A pearler far, far away

The islands off Cape York beckon Jane E. Fraser.

It is a good thing that it takes several hours of travelling to get to the Torres Strait.

Not because one particularly enjoys sitting on aircraft but because this spectacularly beautiful group of islands beyond the tip of Cape York would surely be swamped by tourists if it was a little easier to reach.

This is a place where you get a genuine encounter with nature and people rather than a white-bread experience packaged by an international hotel chain.

There are no big resorts and no big brands, just locally owned businesses encouraging visitors to enjoy the turquoise waters, coral-fringed islands and proud culture of the region.

Tourist numbers will no doubt grow over time, but distance, cultural considerations and the modern traveller's desire for a quick-fix holiday mean the Torres Strait will never be mainstream.

There are so many great experiences to be had in this archipelago, from having a drink with the locals in "Australia's top pub" (no one can deny their claim; the Torres Hotel on Thursday Island is the northernmost drinking hole in the country), to sifting through pretty shells and coral on a deserted beach. From learning about the pearling industry to tasting the succulent meat of a freshly caught crayfish or biting into a sweet wangai plum, warm from the tree.

For us, the highlight is two nights in a small, community-owned resort on Poruma Island, a short flight from the gateway of Horn Island.

It is worth going for the journey alone, flying low over islands in a small plane, spotting turtles and reef sharks in the glinting water and a rusting ship long ago stranded on a coral reef. It is also worth it because Poruma (formerly Coconut Island) is the most authentic of the islands accessible to visitors, with tourists needing special permission to venture to most of the 17 inhabited islands in the strait.

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Beyond the "Westernised" communities of Horn and Thursday Islands, islanders maintain a traditional way of living and are protected from outside influences. Poruma Island is the exception, having built two luxurious beachfront huts as a means of bringing controlled tourism to the island. The huts have been built with local timbers and are beautifully appointed, with an open-plan design flowing from the bedroom down to a plunge pool and then into a living and dining area. All meals are brought to your hut and it is only steps to the water.

My snorkelling in the lagoon at the front of our hut comes to an end when I come face to face with a reef shark (supposedly harmless but still a sh-sh-shark), but I am just as happy looking at the sea from the comfort of a deckchair.

A steady flow of large ships being piloted through the narrow shipping channel between Poruma and another island gives us something to watch as we eat delicious meals at our breakfast bar. One such vessel is a huge Red Cross ship, headed in the direction of Asia.

The greatest exertion comes with a walk around the island, where we meet a group of young children trying to open a coconut with a large kitchen knife. "Don't distract them!" my husband warns, as I get out my camera.

It is, indeed, a long way to hospital.

Other locals (the island is home to about 200 people) are collecting pipis on the beach. Fishing is not really a commercial activity here, with locals mainly catching fish for the next meal and supplementing the seafood with food supplies shipped in from the mainland.

The Poruma residents are friendly to visitors but conversation is limited, as English is not widely spoken. The pure language of the island is Kul Ke Laig, but the main language of the Torres Strait is Torres Creole, a pidgin that allows islanders from different language groups to communicate.

The children on the beach are keen to talk to us, asking "Wad your name?", but we don't get far past basic greetings, which is a shame because there are many questions we would like to ask them.

The best source of information on local customs is the small but impressive Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island. Here we are met by guide Frank, who stands silent for a puzzling length of time before launching into a captivating 20-minute monologue about his culture and traditions.

He later explains that he has trouble getting started in English but once he begins he cannot stop, for fear of mixing up his languages. We feel no desire to stop him as he speaks with dancing words about local customs, fishing methods and the ongoing practice of initiation, which involves detailed learning about the natural environment and ends with the ceremonial spearing and eating of a dugong.

We also take a tour of the island with the locally owned Peddells Tours, visiting the Green Hill Fort, which now houses an interesting museum, and the Quetta Memorial Church, which features the original bell from the nearby Quetta shipwreck.

We stop at a cemetery where more than 700 Japanese pearl shell divers are buried, their simple gravestones illuminating the huge cost of this once-lucrative industry. Our guide explains that pearl shell was once the main industry of the area but this came to an end with the advent of plastic, which replaced the need for pearl shell buttons.

The cultured pearl industry came to the islands in the 1960s and it is a visit to a pearl farm that is our plan for the afternoon. We join delightful tour operator and fishing guide Tony Titasey for a boat trip across to Friday Island, where we chat to pearl-farming veteran Kazuyoshi Takami and discover that trade is no simple business.

He explains the intricacies of creating perfect pearls and shows us how he seeds mature oyster shells with tiny round balls that act as nuclei. I wince as he then collects mature pearls from other shells, cutting into the flesh of the oyster and lifting out the pearl like a caesarean section. Once seeded, the oyster shell takes two and a half years to produce its pearl.

I've never been a great lover of pearls but after seeing them "born" in this island paradise, I find a new beauty in them.

They were for me what the Torres Strait is to most Australians: very much underestimated.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: QantasLink (13 13 13, http://www.qantas.com.au) flies from Cairns to Horn Island, the gateway to the Torres Strait. From Horn Island, small airlines and ferry operators provide transfers to other islands.

Further information: For transport, accommodation and activities, phone Queensland Holidays on 13 88 33 or see www.queenslandholidays.com.au.

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