Part 5 Poruma – an island of the Torres Strait

FRED& & BEV’S TORRES STRAIT ENCOUNTER.

OUT & ABOUT

PORUMA (COCONUT ISLAND)

Poruma  is also known as Coconut Island and is a narrow coral island, just 1.4 kilometres long and 400 metres wide. It is situated about 120 kilometres north east of Thursday Island.  From my observations I guess the highest point on the island is about 4 metres above sea level but the majority of the island mass would be two and a half metres below that.

Coconut Island/Poruma

Poruma / Coconut Island

The main manmade features of Coconut Island are the airstrip and the sewerage treatment ponds. The island is bounded by a shallow fringing coral reef, which provides food for the locals.

Map of Torres Strait showing location of Poruma/Coconut Island.

Map of Torres Strait showing location of Poruma/Coconut Island.

I think that if I found myself abandoned on a coral island Coconut Island wouldn’t be such a bad place as there is plenty of tucker on and surrounding the island. Potable water could be a problem as there is no surface water so one would have to set up a still or live on coconut milk.  The following images show some of the resources available.

Coconut palms on the high end of Poruma.

Coconut palms on the high end of Poruma.

Regular readers of my blog writings will know by now that when I see something, be it an architectural style, a point of history, a piece of art or in this case, plants such as the coconut palms above, I need answers, a bit like journalists who ask ‘who, what, where and why’ when gathering information for a story.  The first question I asked myself here was what were the origins of the coconut palm.

The coconut plant has been the subject of much interpretation and speculation and it’s because it has been widely cultivated over large areas of the Indian and Pacific Ocean for hundreds of years.

Another issue, which often evokes lively debate is whether the coconut existed in Australia before the Europeans arrived. Certainly, the coconut was cultivated in Torres Strait long before the Europeans decided to take their colonial ways to new lands, but early explorers often noted the apparent absence of these palms from northern mainland shores.

Coconut palms at the low end of Poruma.

Coconut palms at the low end of Poruma.

The week prior to us being on Poruma a severe storm hit the island and took away five metres of beach. The locals firmly believe in climate change and sea level rise.

Another food source on the island is the breadfruit.   Samoan missionaries introduced breadfruit into tropical north Queensland in the late 1800s. In 1788 Captain Bligh transported large quantities of breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies on the Bounty. It is native to South East Asia but has been cultivated extensively throughout the Pacific, where it is a staple food. Together with the coconut, breadfruit is synonymous with the Pacific lifestyle. Breadfruit when baked has a bread-like texture.

A new experience for me, coming in contact with a breadfruit.

A new experience for me, coming in contact with a breadfruit.

Breadfruit exposed. A mature breadfruit can reach 20 cm in diameter and can weigh up to 4kg.

Breadfruit exposed. A mature breadfruit can reach 20 cm in diameter and can weigh up to 4kg.

Another Coconut Island delicacy is crayfish.  Crayfish abound in the coral reefs adjacent to the island. The term ‘lobster’ to describe these crustaceans is incorrect as lobsters have two huge flat claws. The Torres Strait species are not endowed with such big nippers.

Skeleton of a Coconut Island crayfish.

Skeleton of a Coconut Island crayfish.

Seagulls feasting on crayfish frames.

Seagulls feasting on crayfish frames.

Crayfish storage trap.

Crayfish storage trap.

The storage traps are made from aluminium security screen and they are kept afloat by polystyrene blocks attached to the edges.  The large black pipe protruding from the top (sticking above water in the distance) is where food is dropped down to the entrapped crayfish.

A local meditating over reef bounty. Maybe he is thanking the fish spirits for providing the pending meal.

A local meditating over reef bounty. Maybe he is thanking the fish spirits for providing the pending meal.

A giant clam.  Clams like this one are found in coral reefs throughout Torres Strait and, only if desperate, one could eat them.

A giant clam. Clams like this one are found in coral reefs throughout Torres Strait and, only if desperate, one could eat them.

