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.

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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.

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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.

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PNG fisherman comes to market.

PNG fisherman comes to market.

Saibai market.

Saibai market.

To Duaun, Saibai’s picturesque neighbor.

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  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.

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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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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.

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Nino

“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…

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Wild White Man of Badu

KILL! – OR BE KILLED

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.

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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.

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Jack

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.

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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.

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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 THUNDER GOD REINCARNATES WONGAI

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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