'Ghost Towns of Australia'
Douglas is (was) a ghost town that refused to accept its destiny. It continues
to thrive in an unexpected way. Some fifty or so people have a permanent address
there now, although its old means of livelihood have gone. It has survived
largely on the beauty of its scenery and few places anywhere in Australia have
such tranquility. It was this that brought me back time after time in the
post-war years. The great placid inlet ringed about by, mountains; the
mangrove-lined creeks where mud crabs and fish are plentiful; the four miles of
crisp white beach on the seaward side. During several southern winters I spent
weeks at a time there, and was never able to account for what I did with them.
It is odd how little Port Douglas is yet known. Most people travelling to North
Queensland seem to imagine that there is nothing beyond Cairns. Yet it is the
coastal highway beyond that brings you for the first time into the true
luxuriance of the tropics.
The highway passes first through
tall green stands of sugar cane, then through scrublands, with a small farm in a
clearing here and there where pawpaws and bananas are growing. Then, sixteen
miles out, you come to a heavily timbered spur of mountain, beyond which is the
Sometimes this highway curves
around a wide bay, sometimes it climbs two or three hundred feet to look down on
Trinity Bay, with steep cliff faces dropping away below. And always, ahead, are
the steep dark mountain shoulders plunging sheer to the sea. The colour and
variety of the trees along this Cook Highway are astonishing. There are slender,
sun-dappled gums of many species, paperbarks whose trunks are like peeling
parchment, great spreading mangoes, purple and red bougainvillea, the tall
African tulip tree with bright orange blooms, and yellow-flowering cascara trees
whose long bean pods hang stiffly from the fragile foliage.
At the twenty-five mile post you
cross the narrow Huntley’s Creek, the white-painted timber bridge rattling as
you pass. Tall coconuts cast purple shadows upon the road. You climb once more
to a high lookout where the passing of Captain Cook is commemorated by a small
cairn. He gave this wide bay its name on Trinity Sunday, 1770.
You do not see the ocean again
until you pass the Mowbray River, where the experienced motorist turns off the
main road, making a detour down a sandy track through scrub towards the sea.
This is the start of a four mile stretch of beach, whose surface is so firm that
cars and even tourist coaches use it as a road. At the far end of this beach you
swing left over a steep sand dune and find yourself abruptly in the main street
of the town. Or used to. Things have changed in the past few years. What was
once a half-mile belt of tea-tree scrub has now been transformed into rows of
holiday cabins. The port is becoming a week-end resort for the farmers and
station people over the range. At least they have brought some much-needed
revenue into a town that seemed likely to wither away in solitude when the port
closed to sugar boats a decade ago.
Nowadays, it is not easy to
trace the outlines of the original town, for there is little left of it but
MacRossan Street. Its most conspicuous feature is the life-size statue of a
minor benefactor of the town; a bearded, frock-coated gent, set on top of a
white pillar, staring benevolently towards the blue-green waters of the inlet
half a mile away. There is seldom much movement along this street, for its
buildings have dwindled to a few cottages set well back among luxuriant trees, a
couple of small stores, and two weatherboard hotels. On the northern side, a
steep, grassy hill curves upwards, with a few more cottages set picturesquely
amid banana palms, mangoes, and fruit trees.
But the nature of Port Douglas
is not to be found in these few scattered dwellings. You find it in the open
spaces here and there, the weed-grown yards, the rusting, narrow-gauge railway
track that once carried sugar trains twenty-five miles to Mossman near the
In modern terms, a two-pub town
suggests a place of quite respectable size. Port Douglas once had
There were eight thousand people
living here then; and now you wonder just where so many houses could have been.
In MacRossan and other vanished streets, were several large general stores,
blacksmith shops, wheelwrights, bakers, harness-makers, saddlers, the inevitable
Chinese merchants, and produce stores. There were two newspapers printed here in
the 1880s and the busy life they reflected seems now to have belonged to some
In old, faded copies you read of
hostelries which advertised “Good table…good stabling… only the best wines,
beers and ales kept.” I am not sure what would happen if you asked for even the
most ordinary table wine today.
There was a time when the port
was a bigger place than Cairns. A big future was promised, and Cairns for a
while looked as if it would fade altogether from the scene. Yet, within ten
years of its founding, it was Port
When the gold rush to the Hodgkinson field broke
out across the Great Dividing Range in 1876, a small port was set up on the
mangrove shores of what later became Cairns. The place was too far from the foot
of the mountains, and traders agitated for a new town at Smithfield, now a
mere hamlet, on the Barron River. Smithfield, which had an even shorter life,
was founded by a man called Smith. He was a blacksmith who had made a good deal
of money quickly on the Palmer field and lost most of it again. His main claim
to fame was that he had once shod a miner’s horse with shoes of gold. It was a
feat which made little impression on the local teamsters. All that concerned
them was that the road up to the Hodgkinson could not be used for anything but
pack horses. They transferred their support to a party of men who chartered
a small coastal boat, sailing it round to Port Douglas which Christie Palmerston
had recently discovered during a rough packhorse trip down those steep
newcomers cut a proper road through the scrub along Palmerston’s track. One by
one new mineral finds were made up there at Thornborough, Herberton, Irvinebank,
Montalbion with its rich silver ores, and more than ten thousand people
travelled to the various diggings over the new route from Port Douglas.
cedar cutters began to work the ranges up behind Mossman, and Cobb 8c Co. came
in, opening a coach service under great difficulties through Herberton,
Einasleigh, Georgetown, and, at a later stage, right through to Croydon. The
whole country began to come to life.
the beginning of 1878 an unending procession of teamsters, drovers, gold
escorts, and police patrols began to move up and down the ranges, making the
little port among the mangroves a place they could call home.
Cairns by then had almost disappeared from the map; if it had ever been
marked on one at that early stage. It had already gained a bad reputation
following a cyclone that struck it in 1878, destroying three ships at the wharf
and many buildings. Even government officials and police moved away to Port
Douglas. Then, as so often happened in these frontier settlements, the gold and
tin fields became less productive. Once more Cairns took the initiative. What
really defeated Port Douglas was the building of the Cairns-Mareeba railway,
which was completed up the ranges in 1893, a fantastic line that winds up the
steep Barron Gorge, hanging at times on the edge of precipices, at others
spanning deep ravines with slender bridges and viaducts like spiders’ webs.
And that was the end of the brave era of wagon and mule trains, which made laborious journeys with stores for the diggings, returning with gold bullion, silver, and ingots of tin.
The few remaining old-timers still recall those exhausting days. They talk of hitching two horse teams to a single wagon, when the notorious Hump Range had to be overcome, with its 1:2 gradient. Fifty years ago, too, the first motor cars could only make those steep grades when, with engines running, they had themselves drawn slowly uphill behind a team of horses. They talk of Cobb 8c Co. coaches and wagon teams coming downhill with great logs lashed behind as a brake; of mule trains coming into town in a long procession, thirty or forty teams at a time; of police forays against dangerous aborigines, of long searches for miners lost in the wild scrubs, and opium smugglers manacled in the local jail; of the wild sprees when diggers came down from the ranges, of prospectors and Chinese coolies speared in the ranges, as they had been around the Palmer River farther north.
“The blacks have been very troublesome lately,”
reported Inspector J. Stuart in June 1879. He was summing up a fourteen-day
patrol he had made along the Mossman River and through the wild country
A more difficult country to work after blacks, or a
greater harbour for them I don’t think there is in the North. It is nearly all
dense scrub interspersed with small grassy pockets running into the Range. In
these pockets the cedar getters and settlers put their horses and cattle, where
they become easy prey to the blacks. After committing depredations the blacks
decamp into the scrub, where it is a frightful difficult task to follow them in
consequence of the lawyer vine and stinging tree. You have to cut your way with
cane knives and it sometimes takes days to get a few miles. All the work has to
be done on foot, and the native police have difficulties to contend with that
are unknown in more southern districts.
The inspector’s journal was a
rare find. It was one of a number that had been piled in a corner of the police
station, neglected and unread for perhaps half a century or more. I heard about
this, and other documents, while drinking with the district’s only policeman
some years ago. The talk had drifted to the town’s history.
“There’s a few old ledgers and
things at the station,” the trooper had said. “Don’t know what's in them. No
one’s taken any notice of them longer than I can remember. One day I suppose
we’ll burn them.”
Burn them! Half the historical
records of Australia have been destroyed in this way. I asked if I could see
them. As I expected, they were full of rich material. I spent a whole day amid
the rotting timbers of the police station, reading through those dusty journals.
They conjured up all manner of intriguing, disconnected scenes; a mosaic of
history that had little form, no continuity, but somehow created an atmosphere.
It evoked the ghosts of people you could not imagine among the tourists and
holiday-makers who walk around the little town today.
There was one entry, for
instance, in 1878, which noted that a police constable of the day had to be
locked up for three days and three nights. He had been given medical advice to
use porter “as a strengthening medicine,” it said. Unfortunately, he had
overdone the treatment and his fellow constables had to put him under
During the same month
Sub-Inspector Townsend and Constable Dalgleish had been seized with the idea of
cantering their horses up and down MacRossan Street between the police station
and the now vanished Royal Hotel. Constable Dalgleish had attempted to ride his
horse into the hotel dining-room, but somehow failed. The sub-inspector
succeeded. The damage caused by his horse’s flying hooves was said to have
amounted to eight pounds. Later in the day both policemen had galloped through a
party of schoolchildren, scattering them into the bushes.
It must have been quite a
The following year a Port
Douglas police patrol was informed that the remains of two goldminers from
Cooktown had been found in the scrub. It was in the region of the Johnstone
River. The sergeant-in-charge noted that little was left of the miners. The
blacks had roasted and eaten the corpses, he said. One of them had red hair.
The same man also left some
comments on the difficulty of handling gold escorts from the mountains. He had
recently ridden down with a consignment of gold from Thornborough. “Owing to the
steep nature of the country,” he wrote, “we have need of rather more than the
rather light horses now being used. We need the heavier horses used by Cobb 8c
Journal after journal recorded
the extraordinary variety of police activities in those demanding times. There
were “missing friends” to be traced, lost men to be recovered, smugglers,
drunks, murderers, and wife-evaders to deal with, and strict patrolling needed
not only for a restless town of strongly independent characters, but for the
wild bush as well. While reading through what were largely routine reports, I
came suddenly upon one of the most tragic incidents I have ever read about. It
was so unexpected amid the trivial facts of preceding reports.
Without comment, the
sergeant-in-charge simply reproduced the entire letter written by a nameless
woman of the town. It was dated 21st January 1897.
‘My dear daughter Fanny,
I am writing you a few lines. I
am at present in the lockup at Port Douglas on false suspicion of murdering your
daddy. My darling, do not let this break your heart. I am as innocent as you
are, and when I am dead and gone you may hold up your head and say your mother
died innocent. There was no witness in the house but God and myself. Do not
believe the horrible lies you will hear in the paper because you knew me better.
You knew what little old Dad was and he was tired of living. I want you to leave
Mrs P… as soon as you can and go to Charters Towers to your aunt, where she will
get you a good situation in a shop. I hope you will be a good girl and decent
and take care of your character.
I remain your broken-hearted
It was unsigned. Nor was there
any other reference to this extraordinary case.
Five years later police records
were much concerned about the discontent among settlers on the Daintree. The
semi-tribalized aborigines of the period were being employed on a coffee
plantation there which seemed to have been abandoned soon after. In 1902 the
police were called out to search for blacks who, bored with the labour, had gone
bush. Once again, it seemed, the police patrol was baffled by the jungle. It
came back with no more than a vague report that the workers had been supplied
with opium by a number of Chinese encamped at Mount Windsor.
“The opium rendered them useless
for work,” noted the leader of the patrol.
The incident threw a little
light on another forgotten venture of the times. Many settlers had tried to grow
corn and coffee along the beautiful Daintree River, using the reluctant
aborigines as pickers. A near war began when the settlers, who were armed,
refused to allow the blacks to move away down-river, where they knew that other
settlers would offer them easier work, and also government rations. Nor were
they allowed to roam the country as they had been accustomed to do, living off
the land, hunting the plentiful wild game. Legally, these settlers were supposed
to apply for permits to employ black labour. The constable writing his report
casually noted that these settlers “did without such permits.”
