Ghosts of Cossack: new plans revive hope

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Tom ZaunmayrPilbara News
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VideoCossack landowners discuss the long-running issue of development in the coastal Pilbara ghost town.

It was the curious case of the costly cable, purchased in 2005 to supply power to Cossack, that brought the great hope of development crashing back to earth yet again for the long-suffering landowners of the historic town.

Stuart and Michelle Otto remember the debacle well.

The Karratha couple had bought land in Cossack in the mid-2000s after hearing of well-progressed plans to open the town to residential development.

“Our son Jake was 10 years old at the time, so it would have been good for him to have that opportunity to grow up there with us,” Mr Otto said. “Cossack has a beautiful ambience about it and the opportunity came to buy a block of land, so we did.

“Kevin Richards, the Shire of Roebourne president at the time, had purchased cable to upgrade power.

“It was understood the water supply from the main road was able to upgrade water to the central town area, and there was the Clark family there developing business.” Everything was lining up for Cossack, so the Otto family bought into the dream, but what followed were the same frustrations experienced by landowners who had been through this before.

In a letter addressed to former WA Heritage Council director Ian Baxter in 2005, former local MLA Fred Riebeling was perplexed after being advised it was not possible to build on or sell blocks at Cossack.

Mr Riebeling mentioned $1.3 million from local and State governments to establish power and water infrastructure had been secured, but Federal Government funding had not been forthcoming.

With plans to develop Cossack falling through the cracks once again, some of the cable was used for the Karratha Airport, and the remainder auctioned in 2015.

One family who has lost more than most were the Clarks.

Merilyn and Chris Clark sunk about $1 million into a tourism business based at Cossack from 2000 on the understanding tourism would pick up when development went ahead.

By 2003, their business incorporated boat tours on the estuary, a cafe and catering business, and contracts with major bus companies to bring tourists into town.

“We started up on the back of the Shire making certain commitments about power supply, which was limited. Those commitments never came through,” he said.

“Development got bogged down due to issues around flooding, to the extent the ongoing viability of the business was questionable.

“The environmental issues would have made it difficult for the Shire to come to decisions about investing in the area.”

Come Christmas 2005, the Clarks called time on their venture, citing lack of reliable power as the major factor in the decision to walk away.

“We had to employ a junior on Sunday mornings just to stand out at the RCD unit to keep it running,” he said. “We had installed reverse- cycle air-conditioning but that sat there idle because there wasn’t enough electricity to drive it.

“It was disappointing because it had potential — it could have been the social centre of that part of the Pilbara.”

Mr Clark said had development gone ahead, the bus companies he worked with were keen to fill the beds of an accommodation facility with their passengers.

The collapse of Cossack Adventure Cruises led to Mr Riebeling labelling all levels of government a “disgrace” over their inaction.

“The Heritage Council, Water Corporation, Roebourne Shire and the State Government have all let these people down,” he said.

It has been 12 years since the Clarks shut shop and now there is a new player in town, raring to have another crack at realising the tourism potential of Cossack.

Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation has grand plans for Cossack, including creating a living historical village to give tourists a glimpse of Pilbara life in the pioneer days, and a large arts and cultural events calendar.

It is a plan that the landowners support. They want to develop their blocks to suit the style of building befitting of a heritage site.

The Otto family is cautiously confident in NYFL’s plans. They say the indigenous organisation sees the town the same way they do, as the jewel of the North West.

“We have been on the same page with the City of Karratha for that long, in that they have seen Cossack to be a cost burden,” Mr Otto said. “So we’re opening our eyes in anticipation that NYFL will be able to develop commercialism and the landowners are then able to develop land according to a building code.”

It is now 35 years since the Shire of Roebourne put a moratorium on development in Cossack in place, pending creation of a master plan.

Landowners continue to raise their spirits in the hope this time it will be different. While there is optimism in this new pitch, for the long-suffering landowners of Cossack, enough is enough. For them, this is the last chance to get it right.

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