The mysteries of Bowen
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Introducing a new multi-part series from Crikey‘s writer-at-large Guy Rundle, reporting on the ground from north Queensland — One Nation country — venturing deep into the heart of a forgotten Australia, ahead of the Queensland election.
Down Santa Barbra Parade, beside the sea, past the old flying boat harbour, came the army. Ranks and ranks of them, full band in tow, pumping out some martial dirge. The sun gleamed on the harbour, the lighthouse shone in the distance, as the third brigade passed solemnly beneath the Big Mango, a red-yellow-green concrete shell
Then, two police cars pulled up in front of them and blocked their way, lights flashing.
Jesus, what was this?
I’d come out of my motel, on the beach, at the sound of the music. I thought the next room had the TV up loud. Now it appeared as if I had stumbled on an invasion.
The crowd, Bowen’s great and good, sweating in suits, and blue-and-white dresses, seated in rows under army tents. The rest were perched near the ice-cream stand in their shorts and sunnies.
At the end was — I better call him Lionel — a leonine man, local mover and shaker, who had become my contact in the town. Mover and shaker, knew everyone or so he said. He had a lever file of government plans and projects under his arm.
“What is this, a coup?”
“It’s the freedom of entry. It’s the town thanking the Third Brigade, Townsville, for the work they did after the Cyclone.”
“Debbie” had hit Bowen in March, shredding the place. “It’s like the freedom of the city, a full act.”
The police chief appeared before the ranks, marching in place.
“WHO-A GOYESSSSSSSS THERE!” he yelled.
The bemedaled commander, sword drawn: “THEYA THIRRRRRRRD BRIGGDE SEEK PERMISSION TO MARCH THROUGH THE TOYOWN WITHA SWOYORDS DRAYAN AND BAYAND PLAYAING, SUH!”
And with that the police cars parted, the army marched through, the music faded into the distance, and everyone queued up for sausages.
Just another day in North Queensland, two armed forces of the state mock-battling it out for supremacy.
“Is that the mayor?” I said to Lionel, none of whose boasted-about “connections”, appeared to be approaching him. “Can you introduce me?”
“Oh, uh, he’s very approachable,” Lionel said evasively. I didn’t insist, and it turned out to be a lucky break. Over several meetings, he had filled me in on the “real” state of Bowen and the region, a place he made sound somewhere between Belarus and Mogadishu.
“The drugs are everywhere, they make em on the stations, cart em into town,” he’d say, rummaging through his ring binder. “Ice makes everyone crazy, they kill their best friends.”
Later: “Backpackers are being worked to death on the farms. Go down to the brush near the Ocean park, they drop off and pick up deals each night.”
For days I followed his lead, believing I had the town nailed, only to find that I had got it wrong. Really, really wrong. Bowen, a once-proud city, slowly curling up in the sun, runs with secrets and conspiracies, searching for reasons why it all went wrong, and how they might get it back.