Short Story

Copy of the essay I submitted for the Lorna McDonald Essay competition. Based on anything to do with Central Qld.


My mother, Ellen Bulow, grew up literally on the banks of the magnificent Baffle Creek, an undammed, pristine waterway beginning at ‘Arthur’s Seat’ in the Westwood range and snaking 124 km through the Gladstone Regional Council shire, meeting the Pacific Ocean roughly 100 km south of Gladstone. Its widest point is 2.7 km, including Mackay, Morgan and Long Islands. The catchment covers just over 4000 square km and includes the towns of Agnes Water, Town of 1770, Bororen, Miriam Vale, Lowmead, Rosedale and Winfield.

Her parents, Herb and Edith Kachel married in 1928 and bought a dairy farm on the southern bank of Baffle, right beside the old ferry landing, hand milking their herd. Herb’s family originated from Germany. While he was camped on a Rosedale property, shooting roos and selling their skins to earn a living, he met Edith. Part of a farming family, her parents were of English and German descent.

How the Baffle got, its name has been disputed. One version has it named by Mr William Henry Walsh after he and several other men pursued some aborigines who’d allegedly committed a felony at his farm. The aborigines outsmarted them in the thick scrub by the river. “We are baffled,” Mr Walsh declared, giving up the search.  The second version claims it was named by Captain James Cook after he’d sent several men upriver, by a smaller boat, in search of fresh water. The number of islands and channels on the river soon had the men confused or ‘baffled’. Personally, I believe the first version.  

The Gooreng Gooreng native people originally inhabited the area. Many descendants still call the area home and I am proud to say some are members of my family.

Authorities wanted to build a port on the Baffle, but the mouth was considered too wide and treacherous, resulting in numerous ships coming to grief while trying to cross the bar. These included the Schooner, “Rebecca”, who ran aground in August 1863. While the crew were all safe, after salvaging what they could they then endured the long, arduous walk all the way south back to Maryborough. Also, Brigantine (a two-masted sailing vessel with a gaff-rigged main mast), “Gil Blas”, at 174 tons, was wrecked in October 1865.  In later years the local ferry boat also became a victim of the dangerous bar as she was being towed to Bundaberg to become scrap metal. Quite a few paddle steamers were luckily able to make their way up the river to the industries that soon started along the riverbanks.

Mum and her siblings, Edward (Ted), Ida, Arthur (Artie), Isabell and John, had to row the several hundred yards across the river each day to and from Wartburg primary school, which opened in August 1913.  None of the girls could swim, and the boys barely enough to save themselves. Granma also couldn’t swim, and it’s unsure if Grandfather could either.  On days when the wind wasn’t in their favour or the river was flowing faster due to heavy rain, Grandma would tell them (shouting and gesticulating from the bank) to row against the wind or flow, closer to the bank where conditions were calmer, for fifty yards or so, then turn and head across diagonally. Otherwise, they would have had to walk back along the scrubby riverbank. Amazingly, none ever fell overboard, but the wind-powered waves, or ‘white tops’ as the children called them, did put the wind up the kids at times – in more ways than one!

The river also contained large sharks.  Granma was one brave mum sending her precious children to school each day over that river. Grandfather used to bait whole calf heads on a large hook to catch the sharks.  He’d then render down their livers for the oil, good for oiling any leather, especially the harness and large collar for the horse and cart.

Large groupers also lived in Baffle. Coming in at up to 350 pounds in weight, Grandfather caught and sent them on the truck that picked up the cream from all the dairies into Rosedale to be loaded on the train and sent to Brisbane fish markets.  With no refrigeration or ice on the train, the groupers were kept alive for the journey, most likely wrapped in wet sack bags. Bundaberg was the cream’s destination.  

