Coker Island Blues

On the 18th June, after a totally sleepless night, when I gave up, read a book, and rose to prepare my final packing, I found myself winging it to Croker Island, via Goulburn Island. For much of the flight I dozed, but from my seat just behind the pilot of the twin engined Cessna Titan 404, my blurry gaze focussed on the vast northern wetlands of Kakadu and Arnhemland, the isolated northern coast, and a smattering of islands below. The plane seemed to fly itself, with the pilot flicking an occasional switch, and making entries in his log book. Three Aboriginal women, one an elder with a pierced nasal septum, a middle aged woman, and a mother with two small boys, and a public servant with a lap-top on his way to Goulburn shared the flight. I gave the Croker ladies a brief explanation of my purpose in visiting their island, and they were very interested and encouraging.
We circled and landed on a red dirt airstrip in Goulburn, one hour out from Darwin, and mail bags being exchanged and a large Aboriginal man boarding for the return flight to Darwin, we took off again for the half hour flight to Croker Island, which we had bypassed on the way out. Soon we were approaching the Minjilang Community from the east, a tiny settlement set on the edge of a perfect sandy bay, ringed with natural bush and palm trees. We flew across the island to the ubiquitous red airstrip, and as we circled to land I could see Raffles Bay across Bowen Strait, looking much smaller and closer than I had imagined it to be. Shane, a tall taciturn part-Aboriginal met the plane in the community twin cab, our luggage was deposited in the tray, and we made our way across the Island. I had read Barker’s description of a large swamp on Croker Island, but was unprepared for the beauty of this vast wetland, not yet depleted by the dry season, and teeming with magpie geese, jabaru, and countless other species of birds on either side of the elevated dirt road which cuts directly across the lagoon. Beautiful purple flowering water lillies dotted throughout the wetland completed this idyllic scene. We soon entered the community, set on rising ground and overlooking the bay as described, and I found myself sitting on the verandah of my temporary lodgings, bathed in a sea breeze, gazing at the view, and tended by a couple of friendly dogs. 
Day two in Minjilang, and I have established some contact with a few of the women in the community, and entered some information into the office computer, as well as some historic photographs taken of the Iwaidja people in the 1880’s I had obtained from the net, and in which much interest has been shown. The afternoon was taken up with an old man’s funeral. His coffin lay in a palm covered shelter as traditional dancing to clap stick and didgeridoo was played. Eventually the coffin was placed in the back of a troop carrier, and driven slowly across town, where the body was laid to rest by the tall black padre, who was accompanied by another guitarist as well as his own guitar, as they, and a small choir of women sang moving hymns to an island beat.

When the funeral was over, Deb, the school principal, and Jasmine picked me up, and took me across the island in the school ‘troopy’, through the wetlands again, to Jarbu Lodge. Here we met Robert Hunt, the owner, who I had spoken with some weeks ago regarding a boat trip to Raffles Bay. Robert, a laid back ‘Diver Dan’ type character has his little paradise set up within a hundred metres of the beach, with a line of small tropical style huts set amongst palm trees, a dining/drinking area, and his boats nearby, in which he takes fabulously rich punters fishing. He had to rebuild his lodge over the past couple of years, as it was destroyed by cyclone Ingrid, during which Robert himself was lucky to escape with his life. He decided to sit out the cyclone in his troop carrier, but it was blown some two hundred metres during the storm, and almost into the ocean. The local padre apparently saved his own life by tying himself to a metal pole during the tempest. Many buildings were destroyed on the island, and many tall trees stand as gaunt testament to the fury of cyclone Ingrid.

Robert is keen to have a look at the old settlement in nearby Raffles Bay himself, and Deb has also indicated her interest in taking the trip. I think the more the better, as it will be quite an effort to explore the no doubt overgrown remains of the settlement without help. The trip is set for Tuesday of next week, a full seven days away, so I suspect there will be a lot of writing happening as I while away the days.

The local nurse rang as we were chatting with Robert, and offered to come and join us with a curry she had prepared, so we shared a fine meal, a chat, and a a few games of darts before crossing the lagoon again, this time in the dark. The next week will also be utilised meeting with the people of this beautiful place, and hopefully, exploring and photographing it extensively. As this is being written, in the early hours of Wednesday 20th June, a very steady and persistent rain has set in. This is supposed to be the ‘dry’ of course, when it never rains. It feels like it will last for days.


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