A younger cohort of visitors is heading for Bowen, best known hitherto as the home of the Big Mango, a favoured stop for grey nomads in their supersized caravans.
The manager of a local caravan park recites the story of one youngish couple who turned up at reception one evening looking somewhat dishevelled and complaining that they’d been beaten up by locals.
‘Which hotel were you drinking at?’ he inquired.
‘We weren’t at the pub’, they replied. ‘We were chained to the railway tracks’. If the saviours from extinction were looking for a hero’s welcome, they’d plainly arrived in the wrong town.
The good news is that the raucous Stop Adani campaign has failed to stop millions of tonnes of thermal coal snaking their way by rail from Adani’s Carmichael Mine to Abbot Point, 25 kilometres north of Bowen, since late last year. Plans are locked in to double the port’s capacity, once the initial 25 megatonne annual target is reached. That, by all accounts, is likely to come sooner than later, thanks to the relentless demand for exports and record global prices.
In Bowen, the perennial non-achiever of Queensland coastal towns, things are beginning to hum. Business owners, like Bruce and Halina Redditch, who run the aptly named Larrikin Hotel, have noticed the difference in trade, now that more than well over 100 locals have found employment at Abbot Point and associated facilities.
The coal port is just the beginning. Abbot Point is about to become Australia’s Cape Kennedy now that the Queensland-based rocket company Gilmour Space has taken up residence and is preparing to launch low-orbit satellites into space from 2023. The location has several advantages, like the ability to launch over water and its relative proximity to the equator, where the rotation of the Earth will assist with the launch.
The notion that Bowen might become a hub for the space industry seems incongruous in a town that looks like it has hardly entered the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Baz Luhrmann’s choice of Bowen as the location for the scenes of 1940s Darwin in his film Australia tells you almost everything you need to know about the place. No edifice in what passes for its CBD extends above two stories and it’s not until you reach the Woolworths store on the western edge that you find anything approaching modern.
The feel of isolated wartime Darwin has been enhanced by the decaying state of the Bruce Highway and the kilometres of half-completed roadworks that have reduced it to the level of a camel track. The road contractor went broke in February and no work has been carried out since. It is anybody’s guess if it will ever be finished.
A large prime block of land on the waterfront overlooking the picturesque jetty stands empty with a hopeful ‘For Sale’ sign in one corner. In just about any other coastal town in Queensland it would be home to an unappealing block of apartments by now. Whitsunday Regional Council, however, has a history of being less than helpful to developers, especially those who might bring some energy to the district. The stalled $1.1 billion Whitsunday Paradise development on the southern fringes of the town is a case in point. It would have contained almost 2000 residential lots, a major sports complex, commercial precinct, and private hospital. Yet the council’s refusal to assist with the installation of trunk-line infrastructure has brought the project to a stop.
But then Bowen has been the home of unfulfilled promise since it was identified as the location of an outstanding natural harbour by early explorers. When the Northern Separation Movement was gathering steam in the 1860s, Bowen was considered the natural choice for capital of the putative State of North Queensland. It’s wide main streets and grid layout that make it possibly the easiest town in Australia in which to find a park bear testimony to that great ambition. By the turn of the century, however, Bowen had been eclipsed by Townsville 200 km to the north and by Mackay to the south.
Adani has produced the momentum that could be the town’s chance for redemption. Despite everything the environmental zealots and bureaucrats have done to try to stop it, the mango capital of Queensland may be about to ripen.
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