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

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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