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Salt, Coalmining and Railways ... Nostalgia in Australia's Tropical Bowen

More than a few folk wondered why anyone needed to make the 2220 kilometre return journey to Bowen when we'd already seen the muralistic delights of 29 Palms + musical soiree, Chemainus with a red carpet and the key to the city + Sherlock Holmes, and taken afternoon tea in KatiKati. Well the official answer is now available.

Bowen is the Climate Capital of Australia and the centre of the mango fruitfarms of Northern Queensland. But for the nostalgic Prestonpanner it is much more. If you drive as we did the 200 kilometres south from Townsville you follow the rail track bordered with sugar cane most of the way down the Bruce Highway through a town called Ayr with Elphinstone just off the road to the west. And as you enter Bowen you realise what a significant rail head it was until lately. The coal from 80 kilometres inland at Collinsville, also part of the Bowen Murals Society that Karl Schutz helped start in 1988, was shipped straight down the Don River valley to Port Dennison and Abbot Point just like it went to Morrison's Haven of old. The tugs that handle the coal ships are still at the Port and a coking works still stands proud in the town.

But best of all is the huge white pile of salt as you enter town. Cheetham Salt today uses machinery for the work of getting fresh sea salt from massive pans, but from the 1920s/ 1940s over 200 able bodies workers would do the job by hand at the height of summer. And that is captured in one of the 22 very fine murals now in place.

But the first mural to be painted was one of the main reasons why Bowen was settled at all in the mid 19th century, which was gold. It shows a boiler being shipped out of town by horsetrain to make the 160 kilometres journey to the inland gold mines, which still flourish to this day at Mt Coolon.

The similarities with Prestonpans of salt, coalmining and railways were intriguing, but even more so the fact that the town adopted murals because a Chemainus resident happened to be visiting - just as the Baron of Dolphinstoun's visit to Chemainus had for us in 1999. There was no depressed reason at Bowen for doing it as elsewhere, it just seemed a good idea! And so it clearly was because when times actually worsened as they have with the closure of the rail head and the meat processing plant, and the murals were already under way to attarct tourism.

The greatest learning the Baron of Prestoungrange and Lady Avril got however was in their privileged attendance at the Murals Festival Society's monthly Committee meeting. It went like clockwork exactly to Karl Schutz's script .. contracts with artists, fund raising, restorations, unveiling ceremonies, run ins with planners and civic leaders, the challenges of mobilising volunteers..

But today's Committee is not made up of the honoured Founders who got the show on the road, anymore than it is in Chemainus now. The new top team is led by a determined duo in the persons of Helen Hansen, President, and Henry Young, Treasurer. They are active raising funds and painting new murals as fast as they can, and restoring the old too.

And they have found no difficulty working with the Islands people who came from Tanna in Vanuatu at the turn of the century to work on the sugar plantations either as blackbirds or contract labour. Beautiful murals describe those times and also the happy fate of a shipwrecked sailor from Essex who came ashore after 45 days on a raft to live much of the remainder of his life with the Aboriginees fathering 27 children.

The Society's Walking Tour runs every Wednesday, and after proper respect to the Anzac Day Parade which was in town, we saw all the murals and the tales behind the families depicted. All that were completed by 1998 are available in a grand book sold locally and postcards of 20 are also available to send hither and thither.

Helen Hansen's Walking Tour was concluded with a visit to Flagstaff Hill where the whole town and harbour are laid out before the eyes and the view across to the Whitsunday Islands is quite magical. Then it was a late lunch of mackrel and chips from newspaper shared with hovering seagulls by the Port Dennison jetty, A Royal Australian Navy Landing craft in town for the parade provided the backdrop.

..... and so to an evening swim in the tropical cove and supper at sunset over the WhitSunday Islands at the North Queensland Yacht Club. What a hard way to learn. It seems so difficult to concentrate.

Published Date: April 25th 2001

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