The rapidly increasing demand for furniture in the growing middle classes of Victorian England was one of the prime causes of the development of the town of Ballina! The Richmond Valley had become the main source of the prized ‘red gold’ of cedar, and although the colonials used it for building and joinery work, by the middle of the nineteenth century most of those magnificent trees found themselves sailing half way around the globe to feed the Empire’s needs.
The Richmond River was discovered in 1828 by Captain Henry Rous, in the HMS “Rainbow”, and was named after the fifth Duke of Richmond. Early settlers travelled upstream to Broadwater, but the cedar-getters first came across the country from the Clarence River. As word spread, another party of cedar-getters and their families arrived in 1842 on the “Sally”, and a camp was established at what is now East Ballina, because of the high ground and good water supply.
The settlement was first known as Deptford, but as it grew an Aboriginal word ‘bullenah’ which meant ‘place where oysters are plentiful’ became the town’s name. With a town in Ireland named also named Ballina, the similar pronunciation meant that the indigenous link was all but lost through the change in spelling. However an appreciation of the area’s seafood certainly remains, with strong fishing industries and seafood featuring strongly in the regional cuisine. The Big Prawn tourist attraction is one of the more whimsical expressions of the continuing importance of the sea to the town.
Although Ballina is now a booming town of almost 18,000 people enjoying the lifestyle and services available, prior to white settlement just over 160 years ago, there had been a continuous settlement of the region by coastal Aboriginal tribes for millennia. With the abundant food and sub-tropical climate, the tribes had the time to develop a rich cultural life, and middens at Chickiba Creek areas of East Ballina show at least 2,000 years of more or less continual occupation in that spot alone.
The climate and the stunning coastal scenery are still major factors bringing people to Ballina. The town is growing steadily with both families and retirees moving in, and tourists wanting to enjoy a quieter and more family-oriented holiday than some of the busier, funkier or more glitzy spots further up the coast.
Accommodation ranges from camping and caravan parks to family motels, to boutique bed and breakfast and beautifully renovated heritage guest houses. With a jet airport as well as being on the Pacific Highway, Ballina is the gateway to the Northern Rivers, a position it has held continuously since white settlement, although the forms of transport have changed radically. Early white settlers first used Ballina as access for timber, and then as the gateway to pastoral lands opening up around the inland settlements of Casino and Lismore. The rivers were the key to transport up and down the coast, until roads and rail could be developed.
The farmers moved onto the lands formerly occupied by the ‘Big Scrub’, which was the name given to the lush subtropical rainforest covering the area, and set about growing sugar cane and dairying. Much of the land was not suited to cane, and by the turn of the century dairying predominated, with each family providing the farm’s intensive labour. The cane areas consolidated around the bigger cane processing mills, with the huge Broadwater Mill established in 1881 still operating, though the river transport system of punts and tugs was replaced in 1974 by roads, and mechanical harvesting became the norm. By the 1960’s the dairying industry was also changing and many family-run small farms were no longer economic. Many farms were sold or consolidated into larger properties, and beef cattle and other cash crops were developed in the lush green countryside.
Other new crops around the region include tea tree, which is a native bush grown for the oil which is extracted from its leaves. The highly antiseptic properties of tea tree oil were known to the Aboriginals of the coastal region, and it was also used as a folk remedy by pioneers. Although pushed from favour by synthetic products after the second World War, tea tree oil extraction and production of associated medical and health products has become a major industry, with pioneers Thursday Plantation leading the way. Their headquarters on the Pacific Highway includes an education centre, sculpture garden, tea tree maze and café.
The Richmond River today is popular for recreational boating, sailing and fishing, and cruises on the MV Richmond Princess or the MV Bennelong are good ways to see the countryside from a different view. Even if today’s countryside is not what the early settlers saw, the scenery is still green and beautiful and it is still a much more tranquil way of travelling than high speed on the highway. Many cruises offer meals and commentary, and boats may also be chartered.
The maritime history of the area can also be appreciated at the Ballina Naval & Maritime Museum, which features a range of local items, photographs and information along with the famous La Balsa raft. The raft on display was made from the combined remains of the three balsa wood rafts which crossed the Pacific from Ecuador to Ballina in 178 days in 1973. The expedition, lead by Vital Alsar, was undertaken to prove that early South Americans could have crossed the Pacific by raft, and the rafts were constructed using only the materials and techniques available to the early settlers of South America.
Other historic vessels of the area include the PV Richmond, a pilot vessel which served for 50 years on the river, and is now displayed behind the Pilot’s Cottage in Norton Street, Ballina; and the MV Florrie, the oldest serving river boat which ran from 1880 to 1975 and is now on the bank at Regatta Reserve, Norton Street Ballina.
The surrounding farming areas are fascinating for country drives, and there are many smaller towns and villages with good coffee shops plus craft shops, galleries, antiques and boutiques for those in need of some souvenirs or retail therapy. The ‘Big Scrub’, which was the initial attraction for the timber-getters, is now reduced to a few remnants in the region, but one 17.5 hectare area can be viewed at the Victoria Park Nature Reserve on the Alstonville Plateau. A boardwalk has been created to lead through this magnificent reminder of how the whole region once looked. There are also many national parks and world heritage-listed areas in the region, which can be visited in day trips and area ideal for bushwalkers and conservationists. Eco-tours are also available around many of these areas, and offer four-wheel drive guided tours and walks plus barbecue lunches and commentaries.
As much of Ballina is reasonably flat, it’s perfect for cyclists wanting to sightsee whilst getting some light exercise. A shared pathway for both cyclists and pedestrians runs around Ballina, with popular vantage points from the lighthouse and Shelley Beach, which are ideal for whale spotting during the migration season (June to October) or for sighting dolphins playing in the waves year round. The coastguard tower volunteers also welcome visitors between 8am and 4pm, providing a very different river and ocean outlook. The Kerry Saxby pathway runs past the Olympic Pool and Waterslide to the Naval & Maritime Museum.
The Pioneer Memorial Wall is located at the Pioneer Cemetery, just over the Missingham Bridge, and is fascinating for anyone interested in the history of the region. The number of shipping disasters are grim reminders of the past, when the sea and rivers were the main form of transport, and many sea captains and crew have their last resting place in this scenic and peaceful spot. The cemetery had its last burials in 1915, but it was not until the 1950’s that the area was declared a rest park, and a wall was built containing all of the old headstones.
Historic buildings in the area include the Shaws Bay Hotel, which was originally Fenwick House, built by Captain Thomas Fenwick in 1886. A two-storey granite building roofed with slate, the Scottish Manor style building has cedar fittings including a magnificent staircase, and the dining room and saloon bar have been restored to their Victorian elegance. Riversleigh Guest House and Tea Rooms, opposite the Richmond River, was built in the 1880’s, and has been restored to six guestrooms and a café on the wide verandahs. Brundah, a heritage-listed Federation home was built in 1908 and now operates as a boutique bed & breakfast, with a pretty garden setting close to the centre of Ballina. The magnificent, heritage-listed Ballina Manor has recently been restored to its Edwardian splendour and now includes a function and conference centre and restaurant as well as luxury accommodation.
Just over an hour by jet from Sydney and just over two hour’s drive from Brisbane, Ballina is at the heart of the Northern Rivers, and provides a great base for a family holiday as well as access to everything in the region from national parks to theme parks.
- Population 18,000
- Transport Services – Jet Airport, Blanch’s Bus Service
- Council – Ballina Shire
- Sister City – Tokado, Japan