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.