Mackay, QLD. 12th June 2015.
Speed limits. Love them or hate them, they’re everywhere. Different states have different limits and in Queensland it’s 50kph in town and 110kph maximum on highways. In reality most urban limits are 60kph and most highway limits are 100kph. As with New Zealand, close to schools the limit drops to 40kph at relevant times of day. And it’s worth taking note of them because Aussie police do love their speed guns.
For my part I’m happy to ride at about 90kph, mostly to enhance fuel consumption. And so it was that having been guest at the homes of three great couples since leaving Brisbane, I became just another foreigner heading for the tourist treats and traps on the East coast of North Queensland. My first destination was the town of Mackay, over 450kms further north. On the way up there, just before the town of Rockhampton, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, which lies 23.5 degrees south of the Equator. I only realised it when I saw businesses with ‘Capricorn’ in their name and hadn’t spotted it on my GPS, although there’d been no signs that I’d seen. I was annoyed at missing the photo opportunity but I didn’t really have time to go back.
Cocky, the hungry cockatoo.
I stopped for fuel and coffee and was very amused by the warning sign on the Cockatoo’s cage at the servo.
You have been warned!
There were plenty of warning signs at the roadside too. The Bruce Highway was entering some very flat, fairly barren terrain. Few bends, sandy scrub and very little on which to concentrate. The Queensland authorities are clearly very concerned about road deaths caused by fatigue and have signs telling drivers to take breaks. There are plenty of pull-ins and some businesses offer free coffee for the driver. There are even trivia questions to aid alertness. I saw two of these. The problem was they were the same questions both times. The same answers too, fortunately. You want to know what it was? OK then. What is Queensland’s floral emblem? I’ll answer it later for you.
How to stay alert.
In Mackay my rather run down hostel was full of Aussies, enjoying cheap accommodation while they looked for work. Not so many tourists here. The town itself didn’t have much to offer, especially in the rain, but I’d chosen it because it was near to Eungella, a place 90kms inland where I hoped to see waterfalls and platypus. I waited in the hostel for two days for the rain to go away. It poured down. I sat down. Luckily I had a blog to catch up on. Clouds, silver linings and so on.
A sign which explains why Australia is so strict on imported organic matter.
Still cloudy but not actually raining, so on the third day I headed out to Eungella, way up in the hills. En route I went to visit Finch Hatton Gorge, a place Mitch had told me about. But I was beaten by a creek that had risen a bit too high for me to chance crossing. A feature of Aussie roads, even on main highways sometimes, is the presence of causeways that allow water to flow across them when creeks and rivers are running high. There are marker posts to tell drivers how high the water is and this one was at 300mm and flowing quite quickly. I decided not to chance it as I knew there’d be plenty of other gorges and waterfalls to see. I rode on up the hill, into the cloud and some rain, stopping at a couple of lookouts, where all I could see of the valley below was the cloud that covered it. Onwards to the Eungella National Park where a short walk took me to a viewing point by the river. And there I saw a platypus, just about, as it broke the surface for air before diving back down. I had a much clearer view of a couple of fresh water turtles swimming about. They are nothing like as big as their sea dwelling counterparts, being about the size of a large tortoise.
Back down by the bridge, where the road crossed the river, I joined some other people on lookout duty and this time we were rewarded by the sight of two of them, swimming and diving. Not quite near enough for a close encounter, nevertheless we could get a reasonable look at these strange creatures. The rain had become a little more serious now so I decided to head for lower, drier ground. The road up to the park was steep, twisty and narrow. Usually good news for me but this one had water channels under it covered with steel gratings. The channels lined up with waterfalls on the rock face, which helped to drain the steep, rocky hillsides. In particularly heavy rain the gratings would allow the water to overflow the channels onto the road. All well and good except they were invariably close to bends and were damn slippery in the wet!
The rather elusive platypus.
