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Issue 29. Out Now!

Be surprised in Gladstone Print E-mail

by Rosemary Jilderts

 Yachts anchored at Auckland Inlet  Tondoon Gardens showcase an amazing array of native plants  Gladstone Streetscape

It was in the mid 1980’s when my husband, John, my daughter, Kelly, and I made our first trip up the Queensland coast in Scylla III, a 37ft bright red O’Kell Mairangi. John had boating experience – power boats, not sail – from his years on Sydney Harbour with the Volunteer Coast Guard. Our only sailing experience was with two hire boat businesses that we had started and operated in Bowen and Mission Beach. The world of cruising was only just opening up to us and we knew that there was a big learning curve ahead. Seasickness was a cross Kelly and I had to bear. Steering failure was a regularly occurring problem on Scylla – one that was eventually solved but not until many miles of open ocean had passed beneath her keel.

View across the boats in Auckland Inlet to the Power Station  Feeding the ducks in the lakes at the Botanical Gardens Aerial perspective of the city of Gladstone  

After refitting in Mooloolaba, we had headed north.  Bundaberg was left in our wake and we sailed up the coast passing Baffle Creek without knowing of its existence.  In later years we were to hear of its natural beauty and tranquility;  its pristine waterways, wetlands and its native terrestrial and marine life which lure many visitors to this area. Baffle Creek is a natural estuary system – one of the few remaining in Queensland.  There are over 70 fish and 10 crustacean species in the 120km long waterway which makes it an ideal destination for fishing and crabbing.

Lieutenant James Cook arrived in the area in May 1770 and began his approach to the coastline near Baffle Creek. On May 23 Cook passed the southern headland of Bustard Bay which he named South Head.  It is where the Town of 1770 is located. 

Scylla arrived at 1770, the birthplace of Queensland, but entering was a bit tricky as a trawler was anchored right in the middle of the narrow channel.  In our efforts to get around it, we hit bottom but managed to plough through the sand and dropped anchor amongst half a dozen other boats.  There wasn’t much to 1770 at that time so after a brief exploration we dinghied across to the sandbars at low tide and gave our poodle her afternoon walk. 

On May 24, after anchoring his ship the Endeavour about two miles offshore, James Cook took a party of men ashore near South Head to examine the country.  He was accompanied by Joseph Banks and Dr Solander. 1770 is the site of Cook’s first landing in what is now the State of Queensland and his second landing in Australia.  The headland that he named North Head is now known as Bustard Head and Southhead was renamed Round Hill Head.

Entry to the Gladstone Art Gallery and Museum is free to see collections of Australian art,craft and local history

The ship’s party landed inside the southern point of the bay where they discovered a channel leading into a large lagoon.  “In this place there is room for a few ships to lie in great security, and a small stream of fresh water,” Cook wrote in his log.  They saw many pelicans and a large species of bird, a bustard, one of which was shot and cooked.  It weighed 171/2 pounds and after eating it, Cook declared it “the best bird eaten since leaving England.”

No natives were seen during the shore visit but the men found campsites, fires and artefacts.  However, some crew members aboard the ship noticed about 20 members of the Meerooni tribe on the beach.  The ship sailed at 4.30am on Thursday, May 25, 1770.

Fish congregate around the coral at Fizroy Reef Lagoon

It is interesting to learn some of the details of Cook’s ship.  The Endeavour was 106ft long, with a beam of 29ft 3ins  and drew 14ft.  It weighed 368 ton.  Provisions onboard included 80 ton of water, 21,228 pounds of bread, 1200 gallons of beer, 4000 pieces of beef and 2,500 pounds of raisins. 

Despite early problems, by the time Scylla was heading towards Gladstone we were feeling comfortable with our pretty little sloop.  Scylla was becoming familiar to us, John was happy with her sailing ability and for the moment the weather was being kind.  I still suffered from seasickness and, at times, pure terror (I really wasn’t much of a sailor) but there were other times when I thoroughly enjoyed our trip.  Ports were the best part for me back then, and our next port, Gladstone, wasn’t too far away.

