become their signature track Dearg Doom and was a critical and commercial success in Ireland, though with limited exposure elsewhere due to its presumably esoteric subject matter.

It was this matter of how to sell Horslips in 1974 that convinced record company RCA (which marketed its material outside Ireland) to come up with the cliched rock band cover photo for Dancehall Sweethearts. Suspicious of matters celtic, they wanted Horslips to be seen as firmly in the 1970s rock canon. But the material remained stubbornly Irish. The title of their third album spoke to the Irish musical tradition of large country dancehalls where “showbands” (such as one my own father performed in) dominated in front of large audiences with their Irish interpretation of pop and country classics. The dancehalls were dying off by 1974 as the showbands lost their lure (and were put almost out of business by the nasty business of war as the Miami Showband Killings showed a year later).

Horslips were “nighttown boys” who played in dancehalls but were sweethearts of a different nature. Despite the cliched Spinal Tap cover, they were constantly reinventing, this time adding splashes of brass and blues to their Irish melodies. There was another concept too this one riffing to the great 18th century blind harper, Turlough O’ Carolan and the word “blind” featured in two song titles. They also played homage to the Beatles when they performed their traditional instrumental King of the Fairies on the roof of the Baggot St Bank of Ireland in Dublin.  The album was a vision of a new Ireland proud of its past but reaching out experimentally to a confident future.

Horslips made three more albums in this new genre peaking with the Book of Invasions in 1976 (widely considered their best record) before becoming more mainstream rock as they tried to make it big in America. Those later albums were not as good and they eventually broke up around 1980.

I was 10 when Dancehall Sweethearts came out and first came across the album probably a year or two later alongside the Book of Invasions in the record collection of older cousins. Maybe it was because prog rock was my thing at the time I was hooked more by the rock-like cover of Sweethearts. But it didn’t take long to get into the music. Nighttown Boy was a cracking opener but I was transfixed from the moment I heard the haunting choir singing Fear a Bhata as the opening to the Carolanesque The Blind Can’t Lead the Blind.

This was a new Ireland, haunting the consciousness of all who call – or once called – her home.

Well you can move to Boston
Take a job in a small hotel.
But that won’t be the answer
You’ll still hear St. Patrick’s Bell

Even now in far away northern Australia, I still hear St. Patrick’s Bell whenever I listen to Horslips.




Long overdue compensation for Palm Islanders in Mulrunji case

Photo of Palm Island courtesy of Palm Island Shire Council

A dark and shameful episode in Queensland history has come to end with the news the Queensland government has agreed to pay a $30m settlement and deliver a formal apology to the people of Palm Island. It comes as the federal court found police officers breached the Racial Discrimination Act and acted unlawfully in responding to riots over the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee (known as Mulrunji) in 2004. The settlement, subject to approval by the federal court, resolves a class action involving hundreds of claimants, lead by Lex, Cecilia and Agnes Wotton.

Palm Island was a Queensland gulag, a concentration camp for Aboriginal people or an “island Siberia” as historian Henry Reynolds called it. Wotton would not have been old enough to remember the last time locals rioted against injustice in 1957. But he would have known the story and heard about the heavy-handed police response on that occasion. The police attitude has not changed with police union boss Ian Leavers claiming they did nothing wrong in 2004 and the settlement was made to “criminals”.  Leavers is paid to defend his members but would have been advised to have kept his mouth shut this time rather than add to a flagrant injustice.

His officer Chris Hurley has been the centre of attention since the coroner found him guilty of killing Mulrunji with three fatal punches, a death compounded by the casual treatment of the body and the lies police told the family after his death. Fourteen years later no one has been convicted of his death despite numerous court actions. Mulrunji stupidly taunted police as they made an arrest but his subsequent arrest was needless as was Hurley’s punches which left him dying in the cells.

When his family came calling, worried for his health, Hurley lied to them that he was sleeping and then colluded with other officers to cover up the death. When the truth did come out about the death of a popular local man, anger quickly seethed in a community used to being discriminated against, but had never accepted it.  When they surrounded the police station, the police response was to send in the riot squad. At 5am they broke into the home of community leader Lex Wotton – who was never implicated in the riots – and arrested him at gunpoint in front of terrified relatives. In 2016 Federal Court Justice Debbie Mortimer ruled police had breached the racial discrimination act as they responded to the riots. It’s hard not to agree with the Palm Island mayor it is the police who need to apologise not the islanders.

Ultimately police are state government employees and it was the state government that overstepped the mark in 2004 as they did in 1957.  Back in 1957, Palm Islanders had almost no rights at all. Their movements and almost all aspects of their life were controlled by Queensland’s infamous Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Palm Island reserve was created as a penal settlement for Aboriginal people across northern Queensland, and many were jailed for trivial offences. Saxby Downs stockman Albert Hippi was sent there because he “frightens women and tries to get liquor” while in 1924 Paddy Brooks of Millaa Millaa was exiled for causing “discontent”.

