Spectrum 825 and Spectrum 826. Life on Cockatoo
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A two-part documentary.
In the late 1940's Ruth Martin and her husband exchanged a comfortable life in New Zealand for a harsh but colourful existence on the tiny isolated outpost of Cockatoo Island, off the western Australian coast.
Jack Perkins interviews Dunedin born and bred Ruth who met her husband Sam whilst he was studying engineering at Otago University. They married in 1943 and following the war Sam joined the Australian mining company BHP. After a stint in Malaya and the outback of New South Wales the couple headed to Cockatoo Island where Sam took up a manager’s position.
Ruth describes the journey to Cockatoo beginning with the DC3 flight from Perth known as the milk-run involving ten to twenty stops and a lot of rough men and cargo. Arriving in Derby at the end of the cyclone season she observed key community buildings had been flattened. Derby consisted of two old two story wooden hotels, a few rundown houses and two baobab trees which acted as a temporary prison.
Ruth explains the tall, bottle shaped trees had perfectly circular hollows fitted with barbed doors. The hotel was underwhelming; unattractive, dirty, inhabited by cockroaches and only offered a menu of salted beef or pork. After another twelve hour journey by boat they eventually arrived on the island.
Ruth says she was dispirited and hot, and everything appeared to be strange, new and distorted. However she remembers waking up the next morning still on the boat to the intensely beautiful view of the Buccaneer Archipelago.
She says the island's timber houses were built on stilts, with steel cables stretching over the roofs and anchored into concrete either side. She explains that as long as you stopped hankering for things you couldn’t have, you got very used to things. You had to accept the isolation; there were only twelve families and a few hundred men, and the only connection with civilisation was for an hour each morning over the radio.
The weekly boat ride was only in action when the tide was right and in the absence of cyclones. There was no air strip, doctor, dentist or fresh food – she remembers trying to bake her first cake. A local woman advised to use cinnamon or chocolate so as to disguise the presence of bugs that lived in the packets of flour. The raffling of the women’s home baking and beer rations made the Country Womens Association large amounts of money.
They sourced fresh fish whenever the local aboriginal tribes were passing and when the supply boat visited it was time to invite your neighbours over for a cup of tea made with fresh tea leaves, SAO biscuits and butter without green spots. When attending a CWA AGM in Perth she realised the women’s organisation was strongly against gambling and alcohol but she never mentioned that was how they actually made all their money.
About twelve children were required to be present on the island before the government would fund a schoolteacher so it was always an issue if families left the island. She says after initial reservations, the schoolteacher and his wife fell in love with island life staying until the government removed them ten years later.
Ruth describes how her baby had an accident and prompted a journey to the hospital in Derby. On her return, she says the only place to sit whilst waiting for the boat was on the hotel veranda. However, a young, new policeman approached them and insisted she moved the minor away from the bar area, a judgement which Ruth contested and nearly resulted in her arrest and imprisonment in the baobab tree.
A large percentage of Cockatoo’s population was made up of outlaws who would take flight when the Kimberley police made their annual visit – an event easy to spot as they arrived by boat. With the return of these shifty characters came spirits or grog, a party and fight would inevitably follow.The island’s nurse had a rule of thumb that if someone could prove their injury was “gained honestly” they could receive an anaesthetic but if not, she would stitch them up as is.
Ruth tells how a dozen men organised a ‘girl’ to stay in Derby exclusively for them to visit when on leave - the roster for which was quite a logistical job apparently. Ruth says the men often drank far too much; some would declare they were returning to Perth but never get past Derby because they'd drink through their pay-check.
She describes 'Two Tonne' a tall, muscular, rough bachelor who to the shock of the community managed to marry a sheltered, delicate young nurse new to Derby. However, once in the company of the island women the girl burst into tears and explained her distress – after the church service Two Tonne had left her alone in the hotel for three days whilst he partied with friends.
Ruth explains the girl eventually settled down and the couple had a baby. When the baby didn’t thrive due to a lack of breast milk Two Tonne told his wife to go to bed and left with the baby well nested in the truck. Near the construction site he tethered a nanny goat and bottle fed the baby goat’s milk over a fortnight. The baby gained weight, the wife recovered and Two Tonne returned home saying, “Well that’s enough women’s work for the week” and left again.