Safely down, I stopped for coffee at a typical village store come post office come café before heading back to The Bruce for the run up to Airlie Beach. At one point I saw two bicycles laid down at the side of the road so I turned back to see if there was a problem. Up popped two young Koreans who were simply having a rest. I realised that both the bikes had trailers attached and they told me they’d bought the rigs on Ebay when they arrived. They’d just come from Airlie Beach and we chatted a bit before I wished them well and carried on.
I got a bed at the YHA hostel and took a walk along the town’s main street. This place is very much geared up for the tourist, especially young ones. Just right for me then. There were plenty of outlets offering sail or boating trips out to the nearby Whitsunday Islands, as well as the usual high adrenaline activities. Lots of touristy shops too. As with almost all Aussie towns, it wasn’t difficult to find the big supermarket for those essential supplies, only five minutes walk away.
Impressive sand dragon.
After the heavy rain of Mackay it was great to wake up to a beautiful, sunny day. I spent it in a relaxed manner, walking around the shops and along the beach front. The local Lions had a bit of a market on the go there although not much of what was on offer appealed to me. But I did enjoy the sand sculptures a local guy had created and was happy to drop a couple of dollars in his collection box. Further along the front is a swimming lagoon. It’s filled with seawater and has nice facilities around it, great for families. These lagoons are a necessity along this coast as the waters are plagued by box jellyfish. These creatures are almost impossible to see but have tentacles that can be as long as three metres. Their sting isn’t fateful, although there is another variety of jellyfish that can be. However, it is very unpleasant indeed and hospitalisation is recommended. They have special first aid points where vinegar is kept available as it is the best form of immediate relief.
During my walk I finally made the decision to go on a boat trip out to the islands. I popped into one of the agents and settled on a trip on the Thundercat. This was in preference to going on a yacht, which would have been more interesting but slower. Thundercat would give me more time for snorkelling. The cost was a very reasonable $160 (£80), which included lunch and the supply of all equipment.
On the way up the street to meet the minibus next morning a guy coming the other way stopped me and asked if I was Geoff. He reminded me that we’d shared a room at the hostel in Wellington, way back in January. Matthew is a young American lawyer, taking a break from the rat race to see a bit of the world. It was good to see him again.
Thundercats are Go!
The minibus took me and others to the harbour, where we were kitted out with a lightweight wetsuit for protection against stingers. On the boat Connor told us what the day would bring and then Mike gunned up the two 300BHP outboards and off we went. Although it was a warm day the speed of the boat cooled things down although fortunately the sea was calm enough to avoid any spray. Our first stop was on the main Whitsunday island and we walked up a slight hill to the lookout where we had fabulous views over the island and across to some of the others. The sea was a lovely colour and the blue made a picture postcard contrast with the almost pure white sand. Connor told us that this sand had been drawn up by the sea from a deep hole in the seabed, formed by volcanic action. No more of it was coming up now but the sea was still slowly moving it away from these beaches to other places. So when it’s gone, it’s gone! The sand is almost pure silica and can be walked on regardless of the air temperature. The silica reflects the sunlight so the sand stays cool all the time. This makes it very special.
Beautiful Whitsunday Island beach.
When we went down to the beach we found he was right. What he hadn’t mentioned was how soft the sand is and how wonderful is the feeling you get when you walk in it. So nice and cool on the feet, like nothing I’d ever felt before. Fabulous! I got chatting to a woman who was also on her own. German but living in Switzerland, Antje is a nurse who would like to emigrate to Australia but needs to improve her English. We paddled around in the shallows enjoying the sea and watching the swarms of tiddlers. And we also watched the sharks. Lemon Sharks. Up to three feet long and harmless, thankfully. I don’t think they could have eaten more than a toe had they tried, but I’m pleased they didn’t.
Harmless, despite being a shark.
Back on the boat we headed out to the reef for our first snorkel swim. It was great. The Barrier Reef is easily as beautiful as its description, with all kinds of different corals in a variety of colours. It’s very strange to think they are sea creatures not plants. Australian authorities were very worried recently because UNESCO, who issue the World Heritage Site designation, were on the verge of declaring the reef as endangered. This would have devastated the area’s tourist industry because it would have meant no more trips like this one, as well as several other problems. Not least of which would have been the blow to Aussie pride. But it didn’t happen so we were able to swim with the very colourful fish with no restrictions. It amazed me that the coral we looked at during our second swim was only just off one of the island beaches. The water was a bit colder here so many of our group cut their swim a bit short and we were able to sit on the beach in the sunshine, eating fresh tropical fruit while we chatted. This is the life!
