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Sunday, 24 April 2005

MV Trinity unloading at Thursday Island Arrived on Thursday Island! A shiny black stretch limo and hordes of photographers were waiting for me at the end of the jetty as I set foot on T.I. for the first time in twenty-eight years. A brass band was playing and a throng of people was jostling to have a closer look at me while pretty girls draped flower garlands around my neck ... well, so much for my dreams. The reality was a little less glamorous as I walked down hot and dusty Victoria Parade towards my lodgings at the Federal Hotel.

Federal Hotel As I purposefully strode into the Federal Hotel, the heads of those at the bar turned towards me in unison, as if following the flight of a tennis ball at Wimbledon. Wearing shoes and socks, I was - by T.I. standards - decidedly overdressed and had to be a tourist from down south.

Just like an orchestra has a lead violinist so every pub has its lead drunk in residence. However, walking into a pub on T.I. is more like walking into a Resident Drunks' Convention. Don't believe the rubbish that biologists or physicists give you about human beings being 90% water. The guys on T.I. are at least 90% BEER! In the evenings, when they are well into their drinks, mosquitoes would bite them and then fly straight into a wall.

One of the drunks, doing his utmost to focus his bloodshot eyes on me, put his hand on my shoulder in a gesture of friendship which serendipitously also prevented him from falling over. Whether he was inquiring where I was from or had invited me for a drink I failed to make out from his slurred speech; however, to his credit he was perhaps the only friendly Torres Strait Islander I encountered in the whole week I was there. These days, whites are treated to what is known as the "100-yard stare" which makes them feel invisible. Those stares seem to say, in not so many words, "Give us your tax-dollars, but otherwise go and [insert the appropriate tetragram here!] off!"

The Federal Hotel's website had waxed poetic about its Pearl Lugger Restaurant's "ULTIMATE atmosphere." I had previously emailed David, the owner, that this should probably have read "INTIMATE atmosphere" - just how intimate it was I found out when I entered it the first evening: the cook and I were the only ones present.

View from the Federal's balcony David and Janine were the new owners of the Federal, but only six months into a 30-year lease it seemed as though T.I. was going to get the better of them. There had been all sorts of mishaps, and the patronage being less than expected, they were about to sack the cook and close the restaurant. A replacement was due in a couple of days to provide breakfasts for the motel guests and simple counter lunches in the bar.


I spent seven days and seven nights in these less than Sardanapalian lodgings My lodgings were decidedly sub-standard: a bed with a lumpy mattress, a shelf along the wall, a television that didn't work, a rusty fridge, and a single light-bulb hanging from the high ceiling. I unpacked my few belongings and placed them on the wall shelf, and set up my small short-wave radio on the bedside table to give me instant access to the wider world. Nights can be very long for the solo traveller in a remote place, when the only evening pleasure is listening to the radio, and I am a devoted ABC Radio National listener and tune into Phillip Adam's LATE NIGHT LIVE every night at 10 past 10. The shower and bathroom were shared facilities and I seemed to share them with some guests long since gone, judging by the pieces of old soap, rusty razors, and assorted wrappings littering the top of the shower cubicle. Cleanliness was not the management's long suit and I had bets with another guest as to how long it might take before table-tops and ash-trays would be cleaned on the verandah which, with its stunning views, made up for much of the neglect. I did have a fridge in my room but it took a lot of scrounging to get a few bits of crockery and cutlery so that I could prepare even a basic snack.

Grocery prices on T.I. were simply astronomical and no amount of talk about high freight costs could explain away the fact that just about every item on the shelves cost at least twice as much as down south and often even more. And these were basic items; never mind that a carton of beer sold for $84 because the worst drinkers were on Government-handouts anyway and the hotels and bottle-shops were little more than Government-money recycling centres. All the hotels had ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) which were the Islanders' modern-day "cargo cult" - with a well-worn path right back to the bar. Perhaps they used simplified ATMs, you know the ones that took no money but only dispensed it because the traffic was strictly one way: from the hard-working southern taxpayers to the hard-drinking residents of the Torres Strait.

Alan, on left Sitting on the Federal's verandah looking down on T.I.'s beachfront - a setting Graham Greene would have revelled in and Somerset Maugham did - , I was joined by Alan, an Irishman on a working holiday in Australia. He was reading Bill Bryson's A SHORT HISTORY OF ALMOST EVERYTHING which I had read too; so we started talking about this book and some of the other big questions in life, such as 'Why is there a light in the fridge but not in the freezer?' and 'How come the Americans choose from just two people for President but fifty for Miss America?' He looked a bit like an extra out of the movie HAIR but was really quite a decent chap, well-read and of a serious turn of mind. He surprised me by having read George Orwell's "1984." As he was working on the island and would be staying for a while longer, I was happy to furnish him from my book-bag with another George Orwell volume, Camus' "The Plague", and a copy of Joseph Conrad's stories.

The other chap staying at the hotel was Col the Pom, a man of few words, a lot of them 'bloody'. He drank like a fish. Which would have been okay if he'd drunk what the fish drinks. Despite having been almost everywhere, including a short stint in Saudi Arabia, he had learned nothing and associated culture with beer brewing and thought Plato was a metal polish. Both he and New Courthouse Alan worked on the new $3-million courthouse which had everything that opened and shut from video conferencing facilities to close-circuit television. The Grand Opening was going to be in less than a week and several pallets of turf had come up as deck-cargo on the MV Trinity Bay to landscape its surroundings. I was left wondering what deranged mind had thought of shipping turf all the way up to Thursday Island. It was still on its pallets, neatly stacked beside the courthouse and cooking in the tropical sun, while the tradesmen argued who should do the laying. It was always good to see taxpayers' money being well spent!
[Alan, I enjoyed our evening discussions. I hope you had a great holiday in Australia and are safely back in Ireland and enjoying your aquatic pleasures in County Muff. This is a bit like putting a message into a bottle and flinging it into the sea so if you read this, I hope you will contact me. And you may be interested to know that I did take your advice and watched "The Beach" with Leonardo Dicaprio which is, of course, a bit of a rehash of William Golding's book "Lord of the Flies". And I read the book by Alex Garland. I have also ordered a copy of "Bad Boy Bubby." which sounds very much like a re-run of the Caspar Hauser story. I wished I had also taken your advice and stayed at the "Asylum Cairns"; instead, I suffered two days at the terrible "Bellview."]

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