Thursday Island

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.

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“Island Girl”, Pat Fox

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.

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Con with his class at old fortifications on Green Hill, Thursday Island. 1964

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.

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Torres Strait Islands Torres Strait Regional Authority

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.

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My mother Pat Fox (in yellow headscarf) with a group of Torres Strait locals, 1970s

“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!”

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“Thursday Island Harbour”, Ray Crooke

Established artists have painted the beauty and colour of the Torres Strait Islands.

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“Waiting, Thursday Island”, John Rigby

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.

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“Helmet: Au Karem ra Araigi le (Deep Sea Divers)”, lino print, Ellarose Savage. Torres Strait Islands Regional Council
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“Model Canoe Racing”, by Segar Passi, an artist who uses paintings to depict different cloud formations – predictors of weather. Cairns Art Gallery

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
Turtle spear
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…

The Grand Hotel, Thursday Island. Voice to be Heard, A. 1974
The Grand Hotel (since burned down and rebuilt), Thursday Island National Film and Sound Archive

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.

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Thursday Island Peddells Ferries

Carnarvon Gorge

We’d bought supplies at the IGA in Clermont– bacon, eggs, bread, fruit. Now I was standing at the barbecue in the camp kitchen, the bacon beside me on the bench. A flash of wings and it was gone. A kookaburra flew off with a full beak. Hm. Just eggs for tea then.

Carnarvon Gorge is a famously spectacular place, with a clear, permanent creek, fine sandstone cliffs, palm trees, cycads and rock paintings.

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Con and I were staying in a cabin at Takarakka Bush Resort, in a bend of Carnarvon Creek five kilometres from the start of the main gorge walking track. It was winter, and the temperature fell overnight to near freezing.

This was Con’s first visit, but I first went there as a teenager with my family, and I wrote about it for my school magazine.

Beside the creek, under the trees, blady grass grows four feet high, and through the grass winds a narrow track, running down to meet the creek bed near a neat pile of stones. Across the creek, where the track begins again, stands another pile.

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There are now stairs to the hanging gorges we scrambled up to fifty years ago. Guardrails and security cameras protect the ancient Aboriginal images on the Art Gallery cliffs: stencilled hands and boomerangs, crosshatching and engravings in the sandstone.

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There are public toilets in the gorge now. People no longer camp in the Cathedral Cave. Fifty years ago, we spread our blankets under that high, wide arch, on soft sand eroded from the roof above and mattresses of the dry palm fronds that lie everywhere in the gorge.

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As we lay huddled under our rugs with two great fires between us and the freezing night, we could see beside and above us, from one end of the cave to the other, ancient Aboriginal prints and images, even a child’s tiny handprints.

That night, years ago, a film crew had gathered piles of palm fronds, lit them, and filmed the arch above us in the glow of the fires.

The marks on the Art Gallery cliffs have ritual significance, but the Cathedral Cave art seems more domestic. Excavations in the floor of the cave have revealed that people were camping here at least twenty thousand years ago.

In Takarakka, people cook and eat together at the camp kitchen. We talked to friendly and interesting people from Canberra and Sydney, France and Austria, while the kookaburras lurked on the rafters above us.

On our first day, walking up one of the outer gorges, Mickey Creek Gorge, we met a man coming down the track with a bush walking stick. “You have it,” he said to me. “I’ve finished with it.”

It was a fine piece of eucalyptus, straight and carefully trimmed, and I accepted it with pleasure.

“We’re leaving tomorrow, so you can take my map of the gorge, too. The National Parks office doesn’t provide them anymore.”

A map is useful. The Carnarvon Gorge walks are well sign-posted, with distances marked, but it’s good to plan your walking day ahead of time.

Back at the car park after the walk, I leaned my stick against a nearby rock, near others left by returning walkers. The next day, I saw a woman using it in the main gorge. I hope she, too, left it for someone else to use.

Carnarvon Creek is cold and clear as it runs over its stony bed. There are platypuses in the creek, and birds in the bushland.

The white sandstone cliffs of the gorge can be seen from a distance as you drive in. When I was at university, visiting with a group of students, we climbed up to Battleship Spur where we could look down on the gorge and its branches curving like white ribbons below us.

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We lay on the grass and went to sleep, and when we woke up it almost evening. Darkness fell before we could get back to the base camp in the gorge, and we spent all night marooned on a point of high land with cliffs falling away on both sides in the gloom, singing songs and telling stories with only a small fire for light and warmth.

Next morning, we found our way down to our campsite and gear. The porridge we cooked in a billy for breakfast was the best thing I’d ever eaten.

When we turned for home, I was sad at the thought of leaving this gorge, with its creek, its greenery, and its vast cliffs.

In the camp kitchen on the evening before Con and I left for home, I asked if anyone wanted our left-over eggs. A young Austrian couple took them and made pancakes for everyone.

We also offered our map of the gorge, and an Irish backpacker put his hand up. We gave it to him and he poured us a glass of red wine, and we drank together to the pleasures of the bush.

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