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.
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)