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Girraween's 50th Anniversary Celebration

by Vanessa Ryan

In come the dollars and in come the cents
to replace the pounds and the shillings and the pence.
Be prepared folks when the coins begin to mix
on the 14th of February 1966

Many older Australians remember the 14th of February 1966 as the day that Australia changed its currency from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents. Those with a good memory might also recollect that it was Valentine's Day. These two events were widely heralded or celebrated across the country.

© National Film and Sound Archive, Australia.

On that same auspicious day, however, another small but significant piece of Australian history was quietly being made in a place just north of the Queensland and New South Wales border. Tom Ryan began his job as Girraween National Park's first Overseer.

This harsh, yet beautiful granite landscape has had many custodians throughout its history. First there were the Kambuwal, Jukambal, Kwiambal, Ngarabal, Bundjalung and Gidabal people. Then there were the early European settlers, many who walked away after finding the land too difficult to farm. Some stayed and made this place their home - men like Bob Boyden, "Dingo" Smith, and Frank Wright; and families such as the Taylors, the McMenimans, Ramseys, Delantys, Thomases, Goebels and Gunns.

On this day, the 14th of February 1966, it was Tom's turn to become a custodian. With that, a new chapter in the history of this rugged piece of land began.

Fifty years later, Tom once again entered Girraween. He was joined by many others. Some were overseers and rangers who had followed in his footsteps as custodians and Girraween Guardians. Others lived near the park, some for many years. Others still were visitors who were passionate about this unique piece of Queensland. These men and women were all united by each having added their own pages to the chapter that Tom had begun so many years before.

Even though the 14th of February had been chosen as the park's official anniversary, at the time Tom began as Overseer ironically Girraween as such did not exist. It was still two separate parks - Bald Rock Creek National Park to the north of Pyramids Road and Castle Rock National Park to the south. Together, the two were unofficially known as Wyberba National Park. Napier Gunn's property that eventually joined the two estates together to become Girraween was still in the process of being purchased by the Government. It wasn't until the 5th of November 1966 that Gunn's land became park estate and Girraween as a single entity was truly born.

But by then, Tom had been working on the land for many months. He and local workman Bill Goebel had begun the immense task of building the park's infrastructure; removing orchards to create camping and picnic grounds and building amenities.

NPAQ 1966 Newsletter.
© National Parks Association of Queensland

Click on the image to read the National Parks Association Queensland's newsletter article about Girraween, dated October 1966.

By the time that Girraween officially became "Girraween", the embryonic National Park had already hosted many visitors. So, in truth, the 14th of February is a much more appropriate date than the 5th of November to celebrate.


Back in 1966 the 14th of February was a Monday, but in 2016 it fell on a Sunday. It would have been a nice touch to hold the anniversary celebration on the actual date, but the organisers of the event felt that it would be better to hold it on the day before. A Saturday would be more convenient for those who had to travel long distances to attend, such as ourselves.

My husband, Chris, and I are volunteers at Girraween. Although we don't have a long history with the park, we both love and respect it and we share our passion for it with others through this website. We had, naturally, both offered to do what we could to help out on Girraween's big day. My task was to interview as many of the official visitors as I could and Chris was to video the official proceedings.

"It's only going to be a low key affair," Jo McLellan - the park's Visitor Management Ranger - told me.

The morning of the 13th of February rolled around. It looked as if it was going to be a beautiful day. There had been recent rain and the grass and trees were fresh and green. Nature had put on her best late-Summer dress for the event.

We turned up at the park a little early and we could see that the rangers had already been busy. A small marquee had been erected at the back of the Information Centre in a place where you could look across the picnic area to a magnificent view of the Pyramids.

I needed to get some final instructions about the interviews I was to conduct, so we headed into the Centre. We were greeted at the front desk by a ranger who we'd never seen before. He had a bright-orange bushy beard, piercing blue eyes and a friendly smile. He wasn't much for talking, though!

