One of our guide Meakan’s great photos. This is another one.


The blue-winged kookaburra, a northern variety. Every morning they would wake me at dawn or just a little before with their throaty cries that try so hard but never actually emerge into a laugh. Happy sure, but not riotously so.

That night in Cooktown I had been woken by what I thought was the dimp dimp dimp of a mobile phone alarm. Dimp dimp dimp dimp dimp. It went on and on till I decided to take action and go and stir up the owner. I knew just who it would be and I was going to provide her with a piece of my mind. But it wasn’t coming from a tent. It was coming from the bush, a bird. It didn’t stop, not immediately anyway, but somehow that made it okay, the beginning of a very good day.

IMG_1500.jpgBlack Mountain, 20 km out of Cooktown, a huge tumble of unusual granite boulders, and one of our party did take a tumble, grazes and blood everywhere, but he remained otherwise unscathed.

I was looking forward to seeing the (Aboriginal) Quinkin rock art at Split Rock. It was a pleasant short walk off the track.IMG_1516.jpg


88aa20dd47373e2f25724faecc541a76.jpgPeople who read books to children might recognise the source of Percy Trezise and Dick Roughsey’s Quinkin series with the wicked Imjim, the generous and helpful Timara and Turramulli the giant Quinkin. Reportedly there are better preserved paintings in the ranges nearby but the ones we saw were at least a taster. It’s a bit hard to see but that’s an Imjim on the right below for sure. The tail is the giveaway.IMG_1507.jpg

We are some distance from rain forest here. For a start we were travelling through lake land.

feature_image.jpgIt didn’t look wet (this is a filched photo), but sometimes it is — very wet. With only about 2.7 percent of Australia’s land area Cape York produces more run-off than all of Australia south of the Tropic of Capricorn, which is to say 65 percent of the country.

dugong-image.jpgIt is also an area remarkable for its wild rivers. Nowhere in the world is there such a concentration of these rapidly disappearing natural features. The Normanby, Hann, Kennedy and Morehead systems, for example, drain into Princess Charlotte Bay, the large bite taken out of the eastern coast (and an important habitat for dugong, at left). The Jardine further north is the largest perennial river in Queensland.


There are more than 120 riverine lagoons in the Rinyurri/ Lakefield National Park. In the wet they are absorbed into waterways. In the dry the water and the wildlife depending on it become concentrated in particular locations. So you get these remarkable aggregations of bird life like the magpie geese above and the black swans below. Hundreds of bird species. Freshwater crocodiles enjoy feeding on them.Fiona_Harper_Image_82052-black-swan.jpg

We came to Lakeland Downs, an oddity, quite a lot of land under cultivation in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t take any photos and no one else seems to have either. A further oddity is that Clyde Foyster, sand mining tycoon who cleared 8000ha. of bush here in the 1960s and put in bores for year round water supply, called his ambitious spread Lakeland — not after the lake land, but after William Lakeland, a gold prospector.

It went bad — problems with supplies, failure to take into account the poor quality of the soils, unforeseen pests and diseases — and he sold it in 1974 to someone else who wanted to have go. What was there when we were there? Maize, sorghum, might have been some bananas, other types of fruit and perhaps some sandalwood, a long term proposition, a few other bits and pieces — but enough to support a town of 200.

We went through tiny Laura (popu. 80) — famous, but mainly for being ‘the end of the line’ — and on past Old Laura homestead. Derelict, but with its Queenslander shape intact. IMG_1518.jpgThis is downstairs of one in better nick in Coen, Coen’s museum in fact. Spare.IMG_1560.jpgA few hours drive away, what’s left of Breeza homestead.IMG_1532.jpg

These buildings are up off the ground for purposes of air circulation, to provide some cool shade in the understorey but also, I read, because the insect layer here stops about 1.5m off the ground. There would be enough to annoy you here without insect infestation as well. 

I asked the truck to stop so I could take the photo of Breeza. I like the sculptural mass of these old buildings and the patina and colours of the weathering. They belong in the landscape in a way which I’m sure was never consciously intended. And they’re important memorials — and rare. Rare to the point of being tourist landmarks. Just left, they murmur and croak about hard times and struggle, remnants of something tried that hasn’t worked — not just here anyway — isolated versions of one line of history for which in this part of the world there is not much evidence. People have lived and worked here. Whitefellas. Blackfellas adapted rather better … and left far fewer traces.

laura_dirtroad (1).jpg
What we were doing was driving through the tropical savannah which covers northern Australia, a quarter of the country. Open enough to allow grasses and scrub to grow. Monsoonal enough to keep things alive; also monsoonal enough to leach the shallow soils each year. And red. An ideal climate and environment for the oxidisation of iron which attaches to clay particles. We were driving through rust. (Below, vivid in the late light at Archer River.)IMG_1562 (1).jpg
Unknown.jpegScreen Shot 2017-11-21 at 3.34.49 pm.pngKalpowar Crossing in Rinyirri National Park was one of my favourite camping spots.

One of the reasons was that we arrived at the same time as a huge flock of red-tailed black cockatoos. I had no idea that there could be so many in a single flock. They wheeled and swooped and turned and wheeled again. They were simply magnificent.

Another was that we were five days away from phone reception and five days away from the nearest grog shop. Although the latter had been attended to with enormous care. (‘How many have you got left in the Eskie? Four?’ ‘Nah six. … Seven! And I’ve got another two slabs in the truck.’)


A third was that the Normanby River flows next to the camp site. Flowing water (with a crocodile warning sign), and surprise — fossils. And — call that a guide! THIS is a guide. Meet Rick, the Old Hand, who was showing Meakan and Hayden the ropes.IMG_1526.jpg

I don’t know the name of what we were looking at, but it was a good one.



And we came to the Nifold Plain.

One of the interesting things about the Nifold Plain is that I can’t find anything about it. It’s not in the books; it’s not in Wikipedia; in fact it’s scarcely on the internet. But after ten or twelve hours of savannah, it was striking.IMG_1540.jpg

img_1467.jpgA naturalist would exclaim over the diversity of environments in Cape York. Myself, less so. I am inclined to go to sleep when in motion and a passenger. After 40 minutes in the truck I’d jolt awake and seem to be looking at exactly the same thing I’d been looking at when I nodded off. But this was different. A bit of a thrill.

These structures generated a hot fizz of local interest in the ant world.

Ants, mate. Extraordinary. Did you know that some species farm aphids, eating the honeydew the aphids release from the ends of their alimentary canals? They milk the aphids by stroking them with their antennae, a process you can watch right here.

Some species build rafts and bridges, sometimes out of the dead bodies of their colleagues. Some Cape York ants propagate plants which they then use as their homes. The epiphytic host plants secrete a chemical which allows the ants to determine just where to drop the seeds which they have collected. Then, for purposes of fertilisation, the ants poop on the seed.

Others farm fungi having domesticated it to their purposes 65 million years ago. Attine ants cultivate species of fungi that don’t produce spores, which means they can’t spread their own seed. 

They started this farming in the rainforest, but domestication happened in drier climates like deserts or savannahs. In these climes, the fungi grew best inside the comparatively moist underground colonies that their ant overlords created. Over time, this turned into an inability to grow outside of the nest, because they were genetically incapable of doing so. And similarly, the ants lost the ability to make a key amino acid, asparagine, which the fungus provides them. And voila: mutual dependence. 

But I hear some shrieking in the background.

Yes these are ‘magnetic’ mounds, but they are not anthills. They are termite mounds. And termites are not even in the same biological classification Order as ants. Ants have antennae with elbows, waists and pointy noses, and they can see. Termites don’t, and can’t.

Termite mounds house a colony and provide protection for the colony to breed, care for the young and store food. Individual termites are not all the same, but belong to different castes that have different roles. These castes include the winged ‘reproductives’ that are males and females capable of breeding; and sterile males and females that are divided into ‘soldiers’ and ‘workers’. Reproductives that successfully mate are the founders of new colonies and become the king and queen. Usually there is only one queen in a colony, but Amitermes laurensis (named after Laura Station in Cape York) may have many queens in each mound.

magnetic_termite_mound.jpg‘Magnetic’ mounds are tall, thin and wedge-shaped with the longer axis oriented directly north-south. The one at left is a dramatic and fairly rare example of what all of these mounds are like. In the morning the sun shines full on their eastern face. At this stage the western face is not only in shade, but also insulated from the hot eastern face by the thick, solid core of the nest.

There can be up to 8°C difference in temperature between the two surfaces. In the afternoon the reverse happens and the western face becomes much hotter than the eastern. At midday, the hottest part of the day when no shade is cast, only the thin upper edge of the mound is presented to the sun so minimum heat is absorbed. We know that the termites shift from one side to the other away from the heat.

So ‘solar’ mounds perhaps rather than ‘magnetic’ mounds. Either way, remarkable.

