I can't believe that only a month ago I had no idea that a place called Thursday Island, let alone the entire Torres Strait between the northeast point of mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea even existed. It is now one of my favorite destinations on earth.
During a short talk to some of the locals on Thursday Island I joked that the only reason I was there was because I piggybacked my journey on the back of Kurt. I happened to stumble in on him and the founder of the Indigenous Marathon Project at the end of a meeting, awkwardly introduce myself and then get the lowdown and an equally awkward invitation by the founder (who's name is "Deeks") to join Kurt on a trip to the island. Kurt and I had absolutely no idea what to expect of the trip. He loved the idea of me going, and soon decided that the whole family would come up with us. None of us had any clue what to expect aside from the fact that we would be going somewhere that most of the world, let alone Australians, had any clue existed. I was going in completely blind. I knew the trip was costing me a fortune and that we were going to speak with the indigenous islanders about the importance of a healthy lifestyle. From i had been told about mainland aboriginal populations was that there was an abundance of genetic disease such as diabetes and heart disease, and a complete apathy to healthy lifestyle. That was it.
What we came to experience was more amazing then anything we could have dreamed of. After a morning of ridiculous travel (the cheapest flight for me consisted of flying from Newcastle to Brisbane, then Brisbane to Cairns, then cairns to horn island... this with a hurricane hitting the coast of Brisbane, a hurricane that my first to flights had to fly around or over), the Fearnleys and I finally reached Horn Island and were greeted by three of our amazing hosts for the weekend, Elsie, Cath, and Harold. Both Elsie and Harold were graduates of the Indigenous Marathon Project. They completed the months long training program that the project prescribes to indigenous people looking to improve their health, and they both had run this past NYC marathon on behalf of IMP. On top of that, both of them had lost 20kg during the course of their training, and we later found out, had started a massive trend on their island.
The three of them quickly whisked us onto a bus and then a ferry that would take us across the immaculate blue waters of the strait to Thursday Island. At that point my heart was swelling with the feeling that you get when you know you are about to embark on something you will remember fondly for the rest of your life. I could taste it in the salty, humid air.
In reflection, what strikes me most about our trip to the islands was how openly we were engulfed into the community. The Islanders were nothing like the mainland aboriginal groups that i had heard about, or interacted with before. I was immediately struck by the fact that they had no need for us to be there. By that I mean they were already highly motivated, and had begun a culture of healthy living (both occupationally and recreationally) that was spreading like wildfire. Harold and Elsie were local heroes. They had fulfilled lifelong dreams to travel to new york and completed the marathon in one of the hardest years ever to do that race. Elsie and Harold had helped begin a running club called the "TI (Thursday Island) deadly runners" that had swelled to 30 members and growing. TI was represented in marathons and half marathons across Australia and beyond. This was not a group of people that needed motivation from a couple of schlubs like me and Kurt, yet never in my life have I felt such unadulterated love and generosity come from a group of people who had never met me before. The island had been prepped for our arrival, and were beyond excited. Local island papers and radio had been advertising our arrival since the day Kurt told them we were coming. Our celebrity had spread without us lifting a finger. The first thing we did upon reaching Thursday Island was rush out of the sweltering heat into an air conditioned radio studio where we did an interview about our plans for the weekend and the 5k fun run that we were leading the following morning. They had two gold medalists and world champions on their island, they were immensely honored and we were immensely humbled.
Our first evening consisted of a welcome dinner with about 30 people from the community including the mayor of TI, Elsie's dad, and the representative of the traditional owners of the land, Elsie's uncle. We were officially welcomed and Kurt and I gave a brief thank you for being invited to the island and expressed our excitement of what was to come. Then Elsie's dad, the mayor, gave each of us welcoming gifts, with a message that I found quite nice. The gift was a set of bookends with pearl diving helmets on them. The islands have a rich history in pearl farming/diving, but the meaning the mayor associated with the bookends was interesting. He said that bookends are a tool to prop up and bolster things, in the same way that our lives can be seen as bolstering the propping up the dreams and goals of those that we speak to and interact with. In turn our bolstering their dreams helps them bolster others. It was an interesting analogy.
The rest of the dinner was filled with laughs, great stories about all things from crocodiles (the islands host a nice population of salt water crocs that can grow up to 5 meters long) to NBA championships (Patty Mills, backup point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, who won the championship last season, is from TI), and bad food (the food was truly bad).
The fun run the next morning was truly incredible. By the 8 am start time a little over a hundred people from TI and neighboring Prince of Wales was gathered in the park to run the 5k ring road around the island with us (Thursday island is the most populated island at nearly 4000 people, but one of the smallest islands in the strait). Kurt and I had already posed for numerous photos and were ready to get moving. I was invigorated. The crowd of runners covered a broad range of shapes sizes and ages, new runners, experienced runners and people getting out for the very first time.
