26 December 1982

Letter: Christmas

Letter 26 / 12 / 82

Well, its Boxing Day - we made it through Christmas. A couple of days ago I did wonder if we would.

So, how does a Murray Island Christmas go?

First of all, you spend furiously until the store is denuded of food and toys. Darnley Island (40 miles away, just visible on the horizon on clear days) has run out of food, even though they have two stores - a dinghy came across here yesterday apparently hoping to buy more, but even if there was spare food I don't think they would have let them have any (its not as if anyone was about to starve!).

Anyway, one spends Christmas Eve preparing and trying to rest at the same time. At 11pm the church bell rings - being so close to the bell we went to bed anyway having no fear of not waking up at the right time. Normally when Father Tabo rings the 6.30am bell he gives about 80 'dong's - if he is away, he replacement only rings about 40. But on Christmas Eve Father Tabo was determined to wake the dead with 122 loud 'dong's!

Then there is a Midnight Mass, followed by a procession.

They used to go right through the village and bless each house, finishing around dawn. These days they only go around the church. Then Christmas begins with presents and feasting around 1am. Bleary-eyed kids opening presents, squabbling, and eating sweets at that hour ... we spent the occasion with our old neighbours.

They announced to us during the day that they had presents already, for 'everyone', so we had to scramble around and find them all small gifts - we had already given them presents when we returned from Cairns, so we didn't want to go 'all out'. I wrapped a little bit of home-made fudge for each of the kids - which, as it turned out, they didn't like anyway but I wasn't greatly fussed because I don't feel that we owe them anything at all. We managed to extricate ourselves about 2.30am and flopped back into bed.

Peter is reading over my shoulder and he says, "You make it all sound like such an ordeal, I quite enjoyed it!" It probably wasn't that bad, but today is so incredibly sticky and uncomfortable ... we are all feeling grimy and tired. The water is off again, so we don't want to use up our precious little supply taking showers. And the church service is on so we can't really escape to the beach. After midnight service, and then Christmas service, we didn't feel we could handle any more this morning - we are so close we can hear it all from our house anyway.

Goodness, it does sound depressing, doesn't it. Actually Christmas Day itself was quite encouraging work-wise. We were to have lunch with the same family again, but then they came down and said we had all been invited for lunch and supper with other 'relatives' - our nearest neighbours at this end of the village. We had been wanting to get into that household, but didn't realise they were classed as relatives of ours. It was a lot nicer spending the day with the extended family instead of the same little group, and they have a nicer shade house set-up right on the edge of the beach.

James takes a tumble

James was a model child most of the day in spite of the other kids Wilfred and Margaret's kids). The only child in this household is a 4yr old girl called Rekira. Towards the end of the day James suddenly took a liking to her and started cuddling her. At one stage they were so involved in a cuddle and they weren't looking and fell off a step! Poor James came off worst with his face in the sand and her on top!

Why the principal ran

Anyway, in the course of the day we had quite a few interesting conversations with people, and Peter especially learnt quite a bit from the men about what has gone on here in the past few years - enough to make your hair curl! Island politics are not only very complicated but rather violent and one has to be so very careful not to be involved, which is extremely difficult. It all makes "Drums of Mer" a bit more believable. For the first time we have heard a reasonable explanation of why the last headmaster took to the bush with his family afraid for his life, and why two years later they finally sent out another headmaster - a single chap, on a trial basis. Some of the things we heard yesterday about some of the people who are even now sitting in church singing "He is Lord...", its very hard to work it all out. Of course, we haven't necessarily got the true side of the story even now, but we can piece some things together. We are so glad we are not still living in the 'guesthouse' now. Apart from having nicer neighbours, the whole business about arguing over ownership of that warehouse is in the melting-pot right now and things could 'blow up' at any time.

Going to the coast

Last week we were listening to "Australia all over" on the radio, and that adolescent-sounding Ian McNamara asked us (well, not us personally) if we were 'going to the coast' for our holiday! Peter went stir-crazy and ran round and round inside the house yelling "Yes! Yes! Let's go to the coast!" James didn't know what to think. Now whenever things get too much one of us will suggest a holiday at the coast, but we can't decide which coast to go to...


Well, the church service finished so we could go to the water less conspicuously, so we all went down and had a soak in the shallows - James had a lot of fun as usual. It was nice and cloudy, and Peter sat on the beach listening to the cricket on the radio. James would stand by him while he said "Ready ... GO!" and then he would charge down the beach and fling himself into the water next to me, then back up the beach to do it again and again ... he thoroughly wore himself out. So after a little lunch (pressure-cooked sardines on Sao biscuits) he slept all afternoon while us oldies also did a fair bit of lounging around.

Council agreement

A bit of good news this afternoon. The church council has agreed to our proposal about the house. Now we need SIL to agree that this job needs doing, and then we'll see if we can get the house agreement in writing for when the church council and/or priest changes.

The water situation doesn't look good again. Since we've had our tap, the water has only been on three days. Each time it is on for a day then its off again for several days because something has gone wrong again somewhere. Today a group came and filled up a whole lot of dustbins with water from the well near us, something I haven't seen since the pump was fixed, so I hope the pump isn't broken again. If we really are going back to using the wells, then we desperately need some rain to thin out the tadpoles down there.

Wilfred's uncle and aunt who adopted us in Townsville, the Marous, haven't arrived yet. They are still stuck on TI as far as we can tell. Apparently about 40 Murray Islanders came up for Christmas and instead of going on the planes they chartered a ferry so they could all come together (it cost very little less each), a grueling fifteen hour trip. But the boat broke down and they didn't make it, and they missed Christmas. The latest is they will be here on 4th January.

Cracking eggs

I'm glad you might be able to come up with some egg powder to send us. I presume the eggs here travel up from Cairns, already at least a couple of weeks old, and not refrigerated at all at any stage. This last time they arrived here on Friday and the store didn't open until Monday - that store is a tin shed and is always very hot even when it is open with all the windows open. By the time we get them they are all at the 'stand-up-on-end' stage in the water test, and some are floaters. Every time I crack an egg my stomach gets all screwed up in anticipation! One batch we had were moldy (on the outside, and of course it gets in). When you crack them the yolk always sticks to the end of the egg, and if its not too bad it just breaks. But every now and then I get one where the yolk just won't come out ... or when you just crack it a bit you can tell straight away!


Well, the water is on today, so I have filled our barrels (enough water for two days if it goes off again) and I've done the washing ... and then drank three glasses of Salvital to replace the sweat I lost.

James' "-bi" tree

James spent most of the time over the road from our house under the sorbi tree eating sorbi - funny red and white fruits that grow mostly on the trunk of the tree. I imagine they could be quite nice, but at this stage - with the lack of rain - they are very dry and bitter, they draw your mouth worse than rhubarb! Now, of course, James is at my knee with one of his books as usual. They really are his most precious toys. He wants to go down to the "kwa" for a swim, but its sunny today (and muggy as ever) so I would burn in just a few minutes - not James, though, he takes quite a long time before he burns, like Peter. I have been trying to get James to say "water" rather than "kwa", and he has progressed to an occasional "kwati" .

Peter is trying to fix up an outside 'laundry' for me, just a bench in the outhouse to put my bowls on ...

The late news letters

I don't think there will be a plane today, being a public holiday. There was a plane or two just about every day for the last couple of weeks, but they were all charter flights, so no mail or anything. Last Monday the regular plane came early, and in the rush the mail (all the letters I had written!) got left in the store. Our printed newsletters (from Darwin) have got as far as TI, so the PO tells us. We had a friend take them into the AVDEV office and pay freight on them in the hope of getting them here sooner than the next boat. They are dated December, and it will be January before we get them - I've already done all the envelopes in preparation to send them out, but the news will be a bit stale regardless! Rumour has it there will be three planes on Wednesday, but they are all charter flights, one of them carrying a body back from TI, don't know who.

I had better close and get the bread started. It doesn't take long to rise here, no need to warm the bowl or anything! What does slow me down is my little helper!

19 December 1982

Letter: Marous are coming

Letter 19 / 12 / 82

Rumour has it that our 'parents' arrive tomorrow - the Marous from Townsville. We are not at all sure how things will turn out. Having them around (we don't know how long for) might really help to sort things out such as who we are related to etc. We are most relieved to hear that they aren't expecting to stay with us but with other relatives.

