'Ghost Towns of Australia'
Port 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
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 sea.
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.
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.
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 distant ranges.
terms, a two-pub town suggests a place of quite respectable
size. Port Douglas once had twenty-five.
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 other town.
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
The 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
Then 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.
From 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 beyond.
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.
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
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 restraint.
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 day.
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 Co.”
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
comment, the sergeant-in-charge simply reproduced the entire
letter written by a nameless woman of the town. It was dated
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
I remain your
broken-hearted loving mother…’
unsigned. Nor was there any other reference to this
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.
rendered them useless for work,” noted the leader of the
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.”
the results of this inquiry were not reported.
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 opium.
Chinese arrive? What happened to the opium? Again we have been
left in unresolved suspense.
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 employment.
Had it not
been for tourist buses, making a fast round trip between
Cairns and Mossman, the port might well have been abandoned
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 Australian coast.
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
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 Mossman
The road began
as a relief project during the Great Depression. It was opened
in 1933 and is still Australia’s finest scenic highway.
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 characters.
Even that gay
setting has gone now. The next owner allowed the joss-house
relics to collapse and rot away.
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.
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.
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 year
been some mighty warm times in the past here, even when the
sun did not shine.
Douglas now is an up market resort town attracting
international visitors. Cairns is the backpackers Mecca of the
You 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
From 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.
Port Douglas, whose low, dun headland can be seen far
out to sea, is only one such place.
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
Now eight thousand acres of good farming land are
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.
You have only to talk to the Malanda’s skipper
to learn how this land has gone back.
“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 bare.”
The 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.
“The Bloomfield,” the short, stout, square-built
skipper said. “We’re going in today.”
It 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.
At 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.
“But 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.”
The 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
“One 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.
The Roaring Meg, they called it. The river was well
It 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
He 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.
“When 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 end.”
What 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.
I 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.”
The 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
Even 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.
Each had a bag of rice when he reached the Bloomfield
River. He was supposed to return with a bag of gold.
No 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.
There 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.
One 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.
There 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
He 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 wrote:
‘I 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.’
Who were the savages in the scramble for wealth in the
One 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.
Among 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:
‘All 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…’
And across there, on Cedar Bay, were just two such
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?
To 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.
It 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.
As we came close in beneath the island cliffs, Ollie
pointed out a headstone marking the place where White was
Now 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.
But 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.
Four wheel drive still needed for coast road- Daintree, Cape
Tribulation etc. Back road to Cooktown- shortly will be all
I am 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.
There 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
The 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
No 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 regular hours.
The 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
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.
Not 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.
James 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
In the first three months more than three thousand came
up the Endeavour, in sixty-two charter ships bringing them
from various southern ports.
The 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 50,000 Chinese.
It is impossible to imagine such a vast throng now.
From 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 characters.
The 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
The 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 timbers.
But 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.
In 1949 another cyclone did equal damage. Today only
the most solid of those early buildings remain.
The 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.
It 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.
The 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
It 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 distant
The 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.
There 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.
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
He was right
on both counts.
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 same.
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.
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 little bar.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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
train to Laura shows a country much as it was before the first
The Jungle Track
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.
Rollcall for Pioneers
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.
staring at, boy?” Hirschberg snapped. “You want the job?”
dared to answer.
how to work, or don’t you? Get cracking. Let’s see what you
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 kangaroos.
“Don’t tell me
you’ve never seen one?” Hirschberg asked him. “There’s
hundreds along these roads.”
moment’s reflection, he added:
“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 mail.”
sober truth, friend. We’ll see him in the next couple of
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.
the amazed traveller. “I’d never have believed it. Not if I
hadn’t seen him with my own eyes.”
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
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
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 it.
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.
Forty years, Sir.”
“Have you any
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
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.
fifty-eight became something of a vintage year.
Who knows when
there will be so many people in the streets of Croydon again.
It 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?”
Why 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.
From 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.
At 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.
While 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
“So it hasn’t become a ghost town yet,” I said.
“Don’t ever say that!”
And 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 Colorado.
The 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.
The 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.
You 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
Looking at the old wharf, its timbers rotten, half
submerged in the drifting river, I asked what had happened to
“Not 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.”
We 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.
The 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 Carpentaria.
No 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.
The 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.
Bob introduced him as the manager of a new hunting
Hunting! In Karumba?
“Crocodiles, of course,” the pilot said.
De 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.
We 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
The 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.
At 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,
It is a place of immense solitudes, this Karumba.
So 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.
It 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
But 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.
Then, 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.
And Karumba it has been ever since.
Today 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.”
Old 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.”
The 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 station here.
Even 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 problems.
Ships 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
Sea captains do not find this amusing, especially in
waters that have never been properly charted.
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
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.
Then 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.
A few 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
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.
For 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
You 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.
Such 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 air-conditioned car.
They 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.
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.
don’t eat the woman!” the storekeeper cried.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
was what intrigued Shute most about the town. A bath like a
Roman bath, fed by constant hot water bubbling out of the
that bath well.
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
“You can’t use
that place,” he said. “That’s strictly for black gins and
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
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 changed.]