My grandfather also made his own fishing nets.  With a roll of netting string, he’d straddle the long stool by the kitchen table, and using a small, odd-shaped wooden tool, fittingly called a Netting Needle, and a specially cut board as a template, my Auntie Ida said it looked like he was knitting. Once the net was the desired size, he’d collect bark from the paddock, possibly from Iron Bark trees, boil that in the outdoor copper, scoop out the bark pieces and soak the net in the water, or ‘tan’. After the tanning process, the net had to be strung out, usually between the house and barn, to have the ropes attached for securing to trees on the riverbanks.  Also, the top rope needed corks attached to keep it afloat, and the bottom rope had sinkers attached to hold it down in the water far enough to catch the fish.   

Like my grandfather, many settlers were of German descent. Land blocks were available at fifteen shillings per acre, but there was little interest, so the land was offered to a group of German immigrants brought out by Rev Niemeyer, who formed the Apostolic church. After spending some time in Qld and arranging with the Qld Govt for a parcel of land to become available for Germans, he’d returned to Germany in 1906 to organize who would come out. The first group arrived in Brisbane in February 1908 on board the “Orontes”.  The immigrants spent six weeks in the Hatton Vale area of southern Qld, learning how to farm in Australia before coming north to the Baffle Creek allotments.

Each family received twenty sheets of iron, basic groceries, cooking utensils, axes and mattocks. This group, and others who’d arrived in Australia earlier, travelled to Rosedale by train in March 1908. The excited and no doubt a little apprehensive group walked the eight or so miles to Baffle Creek carrying what they could. Some of the women and children were transported by a local man, Mr Wills, in his horse-drawn dray. On arrival at the creek, his wife handed out pannikins of freshly made billy tea, which were much appreciated. Mr Wills returned to Rosedale for the rest of their belongings.

Late in the afternoon, the seventy-nine settlers were taken across the river by boat, where they rested after making crude shelters from tree branches. The next day two local men, who’d settled in 1906, were delegated to help the new arrivals.  A punt was built to enable the rest of their belongings to be brought across the river. The Govt paid for the cost of the punt but then added the cost onto the parcels of land.

Days passed, and still no word from the Qld Govt on allocating each family’s selection of land. The immigrants set up camp across a small hill, making rough shelters out of Stringy Bark. They named it ‘Wartburg’, meaning ‘waiting hill’ in German. Very aptly named as they waited there for six long months before each man was finally able to draw a piece of paper, showing an allotted block of land, out of a battered hat. Each parcel of land was up to 350 acres.

Amazingly, each family managed to find their acreage among the rugged wilderness of the area, with each block number cut into a tree trunk. Some of the blocks had river frontage, some were nothing but rock, while others had no fresh water. Despair and frustration set in for some. Those who could afford it soon gave up and went to larger towns similar to what they had left in their homeland.  Many found the Aussie bush too rough and nothing at all like they’d imagined or were used to.   

While working their dairy farm, which included pigs fed excess milk and home-grown vegetables, chooks for eggs and meat, and crops of melons, corn and potatoes, mum and her family also lived off abundant fresh food the river provided.  Many fish and prawns were caught. Some of the fish, especially salmon, were smoked and eaten warm. Mum loved the winter mornings sitting around the old wood stove eating salmon straight out of the smoker. Because they had no fridge and certainly no freezer, excess fresh fish were kept alive in crab pots tied to a tree and placed back in the river after the pot entry holes were closed over of course. Grandfather would also load up his horse-drawn cart with some fresh fish and his huge watermelons, then travel into Rosedale selling the produce door to door.

Mud crabs were another delicacy enjoyed by the family and were in plentiful supply in those days.  Excess was kept alive in wet sack bags in which mangrove twigs and leaves were added to prevent the crabs from fighting and breaking their delicious large claws. When quite young, my curious Uncle John decided to reach into the sack bag of crabs one day. After almost losing the end of his finger, he never did that again.

There were several commercial fishermen that fished the creek in those days, but most who fished it did so out of necessity for food. Mum’s favourite part of living by the river was fishing off their little jetty and enjoying the delicious cod she often caught. Amazingly, none of the children ever fell off the jetty either, or off the riverbank, which is steep in places. The older ones had to help look after the littlies.  

