Rust in the dust
by: Nicolas Rothwell
From: The Australian
January 19, 2013 12:00AM
Image: The cemetery at Ravenswood, once a vibrant mining settlement.
Picture: Philip Hammond
WHEN mechanical engineer Colin Hooper decided, more than three decades ago, to plunge himself into the writing project that would come to dominate his life, he was already a man of the north Queensland back country, well aware of its resonances, its lurking secrets and its depths.
He was fascinated by the history of the abandoned mining towns and settlements, and the near-forgotten drama of the gold rush days. He had scoured the inland ranges and the savanna scrub and explored the ruins and the old industrial workings scattered there. He knew them well. They spoke to him; he wished to commemorate them.
Hooper captures this trajectory in the preface to the majestic evocation of the far north he published in an initial version in mid-1993, Angor to Zillmanton: Stories of North Queensland's Deserted Towns. As he explained it, the book's composition had itself been a journey, back into the past and on into the future, a journey built on the endless hospitality of bush folk, on their stories, theories and dreams.
Its wellsprings covered most of Queensland - from a boy running through the scrubs with a dog and a rifle, learning of the bullockies and their teams and the old fossickers' huts of beaten kerosene tins on White Hill at Clermont, to the man receiving instruction in tin prospecting with old miners at Herberton and gold with the solitary prospector on the Palmer.
Hooper was making himself into an archivist of memories as much as an industrial archeologist. A to Z, as it is inevitably known by its devotees, is one of Australia's unclassifiable literary masterpieces, as distinctive in its presentation as it is precious for its content. Even in that first incarnation it was a lavishly produced affair: a large-format volume, paperbacked, printed on gloss paper, and somewhat floppy in the hand, since it was much wider than it was tall. The rust-coloured cover bore an elaborate superimposition of images: archival maps and mining charts and a photo of the Mt Cuthbert smelter ruins marooned amid the pale hills and the spinifex.
In the years since, the book has been repeatedly reprinted and expanded: the latest, seventh edition, which appeared a few months ago, is of almost unmanageable heft. What is A to Z? A gazetteer of more than 500 vanished, non-existent places, a guide to obscure mineral finds and their discoverers, a chrestomathy of bush tales and legends, an album of frontier images? All these things, but also an attempt to fix the character of the north, to picture its pioneers and the impact the hard country had upon them 100 years and more ago.
This is a task that invites comparisons with the present, with ourselves. Hooper looks back on the battlers and the heroes, the rogues and thieves and wastrels, and he wonders how we would have fared in their circumstances.
"It appears," he writes, "that shared hardship brought out a humanity which cannot be bettered today."
Such a mazy work requires a structure, and at least three distinct organisational plans can be made out in the ramifying, anecdote-filled text. There is a regional emphasis; an alphabetical sub-current and a classification by mineral and by date of principal discovery - but the stories all blend into one, and produce a dreamy, haunting effect, much as though the book's reader were perched by a campfire listening to the spirits of the bush.
Perhaps the best way to read A to Z, and catch the splendour of its clipped prose style and the warmth of its insights would be to take the book on a four-wheel-drive tour of the deserted towns, and trace their remains by using its charts. But it would also serve as a fitting companion for a long afternoon in a research library, surveyor's office or accident and emergency ward, so detailed are the tales of endeavour and misadventure it offers up, and so precise the charts and plans it records of the towns, reserves and homesteads that once filled the Dividing Range and lower Cape.
Hooper sets the scene with generic portraits: swagmen, stockmen, drovers, publicans. But it is the individuals in his narrative who shine through his unerring, laconic gift for character sketch. Indeed, almost everyone in the bush in those days was a character of some kind, though few sat quite as high in the saddle as Henry H. Harbord, a cultured Englishman who reached Cooktown in 1874 and made for the Palmer River, found the last gold reef of the rush and carved out a niche for himself, in due course, as a managerial type. Life's vicissitudes soon wore him down. He moved on and settled at Imooya on the Alice River with a group of famous prospectors, all well past their prime. A fever struck and he retreated to the coast and took up at the Fretwell Hotel just south of Cairns, where he succumbed in 1931, leaving behind two daughters, named Myee and Myola, indigenous words for "native born" and "break of day".
"As with many of our pioneers," writes Hooper elegiacally, "he was a wanderer to the end." True story! Think of the peripatetic Dr Jack Hamilton, whose tale is on the adjacent page, and who was repeatedly elected to state parliament for the seat of Cook, despite his complete lack of medical or any other qualifications, and his disquieting habit of securing full payment by fighting his patients in the boxing ring.
Dramas and disasters form the natural template of the prospecting life, none more affecting than the tale of Annie "Bags" Ferdinand, who was of Prussian birth, "perhaps nobility", and loved a well-connected, red-haired Englishman, whom she followed to Australia and searched for through the goldfields of the south.
Eventually her quest led her to the tropics: the Palmer River; Croydon by 1887; Ravenswood. Finally she found her beau but was unhinged by his infidelity and promptly developed a fierce loathing for all red-haired men. She wandered through the mining fields, dressed in sacks, a bag over her shoulder with a cat or two inside and a pack of skinny dogs at her heels. Pets brought her solace: on one of her arrests for vagrancy it was established that she had 25 dogs, 18 cats and a number of tame rats in tow. She told the court she earned her living begging and fortune-telling. Death came in 1910 in Townsville, from chronic mania and phthisis, and she was buried in the cemetery at West End. A long downward spiral.
