The Wild White Man of Badu


Two men – such men. Repulsive in repose. Implacable. Blood-shot eyes simmering to blaze into animal fury – now veiled by a cold wariness pretending utter lack of interest in the other. Grim, deep-lined faces shadowing brutal mouths, beards matted with salt spray. Protruding bones made wretched the near-naked bodies seared with wounds from the cat-o-nine-tails, wounds festering under sunburn, wounds hellfire torture from salt spray.

One man would – must kill the other.

The is an extract from the 1950 publication The Wild White Man of Badu, by the prolific, part boys-own-adventure, part pulp author, Ion L. Idriess.


Ion Llewellyn Idriess, OBE (20 September 1889 – 6 June 1979), or ‘Jack’ as he was known was a prolific and influential Australian author. Publishing his first book at 38, he went on to publish 53 books over his life. A soldier at Gallipoli, prospector and a drover, he represented the quintessential Aussie bloke. Largely shunned by the Australian literati, his punctuated hard-boiled tone apparently leaved much to be desired.



A Patrick White he was not. Despite the hints of empire and language that would be deemed slightly course by today’s standards, referring to Indigenous people as ‘blacks’ and ‘savages’, it’s obvious Jack had an affection for the Strait. He spent time sailing around the islands and even lived the homestead of the infamous Frank Jardine on the Cape York Peninsular.



Frank Jardine (28 August 1841 – 1919), a pioneer pastoralist who shot his way across Cape York, bragging to have personally killed 47 Aborigines. He has been venerated as the man that opened up the Cape, he built a homestead in Somerset, married a Samoan Princess Sana Solia and was appointed the police magistrate before dying of leprosy. Pubs, streets and rivers have been named after him.

Princess Sana

Princess Sana

Jack’s Wild White Man of Badu is part fiction part fact, cobbled together from tales whispered in the pubs of TI by old-time pioneer pearlers and notes in Jardine’s journals of Wani, Wild White Man of Badu”, one of “the most fiendish renegades that ever terrorised the seas.”

It is the story of two convicts, Weasel and Wani, who escape from Norfolk Island in 1849 in an open dinghy with a sail and at the mercy of the winds cover some 1700 nautical miles to the Torres Strait. Wani then kills and eats his motley companion, Weasel and sails into mythology.

I like the cut of Jack’s jib, blending truth and fable, as an old journo hack myself, I too never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn…

Where fact blends with fable, take this passage from the book:

The ‘Skull Chief’ Kebisu of Tutu.

…a commanding figure, a tall, bearded, dark-brown warrior with massive shoulder muscles. Coal-black ringlets fell upon those shoulders, but neither they nor the beard could hide the grim jaw and broad savage cheeks. On his chest gleamed the pearl shell “mai”, insignia of Mamoose, the chief of chiefs.

Today the great, great (?) grandson of the Skull Chief Kebisu is the cultural liaison officer at the Gab Titui Cultural Centre. He is a quiet, modest man of slight build and a coy smile – yet his eyes have a burning intensity and he carries a pride of his lineage that is neither inflated or bashful.

The people of Badu or the Badulgal had a reputation as being both fierce warriors and highly competent head hunters, the decapitated heads of warrior foes being the currency of the day.


Jack’s tale of Badu and the eternal feud with the neighbouring island of Moa, each taking out head-hunting raiding parties on each other, sparked a boys-own-adventure, intrigue within me, reminiscent of an age-of-empire innocence, that belongs to my father’s generation rather than my own. Separated by a channel of sea, narrow enough to be mistaken for the mouth of a river.

Today, although the currency of severed heads is no longer legal tender, the people of Badu have a very strong culture and they flex their fierceness on the sports field and in their dance.

Badu Island Dance Team

Badu Island Dance Team


The destiny that drove this man on was uncanny. Seas, tides, winds, storms, thirst, hunger; not man-controlled happenings but even the forces of nature drew him on inexorably over great distances and through many perils to the one spot, in the right time, and under almost magical circumstances to where he could take his island.

Wani then washes up on Badu Island in the midst of a thunder storm and rather unbelievably slays the island chief and proclaims himself king, naming himself Wongai, which he mistakenly understands means warrior. Its actually the name of a revered indigenous plum. He inadvertently named himself after a piece of fruit. Jack obviously had a sense of humour.

Wongai Plum

Wongai Plum

Now jump 165 years into the future.

