We now know that birds, and bird song, originated in that part of Gondwana that is now Australia, which is why this continent and its neighbours are so richly endowed with species – the pigeon and parrot tribes, for example, reached their greatest diversity in this region.
I have admired birds ever since I can remember; the first – and only – request I ever made of Father Christmas was for a galah. All my life I have watched them, kept them, talked to them and marvelled at their diversity, their beauty and their intelligence. And during this, the time of endless burning, I weep for them.
Because I weep for them today, I want to remember the joy they have given me over the years, so I will share a magic interlude nearly forty years ago. It happened in and around a tamarisk tree growing outside a pickers’ hut on a dried-grape block in Coomealla district, New South Wales, near the town of Dareton and not far from where the Murray River is joined by the now imperilled Darling, and featured a tribe of Apostle birds (Struthidea cinerea) and a not-very-bright Collared sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus).
Meet the Apostle bird, so named because a popular, though unfounded, belief has it that it is always found in groups of twelve. It is also known as lousy jack, happy jack, grey jumper, and CWA bird, this last a somewhat derogatory reference to its habit of constantly chattering, putting the less charitable in mind of a Country Women’s Association meeting. It is a mud-nest builder and, like so many of Australia’s birds, raises the young communally, a dominant pair breeding and the rest of the tribe helping to feed the offspring – a very useful strategy in Australia’s erratic climate. They are also solicitous of each other. Feeding a group of youngsters in my backyard one day – their babysitter was perched on the clothesline – I noticed that if the smallest of the brood flapped its wings, its larger siblings would immediately offer food.
They are, like most birds, very intelligent. They also have a sense of humour.
On that day at Coomealla, my then partner/fellow picker and I were sitting on the rickety bench outside the hut, when a tribe of Apostle birds came swaggering up to fossick under the Atholl pine, as tamarisks are called in those parts. They knew us well, so we were pretty much ignored apart from the occasional derogatory remark when a fierce stare failed to produce a handout.
They’d not long been there when a Collared sparrowhawk flew on to the scene, immediately diving into the thick cover of the tamarisk’s higher branches. Rather than flee, a likely fatal manoeuvre, the tribe went into what can only be described as a war dance. Spreading their wings above their backs, they stamped their feet, fluttered and bowed, and raised a cacophony of squawks, causing the sparrowhawk to shift uncomfortably on its perch and peer intently at the dancers as if to see which of this seemingly demented tribe posed the greatest threat.
While its gaze was fixed on the centre of the rowdy mob, the bird closest to the tree quietly slipped around to the other side of the trunk and slowly began to climb towards the hawk’s perch. The closer it got, the more frantic became the dancing. Reaching the enemy’s branch, the Apostle bird seemed to shrink, as a cat does when it goes into the final phase of a stalk. Creeping along till it couldn’t have been more than fifteen centimetres from the target, the Struthidean hero, shrieking like an enraged panther, leaped into the air and with wings flapping and feet forward hit the hawk fair in the back.
The result was dramatic. The hawk literally fell from the branch and for a second we thought it would hit the ground, but at the last minute it spread its wings and fled. Wings beating like the clappers and flying almost at ground level, it disappeared among the rows of sultanas.
And the Apsotle birds? When the warrior returned to the bosom of the family, they began a corroboree of celebration. They bobbed and bowed, flapped and flirted, exchange gentle pecks and, I swear, they laughed. Long and raucously, they laughed. There’s no other word for the noise they were making.
Hubble bubble, toil and trouble,
Turmoil in the Canberra bubble;
Angus Taylor, an MP,
Of note in Government Ministry,
Had pulled another little rort,
It seemed (at last) he had been caught.
But no, his tubby little frame,
Ablaze with Pentecostal flame,
The PM stood in Parliament,
His anger on the House to vent;
“This persecution has to stop,
“I’ve phoned my mate, New South’s top cop.
“And young Mick told me it’s a joke,
“That Angus is a bonzer bloke.
“And so, you Opposition jerks,
“Who claim he’s pulled a dozen perks,
“Ease up on Angus, that good man,
“Who likes his finger in the jam.”
How grand it is for us to be, Living in democracy; Where our national leader bold, Has put our Parliament on hold; And Coppers in another State, Decide a Federal pollie’s fate.
Links used for this story contain the names and images of dear Old Ones who have left us. Indigenous peoples may prefer not to follow them.
