THURSDAY ISLAND, Queensland, Australia – A sign over the doorway of a saloon called the Torres Hotel declares modestly: THIS IS THE TOP PUB IN AUSTRALIA.
“Because I’m here,” says the barmaid named Tammy, a fetching blonde. A man quaffing a beer at the bar, Bob Gilmour, shakes his head and laughs. “With all respect to Tammy, definitely an asset, it’s geographical. This island, that we call TI, is the topmost one that has a pub. There’s another pub on the island, but this one’s farther north.”
“Maybe,” says another drinker whose eyes are on one of the TV screens showing horse races from continental Australia for betting purposes. He says the slot machines lined up nearby are “faster than horses for taking your money, and not as good to look at.”
Gilmour is a fisherman, who asserts the fishing is so bountiful that he doesn’t have to work hard or long. “The living is pretty easy on TI.”
It appears that way on this lovely, hilly chunk, an irregular oval of two square miles where three cars can constitute a traffic jam. “Laid back” anywhere else would seem frantic here.
Speckling the 95-mile-wide Torres Strait where the Coral and Arafura seas collide between the Australian mainland and New Guinea are 133 islands, of which Thursday is the principal. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday islands are also out there somewhere – isles du jour? They had been pointed out by the Sunstate Air pilot Lyle Cook during the flight from Cairns that follows the Great Barrier Reef.
“But Thursday’s the one that counts of the 15 that are inhabited,” Gilmour says. “Because of this pub.”
The strait’s namesake, Luis Vaez de Torres, a Spanish navigator, passed through in 1606, left his name and memory, but didn’t claim anything for his homeland. Otherwise this might be Isla del Jueves. Later, 1770, the peripatetic Englishman, Captain James Cook, showed up, and before leaving staked a claim to the east coast of Australia on behalf of King George III.
Nobody seems to know why Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are missing. Patricia David of the Torres Strait Regional Authority says, “Maybe there weren’t any of the other islands discovered on those days. That’s how Thursday Island got its name.”
She is sure of this, however: “You can sometimes see Papua New Guinea from some of the islands. These islands are Australia’s only border with another country.”
Obviously a border as wet as beer and salty as a delightful wizened local called Seaman Dan. A spry geezer, he has found, at 70, a new, late career as a country-and-western (“Aussie style”) singing star and songwriter.
Seaman Dan, having just released a soft and mellow CD called “Follow the Sun,” is sitting in the sunny courtyard of the Jardine Motel with another island elder, 78-year-old Carolus Isua. Waitress Donelle Collins, a lively redhead who says her mother picked her name out of an obituary, brings on chef Graeme Watson’s excellent chicken curry for lunch.
The two old guys are sipping soft drinks and talking about the bygone treasure-hunting days that for a while made this sandy blip a rough-and-ready hot spot, crowded with fortune-seekers and hustlers from across the Pacific and farther. Australia’s mainland has experienced numerous gold rushes, but the lure of these islands was pearls.
“I was a pearl diver as a young man. Started at 16. But the sea has been pretty much cleaned out,” Seaman Dan says. “It was dangerous and hard but paid very well, $125 a month, which was big money. The rush began in the 1860s, and at one time here there were twice as many people, 6,000, and twice as many pubs, six.
“You’ll be reminded of the danger at the cemetery. It’s filled with divers who died young. Mostly from the bends. The equipment and the medical knowledge wasn’t very refined in those days.
“You couldn’t stay down long in that heavy iron globe – the diving helmet with the air lines attached – and canvas suit. About 15 minutes, but if they didn’t bring you up slowly enough you got the bends – decompression sickness. Sometimes you’d be surrounded by sharks on the way up, and,” he says with a smile, “it was like being between the rock and the hard place. You wanted to get to the boat and away from them quick, but you knew if it was too quick you’d be a goner from the bends.”
One of his songs, “Forty Fathoms,” recalls the perilous undersea toil: “Farewell, my love, I’ll soon be sailing to the deep . . . forty fathoms down, searching for the precious pearl shells . . . but keep me in your heart for I’ll soon be back.”
“But,” he says with a shrug, “many of my friends and colleagues didn’t come back.”
Isua, a retired policeman, also dived as a youth. “We were looking for beche-de-mer [a tasty, marketable sea slug], and didn’t go as deep as Dan. We couldn’t. It was free-diving with just a mask. No air lines. Sharks could be a problem. I remember, 1937, we were in the water and there was a thrashing that alarmed us. We surfaced to see my uncle Iona Asai climbing on the boat, streaming blood. He’d been attacked.
“His head was in the shark’s mouth for a moment. He had horrific cuts on his neck and shoulders. But we got him wrapped in blankets to stanch the flow of blood, and got to the hospital quick as possible. He had more than 200 stitches, but recovered.”
Another of his comrades lost a leg to a shark, maybe an impetus for Isua to look for a different line of work. World War II took care of that. The Australian Army beckoned, and he became a soldier on the perimeter awaiting the feared Japanese invasion that didn’t materialize.
Nor did an earlier fright, that the Russians were coming in 1892, inspiring construction of Fort Victoria atop Green Hill, overlooking the harbor. The three lonely coastal guns were never fired in anger.
But Japanese bombers did hit neighboring Horn Island, which had an air strip. Horn, a two-hour flight from Cairns on the northeast Queensland coast, is the gateway to TI, a short ferry ride away.
However, Japanese planes refrained from unloading on Thursday. Some believe they abstained to avoid desecrating the cemetery where about 500 Japanese pearl divers are buried beneath stone mounds in graves clearly marked by Japanese calligraphy.
Seaman Dan says, “The Japanese were the most numerous and successful divers, part of the influx of Pacific peoples and Europeans that have made TI such a nice mix.”
Homogenization has created a human color chart from lightest to darkest shades. The latter, Torres Strait Islanders, are Aborigines (of Melanesian and Papuan descent). No relation to those not far away on the Australian mainland, but two islanders’ settlements can be found on York Peninsula in Queensland, the thumb pointing into the strait.
Although the azure sea and the beaches, fringed by orange, red, blue, and white frangipani, are appealing, there are a couple of problems: crocodiles and sharks. Seaman Dan says, “If you go into the water, make sure there’s a boat under you.”
He’s soon off by boat and plane to the mainland for a number of club dates. Do 70-year-old singers have groupies?
“We’ll find out,” he says, grinning. “But nothing would make me stay away long.” And Seaman Dan croons the last line of his “TI Blues.”
“Going back to TI where I belong.”