The news this week that the traditional owners of Uluru are closing the climb up the ancient monolith has unsurprisingly been greeted with a lot of criticism and disappointment, but is the right decision.
David Ross, the director of the Central Land Council, described the decision as “righting a historic wrong”.
“This decision has been a very long time coming and our thoughts are with the elders who have longed for this day but are no longer with us to celebrate it,” Mr Ross said.
The decision to close was a long time coming. Senior traditional owner and leader Sammy Wilson said the sacred rock was “not a theme park like Disneyland” and his Anangu people felt as if they had a “gun to their heads” to keep the rock open.
The arguments were that tourism would suffer if they did, and in the past that might have been true.
I visited Uluru once, back in 2002, and I have to admit I climbed the rock.
I saw the signs around put up by traditional owners asking people to respect their culture and not to climb, but for better or worse I ignored it.
The view was certainly astonishing from the top but on the way down I realised there was another reason they wanted the climb closed – it was bloody dangerous.
You are working against gravity and the ropes disappear while you are still an unsafe distance above the ground, leaving you carefully picking your steps and hoping a sudden gust of wind doesn’t upset your balance. I was never so glad to be on the ground. Thirty people have died in recent decades, a fact which deeply distresses the site’s traditional owners.
The number of climbers has halved in recent years from 40 to 20% as more people (myself included) understand the deep spiritual significance of the rock.
It is equivalent to abseiling inside a cathedral without permission and it is right it will be closed.
It certainly won’t stop people enjoying this truly awe-inspiring godly place.
The decision to close the climb is good news from Uluru, unlike the rejection of the Uluru Statement by the Malcolm Turnbull government without any consultation or discussion. They should hang their heads in shame.
For almost ten years, right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt has claimed the Stolen Generation is a myth. “Show me three of them?” was his common taunt, but it was a taunt that showed more about his ignorance and his lazy journalism than the truth. The data shows thousands of people caught up in the system over many decades, mostly so-called “half-castes” which the ill-guided theories of the time believed were best kept away from the influence of their parents. They left hundreds of testaments scattered in the record.
One of those was from Aboriginal woman Roslyn Choikee. I learned her story today in Mount Isa city library. I had been there a few times before but never noticed they had a tray of books about Indigenous issues. I picked Jonathan Richards’ The Secret War, an important book about the Queensland Native Police I’d read before and one I hadn’t read before Stuart Rintoul’s 1993 book “The Wailing – A National Black Oral History”.
It is as the title suggests, a collection of Indigenous testimony of people that lived through the 20th century. Nearly all faced hardship of some kind but some stories were less clear cut than others, such as Roslyn Choikee. I was interested in her story because she was born in Cloncurry, near Mount Isa, and I typed out her testimony for an article for the paper.
Her story was simple but not straight forward. It was both terrifying – she was stolen from her parents aged six – and satisfying – because she had a happy childhood and a good life by the shores of Mission Bay, regardless. She became a happily married Christian on the coast, and never missed her home. It helped she landed in Yarrabah on Mission Bay near Cairns. Yarrabah was established as a Christian mission for Aboriginal people in 1892. Many people like Roslyn were forced to go there. But it remains a beautiful spot nestled between the sea and the mountains. Seven decades later Roslyn was still there, aged 77, when in the sunshine of a July afternoon she told her story to Rintoul on a stone veranda at the Yarrabah home for the aged. Her happiness didn’t justify an appalling system but it showed the resilience of people to adapt to whatever life throws at them.
Choikee: “I come from Cloncurry. I was taken away from my parents in 1920. I was six years old. I didn’t know what was happening when I came to Yarrabah. It was good schooling here. We used to go down to the beach and get shells. That’s how we learned to count, with shells or with seeds at that time. We had a good teacher. She was a dark girl, a big girl, a senior girl. We had senior room, intermediate room and junior room. When you came to Yarrabah, if you came big they would put you in the intermediate room and if you came small, like my age, you would go into the junior room.”
Rintoul: Do you remember what happened the day you were taken away?
“The policeman took us to the police station, me and some other girls. But the two girls who were with me there went to Cherbourg, and they’ve passed away now, those girls. They sent me here to Yarrabah. I liked Yarrabah: Yarrabah is a pretty place. I never got homesick here, because I found a lot of nice little girls the same age as my age.”
You didn’t miss your parents?
“Oh yes. Now and again I missed them, but here at Yarrabah we had too many mates. Go to school, come back, play.
