Category Archives: Bridges

How to nearly tear your foot off (part 2). Outback Queensland, Australia 1974

This is part two in a two part chapter from my all the dumb things series. If you would like to read part 1 first, click here.

In the morning the railway staff came to work and in a very civilised way, completely without malice, woke us trespassers and suggested we move along. Although the roads west were closed due to flooding, the raised railways weren’t. Since there was no accommodation to be had in Charleville I bought a train ticket to Mount Isa (a mining town in the far west of Queensland). The rolling stock that was running in outback Queensland at the time was old and decrepit.


 The carriages were known as “red rattlers” because of their colour and all the noise they made. It was very basic transport with only hard seating, no air conditioning, no sleepers or dining car. Although it had been raining for days, the weather was very hot and humid. The state of the tracks was so poor that we just crawled along barely faster in places than what a person could run. The landscape out in that part of the country is very flat with straw-coloured grass dappled with the odd shrub here and there, for as far at the eye can see in every direction. The big empty skies are inhabited with the occasional wedge tailed eagles wheeling around high up in the thermals. 


 It was all so mind numbingly boring. The people I met on the train didn’t have much of interest to say. They were uncomplicated people mainly traveling to work on farms or in mines and let’s face it I stank. I did meet one character though; he was a 14-year-old school drop out who was on his way to a cattle station (ranch) to work as a jackaroo (cowboy). When I told him that I thought he was too young to drop out of school, he said that he wanted to be a jackaroo and that his parents didn’t mind. Then I asked him if he was worried about going through life with so little education (I was little better, but at the time I was too stupid to realise it). He retorted, “if think you’re so smart, spell Ornithorhynchus”. To which I admitted that I couldn’t and then he proceeded to spell it. He then then said, “there ya go, I’m smarter that you!”  He did have a point, but I wasn’t to be deterred so I asked him what Ornithorhynchus meant. He said he didn’t know but he could spell it and I couldn’t, so that was that! I later looked up the word Ornithorhynchus in a dictionary to find that it is half the Latin name for platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).

The train had been crawling along for hours and all of a sudden there was a big jolt and crunching sound. One of the carriages had derailed a bogey. The bogey had just come off the rails but the carriage hadn’t toppled over, it’s a good thing that we weren’t traveling at a higher speed. So we sat in the heat for about five hours until another maintenance train with a crane turned up on a parallel track. Many people had gotten off the train and were standing around outside either watching or offering to help. They got the carriage back on the track by hooking the nearest under side of the derailed carriage with the crane and lifting it a little as the locomotive with derailed carriage pulled forward so the bogey would drop into place. It was easy to see that the railway staff were old hands at remounting derailed trains. It was an amazing thing to watch. In all, I’d say the derailment took about ten hours to sort out before we could continue and by then it was nighttime.

I spent another uncomfortable night trying to sleep in my seat with the addition of being hungry, thirsty and racidly filthy. After the derailment the train traveled even slower than before. People were jumping off the train then walking beside it for while and then climbing back on again out of shear boredom. It was so hot, that in the hope of catching a breeze, I sat myself down in one of the exit doors with my feet dangling out of the side of the train. I passed the time looking across at the horizon, up at the sky and occasionally extending my arm to brush my hand through the long grass that sometimes grew by the side of the tracks. This went on for hour after hypnotizing hour until; all of a sudden I felt that someone had belted a home run on my foot with a baseball bat. My attention was immediately snapped downward to my assaulted foot to be traumatized by what I could see. Gazing at the horizon had not been a very effective survival strategy as I’d neglected to notice the low “steel plate girder” bridge we were crossing. It was one of those bridges that is based on the “I beam” but it has extra vertical stiffeners reinforcing the sides.

steel plate girder bridge
This is not the actual train I was on but this picture illustrates
what a “steel plate girder” bridge looks like.  

 The top of the “I beam” was level with the floor of the carriage I was sitting on and the gap between it and the train had an average of about 18cm (about 7”). I say average because the gap fluctuated due to the combination of casual engineering and carriage movement. I was convinced that my leg was going to be snipped off like a piece of play dough. There wasn’t enough of a gap to pull my leg free and as we passed the vertical stiffeners, my foot was hit for home run after home run. During my agonizing pummeling of thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, I watched in sickening horror as the gap between the train and bridge opened and nearly closed numerous times, threatening to separate me from my beloved and very useful legs, again and again. By the time the train passed over the bridge I’d been so thoroughly hammered by the gauntlet of steel stiffeners that I was sure that all that was left of my feet would be bloodied stumps. I had automatically pulled my legs up into the carriage as soon as I was free of the bridge and much to my relief my feet were still there.

It was a good thing that I’d been wearing thick lace up ankle high boots at the time. I was sure all the bones were broken in the foot that was on the leading edge of the battering. I undid my laces as fast as I could and had a look at my feet.  They were heavily bruised but there weren’t any broken bones and with the panic out of the way I had pause to notice the excruciating pain I was in. I was in so much pain that it was the first time in days that I didn’t notice how bad I smelled. I quickly put my boots back on and laced them up tight to reduce the swelling and waited for a few hours for the pain to diminish enough for me to hobble back to my seat again.

