Borders blur at Australia's northern tip

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It's a short, brisk climb from the car park at the top of Cape York Peninsula to the most northerly point on the Australian mainland. But the journey to this fabled landmark is drawn-out and laborious: thousands of kilometres by car along largely unpaved road to the Jardine River; transfer by ferry to the other side; and another stretch by car along bitumen and then dirt before Australia's continental landmass finally runs out.

Sign marking the northernmost point of the Australian mainland (Credit: Catherine Marshall)Separated from it by a swirling channel are York and Eborac islands, the first of many hundreds of islands which are scattered throughout the Torres Strait, resting offshore from their official motherland, Australia.

The journey to this sharply planed peninsula is a long held dream for many Australians; this is a place that holds a mythological place in the nation's consciousness, that epitomises for many the country's pioneering spirit and collective sense of adventure.

It's also the final outpost, symbolically at least, demarcating Australia from its closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. The islands beyond it are a link to the cultures and geologies that lie to the north, giant stepping stones that guide Australia's Torres Straight Islanders home. But for white Australians, they're the barrier marking the country's fiercely-held border.

I've taken a sly shortcut to get here myself, flying from Cairns to the community of Bamaga and driving the rest of the way with a local resident. From the beach we skirt the mangroves and climb a small rise before the iconic marker comes into view: 'You are standing at the northernmost point of the Australian continent,' it says. Milling about the sign is a group of five or six people; in peak holiday season, says my guide, this jagged promontory overflows with pilgrims.

It's unspeakably beautiful here. From the hillock rising above The Tip I take a 360 degree scan and see whitecaps frothing on a cobalt sea to the east, milky turquoise waters filling a languid bay to the west, stunted shrubbery sprouting from the red rock. Just beyond The Tip, York and Eborac islands appear to guard the entrance to Australia; at the car park, signposts warn those entering the mainland at this point to refrain from bringing with them fruit and other items that will threaten Australia's biosecurity.

The only other people here are two elderly men from down south, fishing knee-deep in spite of the warnings of crocodiles, and a catamaran anchored like an advertisement for paradise in the aquamarine bay.

 

"The pilgrimage acquires a new perspective here, one of the pioneering spirit and tenacity displayed not by white Australians but by the people of the Torres Strait."

 

In the absence of any signs of security — apart from the coastguard helicopter we'd seen circling the bay to get a better look at the catamaran when we pulled up — I wonder if the government really thinks the hapless souls who wash ashore here will make sure to dispose of any disallowed items (where? how?) and to consume any fruit they happen to be carrying on their person.

The bizarre officialdom makes me think of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, of his tentacled reach from his office in Canberra across the straits and oceans to places like Manus Island and Nauru, Christmas Island and Papua New Guinea. It's a reminder that authority can't sever ties or erect tangible barricades. Refugees will always make their way here, just like the people from Saibai Island who fled their sinking homeland in the 1940s and settled in Bamaga in Cape York.

It inspires contemplation, too, of that original Australian overlord, Captain James Cook, who planted his king's flag in the soil of nearby Possession Island. With this arbitrary act, dominion was transferred to a people who would, for the most part, never set foot on the sunburnt land they'd declared their own.

And it illuminates the irony in an arrangement where a far-off Queen reigns over this continent, while those living on its very doorstep — just beyond the invisible line beneath PNG's mainland delineating the Torres Strait — are exempt from randomly crossing its borders.

The absurdity of such geographical ownership becomes apparent on that journey to Cape York. Cruising among the islands of the Torres Strait, I cannot tell where one country ends and the other begins. The pilgrimage acquires a new perspective here, one of the pioneering spirit and tenacity displayed not by white Australians but by the people of the Torres Strait.