Under the hot tin roof

Its Sunday, church time, but I just can't face it today. I feel really washed out, probably the effect of this endless enervating heat and humidity. So I'm sitting up in bed (keeping my feet up) trying to type. If we weren't so visible from the church (the service is on and the walls are mostly made up of doors on all sides which are open) I'd take my mattress outside away from the heat of this tin roof. Fr Tabo is actually away today, so there won't be many in church this morning. Peter has taken James on the bike and gone away down the other end of the village to the AOG (Assemblies of God) church, thought we had better maintain ties with them before the Marous arrive, we haven't been there since we came back.


Quite unexpectedly the other day we got a tap! And then yesterday it had water coming out of it ... I actually did the washing in all clean water instead of re-using to the point of being ridiculous. But then last night the water went off, don't know why, hope its very temporary, because its so nice to be able to turn a tap on, even if it is out the back of the house - anything is better than going to the well which is very deep.

Soft sardines

My pressure cooker arrived among the things on the boat last week, and I finally got it out and got the handles screwed back on. Its lovely to be able to pop sardines in there for half an hour and then be able to eat them bones and all - just like the tinned ones only nicer! We have shown that to one or two people here and they have been most impressed - they are such tasty little fish and so fiddly to eat normally.

People are also very impressed by our 'tent' - we have our screen house set up outside our front door. It gives us somewhere to sit and converse with people as they pass (and to be seen generally), James sleeps in there in the afternoon, and now it has given people a reason to talk about us. On these hot nights a lot of people opt to sleep on the beach rather than inside - which of course has its own problems. Some build elaborate sleeping platforms, but most are more lazy and they can see that a screen house would be ideal, they all want one.

Need a language helper

We still don't have a regular language helper. All our efforts to invite people over for food have failed, they just don't turn up. I think they would if we invited several families at a time, but I just don't think I can cope with fifty or so! Usually I would have daughters, sisters, aunts etc to help me and provide plates etc. We were feeling quite despondent after our first few attempts, but now people are at least opening up a bit and talking to us more, maybe we were trying to go too fast as usual. The old chap, Sam Passi, who actually offered to come around, didn't even show up. He is recognised and respected as the one who knows most about the language, so he feels sort of responsible for us to make sure we do things right. The other day he offered to come and help us on an irregular basis, he is afraid he will be intruding. Anyway, he hasn't turned up yet; but he is a man of principles, I'm sure he will turn up eventually. In the meantime I guess we'll have Mrs Maraou for a while again. Trouble is, she'll expect us to be speaking fluent Miriam by now, and we really haven't progressed much at all - though we are getting much better at catching fish.

Fishing for niwop

Peter finally got me fixed up with a fishing reel of my own so I can join the women under the midday sun fishing for black bream ('niwop'). They are big fish and nice eating but they have very small mouths so you use a small hook and dough for bait. At least with dough bait I'm not likely to catch a shark accidentally. I really wouldn't be able to land most of the fish that Peter catches, they put up a pretty good fight - you should see some of his scars where the line has cut him on his arms. And when there is a shark on the end it often takes several men to hold the line. The fishing hasn't been brilliant the last couple of weeks (well, we have a bout a fish a day, or every other day), but they reckon things really hot up when the north-west season starts. At the moment the real sardines (the herrings) have mostly gone to Dawar Island (the little one close by) or round the back of the island to spawn, leaving just the wretched hardiheads. You can still eat them and use them for bait, but they are a lot harder to scale, and you really need to scale them even for bait.

Waiting for rain

Well, Peter and James are back, very hot and tired. The AOG 'church' is a tin shack with a sand floor - gets very hot, and sometimes James comes home filthy after rolling on the floor with the other kids (but mostly he's very good). And we've had a lunch of cold sardines on Sao crackers. Unfortunately James had a little sleep during church and so he won't sleep now. Not that any of us could get much rest, its so humid, we may yet have to resort to the beach - James has been hinting at it for some time. He lies on the floor and says "kwa" (water)! Every day there are hopeful areas of black sky, and every now and then a damp smelling gust of wind, but nothing ever comes of it. They had a big storm here just before we came back and that was enough to start the grasses sprouting on the black hill (after they burnt it) and in fact the whole village was looking grassy and pretty ... just as we were wondering if we could hire a goat to keep our grass down it all dies again because there hasn't been any more rain. (No, there aren't actually any goats here, I don't think we'd be popular bringing them in either for a number of reasons, including the spread of the dreaded screw-worm fly.)

Anyone for Lamington?

We haven't got definite names for number two yet, but we are considering some of the local ones ... how about "Lamington"? There's a gorgeous fat black kid here called Lamington, Lammy for short. He has a brother called Gormy - don't know what that is short for.


Right now my brain feels very soggy. Sweat is running down my face and arms, I'll just have to go and face the sharks for a while ... actually having James climbing all over me in the water might be considered a worse fate. He loves swimming, he even likes the bright green seaweed which he calls "wee-weed". I just go swimming in one of my dresses, like the other women, which solves the problem of maternity bathers.

The doctor came here the other day and I got called in for a check - I didn't know he was coming. He seemed satisfied that all is going as it should be, the baby is the right size and all that. It was also interesting to watch the dentist while I waiting at the clinic. Just using an old kitchen chair with no headrest, pulling teeth (including wisdom teeth) and doing scratch fillings - real bush medicine. His main equipment seemed to be syringe for local anaesthetic.

Nearly Christmas. We have promised to spend it with our old neighbours ... I guess the Marous will be there too. The worst bit is knowing that so many will be drunk over Christmas, at least here there is less traffic. Even one tractor can be pretty hazardous to little kids when the driver is drunk. It would be nice to have a boat and disappear around the back for a few days. (We still don't know whether to get the long-boat or opt for a little dinghy.)

12 December 1982

Letter: Warm Swamp

Letter 12 / 12 / 82

What a week it has been. And its so hot. No, that's not true, the temperature is probably quite low, but the humidity is incredible. Its like this in Darwin for months on end, but there you have a ceiling fan you can turn on, or you can take a cool shower of a swim or go and buy an ice cream and stroll around an air-conditioned shopping centre for a while. Here, we just sit and melt! We really are in the doldrums. The ocean is mirror smooth, and from where I sit I can see the road, the edge of the beach, and then ... blank! Its all disappeared under a thick haze. Not a whisper of a breeze, and that haze makes everything damp and clammy. At night getting into bed is like sinking into a warm swamp. bleh! We just sweat and sweat and sweat. Sometimes we brave the sharks and go sit in the warm ocean for a while and sweat there instead - James loves playing in the shallows when the tide is right out and the ocean calm ... every now and then something splashes and we come charging out of the water!

The stuff arrives

The other day our boat came in. So we now have a little fridge, and a bike, and a pram, and a dining table, and a bucket shower and toys for James, and all those things so eagerly bought and lovingly packed when we were in Cairns. This little house isn't much, but its the first time we have felt we have a place of our own and we really like living here. We are really quite comfortably set up. I have everything in the kitchen I have always wanted - except a sink! It was such fun walking through a kitchen section of the shops in Cairns and buying all the utensils I like to use.

James' birthday

James had a very up and down birthday yesterday (most of his days are like that), but basically he learnt what the word 'birthday' implies, and he really enjoys all his presents. We wrapped them all up the night before, and in the morning sang to him and let him rip them open, he found it all very amusing ... we thought about having his little 'friends' from down the way over for a little celebration, but couldn't face it - in a way it wouldn't be much fun for him, although he sort of enjoys playing with them because he gets so lonely, they would break most of his things by the end of the evening.

So we invited the chairman, James Rice (who has 'adopted' James) and his family over for supper - thought it would be a good start to getting people to visit us here. But at sundown someone suddenly panicked that a boat which left Darnley Island (40km away) that morning hadn't arrived yet. James Rice wanted to ring for the helicopter from TI, but as we pointed out they could never find them in this fog and the dark, especially as islanders never carry flares or safety equipment. So, they are coming to supper on Monday anyway - more cooking for me, I guess.

Patriarch returns

Sam Passi has returned to the island from a sojourn at Bamaga. He is an elderly fellow, looks rather like a Jewish patriarch and respected in much the same way. Speaks reasonable English, and is a deacon or something in the Anglican church. And if anyone knows anything about the Meriam language, its Sam. He has done some translation in the past, such as hymns, but is not at all familiar with our methods or ideals. He can't stand to think of the island creole as a written language, its just a rubbish language - even though it has become the first language of hundreds of islanders. And he complains about the younger people polluting the Meriam language and not speaking it right, but we have to write it the way it is spoken - it has changed quite a bit in 50 years. Anyway, he is a key figure, and although he would make a too stubborn a translation helper, etiquette demands that we at least start with him. He has been hard to catch since we've been back because, like all worthy citizens here (this season soon sorts the sheep from the goats) he spends from dawn till dusk in his garden up near the airstrip. He is coming to supper tonight, so lets hope we make some progress from this brief opportunity.

