Farewell John Hume

John Hume’s abiding influence was his respect of institutions. Hume recalled his first visit to Strasbourg as a member of the European Parliament in 1979. He went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kehl in Germany. He stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. “If I’d stood on this bridge 30 years ago, at the end of World War II, and I’d said that’s the last war in the history of Europe, and in 30 years or so these countries will all be totally united, I would have been sent to a psychiatrist.” This meditation informed his belief his native Northern Ireland could be similarly transformed.

Having heard John Hume died on Monday, aged 83, I remembered the only I saw him. It was in my brief time at University College Dublin when I was 17 years old and grappling with a degree I didn’t want to do in a city where I had just moved and had no friends. To fill in the time I joined clubs and watched university debates on any topic and with any guest speaker. Only two remain in my memory. One, the late Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) in hilarious flights of fancy and then John Hume, who was impossibly eloquent and who inspired belief in all sorts of possibilities.

The year was 1981 so Hume would have been 44 years old. By then he had been two years into the role of replacing Gerry Fitt as leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party. At the time the SDLP was the North’s main non-Unionist party, and Hume moved heaven and earth to make sure it was defined that way and not as a Catholic or Republican party.

Hume’s quarrel with the Unionist approach was what he called “their Afrikaner mind set”. They held all power to protect themselves with widespread discrimination in housing, in jobs and in voting rights. The worst example of that was the city of Derry where Hume grew up.

Hume wasn’t immediately interested in politics and studied for the priesthood in Maynooth. He eventually settled for a MA and a teaching position back in Derry. Interested in helping people he joined the Derry Credit Union, which in an interview after Hume won the Nobel Peace prize in 1998 he says was the proudest involvement of his life.

Before credit unions, poor people couldn’t borrow from banks and had to resort to loan sharks or pawn shops. Hume helped start the Derry Credit Union in 1960 and became president of the Credit Union League of (All) Ireland by 1964 when he was just 27. It helped poor people manage money and inspired local small business too.

Through his credit union work, Hume realised there was a housing problem too. Several families often lived together in one house in working class districts, and it was very difficult to get a house due to discrimination. Hume helped found a housing association to build houses in the same manner as the credit union, housing 100 families in the first year. When he put in a plan to build 700 houses, local politicians wouldn’t give planning permission because it would upset the voting balance in their gerrymandered system.

This injustice led Hume into the civil rights movement. The leadership of Martin Luther King in the US had a major influence and civil rights soon meant political involvement. He stood for election in the 1969 Northern Irish election. He ran as an independent Nationalist but sought a mandate to found a new political party based on social democratic philosophy.

“We would deal with real politics, with housing, with jobs, with voting rights, and not into flag-waving politics, because in my belief that was a common ground, and if you work common ground together, that that would end the divisions in our society,” Hume said in 1998. His was a winning message and he was elected. Hume and his followers believed the Unionists had every right to protect their identity, but their methodology caused widespread discrimination and was bound to lead to conflict. He wanted to reach agreement with them. The problem was there were others less patient about finding common ground, and the Troubles had started.

A minority within the Nationalist minority had the territorial mindset that it was their land and the Unionists could not stop a united Ireland. Hume’s challenge to that mindset was that only people had rights, not territory. “Without people, even Ireland is only a jungle, and when people are divided, victories are not solutions. When people are divided, the only solution is agreement,” he said. Hume’s father had warned him off extreme republicanism. “You can’t eat flags,” Hume Sr told him.

Nevertheless as the Troubles escalated, Hume had no hesitation in direct dialogue with those organisations engaged in violence. “When I was very severely criticised for doing that I said very clearly ‘Look, given that thousands of British soldiers on our streets haven’t stopped the violence. If I could save one human life by talking to somebody, it’s my duty to do so’. That’s what I said at the time.”

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, Hume was finally elected as a Westminster MP in 1983 – two years after I saw him speak. Hume said his job was to go to the British and Irish governments to get them to make a joint declaration backing his position on the IRA. That view expressed in the Anglo Irish agreement was that the majority supported British rule but if the majority changes their mind the British will leave.

While the 1985 Downing St agreement was rejected by hardline Unionists and republicans alike, Hume believes it was a crucial starting point to the later Good Friday Agreement and a lasting peace. He was undeterred by the failure and kept talking to the IRA, and Gerry Adams in particular.

He also used the enormous influence of Irish American politicians especially the “four horsemen”, Senator Edward Kennedy, speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Pat Moynihan and NY governor Hugh Carey. “The four of them had worked very closely together with me in giving strong support to our peace process,” he said. The new president Bill Clinton also put peace in Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda in 1993.

In December 1993, the Joint Declaration on Peace (the Downing Street Declaration) was issued by Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It called for an end to British “selfish strategic or economic” interest in Northern Ireland, the right for the people of Northern Ireland to decide its future, and the right for the people of all Ireland to solve the issues between North and South by mutual consent. These were all positions Hume advocated.

The mid 1990s was punctuated by ceasefires and resumptions of violence. Spurred on by a new Labour government in London, Hume and Adams issued a joint statement in 1997 about achieving a lasting peace. “There is a heavy onus on both governments, particularly the British, to respond positively and imaginatively, both in terms of the demilitarisation of the situation and particularly in dealing with the issue of prisoners.”

Fixing that last issue was one of the most contentious issues of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It also called for a devolved, inclusive government, troop reductions, paramilitary decommissioning, provisions for polls on Irish reunification, and civil rights measures and “parity of esteem” for the two communities in Northern Ireland. Despite (or maybe because of) the Omagh bombing atrocity later that year, the peace miraculously held.

Hume and Unionist leader David Trimble were justly rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Surprisingly when it came to power sharing, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, not Hume, who became deputy to Trimble in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. When he finally resigned the party leadership in 2001, Hume was praised even by his arch-enemy Ian Paisley. Paisley and the other extremist Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein eventually went from demagogues to democrats and took the political success from moderate Unionists and the SDLP.

But Hume could look back on a job well done. By the mediation of the ballot box and not by the brutality of the bullet, he had achieved another miracle of Strasbourg. As the Irish Times said in their obituary, John Hume was the architect of peace. Over 20 years later Northern Ireland is still reaping the rewards of his great work.

1918 flu pandemic: the deadliest influenza

Over one hundred years ago, a viral and dangerous flu swept the world killing more people than the World War that was coming to a close that year. Commonly known as the Spanish Flu, no one is sure where it began, though it certainly wasn’t in Spain. Better described as the 1918 flu pandemic, it was an unusually deadly pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza and like COVID-19 today it spread quickly across the world.

As Catherine Arnold wrote in Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History, the most terrifying aspect of H1N1 was its fast-acting and aggressive symptoms. Victims collapsed in the streets haemorrhaging from their lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue due to oxygen failure as lungs filled with pus and they gasped for air like landed fish. Others suffered projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhoea and died raving as their brains starved of oxygen. Those who survived were often left with a lifetime of nervous conditions, heart problems, lethargy and depression.

Apart from the enormous death toll, the main memory of the 1918 was the ubiquitous mask, until recently thought to be a freak of history. Masks spread from the medical profession to traffic cops and onto the civilian population. In many places it was an offence to go outside without a mask, though then like now its efficacy was debatable. Writing in 2018 before COVID-19, Arnold likened the mask photos to “scenes from a science fiction movie”.

Like now, there is debate about how the virus started. There are two main candidates for ground zero of the 1918 pandemic, both related to the war. Again like now, there were conspiracy theories related to the 5G scares of the era, such as it was a strain of bubonic plague from China (the yellow peril has a long history), or caused by the effect of rotting corpses and mustard gas in the battlefield, or that it was man-made in Bayer aspirins and distributed by U-boats.

What is true is the war spread the virus quickly across the world with mass troop movements, bond drives, and victory parades. The flu may even have changed the course of the war with the German advance stymied by huge losses to illness. The pandemic was the one enemy that scared both sides.

The earliest known death from H1N1 occurred in February 1917. English Private Harry Underdown, aged 20, died at Étaples field hospital in France officially due to “complications following an attack of influenza”. Underdown was serving in northern France when struck down by “widespread broncho-pneumonia”. As he died, his doctor Lt J.A.B. (initials, not an appropriate nickname!) Hammond noted Underdown’s face was blue due to lack of oxygen. Hammond wrote an article in the Lancet in 1917 about the “small epidemic” at Étaples, the largest field hospital on the western front.

Étaples was chosen for its stragetic location, near Calais and with rail lines to the front. It had port facilities and railway yard, stores, hospitals, prisons and training area. There were also stables for thousands of horses and piggeries and poultry farms to feed the masses – the presence of live animals another portent of the virus which could cross the species boundary via avian faeces eaten by grubbing pigs.

People living close to animals is one of the reasons China is the epicentre of influenza epidemics. In the course of several winters ending in 1917–18, epidemics with afflictions of the lungs were seen in northern China. Chinese labourers were in large numbers at Étaples brought in to support the war effort. Étaples was a bleak spot at the best of times. Poet Wilfred Owen described it as as a “vast, dreadful encampment”. Conditions deteriorated to an extent there was a mutiny in the training camp in September 1917. The revolt was put down with 300 arrests and one soldier sentenced to death.