On the island they were ruled by a succession of harsh administrators such as Robert Curry. Curry arrived when the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron for 12 years. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. In 1929 Home Department recommended a police magistrate inquiry into Curry ‘s alleged assault of a woman with a whip until “she fell senseless to the ground”.

After his medical officer reported him for flogging, Curry lost the plot. In the early hours of February 3, 1930 he ran amok with a gun shooting and injuring the medical officer before smashing the officer’s wife skull with the butt of his rifle. He then set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter inside. After he fled to another island and then returned, the medical officer ordered Aboriginal man Peter Prior to shoot him dead. Prior was charged with murder but the Supreme Court judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because Curry’s killer was not a white man.

In the war years the US Army posted black American soldiers to the island to protect white Australian sensibilities from seeing black men on the streets of the city (the paranoid fear was they would have sex with white women). These soldiers gave the islanders a powerful new sense of their own identity and the Second World War was a time of political awakening for Aboriginal people. But islander hopes were brutally quashed with the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.

Bartlam was an ex-policeman obsessed with control. He believed Murris could not think for themselves and used intimidation and police brutality to cement his reign. Locals were punished if they did not salute all whites they passed in the street. If they were late for roll call or curfew, they were imprisoned. People faced seven day’s jail for laughing or whistling. Blacks were jailed for being untidy or not having their hair cut. Women were sent to prison for not having skirts below knee-length.

Bartlam’s ridiculous rules led an all-out strike in 1957 with eerie foreshadowing of the 2004 riots. A Murri man was charged with threatening Bartlam, but broke away and was joined by demonstrators who attacked police and abused settlement officers. As Bartlam hid in his office, Aboriginal people went on strike and controlled every corner. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding “adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”

Just as in 2004, authorities over-reacted. RAAF planes rushed 20 police to the island, greeted by 250 demonstrators. After several days of siege, Bartlam’s men arrested the strike leaders in the middle of the night and the strike was ended. The leaders were exiled and Bartlam stayed but the strike had some success. There was immediate improvements in diet and conditions.

Yet as late as 1969 blacks were still banned from the main street, Mango Avenue, and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism. When local leader Fred Clay and union organiser Bill Rosser started a newsletter called Smoke Signal to document life under the Act, they were legally thrown off the island.

Though some land rights and an Aboriginal council were established in the 1980s, the island was still home to inadequate housing, poor sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. While regulations were introduced in 1972 which declared all Aboriginal workers must be paid an award wage, these regulations did not apply to workers on government reserves such as Palm Island, where payment was labelled a “training allowance”, despite many employees having worked for decades. In the 2000s Palm Island remained a deeply troubled and desperately poor place hidden from view from mainstream Australia. Some locals called the place “Fallujah” but this Fallujah never made the national news until the 2004 riots.

In Mulrunji’s inquest report the Deputy Coroner found Hurley had contributed to his death. The police union were furious, the government backed off, and Hurley was never stood down. The largest police awards ceremony in Queensland history issued bravery awards for the cops involved in quelling the riot. Premier Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot, though he was released on parole in 2010. In 2013 his family filed the class action and the Federal Court found in their favour in 2016.

As Justice Mortimer said about police in his scathing judgement: “If content is to be given to the obligation, contained in the QPS Operational Procedures Manual to consider ‘cultural needs’, then in the case of Palm Island those cultural needs could not possibly be understood or met in any genuine way without a good working appreciation of the racism and oppression that characterised the island’s history.” Something that Leavers would do well to understand.


The contested legacy of Captain James Cook

cookKnowing his announcement on Saturday was contentious, federal treasurer Scott Morrison said the planned $3m memorial to Captain James Cook in Botany Bay is part of a “very inclusive project” to commemorate the site of European first arrival in New South Wales. By inclusive presumably he means will include “Indigenous elements” though it won’t hurt his Treasury there is also a $50m redevelopment to include a museum, cafe, ferry wharves and visitors centre. It won’t hurt Morrison either as the project happens to be in his electorate.

But Morrison knows the proposal is contentious. Cook is now a highly divisive figure in Australia, seen by many indigenous people as the start of all their problems and still seen by many older white Australians as the founding father of settler Australia and the start of Britain’s rule over the country.  He is revered in the names of roads, towns, shires and places across Australia. Yet black lore in Victoria River country in the Northern Territory talks about how Cook came and stole their lands. The history on Cook has always been fuzzy. What his Sydney landing site certainly wasn’t, as the Guardian claimed, was “European colonisers’ first arrival on Australian soil”.

Colonisation of Australia was inevitable given trade globalisation and Europeans had been exploring the coastline of Australia for 160 years when Cook first came calling. The Dutch mapped most of the north, west and south coast and found Tasmania (though did not realise it was an island). They arrived in Cape York in 1605 and a year later Spaniard Luis Torres found the nearby strait that bears his name though Spanish authorities kept his find secret for 150 years.

