February 16th came and along with it came our first real vacations for 2014. Sure, we have already been to China and Yongpyeong, but neither really count. One was for work and the other was domestic. Now it was time for a long haul, so we packed our beach wear and snorkelling gear and three uneventful flights later we were on Horn Island, Australia. Here we apparently had several issues to deal with. Apart from the obvious hazards already imprinted in our minds (sharks, box jellies, deadly spiders), we now also had to watch out for the killer maggots ! Com'on .... are these Aussies really just pulling our leg?
We immediately struggled with the accent, but somehow still managed to get on the right bus and boat. Come to think of it, nothing could have gone wrong as the bus and then the boat were the only two things that happened on this island. After a short ferry ride we were welcomed to Thursday Island by Bennie, Dianne and Bella. Bennie and Dianne owned the dive center I worked at in Malawi and we hadn't seen each other since our last trip to Australia in 2008. Since then Bennie has changed career and is now a paramedic. One year ago they pulled their roots on the Sunshine Coast and moved up to Thursday Island - the administrative centre for the Torres Strait. For those of you who are less geography savvy (I had absolutely no idea where TI was located before they moved up there), the Torres Strait is the stretch of water between Australia (York peninsula) and Papua New Guinea. A simplified version of that would be "right on the very edge of Australia". As the immigration officer in Cairns said: "that's remote". Paula didn't like that remark at all.
Paula on the ferry
Not even the Aussies themselves know much about TI. When Mike heard that we were going there we were told that it was a centre for aboriginal uprising and Phoebe thought it was a resort island. Sorry guys - Phoebe can be excused because she Kiwi, but Mike ...
TI is none of the above. The locals are Torres Strait islanders - practically no aborigines on the island - and although there is an disproportionate large amount of lodging on the island, they are a far cry from "resort standard". The island is home to about 3000 people - many of these "domestic expats" such as doctors, nurses, police officers, judges etc. It takes a lot to make the wheels go around in this part of the world. Bennie and his colleagues cover an area the size of Denmark by helicopter. Each island has a landing strip or at least a helipad. Some have medical clinics with nurses. And most of the islands have 50-200 inhabitants! On top of that Australia has agreed to give medical care to 11 villages in PNG, as Australia is much closer to them than to the next medical facility in PNG. All this remoteness is costly of course. Must be very strategically important for Australia to keep hold of these islands.
The remoteness reminded me slightly of Greenland - everything else of course not.
Anyway, Bennie was working the helicopter the day we arrived, so he had a trip just as we set foot on land. Let's get clear lines right away - this was the only time we saw him work while we were there. Bloody freeloader ! He "works" from Wednesday to Wednesday and is free Thursday to Tuesday. When "on" he is on call 24 hours, but as we saw there isn't a whole lot of work. One day on helicopter duty and the next island duty. Island duty .... you imagine how busy it is with 3000 inhabitants (half of them probably work at the hospital already!). Best part is that, being on 24 hour duty, they have to drive around in their big Mercedes Benz ambulances where ever they go (a trip around the island amounts to 6km).
There's a first for all. For me, being picked up in an ambulance without being ill or injured was a first
Thursday island has no less than 3 of these ! That's 1 for each 1000 inhabitants...
Dianne had taken the week off from her work at the hospital, so she avoided any sharp remarks regarding her work situation. She did complain about the commuting - not sure she would survive in the real world. She literally just have to walk down the driveway, cross the street and she's at work.
Before booking our trip we have thought a lot about when would be the best time to go. According to Dianne, the best time would be the rainy season as it would be less windy (translate to more time boating) and "it only rains for 1 hour per day".
Well, we didn't get sunburnt and even Paula didn't suffer from extreme heat. We had a great time, but the "it only rains for 1 hour per day" quickly became a standing joke along with Bennie's "I'm working hard", muffled by the couch pillows. It rained 90% of the time the first 5 days we were there. And not just a little.... it really came down so as to not leave you in any doubt that at home was a good place to be. The few breaks in the weather (which after a few "episodes" became another standing joke) were fully taken advantage of by trips to Frankie's cafe, The Gab, the Royal or some of the other amazing eateries. How can such a small place have so good food?? It blew me away.
Checking out the front yard beach.
Meeting the cats ... Here Paris. Zoe was hiding somewhere because Paris had taken her spot
At the Green Hill fort (think that's the name) just behind B&D's house. Windy as you can see... average 25 knots every day.
View towards Prince of Wales island
And then the rain started....
The first couple of days we were shown around by Dianne. Bennie found space for us in his busy schedule (not - although he will claim that providing a "blanket of security" for the 12000 Torres Strait islanders is very hard work!). Paula and I went biking and the island cultural center was visited.
