Thursday, March 29, 2007
My Normanton Adventures October/November 1989...Chapter Seven
By Tuesday Normanton was back to its normal quiet self again. I continued with my practice of sitting with the blacks each morning at the “Mango Lounge”. Their stories kept coming thick and fast in the hope I would finally weaken and give out free grog and cigarettes. I responded good-humouredly and likewise, they accepted my refusals, with brevity.
I’d made myself known to the police the day after I’d arrived in town, informing them of the length of my stay and if there was anything I needed to know about any of my customers. The young police officers were very pleasant and easy-going. It was during the last week of my term that they came to me to advise that they suspected some under-age drinking was going on amongst the blacks, not in the pub, but in the streets and elsewhere. Of course, the “Mango Lounge” came under suspicion. I told them I would deal with it. I’d not seen any kids there, and if I had, I would have moved them on with a stern lecture. However, that didn’t mean alcohol wasn’t being passed onto them, out of sight, by older kids or adults, even.
Rejoining the mob under the mango trees, I told them of my concerns.
“The police just came to see me,” I told them. “They reckon some of your little kids, under-age kids, are drinking. They’re getting alcohol from somewhere. Now, you know this is not only illegal, but you’re putting your kids in danger.”
They all nodded at me, echoing each other. “Yeah, Missie!” “Not good, Missie.” “Wasn’t me, Missie!” “Me neither, Missie!”
“I’m not accusing anyone, but I’m sure you agree with me that this is not good. If you see this happening, you must promise me you put a stop to it. Come and tell me. You don’t want to get into trouble with the police. The police will come down on you. They will close the “Mango Lounge”. Then they'll come down on me. Hey! The pub could lose its license! Now, you don’t want that to happen, do you?” I continued, trying to plead to their sensibilities or their love for the shady mango trees that served as their bar.
The air was filled with, “No, Missie!” “Of course not, Missie!”
“Okay, then…you tell me if you see anyone doing this…okay?”
Immediately, one jumped up. He pointed to a kid, a teenager, walking along the road.
“Him, Missie…him!!” There is no honour amongst thieves, nor was there amongst drinkers, it appeared. “Him”, I’d never seen before and I doubted very much he was a guilty party. I told them to keep a close eye on the problem, that they must protect their children. There was little more I could say or do in the short time I had left, except hope, and to keep my eyes and ears open.
The Gulf Savannah is an interesting region to visit. I was pretty much confined to the hotel and its surrounds, but one afternoon during my final week, I decided to escape for a couple of hours. I grabbed the keys to the pub “ute” and set off for Karumba, situated on the mouth of the Norman River. Karumba is the centre of the Gulf’s prawning/shrimp industry, and mud crabs, I was to discover.
The road leading out of Normanton, after crossing the bridge over the Norman River, is surrounded by typical Savannah landscape with spindly trees and many huge anthills. This terrain goes on for about ten or so kilometers. Coming around a bend in the road, I couldn't believe my eyes at the sudden change in the landscape. It took my breath away. I wasn't prepared for it. Surrounding me on both sides of the road as as far as my eyes could see was a totally different environ…the flat wetlands, which extend inland for approximately thirty kilometers. The wetlands are a series of meandering saltwater, tidal estuaries. The Gulf wetlands are habitats for the saltwater crocodiles and a vast array of birds, some of which are pelicans, brolgas, sarus cranes, the tallest of the crane species. The area is a recognised internationally as the location for an estimated one-third of Australia’s migratory wading birds.The Sarus crane stands six-feet tall and is the tallest flying bird. They are very similar to brolgas. Brolgas are slightly smaller, standing five-feet tall. All cranes, including the sarus and the brolga dance. This behaviour includes bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing and wings flapping. It’s mostly associated with courtship, but is thought, also, to be a way of relieving tension and strengthening the bond between pairs. Black swans are amongst the thousands of birds that flock to the wetlands after the monsoon season. The “wet season” was still a couple of months off, so I wouldn’t be in the area to see the wonderful array of birdlife, but I did pull the “ute” off to the side of the road. I watched as the sarus cranes performed. Especially for me, I told myself.
Arriving at Karumba, I drove down to the boat ramp. Up to my right as far as the eye could see were dense mangroves framing the wide expanse of waterways. The same vista was to the left of me. I started up a conversation with one of the local fishermen. His weather-beaten, brown face told many stories of his years at sea. He told me up amongst the mangroves many Vietnamese squatted. It was all Crown Land. This was early November, 1989. A few months later, the Vietnamese squatters made the front page of the “Sunday Mail”, but I heard or read nothing more about them after that one report. I’ve often wondered what happened to them.
As we were talking, a Vietnamese man in a small boat arrived at the ramp. He had on board a load of live mud crabs. I wandered down to him and asked how much he wanted for a crab. Well, it was more sign language than words. He smiled up at me pushing a large buck into my hands (it was tied up), indicating I could have it for nothing as it only had one claw. The one claw it did have was massive. I thanked him profusely for his generosity, waved and then walked back to my vehicle. I was going to call into the Karumba pub for a beer, but decided against doing so. I needed to get back to the Central. Time was running away from me. The tables in the Karumba Pub, both inside and out are cemented into the floors. The publicans decided to do that as there were too many fights breaking out and the tables were handy weapons!
Returning to the Central, I handed the mud crab to the cook who offered to cook it for my dinner that night.
I had to make a hasty trip up town to the bank. As I was pulling out of the yard, one of my “Mango Loungers” hailed me to stop. He wanted a lift up to the bus depot to book his trip back to Kowanyama the next day. I told him to hop in, which he did excitedly. I noticed as we drove through the main street, both on our trip “up town” and on the return, he kept shifting in his seat. He seemed to get higher and higher, and then I realized why. He wanted to be seen by his mates. He was driving with “Missie” in the pub “ute”! As we drove past the Purple Pub where its verandahs were crowded with Aboriginal customers, he got even higher in the seat. The same happened when we passed the Purple Pub on the return trip! I laughed to myself as we chatted along the way. He was as proud as Punch! Usually in the afternoon it was rare to see any of the blacks were still lingering in the “Mango Tree”, but that afternoon, fortunately for my passenger, about six were hovering around. My passenger was almost beside himself when we drove into the yard past the mango trees. Purposely, I didn’t let him off at the trees, but drove straight up to the garage. We both alighted together and strolled, still talking back down towards the pub. I felt great, because he felt great. It was a special moment, not only for him, but for me, too.
To be continued....(I lied...there will be one more short chapter to end this story...sorry!)