The Blackdown Tablelands lie between Rockhampton and Emerald, in central Queensland. We stopped there on the way up to Bimblebox Nature Refuge last month, and this is what I wrote.
The coal trains wind their way across the land like black chains, heavy. Four-wheel-drives are driven too fast on ‘black-spot’ roads, tearing across from the cattle city to the mines. Back and forth, from one archaic banality to another. Rail and road binding us to a past of coal and cattle.
Coal is useful in its way. It built the industrial revolution, the factories, milled and wove the cotton, hauled the goods, fuelled the British Empire. But now it shackles us to a future of conservatism and climate change.
Or maybe we can emancipate ourselves from the past, and the present heavy weight of climate change, the oppressive summers that break the temperature records, the extreme storms and downpours. Rise above this to something higher and brighter.
So we drive on, away from the iron railroads and the endless laden coal trains. Up into the sandstone plateau, ironically called Blackdown. But it is up, it is sunlit, it is gentle with birds, and green waving native grasses. Wildflowers tumble in delicate sprays between the soft sculpted shapes of weathered sandstone.
The streams run clear, silvered by reflected sunshine, the water tea-coloured, bronzing the submerged rocks, the wriggling tadpoles. At night, the frog chorus is deafening. And I wonder how many people in Australia today have seen a clear stream? Unlike the muddy brown Fitzroy River running through Rockhampton, and countless other rivers and streams which now run turbid and often sluggish, thanks to dubious land management, past and present. That spill out of the Queensland coast to foul the Great Barrier Reef and feed the rampaging crown-of-thorns starfish.
But up here, above the erosion gullies, above the cattle and the mines, above the oil-stained paved urban surfaces, and the fertilized golf-courses and lawns, the streams run clear. For there is nothing above them but sandstone, which the water percolates through, after the rain. Leaving damp ferny mossy gardens in their seeps and crevices. And clear delightful streams, frog-filled, trickling over the sides of the escarpment in cascades.
Up here, the noisy friarbirds are wailing and guttering, chuckling. Like bald, black-headed baldrics, each with an Elizabethan ruff of silvery feathers around the neck, fluffed up as the bird calls.
The trees are tall: the sunlight pours through and lights the tussocky grass, which is scattered with orchids, and purple Hardenbergia and Hovea. Bright yellow wattles arch over. Yellow-orange pea-flowers, of several different species, line the track. Closer to the stream are the pale-pink spikes of Stylidium. The trigger-petal of each flower is bent back, set: ready to bop an unwary insect on the head with a bag of pollen that will stick.
Scarlet honeyeaters carol merrily from on high, one answering the other. Treecreepers and sitellas patrol the tree-trunks and branches. Thornbills and fairy-wrens fossick in the leaves. A red-browed firetail finch delicately picks the seeds from a sheo-oak cone – still attached to the tree- with its bill. A pied currawong sits suspiciously on a track sign, looking like a felon caught in the act. Something thuggish about its enormous dark steely beak, and merciless bright yellow eye.
We watched a female lace monitor climb up, up an ironbark and then disappear head-first down a hollow spout, about 15 metres from the ground. Looking for somewhere to lay eggs? Or looking for a meal? Her long tail would wave now and then, as it hung from the end of the hollow, the rest of the great lizard concealed inside. It upset the noisy miners, who made a brief, squawking visit.
Part of the forest had been burnt severely, perhaps 3 or 4 years ago. The great trees were burnt – many to their crowns. Wattles and peas had sprung from seed, and were now eye-height, and flowering in a mad profusion. The smooth-barked trees looked clean and pale, as these trees completely shed the outer layer of bark, usually once a year, sometimes more frequently. While the rough-barked trees shed their bark only gradually, and in small increments. The rough-barked trees were still sadly blackened, charcoaled. More coal in the landscape.
But then we spied a geophyte orchid – one that emerges mysteriously, leaflessly, from the ground, often after fire. A slender stem had grown up from the ground at the base of a great blackened trunk. Grown up and up, until way above our heads it was blossoming voluptously, pale yellow against the coaly black.
A new beginning, emerging from the dark past. Beautiful and bounteous, if you let it.
If you are brave enough.