Paradise lost - Griffith Review
Reportage

Paradise lost

The Cedar Bay raid

IT’S MAY, THE end of the wet season in Far North Queensland, and storm clouds brew ominously to the north. We’ve already driven for three hours from Mossman, including an hour along the four-wheel-drive-only Bloomfield Track, to Home Rule, south of Cooktown, where we are about to embark on a three-day walk to an isolated tropical beach: Cedar Bay.

My companion Greg is a National Parks ranger and is here to assess the track for the upcoming dry season. My motives for the walk are different: I’m seeking out a story. Cedar Bay has a reputation, and I want to see the place for myself. In August 1976, during the era of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Queensland Police Force launched a raid on the isolated hippie community living there. The bungled raid has become part of the local folklore.

As I begin to document some of the history of Far North Queensland, Cedar Bay keeps getting a mention. I become obsessed with tales of the hippies who lived there, the larger-than-life characters who strolled through rainforests and lived on the beaches and, of course, the raid. Cedar Bay begins to develop a mythic status in my mind. When Greg told me he was walking in, I jumped at the chance to join him.

In the early afternoon, we set off towards Mangkalba (Cedar Bay), Ngalba Bulal National Park, part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The walk starts along an old logging trail and enters the rainforest at a steady incline. After walking for a couple of hours we camp by Slaty Creek. Wind howls through the trees all night, but the rain stays away.

The next morning the walking becomes tougher. After a six-month wet season the track has become wildly overgrown. Vines hang from the forest canopy, saplings sprout from the ground and the track disappears into a sea of green. Greg forges ahead and slashes through clumps of wait-a-while with a machete. The wait-a-while grows aggressively where trees have fallen or paths have been made. Tough barbs, centimetres long, cover its thick stems, which grow into dense, impenetrable clumps. In places the track is obstructed by fallen trees, and we have to hack a path around while trying to avoid getting caught in the barbs and search for the trail on the other side of the log.

After six hours of battling the rainforest, crossing swollen creeks and sweating in the humid air, we start to descend and through the trees we catch glimpses of the ocean. We walk down a series of switchback trails for two more hours, cross a creek and finally emerge from the track at the northern end of the bay.

It’s immediately apparent why the hippies of the 1970s warmed to Cedar Bay. For a few kilometres to the south, coconut palms line the beach that sweeps around in a perfect crescent of golden sand. A lush green blanket of foliage folds across the valleys and ridges of the Great Dividing Range that is the backdrop to the bay. At the southern point, the rainforest-clad range stretches down to kiss the Coral Sea. Crystal-clear streams flow down from the mountains. Coral reefs lie just offshore, loaded with fish, rays and crayfish. It turned out that Cedar Bay had most of what the adventurous, young people needed to survive. It was remote, isolated and stunningly beautiful.

 

THE FIRST HIPPIES to live in Cedar Bay arrived in July 1972. They’d been living in Kuranda, a small rural town half an hour up the range from Cairns that had become Australia’s hippie capital. They had found a refuge of sorts on the mountain, but they had also settled in the heartland of conservative Queensland with Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party firming its grip on power in the state, and the situation soon changed. The local authorities, the police and some rowdy locals began to harass their commune.

They needed a new home. They found it at Cedar Bay: 200 kilometres north of Cairns and fifty kilometres south of Cooktown. The only way in was to walk through the rainforest on what were then little explored routes, or by boat.

The only inhabitant of Cedar Bay was an old hermit, Bill Evans, who had lived at the northern end of the beach on a Tin Miner’s Homestead Lease since the 1930s. When the newcomers arrived, they walked up the beach and found Bill sitting on his favourite log. While a few of the men sat down and had a chat with him, a couple of women in the group walked up the beach without any clothes on. For forty years Bill Evans had lived alone, and at that moment he decided that he didn’t want to be a hermit anymore. He became the hippies’ mentor, teaching those who wanted to learn about the seasons, what to plant when, and how to survive without the conveniences they had left behind. He came to be known as Cedar Bay Bill.

