Leo Gabey, Whitsunday National Park Islands
Leo Gabey is a park ranger based at Airlie Beach. His patch includes the tourism mecca of the Whitsundays and Whitehaven Beach, famous for its white silica sands, and recently impacted by Cyclone Debbie.
How long have you worked in national parks?
I started with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) back in 2012 as part of a program employing Indigenous rangers to work on country. The Whitsundays is my mother’s country, Ngaro country. I jumped at this job as it gave me the chance to get more involved with my culture, to get out on the ocean, to visit sacred sites, and keep an eye out for tourism impacts on our country. Before becoming a park ranger, I was a boilermaker in the Proserpine Sugar Mill for about 16 years.
Which parks have you worked in?
I’ve worked on many of the Whitsunday and Lindeman islands, as well as the Brampton, Cumberland, Smith and Newry island groups off Mackay. The Whitsundays alone includes 74 islands so we have our hands full in this region!
What is your most memorable moment?
We had just completed some safety drills on our vessel Tomaya when we saw a visitor being swept away from her boat by the strong current. I deployed our tender, she was fighting against the current and was pretty distressed by the time we rescued her. It was lucky we were there and had just practised the same thing in our safety drill!
Can you describe your favourite national parks experience?
I love walking Whitsunday Peak on Whitsunday Island. You walk through different kinds of vegetation on the way to the top. It’s the highest point in the Whitsundays and you have 360 degree views over all the islands—beautiful scenery that you can’t see from a boat at sea level!
What is the best part about working in a national park?
Working as part of a team is the best part of the job for me. We all pitch in to help each other; we’re a well-tuned team. We work in a lovely place and every day is different—weeds, track maintenance, camp site maintenance and chatting to tourists. As a ranger you’re in the limelight, you’ve got to be ready with a friendly smile to answer questions and give advice. I actually look forward to Mondays… we go to Whitehaven Beach every Monday morning!
How did TC Debbie affect parks in your region?
Vegetation on the main islands and coral on the surrounding reefs were hit hard. Leaves were stripped from trees and we lost a lot of sand from Whitehaven Beach, along with most of our camping area and signs. Walking tracks were covered in trees and branches. But almost immediately the birds started coming back to the islands—that’s a good sign.
What was involved in the post-cyclone clean up?
Park rangers from Cooktown to Fraser Island came to help us in the first few weeks. We quickly moved bulldozers over to Whitehaven to push the sand back to restore the beach and protect the vegetation and we tidied up so it was open for business again in record time. We spent long hard days on the chainsaws—it took one crew three weeks to clear the Whitsunday Peak track. About two months after the cyclone, most sites are open again but we’ll still be cleaning up for the next four or five months.