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Experience

Stan Bell's Impression of Lady Musgrave Island after an absence of 45 1/2 years

It was in the early weeks of January, 1942, that we withdrew from Lady Musgrave Island, after being informed by local police that "The Authorities" felt it was too dangerous for us to remain so isolated now that Japan had entered the War (World War II) on the side of our enemies, the Axis Powers controlled by Hitler and Mussolini.

We had loaded all our moveable equipment, including two Electro lux kerosene burning refrigerators, on to the "Sapphire" in 'moving house'. We had to leave behind five cabins and the 'Main Building' - a large hall used as a dining and recreation room, with its canteen section, and kitchen area at the back. in the kitchen was a large wood-burning range, table, sinks, etc.

Outside of this main building, at the back and adjacent to it was a 3,OOO gallon tank standing on a sheet of malthoid (to stop rusting) which was laid over a cement slab. Today, this slab is the only thing remaining. Some twenty yards away, to the south-east of this cement slab, stood "The Old Tin Shed" (as we called it) erected in the first weeks of 1931 by a handful , of men which included Mr. Jack Theodore of Bundaberg. It was built of corrugated sheets of "Gospel Oak" galvanised iron on a wooden frame. Eleven years later, when we left Lady Musgrave Island, this iron was as good as the day it was placed in position. Had all buildings remained in position till now, the roof of the main building would have been rusted away but "The Old Tin Shed" would still be standing intact - most probably still no sign of rust. That was "Gospel Oak" , iron Jack Theodore incidentally had a hand in the building of the first fishing/tourist craft to work Lady Musgrave island as a tourist attraction - the "Bareto" (Barrier Reef Tourists) - built for Sam McCracken, tobacconist; Stan Mahoney, butcher, and George Arnold, saddler, all of Bourbong Street, Bundaberg. Jack, in his capacity of licensed plumber, lined the big icebox which was part of this vessel. The "Old Tin Shed" had an adjacent 1,OOO gallon tank.

All that we left behind was later filched by boats from Gladstone, the buildings being taken apart piece by piece. By the time we all settled down after World War ii, the only thing they had left us was the cement slab - the tank stand. This is still plainly seen today and marks the position of the buildings to those of us who lived in those times. Let me pause a moment to explain the "we" I have used consistently above. There was Dorothy, my young wife and our first child, Ian; my father, Walter John Bell, who is today credited by the Gympie Historical Society as being one of the handful of men who saved Gympie from becoming a "ghost town" after the gold got too deep for working at the then price of about 3 an ounce; myself and our staff. Kep Hansen who helped us greatly in the days between August, 194O, and 1941 had already left to join the U.S. Army fleet of supply ships with my blessing.

Jim Riley, the Captain of the "Sapphire", his young brother Cecil (Ces), and a young man named Verne Jennings had also gone to seek more fruitful pastures since, once France collapsed in June, 194O, the tourist business was as good as finished for that period. Jim, Ces and Verne on "Swordfish II" were blown sky-high by a floating mine years later.

And now, after 45 1/2 years, both my wife, Dorothy, and I have re-visited Lady Musgrave island as the guests of Mr. Graeme Stielow, Captain Christiansen and the staff of the "Lady Musgrave", ably assisted by Tony and Kathy Tubbenhauer. We went individually, some weeks apart, but our reactions were identical - royalty could no have been treated better. After her trip, Dorothy wrote to me saying, "Now I have been Queen for a day". After my trip yesterday, as the guest of Graeme and cared for by Kathy my every need including information of happenings since my day, I know exactly what Dorothy meant. But I was even happier to see the care and attention the whole crew of the "Lady Musgrave" - I can think of them only as a closely-knit family - gave to their paying customers.

As I told Graeme afterwards, it was a joy to me to see this service which I started nearly fifty years ago being so ably carried on by him and his staff and with such superlative equipment.

And now my impressions of the island today as compared with what it was like 45/5O years ago. The main change has been effected by the removal of the goats. in our day they ate all grass and low growth. Except on very odd occasions, and then only for a short time, there was no water for them. They had to live on the juices in the grass and leaves. I have seen them on more than one occasion standing belly-deep in the water in the lagoon near sunset but whether they ever drank the salt water, I know not. Now they have gone, the Pisonia trees have sprung up over a large part of the island and have grown very tall. The Noddy Terns, who have made Lady Musgrave island their home for centuries and who previously nested in the wild fig trees, many of their nests only shoulder high, now have their nests in the tall Pisonia. When I first went to the island at Christmas 1935 the Noddies hardly knew what a human being was. We could stroke them as they sat on , their nests. My impression then was "this is another world". Today they are much more scared of man - probably because of the greater number that "invade" their kingdom.

Strangely, you have some newcomers to me now living there - oyster catchers! They were not there in our time. The pair we saw yesterday had one fluffy little chick in a hollow in a fallen tree trunk and didn't they complain long and loud when we approached it. Kathy tells me there are also other inhabitants strange to me - Tropic Birds. We didn't see any yesterday but i know what they are like - striking and beautiful.

 Another thing that surprised me was the lone pair of Sea Eagles. Such a lone pair was there in our time. What has happened to the 'originals' and most of their offspring'? Apparently they feel the territory is just right for one pair - the dominant pair - and the others are sent off to find areas of their own.

The mutton birds were nowhere to be seen yesterday (22nd October) but just wait two days. They arrive from their long migration to Siberia every year on the 24th October. What they do in Siberia I just wouldn't know but they and the little Sandpipers we saw yesterday on Musgrave, who annually do the same double migration, must either be VIP's in that country or have a cunning way of dodging the KGB, So much for the bird life" With the removal of our buildings, the turtles have some more ground to burrow when "nesting" and have certainly "altered the landscape". Likewise Old Father Time - or was it Neptune - has taken away our Weighing Station and left but part of one post standing.

Apart from these changes the main physical change is the removal of the coral sand from the beach on the lagoon side and its depositing on the north-west corner of the island. I estimate there is at least three or four times the quantity of coral sand now forming this part of the island as there was when we lived there.

A minor change is that a channel which we commenced late in our stay there but abandoned when the explosive we used would not fracture large portions of coral but blew upwards with little effect, now seems deeper than when we made it. I had intended to closely inspect this yesterday but was so interested in what Kathy was telling me that I allowed us to walk past that area without seeing it. I have a photo which shows it far more marked than i expected. So this check will have to wait for the future.

The fact that an island can change like this is very interesting to me. No-one could say that the changes are for the better or otherwise. in fact, as the years go by more changes will take place. Probably it was a violent cyclonic blow occurring at spring tides that threw so much seawater against the otherwise sheltered beach on the lagoon side that washed the coral sand from there and piled it up on the opposite side (almost) of the island. Likewise another such blow could wipe out many of the Pisonia's (and hundreds of Noddies with them - as occurred at Christmas 1935 while we were there) making it necessary for the Noddies to use the fig trees again. It is obviously a changing world at Musgrave and in another fifty years some of you young people who know the island well as it is today will be called upon to write another account which will be compared with this.

 Finally, on a lighter note, the only mistake Matthew Flinders made when he placed goats on this and many other islands was in not leaving instructions as to how poor shipwrecked sailors were to catch them for urgently needed food. Mr. Vanderbilt, when he was there, searched for them and then was convinced none were on the island, I had to go ashore and shoot one to convince him otherwise. I assure you he was well fed.

Stan Bell  23rd October 1985

 
 
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