The Margaret River Winter Diversion Track | Your Voice

Photo taken in 1915 at Sam Isaacs’ property, Fernbrook. Courtesy Margaret River & Districts Historical Society.
Photo taken in 1915 at Sam Isaacs’ property, Fernbrook. Courtesy Margaret River & Districts Historical Society.

A rare chance for inspiration and education

A lot of what follows, but not all, was in a letter I sent to Shire Councillors prior to the Cowaramup Council meeting of February 28, 2018. Any family history that is included is done so simply to give some context to my comments.

My grandfather (McLeod) started a dairy farm on the place where I grew up (and still live) in 1902. My father continued farming into the 1960’s. My great grandfather (Keenan) and his family ran the Old Bridge House in the early 1880’s - an accommodation stop-over built by Fanny Brockman (nee Bussell) at the bridge on Caves Road. This is now the home of the Peirce family and marks the eastern corner of the Cape to Cape Winter Diversion track proposal. In the late 1880’s the Keenans built their own home at Glenbourne on the banks of the Ellensbrook. Our two bordering neighbours in the early 1900s were Wallcliffe to the West and Isaacs to the North.

Back then, as now, local politics and good decision making were crucial to the future of the community. My grandfather was Shire President in 1918 and I still remember my father muttering to himself before going off to Council meetings in the late 50s – practising his presentations, I suppose. 

I remember Sam’s son, Freddy, and Sam’s grandsons Peck, Bob and Bill who grew up swimming and exploring around the river with my father. Later, I went on fishing trips with them and my father to Kilcarnup, Gnoocardup and Ellensbrook. When Peck Isaacs died, my father, who was away, contacted me and said, “Make sure you represent us at Peck’s funeral,” which I did.

The river, of course, was central to the lives of the early settlers: before there was anything at today’s Margaret River township the main triangle of activity was along this stretch of the lower Margaret – from Wallcliffe, past Fernbrook to Old Bridge House at the crossing on Caves Road, then to Burnside and Glenbourne and back down to the coast at Ellensbrook. 

From this area the farmers farmed, grew produce and transported it to the north and south – including provision to the M.C. Davies’ operation at Karridale. The ‘traffic’ along the river was probably heavier then than it is now. It was a strong little community that worked together to face many hardships. Neighbours helped each other out. The photo below, taken in 1915 at Sam Isaacs’ property, Fernbrook, demonstrates this.

Sam is on the left next to the fence he built. A small portion of this fence still survives today. To his left is his son Freddie holding his young son, Peck. The other visitors are probably neighbouring farmers – Bussells, McLeods, Keenans and Terrys and others who have come to help with the harvest. Note, too, the relatively open nature of the steep northern river bank – possibly due to the much more regular burning off that was done. Even in my childhood it was easy to ride a horse along the ridge to Redgate or Kilcarnup. The bush is a lot thicker now, making access for control of introduced plants species more difficult. The track will provide greater opportunity to manage this aspect of the river valley’s health.

The bottom of the picture is where it is proposed that a part of Sam’s old property could be purchased to help facilitate the walk track. This stretch of river has played a big part in the lives of many people, not just for the 150 years since white settlement, but for the thousands of years of aboriginal history. It is historically, culturally and spiritually at the heart of our community. Anyone who has been there will surely feel a profound sense of what the river has meant and what it can mean. For the aboriginal people who have shared with us their beliefs about the story of its creation – well, you can only wonder at the extraordinary connection.

Local issues come and go but I cannot remember one which has more potential for positive benefits for our community than the proposed walk track along the south bank of the Lower Margaret River. I believe a sensitively designed and implemented walk track with sound environmental management principles would be educational and inspiring. It could teach us (and our visitors) about the environment, the settlement history, the deep and rich aboriginal story, the social heritage of our community and the real and symbolic relevance of Sam Isaacs and his family. (The track would actually pass through Sam Isaac’s old farm).