Eating sardines

Among the goods that arrived the other day was my pressure cooker. We often eat sardines if we can't catch any fish - especially now Peter has a net and can catch big numbers at one go. We fry or grill them, and they are very tasty, though rather fiddly because they have very strong little backbones which need to be removed. Its alright for us, but we wouldn't like to serve them up like that for visitors. Anyway, a few minutes in the pressure cooker and - presto! - just like a bought one. And with the fridge we can have them cool for lunch instead.

Counting to two

James is funny these days, so independent and full of ideas. He loves all his books, goes through them again and again, 'talking' about everything. I made him a scrapbook while we were in Cairns - of boats and planes and things out of travel brochures. He loved it, but one day he was very quiet in the bedroom, and it got too much for him ... he pulled out all his favourite ones, couldn't stand to have them stuck in a book. He likes to compare things. When he find something he recognises he takes it and holds it next to the real thing if he can, or another picture of it. He likes counting to two, and gets very excited when he notices two things that belong together. He's very good at those discrimination tests in the 'talkabout' books where he has to find one to match the first one. Like Peter said, if he was talking you'd think he was ready for school.

He's good at little jobs too and is generally quite reliable at helping Peter catch and clean sardines, or going and getting himself a t-shirt and pants, or even setting the table. He watched me floating eggs the other day, and ran off to check his plastic ones. But he left them all in a tub of water and Peter came in: "Oh no! were those eggs all bad?" ... they did look rather realistic!

We haven't told him about the baby, but he listens so much he probably has an inkling that something is about to happen. He likes calling himself 'baby', and we are trying to emphasise that he is a big boy now. When we are reading the baby book we tell him he is the little boy in the picture who is helping. Come bed time though he seems to get very insecure and reluctant to sleep on his own. Still, we have a few months to get him prepared. And his talking is going ahead - I was afraid that when we returned to MI he would regress like he did last time. He is certainly a lot happier living in this house.

Keeping the chooks warm - ?

When your letter arrived (via Cairns) the other day, we sat here bathed in sweat and laughed and laughed. ... "Oh give me a chook run ... with some felt under the roof ..." Even bucketing water over vegies - having some vegies to care for and a tap to get the water from! And eating all those berries. I guess we suddenly realised what we are missing. At least we have the well to ourselves these days. Everyone else has water on tap, at least a stand-pipe near their house. But with only us using it the well has a reasonable supply of water. The water:tadpoles ratio before was getting a bit squirmy! And it doesn't taste quite as bad now. And we can cover it with planks between uses to keep James from falling in. We bought two big plastic barrels with screw-on lids in Cairns, they hold 60L each, so we only draw water every few days.

Better close off, tidy up a bit, prepare tea, and maybe write a few more letters ... all in the next half hour or so. Peter and James are down at the "kwa", as James insists on calling "water", baiting sharks ...

01 December 1982

Letter: Back on the Island

Letter 1 / 12 / 82

Well, here we are again!

James is asleep, other wise I would type this, (now that we have the 'typer' here) and Peter is out fishing. This may go out on the plane tomorrow - if there is one, and if I finish this. There was to have been an extra plane on Thursday so we paid extra on all our parcels (which should have come out on the next Melbidir, but no one told the PO when the Melbidir was coming, and the PO didn't bother to ask ... isn't this a crazy place?) only the plane (that is THE Avdev plane, there is only one) broke down. (Right after we had used it on Monday). The 'latest' on the plane is that it 'may' arrive tomorrow and may be carrying some of our stuff.

Getting here

We arrived on TI on Friday about 10am, having been up since 4am, feeling like we'd already done a day's work. But we were pleased that we managed to bring with us two cases - one full of food etc - the pram, the typewriter, new (large) radio/cassette player, my island woven basket (bulging and overflowing) and a full-length float-plate glass mirror! So far so good. While I looked after James at our host's house - introducing him to their 16 month old daughter - Peter tried to see the DAIA bod (about our accommodation ideas for Murray Island) ... but he was on Murray Island, and returned to TI as we left there. He found our fridge and bike and delivered them and the pram to go on the next Melbidir. And discovered the rest of our stuff still at the PO.

Monday ... we had to weigh-in at Avdev at 9am (only 13 kg each allowance), then be on the boat at 10am. We weighed in at about 100kg, including some of our stuff from the PO, and it nearly all got on in the end. By the time that was accomplished it was 9.40, and we realised that although we had sent a radio message to Murray as ordered, and we'd been trying to phone through all weekend, we still did not have permission to land.. We had a borrowed car which also had to be returned before we left. So I stood at the Avdev counter paying excess baggage while Peter raced off to DAID and asked them to ring the island, then whizzed up and collected our host (the car owner) and back to Avdev and found that permission had just been phoned through ... and down to the wharf just as they were counting heads for the boat to leave. It was a very harassing little time.

We got on the plane with our oodles of hand luggage - including the mirror, still in one piece. Here on Murray we found they had done nothing about preparing the "Deacon's House" for us as promised - ie a water stand-pipe close by, a connection to the church generator, and a stove. They wanted us to return to the guest house until they fixed all that ... but we assured them we'd rather move in and let them work around us. As it is, the village pump is still out of water and everyone is drawing well water. The tractor is almost out of diesel so the water has to be carried by hand - women's work, of course. The nearest well is a few metres from our house, which is a pleasure - but a terrible worry with James. As for power, we haven't heard the church generator running at all, so we're back to two hurricane lamps. And as for a stove, the school teacher's house has just got a new one, and we've inherited the old. Its pretty decrepit, but its a stove and its ours.

Our new home

This house is in pretty good nick, though its unlined. Tin roof gives off a bit of heat during mid-day! But the wall-frames are useful 'shelves' in the absence of other furniture. The church allowed us 2 beds and 4 chairs. Some previous occupant built a sort of 'table' attached to the wall - about 18" by 2'. So we're managing quite well. By the time the rest of our things arrive we should really be quite comfy. In very many ways its very much more suitable than the guest house.

We are thinking of doing a deal with the church. They charge rent on this place - $5 per night. That's okay for a short stay but its a bit rife for long-term in an unfurnished and un-lined house. (The bishop on TI thinks so too). If SIL agrees, we are thinking of putting it to them to let us stay here rent-free - if Anglican guests arrive we can put them up a lot more comfortably than as it is now. Then we'll line it, put a rainwater tank etc - and they can have it all when our job is finished.

Oh yes, your parcel arrived on the last Melbidir. All intact - except a rat ate most of the wheatgerm, James' 'thing' was just crumbs, and I think the spices have affected each other a bit.

James loves his bag and his "toot'n'tug"! He especially likes the fish ("zsssh") and its button eye ("aiey").

Found some wholemeal flour (in tins) in the store, so made some wholemeal bread today. Something wrong with this oven - won't get very hot - but it cooked eventually and was very nice.

We bought a cast-net in Cairns - its nice to catch a half-bucket of sardines (unmutilated) with one throw, instead of 2-3 with each spear-throw! Peter caught a rainbow runner for breakfast today - and its nice to be able to have it with a few herbs on. He caught a big shark-mackerel this evening, that's in Dave's fridge for tomorrow. Dave hopes to leave tomorrow (if the plane comes) so hope our fridge arrives soon.

I think I'll go to bed - I don't sleep too well these nights with this lively baby in me (so need to start early).

World Safari II sinks

Did I tell you about the "World Safari" mob? They previously made a film called "World Safari" and it was showing in places like town halls around the country. They made so much money they bought a new sailing ship and decided to do it again. They were here when we left for Cairns, filming the island. After we left their boat burnt to the water line and sank. James Rice (chairman) held a little ceremony (he loves that) and named the place "World Safari II Harbour"!

Well, I've washed the clothes this morning, in a muddy dribble of water - can't bring myself to use salt water. This well not only tends to run dry frequently, its hard to find a time when no one's using it. When we finally got a look in, late last night, we got more tadpoles than water. James was fascinated!

Well, tractors and planes being what they are I had better get this in the mail. The store is closed for stock-taking today - maybe they won't think to take the mail-bag.

21 October 1982

Letter: Mail and Air Freight

Letter 21 / 10 / 82

Its good to know that we are getting through at last. Your letter (Sun Oct 10) got here on Monday (Oct 10) - but not the parcel.

Is it clearly marked "air mail"? Otherwise it won't come until the next ship comes. AVDEV, the bods that own the local planes tend to be a bit funny about carrying mail, especially parcels. Freight from TI (by air) is 55c/kg, with a minimum of $5.50.

