Tuesday, November 27, 2012
CHRISTMAS-NEW YEAR, NEWRY ISLAND; CHAPTER TWO....
Below is the continuation of my story - this follows on from Chapter One - I did warn you this was going to be a lengthy tale...and I'm still not finished...there is more to come after this....
Departing the Cairns region, Cyclone Joy was determined to cause havoc in my home territory, having given little forewarning of her intentions. The relocation of my boat to the upper reaches of the creek was an impossible feat for me to achieve under the conditions in which I found myself. There was no way I could safely row my little dinghy out to my motor boat to enable me to do what should be done, and what would have been done if I’d had sufficient warning. Even if I had been able to make it out to my boat, I would have found it impossible to row back from the creek over on Outer Newry; back across the churlish channel, and then across the turgid waters to the island’s main beach. Such attempts would have been rife with danger; I’ve always suffered a huge desire for self-preservation. There was absolutely nothing I could do about the predicament. It was far too late! I had no choice; my boat had to remain on its mooring for the duration of the cyclone; and my fingers had to remain permanently crossed. I had no idea how for how long in either case!
My happy guests seemed oblivious to the outside turmoil. Chattering animatedly amongst each other, they’d begun to mill around the bar and dining area in eager anticipation of their Christmas lunch; pangs of hunger niggled. The mixed aromas of pork, ham, turkey, chicken, beef and seafood, amongst other tempting fare wafting from the kitchen heightened their expectations.
Immediately upon seeing the drastic weather changes, I’d gotten onto my air-sea radio to find out the finer details of what was going on.
As my guests were altogether in the same area, I took the opportunity to inform the merrymakers that Cyclone Joy was on the move, and she was heading rapidly in a southerly direction. It was clear for all to see from the weather’s rapid change in behaviour over the previous couple of hours that the calm conditions of earlier in the morning were no longer. What had once been a mirrored mill pond was now an angry, ugly cauldron of metallic waves battling for supremacy.
Calmly, I drew the day-trippers’ attention to the direness of the situation. Without embellishment, I told them I feared their day trip had been extended into longer than one day; and perhaps even more if the weather conditions didn’t improve. I pointed out the impossibility of my taking them back to the mainland. They took the news on the chin and were philosophical about it. Everyone appeared to understand what was going on outside was far beyond my control. Nature had the upper hand; and was the sole conductor of what was going on in the outer extremities, at least.
As I was discussing the situation at hand, I was stunned to see a figure clad in rugged yellow wet weather gear striding up the beach. Battling the strong wind that forced his PVC raincoat flush against his body, his hooded head was lowered in an effort to protect his face against the stinging sand being whipped up by the unapologetic gale.
Rain had begun to fall, albeit lightly at that stage. However, it was obvious the churning, dense masses of gun-metal clouds were impatient to be rid of their burden; a downpour was imminent.
The image of the man striding up the beach battling the elements reminded of Philip Rhayader, the protagonist in Paul Gallico’s stirring short novella, “The Snow Goose”.
As he drew closer, I recognised the figure to be Ziggy, a retired professional fisherman, who, many years earlier when he was still a young man, had emigrated from Sweden. Ziggy was a regular visitor to the island. He and his wife, who I never met, lived on a property between Seaforth and the Bruce Highway. I liked Ziggy. I always welcomed his visits. He’d prop himself up at the bar, order a cold beer, and then, he’d settle in for a chat. The old sea-farer would only have a couple of cold beers, or perhaps a nip of rum depending on the weather or temperature. It was the conversation he preferred more than the drink. At a guess, Ziggy would have been in his mid to late Sixties at that stage. With his weathered face and calloused hands from his years spent at sea, it was a little difficult to pin-point his exact age. Ziggy was as strong as a Mallee bull; and as gentle as a lamb.
