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.”
And he was right.