Yes, the north. The north, with all its capacity to amplify a fate. A realm, in those days, and to some extent to this day, where good intentions win no points. The Salvation Army made a swing through the goldfields around Etheridge in the lower Cape in 1895, Ensign Turkettle and Lieutenant Broughton to the fore. The locals came out, sombre, led by George Jeffries: "Our troubles are beyond your meddling, young feller," Jeffries said. "You can't help us down here so for the sake of God who loves everyone, have a bit to eat and clear. If Salvation is a new kind of vegetable that will grow on Lane's Creek, then fetch the seed along and sow it. But we don't want to be talked to. Let us die quietly and at peace with mankind."
Each place in the mining country had its particular mood and tone and this often seems to linger among the ruins that survive in the present. The traveller encounters an atmosphere of watchful, waiting silence, as if the memory of men and women and their doings still marked those tracts of bush. Does the landscape somehow retain such echoes of what was once present? What of Perish, near Tabletop, where the Bobby Dazzler reef was discovered by a digger "who lay waterless and delirious for days within sight of that Eldorado" before he was found, dying, by his fellow prospectors?
Or True Blue, which once had a store, bakery, school and post office, but is now distinguished chiefly by the rhynchonella and brachiopod fossils that still adorn its deserted flower beds? There's Bamford, where the Chinese baker used to urinate into his bread dough each morning to make the loaves white and appealingly fluffy; and Ord, near Mt Garnet, which displayed a robust approach to democratic procedure when the 1883 elections came round. By chance, the ballot papers arrived at California Creek camp on the same day as the wagon with the rum supplies. "A saturnalia ensued and times were lively," Hooper records. "By the time it came to voting, every miner voted four or five times. On the whole they managed to be remarkably unanimous in sticking to the same candidate." Alas, it ended badly: the presiding electoral officer went to jail.
But those who travel through the places where these episodes were played out find little today beyond graves, rusted machinery and vague blurs of building remains - all recorded and described by Hooper in his lovingly detailed trove of words.
Some things can leave no trace, of course. The racing goats that were a specialty of Ravenswood have gone, and with them, doubtless, the local knowledge that wolfram ore would be found only on hills that goats liked to climb. Nothing remains of the four hotels and two stores and skating rink and rifle range at Koorboora, where dingoes, goannas, native cats and hawks and snakes all preyed on the town: nothing but the memory, almost lost. But the more Hooper pursued his quest for such details to record, the more material he uncovered, in archives half-discarded, in diaries, in old newspapers.
And it was this exponential increase in the material to hand, as much as the physical impossibility of bringing out an even larger, thicker A to Z, that drove him, five years ago, to begin a yet more ambitious experiment in publishing. Five volumes in the projected 10-book series of North Queensland Deserted Towns have now appeared, hard-backed, though still in the same widescreen format, well-suited to the display of visual material. Each book resumes elements from the mother lode, but completists will need them all, for they are rich in new maps, charts and photos, and have extended, unexpected side-essays on such subjects as the annual migration pattern of grey nomads up Cape York, the World War II airfields of the region, the flying doctor service and mining township philately.
Above all, these volumes highlight a new aspect of Hooper's bush history enthusiasm. Each book begins with a memory text, a recollection of what it was like to be a child growing up in the old townships of the far north. The result is a kind of patchwork evocation of the vanished, abandoned past. Some are memoirs, almost in blank verse: "I was born in Ravenswood on the twenty-second of August, 1902. My father, he was mining there, and he was also a winding-engine driver, but they'd break out and go mining on their own account, at times."
Here's Evelyn Fahey remembering early childhood in a fly-blown copper settlement near Cloncurry, a little place where dances were held on Saturday nights in the main hall, and rugs placed under the seats for the children to go to sleep on. Then they were carried home, a lantern lighting the way: "Kuridala may rise again, who knows? Eternal rest to all those who died there over the years. Peace to all still living."
There's an evocation of Maytown, most fabled of all the gold rush settlements, where tooth repairs involved opium, and the dingoes were reddish in colour and would never attack alone. And there are the reminiscences of "Basalt Bill" Brotherton, who was brought up on Rocky Section at Kaban, far off in the back reaches of the tableland, and hardly ever wore shoes. He passed his childhood Sundays brumby-running and could remember every detail with a painter's eye. One thread in a vast tapestry. Hooper knows very well what his project has built into: not just a record, but a means of kindling affinities between those who see the north today and those who lived there long ago.
"To a large extent the land itself formed their character," he writes.
To go out into this country alone as many did, to face the enormity of this land as an insignificant speck of humanity who, when night shrinks the horizons, is still overawed by the immensity of the stars, is to come face to face with yourself. It is a process by which even the proudest and most arrogant always returns humbled. But they also come back strong. It is a true initiation, an initiation not possible in an urban environment, surrounded by people and noise.
Bush travellers today know well the truth in these words.
Angor To Zillmanton: Stories Of 520 Deserted Towns And Mining Camps Throughout North Queensland
By Colin Hooper
Published by Colin Hooper, 468pp, $79.95
Also published and priced at $55 each, the first five volumes of a projected 10-book series on North Queensland's Deserted Towns
Nicolas Rothwell is a senior writer with The Australian. His latest book, Belomor, will be published by Text on January 30.