While the virus was possibly incubating in France, there was another troubling hotspot across the Atlantic Ocean. Doctors in Haskell County, Kansas were seeing strange symptoms of what they called “knock me down” fever. One doctor saw so many cases he wrote to Washington but was ignored because influenza was not a “notifiable disease”.

Some 300km from Haskell was Camp Funston at Fort Riley, where young Americans got basic training before being shipped off to Europe for the war the US entered in 1917. Around four million men, mostly farm boys with little immunity to big city diseases which roamed freely at vast places like Camp Funston (named for Fighting Fred Funston who served in the Spanish wars). Construction began in mid 1917 of 4000 buildings holding 40,000 soldiers.

The air was full of dust and burning ash from the tonnes of horse manure which stung the eyes in the high winds of the Kansas plains, leaving the men prone to respiratory infections. A bad dust storm occurred on March 9, 1918 turning the sun black. Within days a steady stream of soldiers reported sick with high temperatures. By the end of the month a thousand men were stricken and a hangar was used as a ward.

It was diagnosed as the flu with symptoms such as high fever, headache and back pain. Some patients were too weak to stand, others coughed violently or had projectile nose bleeds and some even choked to death. It spread to Camp Dix in New Jersey and other camps across the country and Washington was advised. Again the advice was ignored.

The flu spread back from the camps to the local population. A thousand Ford motor workers in Detroit and Chicago came down with it as did 500 prisoners at San Quentin in California. Schoolboy John Steinbeck also caught it in California and almost died. “I went down and down until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes,” he wrote. Doctors operated to drain pleural pus from his infected lung and he survived with a profound sense of vulnerability that informed works like The Grapes of Wrath.

Troops from Camp Funston and elsewhere brought the virus with them on the troopships as the ‘doughboys’ were shipped out to Flanders. The British first noticed a small outbreak in the already unhealthy Ypres Salient in April 1918 and a second wave in June was deadlier still. By then the virus had crossed no-mans-land and German commander Eric von Ludendorff estimated 2000 men in each division had the flu, a huge problem as he struggled to replace a million casualties despite the end of the war on the Russian front. “It was a grievous business to hear the chief of staff’s recital of the influenza cases and the weakness of the troops if the English attacked again,” he complained.

In late May the disease hit Spain and king Alfonso XIII and several government ministers fell sick. Because Spain was neutral, Spanish censorship was not as strict as elsewhere and it was the first press to report on the crisis, calling it the French flu. But when international papers picked up on the news from Madrid, the pandemic was immortalised as the Spanish flu. Cartoonists depicted it as the ghoulish Spanish Lady, her skull dancing in a black flamenco dress.

In the months to come the Spanish Lady’s deadly dance crossed Europe. Convalescing troops brought it home to Britain, the northern industrial cities hit hardest. Miners were particularly prone and the coal, iron and munitions industry was crippled as people collapsed and died in the streets. “If you try to shake it off it becomes much worse,” a Manchester paper reported.

In London the theatres full of service personnel from every nation helped spread disease. Many victims were young, rich and healthy. Virginia Woolf in Richmond noted it had “come next door”. Fellow writer and socialite Cynthia Asquith wrote how it was the worst illness of her life, “bursting head, painful pulses, aching legs, sick, burning with cold shivers. I tossed and groaned.” Over 70,000 Britons were dead by November but the war effort demanded the flu be ignored. Britain’s chief medical officer admitted it could not be controlled and refused to take public health measures. The nation’s “sacred duty”, he said, was to carry on working and it was unpatriotic to even worry about it.

The pandemic meanwhile, spread across the world from port cities such as Bombay (Mumbai). It then spread east back to Baghdad and Shiraz where the bazaars and shops were closed as there was no doctors, nurses or drugs to offer help. More ports spread it in Africa; Mombasa, Freetown, and Cape Town. Injured men on troopships brought it back to North America creating another wave in August, overwhelming the east coast naval hospitals.

Boston schools shut down in October 1918 which schoolboy Francis Russell remembered at first with delight in great weather. That changed the day he stumbled upon a funeral where he saw gravediggers dump the bodies out of the coffins to reuse them. The memory scarred Russell for life.

Philadelphia was the worst hit city after an outbreak at the naval yard. A massive parade in September, the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive, attracted 200,000 people and a massive epidemic began a day later, with 75,000 cases in October. Over 700 died in a week and numbers increased in the following weeks, overwhelming understaffed hospitals. Services collapsed and Bell Co shut down the phones to all but essential calls. The undertaking business was overrun and coffin theft was rife with 500 bodies at the morgue and demand growing daily. Bodies piled up in the streets and the Highways Bureau loaned steam shovels to dig trenches in Potter’s Field for the burial of the poor and unknown.

Mask wearing became compulsory across America. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a range of masks which started with standard surgical gauze and went from elaborate Turkish muslin yashmak veils to flimsy chiffon coverings. “Some wore fearsome looking machines like extended muzzles,” the paper reported. Commuters on the ferries found it a nuisance and were caught with masks dangling from chins while they enjoyed a morning pipe in the sea air.

The pandemic got to Australia in early 1919, brought back by returning soldiers to Sydney, and gradually spreading out. The Queensland government closed its borders and established quarantine camps along its southern boundary at Wallangarra and Coolangatta. Travellers had to remain in the camps for seven days before being allowed to enter the state and strict inspection of all ships was carried out.

Nevertheless on May 3 laundresses at Kangaroo Point Hospital in Brisbane caught it. It then spread throughout the state and defied all attempts to control it, including isolation, closure of public places, and inoculation. Many of the 830 deaths in Queensland were young adults with Aboriginal populations particularly vulnerable – the epidemic caused 69 deaths among the 596 residents of the Barambah Aboriginal Settlement (now Cherbourg).

By mid 1919, the Spanish Lady had mostly finished her exhausting dance across the world. Some 500 million people were infected, around a third of the world’s population, and up to 50 million were dead. It wasn’t until the 1990s when the genome from a defrosted flu victim from the Tundra showed it was a bird virus adapted to humans. The virus provoked an auto-immune response called a cytokine storm with a marked inflammatory response, causing secondary damage to lungs. This secondary response caused the deaths, not the virus itself.

Writing a century later, Arnold said we had not since seen a pandemic on the scale of 1918. But she acknowledged the Hong Kong H5N1 outbreak in 1997 was a ‘wake up call for epidemiologists and public health authorities” and the threat of another pandemic was real. She finished with prophetic words from English virologist John Oxford back in 2000 who compared their work to vulcanologists. “We are sitting on our volcano, and we don’t know when it is going to erupt”.

Twenty years later, seems to be the answer.

On to Townsville and Cape Hillsborough

After our stay at Cobbold Gorge, we had a long day’s drive to Townsville via Einasleigh and The Lynd, much of it on gravel roads. It was pleasing finally to see the coast as we came down the Hervey Range into Townsville, six hours later. Castle Hill is in the centre of the photo with Magnetic Island off to the left.

We got a closer look at Magnetic Island when we finally got to Townsville and walked down the Strand that afternoon. A statue of a green sea turtle is in the foreground. Some green sea and fatback turtles do come ashore to nest on local beaches. Sea turtles exhibit a strong homing behavior to return to nest on beaches where they themselves hatched from eggs. A female turtle hatched in the Townsville region is highly likely to return to breed here again in 30 to 50 years when she matures.

The following morning we set off for a bracing walk up the Goat Track to Castle Hill. I’ve seen various suggestions as to how many steps there are anything from 1000 to 1300. I only counted about 800 but it’s a tough walk under any circumstances.

But as always the view from the top makes the climb worthwhile. The morning sunshine glistens down on Cleveland Bay next to the port where sailing boats for Magnetic Island jostle with big ships full of copper and zinc bound for China.

The view north is towards the airport and Cape Pallerenda, the latter where we would be headed for some walking trails later in the day.

But first we come back down the track to seek out a coffee in the city. Street art is becoming an important outlet for tourism in the city with council even putting out a street art trail. This massive goanna is on a wall in Ogden St. Belgian artist “ROA” said it was inspired by an encounter during a previous trip to Australia. “The last time I was in Australia I witnessed my friend Keith, who lives in the Pilbara region and is native to the land, catch a goanna to barbecue with his family. It was amazing to witness how he caught the lizard – he asked the goanna for permission to kill him and feed his family, all in his traditional language”.

After coffee we headed out to Cape Pallerenda. I’d been there before but was keen to do a trail I hadn’t done called the Freshwater Trail. It had an appealing setting between the hills and the wetlands.

The main reason we chose this trail was because it had two bird hides. The view was enchanting but sadly we didn’t see any birds at either hide. That was probably because we were doing the walk at midday but two young hoons driving their P-Plate car illegally down the vehicle-free track to the hide didn’t help.