I’ve always had a thing about islands. As a little kid I drew countless maps of archipelagic domains, nameless and, looking back, unpopulated. Whether or not a psychiatrist might have made something of the apparent lack of people on those imaginary paradises I don’t know, and I don’t really care. I’m guessing that as a kid you’d just assume that all the familiar friends and rellies would be all about you, though behaving in ways more suited to your view of the world.
I don’t know what triggered this passion. Perhaps it was the stories told by my maternal grandmother, Maude Louise, who in the early years of her marriage lived on a cocoa plantation in Papua-New Guinea. A woman ahead of her times and an ardent photographer, Maude had half a tea-chest full of exotic photographs documenting her time on the plantation: a raiding party of Kuku-Kuku lined up to be photographed; the victim of a ritual killing strung up by his heels from a tree branch. On the back of most were comments jotted in pencil. “Note headman’s belt and apron made of thigh and fingerbones. Men have dried beans over penises,” she had written on the back of the Kuku-Kuku group portrait.
On the other hand I might be entirely to blame. I’d stumbled on the Rosetta Stone for reading well before I started school and as a consequence had read classics such as Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe when I was still quite young – certainly before my brain was mature enough to recognise the satire in the first or the lessons in the other two.
Whatever, islands early gripped my imagination and have been both saviour and tormentor. And I’ve lived on a few. Neither enough in number nor for long enough, but on a few, and on all for long enough to haunt me: Cockatoo Island off Western Australia’s Kimberley coast; Cape Barren Island in Bass Strait, that storm-racked and blood-tinged channel between Tasmania and Victoria; Rakiora, Stewart Island, off New Zealand’s southern tip; and magical, haunted Tasmania.
But it’s tiny Cockatoo that has an unbreakable grip on my innermost being, on the core of who and what I might have been and who and why and what I am. It is my Look-back Place, part of my Dreaming.
Just over 3 kilometres long by 2.5 at its widest – less than 100 metres at its narrowest – Cockatoo Island is set among the myriad small islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago, nwaerly 1950 km north-east of Perth and 1400 and something kilometres north of the Tropic of Capricorn. It lies just a few kilometres off the mainland opposite the abandoned Kunmunya Mission.
Every evening, hundreds of white corellas flew over from the mainland to roost, while by day, rock pythons and large goannas sunned themselves on the rock outcrops. Feral goats – liberated on some islands as sustenance in the event of shipwreck – patrolled the cliffs and crimson-winged parrots, coucals, wrens, frigate birds, ospreys, wedge-tailed eagles, brahminy and black kites, white bellied sea-eagles and gulls vied to crowd the clouds from the sky.
The archipelago’s waters – a giant coral garden – were crammed with life and it was nothing to see acres of sea churned to foam by feeding fish or schools of giant mantas bellyflopping, apparently for the sheer hell of it.
Despite my conscience, I still feel a thrill when I remember being taken by Aboriginal people on dugong and turtle hunts. Out on the water in a tiny dinghy, oars muffled by hessian sugar bags in the rowlocks, I’m sitting on the stern thwart behind the oarsman, hardly daring to breathe, for I’ve been told dozens of times that dugong and turtle can hear us. The spearman stands in the bow, weapon at the ready and indicating direction with the tiniest shift of his body. He drops his shoulders: “slow down”; drops them again: the dinghy drifts above the seagrass bed… I see the initiation scars on his shoulders ripple as he tenses and then “thwisssht” – away goes the spear. The harpoon rope pays out and the little boat races through the water until the creature tires and the hunter hurls himself overboard to kill it with a store-bought tomahawk. Back home, I’m allowed to take a bit of meat to Mum for “being such a good luck”.
There was a magical trip on the Kalumburu Mission lugger, its several name changes leading it to be affectionately known as the What Is It?and captained by a man now gone so whose name I may not speak, a man I truly thought was god, and perhaps still do. His shock of steely gray hair, glossy black skin and the countless body scars indicating his high degree are as vivid in my mind now as in the days when I was privileged to stand next to him, shyly touching a hand or leg. We were taking a deck-load of goats to another mission further along the coast. That man, his young son, the two crewmen and I snatched brief naps on deck, fighting the goats for the high spots, and when dark fell Young Sam and I went below to collapse.
