Christmas in the Carnarvons

This is from a Kodak slide I shot as a boy on Boxing Day, probably in 1965; a long gone Christmas with a she-oak sapling for the Tree. It was passed in what was then still an undeveloped part of Central Queensland on the edges of the Carnarvon Ranges. It is these memories that I draw on in my Script Writing. Dirt roads ran for hundreds of miles then; I learned to drive on them. The country around was a vast expanse of rock weathered down from an ancient time; a famous chunk of it is Carnarvon Gorge.

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In the dense Brigalow forests my father showed me scrub fowl nests 6 feet high and 20 feet across; it’s all levelled for grain crops and cattle pasture now. As a young Graduate Engineer he was with the crew putting a formal survey through the Carnarvon Ranges in 1934; it formed the basis of the road network tourists blithely cruise today. He told me they’d walk 20 miles some days and he showed me places few people have laid eyes on since; galleries of rock paintings and outlooks where the First Australians were placed to watch over their descendants.

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Names like Cullen-la-Ringo are etched into history now, but Wanderers, Sutcliffe, The Kitchen, and extensive stone axe grinding sites on the Dawson River are little known now. Ruthless hunger for profits cleared the First Australians from these lands, then it cleared the Brigalow, and now it follows the Coal Seam Gas; the pattern repeats.

I still go back there; some of it is still wild, but for how much longer no one can say. I take my daughter there. I stop at unmarked places and we strike out into the bush; I show her all the little sites I know, some of them known only to a few. I still camp out unseen in hideaways, staring at the stars, always listening to the sigh of the wind in the cyprus and the crackle of the fire. Sometimes I hear dingoes howl. Although the people that brought those dingoes here are gone their hand stencils remain. A missing finger indicates death of a child. On a cave wall in The Basin a whole line of hands show missing fingers; these are among the last hand stencils made, still sparkling fresh after 150 years.

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We all want to leave our mark. My Fathers marks are sometimes cut out of rock; Gentle Annie, Iron Range, Horn Island, Jackie Jackie and others roll off the tongue of my family’s oral history, though his name is not written anywhere on his work. My oldest brother’s mark is linked to the Arcadia Desent. My own marks are cut from hardwood, and bear names like Karuna and Tranquility, but even if they stand 100 years my name will not be associated with the craftsmanship that made them. Only a few of us get to be remembered, and some for all the wrong reasons.

Christmas is one of those days when we not only reach out, but also look inwards and look back. It’s a good time to take stock of where we come from and where we’re going; who’s with us and who’s gone. I remember that Christmas day more clearly than any others; it wasn’t the presents or the food. It was the indelible impression of time and place, of a shared experience. I’ve seen so much in my life but I always cherish my memory of that simple camp with just the three of us. I love going back sometimes, as difficult as it is, to spend some time in silent reflection and to acknowledge all who’ve preceded me and try to conjure some kind of legacy for those who’ll follow on.

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