Palm Island, Australia: Reinventing Itself towards EcoTourism & Sustainability

Kidnappings, cultural genocide, whiskey-soaked murderous administrators, modern day riots... and now a Swine Flu hotspot. Will someone please give Palm Island a Fair Go.

By Ian Crawshaw

Sydney, 29 August 2009. “What are you doing here? Who said you could go walking around the island with all your cameras?” Certainly not the warmest welcome from a council official but local newspaper man Tim introduces me and the fierce-looking woman behind her desk shuffling papers gradually nodded, sizing me up. In the end, she spits out, “I know where you’re from, we don’t want tourists here on Palm Island.”

This was in stark contrast to our welcome, 30 minutes earlier.

We bumped into Pauline, a young indigenous woman who organises horse treks across the island. Short Joes Horse Trails can take mainland visitors for an eight- hour horse ride to places inaccessible by road: Bamboo Creek, Wallaby Creek , or a cooling swim in a waterhole. There is also bushtucker lunch of possum, goat, goanna, turtle at the end of the horse trek or “whatever we’ve caught that day, really.” She talks excitedly about last year’s Rodeo, the first in 32 years, and how another rodeo for August 2009 is underway.

Palm Island Beach, bounded by the Great Barrier Reef.

Palm Island Beach, bounded by the Great Barrier Reef.

“Palmy” is a tropical island of unspoilt beaches, mountain rainforests, picturesque wild horses galloping through the trees. It is a veritable garden of eden, protected by the Great Barrier Reef and secluded by one hundred years of solitude. It would have easily been fabulous. Yet the Guinness Book of Records lists it as “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.” What seems to have gone wrong?

Great Palm Island is sandwiched between the modern holiday draws of Magnetic and Hindmarsh Islands, yet perhaps stuck half a century from the coast of Townsville. And yet, change is in the air with forward looking Mayor Alf Lacey and others in the community who are aiming to build a sustainable, functional community.

But there are strong forces of conservatism and isolation amongst some island residents. Asked about the new established Thursday night community markets, where locals sell their produce – vegetables, food, clothes, jewellery, art and crafts, Project Officer Nikki from the government centre on Palm Island tactfully explains the shroud of community ambivalence towards tourism development.

“We’re trying to win over some of the older people,” she says. “We have older residents who are still going through the trauma of previous experiences, of what went on before.”

History of Engagement

Palm island, ready to engage in sustainable eco tourism.

Palm island, ready to engage in sustainable eco tourism.

Once bitten-twice shy seems to be Palm Island’s history of engagement with mainland Australia. Most Australians may know the 2004 Doomadgee Death in Custody riot which saw the police station courthouse, a residence and paddy wagon go up in flames. But do they know about the strike in ’74, or the five-day uprising of 1957 crushed by gun-toting cops? Or even of the native Manbarra man Kukamunburra, kidnapped and exhibited worldwide with his family by Barnum & Baileys Greatest Show on Earth, renamed Tambo & His Family of Australian Cannibals?

Tim of Palm Island Voice, the local newspaper, picked me up from the tiny island airstrip, and we drove the pretty winding Beach Road to the main settlement of brightly painted fibros. Here on the wharf, groups of local indigenous school kids were whitewashing giant boulders on the waterfront.  Each rock was festooned with a brass name plate of men who more than 50 years ago, made history.

Back in 1957, the island superintendent was then the feared Roy Bartlam. He made the indigenous islanders, both young and old, work for rations. Residents who went missing on the morning roll call could get two weeks in jail. Eventually, the community rebelled and began a general strike, taking control of the island for five days.The Queensland government’s response was to send 20 armed policemen and a military patrol boat. Seven ‘ringleaders’ were deported from the island with their families, in leg manacles and chains. None were ever allowed to return, not ever, despite no legal charges ever being filed.

Changing Times: Creating a Sustainable Community

Rewriting the 1957 general strike.

Rewriting the 1957 general strike.

But this morning, a sign of the changing times is afoot as young Palm Islanders celebrate their political history by cleaning up the huge memorial stones commemorating the men of ’57. While there is a definite spirit of optimism and change, Palm Island is certainly in need of a PR makeover, at least locally.