Under the jurisdiction of Australian territory, the people of Badu finally realised an intergenerational battle to gain the sovereignty of their island, and on February 1, 2014, the Queensland Government officially handed the title of land back to the traditional owners. Cadging a lift with Assistant Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, member for Cook, David Kempton, I was able to be there for the historic occasion. Flying in on a chopper instead of at the whim’s of the wind in the Wild White Man’s small boat a century and a half earlier, I wondered which wild white man I was and which was David. Hmmm, an old fruit and a weasel, I’ll leave that one hanging…

Notice we both have our 'Top Gun' sunnies on.

Notice we both have our ‘Top Gun’ sunnies on.


Luckily neither of us would have to cannibalise the other to survive the trip, as there would be plenty of island kai kai, of crayfish and kupmurrie to go round at the celebrations.

David, part of Queensland’s Newman Government is not particularly popular in this Labor stronghold and many find his laissez-faire nonplussed attitude arrogant. David lamented in conversation about a recent engagement where Indigenous Elders were protesting where he tried to talk to them and was told, “I’d rather speak to the horse’s mouth than the horse’s arse.”

David sighs: “When I look in the mirror at night I ask myself, am I really all those things they said I was?”

A solicitor in his previous life, wearing fine Italian leather shoes, David declined a photo of him in front of the chopper: “The Courier Mail crucifies me in the press for government exorbitance, with other photos in me getting around in choppers.”

I had graciously offered to whore myself as his photographer for the lift.

On finding out our bird only has a solitary engine, he again laments dryly: “I’m not allowed to fly in a single engine chopper, I’m sure my number must be coming up soon, spent so much time flying around the electorate in one these things.”

Despite this he still darts for the front seat like an anxious school kid: “You can have the front on the way back.”

An idyllic island our pilots says is infested with Death Adders.

An idyllic island our pilots says is infested with Death Adders.

a couple of the 4,000 ships that pass thru the Strait annually.

a couple of the 4,000 ships that pass thru the Strait annually.


After a series of impassioned speeches by indigenous leaders, David took the podium to share a few words before officially handing over the deed title to an Island Elder.


The three flags behind me (Torres Strait, Australian and Aboriginal) are symbols of three nations and a symbol of separation. Two hundred years ago when the British flag, which appears on today’s flag, was stuck into the ground and raised, it swept away the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It wasn’t until Eddie Mabo came along and addressed how Terra Nullius was wrong, that he swept that away.”

Today we are trying to fix that wrong here on Badu and respect your rights and self governance.

I am absolutely confident when your community will make decisions from now on, it will be the right one, as it has not been imposed upon you.”

Deed title and a slouch hat...

Deed title and a slouch hat…


With our unseasonally good weather hole in the Wet closing up, after a flurry of handshakes and wolfing down a couple of cray tails, we had to dash back to the chopper before the black clouds again swallowed up the sky. David had to be back in Cairns for the opening of the Chinese year of the Horse, hopefully he would be regarded as the mouth this time and not the posterior.

He also graciously let me ride in the front on the way back, to complete my boy’s-own-adventure fantasy.

IMG_1505 IMG_1518

reading Strait between the lines

Editing a newspaper (that’s not owned by Murdoch), I never thought I would need to be censored, but in a strange way it happens often up here in the Torres Strait.

Now the media cherry-picking quotes to suit a particular end is common knowledge. Most people have a certain disdain for media hacks who subvert the truth to suit the flavour of the day.

Take this interview Dire Straits our ‘Aunty’, ABC, did with me just before the Federal election in 2013, when all the hyperbole was around “stopping the boats” in order to win the votes of a xenophobic, bogan sub-class in marginal seats of Westie Sydney. It’s about an expected flow of asylum seekers coming to Australia via PNG.

730 report

Although Auntie gave a reasonable review of the situation, some of my comments were ‘not included’, in particular where I mentioned that the numbers of asylum seekers that year were no worse than last year, and that number being less than a dozen, it hardly constituted a big problem. But it didn’t suit the sensationalist angle they were pursuing.

There are other forms of censorship up here though. For one , it’s company policy not to mention the names of people involved in criminal activity, if they live here. Why? Well personal safety of me the editor, my boss warns me. With family and the family name of such significance here, the public shaming (and the fact we all live on a small island), may have nasty outcomes. (I do have a Louisville Slugger by the front door – company issued!).


When prominent Torres Strait artist Dennis Nona was charged with raping an underage girl, a story splashed across National media, my story was pulled by my boss. I was muzzled only for my own protection.

