From Townsville to Cairns

I’ve done the northernmost 400km or so of the Bruce Hwy from Townsville to Cairns numerous times and these photos are impressions gathered from different journeys. Townsville does not have the same tourist cachet as Cairns but has plenty of charms of its own and no little history. Jezzine Fort looks offshore to the magnificent Magnetic Island but this view looks inland to Castle Hill. Jezzine Barracks has been home to Australian military units for over 120 years and the site was a crucial defence outpost in the Second World War and the American connection is celebrated today. Along the path is a diagram of the battle of the Coral Sea which was supplied from Townsville. A lesser known tale occurred when 600 African-American troops came to the city to help build airfields but mutinied against racist officers. After a siege lasting eight hours, sparked by taunts and violence the mutineers machine gunned the officers tents killing one and injuring a dozen others.

About 60km north of Townsville is Paluma National Park. To get there you need to leave the highway and drive up Mount Spec Rd and cross Little Crystal Creek Bridge. Both the road and bridge are heritage listed. Townsville Council lobbied the government to build the road in the 1930s to secure the water supply. They were constructed at the height of the Great Depression, using mostly unskilled labour funded by the Unemployment Relief Scheme. A township at Paluma was established in 1934 and the road officially opened in 1937. For the bridge, engineers decided that rather than make it out of timber, they would build a masonry arch to “harmonise with a rather picturesque spot.”

The first major town north of Townsville is Ingham, 110km away. Situated on the Herbert River it is the administrative centre for the Hinchinbrook Shire in the heart of sugar cane country. There is a strong Italian population with an Australian-Italian Festival on the first weekend in August each year. Just off the highway on the way into town is the Tyto Wetlands, a 90-hectare natural wetland with lookouts and viewing points to see the 250 species of birds, native Australian wildlife and numerous tropical plants. The area is named for the endangered Eastern Grass Owl (Tyto Longimembris). The Hinchinbrook Shire is one of the few places in the world where this owl can be spotted regularly leaving their grassy habitat on dusk.

Off the highway east of Ingham is the port of Lucinda. The port exports raw sugar grown in the Ingham district. It is equipped with on-shore sugar handling and storage facilities, as well as a single trestle jetty and conveyor running out to an off-shore berth and shiploader. The 6km-long sugar jetty is the world’s largest bulk sugar loading facility. The town and adjacent point are named for the Queensland government paddle steamer Lucinda, built 1884. Lucinda is now the gateway to the Aboriginal community on Palm Island.

Back on the Bruce Hwy we climb over the Cardwell range on the way north. At the top there are two lookouts, the Hinchinbrook Lookout and the Panjoo lookout in Girringun National Park. This is Bandjin country and “Panjoo” means nice or beautiful place. The view is terrific out past the Seymour River to Hinchinbrook Island.

There is another view of Hinchinbrook Island from the foreshore at Cardwell, one of the few places where the Bruce Hwy hugs the Pacific Ocean (an honour it shares with Clairview and Bowen). There had been a bushfire on the island the day before I took this photo and the smoke is still visible. Cardwell was originally named Port Hinchinbrook and proclaimed a town in 1864, the first port north of Bowen. George Dalrymple renamed the port for Edward Cardwell, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The port remains the jumping off point for the four day walking through Hinchinbrook Island National Park. The town suffered big damage in Cyclone Yasi in 2011.

Inland from Cardwell is another beautiful spot at Girramay National Park. The clear waters of the Murray River cascade 20-30m over boulders into rock pools in this picturesque spot where rainforest-clad mountains meet tropical lowlands in the scenic foothills of the Kirrama Range. The river and falls are named for British Native Police officer John Murray. The falls might be overdue a new name. Murray was renowned for conducting large and well organised punitive missions against Aboriginals north of Gladstone

In the shadow of Mount Tyson some 50km north of Cardwell is Tully in Djirbal country. Like the nearby river it was named for Surveyor-General William Alcock Tully in the 1870s. Sugar cane and bananas dominate the local economy with a big mill in town. The average annual rainfall exceeds 4000 millimetres making Tully arguably the wettest town in Australia.