Palm Island youth ready to take over what the men of 1957 started.

Palm Island youth ready to take over what the men of 1957 started.

“Why do you want to go there for?” asked a (white) member of my extended family, a resident of nearby Magnetic Island. “Nobody local goes over there. People don’t go there unless they have a reason to go.”

Another upstanding Townsville citizen on a ferry to M.I. was a bit more florid with his warnings: “They’re just down from living in the trees on Palm. Take your life in your hands, go over there.”

Can the tropical paradise of Palm Island build tourism as a possible source of employment supported by a sustainable community, at least in part, as Mayor Lacey hopes? The past could signpost the island’s future as a tourist destination with distinctly political overtones, its journey is almost a metaphor for modern Australia.

Penal Colony in 1918

The history of the Palm Island group is bleak, almost gothic. Once a source of ‘blackbirding’ slave labour for Japanese and European beche-de-mer and pearl traders during the 19th century, Palm Island in 1918 was crafted by the Queensland Protector JW Bleakley as a penal colony for ‘disruptive’ Aboriginals. The 200 indigenous Marra people and their culture were swamped by more than 40 mainland clans exiled on the island. As usual, the speaking of indigenous languages was also forbidden.

Offshore, Punishment Island was established for exiling particularly hard cases, and further north was the leper colony of Fantome Island.

By 1930, Palm Island’s white administrator Robert Curry who went mad with drink, murdered his own children,  He set fire to buildings in the main settlement until cornered and shot by one of his own Aboriginal staff.

Certainly not the happiest history for a tourist destination but, hey, look at Tasmania. And once visitors start arriving, then budding entrepreneurs of Palm Island may have a chance to show visitors something positive that will help sustain the future of Palm Island community and its culture. Finally, a Fair Go.

Will Australia come?

On my daytrip there the possibilities are obvious, ‘green shoots’ even, and some of the islanders are ready to invite the world to experience Palm Island. But if they build it, will Australia come?

With the encouragement of Mayor Alf Lacey, the public areas around Mango Avenue and the Beach Road are being spruced up, with landscaping and graffiti removal. He has bid for a slice of the Commonwealth Local Government Stimulus package to build an $8 million retail and cultural precinct to replace the shabby fibro shacks presently housing the grubby looking supermarket, shops and council offices.

Channel 7’s Great Outdoors presenter Ernie Dingo, in Townsville for the Australian Indigenous Tourism Exchange, commented on his visit to Palm, “They should get some sort of rooms, a house set up for tourists to travel through,” he said. “That way you can allow so many on the island before they go to the next island, the same they do on Hinchinbrook.”

There is already a council-run Motel, which despite its grim exterior of chain link fences, has a certain shabby tropical-island charm. Used mainly by contract workers, regular guests are fond of their evenings sitting out on the verandas.

And apart from that, it’s down to the kindness of strangers for the lost backpacker or uni student in a tent who occasionally turns up at the wharf. “Usually one of us feels sorry for ‘em, “ says Tim, “they’re lost and dunno’ where to go, so we let ‘em camp out on our land. Some of ‘em can’t even speak English but we take care of ‘em.”

Community Disagreements & Tourism Efforts

Matt Smith’s job with Tourism is to research and help seed new destinations. Tourism Queensland has recently been looking at Palm Island, to work with interested members of the community, but is aware of the community disagreements.

“You know, even that woman in the council office, her opinion saying she does not want tourism. Well communities have the right to say that. It’s a valid viewpoint,” he says about the council office welcome.

Abandoned infrastructures in Maggie Island.

Abandoned infrastructures in Maggie Island.

One can’t help wishing Tourism Queensland could have been so supportive to the wishes of Magnetic Island residents. Palm Islanders need only to look a few kilometres across the water to see the problems of unsympathetic tourism development. The once pristine beach of Nelly Bay on “Maggie” Island is now a massive array of unfinished buildings with the beach and headland dominated by the ugly concrete boxes of Peppers Blue On Blue Resort and Blue Mantra One Bright Point (sic). They lay empty, soulless and already attracting the urban blight of graffiti and broken windows. It was a more a tale of making money for big city property developers, than establishing a commercially sustainable tourism industry. It is a bad omen for the Palm Islanders.

