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

Golden Gumboot

It’s December in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the chimneys of Tully Sugar Mill are quiet. Crushing has finished for the year. Behind the town, the rainforests of Mount Tyson are cloaked in rain.

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Wet Tropics

This is Golden Gumboot country. The Golden Gumboot is an unofficial, hotly contested yearly competition for the highest rainfall, between the Far North Queensland towns of Tully and Babinda.

Tully, 140 kilometres south of Cairns, has at the start of its main street a concrete gumboot 7.9 metres high with a frog crawling up it. Having survived two fierce cyclones, the boot was recently refurbished by means of a state government grant and given a spectacular coat of gold paint. There is a staircase to the top, and a viewing platform. 7.9 metres is the amount of rain that fell here in 1950: the highest annual rainfall ever recorded in a populated area of Australia. Tully’s average annual rainfall, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, is 4 metres.

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Tully’s Golden Gumboot with renewed gold

Tully has a Golden Gumboot Festival each year whatever the totals are; but in recent decades Babinda, 80 kilometres further north, has had the higher rainfall, averaging 4.28 metres annually, compared to Tully’s 4.09 metres. It’s Babinda that has the Golden Gumboot bragging rights.

To give an idea of what these numbers signify, Brisbane has an average rainfall of just over one metre a year.

Babinda nestles close to the rainforest-covered slopes of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain. If you can see the top of Mount Bartle Frere, so locals say, it’s going to rain. If you can’t, it is raining.

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Towards Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest

People in these northern towns and farms face a challenging climate, economic threats and agricultural tribulations. Bananas and papaws are major industries around here, but the focus of Tully’s economy is its sugar mill. Chinese-owned, it is the economic heart of this working town. Tully Mill crushes the second highest tonnage of any in the country.

Banana crops, papaw trees and sugar cane are vulnerable to disease, and all are at the mercy of the market – and the weather. Because the rainfall in this region is so reliable, farmers don’t irrigate.

The locals are down-to-earth and practical. They drive twin-cab utes, often with a pig dog cage on the back, and there are boats parked in many back yards. Men dress in boots, work shorts, polo shirts and hi-vis. Women favour denim shorts, black singlet tops and rubber thongs.

The locals relish an earthy form of humour. For instance, a visitor to Tully might talk about driving up the main street, Butler Street; but to a local, it’s “going up the Butt.”

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Up Butler Street, Tully, towards Mount Tyson

Both Babinda and Tully have spectacular tourist draw cards nearby. The famous Tully Gorge, where white-water

rafting tours ride the outpour of water from the Kareeya hydro-electricity plant, runs right up against the ranges of the Atherton Tableland and the three hundred metre drop of Tully Falls. The falls lie directly below Tully Falls Lookout on the map, but the distance between the two by road is over two hundred kilometres.

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Tully Gorge seen from Tully Falls Lookout, 200km away by road

Electric-blue Ulysses butterflies flit through the forests along the gorge.

Babinda has The Boulders, a famous swimming hole and granite boulder-strewn creek of matchless beauty. We called in there for a swim a few years ago, floating in that clear pool in the rain as if in a cool, green heaven.

“We used to come to The Boulders for picnics,” Con told me, kicking against the gentle flow of the water. Con grew up in Innisfail, which lies between Tully and Babinda, looking out towards Mount Bartle Frere. Innisfail, famous for its papaws, averages a mere 3.4 metres of rainfall annually.

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Innisfail banana farm

“Downstream from the main swimming hole there’s a place we called the Chute, which was like a fast water slide. It was great. And the Devil’s Pool – you’d have to be crazy to jump in there, but people did.”

This is a dangerous place for people who venture too close to where the creek is sucked down among huge granite boulders. Adventurous young men have died here.

“When I played for Innisfail Brothers League team and we had a game in Babinda, we’d come to The Boulders afterwards for a swim. We played at the Babinda showgrounds, and there was no such luxury as showers there.”

I first visited The Boulders with my family during a road trip from the south. My dad climbed up on a large boulder and swung out on a rope swing before performing a cartwheeling belly flop into the creek. He swam ashore with his chest scarlet from hitting the water. We were laughing; he didn’t see the funny side.

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The Boulders, Babinda

In 2011, Cyclone Yasi brought disaster to a thousand kilometres of  Queensland coast, its eye crossing the coast at Mission Beach, the closest coastal town to Tully.

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Cyclone Yasi crossing the coast

Yasi’s devastation still shows in an occasional roofless building and in the thinned rainforest on the hillsides. Mission Beach people were isolated for days. A couple of years after Yasi I spoke to a young Frenchwoman living there. I asked her how she had fared.

“During the cyclone, I got a call from my family in Paris,” she told me. “My mother had died. I wanted to get out, to get to the airport in Cairns and fly home. The roads were blocked with debris. The army was clearing them with chainsaws, but no one was allowed in or out.

“I finally managed to get a ride out to the highway with the police, and a bus to Cairns, but the funeral was over long before I reached home.”

We visited friends at South Mission Beach in their beautiful timber house on the hill, and stood on their verandah looking down through greenery towards the tranquil beach where Yasi made landfall.

“Did you leave, when Yasi was coming?” I asked.

“No, we stayed here. We bunkered down in the bathroom, but it was scary. The noise was incredible. The glass doors at the back blew out, and the garden was a mess of shredded trees and debris. We couldn’t get down the road for smashed branches and tree trunks.”

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A local’s comment on Cyclone Yasi

In the Tully branch of Cassowary Coast Libraries there is a display of local historical photographs. Looking at them and seeing the difficulties involved in land clearing, timber felling, road building and transport in the old days, and considering the difficulties they still face today from the weather and the markets, it’s easy to see why the locals need to be tough.

2019 has been drier than usual, even here in the Wet Tropics. The Cassowary Coast Council, which includes Tully and Innisfail, has announced Level 3 water restrictions. The beautiful creek at The Boulders is at its lowest level for years. Babinda and Tully have both recorded much less than their average rainfalls, and little rain is forecast for the rest of the year.

The Wet Tropics is still the greenest place in the state. Sugar, banana and pawpaw farmers are watching the forecasts, though. They must wonder what the future will bring.

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Ulysses butterflies

 

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