For those who lived at Cedar Bay in the 1970s, it was not just the beauty and isolation that was inviting, it was opportunity to create a new way of living. They turned their backs on the comfortable, consumer-driven society that had permeated Australia after the Second World War. Ideas of free love and peace resonated with a generation that was prepared to question the status quo, speak out against the war in Vietnam and search for their own meaning. At Cedar Bay they could live by their own values, mores and standards, and while the majority of the people there had the same good intentions and similar ethos, it worked.

Those that stayed built more extravagant houses with ocean views. Some were built with salvaged building material they brought in on boats. They grew their own food, had an endless supply of coconuts and cooked in communal kitchens. They gave birth to their babies and raised families there. They held new-moon parties, full-moon parties, smoked plenty of pot and had other things to imbibe on occasion. And they could make the trek out to the shop at Bloomfield when they needed supplies of tobacco, grains and other staples.

Over the coming years, an assortment of people moved to the bay and lived in various small camps along the beach. As well as the idealistic early hippies, a few of whom had been there from the start, there were some pig hunters who lived at the northern end, near where old Bill had his place and lived legally on his lease. They were truck drivers, tradesmen and people with minor criminal records who had their own reasons for hiding out there. The different camps had different outlooks, but lived mostly harmoniously. It was hard not to: they had found paradise.

Greg and I camp at the northern end of the bay in a small grove that should offer a little protection if it rains, and not far from where the old hermit is buried. I wake in the morning to find the sun stealing through clouds in reds and oranges as it rises over the Coral Sea. We pack up camp, put on our packs and start the four-kilometre walk down the beach. It’s a stunning start to the day. The clouds disperse into little flecks scattered across the sky. Tree trunks of driftwood lie on the beach like sculptures in an outdoor gallery. Our footprints are the only ones in the sand and I have a sense of discovery: though the Cedar Bay story is well known in the far north, not a lot of people I speak to have actually been here.

It’s difficult to comprehend that a major police operation took place here. With the ocean to the left and the mountains to the right, the sun on my skin, the taste of salt in the air and the sea breeze sailing through my hair, the sense of serenity is almost overwhelming.

The scene was very different on 29 August 1976.

 

IN THE SAME way that I heard about Cedar Bay from many of the people I met while doing my research, Police Inspector Bob Gray heard about Cedar Bay from the dealers and petty criminals he began accosting on the streets of Cairns. He arrived as chief of the Cairns bureau in June 1976. Shocked by the slovenly hippies he encountered on the main street and the cloud of marijuana smoke that seemed to engulf the town, Gray set about cleaning the place up. He was particularly incensed by the escape from the Cairns Watch House of drug trafficker Bernard Wilton, who was wanted by Interpol. Wilton had been arrested while trying to arrange the distribution of a large import of marijuana. He escaped with the help of a local hippie he’d met in the Watch House.

Inspector Gray seemed convinced that Wilton was hiding out at Cedar Bay with his stash. He assembled an impressive cast for the raid and planned a military-style assault on the bay. Along with more than thirty police officers – including policewomen and two Indigenous trackers, narcotics and customs agents – a helicopter, light aircraft, customs launch and navy patrol vessel joined the raid. He warned them that they were entering dangerous, hostile territory.

The raid was a complete fiasco from the get-go. The police Cessna couldn’t land on the beach, so Inspector Gray flew on to Cooktown and came back down the coast by helicopter. The Navy patrol vessel, the Bayonet, had been waiting off the coast to apprehend any suspect boats that made a run for it. But the only things running were the prawns: all the boats that were detected on the radar were legitimate fishing vessels from Port Douglas and Cooktown, so the Bayonet left. The police officers who had walked in at the southern end had been picked up off the rocks and ferried to the beach by the customs vessel the Jabiru, and arrived at the beach filthy, tired and wet. The team walking in at the northern end of the bay, along the Home Rule track, were nowhere to be seen (they were lost in the rainforest). Two hours behind schedule, any element of surprise had been lost.