Heading back to the carpark we looked out to the Town Common where in the distance we spotted brolgas (Grus rubicunda) and a black-necked stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus). In northern Australia, the stork is traditionally called the Jabiru. It’s a beautiful word but Jabiru is not Indigenous It is a Tupi–Guaraní language name which refers to a totally different species of stork found in South and Central America. Brolga, however, is a genuine Indigenous word from the Kamilaroi language.

Back at the carpark there is a slice of history that feels bang up to date. The Cape Pallerenda quarantine station was built in 1915-16 to deal with diseased patients coming in to Australia from Townsville port. The 1918 flu epidemic did not get to Australia until January 1919 and it didn’t take long for it to arrive in the busy port. The Townsville Daily Bulletin of May 21,1919 said the population of the quarantine station was gradually increasing. “Two more cases, one mild and one suspicious were yesterday added from Wodonga,” the paper revealed.

After our walk we retired to the city for drinks and dinner. The following morning it was time to leave Townsville and head south. First stop was Bowen 200km south, a town I’ve written about before. The photo below is from the pier looking towards a hill behind the town.

Our destination was another two hours south at Cape Hillsborough, which I’ve also written about before. This is a beautiful spot on a peninsula 40km north of Mackay. Like many spots on the east coast it was named by James Cook, this place for Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies. On June 2, 1770 Cook wrote “A pretty high Promontary which I named Cape Hillsborough bore W1/2N distant 7 Miles – the Mainland is here pretty much deversified with Mountains, Hills plains and Vallies and seems to be tolerably cloathed with wood and Verdure the Islands which lay parallel with the Coast and from 5 to 8 or 9 Leagues off are of Various extent both for height and circuit, hardly any exceeds 5 Leagues in circuit and many again are very small besides this chain of Islands which lay at a distance from the coast there are other small ones laying scatterd under the land. Some few smooks were seen on the Mainland.”

We were staying at the resort directly behind the beach, which as Cook noticed were “tolerably cloathed with wood” and reminded us more of south-east Asian beaches than Australian ones.

We set off on the Andrews Point walk which climbs over the Cape with five great lookouts including this one out to Wedge Island. Because it was low tide it meant we could later get out to the island and then return along the beach.

Butterflies like these patrolled the Cape in great swarms. These were Blue Tigers (Tirumala limniace) one of 25 species in the area. Blue Tigers are mostly a tropical butterfly seen nearly all year round in North Queensland. They fly south during spring and summer reaching southern Queensland, NSW and even Victoria. Their main larvae host plant is the Corky Milk Vine (Secamone elliptica) and the ability for lots of caterpillars to successfully pupate. Corky Milk Vine contains chemicals poisonous to many animals but not to the Blue Tiger larvae. When the larvae eat the vine, the poisonous chemicals get passed on to the pupae and adult butterflies. These toxins then work to protect adult Blue Tigers from being eaten by birds,

Cape Hillsborough was formed from a series of eruptions 30 million years ago, when lava flows covered the area creating the dramatic rhyolite rock and cave formations that book-end Casuarina Bay. Below is the view from the top of the Andrews Point track looking back to the beach.

We were stopped in our tracks by this little fellow. I almost trod on this green tree snake basking in the middle of the path in no hurry to move. The green tree is non-venomous but when threatened, this diurnal snake secretes a smelly oil from its vent glands. Found predominately in trees or shrubs, it will also inflate its throat to display blue skin between his scales. It will bite, but only as a last resort. I resorted to a stick to prod it and it made good its escape into the bush.

This was the view from Turtle Lookout looking back west towards the hills behind Belmunda.

Turtle Lookout did you say? Indeed there were turtles in the water below. Though I couldn’t be sure, I think this is a loggerhead turtle, named for their large heads that support powerful jaw muscles, allowing them to crush hard-shelled prey like clams and sea urchins. Loggerhead turtles are carnivorous, feeding mostly on shellfish, crabs, sea urchins and jellyfish. They live in Queensland and WA waters.

When we got over to explore Wedge Island, the birds were in full evening voice. More than 130 species of birds have been identified in the national park. These olive-backed sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis) enjoyed the foliage with a sea view.

The following morning we were up at dawn to watch the kangaroos on the beach. The dawn was lovely and the kangaroos were a delight. But in truth there were more people than kangaroos and it didn’t seem right that someone was feeding them out of a bucket.

Later we took another walk to the mangrove boardwalk. Cook noticed “Some few smooks” on the mainland and the area was the home of the Yuwi people. The Yuwi were wiped out by settlers but evidence of their habitation can be seen today in numerous shell middens like this one.

There was further evidence of their practices on the Yuwi walk south of the Cape with this stone fish trap at Hidden Valley. A line of stones sealed two rock outcrops which could be collected from at low tide.

When we returned to Wedge Island later that day, the weather was turning. Dark grey clouds were about to land rain on us that would follow us all the way to Brisbane in the coming days. The sunbirds lived up to their name and were nowhere to be found as the rains came. Nonetheless Cape Hillsborough’s beauty shines through regardless of the weather. I’m sure I’ll be back someday again.

A day at Cobbold Gorge

There were three places I hadn’t been to that I wanted to visit on my latest north Queensland driving adventure. I ticked off Adels Grove, then Undara Lava Experience and now we were finally arriving at the gate of the third one, Cobbold Gorge. Set in the Great Dividing Range, 90km south-east of Georgetown, it was another place I’d written about a lot in the last few years and was constantly up for Outback, Queensland and Australian tourism awards.

Ideally we would have done Cobbold Gorge after Adels and Karumba before heading to Undara but when we booked the trip back in pre-COVID times it was busy and only available after we finished at Undara. So after spending a night at Forsayth, we drove up a very bad gravel road 50km to the resort. Arriving early in the morning, we were too early to check in so hit the hills on one of their local bushwalks up to Russell’s Lookout.

Below was the view from the lookout north back to Cobbold Gorge resort. The Gorge itself was out of shot to the east about a 10 minute drive away and not accessible on foot. The processes that created Cobbold Gorge started 1.7 billion years ago. Sand and mud sediment was deposited on the ocean floor, until layers built up 10km thick. Movement in the Earth’s crust caused the sediments to compress, forming the Hampstead Sandstone. Endless wet seasons spilled torrents of water through the narrow fractures of sedimentary rock, creating deep gorges and permanent springs and seepages.

That we would discover later, for now we walked back to our boundary hut which was ready to check in. It was in a nice spot overlooking the restaurant area, infinity pool and dam.

After lunch and a quick dip in the pool, we were booked into the 1.30pm three hour tour as people cannot access the gorge independently. There was around 40 of us split into four groups, with two groups taking the boats down the gorge first while we did the bush walk first. Positions were reversed for the second half of the tour. As we set off our knowledgeable guide spotted a resting crocodile off to our right. We would get a better look at it later when we returned to the boats.

For now we were heading towards the mighty boulders of what our guide called “conglomerate country”. Conglomerate is a clastic sedimentary rock that contains large rounded clasts, washed downstream in swift currents. Situated east of the Robertson River, the rocks are part of a sequence called the Etheridge Group and were deposited in a shallow sea as fine sand and mud. As the sediment was deposited, the Earth’s crust beneath the sea-floor subsided, and eventually, a pile of sediment more than 10km thick accumulated. In places, flows of basalt lava were erupted onto the sea-floor, or were intruded into the sediments. The rocks were formed in the Precambrian era, when the only life forms in the sea were simple single-celled algae and bacteria.

Just like Undara Experience, Cobbold Gorge is private property. The traditional owners, the Ewamian People were dispossessed by white colonists in the 1800s and this area was settled as Robin Hood station (so named because it adjoined the Sherwood mining lease) by the Clark family. The Terry family bought the property in 1964.

The Cobbold Creek mouth with its permanent clean water, was always a popular watering hole for cattle but was isolated in the south-west of the property and narrow and hard to get to. Simon Terry and two friends first paddled up the creek in the 1990s and were amazed at what lay before them, the magnificent Cobbold Gorge. In 1994 Simon and wife Gaye first started a tourism venture with tours from Georgetown, then a camping area. They acquired accommodation units from the Sydney Olympics site and later the closed Kidston Gold Mine in 2002/03. They are still adding to the site, the latest attraction being this wonderful glass bridge opened this year.

Below is the view of the narrowest section of the gorge from the Glass Bridge. I was the first to arrive at the Bridge in our group and immediately rushed out to take photos before being admonished by the tour guide. A quick look down showed me why, as my dusty boots left prints on the glass. I had to quickly get off and put surgical slippers over my boots. The tour guide turned down my apologetic offer to wipe the dust off the bridge floor.

The view on either side of the bridge was magnificent despite my lack of social graces. I said the rocks are 1.7 billion years old but the processes that formed the Gorge are far more recent. Minor movements around 10,000 years ago contributed to the formation of the lower reaches of Cobbold Gorge. The gorge narrows to just two metres in places which indicates it is the youngest known gorge in Queensland today.

