With the 1989 school year ended, we were free to move on from Bamaga and go to yet another new place: Yorke Island. (Not because my schooling had been a point of contention for any of the other moves so far that year, it’s just that Yorke Island didn’t have a school.)
Yorke Island, now known by its traditional name of Masig, is closer to Papua New Guinea than it is to the Australian mainland—that is to say, it is a long, long, long, long way away from anything.
By “anything”, I mean anything: up to and including indoor plumbing. Toilets on Yorke Island were actually, ahem, “thunderboxes”: outdoor toilets that are little more than a bucket under a seat with a hole in it. You may think your office toilets are scungy, but try sitting forty centimetres above the recent waste of at least seven other people, one of whom is a raging alcoholic. Did I mention the maggots? Oh, the maggots.
Masig clearly was not my favourite place. Let’s be clear: I hated it. Luckily the island is only 800 metres across (I have no idea what that is in cartwheels, but it can’t be many), so there wasn’t much to hate. 800 metres across, with no indoor plumbing and only one telephone, which was actually a public phone box in the middle of the island. If the phone rang, the nearest person answered it, and then went and roused whoever it was the call was for.
During my time in Masig, I:
—Learnt to climb a coconut tree. However, I was too afraid to let go enough to grab any coconuts, so all I could do was shimmy up the tree and then shimmy down again. Surprisingly, this is not a skill that has any lateral applications,
—Split my chin open on the edge of a boat during a bad storm, resulting in six stitches and a bad-ass scar (SPOILER ALERT: this would not be the only time I would get hit in the face with a boat),
—Had my first tetanus shot (on account of taking a boat on the chin),
—Saw the most beautiful beaches and clearest tropical water that I have ever seen or will ever see again,
—Discovered the truth about Santa,
—Got scurvy as a result of my refusal to eat anything except rice and tomato sauce (if you’re a fussy eater and you hate seafood, I don’t recommend living on a small sand island in the middle of the Pacific ocean). It means you get big gross sores all over your legs which have to be cleaned with hydrogen peroxide, and you become weak and kind of whiny: but I was already weak and kind of whiny, so nobody noticed I was sick until I got the sores,
—Watched the sun rise over the ocean and set over the ocean on the same day (800 metres across!), and
—Got stalked by a tiger shark.
Let’s elaborate on that last one.
Before you freak out, it’s okay, I wasn’t just paddling about in the water with only my nine-year-old limbs for protection; I was in a dinghy. I had at least five millimetres of aluminium protecting me, so we were safe as houses.
Well, thin aluminium houses in shark-infested waters.
There was a group of about ten of us (six adults and a handful of kids) in two dinghies heading over to Aureed Island for the day. Aureed was uninhabited, but it held familial significance for Dale, so we were going over to pay our respects.
It was about a half-hour trip from Masig to Aureed in the tiny little dinghy. As we started to approach the island, most of the kids (and one or two of the adults) prepared to jump out of the boats and swim the rest of the way; the water near the islands is always shallow, clear and beautiful, plus it’s always hot, so leaping into the water long before the boat reaches shore was never unusual. Suddenly there was a holler from the next boat: “SHARK!”
Shark? What shark? There was a shark? We always kept our eyes open just in case, but until this date I’d never actually seen one. But sure enough, about four metres behind the dinghy we were in, was a medium-sized tiger shark. And it appeared to be keeping pace. We slowed down our approach to the island to figure out what to do, which I personally think was a mistake: were I in control I would have thrown open the throttle on the outboard motor and not stopped until we reached the island, at which point I would have gunned it as far up the sand as the ridiculously small propeller would allow.
I’ll admit, what happened next was a bit of a blur. Once the shark’s presence had been confirmed and I had seen it with my own eyes, I very bravely burst into tears, convinced this killing machine would attack us and eat us, and I would spend the last three days of 1989 as shark poop. The consensus was it was not safe for anybody to get out of the dinghy, nor was it safe to just turn around and go back to Masig, leading it with us. They would have to kill it.
(Did my little nine-year-old self quake at the thought of this majestic creature being slaughtered? Did the tender buds of my environmentalist streak bloom right then and there? Shit no, I was sure it was him or me. I wanted that fucker DEAD.)
The handful of men that were between the two dinghies went straight to work with their spears. These guys, they speared everything. Fishing lines and nets were for chumps: you wanted to catch food out of the water, you needed enough dexterity, precision, and reflexes to stab it, from a distance, through water. It was (and still is) a terribly impressive skill.
Though it did jack on the tough hide of a shark. All it did was make him mad. At one stage he took refuge directly underneath our dinghy and my terror reached a point of solid molecular vibration: had anyone so much as touched me I would have imploded on myself like a white dwarf.
Eventually they got a rope around the shark’s tail and managed to get it up on the beach. I have no idea how this happened. I mean that literally: I have zero comprehension of how this was achieved. I was so paralysed with terror I can’t remember a thing. In my head it just says “MISSING REEL”; the whole thing is a blur. The next thing I know, the dinghies were embedded in the soft sand, and we were safe to get out onto the safety of the grou—“WAIT!”
Wait? Why was Dale screaming at me?
“STOP! FEET. FEET UP!”
I had no idea what the problem was. I could see the shark, it was five metres away, a rope firmly looped over its tail. But I was already riding a fear factor of 27 out of 10, so I dutifully hoisted my little legs back over the side of the dinghy. Dale grabbed his spear and went SPESHUNK into the shallow sand, then lifted it and SPESHUNK a second time. He raised the spear to show two enormous sand-coloured stingrays. Everything on them, from their weird, beady eyes to their impressively, scarily large stinger barb things, was the exact same colour of the sand.
Second close call of the day.
I swear, standing up on the sand of that beach was the most freeing sensation I have ever felt. I’d cheated death twice.
Sadly, the feeling quickly dissipated when Dale suggested it’d be a great photo opportunity if I sat on the shark’s back.
What. Even. The fuck. You monster.
I begged not to, but he said “come on, it’ll be fine, it’s dead!” and because I was a good boy who did everything he was told, I complied. Shaking with fear, I gingerly straddled the shark’s back, and a photo was taken.
And then it thrashed.
It wasn’t dead.
I went sprinting off down the beach so quickly, and so outstandingly full of adrenalin, that I may well have kept running, circumnavigated the island and then tripped over the shark from the other side before bothering to slow down. The only thing that stopped me was the cry of “CROCODILE!”
I’m not even kidding.
One of the little boys was standing on the other side of where the shark was being held, pointing at a row of divots in the sand. It was a row of crocodile tracks. Specifically, one row of crocodile tracks, headed inland only. The crocodile itself was still on the island, and due to come out at any time.
Whatever we were planning to do on the island never got done. The shark, the stingrays, and the hunted-three-times-in-one-day humans were loaded up and taken straight back to Masig, and we never went back.
None of the days spent on Masig were particularly pleasant. But every day that something didn’t try to kill me was, comparatively, a fucking winner.