Portland Roads is a secluded spot on the north-east cape of Australia. It occupies a beachfront location and has a small cove, which is bordered by mangroves and lined with coconut trees and beach almonds. The landscape of today reveals little of the township’s rich, colonial history. The town takes its name from the Portland Roads Harbour, which in turn was named after William Henry Cavendish, Duke of Portland, a benefactor of early Australian explorers. The name first appears as a safe anchorage on an 1897 chart by the British Admiralty. James Cook sailed by in the 1770s and the nearby Restoration Island was a refuge for Lieutenant William Bligh, following the Bounty mutiny in 1789. Edmund Kennedy passed through in 1848, as a part of his last fatal expedition. More recently, between 1942-1943 over 7,000 American and Australian military personnel came ashore to establish a fallback position during World War II. A brief overview of some key periods are outlined on this website, providing an online record of historical site Portland Roads.
Captain James Cook sailed past what is now Portland Roads on his voyage of discovery in 1770. After having repaired his vessel at the Endeavour River (Cooktown), he continued exploring north. He sailed back inside the Great Barrier Reef through the Providential Channel just to the south/east of here. It was so named by him as it saved the Endeavour from once again running into the reef! Once inside the reef again, he named Cape Direction located south of the now Lockhart River community, and Cape Weymouth between Chili Beach and Portland Roads as he continued on.
After the mutiny on the Bounty, Lieutenant William Bligh was forced to set off on his 3,500 nautical mile voyage from Tofua (Tonga) to Timor in the ship’s 23 feet open launch. With 18 loyal crewmen, Bligh armed with navigation knowledge gained from serving with Captain Cook, navigated the open launch west across the stormy Pacific coming through the Great Barrier Reef just south of where Cook had re-entered 19 years earlier. Bligh named Restoration Island ” … by reason of fact that he and his crew were restored by the generous stew of oysters and palm tops after their hazardous voyage”.Read More
Surveyor Edmund Kennedy also passed through in 1848. By the time he arrived here, his expedition was in desperate trouble and running out of supplies. Kennedy left eight members of his team at Weymouth Bay near the Pascoe River. He pushed on hoping to meet the vessel HMS Ariel, but was fatally speared on route. His Aborigine Guide Jackey-Jackey was the sole survivor of the advance party and reached the waiting ship Ariel, which then rescued survivors Carron and Goodard from Weymouth Bay on 30 December 1848. There is a memorial on-site at Portland Roads which was unveiled in 1948 (pictured).
Fastrack to the early 1920s and Europeans were back in the area in larger numbers, this time with gold fever. More than 100 hardy miners joined a gold rush to the nearby Batavia (Wenlock) Goldfields. In 1934, Jack Gordon prospecting near the ‘little’ Claudie River headwaters in Iron Range, discovered a large seam of gold at the later named Gordon Creek in the middle of the now National Park. The mines were very successful. The Queensland Government Mining Journals reported a yield of 2005 ounces of Gold in the two years prior to WW2, and a total of 6,530 ounces before their closure in 1956. Cast-iron mining equipment still lies in the rainforest behind the Gordon Creek camping ground.
The gold rush put the Iron Range area on the map, with Portland Roads as the staging point for miners and equipment going to the Batavia, Gordon Creek and Packers Creek mines for about 30 years. Getting materials and stores to the mines was always an ordeal. Having come up from down south by ship, transferred onto small ‘lighters’ to be brought ashore, it was then hauled by wagons into the rainforest and on to the mines. The double handling of heavy mining equipment from ship, to lighter, then to be finally manhandled ashore, eventually led to the construction of the Portland Roads Jetty. The timber jetty designed and pre-cut in Cairns was completed in 1938.
In the 1930s the Department of Public Lands Land Administration Board, was tasked to survey this part of Cape York Peninsula. It was in response to an application made by the Lloyd Bay Development Company, for the granting of a special lease over an area of about 1,000 square miles between the Main Range and the coast. The survey was conducted by Land Ranger Chas H Goodwin, who prepared the very first detailed and hand-drawn survey map of Cape York Peninsula.
Land Ranger Goodwin lived in Cairns. He departed on 4 May 1932 aboard the S.S Wandana, heading to Portland Roads, where he was met with pack horses and supplies. The inspection was carried out on horseback. The survey took two years to complete, during which time Land Ranger Goodwin and his support team needed to be mostly self-sufficient. A copy of his original list of provisions and notes taken during the survey, are available for viewing during a visit to the Out of the Blue café at Portland Roads.
