Explore Captain Cook’s Landing at this Queensland Town

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Aug 08, 2017

Adventure! Romance! Drama! Captain Cook’s arrival at this pretty stretch of the Queensland coast was just the start of its compelling story, writes Mal Chenu.

Stuart Buchanan’s recollection is both jubilant and tinged with sadness. It was Shirley, Stuart’s wife of 50 years, who pushed for and helped fund the renovation of the vandalised Bustard Head lighthouse in the 1990s. It took them – and other volunteers – years but the result is a superbly restored piece of Australian maritime history. Shirley died in 2012, a year before the public reopening, and Stuart scattered her ashes here, overlooking the Pacific. He runs his fingers through his Andy Warhol-esque hair and tells of his affection for Shirley – and the lighthouse.

“My dream was always to live in isolation with someone I loved and we found paradise here for five years in the 1970s,” he says. “I couldn’t believe they paid me! I would have done it for a box of food every couple of weeks.”

Stuart was in the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service and saw “action” in many places but this is his “spiritual home”. He is as much a part of this place as the lenses and the counterweights he used to wind up every two hours to keep the thing turning. Now retired, Stuart still spends time here, tending his labour of love. In his vestigial Glaswegian accent he invokes one love of his life to explain another.

“I had dated a few women but when Shirley and I first touched fingers at the movies, it was electric. The world just exploded. And this place had the same effect. There’s something about it that just gets you in the guts. It’s such a beautiful area.”

The “beautiful area” he speaks of is the twin seaside villages of 1770 and Agnes Water, and the surrounding national parks on the Discovery Coast between Gladstone and Bundaberg in Central Queensland. Technically called Seventeen Seventy – because bureaucracy has no sense of nomenclative adventure – the town is the site of the second landing made by Lieutenant James Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour on the East Coast of Australia, on 24 May of that eponymous year. Renamed from Round Hill in 1970 to commemorate the bicentenary of Cook’s visit, 1770 holds a re-enactment of the landing every May and a modest stone cairn on the headland marks the event.

My introduction to 1770 is at the Anzac Day service at Agnes Water cenotaph. People gather before dawn at Latino Caffe (07 4974 7000) in Endeavour Plaza and enjoy a complimentary coffee that comes with a shot of rum and a sprig of wattle. Suits and sensible dresses mix with thongs, hoodies and kids’ dressing gowns. Veterans, cadets, surfies and dogs. Uniforms and poppies, wreaths and respect, united in the swathe of a new moon and small-town camaraderie.

This camaraderie is typified by the local Volunteer Marine Rescue team. Radio operator Josie Meng has lived here since 1991 and has seen many rescues and a few tragedies. She took the call in May last year when the 23-metre Spirit of 1770 catamaran caught fire near Lady Musgrave Island with 46 people on board.

“The ship burnt to the waterline but the crew did a great job and got everyone off safely,” says Josie. “We arrived to find three life rafts in the water. The local fishing community – and pretty much everyone else – rallied to help. We’re a very small team but we have a fabulous core of people in town that we can rely on in an emergency.”

The loss of the Spirit of 1770 has reduced hotel bookings and businesses are feeling the pinch. There is now just one vessel operating from the 1770 Marina, the Emelie, which services the pristine, unbleached reef at Lady Musgrave Island, 60 kilometres offshore. Many tell me they need another operator as the Emelie is too small and is restricted to calm conditions. As the general manager of the 112-room luxury Lagoons 1770 Resort & Spa, Simon Della Santa, puts it: “I should be partnering with the reef but I’m partnering with 50-year-old ducks instead. But the ducks are delivering!”

The “ducks” he is talking about are LARCs, the town’s signature tourist attraction.

LARCs (or lighter amphibious resupply cargo vessels) are Vietnam War-era craft run by 1770 LARC! Tours, operating from 1770 Marina. These big pink hulls with huge wheels and a propeller seat 32 passengers and their main outing heads across 30 kilometres of creeks, mudflats and beach to Bustard Head lighthouse and back. Our vehicle starts up, drives straight into the water and just keeps going. Today, our driver/skipper is Blake Hyland and our host is Sammy Organ and they fill the tour with constant banter, fascinating commentary and Minties. 

“That’s a male white-bellied sea eagle,” explains Blake, as the majestic, shimmering bird of prey hovers above the LARC.

