Author Archives: Deb McSephney

The Wide Brown Land for Me?

I thought I’d share this powerful article with you. Anyone who has been into the red centre will understand what Bobby is saying here. The outback is like nowhere else on earth. It inspires awe and wonder, and for Australians – both indigenous and more recent settlers – a fierce pride.

Bobby Dazzler's Blog

Uluru climbers

(This article was first published in Eremos magazine in February 2001.)

It is not uncommon to hear the comment from Australians who have visited the Outback – even from those of no particular religious bent – that it was in some way a spiritual experience. In particular, being in the vicinity of Uluru is often characterised as engendering a special feeling of a more or less religious kind. Having travelled extensively in Central Australia over the past thirty years, I can attest to having had these feelings frequently. Every time I see Uluru, I find it hard not to become tearful.

What should we make of these reactions?

I write this as a non-indigenous Australian. I use the words “we” and “us” to refer to me and my kind.

It could be dismissed as nothing more than Australians, particularly those who live in the cities, getting a bit emotional about…

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Maytown – Ghosts past and present

There’s nothing left. A few foundation stones, the kerb line, an old chimney stack. Maytown, Queensland was once a thriving gold town. Now, less than 150 years after it was founded, it’s turned to dust. Just another tourist curiosity.

They rushed here to make their fortunes. British, Chinese, early Australians all. For a few short years the town flourished. It had pretensions. There, look, the cornerstone of the School of Arts. Over there, the bank, a cemetery.

Prospectors found gold here on the Palmer River in 1873. Word went out. Hopeful diggers made the long and treacherous journey from Cooktown on the coast. Some came on horseback, some walked the hot, dusty interior of a little known land. Money on their minds. Hidden treasure.

The Main Street was lined with granite, built to last. It was a busy town, well served by Chinese shopkeepers, two butchers, a baker. If you close your eyes, you can almost catch the sounds of ghostly footsteps, the laughing, boasting voices in the bars of the old hotels. A hint of charcoal on the dusty wind, the hot yeasty scent of fresh baked bread from the baker’s oven. Built in brick, the oven still stands.

Maytow, Queensland,ghost town, australia

Road to Maytown

But now, this town is just a ghost town, abandoned. By 1945 it was deserted. Like a desert flower it grew quickly, bloomed, then withered away when the gold ran out. The scrub and sands are devouring it, taking back the land to grow food trees for the Palm Cockatoos.

 

But the story continues. The road to Maytown has had to be compulsorily purchased to allow access across the private land that surrounds the reserve. Tourists are not welcome here. Someone has padlocked the gates and laid nails and other sharp objects on the road. Tracks have appeared leading off into the bush, confusing travellers.

Queensland Parks posts a letter to landowners on the wall of the little tin tourist shelter, right next to the map of old Maytown. The public has a right to access the area. Report any interference immediately.

We meet a group of men on quad bikes, exploring the old minefields. When we ask about the route back through Palmersville, they shake their heads. It’s closed. Don’t go there. They tell us stories of murder, gunshots and missing persons.

The wind whistles down the remains of the Main Street. Dust swirls. It’s time to go. We are not wanted here.

Crossings and Crocs – a driver’s perspective

All respectable 4WD magazines highly recommend that any river crossing is walked to establish route, unseen obstructions and hazards.  We’re above a latitude running through Cairns and that is significant.  Guess who lives up here?  Yes, crocs.

Never mind telling me it’s a freshie.  It can’t eat you whole, or they won’t bite you, they’re crocs.

Even if you’re not freaked out by that, their bigger cousins are salties, estuarine crocs.  Saltwater crocs grow as big as a Holden Commodore and are at least as fast.  They eat you whole.

On the trip up to the area we stop for cuppas.  I get out, wander over to the picnic spot and there, right in front of me, is a ten foot sign saying, Warning – Achtung Estuarine Crocs inhabit this area.  They’ll eat you or tear off your arm.  It didn’t quite say that, but my croc phobia has me sprinting back to the ute.  

At every stop someone tells me a taller story about a croc near miss.  About how big, mean and sneaky they are. You see my dilemma?  We’re on a journey which is punctuated regularly with a croc infested creek crossing. 

 I’m encouraged to walk to the water’s edge at one crossing by Max and Malcolm.  They offer words of encouragement then, just as I’m settling down, Malcolm strips to his jocks and leaps in.  I almost faint.  Max howls with laughter and Malcolm continues to splash around, calling, “there’s no crocs here, come on in.”