We got back on the main road north (‘The Peninsula Developmental Road’) at Musgrave. Musgrave was the headquarters for building the telegraph line which allowed direct communication from Laura (and therefore Brisbane) to Thursday Island. To deal with the climate, the poles were galvanised iron affairs freighted from England (still in good shape today!) and galvanised wire weighing 120kgs per kilometre. It took two years (from 1883) just to survey and clear a route. It opened in 1887 but required constant maintenance, not least because the local Aboriginal people found they could smash the ceramic insulators to make excellent cutting tools.IMG_1549.jpg

This is the Telegraph Station today, still with its wooden shutters to keep out spears, its corner gun turrets from which to shoot at intruders, stairs and water tanks built in the interior of its hollow square kept safe out of the way of marauders. This was the provision for life in the whitefellas’ wilderness.

‘Maybe less interesting’, I wrote in my journal, ‘for its past rather than its very active present. Christ, there’s lot of traffic here.’ Plenty of grey nomads certainly, but heaps and heaps of trucks, on their way to Weipa and back mainly, but elsewhere as well. Today this is how supplies get to where they are supposed to go. Still a dirt road, and just the one, but with a lot of work happening on it.IMG_1567.jpg


At left a Land Cruiser at Archer River where we spent a night. A victim of The Wet: trying to cross a creek, swept off into the main flow, pulled out some time later.

action-transport-river-481784-o.jpgIf you want to follow the Old Telegraph Track directly you can. It contains 13 river crossings, one of which is Gunshot Creek which hardy souls wanting to test their 4WD driving skills look forward to. You enter here.


We didn’t go that way. We went off to Portland Roads, Chili Beach and Lockhart River.

IMG_1613.jpgAnd here’s the thing. One thing anyway. Across this vast expanse — we drove 2069 km over 11 days, one way, Cairns to The Tip, coming home on the ‘barge’ — even if you have a very well equipped 4WD the places you can go are well-defined and limited. You don’t go wandering; you stick to the track and, if you have an expansive tour like ours, you will go to a version of Everywhere.

And if you start casting through the horde of images on the net, you will find they are pretty much of the same things, down to the angle of the photo. At right a case in point, with me bullying Hayden to be a witness figure for a bit of derelict machinery at Wenlock River goldmine. You’ll have no trouble finding a hundred or so pics of the same bit of rusted junk/ important historical artefact. This suggests that in Cape York Every traveller goes Everywhere, and that Everywhere has surprisingly limited features and dimensions.

It requires a certain type of patience that applies right through the outback. I have no doubt the people who live in places like this are deeply affected by their environments: a different attitude to time for example, horizons at once endless and at the same time very narrow. Conversation might mean something different, and there will be, is, endless disdain for the opinions and attitudes of itinerant visitors and other outsiders.

A version of this also applies to people who travel these tracks for pleasure. Their most important destination is nowhere, somewhere no one has ever been before. Very hard to get there of course. 

But there is a seduction in the stillness in the early evenings — which close in very fast here, we’re in the low latitudes — perhaps with the crackle of a fire, the ziiiip of another Goldie opened, a quiet, and unsophisticated, joke. You don’t think about this country and its history. You feel it. And if you talk about it, scrubbing at its surface, you tell stories of where you’ve been — and where you’re going next. Gear. Roads. Camps. Equipment. Roads. Camps. Gear. Even if you’re not asleep, you’re certainly in bed by 8.30. The Eskie needs to be sorted out before 6 the next morning to get the full benefit of the chill at 4.00.

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 4.02.07 pm.pngSo … Portland Roads, Chili Beach and Lockhart River.

IMG_1581.jpgPortland Roads was a big surprise. (Named by Cook: ‘Portland’ for the Duke of Portland, ‘roads’ meaning somewhere safe for ships to lay up.)

During the last World War there were, we were told, 7000 American soldiers, tucked off the sides of the road between Lockhart and Portland Roads. Portland Roads was the port for supplies to the Iron Range airfield near Lockhart River, also built by the US Army.

There are remnants of this time: rusted tracks, sleepers, wooden pilings where the wharf would have been.

But today Portland Roads looks like a very very small and quite beautiful seaside resort. There’s a public phone, a cafe, some shacks, accommodation for rent. It did seem like we might have discovered nowhere.

Unknown.jpegUnknown.jpegThat was what Edmund Kennedy found. There is a plaque here that almost tells his story.

Edmund Besley Court Kennedy J.P. on 13 November 1848 while exploring in Cape York Peninsula left Carron, Wall, Douglas, Niblet, Taylor, Carpenter, Goddard, and Mitchell near the mouth of Pascoe River [just north of Portland Roads] and sought succour at Cape York. En route he was fatally speared and 3 men died. Aborigine Jackey-Jackey sole survivor of advance party reached waiting ship ‘Ariel’ which rescued survivors Carron and Goddard at Weymouth Bay on 30 December.

Kennedy himself seems to have been a decent and capable man, somewhat unlucky in his adventures. He made two expeditions into the interior of NSW and Queensland looking for the ‘big river’ that must flow into the Gulf of Carpentaria, in both cases finding he had to turn south-west to follow Cooper’s Creek and the Barcoo. Monster if failed efforts, both of them.

Some indication of just how difficult the Cape York expedition was can be gleaned from the fact that after nine weeks they had travelled 60km from the coast and just 20km north of their landing point. They had sheep (sheep!) and carts which were abandoned almost immediately in mangrove swamps and bogs. ‘The storeman was found to have stolen food from the supplies. He was demoted to labourer’. That would have sorted that out.

StateLibQld_1_186643_Sketch_of_explorer_Edmund_Kennedy,_ca._1848.jpgNorth of the Pascoe River, seven months in, Costigan, one of the four remaining in the advance party, accidentally shot himself. Luff (‘Luft’ in one memorium) and Dunn were left to look after him and, despite searches of the area not long after, no trace of them was ever found. Having crossed the appallingly difficult bogs of the Wet Desert, Kennedy was just 30km from Cape York when he was speared in an attack that is described as ‘not to have been directly provoked’. (As illustrated by an anonymous contemporary, at right.) Jackey-Jackey buried his body, but it was gone when he led the rescue party from the ‘Ariel’ back to the site. In all, ten of the group of 13 died.

The memorial in Sydney’s St James Church suggests that Kennedy fell, sacrificially ‘in the 31st year of his [life — so young all these ‘explorers’] to the cause of science, the advancement of the colony and the interest of humanity. Flebile principium melior fortuna sequatur’ (‘An unhappy beginning followed by better fortune’. More accurately: In optimam partem ab initio infelix secuta est finis. ‘An optimistic beginning followed by a shocker.’)

After the colonial government honoured his remarkable efforts with a silver breastplate and an honorarium of £50, neither of which he ever took up, Jackey-Jackey died aged 21 after falling into a camp fire, reportedly drunk. He wasn’t from the Cape. He grew up in what we now call the Hunter Valley in NSW, a Wonnarua man, and hence he would have been almost as much foreigner here as Kennedy, but much better at living off the country.

His name was actually Galmahra/ Galmarra. But the term (spelt more usually) ‘Jacky-Jacky’ entered the language, and as Shane Maloney writes: ‘For whites it was a generic dismissive, denying blacks their individuality and hence their dignity. To blacks it meant a collaborator, the subservient native complicit in his own people’s dispossession.’

IMG_1585.jpg‘Unmissable’ Chili Beach looked like a tropical beach should: bright white sand, palm trees, along a long curved beach. 

However at the shore line was a thick rope of coral spawn drying in the sun producing an extraordinarily pungent smell that sent me back to the truck.

Notable also was the amount of rubbish left by the ‘independent campers’. At most of the places you might want to stop in the Cape, river crossings, truck bays, lookouts, were empty cans, grocery packaging, nappies, smokes packets — the things self-contained, independent travellers have to leave behind I guess. At Coen, huge trailer loads of rubbish arrived when we were there. Someone had been cleaning up.

I must say that wasn’t true of the campsites — near here Cooks Hut in the middle of dense rain forest — that we used.

Lockhart River. I went there first years ago and arrived in the middle of a party that seemed to involve the whole town. One of the guys told me it was the Rasta capital of Australia and he had a red yellow and green rastacap and a cigar-sized spliff (he would want me to say) to prove it.

We were staying in the visitors’ quarters and the early part of the night was punctuated by noise associated with moving drunks into the lockup over the road to sober up. But about 3.00 I was awakened by what I thought was heavy rain. It turned out to be 20 or 30 ‘leather’ (furless) dogs running down the lino in the corridor before turning left through our room, out the window and onto the veranda.

From this later brief visit Lockhart seemed no longer the wild west town it had been then. The new school building looked schmick, and we paid a visit to the art centre home of the Lockhart River Art Gang.  At the time some of its members and its manager Enoch Perazim (a very slick operator from Papua New Guinea) were preparing for a major exhibition in Houston and other American cities. Amazing. This tiny isolated speck with its 20 artists is a player in world art.

