These Kodak Slides date from 1953, just months before I was born and less than a decade on from the fierce fighting against the Japanese in the North. Dad is 4th from the left; he was the Shire Engineer for Johnstone Shire and we had a beach shack at Bingal Bay; there were just a few houses there then; it had changed little since the Cuttens settled it. In these slides most of the workers can be seen wearing Army Surplus clothing; many of the men had not long been demobbed; some even knew Dad from the airstrips he’d built during the war; it was still a time of shortages; the post-war boom hadn’t kicked in.
There were two ways south out of Innisfail when I was a kid. We could go out past the South Johnstone Sugar Mill, then on past Parranella Park and over the Warrambullan Range. This was the scenic route, especially if the cane was flowering. If it had rained we’d see sheets of water flashing down the rock faces as we passed through. That road could be rough at times but after crossing the big wooden bridge at Liverpool Creek it was all plain sailing. If we came down the ‘new’ highway instead we’d cross an anonymous looking bit of drainage at Bells Creek with a sign that read Bettridges Bridge. I’d look out for it every trip because it was named after my father. In 1950, just a few years after the war he’d been bet that he couldn’t salvage a cast in-situ culvert as part of a realignment of the new highway through El Arish. It was a solid concrete two cell, seven feet by seven feet.
He blocked the ends off, dammed the creek and floated it into it’s new position. He saved Johnstone Shire Council quite a chunk of money and won his bet with Works Foreman Jack Fossey. I still have the cheque, for a quid, made out to Walter ‘Courageous’ Bettridge for one hundred and forty-four pence. Dad never banked the cheque but kept it as a trophy.
Impenetrable scrub back then, it’s all clean fields now. Only one remaining abutment can be glimpsed through the grass. The road has since been realigned again and the old culvert taken out to keep a clean flow of water. It drains more now than it did then because the cane fields shed water so much quicker now than the rainforest ever did. There is a Bettridges Road now alongside Bells Creek, but no signage, and even the local Council is unaware of it’s gazetted name.
In the vicinity of Bettridges Bridge but still outside El Arish I could look out the car window and I’d see the coastal scrub being pulled by Caterpillar D9s dragging chain a foot thick. They’d make a pass for a mile up one way, then turn and pull scrub for a mile back again. The dead timber would sit drying in big rows, then after the dry season had passed it’d be burned. That’s the way the whole district went under sugar cane. Valmardres Road is nearby Dad’s bridge, Dad’s understudy was Charlie Valmadre. What wasn’t cleared for cane then was cleared as pasture for cattle. King Ranch had the biggest cattle property in Queensland at one time; it was all coastal rainforest that had been pulled to create the pastures of King Ranch.
All the way down from the turn off at El Arish the road was lined with screaming jungle. It was virtually pristine, only a few banana farmers tried to hack a living out of it back then. The noise of the insects was deafening, nothing could compete with them. Sometimes we’d glimpse Cassowaries and in season the Flame Trees (Brachychiton acerifolium) would blaze into colour on the sides of the hills. Mum’s Morris Minor would skitter across the corrugations in the gravel and we’d clatter noisily over more of Dads wooden bridges at Little Maria and Big Maria creeks. I never went anywhere again in my life that brought with it the excitement of that drive down from Innisfail to Bingal Bay. Not all my years in Byron Bay nor any trips to Kiev, Moscow or Istanbul could match the excitement of that bone rattle drive down to our beach shack, to my beach, my oysters, my own private domain. Nothing in these photos remains now; not even the culvert; all of it is gone; the whole coastal plain is given over to sugar cane.
Whilst cane would make the region wealthy, the impact of this development on the Reef was devastating; soil runoff combined with Nitrogen and Phosphorus would destroy the pristine inshore coral reefs that I knew as a kid. Magnificent Kings Reef is now just another dead reef.