In the caption above I said ‘if desperate’, not meaning they are not tasty but one would only eat one if there was nothing else to eat as they are now considered vulnerable due to over-harvesting.  Over harvesting relates to ancient beliefs the giant clam’s abductor muscle (which opens and closes its shell) is thought to be an aphrodisiac. This belief suggests you can gain an animal’s characteristics by ingesting parts of them.  Animals like turtles, sharks, bears, tiger, tortoises and seahorses are killed for their body parts which are believed to make men more virile. There is no scientific proof that eating any of these animals and or their parts helps cure impotence, yet men all over the world (mostly in Asian countries) continue to devour endangered and vulnerable species.

If clams can survive the activities of the aphrodisiac hunters they can live to well over 100 years.  All clams commence life as males, eventually switching to hermaphrodite status. At spawning time, chemical signals trigger clams to release either sperm or eggs, the largest releasing up to 500 million eggs at one time. Once fertilised, the eggs enter a swimming stage and then a planktonic stage before they settle down into the reef for the rest of their lives.  Clams’ main food source is plankton.  A clam cannot close its shell quickly as before the closing commences it has to expel water from its internal feeding chamber which is not a high speed operation and so the legendary tales of divers being drowned when getting clamped in a clam are mostly fable. The colour of the clam is dictated by the colour of algae, which live in a symbiotic relationship with the clam.

If you do not fish then beachcombing the ‘tide lines’ or ‘drift lines’ is a way of passing the time.  Beachcombing in Torres Strait was a profession during sailing ship days.  Men who were shipwrecked and who maybe did not want to return to civilisation or were running from the authorities often became beachcombers. They gathered various items of flotsam and jetsam and sold or traded their finds with passing traders. The term ‘beachcomber’ first appeared in print in 1874 and was synonymous with vagabond, drifter or criminal (referring to escaped convicts from the penal colonies).  The vast majority of beachcombers however, were simply out of work sailors.

 Beachcombing on Coconut Island.

Beachcombing on Coconut Island.

Soft coral.

Soft coral.

Worm holes in driftwood.

Worm holes in driftwood.

Goose barnacles attached to a log.

Goose barnacles attached to a log.

Goose barnacles are found throughout Australian waters and have a mobile lifestyle as at larva stage they attach themselves to any floating object such as logs.  The goose barnacle gets its name from a European legend which states that barnacles drifting ashore attached to logs were the egg cases of geese! 

 Seed pod.  Unknown species. If any readers can identify same please let me know via comments.  The pod was about 75mm square

Seed pod. Unknown species. If any readers can identify same please let me know via comments. The pod was about 75mm square.

A Keesteel washboard vintage axe head.

A Keesteel washboard vintage axe head.

The name Keesteel derives from the Australian company Keech Castings which opened its factory in 1933 for the manufacture of specialty castings. The reference to ‘washboard’ refers to the grooves (similar to grooves in an old wash board) in the side of the axe said to reduce binding (axe getting stuck in the log being chopped).  The Keech company developed a method of casting steel components rather than forging which was an expensive operation. They produced hammers, tinsnips, and tailors’ shears; in fact, all tools of trade requiring high quality alloy steels.

The coming of steel to Torres Strait changed the whole social structure of the region.  Sailing shipwrecks provided a rich source of steel and once the locals learned the art of fashioning steel implements from bits scrounged, their hunting efficiency improved and also the clans with steel weapons reigned.  

Pumice and wood.

Pumice and wood.

During volcano eruptions gases dissolved in the liquid portion of magma expand rapidly to create a foam/froth and when it solidifies pumice forms.  Pumice is used commercially as an abrasive such as in Solvol, ‘the soap for work-stained hands’.

Few Australian household icons have survived into the 21st century but good old Solvol has.  It has been on the market since 1915.

Few Australian household icons have survived into the 21st century but good old Solvol has. It has been on the market since 1915.

Pumice raft.

Pumice raft.

In August 2012 Australian Geographic reported that 150 earthquakes and a volcanic eruption of a Pacific Ocean volcano created a giant raft of pumice. The eruption of the Havre Volcano, about halfway between New Zealand and Tonga, is believed to have caused the 7500 sq.km (about 87 km square) pumice raft.  A lot of cakes of Solvol here.  Photo and report thanks to AAP.