The City of Gladstone is known to most visitors as a shipping and industrial port that plays an important role in supplying the area’s natural resources and products to customers all over the world.  However, to the boating community it is known as the jump off point to some of the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, most beautiful spots and a good place to restock the depleting pantry and fridge. 

The region is unique in Australia with tourism and major industry co-existing in total harmony.  It represents almost a quarter of the state’s wealth and around four percent of the country’s wealth.  It is the gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef, fabulous fishing spots and fantastic national parks.

Just before noon on a Friday afternoon, we were at the outer channel markers leading into Gladstone.  In those days banks closed at 3pm (and no ATM’s) but we imagined there’d be heaps of time to get there.  Fifteen nautical miles and around three hours later we arrived at the jetty.  After a dash for a taxi, I made it just in time to withdraw some money for a spot of grocery shopping the next morning.

Snorkellers enjoy the calm and protected waters of Fitzroy Reef Lagoon

Things were very relaxed in harbours in those days, so we stayed tied up to the jetty overnight.  Surprise, surprise, the next day a group of yachties who we’d met in Mooloolaba arrived by dinghy. 

After an enthusiastic welcome they decided to escort us to the swing basin.  With Andre (Drummer) leading in his dinghy,  his wife Francis onboard Scylla along with Jean and Alan (Brer Fox) we motored downstream and into the area where a marina would be built in the future.  Andre tied us to a mooring and clambered onboard for a cuppa.

“See that yacht over there,” someone pointed out,  “The Police took away the owner the other day.  They reckon he had 44 gallon drums full of guns strapped to his keel and was planning to smuggle them overseas”.  We all cracked up trying to imagine the performance of a yacht with such obstructions strapped under its waterline.  

After arranging to have a barbecue onboard Scylla that night, they headed off with the promise to bring young Jeffrey from Bunyip with them.

Wreck Rock Beach, Deepwater National Park

That night’s barbecue cemented our friendship with this group of yachties and 25 years later we are still in contact with most (Alan passed away several years ago) and Jeffrey’s parents, still cruising in their latest yacht, are our dearest friends.  Friendships – even though brief – forged in this environment really do seem to pass the test of time.

Since those early days we have returned to Gladstone a number of times in our current boat, a 13.5m catamaran called Sokari.  Things are a little less casual but much more convenient now that there is a marina in the harbour. 

For most of the year the predominant winds on the Queensland coast are from the south-east.  The sail up the coast from Brisbane was usually with tailwinds and Sokari would lift her skirts and fly, especially if the spinnaker flown in light airs.  However, on that section of the coast strong south-easters were commonly experienced.

Our first cruise north in Sokari, in 1994, was an exception and saw us leaving Bundaberg heading for Gladstone in a moderate breeze.  With the main and spinnaker flying Sokari slipped along effortlessly at around 12kts until the wind dropped out mid-morning.

Two visitors display their wine purchases at the Gecko Valley Winery  

Aerial view Heron Island with the channel and Wistari Reed in the distance


Speeds were down as low as five knots at times but we persevered.  A large swell was running but it wasn’t at all uncomfortable although the autopilot rebelled with the swell on the aft quarter so it was back to hand-steering most of the day. 

At noon the main was dropped and the boat sailed along under kite alone.  Two large fish were hooked on the troll lines but the first unidentified one broke free taking lure, trace, sinkers and part of the VB cord with him.  The second was identified as a Spanish Mackerel when John lifted it to the back of the boat but then the hooks broke off the lure.  Yep.  It was a biggie.

Bustard Head Lighthouse was the scene of some dramatic incidents

By 2.15 in the afternoon Bustard Head was in sight and an overnight stop in Pancake Creek was anticipated.  The lighthouse was, of course, conspicuous but we had no idea, at that time, of its intriguing history. 

Queensland became a separate colony in 1859 and with the increase in marine traffic and with new ports popping up along the coast, lighthouses were desperately needed.  The Bustard Head Lighthouse was built in 1868 by the Queensland Government.