But sometimes they just decide they won't take this or that. This is the Torres Strait. Also there is a size rule with Australia Post. Normally its something like "no more than a meter in length, and length plus girth must not exceed two metres." But its different in some areas and we haven't managed to track down any local rules. I guess when we want something from down south we just have to learn a lot of patience.

We tried to order a Bamix washing machine from Brisbane. Its a little barrel-thing, holds 8 shirts or 2 double sheets, plus six pints of hot water and 1 teaspoon of detergent - you turn the handle for two minutes and it pressure washes the clothes. But they said they would have to bring one from Melbourne, its too big for air mail and air freight costs about double - $35 up from Melbourne. We're hoping to pick one up in Cairns - hand-washing takes so much energy.

Time for a holiday

About the time you receive this we should be on our way to TI, then the next day to Cairns. We plan a week in Cairns, then a week on the Atherton tablelands, and another couple of days in Cairns. Then - if there is somewhere for us to live - we'll return for another ten weeks or so here (before we go to Darwin for the baby to be born).


There is a phone on MI if you ever want to contact us in a hurry - or if you are bored and want to spend an interesting half-hour. The TI exchange is manual, so you need to persuade the "Old Dear" to give you number 129.

If you get through (if anyone answers) bear in mind that their English isn't too good. Our house (if we are home) is a good 200m (that's metres, not miles!) from the phone, and Islanders rarely run. So tell them to get us and ring back 15 minutes later, or better still give us a definite time later that you will ring.

Sometimes the phone makes a funny noise and goes dead. Just keep saying "Allo? Allo?" until you get through again ...


There's an Anglican church, an Assemblies of God, and a "Body-Felt Salvation". We don't worry about Body-Felt, but we alternate between Anglican and AOG and try to keep "in" with both.

There is no real Christian teaching at either, the singing is lively at both and we hear a fair bit of Meriam language at both. We occasionally get criticised for not attending daily 7am mass at the Anglican - they seem to have no idea that you can pray at home.

The few that seem to be really born-again on Sundays have absolutely no Christian life on other days - swearing, getting drunk, quarrelling. We have never heard anyone here say anything nice about anyone else. Worse than that, everyone goes out of their way to slander everyone else. It's the weirdest thing. Its all part of their constant power struggle. We upset it all by smiling and greeting everyone and giving away biscuits and bread at random.

Peter was going to visit (Anglican) Fr Tabo today to strengthen our ties there - we are living in an AOG stronghold at this end of the village.

He was just helping Wilfred clean the head of a borrowed cassette recorder, and he broke a bit of plastic on the door of it ... Wilfred is anxious because the owner is liable to return any second and he has a tendency to drunkenness and violence. We've tried Araldite, no good. Peter's gone up to the school to see if he can borrow some plastics glue. I might have to use the pumpkin scones I just made for Fr Tabo to temporarily appease this other chap.

Water supply

It’s been oppressive weather the last few days. The pump is still broken, people are bucketing well water. Our tank trickles on, thankfully. As far as I can tell from what they are saying, a large piece of wood from the pump broke off and got lodged down the well. There are 15 well casings, and as they were pulling them up to get the wood out, 13 fell back down the well. Its a bit of a disaster all round.

Burning the island

They burnt the island the other day. I gather it's supposed to make rain, but its a bit un-nerving to be on a tiny island that's going up in smoke. And of course there were black bits falling everywhere, and thick smoke. Sure enough, yesterday the clouds built up and threatened, and it even sprinkled lightly in rain, but most of it went out over the ocean and probably fell on Darnley Island which is 40 miles away on the North-West horizon.

Doctor's orders

I saw a doctor the other day - a different one. He says I'm two or three weeks bigger than my dates allow, so he says my dates are wrong. Well, what's a couple of weeks between mother and child? We'll be back in Darwin in good time for the baby to be born. Movement-wise, I know my dates are right. At least the doctor didn't sound dreadful warnings about something mysterious that could be wrong. He just said rest a lot, about every two hours - some hope, with a small boy to care for.

Poor James seems to be so insecure these days - its obvious in a number of ways. His toilet training has 'gone to pot' - he won't use his pot or the toilet. He wets everywhere - in bed, on chairs, on my knee. At least we've got the solids back in check after a bit of a 'rough trot' there too.

He cries uncontrollably if either one of us goes anywhere or is suddenly out of sight. I had a terrible day yesterday when Peter was helping out up at the pump all day. James was inconsolable - "Daddy! Daddy!" all day, but he's really not a "daddy's boy" normally at all.

Then there's the things he carries in his hands. Whether he's awake, asleep, eating, running - wherever. He always has two hands full of small cowrie shells, marbles, stones, usually a spoon (I keep losing those), often a stick, a cup ... And if he has a particularly large pile of things he wants to carry and they won't all fit in his tiny pudgy hands he just screams!

When he falls over he lies there like a turtle, on his tummy with his head and clenched fists (full of things) up in the air. He won't put his 'treasures' in the dirt to push himself back up again. Of course little darlings next door have observed how amusing it is to distress him by taking his treasures away.

I'd like to solve the practical side by giving him a large pocket or something (although I feel he may not readily accept that) - rather difficult when all he wears is singlet and trainer pants. I could put him in the "kindergarten" here - aged 1-5 - and have more free time for myself, but right now I just don't think he could take it.

Living with Margaret

Right now we are feeling a bit stressed and looking forward to our holiday down south. But when we work out what's causing the stress ... its not the place or the people - its our white-skinned neighbour, Margaret. She really has a split personality these days - nice one minute, screaming at everyone the next. Wilfred just keeps muttering "she's mad". I've stopped going out of my way to be nice to her, I mostly avoid her - she doesn't speak Meriam language and my association with her is blocking my way to any other women.

I'm beginning to hope they find us somewhere else to live when we return. The Anglicans have a little place Peter wants to ask Fr Tabo about. And it would be nice for James to have some new playmates too. At least Peter gets out and about these days - although 'the ogre' usually tries to take his head off on the way past. If it wasn't so hot, and me so tired, and James so heavy I'd take off via the beach (avoiding her) to find adventure with the other women ... but its a very sloping beach with (hot) soft sand and I always get such a bad back when I try carrying James along it, and he refuses point blank to walk.

I've planted a couple of sweet potatoes in milk tins as decorative indoor plants. They have really taken off. I half expect to wake up in the night with one wrapped around my neck.

Turtle season

Fish are not caught so readily these days, though we have one every couple of days. Its turtle season, and also there is still chicken in the store freezer so people aren't so keen on fishing.

Peter's biggest fish so far was a "black kingy" caught one morning - it was 49" long. After it was cleaned and everything we found some (weighing) scales and it weighed in at 26lb. We filleted it, gave away half, Wilfred and Margaret had two large meals out of it, we had one, then five of us and four kids tried to finish it off at a barbecue - but only ate about half of what was left, the rest went to the pigs and dogs.

Tonight Peter caught four small fish - a nice change. Its hard to keep thinking of different ways to cook fish when we have no herbs and spices, no cheese - just tomato sauce, soy sauce, and vinegar. We often do the "namas" mixture (pickled raw fish) but then dip it in flour and cook it - very nice.

The other day Peter and Wilfred and Dave went out fishing in a borrowed boat - with Fredwin.

Fredwin is a nice chap, it seems - big round face, bit of a giggler. They went about three miles out near the end of the Great Barrier Reef. Came back with half a dozen crayfish - not little ones like down south either - and lots of smallish various-coloured reef fish, all very nice. I'm not crazy about clam, it has rather a rubbery consistency. If you manage to cook it tender it comes out a bit crunchy. Looks 'orrible too!

Hoy! and darts

I think the Anglicans have a fete today. That means they sell a few things (cakes, bananas). But mostly they make money by playing "Hoy!" (its like "Bingo!" with playing cards), darts (a special gambling game) and Hoopla. We went to the cathedral fete when we were on TI - the money that was rolling in there was amazing. The Catholics on TI also had a fete, we heard that they raised $1400 in one day.

Trip to Dawar

Tomorrow we have been promised a ride out to Dawar Island - that will be a nice change. Unfortunately the men plan to leave Margaret and me and all the kids (!) on Dauar while they fish further out on the reef. I'm not keen on a day with Margaret.

14 October 1982

Letter: Sunset on the Beach

Letter 14 / 10 / 82

Another week is nearly through, so I'll get a letter out on Monday's plane.

We've decided to take a holiday in a couple of weeks. We are booked to fly to TI on Nov 1st and Cairns on Nov 2. Its partly for our sanity, but also because there's a teacher's conference here so we'll have nowhere to live.