“We were living on a reserve at Cloncurry – a little dark people’s reserve. That’s all right too. We used to go to Boulia to see the rodeo when I was a little girl. That’s where I saw buck-jumping. A bullock-wagon used to take us from Cloncurry to Boulia. That was a bridle track then. They say it’s a big bitumen road now.
“I won’t go back because there is nobody there now. My cousin’s son went back there two years ago to look around and there’s not one of our friends there, not one Aboriginal in the area that was there. They don’t know where they shifted them. We never heard nothing and they never heard about us.
“All the half-caste children were taken away at the time and sent to different missions. Some of them went to Barrambah (Cherbourg), Palm island, here. I was sent here to Yarrabah. My father was a white man and my mother was a dark woman, you see. They weren’t married. I didn’t know about marriage till I came to Yarrabah. They were good though. They helped them and they helped us children too. They took us to Boulia now and again. The white men used to just come around. I was too young to know what was happening when they would come around to visit us. We didn’t go to the town part at Cloncurry. We would just stay down where the Aboriginal reserve was. We had tents and humpies, no houses.
“I never heard nothing about my mother from the day I was taken away, no more. But when I came to Yarrabah I was happy here and I never thought of it anymore. I did think of my mother, but I wouldn’t go back to see if she was there or anything like that. When I came to Yarrabah we started going to school and at school we made mates, here and there, our own age. It was really good. We didn’t know how to talk much till we came here to Yarrabah. Till I came here, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know anything about the Lord. I’m a Christian now. I didn’t know nothing about it till I came to Yarrabah. That’s where we learned Christianity, at Yarrabah.
“My name was Daisy Sheridan. It was changed when I came here and was baptised. My godmother, Ciccy Thompson, gave me the name Roslyn Bell. Everyone who came here was baptised at St Alban’s Church. I knew that my name was Daisy, but that was all right. I had to change my name when I got married, to Choikee. Choikee is a traditional name of Aboriginal people around the Yarrabah area.
“The dormitory was really good. We had two matrons, Miss Ardley and Miss Newbury, when I first came. During the day we played. We never used to work much. Only we used to rake up, with our hands. We used to clean the yard, and when you grew up, coming on to full age, you did harder work. We went to school only up to grade five at that time. When we got to grade five we left school.
“Mr Dobar came up to Yarrabah one time. He was a white man who looked after the missions. He came to school and we had to stand up and spell ornithorhynchus(she spells it out) because he had left that with us to learn, and some didn’t know and some knew, and he say to them, ‘That’s a good girl’. Ornithorhynchus is a platypus. My granddaughter who goes to school in Brisbane reckons they learned that ‘ornithorhynchus’ in grade eight, but we learned that ‘ornithorhychus’ in grade five. That was the last year that we were in school.
“After grade five we worked and did fancy work. We used to sew fancy work, crochet around. Miss Hogan used to send us a big box of clothes for us to sew and do fancy work on. They got us ready to be wives. We had to learn to cook, we had to learn to wash, we had to learn to iron. Miss Hahn, the matron, would send us back anything that had grease on it. Boys went to school in the morning, the boys would go out one road down to church and we would go another road down to church. We didn’t go together all: we didn’t see each other. If we fell in love they’d come and talk to us in the yard, with matron. We’d get engaged then. That’s how I got engaged.”
How could you fall in love if you couldn’t talk to each other?
(She laughs.) “I don’t know. We’d look at each other in church and sometimes matron would see us. Oh she’d growl, ‘You mustn’t look over there where the boys are,’ she’d say. I didn’t care for boys while we were young, until we were going into the intermediate room, going onto thirteen and fourteen.
“My husband was Robert Choikee. He was one of the boys who came up and talked to us. They used to come up from the dormitory and sit on a big seat around the mango tree. There were about nine of us all sitting around, just yarning and having a joke of our own. That was all right. We’d sit there and matron would be on the veranda sitting down and when it was time for them to go she’d blow a whistle and they’d go then. They weren’t there long. But we never met alone at any time until we got married. We weren’t allowed. We were told not to do it.
“There was a song that we would sing in the dormitory at night, ‘Oh where is my wandering boy tonight?’ That’s a Christian song. That was the Virgin Mary singing that time when Jesus was in the temple and she couldn’t find him. They wanted to go to Jerusalem but she couldn’t find him, so she sang that song and we learned it. But Miss Hahn, our matron, though we were encouraging the boys around all the time. She would sing out, ‘Are you encouraging the boys again? Do you want the boys to sneak around?’ We’d stop that and start some other song, but if we went back to something to bring the boys back again, she’d start again. ‘Stop it now, stop it now, no encouraging the boys,’ she’d say. That was a good song.”
Combo Waterhole is a refreshing change even in the driest times, a pleasant place to camp by a billabong and wait while your billy boils. Situated 7km south of Kynuna, between Cloncurry and Winton, there is a short trip off the bitumen of the Landsborough Highway to some interpretative signs and a walking track to the waterhole, which in the wet season is one of many channels of the Diamantina River.What little water there is kept in place by stone overshots installed on Dagworth Station in the 1890s. Teams of labourers used horses, drays and baskets to cart in stone and soil laid in tightly packed rows strengthened by keystones. The water has become a haven for wildlife that thrives under the shade of its coolibah trees.It’s not known if Banjo Paterson witnessed the building of these overshots when he visited Dagworth in 1895 with his fiance Sarah Riley but it was another tale of that visit that has remained strong in the Australian imagination. Paterson, then 31, practised as a solicitor, but had also started a writing career. From 1885, he began submitting and having poetry published in The Bulletin.His fiance Sarah was a friend of Christina Macpherson, sister of station owner Bob Macpherson. Christina was a talented musician and while there Paterson heard her play on her zither a “catchy, whimsical, haunting tune that deserves words to keep it alive”. Christina was playing the Scottish tune called Bonnie Wood O’ Craigielea. She heard it at the races in Victoria that year and the catchy tune stuck in her head. Now Paterson set about composing words to Australianise the song combining two local legends for the purpose.One day he and Bob Macpherson and Banjo stopped at the Combo Waterhole where they found the remains of a recently slaughtered sheep killed by a swagman. The incident reminded Macpherson that a year earlier Dagworth had been through a bitter shearers’ strike (one of many in the 1890s). As Macpherson planned to start shearing with non-union labour, unionists used the cover of nightfall and gunfire to set the woolshed alight, killing around 140 sheep. When police investigated the suicide of Samuel “French” Hoffmeister who shot himself at the strikers’ camp a day later, they found a burned letter which linked him with the woolshed fire.The second legend was of a trooper pursuing a man who had killed an Aboriginal youth, who stumbled on a swagman who thought the trooper was looking for him because he’d killed a sheep for food. The swagman tried to escape but drowned in a waterhole. The name for Paterson’s new ditty came to him when he and Macpherson found a swagman on the road and Macpherson said “that’s what they call waltzing matilda”.
The song was first performed at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. It was an instant success that soon swept across Australia, becoming the favourite song of Australian troops fighting in the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. The song became associated with Winton and its tourist centre (now being rebuilt after fire) is named the Waltzing Matilda Centre. But the song was born at Combo Waterhole, 160km further to the north.
Though I could see the Adelaide Oval and the city of Adelaide from my window as my plane came in to land on Thursday morning, I could still scarcely believe this was where I was heading. Or the fact that I, not particularly known for an interest in botany or even green fingers, was here to see a plant. Yet that was the plan in a quick 24 hour shuttle from Brisbane with a 6am flight down and the same time back the following morning. I tried to remember when I was last in this city, around 1993 or 1994. After I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane in 1998, Adelaide was always just a little bit too far away and I lacked a good excuse to go there – until this week.My ultimate destination was the Adelaide Botanic Gardens but I got off the airport bus for a walk to admire the solidity of the many stone buildings. I had arranged to meet an internet friend for coffee on North Terrace. I was pleased with the choice because not only were the Gardens nearby, so were the Museum, Art Gallery and State Library, all of which I hoped to visit later in the day. We had a lovely chat IRL and I stayed a lot longer at the cafe than I anticipated.In conversation I described what I was here to see: a Chilean bromeliad called puya chilensis, currently in flower at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. I first heard of it in 2013. The Royal Horticultural Society had put out a media release for its Wisley garden in Surrey to advertise its three-metre-tall puya chilensis which had burst into superb flowering for the first time in 15 years. That was newsworthy but what really attracted the BBC, HuffPo and other international media was the description of a very peculiar quality of the plant: it ate sheep. As the BBC said “In the Andes it uses its sharp spines to snare and trap sheep and other animals, which slowly starve to death.”This was taking plant behaviour to a whole new level. As the headline in the Gizmodo story said this was “why you should find this plant absolutely terrifying.” Terrifying indeed, if true. I don’t know a great deal about botany, but I do know a bit about media and know they would be so desperate to believe puya