As you fly in to Broome in the dry season, there is a distinct line between the red pindan desert and the violent green of the tropical vegetation and then another one between the green and the cobalt blue of the sea. It never fails to draw gasps from tourist passengers and then again as the plane descends, seeming inevitably about to clip the top of the screen of the open-air picture theatre and then bump onto the tarmac.
However, during the wet season, the contrasts are more muted and the leaden grey sky sucks the blue out of the ocean. As I descend the plane steps, my clothes instantly turn into a clingy limpness in the humidity. I recognise the principal, David Jessop, from my initial interview in Perth a few weeks ago, waving through the bars of what seems to be a tropical prison. As I wait for my bags, I realise I am in shock and experiencing what will become a regular internal question of ‘what the hell was I thinking?’.
The town has a persistent half-finished look about it; half frontier and half K-mart. I spend the night at an air-conditioned motel before the planned drive to my new community tomorrow.
Saturday. “We go fishin’ today”. Uncle Paulie pointed with his chin toward the general direction of the lagoon. This was what passed for an invitation here in Faraway Bay. I gave the briefest of nods (local code for enthusiasm) and walked on to the community store, passing the school where I taught on week days.
“Hear you’re going fishing with Uncle Paulie”, said John, the store manager, with some degree of envy.
“Apparently”. I nodded to a few women and a man amongst the shoppers before being descended upon by a gaggle of my students. “What you buy, Mr. Steve?” said Arnold, the boldest but most likeable of his charges, dressed only in a pair of baggy hand-me-down shorts that would have been better described as longs. “Just the usual, Arnold. Canned crocodile and salted snake.” Arnold’s companions shrieked with laughter and teased him out of the store.
The permanent pewter skies of the wet season held in the sapping humidity as I ambled back to my house in the white enclave with my plastic bags of supplies. Unlike the Aboriginal community houses in this former Christian mission, my house was relatively modern, adequately furnished and air conditioned (when the community diesel generator was working and the cockatoos hadn’t eaten through the plastic coating on the wires strung through the houses).
Later that day, Uncle Paulie’s rusting and battered Toyota pulled up out the front, with assorted grandchildren on the trayback. I climbed in next to Paulie’s wife, Maisie, on the bench seat in the cab.
As we pulled away, Uncle Paulie said “Maisie, show Steve that milimili from the Land Council”. I knew about Uncle Paulie’s dream to set up a new, dry community out near the lagoon because I’d helped him write the letter and I knew the news would not be good.
Maisie reached into her cavernous grandmother’s bag and handed me a letter. I read it and was filled with sadness. Knowing they were waiting, I said “You can ask for land here, Uncle Paulie. But even though you’ve lived here all your life after your mother was sent here to the mission, they say your family is from desert country. If you make an application, the Community Council will need to support you.”
Maisie cried “That Council, they all Charlie mob. Saltwater people. They say no, Paulie, make you shame.”
In silence, we drove along the scrub tracks leading to the lagoon, fording the occasional pools that to the uninitiated could have been anywhere from a metre to two metres deep.
At the lagoon, other families had gathered. Fires had been lit, squatting groups of women formed, girls huddled in whispering groups, and along the beach the men and boys were casting out hand lines. I could only watch with envy as a small boy expertly cast his line far out into the lagoon, more than twice the distance I had ever managed.
I followed Uncle Paulie until he stopped, made a sound that seemed to indicate satisfaction that this was the right spot and reached for his line and bait from a dilapidated old airline travel bag.
It was an hour before Uncle Paulie spoke. “Jesus people.” I followed the direction of his gaze to see a group of people apparently walking on water as they fished far out from the beach. It took me a while to work out that they’d arrived at low tide to walk out to a rock platform and that they’d walk back after high tide had peaked. His joke delivered, his face unchanged, Uncle Paulie went back to his casting.
Another unpunctuated hour passed, successfully for Uncle Paulie but miserably for me. All I had was half a bucket of undersized crabs.
Uncle Paulie said “That bucket.” I noticed that every now and then a crab would almost make it to the rim of the bucket but, seemingly inevitably, another crab would try to hitch a ride and they would both fall back into the bucket. “That’s my people” said Uncle Paulie and began to trudge back to the main group. “You go back with Jimmy mob. I wait for Jesus people.”
At home that evening, as the frog cacophony started in the nearby swamp, a clattering diesel motor heralded a visitor. I went to the door and there was Arnold, proffering a prized blue bone fish. “Uncle Paulie says even rubbish fisherman gotta eat.” He ran away quickly, laughing, on his stick-thin legs. He landed in the trayback in one fluid movement and Uncle Paulie’s chariot chugged into the night.