There were voyages on the island boat, Yampi Lass II, with Tas the skipper and Alf and Chris, the Thursday Island crewmen, kindly and wise beyond all reckoning. Wong-Eye Jackson, the island baker, who made the most wonderful cakes that he handed out free to the schoolkids at morning recess and during one memorable wet-season bender lasting nearly a week forgot to put yeast in the bread.
Our old house is still there but I’ll never, never go back, not even for a look. If some day you read the island’s history, you may understand.
When the time came for us to leave I ran away and hid in the secret places of the scrub, delaying the MV Koolinda – a ship with ties to HMAS Sydney – for almost a whole day. When they caught me and dragged me down to the wharf it was Alf who told me that I could keep the island as my special place. TI, as Thursday Island is affectionately known, was Alf’s. “Look-back place, ’e never change,” he assured me. “ ’e always the same way in your ’eart.”
The rise of the racist right and the behaviour of some of our keepers of law and order as witnessed in television footage from Sydney and Melbourne leads me to wonder into what abyss my beloved country is sliding. What is perhaps worse, is the encouragement this regression to a dark past is receiving from many of our elected representatives. The aggression towards two Afghani womenrecently displayed by two Sydney policemen bought my first real introduction to racism flooding back.
I was eight years old that morning in mid-1949 when
Mum, Kerry, 4, Dan, 2, and I boarded the regular MacRobertson Miller* flight
from Perth’s Guildford Aerodrome to Derby via just about everywhere on the way.
Under normal circumstances it would have taken a full day; back then, flights
going north carried newspapers, mail and some supplies, not only to the then
very small towns on the route, but also to some of the remote stations. But as
things turned out the flight was to be anything but normal and I would again
find myself wondering just what made some adults tick.
Just boarding the Douglas DC-3† was an adventure in itself. We’d been booked to fly to Derby a couple of weeks before, but Mum had come down with something and we had to cancel. Just as well, that plane had crashed just after take-off, killing everyone on board. Kerry and Dan were too young to be aware of it, and though I’d read of the tragedy in the West Australian, mortality wasn’t yet on my radar. It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate what my poor mother – edgy at the best of times – must have gone through during that trip and the one after.
I have no clear recollection of how many were
on board the flight, though I do remember there was a crew of three: two pilots
and a “hostess”, as female flight attendants were known in those less
enlightened days. All but one of our fellow passengers are a fuzzy memory, but
I can see the exception as clearly as if it were yesterday. An archetypal Pom
dressed in Bombay Bloomers (long, baggy shorts all same British Raj), a white
shirt and tie and, horror of horrors, long socks and sandals, all topped off by
a large straw hat. He completed the stereotype by loudly proclaiming in a BBC
accent that he was “travelling to Darby”, something he continued to do until we
parted ways, no matter how often he was told: “It’s Derby, mate.”
Along with the human cabin cargo, much of the centre aisle was taken up by lengths of building lumber and a few rolls of chook wire through which the flight attendant had to navigate, and part of the space between the front seats and the cockpit held newspapers and other odds and ends. The wire featured in later events.
We must have made a stop at Carnarvon, but it doesn’t register in my memory, overshadowed perhaps by the events surrounding the next one, which has never faded, the colours, the sounds, sight and scenery remaining as vivid as ever they were. The plane circled over the claypan serving as a landing strip on a station‡ inland from Exmouth Gulf – Madman’s Corner as it was once known – and came in to land. The DC-3 slowed very quickly and then stopped almost dead as the wheels began to sink into the mud beneath the claypan’s harder surface. The pilot killed the engines, we all disembarked and it was obvious that the flight wouldn’t be resuming any time soon, the wheels were already half submerged. It was already hot and the passengers stood in the shade of a wing as the pilots assessed our predicament and the Pom loudly complained about everything to anyone who would listen.
One of the pilots quietly told Mum that they’d
got Port Hedland on the radio and the airline would be sending a small, lighter
aircraft to pick our family up. It’d take a few hours, he said, but she
wouldn’t have to worry about feeding us and we’d be sleeping in a bed that
We hadn’t been on the ground all that long, when the station boss, The Missus, a taut, wiry woman in moleskins and a checked shirt, and two Aboriginal stockmen approached on horseback, one of them leading a packhorse. It had obviously been a struggle to reach the plane; the horses were coated in mud up to their bellies and their riders’ trousers were caked with the stuff. I learned later that the Missus told us there’d been a big storm through a couple of days before and the homestead radio had been knocked out, making it impossible to contact the airline and cancel the scheduled stop.