Roast wild duck and delicious kangaroo tail soup were also staples of mum’s family’s diet. My uncle Artie recalls many a time seeing his parents literally having a tug-of-war with the tail to pull out the sinews. Back much earlier than this, people used sinews as sewing thread. I don’t know if Granma did, but it wouldn’t surprise me. She was very resourceful and made a lot of the family’s clothes, even sewing sack bags together for blankets. The rest of the roo meat was fed to their dogs. With much of their food home produced or from the river or bush and Granma doing all her baking, they didn’t need to shop often. Flour and sugar were bought in huge sacks.

Two large mango trees stood (Still standing today) just inside their gate, by the river, and produced well. Birds would swarm to eat the delicious ripe mangoes, and sometimes a group of fishermen, who’d take the ferry to continue on to Rule’s beach, would run over, grabbing mangoes before boarding the ferry.  One morning Grandfather took his rifle and hoped to lessen the bird numbers. On his way, he saw the men pinching mangoes. He fired into the air and yelled to get out and stop thieving. Seeing a well-built, tall farmer with a gun in hand storming toward them sent the terrified men skedaddling back to their vehicle, never to steal any more of those mangoes.    

Sheep grazing in the area started off well, but it soon became apparent that sheep couldn’t tolerate the spear grass growing almost everywhere and the wet summers making the land very boggy in places. The seeds at the end of the ‘spears’ not only got stuck in their wool but also penetrated their skin. Some farmers went out of dairying and/or sheep and into beef cattle, which handled the spear grass. My grandparents continued dairying there for around forty years.

With no refrigeration, the market for beef was very limited.  Most people in the area just killed their own and shared it with friends and neighbours, salting and drying excess.  My grandparents had a meat safe and hanging safe for bacon, both of which were kept in a cool, breezy area.

The Germans loved their wurst, a U-shaped sausage like salami. These were often made among the families using pork and beef mince.  Even up until the 1970s, my family made a large batch of wurst every year with another German family at Wartburg.  My father provided the big old cow, and the Schiffke family provided the large pig.  It was a whole weekend event. Once the many wursts were made, they were hung in a little hut with smouldering sawdust on the floor, which created thick smoke to complete the job.  Along with the wurst, Liver Sausage was also made. To this day, my younger brother, Rob, still makes a few smaller batches each year. 

Before the introduction of electricity, there was a strong demand for tallow – rendered down cattle fat.  Early settlers often used a jam tin of tallow, with a rag partly inserted into the tallow for a wick, as lights in their homes. This demand led to a Boiling Down works established on the riverbank by the Robertson family in the 1860s. The cattle were usually droved there by horseback, slaughtered, skinned and rendered down in huge vats above wood fires. The fat was then scooped or scraped off the surface. A good-sized bullock could produce over 200 pounds of fat/tallow.  The tallow was not only used locally but also exported to candle and soap makers.  The cattle hides were sold, and what was left in the vats, after the extracted tallow, fed to pigs kept a little further downstream on an island that became Pig Island.

Brothers John and Gavin Steuart made good money cutting timber to make casks to hold the tallow.  They bought land further south, near where Bundaberg is now situated, but while sailing to Bundaberg, their boat added to the tally caught on the Baffle bar so they walked.  John couldn’t swim so they enlisted the help of two aborigines to help float him, on logs, across the Kolan and Burnett rivers.

Bullock drays were also a popular form of transportation, especially for the huge logs taken to the Sawmill established in 1881, very close to the ferry crossing but on the opposite side of the creek to my grandparents’ farm. Due to timber trucks being too heavy for the ferry, hardwood logs from the opposite side of the river were floated across. Softwood logs were placed on a raft. Falling large trees was hard and dangerous work, with two men using nothing but a Cross Cut saw and axes. In later years, after the railway line was built through Rosedale, sleeper cutting became a profitable job for many.  The timber sleepers were placed beneath the steel rail track.  Plus, larger pieces were cut for railway bridges etc.  The railway also provided an alternative form of transportation other than boats.

