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Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Thirsty Island


Travellers approaching a bush township are sure to find some distance from the town a lonely public-house waiting by the roadside to give them welcome. Thirsty (miscalled Thursday) Island is the outlying pub of Australia.

When the China and British-India steamers arrive from the North the first place they come to is Thirsty Island, the sentinel at the gate of Torres Straits. New chums on the steamers see a fleet of white-sailed pearling luggers, a long pier clustered with a hybrid crowd of every colour, caste and creed under Heaven, and at the back of it all a little galvanized-iron town shining in the sun.

For nine months of the year a crisp, cool south-east wind blows, the snow-white beach is splashed with spray and dotted with the picturesque figures of Japanese divers and South Sea Island boatmen. Coco-nut palms line the roads by the beach, and back of the town are the barracks and a fort nestling among the trees on the hillside. Thirsty Island is a nice place --- to look at.

When a vessel makes fast the Thirsty Islanders come down to greet the new-comers and give them welcome to Australia. The new-chums are inclined to patronise these simple, outlying people. Fresh from the iniquities of the China-coast cocktail and the unhallowed orgies of the Sourabaya Club, new-chums think they have little to learn in the way of drink; at any rate, they haven’t come all the way to Thursday Island to be taught anything. Poor new-chums! Little do they know the kind of people they are up against.

The following description of a night at Thursday Island is taken from a new-chum’s note book:

“Passed Proudfoot shoal and arrived at Thursday Island. First sight of Australia. Lot of men came aboard, all called Captain. They are all pearl-fishers or pilots, not a bit like the bushmen I expected. When they came aboard they divided into parties. Some invaded the Captain’s cabin; others sat in the smoking room; the rest crowded into the saloon. They talked to the passengers about the Boer War, and told us about pearls worth 1000 pounds that had been found lately.

“One captain pulled a handful of loose pearls out of a jar and handed them round in a casual way for us to look at. The stewards opened bottles and we all sat down for a drink and a smoke. I spoke to one captain—an oldish man—and he grinned amiably, but did not answer. Another captain leaned over to me and said, ‘Don’t take any notice of him, he’s boozed all this week.’

“Conversation and drink became general. The night was very hot and close, and some of the passengers seemed to be taking more than was good for them. A contagious thirst spread round the ship, and before long the stewards and firemen were at it. The saloon became an inferno of drink and sweat and tobacco smoke. Perfect strangers were talking to each other at the top of their voices.

“Young MacTavish, who is in a crack English regiment, asked the captain of a pearling lugger whether he didn’t know Talbot de Cholmondeley in the Blues.

“The pearler said very likely he had met ’em, and no doubt he’d remember their faces if he saw them, but he never could remember names.

“Another passenger—a Jew—was trying to buy some pearls cheap from the captains, but the more the captains drank the less anxious they became to talk about pearls.

“The night wore on, and still the drinks circulated. Young MacTavish slept profoundly.

“One passenger gave his steward a sovereign as he was leaving the ship, and in half an hour the steward was carried to his berth in a fit—alcoholic in its origin. Another steward was observed openly drinking the passengers’ whisky. When accused, he didn’t even attempt to defend himself; the great Thursday Island thirst seemed to have communicated itself to everyone on board, and he simply had to drink.

“About three in the morning a tour of the ship disclosed the following state of affairs: Captain’s room full of captains solemnly tight; smoking-room empty, except for the inanimate form of the captain who had been boozed all the week, and was now sleeping peacefully with his feet on the sofa and his head on the floor. The saloon was full of captains and passengers—the latter mostly in a state of collapse or laughing and singing deliriously; the rails lined with firemen who had business over the side; stewards ditto.

“At last the Thursday Islanders departed, unsteadily, but still on their feet, leaving a demoralized ship behind them. And young MacTavish, who has seen a thing or two in his brief span, staggered to his berth, saying, ‘My God! Is all Australia like this place?’”

Thursday Island, colloquially known as TI, or in the native language, Waiben


When no ships arrive, the Islanders just drop into the pubs, as a matter of routine, for their usual evening soak. They drink weird compounds—horehound beer, known as “lady dog”, and things like that. About two in the morning they go home speechless, but still able to travel. It is very rarely that an Islander gets helplessly drunk, but strangers generally have to be put to bed.