Once again, the results of this
inquiry were not reported.
The last significant entry in
these police records referred, in 1902, to a watch being set for a “desperate
character” known as Tommy Keem Yuen, domiciled at Mossman. His occupation was
given as “oyster fisherman,” another method of living that has long vanished
from the North. Someone had tipped off the police that Yuen was expected to
bring into Port Douglas from Cairns a parcel containing twenty pounds of
Did the Chinese arrive? What
happened to the opium? Again we have been left in unresolved suspense.
The twentieth century brought
much quieter times. The police grew uncommunicative. The once headstrong,
ambitious settlers on the Daintree renounced their dreams of great plantations,
turning the land into
It was this that gave Port
Douglas its new character, for there was no way of shipping away the huge
tonnage of crushed cane direct from the mill at Mossman. And so fourteen miles
of tramway was laid through the scrubs and swamps to the isolated township. It
was built late in the 1890s. For sixty years the quaint little sugar trains,
drawn by short, wood-burning locos, clattered and whistled their way down to the
wharf. These locos, with heavy iron spark-catchers set like helmets on their
funnels, reminded you of those old films about the American Civil War.
Then, in 1958, this little
railway closed. No further sugar lighters came around the coast from Cairns. The
dozen or so wharf labourers closed up their homes, tried to sell them for
whatever they could raise, and drifted away from the district. No one was to
blame but the wharfies themselves. Their endless disputes and go-slow methods
finally provoked the Mossman mill into sending its cane straight through to
Cairns by truck.
A year later I found Port
Douglas an even quieter township than before. There seemed no future for it; no
Had it not been for tourist
buses, making a fast round trip between Cairns and Mossman, the port might well
have been abandoned altogether.
The rotting and deserted wharf
makes a sad commentary on the days when, late last century, two or three ships
arrived each week. The larger ones had to stand several miles out to sea,
transferring passengers to whaleboats and cargo to lighters. Port Douglas was
then a regular call for overseas vessels sailing between Townsville and
Cooktown. On top of Flagstaff Hill, overlooking the Coral Sea, the tall pole
that gave the place its name still stands there, although no flag has been run
up in recent times.
The flying of that flag was
always the signal that another ship from European or southern ports was due to
arrive. It was Miss Ramsay, daughter of one of the town’s original residents,
who told me how her father used to import direct from England the fine tableware
and stores he sold. The port was often the first call for English vessels on the
Ramsay’s store has been here so
long that no one could imagine the town without it. They tell you that when Cook
sent a longboat to investigate this impressive harbour he damaged the boat on a
coral reef and went ashore to the Ramsay’s for copper nails to repair it.
Like Cooktown, Port Douglas has
suffered from being in the cyclone belt. The big blow of 1907 did heavy damage
here as well, and thirteen years later further buildings were blown off the map.
But what damaged the town even more severely was the building of that fine Cook
Highway up the coast from Cairns. It brought the days of leisurely travel to an
end, thus encouraging travellers to bypass the port and make night stops at
The road began as a relief
project during the Great Depression. It was opened in 1933 and is still
Australia’s finest scenic highway.
When the Japanese began their
southward drive in the second World War, occupying New Guinea, the army made
preparations against the threat of invasion here. The Cook Highway was closed to
civilian traffic. It was equipped with heavy guns and troops were posted there
with barbed wire and concrete tank defences set along those crisp white beaches.
All but twenty of Port Douglas’s population were evacuated. Many sold up their
homes and furniture for almost nothing and, when the
They made an attractive little
cafe there, with tables and sun-umbrellas on a stone-flagged terrace that looked
across the bay to those magnificent mountains. From an abandoned lot below they
salvaged the remains of the old Chinese joss house. There was a great bronze
incense burner, wood carvings, and a pagoda-like trellis patterned with Chinese
Even that gay setting has gone
now. The next owner allowed the joss-house relics to collapse and rot away.
Since then another couple, also
English, have made their home on the hill. Diana Bowden, an artist’s daughter,
began to make costume jewellery here from the magnificently coloured shells to
be found along the Barrier Reef. After successful shows in Paris, New York, and
Los Angeles, she and her husband had to employ a dozen local girls to keep pace
with the demand. It looked as if the place would acquire a valuable little
cottage industry, until imitators elsewhere flooded the market with cheaper, but
less artistic designs. The restaurant they opened subsequently, also in the open
air, is virtually the only one of its kind in this pleasant tropic climate. It
is an odd commentary on the lack of imagination shown by Australians in what
they like to call a tourist industry.
Tourism seems to be the town’s
only future. Yet, ironically, there is little to show. All you can do is to
point to this or that block of weed- choked land and say, “That’s where the
bullockies used to camp… Here’s where the teamsters paddocked their horses till
the keg at the Central ran dry.”
Or, looking at the cramped,
weatherboard post office in MacRossan Street, to recall that this was where the
thoroughbrace mail coaches began their long, wearying journeys over the range to
the Einasleigh and beyond.
There is no echo here today of
hobblechains and horsebells; no confusion of voices in a once lively port. There
is only one inducement for those who, for one reason or another, come here and
decide to stay. A young fisherman summed it up one day as he was unloading his
catch beside the neglected jetty.
“My family down south keep
asking me why I don’t go back home. To Lithgow! Strike me, why should I get
frostbite down there, when – there’s all the sun in the world here the whole
There have been some mighty warm
times in the past here, even when the sun did not shine.
[2004- Port Douglas now is an up
market resort town attracting international visitors. Cairns is the backpackers
Mecca of the known world]
leave Cairns at first light, pick up Port Douglas on the port beam two hours
later, drift up the broad Endeavour River well before dark, mooring at an
antiquated wharf. Travelling on the sluggish, broad-beamed
the Barron River to Archer Point it mostly stands on end. Dark, jungle-
smothered ranges recede one behind another, steep valleys, gorges, massive
ridges plunging directly to the sea; all these deny the classic contours of
white beaches, tidal inlets, and wide, sunlit bays. You seldom see signs of
man's existence, despite his many efforts in earlier times to establish himself
here. Beyond this barricade of mountains, from Laura to Cape York, there are
ghost towns to prove the toughness of this land. But here, along this splendid
coastline, is an entire region that might almost be peopled with ghosts.
Douglas, whose low, dun headland can be seen far out to sea, is only one such
Twenty miles north for instance, is the tranquil, blue green inlet
they call Bailey’s Creek. M. V. Malanda no longer troubles to drop anchor
there. Yet, only ten to fifteen years ago, men talked of its promise for the
North. It had rich soils, fertile alluvial flats, more water than its settlers
could ever use. But the last of them walked off in 1959. It was the second time
such failures had closed down Bailey’s Creek. The region had been settled
originally in the early 1920s, mainly by banana growers. They struggled against
Sometimes it took a planter five days a week to cart banana bunches three
miles through muddy jungle on horse-drawn sledges. Foodstuffs came only at long
intervals by rare coastal boats, obliging families to live on wild pigs and
fish. Mosquitoes and sandflies reached plague proportions; the scrub crawled
with pythons, taipans, tiger snakes. Yet they held on until ordered to evacuate
in the second World War. After the war, others came. But there were no boats to
take their bananas into Cairns. They grew pineapples and the canning plant in
Cairns closed down for want of a government subsidy.
eight thousand acres of good farming land are ownerless.
Northward again, only a few miles, surf claws at the black cliff sides of Cape Tribulation, so named by Cook two centuries ago when his Endeavour nearly struck a reef. Only one settler has weathered the slump in postwar markets there, battling to grow coffee, rice, and ginger where others failed. Wild pigs have taken over their arable land, though a timber mill still treats logs from the magnificent stands of cedar, silky oak, and maple up in the ranges.
have only to talk to the Malanda’s skipper to learn how this land has
“There’s less people today than fifty years ago,” Ollie Limburg said.
“Listen, I was born along this coast. Born in a cyclone seventy years ago. I’ve
sailed it in windjammers, as well as by diesel and steam. I’ve fished the coast
for trochus and pearlshell. I’ve fished for bêche-de-mer, and the Chinese used
to give us up to £900 a ton. Brother, there was fortunes made from the Peninsula
in earlier days. Remember the sandalwood cutters. They stripped this coastline
Townsville-born Swede was still talking of coral reefs and cyclones and the
small ships he skippered in the war against Japan, when the mate sang out that
Bloomfield River was in sight.
Bloomfield,” the short, stout, square-built skipper said. “We’re going in
seemed a casual name for such a rugged port. If you could call it a port. We had
been cruising about a mile from the mountainous shore, then swung in between two
reefs, with surf creaming over amber and purple coral. Ahead we saw a line of
green hills dropping sharply to the sea.
Claude le Roy, the mate, ran to the bows with a length of rope, watching
a small motor launch plunge through the offshore swell towards us. There were
two men in it.
the wheel, Oscar Olafsen, owner of the Bloomfield’s only store, and a lithe
young aboriginal, who stood up for’ard ready to cast his line. Olafsen, the
skipper said, was an old-timer in these parts, trading with the few
tin-scratchers who managed to eke out some sort of living in what was still
called the town of Ayton, six miles up-river.
don’t fool yourself, brother,” he said. “It’s just no good waltzing into that
store when you feel like it. You’ve got to wait on him. He opens up only on
Saturdays- and then only for half an hour. I’m telling you straight, he reckons
the locals are there to work for him.”
launch came alongside, rolling dangerously in each steep sea. Claude was quick
as a cat in the bows. The others judged waves and distance with an experienced
eye. The Bloomfield cargo passed rapidly from one boat to the other; petrol
drums, cases of tinned food, flour bags, two meat carcasses in hessian bags.
Behind us, a passenger waited patiently on the swinging deck. It seemed he was
to go ashore. He was the manager of a new plywood mill being built on the river
bank at Ayton. So there was at least one venture going ahead.
day,” the mate said, as the two boats drifted together in a temporary calm, “one
day men will come back and work the Bloomfield as she should be worked. And
there’s a mint of money to be made. Tin! There’s more tin here than you’ll find
in a million grocery stores. But it’s too tough now, with labour costs the way
they are. One day you’ll see this dead town opening up once more.”
Claude was as familiar with this region as he was with the back streets
of Cairns. He had travelled up and down it on foot, by horse, with prospecting
gear on his back. He had known the men who worked here long ago, had seen the
tin they once consigned to southern ports. Half a century ago there had been
fortunes won on the Bloomfield River. He brought the river alive for me, with
talk of its upper reaches. It took a different name up there.
Roaring Meg, they called it. The river was well named.
roared through gorges and chasms, falling three thousand feet within six miles.
It had drowned many men in its time. Mining men had tried to tame it, but it was
not the style of river to be tamed. They had built miles of races and fluming,
using its power to sluice the mullock away. Sixty years ago a syndicate had
tried to harness that river. They sluiced 14,000 tons of tin by 1914, when
operations closed. They had virtually washed a whole mountainside away. Huge
quantities of soil and tailings had flowed down-river, and now the mouth of this
torrent had almost silted up behind a rocky bar.
spoke of two men who had made their fortunes out on the Roaring Meg- Elliott and
Skirving. The names were well known to an earlier generation in the North.
“Elliott was a prudent man,” he said. “He took his money south with him.
Invested it. He lived to a good old age. As for his partner, Skirving, he
reckoned he belonged to the North. And he lived it up as though he did.
their partnership broke up, he took himself around to Cooktown. You know that
joint? There’s a place called the West Coast Hotel. Sure, he pretty well bought
that place by the time he finished. Used to shout for the bar. He was never
known to set down any note less than a tenner. It was big money in those days.
When they gave him the change he’d say, ‘Beggar the change,’ and chuck it out
through the batwing doors. Anyone that wanted to could pick it up in the
streets. No, he didn’t die broke. They took him to the madhouse in the
other future had any man, Claude asked, after half a lifetime in those
heat-struck hills. The world was fined down to elementals there, trapped between
the lonely ranges and the lonelier sea.
began to understand the mill manager’s description of that country, in his tale
of a jungle survey he had made. There was one narrow, wedge-shaped pass; a grim
and rock-bound plateau beyond. Through much of that country it was impossible to
take a horse, let alone a motor vehicle. And when you reached that plateau,
there was nothing there. Only more gorges, more ravines; no growing things but
stinging trees, taipans, and scrub.
