Rachel Arthur

Native Title
Thursday Island
Summer 2013


This is the kind of climate where the furniture is arranged around the ceiling fans, where the water from the hot and the cold taps is the same temperature, where the Wicked Witch would melt without any need for a bucket of water. It’s the kind of place where you’re in more danger of being eaten by a crocodile than run over by a car, where the planes have the same number of seats as the average minivan and you arrange the time of your return flight by passing notes with the pilot in midair. This is the best place in the world. And were it not for the Aurora Native Title Internship Program, I would barely have known it existed. Aurora might be your one chance to get there too, though be warned - I will fight you for the chance to go back.

Trying to describe everything the TSRA Native Title Office does is like trying to condense Blackshield and Williams into a picture book. They provide advice and representation to native title holders, which on an average Monday might involve presenting community meetings with information on new legislation, negotiating agreements with State governments and service providers and working on High Court appeals. Most of this will be done before the rest of the world has even rolled out of bed. You may be surprised to learn that I was not instantly promoted to Principal Legal Officer, and much of this work was left to greater minds than I, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter: even the most mundane tasks are fun. Six weeks seems like a long time at the outset, when you’re faced with an internship of early mornings, long days and less pay than you’d make from a lemonade stand. It’s not. It’s not long enough.

In your short six weeks, this is what you will do, and this is why you have to go. To organise a PBC meeting, you’ll call the ranger station to track down an attendee tagging turtles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, then call a grown man’s language-speaking grandmother, leaving you re-enacting the horror movie scene where the heroine discovers her husband’s dead body. (Horace. Horace. HORACE. HORACE. HORACE!) You’ll join in spontaneous office dancing when hard work pays off, and clap along while bare-chested island boys celebrate new-gained control over their lands. You’ll fly to outer islands for community meetings and sleep in their radio stations, play ball with their children and fish with your supervisor under the stars. You’ll gain five kilos from crayfish and sop-sop and island damper wrapped in banana leaves, from turtle and fresh coconut and mangoes knocked from the tree. You’ll take phone calls from the High Court Registrar in the middle of a restaurant and pray you won’t have to take notes on a table napkin. You’ll amend documents, type letters and resolutions, send emails and carry file boxes until you think your arms will fall off. You’ll do most of this barefoot, and never far from the sea.

Sometimes, it’ll be like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube when you’re colour blind. The islands all have two names, and sometimes they go by the language name, but sometimes not. There are islands where the name is pronounced differently when you’re actually on the island, and people whose names can’t be spoken aloud while you’re visiting. The common language is Creole, and for the first few days you’ll be lucky to make out one word in ten. (Somehow, that word always seems to be “fish”.) The language of the office will be framed in acronyms - PBC, DOGIT, NTA, ILUA - and the filing systems will resemble nothing more than a game of 52 Pickup without the picking up. Yes, it’s hard, but that’s why it’s always interesting: no matter what work you’re doing, there are new insults and traditions and ways of life to learn. (Most of this learning will be accompanied by the oft-repeated phrase “You no got sense?”) The people you meet will tease you mercilessly, but they will also feed you and laugh with you, teach you to cook, tell you stories and demand you put your hat on before you get sunburnt. You’ll learn the names of their children and the places and experiences of their childhood, and you won’t want to leave them.

Soon before I left, I told my supervisor she was going to miss me, and she laughed.

“You wish I’ll miss you, skinny rake.”

Of course, what I really meant is this: I will miss you, all of you.

Apply for the Aurora Project. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll get the chance to miss them too.