The Track of ’68

This week’s ex­cerpt from Bill Wilkie’s The Dain­tree Block­ade: the Bat­tle for Aus­tralia’s Rain­forests, takes us back to where it all be­gan, with the Cape Tribu­la­tion pi­o­neers’ at­tempt to build the orig­i­nal Bloom­field Track in 1968.

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - NEWS -

They were pi­o­neers on the edge of a fron­tier, one of the last in the Australian bush. And like all fron­tiers, there was al­ways an­other moun­tain, river or valley to cross, or piece of scrub to con­quer

In 1967 the road along the east coast of Aus­tralia was in­com­plete in just one place. At Cape Tribu­la­tion, on the re­mote trop­i­cal coast of far north Queens­land, the dirt track that wound its way north from the Dain­tree River – through an­cient rain­forests, over moun­tain ranges that tum­bled down to the Coral Sea, and past small iso­lated farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties – stopped. Just 30 miles to the north, at Bloom­field, it picked up again and car­ried on to Cook­town.

Over the pre­vi­ous decades Shire Coun­cil­lors, politi­cians, and lo­cal peo­ple with vested in­ter­ests had lob­bied un­suc­cess­fully to fin­ish the road. In 1954, Bunny Adair, Mem­ber for Cook, made news­pa­per head­lines around the coun­try when he be­came lost look­ing for the ‘miss­ing link’ — the in­com­plete road had its own nick­name – af­ter set­ting out on foot from Cape Tribu­la­tion.

A res­cue mis­sion, in­clud­ing In­dige­nous track­ers, was launched when Bunny didn’t make his desti­na­tion. A pi­lot in­volved in the search spot­ted a man walk­ing on a re­mote beach and dropped a note ask­ing who he was. Bunny scrawled in the sand: ‘I’m Bunny Adair’. The Bar­rier

Miner re­ported: ‘His progress was barred by thick jun­gle’.

In the fol­low­ing years, many would talk about com­plet­ing the miss­ing link, but by the 1960s noth­ing had hap­pened. The coast was rugged, re­mote and largely un­known, and for the south­ern politi­cians al­lo­cat­ing the funds, out of sight meant out of mind. For the res­i­dents of Cape Tribu­la­tion, how­ever, their fu­ture de­pended on the op­por­tu­ni­ties a road would bring.

They were pi­o­neers on the edge of a fron­tier, one of the last in the Australian bush. And like all fron­tiers, there was al­ways an­other moun­tain, river or valley to cross, or piece of scrub to con­quer. Fed up with po­lit­i­cal in­ac­tion, they set about do­ing some­thing about it.

Among those ag­i­tat­ing for the com­ple­tion the miss­ing link was Pat Ma­son. The Ma­sons were the first Euro­peans to set­tle the area, when Dave (Pat’s fa­ther) moved to the Cape in 1932 with his brothers Wal­ter Wil­liam (known as Col) and Andy, af­ter a failed ven­ture at Bai­ley Creek. Dur­ing the De­pres­sion, tak­ing up the land for the pep­per­corn rent the gov­ern­ment was ask­ing was the only op­tion the brothers had. At Cape Tribu­la­tion they cleared the land for tim­ber; grew sweet pota­toes, corn and ba­nanas; and hunted wild pigs and caught fish. De­spite be­ing try­ing years, the Cape took a tight hold in the hearts of many of them, and it wasn’t unusual for a Ma­son man to get wist­ful about Cape Tribu­la­tion.

‘Beau­ti­ful scenery and lovely views do not feed the fam­ily,’ a Ma­son woman would re­mind him.

Over the decades the Ma­son fam­ily had looked on as the road along the coast slowly crept north. When it got to Cape Tribu­la­tion the expectation was that it would keep go­ing. Why not? They were bank­ing on it.

It all came to a head when the Cook Shire En­gi­neer stated that a track along the coast could never be built – the ter­sisted rain was too rugged, the moun­tains too steep. For the pi­o­neers at Cape Tribu­la­tion this was the fi­nal straw.

Pat Ma­son and other res­i­dents liv­ing north of the Dain­tree River formed the Bai­leys Creek and Cape Tribu­la­tion De­vel­op­ment League. On 7 June 1967 De­vel­op­ment League mem­bers held their first meet­ing. They had two main ob­jec­tives, to lobby for im­prove­ments to roads and ser­vices north of the Dain­tree River, and cam­paign for the con­struc­tion of a road from Cape Tribu­la­tion to Bloom­field, the miss­ing link. There’s no point be­ing at the end of the road, they agreed.

At their sec­ond meet­ing, which was at­tended by Shire Chair­man John Allen, Pat Ma­son and John Ni­cholas were tasked with find­ing a route.

‘First of all,’ Pat said, ‘we have to prove you can walk there, let alone build a road.’

Among the mem­bers of the De­vel­op­ment League was John Ni­cholas, a cat­tle farmer and ex­pe­ri­enced bush­man with ex­cel­lent nav­i­ga­tion skills.