One of the weirder forms of media muzzling I have not succumbed to up here is stories about the many stray dogs that cause havoc in the community. I wrote an article about how a 14 yr old fox terrier was torn apart by a neighbor’s dog, and although i did not mention the neighbor’s name, I sure felt the heat from the community. People (mainly middle age white women), would confront me hostilely about how I had divided the community and that the little terrier deserved the mauling.

As an Islander mate explained to me, there are layers of bitter bickering and politics on the island, but on the surface everyone is nice to each other because we all go to the same social gatherings and bump into each other at the only supermarket, bank and post office daily.

It make my job tougher than getting blood out of a stone at times.

Even the disenchanted youth can not express themselves like their more urbane counterparts, tagging toilet walls with graffiti is rarely anonymous. A recent youth AKA Squid, lasted only a couple of weeks before he was brought undone and busted.


It’s part of maintaining that polite exterior under which lies the seething anger off isolation, racial vilification, domestic violence and the ‘gap’ between indigenous and non-indigenous, not to mention family feuds that may date back generations. But overall ‘Ailan’ folk are a happy, yet conservative bunch.





On Goods island which is uninhabited since the second world war, where a scattering of deserted bunkers and artillery batteries are all that remains, I discovered this ‘tag’.

Is that a Banksy???

Is that a Banksy???

But when it’s something important to Islanders, the information flows. The QLD government, on its continued campaign of penny pinching decided to not publish the annual Tide Times Book, something regarded as a bible for Islanders. As the minister’s office said to me, “it is available fro free online to be printed or downloaded to your phone.”

However not everybody has access to the internet or a printer and there are black spots in mobile phone coverage, not great when the sea if their only form of transport. However, a couple of weeks of front page stories have seen the government break under community pressure and they are now preparing hard copies to be gived out to those who need – too bad if all 6,500 Torres Strait Islander decide to ask for a couple, could mean the government bean counters banked on a false economy not offering the book people previously happily paid for.

One happy reader even dropped me off a gift for my efforts a bottle of ‘Muralag Moonshine’ a homebrew of coconut milk, brandy and rum. The bottle has a quote by Oliver Goldsmith: “Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain with grammar, and nonsense, and learning. Good liquor I stoutly maintain, gives genius a better discerning.”


Attached was a note that read: “may your automatic bilge pump or self-draining floor do you justice in the weather.” (its the wet season up here). I guess that’s a compliment…

Tropical Scrumping

From Urban Dictionary:

Stealing fruit, especially apples, from someone else’s trees. British. It’s considered less bad than, say, shoplifting, but adults still disapprove.
My Dad, from the Midlands of England used to get a kick out of scrumping as a boy, and continuing this tradition, albeit misplaced on a remote tropical island on the other side of the planet, I took my young two year old daughter Sass on her first raiding party.
Red-handed, picking limes...

Red-handed, picking limes…

However, on Thursday Island (TI), there is not a single apple tree – there are however mangoes everywhere, to the point I become blase about them. They fill the gutters, ferment in piles and perfume the air with a rich sweet odor. We still felt the adrenaline race as we raided gardens for the unwanted fruit. Sass has developed ‘mango fever’, where the word ‘Mangos?’ is always said a s a request.

"Mangoes, where are you," she said after inspecting a barren tree.

“Mangoes, where are you,” she said after inspecting a barren tree.


As well as mangoes there are coconuts – but they prove a little bit harder to grab, as well as a Tamarind tree, which I scrumped, but am unsure what do to with the bounty.

scrumping tamarind.

scrumping tamarind.


My wife Vivi squealed with excitement when she discover a Caju Tree in someone’s garden, a fruit she has not seen since leaving Brasil. We managed to liberate enough to make a fresh juice.


Liberating Caju.

Liberating Caju.

Also on the Island, the local TAFE Horticulture teacher, George Ernst, has established some 58 ‘Kai Kai’ (Ailan for food) Community gardens, which are grown in public space – for, well the public to enjoy. SO not technically ‘scrumping’, this increased our haul to include limes, pineapples, watermelon, chilli and lemongrass.

IMG_2113 IMG_2119

However in all their omnipotent wisdom, the co-ordinators of TAFE have decided to end George’s Horticulture course and effectively kill off the chance of survival of these Kai Kai Gardens, which he tended to in his free time. Apparently TAFE saw no intrinsic value in horticulture in the Torres Strait.  I sure can through…


Sass enjoying the spoils of the raid.

Sass enjoying the spoils of the raid.



