Peter Gash - Steward for the new millennium
Extract from Lady Elliot Island - Great Barrier Reef Australia, Chapter 11, by Anthony Walsh. this book can be purchased from the island shop.
Unlike one of his predecessors, Don Adams, Peter Gash's first vision of Lady Elliot Island was from a boat just a metre or so above the indigo waters of the South Pacific Ocean. But it would be his love of flying that would eventually bring him back to the island and make him its 21 st century steward.
"I first saw the island in 1979, when I came over by boat with some friends from my profession in motor cycle racing. I had never seen such a beautiful place, never seen coral before.
"We came ashore and snorkeled, and that was it for me. I was hooked. I just knew when I had finished with motor cycles I was going to have something to do with the reef:'
One of the group, a vibrant young lady named Julie, would later become his wife.
But where would his path lead, to boats or planes? Peter couldn't decide so being the practical person he is, opted for flying boats.
But that phase in his life had to wait because from age 17 to 24 years, Peter rode for Team Yamaha as a professional motorcross rider. When he retired, he had not forgotten his dream and learned to fly. After gaining his wings, he began as a pilot in 1985 for Seair Pacific, previously called Southport Floatplanes, which operated from the Broadwater on Queensland's Gold Coast.
Four years later, Peter and Julie purchased the business and activated another dream come true with day flights to the lagoon at Lady Musgrave Island, the next coral cay just north of Elliot.
Still the other 'Lady of the Reef' beckoned. Indeed, nearly every day as Peter flew his passengers overhead on the way to Musgrave.
"I would always look down on Lady Elliot and wonder how I could link it with Lady Musgrave;' Peter recalled. "As a pilot, you have a lot of time to think, so I pondered all the possibilities and eventually I came over to the island in 1993 and met the then leasee, Bevan Whitaker and discussed various options with him because by then I had quite a lot of aeroplanes having moved to mainly land-based aircraft.
"Bevan also had a Nomad, an Australian built twin-engine aircraft which he was keen to sell and after due diligence I got interested in that aeroplane, and I saw the pieces of the jigsaw coming together.
"I subsequently made an arrangement with Bevan. I bought that Nomad from him on the understanding that I could bring my passengers to Elliot, and in return, I would also fly his guests to the island in the Nomad. I also offered to use my Cessna Caravan aircraft which carries 13 passengers as he needed more capacity. He loved the caravan. He could see what a good machine it was, so that was the beginning of it:'
With the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef at either end of the airstrip, Peter could see that the future for his business was right there on Lady Elliot Island, right on the Great Barrier Reef. and the only coral cay along the entire Great Barrier Reef with an airstrip capable of landing fixed-wing aircraft.
"We could land here 365 days of the year, whereas on Lady Musgrave because of the limitations of tide and winds we could only land 20 days of the month:'
Peter and Bevan worked successfully together for the next 1 0 years promoting the special attractions of Lady Elliot Island. Its ease of access from the Gold Coast, the most popular regional holiday destination in Australia, resulted in hundreds of passengers a month taking the scenic 400 km day or extended trip to Lady Elliot Island.
When the lease on the island came up for renewal in 2005, Peter invited business associates Gold Coast Lawyer Michael Kyle and former Australian Surf Life Saving Champion Grant Kenny to be his partners in the LEI venture. This group became the successful leaseholder.
His wife, Julie, who was an accomplished scuba diver long before Peter had ever put his head underwater, also shares Peter's love of the island. Their two children 14 year-old, Amy and nine year-old, Chloe also vote it as their favourite place.
"Amy has a plan to become a marine biologist. Chloe on the other hand sat in my chair one day and announced that she intends to run the business:'
While that may be so, Peter and his partners and staff will be kept busy in the meantime. Running an island resort 80 km out to sea presents a multitude of challenges on a daily basis.
"There is a 150-bed resort with around 30 staff on duty at anyone time and the logistics are all our responsibility compared with a similar sized complex on the mainland. We generate our own power, desalinate the seawater for drinking purposes and ablutions, maintain a sewerage treatment plant and recycle most of our rubbish.
"We maintain dive boats and run a fleet of air'craft. As well, our major emphasis is on caring for this unique environment;' Peter stressed.
"We plan to gradually phase out the introduced species of flora such as lantana and weeds. But over the years, they have done a good job of bringing back this degraded landscape, which was denuded during the guano-mining period. In a simple way, they protected it and bound it together. But now is the time to replace the introduced species with flora that belonged in the original landscape: including the pisonia tree, pandanus palm, octopus bush, natural ground cover and the tournefortia tree.
"We will also keep some of the casuarina or commonly called the she-oak. They have done a really good job. By clearing all the lantana out it will enable the ground-nesting birds more room on the ground as space is always a problem on coral cays.
"Many of the she-oaks are at the peak of their growth and in fact that is why the authorities had to keep lifting the height of the tower above the lighthouse because of the extraordinary growth of those trees over the past 25 years. Mariners could not see the light for the tall trees.
"What a change since 1969 when Don Adams rolled out the airstrip and there was hardly a tree on the place except for a grove of pisonia trees near where he built the A frame. As these trees die naturally and break down, mulch is produced to assist in covering the coral base of the island, " Peter said proudly at the thought of the continued re-vegetation of the island.
Around the year 2000, the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service and the island resort manager, Steve Heath and his staff planted about 50 pisonia trees on the western side of the runway as part of the continuing re-growth strategy.
The pisonia forests are now making good progress and are the preferred nesting sites of the white-capped noddy. Thousands of the birds fly to the island each year from October to March to mate and rear their young in precarious nests strung out along the branches of the towering trees.
Peter explained that on occasions he puts the floats on the Cessna Caravan and flies out to the Coral Sea islands of Wreck Reef, Porpoise Cay and other pristine
reefs and cays on the Great Barrier Reef to gain an on-going appreciation of untouched nature and undamaged landscape.
"I can model the rehabilitation of Elliot on that completely intact environment as well as what's on Lady Musgrave Island which is just north of here and can be seen in the distance on most days of the year:'
Prior to the nesting season in 2006, Peter and his staff cleared some of the introduced undergrowth adjacent to the airstrip on the northern end of the island. " We just mowed this track and made some cleared areas for the birds as they won't nest in the long grass and we are trying to give an option of not nesting on the airstrip. We think this is a solution for all of us:'
With the resort lease now covering the whole island, Peter sees the limited future growth of accommodation options for guests only progressing in complete harmony with the renewed environment.
"We have this climate change issue right throughout the globe now and I am very concerned. So I see this island in a way as a gift to the people of Australia and the world as an educational resource of what wrongs can be put right.
"Day visitors or extended-stay visitors can come out here and enjoy the beauty of the reef and still see the reef while it is as pristine as it is, dive and see the best coral in the world and learn about the environment both above and below the waterline.
We can take an educational initiative here and teach them about what the reef is, how every person can make an impact on this climate change issue and still enjoy a holiday. It's a triple win situation. We are winning because we are running a business with an environmental and good old recreational focus, the guests are winning because they are coming to a beautiful location and the environment is winning because we are getting the message out to look after the environment;' Peter said proudly.
As steward of Lady Elliot Island for the following decades, it doesn't get much better than this for Peter Gash.