Non-fiction

Away from the edge

On the road where stories meet

MY MOTHER EMIGRATED to Australia on the SS Australis in 1967 as a ten-pound Pom. I first opened my eyes at 1.42 am in the maternity ward of the Manly Hospital, Sydney, in 1974. Now, forty-five years later, Mum and I are driving west from the Gold Coast, in a pre-Covid universe, in her little red Hyundai, leaving behind the sea and the fairyland towers of Surfers Paradise, winding through the hinterland to the Southern Downs where the land flattens out. I have made a meandering map based on life stories of pioneering Queensland women, women who came to this land also on boats, or whose parents or grandparents did. Women attempting to carve out lives in a frontier land where the brutal and murderous strategies of the colonial project were often at their worst.

If Queensland has been hard on my mother and I too as women, it has been in ways we’d probably say in the local lingo are same-same different. We like to think that the trespasses against women lessen over time with each generation, but on this trip we’ll learn what has and hasn’t changed as we skate across the surface of the state.

We’ll be following in the footsteps of Mary Anna Spencer, one of the first European settlers in the Maranoa district; Pamela Lyndon Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books; the formidable Lynch sisters of Gympie – Nell, Mary, Kate, Rose – successful timber-getters in the early twentieth century; Edna Zigenbine, a drover immortalised in Slim Dusty’s ballad ‘Give My Regards to Edna’; and Evelyn Maunsell, a pioneering English woman who was said to have partly inspired Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia. All these women and my mother and I, women from families with English, Irish, Polish, Germanic roots – European names and European strains in a country where we weren’t meant to belong.

The first leg of the journey will take us in a loop from Warwick to St George to Roma and back in a half circle to Toowoomba, a round trip of about fourteen hours that will barely make a dent in the landscape in a giant state twice the size of Texas.

 

ON THE FIRST night in Warwick my mother and I are served such large meals we almost burst. The restaurant with the pale green styling and fresh tiles is nicer than we expect, but the road trains thundering by as we eat and a kitchen closed by eight remind us of where we are. The waitress tells us not to rush. When I mention the time, she says, ‘Well, it’s parmy night and the kids all went back to school today – so everyone’s, like, let’s get this done – in and out. We’re just going to pack everything up, but there’s no rush.’

The grand old abbey we’re staying in is for sale. The owners must have already dumped a lot of money into it. A palace of empty rooms and dry grass. Built in two stages for the Sisters of Mercy in 1891, in its prime the abbey housed up to twenty-three nuns and sixty girls from the ages of eleven. During World War II it was used as a safe house for the girls of All Hallows’ in Brisbane, with over 160 of them roaming the halls. By 1987 there were only three nuns living in the building, and now there’s only my mother and me, rambling around with the ghosts. The renovated rooms are gorgeous but somehow the place doesn’t look as good as it does on the internet, where the impression one gets is that the abbey is run by a team of staff and people queue up to get married in its grounds – the lawns a deep, luscious green. A kind of Downton Abbey fantasy you can buy into for a price. Instead, we never see the caretakers after we check in and the gardens are dead, the scratchy yellow lawn cracking like glass under my shoes. Tonight they have the sprinklers gushing, and as we sip on our complimentary glass of port (only take one, please), Mum says someone is probably getting married on the weekend.

In the long, majestic halls, there are too many bad inclusions, glossy magazines on the nightstands with the Royal Family or Karl Stefanovic staring out of the lurid covers. Fake white roses in my room. When I turn out the light the glow from a blue neon cross coming through the stained-glass windows washes over me, making the sheets glow, and I think about all the nuns who once bathed in the restored pink bathtub and I sleep restlessly in the cavernous room, frightened by everything I can’t see.

Maybe this is what happens when we try to preserve the past – it slips away, is hollower without proper life. Once every action in a room gave this place meaning; now sad couples and pissed wedding guests – or tonight just my mother and me – walk along the halls. Maybe the ghosts hear us. Maybe there is something in memory preserved just for its own sake. I’m struggling, though, to run a line between the two.

