Beyond the reef
Where the sea is dark and cold,
My love has gone,
And our dreams grow old.
There’ll be no tears,
There’ll be no regretting.
Will she remember me,
Will she forget?
I’ll send a thousand flow’rs
When the trade winds blow….
My mother Pat got her motorbike licence on Thursday Island. The bike was a 50cc Honda step-through she’d bought for getting around the island. Thursday Island is only 3.5 square kilometres in area but is sometimes very hot and humid – not comfortable for walking.
Nervous about the test and delighted that she’d passed it, Mum got back on the bike, started it while it was in gear, lurched forward into a ditch, broke her wrist, and never rode it again. That story became part of our family mythology.
Mum was an artist, and wherever she and Dad went, on T.I. and on the other islands of the Torres Strait, she revelled in the colours of sea and sky and island life.
My husband Con had been a teacher on Thursday Island, too, and he’s never grown tired of talking about the place: the amazing blue of the sea; turtle feasts; sharks under the wharf; the thrilling harmony of the singing in church. It seems music is life in the Torres Strait. Con talks about children who sing like angels and love to laugh, about the expressive Torres Strait Creole, or pidgin English as it was known; and he’s described the island itself to me.
Thursday Island (Waiben to the locals, or “place of no water”) is the administrative centre for the Torres Strait Islands. Many of them are idyllic coral islands, with lush greenery, coconut palms, golden beaches and reefs; but T.I. is like a dry, rocky extension of the mainland. All the same, because of its lack of reefs Thursday Island became the port and main town for the Strait.
The Torres Strait links the Arafura Sea and the Coral Sea; the Indian Ocean and the Pacific; and its islands are Queensland’s most northerly communities – some within eyesight of Papua New Guinea.
Torres Strait people mix local Melanesian culture with Malay, Japanese, Papua New Guinea, Chinese, Aboriginal and European influences. Visitors come from far away: scientists, media personalities, adventurous travellers, celebrities looking for something unique.
My parents lived on Thursday Island for three years in the mid-1970s, and Mum loved it, in spite of the isolation, cyclones and hot, wet summers. She wrote about it to her god-daughter Nadine, in Sydney – a world away in culture and lifestyle.
“I’m writing this early in the morning in bed. I can’t see much point in getting up, as it is teeming with rain – just pouring straight down. It’s the monsoon, and our back yard is one huge expanse of water. Everything is green outside, and many shades of grey inside, with a fine covering of mildew all over the walls, our shoes etc. Our clothes smell like mushrooms.
“From April to December there is almost no rain; then the south-easterly Trade Winds stop, the wind moves to the north west and the monsoon season begins. For nine months it is dry and brown and dusty, but when the Wet starts, everything starts to grow and the whole place becomes wonderfully green.
“We’ve just come back from a fortnight at St Paul’s Community on Moa Island, about thirty miles north of here. Where we stayed, the ceiling is made of beautifully plaited bamboo strips with huge unsawn logs across it and holding up the walls. There are full-length louvre windows, and mats plaited from coconut palm leaves covering the floor. Coloured glass floats in rope covers hang from the ceiling beams, and draped on the walls are old fishing nets with brightly coloured shells hanging in them.
“There are coconut palms everywhere. Every now and then there is a great “thump” and down comes a coconut. I don’t understand how people aren’t killed by them. The trees are so high and the nuts so big!”
Established artists have painted the beauty and colour of the Torres Strait Islands.
There is also a great blossoming of local artists, working in paints, sculpture and distinctive black and white lino prints, depicting the history and culture, pearl diving, dugongs, turtles, and above all the life of the sea, the weather, and the islands.
Men from Torres Strait are famed as railway fettlers. They helped build the railways throughout Australia. Their descendants live all over the country, and many Islanders still move to the mainland for education and work; but a longing for the life of turtles and palm trees, the sea and fishing, of family feasts and singing and traditional dancing is always with them, it seems. Neil Murray wrote the iconic “My Island Home” for the Warrumpi Band, about living in Central Australia and longing for the islands of the Northern Territory; but in the version sung by Christine Anu it’s a city girl longing for the Torres Strait:
I close my eyes and I’m standing
In a boat on the sea again
And I’m holding that long
And I feel I’m close now
To where it must be
My island home is a-waitin’ for me
Con still likes to sing the sentimental favourites, such as “Old T.I.”:
Old TI, my beautiful home,
That’s the place where I was born;
Where the moon and stars that shine
Make me longing for home.
Old TI, my beautiful home.
Take me across the sea,
Over the deep blue sea,
Darling, won’t you take me,
Back to my home TI.
He tells me that there were four pubs on Thursday Island when he was there – the Royal, the Grand, the Federal, and the Torres Straits. He swears that at any time, day or night, there would be someone in one of those pubs singing “Beyond the Reef”.
Someday I know
She’ll come back again to me.
Till then my heart will be
Beyond the reef…
When the world has gone back to as close to normal as it ever will after COVID -19, and we can travel again, I want to go to Thursday Island. To get there, you can drive up to the tip of Cape York in a 4WD, then catch a ferry. Lots of hard, dry cattle country, crocodiles-infested rivers and corrugated roads, but exciting and interesting.
Perhaps fly from Cairns, over the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, land at nearby Horn Island and take a ferry. Boats are everything in the Strait.
I think it would be more romantic to take the MV “Trinity Bay”, the passenger carrying cargo boat sailing every week from Cairns, up through the reef and the islands.
Back to the place my family has never forgotten.