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.