Page 19

Charleville, Roma, St. George and Toowoomba.


Charleville, (pronounced char ler vill), was named by a chappie called W. A. Tulley in 1868 after his home town in Ireland.

If we had imagined that by going south we'd escape the heat - well, we were mistaken. Sometimes even the cold water out of our caravan tap was too hot to wash under. The day after arrival, refreshed and invigorated, we set off to explore Charleville. However . . . it seems that this town dies at the end of October when all the sensible tourists have fled south ahead of the hot weather. Most of the 'attractions' had shut down for the summer. Pam particularly wanted to see the bilbies, rabbit-like marsupials which are in danger of extinction. Charleville is breeding them in captivity in an attempt to preserve the species.

Sorry, it's the mating season, the centre is closed she was told.

I don't mind if they're mating, she responded. (Yes, Pam said that! I was dumbfounded too.)

Too much information was the only reply she was given.

So, no bilbies. In fact, practically no anything - and we'd booked in for four nights! There was one location of interest, however, and that was a park in which were displayed the Vortex Guns. What are Vortex Guns? Read on . . .

Vortex Cannons

In 1902, after a prolonged and devastating drought, Queensland's chief meteorologist, Clement Wragge, persuaded the Charleville Council to support a rainmaking trial using thirteen giant Stiger Vortex Cannons, six of which would be placed at strategic locations around Charleville.

The theory was that if the guns were aimed at suitable clouds and six ounces of gunpowder was ignited in the base of each barrel, a surge of expanding gas would be discharged which, due to the megaphone shape of the gun barrels, would be at a lower pressure than the surrounding atmosphere. That, together with the associated shock wave, would cause water droplets in the cloud to combine and form rain.

An editorial in the local newspaper of the time pondered whether Charleville would become the laughing stock or the envy of the world. In 1902 however, most of the world had never heard of Australia, let alone Charleville. (In the U.S.A. that is probably still true today.)

These black 'stove-pipes' are the two remaining Stiger Vortex Cannons.

The rainmaking project provided a lot of entertainment for the local residents until some of the guns exploded and flying shrapnel narrowly missed them. This is a story of how science, technology and hope all combined to produce . . . absolutely nothing. Further, when soaking rains fell (without any help) at the end of 1902, most of the guns were cut up for scrap and the rainmaker project was a dead duck. Thank goodness two were preserved or we might have nothing by which to remember Charleville in these pages.

The proponent of this experiment, Clement Lindley Wragge, was Queensland's weather chief and a world class meteorologist - the sign near the cannons says so. He was the first person in the world to give names to cyclones. In fact, he named some after politicians of the day, saying both were natural disasters. I think you'll agree, dear Reader, that this illustrates that old Clement was a perceptive fellow and he didn't get everything wrong. However, it wasn't a smart career move and he was 'overlooked' for the position of Commonwealth Meteorologist following Federation. Nothing daunted, he set up his own long range weather forecasting organisation in Australia and New Zealand and lived to be seventy.

And that was Charleville in November so we left and trundled 276 kilometres east to a town called Roma.
Roma, the Capital of the Western Downs, Queensland

The town was named after the wife of Queensland's first Governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen. His wife's maiden name had been Countess Diamantina Roma. I think that's a magnificent name, don't you? Countess Diamantina Roma! I imagine her being an excitable tyrant around the mansion, likely to have hysterics if things didn't go her way and unable to keep servants for more than five minutes.

Bottle Tree

As we drove into Roma we were struck immediately by the contrast between this town and so many others. Roma's busy streets were lined with parked cars and the footpaths bustling with people. All the shops seemed prosperous.

The second thing that struck us was what appeared to be boab trees growing along both sides of the road. In fact, they were not boabs but Australian bottle trees which, though similar in appearance, are in no way related to boabs.

Bottle trees are so-named because of their bottle-like shape. But why so many in this one town? The explanation was to be found on a sign at Roma's cenotaph. On 20th September, 1918, the people of Roma district had gathered to pay tribute to their sons who had fallen in WW I. The citizens decided that, in their sons' honour, a bottle tree would be planted as a living memorial to each man.

They pledged that:

. . . their lives would live on. As long as Roma existed they would never be forgotten.