John bought a prop­erty at Bai­leys Creek in 1954 and grew ba­nanas from suck­ers the Ma­sons gave him to earn some in­come while he cleared enough land to run cat­tle. It was hard, iso­lat­ing work, and ev­ery time he wanted help he had to bring a new per­son in be­cause the pre­vi­ous bloke wouldn’t come back.

A few weeks af­ter the sec­ond De­vel­op­ment League meet­ing, John and Pat Ma­son set off on foot along the coast from Cape Tribu­la­tion to search for a route north, fol­low­ing Yalanji walk­ing trails for much of the way.

For three days Pat and John trekked with ba­sic sup­plies, car­ry­ing a small knap­sack each and sleep­ing in their clothes. At­tempt­ing to get over Dono­van Range, they walked up three spurs, came to a big ravine each time and had to go back and start again. They per- and fi­nally found a ridge to the top. The fol­low­ing day they climbed Cowie Range, moved in­land and camped again, push­ing north un­til their sup­plies ran out and they had to re­turn to the Cape. A sec­ond ex­pe­di­tion found a route.

The fol­low­ing year, the League set about build­ing a track, us­ing two bull­doz­ers. Af­ter dif­fi­cul­ties, in­clud­ing a dispute with the Ryk­ers fam­ily (who owned the last block head­ing north at Cape Tribu­la­tion) and ma­chin­ery trou­ble held up work, the doz­ers were hauled out with the job not yet fin­ished. The small sec­tion of the miss­ing link that re­mained in­com­plete (from Cape Tribu­la­tion to Em­ma­gen Creek) would prove piv­otal in the com­ing years. And with the wet season ap­proach­ing, the De­vel­op­ment League was al­ready mak­ing plans to hold the mo­tor­cade and ‘open’ the road.

On the 16 Novem­ber 1968, a con­voy of ve­hi­cles trav­elled north from Cairns to join a mo­tor­cade to travel along the miss­ing link. More cars joined in Moss­man and drove to Cape Tribu­la­tion. Be­cause of the is­sues at the Ryk­ers, they used makeshift means to get to the track. A few jeeps fer­ried peo­ple up the beach and the elderly were taken around the point by boat. Those on foot scram­bled around the rocks, flo­ral frocks fly­ing about in the breeze.

From Em­ma­gen Creek a con­voy of 4WD ve­hi­cles car­ried pun­ters up the Em­ma­gen Valley to Bloom­field. It was an un­com­fort­able ride in the back of the jeeps, as the track wound its way back and forth along nu­mer­ous switch­backs. Emerg­ing from the dense rain­for­est, the jeeps strug­gled up the Dono­van Range into open dry for­est. At the bot­tom of each hill the driver turned off the en­gine and lis­tened for one of the other ve­hi­cles com­ing the other way. If the coast was clear he blasted the horn and the truck lurched up the long, steep rocky track. Wait-awhile – a tough, vi­cious, thorny vine – hung from the canopy, its claws catch­ing on the pas­sen­gers as they passed.

They de­scended into Bloom­field with a great view of the river that twists through a lush valley of palms, figs and cy­cads, carv­ing its route to the man­grove flats be­low.

Next stop was the Lions Den Ho­tel. Since the turn of the cen­tury it had been a haunt of the tin scratch­ers and jour­ney­men who trav­elled and worked in the area. Bert Cum­mings, the owner, who would later write a book about the pub, was a huge sup­porter of the road, and had cir­cu­lated a pe­ti­tion in sup­port of it.

John Allen was im­pressed. ‘You pushed the road through for less money than the Gov­ern­ment or a Coun­cil spends just putting up a work camp.’

The story of a pri­vately-built road made news in na­tional pa­pers and mag­a­zines.

‘We need two things here in Cook­town,’ Jim Waters, owner of the Hill­crest Ho­tel, told Australian Coun­try Life, ‘wa­ter of which we have none, and a good road to get our pro­duce to mar­ket. With those things we couldn’t look back.’

Pix mag­a­zine re­ported: ‘The road was a tri­umph of man against na­ture and a grand thumb­ing of the nose at of­fi­cial­dom.’

The De­vel­op­ment League’s at­tempt to con­quer the miss­ing link had come tan­ta­lis­ingly close, and while they proved that a track of sorts could be built along the coast, the last few kilo­me­tres re­mained un­de­vel­oped.

Fifteen years later, when thoughts again turned to build­ing the road, these same few kilo­me­tres be­came the fo­cus of the protest, when peo­ple came to pro­tect Queens­land’s far north rain­forests. But by this time per­cep­tions had changed dra­mat­i­cally. For many, the rain­forests were to be revered and pro­tected; com­pared to the pi­o­neers of the 1960s, who saw rain­forests as scrub to be cleared.

The Coun­cil Land Rover be­comes the first ve­hi­cle to drive from Moss­man to Cape Tribu­la­tion, De­cem­ber 1962. (Dou­glas Shire Coun­cil) Clear­ing a path to the beach to get ac­cess to the Bloom­field Track. (Pat Ma­son). Mo­tor­cade ticket (Dou­glas Shire Coun­cil)

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