Did you know that Dugong tastes like pork, with the texture of fresh tuna, and has a big ol’ band of fat around it (as you might imagine)?
You may wonder how I know this…
Well, to understand the background of this tasty dish, I’ll have to take you back in time about 40 years, to Brisbane just after the ’74 floods…
My parents and I lived in Ross Street, Newstead, in a tall, brown Queenslander that backed on to Breakfast Creek. My Dad’s business, Se7en Seas Marine, was the first boat building yard along this stretch of water, and my parents lived and worked in the same premises.
Under the house was the office where Mum managed the business, and in the back yard were the sheds where my Dad and the lads built boats. I remember so much about that property, even though I was only four years old at the time – the feel of the sea-grass matting floors, the smell of turps and resin from Dad’s boatyard behind the house, the muddy waters of the creek where I caught my first catfish.
I also remember my Dad wading through Ross Street, past the Breakky Creek Hotel with me on his shoulders, the Brisbane River somewhere under his armpits when the 1974 floods took it all away from us.
One day, shortly after the muddy clean-up, Dad was standing on the eroded bank of Brekky Creek, looking thoughtfully towards the Brisbane River. As he contemplated his future, he saw a small fishing boat approaching, sitting very low in the water. When he saw that it was carrying six burly men, dark as night, he soon understood why.
The first man to alight from the boat was a chap called Steve Mam, and Dad was to discover that he and the five boys aboard were from the Torres Strait Islands, north of Australia’s top end. His boat needed fixing after the flood and Dad’s boatyard was just the place he needed.
From fixing that fishing boat came other jobs to build boats for the Torres Strait Islander community, and all of a sudden, Dad found himself working among a group of people who, like his own Indian culture, held family, community, pride and passion very close to their hearts.
It wasn’t easy for Dad, living in the thick of Bjelke-Peterson’s police state, and he had yet to find his tribe in Brisbane. He was a charming, beautifully-spoken mariner, who had spent half his life living in Europe, sailing those seven seas as a ships’ engineer. But here in Queensland, he was still a dark-skinned fellow living in a country with a Whiter-is-Brighter policy.
The Torres Strait Islanders adopted my Dad, Mum and I into their clan as their own. They became know to the islander kids as Uncle Ritchie and Aunty Sue, while Steve, and his wife Pam, who hailed from Palm Island, became our second family. When my brother was born, they became his Godparents, and their daughter, Tomasina, became my adopted sister, simply because I adored her.
Mum, Dad and I spent many a weekend boating around the Moreton Bay Islands with the TI clan, fishing, dancing, singing and eating. When my brother was older, he even went on a holiday with Dad to the Torres Strait where he experienced Island life first-hand.
I remember, so clearly, feeling wild and free on our boat trips in the mangroves around Stradbroke Island as a child. Watching the big boys fishing and learning a trick or two about crabbing. Watching the men doing their traditional dances on the beach in grass skirts.
Watching the women digging deep in the sand preparing the Kup Murri to cook the turtle that was caught earlier that day. Or perhaps a dugong…
I made some of the best friends in my life during those times. As a lonely, only child before my brother arrived, I relished these chances to play with other children. I didn’t notice the colour of their skin because it was the same, give or take a shade or two, as my father’s.
When my parents separated a few years later, the damage from the ’74 floods spreading years into their future, we lost touch with these friends as our lives moved in different directions. It was 10 years before we saw them again, when Dad returned to Australia from abroad and started working with Steve on ATSI Projects for IINA Torres Strait Island Corporation. When the Howard government shut it all down in the ’90s, we lost touch with our Islander family once again, as Dad moved into the Spice Industry.
Fast forward 30 years. To Steve Mam’s funeral. Just recently.
During those lost years, Steve had become one of the Torres Strait Islands’ most revered elders, having represented his nation and people through some very tough times. Tireless Warrior, ATSI Unifier, 2005 NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year, Father, Grandfather, Great-Grandfather and Uncle are just some of the things Steve was known as. His political activism saw him commit his life to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, striving for equality, autonomy and economic stability. His enormous heart worked in unity with his incredible mind, for the good of so many.
My Dad reconnected with many old friends at Steve’s wake, as did I. Steve’s wife, Pam, welcomed us both with a warm and loving embrace, despite the lost years, and her own pain and loss, guiding my father to the Elders’ Table when dinner was ready. Not as an honorary guest, but as an Honoured Elder – Uncle Ritchie. Colleague, friend and brother to Uncle Steve.
Tomasina, Steve’s daughter, enfolded me into her arms, the sister I once adored still there. She’s a grandmother now, and a cultural leader, and tonight I had the joy of watching Kitty play with her newest granddaughter, while Tomasina project managed the whole event.
And out in the grounds of Woodridge High School, whose headmistress generously offered their grounds and amenities for this celebration of Steve’s life, the Torres Strait Islander children took my children under their wing where they played and played and played.
Kitty and Will have had little or no contact with the ATSI community, and all it took was a rubber ball and an introduction, before firm friendships were forged. Handball was played, wrestling and tackling soon followed and a tribe was found. Just as I had 40 years ago.
The children were so hungry from all that fun, they even tried some dugong for dinner… See, I told you we’d get there!
Next year, we plan to take the children to the Torres Strait Islands to meet their adopted indigenous family, one on one, under happier circumstances.
We want them to get to know the magnificent culture that was gifted to my family on a small, broken-down fishing boat puttering up Breakfast Creek – the only silver lining to the Brisbane floods of 1974.
Vale Uncle Steve, and thank you for welcoming my family into yours, and never letting us go. We are so proud of all of your incredible achievements and will never forget you.