We also met another new ranger, Tina Ball, who was an Acting Principal Ranger "on loan" for a couple of months from the Mackay region. She had only arrived at Girraween a few days before and was very much looking forward to her time in the park. She was certainly off to a good start.

There was an atmosphere of tense anticipation and subdued excitement in the office. As with all such events, there were a few last moment preparations to be done.

One such task was to place a series of flyers in a certain order on the signposts along some of the central walking tracks. The flyers were for one of the children's activities - an all-day treasure hunt where kids could follow a paper trail. Each flyer had a clue on it and each clue gave a letter of the alphabet and the next direction in which to go. At the end, the letters spelled out a word that is special to Girraween - "wildflower". The successful hunters were rewarded with some chocolate.

Clive Cook, an Executive Director from QNPWS head office in Brisbane, arrived in the office bearing gifts. The first was a very large, flat box. Inside was a very large, very delicious-looking chocolate birthday cake. It was so big it wouldn't fit in the office refrigerator! Fortunately, it did fit in the bigger fridge in the ranger's barracks.

Clive's second offering was in a much larger and much more mysterious-looking box. It was the Herbie suit.

Herbie is QNPWS's Ringtail Possum mascot. I was told that it had been Jo who first suggested they make a costume of him to be used at official events. She mentioned that she had been involved in the design of the first Herbie suit. This, apparently, was Herbie Mark Two, as the first costume had worn out - doubtless from the hugs of countless children. Another of the Girraween rangers, Justin Wheatley, had volunteered to wear the suit. Justin's a rather tall bloke and there were some concerns that the costume might not fit him.

It wasn't long before the first programmed event of the day was to start. This was the ranger-guided walk to Granite Arch. I had never been on a guided walk in the park before and I was very much looking forward to it. There wasn't enough time before it began for me to conduct any interviews, so I wandered over to Gunn's Cottage. I'd heard that Jo had set up a display of some historical photos and that Tom Ryan had brought some of his personal memorabilia from the 1960s and '70s.

Tom Ryan, his wife Averil, Paul Grimshaw and his wife Leanne were there. Because of the website, I had been in fairly regular contact with Tom and Averil for some years via letters and telephone, but this was the first time I had ever met them in person. It was wonderful to be able to say hello, shake their hands and finally put faces to the people who had been at the other end of all those conversations.

Paul Grimshaw had been Girraween's second park Overseer, picking up the reins from where Tom left off. I had met Paul and Leanne a couple of times before in Brisbane and it was lovely to see them again on this special day.

I could see that the four old-timers had a lot to talk about, so I left them and took the opportunity to have a look at the photographic display get a few photos of my own of Tom's memorabilia. The items included two shirts and the hat from his original uniform, and one of the tools that was used to mark out the walking tracks. He also had a generous number of photos mounted on a board with descriptive labels placed beneath them.

When it was time, we all headed over to where the guided walk was to start. On the way, we met up with Trevor Vollbon, an old friend of Tom and Paul's. Trevor is a retired Park Planner for Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services. He had a lot to do with the design of Girraween's Information Centre and some of its other facilities. I had met Trevor only a few months before when I interviewed him.

There was a small crowd gathering near the marquee at the back of the Information Centre. This was where the guided walk was to begin. It was great to see that the group included quite a lot of children and I was told that they belonged to the Killarney and Glennie Heights Scout groups. Everyone was quickly organised into two walking groups. Brett Roberts, who had been Girraween's Ranger In Charge 1985-1993, led the first group away.

Jo's group, which included the Ryans, Grimshaws, Trevor, Chris and myself, waited a few minutes before setting off. We headed along the Granite Arch circuit track in the opposite direction to the way Brett had taken. During the tour, Jo stopped us a few times in interesting locations to speak about different aspects of the park - the plants, animals, and geology.

