COMMITMENT: Tower Holdings CEO Terry Agnew has agreed to talk to the Woppaburra. He is pictured with elder Francis Gala last weekend.
COMMITMENT: Tower Holdings CEO Terry Agnew has agreed to talk to the Woppaburra. He is pictured with elder Francis Gala last weekend. Christine Mckee

Great Keppel Island - the past and the future

THE catch cry may have been "Get Wrecked on Great Keppel Island" but in the end it was Great Keppel itself that got wrecked.

The island now sits as a remnant to the heady days of the '80s, when the alcohol and drug-fuelled parties of the young and carefree ruled the Barrier Reef paradise.

The old resort sits behind a barrage of wire fencing and the few remaining businesses fight to scratch out a living from a handful of visitors.

Today's Great Keppel Island is about the past and about the future - and the contrast between the players couldn't be greater.

On one hand is the multi-millionaire businessman and his plans for a $600 million redevelopment.

On the other, are the island's original inhabitants struggling to make their voices heard as they attempt to regain their home land, their dignity and the future of their younger generation.

In April 2007, with an elaborate traditional ceremony, then deputy premier of Queensland Anna Bligh handed freehold title to 170ha of land back to the Woppaburra people.

The first meeting of the Woppaburra Land Trust followed the ceremony.

Six years later, the traditional owners say they have been left out of negotiations over the future of their land.

A peaceful protest on the island last weekend highlighted the challenges facing both the Woppaburra and the developers.

LEFT: A peaceful but determined Woppaburra protest on Great Keppel Island.
LEFT: A peaceful but determined Woppaburra protest on Great Keppel Island.

The protest was organised by Christine Doherty who claimed to speak on behalf of the elders.

However, at least one elder and two members of the Woppaburra Land Trust, including chairman Malcolm Burns, were not aware of the protest or demands to pay $600 million in compensation.

Today, the divide between themselves stands as possibly the greatest threat to the future of their culture.

It's easy to understand the sadness and anger in a people whose experience with white men was largely one of displacement, rape, slavery and massacre, before being forcibly and finally removed from their home.

Reports of atrocities are well documented.

Growing numbers of half caste children were testimony to the routine rape of the women, who mostly died from venereal disease.

The last of the Woppaburra were removed in 1902 and none returned until a reunion of the remaining descendants on the island in 1984.

Malcolm Burns junior, at 29, is the future of the culture.

He practises and teaches traditional song and dance and still hunts kangaroo and other animals.

With a traditional background and mainstream education, Burns works as a ranger on Fraser Island and takes his role as mentor to younger Woppaburra very seriously.

"I have some dreams where there is no power; where we are in darkness…and at least I can go out and make a fire and shelter for my family and feed them," he said.

"When there's no meat in the supermarket, I can hunt kangaroo.

"We need to share these skills with younger generations or they will die.

"The elders need to realise they have to do it."

As a younger Woppaburra, Burns said the most important thing for the future of his culture was the need to network together.

"Some of the old people have doubts with family," he said.

"That stuff needs to stop so we can build a stronger and better community.

"They need to stop the fighting and bickering among themselves."

How much communication has occurred between Woppaburra and Tower Holdings since 2007 is difficult to assess.

Between 2005 and 2007, Tower Holdings employed a former NAIDOC Aboriginal Elder of the Year, Bob Muir, and Christine Doherty.

Tower paid for office space and supported the Woppaburra to lobby the government to claim title to 170ha of land on the island.

Muir said the Woppaburra wanted to engage their people in the process and held workshops from Cairns to Sydney.

"Tower Holdings paid for it all," Muir said. "They helped regain that land. There was support from Tower for a museum and cultural resort tourism."

Tower Holdings then offered $11 million for a 99-year lease on the land.

The Woppaburra refused, and walked away from negotiations.

Muir said that was the end of the working relationship and he has had no communication since.

Burns said he had a phone call from project manager Anthony Aiossa two weeks ago to "touch base and see if we could work together".

He said it was the first time he had spoken with anyone from Tower Holdings since 2007.

"All we have to do is negotiate together," he said.

"We (Woppaburra) need to get our act together and be on the one page. I think we are when we all sit down together. But too many people want to be the boss."

BELOW LEFT: Aboriginal elder Bob Muir places an Aboriginal flag on Great Keppel Island on Australia Day, 1993.
BELOW LEFT: Aboriginal elder Bob Muir places an Aboriginal flag on Great Keppel Island on Australia Day, 1993.

If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on, it is that the future of Woppaburra culture depends on the people themselves.

In 2007, Bob Muir said co-operating with Tower Holdings was an opportunity for the Woppaburra to move forward.

In 2013, it seems that is still the case.

And with cultural tourism being big business, co-operating with the Woppaburra, as challenging as that may be, is also the way forward for Tower Holdings.

The plan....

Both GKI Resort Pty Ltd and traditional owners must sign a cultural heritage management plan before any construction can begin.

That will begin with a cultural heritage survey, where Tower Holdings and the Woppaburra will walk country together.



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