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