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AARON SMITH Award-winning journalist professional writer published author

Flotsam and Jetsam, the lot of us.

The detritus the winds and currents deposit on this island fills me with both wonder and consternation. The endless pieces of plastic that we now ingest in the food chain, bottle tops, plastic water bottles, shopping bags, tooth brushes, throngs, take away food containers is now what makes up the flotsam and jetsam of our era.


Over its ‘settled’ history to coin a Tony Abottism, TI has seen that detritus fall layer upon layer into the sand, as many of the beaches were slipways servicing the hundreds of pearling luggers the proliferated in the late 19th Century, right up until the 1970’s.


A pearling lugger on the a Thursday Island slip in 1958, quite possibly on my backyard beach.

A pearling lugger on the a Thursday Island slip in 1958, quite possibly on my backyard beach.


Shards of Japanese rice bowls are still occasionally revealed by the shifting sands, from the many Japanese pearlers that inhabited the Island, many of whom now lie in the cemetery.


Today all that remains of the slipways are calcified twists of rusty rail tracks, cogs and skeletons of old motors  and the middens of broken beer bottles. So much shards of glass is shattered through the beaches, it is often referred as ‘TI Coral.’


But today’s flotsam swirls into the five oceanic gyres as perpetual islands of suspended plastic particles or scattered across every beach on the planet, serving as a reminder of our pandemic of consumer insanity.


But ultimately we are all flotsam and jetsam, star dust scattered by the cosmic winds, temporarily manifested into a group of atoms bouncing around making up the ‘here and now’ we all get so lost in. Mass extinctions, climate change, meteorites smashing into us and annihilating everything, all just grains of sand – dust particles the lot of us.

TI, AKA The Rock, an allegory for the planet, is always making apparent the transience of everything. What the seaspray doesn’t corrode or the isolation and remoteness drive insane, everything comes, and goes here – buildings, dreams and people.

One of these transience friends, a fellow itinerant worker, lovingly but wearily described life on TI as ‘living in a caravan park.’

A dream within a dream, a manifestation appeared in an abandoned field recently, smoke and mirrors – the Carnies came to town. Gilmore’s Travelling Tropical Amusements to be more precise, an intergenerational family the endlessly traipse the country towns of outback Australia. An apparition of wonder for my two year old, complete with ectoplasmic fairy floss, forbidden fruits of dagwood dogs, jumping castles, dodge’em cars and shooting galleries, all under the incandescent gloss of coloured lights.



Matt Gilmore proprietor of this season’s show said it was a hard life, “Holus Bolus, I’ve lost everything I own on the road, three times, caravans, boats, trucks, just smashed to pieces before my eyes. But I love coming to a new town and giving the kiddies this entertainment – but I could never stay somewhere for more than two weeks, I’d go crazy.” And with a puff of diesel smoke they were gone.


Again illuminating the allegory of life on the rock, which is a metaphor of the transience of existence on the whole.

So now when I go to the beach that is my backyard, I try to resist my bleeding heart liberal, urbane sensibilities and take in my time here as a complete whole, the good, the bad, the corrosion, the erosion and the detritus of my mind as it washes up against the flotsam and jetsam of the world at my backdoor.

Out of this detritus I have built a little Zen garden, all found objects donated by the tides. I rake the sand, subjugate the weeds and absorb the particles into an expression of fleeting existence here and now.


I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?


Thinking Strait.

AN office job in paradise may be the best way to describe my position up here in the Strait. I can see the sea from my desk, its ever tempting and tantalizing turquoise water bristling with large, sharp-toothed beasties.


The remote isolated nature of the region and the shoe-string budget the paper runs on, means getting to the Outer Islands is limited to the occasional generosity of others, cadging a lift with a politician or talking my way onto a corporate junket, I whore myself and my camera. This both increases exposure of the paper I edit across the width and breadth of the Strait and satisfies my own boyish spirit of adventure.


That said, tradesmen often get to see a lot more of the region than I do, a chopper often the only way a sparky or a plumber can get out and service these isolated communities.

