Off Season Odyssey Pt.40
The Suns and Cruising As If In Commodores
We’re in the Islander community of Umagico, working through a massive fig tree, reducing it, branch by branch, to memory. The arborist is hanging from his winch some fifty feet up, in green ants and rain:
“Check it out,” he turns off his saw.
There’s a lot about this Islander community that reminds me of Cuba. It has the same heat, stray dogs, loud music blaring from each fibro house. English is the third language. Kids roam at the same lazy pace, they play outdoors. The people aren’t rushed.
We hear wailing, loud, full of sweet, bitter unchained hurt. It doesn’t fully twig. Then somebody comes over and asks us to stop until the funeral is done.
I turn off the chipper. What matters matters, what doesn’t doesn’t. Work can wait a while.
We suck in air, I take in the world.
The Top End feels more like an island than Australia because there’s so little that’s American here. No homies or rap blaring, no KFCs, or fearing your neighbours. Girls don’t say “like” and “totally”. Boys don’t say “Douchebag”. There are no skateboards.
Language is everything, carries a culture. Nobody here starts with “Hey guys.”
Family come and go from every house. There are still rituals for coming of age. People call out rather than phone.
The one store looks like just another dust-covered slab of cinderblock and fibro.
While waiting for the funeral to dissipate I walk around back of next door to watch group of five Islanders butcher a giant turtle.
It’s been placed on its back, still alive. They sharpen their tools, cut off its legs, and rip off its shell, in good lazy time, before finally stopping its heart. One of them tells me what they do with the shells. He asks if I want to come hunting next time?
“Sure. Do you want a kick?” I ask, in return.
“Rugby?” he says.
“Aussie rules,” I tell him.
“AFL?” one of his mates asks.
Up here, in the sport frontiers, where there is no advertising because there’s no money and the heat, wet and dust fade all colour into the clay background, every group of Aboriginal kids, every mob of Islanders, call football AFL. Every league is called AFL. AFL Darwin, AFL Townsville. Weipa’s AFL ground. It shits me. I hope the marketing boys from the Australian Football League are sleeping with big smiles and bigger hard-ons, that they realise what they’ve done. That they’ve won.
“Not AFL,” I insist. “It’s Aussie Rules.”
They give me blank stares.
“Have a drink with us,” one of them says.
That’s also fine.
When the day is finally squeezed in its heart, I watch the work truck go, along the thin, wonky road full of tropical forest, vines, scrubby bush, giant termite hills and roaming brumby, to Seisia, where we’re camping, just down from the jetty.
I’m always telling the boys to leave me somewhere. They must think I’m mad.
“You want AFL, go to New Mapoon,” one of the Islanders says.
New Mapoon is an Aboriginal community that seems to pretty much keep to itself. They were down in the Gulf, just outside Weipa, but when mining was discovered, the government moved the whole township to this small pocket of nowhere. Put ‘New’ in front of their name. When the work truck passes it each morning, I can just make out the most northern footy oval in Australia, with bashed in sheds and small, rusted scaffolding stands.
“Don’t go there,” the Word has been telling me.
Not just the whites, either, who are few and also, mostly, keep to themselves. The locals from Seisia, from Bamaga, give me the same Word.
“New Mapoon is trouble.”
I’m both sick of and love the Word. You learn so much more through it than any other way. Yet so much of what you learn is full of shit. Like with many things, with life, I need it and it screws me around.
The Word is a raffle, too often sold by the scared.
“I’m telling you, tomorrow, AFL. New Mapoon,” the Islander insists.
I hitch back to Seisia after dark, getting a lift before I’ve even stuck out my thumb.
Next knock-off, the boys are all in the truck’s cabin, wet to the bone, exhausted, clinging to their bourbons and beers. They just want home. Rodge does the right thing, getting back into the truck and dropping me about 1km from the oval.
When I get there it has Aboriginal kids on it. Lots of them. And the sharpest red and yellow jumpers I’ve ever seen. In this place of browns, greys and endless green, I know the people who built the Gold Coast Suns have done right. That their colours work.