And so it was. The local council established The Heroes' Avenue to honour those who had given their lives. Originally ninety four trees were planted, each having its own plaque containing information about a particular soldier. Later research revealed that many more local men had died than was at first thought and dedicated trees are still being added as more names come to light. There are currently 138 bottle trees in Heroes's Avenue which is Heritage listed. The Avenue is made up of several interconnecting streets. On Anzac Day each year a wreath is placed against each and every tree, regardless of whether there are any direct relatives of that soldier still living in the town.

As long as Roma existed they would never be forgotten. Nor have they been.

Bottle Tree and Church

We were very touched by the sentiment expressed here especially as, 85 years on, the plaques and trees are cared for so well. Strangely, however, there is far less recognition for the fallen of WW II and other conflicts.

On a quiet Roma back street a plaque and a bottle tree commemorate a fallen soldier of World War One. Two more can be seen on either side of the nearby intersection. The beautiful St. Paul's Anglican Church stands behind.

Bottle trees seed prolifically and the seeds are distributed by birds, thus these trees now appear all over the town. In the caravan park at which we stayed there were several and one (pictured below) looked every bit as large as 'Roma's Largest' (pictured above).

The 'Big Rig Tourist Park' was well managed and the staff very friendly. Due to the time of year we found ourselves in a corner of the park without another 'van near us. The park was named after the Big Rig - a nearby oil drilling rig which had been abandoned in 1941 some 10 kilometres north of Roma. In 1990 the Apex Club transported it into the town to use as a tourist attraction. You see, this area has a fascinating history . . .

Rainfall in this part of Queensland is totally insufficient to support human and agricultural needs. There is very little naturally occurring surface water. However, about a third of the Australian continent sits upon several vast 'artesian basins', the largest of which is the Great Australian Artesian Basin.

What is an artesian basin? Effectively it's an underground 'reservoir' where water is trapped, often under great pressure. Sometimes the water will rise to the surface without the need for pumping and if the basin is very deep, that water might be scalding hot. Two thirds of the Great Australian Artesian Basin - which is the largest in the whole world - lies beneath Queensland.

Bottle tree in Park

When this was discovered it provided the answer to Roma's water problems. Drilling began in 1897 but - instead of water - up came natural gas! In 1900, the discovery of a gas supply was not the good news you might expect. They needed water, they couldn't drink gas. So for five years the gas escaped, uncapped, into the atmosphere while more drilling for water took place.

Finally someone realised that a valuable commodity was going to waste, so a storage gasometer was constructed and gas was piped around the town. Roma was the first town in Australia to have gas street lights! Ten nights later the gas supply ran out. Ho-hum.

Drilling went on and more exploration companies took an interest. They were happy to find oil, gas or water. In 1927 a supply of oil was found that could be placed directly into motor vehicles and they would run 'quite well'. The following year the company imported an Absorption Plant to convert that oil into petrol, but three years later the oil supply dried up. By 1941 the search for oil was over and many locals lost heavily after investing in shares. The exploration companies were Australian-owned but the key technical people were American. Many locals did, some still do, believe that there is plenty of oil in the region but the Americans 'junked' the wells because it wasn't in America's interest to have Australia producing. As if! Would our American allies treat us that way just because it served their own interests? How could people even think such a thing!

Certainly, in one case, sabotage was proved. A Brisbane drilling company sent an American surveyor called R.E.Allen to Roma. On arrival Allen claimed that he had been ordered to take charge of operations . . . and was believed! He wasted vast amounts of the company's money, deliberately made bad decisions and sabotaged an oil well. He even sent himself a telegram, supposedly from the company directors, giving himself permission to sack the two men who should have been in charge. Eventually his subterfuge was discovered. The company directors sent him to do some survey work at a remote site while they searched his office. There was evidence that he was reporting back to the Standard Oil Company in America which was attempting to monopolise oil fields in Australia. Allen was forced to sign a confession admitting what he had done. His punishment? He was sent back home. Such is Australia's cringing subservience to America, we probably paid his fare home too.

To summarise, no oil of commercial consequence was discovered in the Roma district. However, a large quantity of natural gas was found and a pipeline to Brisbane and Gladstone was completed in 1969. It still operates today. Artesian water was also found which has supplied Roma ever since. Without that underground supply, Roma would not be the successful town which it undoubtedly is. In fact, it might easily not exist at all and the same can be said of very many Queensland towns west of the Great Dividing Range.
Roma Saleyards - A National Icon In The Making

What, exactly, is a National Icon in the making? The little leaflet describing the Cattle Saleyards repeated this phrase three times. It also boasted that these saleyards are Australia's Largest, using the words 'large' or 'largest' nine times in describing this 'icon'.