Transcontinental fear and loathing…

One of the best things of living on a tropical island, surrounded by sharks, crocs and box jelly fish, miles from anywhere, is leaving – then coming back. Jetlagged before I left, pulling the red eye so my wife Vivi could run the paper in my absence, I was in a state of swirling sleep-deprived psychedelic madness by the time I hit the streets of San Francisco 48 hours later. In the space of a week I caught eight planes, two trains, three cars and a boat. I maybe got three half decent night’s sleep the whole time.

DSCF1189 DSCF1200 DSCF1201 DSCF1204

My body clock all upside down, when day was night and night was day, I was living on a diet of beer, breakfast burritos, bagels, Beroccas, Advils, coffees as tall as milkshakes and adrenaline. I even managed a stop in Citylights Books, (who first published much of the Beat writers)

 DSCF1192 DSCF1194 DSCF1195 A perk of being a writer is occasionally I get invited to speak at literary festivals, and with the re-release of my book Shanti Bloody Shanti in the UK and the States, I was invited to talk at LitQuake last week, one of the most prominent events on the West Coast. Thanks to Arts Tas, who footed my travel expenses, and my US publisher, Roaring Forties Press, who organised my accommodation, a US book launch and bookshop appearance – I got a whirlwind, transcontinental whistle-stop sojourn that both exhausted and inspired. After three speaking engagements, a Hendrix’s Gin drenched opening night smooze (which ended up dodgy Latino bar in San Fran’s Mexican district, The Mission) and a new tattoo, I ended up on a bus to Reno, Nevada, to catch up with some mates I met in the Amazon a few years ago, for some much needed downtime – soaking in hotsprings, cruising in a 67 Mustang, Frizbee golf and generally submerging in Americana.

DSCF1222 - Copy DSCF1225 - Copy DSCF1240 - Copy DSCF1274 DSCF1286

Everything in moderation, including moderation. So the swirling madness, sleep deprivation and alcohol infused week in San Fran and Nevada was just what the doctor ordered, but its sure nice to be home with my girls again…

Getting priorities Strait

The Islanders have really got their priorities Strait up here. Some times the regional Councillors go missing for days, weeks sometimes. They may just drop everything to fishing, even though it’s annoying for me trying to get that quote I need, the ever grinding quest for the front page pic and the front page story, I can’t blame them. In the greater scheme of things, they may have their priorities right.

Let me illustrate island priorities with an anecdote.

I recently attended the 40th anniversary  lunch of the Aboriginal Hostel Association, and organisation that provides temporary shelter to transients, homeless, or people travelling fro remote communities on the outer islands.


There were passionate speeches, dancing and feasting on kupmurrie wild pig, crayfish, prawns, sop sop and all the other amazing array of island food.

IMG_8491In comparison, a few days later Australia’s Governor General Quinton Bryce arrived up at the Strait, to grace us common folk with her ‘excellency-ness’ (at the expense of tax payers).

Now its not like the GG didn’t get a a genuine, warm welcome, she did, but…


Let me put it this way, the canapes before lunch were spring rolls and deep-fried dim sims (Ok there was also smattering of California rolls and some curry puffs too).


And the Kaurareg Elder who gave the ‘Welcome to Country’ did manage to still stick a knife in,

“We were driven from this land by gunpoint, but our connection to this land is through our blood and our culture survives through song lines and dance. Since then we have been put in the too hard basket.

“From human being to another, I appeal to you to help our struggle for equality as it still seems to fall on deaf ears.

“Due to the short notice of your arrival I could not organise the Kaurareg Elders to be present, nor did I dress up for this occasion as I thought it important for you to accept me the way I am,” he said.

Hmmm, need I say anymore…

After the speeches and dimmy canapes, GG ended up up at the army barracks for a late lunch with Defense and emergency services.



Now here’s the kicker…

The Australian Defense force laid on a lavish lunch of corned beef and pickle sangers on a platter with a centerpiece to die for.


YES That’s an orange speared with toothpicks of cocktail onions and artificial cherries. A far cry from Hostel banquet of crayfish and kupmurries roasted wild pig…

Living in a fish bowl

Since becoming the editor of a regional newspaper in a remote location, many hundreds of kilometres away from the metropolitan, I have  found myself oddly at the centre of a hub of activity.


It’s very different to my time in the wilderness of freelance journalism in a city.

Previous to this job, I conducted most of interviews via the phone or internet from my kitchen table, usually in nothing but my underwear, a bottom feeder, jostling for contracts from magazine editors and digging around for leads on juicy stories.