I was fortunate to hitch a ride last month with the Board of the local supermarket chain up here to cover their store openings on three islands.

I saw the swamps of Saibai, where the graveyard has been inundated by the sea and PNG is visible only a couple of clicks across a narrow channel.


PNG fisherman comes to market.

PNG fisherman comes to market.

Saibai market.

Saibai market.

To Duaun, Saibai’s picturesque neighbor.

IMG_8115 IMG_7996

  And down to Mer, home of Eddie Mabo the slayer of terra nullius and where tiger sharks loll around lazily just meters from the beach.




In return they got a good spread in the paper, my fee – jet fuel and sausage sizzles.


In and out of small aircraft and helicopters for two days, gave me little more than ‘overview’ of the region, something Federal Minister for Border Control Scott Morrison said in his recent visit to the region, where he was not allowed to land on one of Outer Islands, Boigu, as nobody had thought to seek permission from traditional landowners. The supermarket had luckily, so I got a whistle-stop taste of life on these remote islands.

The dignitary wheeled in to cut the ribbon, Queensland Assistant Minister for Indigenous Affairs, David Kempten, who has a certain disdain for flying, said dryly as were taxiing down the runway: “I don’t mind flying, as long as the number of takeoffs match the number of landings.”


Despite covering the Strait from its most Northern, Southern and Eastern territories, really experiencing the heart of the region happened in my own backyard, at Thursday Island cemetery.

At a modest memorial unveiling for a Bernard Namok Snr, the man who designed the Torres Strait flag, community leaders choked up with genuine pride and gratitude for the legacy this man left his people – a symbol of their unity – despite the tyranny of distance and isolation by water. It was a humble and quiet affair, but a rare glimpse at what Islanders hold dear, an aspiration for autonomy.

One community leader said: “Torres Strait is a pearling region, but it has a diamond potential.”


Later on that same day, I ran into the film crew for BBC Two show, Coast, who have been in the region for a couple weeks filming a show for the Australian Coast series. They are a funny breed TV people, they are your best mate while they need you, but will drop you without a moment’s thought as they follow a new whim.


I don’t mind the show, but the Scottish presenter Neil Oliver, clinging to a lost youth, really could use a haircut and I don’t know why he needs the canvas manbag, which he insists on holding in each shot. I actually got a peak inside it, it had hand cream, sanitizing gel and a spare cravat – I imagine all vital items for a ‘man of the box.’


As the crew fussed and groomed a spot on the beach to shoot a scene, snapping off low lying branches, kicking rubbish out of frame or covering it with sand – all to make it look more ‘authentic,’ I had a yarn with their interviewee, living legend and Indigenous music icon, Uncle Seaman Dan. At 84, no teeth and a twinkle in his eye, Uncle Dan shared a pearl of wisdom and wit.

“We used to drink at the Mangrove Hotel,” he chuckled.

“When we were working on the pearling boats, we were underage, so we would get someone to buy rum and wine from the pub, then we would sneak into the mangrove swamp to have a party, they were simple, happy days. But now the Doc says no more hard stuff.” (Uncle Dan, who has just finished recording another album, is recovering from a heart issue).

The Coast producers had been liaising with me for few weeks for tips on what to film and who to interview, the producer promising ‘beer tax’ for my time. He even tried sprinkling a little star dust over me, with promises interviewing me on the Horn Island Ferry, Australia Fair, a former Sydney Harbour ferry, but they upped and left as abruptly as they arrived, with not so much as note on the bedside table.

However it was Uncle Dan’s diamond in the rough humour that really glittered in my memory.










The Rock

As an allegory for the planet, Thursday Island, also known to those too long on it as ‘The Rock’, is like a microcosm of our third rock from the sun.

On this microcosm, like the world, if you sit in the one place for long enough everyone in it will walk past you. It has certainly felt like that over the last couple of weeks. From dawn service on ANZAC Day till last week, it felt more like Canberra than Australia’s remote northern border. The rhetoric flowed as thick as molasses.