We'd never visited a cattle saleyard or, truth be told, ever had the slightest inclination to do so. I don't suppose it's high on your list of 'Things to do before I die', is it devoted Reader? But . . .
  1. Our curiosity was aroused, and
  2. We'd almost exhausted our list of items of interest in Roma.
So we went.

Cattle Yard

Cattle, more cattle and behind us, yet more. Six thousand beasts. Right: This is worse than Christmas shopping!

It was interesting, there's no denying it. We watched from an overhead catwalk where we were not only able to see and hear everything, but to savour the fragrance of 6,000 closely confined cattle right under our noses. It was an extremely smooth and efficient operation with several auctioneers, each with their own entourage, taking it in turns so that there was no waiting after each row of pens had been processed. As soon as the auctioneer had finished a row, the cattle were herded, pen by pen, to a weighbridge where they were . . . okay, you got there before me! Yes, they were weighed. Sometimes singly but often up to sixteen at a time.

Getting the cattle from the pens to the weighbridge was rather like a ship going through a series of locks. The route was sectioned off by a number of gates. As one mob walked onto the weighbridge, the 'lock' they'd just vacated was immediately filled from the next one back, and so on without a break. The average weight and price of each lot was displayed on a large, electronic display board. The weighbridge itself had automated 'in' and 'out' vertical gates. The whole operation ran like clockwork.


Left: An auctioneer's party on the catwalk.        Centre: The weighbridge.                   Right: The electronic display.

We asked if the cattle were going for slaughter but were told no, most would be transported south to New South Wales or Victoria for fattening. And there you have it, the Roma Saleyards. Australia's largest? Probably - they can process up to 12,000 cattle in a day. A national icon in the making? Frankly, we still don't know what that means. But, hey, it sounds impressive.
Saint George

Our next port of call was a smaller town by the name of St. George. This pious name was bestowed by one Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell during his fourth attempt to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1846. Major Mitchell, as he is better known, crossed the Balonne River on St. George's Day. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Single Egg

Our first stop was at the Visitor Information Centre where the staff was as friendly, helpful and enthusiastic as any we've ever come across. Trouble is, when you go from one of these little outback towns to another, it becomes harder to find anything appreciably different. In St. George, however, we did.

The Unique Egg is an unbelievably beautiful display of engraved emu eggs in a room hidden behind a sports shop on the town's main street. Emu egg decoration originated with the Aborigines, but Steve Margaritis has refined and perfected it. He uses engraving only; he uses no paint.

To fill in some background, the female emu lays ten to twenty eggs which measure about 17 centimetres in length. Mrs. Emu then decides she's done her bit, so she says to Mr. Emu, Sit on that lot, and off she goes. You can understand her sentiment; after squeezing out a load of eggs that huge the last thing she'd ever want to do again is sit down! The emu's egg differs from any other in that the shell has multiple layers, each layer being a different shade. The outer shell is a dark, pitted green or brown becoming lighter as each fine layer is scraped away. The inner layer is white. Thus, by carefully varying the depth of the engraving, designs of many different shades can be achieved. The inner layers, of course, are very fragile.

In order to utilise every layer, Steve developed a method of strengthening the inside of the shell with an epoxy resin prior to engraving. Early resins discoloured with time but eventually Steve got it right. Using hand tools which he developed himself, he was now able to engrave to a greater depth than ever before without breaking the shell. All the time his art and expertise were improving. You see, Steve Margaritis is self taught!

One day an idea struck Steve - suppose the eggs could be backlit; illuminated from the inside? He worked on this idea, initially with incandescent lamps but they gave off a yellow light (pictured above right) and a great deal of heat. Small fluorescent lamps, however, gave off a strong, white light enabling the subtle variations in the hue of the emu shell to prevail, and they emitted far less heat. Now Steve could could use the added technique of drilling small holes right through the shell to give pinpoints of light.

The engraved eggs, beautiful by natural light, look enchanting when internally lit, as the pictures show. Each one takes about a hundred hours to complete and there are many dozen in this one display alone.

Three Emu Eggs

Three of the many engraved emu eggs on display. No paint is used -
different shades are achieved by varying the depth of the engraving.