“Sure, it’s taipan country there,” the mate said. “Any time I’ve been out
prospecting, I’ve done it always with my boots off. Rocks? It’s not the rocks.
You can’t tread on taipans if your feet aren’t bare. That's when you feel them,
boy. It gives you a split second to leap clear.”
Bloomfield now was nothing but a single store. With its doors closed every day
except Saturday. Once it had been a lively little township, when the miners came
in for rum and beer.
before the mining came, there had been big numbers landing below the Roaring
Meg. It became a busy staging camp for coolies from the China coast. But they
had to move quietly here, because they were forbidden immigrants. They were
bound for the Palmer goldfields, a hundred miles across the ranges. The logical
port was Cooktown, even if the more direct route went due west from Ayton. But
there was head tax to be paid. Resentment had also been growing against this
Celestial labour which toiled so endlessly in search of gold, lived on a handful
of rice, and then took all their spoil out of the country. It was hardly fair to
blame the coolies for their actions, for they were no more free agents than the
customs men who hunted them. Mostly they were sent to Australia by wealthy
mandarins, underpaid by them, half-starved, and forced to return afterwards to
their old feudal bondage. And so they were smuggled down this coastline,
transported in blunt-bowed Chinese junks, put ashore hurriedly by night, and
left to their own resources in an alien, terrifying land.
had a bag of rice when he reached the Bloomfield River. He was supposed to
return with a bag of gold.
exact tally was ever made of those landing here. It was estimated that six
hundred arrived each fortnight for a considerable period. But by no means all of
them reached the old Palmer diggings.
were other risks besides taipans and the maze of jungle. The local blacks were
decidedly unfriendly to the invaders, whether they were whites or orientals.
They happened also to be cannibals. It was said in those days that flesh-eating
gourmets along the Peninsula especially favoured two kinds of meat.
of these was horseflesh. The other was a freshly killed Chinese. The European,
men said, was too rank for pleasant eating. Perhaps this was due to his
traditional diet of cow meat, tobacco, and strong tea. The Chinese were
rice-eaters, which no doubt gave them a more gentle flavour.
was a nice story told along the Palmer in those times. One day, when a friendly
member of the Koko Pidadii tribe walked into a digger’s bark hut, he saw a
smoked ham hanging from the rafters. Greatly intrigued, he walked up to it,
sniffing at the meat.
Grinning at his host, he said, “Him alla same Chinaman.”
was pretty badly done by, the Chinese labourer who risked his life so far from
his ancient gods. He was insulted, ostracized, driven from field to field,
lynched, and often murdered. Even his virtues were somehow turned into
disrepute. When he was patient his white Australian superiors called him
cowardly; when he worked hard he was termed a scab; when, in desperation, he
turned on his tormentors men said he had run amok and should be strung up from
the handiest tree. Yet it is hard to see how North Australia could have been
opened up without him. When gold began petering out, he opened essential stores,
became a fair trader, importing not only foodstuffs, but silks and suits and
rare delicacies from his homeland. He planted the only market gardens in the
North, he irrigated the land the Australian was too lazy to work; he built the
Darwin-Birdum railway. Of course, he offered his labour cheap, because he had
never known living above a subsistence level. But it was not so much the
Chinese, but his white Australian employer who made him a threat to wage
conditions. As for his personal qualities, his character, he was often more
Christian than his white detractors who were in and out of church. An unwitting
tribute to his peaceful nature was made by Samuel White, the Adelaide
naturalist, who sailed up this coast to New Guinea in 1880. In Cooktown he
was not interested in the town, where I found a number of Chinamen, and was told
they made good citizens, and that I could procure Chinese labour for 20/- a
month. Although I wanted six more men, I did not venture to fill up with
Chinamen, for I wanted collectors, and, according to my experience of the
Mongolian race, they are too meek and averse to shedding blood to make good
collectors, and seem to lack the savage pleasure of hunting and taking life
which is so strongly shown by the Britishers.’
were the savages in the scramble for wealth in the early North?
hour’s cruising from the reefs of the Bloomfield mouth brought us abreast of
Cedar Bay. The shoreline was a crisp white curve of beach. A midday sun set the
clear blue water glittering. The green and ragged tops of coconut palms streamed
out above darker scrub. It was the classic vision of a tropical Utopia.
the passengers on the sunlit foredeck was a Sydney girl, travelling to some
unknown destination up the Peninsula. She was reading, of all things, Homer’s
Odyssey. This deserted coastline, for all its beauty, seemed far removed from
the romantic atmosphere of Menelaus and Helen, or the Palace of Antinous. Yet
there was a certain aptness to the speech Odysseus made to the King about his
ship’s crew on their ancient voyage:
they now wished for was to stay where they were with the Lotus Eaters, to browse
on the lotus and to forget that they had a home to return to…’
across there, on Cedar Bay, were just two such lotus eaters.
By some odd chance, they had both been to Oxford. One had majored in philosophy. The other, whose career had been more obscure, arrived here in the early 1920s, found a workable tin deposit at the back of a two thousand foot range, and had never moved farther than the Bloomfield since. They were believed to have talked to one another in earlier days; but such nonsense was long past. I wondered if they ever met each other in the scrub. And, if so, did they cut one another in correct British fashion. Bill Evans, who still worked a little tin when the mood took him, was now regarded as a complete hermit. But who in this climate could dedicate himself to mining as a whole-time occupation?
reach his market Evans had to climb that great ridge on foot, gouge out the tin,
bag it, and hump it down on his back to the sea. From there he rowed twenty
miles in a flat-bottomed boat to the Bloomfield store; a deep-sea journey full
of hazards when a sudden blow came up out of nowhere. At the little store he
traded his bagged tin for tea, tobacco, and flour. But on no occasion did he
ever speak. The hermit of Cedar Bay had long ago renounced humanity.
Solitude in these parts is a relative affair. The closer we came to
Cooktown, which was recognizable many miles away from the dominant, rounded peak
of Mount Cook, the more isolated did the coastline seem. And so it was with the
steep green hillock of Rocky Island, around which the Malanda turned
towards the Endeavour River. The lighthouse, set amid great stubs of naked rock,
now has an automatic light. Shortly before the second World War, the
lightkeeper’s wife suffered a lonely, four-day ordeal there.
had been the practice of one keeper to signal by hurricane lamp to his neighbour
on the mainland at Archer Point. They spoke in morse to one another, setting
their lamps in kerosene tins and drawing a shutter to and fro. One night on
Rocky Island Mrs White’s husband suddenly became sick and died. She signaled
Archer Point. It was right in the cyclone season, and big seas were running.
They were four days trying to sail from the mainland to her.
came close in beneath the island cliffs, Ollie pointed out a headstone marking
the place where White was buried.
the green banks of the broad river began to close around us. We were approaching
the most famous, though neglected, town of the North; a quiet town now, but one
whose associations reach back beyond the exhilarating days of the Palmer
goldfield, to cruising Chinese junks, blackbirders searching for cheap coloured
labour, back another century to the morning James Cook, with water seeping
through the Endeavour’s shattered hull, felt his way cautiously to safe
careening upon a river beach.
ours was no mission of discovery. M. V. Malanda was coming into port on a
much more vital purpose. We were carrying Cooktown’s weekly supply of draught
and bottled beer.
[2004 Four wheel drive
still needed for coast road- Daintree, Cape Tribulation etc. Back road to
Cooktown- shortly will be all bitumen]
still not altogether sure just what I expected of Cooktown. Perhaps I had read
too much, turned up too many photographic evocations of the past; perhaps the
travel journalists and regional historians had misled me. I had made a long
journey by sea to find a style of town that really was not there. Expecting to
find a legend, I discovered what was largely a myth. The ghost town of which so
much had been written, for so many years, had virtually no existence.
was a town sure enough. Quite a lively town. Cooktown has shrugged aside its
so-called “roaring days,” as if these were some kind of alien, nostalgic idea
that might have an appeal for outsiders, for the refugees from a world of
bundies, bodgies, and bobby-soxers, but be of small interest to those who
continue to live along its faded and empty streets.
town has grown respectable, at least in its own fashion. It talks of municipal
progress, sealed roads, and citrus-farms. No horsemen ride down the sun-stippled
main street; no hitching-posts impede the parking of cars. In the few remaining
pubs the talk is of modern racehorses, wages, and beer; just as it is in other,
more citified parts of Australia.
doubt Cooktown was once the raw, swaggering, booted and spurred frontier town of
the old tales. Once, no doubt, there were whiskered old-timers nodding in the
sun, and the time was always half past three. But this place is no longer back
of beyond, and wage earners mostly employed by the council, are required to keep
long-promised road from Cairns has at last come through the mountains and
jungle; motor trucks grind up and down the dusty street; a timber mill busily
consumes logs from the rain forest over the ranges; farmers grow peanuts and
oranges alongside the silent Endeavour River; cattlemen study the market price
of fat cattle and stores on the hoof. Speak to the Shire Clerk and you find him
more concerned with rates, road repairs, and land values than forgotten miners’
graves, or planning to rebuild those empty spaces left by the ninety-odd
shanties and pubs long ago spirited away like so many of the town’s rooftops in
the last great cyclone but one. You look for the Chinatown of the nineties and
find an ornamental park; you look for the boardwalks resounding to the boots of
many thousand diggers and meet with bitumen footpaths.
Rejecting the dead weight of history, as men see it here, Cooktown has
refused to be framed with a worn-out legend. That may be all right for cranks
and rubbernecks. But a town is more than a stereotype, as if fixed for all time
like a photographer’s plate. A town is a living organism; it changes and grows.
And, of course, decays. However stunted and crippled this town has become
because of isolation, neglect, and government incompetence, you cannot expect it
to wear its 1880s face in the 1960s.
that its origins are altogether disregarded. There are plentiful reminders
still. Its first European visitor is still honoured; by the high green shoulder
of Mount Cook dominating the town, by the monument to the brilliant seaman who
brought his bark through the niggerheads and shoals of the Great Barrier Reef,
to repair her damaged hull here nearly two hundred years ago, and by the ten
foot scale model of the Endeavour in the local school.
Cook has come to be regarded as the real pioneer nowadays, not William Hann, J.
V. Mulligan, or the shiploads of gold-seekers who were the real creators of life
here a century later. If ever a man deserved a
the first three months more than three thousand came up the Endeavour, in
sixty-two charter ships bringing them from various southern ports.
town, which began as a mile-long row of tents along the blazed Palmer track, was
soon taking on more substance as diggers returned triumphantly from the bush,
demanding more and more shanties, gambling rooms, and bordellos for the
unburdening of their sudden wealth. No one has ever been able to agree on
the numbers who lived in Cooktown during its peak times. There were no records
kept. The population ebbed and flowed, for it was almost perpetually in motion,
travelling between the coast and the far-off diggings. The official estimates
put the total at some 25,000 assorted Europeans and 30,000 Chinese. One old
resident, however, who had close contacts with shipping agents, said this was
far too conservative. He put the figure as high as 30,000 Europeans and
It is impossible to imagine such a vast throng now.
the West Coast Hotel to the Sovereign- commonly called the Half-Sovereign since
the 1959 cyclone blew half of it away- there are more vacant blocks than
buildings. Rank grass and weeds smother the foundations of once busy general
stores, billiard saloons, pubs, and blacksmith shops. There is no trace of the
famous joss house. Nor does anyone know what happened to its goldleaf, ceiling,
its carved ebony tables and chairs. The only remains I was able to track down
were in an iron shed behind the present auctioneer’s room. Here were preserved a
heavy cast-iron bell and a battered incense burner, painted with Chinese
whittling away of the old town was less due to time and white ants than to the
recurrent cyclones roaring in from the Coral Sea. The biggest of these was in
1907, when Sun Kum Fung’s great store lost its entire roof, the veranda was
sliced off Tommy Ah Kum’s place, the fire station was demolished, the
Oddfellows’ Hall reduced to a tangle of broken beams and joists, and the
Municipal Chambers flooded and unroofed and most of the town’s records
destroyed. Among the hotels put out of business, some of them forever, were the
Edinburgh, Great Northern, Sovereign, Diggers’ Arms, the Courthouse, Federal,
Commercial, and Mrs McGrath’s famous New Guinea Hotel.
