Spring 1986, Volume 3
Marshall D. Isaacson
A Stranger in Paradise
The year was 1947. The place: a tiny island off the northeast tip of Australia. It was there that I lived a South Pacific adventure which might easily have flowed from the pen of Joseph Conrad or Somerset Maugham, It all began with my arrival at Thursday Island, one of twenty inhabited islands lying in the Torres Straits - a reef-strewn area bordering the Great Barrier Reef on the west and separating northern Australia from the bottom of primitive New Guinea, The island was the center of an industry which gathered mother-of-pearl shell from the ocean depths and sold it to American button manufacturers.
Though a handful of white men skippered their own boats, most were manned entirely by Torres Strait islanders - big black natives who were to become not only my shipmates but also my family. It's interesting to note that when Captain Bligh sailed through these reef-strewn waters in his open-boat voyage following the mutiny on the Bounty, the headhunters who gave chase seeking to capture and eat him and his crew - were the great, great, great grandfathers of these very same Torres Strait islanders whom I came to know and to love.
Josy, the pearling vessel on which I signed, was a sixty-five foot trawler that the U.S. Army had used along the New Guinea coast during the war. I became her engineer/try-diver, i.e. I operated and maintained the engines and compressors while at the same time was trained to dive for pearl shell and to serve as the relief diver whenever one of Josy's regular divers needed a break. In those days scuba gear was unknown in the islands. We had to work in old British admiralty suits and helmets - all of which were in pretty sad condition.
Being the only white man in a native crew whose ancestors had been headhunters left me with some misgivings. But my fears were quickly laid to rest, for never have I had happier more congenial shipmates - all of whom possessed that cherished but elusive quality known as the laughing heart. I can still clearly recall those nights under the Southern Cross when JOsy's crew would lustily chant their island songs and vigorously dance on deck - not a travelbureau-arranged entertainment for vacationing tourists but a spontaneous outpouring by these natives who were simply doing their own thing in their own way for their own enjoyment.
Sixty-five miles north northeast of Thursday Island lay the home of Josy's crew, Yama Island. It was here that we dropped anchor every two weeks while waiting out the spring tide which stirred up the ocean floor and made shell diving all but impossible. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would be living on a tropical island, the only white man among 250 natives. Within three months I'd gone completely native: I wore only the skirt-like lavalava, ate only native cooking, slept native-style on palm mats on the floor, and learned the local dialect and dances. There was also Fava - a dark-haired, dusky damsel of these tropical islands; it was her coconut-scented, warm embrace that provided the necessary romance of this new life. So complete was my transformation, that the white community on distant Thursday Island excluded me from its social circle - an understandable action since I had indeed become more native than white man.
Life among these islanders was happy and unharried. Of particular pleasure were the special island feast days, more often than not originated in nothing beyond a communal desire to simply celebrate. The array of food set before us on those festive occasions was something to be long remembered: roast pig on a spit, Fish prepared in half a dozen delicious ways; huge yams, partially hollowed out to receive sliced bananas and mangoes and then steamed among hot rocks; turtle stew as well as unshelled turtle eggs stuffed fifteen or twenty at a time into a thin, sausage-like turtle intestine and then hard boiled.
On such occasions the men were always seated first and served by the women. Girls provided the entertainment by dancing and singing, and young boys kept the mens' tin cups filled with methyl alcohol - the only intoxicant available to Torres Strait islanders since they could not legally buy liquor on Thursday Island (the alcohol was actually bought for use in lamps, but a good portion of it always ended up in tin drinking cups.) Once the women and children had eaten, dancing began in earnest. First men and women faced off in long lines and gracefully moved to the rhythm of drums and to the sounds of their own chanting. But after a while the men -Fired by the methyl alcohol - took over completely, and the dancing grew more animated and frenzied until sweatglistening black bodies began dropping from sheer exhaustion. It was at times like this that I realized how thin was the mantle of Christianity which those early missionaries had laid upon the shoulders of these oncesavage, pagan islanders.
