Wednesday, May 16, 2012


It is dark by the time I reach the island of Samosir. Not so dark that I cannot be spotted as easy prey by the touts languishing along the pier where the ferry docks. But dark all the same.

I am ill and feverish, coming down with some swine of a flu. After a seven-hour bus trip from the hell-hole of Medan, all I need is a bed so I can die peacefully in my sleep. It's not much to ask. I nod to one of the ojeks.

Sir where you go?
Libertas. Or Lindas. Anywhere with cheap clean rooms.
Ah, sorry sir, all cheap clean rooms booked now. Is Christmas.
Take me to Libertas anyway.
Yes sir.

I get on the bike and we wind our way through narrow alleys to a long, low bungalow. It sports a dimly lit bar, from which a smiling Sumatran emerges, sipping on a green tea. He is genuinely pleased to tell me all the rooms are full. Everywhere on the bay booked up, he says, gleefully. Is Christmas.
I thank him for reminding me.
A lone backpacker is sitting in a rattan chair on the verandah, flicking through a trammelled Lonely Planet. His unwashed hair is piled high on his head in the style of a Cambodian laundrywoman. At the opposite end of him is bright yellow rubber, the kind of footwear that flip-flops between being a shoe and a practical joke. He wears loose cotton pants tied with a string, topped by a t-shirt with a design that could bring on a fit of epilepsy in the unwary. He looks up at me and smiles the smug, self-satisfied smile of someone who has just had the last of the cream on his banana pancake.

Hello my brother, he says in an accent I can't quite place, but definitely from somewhere east of the Glastonbury Festival. I can help you with some information, he says. There is Mamas up the hill. It is not as cool as here, of course. And it costs more, but I am thinking you have no choice. He smiles, gets up, and disappears. I do the same, on the back of the ojek's scooter.

I know a place, they have rooms, maybe 80,000 rupiah, my driver says.
OK, fine. Whatever. I'm dog tired and sick and really need somewhere to crash.

This is my first mistake. Never, ever, show signs of weakness. Or the Sumatrans will eat you alive. Quite literally, only a few years ago.
You want nice room? he begins. I can find. Now Christmas. No rooms, everywhere booked, only expensive rooms, you know?  How much you pay?

He turns right and we make our way along a narrow causeway between the rice paddies. A Catholic church looms on our left. Everywhere there seem to be little shrines and crosses. Graves, perhaps. Graves of the people who gave me this flu. I see another tall building with a cross high on the hill.
I can find good room for 200,000, he says. Very big. Very hot water.
Just the 80,000 room is fine, I say.
I take you to Parnas, he says.

We ride past more crosses. Too many, it seems, for a Muslim country. Back in Jakarta, where the mosques swarm like mosquitoes, the blaring call to the prayer mat is everywhere. But here in the volcanic highlands of Sumatra, we are deep in missionary country.
Those crosses, I say to the ojek, what are they?  Christian graves?
He shrugs. Some of them are Christians, some of them are clotheslines.
What did you say?
He points out two wooden crosses standing ten metres or so apart, a faint trace of wire stretched between the two.
You can pay 500,000? he asks.
Oh Jesus. No, I cannot.
Because now is Christmas, he says.
And there's no room at the inn?
Just take me to Parnas. 80,000 sounds fine.
Now I think they have only 400,000 rupiah rooms, he says.
Fuck my patron saint.
He slows the bike. To our left, a crater mountain rises high into cloud. To the right, a low building bears a sign, Parnas. The yard rambles down to a gazebo by a lake, where some women are tilling the soil.

Mr Ojek calls out to them: You have room for 400,000?

Not "do you have a room available" but "do you have room for 400,000". Just to let them know in advance that, on the back of his moto, he has the goose that lays the golden eggs. Oh God. It's dark, I'm sick, he knows I'm sick, and he knows I'll take anything just so I can die in peace.

Dear God, please spare me this hell.

I promise I'll hail Mary, my Lord, next time - and not some devil dressed as a motorcycle taxi driver.

Sunday, January 08, 2012


That was Eddie's place there, she says, pointing to small hollow set back from the beach. It is overgrown with bamboo, and at this hour of the morning is sitting in the shade of a hill rising steeply behind it. Vines run across the yellow sand and down to the beach like cargo cultists. All around, the beach is littered with round, black, basaltic rocks, a kind of volcanic bowling alley. Some have been gathered together into a circle, a rough wire grate above them, cold black ash below, and are surrounded with translucent yellow shapes of turtle shell.