That they demand.
About four of their list are taking a clinic up here. The kids are having a ball.
“Of all places,” I say, and talk to their camera man.
His name is Ben. He doesn’t play, but loves the sport and studied film and is being paid to record this small-time tour of Cape York.
Zack Smith, the Suns ruckman and only white bloke here, is the biggest hit. His height and good nature have the kids in love. They swing off him and jump on him, they wear themselves off his neck like a cape and get whirly rides and sometimes even kick him a ball.
Ben captures it all. He tells the kids to put on the free Suns caps they’ve just been given, then gets Zack down on his knees so they can take speckies and try to beat him in the ruck.
Ben seems like a nice enough bloke, but I’m finding it all sort of annoying. The caps, the video. It feels like propaganda, almost disrespectful. As if they wouldn’t bother sending their players up here otherwise.
Dwayne Bosen, a jet from the Cairns league, is running the show, but Jarrod Harbrow, the ex-Footscray running defender, seems to be leader of the gang. When the session breaks into keepings off, he comes alive, dodging spinning, weaving through a sea of laughing, determined faces.
He has speed you have to see up close, moves incredibly easy, is quiet to talk to, but that quiet holds the presence of a quality player from the highest level, in his absolute prime.
I like the way he played at Footscray, and plays now. It reminds me of Wayne Shwass in his day, with that focused anger at the ball. A steel that doesn’t have to be loud.
We chat, briefly, between screaming kids, about not much at all.
Liam Patrick impresses most. I don’t know a thing about him other than he’s as dark as night and comes from a small community in central N.T. somewhere.
Every time the ball’s down the other end, rather than move to space, like the others, he leans down at the first question, elbow on knee, so he’s the same height at the kids who asked it, and talks to them. About footy, its rules, about things not footy. About their lives. Just talks and listens, not booming from up high, but eye to eye.
What a champion!
There’s no movement in what he’s doing, so it doesn’t get filmed.
Ben’s busy enough anyway. Some boys have figured out his tripod is latch controlled, and are asking, fascinated:
“What does this one do?” as they yank it,
“Or this one?” pulling it,
“Or this?” unhooking it,
while he tries to do them up again, all three legs zipping up and down like yoyos.
A girl gets the footy and won’t pass it, even though she knows she’s going to be tackled. She just runs, laughing, shrieking. Liam corrals her through the traffic, growling and sniggering. Having great moments of fun, rather than pay.
His colour helps here. His heritage does. Only a fool would say otherwise. The Suns have chosen their role models well.
Dwayne seems like a top bloke. Young, fit. He comes from this way, but moved to Cairns for football years ago. He got the job doing clinics when somebody saw him playing in rep teams. He’s only 23-24, which at times shows, and gives off the impression he still wants to play AFL. The real one.
“Yeah, this is bit of a dream,” he tells me. “Doing what I love, footy stuff, for a living.”
Dwayne believes in it.
“It makes a difference,” he says, with conviction. “Some of the kids who come back from the camps we run… they walk taller, are more responsible. It works. Positive role models…”
When I tell a few stories, Jarrod and Dwayne give each other a look each time one hits. All the Suns do it. As if they hear a lot of stories. As if they hear a lot of talk. The same sort of talk. As if nodding, or eye contact with each other is enough.
I’m jealous of that. The way they carry their own language. Their own knowledge of things.
I don’t really know any of them, so don’t have much to say, not like this. I’m not going to gush.
Dwayne continues to be a top bloke.
“If you’re coming to Cairns…” he starts, but I explain I’m not. If I get home, I’ll be cutting through the desert to get there. Driving in one never-ending straight line.
I ask him who he plays for?
“North Cairns. The Tigers. No.8,” he says.
He seems like a good person to be a mate with, have a beer or three, but we’re all passing though as if everything is moving except the ground under our footy boots. Me, him, the Suns players, all in separate directions. The best I can do, wherever I end up, is keep tabs through the footy scores.