From Tully to Innisfail is a short and uneventful trip up the highway but there are two more interesting routes. The inland route passes via the extraordinary Paronella Park, which I’ve written about before. The coastal deviation meanwhile, goes past Mission Beach. Mission Beach got its name from the Hull River Aboriginal Settlement set up around 1914. It was a government settlement rather than a religious mission but had a chequered history and about 200 people died there in 1917 during an epidemic. Then a year later it was destroyed by a cyclone and authorities moved the mission to Palm Island. Today Mission Beach is a string of villages that together service the tourist industry to nearby Dunk Island and the Great Barrier Reef. The photo below is of Perry Harvey jetty on Narragon Beach heading towards the lookout on Bicton Hill.

Another 50km north of Tully is Innisfail where the North Johnstone and South Johnstone Rivers meet. Innisfail is in Mamu country but is named for the Irish Inis Fáil “island of destiny” a metonym for Ireland itself. It is the largest town between Townsville and Cairns, important for the sugar and banana industries like Tully, and subject to heavy rainfall totals in monsoon season, also like Tully. Irishman Thomas Henry Fitzgerald gave the town its name in 1879 but like Ingham it attracted a lot of Italian labourers in the 20th century. In 1959 the local Italian community commissioned a memorial to celebrate the centenary of Queensland. Benato Beretta, an instructor at the Carrara Academy of the Arts, designed the monument of white marble of a life-sized man cutting cane by hand. Innisfail is in cyclone country and was smashed by Cyclone Larry in 2006.

The road north of Innisfail takes us through satellite towns of Cairns such as Babinba, Gordonvale and Edmonton. A stand out feature easily seen from the highway is the 922m high Walsh’s Pyramid, an independent peak with a distinct pyramidal appearance, 20km south of Cairns in Wooroonooran National Park. There is a walking track to the summit. The distinct pyramid appearance is obvious from this view from the north.

Another detour off to the east towards Cape Grafton brings us to the Aboriginal settlement of Yarrabah. Traditionally Yagaljida in the Yidin language spoken by the Yidinji people, Yarrabah became the site of an Anglican Church Mission led by Ernest Gribble in 1893. Gribble had a rare reputation for kindness and the mission quickly attracted wider interest. Later leaders were not as accommodating and in 1957, residents staged a strike to protest poor working conditions, inadequate food, health problems and harsh administration. The church expelled the ringleaders but a few years later, Queensland assumed state control of the mission. In 1986, the community received Deed of Grant in Trust land tenure, making it subject to the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984, which allowed for self-governing Aboriginal Community Councils with a range of powers and controls over the land. In 2005, the Council became an “Aboriginal Shire” and gained the authority of a legal local government.

A detour in the opposite direction takes us to Kuranda on the Barron River where the Barron Falls are spectacular especially in the wet season. But for most of the year like when this photo was taken  little more than a trickle is evident, due to a weir behind the head of the falls that supplies the Barron Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station downstream in the gorge..There is a walking path from Kuranda to the falls and they can also be seen from the Kuranda Scenic Railway which stops briefly at the Falls lookout on its journey from Cairns.

Cairns marks the end of the 1700km Bruce Hwy from Brisbane. Cairns’ access to the reef and the rainforest makes it the international tourist hub of North Queensland (which is why it is suffering particularly during the pandemic with a billion dollar economic hit in 2020 alone). Situated on the mudflats of Trinity Bay (named by Cook after the Christian holy day Trinity Sunday on June 10, 1770), Cairns city does not have a beach (though outlying suburbs do) so the pool at the Esplanade is always popular and can be swum in any season without worrying about marine stingers, crocodiles or sharks.

Situated 50km north of Cairns on the Captain Cook Hwy to Port Douglas, the Rex Lookout is strictly speaking beyond the remit of this “Townsville to Cairns” post. But so what. Named for Douglas shire councillor Raymond Rex who lobbied to build the highway as another Depression-era project, the lookout point over Trinity Bay has become a popular spot for hang gliders to jump from, as well as a must-stop meeting point for travellers and their cameras.

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