Often, during his visits, he’d crank-start the larger of my two diesel generators for me, believing it to be a very dangerous job for a woman. It was a dangerous activity; for either a male or a female if care wasn’t taken. If the handle got stuck during the cranking, it would release itself, and then fly through the air at a dangerous pace. If someone’s head was the target; and usually that head would belong to the one trying to start the gennie; that head wouldn’t remain attached to the neck for long if it was struck!
Ziggy was a gentleman of the old school; and to satisfy a gentleman’s wishes, I gratefully accepted his offers to start the generator when he visited. Of course, Ziggy wasn’t present every day so the perilous operation was mine to handle all other times, anyway. I alternated between the two generators, sometime opting for the button-start smaller generator of the two. Using the smaller of the two was also kinder on fuel. Which generator I operated depended on my diesel supply, my mood, and on how strong I felt on the day! I didn’t run the generator non-stop. I narrowed down the hours of usage by trial and error; limiting usage to just enough hours to maintain the temperature in the freezer and refrigerators. The times I had no guests on the island, I shut the generator down not long after nightfall, if not, at times, beforehand. I’d read by torch and candlelight. However, as I was always up at the crack of dawn, if not before, early nights were welcome. I never wasted diesel by running the generators to watch television when I was alone on the island at night; to me that was unnecessary wastage, not just of diesel, but of money, as well. Transporting fuel from the mainland to the holding tank on the island was a quite a massive operation for me to organize; it took quite lot of planning, coercing and bartering to set into place; so the less I used, the better it was on the whole.
A couple of keen young fellows from over Seaforth way were willingly to operate the old wooden barge as it slowly lumbered along under its load of drums full of diesel, not only for the adventure, but for the carton of beer and bottle of bourbon or rum offered as incentive. The trip across to the mainland had to be carefully orchestrated. The departure had to be when it was high tide on the island; and preferably just as it was on the turn of going out. At the mainland end, the tide had to be again on the turn of being on the rise once more, so when the loaded barged arrived back at the island, the tide was once again high; to enable the barge to be pulled up close to the foreshore; making it easier to pump the fuel from the drums up to the holding tank
In the middle of the growing mayhem, my friend, Ziggy, a man of generous spirit strode up the beach, having selfishly tackled the ever-increasing turmoil created by tropical Cyclone Joy as she made her journey towards my little corner of the world. Ziggy had made a determined trip in his tinnie across the wild waters from Victor Creek to get my promise not to take my boat out again until after all the craziness had passed. There are not many people who would do such a thing. He was a good friend.
I assured him I had no intentions of going anywhere; that my feet and that of my guests were firmly planted on the island’s sand. I was very appreciative of his warnings; and that he’d risked his own safety in making the trip to the island. Ziggy had been fishing the area for many years. He knew the local waters like the back of his hands. Before tackling the churlish sea, he’d anchored his larger fishing boat further up the mangrove-protected reaches of Victor Creek in an endeavour to safely ride out the storm; well away from the cyclone’s fury.
Ziggy’s visit was brief. There was no time to waste with frivolous chit-chat. Once he was satisfied that I wouldn’t take any chances, he hastened away to spend the duration of the destructive weather system securely ensconced in his larger fishing boat, out of Joy and harm’s way. After thanking him for his concern, and faithfully promising I’d take all precautions, I bade Ziggy safe passage and farewell.
Turning to my intrigued guests, I advised them that they were now my prisoners for as long as the wild, unpredictable weather remained. I laid out clearly to them the situation as it stood, leaving no misunderstandings. Most had overheard what Ziggy told me, and even if they felt disturbed about the predicament in which they found themselves, they understood there was nothing that could be done about it, other than to follow my instructions to the letter. The day-trippers were the ones mostly affected. All, but one, understood it was impossible for me to get anyone off the island; that trying to do so would put not only their lives, but my own, in jeopardy. The weather was closing in at a dangerously rapid rate. The ocean was being whipped up into a tempestuous mood. And all of my guests, bar one, accepted wholeheartedly they had no other choice but to remain in the island. There is always “one” who chooses to go against the flow!