We are down on the beach right now. Sun is sinking fast. Peter is trying out his new fish spear Wilfred made him - James is copying with a stick (and, as usual with a live sardine in his other hand.) The other day he found an old fishing reel (everyone here uses hand reels) on the beach and had great fun imitating Peter casting.

Kup maori

Turtle season is here. A few metres up the beach from me a poor old thing is lying on its back. Still further up there's a big fire blazing as a "kup maori" (earth oven) is in progress to cook another. No one goes fishing (for fish) these days. Maybe they know the fish just won't bite. There was a big turtle feast yesterday. Looked like most of the village was there, sitting around eating and talking nearly all day. We joined in around lunch time and again at tea. It wasn't too bad, actually, a lot nicer than turtle we've tasted before in Townsville. There's more turtle feasts tonight, to which we are not specifically invited - we don't mind at all. That sort of 'do' can be quite a strain and although its 'good' for us we inwardly shrink a bit.


The Melbidir came yesterday. Its a nice-looking ship, always kept clean and bright.

It arrived just as the tide whizzed out to the lowest we've ever seen it, the reef was all exposed, and the heavily-laden dinghies had great difficulty making it to shore. In the end they had to unload most of it outside our place where there is a bit of a channel instead of near the store.

It was handy for us because there were four boxes of groceries we had bought on Ti and it saved us having to carry them too far. Unfortunately the ship also brought cartons of beer. Those that aren't drunk on that have been into the "tuba" - jungle juice or fermented coconut juice. And when that is gone they turn to meths. You are only supposed to be able to obtain meths from the police sergeant, but the store manager is one of the sorst alcoholics and he somehow has his own supply. We'd like to get hold of one of those Coleman pressure lamps that doesn't need meths to start it. If the DAIA (Dept of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs) had any sense they'd sell those through the store and make possession of meths totally illegal.

(Back at the house now)

Fresh food!

We went to the store today and bought apples, pears, tomatoes, pumpkin, onions, potatoes - all at the most absurd prices. But who cares when you normally can't get them at all.

We also got some eggs and a frozen chook - which we devoured for tea. (Peter didn't catch any fish tonight.) The Melbidir brought a large stock of frozen chicken and meat, too mush for the old store freezers to handle. So they have got the freezer room working - right outside our bedroom,,, with a thumping great diesel generator.

Besides the exhaust sticking out in our direction fumigating us, it vibrates our whole place. Its the vibrations through the floor as much as the ...OH it just stopped! I wonder if its been sabotaged by someone? We've closed the outside door to the warehouse, and moved into one of the bedrooms further from the generators - its a bit hotter though. Even if they get it going again .... its nice to have peace for a while.

We're in the grip of a severe water shortage - people are having to brave the tiger sharks to wash themselves in the ocean. Last week all the men went up several days to work on the broken bore pump. They had problems due to lack of tools - the tools finally arrived on the Melbidir, but what with turtle feasts and drinking binges no one is doing anything about it now.

Well, I'm 4 months now at last - seems like 4 years! - and the sickness is abating. The first week here I was fine, thought it was all finished. But then it started all over again. I'm looking forward to being able to eat eggs, drink milk etc. soon.

Language work

Our language work continues to stand still - there are just so many social blocks. Every now and then we see a chink of daylight, grab a few phrases, and then it all closes up again. We hear quite a bit of language used all around us, which is better than when we were in Townsville, but can't seem to get anything on tape. Survay-wise, we are convinced the program will be a 'goer', though probably a 'class 2' (only selected scriptures to be translated) not 'class 1' (whole testament translated).

What James needs

James' birthday ... He does need something to play with - especially a trike - but the other kids are such a nuisance. The only game they know is destroying things. Their parents buy them a little car at the store about once a week, and I have never seen any of them even make it home from the store.

James has a precious little pile of books - which never leave the house. He loves them, especially the Ladybird ones. He has been through and through his picture books. Maybe something like a book would be best.

Clothes-wise he lives in size 2 trainer pants and t-shirts. Its hard to buy anything for kids here, at any price. He'd love a (sturdy) boat/car/plane/truck. He's seen other kids with them but never owned one.

Actually James seems to be growing out of his t-shirts, they are mostly too short. So we measured him the other day - he's grown 2 inches since July. He's now 341/2 inches tall. Quite a big boy. Still a rather big round tum, as usual, but otherwise not at all fat. I cut his snowy locks occasionally, which always makes his little face look fatter for a while.

Household duties call. I've put a pan of warm water on for a wash - can't face a dip in the ocean right now.

Peter and James are outside watching Wilfred feeding his four little pet turtles. He's had them since they were button-sized. Now they are about 8" across and getting too big for the tub he keeps them in.

Hopefully the doctor's visit the island this Monday. Should have come three weeks ago - that's when the plane broke down. I trust this time they will tell me everything is 'normal' Otherwise I guess I may have to go to Cairns for an ultrasound. It all feels quite normal to me.

06 October 1982

Letter: Belly-Run

Letter 6 / 10 / 82

We are going through a bit of a rough patch health-wise. Hopefully by the time you get this we'll all be strong and well again.

Gastro-enteritis has swept through the kids here and on Darnley Island - but James came down with his usual cold, chesty cough ... which he has passed on to me. Peter's main problem is getting up too often at night to look after James. I'm so tired and achey today, but James keeps pulling me by the hand to make me stand up, then wanting to be carried around - no good just sitting down with him.

Last year apparently Badu Island ran out of water and the people had to be transferred to TI. It hasn't happened here yet, but the tanks are low and the pump which brings up the underground water is broken, so most of the men are working on that today. I can imagine how much 'work' most of them are doing too. Peter planned to do some taping this morning but all the "mother-tongue-speakers" were up at the tank, so he's joined them this arvo.

I've got bread 'coming up' - no trouble getting it to rise here. I usually make two loaves and give one away - which usually results in a request for a bread-making lesson ... which provides a good contact. Although we are now surrounded by the people we came to serve, the family units are very close-knit and there's so much in-fighting its very hard to break into new families.

The other whites

We get on quite well with Dave, the single white school teacher here. He's only temporary, arrived just before us. There hasn't been a teacher here for over a year. The last fellow somehow upset island politics and it ended up with him and his family hiding in the bush fearing for their lives until a helicopter came and removed them. Then the Teacher's Union black-banned the island and wouldn't allow any more teachers here until certain conditions were met. There's supposed to be a new chap with a family coming next year.

Dave's a decent enough chap, despite his drinking and smoking. Many of the men, including our host Wilfred, had been making all sorts of excuses (especially now during school hols) to visit Dave for a couple of beers. Then Dave realised the trap he had fallen into and said his supply had run out. Monday was Margaret's birthday, and Wilfred went up to borrow some onions from Dave for the birthday barbecue. When he did not return instantly Margaret expected the worst and went and got him. He was drinking orange soft drink, she didn't believe him, he was very embarrassed and upset ... we found ourselves physically caught between them with Margaret screaming and Wilfred brandishing a knife. Very embarrassing all round! We prayed with them, things calmed down and the party went ahead - but we feel that we're still sitting on a volcano.


I'm just waiting for some warm water to wash the tea dishes. Peter has taken James for a walk along the beach to try to keep him awake as long as possible. We've just had a very nasty shock:- Peter was filling our hurricane lamps while I prepared tea, he turned around for a second and James was gasping. We have no idea how much kerosene he drank, can't have been much, but he refused to drink milk, we had to force open his mouth and pour some in. Now he's in rather a state of shock, but his breath still smells strongly of kero, so we want him to stay awake as long as possible in case he gags in his sleep.

So many interesting things happen here, but when the time comes, of course, I can't remember half of them. I guess after a while most of it will become mundane anyway.

The army arrives

The army arrived yesterday, landed a great big Caribou (don't know how to spell that) transport plane on our tiny runway. They were recruiting men for Army Reserve - I think they go down to Townsville for three weeks in November. It was strange having so many 'whites' around. Peter and Dave pal-ed up with the pilot, a guy called Mark, as he wasn't involved in recruiting, and he came over for a cuppa and a chat - nice chap. Reckons when he gets out of the army he'd like to fly planes up this way, so we may see him again. A group of air-force guys came along for the ride (and some fishing) as well as a DAIA bod and the TI Catholic priest ... don't know what he hoped to achieve in just a few hours. I asked Mark how he'd go getting that big plane off that short airstrip - he assured me he'd use only half of it. Peter went up to the airstrip on the tractor for the ride and says he did only use about 3/4 - the 9-seater "Islander" plane only just makes it using the whole strip.