When I left Airlie Beach I took a ride out to some more pretty bays. Sadly at one small cove, down at the end of a dirt track, there was an abandoned settee dumped on the sand. For crying out loud, what is it that goes through these people’s minds?
It’s not really a beach chair!
Back on the Bruce Highway I had a few hundred kilometres to cover so I turned up my music, settled down on my seat and entered that nice biker zone where the road unfolds in its own sweet way, the music player shuffles through the tracks as it sees fit and the engine and tyre noise become a background vibe, felt but not heard. Sometimes this is what travelling is all about. Keeping on going, just going.
When I was back in England I decided to invest in some earplugs which have speakers built in. It’s almost impossible to wear normal earphones under a well fitting crash helmet without suffering discomfort. These earplugs are custom made for my ears, as were my other pair, but the addition of earphones, and therefore music, takes riding pleasure up to a new level. Not cheap at £175, but proving to be worth all of it.
But every engine needs fuel and every rider coffee, so I pulled in to top up. When I settled down in the very nicely set out picnic area, with my drink, I got chatting to a French couple who were in Australia on work visas. I even practised my French with them and was told I had a good accent. I’ve no idea when I’ll use it again but it’s nice to know all those lessons didn’t go to waste.
Good advice and I took it.
Mitch had mentioned to me the Burdekin Bridge, a road and rail bridge across the Burdekin River. Its an interesting piece of construction and looks as much like a Meccano model as anything is ever likely to. I had to stop for photos of course and to enjoy this sculpture in steel and grey paint.
Impressive road and rail bridge.
I reached the day’s destination of Townsville in plenty of time and went to check the first of two hostels I’d selected. Reef Lodge got my vote as it was nearest to the town’s facilities and had good rooms. I don’t often write about places I’ve stayed in but I liked this one because it had a bit of a Buddhist theme and they grow herbs, which guests can use. A very nice touch.
Townsville expanded as the area was settled. It was a well used port, less busy now that there are good roads, but still important. It very much came into its own during WW2, as I shall describe later.
Sealink get around a bit, don’t they.
Something to take seriously in this part of Australia.
A short ferry hop from Townsville is Magnetic Island, a name chosen by James Cook because it seemed to have a strange effect on the ship’s compass. I chose to go there because it has several very nice bays and a place where I could cuddle a koala. Sealink run the ferry, it wasn’t dear and when I disembarked there was a bus waiting which took me across the island to Horseshoe Bay. This is the largest on the island and has a great beach with plenty to do. I fancied going out on a guided kayak trip, which would have given me some much needed exercise, if nothing else, but it was all booked up. So I settled for lying on the beach, soaking up the sun and watching the parrots, until it was time to go to Bungalow Bay, a tourist park and animal reserve.
Noisy, squabbling parrots.
I really enjoyed it. We were introduced to a cockatoo who would sit on your arm and take a seed from between your lips without touching them. I was surprised to learn they live to over one hundred years old and will likely have several owners in that time, to whom they become very attached. We saw a wombat and learned that because they burrow underground they have developed the ability to produce square poo, so that it doesn’t roll down the slope back into the burrow. We also learned that they have a bone in their backside so that if they get chased by a dingo they run to their burrow then stop just as they are almost inside it. The poor, dumb dingo thinks he’s got his meal and bites the wombat backside only to discover his dinner has armour plating. We held some lizards, one of which has a tail which is heavy and solid and is shaped just like its head. Predators bite the wrong end, quickly to let go before their teeth break, and the lizard carries on with its day. I was given a crocodile to hold too. All of a foot long and only eighteen months old. No dramas as long as I held it correctly.