Cook wasn’t even the first Englishman in Australia. The ship The Tryall sighted WA in 1622 and William Dampier’s visits in 1688 and 1699 did much to excite the British imagination about the strange southern continent whose natives had “great bottle-noses, pretty full lips and wide mouths.”

Travelling 70 years later, Cook was a meticulous planner and had read Dampier. If Morrison’s monument just celebrated his sailing skills it would not be contentious. Cook was a superb mapmaker and decades ahead of his time in avoiding scurvy on long trips. The Briton lays good claim to be the best mariner of all time, certainly of the Pacific Ocean and his three trips of exploration greatly expanded European knowledge of that part of the world. His first voyage found the Cook Islands, New Zealand and eastern Australia, his second found Norfolk Island and conclusively proved there was no Terra Incognita in the southern oceans and his third explored Alaska and Hawaii, where his growing hubris led to his death in an unnecessary beach clash with natives in 1779.

Always destined to go to sea from his young days on the Yorkshire coast, Cook had made his reputation in the 1760s as a naval surveyor in Canada, mapping the tricky coastline of Newfoundland and competently and quickly rising through the ranks of the Royal Navy as the Seven Years War raged around him.

When Britain wanted someone to lead a mission to observe the Transit of Venus in newly discovered and cloud-free Tahiti in 1769, Cook was the obvious candidate. His discretion and loyalty meant he was also ideal to carry out the secret orders for the second part of his mission. These orders, not discovered until 1928, were to head south to find the southern continent Europeans thought existed in low latitudes and take “possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.”

Possession was always in British minds in the late 18th century, though the supposed continent did not exist. Cook sailed south for as long as it was safe then changed tack and headed west. He found and mapped both islands of New Zealand and then headed towards New Holland which he knew the Dutch and Abel Tasman had laid tentative claim over a century earlier.

But Cook knew too the Dutch had not mapped the east coast so perhaps there was room for multiple claims in the real great south land. Cook picked up the coast at Point Hicks named for the lieutenant aboard his ship Endeavour that first spotted land. Cook knew Tasmania lay to the south but powered by a gale headed north before landing in Botany Bay on 29 April 1770. Cook had observed smoke along the way and here he saw locals and huts on both sides of the bay. Cook was not welcomed on arrival and when he approached to land two of the local men “seem’d resolved to oppose me” and threw nails and beads at the visitors.

After Cook’s men opened fire with muskets, the locals ran away and Cook went ashore to investigate. His men searched for fresh water, food and timber but apart from an awkward chance meeting while dredging for oysters, the natives kept their distance though always stayed close where they could observe their uninvited visitors.  To their relief the strangers left on May 7 but not before wealthy botanist aboard Joseph Banks decided the great quantity of plants they found deserved the name Botany Bay.

After completing their sail up the coast of Queensland, and only barely surviving the Great Barrier Reef, Cook then made the extraordinary move that outstripped his orders. Realising he was at the top of Australia he came to an island (which he called Possession Island) on 22 July and formally took possession of “the whole eastern coast…by the name New (South) Wales” from Point Hicks to where they stood.

This remarkable declaration remains one of the foundation stones of Australian law and has never been challenged. Cook did not follow his instructions of seeking the consent of the natives. He knew they were there in numbers thanks to “a great number of smokes” he had seen along the coast and his meetings in Botany Bay and Cape Tribulation.

Without any say so, a population of half a million people suddenly had their 50,000-year-old land rights stripped from them – though they were completely unaware of their loss and their lives went on as before. For now Cook’s act was one of imagination but it was importantly politically. It was an act of claim especially against the growing naval power of the French who would land in Botany Bay themselves 18 years later. Compte Laperouse was beaten a few days by Cook’s successor Arthur Phillip and his infant penal colony. By then Cook was dead and it was Banks’ evidence that gave Britain – desperate after the loss of independent America – the excuse to found a colony of prisoners on the other side of the world.

Laperouse was shipwrecked and died (showing Cook’s own skill in avoid that fate). Phillip moved to nearby Sydney Harbour which Cook surprisingly missed though Cook’s legacy remained – the colony remained known as “Botany Bay”. British Australia slowly fanned out and the rest was “history”. Morrison will need to tread carefully to sell that history.

He would do well to read the editorial in the Australian on the 200th anniversary of Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay, 29 April 1970.  “We came bearing Christianity,” it began. But, “we also brought rum and smallpox, revolvers and Martini-Henry Carbines to slaughter men, women and children who speared the cattle we released on their land. And when we couldn’t kill them we smothered them – withholding education, banning and banishing them.. They were easy victories, and we are still winning them – every time we shut our eyes, turn our backs, comfort ourselves with the myth that we are the world’s most egalitarian people… The Aboriginal concept of land is much deeper, more meaningful than ours… Should we celebrate our nationhood while ignoring the schism dividing us?”

