The people who shaped Port Douglas: Mick Berwick

The people who shaped Port Douglas Feature: Mike Berwick

WORDS by Gavin King

Published Tuesday 17 May 2016

At different moments in conversation with Mike Berwick you sometimes get the feeling his steely gaze could stop a roaring bulldozer dead in its tracks.

As someone who once led the blockade to stop the logging of ancient rainforest for the planned construction of a road to Cape Tribulation, it is a superhuman power that would probably come in handy.

This certain narrowing of the eyes and sudden switch of focus flicks on and off whenever pet topics close to Mike’s heart are raised.

Mention his role in the radical struggles to save the Daintree rainforest back in the early 1980s and that resolute look swiftly appears. Talk about the fulcrum point between tourism and the environmental movement and there it is again. Ask him what constitutes the soul and spirit of the Port Douglas region and he’ll pause, look you straight in the eye and give you his unfiltered take on it with clarity and conviction.

If anyone can wax lyrical about the past, present and future of the lush coastal strip running from the Bloomfield River in the north to Ellis Beach in the south, it is Mike Berwick. Mike has been a lot of things during his four decades living and working in the region, and most of them revolve around his passion for the pristine tropical environment he has helped preserve and protect ever since he and friends bought a 180 acre property near Cooper Creek in the mid-1970s.

It was a wild and isolated place back then, and still is in many respects. The Daintree River ferry doesn’t break down as much as it used to and there are more families living there now than the dozen or so who inhabited the area when he first arrived. But the challenges of living so remote and so immersed in the dense, untamed ecosystem of the world’s oldest rainforest remain. It is a legacy due in large part to Mike’s early role as a leader of the campaign to protect the Daintree from housing and road development and the  World Heritage listing of 10,000 sq kms of tropical forest s back in the early 1980s.

After saving the rainforest from the actions of politicians, Mike began writing about them for the local newspaper, becoming the first journalist to shine a light on the hitherto secretive Douglas Shire Council in the latter part of the 1980s.

But of all the career moves in Mike’s 65-odd years, it is his tenure as the former Douglas Shire Mayor from 1991 to 2008 that is perhaps his most important contribution to the region, and the nation more broadly. He stuck to his principles and upset the proverbial apple cart more than a few times on his way to winning a string of elections in a remarkable 17-year career in public office.

In his own words, Mike will probably tell you he is “loved and loathed in equal measure”. Most political leaders - including the successful ones - generally are.But in the words of many others, be they friend or foe, Mike is also the living, breathing embodiment of the ecologically sustainable spirit of the wet tropics region.

It is a life-long vocation he almost never started.When he relocated to Cooper Creek with his partner Jane King, he intended to vanish from society and escape its doomsday troubles altogether. In a sort of post-university existential crisis, Mike believed the world was headed for environmental and economic collapse. Mike wasn’t alone in this pessimistic, apocalyptic view of global affairs. It was the Seventies after all.

“I went to the Daintree to get away from society,” Mike explains in between steely glances and sips of his flat white. “I’d dropped out, I’d had enough, I thought the world was shot and I wanted to get as far away from it all as possible.

“I learnt very quickly that type of approach had no future, because there was no place to run away to. Besides, it was a cop out anyway. “It wasn’t until plans were unveiled to subdivide a huge area of land into rural residential lots in the Daintree and Cape Tribulation area in the late 1970s that I first got involved in the conservation movement.

“By the time we had the Bloomfield Road blockade and the fight for World Heritage listing I was standing squarely in the political world and became increasingly active in the conservation movement.

“Like anything, it was a real mix of characters. You get the fruit loops, you get the forward thinkers, you get the full gamut of people. I enjoyed that role and my involvement with the movement immensely.

”After his, Jane King, bought the local newspaper in the mid-1980s, Mike’s focus switched to journalism. During his reporting career, he had regular encounters with dodgy developer Christopher Skase and covered everything from council meetings to the local footy on weekends.

Over the years, his network of contacts and relationships with community, sporting and environmental groups led to the next logical step in his career trajectory. Tired of writing about the questionable antics of local councillors, he decided he could do a better job himself. In 1991, he made his run for the high office of Mayor.

While he was an economic and fiscal conservative focused on disciplined budgetary management, Mike’s passion to retain the unique character and landscape of the Douglas Shire was his driving force from the very beginning of his long stint in local government.

“Development is fine, it will always happen, but we want quality development in the Douglas Shire. We don’t want a pile of crap,” Mike says in that matter-of-fact manner he became renowned for.

“I think one of the things that saved Port Douglas from looking like everywhere else was when we put in really tough landscaping requirements for new developments. It was about hiding the concrete with tropical vegetation. That helped retain Port as a leafy, tropical destination, a place that wasn’t over-developed.

“Douglas Shire is not like so many of these other places where you have coastal strip development and you no longer have any boundary between urban and rural development. “Douglas Shire is still beautiful and it’s beautiful because we killed off rural development. We said ‘no more rural-residential development’, we had heaps of it, no development on the hillsides, protect the agricultural land absolutely and keep the urban footprint tight to prevent sprawl. “I think that is one of the key factors that has helped keep Douglas beautiful and financially viable.

”A kernel of truth revealing Mike’s enduring zeal for maintaining the beauty of the Douglas Shire can be found in a caustic one-liner he delivered as a keynote speaker at a conference on the Gold Coast in the 1990s.

He was asked by an audience member what made the Douglas region so special.His response sums up the way he has shaped Port Douglas and the surrounding region over the past 40 years: “I told them that for one thing we don’t want Douglas to look like the Gold Coast. “They didn’t like that very much. My comment made it on to the front page of the Gold Coast Bulletin and I got lots of angry phone calls. I just said ‘look, it’s true’. “Once upon a time the world was full of Douglas Shires and very few Gold Coasts. Now, the world is full of Gold Coasts and there are very few Douglas Shires. And we’re going to hang on to what’s different and what’s beautiful here.

“That’s our edge. And there’s no way we’re going to let this place end up looking like all the rest.”