Hinchinbrook Island

I am in a large, expensively furnished room. There are several other people in this room, seated at a large table which has papers laid across its polished surface. The seated figures are also expensively furnished, and their blank features blur from one individual to the next as my eyes follow their words around the room...... I am sitting on the floor, in a corner, and none of the finely attired people can see me, or if they do they are ignoring me. They appear to be coming to some agreement, and are nodding and shaking hands. Two individuals have signed one of the pieces of paper, and the somber mood has lifted. One man in particular seems very pleased and excited...... Separate from the noise of the room - the talk and the click of pens - I can hear another, distinct sound. It is a type of call, some sort of creature, crying in a low and alternating pitch which penetrates the discussions of the room. The sound is very beautiful, and indescribably sad. The other people in the room do not appear to be able to hear this sound, although its volume is growing. As they rise from the table and walk to the door the creature's cry becomes a wail, echoing in ripples around the wood paneled walls and thick carpets, but at the sound of the door clicking shut behind them, the creature's call is abruptly ended. I am left in the corner of the room, bathed in a terrifying silence that scares me more than any scream, and I am struggling to wake up but can't find the surface of my sleep.......

It is late Monday afternoon, and I am sitting on the sandy beach that fronts the township of Cardwell, North Queensland. Out across the Hinchinbrook Channel rise the many slopes and peaks that make the spine of Hinchinbrook Island, purple-blue in the twilight. I have heard much about the Island, mostly that it is a Paradise; an incredibly diverse land of mangroves, pristine bays, rainforest, eucalypt, she-oak and grass trees, and home to many rare animals and birds. The western side is mostly an intricate maze of mangroves and rivers, in fact it is one of the largest intact stands of mangrove left in Australia and in so being is a vital remnant of this important marine habitat. On another level, I had followed the ongoing struggle to halt a planned marina resort in the Hinchinbrook Channel, which separates the island from the mainland. And I had that deep feeling of concern that yet another truly wild place would soon be sacrificed to the gods of commerce. The name Hinchinbrook has itself taken on a somewhat sinister tone for those concerned about the planned resort and seen the mockery of public process and environmental protection that has so far seen a complete rejection of conservation concerns. I had come to this Island to be a direct part of its life, to see and feel this place, and to pray for its protection.

"Hinchinbrook Island is itself a World Heritage National Park, and adjoins the Great Barrier Reef. World Heritage Marine Park"

Hinchinbrook Island is a World Heritage registered National Park, the largest island national park in Australia. It is also in the bounds of another World Heritage area - the Great Barrier Reef. The Department of Environment and Heritage allow only forty people to walk Hinchinbrook's Thornsborne trail at any one time, and this limit on numbers is a vital part of keeping the wilderness of Hinchinbrook intact. Two of the only major threats are the fire and rubbish brought by private boat owners day-tripping from the mainland. The damage done through such disrespect will, however, be eclipsed by the proposed resort and marina across the Channel, near Cardwell township. The 'development' that is proposed for Oyster Point, on the mainland side of the channel, will be the largest resort in Australia with 1500 beds and a 250 berth marina. The marina will be a base for multiple daily boat tours to the Great Barrier Reef, and this, along with clearing of mangroves along the point and dredging each year to keep the marina open will see a disastrous increase in sedimentation in the channel. Not only does the Island have such a diverse range of plants and animals, but the waters of Hinchinbrook Channel are home to 3 species of endangered dolphin, 3 species of endangered turtle and critically endangered dugong. The dugong, or 'sea cows', feed off the sea grass beds in the Channel and near the Island coast. It is these sea grass beds, rare as they are, which are threatened by the increased siltation that the proposed marina and subsequent channel dredging will cause. Not only will the sea grass beds be negatively effected, but there will be a greatly increased incidence of dugong deaths through boat strikes, due to the increased traffic in the channel. The Island itself will be inflicted with greater human visitation, and the 'developer' has already asked for track hardening and a helipad on Hinchinbrook. Aside from the negative effects of this to the Island habitat, it would also degrade the wilderness values that draw most current visitors.

On the morning of my second day on the Island, I sat on the headland that separates Nina Bay from Boulder bay. I had heard that green sea turtles could be seen from this rocky outcrop, and as I sat facing out towards the Great Barrier I was happy to find that two great turtles were feeding or playing in the choppy sea out from the headland, their shells flashing up through the waves, pausing for breath, and then gracefully turning sideways and falling into the blue.

"I was happy to find that two great turtles were feeding or playing in the choppy sea out from the headland, their shells flashing up through the waves, pausing for breath, and then gracefully turning sideways and falling into the blue"

The individual behind the Hinchinbrook resort is the entrepreneur Keith Williams, a man already infamous for his exploits on Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays and the Sea World debacle on the Gold Coast Spit. Having so far managed to avoid all recourse to wider public consent, particularly by playing the jobs card and the 'development is progress and progress is God' argument, and backed by local Cardwell business owners who stand to profit from this environmental vandalism, Williams has succeeded in getting the consent signed by Environment Minister Robert Hill.