The four councillors who voted to block the recommendations for the track to go ahead appear to have based their opposition on two points:

Environment –  It’s difficult to imagine how a few walkers – nature lovers, occasionally pausing to be enthralled by light on water or a deep, quiet sense of time and place – could be a threat to the environment. There has been and still is a threat, but it comes from pumps, pipes, motors, power poles, houses, machines and dams on tributaries. As recently as 35 years ago, in winter time, you could hear the roaring of the main tributary into the Lower Margaret from 300m away. That doesn’t happen now. Drying seasons? Dams on tributaries? Probably. The river does not ‘flush’ out anymore-weeds flourish, eco-systems are threatened. There are far bigger impacts on the environment and health of our river than a few walkers hushed by beauty. Cape to Cape track walkers will tell the story that this is a special place. We need to focus on how we can preserve it – we need to make the health of all the waterways in our community a top priority. The walk track will enhance this opportunity – not diminish it. At the moment anyone can walk along the river bank past Isaacs’ farm. Where there is no track they can clamber through bushes and over rocks; a sensitive, gently defined track will educate and inspire.

Indigenous Heritage – This track can be so important for sharing the aboriginal story while respecting and acknowledging important and sacred sites. It’s a place where two cultures met and, in contrast to some of the tragic history, a place where those cultures lived and worked well together. Some of the ‘rocky’ beginnings to the implementation of the track were due to lack of aboriginal consultation. This shire sought to rectify this and appropriate support was sought from the relevant departments. The councillors’ action in blocking the recommendation and enforcing their own ‘diversion’ – away from the river and along a firebreak to Wallcliffe road suggests that they didn’t consider that the river is the story.

One of the ironies of the ‘firebreak option’ is that there is already a firebreak that runs downstream from the bridge for about 500 metres. It’s 10 metres from the river. It was built to service the subdivision along the river frontage. This is where the walkers will walk. 

At the end of that firebreak the walkers would have continued on a very gentle, much more sensitive walk path…and when you’re crossing Sam’s old place that’s exactly what you need .

There aren’t many opportunities that offer real and symbolic potential for education, inspiration and reconciliation. This is one that does. 

Those councillors should be brave enough to restore some trust and make a decision for the benefit of the entire community – not just a select few. I urge the council to acknowledge the absolute potential for indigenous involvement and interpretation that the track can bring. To shut it down is to shut down a big opportunity for reconciliation and recovery. 

I also urge the ‘silent majority’ to support a path which can lead to greater understanding of our environment and cultural heritage. 

The recent history of the walk track may have been a little ‘rocky’ but despite this (or perhaps because of this!) it is important to work together to achieve what can be an enormously significant project. 

The nature of the decision to stop the track proposal suggests it was made as a ‘block’.

It lacked the rigour of independent judgement. There should be no place for ‘Party Politics’ in local government. Let’s have the firebreak - but the one along the river, where the story is.

Keith McLeod

Winter diversion is a unique, ‘wicked’ issue

A ‘wicked problem’ can be described as a unique problem that is resistant to resolution; the effort to solve one aspect reveals other problems, and the problem is a symptom of a bigger problem. “Wicked problems” also require a large number of people to change mindsets and behaviours.

Possible strategies to solve a wicked problem: 

1) Authoritative - a few people make a decision, even though they may not have an understanding of all perspectives;

2) Competitive - an adversarial approach where each side must prove that their solution is preferable;

3) Collaborative - all participants come together to look at a range of possibilities, engaging in discussion to arrive at a solution/s via consensus.  

The Winter Diversion Track (WDT) proposition has an unfortunate history as it was not widely discussed and understood before construction was commenced. The chance for a ‘collaborative’ approach with a wide range of participants was lost. This wicked problem then moved into a ‘competitive’ mode of problem solving, with little chance of information sharing. Debate then became adversarial.