First there was the Chief of the Australian Army, the highest ranking officer to visit the region, his lip service acknowledging the largely ignored contribution of Indigenous diggers was long overdue.



Here in the Strait we have a regiment known as Sarpeye, creole slang for Sharp Eyes, as they are known as the eyes of the north. They represent a tradition of Islander soldiers than goes back to WWII when the Torres Strait Light Infantry represented the only all Indigenous regiment at a time when they were not even recognized as having the rights of humans let alone citizens.



A week later I had to wade through a turbid three hour committee meeting with nine federal MPs and senators from all the major parties trying to get their head around what the region needs to develop economically. They met with various community leaders and groups. An Indigenous member of the traditional owners, the Kaurareg people, provided a novel insight in between the requests for cheaper freight costs and eliminating communication and IT blackspots.

He said: “It’s like the coke bottle syndrome, from the movie the Gods Must be Crazy,where a coke bottle falls from the sky from a passing plane and an African tribesman picks it up. Until that point his community had everything they ever needed, provided by God, and also no knowledge of the outside world. But when the coke bottle arrived, it divided the community who all wanted to own it. Until that moment they did not know they ‘needed’ anything than what they already had.”


Later that same day I had to meet with Olympic Marathon runner and Aussie icon Rob de Castella, who was holding trials for the Indigenous Marathon Project on the foreshore. At the same time I was keeping a lookout for Minister for Border Protection Scott Morrison, whose PA had refused to return my repeated emails and phone calls to schedule an interview during his ‘cloak and dagger’ PR trip to the Strait.


But with my ‘Island intell’ I knew when the Minister arrived, so I ‘intercepted’ his boat at the dock and the only way he could step onto dry land was through me, my camera and curly questions. He came up with a cock and bull story about the new border threat was not stopping the boats but stopping bikies in boats, who were apparently colluding with West African gangs in PNG, running drugs and guns. The gutter press hand picked by the Minister splashed headlines equating it to something like the Colombian coke cartels or the Malacca Strait pirates,while the Minister used it as an excuse to buy shiny new boats. Sounds like another coke bottle to me…

I hope they wheel Don Johnston out of retirement with his dinner jacket to be at the helm.


Subsequent inquires  from police inspectors on both sides of the border had no knowledge of this ‘new international syndicate,’nor did the annual national crime audit report. It just seemed like an excuse for a boys on adventure, cruising around in Customs boats and choppers to the Outer Islands (where he was not allowed to land as his PA forgot to get permission from Traditional Owners) – all at the expense of his tax paying wage slaves.


It never ceases to amaze me how politicians can talk so much without actually saying anything of worth.

It was Rob de Castella or ‘Deeks’ that had the more poignant message to say, “This is will be one of the most fulfilling journey you will ever take, in fact it is all about the journey.”


He was referring to the gruelling six months of training and competing in the New York Marathon, but as allegories go and as another yarn on the rock, I couldn’t help but think ain’t that the truth.



When the wind turns

Living where the wind turns is a Brazilian expression for living somewhere that’s far away from everywhere, apt really for the Torres Strait and our home on Thursday Island. Recently an Islander friend, Nino, who lives on the neighboring Island of Kiriri (Hammond Island) explained the four winds to us on a day trip to his Island. We were belting across a small channel of the Strait that separates the two islands in his open dinghy.



“There are four winds in the Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait), which are the seasons. Kuki is the Northwest that brings the monsoons (January to April) and Sager which is the South East wind of the Dry season (May until December). Then there is the southerly Zay, which comes at any time and the Northerly Nay Gay which blows hot and humid (October to December),” Nino said.

In minutes Kuki whipped up the waves and a monsoonal front hit us with sheets of rain as the dinghy dashed for the sheltered bay of his community on Kiriri. We were drenched in seconds, but not cold as the warm rain stuck our clothes to our bodies. IMG_4804 We had been generously invited by Nino to his island to attend an art workshop he ran, where he showed people how to sculpt turtles out of ghost nets, the many abandoned fish nets that plague the world’s oceans. IMG_4748 “We used to make traditional masks out of turtle shell, then the other day when I was fishing I found a ghost net floating with a trapped turtle, and I now make turtles out of ghost nets,” Nino explained. Meanwhile Kuki brought the rain beating down on the community centre where he ran his workshop.

