Foreword by Luke Sorensen
Just imagine for a moment what it was like on the Gold Coast 140 years ago – the ‘South’ port of Brisbane. You’re headed for Brisbane town yet something lingers, something draws you in, resulting in a last-minute decision to abandon the comfort of your homeward path.
Instead you opt to follow an opportunity on the breeze, to set out on horseback southward from The Spit, from Southport towards the mighty Burleigh Headland. You’re stepping and riding into the absolute unknown and all the while that day’s safe passage home to Brisbane becomes further and further away, soon a remnant afterthought as you trundle down the vast white sandy strip. What a monumental adventure that would have been at the time!
It’s an an era where there’s no glossy magazine article to invite you in, no website nor television documentary to corrupt your imagination or bend your preconception of what may lay ahead – no traffic-filled road, no signs and no well-worn path.
The southern corner of the newly formed Queensland State was for many just an unknown void, especially for a visiting Brisbane colony fellow traversing along a strip surrounded by river, swamp and sand – a place defined by its vast Eastern border of ocean which, from the earliest of days to every day since, has sparked the imagination and inspired.
There’s few spots in the region that have captured the spirit or set the mind in a sea-soaked trance of blissful dream than that of the ancient volcanic headland named Burleigh. Jutting outward and upward like a fallen giant frozen in time, the headland is a beacon, a lookout and a natural amphitheater for watching the sea. In more recent times it is one of the world’s greatest amphitheatres for gazing upon the men and women who slide down the walls of water which wrap the curves and iconic contours of the head.
In the 1800s most of the Gold Coast was a mystery to the newcomers, save for major townships such as Nerang and Southport. Timber getters and arrowroot farmers fanned into pockets amongst the valleys and foothills in search of prosperity and wealth while the sandy low lying surf coast stretching from Stradbroke to the border remained largely untouched.
I’ve been doing some serious rummaging into our city’s past lately, unearthing this incredible lost story of a single-day journey to the Burleigh Head which was made during the late 1800s – a trip which so perfectly articulates many of the bridging characteristics and qualities that remain in place at Burleigh today.
William Senior was the author’s name, an imaginative word smith and keen fishing fanatic who spent several years on loan from the United Kingdom as a special correspondent for London’s Daily News. His time here was in Brisbane, writing for The Courier, as well as being the first person ever appointed as the Principal Short Hand writer for the Parliament of Queensland’s ‘Hansard’.
Senior’s expert descriptives and reflective tones are matched only by his apparent zest and yearning for the marine environment and all things natural.
For what is likely to be the first time since its original publishing date in January 1878, the story of his ‘singularly pleasant’ day on the Gold Coast has been restored and brought back to life right here – illustrated as best we could with a splashing of photographs and art.
This is an incredible fragment of the Gold Coast’s real contemporary history retold, and at its finest!
–– Southport To Burleigh ––
A telling by Red Spinner // January 1878
Tempted by the kind offer of a Nerang gentle man, instead of returning (to Brisbane) from Southport by water, and a lovely trip it is in fine weather – by Broadwater, Coucheemudlow, Redland, Cleveland, and Boat Passage – we found ourselves one fine morning, piloted by Gardiner, who knows every inch of shoal and channel, crossing the river opposite his inn, and towing our horses after us.
By adopting a zigzag course, the animals are able to walk three-fourths of the distance, though it was half-flood. Had it been low water, we could have ridden from bank to bank without wetting our feet. As it was, some swimming had to be done before we landed on the Southern Spit, upon which a lighthouse has recently been erected. Mr. L had not only mapped out our trip, and mounted us, but himself kindly came to lead the way, and to him I am indebted for a singularly pleasant day.
There certainly ought to be a supply of ponies or donkeys, kept to give the visitor an opportunity of riding along that glorious ocean beach to Burleigh Heads. Close to low-water mark the sand is smooth as a billiard table, and gives hard unbroken galloping ground for six or seven miles. All the while, the breakers burst and foam with never-ceasing murmur, and the sparkling sea tempts you to lunge into its clear cool depths.