A break in the weather (but not in the rain) allowed us to walk along the village beach with Dianne
I can imagine how this looks with clear water and sunshine. I would have to imagine it, because we never saw it ! haha ...
Dianne and Paula on the hospital helipad. In the morning there had been a short an the whole helipad was live. The power was cut before we ventured out there, but the hospital chief was still worried!
Watching the rain from Frankie's on the main street - in between post office runs !
Achtung Baby !
One of the few moments when we got Joshua out of the house. Homeschooling and gaming pretty much kept him in the house 24/7
The only way we could tell if Bennie was on duty or not was whether he had a beer in his hand !
We had hoped for loads of spearfishing and boating but were let down by the weather (which - to be fair to Dianne - even caught the islanders by surprise). Unfortunately there was no way that we would be spearfishing. The water was milky white with visibility around 1m from all the rain. So I readjusted the expectations and hoped for some fishing. Wednesday we saw a break in the weather and drove down to the boat ramp. 5 minutes later the boat was in the water and we were on our way. We just made it around to the town-side of the island when we saw blackness approach. Quick turnaround to hide behind the island but to no avail. We were hit hard and wind went from 10 knots to 50 knots in less than a second. It was good fun! For Dianne and me at least - Bennie first had to precariously climb up on the bow to release the canopy then complained about the rain hurting his face (poor little thing!) and Paula didn't seem to enjoy it much either. Luckily we had crossed paths with the Hammond Island ferry just before we were hit by the squall - with only a couple of metres visibility that could have been a game changer.
While all was still peace and quiet...
This is what made us turn around. Don't know why we just didn't pull up to one of the village jetties, but good ideas always come late, I guess. Captain knows best anyway.
Need I say more ?
Wall of water coming our way
Wall of water closing in quickly...
After 5 minutes it had cleared up enough to slowly make it back towards the boat ramp and the relative safety of the house (don't forget the killer-maggots - this was an adventure vacation!).
So we were set back for a while and went back to the previous routine of checking the post office three times a day, coffee at Frankie's and dinner somewhere awesome.
Thursday I got Bennie out on the bike - something he soon regretted ;-)
At the top of the grave yard road
On the road to Sadie's Beach
The last steep bit down or up from Sadie's beach
Dinner on the go.
Friday our hopes were up again and we took advantage of another break in the weather, seeing that the Thursday had been mainly dry. First stop was at the Japanese pearl farm on Friday Island. Very isolated and pretty small, this place is lost in time. I don't suppose that it would look much different if we had visited 40 years earlier.
At Kazu pearl farm
Where the oysters are kept
Only access is by boat.
The next stop was one of the waterfalls on Prince of Wales island. Water fall we found.
Caught out in a squall again although less severe than on the Wednesday. Enough for us to turn around but not enough for us to go all the way back to TI. We made landfall on a long sandy beach on PoW. Like many explorers before us we were looking for a path inland but just found sand and thick bush. So Bennie went on the hunt for mud crabs in the mangrove instead - almost as impenetrable as the bush. But no crocodiles.
What ??? again ???
It cleared up quickly though
OK - it didn't look EXACTLY like this, but I like the effects I added.
Mangroves but no mud crabs
But plenty of shells for Bella....
Because it wasn't really a sandy beach.
Now this is life !
Back at the boat ramp again
I hope this isn't the same method he uses for transporting his patients. Bella and Ella
Saturday was our last day on the island and although the weather stayed dry, we weren't going to take any chances. Twice was enough, so no more boating. Instead we went back up to fort to look at the Torres Strait in sunshine - we had been there on our first day but it had been overcast and less spectacular than second time. Late Saturday afternoon we took the ferry back to Horn Island, the flight to Cairns where we stayed overnight (in the rain of course), then Tokyo for another overnight stay and finally Busan.
While we were there Dianne bought one of the paintings exhibited at Frankie's cafe. Only hitch was that it didn't fit in the car. What to do ????
Painting looks awesome back in the living room
Last lunch at the Gab - the cultural center
The fort revisited - now in good weather
Towards Horn Island
Prince of Wales in front and Friday Island (Kazu Pearl Farm) on the right. Horn on the left
Oh - did I forget to tell that Bella has Bennie wrapped around her finger ? He's such a softie :-)
And here on our last day there was something resembling clear water - in the very shallow water at least.
Thanks Bennie, Dianne, Joshua and Bella for a great time. We missed out on a few items on the agenda and became a bit wiser on other items. No fishing and no spearfishing this time, but when we come and watch Bennie work hard on Hamilton Island we will collect second opinions for when is the best time for visiting :-)
The Horn ferry
Bennie ... get a job there !
The Great Barrier Reef
Were we flying Lufthansa ???