Cheryl-Accoom.jpgCheryl Accoom is one of them. She’s 25 now, but at 17 had already exhibited internationally. “I was born in Cairns and I grew up in Lockhart with my Nana, I went to school in Lockhart, my great Grandmother was a painter at the centre and she told me to come and paint at the arts centre. So first I came as a cleaning lady, but I started painting here and I liked it. My paintings are about colours and how those colours say what I am feeling. I would like to keep painting. I feel happy when people buy my paintings.” A most merciful relief from more carefully tutored artspeak.

Art Gang art is distinguished by the brilliance of its colours as well as its local reference.kjt_lhgq-ilcthbvo4buhdrl9kzviccbd65zfamabxq.jpgIt’s an Irene Namok lying down, with Josiah Omeenyo on the wall. It will cost you a five-figure sum to buy either.

IMG_1571.jpgArt lover trying, and failing, to leave the Lockhart River art gallery at the appropriate departure time.

IMG_1589.jpg170px-Eclectus_Parrot_(Eclectus_roratus)_-6-4c.jpgCape York is an important destination for serious birders. On the Lockhart Road we saw a female Eclectus Parrot. Just. It’s the red dot, and a big deal. I’m not sure just how the spotters came to spot this one, at left, about 60-80 metres away — beyond the clear comprehension of my telephoto lens anyway — mostly staying at home in its hole. Much prized in New Guinea for their colourful feathers, females look like the photo on the right. Males are a brilliant green.

IMG_1641.jpgThen from one side of the Cape — it’s narrowing — to the other. Weipa.

This beach is bauxite. If you mash up that gravel into powder and heat it to 200°C in a pressurised solution of sodium hydroxide, remove the waste and heat the resultant crystals in a rotary kiln at 1000°C you’ll have aluminium oxide. But if you want to build a plane, there are more steps and a great deal of electricity involved.

Getting hold of bauxite here is not, in mining terms, onerous. You scrape off the overburden, often just a metre or two, if that, then dig and cart the next few metres and send it off in a ship. It’s as simple, and difficult, as that. Then you put the overburden back and say, Wow! Good as new. But as Rick the Old Hand says, what in the meantime has happened, just for example, to the water table? That mining process will happen across several thousand square kilometres near here.

Weipa, at present, is a flourishing regional centre, by far the biggest town in the Cape. We did washing, internet, grog purchase and mooching around here with the sounds of a rodeo, which I would love to have gone to, as well as gun shots providing a soundtrack to the night. We did go on a first class ‘ecological’ boat tour; birds and creatures in the open air with a cool breeze.IMG_1632.jpgIt wouldn’t be a blog about FNQ without a croc pic. I’m not sure why crocs get people so excited. This one was just waking up for the season. Moving but sedentary. There were dozens of birds in near proximity fishing and preening without anxiety.

It was an issue. Here we were at a great beach or river, it’s 35°C, and we can’t swim. Crocs! Somewhere. Possibly. Invisible. But … you know … risk management. Fruit Bat Falls was one place we could swim. Given to evaluative reactivity, Myrna thought it was the best ever. It might have been the relief, and she may well have forgotten those fabulous gorges in the Kimberley, but it was a delight.IMG_9851.JPG

Moreton Telegraph Station, with Emma who had recently arrived from Cambridge in the currently Disunited Kingdom.IMG_1647.jpgThis is a cafe/ shop/ rest area/ ex-Telegraph Station, and the bits and pieces tend to describe it and its function quite well. A couple of pies of uncertain age in the pie warmer, a serious effort to make good plunger coffee. The odd relics pinned to the walls, insulators plonked on the bench. The T-shirts for sale. There would be some dusty postcards on the back wall with the jokes about women/ wives/ blonds nearby. Did I mention this was hard country?

Emma hadn’t been to the Tip yet. It would be a full day there and back. But she had plans. What did she make of it so far? ‘Most amazing experience ever. People are so friendly.’

IMG_1692.jpgIn a highly competitive field the five or ten km before the Jardine River won the prize for Absolute Worst Corrugations Ever. They were so bad they almost stopped the truck. Other people had veered off the road and set up their own hoon tracks which had become just as bad. They were ferocious, but we eventually got to the crossing. Our truck is the second vehicle in this picture. Ferry crossing: $110. With trailer: $145. There’s a lot of fuss about this.

I have mentioned that the Jardine carries the most water year round of any river in Queensland. Last year it rose so high in the wet that the ferry which at the time was cable-anchored to a series of trees some distance up on the bank behind where I’m standing, came adrift and began the journey downstream. The climate/ weather here has an impact on EVERYTHING.

We looked at crashed plane bodies and old bits of mining machinery and various evidence of World War II and a derelict communications tower. I think I took this snap at Injinoo Beach. Maybe it was Roonga Pt. Maybe I was a bit off the air.IMG_1708.jpgBUT you could run the country with these two.

Meakan and Hayden, on this trip apprentice guides/ hosts/ cooks; on the next trip fully-fledged guides etc. The souls of amiability and courtesy, they were reason enough to go on the tour. Hayden was a driver, mechanic, had been a butcher, knew his way around most mechanical and electrical things, nature enthusiast, charming, fit, delightful. Meakan, dirt bike rider, photographer, with a spectacular singing voice, had been a nurse, was a cook, charming, fit, delightful — the very flower of Australian youth, bless them.

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 8.32.41 pm.pngWe had set up camp for several nights at Seisia Beach, Bamaga’s port. This was the evening view from the beach with the islands of the Torres Straits stretching out well past the horizon. We’d got to the far far north. The Tip was 38km away, and I wasn’t sorry. It had been very good, but somewhat ironically I was enthusiastic about getting out of confined spaces.


Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 11.23.54 am.pngWe went to Thursday Island which deserves it’s own story. And we went to Somerset which does too, but you’re less likely to come across it.

(On this inferior map, Somerset as a whole is the red area. Somerset settlement was in the bay off the passage on the north-eastern tip. Albany Island off the coast. The Tip itself is the northernmost point. Prince of Wales and Horn Islands off to the north-west.)

* * * * *

In the previous blog I mentioned the Jardine boys ‘shooting their way from Bowen to the Cape’. Well, they kept right on shootin’ …

images.jpegJohn Jardine left his home in Scotland in May 1839 funding his move to Australia by selling his Captain’s commission in the Dragoons. He tried farming near Wellington in NSW but failed and got a government job, Commissioner for Crown Lands. Ten years later he was retrenched leaving him with ten dependents and no occupation.

He moved to Queensland and in 1861 was appointed as Rockhampton’s Police Magistrate and Gold Commissioner. When the new settlement of Somerset was established near the tip of Cape York in 1863, he became Police Magistrate and with his third son, John, erected the first buildings there.

images-1.jpegBut the story is really about his eldest son, Francis Lascelles Jardine, the legendary Frank.

His obituary in the chief newspaper of the time described him, on its front page, as ‘A wonderful and truly remarkable man, an amazing specimen of strong and vigorous manhood … who truly blazed the trail.’ He was also known by at least some of the area’s original inhabitants, the traditional owners as we now would say, as Debil Debil Jardine.

1870146-JL015-Frank_and_Sana_Jardines_Grave.w1024.JPGThis is his grave at Somerset Beach. It is both small and square. Frank was buried upright. This could be because ‘he bowed his head to no man’, or because it was the only way to deal with the corpse of such a dangerous man.

When his father was posted to Somerset, it was typical of the family, Frank especially, to look for an angle to turn a profit. Beef cattle seemed a good bet at the time. The increasing number of passing ships needed reprovisioning; the ‘hungry Dutchmen’ of Batavia might be persuaded to trade. So for several peppercorns the family purchased land surrounding the planned settlement. Frank and his brother Alexander decided to overland 42 horses and 250 cattle from Bowen to Cape York, around 2000km through country mostly unexplored by Europeans, accompanied by four whites including a government surveyor, and four Aboriginals.

7567452534_49c8337d3a_b.jpgThey left 14 May 1864 and arrived at Somerset ten months later with, according to various accounts, 25 horses and 200 cattle, 15 horses and 120 cattle, or 12 horses and 50 cattle — and according to all accounts in tatters, starving, living off bush turkey eggs, wearing ‘emu feather caps’ to ward off the rain, and were led to their final destination over the last two days by a group of Cape York natives who had been sent out to find them. ‘Alicko, Franko, Jocko, tobacco,’ their finders famously greeted them. (‘natives’: Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people, very distinct racial groups as a rule, intermingle to some degree at the top of the Cape.)