 

THE NEXT MORNING Mum and I turn up at the Warwick Historical Society Museum and it’s quite obvious there’s a private function of some sort going on – we go in anyway and the ladies who make the lamingtons and the scones know we’re outsiders right off, turning their heads towards us, eagle eyed. When I tell them I’m writing a story, they tell me to come back Thursday. My mother and I shuffle out. Even when you’re interested in history there are protocols – rules and walls to keep you out.

The ten rules for women teachers in Queensland in 1915 were:

1. You will not marry during the term of the contract.

2. You are not to keep company with men.

3. You must be home between the hours of 8 pm and 6 am unless attending a school function.

4. You may not loiter downtown in the ice-cream parlours.

5. You may not travel beyond the city limits without the permission of the Chairman of the Board.

6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or your brother.

7. You may not smoke cigarettes.

8. You may not dress in bright colours.

9. You may under no circumstances dye your hair.

10. You must wear at least two petticoats and your dresses must not be shorter than two inches above the ankles.

My mum and I crack up at this, but we’re also horrified. I’m a teacher in 2020. If I’d been a teacher in 1915, I probably would have shot the chairman in a drunken rage or, in the more likely scenario, taken my own life.

 

I’M NOT SURE it’s possible to get more English than Mary Poppins, but many people don’t know Mary Poppins was conjured from the mind of Pamela Lyndon Travers, a young woman born in Maryborough, Queensland. I was never much taken with Mary Poppins, or any of the other kinds of bouncy, bonny tales where benevolent governesses flew about on umbrellas and burst into song. Too stitched up, too prim. I couldn’t relate to the Poppins world. But perhaps for Travers that world was a kinder and less threatening place than the rougher one she found herself in. A world where she could find release, where she was in control. For me Travers is more interesting than her famous story.

Allora, her home for two years as a child, is a town bordered by sunflower fields, where people day trip to get their Insta pictures. We see cars parked by the side of the road and young men being given instructions by girlfriends wearing big hats and short shorts. Today the sunflowers are half blooming, but wilting in the heat. Allora looks as if someone has forgotten about it. The brightly covered banners of the Mary Poppins House stand out. The house is closed but the owner, Lorraine, is kind enough to take us on a tour anyway. Travers’ father – Travers Robert Goff, Irish, fond of whiskey, a shamrock painted on his kitchen wall – was a bank manager who gave away too much money and didn’t manage much. His family of women followed his trail of demotions from Maryborough to Ipswich to Allora, towns that got smaller and smaller, the vaults sturdier. It’s a beautiful house for someone not very good at his job. But perhaps that’s Lorraine and her husband Les, the way they’ve poured love into the place and continue to keep it open as a museum despite the hours of dedication it requires. Lorraine shows me the ornate beds, beds I want to lie down in. A hauntingly beautiful painting of a border collie saving a young woman from drowning in a river takes up a whole wall.

Lorraine cuts us some grapes off the vine they have growing across the roof of the conservatory, a vine from Mr Goff’s time that had fallen to the ground and that they let grow through the floor and out over the trestles. The grapes are a deep, rich purple and fresh and comforting in our mouths.

In 2019 Mary Poppins Returns shot into the top twenty box office hits in Australia – in the American lists it didn’t rate a mention. Mary still flies through the Australian imagination on her black umbrella – an emblem of longing, a fantasy for the other hemisphere so many people here carry around in their heads, the two hemispheres jostling for position inside us, two tectonic plates.

 

ON THE SECOND leg of our journey Mum and I will follow Mary Anna Spencer’s trail. Her journey from Tamworth to Mount Abundance station in 1858 with her parents, over a thousand cattle, an Indigenous interpreter and thirteen ex-convict drovers took nearly four months – 640 kilometres on a spring cart lined with burlap sacks full of fleas.