“How can you tell it’s a male?” lines up Sammy.

“Its mouth is closed,” fires back Blake. Boom-tish. The punters love it. And so it goes for seven hours, the Blake-and-Sammy show suffused with scrubland scenery. 

Sammy recounts Captain Cook’s log, which tells of the 17-pound (seven kilogram) bustard they shot, dressed and devoured. She says Cook recorded the bird as the best meal they’d had since England and named the waterway in its honour.

We float and bounce our way to Eurimbula National Park and continue along the beach. Blake veers into the surf and sea spray flies. Passengers get to drive the LARC and we stop for a spot of sandboarding on the dunes of Middle Island. 

Sammy regales us with fulsome accounts of the area’s Indigenous, industrial and natural history. We see dolphins cruising, kangaroos on the beach, soldier crabs on the mudflats, pairs of mate-for-life red-capped plovers and pied oystercatchers, which are as protective of their patch as the local humans. 

1770 LARC! Tours was set up 23 years ago by Des and Betty Mergard, who some regard as the heart and soul of the town. They built the marina, employed locals and started trips to the lighthouse. And the family dynasty continues today. 1770 LARC! Tours is run by their son Neil, while their other sons, John and Mark, and Mark’s wife, Katrina, operate the 1770reef tours to Lady Musgrave Island. 

Des died in 2013 but Betty continues to give. She’s known for helping those in need and when I meet her for coffee, she is on her way to deliver a baby outfit she has knitted for a friend. Betty has been honoured by local businesses: she has a variety of tea and a piece of jewellery named after her.

She remembers the first phone line, bitumen road, mains power, church, school, policeman, doctor, service station and accommodation coming to town. “It’s been an interesting 32 years,” she says with typical regional Queensland understatement.

“It’s the most beautiful part of Australia,” she adds with typical regional Queensland pride.

“God had a plan for 1770 and Des and I were just happy to be a part of it. We decided to get married when we were 14 years old. We had to wait, of course, but I consider myself blessed to have shared his life here.”

The town’s beauty extends to picturesque nature trails, too. One particularly enchanting stroll is the 400-metre Paperbark Forest Walk at Reedy Creek. Stepping stones and planks allow you to immerse yourself in a thick forest of paperbarks, cabbage palms and maidenhair ferns, croaking frogs and brightly coloured fungi. The Discovery Trail takes in the museum and beaches of Agnes Water, while the 1770 Butterfly Walk from Captain Cook Monument follows the shoreline of Round Hill Creek and has swarms of migrating blue tiger butterflies in autumn and winter. 

Whether it’s the warm weather or the chilled backpacker vibe, 1770 is relaxation central. Three local tourism operators – kayak-tour proprietors Simon and Janina Speck of 1770 Liquid Adventures; surfing instructor Wayne “Grom” Mellick of Reef 2 Beach Surf School (07 4974 9072); and Chris de Aboitiz, who specialises in getting dogs and their owners onto paddleboards – simply point to the water when I ask what drew them here.

Chris is especially zen. He looks 20 years younger than his 54 years and is a renowned “dog whisperer” in these parts. He grew up in Hawaii and when he moved here five years ago, he – and his dogs – were an instant hit. Seeing Chris at his “office” on the 1770 foreshore, or in one of his many videos, it’s clear that dogs just love him.

“People are more relaxed with their dogs here. And so are the authorities,” he smiles. “I don’t train dogs, I train people. I combine my love of dogs and water sports and everyone has fun, especially when we paddle out to the sandbar and run around.”

Chris has five dogs, all rescues or giveaways, and his relationship with them is based on mutual respect and manners. “Dogs are brilliant teachers,” he says. “My 15-year-old border collie, Lani, has taught me everything.” 

In May, Chris unofficially broke the highly sought-after world record for the most dogs on a stand-up paddleboard. “Lots of people turned up so their dogs could be world-record holders,” he says. “It was like soccer mums dropping their kids off. We did it a couple of times because a few dogs abandoned ship early. Our best was 26 dogs.”

Plans are afoot for the Endeavour replica to retrace the original ship’s momentous journey in 2020, to mark 250 years since Cook’s voyage. The nation’s attention will be focused on the Sydney part of the remembrance but up here in 1770, that will be just the curtain-raiser to the main event. 

SEE ALSO: What Lies Beneath and Above Lake Boga