Mr Hill, has stated that the scientific study into the project does not show conclusively that there will be negative environmental impacts. However, many leading marine scientists and other academics have come out in public condemnation of both the project and the poor standard of the Ministers advice on the matter.Although two World Heritage sites will be directly affected, there has been no complete Environmental Impact Study (EIS). In fact, the pro-development argument appears to be that since the scientists (or at least the ones in Minister Hill's employ) cannot prove conclusively that there will be negative environmental impact then the project should be allowed to go ahead, and Minister Hill has accepted this perverse logic and given the green light. Apart from the obvious impact this will have on Hinchinbrook, there is a deeper threat still, in that this decision sets an Australian, and international, precedent for developments in World Heritage sites.

Two days' walk along the Thornsborne Trail finds me in Zoe Bay, an exquisite arching beach back-dropped by the awesome Mount Bowen, rising 1142 metres from the ocean with cliffs, streams and rainforest pouring down its slopes to the sand. Inland, a short way from the beach, is the water hole into which Zoe Falls tumble, with water so clear and tasty that it is a struggle to leave and continue the trail south. Climbing the path the leads to the top of the falls opens out onto wide granite rock pavements, over which the creek runs, seeming to pour off the edge and into the sky. As I sit there, at the edge of the water fall, I am struck by the passion that such places invoke, and our inability to direct that passion into action. Why do we continue to find ourselves lacking the means to address destructive human tendencies, or fail to take away our giving from members of our wider community who continually disrespect Life? I am reminded of Gandhi's reply to a journalists question - " Mr Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilisation", to which Gandhi replied, "I think it would be a good idea."

I am reminded of Gandhi's reply to a journalists question - " Mr Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilisation", to which Gandhi replied, "I think it would be a good idea."

As to the original aboriginal inhabitants of this Island, the National Parks information is vague, to say the least. Reads the literature on the Island: "The Bandyin Aborigines lived on Hinchinbrook Island for many thousands of years. Today middens and remains of stone fish traps are reminders of their culture." But what happened to them? Collective and convenient memory loss again, in the best colonial traditions. The stone fish traps at Scraggy Point, on the Island itself, are thought to be older than the Great Pyramid in Egypt, which somewhat pales the arrogance of the short few years of colonial history and highlights our comparative absence of intimacy with this land. Still, it is in such places as Hinchinbrook that we find the closest western culture comes to true respect for the Earth. Being both a National Park and a World Heritage declared area, Hinchinbrook has the greatest formal status the natural world has within this culture. And yet, we find that this is still not enough.

The final day of my journey on Hinchinbrook finds me at the southern end of the Island, the refuse littered beach of George Point. Here, in remarkable contrast to the rest of the Island, the sand is scarred with plastic of all kinds, detergent foam, twine and rope, metals, and no doubt many hidden poisons. Being so close to the mainland, and also a popular picnic place for day-trips from Lucinda, George Point is eloquent testimony to all that is negligent about our consumer society. However, as I waited to board the small boat that will ferry myself and another walker back to the mainland I found on the sand a beautiful shell, orange and cream patterns in a conical whirl. The sound of the sea can be heard when placing the shell to your ear, and it is this sound and shell that I gave to a friend in Brisbane who is engaged in the efforts to protect Hinchinbrook. I hope it will be a small source of strength.

On arrival back in Cardwell, the biggest news of the day found me quickly. Keith Williams had been given the go ahead to build his resort marina. At a public meeting/press conference in Brisbane two days later, a panel of various scientists, politicians, and experts, spoke passionately and at length of the threat to Hinchinbrook by this development. They spoke of the appalling standard of scientific advice given to Minister Hill, of the inevitable damage done to the Hinchinbrook environment and its non-human inhabitants. But as the passion settled into the comfort of the room and the appreciative crowd, the proposed steps to thwart Keith William's plans focused to the political, to the legal, to the System. A legal challenge to the government decision and urged letter writing to Minister Hill were at the fore of the suggested efforts to get an eleventh-hour stay of execution. In other words, "leave it to the experts." Protest and direct action, however, was admonished by the panel as being bad for public opinion. However, it is this writer's opinion that there is no political solution to this problem. In fact, politics is only further confusing the issue. One gets the feeling that if the Bandyin tribe were still inhabiting the island, the threat to Hinchinbrook would be seen, rightly, as a direct threat to their own body, and the response would be appropriate to this. If the struggle to halt such developments continues to be based on single issue fights, then at best we can only hope for single issue 'victories'. If the cultural crisis that elevates the behaviour of entrepreneurs like Keith Williams above those content to live simply, or even (dare I say it!) in balance with the environment, then we will come up against these problems time and again. Be sure, there is more than one Keith Williams out there, and unless society finds the courage to deal with ecological vandals, then the cycle repeats itself endlessly, and each time round a little more wilderness is chipped off. The end result is all too obvious. As Albert Camus wrote, "With God dead, there remains only history and power."

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