That schism remains yawningly wide almost 50 years later.



Three weeks on the road in North West Queensland

trip3As the editor of the North West Star my patch is enormous. Centred in Mount Isa, it covers a region from the NT border east to Hughenden and from the Gulf of Carpentaria south to Birdsville, a huge area covering 14 local councils and almost half a million square kilometres. It is the size of Spain (Isa is our Madrid) but with a population of less than 50,000 people. I’ve been lucky to get around a lot of it but even by my standards these last three weeks have been hectic, with several big journeys bookended by two one-thousand-click trips, for 5000km in the car in three weeks.


It started with the Easter races at Boulia. As in previous Easters I began with a drive down to Bedourie to catch up with friends. It is past Boulia, 500km from Mount Isa, on a road parallel to the border and surprisingly all bitumen, though the Mount Isa-Boulia stretch is almost entirely one lane only.


I stopped at the Vaughan Johnson lookout at the border of the Boulia and Diamantina shires to enjoy the amazing view east over the Channel Country. The colours always change up here but this was as brown as I’ve ever seen the view. There is water in the Lake Eyre Basin thanks to flooding further north but little has made it to this part of the system.


The effect of upstream water is confirmed at Bedourie. The roads south to Birdsville and east to Windorah are shut due to flooding. There is an alternative rocky route to Birdsville via Lake Machattie but I’m not keen on that bonejarring experience.


I’m content to drive 20km south of Bedourie to Cluny property and admire the normally empty Kings Creek in full flow though it has hardly rained in Bedourie this year. Kings Creek is part of the Georgina River system and all this water came from the far north west of Queensland and the NT.


On Saturday it was up 200km to Boulia to cover their annual race meet followed by a 300km drive back to Mount Isa that afternoon. It was important to get home before dark as cattle wander the unfenced road at night and give off no reflection. I’m keen on this Indian system to give them glow horns in the dark.


On Easter Sunday I went out to Rigby Falls, a waterhole and waterfall about 50km towards Cloncurry and then another 20km on rugged tracks. It was a beautiful drive though there was little water remaining at Rigby after recent rains.


Having gotten the Tuesday paper out of the way early Easter Monday, I had time in the afternoon for more local exploration, to East Leichhardt Dam, a reserve supply for Cloncurry Shire, and admire a lovely waterhole near the Dam itself.


The following Saturday it was back to the races, this time Maxwelton, 350km east of Isa. The Maxi bush races are famous around the district but didn’t happen last year due to a bumpy track failing to pass muster. The locals came along anyway, dressed in their finery and had a great day out with footraces replacing the four-legged variety.


Maxi race president Bill Needham plays the fanfare twice with each race, once to announce the horses in the ring before the race, and secondly to announce correct weight. Maxi races were broke and dying a few years ago when Needham and a new committee took over to save it. Needham admits they knew nothing about racing but they knew how important the annual meet is to social interaction in an isolated district.


On Monday it was more equestrian sport, this time 320km up to the Gulf to the campdraft at the dot on the map called Burke & Wills Junction. I wouldn’t normally drive that far for a campdraft but this one doubled up as the national championships decider, a rare honour for a place that boasts just one building – the Burke and Wills Junction roadhouse, with nothing 200km in any distance.


At the gala dinner that evening caterers from Cloncurry did a remarkable job to feed 300 people from a mobile kitchen hired from the Outback College of Hospitality. They brought in 150 serves of 300g steak, 150 serves of 200g barramundi, 30kgs of potatoes, 10kg of cherry tomatoes, 30kgs of prawns and 5kg of smoked salmon and made 25kg of coleslaw and pumpkin salad in heat of 36 degrees outside and 46 degrees in the mobile kitchen. I slept off dinner in the car that night and drove back to Mount Isa on Tuesday.


I was back in Cloncurry on Thursday for a parliamentary hearing into the high costs of regional airfares. One reason I do so much driving is that flying in the bush is outrageously expensive, a hot-button issue in our region. At Cloncurry the federal Senate committee heard from local councils and industry groups and later that day returned to Mount Isa to hear the horrendous experience of locals who have forked out $20,000 and more to fly to see sick family members or get their kids to sporting events on the coast.


On Friday I was on the road again, this time to Julia Creek for their annual Dirt N Dust triathlon festival, which I’ve written about before. It’s a great weekend with plenty going on. But this year I was unprepared for the enormous amount of flies and bugs. They are in abundance after recent rains and were a pest at Maxwelton (though not at Burke & Wills where there was tree cover). This photo of bugs in the light at the arena does not do justice to their extraordinary numbers, and made life very difficult.


Bugs or no bugs the tri goes on and on Saturday morning we headed 30km out for the start at Eastern Creek. The bikes are taken out in enormous cattle trucks and the competitors, organisers and media are bussed to the start.