A distant relative of Diana, Princess of Wales, Mary Anna also lived a life ringed by tragedy. Her father, Stephen Spencer, had abandoned his relatively cushy life in England, married a working-class girl and set his sights on becoming a rich landowner in ‘the colonies’. The only problem being he was no good at it. In her memoirs Mary described her mother, a woman prone to epileptic fits and addicted to the opiate laudanum, as ‘long suffering’. They both were. Captive to the inept decision-making of Stephen, a man more interested in buying up pedigree stock and more holdings than taking adequate care of his family, every venture of his was ill-fated. By the time Mount Abundance was sold off to the Scottish Australian Investment Company in 1869, the homestead was in near ruins. Mary Anna worked long and hard from the time she was six, teaching herself to read while churning butter or boiling up pig weed to ward off scurvy when there wasn’t anything else to eat. When I’m standing in the drawing room of Mount Abundance Homestead, staring into a dusty glass cabinet at a pair of Mary Anna’s handmade leather shoes, all the hardship of her life will seem contained in them. The black leather strips tough and stringy and worn down to nothing.

Pat Tite, the current owner of Mount Abundance, is the kind of no-nonsense country woman prone to sayings such as she’s about as good as button-up boots. I like her straight away. She spends a few hours with my mum and me, telling us about the history of the station and showing us around the homestead. Her family is struggling to keep up the repairs, everywhere she looks there’s something else that needs doing, and because Mount Abundance is still a working station it doesn’t qualify for many heritage grants. I ask her why the nearby Roma community isn’t more invested in the place, and she seems resigned, describing the lack of will as the ‘Roma coma’. She walks us out to the grave site of Mary Anna’s parents, a sad square of white pickets in a bone-dry paddock. Before the year is out huge swathes of the country will be caught up in the 2019–20 bushfire crisis – the wishbone cracks under our feet, a kind of warning. The change European settlement has had on this landscape is something even Mary Anna was able to observe in her lifetime, writing in her memoir how much the cattle industry had affected the Maranoa. ‘The country looked lovely before it became overstocked and the ground hardened and churned by constant tramping.’

In Roma, country hospitality extends in a thick chord. Eyes slip over my city frame, but the smiles come easy. When I ask our tour guide Meryl about the Mandandanji people she tells me the town has its own issues just like any other – but there’s a sense she thinks those issues are all in the past. ‘Now we’re in it together,’ she says, ‘it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, brown or yellow.’ I look out the dusty windows of her big old bus and wonder.

In the Roma heritage centre, Marie, one of the volunteers, says never trust a family tree. I believe her. There are stories and erasures in trees.

Already the history is sitting on me heavily. I excuse myself, saying I have to make a call, and go outside to get some air. Not far from the heritage centre is the biggest bottle tree in Roma and I go and put my hands on it, standing there in the hot dry wind, old stories flooding my head, dead horses washing down rivers still saddled, flour poisoned by strychnine and given to the local Indigenous people, poisoned water, frontier wars raging in rivers of blood, women and children raped and murdered. Steel traps that took five men to prise off a human leg. Young men like Mary Anna’s brother joining the Native Police for sport. Swagmen drunk on recent pays thrown into huts on the Bungil Creek just near where I’m standing; whether they came out dead or alive, Marie said, was up to them. You need reins for something like this, to go headlong into all that dust, bones flaking, disintegration, into the dirt. There are always two stories in this country. Rolling and riding up against each other. Two stories that read very differently, and no matter how close they come, never the same.

I miss the ocean. Keep thinking, surely it’s going to fan out in front of me over the crest of this next hill. The further inland I go the more the ocean mirages in the heat haze on the roads, the more country I see the more it settles into me, the heat of it in the slick sweat on my back, dust caught between my toes. Shimmering expanses that reflect back the clouds just like the sea does at home. Pale-headed rosellas lifting off fields in a veil and grey kangaroos clumped around picnic tables. When Mum and I chat to the waitresses in motel restaurants they all seem to be dreaming of Bora Bora, cruise ships, the tantalising oasis of the Caribbean or the Pacific. I dream of it too. The memory of foamy waves overlaid by the rushing line of road trains, the milky black eyes of cows searching me out when they thrust up their snouts.

