Thursday, November 22, 2012
CHRISTMAS-NEW YEAR - NEWRY ISLAND: CHAPTER ONE...
Warning: This is quite a lengthy tale - so I'm breaking it into chapters...Chapter One begins below - Others will follow over the next little while.
In the early Nineties I lived, alone, on Newry Island; well, not entirely, alone, “Pushkin” and “Rimsky” my two cats were my bedfellows.
The island lies within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Since 2001 only camping is allowed on the island. Most of the buildings were demolished; only shells of their former selves remain.
Once upon a time, back in the early to mid-1900s, Newry Island housed one of the earliest resorts in that northern area. Newry lies between Rabbit Island and Outer Newry Island; with Acacia and Mausoleum Islands nearby to its south-east. Newry sits in the azure waters of the Coral Sea, 25kms north of Mackay; and few kilometres north of Seaforth, as the fish swim, or as the seagulls fly. A well-maintained boat ramp at the 22km long Victor Creek, 4kms north of Seaforth is the main departure point for Newry Island.
In my care were the island’s basic accommodation, bar and dining facilities. It was my job to handle everything it took to run the small, unsophisticated resort.
From my first sight on the first day I crossed from the mainland to the island, an island I’d never visited before, I fell in love the run-down resort with its cabins built close to the foreshore, facing the ocean; its simple, straightforward, unrefined main dining/bar area in need of repair harboured many stories between its walls. The buildings reminded me of the seaside as it used to be when I was a small child; a long time before our coastal areas and tropical islands became clones of Hawaii, Florida and similar glossy, “plastic” holiday areas.
No rain, or very, very little, had fallen during the nine months since my arrival on the island. The dam was at a disturbingly low level; it had gone beyond hovering; daily, its level decreased. Lowering the pump became an every day chore for me to enable water to flow down to the main building, the guest cabins, and to the outside public amenities block. Eight self-contained cabins, the bar/dining/kitchen area, and a camping site were serviced by the dam’s water supply. Fortunately, visitors to Newry understood my dire water shortage. In most cases, they happily obeyed my requests to not waste the precious commodity.
Christmas was drawing close. The eight cabins were booked out for the Christmas/New Year break; all by family groups. My plans for the “Silly Season” were well underway. The larder and bar were being stocked. I made sure I had more than sufficient supplies of diesel for the running of the generators. The main holding tank was full, and I had a couple of spare drums…just in case! Everything was running smoothly…I was on top of it all.
Cyclone Joy formed out in the Coral Sea, off the coast from Cairns on 18th December, 1990. Joy slowly travelled westward; and then remained hovering off the coast of Cairns for almost a week, causing rough seas and high tides along the northern beaches between Port Douglas and Cairns; teasing everyone’s equilibrium. With little or no forewarning, on Christmas Eve, tiring of the Cairns’ area, Joy picked up speed and headed southwards.
From the outset of Cyclone Joy’s appearance on the 18th, I’d been monitoring her activity and progress daily; not only by radio, but also by frequent telephone contact with friends who lived at Clifton Beach, north of Cairns. When living on a tropical island or at any of the coastal and near coastal areas in North Queensland it’s mandatory to keep track of a cyclone’s erratic movements.
My commonsense kicked into gear a week before Christmas. I knew I'd need someone to give me a hand through the busy time ahead. A couple of weeks earlier I'd met a very nice young girl, Alice, who had visited the island for a weekend with her young boyfriend. Alice's father, Ian, was a guest on the island at that time; so the young folk joined him for a couple of days. Rick, Alice's new boyfriend was a nice young lad. He was working as a jackaroo on a property out from Sarina, south of Mackay. Rick wads off the land. His family were beef cattle people. Alice took a gap-year off from her university studies, having decided to travel around Australia, much to her mother's dismay.
Alice had been a governess at another cattle property outside of Sarina, but when I met her she was no longer working in that role. She was staying at a backpackers' hostel in Mackay, run by friends of her father, Ian.
So I had a light bulb moment. Alice would be my ideal work companion through the Christmas period. Fortunately, when I offered her the job (a very low paying position...I couldn't afford to pay her much over and beyond her board and keep...including access to the bar!), she jumped at the chance. I picked her up by boat from the mainland the following day. No time was wasted dilly-dalllying over decisions!
Alice and I had ball together. We had so much fun. I may have been old enough to be her mother, but we got on like a house on fire. She was a great, intelligent young woman with a zest for life.
After a few days Alice asked if it would be okay if Jill, her mother, came to the island to spend Christmas. They'd not seen each other for a while. I agreed, of course. Jill lived in Melbourne; Melbourne was Alice's home city. Jill was thrilled at the invitation, and like her daughter, wasted no time in heading north to Queensland...and Newry Island. I had to pick her up Christmas morning along with other guests who had booked to come across to the island for Christmas Day. All was set in place.