We are now at a stage where some strong voices in the community want Council to simply vote on the proposition in an ‘authoritative’ manner. However, if Council gives a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the Winter Diversion Track, some sections of the community will feel let down with either decision.

Augusta Margaret River Shire President Pam Townshend
Photo: Elements Margaret River

Augusta Margaret River Shire President Pam Townshend Photo: Elements Margaret River

Many people are feeling frustrated and angry with a process that has stumbled on for a long time. This is inherent in a wicked problem that has not been tackled collaboratively. Emotions have been raised in some sections of the community. I have been personally vilified and insulted, and have had to step back for a while to reflect, take a break and look after my physical and emotional health.

People stand for Council elections for different reasons, but all Councillors take their roles seriously, and want to make good decisions for the right reasons. Representing the community is not an easy role to fulfill. In turn, our community needs to nurture our precious democratic process by treating elected representatives with respect. If being a Councillor is seen as physically or mentally exhausting, demanding impossible hours, exclusive commitment and unlimited resilience, few people will step forward.

The lesson for me is that we need to work collaboratively at every possible opportunity, at the earliest stage of any proposal. In my two and a half years on Council I have witnessed several community projects that have not unfolded easily. Interest groups progress an idea in isolation, investing emotional attachment in it, before bringing it to a wider group, only to find that there is often strong opposition.

We need a process by which an ‘idea’ remains an idea until it has passed through a collaborative decision making and discussion stage, deferring judgement, and seeking a broad cross section of participants, answering such questions as...Is it necessary?

Will it add to the greater good of our community? Will it adversely affect any particular group in the community? Will it adversely affect the environment over time?

Are there other creative options that could be a better solution? And who else do we need to talk to? If we enter such collaborative discussions at the ideas stage, open- minded thinking will be possible both on Council and in our community. 

I sincerely hope that we can learn from this experience, learn to collaborate in an open-minded, open-hearted manner which will add to community cohesion. I am committed to early exploration and collaboration, and believe it must be the way we make decisions in the future.

Pam Townshend

President, Augusta Margaret River Shire

Time to approach issue with calm

It is surely time to look at the rather over-heated debate over the proposed river winter trail in a calm way. I think both sides would agree that they are in unison on three things – we need to protect our environment; we should respect Indigenous culture and heritage, and walkers travelling on the CtoC track in winter need to be able to do so in safety. 

I have been a strong supporter (actively and financially) of local and national environmental support bodies in Australia for many years, and share the over-arching wish that we should protect our natural environment. However, having walked the proposed trail along the river, I can only see positive aspects of proceeding with the proposal.

We are looking at a single path which is a tiny footprint on the environment, and which will enable generations of walkers to move respectfully through the landscape to wonder at its beauty. People who experience this will become evangelists for its protection. 

I have seen this effect all over the world – the effect is to bring out admiration and support for future protection in people who walk the paths. 

Each year I walk in the hills of the English lake District. Last year it was declared a World Heritage Area. In spite of the park receiving twelve million visitors each year the hills are still beautiful and well looked after.

Walkers generally don’t litter the landscape, I have very rarely seen rubbish or desecration. We are not looking at a proposal which is either going to degrade the environment OR bring people who will seek to do so, quite the opposite.

It will create a valuable resource to be appreciated, valued, and conserved by the local community in the years to come. Such opportunities come along rarely. I believe this thinking needs to be grasped by Council, and those opposing the path.

On the subject of respect for Indigenous heritage, I have spoken to neighbours, where I live, who grew up with Sam Isaacs family and descendants; they played with them as children, and visited them in hospital when they were sick. This part of our local history is in danger of becoming completely forgotten. 

I believe the proposed path will provide a real opportunity to revive the memory of Sam’s family and story with appropriately located boards and signage.

The reality of the situation is that – the path is almost complete; there are minimal cost implications for the Shire in completing the path; irrespective of the outcome people will walk that section of the river, and the CtoC volunteers have a long record of care and respect for the path generally, from which the short section along the river would benefit.

