Story 31 - Pandanus Park

Two Articles by Geoff Sanders

Pandanus Trip 2002

Arriving at Pandanus ParkPandanus Park, the veteran’s retreat is located on Kalpowar Station, north of Laura on Cape York Peninsular.  Kalpowar Station extends north to Princess Charlotte Bay, Bathurst Heads and Bathurst Bay.  My wife Jen, Mal Johnson (ex 104 Sigs, with whom I shared a tent back in the ‘Dat in 1969) and myself made the pilgrimage for this years’ Long Tan Service on the 18th of August at Pandanus.   

There are two routes to Deploying to Jimmy's CampPandanus, once you depart Cairns.   We chose to travel the short way up, via the Gulf Development Road up to Laura and then up into Lakefield National Park to Kalpowar Crossing.  Once you cross the Normanby River you then proceed northwards to the old Kalpowar Station, now occupied by local aboriginal stockmen.  Driving straight past the No Entry sign, you proceed along the southwestern side of the old Kalpowar Airstrip and onwards along the track until you reach the first official signage.

Proceeding through that gateway you will eventually reach the river about 15Km from the crossing, where you will find the makeshift HQ area, and from this point north, along the riverbank, all the various campsites.  Being veterans, we like our solitude, and therefore most camps, other than the obvious gatherings of various corps groups and the like, were well separated from each other, stretching some 15Km up stream. 

Mal Johnson (Left) and Geoff Sanders (Right) with the Flag Pole at Jimmy's CampBy the time we arrived on the 15th of August, the prime sites had been taken, so we crossed the river at the northern-most camp (Bill the ‘Butcher’ and his mates) and proceeded to wander onwards in the search for our own secluded campsite. See Photo for the river crossing.  Eventually we settled upon a large billabong where we established “Jimmy’s Camp”, some 7.4 Km south of the last crossing.

We set up camp and were later joined by Ian “Chips” Raferty and his wife Cath who set up camp further up our lagoon.  Chips was a platoon commander with 2 RAR 70-71.  They currently live in a utopian paradise on the Daintree, but are selling to move down here to the Sunshine Coast.  We further enjoyed their company and hospitality on the southbound leg of our trip some four weeks later. 

Dick Schafer (547 Sig Tp) MC on Long Tan DayGeoff Sanders (left) and Mal Johnson (Right) - Proud 104 Sig Sqn VeteransAt 0630 hours on the 18th of August approximately 100 veterans and many wives and family members assembled at the HQ area for our Long Tan service, MC’d by Dick Schafer.  The recently former Mayor of Cook Shire, Gary Elms was welcomed and gave a short address to the gathering both on the significance of the day and the place that he any a number of others are still working to have set aside for veterans – Pandanus Park.   Les Hiddins spoke to the same theme and then the service concluded with a wreath being laid by our traveling companion, Mal Johnson, on behalf of the WA TPI Association.  Vets from all states of Australia made the trip for this occasion and many old friendships seemed to be renewed, along with many new ones.  The service was filmed by a crew from the ABC and should be aired as part of the Australia All Over program on the 7th of October 2002.  

Les Hiddins (Left) and Mal Johnson (Right) - Long Tan DayKalpowar Station still has quite a number of cattle on it, and in Queensland, if you find a ‘Clean-Skin’ beast, (unbranded live-stock) it is still legal to kill and butcher it for your own immediate consumption.  Thus the “Hunters” went out prior to the 18th and located a suitable beast, which was then dressed by the “Butcher” who then visited all the camp sites up and down the river, delivering fresh meat to all.  On the 18th, a large pot of stew was cooked up for the post service gathering at the HQ area.  

Mal Johnson (Left) and Geoff Sanders (Right) - Pandanus Park 2002All in all, Mal, Jen and I had a really relaxing time at Pandanus and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  We would certainly encourage other veterans to make the trip with their wives and family, as there is abundant camp sites, good barra fishing, wild pigs to be hunted, if that is your particular bent, or simple peaceful solitude without screaming trail bikes and other yobbos beating up the bush in their 4WD’s.  Pandanus has no civilised features such as toilets or showers, but then, that is part of the beauty of the place.  There is plenty of drinkable water, for those unfortunate enough to run out of beer, wine or spirits prematurely… and it’s a long drive for resupplies, as the Laura Pub burnt down whilst we were up there!

Pandanus Revisited 2003

Geoff Sanders at Pandanus Park againSome of you no doubt have heard some of the negative comments about Pandanus Park following this years gathering.  It concerns me that one report in particular was written by a bloke who arrived late on 17 August 2003.  He and his mate then didn’t even bother to attend the Vietnam Veterans Day service and the dedication of the newly constructed memorial on the 18 August 2003.  Then to cap it all off, they then left early on 19 or 20 Aug 03!  Therein lies their problem… read on to understand why.