chilensis could eat sheep they would likely not check whether it was true. A few days later, I published my findings on my blog as Puya Chilensis: Media fooled by “sheep-eating plant” (perhaps appropriate the rebuttal of a sheep-eating plant should be on a blog called Woolly Days). While I was pleased with my efforts, I had no idea how much impact it would have and thought no more of it. To my surprise, it was picked up by many plant and Reddit forums always used as the clinching argument against the fact it ate sheep. It was my most popular blog post of 2013 and topped my list again in 2014 and 2015. It remains my most ever blog post ever by a considerable margin. Every time puya chilensis came in flower somewhere in the world, someone would mention sheep eating and someone else would point out my story saying it was untrue.All this was in my mind as I saw the unmistakable plant for the first time, four years later. It was a special moment. Having acquired an accidental reputation as an expert, I resolved that if the plant ever flowered in Australia I would go and see it. The chance arose a couple of weeks ago when Botanic Gardens SA put out a tweet. It read “Our ‘sheep-eating’ #Puya chilensis are flowering at #Adelaide Botanic Garden! We’ll post a blog on their ghastly reputation next week”. I didn’t see that tweet but I saw a reply from @GardenOpus which did the usual thing: “Always enjoy reading yarns about this one,” GardenOpus said, “but stories about its sheep eating habits have been mostly debunked”. They linked to my 2013 article. I laughed when I saw this but then realised I would be on holidays in Brisbane at that time. Adelaide was not out of the question. The $700 return air fare price wasn’t cheap but not dissimilar to prices I pay to get to Mount Isa. I asked the Botanic Gardens would it still be in flower a week later and I told them about my relationship to the plant. They said it would and they also knew about my blog post. They replied, “it was a nice piece and mentioned in our blog Attack of the Sheep-Eating Plants.” The Gardens had even brought my story forward. In 2013 I asked the RHA about where they got the notion of sheep-eating from. They replied a few days after I published my post with some references to sheep-eating and I added it as an update. It was these references the South Australians were most interested in, “including one in Mabberley’s Plant-book, a comprehensive and internationally renowned plant reference source. The plot thickens.” This clinched the deal for me and I immediately booked to go to Adelaide a couple of days later. I told the Gardens and though they wouldn’t guarantee me someone to talk to they gave me the reference on the map. The puya chilensis were easy to find, standing tall and proud 3m high, next door to the hothouse containing the Amazonian lily pads. It was hard not to feel awe around them. They looked like a bizarre cross between a Norfolk pine, a marijuana plant and a triffid. At close inspection it did look possible that small animals could get caught in the large clump. When I posted a photo on social media, an former Adelaide-based friend claimed he once had to extricate a cat from the plant. According to Mabberley’s Plant Book, puya leaves yield a fibre used for rot-resistant fishing nets but sheep and birds can get entangled in them. “The nutrients from which, as well as those from their droppings may be absorbed,” Mabberley said. Sheep-eaters or not, puya chilensis are impressive. There was not a great deal of information at the site of the plant other than a small sign nestled at the base with the plant name. Puya chilensis is in the Bromeliaceae family, better known as bromeliads, of which the equally spiky pineapple probably the most famous example. The largest bromeliad is a puya though not a chilensis, I found out later in the day.Puya chilensis grows in arid hillsides of the western Andes at altitudes of up to 1200m. Some gardens report the flowering to be rare though other gardens, Adelaide included, say they flower each year in the early spring months. In Chile the giant hummingbird pollinates the electric-yellow flowers with bright orange anthers and uses the puya’s spikes for perching to reach the flowers. The leaves have ferociously sharp backward-pointing spines which trap animals. They die and their decaying bodies provide nutrients to the puya plants. Or so the story goes.In Adelaide there were no obvious dead animals around though the honeyeaters and the bees were enjoying the copious nectar. The plant is flammable so regardless of sheep, farmers have a reason to fear it and cut it back. Its native habitat is also affected by oil and gas pipelines, high voltage power lines and the needs of fruit plantations. I began to look around the vicinity and found smaller varieties of puya nearby. Puya is from the Mapuche Indian word meaning “point”. This one below is puya venusta, which flowers in red. Like chilensis it is found in central Chile. This next one below is puya coerulea. This is a rare plant, also Chilean, known as the “pink torch” puya for its stunning flowering. It sends up a meter-long flower cluster that according to one plant site is “like a Dr. Suess version of a tiki torch”.This one below is puya ferruginea, a small slow-growing plant