For 118 years after it was erected, the Bustard Head station was home to lighthouse keepers, assistants and families and an occasional teacher.  These residents suffered under cramped living conditions, isolation and their own personal tragedies.  Three cottages housed three families, with one family having at least 11 children and at times there were up to 18 children living there.  Because of the numbers, a school teacher and school building were supplied. 

Lighthouses are usually situated in very remote and secluded locations where access can be difficult and often dangerous but it is probably because of these very reasons lighthouse keepers and their families often led rich and interesting lives.  Many of their stories however remain untold. 

Bougainvilla frames the Gladstone marina in the background   The coal ship, the River Embley, dicjeed at Auckland Point

The rising sun casts an eerie glow over the Gladstone Power Station

Deaths began at Bustard Head even before the completion of the job when a workman was fatally injured in the tower.  The history of the lighthouse and its keepers includes shipwrecks, drownings, murder, suicide and abduction, events that dogged the station for over a century. 

A tiny cemetery lies about 100m downhill from the station where headstones tell some of the stories of the tragedies occurring between 1879 and 1940.  A seven month old boy died of  ‘constitutional weakness’ and another of 20 months died after being scalded.  In 1887, the wife of another lightkeeper was discovered in the bush.  Her throat had been cut.  A boat capsized in 1889 drowning two of the women who had been living at the station and a friend.  There is also a mystery which involves love, jealousy, a double murder along with a massive manhunt for the perpetrator.

For 118 years a keeper climbed the 16m lighthouse each evening to light the lamp which would warn ships of treacherous rocks out to sea from the headland.  The lighthouse was de-manned in 1986 and was automated. 

There is a history of shipwrecks and groundings in the area.  The schooner Jenny Lind was run aground during a gale in 1857 but was later refloated.  In June of 1873 the schooner Agnes sailed south out of Pancake Creek during bad weather.  The vessel was never seen again and no survivors or wreckage was ever found.  It is believed that the name Agnes Water may have been derived from that vessel but there is also belief in some circles that the town was named after Agnes, the daughter of Rachael and Daniel Clowes, the first settlers in the area. 

In August of 1873 the sailing ship Countess Russel ran aground at a beach south of Agnes Water known today as Wreck Rock.  The anchor from the ship can be seen at Round Hill Head.

As we approached Bustard Head the wind was strengthening so the spinnaker was dropped and Sokari entered Pancake Creek under motor.  There is no bar at the entrance but it shallows near the beacons.  It is best entered on a high tide if you want to go all the way in.  Pancake is open to northerlies and in that eventuality you would be best in the upper reaches.

Auckland Point Wharf silos and loading facilities

This is a popular stopover for boats travelling this part of the coast.  It’s a great spot to wait out a blow or just to have a relaxing break.  You will find that the fishing is good and the creek is reputed to have some of the best coral viewing and snorkelling areas on the coast.  I can’t confirm this fact as I haven’t snorkelled here but a friend, Don on the catamaran Swallow, has caught a coral trout near the channel markers. The creek isn’t normally accessible by vehicle so you will generally find the only people around will be other boaties.

For the fishermen and women, (I can’t bring myself to say fisherperson or fishers) the many oyster-encrusted rocks will supply you with perfect bait for the bream and flathead that abound.  Don’t feel like cooking dinner?  Grab a feed of those oysters straight off the rocks.  If they don’t satisfy the hunger cravings, perhaps you will need to cook up some of the fish that you undoubtedly caught during the day.

There were several yachts in the creek when we arrived.  We gave them all a wave before having dinner and an early night.  On awakening at 0600 hours the bay was almost empty with most of the boats having already left.  The remainder were tidying decks and lifting anchors.

The fishing's good at Flat Rock in Baffle Creek Potter at work in the 1770 Pottery  Visitors enjoy the Boardwalk at Gladstone Marina

As we weren’t in a rush we had a leisurely breakfast and then John took Minka, our miniature/toy poodle, for her morning walk before we lifted the anchor at around 0700 and headed out.  Outside the creek, the main and spinnaker were hoisted and we began closing the gap on the other boats.  The monohulls were soon overtaken and before long we were passing the only catamaran in the group. 