Below is the view looking back towards the glass bridge and a second connecting bridge. Cobbold Creek used join the Robertson River 1.5km upstream. Above the gorge it previously turned and flowed east to southeast through a relatively wide gorge. This gorge is now abandoned, and is a dry valley without any major stream. Instead, all the water from Cobbold Creek and its tributaries is funnelled through the very narrow slit in the sandstone now known as Cobbold Creek Gorge.

The exact reason why this happened is uncertain. One possible cause is “stream capture”. On aerial photographs of the sandstone, there are numerous dark lines, fractures etched out by weathering with the larger ones forming deep gullies. The gorge may have been one such gully that over time and erosion the head of the gully retreated until it met Cobbold Creek. Because its mouth was at a lower point than the old mouth, the gully captured all the water flowing down Cobbold Creek and its tributaries. Whatever, it was time to explore the Gorge from creek level.

As we started off we finally got a close up of the freshwater croc basking by the side of the water. Our guide identified it as a female. These are freshwater crocodiles, called Johnstone River Crocodiles, Crocodylus johnstoni. They enjoy the gorge’s permanent water supply and stock of native fish, birds, bats, reptiles and amphibians. They have have a slender snout and sharp teeth and the males can grow up to 1.5m long and on average, weigh about 70kg, with females slightly smaller.

It soon becomes obvious why Cobbold Gorge Tours uses a crocodile on their logo. Further on we spot a second croc, swimming across the creek before disappearing below the waterline. These freshies do not attack humans unless provoked and the stand up paddlers who also use the creek need not worry about becoming part of the menu.

We approach the glass bridge from below. The bridge is one of the reasons why the site has grown from 200 visitors annually in 1994 to over 10,000 today.

The gorge got very narrow in places and occasionally you had to watch out in case a protruding rock hits your noggin. The creek and gorge get their name from Frank Cobbold (1853-1935), an English-born pastoralist who managed many properties in his years in Australia including Robin Hood Station. Cobbold, I learned, is pronounced CO-bold and not COB-old as I thought.

As we saunter through the creek in our silent solar-powered boat, the shadows of late afternoon painted different colours onto the gorge walls.

This moss garden reminded me of a similar one in Carnarvon Gorge. Water from rainfall percolates down the joints into the sandstone until it meets an
impervious layer like a shale bed. If the impervious layer is exposed in the side of a creek or gully, the water will seep out as a spring. Some springs can be seen along the walls of Cobbold Creek Gorge.

When our tour finished we returned to the lodge and went down to the dam. The water level was well down due to the lack of big rains in previous years. One egret had the dam to itself.

Afterwards we retired to the bar for dinner and drinks. I did pop down to the firepit to check out our guide from earlier now showing his fire-making skills. Sitting in front of a roasting fire was a pleasant way to bring the day to an end.

Undara lava tubes

Some 50km east of Mount Surprise is the Undara Lava Experience, a privately owned resort with access to the Undara lava tubes. I first heard of the place at a tourism event in Karumba a couple of years ago. I was chatting to a guy called Bram Collins who spoke enthusiastically of the place founded on the Rosella Plains Station property owned by his father Gerry Collins and three generations before him. Gerry applied to develop a tourist facility to showcase the lava tubes in 1987. Gerry and now Bram believe the best way to protect these ancient formations was to develop a sustainable visitor experience to lessen the environmental impact and highlight the unique ecology and geology of the cave system. Ever since that chat I’ve been keen to check it out.

We came all the way from Karumba and were booked in on the signature lava experience tour in the morning as it was not accessible privately. Having checking in and admired the open central restaurant area we decided to take a walk through the ancient granites to Atkinson Lookout about 2km away.

The path was dry but there was enough water nearby to attract this pale-headed rosella.

The Undara Volcanic National Park lies within the McBride volcanic province. There are 164 volcanoes, vents and cones within this area. Many millions of years before these volcanoes formed, the area was a shallow granite valley. Over the past 7-8 million years the granite valley has been filled with lava and ash flows.

Some controlled burning was taking place in the Undara National Park east of the Lava Experience property. Park managers are keen to bring back ancient Aboriginal firing practices applying planned fire at varying intensities, scales and times to create a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas that change over time. It also reduces the fuel load to ensure there are less devastating fires that burn everything.

We continue our walk for another 5km along the Bluff Circuit where this agile rosella was not going to allow simple matters of gravity from getting its favourite seed.

We return to the accommodation area where we more examples of Undara’s signature style of eco-accommodation. In December 1989, Gerry Collins discovered eleven decommissioned 1900s Queensland Railway Carriages on a siding in Mareeba. He bought and restored the carriages and in May 1990, he placed them between the trees beside an old teamster’s trail.

The centrepiece is the Fettler’s Iron Pot Bistro with its huge arched roof looking out to the bushland and a roaring firepit as its centrepiece. The food was good too.

In the morning we walked another 500m into the bush where the bush breakfast campfire was cooking. You can enjoy tea from the billy, decent coffee, bacon, eggs and beans with toast you cook yourself over the open fire. I start to see why the place has Experience in its name.

The kookaburra was nearby and on guard ready to laugh and swoop whenever we drop a bit of breakfast on the ground.

After breakfast we took the bus to the national park to begin the two hour archway explorer lava experience tour. Some 190,000 years ago Undara volcano erupted and molten lava flowed into nearby dry river beds. The external lava quickly cooled and hardened while the fierce flow snaked its way through underneath a thickening surface crust. The eruption stopped and the centres drained away, leaving only the hardened exterior; and long, dark, hollow tubes. The Undara crater spilled out 23 cubic kilometres of lava. One flow travelled north-west for 164kms, the longest single lava flow from one volcanic vent on Earth in modern geological time.

The first stop is into the signature Archway Cave. A stack of at least 5 lava flows are exposed in the walls of the collapsed tube

The vine-thicket is a thought to be a remnant of a once, much more widespread, vegetation type in Gondwana 300 million years ago.

The Undara lava tube system is one of the longest in the world. It is also unusual in that it developed on a granitic basement. As well as the vine-thicket the lava tube caves contain specialised ecosystems that are internationally significant. Four types of insectivorous bat (micro bats) roost in the caves and they provide food for snakes and birds, such as the nocturnal barking owl Ninox connivens.

As well as the Archway cave, we also go down into nearby Stephenson Cave.

It was time to move back west towards Cobbold Gorge on completion of the tour but there was time to visit the Kalkani Crater on the way out back to Mt Surprise. Parking at the bottom of the crater, there is a 2.5km walk including a 600m climb to the rim walk around the crater.

From the top of the rim you can see south towards the original Undara volcano and the outcome other eruptions around the area from the last seven to eight million years.

The view below is from the rim looking into the crater. Unlike Undara which was a gentle oozing explosion which created the lava tubes Kalkani’s eruption was explosive. The scoria cone was created between 190,000 and 400,000 years ago when magma moved up to the surface and dissolving gases expanded bursting through, producing fountains of red hot volcanic rock. As the rocks fell they built up in layers around the edge creating the cone.

The view east from Kalkani showing the airfield for Undara.

The view north from Kalkani and yet another volcanic crater. Traditional owners the Ewamian (‘your-amin’) People say Undara means “a long way”. It may be a long way from anywhere, but is worth the journey.

Karumba to Georgetown and Forsayth

Having left Adels Grove we had a couple of days to get to our next destination Undara Lava Experience and took a detour up to Karumba. There’s a couple of ways of getting from Adels to Karumba but starting early in the morning we stuck to the mostly bitumen track via the Wills Development Rd from Gregory to Burke and Wills and then the Burke Development Rd to Normanton both roads I’ve taken before.

There’ not much traffic about as Queensland’s easing travel restrictions take a while to percolate this far north. But there is always plenty of cattle on the move. They appear on every road, bitumen or gravel and they could be going anywhere in Queensland or the Northern Territory or even to the port of Karumba for live export. The only rule for other drivers is that if they are coming your way and your are on dirt or a single-lane blacktop then get right out of their way. Might in this case is right.

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We arrive in Normanton fours hours into the journey and pay homage to Krys the Croc. The Norman River has a long history of big crocs, the most famous being the Savannah King, measuring 8.63m killed by Polish migrant Krys Pawlowski in 1955. Pawlowski survived a World War II Siberian prison camp before hunting for crocs in Queensland’s tropics and killed up to 10,000 reptiles over a 15-year hunting career with her husband. The Savannah King earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest croc captured in modern times. As I fit my head into the mouth of the replica with ease it is terrifying to imagine meeting something like this in the nearby river.

Just out of Normanton on the road to Karumba is the beautiful Mutton Hole wetlands. They are part of the largest continuous estuarine wetland aggregation of its type in northern Queensland with superb wildlife observation opportunities. The area has diverse and complex habitats from
fresh to hypersaline and is a crocodile breeding habitat. The wetlands supports an outstanding number of waterbirds including these lovely brolgas. It is a significant breeding, feeding, resting, and moulting site while also being an important dry season refuge for waterbirds and water fowl.

