A Northern Pilgrimage #1: Brisbane to Townsville

In 1893 a reporter travelled north to Townsville by steamer before visiting the towns of Hughenden, Charters Towers and Cairns. He wrote a 15-part article series about this journey under the title of 'A Northern Pilgrimage', which was published in both the Brisbane Courier and Queenslander newspapers.

In this first installment he described the steamer trip, giving a nice idea of what was still at the time the preferred mode of transport for journeys between northern and southern Queensland.

The Queenslander, 30 September 1893

'The heat of a warm spring day was silent departing, the fringe of the sable mantle night was just visible, and the patience of tending passengers was becoming a rapid diminishing quantity before the order was given to let go the headlines. A few minutes after wards the steamer Buninyong was slowly steaming down the river bound for the North. For two long hours after the advertised time of departure had she lain at the wharf, absorbing cases, packages, bundles, kegs, and heterogeneous- collection of stuff; A winch had been crazily straining itself in a justifiable attempt to commit suicide, and so to end an existence made miserable by hard work and unreasonable hours; the captain had been pestered in the plaintive inquiry, "When will she leave captain?" until he turned testy and growled something to the effect that a greater than himself alone knew; the steward had examined tickets twice; good-byes had been said so often that the tears were petrified and handkerchiefs were as dry as a chip; and altogether for so many minutes there had existed an air of expectancy which had something in it of torture.

It was therefore with a feeling of relief that the click of the telegraph instrument was heard and when the order was given "Go ahead", he realised the blessedness of having a hope fulfilled. When all things come to be reckoned up, and a just balance struck, it may be discovered why steamers never leave at advertised time, and the anathemas of the passengers will be visited upon all shipping companies with compound interest. The cup of the iniquity is not yet full, it appears.

Every feeling of irritation and irritation vanished, however, when the steamer was fairly under way. Luggage was soon unpacked, necessaries laid at hand, and loose coal slippers, and caps took the place of the conventional city costumes. To any one with social instincts life on board a steamer a never be dull, presuming, of course, that something is an absence of sea-sickness. The steamer itself is an interesting study, with all its wonderful modern appliances for securing speed, strength, and comfort. The Buninyong is one of Howard Smith's most powerful steamers, and although she does not possess many of the conveniences and elegance say, of the Peregrine, nor is her steaming power so great, yet she has substantial comforts which make her a most desirable boat to travel in. There is abundance of room, for instance, and the cabins are remarkably spacious and well ventilated. The promenade deck is one the best, and one can enjoy a constitutional without fear of jostling or incommoding fellow passengers. 

And I may be permitted to say a good word for the officers. Captain Richardson is one of the most genial skippers I ever travelled with. A clever, careful, skilful navigator, proud of his ship, jealous of her good name, and watchful of the interests of the company, of which he is so efficient an officer. Not only is he an able skipper, but he is a capital host, and a thoughtful regarding the comfort of the passengers as if they were members of his own family. His bright wit, musical talents, and power of organisation in the matter of entertainments helped to most pleasantly fill the dreamy, delicious days spent on board the "Buninyong". Captain Richardson is a gallant man, and has been the hero of not so few sea adventures. His perfect conduct in connection with the wreck of the Cheviot is yet green in our memory, and his skill during the awful gale in January last, when the Buninyong was coming down the coast, was eloquently testified to by Mr. Wragge. May he long have command in Queensland waters. All his officers are capable men, and, like their superior, courteous and affable to passengers. Regarding the attendance and civility of the stewards there can only be unstinted praise. Only a hypocritical cross-grained traveller could find fault. Personally I have much to thank them for, and nothing whatever to complain of.

A more perfect trip than the one to Townsville, I never remember experiencing. The weather in every respect was delightful. Overhead the sky was of dazzling blue, a clear refreshing wind was blowing, and the great deep was covered with countless dimples, Day succeeded day, and the glory of the surroundings was marked with ineffable beauty. Not a soul was troubled with sea-sickness, and the enjoyment of the voyage was unmarred. There are those who praise the sea but remain on land; there are those who love the open, blue, fresh, free sea. I confess to being one of the latter, and I love to feel the deck swaying beneath my feet, to listen to the rhythmical throb of the great engines, to watch the white-crested waves dancing in absolute liberty, and to feel the salt spray tingling on the cheek. There is no such thing to my mind as a lonely sea. The great blue stretch of water is full of eloquence, and ever speaks to the human heart in mighty tones pregnant with thoughts as vast and potential as its own illimitable mysterious depths.