And, on that Christmas Day on Newry Island, that “one” decided to morph into Fletcher Christian; making me his enemy, Captain Bligh!
Until that moment, I’d hardly noticed this guest. He was a nondescript person who had blended into the crowd; someone with no noticeable features or outstanding personality; not one who would cause a second glance. I did recognise him as one of the day-trippers I’d ferried to the island earlier in the morning.
The disgruntled day-tripper took it upon himself to start a mutiny. Like a politician trying to garner support and numbers from his peers, he did his upmost to turn the others against me. One by one he took each aside, in front of me, whispering “sweet horribles” about me in their ears. He demanded I take him off the island immediately; and he urged the rest of the guests to demand similar of me.
Unflinching, nor taking a backward step, I firmly stood my ground. I looked directly in his eyes as I stated, loud enough for his ears and those of the others milling around us.
“No one is going anywhere. I make the rules on this island. You heard what Ziggy said. I respect that man’s knowledge and advice. He’s been fishing these waters for many, many years; he put his own life at risk to come here this morning. Even Blind Freddy could see that any attempt to take a boat out now, in this weather, would be fatal! I make the guarantee, here and now, that Ziggy’s boat will be the last boat we will see until this upheaval has passed; and I have no idea when that will be. A cyclone is on its way; and it’s moving very quickly. Who knows what lies ahead? I sure as Hell don’t.”
Still staring at him, I continued. “And just so you’re fully aware - firstly, I have no intentions of killing myself; that’s first on my list! Secondly, I have no intentions of killing you, or the rest of my guests! Is that clear, or do you want me to repeat it all again?”
At this point, he tried to interject, but I would have no part of it. I shut him down the moment he opened his mouth.
Without batting an eyelid and not shifting my feet, I leaned my body a little closer to him.
I offered him an out: “If you want to go back to the mainland, you can. I won’t stop you. There’s the ocean. All you have to do is walk down to the water’s edge; jump in and start swimming; but don’t expect me to save you when you get into trouble! Do you have anything further to add?”
Like a mongrel dog with its tail between its legs, off he slunk. My other guests who had remained around me as if in a circle of confidence smiled as one, saying I had their full support. A possible mutiny had been successfully nullified. I never had a doubt that it wouldn’t be!
I, alone, was solely responsible for all people, matters and situations on the island; and I needed everyone to be on the same page as I was.
Desirous of keeping my guests together safely in the one area, I advised them to gather their possession from their respective cabins; and then, to congregate and set up camp in the main building. At my suggestion, the male members brought down mattresses from the cabins to lie on the painted concrete floor of the dining area. A couple of the day-trippers even spilled into one of the upstairs rooms that were part of my private, personal quarters; but my privacy was way down on the list of importance at that point. I didn’t want anyone to be in their cabins, away from the main building and other people. It was too dangerous a scenario. Everyone happily complied. Without further ado, they moved their belongings, including their children, out of the cabins into the main dining room. Marking their territory, they willingly bunkered down for the duration; however long that was going to be.
The rain started pelting down as only it can in the tropics; and, more particularly, when a tropical cyclone is nearby. A merciless, vicious wind howled; its cries akin to a hundred wailing banshees.
Water was everywhere; inside and out. Everything was wet and getting wetter by the minute. There was nothing I could do to rectify the situation. On the bar and on the floor behind the bar were buckets and large cooking pots strategically placed to catch the multitude of unstoppable leaks. The dining area, now the guest accommodation, was similarly decorated with whatever containers I could lay my hands on! I strung a clothes line across the only dry area of the bar to enable guests to hang some of their personals in a vain effort to get them dried.
Fortunately, we could see a humorous side in the shemozzle!
