‘Did you see any cattle in the long paddock?’ asked a local woman in her 40s, as I stepped from my car in Julia Creek after a 234 km drive from Mt Isa.
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I didn’t see a long paddock.’
‘You would’ve been in it, Luv. I’m talking about the highway. That’s what we call the long paddock around here. The cattle are allowed to graze on the side of the road but you have to keep an eye out for them. Don’t want to run into one of those at 100 km an hour.’ With that, she gave me an “I’ve won the Gold Lotto” smile, that welcomed me to the town.
The students from grades three, four, five, and six at Julia Creek State School were very pleased and delighted that I was bringing the Queensland Writers Centre workshop, Telling Our Stories to the World to them. They learnt how they can share their unique stories through the use of postcards.
The children talked of other towns where they have travelled: Normanton, Karumba, Hughenden, Charters Towers, Townsville, Bundaberg, Longreach, Barcaldine, Winton, and Mareeba. They dreamt out loud of countries where they might travel in the future, and of relatives – grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and cousins – scattered wide over this continent and other continents across the globe. There was lots of discussion about their environment and how they fit into their land, what they notice on the horizon, what they see when they look out their windows at sunrise and sunset, and their deep love for the outback.
They became so excited about writing their stories; a grade four student unexpectedly leapt up and told the captive audience her compelling story about a car running into some cattle, and just missing her family as they were getting ready to muster. Her excitement in telling her story was contagious. Tracey, their teacher, told me how when she wore her much-loved beach hat to school, one of the students asked her if she’d been mustering, as her hat looked like it had been trampled by stock. She was new to the area at the time, and this question introduced her to the outback way of thinking.
Another young student talked of the Min Min lights her family experienced whilst driving late at night to their property near Boulia. She recounted that the lights followed their car for some time, then disappeared only to reappear a little later beside the car. She was entranced by the experience and proud that she had experienced this much spoken-about phenomenon.
She said that some Aboriginal people believe the Min Min lights are the spirits of their ancestors, protecting their land. In 2018, Wyndham local, James Birch said, ‘As a kid growing up the old people used to tell me, that the Min Min lights were old peoples’ spirits looking after country.’
‘There’s a suggestion that they perform a “guardian’s role” to check on sacred sites and perhaps to scare off people who aren’t supposed to be there,’ commented Dr Curtis Roman. Another legend purports that anyone who chases the lights and catches them, will never return to tell the tale.
Located between Boulia and Winton, the Min Min Hotel and mail exchange is said to be the place where the lights were first observed by a European stockman. Famous for its connection with the Min Min lights, this hotel burnt down in 1918. Stories of the lights abound, with students from Camooweal to Julia Creek re-counting their experiences.
My drive back from Julia Creek to Mount Isa was overflowed with thoughts of the Min Min lights, of mustering, and of the environment and its changing patterns. Halfway to Mt Isa I stopped to stretch my legs. A local woman who had also pulled up to do the same offered me a cuppa from her thermos, and a piece of cake she’d made that morning. Her smile was as big as the horizon as she told me about their property 200 km north of Julia Creek. Her pride and resilience shone through in her words, and her passion for the land and its surroundings. She spoke of the difficulties they had to overcome: drought, distance, and isolation. The outback certainly brings life into perspective.
Between Julia Creek, Cloncurry, Mt Isa and Camooweal, nine school groups and many locals were included in this Telling Our Stories to the World initiative. QWC also presented two Journalling workshops for adults eager to tell their stories.
One night while preparing to settle into my bed in Mt Isa, an advertisement on the TV declared, “This regional community holds outback values, and we are global citizens”. I thought about the children of this harsh outback land; their stories of their home, their ideas, creativity, and willingness to embrace this wide, brown country of north-west Queensland. I agreed with the bloke on the tele, closing my eyes, thinking about the kindness of the lady with the cuppa at the road stop, and her openness to a stranger. Her values will stay with me forever.
I now carry this wild place in my imagination, to remember and to wonder about. A place carved through with a long paddock, where cattle graze on the native grass.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands I travelled through – the Mitakoodi, Kalkadoon, Indjalandji-Dhidhanu, Yulluna, Mitakoodi, and Wunumarra people, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
Vicki is an author, artist, and speaker. She has written thirty books and covers many genres: personal development, children’s, young adult and adult fiction. Her books include: Two Pennies, The Little Stowaway,Oliver’s First Big Spy Adventure, The Book of Hope – Antidote to Anxiety, and The Flying Angel. She has written and co-produced a documentary, Never Forget Australia. Vicki also helps other writers as a coach and mentor.
This article was first published in the WO Climatic issue 276, March 2022.