Accessing the remote Cape York Aboriginal settlement of Kowanyama takes careful planning and preparation – and you should be prepared to change your plans if roads become impassable
WORDS BY MIKE O’NEIL, PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE AND ADELE O’NEIL
A trip to Kowanyama had been swirling around in our bucket list of places to visit for several years, since family friends Val and Wayne Connelly are pastors for the Anglican Church and minister to the 1100-strong Aboriginal community. The community rests on the banks of Magnificent Creek in the south-west region of Cape York. As the crow flies, it is just 25km from the west coast of Carpentaria.
Vehicle access is via the Burke Developmental and Dunbar Kowanyama roads.
From the east coast out of Cairns you will clock up 805kms; from Normanton it is 361km. The time needed for either route is dependent on weather and road conditions. We left home on the Mid North Coast of NSW on May 1, picked up travelling friends Tony and Judy Sumner in Cairns, and headed north to Cooktown to catch up with an old fishing mate.
Our plan was to take the Burke Developmental Road across to Kowanyama, spend a few days there then head down into Forsayth and Georgetown for a few weeks swinging detectors in the goldfields.
As luck would have it, Cooktown was still suffering from the legacy of cyclone Ita, which crossed the coast as a category four storm near Cape Flattery, north of Cooktown, in early April. Heavy rainfall and buffeting winds were still very much a part of the Cooktown weather pattern and the Gulf Developmental Road across the base of the Cape was closed at several sections.
We had little choice but to reverse our plan and head to the goldfields first then up to Normanton and chance our run into Kowanyama.
Del’s trip diary June 20:
“Our first day detecting Western Creek Station, which has only recently opened to the public… so we should have a chance of finding something. Costs $22.50 per day per couple to detect but there are no camping fees (also no amenities… good thing we love bush camping). Dingoes are howling tonight in the nearby hills. Michael was the first to pick up some colour, a pretty onegram piece of leaf gold.”
“Struck out early while it is still cool this morning and met up with a few others out detecting (Karen, Jeff and Mel) from the Townsville detecting club. Karen showed us some nice pieces she picked up from another area… very impressive. Judy topped the scales with a 1.8-gram leaf gold nugget late in the day, it looks fantastic.”
Leichhardt Lagoon, about 30km east of Normanton close to the Norman River was a welcome oasis after the dry bush camp at Western Creek Station. Travellers will find it well worth the $8 per person camping fee, since it offers much more than just well-maintained amenities. Campers are encouraged to bring their own generators for power.
Diary entry June 26:
“The lagoon is alive with birdlife. All day you can hear the chatter and honking of magpie geese. We drove down to the Norman River today to check out the fishing… it looks great for barra and salty crocs. Michael caught a nice barra from the weir… there is hope for me yet.”
Leichardt Lagoon camp area is the perfect base for exploring Normanton and surrounds. Its proximity to the Norman River makes it popular with travelling fishers and offers opportunity for nomads to supplement their food supply with fresh fish.
The run into Normanton was not quite what I remembered from my early bow-hunting days in the 80s. Despite its isolation by distance it has experienced considerable development. It was good to see the iconic Purple Pub still standing.
A new addition to the streetscape is the giant replica crocodile welcoming visitors. Bosun got up close and personal, checking out its dentures.
The Burke Developmental Road got serious just past Karumba turn-off, deteriorating into heavy corrugations and bulldust. The run up into Kowanyama was in short stages, some days travelling just 80 to 100kms. Taking it slow helped keep everything mechanical working as it should and allowed plenty of time to take in the countryside.
Our first camp on this leg of the trip was beside the Staaten River, southside of the bridge, and we had the place to ourselves.
June 28 was another ‘long day’, travelling 80km, although the corrugations made it feel a lot further. We passed through many dry creek beds and mobs of thin cattle and pulled up to camp beside a waterhole just after making the turn onto the Kowanyama Dunbar road. We later found out that the waterholes were created by machinery scooping out material for roadwork after each wet season.
Del’s diary June 29:
“After an uneventful morning on the road we arrived in Kowanyama to meet up with Father Wayne and Val. We were lucky to catch them as they were leaving on a fishing trip. We parked behind the church and had access to power, a cold shower and toilet. Happy days! There is a big lagoon right behind us so naturally Michael has dropped the pots in again and is hoping to get a few yabbies/ cherubin but he has been told to watch out for a very large croc that owns the lagoon… Tony fast lost interest in catching yabbies. We went for a drive around town and checked out the cyclone shelter site, the post office, Police Station and school. It was like a ghost town. Maybe everyone was staying indoors away from our prying eyes and cameras.”
Val and Wayne took us fishing towards the mouth of Topsy Creek. The access track although rough in places and camouflaging bulldust traps, was not as uncomfortable as the corrugated Burke Developmental Road. Along the way we passed through open plains, bushland and encountered mobs of wild cattle and horses.
According to Wayne, the freeroaming stock originates from the now defunct Kowanyama Cattle Company and is split between the three major tribes of Kowanyama, Kokomenjen, Kokoberra and Kunjen. There are no fences but there are tribal boundaries and the cattle or horses belong to whichever group owns the land they wander on to.
Retired Kowanyama Aboriginal Land and Natural Resource Office Manager Viv Sinnamon is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to local history and life in the Kowanyama settlement. He now devotes his time to running the local museum, collecting and documenting Aboriginal weapons, tools and other artefacts, as well as producing and editing the Kowanyama Land Office News.
Like many of Australia’s Aboriginal settlements, Kowanyama is not without its social problems. The Anglican Church through Father Wayne and Val does its best to combat the influence of drugs and gambling amongst the settlement’s population.
It’s a war that Father Wayne admits is difficult to win albeit the settlement is a declared ‘no alcohol’ zone. Residents go off settlement to get their supplies and despite the best efforts of all concerned the problem continues to escalate.