Tim Cummings, a representative from Townsville cultural centre, speaking at the youth forum of the Australian Indigenous Tourism Conference pointed out, “It’s alright to invite people into our communities… but we need to make sure we take care of Country as well.” Aiden Ridgeway pointed out at the same conference, “Tourism is a good fit out bush, though it’s not a panacea.”

Local paper editor himself, Tim, jokes he is not sure whether he wants tourists all over the place, “taking pics of me in my jocks when I’m sitting out in the garden.” Yet, even he, a recent immigrant from Mornington Island, happily takes visitors for walks over the island. Instead of camping out, he’ll teach you to make a traditional yamba, (local word for a gunya shelter, made of branches and leaves). He’ll take you swimming at Spoon Drop water hole, and teach you local bushtucker and history.

But the Palm Island Council and community are anxious to control tourism development. In today’s Queensland, Brisbane political allegiances can often bulldoze through native title rights. Palm Islanders will not accept a repeat of the Wild Rivers controversy of Cape York.

“Tambo the Cannibal” died in near slavery in the USA in 1884. In 1993, his embalmed body was finally repatriated to Palm Island and buried on his own land. Are today’s Palm islanders ready to emerge from their dark 20th century history as a penal colony, to take control, to “come home”?

In mainland Townsville, at the Australian Indigenous Tourism conference’s youth forum, a group of indigenous teenagers came to hear about the possibilities for developing their Country for tourism. Despite the giggles and rolling eyes of her classmates, one young 16-year old lass from Palm Island stood up and announced she could do that. She wanted to start a business taking tourists out fishing. Later on in the conference, there was an impromptu whip round from delegates that raised $1,000 to help seed her business.

Maybe her first attempt won’t meet immediate success, for more than two thirds of Australian tourism start-ups end in failure within 12 months. But there’s a good chance that with experience, she’ll grown into something bigger and better. And behind her, who knows? A whole generation of Palm Islander Gen Y’ers ready to welcome the world? But let’s be clear, they know who we are and where we come from, and it will be on their terms.

Perhaps they don't remember the riots after the Doomadgee case, and are politically more aware in a way not seen for a long time. On YouTube, young Palm Islanders are in the forefront of the Indij Hip Hop scene: “We love the Silence, We hate the violence,” they rap. “We’re sick of the sound of the bully boy sirens.”

It seems the changes come from the youth where an openness for change is fast taking hold.

Ian Crawshaw visited Palm Island while attending the Australian Indigenous Tourism Exchange in Townsville.

Short Joes Horse Trail Rides at Palm Island.

Short Joes Horse Trail Rides at Palm Island.

Things To Do

  • Short Joes Horse Trail Rides ($165, 8 hours), ring Pauline on her mobile: 0439 813 613. Ask also for those occasional rodeos.

  • Trek the island, climb the mountain and rainforests with Tim. Call 0429 725 262. Make sure you pick up a copy of his community newspaper, Palm Island Voice.

  • Thursday night community markets are organised by Enterprise Officer of Palm Island Council Miss Jodie Ryan.

  • Visit Tambo’s grave, buried 100 years after his death.

  • See the site of the old Convent, the sisters are still remembered fondly by some elder residents.

  • Check out the wrecks from the Black Cat Squadron, American Flying Boats stationed here during the WWII.

  • Palm Island Hip Hop 2007 (3 live bands): Lizzie G on Palm Island, Its Paradise by Morge and the One Man Army from Palm Island

  • Check out Palm Island’s Indij Hip Hop on YouTube.

Getting There

To visit Palm Island,there is no permit necessary. Palm Island is an Aboriginal Shire, not a closed Aboriginal Community.

  • By Air: From Townsville, take the SkyTrans Airlines for $98 each way. Duration is 20 mins. Book online at or call +617 4046 2462

  • By Sea : Sunferries from Townsville jetty ( $50 for adults or $25 for students & children). Duration is approximately 2 hours.

Places To Stay

  • Room at Motel is for $88 a night. There are 7 rooms, each with a bed capacity of 2 to 3 people. Book through Nicky/Emmakita at the Government Centre. Call 07 47 701 738.

  • There is an old Caravan & Camping Park that will be under renovation soon.