To the Quandamooka people, the islands of Moreton Bay were rich hunting grounds. They could roast water lily bulbs and the roots of ferns, pick pandanus fruit and hunt birds, reptiles, bats, bandicoots and koalas. They could hunt or net dugong, dolphin, and turtle and harvest a wide range of fish and shellfish. One small island in particular lay tantalisingly close to the mainland and they named it for its distinctive iron-coloured cliffs: “kutchi mudlo” (red stone).
Stones on the island showed they traded with people as far inland as Rosewood, west of Ipswich. The Quandamooka used ochre from the soft red rock to decorate their bodies and shields. They told Dreamtime legends that the red was the blood of a dolphin speared by a sparrow-hawk.
Coastal Aboriginal people lived in blissful ignorance of a dangerous world beyond for thousands of years. Captain Cook named Moreton Bay on his trip north in 1770 but did not explore it. Matthew Flinders explored the bay in great detail aboard the Norfolk in July 1799. He landed on Coochiemudlo on what is now Norfolk Beach on July 19. Next month on Sunday, July 19 there will be the annual recreation of that landing. Flinders assumed the Pumicestone Passage was a river and failed to spot the opening of the Brisbane River.
In 1823 cedar-lumberers Thomas Pamphlett, Richard Parsons, John Finnegan and John Thompson were wrecked on Moreton Island and survived with the help of friendly Aborigines. Pamphlett and Finnegan were rescued in November 1823 by Surveyor-General John Oxley, on a voyage from Sydney to find a site for a new northern colony. The two men showed Oxley the mouth of the Brisbane River, almost a quarter of a century after Flinders missed it. In 1824 Oxley’s recommendation that a convict settlement be established at Moreton Bay was implemented.
When the colony of Queensland was declared in 1859, bullock teams swum over from the mainland to Coochiemudlo to drag felled trees to the sea. Coochiemudlo was also used for oyster farming in the 1880s by the Moreton Bay Oyster Company until ravaged by a marine mud worm at the turn of that century. The islands were also becoming popular as a recreation resort for wealthy Brisbanites, and tourist steamers plied the Bay.
In 1887, the western half of Coochiemudlo was subdivided into one acre lots which owners turned into market gardens producing bananas, passion fruit, grapes, paw paw, pineapples, tomatoes, vegetables and flowers. Despite an auction of 90 lots of crown land in early 1888 there was initially little interest from anyone settling on the island. The earliest residents were father and son Henry and Norman Wright who camped there for four years amid the sandflies and mosquitoes before leaving “this god forsaken place” about 1900.
The unoccupied land was exploited for timber and cattle grazing. It wasn’t until after the First World War that two injured veterans Doug Morton and Eric Gordon started to share-farm on the island. Gordon did not stay long but Morton, who survived Gallipoli and the Somme, found he could survive Coochiemudlo too, and lived there for 40 years.
In 1921 he married Mary Colburn from a farming family at Victoria Point and she was the only woman on the island for the next 12 years. Doug and Mary grew commercial crops and flowers, and cultivating a custard apple they named Island Gem. Doug built jetties and developed the tourist industry. Morton’s Steps on the west of the island are named for him. The Mortons left Coochiemudlo in 1966, when they felt it had become too crowded.
By then the farming era was over. Alfred Grant developed the eastern half of the island in the 1950s. Richard Marsh and Company also subdivided the north and west of the island into tiny allotments for small holiday cottages. Sales stagnated in the 1960s and only 20 people lived permanently on Coochiemudlo in 1970.
A regular ferry service in the 1970s and then a vehicular barge in 1987 made the island more attractive to commuters and retirees and permanent residency increased. The foreshore was kept as a reserve keeping the pristine look from the sea.
Despite living in Brisbane for 17 years, I’d never been to the island until this week. A return 10-minute trip on the ferry from Victoria Point cost just $8 and the island felt like it was a million miles from anywhere despite being less than 40km from the centre of Brisbane.
The walk around the foreshore (a mixture of beach front and mangrove) took me around 90 minutes to two hours. There are only a handful of stores and cafes and they congregate around the jetty. There is supposed to be bicycle hire on the island but I did not see any evidence of that when I was there. Perhaps they only advertise on weekends. In any case, the island is ideal for walkers and nowhere is far from anyplace else on Coochie. It’s a beautiful and relaxing part of south-east Queensland, and I’ll be back – though I’m not sure I’ll be there on July 19 for the pageantry of Matthew Flinders day. What the Quandamooka make of that day I do not know, but I suspect that like Australia Day, they don’t look on it with fondness.