The cost of Queensland’s development-at-any-price philosophy was neatly portrayed last February in photographs of the aftermath of cyclone Yasi at Port Hinchinbrook on the outskirts of the town of Cardwell. The port is a housing development for wealthy codgers and their third wives in far north Queensland. It was built only after massive protests from conservationists concerned about the impact on fish breeding grounds in nearby mangroves behind Hinchinbrook Island. The photographs, taken after the cyclone, showed scores of multimillion-dollar launches smashed together, somehow symbolic of the rash stupidity in building such a place in a cyclone alley.
But then the developer, the late Keith Williams, was canny in his ability to bend Queensland governments to his will. A water-ski champion in the 1950s, he developed Sea World and Hamilton Island during his days as one of Bjelke-Petersen’s white-shoe brigade urgers before turning his attention to Hinchinbrook. He is dead, his multimillion-dollar project is on hold, estate residents do not know what the future will bring. Meanwhile, taxpayers are picking up the tab.
Yasi knocked tourism down for the count in far north Queensland. The coastal strip between Cardwell and Innisfail, surely one of Australia’s most picturesque regions, had its jungle stripped bare and sugar and banana plantations knocked flat. One of the area’s real pearls, Mission Beach, is struggling, just like the rest of tourism-built Queensland, to reinvent itself.
Some history: started as an ironically named camp for Aborigines, Mission Beach was first destroyed by a cyclone in 1918. In the 1960s, a concentration of Melburnians arrived in the wake of publicity about federal treasurer Harold Holt preparing budgets at nearby Bingil Bay, while Dunk Island floated offshore like a voluptuous woman. Zara Holt, his then wife, liked it, too, and brought her new husband, Jeff Bate, there after Holt went bodysurfing at Portsea. When Mission Beach was World Heritage listed as part of the west tropics, a tourism boom followed.
But Cyclone Yasi frightened tourists away. Grey nomad numbers tumbled. With little seasonal work available, backpackers from Asia and Europe stopped coming.
The tourism entrepreneur’s sign on the Bruce Highway – ”Get high, get wet, get laid at Mission Beach” – now flaunts local attractions. Mission Beach might be one of the world’s last cassowary refuges but skydiving, swimming and accommodation beats a flightless bird threatened with extinction any day in the land of perfection and excess.