James was most impressed when the "bi- pay-" (big plane) buzzed the village then roared out over the ocean. He still "talks" about it, demonstrating with hand moving and finishing with "bye-bye".

Grubby brown children

We're having a hard time with James generally these days. Wilfred and Margaret's kids are very disobedient, and James tries to copy all they do. People get very upset when we discipline him in public, but we tend to do it anyway. He's mostly got tired of playing with those kids - they're so mean to him, pinching him, rubbing dirt on his face etc. (If we catch them at it when parents are not around we tend to return a bit of their own medicine - but if they catch James with us not around I guess things go worse with him. None of them, even the 4 yr old, have enough language to express to the parents what's happened.) Then if he tries to run off and play with other kids they drive him up the wall by kissing him. With being sick right now too, he's becoming very insecure and withdrawn again.

Somewhere to live

We are unsure about the housing situation here. We're forced to leave here for a while in November, but we may not get this place back when we return. We really need the council to offer us a bit of land to build a house on, or a disused house to do up and call our own while we are here.

Glass-bottomed boat

Then there's our boat. We have an ocean-going canoe, 25ft long, 4ft wide, glass-bottomed (!) boat in Cairns. It had a 45hp motor - not sure if that part of the offer still stands. It was bought for $800, someone is offering $1000 for it. We can have the boat or the $1000 towards another. It has problems - its hard to tow, which is why the people who put in the glass bottom abandoned it. For ourselves (occasional escape from the island) we'd like a small dinghy. But we are beginning to think it may be a good community thing for us to have it. Then if we decided to sell it up here we'd probably be able to name our price. So, we just don't know what to do yet - and the cane farmer holding the boat wants a quick answer.

Thurs a.m.

The days here flit by, but the nights last for weeks. Poor little James had recurring nightmares about drinking kero - each time one of us would get up and give him a drink of milk (he still smells very strongly of kero) then back to bed for another half-hour or so.

Keeping rats at bay

We've had trouble with rats too - or at least very large mice. We have a mouse trap set, but they are so big and tough they thrash around and make a horrible noise when hit - so Peter usually gets up and dongs them when the trap goes. That way we caught the four biggest trouble makers the first night, one the next - but not one since. Last night it was only the wind clattering something and not the trap at all.

Big fish to fry

Peter's just come back from fishing (its 7am) with 2 very large fish. A big fat trevally - about 10 kilos - and a smaller black kingy. But we won't even take a photo, its very commonplace these days. There's a funny old blind shark - about 6+ foot long - lives on the beach (well, in the water, but often practically on the beach) just outside our place. He gave us a few scares the first few times we saw him - when you're knee-deep in the water and there's a shark approaching with fin cutting the water straight towards you! He comes right up into the shallows, almost has to turn on his side to stay in the water. They tell us he's only a scavenger, but we still step out of the water when he comes close. Its the tiger sharks we have to watch for. Yesterday Peter counted seven where he was fishing. This morning a small one leapt right onto the sand chasing Wilfred's bait.

Wilfred caught a big (4ft) mackerel this morning - they aren't as nice eating as most of these others, but the men enjoy the struggle of bringing them in. Peters fish was medium size - if you put the nose on the ground, the tail was up to his hip - just to give you an idea of what a medium sized fish is. Now he's trying to find someone to give some away to. We may secrete a fillet or two in Dave's freezer for Sunday - we pride ourselves on not using his freezer generally, but its always a problem knowing what to eat on a Sunday.

James is funny with fish - fascinated by "-zzsh-" (fish) and boats ("boar-") in this place. Sometimes he'll come running in to me with a live, wriggling (bleeding) sardine in each hand, ones Peter has just speared for bait. Then he takes them back to make them swim. Sometimes he'll find a whole lot of dry sardines on the beach (where they've leapt out of the water with a big fish behind them) and he gets very worried about them all just lying there. It takes a bit of persuasion to get him to just throw them back and not bring them all home for tea.

He doesn't enjoy W and M's boys, but he loves baby Lenwat. She's a cute, smiley little brown girl. When she cries she sounds just like a kitten. He gets so upset when she cries, goes and talks to her and pats her on the head. Comes and tells me "... (gobbledy gook) ... bubby ..." We must get some of his gobbledy gook on tape before he learns to talk.


The store opens again today - been closed about two days for stocktaking. There should have been a boat this week (rumour says) - the "Doigu" - but it broke down or something. Now they say the Melbidir might leave TI on Monday - takes about two days to get here - so maybe sometime next week we'll see a boat. No wharf here, of course, everything has to be transferred across the reef by dinghy.

One thing I don't think I'll get used to is drinking out of a "pumpkin". It took us a couple of days to realise that a "punkin" was a "pannikin" - metal mug. Even weak tea looks black in a pint sized one of those. Ah, but its so satisfying, they say.

Well, the water is warm for my "bath". We've come to the point where we just can't take cold showers any more. Its not that its that cold, its quite invigorating - but its so nice pouring warm water over yourself instead.

PS Could you make Peter a lava-lava please? Its quite simple but material is very expensive up here and a sewing machine is needed. Someone has given him an old one which he enjoys wearing, but he could do with a new one for Sunday.

You need 4 metres of calico - that's fairly sturdy, cotton material, isn't it? People like electric blue or green or scarlet. (Some wear pink or yellow, but looks better on dark skin) You cut it into two 2 metre lengths and sew it together along the edges to make a square. Then on the right side you sew a piece of braiding down the cut edge, not ric-rac, but some use white lacey stuff (not actually lace) or the sort of colourful braiding you can finish off furniture with - know what I mean? That hangs right down the front of the lava-lava on display. Then the other cut edge needs hemming, of course.

30 September 1982

Letter: Plane Breakdown

Letter 30 / 9 / 82

Thursday already, I'd better start building up a stack of mail for Monday's plane. Rumour has it that there may be a ship next week too, but no one ever really knows when the ship is coming.

This last Monday we waited in vain for our first mail plane. A team of doctors from TI were to make their monthly visit too, and I was looking forward to a check-up. But the plane broke down (as it does frequently) . The doctors cancelled their visit until Oct 20, and the plane finally came in on Tuesday afternoon. Even then we waited in vain for mail - its the policeman's job to deliver it. The tractor came by with a box for us from TI with some sultanas for James (even on TI they are hard to get) and a couple of lamps for us. It wasn't until mid-morning on Wednesday that we finally received our little stack of mail.

The chairman

The chairman, James Rice, isn't a bad old stick, though he is a little bit strange. Without our typewriter to make it easier for me to write at length I haven't a hope of beginning to tell you about the workings of "Island Politics" and the struggle for power.

Anyway, Chairman James Rice was delighted to meet our James, and immediately "adopted" him as his grandchild ... and, as far as I can tell, we therefore get this place rent-free and the use of the generator (when there is diesel available) free too.

Its all to do with who you are related to. Somewhere James Rice has picked up a peculiar dry sense of humour. Like when Peter was discussing our plans ... there is a teachers' conference here about November 12, accommodation will be tight, so we'll take a holiday in Cairns then and return about the end of January. Peter asked James Rice if that was alright. "No, you stay." "Here?" "No. In Cairns." All without the hint of a smile. Peter turned ashen before James admitted he was joking.

Edge of the world

We haven't received any mail via Darwin yet. Its very beautiful here, but we do feel a bit like we've fallen off the edge of the world. Its not obviously an island - not that peculiar trapped feeling you get on a tiny island like TI. Peter went right round the island yesterday after crayfish, and its quite a hike - even without climbing the hill. Still, its nice to hear that the outside world is still there.


Peter's caught a couple of fish at last, and now he can relax a bit.

We had all been sleeping-in every morning (no point in getting up before James) - the sea air makes us all very tired. James picked up a runny tummy virus from the grubby brown boys he plays with. But yesterday he woke up early, so we all got up and Peter went fishing.

He couldn't borrow a fish-spear to get sardine bait so he was using dough ... but he caught a sardine on the dough, and a lovely golden trevally on the sardine.

This morning once again he was up early and we had snapper for breakfast. We have learnt quickly that we can't keep fish more than 3-4 hours - morning fish gives breakfast and/or lunch. If you fish in the evening and catch a great mackerel you have to eat it for supper or waste it. We eat so much fish. At least one meal a day, often two, sometimes three. (And not in small quantities either). If you can't catch some, someone's bound to give you some.


My bread making is going well - though only white flour is available. I make a couple of loaves every 2-3 days - we eat one and give one away (helps to build friendships). Our hosts here, Wilfred and Margaret (I did tell you about them, didn't I?) give us so much fish I had hoped to repay a bit with bread. But now Margaret has learned to make it herself and is doing quite well.