Some 70km north of Normanton is Karumba, our base for the night. Karumba is the end of the line on the south-north Matilda Highway which comes north from Cunnamulla and an important strategic spot on the east west Savannah highway from Cairns to Broome (and the only spot on that highway on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The water looks blue and inviting though modern mates of the Savannah King would make short work of you if you were foolish enough to go for a dip.

We were staying on the Point for its lovely seaside setting but we did detour the 5km or so to Karumba Port. I mentioned the cattle export earlier, but it is also important for the prawn fisheries. Wild-caught in the beautiful waters of the Gulf, Karumba Prawns are highly sought after. Chances are that if you are eating banana prawns, they came from Karumba. The port is also where zinc (which followed us all the way from New Century mine near Adels Grove) is exported overseas.

After checking out the nearby Barramundi Discovery Centre, we head back to the Point and the whole point of the exercise. Sunset at the Karumba Point hotel with a beer and barra and chips is a right of passage in these parts. And with views out on the Gulf like these who were we to turn our noses up at tradition?

The following morning we had to backtrack to Normanton before heading east on the Savannah Way. The first stop past Normanton was Croydon, 150km away. Croydon is now a sleepy little town of 250 people but was once one of the thriving towns of the wild north west. Gold was discovered here in 1885 and within two years the population grew to 7000 making it temporarily the fourth-largest town in the colony. The Townsville Bulletin reported in 1885 the country between Croydon and Normanton was “in a dreadful condition, the heat fearfully intense, and travelling by any means positive torture.” A railway was built 1888-1891 linking the towns and the Gulflander train still plies the route today. But little else remains of the rush today except some lovely heritage buildings including the hospital (below) built in 1894.

The same distance further east of Croydon (150km) brings us to the next town Georgetown. Just 30km before Georgetown is an important stop at the abandoned township of Cumberland. There’s two reasons these days to stop there. First is the Cumberland Lagoon. This human-made lagoon has become a haven for the waterlilies and waterbirds. Nearby Cumberland Creek was dammed to build the lagoon to collect water for a gold mine that sprung up on the site.

The only remains of that mine is the nearby Cumberland Chimney. Gold was discovered here in 1872 – even earlier than Croydon. By 1878 the Cumberland Company was a major gold producer in the Etheridge region and the township here quickly rivalled Georgetown with 500 residents. There was a post office, police station, telegraph office, and four hotels by 1894. Gold production was already declining by then from its peak in 1886 The chimney was built in 1889 to disperse smoke from the large steam driven engines that powered the batteries and associated tramways. The gold petered out by the end of the century and the town was abandoned by 1899 though the school stayed open until 1915.

Cumberland was overtaken by its neighbour Georgetown which remains the biggest town in Etheridge Shire with just 250 residents. Like Cumberland, Georgetown began as the site of a gold rush in the 1870s. Originally known by the name Etheridge, the town’s name was changed in 1871 to honour an early gold commissioner, Howard St George. By 1900 grazing had replaced gold mining as the region’s main industry.

The name Etheridge survives in the shire and also the river that passes through Georgetown. Dry now during the winter, it flows north in the wet to meet the Einasleigh River and then the Gilbert River which empties into the Gulf, north-east of Karumba, at the site of Nevil Shute’s fictional Willstown.

Heading initially east to Mt Surprise and Undara Lava Experience we pass through the Great Dividing Range at Casey’s Rest. Southwest the view extends to the Gregory Range where the Norman River begins.

Our destination for the night after Undara was Forsayth, 40km south of Georgetown. This is a common stopping point for Cobbold Gorge (which we were also checking out) but has charm of its own. As the name of the pub suggest, this area was also found on 1870s gold. Originally called Finnegan’s Camp, it was nicknamed the ‘Poor Man’s Goldfield’, as a prospector did not need expensive equipment to search for gold with nuggets found on the ground. After a slump in the mid-1880s the town flourished again in the mid-1890s, with five hotels, a school and a courthouse.

At Forsayth’s Caschafor Park wood carvings are creatively worked into the trees by a local artist.

We also had a visit from the train that evening. Forsayth is the final stop on the two day Savannahlander from Cairns. In the late 1890s, the Chillagoe Company bought some promising copper deposits in the Etheridge district which led the company to commence a rail link in 1907 from Almaden to Einasleigh and Charleston. The latter was renamed Forsayth after the railway’s commissioner, James Forsayth Thallon. Though the Chillagoe Smelters shut down in 1914 Forsayth remained the railhead for transport to the west, although plans in the 1930s to extend the railway to connect to the Croydon-Normanton line did not proceed. Queensland Rail opened the line to tourists in 1995 and has been run as a private operation since 2004. Running once a week it travels from Cairns every Wednesday via Kuranda and then Chillagoe before overnighting in Almaden. The second day travels to the heritage listed Etheridge railway line at Mt Surprise before arriving in Forsayth late Thursday and leaving for the two-day return trip on Friday.

The train and its full load of tourists affected our itinerary meaning we had to do Undara and then Cobbold Gorge in that order either side of our night in Forsayth. Though COVID caused cancellations and I could have rebooked them with Cobbold first heading west to east, we left them as is. I’ll talk about those places in upcoming posts.

Adels Grove and Boodjamulla National Park

Adels Grove has been on my to do list ever since I arrived in Mount Isa at the start of 2016. But for one reason or another, I’d never found the time to go there. I thought I might have missed my chance when the main building was destroyed by fire last year but it was miraculously kept open and a rebuild commenced. It has always been a popular spot and even more so since Chris Hemsworth lent his star quality to a tourist ad filmed there which featured in the US Superbowl in 2018.

So we booked this trip for July this year as part of a long journey around North Queensland nice and early back in November when no one had heard of the word COVID19. When the pandemic hit in late March and everything started to shut down, the prospect of our trip actually happening seemed remote. And even when the rest of North Queensland started to reopen in May, Adels Grove remained steadfastly shut as part of the mainly Indigenous pandemic declared area of Burke Shire.

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And while we toyed with cancelling the booking we left it as long as we could and the state government finally relaxed restrictions a week before we were due to travel. Adels Grove reopened just two days before we went. But that was good enough for us. And after a 370km journey that took us past Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil site we arrived at the Resort at the edge of Boodjamulla National Park. Boodjamulla is the Waanyi word for rainbow serpent dreaming.

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Adels Grove Resort occupies 30 hectares from Lawn Hill Creek (pictured) to Louie Creek at the other. In Waanyi Country, it was gazetted in 1904 as a miners homestead lease. In 1920 Albert de Lestang took up the property as an experimental Botanical Garden and gave the Grove its name through his initials. De Lestang planted many species of trees and shrubs and supplied the Botanical Gardens of the world with the seeds produced by his nursery.

2019 wasn’t the first major fire at Adels Grove. An even bigger fire swept through in the early 1950s while de Lestang was absent. He lost his building complex, all his written records of plants and hybrids, his stores and most of the planted and he died broken-hearted in a Charters Towers nursing home aged 75. However the remaining vegetation did recover including natives gums and acacias and exotics like African Sausage trees, bamboo, Fried Egg Flower tree from South Africa, Gooseberry trees from India and the Cassia Siamea from Indonesia providing great habitats for birdlife. Adels Grove camping ground opened in 1984 and has been run as a resort since.

After a quick swim in Lawn Hill Gorge (there are freshwater crocodiles about but we didn’t see them), it was time to take a short evening walk to the lookout before dinner and check out the National Park from a distance. We would be taking a closer look in the morning.

The kitchen is operating again after last year’s fire but we brought our own food which we cooked up on the camp stove. The following morning was fresh but warmed up quickly. We were soon ready for the 10km drive down the road to the entrance to the National Park.

Boodjamulla National Park, formerly known as Lawn Hill National Park, features spectacular gorge country, sandstone ranges and World Heritage fossils. Lawn Hill Gorge is formed by Lawn Hill Creek, fed by freshwater springs from the limestone plateau to the west. The sandstone cliffs lining the gorge,form a stunning contract with its emerald waters and lush vegetation. The Park lies on ancient sandstone of the Constance Range, between the Barkly Tablelands to the south-west and the black soils of the Gulf Savanna Plains to the east. Lawn Hill Creek and the Gregory and O’Shannassy rivers flow all year round, contrasting starkly to the dry, parched landscape during the dry season.

The red, hard sandstone was originally a blanket of sand deposited in an ancient shallow sea, one and a half billion years ago. Ripple marks from that ancient seabed are still visible in places. Surrounding life was just bacteria and algal-like stromatolites. Around 530 million years ago a new shallow sea formed, lapping up against the old sandstone. Sediments rich in lime and silica and remains of sponges and trilobites formed layers of limestone.

Water continually alters the Boodjamulla landscape. Over millions of years the sandstones and limestones have been stripped away by erosion. The Constance Range is being eroded westward by the Gulf streams. Lawn Hill Creek has cut down through the limestone and sandstone along prominent fractures, forming gorges. Pictured below is the view from the Duwadarri lookout over Middle Gorge.

At Riversleigh younger pale-grey limestones, deposited 25 to 15 million years ago lie on the older Cambrian limestones deposited in small rainforest lakes that flourished in a wetter climate. This limestone has become home for innumerable fragments of fossil vertebrate animals it contains. Early relatives of today’s fauna fell, or were washed into those lakes preserved in the lime-rich sediments.