Up here, if there’s water there’s probably a croc, I’ve been told.  Every time my fear subsides, a prank is formulated to restart my heart at an increased rate.  It’s a newfound pastime for Howard, who thinks up new impressions of reptiles, leaps out or sneaks around waiting to startle the unexpected… usually me.

We arrive at another crossing.  It looks like the site of an air crash.  Devastation on the banks, car body parts decorate the trees.  They could even be the Christmas trees displayed at a wreckers’ holiday party, baubles and tinsel replaced by Nissan bumpers, Landcruiser steps, the radiator and inter cooler from a large 4WD.  This is a place where the gods of the crossings have to be appeased.  The onward journey toll requires the traveller to deposit a body part.  We pass toll free!

I ask Max about a tale Malcolm related of a creek crossing years earlier.  Heather allegedly walked waist deep across a muddy brown fast flowing creek.  Max laughs. “What you have to remember is that if you smack a croc on the nose with a thong, job’s done, it’ll move away”.

I look at him incredulously.  “Oh, I agree, it’s not straightforward and it could get awkward if you catch the thong between your toes at a key moment.”  He strolls off under a cloud of cigarette smoke, chuckling loudly.  I can’t quite convince myself he’s joking.

Even though I’m joking about crocs, if you travel this way you’re going to invade the croc’s home.  He’s protected and must be respected.  Common sense has to prevail.  Read the Crocwise signs and give all due respect to these ancient and wonderful beasts and then you’ll enjoy a fantastic trip through the areas where they live.

Oh, by the way, our unpaid crossing… We notice hours later Howard’s number plate has gone.  The crossing gods have collected their toll.
Written by Richard

Thursday Island Turtle, Torres Strait

Thursday Island, Torres Strait

Frank was our taxi driver on Thursday island.  He was a proud islander, so proud to share the history of his islands with us.

He was a big man with a broad grin.   So what if the taxi had seen better days?  We had Frank.

He drove us to the highest point on the island.  There’s a fort there, built way back in the nineteenth century to ward off Russian attack.

But the attack when it came was not from Russians, but from Japan.  He laughs.  Who would have thought it?  The Japanese were their friends, a high proportion of the island’s population were themselves Japanese pearl fishers.  Although the other Torres Strait islands were attacked,  he is sure Thursday island was spared the bombing in World War 2 because so many Japanese graves lie here.

Japanese graves on Thursday Island

Japanese memorial on Thursday Island

Japanese graves on Thursday Island

Japanese graves

We saw them in the cemetery,  small, simple graves amongst the exuberant coloured and gold encrusted headstones of the islanders.   Some of the islanders’ graves were wrapped in what looked like blue plastic tarp.   Frank explained. When a family member dies, their in laws are responsible for organising and paying for the funeral and grave.   One year later, the family repays them and the gravestone is unveiled, marking the end of the official year of mourning.  And oh, what gravestones they were, made with marble from Italy, costing tens of thousands, the more elaborate the better.

There are fifteen different religious denominations on the island, fourteen christian churches and the fifteenth, the church of Rugby League!   When we visited, the State of Origin match was about to be played.  Houses were completely covered in awnings, displaying the colours of their team, NSW blue next door to Queensland maroon.   The islanders take their rugby as seriously as their church attendance.  Frank, together with about 90% of the population, can be seen in church on a Sunday morning.

The conversion to Christianity came in a flash, known as the Coming of the Light.  An island elder received missionaries on to the island in the late nineteenth century and resisted the temptation to collect their skulls. Almost overnight he decreed that they would follow the new way.  The islanders have thrown themselves into their new religion with gusto.

Soon our visit is over.  It’s been an interesting trip.  Thursday island feels like a foreign country.  It’s not Australian, but it is part of Australia.  The islanders, like Frank, have a pride in their identity.  They laugh about their headhunting, cannibal forefathers.  They seem to feel comfortable in themselves, markedly unlike the aboriginal people we have met on the mainland.  Here they were not displaced.  They have had to adapt to white colonial arrivals, but they are in their home and feel at home in it.

The boat trip back to the mainland is rough, the sea high in the rising wind.   The boat crashes into the waves with the full force of its 500 HP motors.   We leave Frank, the happy taxi driver, to his rugby, his church and his islander pride, an Australian from the Torres Strait.