Bryan Timmons, Margaret River

River’s story is older than our own history

I write in response to Keith McLeod’s letter.

It needs pointing out first, I think, that the current Councillors won their seats on Council following vigorous community campaigning and ALL of them expressed their desire and intention to act to protect the environment.

I believe that is why they were voted in and that this is what they are trying to do by making considered decisions that will have wide-reaching and beneficial outcomes.

It is not “just a select few” in this town who will benefit from this – we all will and so will future generations.

Keith talks about the “river being the story”. I agree. But the story of the river is older, longer and wider than the story Keith tells. We don’t know all of this story yet. We are only beginning to learn how rivers work, how river systems operate and that there are more living species than we imagined who rely on healthy rivers and riparian zones for survival. 

The need for a way for Cape to Cape walkers to get across the river in winter is not in question.

Councillors, I believe, are working towards a solution that will give everyone, including the river, the best outcome.

Peta Goodwin

Does the WDT issue need to be so complex?

How complex the issue has become. Does it need to be?

There is no dispute about the need for a winter diversion track for the “small number of walkers” wanting to walk the Cape to Cape Trail during winter.

The only concern is about the location of that winter track. Currently the Cape to Cape winter trail comes inland through Kilcarnup, walkers then move down Caves Road to rejoin the track at Wallcliffe Rise and follow it back to the rivermouth.

The safety of walkers along Caves Rd IS the issue. Whether they are using the C2C winter diversion, or locals & visitors from the Kilcarnup & surrounds commuting by foot or bike to join the Wallcliffe path to town, or the beach.

Choosing the option that would give safe passage for walkers and cyclists along Caves Rd between Kilcarnup and Wallcliffe Rd would be a win-win for our community.

There is already a Walk-Cycle Reference Group established by the Shire to consider a master plan for the Shire, looking in the best ways to provide access to all, and to establish tracks to highlight the history and environment of this region. Let this group do their work.

Perhaps, we need to thank the C2C group for pushing ahead without following due process, to put a new trail along the river, for it has certainly thrown the spotlight on the fragility of the river, and its surrounds, and the diverse number of groups wanting to access and use that same space.

So what is the current problem?

The C2C group want a winter diversion track. No arguments. However they want the track to follow the river’s edge and then rejoin the Wallcliffe trail via St Alouarn Place.

There is no doubt that this is a beautiful section of the river – but also a very fragile riparian (edge of the river) zone. Since white settlement, our river has been used and abused by everyone.

The River needs our help to survive. Right now, to push yet another track, for the use of a “few” winter walkers on the C2C trail is not acceptable.

There is a growing awareness (attested to by the 200+ who attended the River Rally last week) of the need to work towards improving the health of the river. This will be a long process. In the meantime, we need to take all care not to extend the damage.

The needs of the C2C winter walkers and local commuters can be resolved NOW, without affecting the River. Safe passage along that section of Caves Rd is achievable NOW.

So what is the problem? I wonder what all those people who put their face in the paper, or signed the petitions, understood much about what they were supporting?

Do you support the C2C track having a winter diversion – yes

Does that track have to be along the river bank to achieve the goal of a winter diversion - no

Do you support improving the health of our river and its surrounds – yes

Do you support providing safe passage for walkers and cyclists along Caves Rd – yes

I ask the dually elected Councillors to stand true to their campaign promises and work for the best outcomes of our environment.

Please can we have action now to create a winter diversion track for C2C that also meets the needs of the growing population around Kilcarnup, to have a safe trail along Caves Rd to meet up with the Wallcliffe path.

Please refer the riverside section to the Trails Reference Group for consideration in the overall strategies for the future.

Maureen Munro

Have your say

Do you have something to add to the Winter Diversion Track discussion? Send your letters to nicky.lefebvre@fairfaxmedia.com.au or click here to send us a direct message.