Port Kennedy, 5 May 1893

Somewhat excited I ran up to the bridge this morning. We were just looking around the eighth hour upon the new continent of Australia that was discovered last and claimed by science to be the oldest. First, however, the island continent remained hidden from our view. Instead we sw a small part of Oceania, the northern tip of the Australian mainland, Prince of Wales island that lies in front of Cap York and Booby island with its light house that can be seen from far away. We were approaching it from south-west to enter into the Normanby sund.

With time the contours of these islands became more pronounced. Then more and more green islands emerged out of the blue sea until we could clearly distinguish the entrance between Goode island and Friday island. North of Goode island the sad remains of a sunken ship, the German full rigged ship „Olga“ starred at us Even though three years have gone since the catastrophe, the wreck is very well preserved and the three masts as well as the yards rise out of the surging sea.

All along the strait of Torres, a canal about 90 km wide with a rapid current, there were many wrecks such as this one to offer testimony how fatal these numerous often completely hidden coral reefs, granite cliffs and sand banks could be to ships in these waters that Luis Vaz de Torres crossed for the first time in 1606. In the dark depths of the strait many lost ships will be resting that had sunk here with all hands into the gurgling abyss of the sea.

At the same time as we a large steamship entered. At Goode Island the pilot appeared in a small boat. This one proved to be a son of Albion whose nose had turned so red and been transformed into a perpetual lighthouse probably by the consumption of the national whisky.

At the entrance of ships into Port Kennedy on Thursday Island there is the custom of letting the vehicles wait below the signal station of Goode Island until permission is granted by Port Kennedy to enter into the actual harbor. We had to comply with this custom too and thus we stood still with stopped machines and had to wait for the signal which finally came after some time while a mighty sea eagle was circling over us. Even though larger warships usually have to anchor in the outer harbor, the pilot still led us through a very small passage into the inner harbor where we anchored in front of the city at a very low depth,

At first glance the harbor appears friendly as it is surrounded by ring of green islands covered with trees but here the vegetation is not as luxurious as on the islands of the Malayan archipelago despite it being part of the equatorial zone. The Australian vegetation is missing the diversity of forms, the colorful mix of plants. Monotonous calm is its signature.

In front of us lies the island of Horn; to our right is the largest island of the archipelago, the island of the Prince of Wales; to our left is the smaller Thursday island with Port Kennedy. The individual islands in the row part of which the latter is carry mostly the names of the week days perhaps in memory of the days they have been discovered. Thus we find from the east in quick succession the following islands: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Port Kennedy offers us an example of the true British-Australian entrepreneurial spirit and industry which has managed to create in a surprisingly short time much of importance on the coasts of the continent we were approaching.

In the year 1878 the settlement of Somerset had been moved from Cap York where it had been before to Thursday island. Eight years before, as the sailing hand books note, it had only five houses, it has since grown into a rather respectable community which included as the pilot told with pride a government building, five hotels and 36 — billiards. To this banal statistics of the old sea dog may be added the information that currently fortifications are being erected on Thursday Island; already there are barracks and the foundations of a fort. This is still organized for the present with old guns; but already the next English steam ship is said to bring modern cannons and the future garrison troops of 30 artillerymen.

Port Kennedy’s rapid development is due on the one hand that the island is more conveniently located for the ships passing through the strait of Torres than Cap York, on the other hand it lies in the middle of the territory used for the important fishing of mother of pearl. The harbor is called by many steam ships partly to replenish coal partly to receive passengers for the line from Singapore to Hong Kong.

The first man who came on board after we had set the anchor was the British resident Mr. Douglas, a very old gentleman who had spent most of his life in Australia and New Guinea. We assailed him with questions how the surrounding of Port Kennedy was for hunting and how we could buy mother of pearl and corals, he did not know much about this and only spoke about an afternoon tea he would organize in my honor. Thus I decided to set up on my own an expedition to the island of Horn which was somehow wrongly marked as uninhabited on our map.

Multiple gentlemen joined me and in a boat drawn by the steam barge we set off from our ship. For safety purposes we also had taken along the cleaning dinghy for shallow water areas. At first we had to drive around two long-winded coral reefs whose presence was clearly visible by their clear coloring in the sea. Then landing proved very difficult. As it was low tide, there were long mud banks along the coast. Also dense strips of mangroves prevented the passage with their roots in the air. After we failed three times to land, our boat was finally stuck in the mud and had to liberated by the steam barge. Fortunately we finally found a small foot path in the mud close to a small settlement. Due to it we managed to land with the assistance of the cleaning dinghy.

