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Cairns Post – April 18, 2009

Where the “R” Word is Scarce

What recession asks TONY WALSH in Lockhart River

Ask Paul Piva, the deputy mayor of Lockhart River Aboriginal Council [now a Councillor], two thirds of the way up Cape York, about the R word and he bursts into laughter. And why shouldn’t he?

Sitting in his “office” under a fig tree at the Lockhart River airstrip, Paul looks across to three of this hire vehicles neatly parked in a row and already booked to passengers soon arriving on the Skytrans flight from Cairns. He is also comfortable in the knowledge the other four vehicles in his fleet are in hire mode somewhere in the community or at beaches to the north.

Not a bad result, as he remembers he only started his car hire business at the beginning of 2008 with just one vehicle. Business is so good servicing the short-term visits by public servants and contractors to the community and holiday makers to Portland Roads and Chilli Beach, 40 or so kilometres to the north of the community, that he is just about to base three more vehicles at the airport in Coen, a small town and commercial centre on the Cape, 210 km west of Lockhart River.

Lockhart River Aboriginal Community made national news a few years ago for the notorious “Winegate” incident when another R word – a bottle or red – was seen on a Queensland Government plane and the subsequent bad press resulted in the visiting minister eventually losing her portfolio.

Take a drive around the community with Paul wearing his hat as deputy mayor and he proudly shows the advanced construction stage of the new shopping complex that will replace the old State Government community store. Additional facilities will include a coffee shop/cafe and bakery.

Over at the cultural centre, talented artist and indigenous dance teacher, Josiah Omeenyo, one of the noted “Lockhart River Art Gang”, is putting his finishing touches on one of his “big picture” acrylic on canvas paintings. Some are used as a medium to interpret the suffering of the land and sea caused by global warming. The paintings are sent to Josiah’s agent in Sydney and from there, to eager buyers around the world.

Councillor Dottie Hobson calls by, says hello and tells me about the preliminary discussions she is having with a tour adventure company in Cairns. Dottie can see an opportunity to work with the company to offer low-impact camping facilities during the winter touring season.

The safari tents and facilities will use her family’s traditional land at North Chilli Beach, which offers magnificent views of the Coral Sea and adjacent Restoration Island.

Out on track to Portland Roads, once the site of a huge Allied air base during World War II, Paul pulls into a small clearing in the Iron Range National Park where we speak to associate Prof Peter Valentine, head of the school of Earth and Environmental Sciences at James Cook University in Townsville.

He is camping in the area with a few colleagues who are researching the life cycle of butterflies. The group has plenty to choose from because of the 400 or so species of butterflies in Australia. 109 species are only found on this part of the continent.

The area is also noted for its unique bird species including the gold-shouldered parrot, the red-bellied pitta and the northern scrub robin, so the park is an increasingly popular destination for bird watchers from around the world.

Paul related how keen some of those foreign birdos are to see their often elusive quarry.

“I was mucking about in the yard at my home which fronts the road leading from the community to the Iron Ranges National Park when one of my mates drove in and said the police were asking for volunteers to come and help find an older lady from Germany who was part of a bird group”, he says. “It appears she had heard the call of a bird, wandered it it’s direction and became lost.”

“We headed for the search area in the national park and jumped barefoot out of my mate’s four-wheel drive.

“All the volunteers and police were poring over grid maps and sending out small search parties in all directions.

“We took off too in the search and a few hours later the lady was found, so it was a good result.”

The next morning Paul, ran into a police officer involved in organising the search and he told Paul one of the European birdwatchers said to him after the search, “That was good that you brought the black trackers in to search for our friend.”

“Geez, I laughed when I heard that!” Paul said.

The latest addition to his fleet is a 2006 Toyota Troop Carrier bought at the Queensland Government Motor Auctions in Cairns. It had been repainted and had a new interior fit-out and Paul didn’t realise until he drove it back to the community that it had formerly been ambulance there – hence the low kilometres it had travelled.

For a vehicle once associated with pain and misery, it, like the community at Lockhart River, is now a source of adventure and hope.

When the rest of Australia finally embraces another R word – recovery – they will do so perhaps in the knowledge that Lockhart River Aboriginal Community is already there.