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The Pioneer River in the Twenty-First Century 2010s - 2020s
A photographic essay by Marion (née Fatnowna) Healy

Flat Top and Round Top islands, the coastal sentinels marking arrival at the Pioneer River.

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Flat Top and Round Top islands, the coastal sentinels marking arrival at the Pioneer River.

This view is from Far (Illawong) Beach, the original mouth of the river before an 1898 cyclone straightened its entry point to the ocean.

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Beautiful Far (Illawong) Beach was once the exit point for the Pioneer River. It was renamed Illawong Beach some decades ago, although the old name remains in use.

At the back of the beach there is still a lagoon area flowing down to Shellgrit Creek, the old mouth of the river. The beach, backed by sand dunes, continues south to Baker’s Creek. Between October and March marine turtles use the beach for nesting. Mackay Airport is behind Far Beach. Shellgrit Creek is now contaminated by PFAS (toxic fire-fighting foam from the airport) and can no longer be used for fishing.

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 Far (IIlawong) Beach at low tide, looking towards the coal-loading facilities at Hay Point.

The tide recedes for several kilometres, and the sandy ocean floor is not stable, which is why all attempts the make Round Top Island into a port facility failed.

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The Forgan Bridge extends from Sydney Street to the Cremorne. The photograph looks down River Street to the west, taken from a drone.

The photograph looks down River Street to the west, taken from a drone. The first bridge on the site, known as the Sydney Street Bridge, was built between 1886 and 1888. The next bridge was opened in March 1938, and named for Mary Forgan, the mother of the Member for Mackay and former Premier Wiliam Forgan Smith. Construction of the third and present bridge commenced in May 2008 and was completed in August 2011.

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The new Forgan Bridge in Sydney Street, completed in 2011, looking across the river to the northside..

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The Forgan Bridge from the river bank, looking north-west. The Leichhardt tree, which was present in the 1860s, is on the river bank.

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Further towards the mouth of the river, looking back towards the city and the Forgan Bridge.

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The Pioneer River looking east from the Forgan Bridge.

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The wharves on the Pioneer River, looking down river towards the mouth.

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The W.R. Paxton & Co. building on the edge of the river in River Street. The company was founded in 1876 as shipping agents, and a wholesale and retail hardware business.

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The Mackay Sugar Cubes (2009) sculpture by Fiona Foley, an Indigenous artist and one of Australia most significant public art-makers, consists of seven inward-leaning pillars each with twenty 300 cm cubes, constructed in aluminium, etched and paint filled.

It was commissioned by the Mackay Regional Council and sits in Bluewater Quay, a river bank park beside the Forgan Bridge, part of the Bluewater art trail. The sculpture reflects the site on the Pioneer River where ‘Blackbirded’ and indentured Pacific Islander men, women and children were brought ashore.

On the outward-facing side of the cubes are the names of some of the ships which transported the Islanders, and also the names of the plantations where they worked. The backs of the lower cubes show thumb prints (provided by contemporary Australian South Sea Islanders), one of the Islander identification marks on arrival and also used to signify exemption from deportation in the 1900s.

This sculpture, is close a local landmark, the Leichhardt tree, which has been on the river bank since the 1860s, connects today’s descendants to  their ancestors. The sculpture is a powerful, challenging statement using contemporary art to convey contentious histories.

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This photograph was taken at the back of the Caneland Central shopping centre looking towards Mt Oscar in North Mackay during a flood in 2019.

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Another 2019 flood photograph taken from the back of Caneland Central shopping centre, looking across to North Mackay. Fifty-one metre high Mt Oscar is on the far right.

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An aerial photograph looking from North Mackay down to the mouth of the Pioneer River and towards the Outer Harbour.

North Mackay is in the centre, the Goose Ponds are on the lower left, with Sams Road next to them in the lower centre.

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An aerial photograph of the northern side of the Pioneer River, showing the Edmund Casey Bridge, completed in 2009, which replaced the old Hospital Bridge, and the Queensland Rail Northern Line Bridge. The area was once home to River Estate and Foulden plantations

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The Yuwibara name for these lagoons on Nebo Road was Wambool and the largest lagoon was Kaliguil. They were a feasting area.

Now known as The Lagoons, and since 2003 as the Mackay Regional Botanical Gardens, they are joined by a creek the Pioneer River. They were used as a water supply for the town, as a recreation reserve onwards from 1870, and as a favoured homesite for the villas of Mackay’s elite.

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The Pioneer River has several weirs and dams: Marian Weir was built in 1952, followed soon after by Marini Weir. Dumbleton Weir (pictured here) was built in 1982, 15 km upstream, at the point where the saltwater stops and the fresh water begins.

Dumbleton Weir provides water for Mackay. It has been upgraded twice. Water from the Pioneer River was diverted into Kinchant Dam between Mirani and Eton on the upper reaches of Sandy Creek in 1977, and Teemburra Dam was constructed in 1997, 50 km west of Mackay at Pinnacle.

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The Pioneer River at Mirani showing the rail bridge from the road bridge, and Platypus Beach, a favourite weekend haunt for the locals.  Even here, 37 kilometres upstream, the river is still substantial.

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Cattle Creek at Sennis Road off the Mackay-Eungella Road past Finch Hatton.

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Teemburra Dam was constructed in 1997, 50 km west of Mackay close to the towns of Finch Hatton and Pinnacle. The dam is fed by Teemburra, Cedar and Pinnacle creeks, which via Blackand Black Waterhole creeks feed into the Pioneer River flowing on the northern side of Mia Mai State Forest.

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Teemburra Dam, facing south-west toward Crediton State Forest, with Homevale National Park in the background.

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The western end of the Pioneer Valley. The photograph was taken from above Teemburra Dam, looking back over the small town of Pinnacle, with Pelion State Forest in the background. Mia Mia State Forest is south-east of the dam, with Crediton State Forest to the south-west.

Marion Healy (née Fatnowna). I was born into a well-known and respected South Sea Islander family at Mackay. I am the wife of Kevin and the mother to Bevan, Imogen, Dominique, Rhiannon, and Siobhan. I am an Australian South Sea Islander, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and a community member. Over a period of 30 years, I have successfully held six senior positions in Education Queensland. I have completed four years of service with a charity organization—Indigenous Community Volunteers—as a regional coordinator for Far North Queensland, and I was the acting ASSI (Australian South Sea Islander) and CAMS (Community Action for a Multicultural Society) officer for 18 months with Mackay Regional Council.


I continue to volunteer and support community programs that encourage the participation of Australian South Sea Islanders, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders decision-making from Birth to our Elders. What I enjoy doing in my spare time is using my mobile phone camera to capture my surroundings. I know that when I capture a special moment in life I will always cherish and remember these fond memories that I will share with family, friends, and community.

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