As a part of the war effort to defend Northern Australia during WWII, allied forces deployed to Iron Range in 1942-1943. The recently completed jetty at Portland Roads was improved, allowing American Military Liberty Ships to tie up and unload vital supplies and fuel for transfer by truck, to the three airfields hastily constructed inland at Iron Range (Lockhart River).
To protect this naval port, fortifications and armaments were installed on the hill overlooking the Portland Roads harbour. Although Japanese submarines operated up and down the channel inside the reef and sank many of the supply vessels, this port and sea rescue base was never attacked. The “Roads” played a key role in keeping supplies up to the medium and heavy bomber groups that operated out of Iron Range, delivering strikes on Japanese installations at Rabaul, a turning point in World War II.Read More
It was a busy time in the Portland Roads history with thousands of American and Australian troops passing through the port. Eventually, as the front line pushed further north, the Allied Air Force moved into New Guinea, with Iron Range and Portland Roads used as transit bases. One of the bomber strips in the Iron Range complex, the Gordon Strip, continued as an airport for the Lockhart River community and Iron Range. More images of Portland Roads’ activity during World War II are on this site and a book documenting this era is available for sale at the Out of the Blue Café and the Lockhart River Airport.
After the complete civilian evacuation of Cape York during World War II, it was years before people started venturing back into this remote region. From 1948 until 1951, Vic Penny was the only permanent resident living at Portland Roads.
Vic Penny worked part-time for the Main Roads Department and was allocated an early model Caterpillar dozer to ‘open’ this end of the road between Portland Roads and Coen each year. He joined the Fishers from the revitalized Wenlock Gold Fields to work on the construction of a bridge across Garraway Creek on Portland Roads Road to the west of Mt Tozer. Unfortunately, due to ongoing high maintenance costs, the bridge was later abandoned, but the beautiful stonework can still be seen today just off to the side of the current crossing, and is a reminder of the first major step in upgrading our road after World War II.Read More
As Harbour Master, he received five pounds a year to ‘light and hang’ the jetty navigation lights, tie-up ships when they berthed, and perform minor jetty maintenance. He helped organize the second expedition down to Button Button (near ‘Old Site’). The purpose of this expedition was to reopen the very first mining lease recorded in our area (Refer to Land Ranger Goodwin’s survey map).
He stayed here for just three years but effectively kick-started the regeneration of Portland Roads, post-World War II. Vic’s collection of images from 70 years ago captures a time in Portland Roads history that is barely recognisable when compared to what we see and experience today.
Increasingly, Commercial Prawn Trawlers and Line Boats ventured further north from Cairns seeking out new fishing grounds. During the prawn season, and at their peak, over 300 commercial prawn trawlers worked north of Cairns every year. “The Roads” became home away from home for many of these boats. Whether you worked on a boat or lived onshore, meeting the Mothership to get your supplies on its scheduled stop out front, was the big day of any week.
Motherships were the supply/support vessels for the fishing fleet trading up and down the east coast of the Cape and Torres Straits fortnightly. The commercial fishing fleet unloaded frozen product for southern markets, took on fuel and water, and picked up stores the ship had bought up on request from Cairns. Most importantly, for crew and ferals alike, the licenced motherships sold alcohol, cigarettes and chocolate. The commercial boats often worked away from their base for months on end, so for the hard-working crew it was their chance to relax, go ashore and unwind. Onshore three part-time Taxi operators offered a licensed transfer service to the Lockhart River Community for medical treatment through RFDS, or to pick up spare parts or relief crew flown in from Cairns.Read More
In the early 1980s the ‘hippys and ferals’ settled in the area. They had migrated from down south. Starting at Nimbin they moved north to Kuranda, then Cow Bay and finally Chili Beach. They took over the existing 30 year special lease – Idlewild Ranch, SP 28790 – first issued on 1 July 1964 and initially covered 2,560 acres of ocean frontage land. While work and subsistence living was a part of life for these new residents, for some it was at a slower pace; some said idealic. With the large number of prawn trawlers and commercial fishing boats frequently anchored out front, this was pretty much a laid back, party era for the residents at Portland Roads. In addition to the 10-15 permanent residents living here, the numbers swelled when the ‘hippys’ and fisherfolk combined for a barbie, a few stubbies, and lots of home brew on the beach or at the ‘point’. Despite their lifestyle differences, there was a real sense of community. Every week there would be a day-long party going on somewhere. Fondly remembered Market Days were carnival, with a lot of the Lockhart River mob coming out to join the fun as well. Impromptu guitar playing, poetry, singing and cultural dancing were always a hoot!