We saw several koalas in their pens and eventually one was brought out and passed around the group for photo opportunities. They’re quite laid back animals. It seems the eucalyptus leaves they eat don’t contain very much protein so they aren’t especially energetic. They sleep a lot and don’t mind being held and cooed over. Lastly we played with a couple of pythons. Once again, they had to be held correctly but were very docile. I’m sure you all know that the ‘slippery snake’ reputation is a myth. Their skin is very dry and it was easy to feel the powerful muscles just underneath. I can understand why people like them as pets, having now been up close to one. Before we left we each received our framed photo of us with a koala, something that I’m sure must delight the kids who go there. As is usually the case with these places, our guide was very knowledgeable about her animals and I felt that for these, captivity was no hardship.
The sun sets around 17.30 this time of year and I wanted to go up to see a WW2 fort which had been built at the top of the island’s highest hill. As it was now 16.15, I needed to get a move on. A walk up a steep, stony path got me to the point where the track up to the fort began. A two hour round trip of four kilometres, according to the helpful sign. Spurred on by the sun now sliding down the sky towards dusk, I made it up there in twenty minutes. It was hard work getting up the rocky steps at the top but I made it in plenty of time and was rewarded with a spectacular sunset. It was one of those where the clouds are spread across the horizon and the sun lights the sky through their filter or shines across the sea every time the clouds are far enough apart to allow it. There was a group of young Brits up there too (English, Scots and Welsh) and we all enjoyed a spectacular light show. Fabulous. It doesn’t matter how many times you see a great sunset, I don’t think you can ever tire of them.
Cloudy sky at dusk.
That was a fitting conclusion to a day that had been instructive, informative and tiring. I was happy for the bus to get me back to the terminal, the ferry to get me back to Townsville and my legs to take me back the short distance to the hostel. I was knackered!
As if I hadn’t walked enough, the next day found me striking out for Castle Hill, a huge sandstone bluff which overlooks the town. There isn’t a castle on it but it would have been a great location for one. I found my way to the bottom of the Goat Track and was not very delighted by the sign that said there was one kilometre and thirteen hundred and fifteen steps to be trod to get me there. And the steps were uneven and high. About half way up, at a viewing point with a seat, my legs said ‘Not today Geoff, we’ve had enough after yesterday.’ So I sat and admired the view then went back down. I didn’t feel too bad about it, having had a good workout the previous day. Let’s be honest, I’m not a goat. I don’t even have a goatee.
A Buddhist flavour to the Reef Lodge hostel.
The Museum of Tropical Queensland made a less taxing alternative. On the way there I’d walked through the main shopping area and was puzzled because all the shops were closed. Saturday simply does not seem to be a big shopping day in Australia, with most shops closing at lunchtime. I did learn later that the edge of town malls would have been open and busy though.
The biggest exhibition in the museum was about HMS Pandorra. It had been sent out, with extra crew and rations, to recover HMS Bounty, of mutiny fame. It was assumed to be still where the mutiny took place and the plan was to use the extra crew and rations to sail it back to England. HMS Pandorra got to Tahiti, where thirteen of the remaining Bounty crew were located and arrested. They were forced to leave behind their Tahitan wives and children and the ship sailed off to search for The Bounty. But it had sunk soon after it left Tahiti and, long story short, The Pandorra suffered the same fate. It struck the Barrier Reef off the North Queensland coast. Thirty one crew and four of the thirteen prisoners were killed but the others managed to sail the small ship’s boat across to the Dutch East Indies and thence made it home. Most of the prisoners were found not guilty, or were pardoned, and a couple of them subsequently rose to high rank in the navy. The reason for all the Australian interest in this story is that the wreck was discovered in the 1980’s and many artefacts were found. The display included a lot of these but also described how they were recovered. There was an interesting section about the development of deep sea diving technology too, which came into its own in the late 19th C.
Other exhibitions were about the Barrier Reef and ancient fauna, such as dinosaurs. A bit inland from Townsville is a very productive fossil hunting area. Maybe that’s something to visit while I’m in the area.
Get your kilt on.