When the run got underway I was taken aback by the group of young runners that quickly bolted to the front. Leading the pack was this gorgeous nine-year-old girl from Prince of Wales running barefoot. Her name was Keisha she told me, without breaking stride. She was tiny, probably the smallest girl in her class, but her natural efficiency of movement was amazing and i was immediately taken aback by the way she carried herself. As she glided effortlessly across the ground she was chased by a pack of 14-16 year old local boys. Each time the boys pulled up next to keisha she would speed up to maintain her sole position of the lead. Confidence spilled out of her in a way that was tangible and so very rare in kids that age. She kept the lead the first 2/3 of the run before having to finally pull up to get a drink, at which point the boys put some distance on her.
After the run we were bombarded by more picture seekers and people just wishing to shake our hands and have a chat, faces stuffed with smiles and watermelon. When everyone had finished the run, Kurt and I were invited on the little stage at the park. After our very detailed backstories were painstakingly read to the crowd we were passed the mic and got to riff back and forth to each other about running, being health and hiking the Kakoda Trail (Kurt crawled it a few years ago and Elsie was training for it). The morning was a complete success. the community had risen to the occasion and the TI Deadly Runners gained three new members in a few teenage girls from the outer islands who are boarding at the island's high school. We succeeded in getting our ugly mugs on everyone's camera.
The ultimate highlight of the trip came the following day, however, when a rainy morning accompanied us across to Prince of Wales, a ten minute journey by dingy. Prince of Wales is the largest island in the strait, and the least inhabited with a population topping out at 100. It is a large, green, untouched piece of paradise, that roughly 99.99% of the planet has no clue exists. The families of Prince of Wales were our hosts for the day, hosts that would spend the day showing me what "community" really means.
When we were welcomed on the island (a second time, after having already been welcomed on the beach by a group of kids, faces painted blue and green, holding signs that said "welcome Kurt, Josh and families") with warm greetings and a prayer (thank you western missionaries), we were told that we were the first major athletes to ever set foot on the island. We were also probably the only gimps to ever be crazy enough to venture inland on the island as well. After being picked up on the shore by a couple of four wheelers, mine driven by a 15 year old kid (more on this later), we were brought to the beginning of our trek. The day was to consist of a 4k trek on a dirt (see: mud/sludge due to morning rain) road to a place called Homestead, which at one time was a European style homestead before all westerners (thankfully) left the island and the homestead burnt down. The point of interest at homestead was now a delightfully refreshing fresh water swimming hole that Kurt and i virtually fell into after a reasonably taxing 4k trek. The road wasn't too terrible, a bit muddy at points, but there was only one creek we had to crawl through, and the island boys helped setup makeshift bridges over the other small streams cutting across the road. A few local girls, including Keisha, setup a water stop at the halfway point as well.
The day was an ultimate gem. I don't know who was more affected by the experience, us or the islanders. While they kept expressing their extreme pleasure in us "taking the time and making the effort" to come to their remote part of the world, I was shown repeatedly how beautiful humanity can be. While I got to impress upon the communities children the capacity to deal with obstacles and find a way, as i monkeyed my way up vines and branches, climbing up into trees and then launching myself off them into the water, the kids impressed upon me the strength of self reliance. Islander kids had self-confidence and self assuredness spilling out of them. From the second they could walk they had been set free upon an island of immense dangers and immense potential. Fearless in the face of man eating crocodiles and king brown snakes, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, they learned to respect the freedom they were allowed in exploring the island on foot and four-wheeler, and quickly became contributing members of an incredible community. With only 100 people on the island and a group of friends from neighboring TI, they have learned to be completely self sufficient. Power comes from generators or solar panels, water comes from the sky. When a group goes out hunting (there are wild pigs, deer and cows on the island) the meat is shared amongst everyone. I spent the whole day trying to connect the dots between whose kid belonged to who because if you are a parent to one you seem to be a parent to all. Babies were passed around like footballs, Harry included.
During our lunch feast i got to try a traditional local dish, stewed dugong. Dugong is a species of manatee, a protected species, but one that indigenous islanders are allowed to hunt as long as they use traditional methods (canoes and spears). The natives only eat dugong (and sea turtle, which they are also the only ones allowed to hunt), on special occasions, and i was glad our visit qualified. It was delicious!
After a morning of off road trekking, swimming and tree climbing, I was a bit bushed and thankfully we had the option to ride in a truck on our way to our next stop. Roy, father of Keisha, and husband of amanda, who planned our whole excursion drove us to the top of lookout point, before we had to off road another 25 meters or so to a rock ledge. All very much worth it once we saw the view (as seen in the photo below).
Our day on Prince of Wales ended with a lesson from Roy on coconuts. Roy, like most of the islanders, is a man of many talents, and watching him easily crack open a coconut was a thing of beauty. We learned about what parts of the coconut you can use as a coconut ages and sampled the water and meats in different stages of coconut life. It was great. I love coconut!
Because of my screwup booking flights, I left the following morning, missing the school visit that I was supposed to join Kurt on. Planning on making a solo exit I was shocked to find a group of islanders waiting at the dock to send me off. My new friend Mo brought me a couple trinkets to remember the island by, and I posed for pictures with everyone that came down. It was truly sad saying goodbye to everyone after such a brief stay on the islands, but i will see them all again. There are between 8 and 10 members of the TI deadly runners planning to run the Honolulu Marathon this year, and I told them that if they do it, I will come out and join them.