Dunk Island

When ‘beachcomber’ first rolled into the language it meant a wave. Later it would conjure up images of those folk who walked beaches without haste to see what the waves had brought in from the sea. Beachcombers were not those wrecks of men who desolately find themselves ‘on the beach’ in stories by Conrad, Stevenson and Becke. They are contented souls, able languidly to relish ‘drowsy noons and evenings steeped in honeyed indolence’ (in Keats’ words, if sadly, not of them).

The most famous Australian beachcomber, spiritual descendant of Thoreau, recluse on a tropical island inside the Barrier Reef for nearly 30 years, was Edmund James Banfield. A journalist like his father, Banfield came to Australia in 1854, when he was two. After working on the Ararat Advertiser (which stayed in the family until the 1960s), he moved to North Queensland. There he was a reporter and sub-editor on the Townsville Bulletin and became an advocate for North Queensland separation. The newspaper work led to a nervous collapse. Banfield leased (and later selected) a portion of land on Dunk Island, where he had once camped, and his creative life began after he moved there in 1897.

He knew the Aboriginal name for the island, Coonanglebah, but preferred Dunk, for the names that Cook bestowed ‘judicious and expressive—are among the most precious historic possessions of Australia’. Sighting this ‘tolerable high island’ in 1770, Cook named it for George Dunk, First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl of Sandwich and inventor of the snack that enabled him to linger at the gaming tables.

On Dunk, Banfield’s health quickly improved. For long a keen naturalist, he observed the life on and around the island, on land, in the air and the sea. He discovered a new species of rat that was named after him. Although he and his wife would weather cyclones, and unwelcome visitors, they rejoiced in ‘this isle of dreams, of quietude and happiness, this fretless scene; this plot of the Garden of Eden’. His first book The Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908) was followed by three more, each as alluringly titled as the first: My Tropic Isle (1911), Tropic Days (1918) and, posthumously, Last Leaves of Dunk Island (1925).

When Banfield died of peritonitis in 1923, it was three days before his wife was able to attract a passing steamer. Now Banfield and his wife lie under a cairn of stones in a clearing behind the Dunk Island resort, in the rain forest, near the swinging bridge over Goo-Tchur creek. The grave is well-tended. The site is quiet, save for bird song and the rummaging of crimson-headed bush turkeys. Banfield’s obdurate solitariness was the bedrock of his literary achievement. A gentler version of it informs the reveries of every beachcomber. His epitaph announces that ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions/Perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer/Let him step to the music which he hears’.

Besides the resort, and a farm, most of Dunk Island is National Park. But not all: in 1967 Eric McIlree, Chairman of the island’s then owner Avis Rent-a-Car, ceded land surrounding Banfield’s grave to the Crown which then vested it in the University College of Townsville, now James Cook University. That this occurred was the result of another of the visionary exertions of Professor Colin Roderick, on behalf of the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies. McIlree died soon afterwards when his motor boat exploded on Sydney Harbour. Banfield’s large collection of Aboriginal and New Guinea artefacts was tracked to his niece’s house in Ararat, then transferred to Townsville. The collection was destroyed when Cyclone Althea struck the city on Christmas Eve 1971.

It was not until 2003 that the university’s small claim on Dunk was remembered. Banfield’s life is overdue for fresh remembrance. On Dunk he would no longer find ‘the pleasure of the absolute freedom of isles uninhabited, shores untrodden’. Indeed he never had, for the Djiru people had fished here for thousands of years before Banfield withdrew from the world to establish an idyllic, but strenuous, life on the island. This was his sea-change, when he found how ‘Nature, not under the microscope, behaved’, from his refuge within the Barrier Reef’s ‘shield of shimmering silver’.



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