A steady breeze had us sailing at around 10-11kts with peaks of over 12 but to our disappointment after about nine miles the wind swung around over our port quarter and towards the beam.  It couldn’t be held any longer so it was dropped.  That’s when we wished for an MPS.  Our speed reduced dramatically so, with a strong wind warning forecast to hit within a couple of hours, we started the diesels and motor-sailed the rest of the way into Gladstone Harbour.

In August of 1802, Matthew Flinders, in the course of his circumnavigation of ‘New Holland’, sighted the northern headland of what Cook called ‘Bustard Bay.  Flinders followed a north-westerly breeze, stretching in for land.  He anchored The Investigator overnight five or six miles from a prominent headland and at daylight on August 5, he sailed in, ‘steering north-west ward’ and at 9am discovered a small opening ‘not so much as a mile wide’ which Cook had missed as he sailed past in the dark in 1770. 

Sailing at Lake Awoonga

The channel was a small opening into a large harbour which was protected by a small island that Flinders named ‘Facing Island’.  He named the harbour ‘Port Curtis’ after Admiral Sir Roger Curtis and also named the southern headland of Facing Island ‘Gatcombe Head’ after Curtis’ family home in England.  Flinders further honoured the man by naming the larger island ‘Curtis Island’.  He had initially believed this island to be part of the mainland but during his explorations he found a narrow channel of water flowing between the mainland and island into Port Curtis Harbour.

He noted in his journal the following advice to those coming behind him.  “The northern entrance to Port Curtis is accessible only to boats; but ships of any size may enter the port by the southern opening ... I cannot venture to give any other sailing directions for going up this port, than to run cautiously, with a boat a-head and the plan upon the binnacle.  Both the bottom and shoals are usually a mixture of sand, with mud and clay; but in the northern entrance, and off some of the upper points and islands where the tides run strong, the ground is in general rocky.”

Of course, we now know that channel as ‘The Narrows’ which we would be navigating soon.  A swing mooring was offered at $9.50 a day but we opted for a pen at $15.  Approaching, John took one look and said, “Radio the office and check the width.  I don’t think we’ll fit.  Tell her we’re 24ft wide”.

I was assured that a “very big cat” had come out of there and relayed the message to John who wasn’t convinced.  Glen from Yankee Clipper who was about to take our lines said, “Go to starboard about 18ins”.

John quickly replied,  “I don’t have 18ins on starboard.” 

As we were considering our next move a staff member bolted down the dock and told us breathlessly, “You’re right, you won’t fit.  The cat that came out of there is only 20ft wide.”  A larger berth was arranged and we quickly settled in. 

A Dinghy makes its way through the beautiful Fitzroy Reef Lagoon

John and I have always been impressed at the friendliness and helpfulness of the marina staff who have bent over backwards to assist us on all our visits.  Gladstone Marina is immaculately maintained by the Gladstone Port Authority.  It has barbecue facilities and playgrounds, boardwalk shops, a fully-equipped outdoor stage and has wheelchair access for the physically handicapped. 

Gladstone residents love marine activity and the city boasts of having one of the highest boat ownerships of any community in Australia.  Each Easter the boating lifestyle is celebrated with the Gladstone Harbour Festival.  This is one of the area’s largest events and it coincides with the Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race.

Landscaped parklands dot the area including the Gladstone Marina, Spinnaker Park and Barney Point Beach which are perfect for recreational activities including barbecues and get togethers.  Spinnaker Park is considered to be Gladstone’s premier recreation area.  It has 2.5km of educational walking tracks which run along the ocean wall, through native wetlands.  The tracks are excellent for riding, rollerblading or just walking and the cove offers a great spot to cool off.

All yachties love a barbecue so we eagerly accepted an invitation to join friends in the marina’s barbecue area that night.  They convinced us that there were plenty of things to do in and around Gladstone so the next day we headed out to see the sights in a borrowed car.  We found some great lookouts with spectacular views over the city, harbour and islands. 

The city is situated between the Calliope River in the north and the Boyne River in the south.  Both rivers empty into the harbour which is protected by Facing and Curtis Islands.  Originally named Port Curtis the name was later changed in honour of the British Statesman, William Gladstone.