Workers in the sawmill also worked in the adjacent sugar mill during the crushing season. In 1911 Mr Albert Kleinschmidt bought the sugar mill from Beenleigh, dismantled it, and transported and rebuilt it on the hill the settlers had named Wartburg. He convinced some of the farmers along the river to grow sugar cane, which was cut by hand, taken to the river by horse-drawn cart and loaded onto barges that transported it to the mill. The barges only ran at high tide or risked running aground on rocks or sand bars. This sugar mill could produce only raw sugar, which was loaded onto barges and transported downstream to ships for more refining further south.

With both mills employing a number of workers, barracks were built and also a general store and butcher shop. Unfortunately, the sugar mill proved to be unprofitable and later closed before being sold off as scrap metal. Families left the district due to a lack of work. Remnants of the mill foundations remain standing today and are now heritage listed. The timber mill closed later.

Possum skins also provided a little extra income for farmers.  The high demand fur brought top prices, but a permit was needed, and permission was sought from landholders for the open possum season of July. The hunters worked on horseback from dusk until dawn, when they’d then skin the possums, tack the skins to trees to dry and grab a few hours sleep on the ground before gathering the skins up and readying for another night of hunting. Some used the illegal Carbide lamps but did so at high risk.  The Rosedale policeman often patrolled on his bicycle, and if he caught anyone doing so or not having a permit, they’d lose the possums already caught, their rifle, lamp and cop a five-pound fine to boot!

Having come from cities in Germany, these people were totally unaccustomed to the Australian bush and our animals.  One yarn goes that an old trapper, after having a few too many wines, claimed to have seen a five-foot-high cat that scared the daylights out of him. His horse took fright before he could get a chance to shoot it.

Grandfather used to skin goannas and carpet pythons, selling the skins.  Goanna oil was rendered down and used to oil his guns and the skins nailed on the barn wall to dry. The kids had the job of removing the dried skins, but it wasn’t easy as they’d rip if not done with great care.

One day, while travelling into Rosedale to pick up some goods from the train, he met Mr Mick Sbresni coming along in his cream pickup truck.  They’d stopped for a bit of yarn when Grandfather noticed a large carpet snake by the road.  He grabbed it, putting it in a bag he or Mick had with them and asked Mick if he could drop it off at his gate along with the empty cream can, mail and newspaper that Mick also delivered.  No worries.  Mum, or one of her siblings, usually one of the boys, would come to the gate with a full cream can and bring the deliveries to the house. My Uncle John happened to have the job this particular day. Not sure if on purpose or not, but Mick failed to tell young John what was in the bag.  John set off along the track to the house, holding the sack over one shoulder and carrying the other things in his other hand. The snake wasn’t too happy being in the sack and managed to get its head out. John saw it out the corner of his eye, turned a little more, freaked right out, dropped the sack and bolted home. The snake slithered its way to freedom on the nearby riverbank. No doubt John copped a bit of a flogging for letting it escape.

A broom factory, ‘Success Brooms’, began operating near the river in 1943 by Mr Bill Rhodmann Sr. Some of the farmers grew the millet which was harvested at about two feet high by hand using a small knife. After drying in the sun for four days, the grains were removed from the stalks by a spinning roller, a process known as Hackling. One pound of millet stalk was needed for each broom.  Assumably, the grain was used to either plant more millet or for animal food. The factory was sold in 1951 but soon closed due to a shortage of local millet.

Other smaller industries operated along the river. During the 1960s, brothers John and Herb Olsen, along with their cousin, Colin, designed and built their own trawlers at Flat Rock, an area not far up from the mouth.  Horse mane and tail hair and beeswax were two more products often sold by the farmers. The hair was used as stuffing in saddles or beds. Bees were often kept in hives on farms to help pollinate the various crops also grown by the farmers.   

The 1960s saw the beginning of the large macadamia farm in the area, still running today and creating employment in the area. Two other smaller, privately owned macadamia farms have also since been established. One on the southern bank of the river.  