Sunday seems to be market day in this city. At least, some Sundays are. A few hundred metres along the main street from my hostel the road had been closed and a Sunday market was in full swing. Lots of food stalls, many of them private sellers it seemed. People selling clothes and jewellery too. But perhaps the most eye catching display was the one celebrating Australia’s Scottish day. On or around the 1st July Australians of Scots extraction are encouraged to ‘go native’ and wear their tartan. What particularly caught my eye was that the tartan on display at the information stall was that of the Clan Buchanan, the one my wife and in-laws are part of. I had a nice chat with the woman running the stall and paused to watch the young dancers while they gave us all a demonstration. I thought their pink and purple patterned kilts looked great on them, but I don’t think they’d have been much good to a Highlander trying to dodge the English Redcoats in the glens.
On a beautiful, sunny day a walk along the promenade often appeals. Townsville’s is very well laid out, taking the form of parkland interspersed with children’s play areas and public swimming facilities. The part nearest to the town is dedicated to the ANZACs who fought in WW1 and subsequent conflicts. There are some very tasteful memorials and I especially liked the display about the dozen Victoria Cross holders that came from the city.
There is also an informative display about the Battle of the Coral Sea, where American and Japanese aircraft carriers, along with their support ships, fought for supremacy of those waters. Although the Japanese were reckoned to have ‘won’ it, the battle marked the end of their naval superiority and was the beginning of the end of their Pacific activities. It was strange to learn that none of the ships involved actually saw their counterparts, or came within gunnery range. The battle was fought by the aircraft from the carriers with their bombing attacks.
The battle of the Coral Sea.
On the same theme, at the end of the promenade lies Fort Jezzine. Named after a battle which took place in Syria, this fort was the American and Australian joint forces base for the fight against Japan. Townsville was chosen for this role because it had such a good harbour. There were eight jetties and at one time there were sixty four ships either at the jetties or at anchor out at sea waiting their turn. General MacArthur had his HQ there too. WW2 was kind to the city because it lifted it from the doldrums and it has never looked back. The Japanese tried to bomb it over three successive nights in July 1942 but were unsuccessful. But learning this did go some way to explaining why Australia and the US seem to be so close. From a normal population of 30,000 people, the war boosted that to over 100,000. It’s only when you look at a map that you realise how close Papua New Guinea, occupied by Japan, actually is. It’s probably true to say that without Australia’s assistance, America and her allies would not have been able to defeat the Japanese.
Close knit alliance between two nations.
But enough doom and gloom. This day was sunny, many people were out enjoying it – both families and youngsters – and it was mid winter and fathers’ day too. The whole area is a terrific community space and there was a real aura of pleasure, fun and relaxation. A very nice way to spend my last day in this city.
While I’d been walking round the market I’d spotted a barber shop, haircuts at fifteen dollars. Very cheap indeed but unfortunately I didn’t quite make it there before they closed. So on Monday morning I was down there soon after 8am getting a trim. The woman was a bit of a misery but brightened up when I began to ask her questions about all the military paraphernalia she had spread around the shop. She collects it simply because she likes it and it definitely makes her barber shop different to any other I’ve ever been in. She gave me a leaflet about a military collection, which is in a town I’ll be passing further north. One to look out for.
Anna, a Polish biker who I met at Reef Lodge.
My next destination was Charters Towers. In October 1871 it didn’t exist. Not even one little house. Twenty years later its population was close to twenty five thousand and its streets were full of grand buildings. All because of gold. It sounded fascinating and well worth a look. Once away from the city, the road straightened out and began to run through outback country. Mostly flat with small trees and shrubs alongside the road. Cattle country, judging by the number I saw. A road sign warned drivers that this road was used by road trains and to allow plenty of room for overtaking as they can be up to fifty five metres long. That is big! They can be towing up to four trailers. I really wouldn’t want to have to reverse one.
They mean it too.
I’ve downloaded a very useful App for my phone called Wiki Camps. It lists all the known camp sites, rest areas, roadhouses and free camping areas throughout Australia. I used it to locate a free camping area which is next to the Burdekin River, about twenty kilometres before Charters Towers. There are no hostels or other cheap accommodation in or near the town anyway, so it was time to dig out the tent.