For the residents, the first sign that something was amiss came with the sound of a helicopter circling overhead. That was followed by a low-flying Cessna doing laps of the beach. Those who went to investigate saw the Jabiru at the southern end of the bay. One of the young women went to warn the others at the northern end.

‘We’ve got visitors,’ she said. ‘They’re cops.’

When he finally got to the beach, Gray mustered the half-dozen officers who were there and commenced a search. He walked along a track that took him to some of the huts. The hapless residents watched on as it became humorous. They told Gray that if he told them what it was he was looking for, perhaps they could help. Gray broke a ladder while climbing into one of the huts and his irritation grew. As they searched the various camps along the bay, Gray’s officers began rounding up residents, taking them to a clearing near the beach where they were detained without charge.

An hour into the search, all the police had found was a small jar of seeds and a half-dozen marijuana plants, each about one metre high. There was no sign of Wilton or his dope.

For the residents, the farce quickly turned serious. For hours they were held and taunted while police went from hut to hut, garden to garden, looking for evidence and destroying things as they went.

From the beach the residents could see flames coming from the trees near their huts. One woman asked if she could retrieve a jumper from her hut and when she got there she discovered it in flames. She ran into the kitchen where her belongings were stacked by the wall and on fire. Clothes, blankets and other possessions were scattered about the floor burning. Others lost guitars, clothes, drums and the few possessions they owned. Damaged items included a trunk containing clothes, nappies and other clothing for the six-month-old baby who lived there with her parents. Tins of food and powdered milk were cut open with knives and tipped onto the floor. In the orchard, fruit trees were chopped down and vegetable gardens destroyed. Police officers stood by laughing while those who hadn’t been apprehended tried to salvage what they could from the flames.

Cedar Bay Bill thought World War Three had descended.

The police found some usual suspects to take the rap for the seeds and plants, and others were charged with vagrancy. While there was no sign of the escapee Wilton, the young hippie who helped him escape from the Cairns Watch House ignored the advice of the Cooktown sergeant and went to investigate the raid. He was picked up in the melee and arrested. The residents who were arrested on the drug offences were handcuffed to trees, while the others were tied up with rope that was found on the beach.

 

THE RESIDENTS WHO were arrested were taken to Cooktown – some in the police helicopter and others by boat – to face court. The appointed official was away so a local clerk took on the role of judge, and was guided by the police in how to proceed.

All the activity around the courthouse and police station raised the curiosity of the locals. As the story got out about the mistreatment of the Cedar Bay residents, many became sympathetic to their plight. An unlikely chain of events then led to the story breaking. A couple of locals made a quick dash back to Cedar Bay and took some photos of the damage that had been done to the residents’ possessions and huts. They passed the photos on to some Labor Party representatives who were in Cooktown at the time, and the story, with photos, was picked up by the Sunday Sun after the mainstream news outlets declined to run it. It was then followed up by University of Queensland radio station 4ZZZ and finally received national coverage with current affairs show This Day Tonight. A young Andrew Olle travelled to Cedar Bay to film the story, while a young lawyer representing the residents, Terry O’Gorman (who later became a well-known civil rights advocate), interviewed the residents in his underpants to make them feel more comfortable.

After the raid, the residents of Cedar Bay were left to pick up the pieces. Their houses lay smouldering, their belongings ruined, their fruit trees chopped down and their vegetable gardens destroyed. Turns out their rights had been violated as well.

The raid was a disaster for the police and Inspector Gray. There was no big drug score and the escapee Wilton had not been hiding out in the bay. Over the coming months the story dominated the press in Queensland. The public began to side with the residents and asked questions of a government that was already seen as heavy-handed in administering justice to those on the fringes of society. It was found that the initial trials in Cooktown were invalid, as the presiding official lacked the authority to issue the sentences. The charges against the residents were dropped (though some were reinstated by a valid court), and those who could had paid their fines already.

