Dunk Island contains some locally significant rock art and middens, demonstrating the island was important to two local Aboriginal tribes.
Coonanglebah meaning “The Island of Peace and Plenty” was traditionally shared between the Bandjin and Djiru people who have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years. What today is reef was once a coastal plain known to the Aboriginal inhabitants as “eastern grey (kangaroo) country ”. Some years ago the sea levels rose creating the Family Islands. Aboriginal people paddled to the islands to collect, hunt and gather the rich resources. Knowledge of the region is passed on through traditional stories.
Today, paintings in rock shelters show images of turtles, birds, echidnas and fish; these paintings, along with shell middens, provide tangible evidence of the Aboriginal peoples’ long association with the islands. Despite the many changes since European settlement, the Djiru and Bandjin people still retain a strong connection to the Family Islands and take part in its management. An important creation story for the island is that of Girroo Gurrll, an Aboriginal ancestral spirit, part man but mostly eel, who named islands and local waters in his travels.
European discovery and settlement
The Family Islands consist of nine, mostly small granite islands. Bedarra and Thorpe Islands are privately owned and not included within the Family Islands National Park.
Captain James Cook named the group the Family Islands in June 1770. The largest island of the group (“The Father Isle”) was named Dunk Island after Lord Montague Dunk, the Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the British Admiralty. The second largest island (“The Mother Isle”) wasn’t named until 1886 when Lieutenant Richards surveyed the region giving the islands the names of Richards and his officers. Then acclaimed author E.J. Banfield christened the Mother Isle with the name Bedarra – referring to the Aboriginal name of Biagurra. Banfield’s novel “The Confessions of a Beachcomber” inspired the first Europeans to take up residency on Bedarra.
During World War II Dunk was part of a network of surveillance points along Australia’s east coast. The airstrip was built in 1941 and, in 1942 the No. 27 Radar Station Dunk Island was built by the Royal Australian Air Force on Mt Kootaloo, providing constant surveillance of the coast. Banfield’s original bungalow became the living quarters for the men staffing the radar station.
A brief history of the ownership of Dunk Island.
Situated four kilometres off the coast of Tropical North Queensland near Mission Beach, Dunk Island is approximately 140km from Cairns and 235km from Townsville.
Dunk Island has attracted world-wide attention since the end of the 19th century thanks to E.J. Banfield and his novel, “Confessions of a Beachcomber”. Given only six months to live, the editor of the Townsville Daily Bulletin longed for a more peaceful life. On his first visit to Dunk Island in 1886 Banfield was immediately taken by its pristine beauty, and chose to live out his remaining days on Dunk Island. Banfield and his wife Bertha established a small farm that quickly became self-sufficient, assisted by the island’s Aboriginal inhabitants. Banfield defied his prognosis and lived for another 26 years. In 1908 he published his novel which quickly became world renowned, establishing Dunk Island as an exotic island paradise. Banfield passed away in 1923, his wife ten years later, and their remains were buried together on the island they loved.
Captain Robert Brassey acquired Dunk Island for £10,000 in 1934 using the Banfield’s bungalow as the beginnings of a tourist resort for wealthy Victorians. However, the first true resort on Dunk was opened in 1936 and owned by Robert’s son, Hugo Brassey, before it was annexed during World War II. In the 1960s Dunk became a playground for the rich and famous such as Sean Connery, Henry Ford II and former Australian Prime Ministers Harold Holt and Gough Whitlam. Trans Australian Airlines acquired Dunk Island in 1976 and undertook a major refurbishment of the resort. Qantas Airways became owners in 1992 in the takeover of Australian Airlines (TAA), with P&O Australian Resorts adding the property to their portfolio in December 1997. An $8 million upgrade began in March 1998 with the property transformed as the ‘Island of Peace and Plenty’. Voyages Hotels & Resorts took over in July 2004 as part of their acquisition of P&O Australian Resorts.
In March 2006, Tropical Cyclone Larry devastated the property and spawned a multi-million dollar reconstruction. The rainforest canopy that once cocooned Dunk Island was trimmed by the force of Cyclone Larry and the resort now boasts spectacular views across the beach to the mainland. In September 2009, the World Heritage-listed island was acquired by Pamoja Capital, operating under their management company Hideaway Resorts. The island was once again victim to mother nature in 2011 and felt the full force of Cyclone Yasi. The resort was devastated with much of the infrastructure severely damaged and Pamoja Capital chose to sell rather than rebuild again. In 2012 Family Islands Group purchased the resort and in 2019 sold to Mayfair Iconic Properties, part of the Mayfair 101 group of companies.