MY HEART IS HERE: Fred Conway at Carnarvon Gorge.
MY HEART IS HERE: Fred Conway at Carnarvon Gorge. Contributed

Central Queensland elder recognised for great work

INDIGENOUS Central Queensland elder Fred Conway reckons if you put him out in the bush "you can't shut me up".

It's the same if he knows there's a karaoke machine being fired up at a country pub nearby.

Get ready for a lusty rendition of anything from Charlie Pride to Johnny Cash, Don Williams or the Oakridge Boys.

But being named as a Queensland Great this year and flown to Brisbane for a glittering reception with his fellow recipients left him lost for words.

"For the first time in my life I was dumbfounded," said the man honoured for his decades as a Queensland National Parks and Wildlife ranger at Carnarvon National Park and his preservation of indigenous culture through work with the region's youth.

"Jingos, when I went down there (Brisbane) it opened up my eyes… we hear the saying you're 10-foot tall and think you're bullet-proof, but to me I was about 12-foot tall to go down there and collect this great award."

It was the ancestral significance of the Carnarvon Gorge that helped heal Fred's troubled heart a long time ago when he found his way "back to country" and his heritage.

Bernice Sigley was the woman who led him away from the white government men who ran Woorabinda and into the towering escarpments and light-filled canyons so rich with ancient indigenous culture.

Recently retired after 30 years on and off as the park ranger, Fred has been named as an honorary protector under the Nature Conservation Act.

"I like talking to people, oh mate, especially the children," he said.

"I see the kids as more absorbent of things than we are as adults, and by talking to them I use that as an educational tool to educate the parents.

"I see that what I've done

there since the beginning of my time is talking to the younger (indigenous) ones about our culture… and a lot of them haven't forgotten what I've shown them, and it gives me pride and makes me a very proud man, not because they accept what I've done but because they absorbed what I have shown them.

"To me, they're saying their culture is not lost.

"There are a lot of distractions out there - the mobile phone, fast cars, the internet and those sorts of things, but when they are in this remote area, they understand it's getting back to country.

"We all have distractions that take us away from our culture."

When you're linked to the land like Fred is, the bond between him and the gorge is something he wants to be eternal.

Home really is where the heart is, or will perhaps return to.

"I want my heart to be cut out and cremated and spread out over the (Carnarvon Gorge) art gallery, because that is where my heart is," Fred said.

"To be honest, I'm feeling lost not being there.

"I would like to have a little place there I could stay and call it home all the time, but it doesn't work that way.

"… Since I've gotten in to that gorge, it's like my blood in me that I can't get out of me."

Fred has been floating around Duaringa and Rockhampton since his "retirement", and lately he has been out in Emerald - where his nephew, Brad Jarrow, is a teacher at the Marist College Emerald - talking with students about the traditional owners of the land.

In talks with Central Highlands Regional Council chief executive Scott Mason about getting power to an indigenous keeping place at the botanic gardens, Fred wants to do his bit for tourism and teach passers-by about the making of traditional weapons like boomerangs and nulla nullas.

He also has plans for walking tours of the old rifle range to show them indigenous ways.

Turning 70 on August 17, Fred plans a quiet celebration with friends and some of his family - that's two sons, six daughters, 60-odd grandchildren and "about 30" great- grandchildren.

He may have lost count.

That's not to say there haven't been arguments healed by many, many hugs over the years, but family is everything to Fred.

"We're all one big family when the time comes," he said. "It doesn't matter how hard - we're there to pick up the pieces for that child or that family."

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