On the Warrego Highway, Mum and I get caught up in a cattle muster. I’m hurtling along and start seeing cows that don’t look like they’re behind fences, one or two, then a few more until I ask out loud, are any of those bloody cows behind fences? And before my mum can answer the road is covered in them. There are no drovers in sight until we see a young woman on horseback waving us along with her hat – a guy on a motorbike hurtling at us from the other direction waving too and apologising. We thread the line until we’re free.

In Chinchilla we pull up at a historic rest stop, more bullock carts and old colonial machines, two young girls swinging on a brightly coloured set in a playground, parents nowhere to be seen. A shirtless man under a tree with two mean-looking dogs on leashes, he’s ranting and pacing, mobile stuck to his ear, waft of crack about him making Mum and I uneasy, words I can’t really hear in the wind except for the bookends – for fuck’s sake, for fuck’s sake mate. On the back of the toilet door someone has written ‘Vote No’ neatly in black with a smiley face underneath. The swings creak. I’m too soft for the reality of all this, maybe. That’s how it feels out here sometimes, away from the edge, where you feel everything could just slip, in a second, into nothingness, razorblades in the air, bad nests, traps set. The feeling sticks.

 

MY MUM AND I part company in Toowoomba. She heads back to Brisbane and I take off in a hired SUV in a haze of fog so thick it makes me want to pull over. The fog clears to crisp air and roads slicked with rain. Move west, rain, I think, to where you’re really needed.

The South Burnett, the Lynch sisters’ territory, is my favourite stretch of country so far, still parched but greener, undulating and rolling to the edge of ridges and the Bunya Mountains, where Indigenous groups from nearby and much further away would come to harvest bunya nuts. They wouldn’t stay in the mountains but would prefer to go home. At the end of every long road there must be a home, and all around me the country lifts and opens out. Emu Creek, Black Gully. After the flat, straight roads out west the hills close around me like arms.

On my way to Kingaroy I stop in Cooroy, the town so quiet it’s as if everyone’s been murdered. Having a city brain full of city stories can affect you like that, make you think that if anything weird comes along, you’re in an apocalypse. I sit outside at the rest stop, smoking and drinking my Coke, two palm trees on either side of the park bench looking as if they ran away from the coast, got lost and died. A pee-wee inspects me and thinks better of it. On the run into town there are abandoned cars and bits of animal carcass. Shocks of blood red or small bodies disintegrated into nothing but mush and white fur, waving like strands of wheat by the side of the road, soft beds for something unknown.

Inside the Kingaroy Heritage Museum, I try to ignore the imposing gaze of hometown boy Joh Bjelke-Petersen looming large in a giant portrait on the wall behind me. The painting’s not bad – he certainly looks scary enough, hands either side of an armchair eerily reminiscent of William Dobell’s painting The Cypriot in the Queensland Art Gallery, or an Aussie Mr Burns. I’m being assisted by a guy who’s as excited as if no one’s ever asked him about anything in fifty years. He’s dragging out folders from behind the long glass counter – knowing the right dates and the right sections to find information on the four Lynch sisters. We’re having a lovely time poring through the different articles and pictures, remarking on how statuesque they were, their imposing, serious gazes penetrating as they stare at the camera. The gushing, blatantly sexist way reporters of the time wrote about them – the timber-cutting competitions they entered and won. They were the ‘Amazons of the Bush’, fine specimens of ‘muscular womanhood’, whose complexions, under protection of the dark forest canopy, were ‘not injured by the fierce Queensland heat’, women whose honour remained in check even though they worked ‘exactly as the men do’.

