CURRENT POLITICS - Travels to Carnarvon 2016

Travels to Carnarvon   Tuesday 5 to Wednesday 13 July.

 We had been away for only eight days yet the two days before the Carnarvon Gorge seem as if they were from a completely different trip a year before, a different universe.

Tuesday 5th: The trip up on the train and then two flights were always on time but took 12 hours. The flight from Brisbane to Rockhampton had some sense of a local bus service since the hostesses knew a number of the passengers. The native speaker pilot made some announcements of which neither of us could understand a word. It wasn’t the sound system for the hostess came through okay. He is incapable of articulating which is safety hazard.

Peter had hired a huge commercial 4-wheel drive as they are the only ones you are allowed to take off the bitumen and retain insurance cover. Peter has a manual and was flummoxed by this self-driving monster. There is no ignition key, just a starter button, while you put your foot on the brake to stop lurching forward. When he tried to get out, the alarm went off. Someone came along and explained that there is an inside lock which you need to disable to get in and out without waking the neighborhood. The guidebook for the audio-visual is a big as the driver’s manual. A panel dropped down when I pressed the internal light switch revealing a ‘conversation mirror’ for the passengers in the back seat, presumably the kids. It was very comfortable and Peter got the feel of its center of gravity long before we stopped for the second night.

After checking into our cheap motel we stocked up on food at Coles and retired to eat leftovers from our travel foods and a couple of specials I had found in my supermarket gleaning.

WEDNESDAY 6TH: We began the next day with a trip to the coast at Emu Park and then Yeppoon. Emu Park has a new Anzac Memorial on the cliff edge. It is a boring cut out of a Hurley photograph of a line of diggers. In keeping with the spirit of ANZAC-ery, the old memorial across the street includes a plaque to those who fought for Australia against the Maori in 1860. Further long is the Cook memorial of a Wind Harp which was a better idea though there are not enough strings to make much sound.

Yeppoon is a stretch of settlements with no obvious sign of the Japanese resort which caused so much anxiety under Bjelke-Peterson. It seems to be a dormitory suburb but one with a not well maintained single carriage way into the city. Billboards assured us that Bill would fix it. At that stage it seemed just possible that he might be PM.

Rockhampton itself is a sprawl across river flats and had been a port with lots of quayside colonial buildings now being restored. It is still the biggest cattle port but with the drought that has dropped off which perhaps explains why there is so much small-scale road work – absorbing some of the unemployed.

The regional gallery has fine collection of one of each of the important post-1945 artists.  Once more I was reminded of how engaging John Perceval is. But there is also a Dargie portrait of the mayor from 1952 to 1982, Rex Pilbeam, who has one of those toothbrush moustaches which are a dead giveaway for crooks. He had been shot in the bum by his mistresses’ husband – after which his vote increased. The gallery is tiny and downstairs was a local artist who does what are supposed to be critical takes on the coal industry but he is funded by BHP. Lie down with dogs, my mother always said, and you get up with fleas.

We began buying the local papers as cultural artifacts. They are all Mass Murdoch and have next-to-no journalists and so fill the pages with tweets etc, mostly about the elections and the region’s support for Hanson. The Rockhampton one had a feature celebrating a Nepalese family voting for the first time. There were a couple of anti-Islam statements but most were about how Hanson at least ‘said what she thinks’ though some of us might doubt the thinking. Yet the response is all part of the deserved disgust with the mechanical mainstream. Other issues were drugs, youth unemployment and neglect by Brisbane. The paper gave a breakdown of the percentage of votes for Hessonites which showed significant differences in neighbouring suburbs. You’d need to know about the social demographics to make sense of the numbers but all in all the story is much more complicated than ‘racism’. The number two on her team for the Senate voices an old-style League of Rights fear of the Jewish banking conspiracy and Major Douglas Social Credit as the solution. He thinks that the US Reserve has made up climate change. He is canny enough to deny a belief in a conspiracy but says there is a ‘cabal’ – little knowing that cabal derives from the initials of the given names of the five ministers of Charles II who conspired to make peace with France in 1672.

 Not knowing what to expect at the camping site we began to buy a few basics such as plates, bowls, cutlery, a pot and a pan in the Vinnies. Peter thought that we were being ripped off at four dollars for the pan. I got five cds for one or two dollars. Nothing novel but performances I did not have of standard rep. I added a second Vivaldi Four Seasons to my collection for a dollar. I have lost my koto orchestra version. There is a kind of snobbery in not owning the Four Seasons. I also found W G Wood’s History of Communism in Australia; he had done a lot of work and, given its Soviet adoration, is a useful contribution, especially about what went on in the CPA and the SPA from the 1960s onwards. He published in 1986 – just in time for his comrades to have a lot more to worry about.

