MADE IT: NewsMail reporter Emily Prain standing at the tip of Australia.
MADE IT: NewsMail reporter Emily Prain standing at the tip of Australia. Emily Prain BUNTHU

Exploring the very top of our country

THERE wouldn't be too many people whose Christmas morning began with a 10-minute boat ride, a cool wade through the ocean and a short climb up a hill to a beautiful stone church where just the soft, monotone beating of an island drum was the only accompaniment to the voices singing Away in a Manger.

And the warm sea breeze that danced up the hill of Hammond Island and whooshed into St Joseph's church was the culturally unique welcome that can only be experienced in the Torres Strait.

I have been fortunate enough to have been a frequent visitor to this magical part of the world for the best part of a decade, thanks to my Dad's own special attachment to the place through his work in the fire service on Thursday Island.

Thursday Island is rich in history, known for its lucrative pearling industry founded in the 1880s, which enticed workers from all parts of Asia, particularly the Japanese, and is the main commercial hub of the Straits, situated about 40km north of Cape York.

The tropical experience begins with an almost two-hour flight from Cairns to Horn Island and, trust me, when you step on to the tarmac and feel the intensity of the sun smack you in the face, you know you've arrived.

You're offered a small reprieve when an air-conditioned bus takes you to the wharf where you are then ferried across the ocean by boat to Thursday Island, or TI as it is also known.

Now if fishing and boating aren't up there on your interests list, then perhaps this destination isn't for you because the body of water that surrounds the cluster of more than 200 islands in the Torres Strait is fishing heaven.

Mackerel, red emperor, nannygai, crayfish, and coral trout are just some of the tasty marine creatures popular in these parts, while sharks, turtles, and maybe a crocodile if you're lucky, always manage to conveniently break the surface when there happens to be a large fish at the end of the line.

I am very reluctant to speak of my fishing success, or lack there of, this time round but I say through gritted teeth that my partner, Rob and brother, Sam, were the mackerel-catching champions.

For as long as I've been able to hold a rod, Sam and I have had many a barney over who gets to grab the mackerel trolling line first when it goes off and, rather embarrassingly, it has continued to carry on even at the ages of 27 and 25, respectively.

To me, the magic and beauty of the Torres Straits comes from exploring the outer islands, including making the popular trip to the tip of Australia, a good hour's run from TI, which has been something I've wanted to do for 10 years and finally ticked off my bucket list last month.

And yes, as you've seen, I got the token photo to prove it.

Friday Island is Thursday Island's neighbour and home to one of the last remaining pearl farms in Queensland, Kazu Pearl.

It is there you can watch a demonstration of pearl seeding and harvesting, before being treated to a full delicious seafood lunch with traditional Japanese fare.

But perhaps the most mysterious and fascinating place is Booby Island.

A place mostly accessible only when the water is like oil, Booby Island is a 45-minute boat ride from TI, and is known for its heritage-listed lighthouse erected in 1890.

It is home to many caves including one which was known as the "mail cave" for 19th century cargo ships and wrecks.

Due to the prevalence of shipwrecks, the authorities of the day decided to place provisions in the cave to assist survivors, including barrels of water and food stuffs sufficient to sustain them until a passing ship went by to rescue them.

In later years it was used as a mail cave for all correspondence going to Thursday Island, and also from TI to be taken overseas - like an unofficial post office.

Inside the cave you can see the markings of the ships that passed, or perished, in the waters surrounding the island, including the HMS Salamander of the 1800s and the HMAS Shepparton that passed by there in 1945.

Torres Strait legend suggests Booby is haunted by a "dogai" - an evil female spirit and even I will admit the place has an eerie feel to it.

Hidden now by overgrown shrubbery, there also lies the grave of little Esther Patricia Hope Everett, presumably a child of the then lighthouse keeper, who was born on December 31, 1924 and died on January 1, 1925.

Now completely abandoned and riddled with asbestos, Booby Island is not open to the public but it doesn't stop anyone from anchoring close by and putting that magnificent emerald green water to good use.

I don't think I've ever swum in a more beautiful spot, but my eagerness to lounge about in the crystal clear water like a mermaid was soon quashed when my dad, who waited patiently for me to get about 20 bomb dives off the boat out of the way, told us that precisely where we were was the main migratory passage for crocodiles heading from Papua New Guinea to Australia.

I don't think I've clambered back on to a boat faster in my life.

That's another thing about this area - there's no question these waters are inhabited by arguably the deadliest reptile, yet everyone swims.

My Dad always said the Torres Strait Islander people have an affinity with the sea and all its creatures and that's why they might live together in harmony.

But nothing could have stopped a chill I got when I learnt a 6ft crocodile had been spotted in the same water I had been going into for a daily dip to beat the incredible heat.

Thankfully this happened on my second last day on the island and I quickly found a new way to keep cool by staying indoors with the air-conditioning - safe as houses.

On TI, one way of saying goodbye is "small yawo" which means "I'll be back soon". And that I certainly will, to again enjoy the wonderful hospitality of the Torres Strait Island people.



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