The whole time we’re looking though the folders another guy is just standing there, staring at us. He doesn’t laugh when we laugh. He doesn’t even move. I’m too aware of my body, too aware of his eyes. I try to ignore him. Then the kind man tells me the only story I really need to know about the Lynch sisters. 

It was said that after a long spate of timber-getting in the South Burnett, the four sisters were bringing in a load to Kingaroy when a local man of some stature came upon their bullock train. He informed the sisters that if they intended to come into town they would need to be in possession of bonnets – on their heads. They said they didn’t have any. He kindly offered to ride into town and did so, delivering back a bonnet for each sister. The sisters obliged him, but after they had successfully conducted their business in town, they nailed those bonnets to a wall on their way out.

The guy at the Woodworks Museum in Gympie is surprised to see me. ‘We don’t get many young ladies on their own – they’re usually being dragged around by their husbands.’

‘Yeah? It’s just me.’ He seems pleased by this but still confused, so I ask him for everything he’s got on the Lynch sisters. He pauses but I can see he knows who I mean. ‘I’m writing a story.’

‘Well you better come in for free then.’ He takes me to the small display they have on Nell, Mary, Kate and Rose. Much less than I expected and a shorter version of what I’ve already read in Kingaroy. He’s helpful, bustling off to the office to ask if there’s anything more, and his manner speaks to the same sort of helpful dedication I experienced at the museum in Kingaroy. Another guy comes out, looks me up and down, says there isn’t anything else and the nice guy tells me to try the library. It’s curious how helpful some men can be, the nicer ones, because the fact they might have been sexist at all hasn’t occurred to them, because there’s always the other guy, standing there quiet, not taking his eyes off you, hard edged.

 

THE FURTHER NORTH I travel, the more frequent the billboards from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and the giant lurid yellow banners of Clive Palmer’s United Party become. Every few hundred metres on the highways his fat face exploding out of a hillside, hers shrivelled. Make Australia Great. I’ve Got the Guts to Say What You’re Thinking.

The old woman running the motel in Maryborough seems scary at first with her needle-marked playdough arms – medicinal not habitual. She’s been in the motel business for forty-nine years and has a pink rinse in her blow-dried hair – not the kind my nanna would have sported but the kind you might find on a shelf for the punk kids in Priceline. She tells me all sorts of things she shouldn’t within a few minutes. There are crack houses down the street, she says. The guy who runs the motel across the road is a drunk, thinks her place is a dump, it’s not. ‘I don’t talk to any of them,’ she says. And she doesn’t much talk to her clientele, usually, who come from all over to visit their loved ones in the Maryborough Correctional. She tells me one of the old pubs in town on Wharf Street isn’t a pub anymore but still has a hole in the floor in the cellar and a tunnel that runs all the way down to the dock. ‘That’s how they brought all the cocaine in off the ships – here, people were getting up to all sorts of naughty things.’ She laughs and seems to like this, but she doesn’t extend that same largesse to the people or the families of people in the jail who must have had their own, less elaborate and ultimately failed networks of supply.

I’m here to soak in where Pamela Lyndon Travers was born and go on a Mary Poppins tour, but when I’m heading into the heritage district, I stop at a traffic light and see the tour in progress. A curly-haired old lady all decked out in Poppins paraphernalia – including massive bonnet, umbrella and witchy black boots – is doing some kind of jig for a middle-aged couple on a street corner outside the imposing colonial façade of the Story Bank, where Travers was born. They’re the only ones on the tour and don’t seem to know where to look. I press the button on the car window and realise fake Mary is reciting a poem. I pick up my phone and cancel my booking straight away.

 

THE NEXT LEG of my journey from the east coast to the western Queensland mining town of Mount Isa in the far north takes around twenty hours to drive, so I book a flight instead. From the sky I see fluid lines, rivulets of sand and trees that look like black disease or the inside of lungs – the country is a body. Cut though with white-man markings, demarcations, straight lines that converge in points as if made by aliens, lines made with protractors and rulers, the land getting redder and flatter when we pass the mountains, this land is snakes and rivulets of sand and the black clumps of trees, dead earth I can’t explain. 

