‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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?’

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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.

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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