Vinnies and Woolies have central Queensland sewn up between them. When asked what I am writing these days I often reply: The Lonely Planet Guide to OP Shops. Like the local rags, they are a good way to get a sense of how fare the folk – as are the real estate notices in windows.

The drive to Emerald began by passing through the dormitory suburb of Gracemere which reminded us of what we had seen on the train around Bugendore – the housing style could be anywhere or nowhere, and looks like a low security prison. The Floodway signs began almost at once and were everywhere until we got back to Gladstone. I, at last, absorbed the significance of the Callide and Surat ‘Basins’. Very little rain would make the place impassable – and the arrival of monsoonal waters from the north might cut you off for weeks. Indeed, the prospect of floods and the heat of summer perhaps accounts for the expense of the most basic accommodation. The fixed capital perhaps is earning for no more than four months each year.

We added a few more to our list of unlikely names for creeks: Boot and Kettle and 41-mile – not Six Mile and Twelve Mile. One depression was the Graceful Ponds and every local dignitary has a culvert named in his honour. The other odd consistency is that almost every station property is ‘Something Downs’ – as if we were in England.

The coal trains are a mile-long. Think what the roads would be like with them as trucks – as is to happen down the Blue Mountains Highway. The whole of central Queensland is staggering under the weight of the coal collapse. None of the mining towns looks as dire as a deserted bush town, yet they are all shrinking. Blackwater is a coal-boom invention. Now the motels and caravan Parks are empty but they have contracts with the mining corporates and so do not take the passing trade. Peter took several shots of notices indicating the decline and the conflicts between managers and men.

Sailing through Comet we saw a sign for a salami factory – now closed. Is that one more effect of the drought?

We spent the second night in Emerald which is a prosperous rural centre of 13,000, a cinema and a branch of the university. There is a 25m high copy of the van Gogh Sunflowers in honour of one of the local crops. Mung beans is another. The walk around the park at the back of the Info centre and in front of the Van Gogh has a series of plaques in the ground telling the local history, with quotations from Henry Reynolds about the frontier wars, for instance, at Hornet Bank station.

THURSDAY 7th: Next morning we turned north on a highway to Townsville, through Capella which announces itself as a cultural and convention centre. We were headed for Clermont, named by a French settler. My father had been raised there by his grandmother who kept a store. I had only recently read of the 5m wave which swept the old town away on 28 December 1916. A cyclone had hit the coast, the water built up and kept coming. The aborigines had told the whites not to build there – as at Gundagai. 64 people downed, including Duck Sing, three unmanned boys and a swaggie. The names on the memorial did not include any I could associate with my father, which is not easy since he was illegitimate. He did not know he had a middle name – Eagers – until he applied for a birth certificate to get married. Was Eagers the surname of his father? The question assumes that his mother knew who had made her pregnant. The flood site has several memorials including a steel piano up a tree to show how high the water reached.

The tourist board also relates that the great strike of 1891 had been sparked at Clermont from where seven shearers were taken to trial before the center of activity moved to Barcaldine to the south-west.

That flat is on the eastern approaches and has a delightful lagoon funded by BHP. The town on the rise is another matter – yet one more old wide street sagging into very little future.

From there we drove through the gem fields. Sapphire is the tourist centre, ragged if busy, though not as flash as Lightning Ridge. My target was Anarkie where my father had been born in 1899. It must have been the wild west then. To put one’s mind back to that year, it would not be a surprise if his mother had died in childbirth.  The village is not much better now although it has a smart caravan park across from a police station and a not too dilapidated School of Arts. At the cross roads, a local has set up a coffee stall and he runs the local choir, signs that innovation is making its way inland courtesy of small business.

That is the beginning and end of my interest in my father’s family history, although in one sense he did not have a family. His Gran sent him to work in a shop in Ipswich when he was eleven, by which time he had developed his powers of mental arithmetic and the basis for a very stylish orthography. He came back around the time of the flood when he found a few rubies which were stolen on his return to Brisbane.

 We drove back to Emerald before turning south to the Carnarvon. I got a hiking stick from Wallaby Jack’s, which proved a mixed blessing. It helped a lot on the down slopes but was often a hazard crossing the stones set down in the many creeks. You need two of the very tall ones. We had only hand luggage and you are not allowed to take them into the cabin. So I posted mine back from Moura where we had a long chat to the two postwomen, of which more presently.