The fun starts with a 800m soupy swim (though it can get quite deep and cold) in the creek. Visibility zero, but flies in the billions. Crocs? Well this is a Gulf river system so maybe one or two but they’ll be freshies who might give you a nip if you get too close not fearsome salties who enjoy the taste of person.


Then the 30km bike ride back to town. Usually they are battling a headwind but this year there is no breeze. The only thing they have to contend with is media crouched in the grass or on the middle of the road looking for that perfect low level heat haze shot (I got one I’m happy with).


Finally it’s back to town for an energy-sapping three laps of the main street in a 5km run to finish the triathlon. Afterwards everyone shrugs off the active wear and rocks a suit or a fabulous dress at the Artesian Express races at Julia Creek’s McIntyre Park, holding the richest race in the region.


I headed back to Mount Isa on Sunday and after filing my Julia Creek stories I had time to head 20km out of town to explore the trails and climb the hills at the Heywood Granite Mine.


This abandoned mine is full of red granite boulders not unlike the more well-known structures at Karlu Karlu – the Devils Marbles.


Two days later it was another 300km round trip. The destination was Dajarra, half way to Boulia. Here the Cloncurry Shire Council was holding its monthly meeting and also officially opened the small town’s new cenotaph which honours Dajarra’s Indigenous First World War digger Peter Craigie. Peter’s family came down from Mount Isa to celebrate the day, a week ahead of Anzac Day.


The final trip was on Thurday, a lazy 500km to Winton. About half way from Mount Isa is the tiny township of McKinlay. In the centre of town is a statue to John McKinlay, Scottish-born cattle grazier, and leader of the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition, one of the search parties for the Burke and Wills expedition in 1861. McKinlay discovered a river nearby, also named for him and the town briefly prospered with a goldrush in the 1870s. Today its main claim to fame is the Walkabout Creek Hotel, used for filming Crocodile Dundee.


My destination was Winton for the three-day Way Out West festival. The main street was closed to traffic with a music stage across the road from the town’s North Gregory Hotel. The hotel famously heard the first rendition of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda (though its genesis was inspired by Combo Waterhole, 160kms across the border in McKinlay Shire).


In a break in events I drove 20km out of Winton to the sparse Bladensburg National Park with its grassy plains, clay pans and mesas, river red gums and gidgee woodlands. The National Park conserves 84,900ha of Mitchell Grass Downs and Channel Country, including unique birdlife, plants and animals. Impressive flat-topped plateaus and residual sandstone ranges provide a scenic backdrop to vast grassland plains, river flats, and rocky scarps.


The Koa People consider Bladensburg part of their traditional country, and it is also important to the Maiawali and Karuwali People. At Skull Hole inside the Park the Native Police and associate posse massacred two hundred Aboriginal people. Norwegian scientist Carl Lumholtz recalled how he in about 1882-84 was shown “a large number of skulls of natives who had been shot by the black police” some years earlier. In 1901 P. H. F Mackay wrote an article to The Queenslander about a massacre at the Skull Hole on Mistake Creek citing property manager Hazelton Brock as a witness and participant who classified the incident as “the Massacre of the Blacks”.


I camped the night at Pelican Waterhole, site of the original township of Winton next to the Western River. The town was moved a kilometre away to its current location on higher ground due to frequent flooding.


The centrepiece of the weekend was the opening of the new $23m Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton. The old visitor information centre and museum was burned to the ground in June 2015 though the statue of Banjo survived the blaze. The Governor-General and Premier of Queensland came on Friday to officially open the new building. I watched that ceremony but could not hang around Winton for the rest of the festival. It was back on the road for a final 500km to Mount Isa and some well deserved time on the couch.

The full itinerary for the three weeks:

Easter Mount Isa – Boulia – Bedourie 1100km return (plus side trips)

Easter Sunday Rigby Falls 120km return

Easter Monday East Leichhardt Dam 100km return

Saturday, April 7 Mount Isa to Maxwelton 700km return

Monday-Tuesday April 9-10 Mount Isa to Burke & Wills Junction 640km return

Thursday April 12 Mount Isa to Cloncurry 250km return

Weekend April 13-15 Mount Isa to Julia Creek 520km return

Sunday April 15 Heywood Granite Mine 50km return

Tuesday April 17 Mount to Isa to Dajarra 320km return

Thursday-Friday April 19-20 Mount Isa to Winton 1100km return (including side trips).

Total 4900km.

Inside Capricorn Caves

The Capricorn Caves are another of North Queensland’s great natural wonders. Situated near the Bruce Highway 30km north of Rockhampton, the Caves are part of the Mount Etna National Park. I’ve driven past the town of The Caves visible from the Highway many times before finally dropping by last year. Caves are awesome places to get a measure of an area’s geology and this one has nice gardens too while waiting for a tour into the cave.IMG_0470

My first surprise as we start the tour is that instead of going down we are going up. These caves are high in the mountains. Aboriginal people have long known of the Capricorn caves, and it is part of the Darumbal people’s traditional homeland. They were rediscovered by settler John Olsen in 1881 when it was almost immediately opened to the public. In 1988, after four generations of Olsen family ownership, Rodney Olsen sold the freehold property to Ken and Ann Augusteyn. Today, they are the only privately owned show caves on freehold land in Australia.