My brother and sister pilgrims were most companionable, and on the morning after departure from Brisbane the promenade deck was the scene of many a kindly greeting. Not a few Southerners were on board, and it was somewhat refreshing to hear their opinions respecting Queensland rashly formed during a short stay in Brisbane. The recent floods were a prolific source of conversation, but as usual the Labour element in politics gave rise to animated discussion. In the afternoon, when the wind became soft and warm, some of the passengers played quoits, while the young men played with hearts, and the older ones stretched themselves on deck and luxuriated in the soft sunshine, and the cardroom was filled with lovers of the kingly game of whist. It was a time of delightful indolence, and as the sun went down in a western sky filled with a soft effulgence, and the Southern Cross came out sharp yet luminous, and the stars twinkled in the dark blue dome, then we leaned over the bulwarks to watch the phosphorescent gems in the water, and to trace with interest the curious frolics of the porpoises as they flashed along-side the great steamer and kept us company for many a mile.

It was early morning when the steamer dropped anchor in Keppel Bay. The sky in the East was flushing into a thousand tints, the sun was covering the sandy beaches with a golden gown, and the waters of the Bay and the peaks of the mountains were catching and holding the radiant gifts of the morning. Sea Hill looked very picturesque, with its light-house, residences, and clumps of trees and palms. A sailing boat was running freely over the rippling waters, and the tender Dolphin was lying off waiting for our arrival. She had a crowd of passengers for us, thirty-five in all, the Montague-Turner Company being bound for the North. With such a crowd on board matters on the Buninyong became lively, and the run to Flat-top (180 miles) was marked by musical merriment. 

At 5 o'clock on the following morning the anchor went down with a rattle, and in front was the pretty Island of Flat-top with its beautiful surroundings. The morning was divine, and we could see in the distance the houses of Mackay and the slopes of the hills rich with the green colouring of the sugarcane. Several boats were in the offing, including the labour vessel William Manson, and her red painted surf boats were being pulled rapidly through the waters by a coloured crew. Crowds of white gulls circled round and round the steamer, and occasionally the flash of the fin of a shark could be observed.

Flat Top Island outside Mackay, circa 1874.
Flat Top Island outside Mackay, circa 1874. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

As the morning advanced the wind became soft and warm, a gray heat haze crept over land and sea, and the smoke from Mackay could be seen rising very slowly and gradually working seaward. There was considerable cargo to receive and despatch, and the Buninyong lay off Flat-top several hours until the tropical heat became oppressive. The delay at Mackay lost for us a trip through the Inner Molle passage, a route which Captain Richardson purposed taking, but time and tide wait for no man. This was a keen disappointment to many of the passengers, more especially to those from the South. The Inner Molle is the most enchanting portion of the whole of the glorious Queensland coast, and bewilderingly beautiful. As we left Mackay the sky was a dazzling blue, and a faint breeze came from the west, tempering the heat, and creating a merry ripple on the waters. Now and again a flying fish raised itself and sunned its wings for a few moments, flashing in the light like a gem. And the Buninyong lazily steamed along, her black smoke trailing over the sea in sinuous shape until it resembled a huge snake, and was a blot on the fairness and purity of the scene. Island upon island appeared on the waters, and glimpses of white and yellow sand and pine-clad slopes became more and more frequent. We were soon threading our way past the Sir James Smith group, and Anvil, Pincer, Silversmith, Forge, Goldsmith, .Hammer, Blacksmith. Tinsmith, and various other pretty islands stood out in clear relief in their lovely setting. Still the panorama opened before us, and the passengers enjoyed the fascinating, subtle influence which it exercised.

The Whitsunday Passage was very charming, and we slowed down as Dent Island was passed, waving greetings to the group at the light-house, who responded cheerily. The light-house and bungalow residences were particularly pleasing, bathed as they were in a soft white light. A group of aboriginals were gathered on a hill, and they sent us a message of welcome. The slender pine trees looked like silver rods, tipped with emeralds, and through and around them flocks of white cockatoos were flying, screeching with animation. At the end of the island the wavewashed rocks, with their irregular formation and gray-brown appearance, rose abruptly out of the blue waters, and were saved from desolation by the stunted pines which grew on the summit, the sober colouring of which harmonised with the cliffs below. That little bit was a touch of Alpine Scenery in a tropical sea. Then we left Whitsunday Island in our wake, and away past Cid Island, and the course lay north-west as during the long watches of the night we continued our pilgrimage to the North. Faint streaks of light were coming over from the East next morning when Cape Cleveland was abreast, and we could see Magnetic Island looming up in majesty. At 8.30 the anchor fell in Cleveland Bay, and the familiar Castle Hill stood out clear and sharp, the town nestling under its mighty shadow. Not a cloud flecked the blue sky, and the waters of the bay were in perfect repose. Townsville appeared to be quietly sleeping, and the air was honeyed with subtle warmth and sweetness. There was soon a stir on the waters, however, and the tenders were speedily alongside. Good-byes were regretfully said, and before 10 o'clock arrived we had landed on the Townsville wharf and were once more facing the great Northern territory of this magnificent colony of Queensland.'