Nino’s innovative use of this scourge of the sea has seen him be awarded the National Museum of Australia History through Art Award at the 7th Gab Titui Indigenous Art Awards this year, for his piece clinging to life.

photo by George Serras, National Museum of Australian History.

photo by George Serras, National Museum of Australian History.

On the way back after the workshop, we got a break in the weather, and got to soak up the ambiance rather than the rain. 1959468_10151858191222493_494628009_n

Now a few weeks later, I have noticed Sager blowing again as of a couple of days ago, sending a sea breeze through our house that we haven’t felt for months, it will blow away the mozzies and blow flies that have been tormenting us when Kuki blew and buffeted the other side of the island, leaving us in a lull on the southeastern lee side. But now Sager is blowing again, so we can open the windows, turn off the aircon and hang the hammock in the backyard. I better tie down my tomato plants, as seasons evolve and life goes on. We truly do live where the wind turns…


Riders on the storm

It’s a verve, an edge, an ever changing constant. The moment the grasp of which is lost life becomes redundant. Such is life. Such is life as a journo and a backwater one at that.2865456-3x2-940x627

But for all the long hours, paid all the peanuts we can eat, the pursuit of the ever elusive now – nowness – the newsman’s most valuable currency, our Shangri La, its an appetite that’s insatiable as much as it it is insane.I am a peddler of the banal…

It’s the feeling of a hot lead, the story that will set the stage for this week’s edition of a tabloid about a corner of the world little have comprehension about – it’s just another byte of info overload to saturate the collective consciousness.

Nothing else matters to the hack, then when it’s written, printed and dumped on the news stand – it is completely meaningless. There is new column space to fill. It’s a psychosis – it never stops.

I should mention about now that it’s nearly 3am on a Thursday (on Thursday Island), I’ve polished off the stale dregs of a bottle of rosé and opened a bottle of chardonnay in the name of decompressing from putting one paper to bed before the next crawls up my spine and sits at the base of my neck – nagging me with that, “fuck you have nothing for next week, what’s the front page photo, what’s the gutsy lead, the colour piece, the community interest, social pages and the sport…”


It’s been a big week, lots of politicians, federal senators and state ministers, in town all with their golden handshakes, memes abound, leaving glitter in the eyes of constituents that will no doubt wake up to discover it ain’t the yellow precious metal, but more piss in their pocket.

In a word Indigenous fishing rights, native title, that last round of the high court, the precedence of Eddie Mabo. Many promises made, expectations high. I just hope they get delivered the aspirations they deserve, the birthright that they have had to fight tooth and nail to get back. The old jaded, bitter part of me doubts it, I’d love to be wrong.


Meanwhile Cyclone Ita, already claiming lives off the Soloman Islands creeps towards us from the east. The cyclonic sheets of grey rain, horizons bleaked out by low pressure systems that smite my back door.


 There’s a killer on the road 
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad 
Take a long holiday 
Let your children play 
If ya give this man a ride 
Sweet memory will die 

There’s a killer on the road…


Steady steady…

There is never a shortage of characters up here in the Strait, nor is the a sparsity of tall stories. However some of the true ones seem the most fanciful.
Seaman Dan, or ‘Uncle Seaman Dan’ is the stuff of living legend, his trademark expression is “Steady, steady,” followed by a ‘whoopee’ sound of glee, a smile and a wink.
In his mid eighties, he still has a spark and zest for life that is enviable.
Catching the ferry back to Horn Island last year, I sat next to Uncle Dan and had a yarn. He squeezed my knee, winked and said, “Arhhh, it’s a beautiful day to be alive, whoopee.”


Born on TI in 1929, His grandfather was a boat captain from Jamaica and his great grand mother a chief’s daughter from New Caledonia.

By 11 he told me he was on horseback mustering cattle in Far North Queensland, then as a young man he worked on the pearl luggers as both a diver and a captain. I asked if he ever met Mr Crocodile.