While wild caving tours are on the menu for the adventurous, the park has also reached out to the wider market with easy walking caves via wooden steps and even wheelchair accessible caves. The Archer Brothers settled in Rockhampton area in the 1850s and named Mount Etna after the volcano in Sicily. From 1914 to 1939, the caves were mined for guano, a natural fertiliser, and from 1925 for limestone. During World War II, commandos trained here. The national park was established in 1975 to protect the caves.


During the Devonian period about 390 million years ago eastern Queensland was covered by a warm shallow sea. Erupting lava gradually built up islands that provided a base for corals, sponges, and shellfish to grow. Their calcareous skeletons accumulated on the sea floors to form the sedimentary Mount Etna limestone. As the limestone emerged from the sea to become land, it was exposed to acidic rain and underground water flowing through cracks. These waters dissolved the calcite in limestone to form the caves. When the water became saturated with the dissolved calcite it redeposited the calcite as cave decorations.


The area has been alternately shaped by, and then starved of, water. Limestone from ancient coral reefs formed rocky karst.


Five bat species roost in Capricorn Caves at different times of the year, mainly in warm wet weather. Little bent-wing bats (Miniopterus australis) visit in their thousands, and Australia’s largest carnivorous bat, the vulnerable ghost bat (Macroderma gigas) is a rare vistor.


Marine fossils of the original corals can still be seen in Capricorn Caves. Crinoids (sea lilies) were abundant and stromatoporoids, sponge-like filtering organisms with hard skeletons, built up large mounds of limestone.


The rare fern Tectaria devexa, seen in cave entrances, was threatened with extinction in 2006 after decades of drought. Spread across southern Asia Capricorn Caves remained the only known locality in Australia until April 2001 with about 40 plants when an additional smaller population was located at another cave. A threatened species recovery program has helped stabilise the fragile species.


The most popular tour is the Cathedral Cave Tour is with its wheelchair access and the natural acoustics of the Cathedral Chamber. It’s a popular venue for weddings, Carols at Christmas and orchestral performances.


The tour meanders through ten chambers ranging from smaller caves decorated with stalactites, cave coral and shawls to the huge domed Cathedral Cavern. In my tour they turned off all the lights in the Cavern while playing a recorded cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which sounded amazing in almost total darkness while candles flickered on the walls.


Because there was only three of us on this session we got a bit of the more adventurous tour. The exit is via the “Commando Crawl” and then a swing rope. Thankfully we we skipped the bit where you squeeze through “Fat Man’s Misery”, a tight fit cave not for the overweight – or claustrophobic.


A visit to Paronella Park

park15I’d driven the road from Townsville to Cairns once before in 2013 but at that time I’d not heard of Paronella Park. I headed up that way again in 2017 and in the intervening years I’d heard multiple times Paronella Park was worth a visit and had won many tourism awards. So I added it to my itinerary between Cardwell and Innisfail. The park is not new, it has been open since 1935. As I drove north I saw many billboards advertising its charms and wondered why I didn’t notice it before. Or was it simply clever marketing in the last few years that had raised its profile?


There is no doubting Paronella Park is an extraordinary place with an extraordinary story. Situated at Mena Creek it is a 15km detour from the Bruce Highway, 200km south of Cairns.  I parked on the south side of the creek at a lookout admiring Mena Creek Falls. It was the dry season so not at its most spectacular but sitting pretty right next door was Paronella Park in all its glory.


The Park is approached by a swing bridge which looks down on the creek below and part of the ornate park. The park was a pre-war dream of a Spanish immigrant named José Paronella who wanted to build a Castilian castle in the Australian tropics. Paronella was born in February 1887 in La Vall de Santa Creu, a small village in Catalonia. On five hectares of virgin scrub beside Mena Falls he built a park in his name with a castle, picnic area by the falls, tennis courts, bridges, a tunnel, and covered it with 7500 tropical plants and trees that is now a lush rainforest.