The approach to the Macrossan Rest Area is well signposted because, as with other main roads, the Flinders Highway is big on telling drivers to rest and on telling them in advance about opportunities to do so. I pulled off the road, down a wide track and came to an open area, crossed by a number of tracks. The sign just before the camping area said ‘No Motorcycles’. I ignored it. There was a variety of rigs parked up, with a selection of grey nomads in attendance. There is a toilet block but the water is stated as being non-potable. I had read that it is delivered from the town rather than being taken from the river, but because it’s stored in a tank, isn’t safe to drink. I filled up my water container anyway and then found a nice little hideaway lower down, right next to the river. No crocodiles to worry about this far inland although something definitely visits my little corner, judging by the poo pellets lying around. Once I’d set up camp I headed in to town to join the gold rush.
First port of call is always the visitor centre, where I watched a series of videos about the town. It is named after William Charters, the Gold Warden for the area, and the towers (tors), that can be found near the town. Gold was first discovered by some prospectors when their horse bolted. They sent their Aboriginal horse boy to get him back and he spotted some gold rich quartz in a creek. When they went to the nearby gold mining town of Ravenswood to register their claim, the secret was out and the rush started. People came from all over Australia and, indeed, Europe. Many got rich, only to lose it all again on other mining ventures which came to nothing. There was no end of scams and greed often overcame good sense. It was Mark Twain who said that a mine is just a hole in the ground with a liar at the top. How true.
Charters Towers Stock Exchange building.
Many others came to open support businesses – equipment suppliers, grocers and butchers, hotels and whorehouses. The town claimed to have the essential four G’s; Gold, Goats, Girls and Grog. It also claimed to be ‘The World’, as in ‘Everything you could want in the world can be found here’. At the time that was probably true.
A stock exchange was set up as a way of trying to control some of the worse scams. It enabled people to buy shares in various mines and projects and was so busy that at one time the world gold price was set there.
I walked around to look at some of the buildings and then took a ride up to The Tower, the biggest hill outside the town. It was the site of a plant which extracted gold from iron pyrites, something that I wasn’t aware could be done. It seemed to involve many chemicals that struck me as very dangerous, such as cyanide, but it produced a fair bit of gold. That plant shut down in the 1920’s, along with most of the mining operations around the area, and during WW2 the hill had various storage facilities built on, and into, it for army use. It acted as a sattelite depot to support the main activities taking place in Townsville.
Storyboard for the town.
The visitor centre also organise walking and bus tours so I decided to do my best to get into town for the 9am walking tour, then take the 11am bus tour.
I was very proud of myself because I managed to get up and organised in time to be in town ready for the tour. Which wasn’t on. There isn’t a 9am tour on Tuesday’s. Feeling slightly cheated, I booked the bus tour and then the walking tour at 1pm. With a couple of hours to kill I went for a walk down to Lissner Park, one of the town’s ‘green lungs’. I was fascinated by the amount of birds up in some trees and the noise they were making. A closer look made me realise they weren’t birds but bats. Fruit Bats, or Flying Foxes. And they really do look like foxes too. There was at least a hundred of them, hanging off the branches and making a terrific noise if disturbed. I’ve heard that they’re very smelly creatures and are something of a pest in certain areas of Australia.
I got chatting to a Singaporean couple, Phillip and Joanne, here on holiday. These are the names they use in their business, rather than their Chinese names. We chatted for a while and I’ve got their contact details and an invite to call on them when I get to Singapore. Very nice people, around the same age as me.
Phillip and Joanna.
On the way back to the visitor centre I called in at the Miners Cottage, one of the original buildings in the town. It is full of memorabilia and information and the guy who runs it gave us a demonstration on how to pan for gold. I had to leave there early to get back for my tours. Here’s what I learned from our guide.
