Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cape York Pt 3- Settlements

Pearl divers suit, inthe museum on Thursday Island

Not very many people live on Cape York. It is possible to drive all day and pass just a couple of isolated compounds. Where these included a roadhouse selling fuel and other necessities for travellers we often stopped for a break. As the Cape juts into the Torres Strait (the island-dotted sea that separates mainland Australia from Papua New Guinea), the local population is an intriguing mix of Torres Strait Islanders (a Melanesian culture), Aboriginal Australians and tough outback white Australians.

Unloading the barge at Seisia

We camped a few nights at Seisia which is the settlement around the wharf serving Bamaga, the largest of the little towns near the top of the Cape. Seisia was unmemorable except for the excitement of watching the weekly barge being unloaded with fuel (the communities' electricity is all diesel generated), food and other goods. It is desperately hot, with few trees to provide shade, and the tantalisingly clear azure sea is said to be full of crocodiles so swimming isn't an option. However, Seisia (named by combining the initials of the first six family to settle there mid-20th century) does have the advantage of being handy to such tourist attractions as the Tip and Thursday Island.

Looking west from the start of the headland track to the Tip. The boat belongs to a chap who had sailed solo up the east coast from Brisbane, recently survived a crocodile attack, and was desperately looking forward to getting to Seisia for chocolate, coke and jelly snakes.

The Tip may be an iconic spot, as the northern most point of mainland Australia, but it is refreshingly unmanaged, confusingly unsignposted and thus satisfyingly challenging to get to without actually being a difficult walk. Those of the party who could, all scrambled out over the rocky headland, from which you can look simultaneously at the Coral Sea and the Torres Strait. I have visited the equivalent spots at the tips of the the North and South of New Zealand, so I add this to my collection of photos of myself standing on godforsaken yet symbolic rocks.

Meliors at the Tip

The day after the Tip, Juliette, Johanna and I took the ferry to Thursday Island (TI). I enjoyed the tiny museum tucked into the underground rooms of the old garrison; TI was long considered of strategic importance being located on the narrow channel between Australia and Asia. The museum included indigenous artifacts (lovely carvings), pearl diving and beche de mer history and a huge old lighthouse lamp, bigger than me. We also visited the local cemetery which was divided by culture so that the austere Japanese pearl divers graves contrasted with the lavishly colourful indigenous graves across the lane.

Pearl divers' section of the cemetery

Other things to do on Thursday Island: visit two funky old churches, the classy arts centre (the only architecturally designed contemporary building I saw on the whole of Cape York, it was just like going home for lunch) and shopping! TI is the commercial hub for the Torres Strait and there was a whole street of shops to browse, several of them quite good. The sheer novelty of seeing books, clothes, cosmetics for sale was fun (until you see the inflated prices) but my favourite was the locally designed bead jewellery. Unfortunately that was the day I hit a cashflow crisis that was to constrain the whole second half of my trip (and due to bank error is still continuing to keep me broke) so I couldn't actually buy anything.

The lighthouse lamp on Thursday Island

Back on the mainland, Bamaga also had shopping: a supermarket and a small cramped novelty/dry goods/souvenir shop, both enclosed inside the kind of disturbing security cage that was a feature of every commercial building in every indigenous community we passed through. In Bamaga we stocked up on necessary supplies for the next stage of our camping trip, but we didn't really get into serious retail therapy until we hit Weipa (where the prices are more comparable to Cairns). My enthusiasm for wearing crocs (the only footwear I brought on the trip with me) infected three other members of the party and in Weipa they all got some too.

The only 'crocs' we saw in Weipa, and they were harmless

Aside from my brief but pleasant commercial transactions with various indigenous people on the trip I only had one extended encounter, with an Aboriginal lady in Weipa. She wandered into our tent in the middle of the night while everyone else was asleep and since I am insomniac and was closest to the door I responded first. As I led her out of the tent and tried to keep her quiet, I realised that while she was very confused, she wasn't drunk. Later Kerry suggested that she was an ex-glue sniffer which made perfect sense, since she seemed too young for the dementia-type behaviour she was exhibiting.

She told me that she had driven up from Arakun (a couple of hours away) with some other people who went off to Napronam to drink. She didn't want to be around drinking people (a sentiment I can fully empathise with) so she was wandering around Weipa in the middle of the night, halfheartedly looking for an address where her sister might or might not be staying. What she really wanted, she said, was to come and sleep in our tent if we would just give her a blanket.

I couldn't help her, not having a blanket to share, or considering it appropriate to invite a stranger to sleep in our tent full of other people's children so I handed her off to the camp manager who obviously had been woken this way before and was immediately aggressive, inviting reciprocal aggression from the confused lady. I shamefully snuck off into the shadows while they shouted at each other. I'm not proud of that, I just couldn't think what else to do.

The history of European-Indigenous relations in Cape York includes some of the most horrific stories in Australian history (including, but not limited to, the Jardine brothers in the nineteenth century* and the wholesale removal of the Mapoon community at gunpoint to make way for Comalco's mines in1963. Yup, that's only 45 years ago, when my confused tent lady was probably a kid). There are some very positive initiatives occurring now to try and turn things around**, but it still looks to me as though most of the black people on the Cape are in general still much worse off than most of the white people.

There are apparently only two places on the east side of Australia where you can watch the sun set over the sea (or in this case the mangroves). Unfortunately some of the local ladies consider that the best way to enjoy the sunset on the beach is by driving quad bikes up and down with their children, directly through groups of sunset tourists trying to appreciate the peaceful beauty of the scene.

Weipa is the richest settlement on the Cape York, being a mining town. There is not much there if you are not a miner or a fisher. The best thing about Weipa for me was the birdlife which was the most abundant and diverse I have seen yet in Australia. The worst things were the mosquitoes, the humidity, the frustration of not being able to swim in the croc infested waters... But I also enjoyed our bus tour of the town and mine, wandering in the fire forest by the beach (more about this in my next post), watching the sunsets and visiting the library to research the history of a commercial spaceport once proposed for the town. But four days there was more than enough for me, I was keen to get back to camping on the rivers and being able to swim in clean fresh water instead of the dirty campground swimming pool full of active boy children.

Strip mining bauxite at Weipa (bauxite is what aluminium is made out of). To get a sense of the outrageous scale of these machines, note the driver standing outside her cab while her truck is being filled.

*I couldn't find a link to the Jardine story that doesn't present them as plucky heroes defending themselves against a plague of hostile savages and I refuse to endorse that version of events.

** cf arts in the Torres Strait, employment in the mines

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