Were it not for tourists, the west of the Range would be a desert. Of course, the Gorge is not a site to attract busloads of wealthy Chinese. Any sizeable downpour and it is locked off from the outside as well as impassable within the Park. We saw no more than a few wisps of opalescent cloud on one day. One side effect is that the Park is deserted for much of the year since buses etc can’t get in or out, and the hikers can’t be sure of making it back at night.

Peter explained that the new four-wheel drives are useless. They float in a metre of water because they are sealed to keep in the air-conditioned air and the motors are so complex that even a big splash underneath is likely to stop the giants from working. Ours kept going. The vehicle drives itself – well, almost.

Now for the Gorge. We stayed in a kind of tent with a corrugated-iron en suite, much inferior to ones at Kakadu. The website promises a fridge and a fan which did not make me suspicious enough about there being nothing else provided. I’d advise bringing sleeping bags and an electric jug because there are spare power points in the tent and in the en suite. There was a small table and two chairs on the narrow veranda. We made an alley between the two spare single beds and brought the furniture inside to be able to read by the naked bulb in the wall above the double bed. A bed lamp would be another good addition to the travelling kit. We could bring none of that unless we had thought to buy them at one of the Vinnies. It was cold and sheetless but we piled up all the bedclothes and wore a fair bit clothing to the cot. The food had to be prepared in a shared kitchen as did a cup of water for a tea or coffee. Once we got into the arrangements, they all worked well, and were many times cheaper than what looked like a Toorak retirement village nearby, called the Lodge.

FRIDAY On the first day we climbed a bluff to see much of the expanse of the Gorge. As I puffed up I gave a thought to the workers who had carried the rocks into place to ease our climb. I applied my gym training by breathing in at a sharp rise and exhaling as I took the steps – which are a bit of problem because of their irregular heights –which conforms to those in a flight of stairs. My ascent and descent were helped by good hiking shoes, inserts and the recommendation of Rock Tape around my dodgy knee. I am not given to miracle cures but I have had no problems in the four weeks since Peter began attaching the four strips to keep my knee swiveling, as it should.

The track up is not as crowded as the one to Everest. There were families and several seniors who looked as if they had not realised what they were in for. There were also a mother and son hippies from the West Coast – he barefoot and she is backless string sandals. They were still at it the next afternoon.

Once at the observation platform everyone saw why the views had been worth any amount of effort. In talking to a couple two days later we realised that we should have done what they did and set out before dawn to watch the sunrise. That would have required powerful torches which we did not have. I had scanned in a geological explanation of what we could see but you need much more background to understand how it all worked. Why are there so many glasshouse-like mountains along the coast and a few inland too?  The obvious lesson that the forces of nature are such that we wondered how the Genesis Christian College group were getting along in their 6,020-year old cosmos.

After lunch, we did some of the shorter nearby walks because we had planned to hit out for the far end of the Gorge as early as possible the next morning with the plan of visiting all the more distant sites so that we could get to the nearer ones on the Sunday.

There are lots of little creeks to cross but any one of them could turn into a torrent after a few mm. of rain. There is water everywhere all the time because it seeps up and through the rocks into very fine loam-like soils.

SATURDAY Setting out just after 7am we were in the shade all the way and as much we wished for a spot of warming sun we knew that we then would be deprived of the light on the rock faces to our south-west.

We made good time to the far end and began to explore some of the canyons – or at least Peter did more than I. He had brought his brother’s new camera. During one wait for him to return, I chatted with a woman from the Flinders Ranges who had been all over the continent. I made one of my long-held senses that the sound of unseen water running over rocks is very much part of he bush but then added that no doubt that sound occurs all around the world. ‘Perhaps’ she said, ‘but it means more to us because it is so dry here.’

I sunned myself trying to think up something to say on postcards which were not plagarisms of my first bright thoughts. The postcards were only a dollar each, which – apart from hot water bottles – were the only half-way reasonably priced item in the resort store: 150gm of instant coffee for $8. However, the half shelf of books for sale includes two copies of Bill Garner’s Born in a Tent.

By now there were almost as many trackers as there had been on the way up to the bluff. This was just as well because it was not always obvious where the single file tracks began on the far side of the wider creeks. Seeing someone coming towards us pointed us in the right direction – though it did not stop my slipping my boot in the water on three occasions. Peter stayed upright until he slipped on an embankment and came home with the imprint of a dead fern on his elbow.

