When I was a kid my holiday accommodation almost always involved a caravan, tent or farm cottage. So it was a rare treat to stay in a motel on my first visit to Gladstone all those years ago.
The Mercure was definitely a few steps above that motel, from my vague memories of it. Unlike Alex, I certainly had never stayed in such a nicely appointed room during my childhood.
After the included hot buffet breakfast we checked out and drove up to William Golding lookout from where we could gaze across the marina entrance and other port facilities. To the south, the aluminium refinery, closer to us calcite and grain facilities. A liquid natural gas facility was visible further across, as were the fairground attractions for the Harbour Festival.
We watched tugboats guiding one ship out to sea. On that very first trip to Gladstone my father had somehow wangled for us to ride aboard a tugboat and even let us steer it. His father, my Oupa, had worked on a tug.
What we lacked in luxury as children we made up for in experiences.
The riverside James Cook Park below us looked to have a number of activities, so we drove down there. The Fremantle class patrol boat HMAS Gladstone II sat mounted out of the water as a reminder of the naval links to the city. On the front page of the local paper this morning was a story about another Australian patrol boat capturing a Vietnamese illegal fishing boat off the coast, a long way from their home.
The sight of the ship also brought back memories of one of my favourite childhood television series, Patrol Boat, featuring the Gladstone’s sister ships. I still remember the theme music, but Alex knows the lead actor, Andrew McFarlane as a Play School presenter now.
Further along was a playground and water park. Naturally Alex got trapped in one of the variable fountains and soaked himself as he escaped, but the park really was lovely for the kids. It’s just a pity that the fairground attractions across the water were not yet open.
It was time to head up to Rockhampton. As we left Gladstone we passed a number of industrial facilities, including the coal fired power station and alumina refinery. Accompanying us most of the way was the railway line where kilometre long coal trains ply their way along with the occasional passenger tilt train, though we only saw freight today.
I have travelled this route so many times that it all felt very familiar. But as we passed the low ranges on the left I realised that I always dreamed about the journey in the opposite direction, away from Rockhampton. I always wondered what lay behind those hills, imagined that they were the escape route home south.
The elevated roadway south of Rockhampton at the Yeppen Crossing was both new and heavily featured in recent dispatches from the city, with good reason. Below the concrete pylons was the muddy brown landscape so recently flooded, only the new roadworks keeping the southern connection open.
Welcome to Rockhampton said the bull with the balls at the roundabout, as we entered the city proper.
We stopped near the city centre and took a walk along East Street, the main shopping street. The greenery is attractive, but like so many main streets supplanted by shopping malls it cannot help but feel a little run down and unloved.
When I first arrived in Rockhampton from Melbourne one of the things I most missed were the department stores like Myer (sadly itself now a shell of its previous childhood exuberance, a victim of the Internet and changing retail habits).
In Melbourne as a birthday or Christmas approached Dad and I would wander down to Myer in the CBD and select presents in the toy floor, which had walls of model trains, Lego, Star Wars and more.
We tried to replicate that in Rocky, having a father and son day. I remember walking into Stewarts, an old fashioned department store that still stands along East Street today and feeling sad that there was no toy section, not even any electronics. Nothing for a young boy to love.
Or an older boy if he is like me. We walked in today and immediately felt terribly out of place amongst the rows of fascinators and suits. Can race days and formals be enough a deal to support a shop like this? Truly a different world to mine.
Last trip to Rocky I had discovered one shop that did excite me: the Capricorn Model House. Inside were rows of party costumes and geeky collectables, model cars, planes, toys and model trains.
Back on that first trip to Gladstone I had packed a case with a selection of my Marklin model trains, tracks and scenery to recreate a miniature layout in the motel room. It was a challenge to find the minimum viable for fun, though I probably spent more time setting it up than playing.
Model trains played a big part in my imagination when I lived in this area and I was curious to return to the Model House and dream up a model train layout based on what they had for sale.
Sadly, what they had was very little. I suspect that the shop will soon disappear from Rockhampton based upon their empty shelves and 50% mark downs. Alex expressed an interest in the model aircraft kits, another hobby of my youth, so I bought him one, though perhaps it is another midlife gift to self.
I recalled the eclectic selection of the closing down sale of another Rockhampton institution, the Millroys department store along that same street. Model railway tracks but no trains. Slot car tracks the same. The only Star Wars toys multiple figures of Bib Fortuna.
We left East Street to the discount junk merchants and headed across the swollen river to my sister’s house where we met my sister, Mum and a nephew and niece. They were the reason for this trip in the first place and so we planned the next few days.
Getting tired and hungry we left in search of food, choosing the no choice of McDonalds in absence of energy to do otherwise, before driving down to Yeppoon.
The road passes the volcanic plugs of Mount Jim Crow and Mount Wheeler, which is apparently most likely named after a mining commissioner and not a genocidal member of the Native Police. There’s a nasty piece of history for you to read.
I went to high school in Yeppoon, but that mostly involved catching a bus to school and back again with no time for the town in between. Still, I was interested to see how much had changed since my last visit here.
The first was a new shopping centre with a Woolworths and BigW. Yes, like the one we lived a few hundred metres away from in our last house. But useful for stocking up on supplies, especially with the shopping unknowns of Good Friday tomorrow.
As we made our way on to the main street the other major change appeared, this one quite saddening. The railway tracks to Rockhampton gone, the station derelict. I knew it had happened, but it was disappointing nonetheless.
One of my great regrets is not catching the commuter service that once ran between Yeppoon and Rockhampton using the old silver diesel rail cars before it was suspended. Fortunately I managed to catch a heritage steam train from Rocky to Yeppoon and back during the latter’s agricultural show.
It was the perfect journey, at least as I defined them then. Leaving in the dark of morning, crossing the river and passing the tiny rural localities like Mount Chalmers and Cawarral (where we were “bailed up” by mock bushranger) on the way to Yeppoon.
I got soot in my eye, making running a science club stand at the show difficult (but hey I work for them now), but he great fun and then the opportunity to ride the train back again.
The only trains left carried pineapples, and when that stopped the line was closed, partly due to pressure from real estate developers or so I’ve heard. It’s a pity because it would have made a wonderful tourist line with the ability to catch a train right to the beach.
It is the beach that Yeppoon is best known for. We walked down to the Main Beach having promised Alex he could play in the new water park. He spent ages running through and sitting on fountains as we enjoyed the fresh sea air and the golden lights.
The water park is a great idea as the beach itself is not the best. The sand is course crushed shell, the water at risk of jellyfish. But it is a pleasant place to stroll and look out towards tomorrow’s destination of Great Keppel Island.
I recognised some shops as we walked back. The newsagent that once had a boxed Lima train set for sale, battery operated, a circle of track, shunter and a couple of wagons, but enough to set me dreaming. The furniture store run by a former school teacher and gun nut.
Sadly the cinema had gone, replaced by a surf shop. I only watched a couple of movies there. Terminator 2 by myself and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with the family. The trailer prior to that was for Backdraft and, funnily enough, that is what was showing on television tonight.
Dinner tonight: fish and chips tonight, though at the more upmarket Afishionados. I sort of wanted to eat at one of the brightly lit Chinese restaurants opposite our accommodation.
Eating out was once a very, very rare luxury for my family. Another memory of that first trip to Gladstone was possibly my first ever trip to a Chinese restaurant.
Now I am frequently bored of them.
But like that first trip to Gladstone we are back to staying in a motel. It’s nice to have luxury, but it’s nice to remember the past too and be grateful for what you have. Though I have both happy memories and otherwise of this town I am also glad that my being here is now a choice and I can enjoy it for what it is.