Strait to the point(y end of the stick).

So I am settling in.

I get a two bedroom apartment that’s right on the water (even if the occasional king tide does come up to the back door). I also get my first company car. Everyone here drives around in Landcruisers, a respectable tough-as-nails car to suit an equally tough climate and  grizzled-looking drivers.

My heart deflates when I see my machine. It’s a Getz.

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How will I ever be taken seriously in this little impotent symbol of my virility, I doubt I ever will.  It ‘s like a clown car, at six foot plus I feel oversized in it.

The first couple of days of the job is overwhelming, Junior B constantly tells me how to do things at a frenetic pace,  as I madly take notes. These desperate scribbles of illegible scrawl on scraps of paper blow round the office like confetti each time the door is opened and the sea breeze blows in. I know I will never read them, even if I could make out my own hand writing, I realise I will never get the time to do it.

Junior B rattles off names of VIPs I should know, loons I should avoid, Indigenous protocols to remember, faux pas to never do. I forget it all as fast as he tells me. All that runs through my mind is the Playschool song, I’m a little tea pot short and stout, here is my handle and here is my spout. It has always just jumped into my head at times of heightened stress, like some little pressure value that pops when it all becomes too much.

This place is a rat’s nest of who’s who and what’s what and for a newbie it can be turbulent waters. Everybody knows everybody, everybody that is but me.

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In between really important and really complex technical things I must know and forgot, it’s all his asides that stay in my mind:

“Be careful going out on a Friday night, the young blokes like to punch out white fellas, but its fine during the day,”

“Watch out for the Papuans, they are all tribal, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of them,”

“Be really careful about printing names, its a small island, and you will have a family here after all.”

Right, that I remembered.

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local lads weekend RR

local lads weekend RR

These comments were usually followed with “but its a really nice place.”

It is a really nice place but just under the surface bubbles tensions and unresolved issues, feuds and fall outs, but they all have to live together on this small island isolated from the rest of the world by miles of croc and shark infested waters.

But at least Junior B is going to be around for a week so I can really learn the robes, get a handle on all the things he’s told and that I’ve forgotten, or written down as notes whisked away by the constant South Easterly sea breeze.

The next day, he’s gone.

He flies back to Brisbane to all the trimmings and pleasantries of the urban world, real coffee, fancy restaurants and all the other stuff I thought I wanted to escape but now realised I would miss.

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Over the ensuing days I start to meet people and learn names, a couple of times I hear;

“Its a beautiful place here, really friendly. Have you been threatened yet?”

It’s the ‘yet’ that palpates my heart. Yet has an inevitability about it that doesn’t rest easy.

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As I start to sort out the office I find some traditional hunting spears, so I mount them on the wall. In the storeroom I find a Louisville Slugger, but I know there is know baseball on the island. It’s aptly named ‘The Ambassador.’ I put it within easy reach of the front door. In a drawer by the back door I find a Brazilian Tramontina, the best quality machete money can buy. Maybe that’s just for the coconut tree in the garden. I still keep it by the back door for good measure.

So this is life in the slow life, feels a little racey for me…

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Strait-Laced

Despite the sweltering heat, I donned long pants and long sleeved shirt buttoned up high for my first day at work. Didn’t want all my tattoos giving a boss I had never met the wrong impression. But getting to work required a flight to Australia’s most remote  and northernmost administration centre.

From my flight from Hobart to Melbourne, through to Cairns in North Queensland, I slept over to catch my last flight northwards again above the tip of Cape York to Horn Island. My window seat looked out at the propeller of my small aircraft as we passed over some of the world’s wildest terrain. I could wax lyrically about turquoise ocean and blanket of green velvet rainforest – but I won’t.

Whenever I fly it amazes me how quickly it becomes dull. After all it is one of the most amazing engineering feats our species has ever managed to accomplish, but it still becomes as tedious as a bus ride. But my last leg of some 800 clicks was filled with trepidation of my new life, of leaving friends and family, my wife and little daughter who I wouldn’t see for three months. Was I mad, was this the right decision? This was a wild frontier with crocs and sharks and Queenslanders.

Landing on Horn Island the first thing I noticed was nothing, there was so much of it. Scraggly scrub interspersed with three metre high termite mounds. Stepping off the plane and crossing tarmac I noticed a large sign on a cyclone fence saying I was in Kaurareg Country. I became acutely aware of my suburban Caucasian-ness. I was now the minority and would be for the foreseeable future.I could feel eyes burning into me, or more likely it was just my uncomfortableness of being somewhere unknown and unfamiliar, welcome to the real Australia, the one we all pretend to have affiliations with (as in Crocodile Dundee) but only from the safety of our lounge rooms at the finger tips of our remote controls. Nobody actually gave me a second glance.