The two highlights are first the King Fern, which used to grow all along the east coast but is now confined to this tiny patch and to one in the Grampians. It is huge – several meters high and twice as far across. More amazing is that it is held upright by sucking water which comes through the rocks. The track is named or the Wards who were possum hunters but one of them took photographs and developed his negatives at night in the waterfall. 

And next there is the amphitheater. When I read about it I doubted that I would manage to get out again since the guidebook implied that one had to crawl in and out on one’s belly and then do a backflip to get back onto the ladder down the 15m to the ground. It turns out that there are now ladders and platforms and that the entrance way is a narrow corridor through which you walk. Inside is space which recalled the hole dug for MONA, the Fiona Hall garden at the ANG and the James Turrell dome there, but is several times more impressive. As with all the gorge, noise hardly travels. Six boisterous French backpackers are silenced within fifty meters. Inside the amphitheater I whistled when we were alone. There is no reverberation at all.  Yet the silence has its own murmur outside, not a breeze or insects, but a presence nonetheless.

I had read that when the space had been discovered the first rangers had had to crawl on their bellies to get inside. The postwoman at Moura told a different tale. Her family lived in Injune to the south and each year they rented the CWA hut in the Gorge. They used to scramble up the rock face and then inside. However, at the first sign of rain, they would pack up flee homewards. The existence of the CWA hut from the 1930s tells us something about that group of women too.

One sidetrack is called the art gallery. It is not much to look at – stencils of hands and a few boomerangs. And the marks left by tourists who express their superiority by chiseling their names into the rock. John Mulvaney has his name on several of the information panels. The spot almost at the end of the Gorge has more impressive images and is named Cathedral rock. I kept thinking about how we all try to fit the new into the language that we bring with us. I have just done the same in giving some sense of the amphitheater. 

The full walk is supposedly 22km there and back but by the time we did all the side trips, Peter’s phone had recorded 33km, and if you take into account the difficult terrain, it was more like 40km. We were away for ten-and-a-half hours. Anticipating exhaustion, we had decided on a scratch evening meal of tinned soup and a tin each of baked beans.

I thought we had booked for linen but it turned out that we had not so we did not have towels. I skipped a shower until we got back from the marathon and dried myself with a cotton shirt, which worked better than my attempt to do the same a day later with polyester. I did not care to ask how Peter managed.

Sunday morning was for resting up, reading the Prefaces to Capital for our reading group the night after our return. In the afternoon we did some for the closer walks and went star gazing that night. I recalled Piaget’s remark that you should tell children under six that the milky way is the gown of the queen of the night.

On Monday, we were away by 6.10 and had no near misses with the roos or the cattle. We had to return through Roylstone which is open 24/7 or least the diesel and petrol station is. The rest of the place looks as if it has been closed for some years, including a large shed-like place boasting Corrugated Cuisine. The post office opens some mornings and the shelves in the general store looked like GUM after a bad Soviet harvest.

Now, we drove east and were delighted to find that the lines of trees along the side of the road shielded Peter’s eyes from the rising sun. This is probably the chance to point out that Queensland roads are much worse than those anywhere we have been over in NSW or SA. Someone suggested it was because of the soft soil.

Calliope is on the hills above Gladstone and anyone who can afford to, moves up there to get away from the coal dust.

The Gallery in the old Town Hall had a show by a local woman now living in Amsterdam, Rachel O’Reilly. She is trying to encourage activism against the pollution of the harbour and the killing of the fish. The images are finely drawn sectional maps of the water and sub-soils, with the tiniest of script explaining what is going wrong. It is hard to imagine anyone being moved to action or many even taking the time use one of the magnifying sheets to read what she hopes to communicate.

The main exhibition was on tour from Brisbane of contemporary indigenous works. The surprise and wonder was a graphic slow motion picture based about the 1954 Royal Visit.

Had it not been for the receptionist at the Gallery we would never have found the Information Centre or our Caravan Park which promised sheets and – joy of joys - towels. The Information Centre is on the other side of town, by the Marina and is really a booking spot for boats to the islands and not intended to tell other tourists how to find their way – least of all to the Info Centre. We lunched nearby and then went back to the main street, Goondoon, which is narrow and snakes up hill and down dale for about four kms with the refitted colonial buildings and a  splendid new public library at one end and the shopping Plaza and Vinnies at the other.