And then I see the mine. The biggest open-cut holding in the world, stretching for kilometres, a gaping black hole, as if the colossal monster that fuels our contemporary lives chose exactly this spot to burrow away from the shame of what it has taken, headlong into the earth.

Coming into Isa most of the houses look temporary, revamped or extended versions of dongas. Rodeo capital of Australia. Where Blockbuster Video is still big. Where the consulting and civil engineers have priority boarding the plane and the minibus that ferries people into town, the driver talking to some guy up front about boat people. ‘Government cares more for people from other countries that they do about people here,’ he says in a thick accent. Two signs a forewarning of how things work in this place: ‘Mt Isa is Kalkadoon Country’ and ‘Jac and Shaz – Mt Isa legends from My Kitchen Rules.’

The Kalkadoon, or Kalkatungu, are the Indigenous people from the emu foot province that takes in Mount Isa. The Kalkadoon were said to be extremely territorial and known by surrounding tribes as fearsome warriors. Jac and Shaz are the 2015 My Kitchen Rules grand finalists famous for their chicken schnitty. ‘If we can’t win this challenge,’ Shaz said on the pub grub episode, ‘Mount Isa’s gonna have our guts for garters!’

The heat in Mount Isa hits me full in the face, all over my body as if I’m walking through fire. I’m running out of cash, so I’ve cancelled the car and decided to walk around, ducking under shop awnings for relief, every office and shop sealed tight to the droning hum of air-conditioners. Every bit of my exposed skin bites and I can feel the black lettering on my Santa Cruz shirt melting onto my back. Trudging from the local pool up the slight incline to the hotel I realise why miners used to wrap wet towels around their heads and more beer was drunk here than any other regional centre in the country. I could murder a beer, even though usually I don’t drink it. I could murder anyone who won’t give it to me. And of course there is only one barmaid and one young mother in the pub just after 3 pm with two bored kids and she takes an age to dig through her handbag to find the eight bucks she needs. An age. The coins drop on the counter one by one, church bells set a beat too long. I stare at a bottle of American Honey. I stare at a fly. The beer is so good when I finally get it, I’d probably sell my mother for it. I head outside through the wafts of misted water shot out over the outdoor area by hoses and fans, blowing over my skin in waves that would annoy me back home but that I accept here gratefully – tools in my survival kit.

Back in Roma, the Indigenous section of one historical exhibit had read like a kids’ story. I’ve seen similar things at many small-town monuments, either a hastily erected section of boards or a tacked-on sign – the drawings and the words childish, as if they’d been crafted for school tours. The power of Indigenous history somehow infantilised, acknowledged but not quite.At the Isa Experience the words are different, pitch perfect – whoever has written the exhibit has written it well; it captures some of the duality I feel. Not pulling a punch, there are two sides. Side by side. The history of the white men who built the biggest open-cut mine in the world and the story of the people who had their land stolen. When I’m sitting down listening to the old stories on the heavy black handset hanging off the wall in the Indigenous section of this exhibit, someone from the museum walks past. He doesn’t smile or say hello. Perhaps he doesn’t approve of what I’m doing or maybe the keen way I seem to be doing it.

At the information desk the woman is running a line through all the things that are unavailable. The city lights tour? Not running. The underground hospital? Shut. The mine tour? Not until Friday, maybe. When I ask her about the Indigenous sites tour, she gives me this funny look as if what I’m saying is mad. Hasn’t been a tour like that running for years. It was in my hotel compendium. Must be out of date. What about the Indigenous arts centre? Shut. I did see a mob of them in there today, maybe they’re getting ready to re-open it. Who knows? Ah that’s a shame about the tour. Yeah, yeah real shame. And something in her eye tells me she doesn’t think it’s a shame at all. I’ve seen that look in every town I’ve been in; it says can I talk to you the way I wanna talk to you or are we just gonna skirt around the issue? Two stories. Two ways of speaking. Two histories. Now there isn’t any use in pretending we can have one without the other.