As the night wore on, people slowly began making their way home, their hoarse voices still singing and echoing among the palms. Not until the bonfire was only glowing embers and the last reveler had wended his drunken way homeward did complete silence envelope the village and once again allow wind and wave to whisper softly to the island. Only the occasional lone bark of a dog would punctuate the otherwise velvet stillness of the tropical night.
There were also those memorable occasions on which the entire village turned out for a community sing. One would have to hear it to appreciate the strange yet melodious harmony of the womens' shrill, nasal voices, undergirded by the deep grunts and lusty shouts of the men. Often I would steal away early from these happy gatherings and row out to the Josy so that I might better drink in the whole glorious night: moon-light failing silvery upon sand and palm, Josy lying quietly on a placid lagoon whose wavelets lapped the pebbly beach, and voices drifting out from the island, filling the starry night with soft native singing.
But if life on Yama Island was easy living, it was anything but that out on the pearling grounds. By sunrise, Josy's deck was always alive with activity: four native tenders were perched on the bulwark, each man holding the lifeline of a diver below. Another crewman hauled up net bags full of shell from the bottom while three other natives cleaned the mud, weed, and coral off the shell. One man sliced open each pearl shell removed the muscle and membrane, and carefully fingered the slimy mucous to discover any pearls which might be secreted there.
About 9:00 o'clock all hands stopped to eat, including the divers, who sat there shivering in their wet woolens and noisily sipping scalding hot tea. After some twenty minutes, divers would again descend and work without further interruption for the rest of the day, not quiting until the late afternoon light failed. A diver's only break from eight hours under water came when the relief diver went down for him, a rotation which occurred every fifth dive.
Bedtime on the pearling grounds came early; however, on occasion dinner was followed not by bed but by dancing and singing. Sometimes crews from other luggers anchored nearby would row over to Josy and join in the merriment. On such occasions the singing and dancing was more exciting than ever: Natives wildly cavorted about the deck, their gyrating bodies silhouetted against the single Coleman lantern which provided our only light, and their husky voices boomed out with rhythmical island sea chanteys. Certainly no Hollywood moviemaker has ever truly captured the skin-tingling excitement of such a scene - one which I often witnessed on those warm, tropical nights in the Torres Straits of Australia.
Certainly there was happiness to be found in these islands, but tragedy also lurked there. One particular personal loss occurred in the Gulf of Carpentaria - a never-never land at the top of Australia. Now as any good Aussie can tell you, the Gulf of Carpentaria in general and along the bleak Arnhem Land coast in particular is the end of the world. Carpentaria's inhospitable western shore is the domain of wild aborigines, most of whom have never seen a white man. Beyond this, marauding salt-water crocodiles, twenty feet and longer and possessing the most evil reputation of any reptile, haunt the coastal waters and occasionally even venture off shore. And finally, the land itself is a bleak panorama of incredible desolation, one which surely had to have been spawned in Dante's Inferno.
The Gulf was a long haul for Josy, and for two days and two nights we followed a course that eventually set us down on Arnhem Land's desolate coast some thirty miles northwest of Groote Eylandt. It was already late afternoon, so we decided to anchor close inshore for the night and to begin diving operations the next day. Late that evening I heard unaccustomed sounds on deck and rose to investigate. There, stealthily sliding aboard over the rails, were eight of the ugliest, wildest men I'd ever seen. My cry of alarm sent them scurrying for their dugouts as well as bringing Josy's crew on deck, and though the intruders paddled furiously for shore, we took no chances; for the rest of the night one man was left on watch.
The next morning Josy headed out into the gulf and by midafternoon had started diving operations. As we had suspected, the sea floor in the Gulf of Carpentaria proved to be a diver's nightmare: much of the bottom was footsucking mud with an occasional patch of quicksand always somewhere about; long, waving stalks of diver-entangling weed were thickly clustered everywhere; and a disturbing number of poisonous, red-eyed coral snakes balleted around our lifelines and air hoses. However, the amount of shell we found seemed to make it all worthwhile, though even the shell itself was spooky, for it was unusually large and old and infected with much worm - a fact that seriously diminished its value.