They had crossed 12 major rivers including what was later named the Jardine. Five months in, they lost more than half of their food supplies (‘520 lbs of flour, all the tea, all the jam apples and currants’ among other things) and a lot of their ammunition in a grass fire (possibly lit by local Aboriginals). They had watched stock go mad and die from drinking salt water. Along with dozens of other completely improbable adventures, perhaps hysterically, and not in the ‘funny’ sense, they had chased Aborigines disguised as trees — running — for two miles. They had crossed what Frank designated the ‘Wet Desert’: vine, scrub, bog, mangroves. 

MM8175_130323_53108-540x360.jpgTheir stock had wandered off. Endlessly. There had been bitter arguments about where they were between the Jardines and Richardson the surveyor who seems to have decided as a result to be silent for most of the journey.

They had not factored in The Wet, and on Christmas Day 1864 it began raining and didn’t stop from Camp 67 to Camp 91. Violent tropical rain, not Scotch mist or the titatattatat of the English Downs, but the sort of rain that leaves you wet to the skin through four layers of clothing in half a minute. No celestial navigation was possible of course.

In a typical story, the advance party of Frank, Alick and Eula spent three days covered in a thick layer of beef fat against the cold and the mosquitoes waiting to find a way across flooded Cowal Creek.

It would have been thoroughly revolting.

For their efforts the white members of the party were lauded to the skies. Frank and Alick were elected fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and provided with a major grant. The Queensland government offered to reimburse elements of the cost of the expedition but Frank turned it down because the venture’s purposes were for private profit, evidence regularly cited of his integrity (‘a delicacy and nobility of sentiment as rare, unfortunately, as it is admirable’). In fact a year or two after when things had turned down his father sought reinstatement of the offer.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography, a generally sober affair, suggests that ‘[the exploration party] was constantly harassed by Aboriginals’. Today that might be considered an odd perspective. ‘They fought their way through the wild myalls (‘uncultivated Aboriginals’) of the north’, writes Ion Idriess in 1947.

‘Two blacks dropped, blood welling from the small holes drilled in their foreheads. Their companions, howling in superstitious awe at this demonstration of the white man’s magic broke and fled into the heavy scrub. ‘”Nice shot Alex,” Frank grunted. “Same to you”, Alex grinned and they returned to the chores of making the camp’ (from The Rifle and the Spear, Lack and Stafford, inter alia an account of this expedition published in 1968).

How many Aboriginals were killed by the Jardine party is uncertain. Frank counted his own tally at 47 and that of the party at over 200. They were certainly responsible for one of the three recorded major massacres of native Australians, all of which as it happens took place on or near our route: Palmer River, Battle Creek and Mitchell River.

The Jardine party came upon a large tribe fishing on the Mitchell River’s banks. Unsure of their situation the men swam across to the opposite bank to get their spears. Some were thrown. ‘The natives at first stood up courageously, but either by accident or through fear, despair or stupidity, they got huddled in a heap, in, and at the margin of the water, when ten carbines poured volley after volley into them from all directions, killing and wounding with every shot with very little return. … About thirty being killed.’ (Frank’s words in his journal) Sixty-nine rounds were fired, so it could well have been more.

Anyone who has written about this has not described the likely state of mind, the murderous but also absent state of mind, of someone who has been walking/riding for several months in unknown country not being entirely sure where they were going, hungry, tired, blanked out, full of strange and unaccustomed mental processes, attacked by paranoia and other fears, a gun sitting between you and death … although perhaps that’s what Patrick White’s Voss is about. This is in no sense meant to be exculpatory, but what was going on was in no sense Boys Own fun.

images.jpegWhat happened subsequently when Frank’s belly was full, when he had a comfortable bed to sleep in at night next to his Samoan Princess wife, Sana Sola (at left), eating off the silver dinner service he had had created from Spanish doubloons found in a coral reef nearby, when he had a pearling business with the Premier of the state as his under-the-counter partner, when he had gained complete control of the military garrison at Somerset … now that could be seen as Boys Own fun.

Frank’s father remained in his role as Commissioner until December 1865 when he returned to his old office at Rockhampton. But in 1866 Frank returned to settle on a station on the outskirts of Somerset settlement. He was appointed Police Magistrate in 1868 and remained in the area in various roles, official and private, until he died of leprosy in 1919, five decades during which there was a constant undercurrent and occasional breaking waves of violence and repression.

A documented example. The Gudang people whose land Somerset had claimed had chosen to make themselves useful to the settlement, laboring, fishing and gardening in return for concessions of food and clothing as well as protection from tribes to the south and the Badu people in the strait to their north. As a result the tribe generally had good relationships with the colonists, until one member was reported to have stolen a tomahawk. Jardine determined that a public whipping was suitable punishment. The Gudang were shocked at this and two marines were subsequently speared, one dying later. Jardine organized a reprisal party which shot and killed five Aboriginal men and a young boy, and made a proclamation that for the future no native was to come within the perimeters of the settlement on pain of death.

Frank himself personally ‘executed’ two of the four Aboriginals who had taken part in the expedition north with him for stealing weapons. There is also well-documented evidence of him shooting to kill at intruders on Albany Island across the narrow strait from the deck of his house. By all accounts he was an excellent shot.

In 1873 he was recalled Brisbane to be the subject of a government investigation, not for his treatment of the native peoples, but because of the highly suspect nature of the intertwined relationship between the government’s and his own private interests. (Inquiries are only ever held into the interests of the inquirers.) For example, he was the seller, auctioneer, sole bidder and finally owner of a government boat. The buyer fortuitously managed to get it for quite a good price. This boat became very useful to his bêche de mer harvesting interests, interests whose labour force seems to have been made up almost entirely of indentured workers in contravention of Queensland’s Kidnapping Act (1869) specifically designed to stop such ‘blackbirding’. One of Frank’s responsibilities was administration of that law. This investigation came to nothing, Frank said he didn’t; no one said he did. The principal witnesses against couldn’t afford the trip to Brisbane and no one stepped forward to help them. 

These were lurid times embroidered with myth and legend as well as baffling hard facts. For example he probably did not pick up children and bash their brains out on tree trunks. It seems unlikely that he was responsible for the genocide of the original inhabitants of Prince of Wales Island — it was more likely measles. It also appears he did not a) kill or b) support Wini or Weenie, the cannibal Barbarian White Man King of Badu.

However the public record indicates that he was a frequent and vociferous proponent of ‘stern measures to contain the blacks’. He did establish a ‘fortress’ at his new holdings, ’Bertie Haugh’ (after his sons) on the Ducie River, with loopholed walls, 50 rifles and three 12 inch swivel guns. And he did provide advice that black corpses should be branded because, if they were, native people would never go near anything with that brand on again. 

The Colonial Secretary provided these reasons (in 1861) for the establishment of Somerset: ‘A port of refuge; a store depot; a coal port; a control post over the Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders; a centre for geographical research, missionary enterprise and colonisation; a military defence post; a sign of the influence and prestige of Great Britain and, with highest hopes, the future Australian Singapore’.

StateLibQld_1_163711_British_Marine_Camp_on_Somerset_Hill,_Cape_York,_Queensland,_ca.1869.jpg(Above, Somerset settlement (the big building is the barracks) and bay with Albany island in the background.)

Port Essington (about 200km as the crow flies from today’s Darwin in the Northern Territory) had been a disappointment. It was urgent to have a port in northern Australia, but Somerset was not a good choice. The Albany Strait from which one would enter the harbor is narrow, has difficult and strong currents and is subject to steady south-westers for much of the year making harbouring difficult. A marine barracks was built, a hospital, quarters for a naval surgeon and the lieutenant in charge of the marines and three cottages for married men as well as the Government Residence (into which Frank and family moved after the marines left). At one time Governor Bowen thought it showed promise as a site for a sanitorium.

Over time the buildings all gradually fell into disrepair until Frank’s copra plantations and gardens and the big house were all that was left. Government_House_at_Somerset,_Cape_York,_Queensland.jpegFinally the big house (above) was burnt down in 1960. Officially ‘vandals’ are held to be responsible.

There’s not much left there now except a memorial to the ‘Coming of the Light’, the arrival of Christianity in the Torres Straits, Frank’s grave, Sana’s grave and a memorial to Major Herbert Somerset ‘Boy’ Vidgen, Frank’s grandson, ‘Last of The Real Pioneers’.IMG_1762.jpg

This is colonialism in all its naked glory. The isolated outpost. Seat of government 2800km away. Supplied by ship three times a year. Protected by soldiers and guns. No road contact or telecommunications till 1887. No supervision. The Big Man. The Tower of Power. An Autocrat with a huge sense of entitlement and an invincible belief in the rightness of his own views and actions. ‘Hard but fair. Cruel to be kind. Etc.’ Constant unrest. The conflict between private and public interest, often realised as private interests being funded from public sources. The struggle between military and civil authority. Constant unrest. The second wave of invasion, more domestic than the first: the missionaries, the graziers and pastoralists, the shopkeepers, the tradesmen, the miners, the tourists and their providers, but still an invasion soaking up most of what’s precious — as well as some of what isn’t, and there’s plenty of that — from the original cultures. That second wave of the invasion … it is still underway up here. 