Act of God struck at all denominations without favour. The Catholic church was
knocked to the ground, the convent partly unroofed, the Church of England blown
right off its blocks, and the Methodist church almost wrecked. Even the ground
floor of the Masonic Hall was crushed out of sight by falling roof beams and
Cooktown had already dwindled long before the year of the great cyclone. It had
then only seventeen hotels, less than three thousand people, and little revenue
beyond small-scale tin mining farther up the Peninsula, and some gold around
Coen and Ebagoolah.
1949 another cyclone did equal damage. Today only the most solid of those early
finest of these is the Queensland National Bank, built in Georgian style of
sandstone blocks. The last of three banks which once did tremendous business
here, it was bought some years ago by the Bank of New South Wales. It must have
been the best bargain the bank ever made, for the sale price was only £800. That
was one thirtieth of the cost of building it seventy years ago, when money was
worth far more.
was in the Q. N. Bank that Louis Becke worked as a teller, after he gave up
travelling around the South Seas. Behind its heavy cedar counter some of his
short stories may well have been composed as he conjured up memories of earlier
adventures by reef and palm.
bank still treasures one reminder of its great days of trading. Behind this
counter the manager one day showed me a set of delicately balanced scales, once
used for weighing gold dust from the Palmer field. They were covered with
verdigris, the result of nearly eighty Wets. How much of that £6,000,000 the
goldfield produced came through this bank, no one can now say. Nor is even this
amount the full total of that astonishing rush, for considerable gold was
smuggled out of the country by the Chinese. Legend has it that some of this, in
the form of gold dust, was shipped away to Hong Kong in the hollowed out bones
of dead relatives sent home to join their ancestors.
seems more likely that it was hidden in the huge earthenware jars brought from
China, for it was in such contrivances that the dead were transported to their
Malanda is almost the only vessel berthing here today, and it is almost
impossible to believe that regular shipping once connected Cooktown with China.
In the nineteenth century the broad estuary was crowded with all manner of
steamships and sail. Apart from Brisbane, Cooktown was Queensland’s busiest
port. It was on the direct mail route between Sydney and London; there were
regular services by the German New Guinea Company to Papua and other German
possessions; two steamers a week took minerals and agricultural produce down to
Brisbane, returning with mining equipment for Peninsula fields; Chinese
merchants had a heavy import trade from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore,
displaying an amazing variety of goods in Charlotte Street stores. Here, where
now no more than an occasional pearling lugger puts in, was an international
port. There was no Cairns then, no port of Townsville; and Cooktown was mostly
the first landfall overseas vessels made in Australian waters.
were other, more sinister vessels dropping into port from time to time. They
were mostly schooners of one kind or another, whose masters talked rather less
than usual in the bars of the Captain Cook, the Sovereign, or the West Coast.
They were blackbirders. Their ships’ papers were generally in order, although
there was little record of the off-beat islands they visited; places off the
coast of Papua, in the Solomons, and Polynesia. This “kanaka trading” was not
then regarded with the disgust accorded it today, but the coloured passengers
were usually kept out of sight while ships lay in port. They were bound for the
Queensland canefields farther south. The heady atmosphere of a diggers’ town,
the free-spending, the joie de vivre might have had an unfortunate effect on men
consigned to virtual slavery on the Australian coast. Mostly they could not
read; why else had they signed such contracts with thumbmarks or crosses, freely
committing themselves to hard labour for
It is doubtful whether
Australians have often known such exuberance before or since. Certainly not
today. Only in such brief outbursts of unexpected riches, as later at Mount
Morgan, Broken Hill, Coolgardie, and Kalgoorlie.
If you want to see how this
somnolent town looked in its golden years, you have only to go into the West
Coast. It is a well-preserved hotel. It belongs to its age, with its stoutly
timbered veranda posts, weatherboard walls painted green on the outside, a
shadowy little bar, and a larger bar-parlour with dark panelled walls.
“Don’t miss the West Coast,
whatever you do,” the Shire Clerk had told me the day I arrived. “You’ll like
the look of the place, and the beer’s good.”
He was right on both
Inside the bar parlour was a
fine old piano, with carved and age darkened frame. It must have been the
centrepiece for hundreds of riotous evenings when diggers tossed their gold dust
over the counter, while gold-diggers of another kind danced and sang with them.
The piano had been made by Cornish & Co. of Washington, goodness knows how
long ago. Among the usual pictures of Carbine and other famous Australians, not
to mention Oatmeal Stout, was a photograph of Charlotte Street in 1901. Cooktown
was obviously already past its best, but it was a lively scene all the
It depicted a Federal Day
procession marching through the town; banners, a self-conscious band playing,
solemn ranks of bearded gents braving the tropic heat in toppers and tight
suits, schoolgirls with starched white dresses and straw bonnets, and a jaunty
crowd of onlookers along the boardwalks.
The highlight of the parlour was
a series of murals that had been painted right around the walls. The artist must
have had some difficulty painting so close to the low ceiling, and the wide
cracks between the weatherboards can’t have made things easier. Because they
have such a period atmosphere, it is hard to realize they were done in fairly
recent times. The artist was Garnett Agnew, a Sydney man who worked for the
Bulletin for many years, then migrated to the North because he preferred
the easier tropical climate. The difficulties of earning a living in Queensland
obliged him to take on whatever work he could find; commercial art, signwriting,
even quick sketches for a few shillings a time in saloon bars. In Cooktown he
persuaded the West Coast’s owner to commission the murals. The payment arranged
was enough rum or beer to keep him in trim while the work went on. It was a
happy arrangement, toiling away with brushes and paint so close to that quiet
He did not attempt to
romanticize his scenes. They have a sardonic, irreverent touch that makes no
concessions to the myths of democracy with which a later generation tried to
sentimentalize the nineties. At first, it is almost an embarrassment to look at
these candid sketches, so many done from life. Despite their period setting,
they were painted in the 1930s, using many contemporary characters transposed to
an earlier day. Others were sketched from old photographs, or from descriptions
of those who remembered them. The entire series pokes outrageous mullock at the
cult of the pioneer, or the alleged mateship of the times.
The first scene depicts women
saying farewell to their menfolk departing for the diggings, some of them
welldressed, with cheekily worn panama hats, others bearded, slouching,
grim-looking, shouldering miners’ picks. There is a clergyman in collar and tie,
joining the cosmopolitan crowd, which includes John Chinaman with pigtail
hanging down his back. The next section shows a dying prospector, with dish and
bag of gold, being robbed at the point of death by others on their way to the
Palmer field. It was, the publican said, a true occurrence. Then comes a typical
Cooktown scene involving some get-rich-quick characters in top hats with some of
the tarty women of the town. Next is a pistol duel, followed by two toughs
picking the pocket of a blind man.
The last group, a whole riotous
frieze on its own next to the bar- Agnew was said to have taken days over this
one- expresses the festive years when gold was plentiful. A line of party-makers
singing Auld Lang Syne. Among them are several figures still remembered by the
older hands of the town. It includes one of the artist himself as a young man; a
bucolic character playing his accordion; the local chemist with a crowd of merry
females; a Chinese woman, pregnant, with a large sun hat hiding her figure;
miners; and an Anglican priest refusing to hold hands with a notorious member of
the I.W.W. during the singing.
“That’s old Bill Eccles,” the
publican said. “Quite a character in his day. Used to spruik on street corners
in Townsville. Once, when the cops tried to arrest him, he chained himself to a
tree. An Oxford man he was, too. Finished up as a hermit in the hills behind the
town. Only died a couple of years back.”
Garnett Agnew clearly had a lot
of fun in the West Coast bar. It was not all satire, for there are moments of
courage and gallantry. It is just that he had refused to see goldfields history
in the terms of conventional piety, rejecting the usual view that tries to
compare the collective lust for gain of a gold-digger’s spree with the last
stand at Thermopylae. This, he suggests, was Australia’s heritage, along with
the legendary mateship and pioneering.
At all events, it encourages a
great deal of talk at the bar. For many years people have predicted that
Cooktown will sooner or later die. It is a calamity that is perennially
postponed. Somehow, despite its two or three hundred inhabitants, it goes on
living, conjuring up a little work here and there, existing very much on its own
resources, or on the potentially rich country around it. In Cooktown itself
there would be little work, but for the Shire Council, and the money goes round
in circles, seldom leaving the town. I have never seen so many worn, patched-up,
dog-eared notes. They travel perpetually from the bank to the council, on to the
store and the pubs, then back to the bank again.
It is an unproductive little
world when you look back to those exhilarating early years last century. More
than forty tons of gold passed through the town in twenty years.
But the real destiny of Cooktown
is not to be found down Charlotte Street, nor in the weed-grown side lanes and
tenantless blocks around the town. It lies in the rich soils along the Endeavour
River. For decades men have grown fine oranges there, bananas, peanuts, even
sugar cane, although there is no sugar mill to treat it here. It is the centre,
too, for the cattle runs extending away northwards over the Peninsula. But for
the gold era, men may never have brought cattle here; and, without the Chinese,
they may never have seen the potential for agriculture. But in recent years,
such things have tended to stand still.
Sometimes, if you stay long
enough, you begin to feel that Cooktown lies in a dream, suspended between
future and past. Through the long Wet season, when rainstorms hammer the iron
roofs, when thunder crashes among the surrounding ironstone hills, you feel the
country is too harsh for new development. Then comes the invigorating sunlight
of the Dry. Again men talk of new capital, closer settlement, better roads
through the bush, more shipping, another railway.
Ah, that Cooktown railway!
It was a brave effort in its
time. Its building was one of the feats of the early North. But the line grew
senile fifty years ago. It is an adventure to ride it; now it is in the final
stages of decay.
The weekly train to Laura shows
a country much as it was before the first gold-seekers came.
The railway station at Cooktown is a treasure. It should never be pulled down.
It resembles a North Queensland house more than a terminal; a ramshackle, two-storey frame building that has seen no paint for a very long time. The stationmaster’s house is the upper floor, beneath an iron roof which sits like a wind-blown umbrella over the open balconies. Below is a ground-level platform, with a wooden canopy like the old boardwalks of the town. A series of locked doors may once have been ticket office, porters’ rooms, and waiting rooms. The veranda posts look so flimsy you wonder how this terminal ever weathered the cyclones that knocked so many other buildings down.
A single, narrow-gauge track runs past it to a tangle of weeds and tall grass.
The train itself is so small you hardly notice it, unless it stands at the deserted platform. Back in the golden era there used to be two services daily to Laura and back. Long before the second World War, these were cut back to three times a week. Now the train runs on Wednesdays only.
It leaves in the morning, after the driver- stationmaster- ticket clerk drives the bats from its one carriage, then scares goats off the line with his klaxon. Late the same afternoon it is home again, after its 132-mile round trip to the Laura.
If the journey is still a lively, highly scenic one, it lacks the splendour and the soot of earlier trains. The present one is a rail motor with three rows of seats behind the driver, and a small goods tender, seldom loaded to capacity, tacked on at the rear. Back in the age of steam- the first section was opened in 1885- a much longer train caused wonder and consternation among the myall blacks. Tall-funneled little locos panted and puffed through the messmate scrub, rushed down gradients to the peril of emus and wallabies, toiled up ironstone ridges, blowing steam like a whale surfacing, while black cockatoos, galahs, and parakeets went screeching in huge flocks from the line. There were strings of wooden carriages and box-cars rattling behind; as many as the hand-shoveled embankments and rickety line would allow.
When the 3 ft. 6 in. track was at last pushed through to Laura, three years later, it was a feat to be celebrated with speeches and champagne.
Unfortunately, it happened also to be the time when the Palmer reefs were petering out. The engineers had conquered the jungle just too late. Hence, the original grand design of extending the railway through to Mount Mulligan and the Mungana copper field was abandoned. All the same, this Laura line did a fantastic job in its time. During the 1880s it managed to handle 20,000 passengers a year, as well as 10,000 tons of freight that included mining machinery, timber, wagonettes, and heavy stores.