Being a keen gardener I was naturally drawn to the Tondoon Botanic Gardens on the southern outskirts of the city.  Its native gardens include more than 1,500 species of plants from the Port Curtis Region and Far North Queensland.  The site covers 83 hectares and Lake Tondoon sits right in the centre of the gardens.  This lake provided Gladstone’s water supply until 1945.  Today it is a habitat for a variety of freshwater birds.  Free guided tours are available. 

Lake Awoonga is located around 30km from Gladstone and is open, free, to the public 365 days of the year.  It is one of the most important near-coast bird refuges on the east coast.  Around 25% of the country’s bird species are found in the region which makes it a birdwatcher’s paradise.

A Section of reed in popular Fitzroy Reef Lagoon

A fish hatchery breeds and releases around 300,000 fish into the lake each year including 200,000 barramundi and 100,000 mullet and a small number of mangrove jack.  While the lake is open for fishing all year round there are some limits between November 1 and February 1. Check for details.

Maritime history buffs are catered for at the Gladstone Maritime Museum.  With Matthew Flinders playing such a large part in discovering and charting the harbour, it is only fitting that a display on this remarkable man would be featured in the museum.

Amongst the many displays are detailed models of sailing vessels, naval vessels and even one of the paddlesteamer PS Premier which took passengers from the end of the railway through the Narrows to Rockhampton over a century ago.  There are also several thousand marine photos, over 1000 books and approximately 2000 other display items. A wall display features shipwreck sites in the 1800’s and 1900’s. 

The figurehead from the Jenny Lind is on display.  It was lost at the time of the shipwreck and presumed destroyed by weather and time.  However, in the 1950’s a local, Jim Byriel, found the figurehead on rocks inside a cave while he was exploring North Keppel Island. 

The museum is located in Francis Ward Drive.  Admission charges apply.

The Gladstone Regional Art Gallery and Museum is housed in a converted heritage listed building, originally the Old Town Hall, on the corner of Goondoon and Bramston Streets.   The 19th Century marble statue of William Ewart Gladstone for whom the city was named is displayed in a glass ‘bridge’ walkway between two buildings.  The Gallery and Museum holds collections of Australian art, craft and local history.  Distinguished artists including locals have regular exhibitions of their works.  Entry is free.

Boats secure in the Gladstone Marina

Another ‘must see’ is the Cedar Gallery Art & Crafts Village and home to fabulous alpacas. A short drive from the CBD situated on the Bruce Highway, Calliope midway between the Calliope and Bernaraby turnoffs.

The café, galleries and gift shop are open Thursday to Sunday between 9am and 4pm.

They also offer complete wedding co-ordination and theming in a beautiful, tranquil setting.

A visit to the Gecko Valley Winery also offers a complete change of pace where you can check out their range of wines.  This multi-award winning winery is set on 100 hectares in a tranquil bush setting with fountains, waterfalls and over 150 rose bushes. 

Just west of the crossroads on the Bruce Highway lies the township of Calliope which, along with the township of Many Peaks (approximately 70kms south-west of Gladstone), was a lively settlement during 1853 and 1879 in the gold rush era.  Both communities flourished in the early 20th Century when the gold was commercially mined. 

Calliope River Historical Village, located on the Bruce Highway a few minutes north of Calliope, is home to buildings that have been relocated from other areas and restored to their early glory.   The Village is open seven days a week for tours but probably the best time for a visit would be on selected Sundays for the country markets.

Energetic visitors who are in the area on May Day weekend can enter the Ubobo Mountain Challenge.  They can test their physical and mental stamina by tackling the steep 5.2km climb up Mount Roberts.  The Boyne Valley Spring Festival is held in September for those who enjoy something a bit more subdued.

However, Gladstone Coral Charters is certainly worthy of a mention.  For vistors wanting a true experience of the reef why not treat yourself to the comfort of MVNight Crossing, the most luxurious vessel operating out of Gladstone to the Great Barrier Reef and surrounding islands.  Contact Georgia Gleeson on 07 4972 2285 (see advertisement page 18).