People made their own entertainment in the early days.  A very common fun pastime was the dances held in people’s barns, and my grandparent’s barn was no exception. Their dances were held to raise money for Wartburg School (Grandfather was treasurer of the school committee for many years) and other organisations.  Locals came for miles, often in a horse-drawn buggy, or across the river by boat or horseback, holding their clothes above their head to keep them dry and literally danced the night away to the ‘old time music played on accordions. Occasionally mum’s neighbour, Mrs Lloyd-Jones, would have her piano brought along to play. The Gypsy Tap was one popular dance, but mum’s favourite was the Pride Of Erin.  Dances were usually held on full moon nights to make travelling safer. About 3 AM, they’d all head home, milk their cows, feed pigs, chooks etc., then sleep half the day.  Mum loved those dances.

It was at one of their dances that she met Dad, who lived on a farm, several miles toward Rosedale. Unfortunately, Granma disapproved of him because she didn’t like his mother. Mum recalls one night Dad asking her to save the Monty Carlo dance for him. When the MC announced, the Monty Carlo, another lad, asked mum to dance. Mum shook her head and glanced at Granma, who was not happy and mouthing angrily, ‘GET UP’. Mum still refused. 

When mum finished school at fourteen, she soon gained domestic employment with a family not far away and very close to Dad’s place.  She often had to stay overnight minding their children, and Dad would ride his motorbike over and end up sleeping there as well. Mum thought her parents wouldn’t find out. Unbeknownst to her, while Grandfather was rounding up the cows in the stillness of the dawn, he heard the motorbike start-up and travel the short distance to Dad’s. Her parents’ efforts to keep them apart were in vain, and they married when Mum was eighteen, with the first of nine children arriving soon after.  

Another enjoyable pastime was the Sunday School picnics, held under trees by the ferry crossing. The money would be collected prior to the day, and the children were given toys and enjoyed games and competitions.

The ferry boats were an extremely important link for Wartburg to Rosedale (train station) and beyond. The original ferry began operating in 1908, a little further upstream from the later one close to my grandparents.  Basically just a punt; it had no railings, gates or sides and was pulled along on a wire by hand.  Many, especially women and children, were frightened as it rocked and rolled across the river.  Quite a few people fell off, especially children running about.  If cattle were on board and all went to one side, it tipped, sending them into the river.  One unfortunate lady, Mrs Biskup, boarded the ‘cursed ferry’ in her horse and sulky.  The nervous horse kept backing up and soon backed right off the ferry.  Sadly, the horse drowned. Mrs Biskup almost did but was finally dragged back on board by her hair after resurfacing for the third time.  The sulky was later recovered.

In 1915, the Baffle Creek Sugar and Trading Company built a new ferry, weighing twenty-one tons. This ferry was bigger and had gates and side rails, but that didn’t prevent all mishaps.  It sunk a number of times – by a cyclone, nervous mobs of cattle and a fully laden timber truck.  The Ferryman lived in a house close to the crossing. When someone needed the ferry, they’d have to hit a ‘gong’ with a very heavy piece of metal, allowing the ferryman to hear and walk down to take them across. It was not a highly paid job, but the house was included. During flood times, the ferry had to be secured to the bank and have water bailed out.  My grandfather often did this job and also ran the ferry at times when the regular ferryman couldn’t. The ferry ceased operation in the mid-1960s when the Euleilah bridge was built on Oyster Creek (branching off The Baffle) very close to Wartburg.  

The Baffle may have been an important source of food and transport and a place of relaxation and beauty, but the river hasn’t been without tragedy.  In the early 60’s a murder/suicide occurred, resulting in three deaths – a man, a woman and her teenage daughter, at her riverside farmhouse. Another daughter had grabbed the baby and fled into the bush to hide. The two sons had gone to school. Apparently, the woman and her husband had been separated, and she’d begun seeing this man, who then was sent to jail for something. When released, he angrily discovered the woman had reconciled with her husband. There have been some strange sightings reported at this big old house as it sat empty for years after the tragedy.