Now, as an editor of a paper, I am constantly hunting for the new front page story, its like a drug, nothing else matters, then as some as the front page to the page page is laid out for the printer, there’s just enough time for a post-coital cuppa joe and a ‘arhhh’ of self satisfaction… But then it starts again, the chase – the next front page.


I’m acutely aware of position of influence I have in this small community spread over an immense area on Australia’s only border with another country. People approach me to write stories far more than I need to look for them. I am even courted by ‘Big’ papers like the Australian and TV channels who want to pry on-the-ground info out of me…

I frequently have breakfast with a Parish Hall restoration committee, or the Rotary, have a coffee with the Police Inspector, talk with regional indigenous leaders on a first name basis and have candid phone calls with federal politicians. The Mayor leaves messages on my answering machine. A far cry from my previous Hunterseque past.


But just as importantly I need to attend with the local parents and friends evenings, weddings, funerals, birthdays and school sports carnivals.

They have a love-hate relationship with me, everyone has an agenda, no one wants to be crucified by the press and in a small community. I have to walk a tight rope of attending to all these often opposite viewpoints, so I don’t get crucified – literally. The more earnestly I champion one cause, I so often have to champion the opposition to it to avoid appearing biased one way or another – despite what my own political leanings maybe. It’s a far cry from the drones writing for two third’s of the country’s press owned by Murdoch. My boss gives me a pretty free reign on my content and I try to honour that by being impartial as possible.

But I do take delight in following certain protocol of this family owned newspaper group.

“Never use the word honourable in prefacing a politician’s name, they are many things but not honourable,” my boss often says.

He also says I don’t need to wear a suit when dealing with dignitaries, in fact one of my bosses makes a point to wear shorts and thongs for the poli’s but dresses up for the local Elders.

It’s good to see my boss has his priorities worked out, similar to many of the islanders…


What’s in a name(us)

One of my all time favorite dishes is Ceviche, which comes from Peru. It’s a cold, raw fish salad, where the fish is ‘cooked’ by marinating it in vinegar and lime juice.


Torres Strait Islanders love their fish and they have a version of the ceviche called namus or numus 


However, I doubt they got the recipe of South America, its more likely it arrived in the Strait with the Japanese pearl divers and their dish of Namasu which is much the same thing as ceviche and numus. It seems the Japanese got it from China around 700AD. There seems to be versions in East Timor and Samoa,I guess great ideas get around.

What’s in a name, it’s a great recipe. I visit to the pier the other night was fruitless for me, but a Priest and his family from PNG who I have become fishing buddies with, hauled about 50 Queenfish using lure and jig lines, so they gave me five.


I followed the Strait recipe below, but put it on a bed of steamed sliced sweet potato and sprinkled fried corn kernels on top, similar to how the Peruvians serve it. Bloody awesome.


Here’s an Islander version of the recipe

  • 2 fillets of fish, sliced finely (trevally or other pelagic variety)
  • 1 large onion, chopped finely
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • peanut oil (enough to coat the bottom of a small saucepan)
  • soy sauce (Old Cathay is a favourite but use what you have available)
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 chillies (optional, but if your game use birds eye and chop finely)
  • brown vinegar
  • castor sugar
  • 1 orange, chopped in quarters and sliced width-wise with peel still on
  • 1 red & green capsicum, sliced or chopped
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • shallots, chopped (for garnish)

In a large mixing bowl (use glass or ceramic) place sliced fish. In a small saucepan or wok heat up the peanut oil until hot and pour in the mixing bowl. Stir the oil through the fish thoroughly. To that, add the chopped onions and garlic. Mix well. Stir in the lemon juice and vinegar (about two capfuls). By then the fish flesh should be turning a little white as the acidity of the lemon and vinegar start to “cook” the fish. Mix in the sugar (about a teaspoon), chillies, orange and red and green capsicums. Add a little soya sauce for taste and to add some colour to the dish – remember not too much. You can also add salt and pepper to taste, but you probably won’t need much salt because of the soy sauce. Refrigerate overnight or for at least four hours. To serve: place the namus in small bowls lined with lettuce leaves and garnish with chopped shallots.

Here’s Samoan version that adds coconut cream at the end.

  • 500 g white fish fillets
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 lemon, sliced
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 400 ml coconut cream, if it’s not too rich or 1/2 cup coconut cream, if it’s rich


Cut fish into cubed pieces.
Sprinkle with salt then lemon juice.
Cover and chill for 2 hours or overnight or until fish whitens, stirring occasionally.
Put in onion, coconut cream, tomatoes and cucumber, and garnish with 1/2 lemon slices.
Serve chilled.