Queensland: Ghost of a concrete dream

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid travels to the Far North of Queensland to see a city that never was.

Cape York is the northernmost point of Australia. On the Peninsula, the population is only about 17,000. Photo / Tourism Queensland
Cape York is the northernmost point of Australia. On the Peninsula, the population is only about 17,000. Photo / Tourism Queensland

So this was to be the site of a city to rival Singapore - this short crescent of white sand fringed by palms and mangroves, and looking on to a deep channel towards a nearby island.

On a quiet day - and every day is quiet in this area, at the tip of Queensland not far from Cape York - this place has a certain escapist appeal.

A few come to fish and launch boats warily in the crocodile-inhabited waters, but mostly no one comes to remote Somerset - because there's no reason to come, unless you don't want to be disturbed.

On the Cape York Peninsula, the population is only about 17,000 in an area more than half the size of the United Kingdom.

Which means Somerset isn't just an hour or two away from somewhere, it is hours from anywhere - and in the dry season the trip there is along dusty, unsealed roads. In the wet season ... you can guess.

Yet 150 years ago, lonely and lovely Somerset was intended to be the site of a city which would draw the maritime traffic on its way to or from the busy port of Singapore.

Somerset was to be a magnet as a trading post and the newly established Queensland state government - fearful of colonisation by the Dutch and French - despatched a group of 20 marines here to support the station of local entrepreneur and farmer John Jardine.

The largest rubber plantation in Australia was once here, and Jardine and the marines built a wharf (its few remaining posts can be seen in the sand).

The Jardine household on the hill was surrounded by gardens and an orchard.

There is much history here, not the least involving John's son Frank who, with his brother Alexander and a crew, drove 250 cattle for 10 months up from Rockhampton, eventually arriving in 1865 with just 50 head left and a reputation for having massacred as many as 200 Aboriginal people along the way.

Volatile and murderous Frank later married a teenage niece of the King of Samoa. They are buried near the beach.

But in the absence of sufficient water, and after the government lost interest, the marines pulled out and Somerset sank slowly back into scrub.

Today there's nothing to suggest a city that could have rivalled Singapore. Along the beach is the station's well; on the hill above are a few fence lines and the remains of the orchard.

But there's no Orchard Rd, no equivalent to Raffles, no high-rise buildings or bustling container port. Just an attractive beach at which you can't swim because of the crocodiles.

Somerset is a pretty place, where on a good day you can lie in the sun and dream undisturbed.

But it's also a place where a dream died.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand Book now

Getting around: Wilderness Challenge offers a range of 4WD adventure safaris of various durations (seven- to 16-day tours) across northern Australia. These include camping options, accommodated safaris and group tours through the Kimberley, Kakadu, Gulf Savannah and Cape York Peninsula regions. Tours carry a maximum of 13 passengers.

Find out more at Australia.com

Graham Reid travelled to Far North Queensland via Cairns courtesy of Wilderness Challenge, Tourism Australia and Tourism Queensland.

- NZ Herald

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