The Black & White Braid
Roads, People, and Stories of the Scenic Rim
Walking out the door on a winter’s morning in 2019, author Benjamin Allmon and photographer Carin Garland are about to discover just how far the road – the black & white braid – will take them. For the next 30 days and nearly 700km, they roam across Queensland’s Scenic Rim on foot, learning the stories of the roads they follow: who they are named after, who walked them first ... and who walks them now. In this microcosm of Australia, they uncover the past and discover the present alongside Indigenous Elders trying to secure Lore in the next generation; 4th-generation farmers at breaking point in the worst drought on record; proud South Sea Islander descendants of Queensland’s first “blackbirded” workers seeking to have their voices heard; incredible women and men who banded together during the devastating Black Summer bushfires to save their community; sisters trying to save their town from extinction, and many more. From farmer-preachers in Australia’s Bible Belt to environmentalists trying to preserve prehistoric wilderness, young mothers to 102-year-old great-great-grandmothers, traditional custodians to recent immigrants, Benjamin and Carin discover how we are all connected – by the roads that brought us here, by the roads we travel every day through this country we share ... and then ask: where is the road leading?
The Butcher & The Braid
The cover photo of Volume 2 contains much of what these books are about. The road – the black and white braid – and the intoxicating prospect of it unrolling before you, its promise of adventure. The beauty of this country. Look deeper, and there is farmland, the rural backbone of the Scenic Rim. Deeper still and the mountain in the background … Mt Castle. It was one of many sites employed during the making of Sons of Matthew by Charles Chauvel – perhaps the greatest Australian filmmaker of the mid-20th century, a boy from Harrisville in the northern Rim, and a film based on that great family of the southeastern Rim, the O’Reillys. But the mountain was also dubbed the Sleeping Assyrian, by Brisbane’s first Archbishop, St Clair Donaldson, who felt that the mountain profile resembled a sleeping man with the characteristic high headdress of the Assyrians. He wasn’t the only one who saw the profile of a man in the shape of the mountain … for the Ugarapul this mountain is Butcha, the greatest of their warriors, who fought the incursions of a neighbouring tribe and died defending his people. To some, he is the ancestor of all the Ugarapul, and he watches over them still.
Uncle John Long was born in the Hollow, near Kooralbyn, and was one of the last Ugarapul to live traditionally, up until the age of fifteen. As such, he became the carrier of a tremendous amount of knowledge and Lore. When we first met I brought him smoked chicken and a copy of The Saltwater Story book and film detailing my adventures with the Bundjalung, because to ask what I was asking – for Lore, knowledge, and the stories of his people – would be like asking a whitefella for thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars. Millions. Money is the basis of the economy of my culture…knowledge is the basis of Uncle John’s. So, asking for stories is not something that should be done lightly, and by bringing gifts, showed I understood that.
But Uncle John wanted to share knowledge, because in many ways he was the only one carrying those stories now …he was at a time in his life where he was very concerned about what the next generation of his people were inheriting…and so he told me everything he could – stories not recorded anywhere else, so that knowledge about routes of connection, rites of passage, and places of significance didn’t die with him. We spent many weeks and months walking together, and of the 140-odd people who contributed to the book, his contribution was the greatest, a testament to his generosity of spirit. He said a few things to me before Carin and I set off:
“walk with humility – do that, and you can go anywhere in this land … walk with a good heart – your heart is your shield, so when you go through the places of darkness, you don’t let it down, it will protect you ... when you go walking through the land, and become part of it, your body, it takes the short journey, but your spirit, it takes the long journey.”