With great astonishment the inhabitants of the huts at the shore noticed our appearance. They were Austral Negroes, the first we saw. Truly strange humans with horribly ugly faces with bulging curled lips and the not wooly but curly hair. These people seemed to have absorbed some of civilization. As they were not like most of their tribes painted and also wore some parts of European clothing such as flashy jackets and the most incredible head dresses such as black conical felt hats, railway caps etc. The women and children had timidly withdrawn into their huts as soon as we had landed.

These huts were probably the strangest accommodation that I have yet seen. They actually consisted only of crutches covered by parts of bark and offered almost no protection against the weather. Only by crouching the people could move in it. And such a hut with a length of barely 2 m and a height of 1 m is filled with humans, dogs, cats and pigs — everything lives in the same limited space in intimate communion. In the huts too the fish and tortoises are dried which provide the food reserves for the human inhabitants and give the interior of the huts a horrible smell. Countless flies whizzed around in it. As decoration of the external walls served empty petrol cases, bottles, tins etc. The disorder and the strangeness of a gipsy camp is not even close to the chaos and eccentric design of such a Negrito settlement.

The people hardly work, their only trade is fishing for which they use strangely constructed boats covered with colorful cloths. With these canoes they often venture out for many miles between the reefs and sand banks of the strait of Torres, mostly hunting giant tortoises that go to the sand banks during the night to lay their eggs.

A large dark-colored guy who seemed to be the chief of the settlement came towards us and spoke with us in broken English. We asked him to show us the spot where we could cross a wide stream that was situated a hundred paces from the coast. He agreed and we first crossed the stream under his guidance and then entered spread out in a long line into the interior of the island. Here it was much easier to advance than in the tropical jungle of Pulu Besar where we had also undertaken an island expedition, as the forest on the island of Horn had a very strange imprint: low trees that were spaced very far from each other with fixed leathery leaves set off from the axes. The trees themselves were ugly. Their trunks did not have any of the tropical ornament of lianas. The color was no intensive green but grey-blue or blue-green. Few flowers, the soil without sprawling undergrowth, with only a puny level of earth and yellow grass or bare and sandy. Everywhere there was a lack of shade, lifeless rigidity, monotony in forms and colors. Of forest trees I noticed namely the sad horsetail-like Casuarina, myrtles and eucalyptus.

The sad character of this forest was consistent in its animals. We found no mammals, only a limited number of birds. At the shore we observed a few waders, as well as bee eaters, a species of Drongo (Chibia bracteata) and a few small singers: Representatives of two species were especially remarkable: one of which looked like small hornbills but were part of the very diverse and rich in forms family of honey eaters (Meliphagidae) characteristic for Australia and were determined to be Philemon argenticeps; the members of the other species were Australian giant kingfishers or blue-winged Kookaburra (Dacelo leachii) that reach a height of over 50 cm and are amongst the most well known kingfishers. The Australian giant kingfisher also carries the name of „Laughing Jackass“ as its loud cries in the woods betray its presence from afar.

We had advanced about 3 km into the interior of the island, the black „mayor“ as well as a hunter who had joined us as a guide during our hike having vanished, when suddenly the rain poured down on us which had been looming in the sky for quite some time and made us soaking wet in a few minutes.  Such sudden torrential rains is a feature this part of Australia shares with all equatorial areas. With an intensity that we in Europe can hardly imagine the rain pours down and in an instance everything is under water; everywhere there are streams and watercourses as the soil is unable to absorb such enormous quantities of water that was pouring down despite its extraordinary porousness. Now it was time to think about our way back because it was high time. We thus waded back to the beach where Mallinarich had in the mean time gathered a nice collection of shells and insects.

When we returned to our ship, the rain still continued so that we were unable to dine as usual on the afterdeck. Only towards 10 o’clock the storm relented and the moon arduously pierced its way through the thick clouds.

Links

  • Location: Thursday Island
  • ANNO – on 05.05.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing the comedy „Das Hochzeitsnest“, while the k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is performing the ballet „Die goldene Märchenwelt“.

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