Eating fossils

When I was a boy, in the late 1950s, I spent every Christmas with my Grandma in a little town called Richmond, in North Queensland.

The mighty Flinders River ran through Richmond. Well, not through, but near, a mile distant perhaps. And it didn’t run, but was an empty, sandy, sinuous declivity on the landscape, with deep waterholes at intervals. Until Christmas.

Every Christmas the monsoon rains came. The vast sky darkened with roiling black clouds. The air felt electrically charged for long, tense hours, until finally, with great sound and fury, a torrent of rain descended. We shouted to each other over the deafening chatter of rain on the tin roof as we ran to shut louvre windows, and to place pots and pans under the many holes in the roof through which water streamed.

The roads turned to quagmires, the black-soil plains became sodden, then water lay on them like an ankle-deep ocean. And the river rose! It could be heard from the town, roaring, like cavernous thunder, as the riverbed filled and it did indeed become, for a time, the mighty Flinders. Most years the rain continued until the riverbanks could no longer contain the flow and it surged out over the downs, sometimes so far as to lap at the gateposts on the edge of town.

When the rain stopped, the sky reassumed its unflawed infinite blueness and the scorching sun again held sway. The land dried like the skin on a custard, myriad insects and birds appeared, and the plains, in mere days, became a prairie of green grass and flowers. From O’Connell Creek, a mile on the opposite side of town came a cacophony of frog song.

My Grandma was Chinese, and had brought up her four daughters as a single mother since the day, when my mother, the youngest, was a babe in arms, that my Irish grandfather rode off on a mysterious, solitary mission across the breadth of Australia, never to return. My Grandma next saw him on the day he died about thirty years later. But that’s another story!

As soon as the roads became passable, preparations began for a fishing expedition, for when the floods came, the Flinders teemed again with sleepy cod and catfish, which had hibernated through the dry season, buried under the baked mud of the seasonal waterholes. Occasionally, more exotic catches, too, were made.

My Grandma had learnt the art of net-making, making camouflage nets during the Second World War. When her shop prospered and the the exigencies of daily living became less demanding, she bought the materials to make a fishing net, and she and my aunties spent months making it. When the next floods came and the net was wetted for the first time, extraordinarily, 300 miles inland, we caught a shark!. On another expedition a small salt-water crocodile was dragged out of this amazing river.

Grandma had a small clump of bamboo growing at the corner of her house, specifically to be used for fishing poles. Nylon line didn’t exist, or couldn’t be afforded, so they were fitted with four or five metres of green twine. She used a hot darning needle to burn a hole through wine corks, which were threaded onto the twine and could be adjusted to suspend the bait above the muddy river bottom. It was a highly effective apparatus, or maybe the fish were just really hungry!

On the night before a fishing trip, all the grand-children were summoned to Grandma’s house, and solemnly handed a single sock and a flashlight. We were then driven by our uncles and aunts out to O’Connell Creek, and set to the exhilarating task of catching frogs. Ears cocked to frog calls, our youthful radar tuned to localise its source, we’d turn over river rocks and, midst shouts and laughter, splashes and tumbles, the squirming frogs were snatched up and dropped into the ready sock. On returning to Grandma’s house, she inspected every grandchild’s catch approvingly. I believe there may have been a small reward for the best haul.

Only Grandma was allowed to use frogs as bait and, as she always said, every frog was a fish! She sat in her canvas deckchair on the muddy bank, four or five fishing poles jammed into the mud in front of her and gleefully watched the corks bob and plunge, hoisting out dozens of fish, one of her sons-in-law standing by to unhook each catch, and, if necessary to wade into the water to un-snag her lines.

After one flood, we went out to the usually reliable Twenty Mile Hole, but it seemed that the fish hadn’t yet woken up from their hibernation. After a few hours, we turned to bobbing for yabbies (crayfish). The technique was to dangle the bait until a yabby took hold, then to draw it slowly into shallow water, where it could be caught in a scoop net.

We’d had some success, with a half a dozen yabbies in the sugar bag, then, to everyone’s astonishment, the next crustacean caught wasn’t a yabby! It was a much bigger creature, more like a huge prawn, with just one long nipper. No one had ever seen or heard of such a thing. After close inspection, it was decided that it would make a good feed, so it went into the bag with the yabbies. We caught quite a few, and they caused wonderment among Grandma’s neighbours back in town. They were cooked up by my Aunty Molly and were found to be delicious!

We went back for more, of course, and other families drove out to the Twenty Mile to join in the harvest. Eventually they became more and more scarce and, a little belatedly perhaps, someone of an inquisitive mind froze a specimen and sent it to the Queensland Museum for identification.

Within days Richmond was invaded by palaeontologists! It seemed that the only record of these delicious creatures was from fossils, and that they had been thought to have been extinct for millions of years! This occasioned a fair bit of communal guilt, naturally, to think that we might have eaten them back into extinction!

The theory propounded was that a small remnant population had survived in isolation from the time when the area had been an inland sea, perhaps in an oxbow lake, a billabong, which after millennia had opened again into the river during a great flood, releasing the “prawns” to drift downstream. It seemed as good an explanation as any. Certainly anything seemed possible in a place strewn with fossilised icthyosaurs and plesiosauars.

Little Richmond, now with about about 1000 citizens, today boasts a world-class museum of marine fossils in the old movie theatre. Fortunately, the creatures survived our depredation and are apparently still caught occasionally. It seems, too, that the explanation of their provenance may not be as mysterious and wonderful as first imagined. It was subsequently suggested that they were cherabins (Macrobrachium spinipes), which had come not downstream, but upstream from the Gulf of Carpentaria, like the shark and the crocodile.

It’s been a mystery to me all my life, and I’m rather disappointed to consider the more mundane theory. I also remain a bit sceptical. How could a large population of such creatures suddenly make an unprecedented appearance 300 miles inland, against the flow of a flooding river? I much prefer the notion of a hidden valley in the hills and a still, dark billabong, populated with living fossils, the prawns that time forgot!

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