Welcome, any day you like on Thursday

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 August, 1993, 12:00am

''IT'S not your typical tropical paradise,'' the only person I knew who had ever been to Thursday Island, Australia's northern-most point, told me.

That wouldn't have been so bad, but the check-in attendant who took my bags for the flight from Sydney was more specific: ''What are you going to that place for?'' she asked. ''There's nothing there! Just four pubs and a meat pie shop. You can't even goswimming. All you can do is drink.'' So it was with a certain amount of resignation that I buckled myself in for the more than 3,000 kilometre haul to the farthest tip of Cape York.

But despite all the warnings, I wasn't entirely discouraged. I've always found that Australia becomes wilder, friendlier and generally more frontier-like the further north you go, in classic Croc Dundee style.

And Thursday Island can't have been too bad: Somerset Maugham spent several weeks there in the early part of this century, and wrote his classic short story Rain from one of its pubs.

Admittedly, it was a long way to go to find out: four hours by air just from Sydney to Cairns, then another two hours in a 24-passenger twin-prop.

Cape York unfurled endlessly below, looking surprisingly dry and barren after the lush rainforest-covered hills around Cairns. Finally we landed, at tiny Horn Island (the only sizeable airstrip around there) and hung around in the steaming heat for a tiny ferry to take us over to Thursday.

And, true, your typical tropical paradise this was not. The island looked disturbingly sandy and scrubby. The water was a gorgeous turquoise, but there was no real beach.

And the first islanders I saw, standing around to meet the ferry at the wharf, looked downright intimidating.

The men all seemed to be built like hulking front row forwards, with huge shoulders, wild hair and more than their fair share of scars and missing teeth. In fact - to use an Australian turn of phrase - they looked like they might rip your arms off as soon as talk to you.

But this impression dissolved the moment I went up and asked them where I could find the Federal Hotel, a pub I hoped to stay in. ''No worries,'' one of them announced, breaking into a wide grin and pointing to the waterfront about one kilometre away. ''We'll give you a lift.'' As I listened to them joking in Torres Strait Creole I realised that everybody on 'T.I.' (as islanders refer to the place) is curiously relaxed, calm and easy-going - and almost completely indifferent to visitors from the outside world.

At five in the afternoon, the Federal was like a city bar at midnight. It was a purely functional shell, built for drinking and nothing else.

Next morning from my balcony, I could see the tip of Cape York across the perfect waters of the Torres Strait.

The other islands do have excellent beaches, apparently - including the Tuesday islets, Wednesday island and Friday island, all named by Captain Bligh as he visited them, day by day, en route to Timor after being tossed from the Bounty. All are only a short boat ride away, but I didn't mind staying on Thursday.

Every morning, a former schoolteacher named Willy Nelson gives a minibus tour of the island. Not that there's too much to see: apart from the one street of shops, much of the island is taken up by relatively modern, semi-suburban housing.

When Europeans settled here at the end of the 19th century, the islanders - who are Melanesians, racially distinct from Australian Aborigines, and had become famous among explorers for fearlessly trying to assault passing gunboats in their long canoes -were all removed from Thursday island to a mission station.

White Australians set up a small settlement, eventually joined by a large colony of Japanese pearl fishermen (a serene Shinto graveyard can still be visited).

When World War II began in the Pacific, Thursday Island was evacuated of civilians (and the Japanese population was sent to internment camps elsewhere in Australia).

A set of fortifications was quickly built, but although nearby Horn island airstrip was bombed by the Japanese, nobody on T.I. fired a shot in anger. The fort can still be visited, its powerful iron guns giving a commanding view over the Torres Straits.

Today the many Torres Strait islands form a unique community where islanders commute by boat daily for work and study.

The dozen or so other people on Willie Nelson's tour had all driven up through Cape York in four-wheel drives vehicles, one of Australia's great road adventures, and taken a ferry over from the mainland.

T.I. was the end of the line, a culmination of several weeks' journey.

There was a fine assortment of characters in the pub that Friday night, from yachtsmen trying to sail the world to Sandy, the local bank clerk, whose nose was as bright red as any cartoon character drunk's, and a good sprinkling of different nationalities.

Then, at closing time, the word went round: everyone was off to a party on a trawler. At 4 am I finally decided to wander home in the moonlight.

No, this wasn't your typical tropical paradise, I thought - Thursday Island is much more entertaining than that.