HISTORY / Boating on the Daintree River


For centuries, the Daintree River has been the main transport route for the Douglas Shire and wider region.

The Indigenous Kuku Yalanji people lived in small kinship groups of eight to 12, spread along the banks of the river and creeks between Bloomfield and Mossman. They know this area as Julaymba.

In 1873, Scottish explorer George Dalrymple, sailed up the coast searching for a suitable route to the inland Palmer River goldfields. He named the river for Richard Daintree, the Government Geologist, who was by then, Queensland’s Agent General in London, and had never visited the Daintree.

Dalrymple sent glowing reports of rich stands of cedar and soon timber-getters were sailing into the Daintree River, because cedar was needed for the building of Cooktown.

The logs were dragged by bullock teams to the gullies to wait for floods, then chained together into rafts and floated to the riverhead to be loaded onto small coaster ships. In 1876, the 30 ton wooden sailing ketch Violet carried 25,000 square feet of cedar to importer, Mr R F Hanran, in Townsville.

In 1886, the township of Whitby was surveyed by Charles Gardiner near the mouth of the river and named after the port in England where Lieutenant James Cook was born. Whitby was being used by the coastal timber ships. By 1888 timber operations had ceased. All the accessible timber had been taken and Whitby was never developed.

In 1878, John Whitehead Stewart (Steuart), a timber-getter and cane farmer from the Bundaberg district, applied for a selection on the Daintree River. So began European settlement. His brothers Gavin and Archie soon followed. They grew tropical fruit.

A weekly boat mail service began operating in 1881, between Port Douglas and the Daintree River, over 29 miles.

The vessels were sailing ships, relying on the strength of the wind. In those days, if you were ‘humbugging’ you were just messing around, so Humbug Reach got its name because sailors had to wait for the tide to come in to push them up-river towards the village. The surrounding mountains stop the wind.

The Daintree River floods almost yearly, but the most tragic occurred in April 1895 with the loss of six lives out of a population of 40.

A record flood was recorded on Australia Day 2019, with a massive river height of 12.6m. The southern road to the ferry was impassable.

In the early 1900s, Frank Osbornes’ sons made their living timber cutting and running Mahoney’s ketch “Batton Bell” to Port Douglas, Low Isles and Mossman, selling homestead produce and mangrove firewood.

Fortunes for Daintree improved when in 1924 a butter factory and sawmill were built by Daintree Development Company, formed by Lucas Hughes and Henry Skinner. The Riverview Caravan Park now occupies the site.

The Daintree in 1928 photographed by Yonge – NLA, Image Credit / The Douglas Shire Historical Society

The dairy industry was very strong, with dairy cream sometimes rowed six miles to the butter factory three times a week. Settlers used their boats continuously because river transport was often quicker than by road.

The Daintree and the Echo , photo supplied by Harold Osborne via The Douglas Shire Historical Society

In 1926, brothers Arthur Chap and Eric Osborne, built The Daintree, which became the workhorse of the community, carrying goods, passengers, crops, patients for Port Douglas hospital, livestock, exporting butter to Cairns and running fortnightly to Low Isles.

The boat was 45 ft long with a 14 ft beam using a petrol and kerosene engine which is now in the Riverside museum in the Village. They also operated The Echo, a 30 ft timber launch with a 9 ft beam.

The Daintree, at Daintree Wharf, photo supplied by Janice Osborne to The Douglas Shire Historical Society

The Daintree to Mossman road was completed in 1933, and access was no longer only by the river. The regular boat service to Port Douglas ceased, and in 1938 the Osborne’s sold their launches and established the Daintree-Mossman motor service with a bus and a truck.

Quaid’s barge, image supplied by Dennis and Cathy Verri to The Douglas Shire Historical Society

The first transport across the Daintree River was a wooden punt operated by George Quaid and his son George Jnr in the early 1950s, to service their Mossman Logging Company’s operations between Bailey Creek and the River. The barge ran between Reed’s Creek to the western end of Virgil Island.

In 1954, the company upgraded to a 50 ft steel barge built from ex-Army pontoons and driven by an outboard motor, transporting timber trucks over the river.

In 1958, the Douglas Shire Council took over the Daintree River ferry operation and built a new vehicular vessel. They shifted operations to the site used today. The ferry was propeller-driven, and powered by an old Ford engine.

It was extremely difficult to control because once it was underway the rudder could not be altered. It only had one ramp and had to be turned around at each bank to let the vehicles off. As the river is tidal at this point, this was sometimes a very lengthy exercise and queues of cars formed.

Later, the ferry was converted with one drive cable on the upstream side, and it remained in service until 1985.

For many years it was known as The Barge.

in 1985, Anthony Fapani ,under contract to Douglas Shire Council, commissioned a new ferry of 85 tons, the Cape Tribulation Gateway.

This shallow draft vessel had two wire ropes attached to the eastern and western banks and could reach a speed of six knots, and carry 15 vehicles.

A larger ferry was needed to cope with the predicted increase in traffic due to the opening of the Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield road in October 1984.

Tourists loved to get out of their cars and stare over the rails looking for crocodiles during the five minute crossing. At low tide, truck drivers had to be careful not to hit the tails of their vehicles on the bank because of the steep gradient of the ramps.

But after some accidents, passengers had to remain in their cars, with their engine turned off, and handbrake engaged.

The Crocodile Express was the first tourist boat on the river in 1979, It carried about 18 passengers and was built on the Gold Coast for owners Michael and Jaki Turner, who towed it up. They ran a day-long wildlife and history cruise, stopping for lunch at the Daintree Teahouse, all for the cost of $10.

The Crocodile Express is still operating, now owned by Dean Clapp.

The Crocodile Express tour boat, owned by Dean Clapp, image via The Douglas Shire Historical Society

The unique Daintree River Train was built and operated by the Patterson family and launched on 1 August, 1987 from their land near the ferry crossing. They sold it in 2004 to Steve and Sharon Doble, who ran tours towards the river mouth for about six years.

After another sale, Bruce Belcher bought it and it now stands beside his Daintree River Cruises office as a land-based restaurant. Bruce has been guiding cruises on the river since 1987.

The Daintree River train, image via The Douglas Shire Historical Society

Many other cruise companies offer short cruises along the fascinating river and nearby Barratt Creek spotting crocodiles, snakes and birds.

Yachts are not so popular because of the experience needed to enter the river at its risky mouth.

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