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

Townsville

During our first road trip north as a family, in December 1970, Con and I and baby Matt stopped on the Strand, Townsville, for a break. On the Strand an artificial waterfall comes tumbling down a cliff into landscaped gardens at the bottom, and I sat there with the baby enjoying the cool spray.

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“The Waterfall on the Strand, Townsville” c.1970-2000 Murray Views Collection, Centre for the Government of Queensland.

Con was looking across the road at the Tobruk Memorial Baths.

“Did you know,” he said, “in 1956, Australia’s Olympic swimmers trained in that pool? Lorraine Crapp, Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose – they were all here!”

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Tobruk Memorial Baths, Townsville c.1952. Qld State Archives

North Queenslanders were pleased to have the country’s best swimmers here in Townsville through the winter before the Melbourne Olympics. Even before the Olympics began, they were breaking records. Con remembers it well.

Lorraine Crapp broke four world records in one race here, in August 1956. In breaking the five-minute barrier for the four hundred metres freestyle,she broke three other world records – 200 metres, 220 yards and 440 yards. It made headlines around the world.And Dawn Fraser set new world records in the one hundred metres.

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Lorraine Crapp Thurlow

“Exciting times for us North Queenslanders, and for Australian swimming!”

The Australian team went on to win gold in every freestyle event at the Melbourne Olympics. Australia’s first real taste of Olympic glory.

 

In 1976, Con and I and our two kids moved to Townsville, for a year, so he could study at the College of Advanced Education. It was hot and wet, and rain water pooled in the backyard of our rented house. Thousands of tadpoles hatched in the puddles. When the rain stopped, the puddles dried up and the tadpoles rotted in the sun, stinking, just outside the back door.

After the rainy season the city returned to its usual dry, dusty condition. In winter, the mornings were cold. We were in the tropics, but not the lush, green tropics of Mackay or Cairns. Townsville is backed by magnificent ranges, but apart from the pink granite bulk of Castle Hill and its surrounds it is flat. It was a city of cyclists in those days. Now, it’s a much bigger and busier place.

The Townsville CAE was near James Cook University. Those were interesting times at James Cook. It was a time of energy and change. All over the world, there was a developing push for the rights of Indigenous peoples, and academics at James Cook were writing and teaching about the history and issues of race relations in the North. Among them Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, and those dynamic men helped change the face of race relations in Australia.

JCU Associate Professor Noel Loos with some of his publications from the NQ Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Noel Loos, James Cook University, 2017, with some of his publications

Eddie Koiki Mabo, a leading figure in the Townsville Torres Strait and Indigenous community, was working as a groundsman at James Cook. Over lunch, in 1974, Eddie Mabo shared stories of his home island with Reynolds and Loos, and it was during these sessions that he discovered that what he had always considered his family’s land belonged, in fact, to the government.

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Eddie Koiki Mabo http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info – torres strait

Sixteen years later, Eddie Mabo’s land claim on his ancestral home, the Island of Mer in Torres Strait, resulted in the High Court decision overturning the legal doctrine of terra nullius, or “this land belongs to no one”, under which Captain Cook claimed Australia for Britain. A history-making event.

The Mabo claim thus began at James Cook, around the time we were in Townsville. At the end of 1976, Con was awarded a Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education, and I had a baby. I was unaware of history on the way to being made nearby.

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Off to Townsville CAE for Con to receive his Diploma, November 1976

While we were living in Townsville, we often came down to the Strand rock pool, or further north to Rowes Bay or Pallarenda Beach, to swim with the kids and hold beach birthday parties. I remember dry grass and coconut palms along the waterfront.

In 2007, Con and I were back in Townsville yet again, staying in what locals call the Sugar Shaker, the landmark hotel tower in the centre of town. The CBD had changed. What been David Jones Department Store, North Queensland’s most luxurious shopping place, was now the home of a new north Queensland icon – Cowboys Rugby League Club. This is a passionate rugby league town.

South Queensland was in drought at that time, and Brisbane was on Level 5 water restrictions; but here in the Townsville Mall, a council worker was hosing the pavement. In the suburbs, sprinklers watered lawns and footpaths. This is no longer a dusty, brown city.

One morning I went for a walk north from the city centre, along the Strand. The coconut palms were still there, lining the beach, but now there was greenery everywhere, and a water park with a bucket tipping water on to the screaming children below.

Townsville, with an assured supply of water from the Ross River Dam and the rainforested Paluma Range to the north, had decided to make itself beautiful, turning its public spaces into the lush, green environment that visitors expect of the tropics.

Early this year, though, record-breaking rains forced Ross River Dam to open its floodgates; and suburbs that didn’t exist when we lived there in 1976 were flooded for weeks.

Townsville is unlike anywhere else in the country, except perhaps Darwin. Like Darwin it is a tropical city with a port of strategic importance. Like Darwin, it was bombed during the War, and like Darwin it has suffered catastrophic damage from cyclones.

Townsville is a Defence Forces centre, a place of research into all things tropical, a tourist hot spot, and also a place of high unemployment and crime. It was interesting in the 1970s, and for all its stresses and strains, it still is.

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Townsville today http://www.queensland.com

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