Few have made as long a journey through life as 102-year-old Josie Arthy, of Chinghee Creek. To sit with someone born in 1917 and whose hands – the skin of which was like the finest parchment – had helped hold her community together for generations, was like sitting next to some great natural wonder … she is like the basalt mountains of the Rim, around which all else has eroded, leaving her as a reminder of another time. To hear her talk of life during the ’20s, the Depression, the War … not stories passed down by her parents, but her own lived experience, was incredible, because there are so few now who can do that. She told me of how as a girl she rode her horse to Southport with her father along dirt roads, then rode camels along the beach. Of how she’d make dresses during the War from curtain material, because all the silk had gone to be used as parachutes for the War effort … she told me how the kids in all the local schools would have air raid practice, and when a whistle blew they all had to run for a purpose built trench …but Chinghee Creek School didn’t have a trench, so the kids ran into Death Adder Gully … only in Australia would children run for safety into Death Adder Gully. She remembered hearing the ill-fated Stinson go over in 1937, when she was 20, and how the townsfolk rallied, the men (including her husband) cutting the stretcher track to the crash survivors, whilst the women kept the farms going. As I sat having morning tea with her on a porch that her husband had built 80 years earlier, I couldn’t help but think of how many had sat there before me, and whether their spirits were there still. As she crocheted – something she had done since before the Depression – I watched her, feeling at peace.
“What’s it like?” I ask, unable to help myself, because I doubt I will make it anywhere near 102. “What secrets have you learned from all that you have seen over the vast distance through life you’ve walked, Josie?” She looks at me for a long moment, then smiles and wordlessly passes me the last scone by way of an answer, and we sit quietly, watching the world go by from her porch. Josie passed away before the book was finished, but her stories and the beautiful images Carin took remain in the book.
The Antarctic Beech Forest
The Antarctic Beech forests of the Border Track in Lamington National Park are an eerie realm, the trees are ancient gnarled relicts from a continent that no longer exists – Gondwana. When some of these 3000-year-old trees were saplings it was the Bronze Age, and David was the King of Israel. The Phoenicians were establishing an alphabet which they would write on clay or papyrus, for paper was centuries away from being invented. A small tribe known as the Latins were arriving in Italy; their descendants, the Romans, would build a Kingdom, Republic, and ultimately Empire that rose and fell as these trees grew and coppiced. These trees were already a thousand years old when Jesus of Nazareth was born. To touch them is to touch time.
The story of Coochin could fill a series of books. We stayed the night there with Tim Bell, who is the fourth generation of Bells to live there…his great grandmother Gertrude “Granny” Bell, was a singular woman, well-connected and who in the aftermath of her husband’s death threw parties at the Homestead for an astonishing array of celebrities. Her friend the Queen Mother visited several times. Guests included Edward VIII (who signed his name on the wallpaper), Agatha Christie, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, General Birdwood, Queensland Governors without number…and all planted trees in a garden Gertrude also began as a widow. The interesting thing about the garden at Coochin was that Gertrude had originally tried to replicate the English gardens of her childhood…which withered and died under the Australian sun.
A pragmatist, she turned to native plants, and in this was aided by Uncle John's great grandmother - and reportedly the last full-blooded Ugarapul - Bunjoey, who would return from her walkabouts with cream orchids, or hoop pines, or any number of other plants that held meaning for her people. In this way, the garden became a beautiful interweaving of two cultures, and the two women, the same age, became friends. Bunjoey, the last keeper of many stories, just as her great-grandson would be many years later, passed those stories on to Gertrude’s daughter Enid, who put them in a book. Enid recalled that Bunjoey would gather all the white children in the region for morning tea and tell them they were Ugarapul, because they had been born in Ugarapul lands.
This is the view from Governor’s Chair at the far western edge of the Rim, so named because it was a popular place for Queensland Governors to frequent … but there is a lot more to the place than that…Spicer’s Gap Road holds in its surface every major advance in roadbuilding, from a path made by Aboriginal feet, through to dirt track, corduroy road, macadam, gravel, and ultimately bitumen. Spicers Gap itself was crucial to the nascent Queensland state in the 1860s, providing a passage between the port city of Brisbane and the rich farmlands of the Darling Downs. Spicer’s Peak is known to the Ugarapul as Binkinjoora, the turtle with his head poking up, the carrier of wisdom. As Uncle John told us, there is a witch, or dahdahngun (evil spirit) that lurks around here, whispering to you to throw yourself off the cliff. This is also where Carin and I were convinced we would perish at the hands of a creature whose unspeakable nocturnal grunting robbed us of sleep and had me formulating plans to nobly sacrifice myself in order to get her to safety. As it turns out, it was a group of randy male koalas trying to impress females. That I lay awake gripping my knife and lamenting that I hadn’t made out a will as Carin cowered beside me, all because of a small fluffy marsupial that eats leaves, is now forever recorded in the book, regrettably.