Today’s journeys are more like a bush picnic.
The single carriage behind its petrol motor looks like a bus on rails. Which is exactly what it is. It began its career as a London bus, back in 1914. One of the early Daimlers, it has stood up to changed circumstances in a remarkable way. Now fifty years removed from the dignity of Regent Street and gaily lit Leicester Square, the Laura train gallops along through mangrove swamps and salty, whipstick scrub, through stony gullies, gorges, and up the ironstone hills, past lagoons honking with wildfowl, ruined homesteads or pubs, and wayside stations whose only passengers are ghosts. There is seldom a living soul to hail it till the driver cuts off the motor outside the lonely Laura hotel.
Travelling this route, you realize just how difficult the track must have been before the railway came.
The old packhorse road follows much the same country. For the first two years horsemen, wagon-drivers, bullockies, and swagmen hoofing it under a scorching sun had to find their way by wheel ruts and blazed trees. Many of them died en route. Some perished of thirst, others from hunger; some were speared by blacks or stuck up by thieves. Many had nuggets and gold dust with them, dreaming of a long-earned spree in the Cooktown pubs, when they collapsed in the scrub. Others were broke, returning disillusioned from a river valley that could not support so many thousands of jostling, ruthless, and claim- jumping diggers.
Four miles out of Cooktown you draw into a siding, whose tattered sign announces ‘Marton.’ Few people know it was named after the Lincolnshire village where Cook was born. The next township, Evandale, is no more than a clump of bamboos. Another eight miles bring you to Hamilton, once a busy little settlement with four hotels. Then on to Oakey, where Cobb & Co. had a horse change when their dusty, thoroughbrace coaches went through to Palmerville, Maytown, and beyond. Then crossing the Normanby River, you travel a series of alarming gradients and curves to a platform labeled “Battle Camp.”
It was a critical point in the Peninsulas beginnings. A point of no return in relations between black and white. Not far away, at Murdering Lagoon, a teamster named Strau was speared by aborigines in 1873. They killed his whole family, and his horses as well. A party of police troopers rode out from Cooktown and, in the careless phrase of the period, “dealt with the situation.” They shot every black they could flush from the scrub. Three years later there was more trouble there. A gold escort, with five mounted troopers, was bringing 2,000 ounces of gold in from Palmerville when it was ambushed by blacks. One policeman was speared. The rest opened fire, and no one bothered to record how many aborigines were killed. The blood count was taken in a somewhat one-sided fashion then.
It was all very well to declare, as even moderate men did, that the tribes were hostile and treacherous. But the key to the shocking bloodshed that developed here is to be found in Mulligan’s own memoirs. Thirty years after the event, he wrote in the Queenslander (19 September 1904) of an incident along the track from Georgetown to the Palmer, the start of this undeclared war. Three of his men were then mining at a place called the Six Mile in 1873:
“The first evening they were all alone. Immediately above their camp was a very big mob of blacks, who had just poisoned a deep hole with boughs to catch fish. Old men with spears were hopping about during the evening, looking at the miners working. The next day, about dinner time, miners from below began to arrive until there were about a hundred. That evening our party and some acquaintances were having a yarn when the greatest commotion began in the camp; men tearing through the bushes, scrambling over rocks and boulders in the river, while many voices sang out, ‘The blacks! The blacks!’ It was soon known, however, that it was only a kangaroo looking for water....
The next morning, a few of the boys went up to the blacks’ camp, fired some revolver shots and dispersed the blacks- in fact, spoilt their big feast. There were literally barrow-loads of fish of all kinds- barrimundi, cod and bream…
After this, hostilities commenced. Some of the boys got chased into camp next day, by a mob of angry spearmen. Christie Palmerston was speared in the right foot… I was one of the miners who came out of the river to defend the camp with my rifle at the ready, and I was just in time to see Bill Kelly have a very narrow escape from a spear… A party was formed that evening to find the blacks’ camp and disperse them. The blacks, however, had a watch out, who soon scrambled down the cliff, gave the alarm, and the whole yelling mob jumped out almost into the teeth of the four miners. The spears were flying fast and furious, while the hills echoed with the roar of rifles and revolvers. Spears fell like rain- in fact, a whole forest of them was left sticking in the ground, thrown with such force that they almost brought themselves up straight.
This is the whole history of the first encounter with the blacks on the Palmer at Fish Point.’
In the very different context of the mid-twentieth century, it is easy to moralize. The situation had been a tense one; raw miners eerily hemmed in by scrub, European riff-raff panicking, the aborigines suspicious of the strangers occupying their waterholes, the threatening firearms, and thefts of native fish. There was no leader like Sturt or Eyre to avoid bloodshed, not even the otherwise resourceful Mulligan. The conflict, as always, was resolved by the power of high-velocity bullets. And here it was to have tragic consequences; hundreds of men murdered on both sides. But it was the aborigines who had to pay most severely.
The temper of the times was distressingly summed up by Henry G. Lamond, whose father was a sub-inspector of the Native Mounted Police between Murdering Lagoon and Laura. As a boy, Lamond recalled in North Australian Monthly, August 1957, watching two mounted troopers yard a myall gin like a wild bullock. “Their horses propped and wheeled her,” he wrote. “They laughed and rocked in the saddle when they shooed her through the gate. She ran across, scaled the rails on the other side, ran away bush. That only added to the merriment of the boys.”
It was the heritage of Fish Point that led to the abandoning of Hell’s Gates, well before the railway came through. A narrow pass through the ranges, just wide enough for a loaded packhorse, it made an ideal ambush. Many were speared here, especially the Chinese, who normally went unarmed. It was here, too, that outlaws like Christie Palmerston held up travellers.
He was a strange character. Part bushman-explorer, he was too wild to settle as others did. Burly and tall, with a heavy brown beard, one withered arm, and the speech of an educated man, he was alleged to be Lord Palmerston’s natural son. But no one knows much about him, how he came to Australia, or what he first did in the North. Some said his mother had been Countess Carandini, a famous Italian opera singer. Yet here he was, living a hermit’s life in the bush, emerging every now and again at the head of an aboriginal gang, robbing pack trains and Chinese mining camps. Yet he was just as likely to aid men in trouble, guide them when lost through the bush, or break up attacks by the blacks.
As for the girls, he had a manner with them they found hard to resist. Wanted by the police, he could not ride openly into Cooktown, but frequently turned up just the same. It was said that he slipped into town wearing a cabbage-tree hat, goggles, and a worn overcoat with a once fashionable Bond Street cut. He was particular about his women, too. He kept up a long-standing affair with the celebrated Palmer Kate, a girl whose rates were the highest in town.
Eventually, he dropped his lawless activities, exploiting his rare knowledge of the back country to aid settlement instead. In the 1880s he was quietly approached by government officers, who offered to forget the past if he would help explore new country and negotiate with the still uncertain blacks.
It was at this stage that he moved to the district around Cairns, then pioneered the rough mountain track down from the Herberton tinfield to Port Douglas on the coast. Palmerston also carried out the initial surveys that led to the building of the mountain railway back of Cairns. He left Australia in 1890, when he was engaged by a sultan in the Federated Malay States to explore new terrain there, and died three years later in the jungle from fever.
An early associate of J. V. Mulligan, he did a great deal to open up the wild country between the Palmer and Laura.
Today, as you can see when the train slows into what remains of the Laura, the back country has become as primitive as it was before these men arrived. The town, if you can still call it that, has shrivelled to a single hotel. It is an old-style bush shanty, overshadowed by one huge mango tree. Apart from a police station, post office, and one general store, the town has died.
Even now the place is so remote that the mails still go by packhorse. It is the last of its kind on the continent.
The most celebrated of these mailmen was Jim MacDowell, who spent seventeen years on the track, dying virtually in the saddle near Violetvale in 1951. In that time he rode the incredible distance of 154,788 miles, spending thirteen days each fortnight in the saddle. He used to take his string of packhorses as far as Coen, Moreton, and the Wenlock telegraph station. Two other mailmen followed him, but the contract was lost in 1954 when Bush Pilots Airways took over the mails to Peninsula cattle runs.
But, even now, when the Wet seasons make airstrips too boggy even for light planes, the pony express goes out again from Laura. The packhorse has almost a century of continuous service out here.
A decade ago the Laura lost another unique possession. It was among the most costly luxuries men ever built in the North.
Planners who wanted to push the railway on to the Palmer field found themselves held up by the steep banks of the Laura River, which flooded sixty or more feet high after heavy rain. They designed a five-span steel bridge, transported the huge girders by train, and set them on huge concrete pillars sixty-seven feet above the bed of the river. It cost them £21,000; a figure that could be multiplied by ten these days. The bridge was a notable feat of engineering.
Yet no train ever crossed it.
Soon after its completion, one loco was driven cautiously to the other side for testing purposes. But that was all.
For years men argued as to whether the railway should go northward to Mungana, or down to the Palmer diggings. Long before they could make up their minds, the last goldmine had closed. Then, in the record flood of March 1940, the dispute was ended. The bridge was wrecked, and its three centre spans washed downstream. Early in 1957 another flood swept away the remaining girders and piers.
It seemed all in keeping with the violent moods of the North. The most ambitious plans are thwarted and eventually decay.
Nowadays, to reach the Palmer field you must revert to packhorses, or their modern equivalent, the four-wheel drive. The first town on the normally dry Palmer River is Maytown, some fifty-three miles south of the Laura. It is a fearful road. Rutted, broken by deep washaways, overgrown with scrub, tall speargrass, and huge anthills, it is no track for the strongest of vehicles. Men have been known to take three to four days to reach this silent town, once a home for ten thousand people.
There were thirty-five hotels here in the 1880s, three banks, and a newspaper called the Golden Age. The last of the big mines, the Queen, which once yielded ten ounces to the ton, was closed down soon after the turn of the century. By that time there were less than two hundred people living there.
Today there is one.
His is the last home standing. The rest of the buildings were destroyed by white ants or bushfires, or reduced to their timbers and carted away.
A last rotting memorial remains to the hopeful builders of ninety years ago. A fire-blackened line of telegraph poles, much reduced by storms and dry rot. Half lost in the scrub they climb the black and scrub-choked ranges in the direction of forgotten Palmerville.
“The whole of the Palmer Valley had now become a living mass of men scattered all over the country,” wrote J. V. Mulligan of the rush of 1874. “We were getting full up with the Palmer. There seemed to be too many people, though everyone was getting gold, and more people were coming.”
It has been left now to the kangaroos and the crows.
It is an easy climb for the modern motorist over North Queensland’s dividing range from Cairns. He can keep his foot on the accelerator across the Atherton Tableland, run easily down through Einasleigh, Forsayth, Georgetown, and Gilbert River towards the Gulf. I doubt if one in a thousand thinks of what those gradients once meant to the teamster or the Cobb & Co. driver whose tracks they follow.
As for that shadeless, half-derelict place called Croydon, the traveller may waste a few minutes there if his petrol is low, or the heat suggests a beer at Mrs Brideson’s hotel. There is nothing to keep him any longer. Except a thought that the next pub is ninety miles away in Normanton.
“What sort of a dump’s this?” I heard a passing driver ask. “On the road map it’s marked as a town. Hell, where’s the town?”
It is like having an ear for music. Some people respond to a particular atmosphere. Others are tone deaf.
The dust our friend then complained of did not always settle in this desolate way. The dust of Croydon was once immensely valued. It was gold dust.
Yet anyone who knows his Australia is aware of the meaning of Croydon. It is more than a one-pub town, a place with one semi-idle general store. Main street is like a country road; stony, almost treeless, with the iron roofs of two or three buildings harsh in the sun’s glare, and a score of goats nuzzling among the gibbers, moving reluctantly when a rare car slows down. Croydon was a place that helped to settle Queensland’s far north-west at a time when the State had little population. If there are few left today, it is because they moved on elsewhere and, in the main, did not return to the cities.