Politically, the timing of the raid was remarkable. Policing in Queensland was already a charged environment. It was seven years into the reign of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, during which time he generally had the Queensland Police Force do his bidding. He had shown his intentions with policing early in his premiership, issuing an unprecedented state of emergency during the Springbok rugby tour in 1971.

Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod had spent the previous six years trying to raise standards and accountability within the force. He was struggling after a string of clashes with the government and the premier, and had a fraught relationship with the Police Union. In July 1976, one month before the Cedar Bay raid, a young woman was struck with a baton by a police officer during a protest march in Brisbane. The incident was broadcast by a television news crew and a shocked public wanted answers. Whitrod ordered an investigation into the assault but the premier opposed it, deepening the rift between the pair.

Over Cedar Bay, Whitrod again defied the premier and ordered an investigation. The photos that had been quickly taken and passed on to the press became evidence.

On 15 November 1976, Whitrod resigned, agreeing with a journalist that there were signs that Queensland was becoming a ‘police state’ and that the role of police commissioner had become that of a political puppet. His replacement was Terry Lewis, who spent close to eleven years as police commissioner, later spending the same amount of time in prison on corruption and forgery convictions. To say this was something of a tipping point in the history of the state would be an understatement.

 

THE INTERNAL INVESTIGATION that Whitrod ordered found the police officers had acted improperly. It also emerged that their original statements about what happened during the raid had been changed, tainted by corroboration and input from senior officers. Four officers, including Inspector Gray, were charged with wilful damage. Only Gray went to trial, where he was found not guilty. During the course of the trial the hippies were vilified by Gray’s legal team and witnesses intimidated by local cops. One couple who were set to give evidence were extradited to Western Australia on minor charges. Gray would deny any wrongdoing and many of the allegations that the residents made against him, claiming that the dwellings were unsafe and conditions unhygienic, and any actions he took were for the welfare of those who lived there.

The premier and his ministers avoided any serious ramifications. They defended the police actions on their law-and-order platform. The residents of Cedar Bay were drug addicts and vagrants and the police were protecting Queenslanders from the scourge of drugs.

Following the raid, Cedar Bay gained a notorious reputation. Unsavoury individuals entered the community who abused the freedom and took advantage of the situation. Henry Addison, who had been tending the gardens for a decade, described a terrifying end to his years at Cedar Bay. While his partner and baby were swimming in the sea with a group of children, a man wanted for murder peppered the water around them with bullets from a high-powered rifle. His partner threw herself over the children to protect them. No one was hurt, but it signalled the end. ‘We just packed our stuff and left that day. It was creepy to be in paradise,’ Henry recalls. ‘The dream was over.’

In 1984, Cedar Bay Bill’s health deteriorated and he was moved to a Cairns nursing home. The Queensland Government took the opportunity to evict the remaining residents; the last few hippies were chased away and their houses were destroyed. But its past held a certain allure for people interested in the hippies and those wanting to get away from it all. People camped there for months at a time or until National Parks rangers came along and moved them on. It became something of a mecca for people who had heard about the community and the raid. People like me.

Greg and I leave the bay by a little-used route from the southern end of the beach. We walk inland from Centre Garden, where the hippies grew much of their food, cross a creek at Fig Tree Junction, and set off into a hot, still valley. We scramble up a steep, rocky bank through heavy air that sucks the energy out of us, climbing to a height of 500 metres. After four hours of walking, Gap Creek is pure joy to the weary hiker. We plunge in and soothe our aching bodies.

On the drive home, we trade stories that we have gathered from our travels in the far north. It can be difficult to determine fact from fiction about many of the things you hear around these parts. There is still something of a frontier feel to the place, and it’s ripe for myth and legend to grow.

As I leave the bay behind, the tales of hippies and outlaws follow me.

Griffith Review