He had a shack there, but it's gone now. Come on kids, you got school.
The boy gets up from where he is playing with a broken life ring, and goes into the corrugated tin shack with his older sister. Their father stands, baby in his arms, looking out to sea.

We moved back up here from Townsville a few years ago, she says. We like it here.
I look around at the large drift logs. Pine pallets embedded upright in the sand. The galvanised iron shack surrounded by fishing nets, lines, lures.

This is our home, she says. She pauses as the kids come out from the shack carrying their school satchels.
Eddie came back too, she says. They dug him up, where he was buried in Townsville, and brought him back here. His tombstone is up there, on top of the hill. This was Uncle Koiki's home. He's very famous here, you know.

It shouldn't surprise me that Eddie Mabo's place on the beach is so humble. The native title case was never about the acquisition of property. At least not from Mabo's point of view. During the High Court case in '92, other Islanders tried to argue the point on who owned what, which piece of land belonged to whom, and challenged Mabo over his land claim. Which only served to bolster his case against the crown. His point was that a system of land ownership existed long before the arrival of the markay, or white man, in Australia. During the final hearings, no-one could argue that the Meriam people did not cultivate the soil, for as Justice Brennan noted, they were devoted gardeners. And it would be hard to argue that the Murray Islanders' relationship to their lands was not proprietary. The evidence showed they owned land as individuals and as families, and had clearly demarcated property boundaries.

She points out the fish traps. Out from the shacks, cutting a swathe through the warm sea, black basalt rocks laid in a long serpentine line.

Those fish traps, they been there a long time, she says. Uncle Koiki showed the justices when they came up here. They looked here, and they looked there – but those? Very important, those stones. They took pictures of my son out there.
That film crew, they were here a few weeks ago. My son was in it, they filmed him. My daughter, too. My son played Eddie Mabo when he was younger, catching fish out there on those rocks. My daughter played his girlfriend, back when he was younger.

Dang. Missed a scoop there. All I got out of the young kid was a massive fart and some giggles, while the daughter said nothing at all. Ah well, how was I supposed to know they were film stars.

The major victory in the Mabo case was when the High Court agreed that the Common Law of Australia, properly considered, provides for the recognition and protection for the pre-existing land rights of the Indigenous peoples. For Uncle Koiki, this was more important than staking out a piece of real estate on the beach.

And while little remains of Uncle Koiki's place of residence, the principles that guided him - Malo law - remain strong. Tag mauke mauke. Teter mauke mauke. Don't touch or take what isn't yours. Don't set foot on land that isn't yours. Murray Island is no place to be wandering around, markay or not. You don't just head down to the beach for a swim or a spot of fishing and splash about with your floaties doing whatever you want. All parts of these waters belong to someone - a clan, a family - and have for a long time. The locals draw their identity from it. For Torres Strait Islanders, this is not a history lesson, or some abstract concept. This is life.

You see it in the daily ebb and flow of the Torres Strait, the Islanders and their homelands in a symbiosis as natural as drawing air. Islanders not only take their food from the land and sea around them, but their totem animals as well. The deumer, or Torres Strait Pigeon, the beizam, or hammerhead shark, the koedal, or crocodile, and other animals adorn elaborate tombstones laid out across these islands, tombstones that may often stand in a family's front yard. Fishermen and cray divers will talk about this or that patch of reef like I might talk about a vege patch in my back yard.

Commercial cray divers fishing the reefs of the Torres Strait have, in the recent past, had their catch seized and been driven off by the point of a spear or the blade of a machete. Benjamin Ali Nona's infamous incident with the spear occurred at the end of the last millenium, after which Mr Nona took the name Maluwap, meaning 'sea spear'. More recently, a cray diver was (allegedly) pulled up by his air hose and smacked about the head with a machete on Number One Reef north of Keriri, or Hammond Island. I say 'allegedly' because that case is still before the courts. Maluwap won a significant victory when he was acquitted of the charges he faced – charges that were the equivalent of armed robbery – on the grounds that he was simply taking back what he believed to be his property.

Former Indigenous federal senator Aden Ridgway noted similar incidents of commercial fishermen breaching a 'gentlemen's agreement' to refrain from taking catch within a 10-mile zone of each island had gone unchecked by the government authorities who were supposed to enforce the Torres Strait Treaty, a law legislated to protect the fishing rights and way of life of the Islanders.