Ruth recalls the difficulties she encountered during her pregnancy – including getting off the island, the respect and high regard she held for the island’s first aid station nurse and a tour of the hospital in Derby which prompted her decision to travel to Perth to give birth.
Ruth describes the Derby Hospital labour ward which to her dismay was partitioned off from the end of the men’s ward and consisted of an army stretcher with a great sag in the middle, a 15 watt globe dangling above it and an enamel dish with, what looked to Ruth, like elephant forceps. In the matron’s room she recalls, the floor was lined with corrugated iron panels to prevent her falling through the remnants of floor boards which had been devoured by white ants.
At eight and a half months pregnant Ruth began her journey to Perth. She was hauled onto the boat’s deck in a cargo net before sailing through rolling cyclonic waves to dock at Derby’s wharf from where she crawled up a cattle ramp on her hands and knees in front of the town’s “entire population”.
Ruth describes the her stay at the Derby Hotel in one of the two best rooms located downstairs next to the bar. It was furnished with two beds, mosquito nets, unlined corrugated iron, a packing case and duchess (dressing table). She then took a plane to Perth with two pilots who had just experienced a horror flight delivering breached twins in the air the day before.
After a tense twelve hours in the air, they safely arrived in Perth and because no one was at the airport to meet her she accepted a ride with the pilots to The Adelphi Hotel. After enjoying herself at the bar for some time, she explains an ambulance arrived and whisked her away on a stretcher, much to her disappointment and the amusement of everyone else present, to deliver her to the maternity hospital. Ruth and Sam’s daughter was born two weeks later.
Ruth reflects on the fact that she wasn’t in good health, was actually suffering from malnutrition and after being bitten terribly by mosquitos on her way home spent the first month back on the island suffering from dengue fever. After that experience however she says her health came right.
She talks about the island’s baker, Horey who was an alcoholic and made good bread when he was sober and bad bread when he was drunk. Ruth retells the story of how she ran over to her neighbour’s house after hearing her scream hysterically and found her poised with a knife in the air looking down at a loaf of bread and Horey’s glass eye.
Perkins asks if she spent much time in Broome. Ruth admits it was a pretty unattractive place to visit and really only saw it when in transit. She describes Broome’s social hierarchy which resulted from having a greater variety of races due to the presence of the pearling industry. In the cinema she says people would be seated according to their race; with the white master pearlers at the top of this social ladder they took the rear rows and the aboriginal people at the bottom, seated in the front.
Ruth talks about how the church evicted the woman running Broome’s baby clinic from the church hall as she wouldn’t concede to their racist opinions. The woman managed to work out of the back of a truck until the Department of Health asked her to move somewhere more dignified. She happily settled into a decent sized, ground floor room in the local brothel but refrained from telling the Department who her landlord was.
Ruth talks about the difficulty the community had trying to watch open air movies during the cyclone season. Films were loaned to the island for a week so they got the chance to replay them if the rain washed out a screening, which it often could. She notes that apart from the odd play they put on themselves this was the only source of entertainment.
Perkins asks if domestic work was hard on the island. Ruth describes the precarious and difficult work of washing nappies and tells an amusing story about being caught off-guard by the unexpected arrival of a Bishop while she was heavily pregnant, polishing a concrete floor on hands and blackened knees and wearing inadequate knickers.
Ruth says it was sad how lonely the workers could get. At the Christmas party she explained you danced with whoever asked - it was not the done thing to say no to any of them. They were not well fed and housed in single dormitory type cubicles made with corrugated iron.
Ruth’s neighbours were both alcoholics and fought a lot when drinking (ironically the wife’s name was Temperance). One time, Ruth says Sam went next door and successfully stopped the husband from throwing rocks at his wife. Ruth acknowledges Sam was part of a special breed of executives that learned to deal with everything.
After four years they moved away and left the island with a mix of feelings - sad but mostly recognising it as an adventure that had come to an end.
Reference number 15097
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
MARTIN, Ruth, Interviewee
Perkins, Jack (b.1940), Interviewer
Radio New Zealand (estab. 1989), Broadcaster
Date 29 May 1994