José Paronella’s father tended olives for local farmers and his grandmother’s tales of “romantic Spanish castles” and the “nobleza” profoundly influenced José’s later dreams.  As a young man, he moved from Catalonia to Cairns in 1913. For 11 years he worked hard, cutting sugar cane then purchasing, improving, and reselling cane farms. By 1921 he was an Australian citizen and a wealthy man. Paronella received an extortion letter from The Black Hand demanding £500. The Black Hand had been established in Sydney and Melbourne, and was making inroads into the Italian communities in Innisfail with many murders, bombings, and blackmails. Paronella was susceptible to extortion as he had been involved in tax evasion. In 1924 he returned to Spain under a false name intending to marry Matilda Soler, his betrothed before coming to Australia. But Matilda had found another man so he married Matilda’s younger sister Margarita instead. He took Margarita back to Australia where the couple worked hard together to continued to build their fortune. They also had two children Teresa and Joe (Jr).

park16José first saw his park in 1914 but it wasn’t until 1929 he was in a position to buy it which he did for £120. Immediately he got to work building his pleasure gardens and reception centre for public enjoyment. Paronella was strongly influenced by the Moorish architecture and gardens of Spain, and the design of Villa gardens visited during his European honeymoon. He also admired the work of Antonio Gaudi, and created garden elements inspired by those in the Alcazar Garden in Seville and the Botanic Gardens in Madrid.


The earliest structure, the Grand Staircase, was built to facilitate the carrying of the river sand to make the concrete. The steep structure has reminders of past floods. The two brown tiles about half way up represent the 1996 flood level (lower) and 1967 and 1994 (upper). Near the top is a third tile representing the huge height of the 1946 flood.


After building a house for themselves, the Paronellas started on the castle and accompanying lookout towers and pillars. Apart from the stone house, all of the structures were constructed of poured, reinforced concrete from old railway track. The concrete was covered with a clay and cement plaster put on by hand, leaving their fingerprints as a reminder.


It took six years to open the park but the buzz was growing at the scale of what they were doing. In 1933 the Brisbane Sunday Mail reported what the “pleasant-faced Spaniard” was up to in the Deep North. The paper was impressed but struggled to avoid racist overtones. “Joe Paronella. An amazing fellow of 47 and with none of the swagger the world has pinned to his race.”  But it did ask him the question why he put so much effort into it: “It is because I wish to do something. I make my money in (the) sugar industry and in selling my farm. I travel and see the world twice. Never do I see any place as beautiful as Queensland.”


Paronella did much of the work himself. He also employed a canecutter who had worked as a carpenter in Malta and the canecutter’s nephew to work on the project full-time. He used many unemployed men who had arrived in Innisfail and exchanged food and shelter for labour. In 1935, the Park was officially opened to the public. Queensland governor Leslie Wilson was at a conference in Innisfail and visited the new park. Wilson was impressed and told journalists “Paronella has created a place of beauty which will be a great attraction to visitors in the future. His buildings are of unique design. The Park is a credit to North Queensland. It is absolutely remarkable to see what one enterprising man can do.” Access to Mena Creek from Innisfail had improved and the park was immediately popular. It boomed during the war years as thousands of American servicemen descended on the park with plenty of money to spend.


The theatre showed movies every Saturday night. And when they removed the canvas chairs from the Hall it was transformed into a favourite venue for dances and parties. The highlight of the ballroom was a myriad reflector, a great ball covered with 1270 tiny mirrors, suspended from the ceiling. Its pink and blue spotlights of pink and blue shone on the reflector from the corners of the hall and when rotated slowly, it produced a coloured snowflake effect around the room. Upstairs was the Paronella Museum housing coins, pistols, dolls and samples of North Queensland timbers. Evidence remains of the disastrous fire that swept through the Park and destroyed the hall and cafe in 1979. The Park was closed for years, but was slowly revived despite further damage caused by cyclones and floods.


The tunnel of love was built in 1932-1933. The reinforced concrete structure provided a short cut to the fernery. It was closed in 1993 for safety reasons. The closure has allowed the colony of little bent-wing bats to grow from 40 to 500.park10

Paronella planted these majestic rows of Queensland kauri pines (Agathis robusta) in 1933. They can live for a thousand years. Paronella planted over 7000 trees and the whole park was threaded by pathways, bridges and avenues. He also built a shaded orchid and fern house for Margarita to tend exotic plants.


An astonishing feature of the park is a hydroelectric power station, the first in North Queensland. Installed in 1933 it worked using gravity according to Paronella’s own design. Water falls nine metres into the turbines where were coupled with DC generator.  A belt-driven governor controlled the speed and changed the angle of water flow to maintain constant rotation speed. Paronella used the station to power the park though he had to change it to AC after the 1946 floods. The system, along with the entire park, was destroyed after cyclone Larry in 2006 but the current owners restored it with the help of a German company specialising in old hydro systems. Up and running again since 2010, it continues to power the entire park and also supplies the grid.


Two years after repairing from the significant damage of the 1946 floods, José died of cancer, leaving Margarita, Teresa, and Joe, to carry on. Teresa married and moved to Brisbane while. Joe married Val in 1952, and they had two sons, Joe (José) and Kerry. Floods, renovations and maintenance kept the family busy after Margarita died in 1967 and son Joe in 1972, Val found it too hard and sold up in 1977. The park was closed after the 1979 fire. Mark and Judy Evans purchased the Park in 1993 and began a plan to put the Park back on the map. They see the Park as a work of art, and work on maintaining and preserving, rather than rebuilding.