Even though water was everywhere, none was flowing from the island’s dam to the buildings. As strange as it was, in the middle of torrential rain, I had no water; none for showers; toilets or drinking! Not a drop was coming from the taps. Because the dam had been so low up until Christmas Day, the pump was still high and dry; well, not dry…but high, at least!
Around 9 pm Christmas night, I asked one of the fishermen to accompany me up to the dam in an attempt to solve the problem. Each armed with a flashlight, we slowly made our way through the darkness, battling wind, rain and unruly tree branches, hoping to God we didn’t get struck by any identified, or unidentified flying objects. I wore what was to become my uniform for the next three days, a black, one-piece bathing suit. I knew I’d be continually wet from going back and forth in the rain checking the outside perimeters; I could see no point to my wearing anything other than a swimsuit.
In the darkness, being lashed by the belting rain and uncontrollable wind, my off-sider and I discovered it was impossible under the conditions for us to fix the problem with the water pump. We tried to syphon water, but to no avail. Giving up, despondently we trekked back to the main building. Admitting defeat, we decided the better idea was to attend to the pump at the crack of dawn, when, at least we’d have natural light to work by. There was nothing we could do until then.
Returning to the main building, I informed everyone of the problem, and asked if they needed to use the amenities, it was best that they added to the natural flow of water outside when Nature called upon them; or if they found their circumstances to be more dire, to try their utmost to wait until after dawn’s early light and the water problem had been fixed! Failing that, perhaps grab the shovel and do what had to be done, if that be the case! Everyone took my instructions good-naturedly. There was no other choice; it was not a time for genteel niceties!
As hoped, the pump problem was corrected at dawn’s first light. However, some of the guests decided it was much more fun to shower outside under the downpipe at one corner of the building with the ocean as a backdrop. I gave them bars of soap and left them to it! All modesty disappeared and was replaced with feelings of brazen good-humour. No one went totally au naturale – not that I noticed, anyway; and I wouldn’t have cared if they had.
It was mid-summer; showering out in the heavy rain became an enjoyable pastime, and one the younger folk, the overseas back-packers, in particular, continued doing through the deluge. Their high-spirited acceptance of the situation was a good thing because their pleasure lifted some of the weight off my shoulders; shoulders that were already sagging beneath the burden; although, I did my best to hide my feelings from the guests. None noticed my inner tensions, which I kept well hidden within me. I had to be staunchly in control, or at least give the impression of being so!
Amongst the day-trippers were backpackers from Canada, Japan and Germany. Young people a long way away from their families and loved ones. It turned into the greatest adventure of their lives! I’d be brave enough to lay a bet of a million dollars that to this day they still talk about the Christmas they spent on an Australian island!
I didn’t sleep Christmas night other than to snatch a couple of restless minutes here and there. My senses were on high alert. At 2 am, the two young fishermen and I were outside in the middle of it all, checking around the cabins, the generator shed and other areas ensure everything was securely battened down; or, at least, battened down as much as possible. It was a difficult task to successfully achieve completely. I just had to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best. The pelting rain, like piercing needles, stung my body while I struggled to fight against the powerful force of the wind. I was taking one step forward, and three back, it seemed.
Meanwhile, my boat was out on its mooring bucking like a bronco. All I could do was watch on, hoping against hope that the rope, anchor and mooring held. Seeing the boat lurch and strain on its mooring is not a sight I’d wish to revisit. There were times I thought it had broken free because the boat appeared to be heading for the open waters, way beyond its mooring, but as quickly it would return closer to the buoy. I began to wonder how my nerves were going to last the distance, unhindered; but I knew I had to push all negative thoughts from my mind. A mental breakdown could wait until after Cyclone Joy had petered out!
Surrounded by sleeping bodies, I sat, alone, in a fretful, sleepless vigil throughout the rest of the early morn.