Aerial view of 1770 showing the entrance as it winds its way through the sandbanks Sunbeams pierce the clouds at 1770

Another challenge for the energetic is to take a trek to the peak of Mt Larcom, Gladstone’s most prominent natural landmark, also named by Flinders after another naval man.  Those who make the top will be rewarded with an uninterrupted 360° view over the area.  The reef islands to the east and Rockhampton to the north can be seen on a clear day. 

Back at the marina when boat stores need replenishing a number of options are available in and around the city.  There’s a wide range of retail options with a variety of shopping centres, boutique stores and weekend markets available. 

Stockland Kin Kora Centre is the area’s major centre with supermarkets, discount department stores and specialty shops.  Other options are The Valley Precinct, at the end of Goondoon Street,The Palms Shopping Centre at 172 Goondoon Street and Gladstone Central on the Dawson Highway which also has a cinema complex.  

Gladstone residents keep telling us that the area is home to “Queensland’s best seafood”.  The selection of fresh quality reef fish, prawns, scallops, bugs and oysters is obviously why visitors say it is a seafood lover’s paradise.  There are many good restaurants in the City or wholesalers are available to buy what you wish and create your own seafood feast.  The Gladstone Information Centre at the Marina Ferry Terminal can supply you with your own copy of the Dining Guide so you can choose one of the many wonderful eateries.

After dark in Gladstone, the city comes alive with nightspots that will appeal to all tastes.  There are sports and social clubs, night clubs and pubs where you can wile away the hours. 

Rather than boring you here with a list of all the marine services available in Gladstone, check out the comprehensive list at for marine type services, e.g. chandleries, ships’ stores, marine engineers, fridge mechanics.

A brilliant sky over a past Gladstone Harbour Festival Fresh seafood can be purchaed at the marina

With our visit to Gladstone nearly over it was time to turn our attention to the islands and reefs off the coast.  Some of the cays are off-limits to the wandering boatie but there are plenty of others worthy of a visit.

Despite being denied access it is interesting to know the history Heron Island which lies 72km north-east of Gladstone.  Neither Cook (in 1770) nor Flinders (in 1802) noticed this small coral cay but on January 12, 1843 the HMS Fly anchored off the island.  Joseph Bette Jukes, the ship’s naturalist named the island after the many reef herons he had noticed. 

Guano miners also visited but moved on.  The island remained virtually untouched until 1932 when Capt Christian Poulson was granted a lease to develop a resort.  In 1943 Heron Island was declared a National Park and a marine research station was established in 1950.

Wistari Reef lies across a narrow channel from Heron Island through which large numbers of whales pass during the winter months.  The reef is well worth a look with its beautiful coral and drop-offs and from reports I’m getting from avid fishermen, the fishing is good, especially for Spanish Mackerel and Red Emperor of gigantic proportions.

North West Island is a 100 hectare coral cay about 75kms north-east of Gladstone.  It is a major seabird nesting area and the largest green turtle nesting site on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.  There are no facilities except for some environmental toilets.  Snorkellers and divers will be rewarded with colourful coral and some vibrant marine life, especially those who venture out over the reef edge.

A lone yacht shares the anchorage with the pelicans under a pink sky

Masthead Island is a 45 hectare coral cay lying between Irving and Polmaise Reefs and Erskine Island.  It is approximately 60kms north-east of Gladstone and is a minor nesting area for green turtles.  It is an important seabird nesting area supporting black noddies and wedgetailed shearwaters as well as having a high diversity of sea and shorebirds.

Fitroy Reef Lagoon is a 3650 hectare drying, closed ring reef with a large lagoon, six to 10m deep, which is a good anchorage.  It can be accessed through two narrow natural channels.  There is no cay but quite often at low tide, a body of sand appears on the south-west end of the reef. 

So our stopover in Gladstone was over and it was time to move on.  We had been very surprised at how much there was to see at Gladstone but, with so much more to seeand do, we were eager to untie the lines and turn Sokari’s head to the north. 

Waving good-bye to old and new friends we eased out of our berth looking forward to the adventures ahead.

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