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Camping at Bribie in the 1920s

Camping at Bribie in the 1920s

In the semigloom of first light, a silhouette moves about hut number 4.  The wheezing breath identifies Dave King.  He was gassed in WWI and has spent much of his later life in Rosemount Hospital.  When they let him out, he comes to Bribie and rents one of these cottages – the locals call them the ‘Twelve Apostles’ – from the Moreton Bay Tug Company for 2/6 a week.  It’s a “Koopa” day, and Dave instinctively looks out beyond the beach and the jetty and the dark waters of the Passage across the bay to Redcliffe where the “Koopa” will call first.

Dave, a seaman of old, still splices the wire ropes for the “Koopa”.  Beer money.  There’ll be a few pots today.

Bribie is a bastion of isolation; the Passage its protective moat.  There are no bridges to connect with cities and bustle and people and the conformity of urban life.  The only timetable here belongs to the “Koopa” and her sister ships: arrive 12.30pm, depart 4.30 pm every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

It’s Saturday and Dave’s son, Eric, is here for the school holidays.  So are hundreds of campers in white tents that fill the foreshore beneath its thick mantle of trees.  With the approach of dawn, tent life stirs.  Hurricane lamps flicker silhouettes of dressing figures on the canvas.  Fires are being lit, twigs crack, people yawn, wind passes, billies boil.

Further up the Passage, beyond Dux Creek, the air reeks.  It’s the Campbell’s, Wally and Reg, preserving their nets.  They boil them in tar in a 44 gallon drum on an open fire. They’re aborigines descended from the Campbells of Dunwich.

Another aborigine from Stradbroke Island is Lottie Tripcony.  She’s Tom Welsby’s housekeeper and came with him when erosion forced him from his property at Amity.  It is said that Lottie was once married to a German named Eisler. During WWI she suspected him of spying so she had him interned.  End of marriage.

With the daylight Lottie is up and cooking breakfast for herself and Welsby, while he sits on the verandah overlooking the Passage and ponders the next chapter of his memoirs.  Welsby’s a quiet, shy bachelor who keeps to himself.  He saves his words for his books.  Later in the day Lottie plans to row up the Passage to collect Boronia flowers.  She does this for her own pleasure and not to sell them to passengers on the “Koopa” as do the other locals.

As morning progresses, the autumn chill melts.  On the beach Bribie pulses with passion: Freddie Crouch has just returned with a big haul of mullet.  He is packing them in ice for the “Koopa” to take to the Brisbane markets.   Fred, like everyone else on Bribie, depends on the “Koopa” for his livelihood.  Ned Bishop has come over from Toorbul.  He’s there every “Koopa” day with his oysters and meat, his boat tied up at the jetty waiting for his customers to arrive at noon.  He is a short plump oysterman who has a little shed just to the north of the jetty   Ned never wears shoes and has cracks on the bottom of his feet large enough ‘to put your fingers in’.  He’s been known to carry a 44 gallon drum of fuel from his half cabin cruiser up the soft sandy beach to his hut.  Not a task for the weak!

Someone has spotted the first smudge of smoke from the “Koopa”‘s funnels.  She’s left Redcliffe.  The day trippers will soon be here!  To the north of the jetty, Mrs Moyle prepares the china at her restaurant; to the south Bob Davies and his sisters lay places at their Gardens.  It’s fresh fish on every menu.

Across the island at the Ocean Beach, Bill Shirley and his drivers assemble their convoy of Tin Lizzies and set off for the “Koopa” jetty.  They’ll nab their share of customers for a hot fish dinner too.

Pumicestone Passage basks in the noon sun.  To the north, its waters are masked by fingers of mangroves prodding out into its banks of mud and sand.  Donneybrook is somewhere up there, too.  Billy Dux, the crab man, has made it his home.  He doesn’t like the fisherman coming up because they kill the muddies that get caught in their fish nets.  To a crab man, that’s just a waste.

But here comes the “Koopa”!  That speck of soot has now formed into a hull and superstructure.  People can be seen crowding the rails.  Looks like a full shipload – a thousand at least.  The jetty surges with locals.  This is their social highlight.  When the ship finally docks, passengers surge down the gangplank.  Bob Davies is there spruiking on the jetty at the top of his voice “Fresh fish dinners this way!” and Mrs Moyle rings a bell from her restaurant’s verandah.  Bill Shirley’s Tin Lizzies have now arrived and their motors idle in anticipation.  Aboard the “Koopa”, engines throb, steam hisses, passengers jostle, bells ring, whistles blow.  The trippers have found their release from the workaday world.

Soon everyone has disembarked and the crowd disperses to eat, swim, fish, or just laze on the beach and soak up the atmosphere.  Bribie obliges in all departments.

For some, the afternoon lapses into anticlimax.  They fill the emptiness with sleep.

Wally Campbell leases Clark’s oyster banks.  It’s low tide now, and his sisters, Millie and Rosie, are at the banks, chipping off oysters from the rocks with little hammers.  They load them into chaff bags and leave them on the banks for the tide to come in.  When it does they’ll bring the dinghy and load it up with the oyster bags.

It’s 2 o’clock and the water tanks are now open.  Mr Freeman, the Postmaster, is in charge of this precious commodity.  Unlike the city, there’s no reticulated water on Bribie, and drinking water is brought down on the “Koopa” then pumped into tanks at the end of the jetty.  When the taps are unlocked each day campers and locals line up with their empty kerosene tins which they fill for 2d each.

By 2.30 the sun hovers over the Passage waters which the afternoon breeze fans into a shimmering sheet.  A woman fishing on the beach throws her line into its midst while seagulls perch on the seawall and wait for results.  She watches the slow passage of time trek across the sky to leave a dazzling path across the water to Toorbul Point.  Still later, the sun touches the mountains in the distance.  Clouds have appeared, and into their pink billows the Glasshouse Mountains thrust their weird shapes.

The “Koopa” is getting up steam.  It’s whistle blows.  That’s the first sign to the passengers to get ready to embark.  It’s also a signal that the “Koopa”‘s bar is about to open.  (Its had to remain closed while in port).  There is no hotel on Bribie and the “Koopa”‘s bar run by Elsie Davis is eagerly sought by those locals who fancy a drink.  A second whistle blows and the drinkers gulp more quickly.  The passengers hurry aboard and the gangplanks are withdrawn.  Bill Shirley’s Tin Lizzies pull up at the jetty and the last of the passengers hurry aboard.  With the third whistle, the ropes are cast off and the “Koopa” is homeward bound.  The drinkers clamber off onto the jetty across the widening gap of water but one lingers in the bar too long.  He’ll come home on the next trip.

Soon the “Koopa” is once more a shrinking speck, a piece of soot on the horizon that is eventually whisked away on the cool evening breeze.  Mozzies descend with the evening and citronella mingles with the aroma of cooking fish and smoky fires.

Dave King sends his son, Eric, to the shop for sugar.  There the lad sees Wally Campbell about to leave for a few days fishing.  Wally consents to Eric’s pleas and to let him come along.  As the boat passes Dave King’s hut Eric sees his father looking out and does what any kid would do, waves.  The sugar will have to wait another four days until he returns.   So will his father’s anger.

Beneath the jetty, in the deep dark waters now left vacant by the “Koopa”‘s departure, giant Grouper lurk in mysterious caves.  Their mouths are so large they could swallow a child whole.   On the jetty, a young boy ponders the monsters lurking beneath the boards on which he stands.  He’s seen photos of Peter Rich, the “Grouper King”, and his monster catches.  The stuff of future dreams…..

Bribie Island - sunset across the Passage

Bribie Island – sunset across the Passage

Reference:Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection