52 weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 27: Vacations on Maggie


The topic for Week 27 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Vacations. Where did your family go on vacation? Did you have a favorite place? Is it still there? If not, how has the area changed?

Beautiful Arthur Bay on Magnetic Island, not Rocky Bay as I mistakenly thought.

My family’s favourite place for holidays was Magnetic Island off Townsville in North Queensland. Magnetic Island, or Maggie as it’s known to its fans, was named and “discovered” by Captain Cook when his compass headings were apparently distorted by the island’s geology.

My father got a railway pass annually due to his railway employment so we would travel by train to Townsville on the Sunlander, though it would always be an off-season holiday. Ironically I’ve just read that “the Sunlander was introduced with great fanfare in June 1953….built by Commonwealth-Engineering (Com-eng)”[i]. After my grandfather retired as a carpenter-foreman from building carriages for Queensland Government Railways (QGR) he went on to work for Com-Eng. I wonder if he supervised the building of any of the Sunlanders we travelled on?

It seems unlikely now, yet I still feel sure that the first time when we went up there, it was on a steam train as I recall the grit, open windows, etc…more research required on that. Perhaps we travelled on the Sunlander’s precursor, the Sunshine Express, but I don’t think my early memories are that good. I guess the distance from Brisbane to Townsville to be about 1000kms (actually over 1300kms) but it took nearly two days to get there. We left from Roma Street Station in the early evening of one day, arrived at Bundaberg for breakfast the next morning. We would pull into Rockhampton for lunch on that day and Dad would dash over the road to a superb fish and chip place –one of those childhood memories where nothing else ever seems as good, especially those potato scallops! I talked briefly about this on another post.

Picnic Bay on Magnetic Island with Townsville in the distance in 2008.

The afternoon train trip would be boring in the extreme as we travelled through the St Lawrence area and what I would call open scrub with nothing to alleviate the tedium. Sometimes along the way we’d see the railway workers’ tents where they were working on the line and it was a ritual to throw out the most recent paper so they’d have something to keep them going. With a family full of railway workers this was an important contribution to ensuring these isolated workers were kept in touch with what was happening in the world.
Then towards the end of the day we would pass through the cane fields at Sarina, near Mackay, and depending on the season would see the cane fields being burnt off with the red glow in the sky and the distinctive, not very pleasant smell of molasses and sugar cane by-products.[ii] At the time I had no idea that there was one branch of the Kunkel family living
in the area and closely involved with the sugar industry. I’m not sure my father knew either.

Our train compartment was neat and compact with a basin and three bunk beds: during the day the bottom two would be converted into a regular train seat but in the evening the guard (?) would come and set the room up. The toilet was at the end of the carriage and I was quickly taught the protocol that one must never, ever, use the toilet while in a station no matter
how desperate the situation! I remember too being aware that Dad was among colleagues while on the train. While we usually took some food with us, each train stop brought people flooding into the railway refreshment rooms on the station – another family link as my mother’s family had been involved in this business in the late 19th century.

A nice overview image of Picnic Bay with the new jetty, the old enclosure and with the wreck in Cockle Bay visible. Image 0009650 from Townsviille City Libraries.

On the second morning we’d pull into Townsville station with that typical motion sickness, body-continuing-to-move experience typical of long distance travel. Almost always there’d be friends there to meet us and they would take us to the Hayles ferry terminal where we’d catch the ferry to Picnic Bay, which is where we always stayed. Life was simple then and the
holiday accommodation was basic and usually built of fibro. My mother’s first objective was to ensure everything was pristine and clean and then we’d settle in for a relaxing holiday. There were no theme parks, rides etc etc to be had, just lots of fun in the sun.

My parents climbing up from Rocky Bay

Dad and I would often go fishing either off the ferry jetty or row out in a dinghy where we’d catch magnificent reef fish even though we weren’t that far out. We’d all go for long bush walks to different isolated bays which were inaccessible by road: Geoffrey Bay, Radical Bay and our favourite, nearby Rocky Bay. We’d sing bush songs as we went along and quite
regularly encountered a snake or two along the track. Magnetic Island is renowned for its koala population even today and it was common to see them up in the gum trees along the tracks –though they weren’t all that easy to spot. Other times we’d go on the bus to Horseshoe Bay and collect cowrie and olive shells (makes me cringe to think now, from an ecological point of view). You also had to be very careful of stonefish and cone shells both of which could be very deadly so I learned to keep my eyes peeled and watch where I put my feet. This became the basis of my teenage fascination with shells.

The swimming enclosure at Picnic Bay with the Hayles ferry arriving at the jetty. Image 0009635 from Townsville City Libraries available for public coping.