Yet the memory of the seven thousand who once lived here still hovers, like some mirage, at the back of its normally deserted streets. Outside the timber-fronted town hall, with its quaint little railed-in veranda and squat clock tower, are two lamp-posts of late Victorian style. They would have looked more in place in nineteenth century Sydney or London. No lamplighter has attended to them for fifty years. Only once have the chimes of that town hall clock been heard in that period, when they were set once more for the Back to Croydon week staged by the old hands in 1958.
Beyond a disused paddock, now rank with spear grass, there is another bell tower, isolated among spare trees like the head of an outback bore. From that steel frame a Sunday bell once brought hundreds to the now vanished Catholic Church.
The real heart of the town is actually outside it.
You need a guide to find much trace of the old Croydon now. Great white mullock heaps glint behind bushes and scrubby trees. You come upon them unexpectedly. The ground is pitted with unguarded holes, which the children play around, despite warnings of subsiding soils from their elders. Here and there are the remains of a shafthead, an old boiler shell, some abandoned flywheel or winch perched oddly upon the lip of a glittering crater that turns out to be a place where fortunes were won. The famous Golden Gate, for instance, is now a litter of twisted, rusting iron out in a sad gully surrounded by dwarf trees.
Here was the richest producer on the field, discovered back in 1891 and worked only to shallow depths.
The first strike was made eight years earlier. This was just as the pioneer Etheridge field, based on Georgetown, was starting to peter out. The region had not long been taken up for cattle by an Englishman, W. C. Brown, who came from Croydon, Surrey, and named his new holding Croydon Downs. He took possession of it just before Christmas, 1881, on the eve of the Wet season, then returned to Brisbane, bought seven hundred head of cattle, and went north again on a seven-months’ overlanding trip. The first traces of gold were found by Tom McEvoy, a contractor employed by Brown to build a fence. “Posthole” Tom, as he was subsequently called, was cursing his luck at having to dig a posthole in hard ground, when he saw gold beneath the upturned soil. There was not much of it, so Brown went on thinking in terms of cattle.
Not until the middle of 1883 did two brothers named Aldridge, station hands, discover payable quartz in a near-by reef. They found they had been riding over it almost daily in the course of station work for the past two years.
That was the beginning of the Croydon rush- and the Lady Mary mine.
Brown and the two Aldridges, who became his partners, were given a £1,000 reward by the Government, and the cattle ceased to be of much importance.
Big strikes were made soon after in half a dozen regions, none of them far from the embryo township of Croydon. Dozens of claims were registered; among them the Highland Mary, Waratah, Tabletop, Iguana, Moonstone, the Duke, and Croydon King. You need to be an expert these days to locate these individual mines.
Only the huge, indestructible mounds of useless mullock now reflect the shimmer of heat waves under a bare sky.
Today, looking for a little shade to park your car, you may find it hard to believe this was ever a place of crowds and high activity. Yet six thousand people once lived here. It was one of Queensland’s most cosmopolitan towns; outside Cooktown or early Cairns. There were gold-seekers of all nations, German blacksmiths, Indian hawkers, and, of course, Chinese. Actually, the Chinese were relatively few, for the shadow of White Australia was already beginning to move over the North. But those who came took root in another way. They set up market gardens, or took jobs on stations, and quite a few remained long after gold in. this region was forgotten.
A number of Gulf stations also employed them as gardeners, and the way they conjured vegetables out of apparently arid soils was quite extraordinary. I met one old Chinese gardener on a station down the Leichhardt, whose riverside garden was a maze of bamboo pipes, trenches, and terraced beds. Other homesteads, which had once also had Chinese, had seen no vegetables since White Australia forced these people to leave the country.
To see just how lively and varied life was in Croydon at the beginning of this century you have only to turn up Pugh’s Almanac of 1900. There is still one well-preserved copy in Croydon. It lists a great variety of occupations no country town of comparable size would have today. There were architects, auctioneers, several dentists, chemists, half a dozen commission agents. There were two newspapers, the Golden Age and the Mining News. There were five coach-builders, six drapery stores, five banks, eleven sharebrokers, and even two commercial photographers.
Coach-building was quite an industry in those times; even in remote Croydon. It was the end of that stiff mail service across the mountains and plains from Cairns. The mail drivers were so efficient that they managed to compete even with the railway on to Normanton once that line went through.
The long forgotten firm of Love & Hirschberg moved into the country early, and was based at Georgetown. Love bred the horses; and magnificent beasts they were. Joe Hirschberg drove them with dash and skill.
Driving always at a great pace, Hirschberg was known throughout the north-west for the way he kept his horses evenly matched. He harnessed seven to his heavy coach and insisted that all should be of one colour. They were always seven greys, or blacks, or bays. Never a mixed team. He covered the three hundred miles between Herberton and Croydon in two days; another two days to return. It was a terrific feat to have kept it up year after year.
It was Phil Shaffert, manager of Miranda Downs near Normanton, who told me of Hirschberg’s brilliant driving. Phil, who had grown up in Georgetown, had idolized the big coachdriver. As a small boy he had spent hours outside the mail change, watching the harnessing of these splendid horses, noting every detail of the procedure. He was a quick-tempered man, Hirschberg, and impatient of anyone making mistakes. He taught his horseboys to lay out leads and traces in a special sequence. The boys had to remember the procedure exactly. To make one error meant the sack. Young Phil used to stand there hour after hour, watching, memorizing.
Then, one morning, he saw a horseboy mix up the traces. Joe Hirschberg roared at him. The boy was fired.
Without being aware of it, young Phil had edged closer to the scene.
“What’re you staring at, boy?”
Hirschberg snapped. “You want the job?”
Phil hardly dared to
“D’you know how to work, or
don’t you? Get cracking. Let’s see what you can do.”
It was too good to be true.
Phil’s nervousness vanished. He had the harness disentangled, properly laid out
in a minute or two. He had the job.
But the next stage of his
ambition never came. He dreamed of sitting up on the box beside the great
Hirschberg, and later taking over the reins himself. But Shaffert had been born
too late. The mail coach was going out of fashion as he grew up, and he had to
find stockman’s work instead.
There is one story he still
tells about Joe Hirschberg, when he drove alongside a somewhat unusual passenger
for those parts. The man was a commercial traveller and new to the outback. As
they raced on through the bush towards Croydon, he asked if they would see any
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen
one?” Hirschberg asked him. “There’s hundreds along these roads.”
After a moment’s reflection, he
“I tell you what, friend.
There’s one big old grey we’ll meet this side of Croydon. Real character, that
fellow. Every time I come along, he stands beside the road to collect his
“It’s the sober truth, friend.
We’ll see him in the next couple of miles.”
Sure enough, out of the heat
haze of that late afternoon, they saw a grey kangaroo bounding towards the road.
As soon as it heard the coach, it propped. It stood there completely still.
Hirschberg waited his time, then suddenly stood up and yelled. “No mail for you
today!” He cracked his mighty whip.
The roo turned to bound away
into the scrub.
“We’ll” said the amazed
traveller. “I’d never have believed it. Not if I hadn’t seen him with my own
Love & Hirschberg’s coaching
office has vanished now. There is no sign of the paddock where his half-dozen
changes of horses grazed. The many settlements and camps around the town have
gone. Nor is there any trace of that bygone spur line out to Golden Gate, where
trains brought in roistering miners and their families each Saturday night for
whatever amusement they could find.
By 1912 the field was dead.
Its life span had been little
more than a quarter century. But in that time it had yielded considerable
wealth. The official figures gave it as 744,703 fine ounces, valued at more than
three million pounds.
Not until 1958 did those
neglected streets see again the kind of exuberant life they had known so long
before. It was like a second gold rush. This was the year of Queensland’s
centenary, and hundreds of nostalgic people all over the State decided they
would like to return to the town of their youth. They came from the most remote
corners of Queensland. One ex-Croydon boy, Tom Quilty, drove half-way across the
continent from his station in the Kimberleys. They made a lively week of
Croydon’s streets were decorated
as they had never been before. Streamers and bunting enlivened the few remaining
buildings. At night-time the two old street lamps burned again. There was a
procession in period costume through the town; more horse-drawn vehicles than
anyone had seen in years. The motor mailman postponed his trip to Forsayth to
join the procession dressed as a Chinese gardener, complete with pigtail and
great wicker baskets slung from a shoulder pole. There was a fancy-dress ball at
night, with the old hands dancing polkas and mazurkas, which most of them had
truthfully never danced before. The sentimental pilgrimage was made complete by
returning to the local school. A former teacher called the roll there, asking
old pupils to explain their absence.
“You’ve been absent.”
“Yes, Sir. Forty years,
“Have you any explanation?”
The same morning many of the
more sentimental absentees carried their nostalgia to rather absurd lengths by
producing marbles, skipping ropes, and even, schoolbags in the dusty playground.
The few remaining locals were astonished by the capers of old scholars who had
left town long before they themselves had been born; old ladies attempting to
skip as they had not done for fifty or sixty years; Golden Gate boys stealing
marbles from Tabletop girls; portly gents shouting the bar with school caps on
and exercise books sticking out of their bags. When they gathered for a final
midnight barbecue, sang the old songs, and recited bush ballads whose words they
could hardly remember, one reporter was moved enough to write that “many a
silent tear dropped as hands joined around the fire for Auld Lang Syne.’
Silent tears or not, it was a
great week for the old-timers, who conjured up forgotten names, argued
interminably over what year which mine opened or shut down, talked of other
reunions, of marriages, descendants, and deaths.
Nineteen fifty-eight became
something of a vintage year.
Who knows when there will be so
many people in the streets of Croydon again.
had been nearly ten years since I had seen Karumba.
“You’ve seen it!” someone said on the aerodrome at Croydon. “Then why on
earth go back?”
not? It was a place that had always appealed to me. It had the kind of setting
you associate with a Conrad story. A special atmosphere. There should always be
a schooner anchored in mid-stream; a go-down by the wharf; a few men in topees
busily doing nothing in particular. Maybe it was like that fifty years ago; or
could have been. Instead, in that near equatorial climate, it was struck with
the usual blight of the North.
Croydon the single-engine Cessna followed the glinting railway line over the
red, tree-dotted plains until, eighty minutes later, we picked up the Norman
River. It twisted, looped, and doubled back upon itself in a fantastic way,
stressing the emptiness of the seemingly arid lands on either side where only
man-made lines were straight; stock fences, a telephone line, the faint furrow
of a road. Then below us, set in another great bend of the river, was Normanton;
a huddle of iron-roofed buildings amid wide red streets and bare allotments.
Northward we could see the grey, soupy expanse of the Gulf.
least there was a long, bitumen strip beneath us. Without aircraft these Gulf
towns would remain almost as isolated as they were half a century ago.
Bob Norman refuelled, the “mayor” of Normanton drove me into town. Cattleman,
racing club president, promoter of almost everything in the district, Les Henry
insisted on showing off the civic improvements of recent years; the new school,
a fine swimming pool where the hot artesian bore once spilled down the main
street, a river bridge to replace the old-time punt.
it hasn’t become a ghost town yet,” I said.
“Don’t ever say that!”
he meant it.
Personally, I was more interested in the older Normanton. The broad,
sunstruck streets, with their few timber frame buildings set well apart from
each other were not exactly crowded. Now and then you saw a stockman or two, in
tight breeches and tall-crowned hat, or a group of aborigines with gaudy shirts,
or children idling home from school. It was the setting in which they lived that
gave the town its unique character. The gaunt National Hotel, with its long
upper veranda balanced on flimsy posts might have been run up for a Western
nobody got around to making. It was like an abandoned film set, with its
wrought-iron street lamp and swing doors into the bar; like Nevada or
railway station, too, was a period piece. Here was the other end of the run to
Croydon, to which hopeful diggers had set out daily, where bullion had come in
under escort to be shipped away south. Now, like Cooktown, there is only one
train a week. One car with a petrol motor, and that is all. High under the huge,
curving iron roof is a style of advertising you never see today. An incredibly
pink-cheeked Edwardian lady offering a forgotten brand of soap. Goanna Oil.
Pain-killers of various kinds. British-brewed beers.
vacant blocks around town bespoke a much bigger population in earlier days.
