Cape crusaders open up Australia's last wild frontiers

To have vast areas of one's country inaccessible by road does seem rather negligent -- though Greenies would disagree.  So on grounds of the national interest, spending on these roads would perhaps be defensible.

As they go through areas that have small populations of unproductive Aborigines only, however, they are a boondoggle by economic criteria.  They largely go nowhere.

The idea that they will open up the areas concerned to economic development is a very old dream but the failure of the Ord project tells us that the dream will remain a dream

Australian governments are rather prone to boondoggles.  The barely-used Alice to Darwin railway and the Snowy hydroelectic scheme will never cover their costs or provide a reasonable return on capital

One is a bumpy road to somewhere, snaking through the scrubby wilds of Cape York and on to an even dustier track that ends at the most northern tip of Australia.

The second, on another remote northern cape on the opposite side of the country, claims 4WDs and sometimes even lives in the soft red dirt north of Broome.

Now the sort of nation-building projects of a century ago are simultaneously opening up two of the nation’s last wild frontiers to anyone with a sedan.

The twin highway projects are predicted to transform the lives of indigenous people in about 80 ­remote communities; there is hope for tourism and jobs, but some elders also worry that good roads could bring bad town problems.

For them, living at the end of a treacherous track — often cut off in the wet season — is a form of protection.

Within a year, the $63 million Cape Leveque Road project will seal 90km of boggy red dirt track between Broome and the former mission of Beagle Bay, completing bitumen works that started further north in 2007.

Nine-year-old Tatiana Kitchener’s Beagle Bay home is an uncomfortable one hour and 45 minutes by car to Broome, where she likes to swim at the town pool. And that is in good weather. The track has a reputation for wrecking cars and fatalities.

In far north Queensland, the half-finished upgrade of the Peninsula Developmental Road over the past few years has begun to transform the Cape.

The trickle of 4WD adventurers belting along the road on their way to pristine fishing and camping spots has become a steady stream of motorhome-driving grey nomads and tourists.

More than 80,000 vehicles travelled the 560km stretch from Lakeland to the Weipa turn-off last year — up from 25,000 five years ago. At the peak of the last dry season, there were even queues for the ferry that takes cars across the Jardine River and on to the final leg to the top. Completion of the project will be a metamorphic moment for the Aborigines of Cape York, who make up about 70 per cent of the population.

The state and federally funded project, which has cost $280m since 2014, is paving the way for a year-round economy on Cape York that few thought possible.

Landholders are gearing up, with plans for fruit plan­tations and cattle properties that have been limited without a ­reliable route to Cairns or the Weipa port.

Traditional owners, who have native title over their country or secured land through a state buyback program of wound-down cattle stations over the past decade, are also planning ventures involving tourism and agriculture.

On Cape Leveque, Deborah Sebastian, a relative of Tatiana, knows the new road can bring jobs and enterprise to the four communities along the cape. She also worries it might deliver town problems. “It’s going to be safer for driving,” she said. “But we are scared it will be easier for drugs and alcohol to get in.”

The Bardi Jawi communities that own and run the idyllic Kooljaman wilderness camp near One Arm Point are expected to be among the beneficiaries when the entire cape is opened up to two-wheel cars and coaches.

Broome’s population swells from 13,000 to 40,000 between June and October each year, but currently only a tiny proportion of those visitors venture up the track.

The two road projects are already creating indigenous jobs. An estimated 25 per cent of the contract work awarded for the upgrade to the Cape York road has gone to locally owned indigenous companies. The Cape Leveque job is smaller, but 53 per cent of its contracts have been awarded to indigenous-owned companies. Thirty-six of the 43 people working on the road are indigenous.

One of the success stories of the Peninsula Development Road is Kalan Enterprises, an indigenous-owned company based in Coen, in central Cape York.

Started nine years ago by traditional owners of the Southern Kaantju people, the company was doing land management — including feral animal and invasive weed control — before the road upgrade kicked-off. The ongoing “One Claim’’ native title application — filed in 2014 over 14.6 million hectares not already under native title — ensured that traditional owners across Cape York were consulted and were able to negotiate involvement in the project.

Kalan, which has a small fleet of trucks, backhoes and crushers, employs 17 indigenous people full-time. Dozens more are doing regular contract work.

The next few months will be decisive for the project. State and federal governments will do scoping work to finish sealing the PDR, extending the construction of bridges and possibly extending the bitumen to the tip.

The project will take at least another five years.

The promise of development and economic opportunity will have to compete with the need for environmental protections across the mostly unspoilt peninsula. The Palaszczuk government is considering a bid for World Heritage listing — supported by federal Labor — which they promise will be pursued only with majority support of traditional owners.

Federal Liberal MP Warren Entsch, who championed and helped deliver the road upgrade, said the balance could be struck but it was critical to finish the job, which he thought would cost $700m more. “It is one of the last frontiers and we are taming it,” Mr Enstch said.



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