In earlier days, due to the distance from Bundaberg and medical care, many who had accidents or became very sick didn’t survive. One baby was scalded by boiling milk and rushed by horse and buggy to Bundaberg, with some of the family’s racehorses sent on ahead as fresh horses, but to no avail. Most adults would wait until they couldn’t cope with the suffering anymore and then be taken to Rosedale to catch a train to Bundaberg. This could be a very slow trip if it was a cattle train or ‘shunter’. One farmer became very sick before he’d give in and be taken to Bundaberg for treatment.  He told his family to gather some of the pigs to send off to the market to make the trip worthwhile.  He was placed on a stretcher above the trailer holding the pigs but didn’t survive.

Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pneumonia, Polio and Whooping cough struck down many, though some victims survived. Drownings and falling timber trees also claimed some lives.  I daresay snake bites may have been a problem too. 

In 1913 the area received a staggering seventy-three inches of rain in one week, causing major flooding and heartache for the many farmers losing crops, livestock and possibly homes.  One hundred years later, in 2013, Mother Nature unleashed the rain God’s fury again with around forty inches in less than three days.  With many more homes built along the river, the losses were greater.  Dead cattle were found stuck in treetops, house roofs, and other things were seen floating down the raging river. Farms became islands, and one sixty-something man, still living on his childhood farm, witnessed waves over a metre high sweeping across his flooded paddocks. The floods frightened mum as a child, especially waking after a night of heavy rain to discover the river had burst her banks, covering most of the farm with water.

In November 2018, a fire at Deepwater raged out of control and, with hot, windy conditions, quickly spread in the Wartburg area, soon becoming fifty kilometres wide with terrifying twelve-metre-high flames. Everyone (now hundreds of people) on the northern side of the Baffle and eastern side of Oyster Creeks quickly evacuated across the one-lane Euleilah bridge, many leaving behind beloved animals. Sadly, several homes were lost, but the Wartburg Rural fire brigade, along with many other local rural brigades and army personnel, eventually brought it under control before some of the embers had blown right across the river to Winfield but extinguished by some of the waiting Winfield brigades.  

By the 1980s, the services in Wartburg consisted of a church, school and a caravan park with a general store that also sold hamburgers etc.  The menu was unlike most menu boards in takeaway shops. Sticking to the official name the burgers were called Wartburgers with a ‘Works’ burger known as a ‘Warts And All Burger’. Some found these unique names hilarious, and I must say, as gross as the novelty names may have sounded, they never put me off the delicious burgers.  

During the 1980s and 90s, large properties were cut up into smaller acreages attracting many new people to the beautiful area. The name ‘Wartburg’ apparently embarrassed some, so the area became more commonly known as ‘Baffle Creek’ although the school and Rural Fire Brigade still hold ‘Wartburg’ in their name. Businesses in the ‘town’ area now include a small Tavern, Takeaway, Real Estate, Rural and Fishing Supplies, Sport and Recreation Hub, Golf Course and another Caravan and camping park further down the river. The general store still operates but no burgers, and the Takeaway is the Wreck Rock takeaway, named after one of the beaches in the area.  The Ferry Crossing is now a boat ramp and picnic area.  One can’t help but laugh at technology.  I’ve heard about travellers following their GPS instructions for getting to the Baffle Creek area. It takes them from Rosedale along Ferry Road to the old Ferry Crossing. Nothing but a very wide river in front of them and their destination right there on the other side, but they must turn around and drive almost an hour to reach it. Imagine the grumbling and cursing going on within those vehicles.

At eighty-nine, mum’s health is failing, but she lights up when talking about her life on the river and loves revisiting her family home when possible. The new owners live in the larger farmhouse next door and let mum’s old house to visitors.  Recently we took her ‘home’. We helped her up the several steps to the breezeway, or ‘landing’ as they called it – an open area between the kitchen and the rest of the house. Grandfather’s now rusty horseshoe still hung poignantly above the door. Their mum sat, a faraway look in her tired eyes that gazed about then at the river. Memories flooded back. Memories of a hard life, but one in which the river played such a huge part. Through her veins flows the mighty Baffle.