The Aboriginal men, directed by the Missus, began digging the wheels out, and after an hour or so we all retreated to a safe distance while the pilot attempted to get the plane to move forward, engines roaring.
This was great stuff as far as I was concerned. Mud flying everywhere, the occasional not-so-indiscreet curse and the stockmen fighting to restrain the very worried horses, but the plane remained well and truly stuck.
By now things were getting a bit tense. It was
getting very hot, Kerry and Dan were intermittently crying and needing drinks
or food, and a couple of the passengers, the Pom included, were getting more
than a little aggressive with their questions and seemed to be looking for
someone to blame for our predicament. As for the stockmen, they were doing what
Aboriginals always do when there’s white-fellers’ business going on; sitting
quietly in the shade of the aircraft’s nose while the pilots discussed the next
The lumber and rolls of wire netting were dragged from the plane, and the stockmen dug a long, broad, upward sloping trench from the wheels out past the nose and laid the netting and lumber on its floor. Again, we all stepped well back, the pilot again climbed into the cockpit, the engines roared and the aircraft began to crawl forward. It managed a few metres until the wheels hit another soft patch and sank again, taking the netting and lumber with them. That was it. The pilots decided that enough was enough; everyone was exhausted and they may have been worried that any further attempts might damage the aircraft. It was now late afternoon and stinking hot. The passengers and crew gathered in the shade of a wing with the Missus while the stockmen, coated in mud from head to foot and no doubt absolutely spent, squatted in the shade of the nose.
The hostess announced that she’d go into the plane’s galley to organise sandwiches and drinks for everyone and Mum went with her to lend a hand. They handed them around on trays to the passengers and then the hostess, in hindsight probably a young, city girl, went to take a tray to the stockmen. Well! That. Was. It. The boss woman stood in front of her, grabbed the tray from her hands and – I can still hear every word – spat: “Don’t you dare try to feed those boys! They can wait ’til they get back to the blacks’ camp.”
Mum wouldn’t have been much older than the hostess, she’d had us all young, but she waded in. “You lousy so-and-so! Give me that tray. I’m not going to take them over to those poor MEN now,” she hissed, “because I know they’ll be too embarrassed to eat them. But don’t you come anywhere near me or the kids while we’re still here.” And she ushered us closer to the plane. The thoroughly embarrassed flight attendant had burst into tears.
“Why was she like that Mum?” I asked later. But deep down I knew. Grampa George had once warned me against judging people by their skin colour and I had heard the taunts aimed at some of my relatives. When I was much older I understood why Mum would offer a cuppa and sandwiches to the Clothes Prop Man, though as a youngster I thought it was just friendliness.
Later that day, an Avro-Anson arrived to take Mum and us kids on to Port Hedland where we’d spend the night before taking a plane to Derby then the boat trip on Yampi Lass IIto Cockatoo Island, the place that shaped my life for both better and worse. But that’s another story.
* MacRobertson Miller Aviation was once a household name in Western Australia, as was MacRobertson’s chocolate, made at a factory founded by one of the partners in the airline, MacPherson Robertson. The airline’s logo was in the same florid script as that used for the chocolate.
† The Douglas DC-3 was a popular aircraft that
featured prominently in early commercial air travel. Its military equivalent
was the almost ubiquitous Dakota, known to the ground troops in the WWII
Pacific campaigns as the “Biscuit Bomber”. They flew countless missions
parachuting supplies to allied troops in Papua and other South Pacific islands.
‡ I haven’t mentioned the name of the station for two main reasons. First, though I’m pretty sure my memory is accurate on that score, I would need to be absolutely sure. Second, and this is tied to the first reason, I would hate anyone still living to recognise a loved relative in my description of the station Missus. And remember, they were greatly different times. Having said that, with our country under a conservative government led by a fundamentalist Christian, some of the worst aspects of that era seem to be creeping back again.
Almost from the day I first met him, when he returned from his nearly five years in the army during WWII, my relationship with Dad was a troubled one. As far back as I can remember, only once did we have a moment of togetherness, so rare that it’s still clear in my mind. But though there may be no excuses for his attitude to his family, there were reasons, and as I came to appreciate them my attitude softened.