I won’t be sticking any part of my body out of a train again, that’s for sure.

Epilogue. Mt Isa had a Laundromat and proper motels with clean water!

How to nearly tear your foot off. Outback Queensland, Australia 1974

This is part one in a two part chapter in my all the dumb things series.

In late January 1974, when I was 17 years old, I decided to go travelling in Asia. From Sydney I hitch hiked north hoping to get rides all the way to Darwin. Unfortunately there had been an exceptionally wet summer up north and Cyclone Wanda had pushed the wet season rains further south than normal, causing floods in Brisbane and much of outback Queensland. I arrived in Brisbane about two days after the floods. There was an eerie quietness to the city as I passed through and high water marks could be seen as high as 3 or 4m (9 or 12ft) on many buildings downtown and the Brisbane River banks were littered with the flotsam of  destroyed houses and anything else that got swept away by the flood. There were bundles of grass draped over the power lines that had been left by the receding flood waters. The skies were still cloudy and it looked like it would rain at any time so I didn’t linger in Brisbane and hitched out west to Dalby.


I got to just past Dalby by nightfall and I was dropped off in the middle of night by the highway. I kept on hitching into the night and then it started to rain. Hitching at night while it is raining is not a winning combination. It’s hard enough to get someone to stop when it’s pitch black, let alone allow you to get into their vehicle when you are dripping wet. Back in those days it never occurred to me to carry a small tent, so I spent the night trudging along with my backpack, while wearing a flimsy plastic poncho. After many hours, I was picked up by a truck driver in the wee hours of the morning. The truck was a Mac pulling an empty three level cattle trailer. Macs in those days didn’t have very big cabs so the driver said I had to put my pack in the cattle trailer. In the pouring rain we tied the pack up, out of all the sloppy cow dung on the floor, by its straps to the top of the second level.  Cold and drenched I was happy to have the ride but I was exhausted because I hadn’t slept properly for three days. Truck driver was none to happy with me every time I drifted off to sleep and he kept on waking me up by slapping me on the nearest arm. “I picked you up to keep me awake” he’d say. By daylight, we had reached the truck driver’s turn off and  I was dropped off with my soaking wet, cow manure impregnated backpack in the middle of nowhere. The pack reeked of dung and urine and everything in the pack was a soggy fetid mess. Oh well, at least it had stopped raining.

When I hitch hike I usually walk backwards, wearing my pack,  facing the oncoming traffic. The only relatively clean clothes I now had were the ones I was wearing and they quickly soaked up the stench from my pack. Usually when people pick you up they open up the door and with a smile ask you where you’re going, you answer and then they open the boot (trunk) of their car to load the back pack and then, in you hop into the front with the driver.  In the Outback most people drive pick up trucks of one kind or another so they just tell you to toss the pack in the back and then you get into the cab with them. Once you get into the vehicle, greetings and handshakes are exchanged and conversation begins. In my experience, hitch hiking has been a great way to meet the generous and gregarious members of society. It’s a very sociable way to travel. That is usually how things go, but when one is covered in cow manure things aren’t so friendly.

The outback is peopled by farmers and as such you’d think that they’d have some kind of inured tolerance to the excremental odours of their bovines. Nah!  “Cow-Cockies” (what we affectionately call our cattle farmers here in Australia) don’t like the smell of cattle crap any more than city people. My host’s smiles for the next two days would quickly convert to a shocked rictus as they got a whiff of me. To their credit, no-one kicked me out of their vehicles, but they did wind down the windows and one occasion I was put in the back with the scary pig-dogs. “What’s a pig dog?” I hear you ask. Imagine the dogs one would get if you crossed a mastiff with a bull terrier that are used to drag down wounded wild pigs that have huge tusks. Big headed, broad chested, muscular bodied and covered in scars. Not the sort of dogs you would want to pat or let near children.

Most towns in the outback back then were just crossroads that had a pub on three of the corners and a general store on the other. The pubs were places you could go for a cold beer or a fight. The accommodation offered at these establishments was Spartan to say the least. They weren’t really hotel rooms as most people would expect, but rather places to pass out when you were too drunk to fight or drive. By the time I got to Charleville I’d hadn’t slept properly for five days and I stank like an abattoir. I was really looking forward to washing my clothes and having a shower.


 Charleville didn’t have a laundromat and the pub I stayed at, only had bore water in the shared bathroom.  Usually bore water can smell a little and be a bit brown but the water on offer at the pub glooped out of the tap as a thick tar like sludge that smelled of rotten eggs. No cleaning up for me. Not much rest either as my room didn’t have a handle or lock and few times in the evening drunks came in and tried to go to sleep. It was a nightmare.