Change of subject. While travelling around these small inland towns we had noticed that where there was water in the rivers and creeks, it was extremely muddy. The Balonne River was no exception. The town of St. George appeared to have a dual water supply. When we flushed the toilet in the Information Centre, the water came out muddy brown, yet the water from the taps in the adjacent wash basin was clear. In the caravan park we noticed that wherever there was a standpipe to supply the caravans, there was a second one for the lawn sprinklers. We were told the drinking water was from the artesian basin, the other untreated river water.

On the eve of our intended departure we had a severe thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain. All through the storm the park's many sprinklers continued to run. During the night there was more rain and in the morning much of the park was under water - we couldn't get to our car without paddling - yet all the park sprinklers continued unabated. We thought it must have been an oversight but the park staff ignored them. In the end we turned off the closest two. The water in the river is used for crop irrigation downstream where there is a desperate shortage, but here we witnessed blatant and mindless wastage.

We read about an artesian bore where the water was channeled for 190 kilometres in an open trench to where it was required. It flowed from the ground under its own pressure so the running cost to the user was negligible. The sheer waste through soakage and evaporation, however, must be astronomical. There is a widely held belief that the water in the artesian basin is limitless . . . yet it's known that the level is falling.

These are just two examples of a prevalent I'm all right Jack attitude. Of course the same is seen wherever a buck can be made by felling trees or 'developing' rainforest into a resort. To hell with the grand kids.

Okay, Boy, off the soapbox; get back to the story. We were about to leave St. George . . .

That morning's strong, gusty wind would have opposed us on the next leg of our travels so we postponed our departure for a day. Threatening storm clouds reinforced our decision which turned out to be the right one - many roads along the route were closed due to flooding. The following morning we awoke to a clear sky with not a leaf stirring so by 7:30 we were on our way. Several times we found the road under water but nowhere was it impassable. Many roadside paddocks had become lakes. On one occasion I hit the water rather faster than I intended; we both had our windows wide open. Nothing came in my side but . . . well, if you've ever watched Keeping Up Appearances you can imagine! After 400 kilometres we reached Toowoomba safely to find the weather perfect.
Toowoomba - Largest Inland City In Queensland

Pam has awful trouble pronouncing this name (to-woom-ba) which is a derivation from the Aboriginal word tchwampa meaning swamp.

Swing Park

A flying fox in a children's park in Toowoomba.

We were looking east over the edge of the Darling Downs scarp with the setting sun behind. The shadows would have us believe that the sun was setting in the west and the south - distortion resulting from butting together two photos.

Toowoomba is known as the Garden City and with good reason; it has so many beautiful parks and gardens. Built on a volcano extinct for fifteen million years, the soil is rich and fertile. Having an elevation of approximately 2,300 feet above sea level, the temperature was several degrees cooler than the towns we had recently visited. We appreciated every one of those degrees.

Settlement goes back to the early 1800s when squatters moved their sheep into the area, though not without conflict with the local Aborigines. By 1840 the town of Drayton had become established as the capital of the area, however Drayton lacked adequate water. In the 1850s bullock teamsters began camping near a swamp on the edge of the Darling Downs scarp to rest their animals and a new settlement was born. Toowoomba, as it was called, had two advantages over Drayton; it had water and it had the best road access up the steep scarp. By 1867 Toowoomba had become the transport centre of the Northern Downs. Today the town's population numbers ninety thousand.

A quick note on the word 'squatter'. The contemporary definition might be a person who takes over somebody else's property and lives there illegally, frequently being difficult to remove. Squatters in the early days of settlement were sheep farmers - pioneers who moved their stock onto vacant Crown land (more correctly Aboriginal land) before permission was obtained. It was normal practice at the time. Banjo Patterson features such a squatter in the words of the unofficial Australian anthem, 'Waltzing Matilda'.

Caravan Park

The Garden City Caravan Park was up to standard though the caravans were a little close together. We found this irritating when our neighbours' TV volume was loud but sometimes entertaining when the woman was talking on her mobile phone. Maybe you can explain to me, discerning Reader, why we find the need to bellow when speaking into a microphone one centimetre from our lips? On one occasion Pam was able to recount, almost word for word, the story of how our neighbours had bought a new television for their motor home.

You know we never buy cheap, dear, but at that price what had we to lose?