A common piece of flotsam.

A common piece of flotsam.

Common this flotsam may be but the vexing question is…is it the backbone of a cuttlefish, squid or calamari?  For a start we can eliminate calamari as it is not a species in its own right but a Greek word used to describe squid.  The cuttlefish and squid are two distinctly different animals. The cuttlefish is flat and has the large shell-like bone as shown in the photograph above.  The flesh of the cuttlefish is very tender and thicker than that of a squid.

Crab skeleton waiting to be fossilised.

Crab skeleton waiting to be fossilised.

At the start of our 2012 Encountering the Past blog I mentioned Bev had an eye for detail with regards little things on the ground (in this case beach). Well, here she is, at it again! 

One day when I was out beachcombing on Coconut Island a group of sixteen intrepid kite surfers came ashore. They had kite-surfed all the way from Cape York to New Guinea, a distance of over 400 kilometres.   The expedition was a money raising activity for the McGrath Foundation.  The McGrath Foundation’s mission is to ensure every Australian family experiencing breast cancer has access to a breast care nurse. 

Kite surfers arrive.  Tough and fit is all I can say about these intrepid adventurers.

Kite surfers arrive. Tough and fit is all I can say about these intrepid adventurers.

The kite surfers’ route through Torres Strait. Coconut Island is about two thirds along the way. Map courtesy McGrath web page.

The kite surfers’ route through Torres Strait. Coconut Island is about two thirds along the way. Map courtesy McGrath web page.

Intrepid adventurers meeting with the locals and having a debriefing.

Intrepid adventurers meeting with the locals and having a debriefing.

Sea eagle perch.

Sea eagle perch.

The upside-down tree perch was erected by a local as a resting and observation post for the resident sea eagle.

The resident sea eagle preferring a higher vantage point.

The resident sea eagle preferring a higher vantage point.

Our visit to Coconut Island was not all for sightseeing and play. My main activity was to work with local children creating in clay.

All children like hands-on activities and the kids on Coconut were no exception.  One particular pleasing aspect relating to Coconut Island children is they are extremely polite and somewhat reserved but they are not afraid to ask questions. I think the reason for the ceaseless questions relates to the fact that they live in a very isolated place and they take advantage of any opportunity to speak with outsiders such as us.  Once the children reach high school age they go off to boarding schools on the mainland or on Thursday Island.

Two of the local schoolboys with a fish they made.

Two of the local schoolboys with a fish they made.

A proud artist with her decorated bowl.

A proud artist with her decorated bowl.

Deft hands decorating a bowl.

Deft hands decorating a bowl.

Cedric decorating his fish.

Cedric decorating his fish.

When I questioned Cedric about the work he would like to do when he left school his reply was ‘be a potter like you’.  Is this not the ultimate compliment?  Cedric is a very talented artist in his own right with an eye for detail and the old adage, ‘good enough for the bush’, did not fit into his thinking regime.

Leather hard clay fish. Leather hard in pottery terms means not wet nor fully dry.

Leather hard clay fish. Leather hard in pottery terms means not wet nor fully dry.

Finished work…fish, bowls, boats and masks. These pieces were fired in an electric kiln on Thursday Island.

Finished work…fish, bowls, boats and masks. These pieces were fired in an electric kiln on Thursday Island.

Mask detail. The unique feature about this piece is the way the students have used two different colour clays and mixed glazes to create an opalised effect on the nose.

Mask detail. The unique feature about this piece is the way the students have used two different colour clays and mixed glazes to create an opalised effect on the nose.

The dried pieces of pottery not to be glazed were fired in a pit using scrap wood.  The secret to success is to start the firing slowly, burning  just a few sticks, then once the pottery has dried, increase the fire intensity.  If the temperature of the pottery is raised too rapidly the moisture in the clay turns to steam and blows the work apart.  A successful firing, is measured by the number of pieces that do not blow to smithereens.