Now go and read Heart of Darkness and tell me that it’s a work of fiction. (And yes, there are credibly confirmed cases of cannibalism on and near the Cape, a lot of them.) Mistah Kurtz — he not dead.

[Steve Mullins’ Doctoral dissertation ‘The Pioneer Legend of Frank Jardine’ was fine reading on this topic. Frank’s own account of the expedition is seminal.]

* * * * *

38km to Pajinka, the locals’ name for The Tip.

I hadn’t realised in my ditsiness that this was the main reason a number of my fellow travellers had come on this tour. They wanted to have been to The Tip. The mood became infectious.

It was the usual slog over corrugations through wetter savannah and some rain forest, past a derelict holiday resort being eaten at great pace by vegetation. But the car park was clear and the path to the beach short. My buddies went for the lure like greyhounds.IMG_1729.jpg

And lo and behold, there it was.IMG_1735.jpg The TIP! Pajinka. Cape York. York Island on the left. Eborac Island (Latin for ‘York’) on the right. (A theme is emerging.) Those islands will have proper names too, TSI names, but I don’t know what they are. As far as I know, not far, the tiny strait between doesn’t have a name.

IMG_1741.jpgJust as we arrived, a tinny (a small aluminium boat, how you get round in this area) shot through — most appropriately.

I was moved. I didn’t try to help myself. Quite moved. Teary-eyed moved.

It was a beautiful day; the sea was aqua and sparkling; the islands were an elegant surprise; the entry point was along a lovely beach. The Tip itself was clearly demarcated and hadn’t been destroyed by tourists — just a modest sign, and a few plaques glued to the rocks professing love, devotion, excitement, resolution and surrogacy for the pain of those who hadn’t made it.

Whatever ‘it’ was, we had.

IMG_1740 (1).jpg

* * * * *

Well that’s gone on forever hasn’t it. Apologies. 2069 km worth.

Next day we donned our hi-vis vests and set off on this ship, the ‘barge’ which delivers goods all along the coastline, the only way of getting things in or out during the Wet. Two most uneventful days back to Cairns.IMG_1772.jpg

We left people sitting on the beachIMG_1781.jpg

and a guy staring at the fish at from Seisia pier.IMG_1776.jpg

They’ll still be there when you arrive.


‘We Queenslanders like to pump up our tyres about how easy going we are, what good people we are, especially compared with the spivs from the south.’ (Courier Mail 9/8/17 p. 63)

In the interests of full disclosure: What follows has been written by a spiv from the south.

* * * * * * * * * * IMG_1375 (1).jpg

A rather wet way to start. Yes. In that sense. The BIG Golden Gumboot, Tully, adorned with Green Tree Frog. IMG_9975.JPG(Real one at left, at rest on a shower partition at Bamaga.) Under maintenance. Presumably to get that thick layer of gold leaf burnished to full lustre.

I searched through my photos for a photo saying ‘wet’, and failed. Plenty of red dust and savannah; but the rain forests just look dark, rivers feeble, lagoon country like someone’s dam. Beaches look tropical (palm trees, what heft they have) but not wet in any general sense. Crocs are parked on the side of what look like creeks. Failure.

We weren’t there in The Wet of course. We were there at the end of one of the driest and warmest ‘winters’ ever recorded. But still.

Tully — an average rainfall of over 4m, 150 wet days a year and in one 48-hour period in March 1967 1.3m of rain fell. Formidable. For comparison with news just in: ‘The US National Weather Service now says some parts of Houston and just west of the city have received a Texas record of 50 inches (1270 millimeters) of rain as Cyclone Harvey stalls over Texas.’

5946964-3x2-340x227.jpgEvery year the Queensland towns of Tully and Babinda compete for a more modest version of the Golden Gumboot, signifying the country’s highest rainfall. Tully holds the record for the highest ever annual rainfall in a populated area of Australia (7.93 metres — 312 inches — in 1950), but Babinda has held the trophy now for several years. It can be seen here in the Post Office window.

It was hot every day and we might have had 8 drops of rain in four weeks. So … best I could do.

* * * * *

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 2.00.28 pm.pngFor those unfamiliar with Australia, a quick orientation.

Cape York Peninsula, often referred to just as Cape York, is the bit in the red rectangle, very recently (in geological time) part of a land bridge connecting with New Guinea — and Asia, the probable route by which Australia’s Aboriginal people arrived on the continent at least 50,000 years ago.

1200km north of the bottom red line is the real Cape York, The Tip, the northernmost part of Australia, named in 1770 after Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany by British sailor extraordinaire Lieutenant James Cook. The northern sections of the Great Barrier Reef run in fits and starts all along that coast line.

Townsville, Cairns and Tully might just get into the bottom corner on the coast. Above Cairns in that vast area, fewer than 20,000 people live, 4,000 of them at Weipa, a mining town on the west coast and 1,500 on Thursday Island just off The Tip, a disproportionate number of the latter being Federal and state public servants. Most of the rest are Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people living in scattered and remote communities.

A sealed road extends to Cooktown, about half way up. For about four months a year the rest of the very few roads are turned into impassable slush by The (monsoonal) Wet. The remainder of the year is, usually, dry.

* * * * *


We arrived in Townsville, one of my favourite bits of Queensland. The same population as Geelong’s [Official Blog Yardstick], a tick under 200,000, a military town, its buildings spread like a huge handful of dice strewn along the Ross River back into the hinterland and north along the Bruce Highway towards Cairns. Its outlying suburbs are more than 20 km from ‘the city’. (Appearing above in a photo taken from Castle Hill which dominates the town, to my mind, very attractively).

‘The City’ is currently a collection of desultory surf and T-shirt shops, others hanging on for dear life, a Coffee Club where the coffee tasted exactly same as it did when I used to drink it at the Coffee Club in Logan, south of Brisbane — no good. Every second shop front is empty, the streets semi-deserted.
Unknown.jpegAll this is embedded in one of the nicest collections of colonial architecture in Australia, big pastel and white buildings (except for the old Customs House at left) with high ceilings and deep loggias in their upper storey exteriors.

charters_towers_1_by_megan_mackinnon.jpgThe best strip of these has been turned into nightclubville with extravagant and outback-shameless promises of what its hostesses can and will provide for cashed-up FIFO (fly in fly out) mine workers.

We weren’t there at 3am on a weekend so missed the fun. Instead we were two of the three audience members in the 650-seat cinema offering ‘Atomic Blonde’.

Just like a lot of Queensland, Townsville is decentralised: it sprawls languorously. That’s one reason why I like it. And I like it because, according to the by-lines, most of the daily Townsville Bulletin is written by two very hard-working 16 year-old girls. I like its difference to home.

I like its Palmetum, a rambling collection of the complex and intriguing botanical family ArecaceaeIMG_1308.jpg

I like the Tobruk Memorial Pool on The Strand.IMG_1271.jpg

It seems so suitable that this was the training site for the most successful Australian Olympians ever, the swimming teams of 1956 and 1960. Actually in 1956 women only. The men were quarantined at Charters Towers. Charters Towers. Would Charters Towers even have a pool? Whatever. But there were measures in place to ensure there was no monkey business. This is what made Australia great. There should be more of it.

IMG_1279 (1).jpgThese facts are memorialised at the pool. Myrna is near a photo of the 1960 team, 28 of them. I easily recognised 24 of the names. This is what you can learn as a child. Roger Pegram and Gergaynia Beckett escape me, but Lorraine Crapp … .

IMG_1278 (1).jpgMurray Rose, Dave Dickson, Jon (no h) Henricks (no d) and John Konrads set a world record here for the 4 x 200 freestyle relay.

These are names to conjure with. Janis Konrads who had polio as a child, for example. A Latvian migrant who set 28 individual world records and won the 1500 at the 1960 Olympics before becoming the Australasian director of L’Oreal, later descending into some rocky terrain with periods of mental illness. His sister Ilsa was the best looking member of the team.

It’s still a great place for a swim. 

IMG_1322.jpgI like that there aren’t many tourists, except for the ones on their way to Magnetic Island five or so km off the coast.

We were too. Maggie as we old hands say. We spent a day there. We got advice but it turned out the ‘best beach’ was rife with algae and the ‘best restaurant’ was closed and for sale. Resort life. So we went round the corner to The Tamarind and met Rina and her off-sider who provided Spanish Mackerel and Red-Throated Emperor, both w. chips. The SM was the sort of texture I like in a fish; the RTE a bit rubbery and too closely reminiscent of its origins.