in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. It has rosettes of long very thin silvery-green foliage that often twists towards the tips giving the plant a wind-blown asymmetrical appearance like a spiky tussock.Having exhausted everything I wanted to do it was time to call in the experts. I took a walk past some beautiful exhibits to the admin building and introduced myself to the lady on reception telling her my business with the garden. She told me normally a gardener would be available to talk but they were all in meetings. However if I came back at 1pm someone would talk. Happy with that, I left the gardens to have lunch.I came back at 1pm and as promised, the receptionist found me a gardener. The gardener didn’t mind me taping him but said he was not entitled to speak to media on behalf of the garden. For that reason I have not identified him or quoted him directly (apart from one instance which speaks to his character). He told me the puya clump was probably at least 40 to 60 years old and used to be four times bigger. It had to be moved 10 years ago when they rebuilt the Amazonian section. I asked him whether the plant had difficulty coping with the change from Chilean’s Mediterranean climate to Adelaide. He told me Chile’s climate was diverse and in any case Adelaide’s climate was also Mediterranean, a fact I had some difficulty digesting after finding it 15 degrees cooler than Brisbane. But his point stood, the plant had easily adapted to local conditions. He told me their plant flowers every year for around six weeks but they don’t feed it sheep, or indeed any nutrients at all. He said it was a hardy plant that often thrived in poor soils. As we wrapped up our conversation he started telling me about another puya but he couldn’t remember its name. This one was even bigger than chilensis but was a monocarp which means it dies after a single flowering. I thanked the gardener for his information and started to walk back towards puya for another look.As I walked back, I was startled by someone running up to me. It was the gardener. “I just remembered the name of the biggest puya,” he said. “Puya raimondii.” Adelaide did have one of these puyas – the largest bromeliad – which took a remarkable 50 years or so to flower well over three meters high. Even more remarkably it died immediately afterwards. I thanked the gardener again as I tried to imagine what it might have looked like. I don’t have a photo of puya raimondii so here’s an extraordinary one from Wikipedia in the wild in South America (By Pepe Roque – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)This new knowledge was the icing on the cake of a great day and I thank the South Australian Botanic Gardens for their generous help and lovely gardens. I enjoyed the rest of my day in Adelaide in other pursuits though I could not get puya out of my mind. I remain none the wiser whether shepherds in the Andes lose sheep to a monster plant. I expected to be impressed by puya chilensis and I was. But I didn’t expect to be intrigued by the rest of the puyas. I certainly didn’t think my dreams would be haunted by the ghost of the astonishing puya raimondii, a plant that slowly builds its phallic erection over half a century only to die once it spills its solitary wad. Somehow I find that more terrifying than the sheep.
This signpost is wrong, the road to Kuridala is 90 degrees clockwise from the POV of this shot. I missed the turnoff first time as the sign was partially obscured from my vision. But the person who gave me the directions said “you can’t miss the chimneys”. He was right, the huge chimneys were easy to spot and that last turnoff was probably the way there.
Kuridala was a mining (copper, silver and gold) town which briefly flowered in the early 20th century but is now completely abandoned. The chimneys of the smelter still dominate the remote landscape about 65km south of Cloncurry, in north west Queensland. I was in Cloncurry the day before for the mayor’s lunch to celebrate the town’s 150th birthday. Copper mining is a crucial part of the Cloncurry story and Kuridala played its part, continually coming up in mentions in speeches.
At the lunch I was seated next to one of the local cops. He told me that on his days off he enjoyed fossicking for minerals, especially at Kuridala. It was the third or fourth mention of the town I’d heard on the day and an idea started to gel. I was due to drive from Cloncurry to Dajarra the following day for a rodeo and I asked the cop how far Kuridala was from the Cloncurry-Dajarra Rd. About 40km, he said, and told me about the chimneys. I was sold.
Care needs to be taken when fossicking due to unmarked open mine shafts. Copper was discovered at Kuridala in 1884 (not long after Ernest Henry found the first copper at Cloncurry). Kuridala is an Aboriginal word meaning eagle hawk, though experts are unsure which language it comes from. The area underwent several name changes in quick succession in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was first known as Gulatten, then Hampden (which gave its name to the copper company on the field). Probably because of the influx of German miners it was renamed to Friezland but although the mine thrived in the First World War, it was not a good time for German names and renamed Kuridala in October 1916.