The increase in permanent residents lead to improved roads and infrastructure, which was to the long-term benefit of Portland Roads and Iron Range. The town finally got the phone on in 1993 when Telstra installed a telephone exchange at Portland Roads, running land lines to all the properties. For the first time, locals could call and talk to family and friends down south. Quaint now, but a Public Phone Box was installed on the esplanade much to the delight of the fishers anchored up out front; they would row ashore keen to line up and wait there turn to call home.
The early 1990s saw four local residents take on commercial trolling for Spanish Mackerel working out of ‘the Roads’ in their own small 10-meter boats. The babies of the commercial fleet in the north, these boats were normally operated singlehanded, had few luxuries and limited capacity for storing large quantities of frozen product. Yet these boats proved ideal for working the local mackerel grounds, and if the weather got bad, home wasn’t too far away to anchor up, and wait for the next mothership to unload the catch. Then wait for the next break in the weather to head back out again.
In 1994, the Idlewild lease expired, and much to the consternation of the many people who lived there, it was not renewed. The property was returned to the state government as ‘unallocated State Land’. It was the beginning of the end of a very vibrant period. The parties, the relationships are still remembered with fondness and always with a smile.
The new Millennium signaled a change in course for this tiny community and the surrounding Iron Range locality. By 2000, most of the hippies and ferals on Idlewild had moved on, and over the next few years those who were still squatting there, were forced to leave by court order. The year 2000 also heralded in the first of a series of major reviews of the Commercial Fishing Catches in Queensland, to ensure sustainable fishing practices were put in place. While this was needed and long overdue, the new Zoning regulations combined with the ever-increasing costs of working remotely saw the large numbers of boats previously working around Portland Roads rarely venture north of Princess Charlotte Bay. Sadly, very few boats come in and anchor up today.
Raised on a cane farm near Mackay, Greg Westcott worked in Brisbane for 25 years at Telstra before deciding to pursue his passion and love of fishing. While accumulating his two years sea time on a trawler as a prerequisite to becoming a commercial fisher, he came ashore and fell in love with the place. He’s been here ever since. In 1994 Greg purchased a shoreside property at Portland Roads to commence a commercial fishing venture with a specially built boat designed for fishing locally off Portland Roads while being home based.Read More
A self-described ‘mackerel man’, Greg committed the next 11 years to studying and learning all he could about Spanish Mackerel. He followed their movements from the outside to inside reefs along 100 nautical miles of the local coast line, always noting the pathways of their local migrations each year. Despite being a fisherman, Greg has a strong empathy with nature and endeavours to have a light touch on the environment and surrounds. He provided key information to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to assist with appropriate marine park zoning to protect the far northern reef and its fisheries. This proved the end of his commercial fishing days. Greg sold his license back to the Fisheries Department in 2005. For Greg, life at Portland Roads is all about operating businesses in paradise. So, from catching the fish, he transitioned to cooking the fish at his owner/builder café Portland Roads Out of the Blue. A successful venture, he and partner Sheree still operate today, along with Portland House. He also instigated this website.
Following the Mabo decision in 1992, the Native Title Decision for the local Kuuku Ya’u people was formally declared in 2011 thus providing closure to a long struggle over land rights when the court acknowledged the Kuuku Ya’u people’s continued association with their country. The determination recognised that the National Park is owned by the Kuuku Ya’u people (through CYPAL) and jointly managed with Queensland Government’s National Parks. The former Idlewild lease is now Kuuku Ya’u Aboriginal Freehold land for their exclusive use. The granting of the determination gave the Kuuku Ya’u people the opportunity to live on country and embrace their land. Today we share cultural and colonial lifestyles with an exciting economic future in Tourism and Hospitality.
© Portland Roads 2021 / This website was funded in part by the Cook Shire Council’s Economic Resiliency Investment Initiative.