"… the real victims of the law were the Islanders and the commercial fishermen, one because they held a real expectation that government would honour the treaty, and the others because of the failings of government to enforce the meaning of the treaty so that they understood what they could do," Ridgway said in his maiden speech to parliament in 1999.

In July, 2010, Maluwap Nona won a landmark native title sea rights case for Torres Strait Islanders as a whole. But our Australian government is currently appealing the decision. Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us, et cetera. With his solid build and dreadlocks, Maluwap drops into the offices of the paper from time to time. When he has something to say, I tend to pay attention.

But the long and short of it, in a practical sense, is that you don't go traipsing about willy nilly across these islands. Especially on Mer. Here, you don't even go in to someone's yard to knock on their door. You stand on the edge of the property, call out, and wait.

I sit on a sunbleached log and gaze down the beach. The film crew who were out here a few weeks back were producing a movie simply called Mabo. They were chased off the island. I heard rumours they were woken in the early hours by a wild man wielding a machete, but the Thursday Island police played down that version, saying it was more likely a length of pipe. In the morning, the Mer community convinced the nervous ABC crew to stay on, but after their vehicle sustained what the senior sergeant described as 'wilful damage', they upped sticks and left.

Of course I ran the story on the front page. And of course the Mer community wanted to talk to me about that. It was blown out of proportion, they said. We are not violent people, they said. Come visit us, they said. So I did.

Only a couple of generations ago, Murray Islanders were headhunters. I was advised that I would be sleeping on a verandah next to the 'grandfather drum', or Malo drum. And to be very careful of how I treated it. Because the grandfather drum has 23 notches. Each notch represents the head of a victim who walked on the wrong side of the Malo drum, who disrespected it by walking behind it. 23 is a nice number, I said. A magic number. And I have no intention of changing it to 24. The other half of this pigeon pair, the grandmother drum, was commandeered by a visiting ship some centuries ago, around the time Fernando Torres navigated these treacherous straits.

As it transpired, my hosts, Aven and Melora Noah, could not have been more hospitable, inviting me to join a charter flight with a few others – Ed from Health, Michelle from Indigenous TV, and Nancy from the local radio station – to fly up and cover a weekend of dancing and festivities. They were just digging up the kup muri turtle when we arrived, right on sunset, and it was quite something to watch bronze whaler sharks thrashing about on the shoreline in a fight for the scraps. Didn't stop Ed and I taking a quick dip the next morning. It is shark mating season, and i figured the bronze whalers would be too preoccupied to bother with a couple of crazy white markay. We could see them, going hard at it just a couple of metres from the coconut palms lining the beach. But it didn't seem right to stare.

The kids come out of the shack with their school satchels, and head off up the steep embankment, through the undergrowth. The sun is well and truly up now and the sweat trickles down my front like the first drips of an espresso. Which reminds me. I need a coffee. Four hours sleep last night, two the night before. Usually I sleep half the day after deadline, but I wasn't going to miss Mer. Not for squids. I look down the beach. The indigenous TV presenter is getting some shots, pictures of our Islander guide talking to the turtle tracks that sweep the beach everywhere here. It's laying season, and they're on the move. We don't have to hunt them, our guide says, they just come right up on the beach for us. If you see one set of tracks going in to the bush, and no tracks coming out, you know she's still in there. You just go pick her up.

I'd heard eating turtle is like chewing on wetsuit, but the kup muri feast they served up last night before the dancing was tender, spicy and delicious. Praise be to God. And the eggs made a really nice breakfast. Needless to say, I didn't get up in the middle of the night to wander around looking for the toilet. 23 notches is fine. It's a nice number.

I catch up with Ed and the TV presenter, and we wind our way up through the jungle, on the heels of our guide.

Eddie Mabo's place back there, I say to Michelle, as she lunks her tripod and camera up the clay track.
What? Where?
Back there.

We trudge on. It's hellish hot and humid, and now there are sharp stones on the track. I've left my thongs way back on the beach. I thought we'd gotten up at 5.30 to go watch turtles laying eggs. Nobody said anything about a jungle trek. My feet aren't made for this. I'm not sure what they were made for, but it certainly wasn't walking. We reach Uncle Koiki's headstone. It is more impressive than his beach home. We sit amongst the banana grove as the stringy wisps of the kapok tree stream down around us in the hot, still air.