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.
To Duaun, Saibai’s picturesque neighbor.
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.