Chloe Johnco

Native Title
Thursday Island
Summer 2008

As the wheels on the Dash 8 touched down and the propellers shifted down a gear I realised that I had no idea what I was expecting, what I would be doing or even who I was meeting.

I had a feeling when I took my first breath of Horn Island air that this was going to be something special in my life. I didn’t know exactly how profoundly my plans would change and how absorbed I would become in the everyday of Torres Strait life. I arrived with the intention of staying 5 weeks for my internship…and left over a year later…reluctantly.

I was greeted at the airport by the Principal Legal Officer, David Saylor, a selfless and caring man who immediately welcomed me and involved me in his family activities. David’s extensive experience in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was an invaluable asset to the Native Title Office (“NTO”). I was so fortunate to have such an amazing mentor who really shaped my experiences and learning during my time in the Torres Strait.

When we were interviewing for my replacement I was asked what a typical day might be like. I recalled all the varied tasks that I had been involved in over the year, from arranging travel to assisting barristers with court documents, from moving the entire NTO to its new office to taking witness genealogies, from trips in helicopters to sand cays to baking cakes for clients and driving the NTO “taxi” in Cairns. As a member of a small office you must be adaptable and you must always be creative in finding solutions. You learn quickly to anticipate what might be required of you and how you can assist others as much as possible.

There is no such thing as “work/life balance” nor would you want there to be. The NTO becomes a family and the island community takes on the role of extended relatives. You get to know your colleagues so quickly, that it seems like years have passed rather than months. You barely need to wonder what they are thinking or feeling because often you already know.

We had so many funny times. I was asked (for no apparent reason) by one of solicitors from the other side if I was from the Torres Strait originally, much to the amusement of all the island people standing around at the time. We sat next to opposing counsel as they attempted to engage in traditional sit down dances with the local community…just after they had eaten turtle thinking it was a beef curry. The island people’s humour is infectious and helps forge strong relationships between people whose life experiences were so very different. You quickly learn the value of self-deprecating humour and the special relationships that can grow from a few simple laughs.

I was so fortunate to be a part what was an important and special year in the Torres Strait Regional Sea Claim. It was a great privilege to listen to witnesses recount stories of sea travel, island stories and inter-island connections. The evidence put to the court by the traditional witnesses was unequivocal and of the highest quality. We now eagerly await the judge’s decision.

The day I left the skies opened up and torrential rain fell. Not even the weather could conceal the profound sadness that I carried that day. I had tried so hard to pretend that I wasn’t going anywhere. I felt shame that I would be staying no longer. I felt like I had been given so much but had return so little.

There were so many people that I never said goodbye to, perhaps in an effort to convince myself that I would only be gone for a little while so there was no need to mention anything. There are a number of special people that I will never see again but their influence on my life will always remain. These special people gave the last months of their lives to their people through the sea claim. I will always carry my memories of them close to my heart.

I can’t possibly express the gratitude that I feel to David and the NTO team and importantly to the beautiful, passionate and amazing people of the Torres Strait. Whilst my reason for studying law was native title, I could not have imagined back then that my whole life would be so profoundly altered by native title.

It’s been a year now since I left…but you never really leave. We still cook island dishes, I still sing island songs in my car, I still moisturise with coconut oil, we still use island words in conversation and I keep a watchful eye over my island dresses, hanging there next to my business suits. I smile to myself when I see those luminescent dresses in all their technicolour magnificence, knowing that one day soon I will be returning to the place where I truly felt I was ‘home’.