A trip to the abandoned Mount Elliott mine and Selwyn ghost town

I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the old abandoned mines and ghost towns of North West Queensland such as Mary Kathleen and Mt Frosty. Many, like Kuridala, briefly flowered in the early 20th century with small vibrant towns attached only disappear just as suddenly when the copper boom ended in the early 1920s. I’d taken the rough road to Kuridala before but at the time did not realise another equally interesting old copper mine lay a further 25km down the same road. Mount Elliott and Kuridala led parallel existences and were fierce rivals but both are now deserted. As at Kuridala I was apprehensive I’d find it given the lack of signposts in an isolated area, but just like Kuridala I found it thanks to a prominent chimney.


The copper field at Hampden (Kuridala) was discovered in the late 1890s and the investment of Melbourne capital prompted the discovery of other fields near Cloncurry. In 1899 a hermit gold fossicker named James Elliott blasted a few trenches and found rich red oxide of copper on the conical hill that became Mount Elliott.


As Geoffrey Blainey puts it in Mines in the Spinifex, Elliott was an old man with a past masked in tragedy. He had been sentenced to death for robbing and murdering a Chinese man before the real murderer confessed on his deathbed. Now his luck finally turned. He sold his interest to Fort Constantine pastoralist James Morphett but the Federation drought forced Morphett to sell to mining promoter John Moffat. Moffat financed the exploration of the ore body which by 1907 had 45,000 tonnes of rich copper ore ready to be mined.


That was the year the mine was floated on the London market and the same year James Elliott died. Years later novelist Randolph Bedford said Elliott claimed to have found an even larger lode – at Mount Isa. Whether it is true or not, the Mount Isa lode would not be discovered for another 16 years.


The 1907 London price for copper was £87 a ton, the highest price for 30 years, and the Cloncurry fields pulsed with life. The railway extended west from Richmond to Cloncurry and there were calls to extend it another 115km to the Hampden and Mount Elliott copper fields.  A new town called Selwyn sprung up to service Mt Elliott and horse teams hauled boilers and mine machinery as well as stores and corrugated iron for its buildings.


The general manager of the mine WH Corbauld altered the furnace and erected three converter shells ahead of the arrival of the first train in August 1910. Blainey said the smelting works with their iron roofs were an impressive sight, “flashing in the sun, three tracks of railway running through the spinifex, and the stacks of firewood piled high for the boilers.” In four months the furnace extracted £125,000 of copper and gold. The copper was the richest in the Commonwealth and the gold was richer than many Victorian fields.


Mount Elliott’s wealth was in the upper zone with enough ore for five years of mining. Beyond that was lower grade sulphide ore and Corbauld needed a central treatment plant to make it pay. But Mt Elliott and Hampden could not agree on merger terms and remained fiercely competitive in gobbling up nearby smaller mines.


In 1912 Mount Elliott bought up the Hampden Consols mine on their rival’s boundary with its large deposit of sulphur, iron and copper which made it an ideal smelting mixture. Every week the trains loaded with Consols ore under the nose of the Hampden plant despatched it 30km south to Mt Elliott. In 1913 the Consols mine caught fire and the loss hit the company hard when its rich reserve was rapidly depleting. After a workers’ strike against contract rates, Mt Elliott closed for seven weeks putting 900 out of work.


The London-based owners bought up nearby Mount Oxide, Great Australia, Dobbyn and Crusader mines. The First World War sent the copper price through the roof so the poorer ore of Mt Elliott became profitable. The company deepened the mine, improved the smelter and bought a fire refinery south of Townsville. In 1917 they doubled the length of the furnace to smelt a larger tonnage of low grade ore.


Living costs were high in Selwyn, amenities were few and the possibility of strikes were always high as was flash flooding in summer.  By 1918 Hampden Kuridala had eclipsed it in prosperity yet Mt Elliott continue to make a profit. Corbauld laid a post-war master plan for it to become a world class “copper camp”.


But rapidly falling copper prices put paid to those plans. Mt Elliott re-opened in 1919 after a Christmas strike but within two months were forced to dismiss 650 workers. They left for the coast never to return. The smelters never re-opened. “The blast of the mine whistle was not heard in the valley again,” Blainey wrote in 1960. “All that now remains of Mount Elliott are ransacked smelters, a railway siding, a post office in a creaking tin shed and one house.” By 1961 the railway closed over graziers’ objections there were no worthwhile roads in the area. Now even the post office and shed are gone and nothing remains of Selwyn except a cemetery. The roads remain poor. However Mount Elliott remains a working mine and the old mine was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 2011 for its “potential to provide important information on aspects of Queensland’s history particularly early copper smelter practices and technologies, the full range of activities peripheral to those base operations and, importantly, the people who lived and worked in this complex historic mining landscape”.