TUESDAY By consulting the map, Peter convinced me that we should head north through town and not back the way we came to reach the highway. We were aiming at Mt Morgan before returning the vehicle just after 1 pm for our 2.45 flight. We found a side road and were soon climbing only to encounter road works with a warning to expect 30-minute delays. Luck was with us and we arrived just as it was the turn for up traffic. I was chasing up two events from the past. One was my mother’s story about how the parish priest had told his congregation that it would not be a mortal sin to vote for a Freemason tory since he was arranging a loan to build them church. Her miner father was dying of black lung and could not leave the verandah and so sent his three daughter around town on the night before the poll to stick up notices: ‘Orangemen to your guns and lay the Irish out’. Labor held the seat.

Without the tourist attraction of the mine the place would be even more deserted and more of a retirement village. The convent school closed a couple of years back but there is a local high school. The shire is beautifying the main street which is very wide.

In a flourishing old style bakery I gave up my UNESCO-sponsored quest for a hard rock cake – indeed on this trip a rock cake of any consistency – and bought an apple slice, one of the ones from my childhood with sugar on the thick pastry and the apple tasting a bit as if it has been mixed with crushed pineapple.

A prosperous DVD hire shop is one more sign of how remote the town is from the NBN.

The other story was the wealth of the gold mines which funded the search for oil in Persia and led to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and oil for the RN by 1914. Churchill, Fisher and the oil-powered fleet and finally the Sikes-Picot agreement to unmake the Middle East and keep democracy safe for oil.

One yarn I had not heard was ‘Running the Cutter’, depicted in a very poor statue unveiled by Zelman Cowen – who else? The miners sent boys running to the pub for billies of ale. They rubbed cheese around the bottoms to stop the publican leaving too big a head and so got the full measure. I had read in the memoirs of the worker who had worked out how to make stainless steel, that as a boy in a foundry he was sent to the pub to fetch ale, and realised that ale was an essential ingredient in metal-working.

For once, there was no Vinnies but a LifeLine to which we handed on the pots and pans and unused food. We later discovered that we had given away the plastic container with the remaining six Weetbix that we were keeping for breakfast on the train from Sydney. ‘Let them eat carrot cake’ from the Harry’s Café de Wheels in the approach to the suburban platforms.

On the way to the airport we had a spare hour so went back to the Rockhampton botanical gardens and zoo. We had avoided the zoo on our first brief visit for somewhere to have lunch on the first full day in Queensland. We saw a few birds we had not seen before including a Macaw and a cassowary close up. The booster shot for opposing zoos came with the old chimp picking away at the mesh, hoping after decades to find a way out. The information panel explains that chimps are tool users but they have to be taught by the older ones. So here was this grey beard with no chance to crack nuts with a rock and no chance to teach his offspring. 

Since then, I have reflected that the poor old chimp exemplifies much of the current world, with so little knowledge let alone wisdom being passed along. As a working principle for political work, none has more force than that we can  take nothing for granted by way of what people now know, let alone understand. 

The flights back were equally uneventful and we were in our hotel before 7pm. It is opposite the Irish Club, costs $105 with a pagan splendour of a bathroom. We again reveled in the fluffy white towels.

We went up to Newtown for a meal and to call by Goulds. Marie was just leaving but Natalie wanted to talk about the election results. We told her the little we had picked up from the regional papers about the appeal of Hanson. We contacted a student who lives nearby and he joined us at our favourite cheap and cheerful Lebanese. We go there no more than three times a year yet the woman who slaves behind the counter welcomes us as if we were long lost relatives. We usually feast on a single platter for $17 but this time lashed out and shared two between three since the PE student had torn himself out of the pub to talk history.

WEDNESDAY Up at six to catch the 7 am train, which was on time and we arrived to sunshine and six degrees.  We had hoped to get a bus back the previous night but the gap between ETA at Mascot and the bus departing from the international terminal had seemed too tight. Just as well. Had we got off the bus at round 10.15 pm we would have struck some of the wildest Canberra weather in years – with snow almost in the CBD.

We restocked at Coles before heading out for the first of the Scandinavian Festival films only to find all the parking spots had been taken by a Graduation ceremony. We finally found one but then Peter had to use his mobile to register for fees, which took more minutes. By the time we found our seats someone else was in them – the Palace cinema chain keeps having computer crashes and so double book. They claim it would cost too much to buy a backup. 

The film told of a mine polluting lakes in Finland. No one had broken any laws. From the tropic of Capricorn with Gladstone harbour’s poisoning the fish to the Artic circle we had come full circle as far as destruction goes. The Gorge is as close to a timeless land as remains, like the King Fern, a survivor - but for how much longer? We seem no more capable of escaping from the iron cage of plundering the wealth of nature than the chimp has been able to get out of his cage and back into his version of what it means to be wild.