At the Bald Rock Creek crossing, Tom quietly told me that the two small concrete bridges located there have old Ford truck chassis at their hearts. It was while they were building them that Bill Goebel took a tumble into the creek with a very heavy wheelbarrow load of sand. Bill had been trying to impress a pretty lady sitting on the creek bank with his feat of strength, but he had missed his footing and had ended up embarrassing himself instead. I knew the story, but this time its telling had a special meaning - being in the very place that it had happened so many years ago and told by someone who had actually witnessed it.

The new ranger.

The new ranger.

One of the Treasure Hunt flyers.

One of the Treasure Hunt flyers.

The birthday cake.

The birthday cake.

Jo unpacking the Herbie costume.

Jo unpacking the Herbie costume.

Tom's display.

Tom's display.

Paul, Trevor and Tom.

Paul, Trevor and Tom.

Jo talking to some of the guided tour group.

Jo talking to some of the guided tour group.

Along the way, Jo showed us her favourite tree in the whole of Girraween. It was a huge, old, Eucalyptus prava. Its trunk was gnarled and carried the scars of a long and eventful life. I have seen this tree a few times before and each time I have paused to admire it. It is a magnificent and beautiful tree and I could easily see why Jo loved it so.

At one point, nearing the end of the walk, Paul stopped the group and told us to listen. We could hear a bird calling somewhere off in the bush. Paul identified it as a Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. This little bird, he told us, is quite special. People come from all over Australia to Girraween in the hopes to see it.

The guided walk over, I spent a few pleasant minutes with Leanne Grimshaw photographing some of the wildflowers along Bald Rock creek. Like her husband, Paul, Leanne is also very keen on native plants and quite knowledgeable about them.

All too soon, it was time for to me to begin interviewing people. The interviews were held in the relative quiet of Gunn's Cottage.

Brett Roberts was first in line. As mentioned earlier, Brett had been Ranger in Charge at Girraween for many years. His career path has since moved upwards in QNPWS and his responsibilities grown, but throughout our interview, it was clear that he is still intensely passionate about the park and the people associated with it.

Next up, after a hurried and very late lunch break, I interviewed Jo. During our chat, we were interrupted by one of the park's neighbours. He had found an orphaned Ringtail Possum and had brought it with him to give to Jo. Jo said she'd pass the little creature on to one of the local wildlife carers. She thought it had a good chance of survival, for even though it was still young, it wasn't far off from being big enough to leave its mother's care. It was strangely appropriate that it was a Ringtail Possum, as Queensland National Park's mascot Herbie is a Herbert River Ringtail Possum.

2.30 pm and it was time for the neighbour's meeting. Greg Keith had kindly invited me along to it. Greg is Girraween's newest Ranger in Charge, picking up the position's reins from John Cowburn. Since John retired in 2014, the management system had been restructured so that the park rangers not only looked after Girraween and Horan's Gorge, but were responsible for a number of other parks and reserves in the Granite Belt district as well. Greg's full title is Ranger in Charge Granite Belt Management Unit, South West Region I. It's quite a mouthful and, I think, quite a big responsibility.

  Brett Roberts.

Brett Roberts.

Jo McLellan with our unexpected visitor.

Jo McLellan with our unexpected visitor.

Quite a few people turned up at Gunn's Cottage for the meeting. We took turns to introduce ourselves. Some of the neighbours had lifestyle properties near the park where they stayed for weekends and holidays. Others were long-term farmers and residents. One family has been in the area for over 100 years.

Greg, Jo and Neal Holmes (another of Girraween's rangers), each gave interesting presentations about different aspects of the park's history and management. I learned that Girraween has up to 120,000 visitors each year. Of those, 96,000 climb the Pyramid and around 35,000 camp overnight in the park. The two main concerns of the park's neighbours were fire and pests. Blackberry is still considered a priority weed.

There was a brief interruption to the proceedings when Jo led Herbie into Gunn's Cottage to say "hello". After giving her talk about the park's history to us, Jo had slipped out to help Justin get dressed in the Herbie suit. Despite all the concerns, the suit did fit him, just. The two then left to go entertain the families in the picnic area.