But the Indigenous people are not the only black thread to the Braid … just north of Beaudesert, unbeknownst to most people, the first blackbirded South Sea Islanders in Queensland were brought in 1863. Carin and I were fortunate enough to walk alongside the descendant of one of the first men who walked what is now the Mt Lindesay highway in chained feet. Natalie Pakoa’s great grandfather was brought here to work the cotton fields … precipitating perhaps the most comprehensive destruction of a culture in recent history. One must read the book to grasp the full picture of what happened to her people, but to this day they are adrift, unseen by the wider community, their children asking them “who are we, who am I?”…and the tales of what happened in her native Vanuatu are just as devastating. Yet, she is not bitter, not angry, and has through strength of will and generosity of spirit instigated perhaps the most inspiring and hopeful tale in the book. In 2014 she reached out to the descendants of the plantation owners who still own the land her great grandfather worked, reached out to the white folks of Beaudesert and surrounds, reached out to the Mununjali … all in the spirit of reconciliation. All parties responded, and in 2014 she and her people, all the people, walked Walker Road, along the route her ancestors took, across the fields that once grew cotton, and were formally – and finally – welcomed by the Mununjali, embraced the descendants of the plantation owner, and became friends with them. Natalie’s husband, Kakae, carved this huge totem, the Wayfinder, and upon its surface engraved the story of his people … it sits now on the old plantation site. A reminder of the past, and a beacon of hope.
That all this book is about, really. Hope. What binds us together, not separates us. History, and why it matters … as Baba Dioum said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Through the writing of this book, I have been taught so much by so many, and hopefully I have been able to pass that on. It is why the book is dedicated to my son, and Carin’s. For Carin, it was a life-changing experience … a widow at 36 with a 3-year-old boy, she learned what she had been carrying, what she could safely leave by the side of the road, and what she was capable of.
As I said to my son when I finally walked back in my door after a month on the road, “the long road is always there, for those who want to walk it. Sometimes you will get lost, take a wrong turn, even find yourself on a road you don’t want to be on … but if you keep your bearings, and that good heart, it will eventually lead you back home.”
But the greatest hope came from Uncle John, who died the day this project ended, almost as though he had seen it through. Here are his last words in the book:
“Time for our people is represented as a circle, with no beginning, or end,” Uncle John says gently. “But it’s the same for your people - a clock. When I go into schools, this is what I tell the children. Every minute on the clock represents 1000 years, so that the full hour is how long my people have been here, 60,000 years.”
“So my people have been here for fifteen seconds,” I conclude, floored by the magnitude of difference between the two cultures’ experience of living in this country.
“That’s right, but here’s the thing; you can’t turn a clock back. The trouble between our cultures, that has happened in that last fifteen seconds, and it’s done now, and nothing can change that. But what happens when a clock reaches twelve?”
Benjamin Allmon | Artist
Benjamin Allmon is an author, freelance journalist, musician, audio engineer, adventurer, and film producer. In 2016 Odyssey Books published his music/adventure memoir, Foot Notes.
His second book, The Saltwater Story is a fully-illustrated hardcover collaboration with renowned photographer David Kelly. His third book, Mr Ordinary Dons a Disguise (Odyssey Books, 2018), is an illustrated short story collection and includes the award-winning "Dicky’s Dilemma".
His most recent book is a two-volume series, The Black & White Braid: Roads, People, And Stories of the Scenic Rim (Cairn Tor 2021), a collaboration with photographer Carin Garland. His debut film, the feature-length documentary The Saltwater Story, won four awards at international film festivals, is screened in 53 countries, is available on Docplay, and is archived with the NFSA.