In the course of their consumption we were told that this very restaurant had recently been judged the 2nd best fish restaurant in Australia, that Rina works 18 hours a day 24/7, that she is actually a chemical engineer who invented the formula for Morning Fresh dishwashing liquid, and that she abandons the island late October because in summer it gets ‘too hot too humid too disgusting’.

Because it’s Queensland and thus different in its own special and mysterious way, that could all be true. But I just pass this information on to you without comment. That’s my role.  

A little later after the stingray incident (wife saw stingray and left water. You might remember Steve Irwin, Steve, Steve Irwin, a very important person to many Queenslanders and A GREAT AUSTRALIAN (killed by stingray. Quote, with just a tinge of unfortunate irony: ‘I have no fear of losing my life — if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.’) but not as great as Bindi especially after she won US Dancing with the Stars And how about Terri and Russell Crowe what a great great Australian family that could be He’s not really a New Zealander anymore he owns an NRL football team Yeah I know I know He can’t be Prime Minister but he doesn’t want to be Too much of a come down really and he wouldn’t be able to be in films anymore She’s American though isn’t she I’ve heard she shafted Bob Steve’s dad He’s not allowed on zoo property any more Did you know that Yeah yeah Big shame eh Speaking of weird but good things do you know how many times Brocky Peter Brock won Bathurst Six out of seven years Two triples Two like three-in-a-rows Yeah knew that He was great pretty good looking too Too right Ok then how about Russell Ingall This is a trick question isn’t it Yeah Twice but once it was V8 Supercars Still counts though How old would he be now do you reckon Dunno you got your phone google it Hang on 53 Thought he’d be older Who do you reckon goes through the internet changing people’s ages every year Not me mate I can tell you Be a job wouldn’t it Geez I’m getting a thirst on me thinking about it It must be 4 o’clock by now Mate it’s bound to be 4 o’clock somewhere in the world Ha Ha Ha Ha Yeah I know I know I know You got the nibblies Get me a Goldie out of the Eskie will ya Yeah Nah I think I’ll start with a Red today Ta Any idea where I could get some leaf spring load helpers for the van Mmm probably Ironman they’ve usually got everything ya want Cheers…) we met another couple, the man of which had trained with Percy Cerutty at Portsea and whose father had come to Magnetic Island from Victoria every year between the end of second world war and his decease. The alive man hadn’t been back for 46 years and had come to distribute his mother’s ashes at the foot of a rock formation called The Sphinx. As I say, I just pass this on.

Although we found one good walking track, that day Maggie was looking a little shopworn and unloved. And I remembered on the way home on the ferry that if we’d gone just a bit further north we would have come to the Palm Island group, which far from being a resort has a history within living memory of being a concentration camp — not a death camp per se, but a place where the government forced people to live. In this case Aboriginal people who were choofed off from the mainland regardless of tribe, history, virtue (there was some denomination of ‘trouble maker’), health (lepers were sent to nearby Fantome Island), or any other clearly discernible consideration besides annoyingly black skin and taking up space on fertile land. People from at least 57 different language groups were relocated to Palm — a key ingredient in a very fine recipe for disaster. 

On a surprise inspection of the main island’s prison during a visit in the late 1960s, Senator Jim Keefe and academic Henry Reynolds found two 12 year‑old girls who had been incarcerated by the Island’s chief administrator because ‘they swore at the teacher’.

The 1999 edition of the Guinness Book of Records named Palm the most violent place on earth outside a combat zone. The evidence? A murder rate 15 times higher than that of the state of Queensland, an extraordinary rate of assault, a life expectancy of less than 40 years, the highest rate of youth suicide per capita in the world, and a total of 40 fatalities by suicide over a period of three years.

That’s 1999, after the bad times were over, after everything got fixed up… right? Cameron Doomadgee’s death was a long time coming, the tip of a pyramid, the culmination of decades of repugnant and unjustifiable behaviour by politicians, administration and police.

I visited Bwgcolman Community School (‘boogl-mn’, the Aboriginal name for the island) several times ten years ago and, while they were trying hard, it was still no one’s idea of a good time. These sorts of things leave stains that are almost impossible to eradicate. I thought about this when I read about the Jardine brothers and party ‘shooting their way from Bowen to The Tip’ in the 1860s. According to some accounts, Frank’s personal tally: ‘at least 47 blacks’. His party’s: 200+. 30 dead certainly at the ‘Battle of Mitchell River’. It’s only a sort of paradise. For some.

2012-08-31 TV 113 Stitch.jpg

Some years ago on a work trip I was staying in Townsville’s ‘Sugar Shaker’ almost exactly at the time of the first phase of the incidents the late Inga Clendinnen recounts in her essay ‘Postcard from Townsville’. The Sugar Shaker is the round building with the quiff, still there, still just a little eccentric. Like her I watched the ‘parkies’ living in Hanran Park with their goon bags (cask wine) but modest, untroubling and private ways. Like her I came back some months later and found things dramatically changed.

‘Postcard from Townsville’ provides one of the best imaginable 10-minute reads about a certain sort of today’s Aboriginal Australia. You can read it all from both links above. Short. Pithy. Potent. The bit where she deliberately bumps into the guy’s burnt arm is not to be missed.

When your heart drops into your boots because you can’t manage history — and I really don’t want to stop you reading on — there are always trades. Always.

I don’t know what she, one of Australia’s truly great historians, was doing there. But what I was doing there, mostly, was observing and working with some of the most successful Aboriginal education in the country: great kids, great teachers, great results, from stable successful families living a life they really enjoyed — which included Culture as well as culture (JT and the Cowboys).

But this is what was Hanran Park today.IMG_1336.jpg

What had struck me when I looked down from my sugar-shaker tower was how separate these people were. They knew us — they had known us for two hundred years — and they didn’t want any part of us. We would walk smartly past in our suits and city heels carrying our satchels. The buses would tear over the bridge, while they sat around under the trees and talked. The economy of their ragged, precarious lives, the elegance of their adjustment to minimal means and no possessions seemed to mock our aspirations, our zest for action and accumulation.

I have often said the title of the book I would write about my time in Blackfellaland would be ‘What do you give people who want nothing you’ve got?’

* * * * *

Leaving Townsville we drove through, literally, hundreds of kilometres of cane fields jammed between the mountains of the Divide and the coastline. It was the middle of harvest and the Tully crushing mill was going full tilt.


Sugar. In 2016 the 4,600 Australian growers produced 4,772,390 tonnes of which 2/3 was exported. Sugar. After wheat, Australia’s second largest export crop with a total annual value of $2.2 billion. Second biggest producers in the world after Brazil. Sugar. Around 95% of the sugar produced in Australia is grown in Queensland. Sugar. The Powerhouse of the Queensland National Party.

And Sugar. The no food food. 

In the developed world the greatest disease burden at present is attributed to high blood pressure, a disease of over-nutrition and a diet dominated by animal-sourced and processed foods—in other words, more meat, dairy, eggs, oils, refined grains, soda, salt, and especially sugar. In 1776, Americans consumed on average about 2kg of sugar annually. Today, that figure is 148kg, half of which may be fructose, taking up about 15 percent of their diets. Mounting evidence suggests that added fructose in the form of table sugar and high fructose corn syrup triggers processes that lead to liver toxicity, type 2 diabetes and many other chronic diseases. Not to mention the empty calories on which obesity is built.

As they would say in north Queensland: Sugar eh. I had a hot dog at the football last Friday night which I swear was 1/4 sugar. Just when the farmers are becoming so advanced and ecologically careful. Bummer eh.

But also bananas and MANGOES. Hoorah! Had a very good Mango Everything right here.IMG_1349.jpg

And when you move inland up onto the Tablelands: corn, tea, coffee, avocados, cashews, macadamias, custard apples, limes, flowers, potatoes and other vegetables, peanuts, passionfruit, pineapples, basil, melons, papaya, grass seed, turf … anything you can imagine, you can grow up on these wonderful rolling volcanic uplands high enough to mitigate the ferocity of the sun down on the coast.

IMG_1352.jpgWe found Wallaman Falls 30 km from Ingham and even closer to Trébonne. (Where do you live? Verygood. Yes I know, but …)

Never heard of them and they were fantastic. Australia’s highest falls: 268m of unadorned delight. We almost didn’t go. It was late in the afternoon, steep and windy road with plenty of wandering cattle, hungry, etc etc … but so glad we did.

It was two hours down to the bottom with lots of warnings about rough surfaces. But if you’re planning to go I’d leave time for that.

We went down a bit of the way and when we came back a wind was driving the bottom section of the drift far across to the left. Just remarkable.


One of the things you do when you go to Cairns is visit the waterfalls on the Tablelands. This one, Millaa Millaa, is famous as the site for a Sunsilk shampoo ad: gals flipping their long hair out of the water followed by a liquid crescent of pearlescent globules with the nicely symmetrical falls in the background. Several busloads of young people arrived and that’s what the girls did. The boys swam across the pool, with their phones.IMG_1393.jpg

The tropics have a way with plant life. This is a ficus (fig) letting down its air roots on Townsville’s Strand. It is an old and noble one, probably 10m from one side to the other from this angle.