Moments before dawn, one of the things I had feared would happen, happened. The boat belonging to the two fishermen that they'd anchored in shore got swamped; more than just swamped; it flipped over completely. The angry sea had pushed vigorously up to and against the foreshore, dumping pumice stone and foam along the high edge of the beach. She-Oaks bordering the beach writhed and groaned; helpless victims of the unforgiving cyclonic wind.
Little could be done about the upturned boat. The boat owner and his mate salvaged what they could; everything that was floatable was floating; some possessions had headed out to sea; some had sunk and other bits and pieces had made it to shore. Nothing further could be done until after the turbulence abated.
One of the young men decided the generator shed and the heat generated therein was a good area for him to dry his soaked clothes; that is, until the following day when he discovered diesel and oil had been flicked onto his shirts and shorts. He remained in good spirits, even when he found his new t-shirt, a special Christmas Day purchase, had been ruined forever.
Early Boxing Day morning the activity going on outside hadn’t abated; in fact, it had increased in tempo; the rest of my stranded guests began to stir. They seemed to be relishing the conditions; it was more fun than time spent at Adventure World! Sleep may not have come easily to me; it hadn’t come to me at all, but it hadn’t bypassed them. A fact that pleased me, actually.
Earlier, I’d set up an urn on a table at the far end of the kitchen so the guests could make their own coffee and tea. I suggested that everyone prepare breakfasts for themselves. On the table that held the urn, I placed the toaster, plates, bowls and cutlery, along with cereal, bread, butter and spreads. Those guests with families who had been staying in the cabins added their own food supplies to the table. Everyone was happy to share and to take care of themselves, understanding that I had a lot on my plate – not my breakfast plate!
While they attended to their own needs, I began converting some of the leftovers from Christmas lunch into large pots of goulash and soups; and whatever else I could concoct to feed the masses in an uncomplicated, simple way. We were in for the long haul. I told everyone to help themselves to the food whenever they felt hunger pains; and to the coffee and tea etc.
Fortunately, whether it’s a good trait or not, when I cater I always over-cater; always fearful of “not having enough”. Invariably, I have more than enough to feed not only the army, but the air force and navy, as well! My cupboards, freezers and refrigerators have always resembled those of a supermarket; a large supermarket; it’s a habit that, over the years, has proved its worth; particularly when living on an island where you can’t just pop down to the corner store if you run out of bread, milk or whatever else. Therefore, a weight was removed from my shoulders. I felt confident I had enough supplies to outlast the storm, and then some.
Unfortunately, the twin toddlers holidaying with their parents ran out of nappies fairly quickly. I held no back-up nappy stocks on the island, of course, so I gave the mother some towels and a pair of scissors with the suggestion she use the towels wisely and sparingly! She was happy to oblige.
Within hours, there was no dry bedding left anywhere. Sheets that had already been on the clothes’ line before the cyclone made its unexpected presence known just got dirtier and dirtier from the heavy rain as it viciously splashed the dirt up upon them. The rain poured in a non-stop torrent. It was pointless taking the sheets off the lines because I had nowhere to put them! I had to turn a blind eye and hope for the best. There were more important issues that needed my attention at that stage.
Once their appetites were sated, the shipwrecked guests settled down and began occupying themselves. Some conversed; others played cards or darts; some quietly read, lost in their own thoughts. Generally, all were in acceptance of the situation in which we found ourselves. There was nothing else they could do, other than accept it. All of us, me included, were isolated; marooned. I’d made it clear that there was no way in the world I was taking my boat out again until the weather abated; and they respected my decision. Pushkin and Rimsky, my cats, remained upstairs in my bedroom eager to stay away from all the activity downstairs and outside.
The guests understood my reasons for asking them not to go off wandering alone; and if they did intend going somewhere, for whatever reason, I asked that they take someone with them, and that they inform me of their plans beforehand. I explained I had the right to veto any plan I deemed unnecessary or dangerous, or both. My fears were if they wandered away alone somewhere they could get injured from a falling branch, tree or other flying objects. If that occurred, our problems would be compounded.
To be continued....