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Horn Island, or Narupai has a smattering of 650 people spread over 53km2.

In 1802 Matthew Flinders gave the island its European name, based on the shape of Horn Hill, being you guessed it the shape of a Horn. I think it must have been the heat wilting Englishmen in the midday sun that lead to uninspiring names as he circumnavigated terra nullius (didn’t he see all the people?).

in the late 1900’s some 6,000 ounces of gold were mined on Horn Island, but when the vein ran dry the miners moved on. Then came the pearlers, which saw a the arrival of experienced divers from many countries, notably Japan, most of who also disappeared with WWII. An Allied airfield saw ironically the Japanese bomb the Island several times.

With all its resources exploited the island was again left relatively alone up until the present day.

I felt like Harry Dean Stanton in the film Paris Texas as I stepped out of the terminal, blanketed in the dry heat of the savannah like country. My threads barely any better.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b44paD20O3M

Climbing on my airconditioned courtesy bus that took us to the ferry, my dusty desert quickly fantasy evaporated. All the Indigenous kids fiddled with their iPods and smart phones and on the widescreen TV the Bee Gee’s comeback tour belted out ‘Staying Alive.’ For the first time since arriving I thought I might just be able to do just that.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fa9n7GirhsI

A fifteen minute ferry ride across to Thursday Island and I was at my new home. At less than 4km2 and with a population of around 3,000, as in the ‘Capital’ of the Strait.

Although it’s not  known for sure the origin of Thursday Island odd name (or TI as the locals call it), it probably stems back to when Captain Bligh, exiled by Fletcher Christian’s mutiny on a small boat adrift at sea. Bligh apparently came across the Island on a Thursday, (after coming across Wednesday Island the day before and Friday Island the next day). The traditional owners call it Waiben, I think sounds much nicer.

My boss from now on I will refer to as Junior B, his dad, also my boss, is called Senior B. Also my about my age, laconic, lanky with blonde hair in a surfie cut. Junior B has a couple of decades experience as journalist, Senior B close to half a century, makes me feel a tad light wieght with my half a decade of freelance experience.

Junior B denied my arrival on Thursday Island on a Thursday was an intentional stunt, just another dose of serendipity.

The name Thursday is derived from Old English Þūnresdæg and Middle English Thuresday, which means “Thor’s day,’ the Proto-Germanic god of thunder. How sweet a rumbling angry sky would have been, instead it was slightly over cast with a touch of drizzle – I guess that would have been too much to ask for.

Over ensuing days I slowly reduced my strait-laced appearance to shorts and T-Shirt. I Junior B that I guess I would only wear my suit if an important politician came to the island, to which he said, “An Elder’s funeral for sure, but not a politician, I make a point of wearing shorts, T-shirt and thongs.” I made a mental note to do the same.

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From Strait to Strait

From Bass Strait and a boozy BBQ farewell with my old old crew in Van Diemen’s Land to Torres Strait, my life has gone from one polar opposite to another, from the deep south, or the arts end of the world (but I’m no MONA) to the top of the top end, as far north as you can go. The degrees of separation are about 20 (Celsius), nice to pack away my thermals and break out my board shorts – permanently.

The place were nobody worries about the sharks (because the crocs eat them all) and nobody can spell beer (four X’s will do).

Prior to the Strait, and in between writing freelance for magazines, journals, universities and whatever else I could pitch my copy to, I was also scratching out an existence as a self-proclaimed  tradesman (or blagger that would give anything a go). I can’t complain, it kept me at the level of poverty I had grown accustomed to.

Prisioner of life, myself and a mate type cast as convicts in a movie

Prisioner of life, myself and a mate type cast as convicts in a movie

another day at the office

another day at the office

Then one Monday morning I saw a job online for an editor of a newspaper. It said they wanted someone with 3-4 years newspaper editing experience – I had none. So I wrote an unconventional job letter, broke all the rules. I opened with. “to be frank, I would chew my right arm off for this job” (I’m left handed).

Two days later my ole faithful shitter died, a 1987 Holden Shuttle van, known as ‘off Centre’ (it had previously been the Coffee shop, Centrepoint, but most of the other letters had eroded away, leaving only its title.) This had been my tradie chariot, but with a blown head gasket and only the grime of three years reglect holding it together I could not afford another.

Two days after that I had a phone call to say I had the job. Serendipity or just bloody lucky…

A fortnight later I was on the job.

Photo by Robert D Phillips

Photo by Robert D Phillips

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohf52vAPszM