A strong south-east wind on the day of our ride roused the ocean out of slumber, so that the bursting of the waves betrayed anger and threat rather than that soothing expression which the sea assumes in fair weather. A storm or two occurred, driving us over the sand hills into the scrub for shelter from the rain; but the weird aspect of the heavens as the black clouds came and went across the sun, was ample compensation for the temporary interruption to progress.
Thai scrub, which along almost the entire distance fringes the beach, has a very different appearance to that it puts on upon the banks of the Nerang, which river is, by the way, here and there separated from the beach by so narrow a neck of land that it would seem only a question of time when the Pacific will unceremoniously burst through. The scrub on the sea side has no piccabeen (Seaforthia thia elegans) but it has thrown out an advance guard of native bread fruit, which, in their own humble and not altogether unpicturesque way, maintain sturdy outlook.
Burleigh Heads we can see, brown, and round, ahead ; and, at the farthest extremity of the shore, perhaps five-and-twenty miles distant, the long low jutting promontory of Point Danger, showing where the Tweed River pours its waters into the mighty reservoir. About a mile and a-half on the Nerang side of Burleigh Heads is a smaller bluff, which we ascended, riding to the summit. It has one advantage over Burleigh Heads in that you can gain the top and obtain a birdseye view of the country when you are there ; whereas its big neighbor just beyond is so thickly wooded that the crown is unattainable.
We lunched there-fore on the summit of this minor bluff, and over our cigars dreamily gazed upon the wide-spreading panorama below. On the one hand is the ocean, with never a soil to be seen north, south, or east, but with a million reflections of sunshine – now that the storm has gone – and innumerable gradations of color.
A rare picture which the eye roams over with delight, and returns to roam again and again with undiminished satisfaction.
White as lace is the long line of surf, spreading playfully over the sand, on which a few gulls and oyster catchers are delving for the unconsidered trifles left by the receding tide. The scrub dividing the beach from the river is now directly beneath our eyes, revealing a heavy, sandy track, by which the settlers send their produce, a long tiresome journey, to Nerang for shipment. Away inland tracks in the forest show us where the sugar plantations “stand dressed in living green ;” while, enclosing all in their lofty shadow, stands a semicircle of mountains, conspicuous amongst which are the Hanging Rock and the remarkable saddle adjoining.
In the arena of this natural amphitheatre are far reaching woods and plains, the latter bright with the now rich green garb just put on to hide the poverty of the previous twelve months, and the whole forming a rare picture which the eye roams over with delight, and returns to roam again and again with undiminished satisfaction.
Then into the saddle again ; we pick our way down the closely wooded slope, amongst brackens and ferns, and cross a corner of the Emerald plain, which was one of the most agreeable features of the prospect from the summit of the bluff. It is what I shall call a sheathland, and there is a certain botanist friend of mine, I am sure, who would, from his scientific point of view, regard it as a slice of Paradise.
It has been my custom until I crossed this tract of land to think that there was too much truth in the assertion always made at home, that there are few wild flowers in Australia. No more shall I nourish so foul a heresy. I count fifteen distinct varieties of wild flower as we go at walking pace through the heath, and the foliage of the Shrubs is in many instances exquisitely pretty. Above them, where the heath merges into swamp, there is, four feet perhaps above the ground, a plant bearing bells of flaming orange and yellow, a showy head of flowers, that, like Tennyson’s wild marsh marigold, “shines like fire in swamps and hollows gray.”
On the ground I notice a lovely primrose-colored, primula-shaped bloom, and several delicate flowers, violet and-blue ; while everywhere gleam the white stars of a dark-leaved little shrub, that bears a waxy five-petalled flower. The only drawback to one’s enjoyment of a surprise like this – for such it is – is the reflection that one knows so little of the objects around. Ignorance, it cannot be denied, is an inveterate robber, therefore wish I, but wish in vain, that my botanical friend were by my side to lend me the light of his experience and knowledge.