No one now lives at Kuridala but many people died there. There are over 360 graves in Kuridala cemetery. At its peak the town supported six hotels, five stores, four billiard saloons, three dance halls and a cinema, two ice works and one aerated waters factory. But it was a very brief peak.
The two big iron chimneys dominate the landscape but they are part of a considerable amount of remains of the smelter-works including a blast furnace and concrete engine mounts. The Hampden Smelter opened in 1911 and over three years treated 85,266 tons of ore with an initial dividend of £140,000 in 1913.
The smelter made money servicing the Empire war machine from 1914-1918, despite marketing, transport and labour difficulties. The Hampden Cloncurry Company declared big dividends: £40,000 in 1915, £140,000 in 1916, £52,500 in 1917 and £35,000 in 1918 for almost half a million pounds of revenue since starting. The smelters treated over a quarter of a million tons of ore in the war, averaging over 70,000 tons annually. The company built light railways to its Wee MacGregor and Trekelano mines and installed a concentration plant in 1917. A year later they erected an Edwards furnace to pre-roast fine sulphide concentrates from the mill before smelting.
At the end of the war the British government dropped copper price controls which put the Hampden Cloncurry Company in difficulties. They postponed smelting until September 1919 and they lost heavily during the next season relying on ores from Trekelano mine. The smelter treated 69,598 tons of ore in 1920, but they had to halt all operations after the Commonwealth Bank withdrew funds on copper awaiting export.
Like other Queensland companies struggling after the war, they turned to the Theodore Labor government for assistance but got nothing. Negotiations for amalgamation occurred in 1925 but failed, and in 1926 Hampden Cloncurry offered its assets for sale by tender. Mount Elliott acquired them all except for the Trekelano mine. The company was de-listed in 1928.
The population of Kuridala had peaked at 2000 by 1920, but reduced to 800 by 1924. A year earlier, a new field at Mount Isa had opened up and the bakehouse, the hospital, courthouse, one of the ice works and picture theatre moved there followed by Boyds’ Hampden Hotel (renamed the Argent) in 1924. Other buildings including the police residence and Clerk of Petty Sessions house were moved to Cloncurry.
By 1928 all bar one family had packed up and gone. In its nine years of smelting Hampden Cloncurry had been one of Australia’s largest mining companies producing 50,800 tons of copper, 21,000 ounces of gold and 381,000 ounces of silver. It helped create the metal fabricating company, Metal Manufacturers Limited which established a major works at Port Kembla on the back of their Kuridala success.
The Tunny family lived on at Kuridala living off the Hampden and Consol mines from 1932 until 1969. A post office operated until 1975 and the last inhabitant, Lizzy Belch, moved into Cloncurry about 1982. Today it is farmland and cattle wander through the works in search of feed. These two water tanks reminded me of the smoke stacks of the Titanic, an apt metaphor for Kuridala and from a similar vintage.
The Queensland Heritage register notes the Hampden Smelter as an important archaeological resource. It says its rare, early water-jacket blast furnace is the only surviving example of its type in Queensland. “A large, intact and well-formed slag dump at the site is second only in size to the dump at Chillagoe Smelters,” the register said. “Archaeological examination of the smelter works will provide an understanding of the technology and practices in early copper processing in Queensland.”
The first thing noticeable as you arrive into Birdsville is the planes. There must have been hundreds parked at the airport of every size and dimension and from all parts of Australia. The second noticeable thing just outside the airport was the steam. It is arising from the artesian bore piping water up from the Great Artesian Basin. The bore was drilled in 1961 and has a water temperature of just below boiling point. A series of cooling tubes and a parallel plate heat exchanger brings the temperature down.
Situated on the eastern fringe of the Simpson Desert, the area around Birdsville was the home of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people. The first Europeans came in 1844 when SA Survey-General and explorer Charles Sturt led expeditions to the area. Burke and Wills‘ Camp 76 was also in the region on their return trek in 1860-1. The township of Birdsville grew out of the colonial need to create a customs post between South Australia and Queensland. Before the days of motorised transport Afghan cameleers brought supplies up the Birdsville Track. But today was all about horses. The 135th running of the Birdsville Cup.