The next morning after a greasy tepid breakfast that could only be described as a crime against nature, I continued hitching in the rain to Longreach. By the time I got to Longreach the rain was pouring down and it was getting dark. The road out of town had been closed due to the floods and all the truck drivers and travellers who had arrived before me had booked out all the accommodation in town. At first I was at a loss as to where I was going to stay until one of the pub patrons told me to go and sleep on the platform at the railway station. Soaked and putrid I walked through the red mud to the train station. Surprisingly the train station platform wasn’t locked up and all the next day’s freight was piled into a mountain on the platform. The two benches on the platform were already occupied by snoring drunks.  In the middle of the mountain of freight, like a dream come true, was a stack of about ten plastic covered mattresses. I didn’t even think twice and I climbed to the top of the mattresses and had the best sleep that I’d had for days.

Part 2 

On a technical note the pictures above were taken on Agfachrome (should’ve been named Agfacrap) which is a substative film (unlike Kodachrome which is non-substantive). Substantive films are much more prone to colour shift due to heat damage and the dyes fade much faster over time than the dyes in non-substantive films. I’ve tried to fix up the images in PhotoShop but the colours are a little too far gone.

The Brickpit Ring Walk. Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia

Before the Sydney Olympics (best Olympics ever, don’tcha know?) in 2000, the Homebush Bay area was basically a toxic dump marshland that had been polluted for the past 100 years by various heavy industries.  Much of the site had to have the topsoil removed and it was going to be completely built over. Near the centre of the Olympic site is an old unused brick pit that had been used as a location for the third “Mad Max” movie “Beyond Thunderdome“. It turns out that the water filled brick pit was the habitat of an endangered species of frog, known as the Green and Golden Bell Frog (Litoria aurea). The presence of the rare frog led to the brick pit being preserved as a habitat for the frogs.  Now the brickpit isn’t the prettiest thing to have in the middle of an Olympic park so some money was thrown it’s way and an amazing ring walk was built in the middle of it.


The ring walk, designed by Durbach Block Architects,  is 550m (1800ft) in circumference and 18.5m (60ft) above the ground. The Ring Walk is truly a fantastic solution to preserving habitat whilst still allowing people to enjoy public space. It’s nice to see that our government is starting to realize that cities need to be “livable”. The whole Homebush Bay area is covered with cycling paths and I go cycling at there quite often with my wife, and friend Paul. The brickpit is one my favourite places in the whole of the Olympic park.


 My friend Paul is an aficionadao of technology (otherwise known as “shiny kit syndrome”) and as such he has the latest bright and shiny things, such as a beautifully made folding German bicycle called a “Birdy”.  Everytime I struggle to get my and my wife’s bike in and out of our car I’m jealous of how easily Paul assembles and disassembles his. All very civilised.

Paul and birdy

On a technical note the photos were taken with another of Paul’s shiny things, an I-mate JAMin telephone. Whilst the telephone doesn’t take as good photos as my camera, it had the advantage of being with us, as opposed to my camera, which was sitting at home.

Garden of the Gods and Royal Gorge, Colorado, USA 2006

Colorado has always conjured up grand vistas of natural beauty in my mind for as long as I can remember. So when my wife (Engogirl) was invited to speak at a computational fluid dynamics conference in Denver last year I jumped at the chance to go with her.

Once the conference was over we set off early in the morning and headed south to see the “Garden of the Gods” and Royal Gorge. Because of Engogirl’s profession as engineer we often go out of our way to look at large man made structures like dams and bridges. Royal Gorge caught our attention because it is billed as the “the highest suspension bridge in the world”. We had seen the Navajo bridge in Arizona the year before and that was spectacular so we thought we “must” see Royal Gorge near Cañon City.

 The “Garden of the Gods” lived up to its billing and we spent several pleasant hours walking among the unusual formations until about midday. Royal Gorge is about another fifty miles away (down Interstate 25 turning west along highway 50) from Colorado Springs.   We felt we were getting a little off the beaten track, as we turned down highway 50, the landscape flattened, becoming less interesting, less populated as the tourist traps turned cheesier and grew more numerous.

By the time we got to Royal Gorge we were really looking forward to seeing some spectacular scenery to make up for all the garish billboards that were the harbingers of the eyesores that we had passed by. When arrived at Royal Gorge we were confronted by a massive car park with what looked like a theme park at the end. We were a bit confused; we’d come to see a bridge, not some cheesy “family entertainment”.

We walked down the hill towards the entrance of the park and enquired as to where the bridge was. We were told it was inside of the park and to see it we would have to pay $23 each. I’d heard of “bait and switch” before but this was “bait and gouge”!  We just wanted to see the bridge.  The last thing we both wanted, was to go into a money extracting blender in the guise of an up market carnival. I used to work in the carnival and I’m so over, going on rides, like twenty years ago. The park and high ugly fencing obscured the view of the bridge in a calculated way. It was one of the most cynical and rapacious things that I’d ever come across. I would’ve been happy to pay $5 or $10 to walk across the bridge but I really resented being lured out into the middle of nowhere to be confronted by such avarice just to see a bridge. I was so furious I went up to the ticket box and told them how I felt and stormed off. As we were walking back up the hill we noticed a few people walking off to the right through some bushes on an empty lot. So we checked it out and sure enough there was a stone barrier and you could lean over it and crane your neck to see the bridge. Of course there were no signs indicating this vantage point.

Royal Gorge is as spectacular as the attached park is inappropriate.