Our first walk of the day is a long one. We head west to Duwadarri Waterhole climbing up to Duwadarri Lookout (pictured below) then down to Indarri Falls before climbing again to the Upper Gorge lookout and then back to the camp site.

Where lime-rich water flows over rocks or vegetation debris, it evaporates and deposit skins of calcite (calcium carbonate). As the calcite is deposited in the creek, plant and animal matter can be trapped and fossilised. The calcite forms a porous, brittle rock known as tufa and builds up into fragile formations. Indarri Falls (shown below) and the Cascades are tufa formations.

You can swim in the creek at the base of Indarri falls and spot turtles, catfish, long toms and barramundi. Supposedly.

We then walk along the creek bed of the Middle Gorge for a kilometre or so keenly watching out for freshwater crocodiles. But like the turtles and long toms they kept their social distancing.

Time to catch breath before another climb to the lookout of the Upper Gorge (pictured below). We then walked back to the information centre a different way to complete an 8km morning walk.

After lunch we went trekking again, this time eastward to the 2.6km Island Stack circuit. It starts with a steep climb up the prominent sandstone stack before a circular walk on the tabletop with great views from every angle.

The plan was to do the Wild Dog Dreaming walk on completion of the Island Stack walk. But as we looked down on the Middle Gorge below and saw the kayakers head up we decided we had to do that too. So there was an abrupt change of plan.

Adels Grove hire out kayaks from the information centre below and for $54 we had a two-person canoe for two hours. The route takes us down the Middle Gorge to Indarra Falls. From here there is portage that allows kayakers to paddle up to the Third Gorge. Gliding through the gorges was a magic feeling. It was a lovely way to end a great day in one of Queensland’s natural wonders.

Riversleigh Fossil World Heritage site

We were on our way to Adels Grove, a 380km drive north west from Mount Isa. There’s 110km of highway towards Camooweal then another 50km of bitumen on the Thorntonia-Yelvertoft Rd and a short blacktop section on the Gregory Downs-Camooweal Rd before the gravel kicks in. Just before the end of the bitumen, the clouds put on a show. It’s not quite Burketown’s Morning Glory but it is spectacular none the less.

The road is quiet with Burke Shire only just reopening after COVID-19 pandemic declared area status was lifted the week before we travelled. There were a few cars about but the only real traffic was this herd of cattle being mustered at or near Thorntonia station.

Around 150km the road turns to red dirt and it’s bumpy the rest of the journey with an average speed of 60 to 80kph depending on variable quality. We turn off the Gregory road onto the equally bumpy Riversleigh Road which will take us to our destination. Here we see the only building on the entire route: Riversleigh station. This is one of two stations run together as part of Lawn Hill and Riversleigh Pastoral Holding Company owned by the local traditional owners the Waanyi People.

Near Riversleigh station we cross the first of two river crossings, this one the O’Shannassy River. While I had a high clearance vehicle and it was the dry season, the current was deceptively strong and I felt a strong tug as I drove through wanting to drag me into the stream.

Though there has been almost no rain since March the O’Shannassy still has plenty of water. It feeds into the Gregory which in turn discharges into the Nicholson River (named by Leichhardt on his first expedition) which empties into the Gulf of Carpentaria near Burketown.

About 250km in we cross the boundary from Mount Isa City to Burke Shire and enter the Boodjamulla National Park. This magnificent national park is most known for Riversleigh Heritage Fossil site and Lawn Hill Gorge but stretches through a vast landscape for 2820 sq km towards the NT border.

Around 260km into the journey and still a 100km from Adels Grove, we arrive at the Riversleigh Fossil World Heritage Area and it is too good to pass by. According to David Attenborough Riversleigh is one of the four great fossil sites in the world which keeps on giving when it comes to fossils, including a new marsupial lion identified only this year.

Riversleigh covers 35 sq km and there are 280 sites identified but the most famous is this one: D-Site easily seen from the road with this mound visible for kilometres in all directions. D-Site was one of the first major fossil deposits found at Riversleigh and is the only publicly accessible part of this World Heritage area. Its fossils are from the late Oligocene period, dating back 25 million years. Turtles, fish, snails, crocodiles, lizards, pythons, birds and many types of mammal fossils have all been recovered here.

There is a small interpretive centre on the site and an 800m walk showing off some of the finds. Riversleigh is the richest known fossil mammal deposit in Australia and has been on the World Heritage list since 1994. The carvings are of a 25 million year old thunderbird which grew to 2.5m and a freshwater crocodile which killed using its blade-like teeth.

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Today Riversleigh is dry and barren but 25 million years ago it was full of ancient lake deposits. It was a time when the ecosystem was evolving from rich rainforest filled with lakes and waterways to semiarid grassland community. The high concentration of calcium carbonate in the water has ensured that fossils have been extremely well preserved. When the skeletons of dead animals came into contact with water, the bones were quickly coated in limey mud. Later the bones were replaced with hard minerals from the limestone-rich water. Millions of years later, the fossilised bones have been exposed as a result of weathering by wind and water that dissolved and removed layers of surrounding soil and rock.

Fragments of limestone are scattered around the area and provide excellent examples of fossilisation. The fossil above belongs to a dromonthid, the big flightless bird of the diagram. They weighed up to 300kg and enjoyed swimming in the lakewaters of the era. The fossils are surrounded by small pebbles which the bird swallowed to help grind food before digestion.

These rocks are 530 million years old. Called “Cambrian pancakes” they are remnants of what was once a continuous bed of limestone. Ancient fossil trilobites – the earliest arthopods alive – are preserved in this marine limestone from a time when Australia was part of Gondwana.

Above is the view from the top of the rise looking north towards the interpretative centre, the carpark and the road. It is a vast and empty country.

The circular fossil above is the cross-section of a limb bone belonging to baru wickeni, one of Riversleigh’s largest crocodiles. Baru was five metres long and an apex land predator. It killed its prey by shaking them with its jaws and slicing them with razor sharp teeth. The skull and jaw adaptations indicate it was specialised towards subsisting on large vertebrate prey of similar size to itself, ambushing victims close to water sources. Baru resembled a modern crocodile, but the deeper head and alligator-like overbite was more pronounced.

These fossils above are from a group of turtles called chelids which still live in Australian freshwaters such as nearby Gregory River. Other extinct turtles include the 200kg meiolaniid which had a horned skull and an armoured tail in a bony sheath.

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On completion of the walk it was time to head back to the road north west. We were keen to see more of the national park and our bed for the night at Adels Grove Resort and it would take some time to get there on this beautiful but difficult dirt track.

Kevin Barry and his sister Katherine: the siblings behind the song

Katherine Barry and her brother Kevin.

I’ve known the name Kevin Barry since my youth though I had never heard of his sister Katherine (known as Kathy or Kathleen). Kevin Barry was one of the schoolboy heroes of the Irish War of Independence (though like North Cork Flying Squad leader Tom Barry he is no relation) and the song celebrating him called Kevin Barry was always a popular rebel ballad.

But I’ve had little interest in the man or the song until my interest was piqued twice in recent times. Firstly there was a strange and amusing phone message. Rather than identifying himself the caller immediately launched into the first four verses of Kevin Barry. I struggled to contain my laughter as I tried to work out who was singing. Only when the person finally started talking did I realise I had been serenaded to my namesake by none other than my local MP Bob Katter. He did a decent job with the lyrics too.

Meanwhile I had been catching up with the RTE History Show podcast and its excellent coverage of the Irish War of Independence as it commemorates its centenary. In November its episode Music of the Revolution featured an unexpected and an excellent live version of Kevin Barry (superior even to Katter’s) that I was unaware of. It was performed by none other than Leonard Cohen.

According to the video notes, the version was probably recorded in Israel in 1972 which places it in the interregnum between the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars. In the youtube clip for the song Cohen lifts the song from its specific past to make a more general point about war. “Not that I want to burden you with another war, another cause,” he continues, they all amount to the same thing, “men of 18 and 19 getting killed”.

Barry was “a lad of eighteen summers” when he was executed in Dublin in November 1920. He was convicted for his part in an attack upon a British Army supply truck which in which three soldiers died. Coming in the heightened war atmosphere just days after Cork mayor Terence McSwiney died on prison hunger strike, Barry’s death was quickly turned to propaganda purposes by the Republicans, though the three soldiers were just as young as him. The song Kevin Barry was written by an anonymous exile in Glasgow and later became famous when the great American singer Paul Robeson recorded it.

But who was Kevin Barry? Dying aged 18 he left little personal legacy. However his sister Katherine Barry-Moloney, the eldest of seven children, later gave evidence to the Bureau of Military History. Their parents Thomas and Mary ran a prosperous dairy in Tombeagh, Co Carlow and a retail outlet below the family home in Fleet Street. When Thomas Barry died in 1908 the family was split between their homes in Dublin and Tombeagh. Katherine said she and Kevin were the two in the family who were Republicans before 1916. As a member of the republican women’s movement Cumann na mBan in 1920, Katherine helped out where she could during the war.

