Fight moves into the trees
The tree-sitters now held the only line of defence between Council and clear access to the rest of the road. From day one, the treesitters were roughly arranged into two rows generally 10 to 20 metres up in the canopy, although some ventured higher at times. A few small platforms had been secured to assist them, but the majority hung in the canopy on hammocks, or salvaged fishing nets, strung between branches with ropes and wire. On the first day, treesitters could climb down, get supplies, take a toilet break and climb back up. Young, barefoot and fit, they scaled the trees with ease. The police had no chance of climbing the trees: they wouldn’t take their boots off.
Gummy was in a strategic tree in the first line. Apart from getting a bit stiff and uncomfortable at times, and a bit cold on one night, Gummy enjoyed his time in the tree. The problem was his tree was very thin and had been damaged the year before. The damage to the snow wood had brought on a profusion of white flowers that matched Gummy’s blonde locks.
Chris Fowell, one of the NAGs, found himself up a tree with just a half a packet of Ryvita crisp-bread and a few oranges. After a couple of days his cigarette papers ran out, so he began rolling cigarettes using pages of the science fiction novel he was reading.
Alongside the uncomfortable and dangerous conditions, the tree-sitters endured regular taunts and abuse from council workers and police. A couple of workers put little cuts in the trees they knew would eventually be coming down. These trees wouldn’t fall, but they would crack all night. So anyone sitting in the tree would experience a long night in the quiet forest, listening to the crack of the timber, wondering if the next crack might be the one that breaks the tree. Police officers put green-ant nests at the base of some trees. Some young cops spent a day collecting cricketball sized rocks from along the side of the road to throw at the tree-sitters during the night. One afternoon when smoko was called, the dozer operator parked his dozer right under a protester. The two big chimney stacks blew hot smoke and exhaust fumes right onto the protester while the workers ate nearby.
The police were not letting protesters anywhere near the road. The news relayed through the radio link was the only way of getting consistent information out. And the action by the tree-sitters, particularly Gummy, was now making news.
Tiny Toohey contacted ABC radio. ‘We’ve got a guy with a radio up a tree here.’ ‘Can you put him on?’ Tiny patched Gummy through to ABC morning radio, and he had a live discussion with the host about his vigil.
Another report commented: ‘He’s probably 50 or 100 feet in the air, and as I understand it, he has a rope between a couple of trees so he can get from one tree to the other, and he’s fairly well established up there.’
In the morning, the large bulldozer began lowering the end of road. The D5 was parked nearby. Police cordoned off a larger area, including a section of the beach, as a response to the vigil and confrontations of previous nights. But the tree-sitters were holding strong, and the D10 dozer had not made it past, though the creek crossing was now a muddy mess.
Council intensified their efforts. By mid-morning, the large dozer passed the first line of tree-sitters with one metre to spare on either side of the blade. Work continued into the afternoon. The reports coming through were concerning. Radio log: Sunday 12/8/84 16.14 Timbertop reports the large dozer is just north of him attacking a very steep slope where the surveyors have marked out to possibly go above both protesters. The dozer is having considerable difficulty, only managed a dozer length so far. South of his position there are several council and police vehicles, also several large concrete pipes and a crane. We are still holding them up even though large dozer has gone past. They need to clean that area, including the two trees, before they can do anymore.
18.35 Dozer in sight of Timbertop. A few hundred yards from him making a deep cutting.
Around the corner from Gummy and Greg, north of the creek, the second line of defence had four tree-sitters in it. Some other protesters got into the area and kept them entertained with music and songs. At one stage the singing stopped, and a lone mandolin player continued with a chorus of frogs and cicadas for accompaniment. Some of the protesters rolled boulders down onto the track in the path of the dozers. Reports that the tree occupation was frustrating the police kept spirits high.
On 13 August, The Cairns Post reported on a Douglas Shire Council media statement that bulldozers had made a track past trees in which two protesters were lodged in hammocks about 20 metres above the road. Council workmen using a small bulldozer carefully formed a track around the trees to enable the council’s giant bulldozer to proceed.
The reported that the Queensland Cabinet was calling for ‘tougher action’ under existing laws to ‘stop hordes of people on the dole’ travelling to north Queensland to join the protest. Radio Log: Monday 13/8/84 08.20 Dozer D10 going around second blockade — 4 arrested Ian, Chris, James, Mal. Some in handcuffs led past Timbertop. Press presence required urgently.
Timbertop now alone. Greg in adjacent tree climbed down and was arrested.
09.45 Timbertop calls for Police protection as council workers clearing trees around him. Dozer working very close to his tree and shaking it badly.
The protesters who had come down had done so in a unanimous decision. They did it to prevent further damage being done to the forest. The dozer driver told them he would drive down the gully to go around them. From their position in the canopy, they could see all the forest below them that would be destroyed.
The dozers started to go down towards the beach when they reached the second line of tree-sitters. More machinery came in to support the work of the bulldozers, including the council backhoe, which proceeded to bump Gummy’s tree.
Protesters on the ground were now concerned about Gummy’s safety. One of them was sent on a mission to try and get a visual of him, but it was difficult because of the terrain and the police presence. One protester spoke to the police to try and bring a halt to the work.
‘If he remains in the tree, it is an act of suicide,’ a police officer told him.
‘He said he’s not coming down.’
For Hans, back at camp working the radio, it was tempting to drop everything and run to the site to do something for his friend. He relayed messages of Gummy hanging on for dear life for Tiny to send to the media.
The intimidation continued. The police on duty stood by smiling while the backhoe bumped Gummy’s tree again and again. His radio signal weakened. A council worker with a chainsaw walked around the base of the tree, indicating he was going to cut it down. The police spoke to him. The worker yelled abuse at Gummy.
‘Please don’t cut down this tree,’ Gummy said.
At camp there were other problems. Protesters were preparing for another tree action further along the track but were having trouble finding a boat to run people and supplies along the coast. Radio Log: Tuesday 14/8/84 08.05 Timbertop came down and arrested — observers say he is OK. Hans went with ambulance now and asked to go to site but told to go back.
Gummy, the most strategically positioned tree-sitter, had been keeping watch over the forest for six days. Like the others, Gummy came down because Council threatened to dig a large section out of the hillside above his tree that would cause more damage to the forest. And with the small dozer already working up the hill, it seemed like this battle was over. On 15 August, the
reported on Gummy’s arrest. He was expected to appear in Cairns Magistrate Court that day. Gummy told the paper he had surrendered to direct his energies to other areas of the campaign to save the rainforest.
When he came down from the tree, a reporter stuck a microphone in his face. ‘How do you feel?’ ‘I’m out of my tree, man,’ Gummy said.
In this third excerpt from Bill Wilkie’s new book on the historic Daintree Blockade, we pick up the campaign in August 1984, as Douglas Shire Council, with the support of the State Government, returns to finish the job of building the track from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield. When their early defences crumbled, the protesters took to the trees.
Main photo: The Council dozer works along ‘first creek’. (Cliff Frith). The early exploits of the tree-sitters were mostly spontaneous and unprepared. Inset above: Some protesters still managed to get 20m or more into the canopy. (Russell Francis) Inset far right: ‘I’m out of my tree, man.’ Gummy comes down from his five day tree vigil. (CAFNEC)