Friday 27 September 2019

Big Things of Normanton, Queensland

In March 2018, I spent a few days in the remote Outback Queensland town of Normanton, awaiting the weekly run of the Gulflander train.

I’d arrived early in order to leave plenty of wriggle room for delays caused by rain at the end of the wet season, and even so there was some doubt whether the train would run.

Killing time while I waited for news, one morning I walked to the site of the old river port which had once connected the town to the Gulf of Carpentaria. 

I was surprised to find a well-marked cycling and pedestrian trail leading to the old wharf, 700 metres north of the town’s edge. Perhaps in the dry season people cycled along it in droves, but I was the only one using it today. 

Though I was happy the rain had paused, with the sun out it was oppressively hot and humid. I was feeling grateful for my Akubra hat, as I walked along the exposed asphalt.

On the way I passed a flood marker which topped out at seven metres. No wonder the town was built at a slight remove. I could already see evidence that the Norman River didn’t keep to its course: to one side of the trail was a green-brown lagoon of half-submerged trees, and flowers blooming above floating pads. I heard a large splash, and braced myself to see what had caused it. Just a wallaby among the foliage, who hopped away ahead of me.

It was deserted at the riverbank, though two parked utes with empty trailers spoke of locals out on a Sunday fishing excursion. Two heritage sites were signboarded: the modernised boat ramp which had had a winch-operated punt from the 1880s to 1965, and the remnants of the old wharf, which had been wrecked by a flood in 1974. Powerful floods were something Alice Springs rarely had to endure, but it was a common hazard in this would-be Town Like Alice (on which that famous novel was based).

I was sitting in the shelter next to the boat ramp, taking notes, when my eye was caught by a sign by the water featuring “ACHTUNG” in black lettering. The German word was more noticeable than the red “WARNING” in English above it, and the gist of the sign was that a saltwater crocodile had been sighted here recently and people should keep away from the water’s edge.

I relocated to the picnic area several metres farther back, and scoped out a place to climb higher should a crocodile attack. What I’d taken to be a children’s playground next to the picnic area I now saw was an outdoor gym, a set of boards with rails and inclines.

If a crocodile appeared, I was probably doomed. But possibly I could scramble to the top of the inclined exercise bench. There was also an old crane set in concrete by the wharf. Though farther away, it would be easy to climb.

Escape route considerations aside, it was pleasant by the river, though never quiet - I could hear the call of birds in the trees around me, along with the deep croaks of frogs and the buzz of insects. Small black flies crawled annoyingly over my face when they felt they could get away with it, and at one point a kite flew under the canopy of the picnic area, right over my head, to land on a nearby vantage point.

Cooling breezes blew from the river in unpredictable patterns, and the occasional car pulled in to offload a boat on the ramp. Mostly I was alone. It was a soothing experience, despite the heat and my little insect friends.

Jake, a barman at the Albion pub, had given me a card for Gulf Getabout, a local transport service which acted like a taxi. Its card promised “Like a taxi, but BETTER!” I asked them to pick me up from the river. It beat walking.

Mel the driver chauffered me to the Big Barra, Normanton’s entry in Australia’s fabled pantheon of Big Things. It was a huge replica of a barramundi, standing upright on its tail, outside a motel. Barramundi fishing was a big thing around here. 

On the way back into town, Mel swung onto the other side of the road to let me photograph the Welcome to Normanton sign: 

Welcome to Normanton
Population small
We love them all
Drive carefully

When I remarked on the flexibility of road rules in small towns - I’d noticed a ute driving by without licence plates the day before - Mel said the local police had recently made themselves unpopular by actually enforcing the law, including the need for licence plates.

She dropped me at the Purple Pub, the Albion’s rival on the main street. It was an archetypal Aussie pub, except it was painted a distinctive shade of eggplant. I ordered a beer and asked the barmaid how it had ended up that way.

“One of the previous publicans ordered new paint,” she said, “But when it showed up it was the wrong colour. He was something of a tight-arse, and didn’t want to pay to freight to send it back. So now it’s purple.”

Fair enough. I ordered a beer, and waited for my train.

No comments:

Post a Comment