Peter's out working on our housing survey - at least its nice and cloudy for him today. Our work at present is a bit indefinable, but a map of the village seemed a good place to start. He's looking mostly at types of houses to start with, with a view to our own house-building. Then we hope to be able to fill in who lives where and work out how some of them are related.

People are beginning to accept us a bit as we walk around the village - everyone greets us (and kisses poor James). But we still haven't a close enough association with anyone in particular to get language helpers. Each family is closely-knit and so jealous ... we can't hope to please all the people but we'd like to remain friendly with most.

Fruit and veges

We finally got some garden produce. Wilfred and Peter went up the hill the other day and came back with heaps of over-ripe pawpaws and green bananas. The pawpaws did not sit at all well in my tum, and we had to throw most of them out. The bananas are now all ripe and I've been dishing out banana cakes and banana biscuits left, right and centre.

We were looking forward to being a little more permanent and growing a few veges ourselves. It would be so nice to have a fridge too. And we plan to bring some chooks up here. The only "phat" available here is tinned butter - once a tin is opened not the flies, nor ants, nor rats are the slightest bit interested! Don't blame them, its horrid stuff. There were some tubs of "Softa" butter, but like the eggs in the store they quickly went off without refrigeration. Can't seem to get egg powder either.

Well I have some "culture" stuff to write up. Its getting towards 11am and James is looking tired so I must soon give him some lunch (and a wash!) and put him to bed. He hardly eats at all, drinks a couple of cups of milo a day - I guess that's where he gets his sustenance. He's still a stocky, strong-looking chap - of his three play-mates he is as big as the 3 yr old and as heavy as the 4 yr old, (and he's not 2 yet). Their mother force-feeds them (lays each one on her lap and holds his nose so he opens their mouth and then rams a huge spoonful in...) on white rice and noodles, and thinks I should do the same with James because he won't eat. But as far as I can see he's doing alright - if he's hungry he'll eat. He enjoys sultanas, and we scrounged a packet of All-Bran from TI for his fibre. And he eats Vegemite or honey on his bread, so his diet isn't that bad.

22 September 1982

Letter: The Third day

Letter 22 / 9 / 82

This is our third day on MI, so I guess we'd better start remembering that the outside world still exists.
The trip from TI went very smoothly. 9 am check in, 10 am on the boat to Horn Is, 11.15 am take off, 12.15 pm Murray Island.

James was terrified on the plane. As we took off he was shaking and crying, and clinging to my neck until he fell asleep on my shoulder. Just before we landed he woke up because I was moving around trying to get a good look at the island - and he trembled and whimpered until he felt the wheels bumping along the grassy runway ... he'll just have to get used to it, poor kid! And that was a really smooth ride, no turbulence.

The brown bump

(This is one of the smaller lumps - Dawar Island)

Our first view on MI was a brown bump in the ocean, and a couple of small knobs next to it.

The airstrip is right on top (about 300' up, I think). There was a tractor and trailer waiting to carry baggage and passengers down to the village - with the ubiquitous dogs panting along behind. In the village we finally met the chairman, James Rice. He wanted to house us in with the single white schoolteacher (who has only been here a couple of weeks - but that is another story) but his house was full with a couple of nursing sisters who are staying there too. So we were glad to have the 'guest house' to ourselves. It's a large warehouse, and when you get inside and step around the piles of building materials, you go through a door into a large 4-bedroom home. It's all lined etc so you're not aware at all of being in a warehouse. It has a (non-working) fridge - which I use as an ant-free, mouse-free zone - a gas stove, and a kitchen sink with a rainwater tap. Outside we have a flush toilet, laundry sink, (cold) shower and rotary clothes hoist. All very civilized.

Living on the beach

If you take about three steps from our bedroom window you are on the beach. It's about ten steps down to the water. It's a short, sloping beach, but because of the reef surrounding the island the tide (apparently) never comes in to the extent that it swamps the houses.

The beach is sandy, with lots of beautiful shells. James always comes in with some in his chubby little hands.

The ocean (outside the reef) is calm and clear. It looks beautiful for swimming, but the sharks are plentiful and come right into the shallows, a metre or two off the sand.

Heaps of fish!

Its all true about the fish, though. Mmmm! At first glance it looks like there is a thick layer of dark weed just in the shallows - but it's actually sardines. Yesterday morning Peter looked out of the bedroom and noticed the sardines were very agitated because of big fish activity further out, and they were just boiling up onto the sand. So he dashed out with a washing up bowl and grabbed a bowlful by hand. The Islanders reckon they fry them up and eat them whole, so we tried it. But we found that the scales were rough, the back-bone tough, and the stomachs bitter! So for lunch we tried heading, gutting and scaling them - it wasn't too hard, they are 4" long or so. Then they were quite nice, and the backbones fell out easily.

Friends and relations

We are being "taken care of" by Wilfred and Margaret.

Margaret is white, but thoroughly Islander, doesn't speak English (says she's forgotten it), and is fat, loud and coarse - but generous at heart. They have an 8 year old thalidomide girl called Bai (I thought that was more than 8 years ago?), then three boys: Dadaboy (4), Melpal (3), Kakam (2) and a gorgeous girl: Lenwat (8 months) ... and one due in May!

The children are loud and dirty etc, unlike other village kids, but for the time being at least we have to let James play with them. He usually chooses to copy the 4 yr old - and he's the worst.

The father, Wilfred, is very dark-skinned, so his children have turned out medium brown like most Islanders.

I haven't been sick since we've been here - must be the fish. But that's all we eat. We haven't yet latched onto anyone here who still does gardening, so we have no veggies. A small range of foods are available at the store - for a price. But nothing with fibre or vitamins or anything good. We managed to get some oats yesterday - and I'm glad that they are "traditional" and not "instant". We have a few cartons of supplies coming from TI on "the next boat", which may be this week, next week, or next month - according to the rumours. Its a 10c phone call to TI (we are glad of the week we had there making some friends) so we can ask people to put small amounts on the weekly plane for us - again, at a price.

Fishing strategy

This morning Wilfred caught three (large) fish, all different: a big fat coral trout, a trevally, and a snapper - and he gave us half of each. Peter hasn't caught any yet but we had an exciting time last night. The routine is: just before sundown you take a throw-net or fish spear and pick up a few sardines at the water's edge. Then you bait up your light line (about 40 lb line) with a sardine and cast out to catch a few 18" barracuda. Then you bait up your 150 lb line with a 'cuda (down south we'd gladly eat the 'cuda) and go for a mackerel.

The other day we were given shares in a mackerel 4-5'long.

Last night there was quite a large group of men on the favourite section of beach for fishing, everyone catching 'cuda except Peter - there must be a few secrets about just where to cast. Then someone gave him one and then they were all after the mackerel. Peter's line suddenly went off, cutting his arm, but at the same time so did three others. One chap was free and came to help Peter, and for a while he was winning. Then suddenly it took off again and he couldn't bring it in. The other guys had the same trouble, and brought in three 6' shovel-nosed sharks - Peter's shark got off in the shallows.

The people have a very healthy attitude towards sharks, because they can appear to be stone-dead but then suddenly turn the full-length of their body and snap your leg off. the children were all kept well back while they clubbed the sharks - which then only had to twitch once more and everyone took off up the beach. It was quite a violent scene in the moonlight. One shark they cut open and returned to the water for his mates to finish off, the others were left on the beach until soundly dead because they can sell the jaw-bones for money.

So Peter still hasn't caught a fish. The black bream is a popular eating fish, and for that some people (usually women) will spend hours fishing in the hot sun with flour dough for bait. (At $2/kilo for flour that can be expensive too.) Peter hasn't caught one of those yet either.

Mer Island

I've hardly begun to tell you what its really like here. The village is on this flat sandy area, probably about a mile long on the NW side of the island. In this part of the world the seasons go by the wind - there's the SE season (dry) and the NW season (wet). I think now we're almost between the two, but its not uncomfortably hot - cooler than Darwin and quite breezy.

Behind the village stands the hill of Gelam; tall, steep and grassy - but totally dry right now. As far as we know, the other side of the island is rugged and rocky, although I'm not quite sure how you'd get there from here. Yesterday we escaped for a few hours, took a few Minties and a bottle of cordial, and tried going right around the island. We worked our way around the head of Gelam (the dugong that the island resembles), past the beach and clambering over rocks ... not easy carrying James! It was very rugged and exceedingly beautiful. At one stage we were standing on a rock staring at the reef and both thinking that it would be shallow enough to wade out, when a couple of huge sharks cruised past right at our toes. Opposite that end of the island are the other two small islands - Waiar and Dauar. Waiar is just solid rock. Dauar is a little more hospitable but still very steep. Wilfred said he'll take us out there maybe on Saturday.


