The Humpty Doo Rice Trail takes you some 70 kilometres from Darwin’s port to the Adelaide River coastal plain and internationally renowned Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. It provides the story of the failed Humpty Doo Rice Project, allowing you to see key locations and to consider its vision and rationale.
For more detailed information on the project, please refer to “The Humpty Doo Rice Project and Development of a Tourist Guide” booklet download it here
The story begins in 1953 with two men at a party in Hollywood, Los Angeles, and ends in 1966 with one man milling rice near Darwin. The two men were Harold Holt, Federal Minister for Labour & National Service, later to become Prime Minister of Australia, and American entrepreneur Allen Chase. The man left milling rice in 1966 was EJ (Ted) Kilpatrick.
The Northern Territory covers 1.3 million square kilometres, one sixth of Australia. In 1862 the explorer, John McDouall Stuart said the Northern Territory ‘could be the finest colony under the Crown – capable of growing any and every thing.’
The 1947 census indicates Darwin’s population was just 2,538. This number did not include Aboriginal people, who at that time were not recognised as citizens. They had no rights to land or say in the use of their traditional lands.
Experience of WW11 with bombing in northern Australia and concern about a communist push through eastern Asia, the Australian Government wanted to populate the north. It believed Asia would need rice to feed its growing population. Rice had been grown successfully in northern Australia in the late 1800s and the Government had established rice research stations at Kununurra in Western Australia and south east of Darwin in the Northern Territory.
The proposed rice growing areas were the sub-coastal plains of rivers to the east of Darwin, where average annual rainfall was over 1,300 mm. After meeting Holt in 1953, Chase visited the sub-coastal plains and was impressed. He said “This is exactly like the Nile Valley, only it is twice as good!” He formed a syndicate from his friends and associates to pioneer rice growing in the area.
The Chase syndicate included TV star Art Linkletter, movie actor Robert Cummings, radio actor Charles Correll, Signal Oil’s leader Samuel B. Mosher and American President Lines Chairman Ralph Davies.
The American Investors and Paul Cullen, founder of Australia’s first merchant bank, Mainguard (Australia) Limited, began with a $40,000 survey. The 1954 report stated: “The monsoon floods could be controlled to provide the right amount of water for rice cultivation, the land is so level and rich (11ft. topsoil in some spots) that it could be prepared for as little as $100 per acre, while four deep-running rivers in the area provide inexpensive transportation to the sea coast.”
In November 1955, the investment vehicle Territory Rice Limited (TRL) was incorporated in Sydney. The company received agricultural leases on 303,000 hectares of the sub-coastal plains of the Adelaide, Mary, Wildman, West, South and East Alligator rivers for growing rice, ie from the Adelaide River to Arnhem Land, including part of what is now Kakadu National Park.
Development commenced on the most accessible land: Humpty Doo Station on the western side of the Adelaide River. Just 60 km south east of Darwin, this was an isolated area with no made road, telephone line or power supply.
The Humpty Doo rice growing area was previously used for cattle. At the time of the Rice Project, no one gave a thought to consulting the Wulna Aboriginal people, Traditional Owners, who have lived off the land in this area for thousands of generations. They were involved in early pastoral enterprises, but not significantly in rice farming.
Territory Rice Limited (TRL) obtained equipment, prepared roads, developed irrigation channels, established a workers village, rice fields, pumping stations, an airfield, Fogg Dam, Harrison Dam and a rice mill at Coolalinga.
The Australian Government built a power line from Darwin for the project, other supporting infrastructure and established rice fields to research rice varieties and growing techniques. The Royal Australian Airforce’s Airfield Construction Squadron built Fogg Dam.
TRL was struggling financially from the beginning and rice farming was proving much more difficult than had been anticipated. Budgets were cut and in 1958 Mainguard was liquidated. Robert McCulloch, a wealthy American, took control but withdrew in 1960 when TRL, too, was liquidated with large debts.
Four men who had worked for TRL, Don Buck, Arthur Parker, Bob Parker and Ted Kilpatrick formed Rice Development Pty Ltd. They had the benefit of experience, if not great financial resources. They gained access to TRL equipment, accepted a one year at a time land lease and took responsibility for all expenses, profit or loss.
The four were more successful in rice growing, but lacked the support TRL had received from the Australian Government. In 1964, despite improved rice yields but needing to borrow heavily to re-equip, the farmers decided to cease operation and liquidated Rice Development Pty Ltd.
Although a commercial failure, the project’s legacy has been significant. It led to the population growth the government desired and left roads and a power supply that have been used by others to develop the Middle Point area including farms and tourism, eg Fogg Dam and Harrison Dam Conservation Reserves, Wetlands Top View Centre, the NT Government’s Beatrice Hill and Coastal Plains Research farms, private horticulture, a barramundi fish farm, the Australian Government Radio Transmitting Station, jumping crocodile and river cruises.
Visited by more than 100,000 people a year, Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve is internationally renowned for its diversity of habitat, its year round accessibility and for having the world’s greatest predator/prey biomass.