Islands

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.

MV Koolinda, date unknown. The State ships servicing the north-west of WA had rounded bottoms, allowing them to rest on the mud during the lows of the extreme tides which are a feature of the area. Tides can reach highs of up to 11 metres and more.
This design feature could make for an interesting voyage in high seas, as I was later to find out. —Public Domain/Wikipedia Commons

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.

Redemption at Silver Gull Creek

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.

Norm Povah in his teens c. 1930s. Like many young men of his time, he took to to professional boxing as a way
of earning money during the Great Depression. An admirer of the great US boxer Jack Johnson,
he fought under the name Norm Johnson

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.

Yampi Lass II and the water barge (just visible at left). She is waiting for the tide to come in before continuing her journey. Perhaps this was taken on a side excursion to shoot a “wild” bullock on the mainland during a trip to Silver Gull Creek.

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!

The Central Business District of Cockatoo Island, almost at sea level and very narrow. There was a Police Station, bakery, butcher shop, Post Office and two-room school. There was a level area with a large screen on which films were shown once a fortnight. We all brought pillows and cushions to sit and/or sleep on. During king tides we could throw rocks at tiger sharks from the “road”.

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.

Our glorious leaders

I’ve been fascinated by limericks and nonsense verse since I was a small boy, yet I find them both very difficult to write.

The Pentecostal Prime Minister

Our PM’s a man of titanium,
Whose religion is all that’s sustainin’ ‘im;
His small shrivelled soul, is black as the coal,
That fills the vast void in his cranium.

Written after Donald Trump heaped dubious praise on our born-again bullshit merchant when he visited the White House. An engineer had the temerity to point out that titanium is very light weight.

The Drought Envoy (Barnaby Joyce)

There once was an envoy for drought,
Who at rallies would bloat, wave and shout;
While hitting the piss and chasing some miss,
He forgot what the job was about.

Joyce was appointed “drought envoy” by the Pentecostal Prime Minister, presumably to keep him quiet, and exercise that cost the taxpayer some three-quarters of a million dollars. While on the public purse, he spent a lot of time dribbling and shouting in support of right-to-lifers at protests against the NSW State government’s new abortion legislation. Joyce is a Federal MP.

Nonsense verse

Speaking [in tongues] of Fire

Old Scott Coal is a dear old soul,
He utters mystic phrases;
Sends thoughts and prayers to a myth upstairs,
While all around him blazes.

With unreserved apologies to Denis Glover

And “Gwiggle, yerdle, gribble, grerble,” the PM said.

McQuade, you’re not forgotten

Tallarook (pop. ±790), a town  in central Victoria, became infamous in 19th-century Australia as the folk-tale of McQuade’s Curse spread throughout the colonies. Who he was and why he cursed the town  is not known, but the expression “things are crook in Tallarook” is still in use today.

As an Australian disgusted by the way this country is being dragged into the muck by the self-styled “political class” – who do they think they are, these ideology driven egoists who love to boast we are a classless society in which all are entitled to a fair go – I thought Mr McQuade should rise again. Here are a a few stanzas from his wonderful curse:

May every paddock yield a stook, of smutty wheat in Tallarook;
May good St Peter overlook, the good deeds done in Tallarook;
May each Don Juan who forsook, his sweetheart live in Tallarook;

There is also an old “shearer’s curse”:

May the Lord above, send down a dove,
With wings as sharp as razors;
To cut the throat, of the heartless goat,
Who lowered shearers’ wages.

I homage to these unknown  battlers I’d like to add these lines (the latter first):

May the powers that be who stiffened me, by cutting my aged pension,
Be caged for all eternity, on Manus in detention.

And now back to McQuade

May those who pray in Scomo’s flock find heaven is a barren rock;
May those who on dull Dutton dote, be roundly swiven by a goat;
May all who marked the Hanson chit, spend eternity neck-deep in shit;
May all who preach mad Abbott’s lies, spend their lives ingesting flies.

Scomo is Scott Morrison, a smug, born-again Pentecostal and member of the Liberal Party and treasurer in the Liberal/National Coalition government. If it’s only his lot that are going up to heaven, why is he pretending to be running the economy for all Australians?

Dutton is Peter Dutton (Liberal Party). Seemingly bloodless and devoid of any human emotion, he now heads the new Department of Home Affairs, a super-portfolio covering immigration, national security and what else only Old Harry knows. Among the troops at his command are those of Border Force, a new body, whose name and B-grade US TV cop drama uniforms are down to

Tony Abbot (Liberal Party), failed seminarian, failed prime minister. Once known as the Mad Monk he is the right-wing Christian’s Christian. His antics and Putinesque dress sense would be funny if it were not for the position he holds, and are too well known to bear repeating here, but suffice it to say that he once turned up for a meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister dressed in a Lycra urban Olympian bikerider outfit and wheeling a pushbike.

Hanson is Pauline Hanson, a self-styled patriot who was first elected to Parliament on a platform of stripping Indigenous Australians of what rights they have managed to regain, and holding back the Asian hordes massing in some unspecified lair to overwhelm Australia and breed us out of existence. She didn’t last long the first time round, but in the most recent election made a comeback on a platform of stopping Sharia law, banning the burqua and halal food, and suppressing the spread of scientists’ lies about climate change. Believing the royalties raised by brands bearing halal certification are used to fund terrorism, she asked a witness during a Senate inquiry into the matter whether or not it was true that cows were alive before they were killed. She also urged Australians to buy non-halal Easter eggs.

Manus and Nauru are small Pacific islands on which “boat people” escaping oppressive regimes are illegally detained in concentration camps. The present government justifies this on moral grounds by claiming they are “stopping the drownings at sea”. The policy, backed by the Labor Opposition, is turning Australia into an international pariah.

And a note to our US cousins, “Liberal” in Australian equates to Republican in your country and, like that party, is increasingly hostage to the backward forces within the party. I refuse to use the word conservative, properly defined as moderate; avoiding extremes.