IMG_1415.jpgTo my surprise up on the Tablelands we found some very tall bull kauri tucked away in the rain forest along with two huge ficus consummating a long term relationship.

The density of the rainforest canopy doesn’t allow much low growth. The forest floor is often quite denuded. That’s why Strangler Figs make so much of their environment. No thicker than your finger, they make their way up the trunk of a host towards the canopy before dropping air roots and gradually building the density and scale of their presence around the trunk. The host frequently dies.strangler.jpg



The one at right below is quite well established.



But, further below again, the Curtain Tree near Yungaburra, more than 500 years old and National Heritage-listed, is of a different order.

A tree has fallen and been trapped in the crook of another tree. The ficus has got busy and lo and behold! A natural wonder and a tourist attraction.

Not a good photo. It was in late twilight and hard to figure out just how to catch its stunning eminence. But you get the idea.IMG_1405.jpg

We must move north. We’re scarcely out of the suburbs. One last pic. Myrna’s comment: ‘Exactly at this moment there are probably no happier men on earth.’IMG_1434.jpg

‘Tropic Jazz’, Cairns Esplanade, and at least while we were watching no one stormed the stage.

* * * * *

IMG_1477.jpgWe’d got into a reasonably comfortable box on the back of an Isuzu truck with ten others and three guides. A tour. A 14-day trip to The Tip, camping. Beginning here.

The Daintree River with ferry and people going south.


This could be thought of as the southern boundary of FNQ, Far North Queensland, or rugged outback coastal Qld, or the entry to Cape York. It actually is the entry to the Daintree Rainforest, declared a World Heritage Area in 1988.

The Daintree is the oldest tropical lowland rainforest on Earth with some species over 135 million years old: a unique collection of flora, fauna and insect life preserved in unusually complex and diverse form. It has over 3000 species of plants, and contains 395 species that are listed as either rare or threatened. 28% of Australian frog species, 40% of birds, 34% of mammals and 65% of the ferns can also be found here. Over 12,000 types of insects make it their home, including the sandflies which generated a family trip to the hospital during our first visit. 

One thing they would like you to know about the Daintree is that it is big — 1,200 sq km which might sound a lot until you consider that could be, and is, 60 x 20 km. Up this way that’s a home paddock. For example, further north, Rio Tinto mines 3,860 sq km of bauxite reserves near Weipa and is investigating further expansion. And, for example, Government statistics show that about 4,000 sq km of mainly marginal land were newly cleared in Queensland last year. (‘Mainly marginal’ for pastoral and agricultural purposes; the communities of plants, animals and birds destroyed would not agree.)

There’s a bitumen road that takes you round the Daintree’s western side, but with the rest of the revellers (some 500,000 annually now, up from 20,000 when we were there last in 1990) we went the adventurous way, a narrow bitumen track towards Daintree (the village) followed by one to Cape Tribulation, rougher but still accessible in the dry by 2WD vehicles, and then the scarcely-there Bloomfield Track a long, grinding, steep, corrugated and dusty 30 km. north back to the bitumen.

From my window the most prominent feature was how much of what I had thought of as ‘The Daintree’ (actually three national parks, one of which is Daintree National Park) had been developed and settled: not only resorts, tourist facilities, cabins and houses in the forest, but grazing land in use. Most of the flatlands in fact had been developed.

There is a story. There is always a story.

It seems to have all begun in 1978, the year of the scientific study which re-defined the nature of this area and, for the first time, its significance. Under the 19-year premiership of Sir Johannes ‘Let me tell you, what is good for Queensland is good for Australia’ Bjelke-Petersen, the Queensland coastline was enjoying a massive rash of investment and development which crept progressively north, ‘opening it up’. And in 1978 a group of Cairns real estate developers bought up as much of the privately-owned pastoral land in the Daintree as they could ending up with parcel of 8,523 hectares which they subdivided into 1,136 blocks for sale. The local Council knocked back this proposal but its decision was over-ridden by the state government.

Even though these blocks were a bit slow to move (limited infrastructure, no mains power, gas or reticulated water, access by ferry and dirt road only, difficult or impossible for three to four months a year) they sold, if often for just a snatch of song. Blocks of up to 8ha., for example, were advertised in the Wall Street Journal for US$18,000 each. Many were not built on because of site and other difficulties, but about 35 percent were. Thus there is a legacy of freehold properties — 85 sq km. of them — in the heart of the Daintree Lowlands surrounded by the National Park and the World Heritage Area.

There have been various attempts by governments to resolve the problems created by the residential subdivision. In 1984 the Federal and State Governments spent $23m buying back land as well as developing eco-tourism infrastructure. By 2000 100 blocks had been bought back (500 offers of sale were made) with a plan to secure another 442 (which didn’t happen). In 2004 the Federal Government committed $5m to the Daintree for land preservation. In an act of either pie-eyed innocence or desperate cynicism, this was largely diverted to ‘landholder education’ rather than the promised land buyback.

In 2010 361 of the 1,136 blocks had dwellings on them, and this very minute 41 are available for purchase: $910,000 to low 200s, mainly round Cow Bay.


And then, and then, back in 1983, the state government proposed to upgrade the track to Bloomfield as an all-seasons road through the newly-declared (in 1981) national park. There were all sorts of reasons given including the customary ‘opening up the north’ (and helping those damn blocks move faster) but also ‘to deter bird trappers and orchid thieves’, and thwart illegal migrants. The Aboriginal Elders of Wujal Wujal community at the northern end of the track wanted faster access to the Mosman shops. A certain amount of hell broke loose.


British pop-singer Cliff Richard was among the people to protest (from afar). It actually took only a few weeks to drive the bulldozers through the first blockade although they were held up for some time further down the track by people in trees who refused to come down. The protestors were also outflanked by bulldozers coming in from the north and eventually the road was completed in three weeks.

But not very capably. During the first rains much of it melted away in washaways and landslides. It became completely impassable. It was rebuilt over four months a year later but when opened in October, the driest month, 30mm of rain fell overnight and the bus containing the dignitaries became bogged. (This was the track we were travelling and no 2WD vehicle would have got through the first river crossing.)

Thus began 35 years of dissension and acrimony. Cape Tribulation, a major feature of the area, was named by James Cook after the hull timbers of the Endeavour were queered by the reefs off shore. He and his crew survived largely because the reef they hit not only holed the boat but plugged that hole with a large piece of coral. But, yes, ‘tribulation’.

From time to time from the Daintree to The Tip a series of voices spoke to me — where they came from I don’t know — saying: ‘Don’t fucking tell me what to do!’ It’s hard country this.

In this region Greenies/ hippies/ southerners/: middle-class interfering abstract/theoretical environmentalist suckholes versus Locals/ rednecks/ plunderers: working people, common sensible, practical, knowledgable folks.

And it’s been a bit wild. Blockades of car bodies on beaches, burnt toilet blocks, locked gates, locked gates forcibly unlocked, locked gates built closed, threats of shootings … And as with most issues, it’s not just bilateral; it’s more complex than that.

Take ‘old’ for example. What does ‘old’ mean? Strange that it could be a contestable notion. But there have been pastoralists in the Daintree since the 1880s. It’s been a very good place to fatten cattle driven down from the drier north and west, a process which has dramatically changed the vegetation. The striking and useful red cedar that was widespread has now been logged to the point of local extinction. In 1934 a massive cyclone destroyed most of the vegetation round Cow Bay so you don’t get forest giants or monster curtain figs there. These current plants aren’t ‘old’ in the sense that old growth forest in Tasmania is old — single plants, trees, several hundred years old. They are old as species however. Not hundreds of years old, but more than 100 million years old, and found nowhere else on earth. Does that matter? And if it does, can that importance be made intelligible?

Unique? Pristine? The Wet Tropics Management Authority with formal oversight of some aspects of this neck of the woods acknowledges that there are at least 500 weed species and 38 vertebrate pest species known to inhabit the World Heritage Area. One of the latter is feral pigs. (‘Government pigs’, ‘Anna Bligh’s pigs’. They hide in the rainforest — where they can’t be shot — and come out and wreck the cane fields and productive enterprises further south at Mosman. That’s a common story.) We can all agree they do damage and that they should be wiped out but we can’t agree about how. The RSPCA insists, and has lobbied into law, that pigs must be killed, and killed only by trapping followed by a single shot immediately behind the ear. Trapping. Execution. There is no other way. Readers of Bacon Busters and habitués of piggin’ want a great deal more licence. And there’s the fact that in the Flinders Ranges hunters and their dogs were a very important means of reducing feral wildlife. Could that be salient?