I wish I’d spoken to the old women in the rainbow dresses, the ‘mob’ the woman at the information desk mentioned, because I’d seen them too but the moment had passed by quickly and I’d recalled Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country – don’t ask too many questions. If it’s hard to know what the protocol is, you don’t ask any questions at all. That hesitancy is written on me, gouged in deep. And I know that’s part of the problem.

There’s a sense of divide at the Isa Hotel tonight, everyone inside the Rodeo Bar, while outside young and old men in faded football jerseys take a break from the gaming lounge at the back of the hotel, pooled on concrete street benches, drawing slowly on cigarettes, watching us inside eating and drinking. The restaurant is filled with the charred smoke of grilled steaks, cuts as big as my head. I push my plate away, text my friend that I might need to talk to him later because Mount Isa is fucking heartbreaking. The kind of place where the centre of town is marked with so many telling signs: Department of Corrections; Parole Office; Headspace Counselling; Family Services; Department of Housing. The police headquarters and the Boating, Camping and Fishing shop, two of the biggest buildings in the place, rising up like goalposts signalling the polar opposites of life. I remember the prison officer I shared a cigarette with in the smoking area of the Townsville airport warning me about Isa, telling me not to go out alone at night. ‘It’s a different kind of place,’ he said, looking me right in the eye.

I wish I hadn’t looked away so quickly after I smiled and said hi to the old cowboy outside the Isa Hotel, ambling past. He seemed surprised I’d even looked at him. The centre of town in the dead of night is full of the sounds of screaming, fighting, hollering, the punching of phone booths and walls, groups staggering slowly down the main street, cops shining lights into cars. Sitting out on the wide veranda of the hotel with no hot water, the rage between us is a wall. I keep flinching every time something breaks. A woman laughs and then she’s screaming. The bright lights of the mine shining, an empty stadium at night, a big open sore.

Some people are dust people, dirt people. Edna Zigenbine was one of those. The smell of leather worked hard, sweat, horsehair ground in. Edna spent most of her life with a plant – a droving term for a pack of horses, dogs and supplies – eating steak and gravy or stew for breakfast, digging soaks in the river looking for water. In 1950 Edna became Australia’s first female boss drover, driving 1,500 head from Western Australia to Mount Isa. She was twenty-two. In June 2000 Edna gave one of her last extended interviews to a film crew from Griffith University’s Film School. In the interview Edna is often evasive, saying could’ve been, might have been, maybe and I don’t know a lot. And it’s not because of her age or lack of memory, it’s because when it comes to things that aren’t practical, Edna doesn’t want to be drawn on it. The interviewer trying to skew her into reflecting on her status as a woman, on her experience with Indigenous drovers, perhaps trying to shape her life in relation to gender difference and race relations, but Edna won’t have a bar of it. She’ll recall Indigenous drovers having to give their pay to the local police who took their cut, leaving them virtually nothing, but she won’t go much further. She’ll say she and her brother didn’t get along. Maybe because he wanted to be the boss man, the interviewer suggests. Maybe, says Edna, but she won’t say for sure. The only worry Edna ever professes to having was blokes walking out on her with 500 head of cattle to drove. It is what it is. For Edna, learning not to analyse things too much was how she survived.

 

TROPICAL NORTH QUEENSLAND is a tonic after Mount Isa, coconut palms fanning out over white-sand beaches, islands and mountains covered in so much lush green it almost seems offensive – the abundance, the humidity, all that heavy wet fecundity in the air. Strange too, as far-flung outposts tend to be. Osteoporosis workshop signs tacked to palm trees. Old guy on a motorised scooter with a black cockatoo on his shoulder. ‘Pat the cockatoo,’ the waitress tells me, ‘but don’t sit down and have a drink with that guy.’ Elegant, long-legged curlews wandering the streets of Palm Cove at night, the darkness beyond the streetlights shrouded in their eerie, bereft calls, as if, as some First Nations people believe, someone’s child has died.