The Japanese on the island are a strong faction. They have a club of their own, and once gave a dinner to mark the death of one of their members. He was shrewdly suspected of having tried to drown another member by cutting his airpipe, so, when he died, the club celebrated the event. The Japanese are not looked upon with favor by the white islanders. They send their money to Japan—thousands of pounds a year go through the little office in money-orders—and so they are not “good for trade”.

The Manilamen and Kanakas and Torres Strait islanders, on the other hand, bring all the money they do not spend on the pearling schooner to the island, and “blow it in”, like men. They knife each other sometimes, and now and again have to be run in wholesale, but they are “good for trade”. The local lock-up has a record of eighteen drunks run in in seven minutes. They weren’t taken along in carriages-and-four, either; they were mostly dragged along by the scruff of the neck.

Billy Malkeela, the South Sea diver, summed up the Japanese question—“Seems to me dis Islan’ soon b’long Japanee altogedder. One time pa-lenty rickatta (plenty regatta), all same Isle of Wight. Now no more rickatta. All money go Japan!”

An English new-chum made his appearance there lately—a most undefeated sportsman. He was put down in a diving dress in about eight feet of water, where he bubbled and struggled about in great style. Suddenly he turned, rushed for the beach, and made for the foot of a tree, which he tried to climb under the impression that he was still at the bottom of the ocean. Then he was hauled in by the life-line.

The pearlers thought to get some fun out of him by giving him an oyster to open in which they had previously planted a pearl; he never saw the pearl and threw the oyster into the scuppers with the rest, and the pearlers had to go down on all fours and grope for that pearl among the stinking oysters. It was funny—but not in the way they had intended.

The pearlers go out in schooners called floating stations (their enemies call them floating public-houses) and no man knows what hospitality is till he has been a guest on a pearling schooner. They carry it to extremes sometimes. Some pearlers were out in a lugger, and were passing by one of these schooners. They determined not to go on board, as it was late, and they were in a hurry. The captain of the schooner went below, got his rifle and put two bullets through their foresail. Then they put the helm down and went aboard; it was an invitation almost equivalent to a royal command. They felt heartily ashamed of themselves as they slunk up on deck, and the captain of the schooner eyed them reproachfully.

“I couldn’t let you disgrace yourselves by passing my schooner,” he said; “but if it ever happens again I’ll fire at the deck. A man that would pass a schooner in broad daylight is better dead.”

There is a fort and garrison at Thirsty Island, but they are not needed. If an invading fleet comes this way it should be encouraged by every possible means to land at the island; the heat, the thirst, the horehound beer, and the Islanders may be trusted to do the rest.


So wrote Banjo Paterson in his 1917 "Three Elephant Power and Other Stories". A hundred years later, pearling has ceased, and steamers no longer call at "Thirsty Island" - or Thursday Island, as it is more officially known - but the drinking goes on unabated. I know; I used to live there!

My office was on the top floor of the yellow building; the building with the red roof
is the Federal Hotel. It's the only time in my life I worked right next door to a pub ☺




Stirring the possum, then feeding it


Our monthly food bill is around the thousand-dollar-mark but then we're not just feeding ourselves but also dozens of water fowls and screeching parrots and these two cuties, mother and baby possum. They recently moved into our possum penthouse and are enjoying the peace and quiet of "Riverbend".




Friday, November 24, 2017

Opportunity shop knocks!


Even during my restless years, I belonged to several book clubs, including Reader's Digest and TIME-LIFE, whose publications cost the usual $29.95 (plus postage & handling) which then was a week's housekeeping money (or the cost of a lavish dinner-for-two to which I never treated myself).

When it was time to relocate, I would put the books into boxes (which cost money) and the boxes into storage (which cost more money).

Then, twenty years later, when all my travelling was done, I got the boxes out of storage, only to discover that many of those books I had so carefully boxed and stored, could be bought at an op-shop for 10 cents, or perhaps 20 cents, but never more than a dollar. (And ditto for all those vinyls, those fragile black things handled with kid gloves lest they got scratched. They are on sale now, unscratched, for just ten cents!)

