Brooklyn Ferry Service
0448 10 10 16

Brooklyn Ferry Service
0448 10 10 16

Brooklyn Ferry Service
0448 10 10 16

PASSING OF THE CREAM-BOAT

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The men of the Sunrise start before dawn for a day of muscle-knotting work in scenes of peace and high beauty . . . Theirs is the last boat on the milk-can run on the Manning River, N.S.W.

The great tidal rivers of northern New South Wales have been a dependable route for transporting even the heaviest loads. Early settlers along the North Coast mostly arrived by ships which could navigate many miles upriver, and it was natural for settlements to begin on the rich river flats, where communications were most reliable.

While land clearing continued and farms spread inland, the river remained the highway. A glance at the map of northern New South Wales will show that all the main towns on the coastal plain have been built along the banks of these rivers. This also applies to long-established industries such as sugar mills and dairy factories.

In the days when roads were poor or even non-existent and horse- or bullock-drawn vehicles the only means of transport on land, riverboats could give a relatively fast and reliable service. So, during the latter part of the last century and up to the 1940s, the northern rivers were busy with water traffic. Not so many years ago, the weekly steamer from Sydney could be seen crossing the bar at the entrance to any of these rivers.

Today, commercial boats have decreased in number to a very few as their work is taken over by faster and more efficient road transport, replacing a vigorous and colourful period in the development of the country.

The estuary of the Manning River with its broad delta and 12 or so islands, separated by deep waterways, has supported riverboats for a much longer time than many other areas. The delta is about eight miles wide, from Crowdy Head in the north, down through Harrington to Old Bar in the south, and covers about 52 square miles. It is only in recent years that it’s main islands have been connected to the mainland by bridges.

The “cream-boats” of the Manning River – the boats that carry milk from dairy farm to factory – now represent a passing era in the history of the North Coast primary industry.

The first cream-boat to operate on the river was the steam launch, Premier, built at Coopernook shipyard on the Lansdowne River, a tributary of the Manning. It made a daily run down from the district’s first co-operative factory, on Mitchell’s Island, to the towns of Coopernook and Langley Vale, as well as Dumaresq and Oxley Islands.

Some time later a second steam launch, with the colorful name of Yankee Jack, was bought to extend the service to the river towns of Lansdowne and Wingham. This boat was originally a trader on the Macleay River.

The steam launches were eventually all replaced by diesel-engined boats. The last of these left on the cream boat run is the Sunrise, which will be taken off early in the coming year.

The Sunrise can carry up to 150 cans of milk, or 1200 gallons. Now that bridges to the islands have made possible the use of stainless-steel tanker trucks, each with a capacity of 2600 gallons, it is understandable that the last of the cream-boats should be nearing the end of its service to the dairying industry.

The run is concentrated around the edges of the delta and a short distance along the lower tributaries of the Manning, where the older farms lie close to the riverbank. The boat covers a distance of 50 miles a day and collects 60 to 80 cans of milk.

Many of the older men living in the Manning Valley started out in life working the cream-boats, an occupation for the physically fit. The eight-gallon cans of milk have an all-up weight of 118lb. and in those times the skipper of the boat and his assistant, loading and unloading 150 cans in one day’s run, would lift at least 15 tons.

It was heavy work and some of the cream-boat men are still remembered along the river for their feats of strength and stamina. There are stories of these men continuing the daily pickup with the difficulties of bad weather and floods added to the normally strenuous work.

Over the years the cream-boats have played their part in flood relief work, when heavy rains on the headwaters around Gloucester have brought a fresh down the river, covering the valley’s flood plains and the islands in the delta. Mitchell’s Island is the only one with a hill; the others are low-lying, rich silt flats rising six to ten feet above the water.

The present cream-boat run begins soon after 4.30 a.m. from the Co-operative Dairy Society’s factory at Taree. During winter the first two and a half hours of negotiating river channels and dropping off empty milk cans is done before the first light begins to brighten the sky.

This is where the riverman’s knowledge of channels, mudbanks, and the position of the islands comes to the fore. And on mornings when mist has settled on the river the work is even more difficult, particularly when the loading jetty being sought is a narrow walkway protruding only 20ft. out from the riverbank.

When travelling along the channels in these conditions, the skipper can see absolutely nothing beyond a few yards and navigation is by “feel.”

The first flush of dawn on the river is a beautiful sight, with the delicate pastel tints of the brightening sky reflected in the water, when the night wind has died away and the air is calm. At this time, even on a clear morning, small areas of low river mist begin to rise, grey-blue in color and turning to tendrils of vaporous gold as the sun’s first rays touch them. All too soon the warming light evaporates the mist and its brief beauty passes to be replaced by crisp morning sunlight.

Unloading empty cans and loading the milk goes on as the boat works its way along the maze of waterways. Sometimes the full cans of milk are waiting at the end of the jetty; at other stopping places the farmer will be moving his load on to the landing as the boat pulls in.

Here there is time for a few words while the work is completed, but the skipper can’t wait long as there is still a fair distance to travel.

At most stopping places the heavy cans are still transported from the milking shed to the jetty on small trolleys, known as trams, which run on wooden rails. The tram is pushed by hand and usually carries four cans.

Between pickups, while the boat is travelling along broader reaches, there is time for a sandwich and cup of tea or coffee and to watch pelicans, cormorants, and graceful wading birds collecting their morning food. An occasional shouted greeting will be heard from a passing fishing boat or men working oyster leases. Farmhouses, grazing cattle, and stretches of mangroves along the island banks appear and then recede into the distance. It is a good but hard life in the open air, and the cream-boat man gets to know everybody along the river.

With most of the pickup completed after calling at Mitchell’s, Mambo, and Oxley Islands, having sailed along Scotts Creek, the Lansdowne River, and Ghinni Creek, the cream-boat turns back toward Taree.

Moving along the various waterways, it passes under several of the bridges that have spelt the finish of this mode of river transport. Its broad hull settled a few inches deeper in the water under a load of nearly three tons of milk, the vessel moves up river at a steady ten knots. As it passes the riverside village of Croki and moves on toward the flat expanse of Dumaresq Island, the brief stops continue to collect full cans that were left as empties in the darkness of early morning.

Taree soon comes into view. There the milk cans are offloaded to a stepped conveyer belt, which carries them up the steep riverbank into the factory, and so the day’s work of the cream-boat man draws to an end.

Many people along the river will regret the passing of the cream-boats; it was a daily event they could set the clock by. However, like many other means of transport such as coaches and bullock wagons, which the cream boats partly replaced, their time has gone. To the people of the northern rivers they will always remain as a memory of times when life, even though hard, was a little more leisurely.

The ultimate fate of many of the boats withdrawn from service is not known; at least one finished its days on a mudbank in the lower Manning. The later boats, similar to the Sunrise and built by craftsmen at a Taree shipyard, were designed with a broad beam and shallow draft for river work, but their hulls still retain the smooth lines and curves of a good sea boat. One cream-boat has recently been converted into a tour boat; it makes daily frips from Taree upstream to Wingham, or down to the islands of the delta, and is proving very popular with visitors.

As they step aboard, I wonder how many of these people are aware of the part played by this brightly painted boat ln the history and development of the Manning River district?

Story & Pictures by Raymond Ferris

Australian Womens Weekly, 2 December 1970