Young enough to be almost of another generation, my youngest brother, who along with my littlest sister missed the tempestuous earlier days of our family life, helped me forgive him and find some measure of peace in that part of me that always craved parental affection. Rest easy, Norm. You were loved by a lot of people and I learned to love you before you died. I’m glad I didn’t become you but I recognised enough of you in me early enough in life to escape.
I’ve told you a bit about Cockatoo Island and I’ve also mentioned Alf Brown, the Torres Strait man from Thursday Island and now you’ve heard a bit about my Dad. All these figure in what I’m about to tell you today, along with another protagonist – a female barramundi almost as big as I was – who didn’t want to be in this story at all but who provided source material for a valuable lesson that, when later in life I came to understand it, shaped my relationships with all children and helped my youngest son become the wonderful person that he is.
Cockatoo Island had very little permanent fresh water and to fill the big storage tanks up on the hill, supplies were brought by barge from Silver Gull Creek. This water barge was towed by Yampi Lass II and what with the speed of the tow, the giant tides – nearly 40 feet – and the time needed to pump the water, it involved a two-day trip about once every few weeks or thereabouts, depending on the season.
So, this one time I’m talking about, I’d had a pretty full-on blue with the Old Man and things in the house were pretty much on the toe. I’d stayed away overnight, in the little patch of sandy hillocks by the lagoon, and of course on an island that size there was no hiding the fact that things were a bit crook in the Povah household.
Two-Ton Tony, a mate of Dad’s and the man who gave me his first edition copy of Tarzan Of The Apes to read, suggested that if I wanted to go over to Silver Gull on the boat, he’d fix it up with Norm and Tas, the skipper and a good mate of both men. No sooner said than done. All set. I could go over on my Pat and not, as was usual, as part of a picnic excursion. You beaut!
Silver Gull was a magical spot, its mouth hidden among the mangroves, crocodiles making its banks exciting and its tide-torn, muddy little estuary promising the attention of voracious sharks and giant stingrays to anyone foolish enough to swim there. I suspected, too, that it’d probably be a good spot to hook a barramundi to cook up for tucker so I dipped into my bag.
The Boys who lived in Steinbeck’s flop-house had learned the same lesson as I had: anyone who went abroad in the land without salt and pepper and – along the West Australian coast at least – fishing gear was a dead-set mug. No-one ever went anywhere without Wax Vesta matches and a line. The lines were of green linen cord about as thick as number 12 fencing wire and wrapped around a flat piece of wood, the hooks and sinkers of a size to match. You needed weight to hold the line in the tidal rip and anything that wouldn’t bite on a big hook was bait – with the exception of garfish, long Tom and yellowtail.
In the absence of live bait we used whatever was handy, especially anything light-colored: tinned cheese (bait was about all it was good for), peanuts with the red skin rubbed off, white rag dipped in anything oily, a piece cut from a powdered-milk tin and twisted to turn in the current; you could catch fish by just thinking about it back then.
Back to my story. I’d just thrown the line in when Alf came up to me. “Sorry to tell yer this son,” he said dolefully, “knowing all yer worry about ’ome an’ all. But you won’t ketch nothin’ ’ere. Water’s all wrong.”
Scowling at the spot where my line met the water, I ignored him as best I could; adults, even Alf, weren’t in my good books just then. He’d hardly left my side when – bang! –a big barra hit the hook and, feeling the resistance; hurled herself out of the water. I let out a yell and wrapped a bit of line around a deck stanchion – I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang on just with my hands. Nobody came near me while I struggled with her, and I pulled and belayed, pulled and belayed, hoping like hell that something bigger wouldn’t take a lump out of her till she was tired enough to land.
When at last she was on deck, I stood looking at the brilliant silver body with that mixture of triumph and guilt that to this day still plagues me when I catch a fish. Alf’s shadow crossed us both. “Strike a light, boy,” he said. “My people, we’re saltwater people y’know; we’re big canoe people and we bin fishin’ for t’ousands of years in Hustralia and we’d never b’lieve to ketch a fish ’ere. No fear we wouldn’t.”
I forgot that it was one of my brown heroes who’d told me that barramundi bite best where saltwater met fresh, and I forgot that Alf came from an island on the other side of the country – and I forgot about my row with Dad. I also remembered I was actually worth something as a human being.
A big saltie croc cruised alongside the Lass, glowering at me for the loss of a free meal, but I ignored the old bugger. I could once again handle anything life threw at me.*
*This last paragraph may or may not be true, though there’s every chance that it could be. But the rest of the story is.