A view of the Garden City Caravan Park

This was one of those caravan parks that kept the toilet doors locked and issued each caravan with a key. There seemed no logical reason for this and human beings, having an in-built brinkmanship in their psyche, often resist visiting the toilet until the very last minute. On realising catastrophe is imminent, we then dash. As we approach the toilet door our brain subconsciously sends 'get ready' messages to the appropriate abdominal restraining muscles which begin to relax. Know the feeling? In this park we'd hit the door at about 30 k.p.h. . . . to find it locked. Peeling our faces off the woodwork we'd frantically search through our pockets for the key which we'd inevitably have left in the caravan in our panic. Now, features contorted, we hobble back to the caravan. And it's all so unnecessary as the only people who might use the toilets are given keys anyway.

Staying on the subject, this park went one stage further. In common with many other parks it had a Dump Point - an underground tank to accommodate the waste from caravan chemical toilets. You stagger to it with twenty litres of liquid waste sloshing around in the container. You insert the outlet pipe into the dump inlet pipe. You take a deep breath and hold it, then you tip. An adjacent water hose is provided so everything can be rinsed and left clean. Well, in this park the dump point had a strong lid which was kept padlocked. You were not given a key, as you were for the toilets, you were obliged to go to the office and ask for it. There was no charge and no problem getting the key. So why did only this park find it necessary to lock it? Are they afraid of somebody stealing the contents? Rhetorical questions.


You know, faithful Reader, how I love strange or amusing road signs. Well take a look at the one on the left, one of many. For the benefit of those not familiar with this type of Australian road sign, 8P indicates that the maximum time you may park is 8 hours during the restricted periods indicated lower on the sign - outside of those periods you may park freely for as long as you like. And I give you my word, this is not in any way faked.

We saw a pair of red Bus Zone signs bracketing a section of road reserved for buses to pull in - but the bus stop sign was not within that zone, it was several metres further up the road.

While driving around Queensland we frequently saw large signs announcing (or requesting?) Better Roads For Queensland. They were erected by the Queensland Government. There were hundreds, probably thousands, scattered about the State. What was the cost and what do they accomplish? Would the money not be better spent on Better Roads For Queensland?

Queens Gardens

Full marks went to the Toowoomba Council for taking a lead in water saving. Level Four water restrictions were in force so their Parks Department decided not to plant the usual thirsty annuals in the town's parks and gardens. We visited Queens Park and found all the beds, normally ablaze with colour in December, bare but neatly covered with plastic sheeting.

Queens Park showing the
neatly covered flower beds.

The obelisk shown behind the gun is a monument to a Toowoomba resident who fell out of a boat on Sydney Harbour and drowned. He must have been very well regarded because the population raised £100 to pay for the obelisk - and that was a great deal of money in the 1800s.

Close to Queens Park was the Cobb & Co. Museum. Cobb & Co., as I'm sure everyone knows, was the stage coach company that operated in the U.S.A., Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Africa. The museum was excellent and the source of much of our information about the history of Toowoomba.

It was still quite early when we left the museum so we took a drive north to Crows Nest. In the stage coach days there used to be a well-known Aborigine in the area that the coachmen called Jimmy Crow. Jimmy used to hide in a hollow tree trunk which the coachmen called Crow's nest - hence the town's name.

The countryside was beautiful - green and gently undulating. Along the way we came across the Cuckoo Clock Centre - The House Of A Thousand Clocks. I just don't have the words to describe this Aladdin's Cave of intricate clocks; photographs can never do them justice. There were, as the name suggests, one thousand clocks. They were mostly made in Germany, that country which excels in precision engineering. Nearly all were running though they were set to random times. As a result there was continual chiming and 'cuckooing' instead of a cacophony on each hour. The clocks ranged from meticulously hand carved wooden grandfather clocks priced at up to $25,000, all the way down to watches. The chimes were many and varied. A high, tinkling chime might be followed a minute later by a deep, resonant, Big Ben boom . . . and then a cuckoo. All the clocks used original clockwork mechanisms - none used quartz crystal technology.


The Cuckoo Clock Centre near Toowoomba. The pictures above show about 2%
of the one thousand beautiful clocks. Most are hand carved.

Wooden Coat

More images from the Cuckoo Clock Centre. See that hat and coat hanging in the centre picture?
They are carved from solid wood!

We enjoyed our time in Toowoomba but, as Christmas approached, we were anxious to move on to Brisbane to stay with our good friends, Ross and Jan Taylor, who we had first met in the Northern Territory. We were also looking forward to meeting several other friends that I had made during my working life.

Japanese Gardens

The immaculate Japanese Garden in Toowoomba.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 19 was completed on 22 March 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.

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