Beauty meets history on the Maroochy River

The plan was to obtain GPS co-ordinates for historical sites and prominent landmarks, but everyone was taken by the great beauty of our river.  Some members are long-time river residents so the memories soon flowed and the commentary was as entertaining as the views.

As we set out, the mountains Ninderry and Coolum were on the horizon, bringing to mind the legend of the maiden Maroochy and the suitors who fought for her in Aboriginal legend. Ninderry knocked Coolum’s head into the sea which became Mudjimba Island and Maroochy’s tears formed the river.

This is the traditional land of the Kabi Kabi and words from their language form a rich heritage for our place names. We looked hard for the black swans that, 175 years ago, inspired early European visitor Andrew Petrie to named the river with the Aboriginal word for “black swan”.

The river has shifting sandbars and an ever-changing channel which works its way up and down, north and south of Pincushion Island about every 30 years. The dangers of the bar are well known.

Early settlers though, used the river as a highway into the rich farming district of the hinterland. It was a much easier way to travel than trying to find a route through thick scrub and forests.

The river had been used for rafting from 1861 as the cedar, beech and pine forests that grew on the high ground were highly prized and it was the most efficient way to bring the timbers down for an onward journey.

Maroochydore is now geared for tourism, but it began humbly with the Salvation Army bringing South Sea Islanders who worked the canefields at Buderim, to Cotton Tree for Christmas holidays in the 1890s.  It has been a popular camping spot ever since.

Picnic areas are now provided in grassy parks along the river banks but in another era, this was a supermarket for the local Aborigines who camped along the foreshore and enjoyed the abundant food of the river – fish, crabs and oysters. Large middens at Muller Park are evidence of the bounty.

Tom Godfrey recalls that his grandfather was the first professional European fisherman on the river.

Mangroves, valuable for fish breeding, line most of the river and the Bunya Bunya Aboriginal Corporation has been replanting areas where they are sparse.  Bridges loom large.

In 1990, the Sunshine Motorway bridge over the river was opened. The toll was removed in 1996 and it was duplicated in 2007.

Further upstream, the David Low Bridge at Bli Bli  opened in 1959 as a much-needed link to open up the developing coast road north to Noosa.

The jetty of the Maroochy Wetlands, established in 1990, is a morning tea stop to see the vegetation from the comfort of the boardwalk.

What some critics once saw as a  “worthless mosquito-ridden swamp” has become a peaceful haven for birds, animals, plants and people; a place to learn about biodiversity and ecosystems.

There is evidence of the cane tramlines where the little cane trains once met the punts that had picked up the sugar cane from farms along the river.

Everything changed in 2003 when the Moreton Central Sugar Mill in Nambour had its last cane crush after 106 years of being the lifeblood of the district.

The industry had started in the 1880s when a wave of new settlers drained swampy lowlands and established sugar cane fields.

The “Clarence River settlers”, including the Apps, Fischer, Theideke, Thompson, Eggins, Poor, Macaulay, Wood and Sherwell families, came from northern NSW to grow cane.

A few houses remain but for many, only old gardens and jetties remain as well as some of the barracks where itinerant canecutters lived in the days before harvesters.

A vital link for river residents was Coulson’s mail boat run from Yandina to Maroochydore, which worked the river from 1909-1953, and serviced more than 60 wharves.

The service was continued by Duffield and Gilby until 1963 when cars and trucks took over deliveries.  
Anne Margoc recalls that houses on the eastern side of the river in the Bli Bli area were as isolated as living on an island. Children crossed the river to go to school and families crossed to shop, landing at Stoney Wharf, Punt Road Landing, McMartin’s Wharf, Bli Bli Wharf or Picnic Point.

From 1953 to c.1973 a school boat service begun by Joe Suosaari delivered children from the Savimaki, Suosaari, Elliott and Tatnell families to Maroochydore State School.

The wooden lift bridge which was built in 1921 is now in a sad state of repair. Cane trams from Coolum crossed the river here en route to the sugar mill.

Burnetts, Collins and the Maroochy Co-operative all owned stores near the bridge at different times and river residents came by boat to shop.

From 1917 to 1965, a boat service delivered children to the Maroochy River State School.

Ken Perren recalls that some of this land was cleared 100 years ago for agriculture and is degraded; some is pristine.

The Bli Bli on Maroochy Historical Society members all agree they had a great day out while creating valuable records with GPS readings.

Caption:  A cane punt delivers trucks of cane across the Maroochy River, a system which existed for 50 years until the David Low Bridge was built at Bli Bli.
Image: Heritage Library, SCC