They came from all parts with the town of 200 swelling to 6500 for the weekend. I have been to Birdsville many times before (most recently to the 2017 Big Red Bash) but this was my first time here for the races. The main street was set up with market and food stalls.
Before the races the place to meet was the Birdsville Hotel. They came dressed in all kinds of costumes.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has an association with Birdsville having visited twice since 2015 to check out the town’s internet and mobile capability. He wasn’t there today but a mechanical bull named in his honour was there.
The pub was the site of the Calcutta for the races. A Calcutta is an open auction where each horse goes to the highest bidder. The practice originated with the Colonial British (of course) in Calcutta, India.
As a photographer I’m always on the lookout for colourful costumes or groups so not surprisingly my eye was drawn to these guys. I asked them where they were from. “Orange,” they replied. “Of course,” I said and they laughed. “You serious?” I said doubting them. But indeed, they came from Orange, NSW.
The Birdsville Bakery is a little bit away from the action across the town oval. But it is always worth a visit for its famous camel pies. Permanently parked out the front is Onslo the VW Beetle. It was owned by author and journalist Kelly Theobald, who was killed in a car crash on the Birdsville Track in 2015, aged just 27.
As I headed back across the oval, a plane came in overhead with distinctive RAAF markings. I knew exactly who it was. Earlier I had bumped into the Diamantina Mayor Geoff Morton but he was in a rush and couldn’t stop to talk to me. When I picked up my media pass I was told why, the Governor General of Australia Peter Cosgrove was expected in town at 11am. And here just a minute or two after 11 was his plane.
I walked back to the airport, conveniently located in the middle of town, just opposite the pub and saw Cosgrove come off the plane with his wife to be greeted by Mayor Morton. They were quickly whisked away on a tour of town.
That tour probably included a visit inside the pub at some stage. William Blair built the Birdsville Hotel in 1884 and its weathered sandstone walls have been there almost as long as the races. The hotel is heritage-listed as one of three surviving masonry buildings in Birdsville and is a rare surviving late 19th century outback hotel.
One of the other two (along with the courthouse) is the ruins of the 1883-vintage Royal Hotel. Though only a year older than the Birdsville Hotel, it has suffered more from the ravages of time. From 1923 to 1937, the building was leased by the Rev John Flynn’s Presbyterian Australian Inland Mission as its first bush nursing home and Alfred Traeger installed one of his first bush pedal radio stations there. Afterwards it was used as a residence, then abandoned before it partially collapsed.
Continuing to seek out colourful groups, these three ladies were happy to have their photo taken, “Girls Trip in Progress”. Someone later told me the Birdsville Races was a “schoolies for the over 50s” and the evidence for that was everywhere.
Like all schoolies they needed holiday accommodation and tent cities were set up at every vantage point.
Having completed my tour of the town, it was time to head to the races. The racecourse is a few kilometres south of the town across the Diamantina River, which is part of the endorheic Lake Eyre Basin. We’ve had hardly any rain for six months in western and north west Queensland so I was surprised to see how much permanent water was still in the river. The river attracts the bird life and explains how the town got its name.
The entrance to the track was THE place to get your photo taken, or in my case, to take your photos.
The set up was impressive for a bush race meeting and the 6500 punters were catered for with ease. Needless to say it was full of colourfully-dressed characters from all over Australia like these “Dust Angels” from Brisbane. Behind them is the “Black Tower”, the communications and media centre at the meet. The Black Tower is, in typical inverted Aussie bush style, white.
Believe it or not, there was actual horse racing at the Birdsville Races. Two days of it on Friday and Saturday. I got there for the Saturday and this is Race 1 with Mount Isa jockey Dan Ballard storming home to win on Nuncius.
As well as the novelty outfits there were many people dressed up in proper attire. The fashions on the field attracted big prizes and were hotly contested by women, men, couples and even families.
The Governor-General came along to watch the fashions and as he did so, he handed out a medal to a young girl watching on. I asked him what that was about. He said it was the Governor General’s medal and it was a random decision to give it to that girl. He had never met her before but must have liked her smile.
I didn’t have any medals to hand out but these two ladies were my favourite: Christine the Angel and Peta the Devil, both from Melbourne. Like the GG it was a random choice, but it reminds me of this scene in Full Metal Jacket. “I think I was trying to say something about the duality of man, sir “.
After a big day at the track, it was time for the 135th running of the Birdsville Cup. Victory went to Roma horse Fast Fella ridden by Rockhampton jockey Adrian Coome.
