The crocodiles, they say up north, finally got old Hugo, the hermit of the Olive River.
Hugo went missing from his hut in early 2003. Considering he shared his riverbank camp with a large number of salt-water crocodiles, no one needed many guesses to figure out his fate.
Hugo Julcher, who’d migrated in the 1950s from war-wrecked Austria, took to beach combing about as far from the populated world as possible. He built a rough shack at the mouth of the Olive River where it spills into the Coral Sea, way up at the most northerly and remote tip of the Australian mainland, Cape York Peninsula.
Eventually, he married Heather, from Cairns, and brought her 700km north. They lived mostly on fish and bush tucker, and according to the occasional visitor, didn’t spend time worrying about the crocodiles that lived within a few steps of their hut, which lacked a front wall.
Hugo was back to living alone when he vanished. Heather had died some years before.
In March 2003, he failed to meet a boat that was scheduled to take him to fetch supplies from Cairns.
The only sign you can find today of Hugo Julcher is his picture on the Queensland police missing persons file: a smiling fellow in singlet and underpants, a fresh-caught barramundi dangling from his fishing line.
The old hermit isn’t the only fleeting figure of fascination that has come and gone from this remotest of places in recent times.
An entire space station went missing from the steaming savannah south of the Olive River while Hugo was living there.
In the late 1980s, the Queensland government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen got tremendously excited about the idea of establishing a world-leading “spaceport” on Cape York’s Temple Bay, just south of Hugo’s lonely dwelling.
It would be the first commercial space facility in the world, its proximity to the equator (12 degrees south) giving it the edge for launching satellites into equatorial orbit. Australia would hurtle to world leadership in the space race.
After feasibility studies and varied proposals from two different groups, a consortium called the Cape York Space Agency was chosen to develop the spaceport.
Spacecraft using a new Soviet rocket called the Zenit would launch mostly US satellites carrying commercial payloads. What could go wrong? The consortium assured everyone that the first space shots would occur in 1992.
Queensland’s Minister for Industry and Technology, Rob Borbidge (who later became premier), could barely contain himself.
“It is the single most important development project in the history of Australia,” he declared in 1989.
His enthusiasm turned out to be premature.
An article in the New Scientist at the time gave a hint that progress mightn’t be as smooth as Borbidge imagined. “A series of delicate issues await resolution,” the article stated. “They include the effects of the spaceport on Aboriginal tribes living on Cape York and on the environment.”
The article by journalist Ian Hamilton, published in June, 1989, ended with prescient words: “Last week, the Wuthathi people, descendants of the early Aboriginal inhabitants of the area, called on all Australians to oppose the launch site. They said it threatens their way of life.”
The Wuthathi and Kukuy’au people were the original inhabitants of the land thereabouts, and they’d been removed in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s by often brutal methods and dispersed all across Queensland’s north, apparently expected to live in silent exile forever.
Here, however, were people who had no mere fleeting relationship with this country.
In 1991, the Koori Mail published an article about a meeting of representatives of tribal groups from throughout Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands. The meeting took place at Lockhart River, about 75 kilometres south of the site of the proposed spaceport near the Olive River. All the groups in attendance decided to oppose the space station.
“Aboriginal representatives say the main reasons for this stance are that it infringes on traditional lands, it is not a viable enterprise that will benefit the rightful owner, it is merely an excuse to open up Cape York to massive tourist and unaboriginal development, and that the development of such a project will have a catastrophic result on the environment,” The Koori Mail reported. The Australian Conservation Foundation decided to stand with the indigenous people and to use its legal and political muscle.
By 1992, when the indigenous owners had won a High Court ruling in their favour, when the Hawke federal government had become unimpressed enough to demand environmental hurdles too high to be jumped and it was becoming clear the vast amounts of money required for a spaceport weren’t forthcoming, the whole idea melted away.
But those who inhabited this dreaming country for many thousands of years before Hugo the hermit and the fancy of a spaceport came by?
They’ve not gone the same way, whatever those authorities with colder hearts than crocodiles might have hoped in the early 20th century.
This week, around 165,000 hectares of Cape York around the Olive River was handed back to the Wuthathi, Kukuya’u and Northern Kaanju peoples.
This time, under a legal process known as the Cape York Tenure Resolution Program, through which another 3 million hectares have been returned to traditional owners, it’s forever.
Others may visit and vanish, but the land, and its real owners, abide.