91. Back to Bowen

It was just over 32 years since I left Bowen. Arriving in mid-1977 on our boat “Cornelius”, pregnant and unused to the Queensland heat, it was a while before I started to feel part of the place. My first husband Geoff and I had bought a run-down slipway and were determined to make a successful venture of it. We lived on board “Cornelius” for the next six years and survived a near-cyclone while Geoff built it up to a thriving business, with a new and much stronger cradle capable of handling large fishing vessels and a concrete block winch-house designed for future expansion. Initially I was the winch operator – it was an old car engine I think! – and Geoff was the all-important cradle operator, responsible for correct placement of valuable yachts and fishing boats so that as they were hauled out, they remained upright and stable – not as easy as it sounds as the slipway rails were not level. So to start with Geoff had to place the boat just so and slightly heeled over to one side, then as it was hauled out I had to keep a critical eye on the angle and immediately put the boat back in the water – fast – if it started to heel over too far the other way! Fortunately that only happened once or twice. Most slipping was done at high tide which invariably meant at night, so communication was by torchlight and hand signals. We had plans for a secondary runway and cradle but they had not come to fruition before Geoff died in 1983.

On Geoff’s and my first evening in Bowen we wandered up the main street and decided to try out a little cafe which advertised pizza and garlic prawns. We were not expecting much in a small country town but those garlic prawns were so good Geoff had several helpings, and thus started a long friendship with Patrick and Sylvie which continues to this day.

Bowen the town was much changed, I only recognised a few of the older buildings, but Patrick and Sylvie’s lovely rustic French style home was still there and as welcoming as ever. The harbour was just as welcoming from a distance but unrecognisable close-up, with many new moorings and reclaimed areas.

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Dave and I went down to the Slipway of course, now surrounded by a high corrugated iron fence. On asking permission for a wander around it was freely granted. It was good to see that the concrete block winch house is still being used, but the cradle rails have been straightened (!) and a new cradle is in place on the main slipway while what I was fairly certain was the cradle which Geoff designed and made in 1978 was still in use as the secondary cradle on the secondary runway which we had designed. I will need to check some old photos first to be certain.

During the 1978 near-cyclone the wind blew sand into every tiny crevice and joint; the moving parts of the cradle were seized up solid and Geoff had to melt the sand out later with a powerful blowtorch. It was impossible to face into that wind which of course reached its peak at night, coinciding with a high tide; we had left the spotlights on so the eerie scene was exhilarating and frightening at the same time –  howling wind, swirling sand, flickering lights, boats rocking madly (even with every possible bit of running rigging removed). We were triply fastened to two sturdy piles (those nearest the shore in the photo below, but there was no pontoon then) plus we had an anchor out into the harbour plus ropes to the mangroves ashore. There was concern that the high tide would lift the boat up and put it down on top of the piles. Some other boats forced their way as far up a mangrove creek as possible but others like us elected to stay in the harbour.

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Over the years Patrick and Sylvie have developed a rustic retreat which they named Yellow Belly after a snake which they saw there the first time they discovered the area. Located about an hour’s drive through parched bushland and at a remote point on a cattle station…….

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….. over the years it has become a focal point for the multitude of foreign visitors, mainly French, who seem drawn to Bowen and to P et S in particular, by magic.

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I was there at the beginning, one of many willing hands conscripted on the promise of a feed afterwards. Memorable meals at a long rough-hewn table in the shape of the gum trees. Sylvie with a broken arm after one of the roof beams fell on her.

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Some 10 of us would arrive in the morning with a motley collection of tools and materials, very rarely anything new. Slowly the outline of a hut took place. Over the years the plan was refined. There is now a workshop housing a generator, guest quarters, a cookhouse, an outdoor shower and of course a long drop complete with phone to the house if you run out of toilet paper.

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There are lots of interesting quirky objects, like this ancient coffee pot brought out from France, which once belonged to Sylvie’s great great grandmother. What stories it could tell. Or the blue and orange enamelled dish.

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A huge flood in 2008 almost reached the bottom steps. It can be seen from the second photo taken from the river bed just how far away the river is normally.

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It was all new to Dave of course, but I think he enjoyed our stay there.

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