4 September 2023

Lockhart River preparing to embrace Cape York's growing tourism industry

| Matt Nicholls
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The picturesque Lockhart River camp grounds will be officially opened next year.

LOCATED in one of the prettiest parts of Cape York, Lockhart River is one of the best-kept secrets in Queensland.

While thousands of tourists take to the Peninsula Developmental Road each year bound for Weipa, Bamaga, Seisia and – the pinnacle – the Tip of Cape York, just a small percentage make it over to the east coast.

And even if they do, it’s usually to Portland Roads, Chilli Beach and the famous Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park.

“We really only get tourists coming into Lockhart for fuel or the supermarket,” says long-time mayor Wayne Butcher.

“That can be a problem because they are not run by the community, which means we see very little of the tourism dollar. There’s the odd sale at the art centre.”

However, opening the doors to tourism is a catch-22 for Lockhart River residents, who are concerned that more visitors will mean less groceries on the shelves and fewer fish to catch.

“We’ve got to be respectful of the Traditional Owners and their needs,” Cr Butcher said.

“If the locals can’t go out and get a feed of fish then we’ll have a problem. The supermarkets already cop a hammering from the tourists at this time of year.”

Which is why Lockhart River Aboriginal Shire Council, under the leadership of experienced CEO David Clarke, is trying to ease into the tourism space and create a sustainable industry for the township.

Work is just about complete on the camping ground, located just up the road from the main boat ramp and picturesque foreshore.

The east coast of Cape York is one of Australia’s best kept secrets.

“It’s been built just to cater for tourists,” Cr Butcher said.

“The road into Lockhart River is getting better every year and the number of cars coming across to the east coast is growing, so it’s time for us to cater for them.

“There is a growing number of birdwatching tours and visitors who come from all over the world to see what’s in our backyard.”

The mayor said tourists would benefit from a campground that will cater for tents, camper trailers and the ever-growing number of caravans in the Cape.

“We think it’ll have about 50 sites and we’ve got toilets and showers for them to use,” he said.

“The details are still being worked out but visitors will likely book online through the council website.

“Hopefully our Telstra service is a bit better by the time it’s up and running.”

The mayor was referring to the poor phone signal experienced in Lockhart River – one of the last communities in Australia to still be reliant on the 3G network.

“Telstra has promised we’ll have 4G by October so I’ll be keeping an eye on it to make sure it’s done before the wet season,” Cr Butcher said.

“Not having a reliable telecommunication system is another reason we haven’t been able to open our doors to visitors.”

The Lockhart River camping ground will feature toilets and showers.

The council is also putting the finishing touches on its cultural precinct down by the foreshore.

Cr Butcher and his team hope to bring more festivals to Lockhart River, providing new experiences for the growing population.

“In November this year we are going to stage a dance festival at the precinct to officially open it,” he said.

“It will mark 50 years since the first dance festival was staged at Lockhart River. It was the start of the Cape York dancing festivals and it’s now ended up at Laura.”

In 1973, more than 100 dancers from eight communities flew into the famous Iron Range Airport for the event.

“I was only three years old so I can’t remember it. I know we had dancers come across from Groote Eylandt and we’ve invited them to come across this year for the anniversary,” Cr Butcher said.

“We’ve also asked the Saibai dancers from Bamaga as well as the Pormpuraaw team, which won at Laura this year.

“It will be held on November 18 and that will be a good opening for the camp ground and for the cultural precinct.”

Lockhart River is preparing to host a boutique dance festival in November.

However, tourists hoping to book a site at the new campground should be patient.

“We’ll be up and running for next year’s tourist season but I don’t think we’ll be ready for the late-season travellers this year,” Cr Butcher said.

“Once we’re open properly we’ll let everyone know because we’re keen to welcome visitors to.

“We’ve got a lot of positive things happening. We recently opened the social club, which serves meals and alcohol, while our new football ground is in great condition.”

Visitors to Lockhart River can also enjoy the splash park and buy locally-produced art from the town’s art centre.

“Managing the people who come to fish will be a challenge because we don’t have the facilities at the boat ramp to handle them and we don’t want them to leave with a sour taste,” the mayor said.

“It’s something the council is working on with our Traditional Owners to find the right balance.

“We’ve got a beautiful place to visit so we’re expecting (the camp ground) to be busy.”

People come from all over the world for birdwatching at Lockhart River and the surrounding rainforest, with the palm cockatoo in hot demand.

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