Many new residents on the Sunshine Coast may not know the story of the La Balsa raft and how La Balsa Park in Harbour Parade, Buddina obtained its name.
Nearly 46 years ago on November 5, 1970, after 161 days at sea aboard a raft made of balsa logs, four dedicated, ragged looking adventurers were towed into the calm waters of the Mooloolah River.
The raft, known as La Balsa, had departed Guayaquil, Ecuador on May 29, 1970. It was carried mostly by prevailing currents and winds, drifting 13,700 km to the Australian coast.
The aim of the La Balsa expedition was to show that it was possible for contact to have occurred between pre-Columbian South American cultures and those of the Pacific region.
La Balsa’s Spanish captain Vital Alsar, Marcel Modena, Gabriel Salas and Norm Tetreaul and their cat Minet made history by proving this theory.
The enterprising Nambour Chronicle newspaper had chartered the pleasure launch Capri skippered by Mooloolaba’s Don Tracey, to search for the crew as they neared the coast.
Don was an experienced pilot for the government launch Matthew Flinders based at Mooloolaba and had taken the day off to look for La Balsa.
With assistance from a Neptune search aircraft, the Capri first sighted the raft, about eight kilometres off Double Island Point, nine hours after leaving Mooloolaba. The Capri then towed La Balsa to Mooloolaba Harbour, ending an epic journey just after midnight.
The raft was initially moored on Landsborough Shire’s Kawana side of Mooloolah River where La Balsa Park is now situated.
On November 6, an alert Landsborough Shire Council parks and gardens employee, Jim Case, took his own boat over to the La Balsa crew who he noticed over the river on Mooloolaba’s side.
Jim ferried his boat over, picked them up and brought them over to Kawana side where staff had prepared a concrete pad in what is now known as La Balsa Park. This was planned so the crew members could place their foot prints in the concrete as a memorial to the historic event.
La Balsa raft was moved to a prominent position in front of Mooloolaba Yacht Club on November 8, 1970.
The public went wild with excitement and young enterprising boys who owned dinghies charged 40 cents a trip to row interested onlookers close to the raft. The media came to town and hundreds rowed and swam near the raft such was the atmosphere.
The publicity due to the arrival of the raft was a tourism promoter’s dream, making the rest of the world aware of the newly named Sunshine Coast region.
Quick to seize the opportunity, Maroochy Shire’s chairman, the popular Ed De Vere, organised a press conference to take place in the early hours of the morning. The press conference arranged by him was packed with a contingent of international press, radio and television reporters representing papers and networks from all over the world.
On November 6, 2500 residents of Nambour’s total population of 6500 packed Currie Street.The four intrepid adventurers were driven through Nambour on the back of a truck in a parade about 4pm on a rainy day with the Nambour and Maroochy district band playing in the lead.
Chairman De Vere escorted the four men into the Maroochy Shire Council reception area where they signed the visitor’s book before attending an official reception in the council chambers. The Maroochy Shire chairman extended to Captain Alsar and his three crew a key to the shire and the freedom of Maroochy Shire for as long as they were on the Sunshine Coast.
You might ask what became of La Balsa’s mascot, Minet the cat? Quarantine officers advised a cat from Ecuador could not be allowed into Australia and they found a cat loving Swedish ship’s master in Brisbane who was prepared to adopt Minet forever and save her life.
Captain Helleman, master of the 10,200 ton cargo ship Cirrus, and his new marine loving cat Minet soon sailed for America.
The raft was towed to Brisbane and was moored in the upper reaches before being towed closer to the city of Brisbane. It was later placed on display at Garden City shopping centre near Mt Gravatt and a civic reception and a parade was also held in Queen Street, Brisbane.
La Balsa became very popular in Australia visiting Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
At the time, she saw much more of this country than we the crew ever did. Afterwards, she was placed on a ship and sent to Spain, where her captain was born in Santander. However, nothing could take the place of the Sunshine Coast’s experience when La Balsa and the crew arrived in the Mooloolah River almost 46 years ago.
Thanks to Sunshine Coast Council’s Heritage Library Officers for the words and picture Sunshine Coast for the images.