Although we'd brought up over twelve ton in a single week, the risks encountered on the bottom were too great, and it was decided that we'd better head back to Thursday Island. However ol' Carpentaria wasn't about to let us go, not without a struggle. Within a matter of hours we were being battered by a northern Australia willi willi - a first cousin of the Caribbean hurricane. For three dark days Josy remained with her bow to the raging seas, plunging into them and rising again only with great effort because of the weight of shell in her hold. All but the side deckhouse windows, were busted out, resulting in great amounts of water cascading into the wheelhouse and down into the crew's quarters, engine room, and hold. Bailing became a twenty-four hour necessity.
With our fuel over half gone and the violent motion of Josy sloshing diesel around in her rusty tanks, I decided to switch fuel filters and hopefully avoid any clogging by rust, I sent one of the young natives (to whom I'd been "teaching the engine") below to make the switch. In the engine room the boy discovered to his horror not only water over the floor plates but also a three-foot geyser rising straight up from beneath the propeller shaft.
He immediately assumed that we were sinking and frantically clambered topside to spread the alarm. Some of the crew panicked and quickly pitched our dinghy overboard in preparation for abandoning ship. However, in the excitement no one thought to make fast the dinghy's painter, and within seconds the breaking seas had carried it well beyond our stern. Kusa, my adopted brother and dearest friend, reacted without thinking. He leaped into the turbulent waters and began furiously swimming after the dinghy, which was by now rapidly disappearing into the growing darkness and driving rain. Twice Kusa was overtaken by breaking seas only to reappear each time further astern. But within a few minutes he was enveloped by the encroaching darkness, and we could no longer see him.
I stood for a few moments with the rest of the crew, staring out into the gloom where Kusa had vanished, but then I had to get below to see if anything could be done about our imminent sinking. In the engine room I soon discovered that our "leak" was caused by the eight large bolts on the propeller shaft coupling, which was now well beneath the flood waters covering the floor plates. The shaft's rapid spinning caused the coupling and its bolts to act like the impeller of a water pump - hence the threefoot geyser.
After checking to be sure that the bilge pump was still running and that its strainer was not clogged, I hurried back on deck, fully expecting to see both Kusa and the dinghy alongside. Instead, I found only a handful of crestfallen natives standing in the driving rain and staring out into the storm-swept darkness. We called and shouted Kusa's name, but he could never have heard us above the shrieking wind. Some of the crew urged Byron, the skipper, to come about, but he refused, knowing full well that to do so would probably cause Josy to broach and founder in the battering seas.
Night was now completely around us, and it became obvious that unless Kusa had reached the dinghy we'd never see him again. Throughout the rest of the long, stormy hours till dawn, two or three men were always on constant vigil, but to no avail. By early morning the storm had begun to abate, and soon we were able to safely turn Josy around and begin searching for our lost brother. With a lookout at the masthead, we spent all morning and afternoon crossing and recrossing an area where we thought Kusa and the dinghy might be, but the search proved futile. The only thing we saw was an occasional native dugout which the storm had swept down from New Guinea.
At sunset we reluctantly brought Josy about and, with heavy hearts and a deep sense of loss, headed for Thursday Island. Aside from the broken wheelhouse windows we also had some stove-in bulwark, twisted handrails, and a couple of missing lazaret gratings and hatch boards - all of which could be replaced; what could never be replaced was our beloved brother, Kusa. We arrived at Thursday Island battered and bent but not beaten, though none of us on board had any desire to ever return to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
I spent three years in the Torres Straits of Australia - diving and living and loving. And what can I say of this adventure, that it was simply that - an adventure, no more ... no less? Certainly not, for the years spent among those happy islanders provided me with a new philosophy for living: to savor life - not to devour it.
Though these events took place almost forty years ago, this new-found attitude toward life is still with me: seldom has a day passed since that sojourn in paradise that I do not take some time out to relax and enjoy this beautiful world -long cruise up the California in which we live. It matters not whether I am on a week coast or simply spending an hour feeding the pigeons; the really important thing is the quality, not the quantity of living - something which I discovered many years ago in the tropical islands off the lonely coast of Australia.