The hidden isle most Australians have heard about, but never visited

Travel News from Stuff - 11-09-2023

Thursday Island hides amid much larger islands cupping milky-blue water set against crescents of sand and emerald hills. As we sail closer, white oblong buildings appear, and wind turbines march across a hilltop.

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The ship glides into a beautiful bay without another boat in sight. Grey clouds rumble across the sky, adding to the atmosphere of moody remoteness.

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This is why a good cruise is so exhilarating: you can arrive somewhere remote without making much effort. Getting to Thursday Island isn’t otherwise easy. You can fly from Cairns to Horn Island and transfer by ferry, or you can take a ferry from Cape York – though you’ll have to get there first.

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Viking Orion has nipped over from Darwin while I was sleeping, conveying me in comfort to a place most Australians have heard about but never visited. Anyone determined to see their own country should add it to their bucket list.

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As we drift towards the quay in tender boats, I see the tidy settlement is larger than it looked from the ship. Decent solid houses sit on hillsides lush with wanton tropical greenery and trees that blossom in explosions of orange and yellow.

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I follow a great footpath that leads me around the coast. The setting is wonderful: a wide bay embraced in the arms of several islands. A brisk breeze mitigates the humidity. Clouds drift like galleons across a moody sky.

I pass the Grand Hotel and post office, backed by a small settlement that has those intriguing shops of remote places that sell generators and chainsaws and satellite dishes. Then the town falls behind me, replaced by mangroves.

Thursday Island’s melancholy and charming cemetery spreads over an entire hillside. The 1880s tombs of Japanese pearl divers are crumpled and tilted by time. So are the piously sentimental, colonial-era tombstones lopsided under eucalyptus trees further up the hillside, recording shockingly youthful lives.

Decima Clark died here in 1901 aged 37. She has a pointy tombstone (“God is Love”) decorated with stone-carved lilies and surrounded by rusting railings. Dead leaves are her only remaining tribute.

The newer graves of the Torres Strait Islanders are lovingly tended and lavish. Angels and crocodiles and an abundance of plastic flowers in riots of colour decorate their gleaming black slabs.

Photos show those lodged inside. There are Chinese and Muslim names and faces, and solidly English ones, and often extravagantly long names that mix cultures.

The cemetery has a memorial to Bernard Namok, who designed the Torres Strait flag. For Indigenous inhabitants, this is the heartland. For the rest of us, this is where Australia ends, or perhaps where Indonesia or Melanesia begins.

The Torres Strait Islands are a marvellously intermediate place with a fusion culture and cuisine you won’t find anywhere else. Torres Strait, Aboriginal, European and Asian elements mingle.

European missionaries and Japanese pearl fisherman came here nearly 150 years ago. World War II saw an influx of American and mainland Australian military personnel. The gun emplacements of Green Hill Fort now provide a marvellous outlook over slumped green islands and turquoise seas scattered with warplane wrecks.

The best sight is Gab Titui Cultural Centre. It displays historical artefacts and contemporary Torres Strait art, and also has a lively program of Indigenous music and dance.

Thursday Island has every tropical island cliche but no big hotel developments or cocktail bars. It’s a laidback, barefoot place for fishing charters and sunset beers.

Despite its cultural density, you can walk around its 3.5 square kilometres in a day and stop along the way to chat to locals. The kids are shy, flashing hellos before pedalling off on their bikes.

Thursday Island is the perfect cruise destination: hard to get to, interesting to visit, small enough to see in a few hours. But as we sail away, I know I’d like to return one day.

Viking Cruises’ 17-day “” cruise between Bali and Sydney. The next departures are on November 19, 2023, and (in the reverse direction) February 27, 2024. From A$9495 (NZ$10,294) a person twin share. See:

Ocean and river cruising have an impact on the Earth's waterways. To reduce your impact, consider offsetting carbon emissions and booking with cruise lines that use cleaner fuels and adopt recycling practices.

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