Outback adventures of a 1960s Qld cop

Jock MacDonald was 20 when he set out on horseback to patrol a massive chunk of outback Queensland.

It was the early 1960s when policing was done a little differently.

"The file usually started with a telegram through the Department of Native Affairs on Thursday Island," the 72-year-old former police officer tells AAP.

"It would say: 'Joe Bloggs died yesterday no suspicious circumstances or something like that."

Mr MacDonald, a city boy from Melbourne, was fresh out of police college when he took up his first job in the outback town of Coen on Cape York. His posting covered 32,000 square kilometres of the peninsula.

"I had pictures in my mind of palm trees and flowing streams," he said.

"I came in from the airport and there was no grass on the ground and there was horses and cattle that had bones showing.

"In a way I was a bit disappointed but I soon got to know the local people here and in town."

The first Cape police station, initially a basic camp, was established in Coen in 1885 during the gold rush but it wasn't until 1892 that the area officially became a town.

In May 1962, when Coen boasted a couple of shops, a small hospital and most lived in basic corrugated iron homes, Mr MacDonald set out on what would be one of the last horseback patrols across the Cape.

He was joined by two indigenous trackers, Johnson Upton and Toby Horseboy, whose knowledge of the land and skills at spotting crucial markings, such as footprints or broken branches, proved vital for the task ahead.

The trio were tasked with investigating a dozen or so non-suspicious deaths, such as heart attacks, at missions across the peninsula on behalf of the Coroner.

They would also probe cattle theft allegations and other disputes.

The men had 16 horses, including pack horses, loaded with flour, rice, sugar, salt, beef and horse shoes.

They travelled across vast, often harsh, lands north to Lockhart River, west to Weipa and then south to Aurukun before returning home six weeks later.

During the patrol a horse become stuck in thick mud near Lockhart River.

"Despite all of the attempts to get him out of the bog he swam back across the creek and galloped into the night," Mr MacDonald said.

"I thought my career in the Queensland police had come to an end.

"I'd lost a horse and also included in the saddle pouch was a police revolver and if you lost a police revolver that was really a mortal sin."

Thankfully one of the trackers managed to hunt down the horse within a few hours.

Policing duties also extended to handing out food and clothing vouchers.

"In a way it was a paternalistic sort of relationship but it was a period of transition," Mr MacDonald said.

"We had a very good rapport with the people and I made very, very good friends with most of them."

Officer in charge of the Coen police station, Sergeant Matt Moloney, says although much has changed, there are many similarities between the role of remote officers today compared to the 60s.

"One of the things that was obviously very different was the isolation in the true sense of the word and the mode of transport," he said.

"But really not a lot has changed as you still have an individual covering a large area administering justice and acting as an arm of government."

Sgt Moloney says he admires officers like Mr MacDonald who worked in tough and challenging conditions and says he's proud to be part of a long line of officers stationed in the outback.

He says there's a high level of self-reliance and remote officers and their families are intertwined with the communities.

Sgt Moloney says in some ways he's jealous of Mr MacDonald's experiences, especially patrolling on horseback.

"I could only hope that I would have performed as well as my forbearers... I like that idea of being tested," he said.

Mr MacDonald's patrol in 1962 was one of the last as two years later the first police 4WD arrived at the Coen station.

As technology advanced and the road connecting the town to Cairns improved, more people arrived in the area and policing duties turned to missing persons cases, vehicle accidents and drug busts.

Mr MacDonald left Coen in the mid-1960s and retired in 1992 as the inspector overseeing stations from Cairns to the tip of the Cape.

Earlier this month he visited Coen as part of celebrations to commemorate 150 years of the Queensland Police Service.

He was also in town to farewell Australia's last indigenous police tracker, Barry Port, who retired from his posting at Coen after more than three decades of service.

Mr MacDonald, who met his wife Enid in Coen, says working in the town had its challenges but he wouldn't have had it any other way.

"I look back and I think I was very, very lucky," he said. "In the city you're just another number."

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