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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Rust in Peace.

‘Men fear time and Time fears the Pyramids,’ Arab proverb.

Time, however, has nothing to worry about it in the Strait.

From the erosion of the mudflat island of Siabai near PNG, eaten away by rising sea levels, to any sign of civilization left momentarily in neglect, time is not kind here. The constant salt-laden sea-breeze eats away at cars, houses, signposts and even the grill of my barbecue and locks on my doors, leaving nothing but nubs of oxide relics. What the sea, salt and rain does not dissolve or the sun turn to powder, the white ants devour. There is no man-made permanence in the Strait, at best a persistent transience.

remains of a boat on the beach at Goods Island

remains of a boat on the beach at Goods Island

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Its heartening really, something nice in knowing, no matter how enduring our efforts are, nature will crack, erode, weather and crumble it the moment we neglect it.

Just look at Detroit

These residues of past human endeavor are never more poignant than the relics of war scattered around the Strait, bunkers, trenches and crashed planes that are really consumed by vegetation  and worn away by the elements.

trenches, Horn Island

trenches, Horn Island

Anti-aircraft gun turret,Goods island

Anti-aircraft gun turret,Goods island

amry jeep, Prince of Wales Island

army jeep, Prince of Wales Island

crashed plane, Horn Island

crashed plane, Horn Islan

crashed plane, Horn Island

crashed plane, Horn Island

Just after midday on 14 March 1942, Japanese Zeros bombed Horn Island. For the next seventeen months the islands and airfields of the region were subject to sporadic attack. In total nine people were killed, and at least 22 people injured.

But the Strait was ready, having dug in and erected antiaircraft guns, bunkers and formed Australia’s first all indigenous battalion, The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, build upon comradeship and a long tradition of warriors. Even though it was all ‘ilan men’, that is below the rank of sergeant, these able and willing troops were paid less than half of the white diggers. Also the Australian Government did not intitally approve of the battalion as they were not of ‘European Origin.’

ilan solders

ilan solders

the officer-gentry in charge...

the officer-gentry in charge…

It took over 40 years for the Australian Government to pay these old diggers the discrepancy in their wages compared to the whitefellas, and it was not until 2001 that the few remaining were recognized for their unique efforts with the awarding of the Torres Strait Star Medal.

Considering the population of the Strait back then was only around 4,000 people, the 800 plus Indigenous troops represented virtually all of the ‘men of age’, in the region, quite a commitment, from people of ‘non-European origin’ in a county hell-bent on a White Australia.

Its only now in 2013 are voices talking of erecting an Indigenous War Memorial to commemorate the efforts that all indigenous service men and women have contributed to their very ‘Lucky’ country.