To go to Pandanus, allow yourself the better part of at least a week to get there.  You have more likely than not, already admitted to your LMO or Psych the fact that you cannot drive for extended periods of time.  Look at the map..!  Pandanus is almost as far from Brisbane as is Melbourne.  Those who think that they can still jump in their car or 4WD and drive through the night with others doing the relief driving to arrive at Pandanus in two or three days, think again!  You are no longer as fit and able as you were thirty odd years ago.  Plan to drive no more than 5-600klm per day, and you stand a very good chance of arriving there in a reasonable state of health.  I strongly recommend that you make your first overnight stop at Cockscombe Camp just north of Rockhampton.

North from Cairns, you can either take the Cape York Development Road, or the far more scenic and enjoyable trip up through the Daintree, Cape Tribulation, (great overnight camping on the beach on the northern side of the mouth of the Bloomfield River. Do not forget to stop at the Lions’ Den Pub on your left just before Helensvale. Just north of Cooktown another good overnight stop is at Endeavour Falls caravan park – your last chance for civilised facilities!  Continue towards Hopevale until you come to Battle Camp Road on your left, and then you are on the home run through Old Laura, remembering to leave all gates as you have found them. From Old Laura, it’s a short run to  Lakefield National Park, cross the concrete ford over the Normanby River and then enter Kalpower Station.

When about ¾ hour later, you finally arrive at the make-shift HQ area, look in the old webbing canvass satchel hanging on the tree and retrieve the log-book, enter your details and then set about finding yourself a suitable camp site. 

For some unknown reason, a lot of blokes last year decided to camp right beside each other – remember, there is thousands upon thousands of acres up there… why camp on top of each other and annoy others or be annoyed by the noises of their camp and more likely than not, generators.  Pandanus Straight as it was previously known was to be renamed as Generator Alley, and yes, disturbances did occur when some blokes simply disregarded the needs of others, generally those who had been there before the others moved in and camped right beside them.

Jimmy's Camp, Pandanus ParkWhen you have found your small piece of Utopia (Jimmy’s Camp is some 7km from the HQ area) take the time to set it up just as you want it.  Next chill-out for the next three or four days just by yourselves – you will slowly start to feel the peacefulness of the place seep into you, you realise that there are no phones, no TV, no newspapers – no sources of bad news to detract from your retreat.  You become relaxed, relearn how to go for walks in the scrub whilst noticing everything around you – to those who have not experienced the effect, the following will sound a bit airy-fairy – shit happens;  in this solitude you gradually start to notice that you no longer stay awake at night, nor need to sleep during the daylight hours.  You become reacquainted with seeing minute detail in everything around you, not just simply the quick scan for threats or whatever.  You hear various noises that puzzle you, as they are totally alone without the background noises of civilisation, you stop and listen, your mind questioning and reasoning once again, unlike it has done for many years of switching out the trivia of day to day existence, so that you can simply focus upon surviving.  As Jen puts it so well, you find peace once again for the first time in ages.

Two happy Diggers at Pandanus ParkOnly after you have reached this state, you then become curious to see more of the place, to see whom else has arrived. You learn that there is a general coming together of the troops mid to late afternoon for a happy hour or two, at some suitably named location such as the RAP or the Tree of Knowledge…. Think about the latter and the battle we are still having with the State Government over Pandanus…

Early on the 18th there is a really moving memorial service, in the middle of the scrub, as it should be.  When you see two to three hundred blokes come together, many with their wives or partners, simply forming a rough circle so that we can all hear the various speakers, blokes wearing bits and pieces of old uniforms, gongs once more proudly pinned to their left breast, the solemnity of the date remembered by all, blokes showing emotion quite freely, no longer being embarrassed to do so, you know that you have come to a special place.

Lone Pine being added to the Memorial at Pandanus ParkLast year also saw the establishment of a memorial, comprised of plaques from various veteran organisations, ballast stones from the Burma Railroad, rocks from all over Australia with all manner of inscriptions to the memory of mates no longer with us and even a ceramic tile that had been souvenired from the swimming pool at the Badcoe Club at Vung Tau.

When’s the best time to head up there?  For mine, it is late July, when not too many others have arrived yet.  You can pick outThe Pandanus Memorial using items brought to the site by the Veterans your camp site, make it liveable and enjoy your initial retreat into solitude.  Once you have rebalanced yourself, you then have time to go exploring, do day trips up to Jacks Lakes, or back into Lakefield National Park to see Hahn River Crossing (there’s just got to be huge fish in those water holes – they just eluded me!).  Do an overnighter up at Bathurst Heads, or cross over into Bathurst Bay, the home of some of the largest oysters on the rocks that you will ever see – although sadly last year these were largely vandalised, we suspect by commercial fishermen and pig hunters.

Well, there you go then, have I given you enough incentive to check the place out this year?

Jen has just finished production of a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, which we burn to CD with some other useful information.Geoff and Jen Leaving but will be back  - Note the 104 Sig Sqn Tac Signs

 It is available simply for the asking - Email address below!

For further info try:

Pandanus Park Website


Geoff Sanders
104 Sig Sqn, Nui Dat, 68-69

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