Stores destroyed by fire or white ants; paddocks where horse teams and bullocks
were turned loose, awaiting the next loading for stations out on the Flinders,
the Norman, and Einasleigh. Yet you cannot call this town of nearly, two hundred
people a dying place.
want to see it in race week, when half the Gulf comes to town. Hurdy-gurdies,
shooting galleries, a steam roundabout, and loud speakers make a fine cacophony,
but they cannot drown the outer silences when the last drunk wanders home.
Looking at the old wharf, its timbers rotten, half submerged in the
drifting river, I asked what had happened to Normanton’s shipping.
much comes up-river now,” Les Henry said. “The old Cora - once in a
while. The river’s silting. These days she mostly loads down at Karumba.”
passed low over the Cora on our flight to the Gulf, saw her stuck on a
mudbank, awaiting the next rise. Why had she struggled up at all, I wondered,
when a fast graded road had brought Karumba within ninety minutes of town. By
air, we made it in exactly eight.
river here made even more involved patterns on the level, treeless plain,
fretting the salty white earth with endless small creeks, gilgais, and gutters
that spill miles out in the Wet. The spines of these dry courses, feathered by
mangroves, were like many-branched coral under the sea. Then we were over the
broad, single channel of the Norman, where it flowed muddily into the Gulf of
one was on the claypan, which served as a natural airstrip. We flew up-river at
tree-top level, then buzzed the roof of the one sound building there. A figure
appeared on the steps, and looked up. Bob made a tight circle or two, and we saw
him go for his jeep.
white dust was settling around our grounded plane, its motor silent, when the
jeep ploughed dustily across to us. You might have thought Keith de Witte was
the only man in town. He was, almost. I suppose there are hardly half a dozen at
the best of times. And he was a Dutchman. You find more New than Old Australians
around the North today.
introduced him as the manager of a new hunting lodge.
Hunting! In Karumba?
“Crocodiles, of course,” the pilot said.
Witte was also the only man with a vehicle. He took it for granted he would
drive us around. Not that there is much to see.
inspected the new, hastily made cattle yard and loading ramp, where the Irene
Clausen was to berth. The vessel had not then arrived. We looked at the ruins of
the old meatworks along the bank. We went down to the more than sixty-year-old
lighthouse, with its neat weatherboard cottage alongside for the government
pilots. I remembered this cottage, for it had quite a view from the veranda when
the sun went down.
sun sank into the Gulf like a molten disc, visibly spinning. It set the
milky-coloured sea aflame. Nowhere at all could you see land, except for a faint
shadowing that was mangroves reaching away north-east along the flat unseen
shore of Cape York Peninsula. In the foreground, between the cottage and the
shell-grit beach, were frangipani bushes in flower and the curiously stylized
foliage of a wongai tree.
sundown here- at least in the Dry- everything is unutterably still. The western
sky turns yellow, then galah-pink; then fades to a grey twilight over the
sullen, gunmetal waters.
a place of immense solitudes, this Karumba.
little has happened here since the first small ship drifted cautiously over the
sandbar at the Norman’s mouth. And yet, so much was almost promising. That first
sailing vessel had brought William Landsborough to the Gulf searching for the
lost Burke and Wills. Then came the discovery of copper at Dobbyn and the
Crusader mine on the Leichhardt. An occasional schooner or small steamship
arrived with stores for the distant mines, or the newly formed sheep and cattle
runs inland. They took away copper ores to be smelted in Britain. But the first
major invasion came in 1885. That was when the Croydon rush broke out.
was then that a town was officially proclaimed. A town that was never born. Nor
did its name get further than official files in Brisbane. Kimberley, they called
it in government quarters.
the town of Kimberley existed only on a draft map buried away in some
departmental pigeonhole. There was a detailed plan; a cross- hatching of
streets, all of them named. A police station was set down on the requisite spot;
customs sheds, and a wharf. Someone came up by steamer to drive in the survey
pegs; two thousand miles and more by sea.
But Kimberley remained only claypans and sand. The only landmarks were a few scrubby trees.
as the years passed, ships’ captains, teamsters, and diggers on their way to the
Croydon field needed a name. They wanted to identify this flimsy settlement on
the mouth of a river. So they asked the local blacks what they called it.
Karumba, they said.
Karumba it has been ever since.
Karumba has only one man who can claim any continuity of residence. Old Johnny
Walker has been here quite a while. He first arrived back in 1904.
“Finest bit of country in the whole wide world,” the old man said. He was
just seventy-five, and had lived for many years in a corrugated iron shack not
far from the river. He told us he considered himself well off. He raised fowls
in a laboriously wire-netted pen, fed a few baby crocodiles to sell to passing
tourists, and drew the pension.
“What more can a man want than this,” he said. “No rates here. No taxes. A man’s got everything. Fish, mud crabs, oysters, wild duck. And anything you plant here just sprouts. You can’t go wrong in a climate like this.”
Johnny came to Karumba as a cabin boy on the sailing ship Willunga. He
had arrived by a devious route from Charters Towers, where his grandfather had
owned a good mixed business, only to lose it all by gambling in “scrip.” It was
the disease of men at the Towers, he said. So many new mines floated at that
time; so much wealth in the air; and some of them duffers. Grandfather had
fallen in with the wrong share promoters. Next, he took his family to the
Croydon diggings, where his grandson went to school. For some reason he was
drawn to the sea he had never yet seen, and took a job on a coastal vessel. But
one look at Karumba decided him there was a better life ashore. At least, in a
place like this, where the fishing was good and the work scarce. Later he went
prospecting. When the gold eluded him, he took work on cattle stations. But the
memory of that placid life beside the Norman River stayed.
“There was mobs more folk here when I settled,” he said. “Fifty, at
least. Maybe more. There was bark humpies and shacks all over this flat. You
wouldn’t believe it, but there was two hotels in Karumba. And blackfellows by
the hundred. All gone now; all gone.”
decline came shortly before the first World War, when the Croydon mines closed
down. Normanton was likewise affected, and its population figures have never
recovered. There was only one odd factor that kept a little life on the Gulf.
The difficulty of navigating these shallow, ill-charted waters, not to mention
the Norman’s sandbar, had obliged the Queensland Government to set up a pilot
more odd is that there are still two pilots. Yet for many years there has been
hardly a ship a month. It seems a pleasant job; to be a pilot waiting on the
beach for vessels that seldom come.
Something of a revival reached Karumba in 1935. This was when the Shann
brothers, of Brisbane, built a meatworks by the river. They planned to exploit
the large quantity of second-grade cattle grazing on rank pastures around the
Gulf. Surveys had shown there was a good potential market in the Pacific
Islands, especially New Guinea near by. The meatworks was built at rather
greater cost than expected, distances and freight charges being what they were.
But the project lasted only two seasons. It was beaten by shipping
found it almost impossible to arrive on schedule. Sometimes they were held up
for several days outside the Norman River, waiting for a high tide to carry them
over the bar. In theory there is one tide each day; not two, as in most other
parts of the globe. It is a queer place, the Gulf of Carpentaria. When a strong
wind blows from the south-east, the prevailing wind in the Dry, it drives the
water to the farther side of the Gulf, and you may wait a long time for deep
water to return.
captains do not find this amusing, especially in waters that have never been
Shortly before the second World War the abandoned meatworks was bought by
one of Sydney’s most colourful businessmen. This was Anderson, the Sausage King.
He, too, had dreams of an island market. Had he waited for the outbreak of war,
he might have made a second fortune, supplying Australian and American troops in
the New Guinea campaign. The dream evaporated long before then, and the plant
was closed within a year.
Today, the half-acre block beside the Norman is a tangle of rusted
machinery and crumbling masonry. If you were romantically inclined, you might
compare it with one of Europe’s ruined castles. It seems prosaic to reflect on
so much sausage meat lost to mankind.
Meantime, Karumba had been put on the map in a quite unexpected way. It
was the beginning of the air age. That adventurous bush airline, Queensland and
Northern Territory Air Services, had just begun to challenge the slow shipping
services to England. But to fly half-way round the world, from Sydney to
Southampton, meant finding many intermediate stops in far-off, unlikely places.
Flying boats needed long, quiet stretches of water to set down on and refuel. It
so happened the Norman River was the right distance between Townsville and
Darwin, and a Qantas base was established here.
came the war. The route came too close to Japan’s southward drive through
Indonesia and New Guinea. It was then that the R.A.A.F. came in. Qantas
Catalinas were taken over for war use. They were shot down by the superior
firepower of Japanese Zeros. Soon after, the R.A.A.F. took over Karumba as an
advanced base for fighters operating over New Guinea. Peace returned, the base
was closed, and was empty for ten years.
Karumba reverted to its ancient torpor.
passing travellers looked over the well-built R.A.A.F. quarters beside the
river, wondering how to exploit them. It took a ladies’ hairdresser from
Melbourne to find the answer. He happened also to be fascinated by the unlikely
hobby of crocodile shooting. For a small amount of money he bought these
comfortable buildings, and turned them into a private club. In 1960 another
airline, attracted by this tranquil setting, bought out the almost defunct club,
spent some £60,000 on modernizing the place, and opened it for tourists.
Karumba Lodge has become quite a paying proposition. Its imported
manager, Keith de Witte, fitted it out with comfortable bedrooms, modern,
glassed-in lounge, a dining-room where Torres Strait Island girls with hibiscus
in their hair served you, and the style of cocktail bar you associate with a
luxury liner. He commissioned an artistically minded airline pilot from Cairns
to design a long bar counter, inlaid with tiles depicting aboriginal legends,
and created a tropic atmosphere with pearlshell and split bamboo.
businessmen guests, flown up to escape the southern winter, there was a free
issue of fishing rods and tackle; boats were to be had on charter; and safaris
arranged to mangrove swamps populated by crocodiles and wild game.
Sensibly, the lodge had the long stretch of river by Karumba declared a
game reserve. Hence the bird life remains. Along this tranquil expanse of water,
where Catalinas once landed on their long haul to Britain, you can now see
pelicans leisurely cruising, magpie geese, wild duck, teal, and long-beaked
have to go a long way round the Gulf these days to shoot sizeable crocodiles,
for the Norman is pretty well shot out. Yet, in the past few years, several
professional shooters have moved in here. Again, mostly New Australians. One
Polish family has found a lucrative sideline in farming live crocodiles, baby
ones. These are sent away by air, securely boxed, for the tourist trade in
Cairns and other places; or else stuffed and lacquered as gifts to impress the
stay-at-homes in the South.
things are symbols, perhaps, of Australia’s discovery of the tourist age. We are
entering the age of the artificial. Maybe Karumba itself will be transformed one
day, dossied up like England’s statelier homes for the tourist in his
could do worse than begin with the cracked foundations and rusting shafts and
boilers of that luckless meatworks. It expresses so much of what men were unable
to achieve in tropical Australia.
If ever you go to Burketown, don’t go down the Leichhardt track. It has nothing to do with the explorer who went west around the Gulf from the direction of Normanton. This track follows the Leichhardt River down from the stony red ranges north of Cloncurry; from the copper belt to the so-called Plains of Promise.
Dust. You’ve never seen dust till you travel that Leichhardt route. Red dust. It is powder fine; fine as talcum powder. In dry weather your vehicle drags up a cloud of it; it drifts in your wake like smoke. Miles away you can see another car coming as it smokes towards you over the level, almost treeless plains. It is almost impossible to pass one another without pulling up, for the dust rolls over you like a crimson fog.
Yet there is good country hereabouts. Travelling out of Cloncurry you pass across Granada, Kamilaroi, Lorraine, Augustus Downs; all famous cattle runs producing outstanding beef. Sometimes you travel for miles over Mitchell grass plains, straw-pale under the strong sun; there is succulent Flinders grass, with its reddish undertones; and handsome bauhinia trees scattered across the landscape, always a sign of good grazing. It is only when you pull up for a spell, or to open yet another gate, that the red dust clouds smother you again. When you reach the end of the day's travel your clothes are stained with that dust; and there is more dust in your suitcase or swag.
“They used to call this country the Plains of Promise,” one Gulf cattleman remarked. “That was in the early days. Well, she’s still promising. Though the country’s never quite lived up to it yet.”
