The weight of the Queen’s baton carried by Betty Mergard in 2018 will feel light compared with the heavy burden borne by the Agnes Water/1770 community since the loss of the fishing trawler Dianne in heavy seas two weeks ago.
The matriarch of one of the families who established Agnes Water and 1770 as the tourist destination it is today, reflected on her community’s response to emergency calls, forged back in the days when there was simply nobody else:
“Thirty years ago, because we had the only boat available in the creek, besides doing the charters, Des was first response for many years for anything that happened at sea,” Betty said of her late husband, Des Mergard.
“In the case of any drownings, we had the responsibility of caring for the bodies until the police could come. We had no police here,” she said.
“The air-sea rescue was a very small group. It was established around about that time, we had to do it, really.”
That time was shortly after 1984 when the Mergard family moved to Agnes Water/1770 after Des built a charter-boat in the family backyard. This wouldn’t have been so unusual if that backyard hadn’t been in the landlocked farming community of Mundubbera. This was to become the MV James Cook, the first Discovery Coast fishing charters to the Great Barrier Reef.
“He was involved in logging and dozing and house removals at that time,” Betty said.
“Then we won a tender to build a boat repair/hire facility and marina at Round Hill Creek.”
“We started work Christmas of ’84 and that’s when it all started, the years of hard work and the triumphs and tragedies you might say.”
After establishing the marina, Des, Betty and their five children spent the intervening decades establishing new and innovative tourism businesses in the area – experiences which have become synonymous with a trip to the region such as the amphibious LARC vehicle.
“Des was the first one to start the tourist stuff. We’d been here about ten years and he had a dream, he’d always wanted an amphibious LARC vehicle so he could get up to Bustard Head,” she said.
In the family’s can-do style, the 1770 LARC! Tours were established in 1994, with Des, Betty and son, Neil buying their first Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo (L.A.R.C) vehicle from a car yard in Rockhampton
“Neil was eleven when he came here and he started working at the Marina as soon as he finished school when he was about fifteen,” Betty said.
“He had his qualifications to drive the boat before he was sixteen, but he wasn’t allowed to drive it – he couldn’t get his ticket because he was too young.”
Neil now owns the 1770!LARC business with his wife Katherine. He and brothers Mark and John, who run the Marina at 1770 established by their parents, have been part of the search team scouring the coast for remnants of the “Dianne” and using the LARC to drive people up to Bustard Head to search the beach.
The latest tragedy to befall the community, the loss of the Dianne is being felt by everyone, according to Betty:
“This is like a heavy dark cloud over the place at the moment,” she said.
“I remember when we have had other tragedies here, where nothing has been found, for years and years people would still be looking for anything, with the hope that there would be some closure for the parents of the victims,” she said.
She says each maritime tragedy provides a reminder of the dangers of a career at sea: “This has brought up a lot of things – a lot of people have been talking about the experiences from the olden days – always treat the sea as your master.”
It is exactly this close-knit community who will make up the bulk of the region’s representatives in the Queen’s baton relay, receiving recognition for their contribution to the development of the southern part of our region for decades:
“Our region will be represented by Ian Anderson, Allan Davis, Neale Inskip, Maxine Brushe, Pauline Dahl, Pamela Cawthray, Lynn Harms – I am very familiar with all of these families,” Betty said.
While the participants do not find out until November exactly when and where their leg of the relay will be, Betty says the day will be a huge celebration:
“There’s going to be a big picnic day in front of the Agnes Water caravan park and they’ll make a “tunnel of fame” for the people in the baton relay,” she said.
“I could fill a book. I’m going to write a book, I’ve got enough ammunition to fill at least one book. What do you think?”