Kevin, she said, joined the IRA as a schoolboy at Belvedere College towards the end of 1917 when he was still under 16. He joined “H” Company of the 1st Battalion and was quickly made a mobilisation officer “of which he was very proud”. This meant getting on his bicycle late Saturday night and mobilising the Company for route marches and Sunday morning parades. After a few months he was promoted Section Commander.

On September 20 matters got serious when Barry joined an IRA operation on Bolton St. Their orders were to ambush a British army truck as it picked up bread from the bakery, and capture their weapons. He covered the back of the vehicle and he ordered the five soldiers to lay down their weapons. A shot was then fired probably from uncovered soldier in the front. Barry and the ambush party opened fire. His gun jammed and he dived for cover under the vehicle. His comrades fled and he was left behind and was arrested. Private Harold Washington, aged 15, was dead and two other privates Marshall Whitehead and Thomas Humphries, later died of their wounds.

Katherine said Kevin was staying with their uncle Patrick Dowling and that afternoon she was at work when she got a telephone call from Dowling’s manager. “He told me that they had just had an intensive military which every piece of Kevin’s property had been taken away,” she said. “The manager had gathered that Kevin had been arrested”. Although no republican had been executed since 1916, she had a bad premonition. “From that moment I knew by some obscure instinct that Kevin was finished…I knew there was no hope.”

On her way home she bought the Evening Herald which had a garbled account of the action. It was the birthday of their youngest sister and there was a gathering at the house including some of Kevin’s closest friends. Between tea and curfew Katherine and her mother tried to find out which jail Kevin was in. Next morning their uncle got a message that he was in the Bridewell and had been tortured. Later that day he was moved to Mountjoy prison.

The family received orders from the IRA not to contact Kevin in case they were implicated. After a few weeks Kevin’s distraught mother ignored the directive and went in disguise to see her son. Katherine’s boss Ernest Aston got an appointment to see Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood through Freemason connections. Greenwood told Aston that Kevin would be tried for murder and when Aston protested he was only a boy whom he knew well, Greenwood replied, “he may be a child in years, but he is a long time mixed up with that crowd.” Greenwood told him Kevin would be tried under a new Act which enabled courts martial to pass a sentence of death by hanging.

The court martial was scheduled for October 20. A lawyer was present but the defence was hampered by Kevin following IRA orders to refuse to recognise the court while the family refused to entertain a plea of insanity. Katherine and her mother attended the court martial with IRA permission and Kevin was brought into the room with military escort. “This was the first time that I had seen him since his arrest,” she said. “He looked well and very cheerful and desperately amused when he saw the table full of British officers.”

When the court started Kevin refused to recognise it and instead read aloud from a newspaper. Every time a witness spoke, Kevin refused to answer any questions about their testimony. “You are wasting my time asking me,” he said. In an afternoon adjournment Katherine was allowed time with her brother and he used it to give his account of the raid.

He had arrived in town from Tombeagh that day for an exam at 2pm but hearing about the proposed action, he insisted on being allowed to take part and persuaded his officers it would be finished in time. His station was on the pathway outside the bakery entrance. The ambush was scheduled for 11am but arrived late, which was a concern for his exam.

His job was to keep the truck covered. He was issued with a newly reconditioned .38 automatic. His gun jammed on the third round. He knelt down beside the truck and discarded that round. He stood up and lifted a flap on the truck, fired and killed a soldier. The gun jammed again on the fifth round. He knelt once more and was busy with the gun when he realised he was alone. He dived in between the wheels of the lorry, hoping to escape in the confusion.

The soldiers were about to drive off when a woman on the opposite side of the street shrieked out, “There’s a man under the lorry.” He tried to escape through the wheels on that side, but the soldiers tumbled out and he was captured and taken to the North Dublin Union. After Kevin and Katherine finished talking, his lawyer and a priest advised Katherine to take her mother home as the prosecution was about to bring in prejudicial character witnesses and they would also likely pass sentence.

The bad news was confirmed when Katherine returned to Mountjoy the following day. “Kevin told me quite calmly and rather proudly that about 8 o’clock the previous evening the District Courtsmartial officer – who had visited him frequently in connection with the summary of evidence – had entered his cell, handed him his sentence, burst into tears and left the cell.” He was to be hanged on November 1. “Mind!’, he said, ‘There is to be no appeal,” “No”, Katherine replied, “we would not do that.”

Kevin told her there was a possibility the sentence may be changed to shooting. “I must say I’d rather be shot,” he told her. Being on death row he had only to ask for any kind of food and drink and it was supplied. There were two Auxiliaries with him until the end and he was allowed four visits every weekday. Katherine was the last visitor on October 28. Others on the way out told her the death sentence by hanging was confirmed. Kevin’s first words to her were, “I suppose they told you they’re not going to ‘let me like a soldier fall’, but at least ‘they’ll hang me like a gentleman’.” It was a reference to the last play they saw together that summer, Shaw’s “Devil’s Disciple“.

On Friday October 28 Katherine visited Kevin with his lawyer and a JP to get his affidavit of his torture after his arrest. Kevin thought if it was published in in the English newspapers on Saturday, it would rouse the English conscience. During the taking of it, when Kevin seemed to be at a loss for a British military term, one of the Auxiliaries guarding him helpfully supplied it.

The report did make the papers until Monday the day of his execution. That day, November 1, Derby Labour MP Jimmy Thomas read out the affadavit in a debate in the House of Commons, He got it from Katherine’s boss. Ernest Aston had taken the affadavit and a photo of Kevin and dashed over to London to lobby to stop the execution. Through a friend of Lloyd George he met the prime minister who apparently assured Aston the sentence would not be carried out.

Meanwhile Katherine saw her brother again on the Saturday. There had been a vague plan to rescue him from prison authorised by Michael Collins, but Katherine thought it had no chance and talked the IRA out of it saying he would “prefer to die for the Republic”. She had little memory of their penultimate conversation together. “As Kevin was saying good-bye to me, he said that he was not going to write any farewell letters to the immediate family. He said he was writing to friends who had written to him and visited him; but that for the family he would rather say good-bye on his feet.”

On Sunday there was a stream of visitors to their house with one lady wanting Kevin’s mother to send a telegram to the king. She refused in anger. Elsewhere there were several appeals from the Archbishop of Dublin, lawyers to Dublin Castle and a petition of doctors. All were in vain.

The family went to Mountjoy to see Kevin a final time. They found Kevin in a cheerful mood though several warders were crying. Katherine gave him a message which someone gave her to tell him University friends would be outside in the morning praying. He became serious and replied, “Tell them that is foolish. They’ll be all shot”. Katherine said he then suddenly began to swing his foot and whistle, “Steady Boys And Step Together” which lightened the mood and they began talking naturally.

Finally a jail official told them it was time to leave. “So we said goodbye and the last thing he said to me as he kissed me was, ‘Give my love to the boys in the Company’,” she said. “We turned at the door for a last look and he was standing at the salute. When the door closed, my mother was battling with her tears. The hall was clear of Auxies except for a group ‘at the end. But she was heroically determined to show no weakness in face of the enemy.”

A chaplain said Kevin did not realise he was going to die in the morning as it was so cheerful. Katherine said her mother drew herself up and said “Canon Waters, I know you are not a Republican. But is it impossible for you to understand that my son is actually proud to die for the Republic?” After attending Mass that night they were walking home when saluted by a passing Cumann na mBan branch. “Eyes right” their commander said as Mary Barry passed by.

After hearing two Masses in his cell, Kevin was executed on Monday morning and buried at Mountjoy that afternoon. Among the mourners to the house was Canon Waters. “He was full of kindness and sympathy and appreciation of Kevin’s bravery,” Katherine said. “Any little bad impression of himself that he might have left on my mother on the Sunday afternoon was completely wiped out on this occasion.”

In 1922 and again in 1932 the question was raised of moving his body from the prison grounds. All the other Mountjoy men executed by the British are buried in the same plot. “On both occasions, we said that, as Kevin had died for the Irish Republic, his body could remain in Mountjoy until the Republic was restored. The relatives of the other men followed our lead,” Katherine said. “I am the only member of the family who has visited the grave since 1921, as I was once allowed to see it without a permit from the Minister for Justice. The little plot is beautifully kept and the National Graves Association has now (1940s) marked the graves.”

In April 1922 Eamon de Valera asked Katherine to accompany Countess Markievicz in a republican delegation to the US. When she returned the Civil War started and there was no doubt which side Katherine was on, or Kevin, had he survived. “Mick Collins and I were having one of many
arguments about the Treaty. Mick listed a number of very fine soldiers who supported it and said, ‘How do you know your brother would not have supported it too?’,” she said. She told Collins what Kevin said before his arrest: “When this damned Dáil takes Dominion Home Rule, they need not expect us to back them up”. She said Collins replied “with characteristic generosity, ‘That is good enough. I won’t say that any more’.”

