‘You dig a hole’: Squatters turn beaches into dump
YEARS of buck-passing over illegal campers and their questionable toilet habits have forced frustration to boiling point at beaches north of Palm Cove.
A drive past carparks at Buchan Point, Ellis Beach and other waterfront stops dotting the Captain Cook Hwy en route to Port Douglas paints an unmistakeable picture.
Scores of people have taken up semipermanent residence in tents and vans - some for months on end - in designated no-camping areas that nobody is willing to police.
There are no rubbish bins and the closest thing to a toilet is whatever shallow hole can be dug in the sand, all at the height of a global health crisis.
The problem is known at local government, state government and Queensland Police levels but the slow wheels of bureaucracy have let it persist for years.
WHEN NATURE CALLS
German backpacker Chris Zipf was due to leave the Buchan Point carpark site today after about a week living out of a van with two travel buddies.
Next stop: the Atherton Tablelands.
The globetrotter said the carpark was advertised online as a free camping site with stunning views of the Coral Sea.
Police visited a few nights ago after reports of nearby campers engaged in loud, drunken fights - but Mr Zipf said no attempt was made to shift him or his fellows.
"I heard there were some troubles, too much fighting, too much alcohol and noisy people," he said.
"Everyone here has heard about some fights and some aggressive behaviour sometimes.
"(Police) asked where we go to the toilet, they kind of laughed about it, oh you go in the bush?" he said.
"But that's how you do it in nature - you dig out a hole, and yeah."
The lack of any clear direction from authorities left Mr Zipf unsure about the legitimacy of the camping spot, although he said the threat of fines was a persistent worry.
"Sometimes we treated ourselves to a proper caravan park where you have a good shower, you can do your laundry, you can recharge your stuff," he said.
"We just have maybe two nights in peace where you're not worried, oh maybe the police will come.
"Sometimes you really have to hide.
"You live in kind of a fear here that someone comes and fines you."
So far, that fear has not been realised.
PASSING THE BUCK
Jamie Bartels, group general manager for the company that operates Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows, has been trying for years to get the council, police or the Department of Transport and Main Roads (DTMR) to clear illegal campers from nearby carparks.
Countless emails, phone calls and meetings appear to have achieved little except more emails, phone calls and meetings to be scheduled.
"Our frustration is on three counts," he explained.
"One: It's obvious people are camping and lodging in the area illegally.
"Two: There's no sanitary or hygiene protocol for these people, which is evident by the rubbish and the defecation that are going on in the areas where they're camping.
"It's highly unhygienic in the current environment.
"Three: They're lighting fires in highly sensitive environmental areas.
"It just seems farcical in the current heightened climate of COVID-19.
"If ever there was a time to manage these areas, it would be now."
Mr Bartels said one group had physically roped off an area for themselves in a carpark south of Ellis Beach when Queensland's lockdown rules were first enforced.
"They had their own task force deciding who they were letting in and who they weren't," he said.
"Everyone hides behind the mask of someone else having authority.
"Somebody just needs to make a decision.
"It was out of control during Lockdown 1 and in Lockdown 2 it has continued."
Mr Bartels did not care which level of authority took charge, as long as somebody would ask these people to move on.
"It took us seven years to get a permit for our resort, dealing with eight levels of government," he said.
"We work daily within the permit conditions of our business to ensure those standards are upheld.
"I find it contemptuous that these people, whether they are local residents, international tourists or whatever, are let to go willy-nilly and do whatever they like.
"It seems bizarre."
Division 9 Cairns Regional Councillor Brett Olds said there was an easy fix.
"Main Roads just need to put up a sign saying 'camping illegal' and then write a letter to police asking them to enforce it," he said.
"Even if the council owned the land, our officers can't enforce it."
Cr Olds said he had offered to pay for the signs out of his own pocket just to stop the public defecation.
"People used to take photos of poos and send them to me on a daily basis," he said.
The likelihood of any quick satisfaction on the matter looks slim.
A DTMR spokesman described the issue as a "complex matter" that required more work.
"We acknowledge concerns raised by residents and motorists about the impact of camping on amenity at these sites," he said.
"We are working with Cairns Regional Council, Queensland Police and other relevant agencies to find a solution for this complex matter."
A spokeswoman for Cairns Regional Council said the land was owned and controlled by the Queensland Government.
No-camping signs sporting the council's logo at Ellis Beach were simply a "deterrent measure".
"Under current legislation, only DTMR has the authority to regulate camping on its land," she said.
"This cannot be delegated to council."
Smithfield Police Station officer-in-charge Senior Sergeant Ed Lukin said current legislation did not allow police or the council to enforce camping regulations on land controlled by DTMR.
"Both QPS and Cairns Regional Council have previously asked the local (DTMR) office to put signs up in this area so that the regulations can be enforced," he said.
"Cairns Regional Council Officers and QPS met with TMR officials recently (approximately four to five weeks ago) and again requested that TMR install signs and begin enforcement. "TMR stated that they would erect signs the next day in that area.
"QPS can assist public officials in the execution of their duties and I have informed TMR that, if needed, Smithfield Police stand ready with a negotiated response, in assisting them in the enforcement of the above provisions by providing a presence if it is requested."
Barron River MP Craig Crawford said he had also been involved.
"I have spoken to (police) Minister Ryan and (main roads) Minister Bailey about this issue and am working actively as the local member with both departments to address the situation," he said.
In the meantime, campers are not being asked to leave.
Cr Olds said the council had offered to maintain any public composting toilet the State Government would fund at the sites, but to no avail.
"They didn't want to do it - that was less than a year ago," he said.
Mr Zipf and his friends would appreciate any extra amenities.
"There's nothing here, it's basically just a carpark, probably made for people coming here to enjoy the beach," Mr Zipf said.
"I think toilets and a trash bin would be most appreciated, or even the best for this place to keep it in shape and not to get too messy.
"The next public toilet is either Clifton Beach at the shopping centre."
Mr Zilm noticed the Ellis Beach public toilet had been cut off.
"I think they had water issues," he said.
Those amenities, previously watered from a pump and pipes at nearby Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows, are now running dry.
The park's management have decided to turn off the tap that once supplied the facilities in a last ditch protest for action.
It means the general public could now also find themselves frantically digging shallow graves when nature calls.
Originally published as 'You dig a hole': Squatters turn beaches into dump