Strung out between one country and the other, and forcibly resettled by both authorities and climate, they've remained somehow resolute in their identity. They're the human bridge between geographically connected landscapes, the very embodiment of universality.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Main image credit: Catherine Marshall

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you Catherine. This piece is provocative in light of Australia's colonial history. We have all read Charles Massy and Bruce Pascoe on how the settlers ignored the richness of Aboriginal legacy on the land and imposed their own ideas whose "fruition" we see in the inability of most of the Australian landscape to withstand the ravages of the climate crisis. In New Zealand, we are commemorating this month the landing of Cook's ship the Endeavour and remembering his bloody treatment of the Maori people who greeted him with a haka and were shot. As you say, the land can tell us so much that we need to know to understand who we are.
Cecily McNeill | 18 October 2019


Catherine, “Absurd” or not, Boigu Island, 6 km from PNG, is the northernmost inhabited part of Australia. It is not part of a string “between one country and the other”. It IS the more southern of the two countries. It and all other Torres Strait islands are as much part of what you call “the motherland” as are Rottnest Island, Phillip Island, Kangaroo Island, Clarke Island in Sydney Harbour, even Tasmania. Torres Strait Islanders are the smaller of Australia’s two groups of Indigenous peoples. They are often forgotten by Australians in general and even in discussions about the lives of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. That’s ironic when one remembers Eddie Koiki Mabo lies buried in the soil of his native place, Mer Island. None of this takes away from the accuracy of your comment about “universality” but it’s important that the northernmost Australians be recognised as much “true blue” as resident of any of the six Richmonds in Australia’s list of postcodes.
Gerard Hore | 18 October 2019


Thanks Catherine for reminding us of our top end and so close to PNG where life is very different. You might find the FB posts of David Bradbury from frontline films of interest. David is currently in PNG working with local people to develop a film series.
Annette Brownlie | 18 October 2019


Another strong piece from Catherine.
Brian Toohey | 18 October 2019


I am somewhat confused; lots of adjectival conjuring so unsure if this piece actually belongs in Trip Advisor. Perhaps showing my age but the article fails to identify that "New Guinea" was once a colony and the resentment shown to Cook's flag seems to overlook that PNG is now geographically the same land mass but very divided by the "absured" but militarily enforced boarder with Indonesia. Poor Captain James, sent on a mission to the other side of the world to a previously largely undocumented / unchartered land mass which was rejected by the Dutch...no "phone home" option and now scorned for doing his job. I wonder where Oceania and its peoples would be now if Cook abandoned his commission and left the region to the nuanced interest of other governments. I believe he deserves more respect...
Ray | 18 October 2019


Love your description Catherine but I'm sure that the helicopter was hovering over the spot where a nuclear powered Chinese submarine had just submerged.
francis Armstrong | 19 October 2019


I loved this. Without disrespect to the shared Australian national identity of the inhabitants of all the Australian-owned Torres Strait Islands, Catherine Marshall has sensitively written about the feelings evoked by standing at the tip of Cape York Peninsula. I would love to go see it myself. As her title says, borders blur here . Must be a beautiful spot.
tony kevin | 19 October 2019


Ray, Cooke was a great explorer, no doubt about that and thank God the Dutch rejected the great South land. I agree that the arbitrary border with West Papua is absurd and regret there is no hope for democracy there. Since the Chinese have now recently lent billions to PNG thay have no hope of repaying, one can only hope their soon to be new Colonial masters, the Chinese, dont treat them as harshly as the Indonesians do the indigenous peoples in Irian Jaya.
francis Armstrong | 21 October 2019


If the pilgrims were truly cognizant of how fortunate they are to belong to the right side of the invisible seabed line, instead of milling about on the ground around the iconic sign, they would be kissing it. In order to be cognizant, simply compare the economic and legal privileges of those islanders who belong to the near side of that invisible line and their kin who belong to the other.
roy chen yee | 21 October 2019


Francis, the regional political risk is something hidden underground. The Indonesia / PNG landmass quietly holds 40% of global copper and gold reserves... Freeport Irian Jaya was just too rich for Indonesia to pass up; 5% of their national GDP. Ok Tedi is just over that very arbitrary boarder. PNG has a few gold and copper mines, the gold is a bi-product of copper ore beneficiation. At the other end of the archepelago is Bougainville (closed because of political unrest, but highly profitable) and Lihir... surely it doesn't take envious eyes to see the potential economic benefits to take regional control. As long as the global economy continues to place increasing value on ore, particularly the environmentally calamatous gold, owning and controlling what's in the ground is power...and poor old PNG aren't financially or militarily strong enough to resist a super-power. But as Catherine writes...it's such a pretty place.
Ray | 23 October 2019


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