Katherine fought against Collins during the week long siege that ended in the death of Cathal Brugha, organising communication between Dublin and General Liam Lynch in the South. In December 1922 she was asked to reorganise the Irish Republican Prisoners Dependents Fund and acted as general secretary of the fund until September 1924, a position held in high regard by de Valera.

That year she married Jim Moloney. After travelling to the US to raise money she returned to Ireland in April 1925 and retired from republican service, settling into married life and raising her family. She remained a committed republican throughout her life, campaigning against the executions of republican prisoners between 1939 and 1947. Katherine Barry-Moloney died, at the age of 72, in Dublin on January 10, 1969. On October 14, 2001 her brother Kevin Barry and nine others executed were given a state funeral as their remains was finally moved to Glasnevin Cemetery.

Proudly standing to attention

While he bade his last farewell

To his broken hearted mother

Whose grief no one can tell.

For the cause he proudly cherished

This sad parting had to be

Then to death walked softly smiling

That old Ireland might be free.

In Denial: the trial of David Irving v Penguin and Deborah Lipstadt

Remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium in November 2008 (Photo: Derek Barry)

The coward only threatens when he feels secure” – Goethe

I recently caught up with an excellent 2016 film Denial. It tells the story of the 2000 court case Hitler apologist and Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Jewish Amerian historian Deborah Lipstadt and her book publisher Penguin for defamation. Scenes from the movie were filmed in Auschwitz in winter and it brought back strong memories of my own cold visit there in late 2008.

Irving lost the case for reasons I’ll get to but there’s a scene near the end where Lipstadt (played with passion by Rachel Weisz) gives a press conference which is even more appropriate in today’s world of rampant conspiracy theories. “Freedom of speech means you can say what you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to held accountable for it,” Lipstadt said. “Not all opinions are equal and some things happen just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened, the Earth is round, the icecaps are melting, Elvis is not alive.”

When populist leaders like Donald Trump freely dispense with facts (the fake news he is so fond of is usually something he says or tweets), it means all these incontrovertible “things that happened” are under fire. We are only waiting for some claim that Elvis has re-entered the building.

The Holocaust too is something that today’s Anti-Semites (also retweeted by Trump) still claim did not happen. The difference is the Irving case left a written testimony to history. Though Justice Charles Gray in his judgment said proof of the Holocaust was a task for historians not judges, the case remains some of the strongest written testimony that can be flung at any denialist.

In the 1990s British author David Irving (a spellbinding performance by Timothy Spall) was chief among denialists. Irving claimed to be a genuine historian and there is much original research in his early works from documents not previously visited by historians, such as the Himmler papers in Washington and the Goebbels diaries in Moscow. He assiduously tracked down people such as Hitler’s adjutants or their widows to gain first or second-hand testimony of Hitler’s regime.

There is clearly a strong interest in German texts but the problem was the conclusions he drew. While Irving claimed to be a Hitler historian not a Holocaust historian he painted Hitler as a Jewish sympathiser and in later works broadly dismissed the Holocaust as untrue.

Deborah Lipstadt is a Holocaust historian concerned at the way denial of the Shoah was spreading. Her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory took broad aim at Holocaust deniers in general and Irving in particular. There were barbed references to Irving’s work which she said “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources.”

She attacked several passages in Irving’s Hitler’s War (1991 – Second Edition) and noted than in 1989 the British parliament denounced him as a “Nazi propagandist and long time Hitler apologist”. Lipstadt said Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil revived Irving’s reputation in 1992 hiring him to translate the Goebbels diaries, discovered in a Russian archive. Neil later denounced Irving’s view as “reprehensible” but defended engaging him as a “transcribing technician”. Peter Pulzer, a professor of politics at Oxford and an expert on the Third Reich argued that when you hired someone to edit a set of documents others had not seen, “you took on the whole man”. Lipstadt concluded the paper displayed no journalist ethics in the interest of a journalistic scoop and threw away its task as a gatekeeper of the truth.

If these words were scathing of the Sunday Times they were extremely defamatory to Irving. But rather than take the case in Lipstadt’s native US where he would have had to prove defamatory intent, he went forum shopping and took the case to the London High Court. Under English law defamatory words are presumed to be untrue. The defendants needed to prove the substantial truth of the defamatory imputations, the so-called “sting” of the charges.

Irving conducted his own defence while Lipstadt had Diana-divorce solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott in the movie) and McLibel barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). The defence decided not to call Lipstadt to give evidence nor any survivors from Holocaust. The intent was to starve Irving of the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and put all the focus on his work.

They relied instead on five expert witnesses whose evidence ran into thousands of pages. They were Richard Evans, Cambridge Professor of Modern History who spoke about Irving’s historiography, his exculpation of Hitler and his denial of the Holocaust, Professor Robert Jan van Pelt, an authority on Auschwitz, Christopher Browning, a Tacoma Washington Professor of History who gave evidence about the implementation of the Final Solution, Peter Longerich of the University of London who gave evidence of Hitler’s role in Jewish persecution and Hajo Funke, Berlin Professor of Political Science who spoke of Irving’s association with German neo-Nazi groups.

The film concentrated on Evans and Van Pelt. Van Pelt showed the defence team around Auschwitz, the remains of Crematorium II and the delousing chambers. While the Germans dynamited the crematorium before the Russians captured Auschwitz in January 1945, its general layout was known from the drawings of Jewish inmate David Olere in the final days.

In the delousing chambers, where new arrivals were sprayed with Zyklon B to prevent typhus, they discussed the Leuchter Report. In 1988 German holocaust denier Ernst Zundel paid American Ernest Leuchter (a penitentiaries consultant who gave advice about execution procedures including execution by gas) to smuggle back to the US pieces of brick from the crematoria and gas chambers without permission. Leuchter’s investigation claimed there was not enough cyanide in the delousing walls to kill people. Irving’s second edition of Hitler’s War in 1991 relied heavily on this information and he even wrote the forward to Leuchter’s pseudo-scientific report. Van Pelt argued that was because they were only trying to kill lice in the delousing chambers not people, and there was 20 times that amount of cyanide used in the gas chambers.

Another key point was chimneys in morgue 1 of crematorium 2, which Van Pelt said was the most lethal place in Auschwitz with 500,000 deaths. Irving argued the remains of the roof of that morgue show no sign of the chimneys which, according to the defendants’ case penetrated through the roof to enable Zyklon-B pellets to be tipped into the morgue below.

Irving said that if anyone detected holes in the roof, he would abandon his libel action. He argued the Defendants’ entire case on Krema 2, “the untruth that it was used as a factory of death, with SS guards tipping canisters of cyanide-soaked pellets into the building through those four (non-existent) holes- had caved in, as surely as has that roof”. Or as he put it in his media-friendly soundbite “no holes, no holocaust“. However his theory was easily demolished by engineering analysis, computer analysis of images, and aerial photo analysis which clearly showed the holes in the roof.

There was also the evidence of Sonderkommando Henry Tauber to the Polish Central Commission in 1946. Tauber gave a detailed account of the operation describing dragging gassed corpses from the gas chamber and loading them five at a time onto trucks which ran on rails to the furnaces to be off-loaded. He described the three two-muffle furnaces and said each muffle would take five corpses. The incineration took up to one and a half hours with thin people burning slower than fat people. Van Pelt said Tauber’s testimony was corroborated by the German blueprints of the buildings. Tauber estimated the number of people gassed during his time at Auschwitz (February 1943 to October 1944) was two million people and he extrapolated the total number gassed there at four million.

Evans’ key evidence was over a written phrase “Keine liquidierung”. In late 1941 76,000 Jews still lived in Berlin. Their final removal eastward began after the invasion of the Soviet Union which was accompanied by the mass murder of Soviet Jews by Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi killing squads. On November 30, 1941 head of the SS Heinrich Himmler rang Einsatzgruppen boss Reinhard Heydrich with instructions. The relevant part of Himmler’s note of that conversation reads: “Judentransport aus Berlin. Keine liquidierung”. It translates as “Jew-transport from Berlin. No liquidation. ” Irving put huge weight on this instruction despite the fact a trainload of Jews who arrived in Riga that day were immediately massacred.

Irving said it proved Hitler was protective towards the Jews. He suggested Hitler had rapped Himmler’s knuckles prior to the Heydrich call for wanting to get rid of the Jews in the General Government. He also suggested “Keine liquidierung” had a wider significance than just one trainload of Jews from Berlin. However Evans told the court there was no evidence that Himmler spoke to Hitler that morning. Evans also forced Irving to admit “Judentransporte” in Himmler’s spidery handwriting was not plural and his inference it meant multiple transports was a “silly misreading”. Irving’s book had also omitted “aus Berlin” to bolster the misleading impression the instruction related to Jews from everywhere.

After eight weeks of trial Justice Gray concluded the falsification of the historical record was deliberate and Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence. “The Defendants have proved the substantial truth of the imputations, most of which relate to Irving’s conduct as an historian,” Gray said. Proved substantially true were “the charges that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence, he had portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally towards responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.” The defence of justification had succeeded, Gray concluded.