As the town grew many fine buildings were built, both public and private. Banks set up branches there, a post and telegraph office was built as well as a courthouse. Several fine hotels were built too. One of them, The Courthouse Hotel, found itself bereft of business when the courthouse was moved into the main street. The owner’s solution was to move the hotel too.
Imagine moving this complete building 300 metres.
It took him five days to move it the three hundred or so metres, on steel rollers, to it’s current position on the main street. It was a huge operation and to make matters worse, in order to meet the requirements of his liquor licence he had to continue to serve food and drink each evening. The licensing authorities clearly didn’t like him because they then tried to cancel his license, claiming he would have to reapply as his hotel now had a new address. He fought them and won the day in the end.
Town centre department store. Look at the ietm third from right and tell me what that means, if you can.
The much desired gold in the area wasn’t alluvial, which tends to be on the surface. It was reef gold, and was held in quartz rock which generally lies underground. The initial discovery was lucky because the quartz reef happened to breach the surface at that point. These reefs tend to be fairly narrow but long. A miner would stake his claim, which is fifteeen feet square, and dig, hoping to be above the reef. It was usually the case that a number of people would combine their claims, so improving the collective chance of striking the reef. There were three main reefs but access to them became ever deeper as time went by. The deepest shaft was of 3,000 feet and the deepest direct shaft i.e. straight down, was of 2,600 feet. Dynamite, hand tools, candles, barrows, carts, pit ponies and sheer muscle power were the order of the day. It quickly became the case that a huge amount of investment was required to stand any chance of success, hence the reason for the stock exchange. Once the ore had been removed it had to be crushed and treated to extract the gold. More on that later.
Mineral rich quartz rock.
The population included around six hundred and sixty Chinese, who suffered a lot of racism from most of the miners. Only sixty of them worked in the mines, the rest being market gardeners, supplying the town with much needed vegetables. They were also very good at reworking the tailings and extracting gold that had been missed first time round. This was one of the reasons for the miners’ dislike of them.
When the gold ran out, not long after the turn of the century, people went elsewhere and the population shrank to 5,000. Cattle farming helped keep the town going and after WW1 some of the big houses that mine owners had built were bought by schools and used for boarding purposes. There are currently eight boarding schools in the town and they employ around 12% of the population, which has settled at around 8,000. Our guide, Erica, was very knowledgeable and gave us a satisfyingly full account of the lives and times of gold diggers.
Shane and Teresa, from Gold City Motorcycles.
On the way back to my camping spot I called in to a Suzuki dealer I’d seen earlier to talk about much needed new tyres. He had a good selection, and the prices seemed reasonable so next morning I went back there ready to take advantage. I talked to them about using a corner of their workshop to carry out a service once the tyres had been fitted, and they were happy to help. Shane and Teresa run the business and they concentrate on supplying off road Suzuki bikes and quad bikes to local farmers. They also sell petrol powered equipment, such as chainsaws, and all kinds of related tools and equipment. I was impressed by the way they’d built up a good business by concentrating on a specific market. Teresa even agreed to let me plug my lap top in for a charge up. She said to me to come back about 1pm to get the tyres fitted so with some time to kill I went to visit the Venus Stamp Battery.
What the Venus Battery was all about.
Finding a reef and getting the ore up to the surface is one thing, getting the gold out of it is another and this is where stamp battery mills come in. They took the ore from the miners and weighed it, at a cost. Then they crushed it using a battery of five heavy weights which pounded the ore at a rate of seventy times a minute. Water was mixed in so it formed a slurry, all at a cost. It took seven tons of water to crush one ton of ore. Mercury was added to the slurry and it attracted the gold. The mercury then stuck to special copper plates that the slurry passed over and the gold/mercury mixture in turn got trapped by thin woollen sheets – potentially the origin of the Greek story about Jason’s Golden Fleece. Then the mixture was heated up so that the mercury evaporated away and what was left was the gold. That went to the assay office for further treatment. The mercury was cooled and condensed, then re-used, but any deficiency got charged to the miner. Because Venus Mill took ore from many mines they took great care to keep all products separate but miners were allowed to watch the process to satisfy themselves that they weren’t being cheated. Later on the mill introduced a system which enabled even more gold to be extracted from the tailings – waste ore – which involved the use of potassium cyanide. What with this, and the abundant mercury fumes, life expectancy of the workers there was short. The mill owners weren’t worried as there was always a queue of willing replacements. They just sat back and got rich, at least as rich as the mine owners.
