LOOKING BACK: BRUCE BELCHER
Spending his early childhood on Mornington Island, it’s no wonder Bruce Belcher has a respect for nature, as he explained to Moya Stevens
I had inadvertently cornered the 5m male in a narrow creek and he charged towards the boat, leapt out of the water right next to the boat, snapped its jaws loudly, then swam off. The six women in the boat screamed
Bruce Belcher is a wellknown personality in the region, having been involved with Daintree River tourism for 30 years.
His first 10 years however were spent with his family on Mornington Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, his father being the Superintendent at the mission.
“Growing up on Mornington Island was great,” Bruce explained, “running around with no shirt, no shoes and fishing and hunting with the indigenous boys.
“I was called ‘bungee’ which means ‘friend’ and I was allowed to go with the men in the dugout canoes hunting dugong and turtles.”
Bruce’s parents decided to send Bruce to boarding school in Charters Towers when he was 10.
“School was hell for me – I didn’t like learning and failed miserably. At 16 I ran away to the navy.”
Bruce fitted into the navy well. As a seaman, working in the torpedo and anti-submarine area, Bruce travelled the world and, in 1972, ended up in Cairns, surveying the shipping lane between Cairns and Thursday Island.
After being discharged from the navy in 1973, Bruce took to travelling solo, backpacking and working through the UK and Europe.
He returned to Australia, was, staying with his brother in Melbourne — “I was 25 years old with no money and no job.”
A phone call to an old girlfriend saw Bruce working for Taylors Marine in Adelaide and in 1977, he requested a transfer to their Cairns branch because he really did not like the cold.
“It was just magic in Cairns in those days,” Bruce recalled.
“The pubs would close at 10pm and there were no clubs so we would end up at a party at someone’s place.”
Bruce had met his soulmate, Zona, when in Adelaide. They married in Melbourne in 1983 and embarked on a driving honeymoon to Port Douglas.
“We lived in the caravan park at Four Mile Beach,” Bruce said, “and I worked at Shipshape Chandlery and Zona worked at the Central Hotel.”
In 1987 a local, Marj Robb came into the chandlery to buy some rope and that moment changed Bruce and Zona’s life.
“John and Marj Robb operated Daintree Wildlife Safari with boats that ran out of the village and they needed a tour guide,” Bruce explained, “and I decided then and there, it was for me.”
Bruce learned all about the crocodiles and other wildlife along the Daintree River, and worked for the Robbs for three years.
“Then the business when into liquidation – the pilot strike and recession knocked them flat and they had just bought a new boat and one of his biggest inbound operators went broke too.
“I continued to work for the liquidator and then the new owners, Norm and Theresa Finlay until 1995.
“Norm told me about a 20seater boat for sale on the Bloomfield River which I bought, sailed down to the Daintree and started up cruises,” Bruce said. “Norm did tell me he regretted telling me about the boat – but we remained friendly rivals.”
The following year, the Daintree River experienced a big flood and Bruce’s business had to move to Western Precinct, ½ km up from the Daintree Ferry.
In 2002, after 6 years of trying, Bruce and Zona eventually got a permit to run Bruce Belcher’s Daintree River Cruises from their home property on the river, 3km along from Crossroads.
Bruce and Zona employ four staff, including Griff, their son. Their daughter, Abbey, lives in Cairns.
Running the Daintree River tours is always interesting according to Bruce who says that there is rarely a dull moment dealing with tourists.
“One of the most unusual questions I received was ‘who prunes the mangroves?’,” he laughed, “and if we are scared that crocs will come up to our house.”
According to Bruce, he’s never been scared of crocs; the only incident was when a croc charged at the boat, which was his fault.
“I had inadvertently cornered the 5m male in a narrow creek and he charged towards the boat, leapt out of the water right next to the boat, snapped its jaws loudly, then swam off.
“The six women in the boat screamed and squealed,” Bruce laughed.
The latest count of crocs in the Daintree is 70, meaning there are 1.5 adults per kilometre, which according to Bruce is classed as ‘low density’.
“The population 100 years ago were 6 adults per kilometre which means that continued protection of them is paramount,” he said.
His favourite crocodiles are Scarface, a 50 year old, 4.5m male and his favourite female is Lizze, a 23 year old 2.3m specimen.
“When I was a young boy on Mornington Island, I saw dead crocs – they were all shot,” Bruce said.
“It was then I decided I wanted to work with them and protect them.
Bruce Belcher on his beloved Daintree River. Inset left: Bruce and Zona’s wedding in 1983. right: Aged 12 on Mornington Island.