After the presentations, there was time for the neighbours to chat, ask questions and voice any concerns they might have over a cup of tea or coffee.

It was, by then, getting quite late into the afternoon. I left Gunn's and wandered back over to where the marquee had been set up. A gallery of chairs had been arranged in front of the marquee and some colourful banners now flapped in the occasional light breeze. A small crowd of people was beginning to gather for the official part of the day's events. The speeches were to begin at 5pm. I didn't have time to conduct another interview, so I helped Chris set up his camera, ready to video the official proceedings.

Behind us, Justin - now divest of his Herbie skin - was busy cooking sausages on a large BBQ. Sue Smith, another of Girraween's rangers, was helping him with the Sizzle. The delicious smell occasionally wafted over the crowd.

The guests of honour were seated on a line of chairs near the marquee. Tom Ryan, Paul Grimshaw, Bob Laws, Lawrie Shelley, Brett Roberts, Ian Elms and Greg Keith.

In the crowd, I could see Peter Beloff, another of Girraween's rangers, with his wife and young daughter.

I could also see John and Iris Wiffen. The Wiffens were once regular visitors to the park and John was an Honorary Ranger in the 1970s. Graeme and Shirley Hart were also there with their family. Four generations of the Hart family have been regular visitors to Girraween since 1966 and Graeme had helped build the first toilet blocks and parts of the Pyramid track.

Michelle Prior and Yvonne Parsons from the National Parks Association Queensland had come for the occasion, as had Ian Milinovich and some other members of the Stanthorpe Rare Wildflower Association. It was also nice to see one of the local Southern Downs Regional Councillors, Neil Meiklejohn, had come to help celebrate the event.

There was one person who was noticeably absent. Bill Goebel. Bill had been guide, mentor, dear friend and father-figure to so many of Girraween's Guardians and visitors. Bill had unfortunately passed away just the December before at the grand age of 92. Jo, who was MC-ing the event, in her introductory speech gave a touching tribute to her much-loved and much-missed old friend.

In her speech, Jo also paid tribute to some of the other people who's lives had touched Girraween and who are no longer with us. The names she mentioned were Bill's brother Hock, Graeme Yeo, Jean Harslett, Sid Curtis and John Churchwood.

Jo concluded her speech by introducing Penny Davies and Roger Ilott. The musicians performed their song about Girraween. It's a lovely song and I noticed some tears in people's eyes.

Brett Roberts, Clive Cook and Tom Ryan each then gave their speech and the official part of the day was over.

The sausage sizzle was fully underway, feeding the hungry crowd.

It was still quite light and the children's Lantern Parade wasn't due to start for a while so I thought I could fit in another interview. Lawrie Shelley was available to talk so we went back to Gunn's Cottage, away from the crowd and where it would be a bit quieter. Lawrie and I had never met before. I found him to be quiet spoken, a little shy and modest gentleman.

After Lawrie's interview, we headed back to the marquee area. The sun was now setting and the children were gathering for their Twilight Parade. While we were waiting for the parade to start, I spoke to a couple of adults who were supervising the children. They told me that the kids all came from local schools and they had made the lanterns themselves as part of a school project. Each of the pyramidal lanterns was decorated with cutout figures that would be silhouetted when the lantern's battery powered "candle" inside was turned on. A lot of the children were dressed as fairies, with the idea that fairies are "nature carers".

When it was time, the lanterns were lit and the parade began. Some ladies, also dressed as fairies - one was a fairy Queen, led the children down to the Wyberba Track, which had been dotted with various kinds of solar-powered lights to serve both as decorations and to show the way. It was a nice touch. The fairy Queen stopped the parade at the start of the walk to talk to the children about nature and how precious the environment is. A second stop was down at the creek side and the fairy Queen asked the children to each make a wish for Girraween and its Guardians and to cast it out over the water so that it might come true. The parade then made its way back to the picnic area and the children gathered into a ring for the final part of the fairies' nature lesson.