The stamping part of the stamp battery. There were seven of these in a row.
Given the milling costs, the transport costs and the digging costs, it’s no wonder that gold is so expensive. Over the years though, these mines delivered millions of ounces of the precious stuff.
I was sitting in McDonalds, drinking coffee, when I got a phone call from Teresa at the bike shop. ‘Where’s your bike?’ she said. ‘In the car park here at McDonalds,’ I said. ‘We’ve been looking for it to fit your tyres.’ Ah, it seems I had misunderstood instructions. I should have gone, the bike should have stayed. I was only up the road and was back there in no time. The tyres were fitted and I got on with changing the oil plus a few other small jobs. I bought the oil off them of course, along with some other things, and the bill was very reasonable. I was delighted with the afternoon’s work especially as my rear tyre had been illegal for at least he last two weeks. I especially enjoyed chatting to one of the young mechanics there who, when ever I told him something that impressed him, would say ‘Aw, true!’ in an awed manner. I like that expression.
Post, groceries, coffee, fuel. A typical small town outlet, still in the original 1870’s building.
The town of Ravenswood was next on my list to visit. It wasn’t far away but it was lunchtime before I got there. It always seems to take me ages to de-camp and get going. It is another former gold mining town but was smaller than Charters Towers although established a few years earlier. All of the town centre buildings here are from that era. It would have made it a very interesting place if it wasn’t for the fact that a lot of the original buildings had been disassembled and moved elsewhere. This practice was not uncommon and is probably quite easy as the buildings were wooden and had been brought to the town in kit form in the first place. The information map marks the site of various significant buildings but it doesn’t mean much to gaze at a patch of empty grass.
White Blow quartz outcrop.
I took a ride out to White Blow, an outcrop of quartz rock. It was of the type that miners hoped to find when they went digging. This outcrop had been exposed by erosion although it contained no gold. On the way back into town I stopped at a lookout point which enabled me to gaze down into the modern open cut mine, now flooded. This new mine saved the town. The population had dropped to one hundred but was boosted to four hundred when a mining company decided to go for gold once more. The work is still ongoing and is about to be expanded.
By now I’d decided to stay the night so made my way to the camp ground, sited on the town’s showground. There I met Woody, a one legged Vietnam Veteran, who is caretaker and money collector. After we’d had a bit of a chat he gave me back the money I’d handed him and said I could camp for free. I’m not really sure why he did it, but it saved me $15. Thanks Woody, you’re a pal. The facilities were there for me to take a hot shower, much needed after three nights wild camping.
Woody tells it how it is.
I went for a walk around the town and found my way up to the cemetery. It told me two stories. One gravestone from the early 1900’s had the names of three children on it who all died very young. A second one, from the same era, told the story of Irish immigrants, come to find a new life and who also died relatively young. Life was harsh and tough for some.
Life was tough for many.
A typical immigrant’s tale.
As a counterpoint the school still operates out of the original buildings and the schoolmaster’s house is the oldest building in the Charters Towers district. At least the buildings managed to survive, even if many of the people didn’t.
I decided to go to the Imperial Hotel for my evening meal and it was Pizza night. It was delicious and I actually had to leave a slice. Pretty much unheard of! There were two barmaids there. Kiake is from Hamburg and Kym comes from near Reading. She said it was great to hear an English accent after so long away. There were some mine workers in there too and we all had a great time chatting and joking. The landlord used to play music professionally and he got his guitar out and sang a few Aussie folk songs for us. This was my first time in an Aussie outback pub and I thought it was great.
Kym and Kiake. Imperial Hotel barmaids.
I’d learned much about the activities of men in the area but now I was going to move north a little and find out what nature had been up to.
And the answer to that trivia question? The Cooktown Orchid.