Christmas Eve arrived on Newry Island, bringing with it a clear blue sky and gentle sea breezes. The temperature was around 28C…perfect summer weather; perfect Christmas weather, with not a hint of a storm on the horizon, let alone a cyclone. My day was filled with a multitude of chores as I prepared the following day’s Christmas lunch for my expected 30 guests. I kept patting myself on the back for having the good sense to ask Alice to be my off-sider. She was wonderful with people. She was a smart girl; and she was the life of the party. I couldn't have wished for more.
My Christmas lunch menu consisted mainly of cold fare, accompanied by couple of hot dishes. The final preparation of the planned dishes I’d complete on Christmas morning after I'd picked up the balance of my guests. Early Christmas morning I planned to make two boat trips across to Victor Creek on the mainland to collect guests who’d booked to stay on the island for a week, intending to enjoy New Year on the island as well. Amongst those guests were also some day-trippers, overseas backpackers.
My holidaying guests were mainly family groups with little children. Along with the family groups, a couple of young fellows in the mid-to late twenties who often stopped off at the island during their fishing expeditions chose the island to be their Christmas destination, too.
Early Christmas Eve morning with broad smiles across their friendly faces they arrived by their own boat, a 12-foot runabout. They anchored it close inshore. I suggested to deaf ears that it would be more sensible to anchor their boat out near where my boat was moored; in the deep waters of the channel between Newry Island and Outer Newry Island; but I’m a woman…what would I know about boats?
Christmas Ever evening we partied a bit, of course. Later on in the night once the guests returned to their cabins after spending a fun evening mingling at the bar enjoying a few Christmas spirits of the liquid kind, Alice and I finished off decorating the extensive, temporary buffet table that was to hold the elaborate luncheon feast. The table was adorned with palm fronds, banana leaves and bougainvillea blooms; along with various other specimens of indigenous greenery befitting a tropical island. Once satisfied with our efforts, we stood back and admired our excellent creativity! The long table looked spectacular.
The Christmas tree standing proudly at one end of the dining room. Alice and I had found a suitable dead, weathered remnant of what had once been a living tree. Sprayed white, it had been given a rebirth; a second life. It looked wonderful - sparse but it stood proudly in its place. Glimmering silver, white, red and green baubles hung from its spindly limbs; the glistening balls of varying sizes reflected the moon’s rays as they shimmered through the full-length windows that looked out across the beach to the softly murmuring sea; a perfect ending to a perfect Christmas Eve.
I felt excited about the coming day.
The Christmas spirit on the island was alive and well; it was contagious. Those who had children assured the little ones that Santa knew where they were; lemonade and slices of my rich fruit cake were left on the end of the bar for Santa’s anticipated arrival during the night. My luncheon preparations were all but completed. Feeling confident everything would run smoothly, my first Christmas Day on Newry Island couldn’t arrive quickly enough. I could see only calm waters ahead.
By 8 am Christmas morning I’d already completed two return boat trips between the island and Victor Creek, Seaforth to fetch the balance of my guests; day-trippers intent on returning to the mainland later in the afternoon after a leisurely tropical island Christmas lunch. In all, including the guests already settled in the cabins, on Christmas Day the final number of guests increased from 30 to 31; all keen to partake in my special luncheon fare and the island’s ambience. Some guests, of course, were staying beyond Christmas Day. Five young children were included in the number; and amongst those children were twins, aged around 20 months.
After my second group of day-trippers disembarked, I motored out to the mooring to secure my 21-foot Trojan De Havilland; and then, I rowed ashore in my little red tender. The little red dinghy had two wheels beneath its stern, making it easy for me to pull along the sand. Upon reaching the beach, I pulled it right up to the foreshore, and tied it securely to one of She-Oaks fringing the beach.
Once satisfied everyone, including Jill, Alice's mother was happily settled in and relaxed, I raced into the kitchen to begin finalising my luncheon preparations. Alice kept an eye on the bar because I couldn’t be in two places at once; but along with my two regular fishermen guests also tended to everyone’s requirements if needed, that end was well-covered; therefore taking a lot of pressure off my shoulders. I had no concerns that anyone would take advantage. My guests couldn’t go anywhere. They were on an island surrounded by water; with me the sole operator of the boat. I was their only means of escape! I held the tiller, as it were!
From the moment I stepped into the kitchen, I didn’t see daylight again until around 11.30 am when I emerged from the galley to begin laying out salads and various other cold platters onto the long buffet table in the dining area, in readiness for the hungry hordes to descend.
Glancing towards the ocean, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The weather was unrecognisable to what it had been only three or so hours earlier when I’d returned from my second trip to the mainland. The conditions had changed for the worst. A frenzied sea was being whipped up by a boisterous, unrelenting wind; it whirled erratically and wildly. The once clear sky was now covered in low-hanging, steely-grey clouds that groaned and moaned from their heavy load. The burdensome clouds threatened to explode at any moment.
I hadn't the time, nor did I have the ability to row out to my boat on its mooring in the channel. To try to do so would have been madness. When I first arrived on Newry months previously, I’d been advised that in the event of a cyclone for me to anchor the island boat securely away up in the far reaches of the creek across the channel on neighbouring Outer Newry Island. The turbulent system now racing southwards was moving too quickly for me to act.