 

Jardine River Crossing, Cape York,queensland

Cockatoo Creek to Seisia

It has been a peaceful night at Cockatoo Creek.   We are up and about getting ready for another day on the Old Telegraph Track.   A loud cry disturbs our morning ablutions.  A vicious wasp like insect has descended unseen from a tree growing by the creek and stung Richard and Malcolm on ear and nose.  We beat a hasty retreat before he attacks again.  Never let your guard down when in the Australian bush.  Around every corner, up every tree is a creature waiting to sting or bite.

Crossing the deep flowing water of Cockatoo Creek, we pass a sign warning of crocodiles, then see a young family bathing their baby in the shallows at the creek’s edge.  What? Are they mad?  I shake my head.

The landcruisers amble up the narrow track over potholes and water ruts.   As the track widens the palette of colours expands from dusty red to vivid pink and almost fluorescent bright orange.  I will never tire of the colours of the outback.   Dreams are made of this.

The Old Telegraph Track joins the new Telegraph Road here.  We are back in Pixieland.   A sign post points to the turn off to Fruit Bat Falls and leads us into to an elaborate one way system around the car park.  There are several parking sectors devoted to tour buses.  It’s a shock to the senses after the aura of wilderness and adventure surrounding the old track.

There’s an opportunity for swimming at the falls, but we decide to wait.  The sky is overcast and it is early in the day.  We walk down the footpath to the falls, avoiding the roped off boardwalk.  Why is it out of bounds?  Has there been a murder at Fruit Bat Falls.  Has someone slipped or been pushed into the crystal clear water?  Or is this just an excuse to tell each other tall tales of disappearing heiresses and handsome detectives?

Pitcher plant

Pitcher plant

Down by the water, pitcher plants grow among the ferns.   I’ve never seen them in the wild before.  Their strange flesh coloured cups are used to attract and catch insects for food.   Fascinating, almost alien in appearance, they intrigue me.

Back to the track and another creek crossing.  Into the water we drive as if this were an every day occurrence.  Thank goodness for the snorkel.

Twin Falls max Heather

Max and Heather take a shower at the falls

The true stars of today are Eliot and Twin Falls.   Despite being in tour bus country, we are alone at Twin Falls and I watch as the others enjoy a swim in the cool clear water there.   The falls thunder down over the rocks to form the perfect natural hydrotherapy shower to reinvigorate tired and aching limbs.  I’m sitting it out this time, but enjoy the spray filled air and fresh clean scent of the water.

Leaving the falls behind we race towards Canal Creek and Sam Creek Crossings, the last before we leave the old track.   On the way Malcolm’s vehicle gets a little too friendly with another 4WD as he squeezes past on the tight track.   As the two cars drive up on to the sloping edges of the track, they lean inwards towards each other.  Camper box makes contact with roof rack and they cling together in an unwanted embrace.  Men rush to assist and like the crew of a racing yacht, jump to the far side of the ute to add the ballast needed to prise the vehicles apart.

Two Utes stuck

Oops

Sam Creek is the deepest crossing we have attempted so far.   The creek flows rapidly between its white chalky banks, hiding deep pools below the surface, before it tumbles down a small waterfall downstream.  The more experienced drivers cruise across without a care.  We watch and wait before following in their wake.

The remaining stretch of the track includes the deep and dangerous crossings of Nolans Brook and Jardine River.  The latter is crocodile infested and few dare to cross these days, when a diversion to the ferry is an easy few kilometres away.  This is the end of our OTT adventure and we turn on to the bypass road and drive for the ferry.

Filming on Jardine River Ferry

Filming on the Jardine River Ferry

At the Jardine River ferry we meet up again with Roothy and his film crew.   We join them on their trip across the river on the old chain ferry, trying to stay in shot when the cameras are running.   I suspect we will end up on the cutting room floor, despite our attempts to look like the rough and tough off-road drivers Roothy would want to associate with.

There are no crocs visible in the river when we cross, but we know they are there.

The last few kilometres of the day’s driving take us into Injinoo and then on to Seisia.  Six of us stay the night at Seisia, in easy reach of the boat wharf for our trip to Thursday island tomorrow.  The others go on to Punsand Bay and wait for us there.

Soon our journey to the tip of mainland Australia will be over.  Punsand Bay is the last stop before we reach our destination.