Barrack for the man.
Who knows where footy will take him? It’s already given the bloke here, a run on the ‘G’ with the Dreamtime team, good luck and a great, broad smile.
A teacher comes over to Harbrow to make sure the Suns players are going to the Aboriginal community of Injinoo tomorrow, the Word tells me it’s a local party town.
The teacher’s knickers are dripping. It’s shameless. Jarrod’s polite, but beyond that, doesn’t seem to notice, or makes a good job of trying not to.
She’s heaven. A good sort to be working in schools out here, as attractive as all hell. Or I think she would be. She’s older than the footy players and body language adds a lot to a look. I’d like to know if she’s hot, or projecting like crazy, but she never bothers to turn my way.
Jarrod and I are both travelling through football, even though at its opposite ends.
He’s Indigenous, from Cairns, and obviously feels the importance of what he’s doing, going to schools, helping the kids. His conviction is a thing of gold.
Beyond that, I wonder what adventures the Suns players have had up here? Do they go out hunting with knotty old Islanders for dugong, then butcher and eat it with his family out back? Do they hook in with the tearaways, riding on their ute trays to go shooting when the pub shuts? Go digging for mud crabs? Are these clinics just duty, or do they know how lucky they are, how close to another way of life?
While I’ve been in and around Cape York, between work, I’ve had the shit beaten out of me by miners, swum in tropical storms, been the only white fella in local pool comps, locked up for a small spell, watched, after close, as Islanders who had been butchering karaoke all night broke into perfect, high pitched traditional dance and song, run a croc beach after dark, been told by the barman, on my second night in town “I’m going for a piss, then home. Just lock up when you’re done.”, had Aboriginal kids run out and all over the work truck, going crazy for the coconut milk when we cut back the palms, kicked a footy off the Tip towards P.N.G.. I’ve met people, both amazing and hard, and learned.
About stray dogs and the honey of native bees how easy it is to make a bamboo spear and in what ways the heat affects everything from goannas to coppers. About the politics of this place, and its body politic, how it runs, how it breathes. It’s sometimes nasty underside.
When to go hard and when to slide. A lot of it is slide.
If they wanted, the Suns players could have adventures of all kinds. With all sorts. Doors open for people from the AFL, staying within respect, they could rule the Top End, be as reckless, as wild and free as anyone.
All it would take is some risk.
But they have so much to lose and I have nothing. Maybe, I’m the lucky one? Maybe we all are.
Dean Jones once told a tale of the Aussie cricket team being led to an Asian palace, where they were seated at a grand table with clamp-like holes in front of each man. As a delicacy of the highest order, monkeys, still alive, had their heads put in, their skulls opened, and their brains offered with a spoon.
An ex-Swans player recalled, over a beer, getting a lift in Edelstein’s pink helicopter to a rich man’s party over the harbour.
A former Essendon, triple-Premiership champion told me how he came to FNQ, to Aussie Rules’ last outpost, to coach a team in the cane fields, amongst the burn-off smoke and toads, and never went home.
Then again, this is Rugby’s boneyard. Footy got me here, but work is why people say g’day.
When the Word tells me if I go into that pub I’ll leave with a black eye, I ignore it.
“You’re with that tree lopping crew, yeah?” the locals say, and we’re talking and all is fine.
Dwayne Bosen packs up the show, Zack Smith lets the kids goad him into game after game almost into sunset, while the others loiter all over the getaway car.
Ben, of course, is still filming, getting the kids to run straight at the camera, cutting red caps on. He tells me to hang around, he’ll get my details, do an interview, ‘A bloke who started at the southern most tip of Tasmania and travelled to the Top End through football, only to find the Suns’, but I can’t be bothered and slip away.
I wonder what other places footy will take these Gold Coast players? And, when they’re there, how far in they go?
They’re doing good up here. Best luck to them all.
As I leave, in drizzle and dusk, topless teenage boys ride horses the other way, bareback and slow, on show, smoking, as though cruising for trouble in VI Commodores.