Then there are the Greenie-ish tourist operators who are furious that the Daintree is the only place in Australia where no public provision is made for power supply. Mike Berwick, despite losing many votes 4-3, mayor of the Douglas Shire from 1991 to 2008, Bloomfield blockader, leader of the greenies, architect and proponent of the ‘undevelopment’ blueprint (no building or development permits to be issued which operated in the shire for several years), weeeell  … he lives on the strip of the northern bank of the Daintree where a couple of properties, his included, have access to mains power. And everyone knows. A guy who operates a green-tinged resort/ restaurant in Cape Trib with walks and careful land management, spends $35,000 a year on generating his own power creating a lot of greenhouse gases in the process. If he was on the grid, he thinks his power bill would be about $900. 

You find these controlled rants tucked into holiday information and accommodation websites. (The latter is a good read, comprehensive and clear.) But from elsewhere:

‘Getting toilets rebuilt at Cow Bay Beach as soon as possible is top of the list, as is increasing the tortoise-like speed at which National Parks are replacing the Cape Tribulation Toilets destroyed by an arsonist early this year. … It is not about power, we already have a power committee. It is not about Berwick bashing or arguing about which political party is responsible. It is not about trying to remove facilities from other communities who worked hard to get them. It is not about Global Warming, Agenda 21, Aliens, Domestic Violence or any other issue. I will use the ban hammer if it gets off track.’

We got out of the truck at Cape Trib for half an hour, but even without doing so and for whatever reason, that’s a bit how it felt. A low rumble. Tribulation. Perhaps I hadn’t had enough breakfast. But when we got back to the bitumen at Wujal Wujal, a very neat and, from the most superficial of views, well-organised Aboriginal community, I was just as pleased.

* * * * *

image.jpegCooktown. Literally a breath of fresh air. It blew the roof off our poorly-pitched tent twice during the course of our night there.  

Cook hauled the Endeavour from the open water round the point to the left — it took him five days of trying before the weather conditions were suitable — careened it and tied up to a tree just near the start of the contemporary building. The tree’s remains are visible in the first rate local museum, and ‘careen’, a word I’ve wanted to work into the conversation for some time, is the process of sailing a ship as far up the shore as you can at high tide and securing it so that, at low tide, you can work on the hull.

Imagine. 20,000 km from home, 7,000 from the prospect of any useful assistance (at Batavia, or Jakarta as it is now known), and there you are pasting up the hull of your boat with canvas and tar, local green timber and nails manufactured on the site, in full knowledge that somehow you’ll have to find your way forward through these endless reefs.

Cook wrote: ‘It is remarkable that in the whole course of our voyage we had seen no place that our present circumstances could have afforded us the same relief’, and they remained there for seven weeks.

During this time: ‘One of the Men saw an Animal something less than a greyhound; it was of a Mouse Colour, very slender made, and swift of Foot‘ — the first recorded sighting of a kangaroo by a European. Shortly after one was shot.

1984071009.jpgI have far more to say about Cook than can be included here, but a most remarkable man — his diaries of the next few months are hair-raising. He didn’t ‘discover Australia’ and didn’t pretend to have. After, again, so nearly coming to grief several times sailing north in and out of the Barrier Reef, and after another 850 km as the crow flies, he landed on what he called ‘Possession Island’ (at left, with memorial).

I satisfied myself of the great Probability of a passage [Torres Strait], thro’ which I intend going with the Ship, and therefore may land no more upon this Eastern coast of New Holland, and on the Western side I can make no new discovery, the honour of which belongs to the Dutch Navigators, but the Eastern Coast from the Latitude of 38 degrees South down to this place, I am confident, was never seen or Visited by any European before us; and notwithstanding I had in the Name of his Majesty taken possession of several places upon this Coast, I now once More hoisted English Colours, and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New Wales. [The copy of his report proffered to His Majesty had ‘New South Wales’.]

It might be noted that the first recorded contact between Europeans — a ship’s crew captained by Willem Janszoon, a Dutchman — and Aboriginal Australians occurred in 1606, 164 years earlier, I repeat 164 years earlier, on the western coast of Cape York.

Cooktown. Lovely.IMG_1478.jpg


2000km from its seat of government, Brisbane, three grand — perhaps formerly grand — hotels and this convent, now museum, 2,500 reasonably fixed inhabitants, and somewhere to buy cheap-ish grog.IMG_1489.jpg

Alluvial gold was discovered in the Palmer River several hundred kilometres inland in 1872. In 1874 Cooktown had a post office, and by 1880 a population of about 20,000. Not to mention 47 licensed pubs within the town boundaries (by 1874), a number of illegal grog shops and several brothels. Bakeries, a brewery and a soft drinks factory, dressmakers and milliners, a brickworks, a cabinetmaker, and two newspapers. An unfathomable explosion. Gold will do that. But we’re in the wet tropics here. For three months a year there was no way into or out of the Palmer.

Several thousand Chinese were among that population. They came originally as prospectors, but many established market gardens, supplying the town and the goldfields with fruit, vegetables and rice, while others opened shops. 

A contemporary account included in ‘Northern Territory Times and Gazette’ of 28 August 1875 provides fascinating commentary: about attitudes to the Chinese, about perceptions of their work habits, about the climate, about the gold finding experience, and about the prospects of European settlement of northern Queensland. A sample:

Cooktown is situated so near the great [Asian] ports that empty out their surplus coolies into neighboring countries, the facilities for reaching the goldfield are so unusual, the expense is so comparatively slight, that, apart from other considerations, it is small wonder that John Chinaman is hurrying here, with his stick and baskets filled with pots and pans, as fast as he can.

The whole secret of the matter is that certain Chinese merchants in Hongkong and Canton have excited the cupidity of their countrymen with the most extravagant accounts of the riches of the Palmer. Placards announcing the astounding fact that gold paved the highways of Cooktown — that men picked up nuggets of fabulous size at the diggings as easily as a schoolboy picks up shells on the beach — were paraded in the streets; a fever seized on the swarming population who daily tread each other down for a bare subsistence in these great Eastern ports …

At the present time there cannot be far short of 5,000 Chinese on the goldfield; and so far as it is possible to judge of events future by events past, the number will shortly double that figure. As to the feeling here with regard to the Chinese it is, with the exception of a few interested parties, decidedly hostile to their admission. Meetings were held to discuss the question, and pass resolutions adverse to the action of the Government in permitting such an influx. A deal of “tall talk” was indulged in; and under all the deprecatory motions to the head of the Cabinet in Brisbane on the question, there was an ugly under-current of threat.

But our anonymous correspondent has quite a different take.

All this outcry is raised idly and to no purpose. That the Chinaman will get gold and make a living where a white man — even if he were a Scotchman — would starve is an acknowledged fact. Apart from this, I maintain that the Palmer is peculiarly fitted for a Chinese goldfield. The climate and the hardships of the living are much less deterrent to the Chinaman than the European digger. … To him the heat that thins the blood and levers the brain and unstrings the nerve of the inhabitants of a colder climate is but an accustomed and genial warmth. He is not choked by the dust — has he not learned to endure it in the stifling streets of Canton? The burning sun does not dry his skin, and parch his throat, and sap his strength; but invigorates his tropic nature, and enables him to toil on. …

See the incoming [European] Palmer men. How the flesh has left their bones, how gaunt and haggard, yellow-eyed and aged, they are — with all the spring and elasticity of their constitutions gone with the fresh red and white of their national complexion. They have got gold, maybe-ay ! and, what is far more important, they have drunk deep of the Palmer pestilence, and carry with them the seeds that will ripen into disease; they have lived ten years in one. …

To urge against [the Chinese] that they are not settlers or colonists is no argument at all; not one digger out of a thousand ever becomes a settler on the soil, and not one out of ten thousand will ever be so in this part of the colony. In fact, experience here shows us that the first thing a digger does in making a pile is to go south by the very first boat; nor is he at all likely to return unless compelled by dissipation or improvidence. … No European would settle here from choice — the climate is bad, and his instincts warn him to leave it.. There is in my opinion no more chance of Northern Queensland becoming settled with a permanent European population than there is of British India.

He was at least partially right. Descendants of these Chinese adventurers remain in Cooktown today.

There were no such apologists for the Aboriginal people of the area, the Guugu Yimithirr, who as part of this same demographic explosion were forced off their land. The Cooktown Herald, 8 December 1875: ‘The natives wholly ignorant of the terrible firepower of fire-arms, and confiding in their numbers, showed a ferocity and daring wholly unexpected and unsurpassed. Grasping the very muzzles of the rifles they attempted to wrest them from the hands of the whites, standing to be shot down, rather than yield an inch….’ It was an unequal struggle. Whole tribes were wiped out.

More than anywhere else I have been in Australia this feels recent, tangible.

But perhaps that was later. In urban repose. There was much of beauty and intrigue to come (and a lot more photos).IMG_1542.jpg