Onward, however, we have to go, one of my companions remarking that the country through which we were passing would be splendid ground for rabbits, as no doubt it would. Leaving a reed-grown level to the right, by-and-by we are confronted with the landward face of Burleigh Heads. Its lower half, like its approach, is of crisp verdant turf, reminding one forcibly of Sussex Downs, save that bits of dark brown rock crop up here and there. The upper half of the headland is thickly covered with trees, I festooned with an abundance of creeping foliage.
We are now in the township of Burleigh, or at any rate, amongst the pegs which mark it out. The scenery is beautiful beyond question, with – its fresh-colored herbage and sweeping contour of land. Separated from the Heads proper by a green valley rises a gentle acclivity, or rather terrace, affording a fine outlook upon the ocean and surrounding country. This much we take in at a sweep, as we breast the hill, dismount, and tie up the horses. But the thunder of the rollers is below, and the ocean peremptorily demands the attention bestowed upon the land.
We are now in the township of Burleigh, or at any rate, amongst the pegs which mark it out. The scenery is beautiful beyond question, with – its fresh colored herbage and sweeping contour of land.
Why is it one is always sensible of a certain mastership on the part of that hollow sounding sea? How can ‘one analyse the feelings which crowd, jostle, and vanish undefined, as one looks down upon-that watery plain, stretching thousands of leagues afar? What is the meaning of the involuntary yearning that arises in the heart when, as now, one sits upon the massive rocks, and gazes down upon the motion, glitter, and-change of the billows! Does it not come from the conviction that the ocean is loaded with secrets and mystery?
If you have never seen Burleigh Heads, do so at the first opportunity, good reader. You may travel by coach or horse to Nerang, and thence to the Heads there is, as roads go, a good highway ; or you may follow our plan and cross from Southport. Take the footpath by the pandanus trees on the first shoulder of the bluff, and walk or creep round the heads. Halt midway between the wooded summit and the boulder-bound base. It requires a little climbing to get to an advantageous point, but you will find plenty of hoary rocks for sitting-room, and will meet your reward. The white sands stretch away and away, in a southerly curve to the border of the next colony, and in a northerly curve to Nerang and Strad broke.
The southern limit gives the finest views, as that itinerant photographer, of whom I spoke in a former article, if he ever find himself in this quarter, will discover to his advantage. Ozone? Aye ; there is no stint of that here. It comes to your face in essence, and you gulp it like draughts of exhilarating wine. It steals into the veins and stirs the pulses ; verily, it is good to be here. Look out over the limitless expanse ; the keenest eye shall not find other margin than the meeting line of sea and sky. Yet it is a treacherous beauty, this restless ocean.
Now they have become green water walls twelve feet high, curling over and cresting, to descend with a new roar, stir up the sand, and leap aground with a rush that nothing can withstand.
At our feet lie massive boulders, rounded and fretted and piled in grand confusion by its power, with waifs and strays of sea and creek whereof none shall tell the history. In what forests grew, or whose hands felled and hewed, the ponderous logs cast up like straws upon the coast? Tender, tiny plants meekly fill the fissures; but by what action were those rocks squared as if by human art? There is a black mathematical cube 10 feet long and 3 feet across ; yonder is another to match it, and another, and another.
Even as we ponder, the rollers put on strength with the rising wind. Just now they burst lightly, and flowed up the sand soft as new milk. Now they have become green water walls twelve feet high, curling over and cresting, to descend with a new roar, stir up the sand, and leap aground with a rush that nothing can withstand. Certainly, good reader, if you have never visited Burleigh Heads, do so at the earliest opportunity.
We leave the place with regret, and get down mentally and literally “into the common day,” exchanging rhapsody for practical reflections as we go. Will Burleigh Heads ever be a watering place? Scarcely. A delightful marine residence it may be, when the grassy terrace opposite is adorned with houses, but the exposed beach must make boating and bathing difficult, unless indeed Tallebudgera Creek, round the southernmost face of the Heads be brought into organisation.
The tide at the mouth races out furiously in concentrated current, though higher up, the channel spreads out, and it is shallow enough to ford. Boating, however, must always be carried on with extreme caution, and the bathing must be in the creek, and not in the open sea. So let us leave Burleigh Heads, as we have left Southport, and ride away, the surf music growing more and more distant, until it is but the suspicion of a moan //