On Sunday there's going to be a public meeting about the Paluma. Its a ship that's just been bought by the ADC (Aboriginal Development Council) to operate between Cairns and these eastern outer islands. According to rumours it will bring "big stores" from Cairns, and take back fish caught by the people here. That could have a lot of real advantages for MI. [Nowadays we only get the Melbidir - the supply ship - about once a month, and it goes to all the other islands first ... 

Now we understand why there was all that fuss in the news about Prime Minister Mal Fraser going fishing when he was up here - he didn't take any little old boat, he took the Melbidir, the peoples' lifeline! Some of the stores run out of food if the Melbidir doesn't come on time. 

Anyway, in the short term it's a nuisance if the Paluma starts coming while we are still living here in the guest house, because right outside our bedroom is the freezer hut - an enormous walk-in freezer with a large, noisy generator attached to it. That will be thumping away day and night once the fish business starts.

Already its 3 pm on Thursday. 

James is asleep - he's really thriving in this environment, although the food is giving him problems. He won't eat fish ... or anything really except bread, cake, milk - and he keeps getting constipated. Peanut butter is about the best I can get into him. I made some oat biscuits today - that moved him a bit, but he can hardly live on those. Normally he'd eat sultanas and apples - hopefully there will be some of those on the plane for us on Monday.

Peter's out making a map of the village. We promised ourselves we'd start "work" today, but its hard to know where to start. We're still very tied to this one family - they are very good to us but they don't actually speak the language, Miriam.

I made us some "namas" for tea. Its really pickled fish. You just cut up fish really small then soak it with chopped onions in white vinegar and soy sauce - its very nice. And we bought some sweet potato, shipped in from TI, and they bring it in from down south somewhere...

Peter's just got back, so I'll close or I'll never get this finished.

11 September 1982

Letter: Delayed on T.I.

Letter 11/ 9 /82

Well, we've got as far as Thursday Island and I haven't a hope of telling you all about what's been happening to us ... but why not try?

Already I'm missing my typewriter! 

We left the cot, and high chair, and nappy bucket ... and many other things ... in Darwin - James is having to grow up very fast. But he was very good on the way over.

Friends in Darwin were very concerned about us traveling, and at the last minute gave us $50 -"to spend at least one night in a motel". Well, we couldn't do that, but instead we spun it out over the trip and stayed in on-site vans instead of the tent. So we all slept well, Peter didn't feel drowsy even once while he was driving - which was just as well because I had to be doped up for the trip. I managed to not be sick until we were nearly at Townsville, which was quite an accomplishment. I've been trying to get vitamin B6 - the macro B we take has it as a high component, and my vitamin chart suggests things like bananas (can't keep them down!) avocados (!), red meat, peanuts, green veges - all of which I've not had much success with, including the macro B. Anyway, since we've been here on T.I. things have settled down a bit - feeling awful but at least not being sick.

TI hospital

While I'm on that topic... visited the doctor here at the hospital the other day. (No private practitioners here, only the out-patient sit-and-wait type!) James is teething, developed a cold etc, and we didn't want to head off up to Murray without antibiotics in our hot little hands, just in case. And I had a hemorrhoid that needed lancing, and thought it might be worth being "on record" here and finding out what services are available on M.I. Well the Doc was very good, gave me a thorough check (despite my protestations that I'd been thoroughly checked in Darwin!) All is well, except that he reckons my dates are out by 2-3 weeks - I say I'm 11 weeks, he says 13-14. The options are: I'm wrong (I don't think so!) or it's twins, or there is another problem which he didn't want to discuss. A doctor visits M/.I. once a month (weather permitting, and all the other things that go wrong here) so that's encouraging.


A plane goes to Murray only once a week ( - all things going well), and we were booked to fly on Monday (13th) pending permission from the Chairman of the Island. We had accommodation with a lovely family (contacts of Rod's), but things were obviously a bit tight and it would not have been polite to stay more than 2-3 days. Then the Chairman refused us permission to go until a week later, so Rod and Peter had to rush around looking for somewhere else for us to live. On T.I. one doesn't consider cost, just anywhere will do if anywhere can be found. 

Well eventually it was obvious that this house was the only option. It's owned by the Anglican church, and it's big, unfurnished, and other people live here too. Its recently been painted - cream walls and yellowy floorboards - so it has a nice fresh feel about it. Its a real old-fashioned place (like most T.I. houses) with big verandahs filled in to make rooms. No one actually lives in the centre room. The verandah down one side is blocked off from the rest of the house to make a flat for a swarthy skinned lady ("Flo") and her brood of noisy children. Another couple, Eric and Dobra, live in the verandah down the other side - they have a mattress on the floor, a card table and two chairs, and they are hardly ever here.

And we have the verandah at the front of the house - with three mattresses on the floor, and suitcases strewn around! At the back verandah is a kitchen and bathroom. All the inside doors of the house are missing, just curtains instead, but it doesn't seem to matter. (James loves flinging the curtain aside with a "BO!" - his version of "boo!") Anyway, its quite livable, and plenty of room for James to thunder around.

Life on TI

T.I. is a strange place When I was buying something in a shop the other day I hesitated, wondering if they would accept Australian currency ... then I remembered that we are still in Australia! There are no air-conditioned supermarkets here (even Madang, in PNG, had one!), just funny little shops that sell an odd range of whatever they fancy. There are some Chinese shops, like you see in Port Moresby - so really this could be anywhere in the Pacific, except Australia

The prices - well, I'll never complain about prices down south again! We just can't afford to think about it. If what we want happens to be available we grab it and stock up because we may not see it again. Nothing grows here (unlike Murray Island, apparently) so fresh fruit and veges are rare and expensive - likewise meat and bread. 

The people we stayed with - he used to be a lighthouse keeper on Booby Island, now he's skipper of the "Lumen" ship that looks after the buoys and lights around the Strait - he gave us some fish from his freezer, and today we feasted on cray-tail and mangoes (they grow everywhere) so we are not exactly starving.

Baggage allowances

When we drove up to Cairns, we tried to bring most of our things we'd left before in Townsville up that far. But then on the plane we were limited to a case each - we brought 3 and paid excess baggage. It was a Fokker F27 - propeller job, very slow flight. We sat right by the wheel, which was very interesting for James, but he found the landings rather rough and upsetting. We landed at Weipa, and there was a so much turbulence that the hostess was rushing back and forth issuing bags and mop-up cloths. I was relieved that we managed without. 

Then we landed on Horn Island - there is no room on T.I. for an air-strip, but Horn is big, flat, swampy, and mostly uninhabited. So then it was a bumpy bus trip to the coast, followed by a boat trip (by a circuitous route to avoid reefs) across to T.I.

An interesting day for James. We had been trying to tell him the day before in Cairns about the plane, and he was awoken that morning by a big plane going overhead - he kept saying over and over, "bi- pay-! bi pay!" His speech isn't too clear yet. He does "talk" a lot these days - he wiggles his tongue all over, sounds a bit like a magpie or kookaburra, but the intonation is sensible, and his "sentence" usually ends in a relevant word like "bow" ("boat" - he is fascinated by them.)

Our luggage allowance on Monday's flight to Murray (that's Mon 20th) is 13kg each, none for James ... not much when you are aiming to set up house! Excess is 55c/kg - IF there is room. Ships are irregular and very unreliable around here, but looks like we've got to start getting used to that. If we can get the rest of our things on a boat we don't want them to get there before we do or people are likely to say "who are they?" and put them back on the boat. Also we want to get the rest of our things up from Cairns, which could be quite complicated.

We are both presently reading our way through "The Drums of Mer" by Ion Idriess. We've had trouble getting a copy all this time because it is generally out of print. It was published in 1933, and the Murray Islanders have come to accept it as true. It's just a novel (fanciful, and rather gory in places) but it is supposed to be "based on fact" and it certainly gives a background to what Murray and its people are like.

This letter is heading towards being a bit of a fatty. We haven't had any mail for ages because we haven't told our Darwin office where to send our mail. One nice thing about people on T.I. - you can say "we're going to Murray Is" and they know where you mean, you don't even have to explain where the Torres Strait is.


Mail leaves here every day except Tuesday, so I'd better get this in the mail now - now that we've managed to buy some envelopes.
Don't know what milk powder's like "down south" but here its $6 a kilo, toilet rolls are 90c each! Flour is $1.80 a kilo ... it just doesn't bear thinking about.
Must close. Looking forward to hearing from the outside world eventually.