The start of the pit firing.

The start of the pit firing.

Having fun searching for the fired pottery pieces in the ashes.

Having fun searching for the fired pottery pieces in the ashes.

When extracting the pieces from the ashes one of the kids asked me ‘what do you want to do when you grow up’!  Makes me think do they not see my age.

Whilst I was doing pottery with the schoolkids our son Tim, with the help of students, established a community garden and built a greenhouse.

Tim and one of his students putting the finishing touches to the school garden shop.

Tim and one of his students putting the finishing touches to the school garden shop.

The last task on Poruma was the blessing of the greenhouse and gardens.

The last task on Poruma was the blessing of the greenhouse and gardens.

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, the majority of Torres Strait islanders are very religious  and any opportunity they get to give praise to their God they take it.  I reckon if you stood still long enough a church leader would come along and bless you.

Coconut Island/Poruma is well off the beaten track and few outsiders such as us have the opportunity to experience such a paradise. Bev and I considered it a privilege to be invited to the island. Thanks to all for sharing your world with us.

The next posting relates to a trip we did by boat to Cape York  and the Tip, the most northerly point on the Australian mainland. 

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About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
This entry was posted in Odyssey Part 1: 2012. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Part 5 Poruma – an island of the Torres Strait

  1. Kate Eglinton says:

    Hi Fred and Bev,
    Not sure if you are still checking this blog, but came across this when I was researching Coconut island recently. My son is working there 12 days on and 8 off driving the pilot boat. I see that you went on the pilot boat Fred. My son tells me that Coconut island is no longer taking tourists. I would love to visit and note that you went there to undertake a creative art project with the school kids. I am interested in doing something similar with mosaics. Just wondering how you went about organising your project and visit there. Who did you contact yo feign the discussion?

    Thankyou
    Cheers
    Kate Eglinton

  2. Debbie Graves. says:

    Hya.
    Love your photos!
    Just want to say that I too have a seed pod like yours. We found it on Saunders Beach, North Queensland, Australia.
    I have been trying to identify it & I have found it! It is a Box Fruit! (John is also correct)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drift_seed
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barringtonia_asiatica

    Debbie x

    • tbeartravels says:

      Dear Debbie

      Thanks for your comment re the Box tree fruit. Bev and I are on the north coast of NSW at the moment on our small catamaran. We have been on the water for about 3 weeks planning our next Encountering the Past adventure. We are thinking of returning to Europe and once again following our 1972 journey through France, Spain and UK. Stay tuned for the next E the P adventure.

      I still have around three more posts to go relative to E the P Part 2 adventure.

      Thanks again.

      Fred and Bev.

  3. Leonie says:

    The Grey Nomads are home again after a very enjoyable meander. Delighted to find your interesting blog. One photo reminded me of my Dad – I hadn’t thought of it for years. He always cleaned his dentures with Solvol. Cheers, enjoy every day, much love Leonie and John

    • tbeartravels says:

      John and Leonie
      Pleased to hear of your travels. Bev and On the Island of Kythera Greece at the moment and have been for the past couple of weeks. Kythera has it all, mountains plunging into the sea, wonderful clear water meaning beaut dive sites, not just over reefs but ancient wrecks and towns. More history than you can imagine from ancient times to present including WW2. I have written a number of stories and they will be posted soon, keep watch. Bev and I leave Kythera tonight on the ferry, it’s an overnight trip to Athens Port, it is slow going because the ferries are running on one motor only to save money.

      Thanks for the blog contact. Fred and Bev Ps Of all the places Bev and I have been in our travels Kythera is the place to come and live for a year or so.

  4. IRENE LAIFOO says:

    Hello Fred & Bev, just letting you know that Zoe-Ina & Raima were absolutely thrilled with their mail, and so was I 🙂 I am travelling to Poruma next week for TRANSITION VISITS. Beautiful spot and I know why it is so lovely to retire there. Safe and Happy travels, Love Irene and all of the kids at Kaziw Meta xoxox

  5. Sara says:

    Great pics! Wonderful place with fantastic people 🙂

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