It’s stinger season so I can’t go swimming when all I want to do is throw myself into the sea. A small roped-off area is cleared for swimming, a bath full of screaming kids in floaties, so I skip it, make do with the dinky pool at the backpackers instead. The best swim I have in North Queensland won’t be on the coast anyway.

I’m supposed to be following the trail of Evelyn Maunsell, and even though I keep following the map, ticking off the markers of where she arrived in Cairns and where she honeymooned in Kuranda and where she ended up, out along the Mitchell River at Mount Mulgrave Station – one of the first and largest cattle ranches in the north – I’ve grown tired of her already. Things just seemed to appear for Evelyn – cabin trunks, buggies offered by friends, wedding dresses – and so the closer I get to where she used to be the further away she seems to be moving, a ghost refusing to ride side-saddle but with her hair pinned like an English governess and a black choker around her neck. It isn’t Evelyn’s fault that everything came to her easily, easier than it came to any of the other women I’m exploring here; she made her way the way she knew how. The problem is, in the lush evolution of the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest continuously surviving rainforest on Earth, her past and her privilege seem less and less relevant.

In 2012, the Indigenous Land Corporation sought to protect the World Heritage Listed environment of Mossman Gorge by restricting access. Now all visitors need to pass through the visitor centre and travel to the gorge on a low-emission minibus. The area had previously been overrun by high amounts of unregulated tourist traffic. Today the focus is on sustainability and the knowledge and culture of the Kuku Yalanjio. I sign up for a walking tour with Slim, one of the many Indigenous guides. Our group is made up of a retired Canadian couple, a British couple and a large family of Eastern Europeans with little English. The Brits get on my nerves straight away, telling me this was all better twenty years ago when you could just come out and explore the way you wanted, their attitude reminding me of some of the comments I’d seen on Trip Advisor – ‘Spectacular but why do we have to pay?’ As if payment isn’t due. As if exploring just the way you wanted hadn’t had consequences. They’ll change their tune by the end of the tour. Slim shows us how to make soap from a sarsaparilla tree, how to harvest water from hanging vines, how different stones can be crushed and soaked to create paint. Before we step into the gorge he calls out to his ancestors, announcing our arrival, asking permission for all of us to pass through. He sees everything before we do. A lizard right by our heads we haven’t noticed in a tree; burrows and tracks and insects; sets of tools he’s laid out by a huge Atherton oak, and a weapon most of us don’t have the strength to pick up let alone wield. He tells us how the land is regenerating since the restrictions, how the land is used to regeneration, how it’s impossible to tell what this rainforest must have been like before European contact, when the colossal trees were felled.

Lately I’ve been asking a lot more questions.

The current in the world-famous swimming holes and cascades of Mossman Gorge is strong, just as Slim warned, but I swim hard and reach a massive boulder jutting out of the water. Holding on, my legs whip around the rock in the pull. The freshwater is clear and deep, the cool rush runs right through me, passing through every bone and cell. The dust and grit wash off, down the mountain and away, taken by the rapids. People are draped over rocks and sitting in small groups on patches of gritty sand near the edges. They aren’t lighting up fags or drinking or setting out picnics because they’re not allowed to. The focus is on where we are and how content we are to be in this place. Couples and families and lone travellers like me, people from Italy and Finland and New Zealand, Indigenous families, Pacific Islanders, Canadians and Japanese, chatting quietly, calmed and held together by this place, by the ancient totems and history contained within the water and the drooping canopy. From my vantage point on the side of a slippery rock, for the first time on this haphazard tour, I can feel the power of the past here, but I can also see a future.

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