Brisbane St Helena Island tours with Cat O'Nine Tails Cruises
This Brisbane St Helena Island tour will transport you across Moreton Bay and back in time. A St Helena Island Theatre Troupe performer will lead you on a historical walk around the 19th century prison settlement. You’ll enjoy a delicious picnic lunch, before boarding your return cruise to the mainland. Duration: 5 hours (approx.)
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St Helena Island in Southeast Queensland’s Moreton Bay has attracted a variety of colourful descriptors over the past 150 years.
Referred to by some as a tropical paradise; by others as ‘the hell-hole of the Pacific’, the island offers a rare insight into Brisbane’s early years.
On a simmering December morning we set out from the William Gunn Wharf at Manly with Cat O’Nine Tails Cruises, which operates guided tours of St Helena Island. It’s a delightful 30-minute journey across Moreton Bay to the island. Our hosts, in colonial period costume and character, soon dispatch any ‘cringe’ factor. They do it so well. It’s fun and contributes to the experience.
We disembark at the far end of the not-so-old jetty, which joins the original causeway built by the island’s ‘residents’ in 1875. More on that a little later. Along the walk to the foreshore, sea birds paddle on the pretty beaches. This tour involves a fair bit of walking, and good walking shoes are recommended due to the coarse sand, uneven surfaces and the odd cowpat left by the cattle that graze here.
The island holds a unique place in Queensland’s history. It was the state’s first declared historic site, within a national park, within a marine park. There is limited unaccompanied public access to parts of the island, but to experience everything it has to offer, you need to join a guided tour.
Our guide insists that contrary to popular opinion, St Helena Island was never actually a convict prison. The island, known as Nogoon by the local Quandamooka people and mapped by Matthew Flinders as No 2 of 6 ‘Green Isles’ in Moreton Bay, was chosen in 1866 to be a quarantine station. The island’s 415 acres were cleared by prison inmates, who at that time resided in a hulk in the Brisbane River.
Within a year, a further decision was made to move the quarantine facilities elsewhere and convert the island into a maximum security men’s prison. It was deemed a ‘silent prison’ and any communication between prisoners was severely punished.
The rich volcanic soil, the existence of an underground water source, and a compliant (and free) labour force opened up all sorts of possibilities. The ruins of infrastructure bear witness to the plan that the island was to be self-supporting, and several industries, including sugar cane farming, dairying and various trades brought in significant income for the government.
Over time the island became less and less viable. In 1932 it closed, having housed and employed around 7,500 men over a period of 65 years. Plans for a resort failed and eventually the land was leased for grazing. Vandals and weather reduced the remaining structures to ruins. Thankfully the island was declared a National Park of historic significance in the late 1970s and restoration began in the 80s.
There’s plenty of time on this Brisbane St Helena Island tour to explore two white-fenced cemeteries; a larger cemetery where prisoners were buried (with just a number for identification), and a second site that holds a handful of children’s graves. These were the children of warders, who, for a brief period in the early years, were allowed to have their families with them on the island. From time to time, flowers still appear on these lonely little memorials.
Lunch is included on the tour. An individual picnic basket and rug are provided to each guest, and we seat ourselves under the poinciana trees that once graced the lawns of the prison Superintendent’s garden. You can still see the remains of the fountains that were built to impress visiting dignitaries and operated (for hours) by the pedal power of prisoners!
Our final stop for the day is a small museum in the restored house of the Superintendent. The museum features a model of the island’s buildings as they would have been.
On the cruise back to the mainland, we muse how wonderfully Queensland it is that ‘Green Island No 2’ should rise from bureaucratic obscurity to become known rather grandly as St Helena Island. How did it come by that name, I hear you ask? An exiled Indigenous man spent a short time on the island, before building himself a canoe and sailing away. His nickname was Napoleon.
Vicki Ford is a freelance writer. She travelled as a guest of Cat O’Nine Tails Cruises.
Additional images: Bigstock