And the GG was on hand to present the gleaming gold trophy to winning Roma trainer Craig Smith. While they celebrated it was time for me to bid adieu to Birdsville for another year.
My newspaper the North West Star covers an enormous territory, almost a half a million square kilometres of North West Queensland. As editor I’ve set myself the task of seeing as much of that territory as possible in my time here, a not inconsiderable task given it is an area larger than Spain but with very few people and very few serviceable roads.To get to many places you need a four wheel drive, a bit of planning and a sense of adventure because if you do get into strife, the options for help may not be there with very little traffic and no mobile reception. The picture above is barely 25kms from Mount Isa, after leaving the highway and heading north on the dirt road to Lake Julius and Kajabbi. Every time I drive from Isa to Cloncurry I see the turn-off but until this Saturday, I’d never taken it.The winter dry season terrain is red with pockets of green. There’s not much traffic but you see it well in advance thanks to the large amount of dust any vehicle raises, rising like a plume 20m into the air above. One particular plume went higher still and when I got up close I found it was a slow-moving cattle truck. I had to wait ages for an opportunity to overtake it as the dust it raised made the view ahead negligible and dangerous.After 70km up the dirt road, I came to this junction signpost. The kilometres are wrong in both direction. It’s 70km to the highway then another 20km to Isa while it’s at least 50km to Kajabbi. In any case my destination was Lake Julius and that one was accurate. The Dam was 14km away to the left.Looking at the road in that direction it was clear some climbing into the hills lay ahead.Lake Julius is carved out of the Leichhardt River and there is not much water in that river at this time of year. None at all in fact. The trip to the Dam heads over the causeway of the river here as it winds its way north to empty into the Gulf (well, it does in summer anyway).Above is the view from the middle of the causeway looking at the river south towards to the dam. It’s empty now but locals say it doesn’t take much rain to fill and when it does the workers at the Dam are cut off, sometimes for weeks or more, with access only from the air.Finally I got to the house which overlooked the dam. It was a private house but it had access to visitors, picnic tables and a lookout with a great vista over the dam.And what a view. Julius Dam is located at the junction of Paroo Creek and the Leichhardt River, 70 kms north-east of Mount Isa. There may not be any water in the Leichhardt upstream but here there was plenty dammed in. As of the latest figures provided by the Mount Isa Water Board (August 14, 2017) Lake Julius is 87.9% full. Sometimes the dam is well over 100 percent full and the water rushes over the top. That would be a sight to behold although difficult to capture without air transport as the access road is cut off.Lake Julius is a human-made dam. It was built at the height of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen construction era in the mid to late 1970s and opened on October 8, 1978. Lake Julius has a full supply capacity of 127,000 megalitres, a surface area of 1255 hectares with an average depth of 8.9 metres. The concrete multiple arch and buttress structure is unique in Queensland.I walked from the lookout down to the boat ramp. Lake Julius supplies several mines in the region via the Mount Isa Water Board and North West Queensland Water Pipeline Company, which pipes water from the Dam to their customers. It also acts as a back-up supply for Lake Moondarra as a supply of Mount Isa town water but its distance from town makes it expensive to pump outside times of drought. The state government is now providing money to use a solar pump to get the water to town more cheaply.Assuming the Dam is not overflowing, it is a perfect spot for boating and recreational fishing. It’s also miles from anywhere so you’ll likely have the wilderness of the lake to yourself.This map shows the many channels of the lake formed by the Dam.
The dam cost $30 million at the time and was financed by the Mount Isa City Council with assistance from Mount Isa Mines. According to the Canberra Times, April 30 1977, the council were still $6m short and could face bankruptcy if they didn’t get the extra money from the federal government. The feds eventually came to the party.This is the view looking downstream as the Leichhardt makes its way to the Gulf of Carpentaria past Augustus Downs station. The road leading up to the dam is visible centre left.I drove back to the junction and believing the sign I thought Kajabbi was just 32km north and set off in that direction. One of the many hilltops in this region (though likely not this one) is Battle Mountain, scene of the Kalkadoon people’s last stand against settlers and native police in 1884. The rough terrain meant their independence lasted longer than most but the might of European Snyder weapons was eventually too powerful.I got to 32km but where Kajabbi should have been according to the sign all there was was a cattle outstation. I drove further north a while until I got to an unmarked junction and not willing to gamble further I drove back to Mount Isa. Kajabbi will have to wait for another trip.