“Oooh, sometimes working around the mouth of the Jardine River, it was very cloudy, the water so dirty you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I never saw a crocodile, but it was pretty scary. But if you didn’t come up with a bagful of pearl the skipper would just send you down again,” he said chuckling.

Uncle Dan always chuckles.


Oh did I mention, he’s also a two time Aria winning musician, with five albums under his belt, who last year received a Hall of Fame Award at the National Indigenous Music Awards? He didn’t start his music career until he was 69.


His fusion style blends Polynesian, Melanesian, with Nat King Cole and a dash of Sinatra, and TI ‘Hula’ tunes. He is a bonafide charismatic croner that has toured the country from Australia’s most northerly pub, to Tassie’s Ten Days on the Island, and everywhere in between.

Welcome to the Torres Strait

Until a recent health scare, he played two gigs a week in the Torres Strait, now recuperating, he still strums his guitar at home enjoying his ‘semi’ retirement.

His grandson Patrick Mau is now carrying the gauntlet, carving a name for himself as an emerging Hip Hop artist, who after doing several underground mix tapes, has just completed his first studio recorded album, the aptly titled, “The Show Must Go on,” which he has just toured nationally.


 Here’s the single off the album

As we berthed at Horn Island, Uncle Seaman Dan hobbled off on his zimmer frame, but not before he showed me his favourite fishing spot. He then he disappeared into the afternoon haze heartily humming a tune.

Steady Steady…

The Wet

Sultry, dark and brooding, water hangs in the air like a loaded gun. Mildew and moisture permeates everything, laundry never completely dries, flour and sugar cement in clumps and the horizon disappears daily into grey, which at times even swallowing up the midday sun.The wet season, or the ‘Wet’ is upon us.


When the monsoonal trough forms over Indonesia around December / January, the south easterly winds turn into the northerly’s and bring thick, black columns of strato-cumulus clouds. They rumble and crackle lighting then dump three quarters of the region’s annual rainfall in weeks, in deluge after deluge. It’s truly biblical.


It also brings with it cyclone season, and although the Strait usually dodges the typhoons that batter Asia or the cyclones that buffet the east coast of Northern Australia, there have been a couple to hit the region.

One of the worst, Cyclone Mahina in 1899,  ripped through the area, devastating much of the regions pearling fleets. In the days before Bureau of Meteorology they had no idea they lay in the eye of the storm, some 300 lives were lost.

Aladdin, one of the ships lost.

Aladdin, one of the ships lost.

Also with these seasonal low pressure weather systems come the King Tides, where the ocean reaches up to it’s highest mark each year, lapping at the back doors of islanders’ homes, sometimes submerging them as sea level rise is current reality rather than a possible future scenario disputed by climate-change skeptic flat earthers.

Warraber Island Jan 2014

Warraber Island Jan 2014

Before the first large globules of rain splatter down, the land is dusty, dry, desiccated and damn thirsty. Then it comes in sheets, cascading over guttering as waterfalls, turbulently foaming up out of storm water drains, swallowing roads, footpaths, transforming parks into swamps and creeping in under door sills. Everything that was dead comes to life, that landscape painted in palette of greens.



Tiny red ants, invade houses, swarming around circuit boards of light switches and power points drawn to their electric warmth. The White Ants chew deeper into the wood work and the Green Ants retreat to their silky clumps of leaves in the now barren mango trees. Rats that live in the foreshore rocks claw into wall cavities, escaping the king tides that inundate their homes. The particularly aggressive “Tiger Mozzie’ or ‘BBQ Stopper’ swam, spawning in the many pockets of rainwater trapped in the refuse, neglected garden paraphernalia and kids toys scattered around backyards.  Translucent geckos dart across the walls and green tree frogs cling to the windows, both gorging on the smorgasbord of insect life.


While the Rest of Australia steps outside to enjoy blue skies and the hot, long days of summer, in the north we retreat indoors into a sort of humid hibernation to await the return of our endless summer.