The most popular bays for accommodation had swimming areas with shark proof enclosures and now stinger-proof nets), though I don’t recall  hat as an issue when I was a child. These enclosures were quite large, and so were like a very large swimming pool. As I got older and could swim better I could swim out to the timber enclosure and walk along the perimeter before jumping back in and swimming back to the beach. One of the nice things about Magnetic Island is that it has casuarina trees and other shade (including an ancient fig tree) along the beach front so that you could sit in the shade without getting burnt, rather helpful with my Celtic colouring.  Sometimes we walked over to one of the bays where Mum’s relations, the Melvins were said to have had a guest house. Mum had also holidayed at Magnetic Island as a child so it was a family tradition really. Friends would come over to the island for a couple of days and visit and we kids would all build sand castles etc…simple pleasures.

The Barron Falls in 2008 but as I remember them as a child.

Life wasn’t always an idyllic escape on the island. On one trip when I was still quite young there was a reasonably severe cyclone (I’m pretty sure it was Cyclone Agnes, a category 3) and we had to stay in our accommodation while it blew over. I remember being very scared and seeing the palm trees “touching their toes”, bending over and dancing in the wind. We were cut off for a few days after that but eventually they sent in Army amphibious ducks to take people off the island because the ferries couldn’t get across. On that particular trip the north had masses of rain and I remember the Barron Falls in full flood when we visited my aunt in Cairns just after the cyclone. Then on the train home, with the Burdekin River also in flood, I have a distinct memory of the river lapping at the railway sleepers while the Sunlander crept its way across…some years ago I came across a photo of this crossing: the driver must
have had nerves of steel.

Maggie is still there of course and while parts of it seem lost in time, other parts have become very glossy and upmarket. Nelly Bay which in the earlier 20th century was a resort area, then in my time a rather unimpressive mangrove-y bay, is now the ferry catamaran terminal with high-class resort apartments right on the water overlooking the terminal. A sad reminder of the hazards of early Queensland immigration, the gravestone of little James Dryden on Magnetic Island.The open-air bathroom design means you need to make sure that you time your shower when the ferry’s not due or you’ll frighten the tourists! Some of the formerly deserted and isolated bays have been opened up, not really a good thing as the construction work has savaged the landscape. However the island is heavily treed and there are still many koalas and birds. Picnic Bay, once a hub of activity for the island, has become a sleepy backwater since it lost the ferry.

The island remains incredibly popular with Townsville people for weekends and holidays and is even within commuting distance. It also has an active backpacker presence. Are the changes for the best? I don’t really know, but those childhood memories are precious reminders of how things were once upon a simpler time.

This gravestone reminds us though, that times were not simple in the early days of Queensland’s immigration. James was the son of Andrew Dryden and Elizabeth Lilico. They had another seven children born in Queensland (Brisbane and country) including another child called James McVane Dryden who was born in 1890. Jim Fleming has published his great-great grandfather’s diary from this voyage – it certainly seems to have been an exceptional and dramatic journey, including a reference to little James’s death and tales of near-mutiny and quarantine. One’s heart goes out to these poor immigrants on such an horrendous start to their new life in Australia.


[ii] Graeme Connors has a great song, Let the Canefields Burn, on the difficult life on the cane fields relevant to family history as well. This YouTube video has images of the burn-off.

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10 thoughts on “52 weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 27: Vacations on Maggie

  1. I will most likely never get to visit Australia, but I am so fortunate to be able to read your posts — as I get a view of Australia now and in the past. Very nice.

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  4. Hi there
    Cool photos of a beautiful place.
    I think the photo you’ve tagged as Rocky Bay is not Rocky Bay though. I have an almost identical photo of that beach – it’s the beach on the north end of Arcadia.
    Rocky Bay is a nude beach down next to X Base Backpackers – find Birt Street on the map and its the beach next to that :-) You’ll see all the rocks even in the satellite images on Google maps. Happy travelling!

    • hi Richard, Thank you for sorting this out for me. I knew Rocky Bay well, before it was a nudist beach (Mum and Dad would have a fit!). The other photo (B&W) is definitely Rocky Bay. We used to stay at Picnic so that was the next one along. I’d have sworn I took this photo at the carpark near Rocky Bay, but you’re right, there’s not enough rocks. I think the one you mean is Arthur Bay and I’ve found another online image very like mine. This means we probably took the photo when we visited in 2008 as we had our 4WD with us, not a hire car. Thanks!!

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  6. Pingback: Climbing your family’s gum tree – or Moreton Bay Fig | Family history across the seas

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