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.