On the edges of the Clarence River on the New South Wales north coast, there has been the sweetest of archaeological finds.
NSW Government senior marine archaeologist Brad Duncan discovered the watery graveyards of more than 100 boats, which once served the sugar industry in an era when the Clarence River was a super highway for sugar transport.
The boats, known as punts, were used to transport sugar cane from local farms to the sugar mills from the 1870s to the early 1970s.
The river lies quiet now, except for kayakers and fishers, and it was a kayaking magazine that led Dr Duncan to the coordinates of his significant find around Harwood Island.
“It was very opportunistic and I thought I might be able to see that on Google Earth … and so I zoomed in,” Dr Duncan said.
“[I saw] this barge plain as day, and then next to it is this funny scalloped-shaped feature.
“Then I looked further down and there’s another one and another and they went all the way around the island.”
Seeing the curious shapes on Google Earth led Dr Duncan and a team of dedicated shipwreck detectives to set out for the mangroves of Harwood Island, specifically around the area of the current sugar mill.
“There was a report done on the Clarence River a few years ago and they identified around 30 [sunken punts],” Dr Duncan said.
However, Dr Duncan and his team had an inkling there were more than 30 wrecked punts around the island, which their field work confirmed.
Workhorses of the sugar industry
Punts did the grunt work of transport for the sugar industry for the best part of a century.
The vessels were used extensively throughout the Northern Rivers of NSW, Queensland and Fiji.
Dr Duncan expected to find the punts were from the 1970s, but he soon discovered the vessels, which were still largely intact, were from a variety of eras dating back as far the 1930s.
The punts were made from different materials throughout the decades, which helped Dr Duncan to date the wrecks.
“[It] went from timber barges to iron barges to steel barges,” he said.
“When the railway came in … all of the timber barges were replaced in 1934.
“So that means these [timber] barges were scuttled pretty much around that time and dumped along the edges of the island … making them historic shipwrecks which are protected under the Heritage Act 1977 — quite a find for us.”
How were the punts preserved underwater?
The fact that more than 100 punts were found surprised sugar industry historian Graham Smith.
“I’m still quite amazed that there could be that number there,” he said.
Mr Smith said tar might have played a big part in the preservation as all the punts were heavily tarred as part of their maintenance.
He said the unglamorous but extremely functional punts had found their place in history, despite being largely unremarkable in their heyday.
“History has a habit of not being interesting when it’s happening, but interesting 50 years later,” Mr Smith said.
“If there is a punt heaven, obviously they’ve found it, and that’s good.”