In many ways it has gone back, just as Burketown itself has done. Men who had spent their lives here talked of the decline in population, of the lessening of activity along the Leichhardt and other tracks to the Gulf. There is first-hand evidence of this when you reach the junction of Normanton and Burketown roads, near Armayranald station which, forty years ago, was the last of the sheep holdings at the top end here; before dingoes and drought killed off the entire flock that once numbered sixty thousand.
“On the map there’s supposed to be a town here,” I said to George Reed, who was driving us through Burketown.
“That's right,” he said. “Floraville.”
On the map it is still marked in prominent letters; even on large-scale maps of the continent. The type used is larger than Burketown; the same size as Winton or Cairns. Yet I saw nothing but a bare expanse of plain; even the grasses here had been cropped bare by travelling cattle mobs.
“Where’s the town then?”
“That’s Floraville,” George said, pointing to the other side of the dirt road where a dozen dried-out posts stood taller than a man without purpose, or even wire to link one with another. George Reed said they were the remains of Floraville post office; once an important mail change in horse-drawn days. There was a hotel here too, he said; a number of houses. But fast motor travel had brought the need for such things to an end.
George, who had grown up along this track, had watched the slow decline of this country since manhood. Now owner of a taxi service in Cloncurry, he had been a teamster carting station stores until motor lorries put him out of business. He and his father before him had hauled copper ore from the many prospering mines around Cloncurry down to Burketown, met coastal ships there to carry bore casing, fencing wire, machinery for the inland.
“Used to be temporary camps all along this road,” he said. “Teamsters would pull up at well-known spots and camp together. Sometimes there’d be half a dozen of us at a time. If the feed was right, you'd rest there for several days. Whole families together. There’s places along the Leichhardt you’d reckon now were only empty paddocks. Folks used to hold race meetings there. This country seems to be getting more and more empty all the time.”
From the viewpoint of settlement, at least, the Plains of Promise was something of a misnomer.
The region was so named by Captain J. L. Stokes, when he came up the Albert River for the first time, selected the site of Burketown, and conceived his vision of the future. That was in 1841. According to his Journal, he “breathed a prayer that ere long the now level horizon would be broken by a succession of tapering spires rising from Christian hamlets that must ultimately stud this country.”
You can only assume that the Englishman sailed around the Gulf of Carpentaria at a very mild time of year. He did. It was in August. Even so, you wonder how he could have seen these huge, almost barren landscapes in terms of pretty hamlets and church spires. Prince Albert Land, as it came to be called, is still waiting for those village greens and spires.
Yet, at the time Burke and Wills were retreating from this harsh and lonely country twenty years later, some ambitious gentry in Melbourne had plans for settlement here. They formed a syndicate to develop what they termed “the most fertile country in this continent ready for the plough.”
The first plough has not yet arrived.
Looking around modern Burketown, you might wonder how anyone could have believed such fantasies.
Its most prominent feature is dry rot. Even the white ants take second place. When I last saw it, a decade ago, there wasn’t one sound building in the town. One or two more, I understand, have reached a state of collapse since then. On the other hand, it is one of the most spacious towns on the continent. There are more vacant lots than houses. The streets resemble bush roads, and by night it is hard to imagine you are in a town at all. There are no lights except those that shine from uncurtained windows. You may walk fifty, even a hundred yards, from one home to another, and it is advisable to carry a torch to avoid potholes and dust traps. Even though the town has only one store these days, it is an impressive place. It could cope with the total shopping rush of most city suburbs, but the total population here is only nineteen. Only one hotel remains. The veranda fronting the once important Shire Council building has been unsafe for years, and visitors are advised not to tread too heavily on its flimsy floorboards.
But don’t blame the townsfolk for such neglect. They will soon put you right on that score. It is the rest of Australia that neglects Burketown, they say.
Normanton, a hundred and forty miles eastward, by comparison, is still a solid, well-preserved town. Yet, as a port, it has little more activity these days than its twin. It is just that Normanton has now become the Gulf Country’s capital; Burketown, at least ten years its senior, has been drained of its vitality, and now sees no hope whatever for the future.
Its past, at least, is a lively one.
The mangroves and mudbanks that discouraged Captain Stokes from taking H.M.S. Beagle up-river did not stop later men steaming up to the barren flats where Burketown took root in the early 1860s. It was less a town then, than a dumping place for cargo; a convenient expanse, just above high-water mark, for teamsters to load for their long inland journeys. Next came a grog shanty. Then a store or two; a few wooden houses and shacks. The type of men passing through were not in search of comfort.
Typical of its beginnings was the yarn told me by Phil Shaffert, who had worked as a stockman on Gregory Downs about forty years ago.
“Among the early settlers on the Albert,” he said, “were four cattlemen
who chartered a boat from Rockhampton. Added to the cargo was a lady travelling
with a large consignment of grog and one billiard table. Her husband had set off
overland with stores a long time before. He went by bullock dray, and landed up
in Burketown twelve months later. He wasn’t too keen on what he found when he
got there. Burketown was just a row of shanties along the river bank. He was
planning to add another one to the town, which was why he had sent his good lady
on ahead with the grog.
“When he got
there, he found all the grog was gone, the billiard table had been badly knocked
about, and his wife was shacked up with another fellow. It wasn’t at all what he
had flogged his bullocks across twelve hundred miles of territory to find. He
cut up a bit rough, drew a revolver from his hip, and sent the lady flying for
the safety of a near-by hut. Crying out for help she burst in on a couple of
jokers quietly yarning there. The place was really a bit of a store, but there
was nothing in it except a row of tea chests and some caddies of tobacco.
“The husband rushed through the
open door, demanded to know where they were hiding his missus, and threatened to
shoot them both if they didn’t tell. Just to convince them he fired off a couple
of shots that got lost in the tobacco. Then he saw the tail of her skirt, where
she crouched behind a chest of tea. He dived on her, with the others trying to
pull him off. In great fury, he got the woman’s left ear in his teeth.
“Good God, don’t eat the woman!”
the storekeeper cried.
“Listen, she’s my wife,” the man
yelled back, letting go for a moment or two. “I’ll show you what I can do with
her.” And, with that, he grabbed the ear again, bit part of it off and swallowed
it, then led her home by the hair.
The incident, it seemed, caused
little excitement in a town where wild life was not confined to the magpie geese
and duck that swarmed there when the seasons were good. As Edward Palmer, in his
book Early Days in North Queensland, wrote long ago:
‘Burketown was the haven of
refuge for all the inlanders, and outlaws of the settled districts, when they
made other places too warm to hold them any longer… All kinds of characters made
their way out to the Gulf in those early days. Men went there who had been
wanted by the police for years. Horsestealing and forging cheques, were very
common pastimes among the fancy, and Burketown society, in its first efforts to
establish itself, was of a kind peculiarly its own.’
Palmer had one notable yarn of a
well-known “homesteader,” who broke out of Burketown jail, swam the Albert River
regardless of its notorious crocodiles, stole a horse, and rode fifteen hundred
miles into New South Wales. He was followed by the local police trooper, W.
D’Arcy Uhr, who with remarkable bushmanship, kept right on his tracks till the
man doubled back into Queensland. Uhr rode him down at last on the very Albert
River he had escaped across, and put him back in jail. There were strange men
among the local justices, too, for the escapee was discharged, while D’Arcy Uhr
described as one of the smartest men in the Queensland police- was given a
reprimand for leaving his district without permission.
There were additional reasons
why travellers in the early years liked to avoid this humid township, where
strange fogs drifted in on the morning air. “Morning glories,” they called them,
and call them so still. It is an unforgettable sight to see these low,
yellow-hued fog banks roll in like opaque clouds from the Gulf. The big fear in
those frontier days was fever. Burketown fever, they called it here. It had
other names around the sweltering coast. It was known sometimes as Gulf fever;
sometimes as Van Rook fever, because it was once even more prevalent along this
river’s delta on the eastern coast.
Within a few years of
Burketown’s founding, the place was completely evacuated. It lost its whole
population of a hundred people; half took refuge on Sweers Island out in the
Gulf, the rest were taken no farther than the cemetery outside the town. No one
has ever diagnosed this special kind of fever, and it has been almost unknown
since the nineteenth century. Some blamed the climate; others the rum; others
again a mysterious schooner that came across from Java.
Whatever its cause, the fever
turned the remote colony into a ghost town within ten years of its birth. By
1868 the only signs of life to be seen by passing drovers were great heaps of
empty bottles and tins, and the rusting boilers of a primitive meatworks. To
call the place a meatworks was a euphemism; it was merely a boiling down plant,
to which sheep and cattle were consigned when markets proved too distant and
prices not worthwhile.
What brought the deserted
township to life again was a sudden boom in cattle. A new wave of settlement
came up from southern Queensland; huge stations were formed by Frank Hann at
Lawn Hill, the Watson brothers at Gregory Downs, and F. H. Shadforth travelled
cattle two thousand miles north from Lilydale, Victoria, spending eighteen
months on the track. His wife and family lived in a covered wagon; she gave
birth to another child on the track; they lived in a bark hut for years before
he found time to build a proper homestead on Lilydale, which he had named after
the distant town he had left in the colder South.
Then, with the discovery of
copper on the Cloncurry field, there was big talk of running a railway down to
the port. Men argued the point for years, but nothing came of it. There was even
talk in the Queensland parliament of bringing Chinese in to build a line. It led
to a bitter debate in Brisbane, where the members advocating the import of
Asiatic labour won only majority abuse.
Nowadays the Burketown Railway
has become a local joke. It has not been seriously discussed since a Royal
Commission sent experts out to discuss the need for abattoirs and cattle markets
nearer to the source. They were appalled by the declining productivity of the
Gulf Country, and also the shrinking population.
In the days when Croydon was
booming, they reported, the region supported 20,000 people. By 1900 it had
dropped to 9,000. In 1940, only 2,000 remained.
Today you could subtract at
least another 500. And Burketown itself numbers nineteen people.
A hundred and twenty years have
passed since Stokes wrote with such enthusiasm of Prince Albert Land. The Plains
of Promise are still promising. I have met only one man in recent years who
believed that something could be done. Or did he see it in deliberately romantic
terms? He too was an Englishman: Nevil Shute. He made Burketown the setting for
A Town Like Alice, and had his English heroine conceive a dream of making
it another Alice Springs. If you have read the novel, you will remember how she
had her civilizing vision while lying in a public bath.
Perhaps this was what intrigued
Shute most about the town. A bath like a Roman bath, fed by constant hot water
bubbling out of the earth.
I remember that bath well.
It is, strictly speaking, an
artesian bore. The water comes up at boiling point from the deep basin below,
runs down a concrete gutter to a bathhouse made of corrugated iron. When I was
there, the locals were somewhat contemptuous about the place.
We had come in from that dusty
Leichhardt Track, to find only the most reluctant of showers in the hotel. Dean
and I wanted a hot bath. We could see no other way of removing the hard-caked
dust from skin and clothes. I told the publican we were going up the street for
a hot bath.
He looked a little shocked.
“You can’t use that place,” he
said. “That’s strictly for black gins and goats.”
We went there none the less. It
was a surprisingly cold night, for this tropic region, so we took along a bottle
of rum as well. It was one of the hottest baths I ever remember, although the
water tends to cool a little between borehead and bathhouse. It is a deep,
sunken affair, like a modest swimming pool. Dean and I sat one at each end,
soaping ourselves, washing shirts and trousers in the mineralized water that
flowed in at one end of this tin hut, swept out in a flurry of suds at the
other. We had equipped ourselves with two glasses from the pub, and broke down
the overproof rum with water from the bath.
Maybe it was the hot water we
drank, maybe the heat of the bath as well. But by the time we emptied that
bottle, we had to call on George Reed to help us out.
I discussed our predicament with Nevil Shute some years later. We, too, had acquired our visions of Burketown’s future, I assured him. Especially towards the end of that bath. There was a fortune to be made on the banks of the Albert River. Why not follow the example of Wiesbaden, Cheltenham, and Bath? Here was an ideal place for a spa. People would travel from all over Australia to take the cure. Why not rename this historic town- Burketown Spa?
[Time never stands still - visit these places today and see what has