During the Lantern Parade, the invited adults had moved down from the marquee to the picnic area for the Reunion Barbecue. The large shelter shed that used to be an amenities block had been made into a field kitchen. The shed's barbecue range and an additional barbecue were both going full bore, cooking up mounds of sausages and meats for the guests. Once again, it appeared that Justin was head chef.

Some long tables had been set up and laid out with the other necessary barbecue items and foodstuffs. A couple of floodlights lit the area, another marquee had been set up and chairs were scattered around. It was an island of light, movement and merriment in the gathering darkness. Bursts of laughter bubbled out into the cooling evening air.

By the time I arrived, people were already lining up to get served. Guests had been asked to bring a plate to share, so there was a good variety of tasty fresh salads and sticky sweets to choose from. The food was eaten, drinks flowed, guests mingled and the hubbub of conversation between old friends - some who hadn't seen each other for many years - filled the night.

I took the opportunity to do another interview. This time it was with Ian Elms. Ian was a ranger in Girraween from 1982 to 2009. Jo had mentioned in her speech earlier that he was the longest serving ranger of all of them, this (2016) being his 33rd year in the National Parks and Wildlife Service. He had worked side by side with his brother, Glen, for nine of those years in Girraween. During our interview, I could see why he had been described by some as one of Girraween's larrikins. On the surface, Ian appears to be very calm and laid back, but he has a very sly and wicked sense of humour.

We were interrupted midway through the interview by the birthday cake cutting. Greg gave a short speech and the candle on the cake was ceremonially blown out by himself, Justin, Jo and Peter. The cake was then cut and pieces handed out. I can honestly report that the cake had not only looked delicious, it also tasted delicious!

After that brief interlude, Ian and I finished our interview. I left Ian to continue catching up with old friends.

There was still some time left in the evening, so I decided to try to squeeze in one more interview. I knew I could catch up with Tom and Paul at a later date (which I did), so I looked around for Bob Laws. We hadn't met before and I was looking forward to speaking with him. I found him with his wife, Jan, both tucking in to their pieces of birthday cake. Bob was happy to do the interview. I found him to be a bit like Lawrie, modest and quiet spoken.

By the time the interview was over, it was getting late. People were singing out their goodbyes and there were lots of handshakes and hugs. The picnic area was lit by brief sweeping flashes of headlights as the visitors got into their cars and drove off into the night. The scattered chairs were quickly emptying, so Chris and I helped to stack them up for transport and storage.

Our jobs done, it was time for us to leave, too. We said our farewells and that was it. For us the day was over.

As Jo had said, the celebration had been a "low key affair". I think that anything bigger or more formal just wouldn't have been as true to Girraween. The day was about celebrating the land and the people who have cared for and about that land for the past 50 years. There was a real warm sense of family, of community, of generations of carers - be they rangers, neighbours, visitors, or volunteers like ourselves.

  Herbie meeting the kids.

Herbie meeting the kids.

Sue sizzling sausages.

Sue sizzling sausages.

Bill Goebel.
© Girraween National Park, 2009.

Bill Goebel.

Tom giving his speech.

Tom giving his speech. Facing the camera in the crowd is Graeme Hart.

Lawrie Shelley.

Lawrie Shelley.

Twilight Lantern Parade.

Twilight Lantern Parade.

The reunion BBQ.

The reunion BBQ.

Ian Elms.

Ian Elms.

Blowing out the candle on the birthday cake.

Blowing out the candle on the birthday cake.
From left to right: Greg, Justin, Jo and Peter.

Bob Laws.

Bob Laws.

We had the displays, speeches and reunion BBQ to remind us of the past. We had the family treasure hunt and guided walks that took us out into the park to experience its unique beauty in the present. We had the children casting their wishes out over Bald Rock Creek for the future.

A few days later, Trevor Vollbon sent me an email. With these few words, he summed up the celebration perfectly:

"It was a great day, in a great place, with great people."

© Vanessa and Chris Ryan, 2009 | Copyright Details and Disclaimer
Last updated: 4th November 2016