Another Op-shop Tip:

Don't spend $15 to dryclean your old suit.

Donate it to the Salvation Army instead.

They'll clean it and put it on a hanger.

Next morning you buy it back for $5.

If I had my time over again, I would buy nothing new as I can hardly image a world without op-shops. Generally staffed by kindly older ladies - click here - , they're little rays of sunshine amidst the primarily drab and boring shopping experiences of the twenty-first century. Apart from large, wildly expensive department stores like David Jones and Myers, where else can you go that sells such a wide variety of goods? If you're lucky the ladies might even offer you a cuppa and a biscuit.

Throughout history people have always worn second hand clothes and treasured pre-loved things. In most families (and in my family in particular!), younger siblings (and I was the youngest!) have long been the recipients of their older sisters' and brothers' hand-me-down clothes, while donating unwanted garments and household paraphernalia to the needy has been practiced by those who are more privileged. While once upon a time such benevolence was generally practiced informally, over the last several decades shops dedicated to selling pre-loved wares have sprung up in cities and towns, large and small, all around Australia.

I can't remember when I discovered my first op-shop. I remember once seeing a funny shop with funny-looking people going in and coming out but it was quite some time later, when op-shops had gone mainstream and into main street, that I entered a store which had that peculiar odour created by used clothing and household items within.

In days gone by, if I needed a new belt to accommodate that expanding waistline, I would have gone into a men's wear store and happily paid $20. These days, I go into an op-shop and choose from a range of real leather belts with real brass buckles, and never pay more than a dollar. As for books, I have found books I never knew existed and never paid more than a dollar for them.

Once such treasures are discovered, it boosts one’s endorphin levels, thus creating euphoria which can last for hours or days, depending on the perceived value of the find (and relative purchase price). A word of warning though: repeated discoveries of this nature will lead to the addiction of op-shopping!



To find your nearest op-shop, go to opshop.org;
to meet your nearest op-shop addict, come to "Riverbend"! ☺


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Will it be a gusher?


A small drilling rig pulled up outside "Riverbend". Are they going to drill for oil? No, they are merely taking soil samples for the proposed water and sewerage system. What a relief!

Or maybe not! I mean, why not keep the existing septic and the best-possible water supply straight from Heaven? It's free and never fails.

But, I guess, just like government itself, it'll be imposed on us whether we want it or not - and all in the name of progress.



Memories of Rabaul

Rabaul Pharmacy in Mango Avenue in 1970


My memories of Rabaul are about as hazy as this old photograph of John 'Pills' Mills, the resident pharma-cist, standing outside Rabaul Pharmacy with his staff, none of whom I remember except for his attractive Chinese assistant standing to his right.

I was a young audit clerk with the firm of chartered accountants of Hancock, Woodward & Neill, and we kept the accounts for Rabaul Pharmacy, including their debtors ledger. Our backdoors faced each other and John's staff regularly visited our office to check on some customer accounts.

I remember only too well the many times my concentration was broken by the arrival of his attractive assistant. Even my colleague Grahame, who was usually dead to the world until halfway through the morning after the night before, would show faint signs of life and his eyelids briefly fluttered open when she walked past his desk.

It must've been during one of her visits that I prematurely signed off on the balance sheet for Kessa Plantation without showing the company's authorised capital. Within days, it came back from the Sydney Stock Exchange with a 'please correct' note attached. What embarrassment!

Within months, I had moved on to greener - and better-paid - pastures on the island of Bougainville where I became senior auditor on the world's then biggest construction job, the Bougainville Copper Project.

Nobody broke my concentration on Bougainville Island, least of all any of those queers who worked as limp-wristed 'typists' on what was in the beginning a very hard-working and hard-drinking men-only environment.


P.S. I've been told by the man himself that the "attractive assistant" I'm thinking of was Claudia Tang, a Rabaul Chinese and pharmacy post-grad from Sydney University who in the 1970s worked for John Mills, but that this photo was taken earlier in 1967. Bang goes another good story!☺