Old Woman Island
By Rob Shackleford
Keith’s reaction was predictable, that mix of hope that what I told him was true, and that the tale was real, and, of course, tinged with doubt. “Are you sure?” he asked dubiously, his face screwed up with his old policeman’s tendency to weigh the truth on whatever anyone told him. I could imagine, in his mind’s eye, the scales held at arm’s length by Themis, the blindfolded goddess of justice, were beginning to tilt into the realms of falsehood.
“I have no idea,” I added quickly, almost reassuringly as I also wanted the tale to be true, “but it might be worth a look at, don’t you think?”
The retired cop, now resort manager, still with his regulation mustache and haircut, screwed up his face again, thought a moment and then smiled. Keith, like every guy, had a boy lurking within, just waiting for a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ like this. Coupled with how he would doubtlessly feel if the tale turned out to be true and he was not part of it … well, his participation was certain.
“Bloody oath mate! What’s the plan?”
It all started, like many things, with a story.
My father was retired and, with my mother, had launched into their new-found life of leisure as busily as if working full time. Dad had been made redundant as the factory where he was a tradesman had closed, so they opted for their sea change to Queensland’s aptly named Sunshine Coast. There they bought a clone of their old Brisbane home and spent their days swimming, gardening and painting pictures. Two days a week they set up stalls at one of the region’s ubiquitous markets and while my mother sold trinkets and ‘bric-a-brac’, my father sold old tools and paintings.
Naturally this involved meeting people and, as happens, old blokes would stop and chat with Dad about the tools and about painting in general. Conversations on a slow selling day would often ramble and that was when Dad met Maurie and heard his tale of Portuguese skeletons on Old Woman Island.
Every Aussie child has been filled with the tales of Captain Cook and how he ‘discovered’ Australia, or the east-coast at least, and claimed the brave new land of New Holland for King and Country. He then ran himself aground on the Great Barrier Reef and then sailed off again, eventually to be made into a sandwich at the Sandwich Islands, later renamed Hawaii.
What was not as well-known was the race to claim these mythical antipodean lands as British, especially as the French, life-long enemies, were also searching for this great southern land. The mysterious continent had been touched upon by Dutch adventurer and gold-hunter Abel Tasman over a hundred years before Cook, as he was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find the mythical land of Beach. He must have been an amazing guy as he and his crew initially missed Australia, but became the first known Europeans to sight and map Tasmania, New Zealand and Fiji. A later voyage saw Tasman map the comparatively desolate north coast of Australia.
But there has been a rather contentious sub-set of historians who advanced the theory that Portuguese, Chinese and even ancient Egyptian adventurers had seen and perhaps settled parts of Australia in even earlier times. But, in the absence of any archaeological proof, not a lot of credence is ever given to any serious proposals that earlier seafarers ever landed on Australia’s shores girt by sea.
So when we heard the tale from old Maurie, we could not be excused for being a little excited. For those of us who had any clue about Australia’s history, the implications were enormous, plus it would be fun. After all, who wouldn’t be tempted by tales of skeletons, swords, and an old cannon in a lost cave!
But I digress.
Dad phoned me, excited about this old bloke he had met at the markets and the tales he had told, so we decided to get together with old Maurie and see if he was the real deal. Fortunately, he lived just up the road from my home, in the rural, dairy country between what was then the sleepy little town of Woombye and the popular tourist village of Montville in the hinterlands.
When I first met Maurie I was impressed by two things. Firstly he was old but in great shape, at almost 90 not-out. He had the erect bearing that was a timeless reminder of the military. Secondly his mischief-filled grey eyes and natty Errol Flynn mustache meant he had the look of a classic tale-teller and bullshitter.
As we sat for a cup of tea he was thrilled that I was interested in his story. Well the Old Woman Island story at least, as we soon found out Maurie had a talent for spinning a lot of yarns. Finally we managed to direct him to his Old Woman Island account which in summary went as follows:
It was before the War, World War 2 that is, and Maurie and a mate were just a pair of young-teenagers who lived on the Sunshine Coast, back when it was a cluster of small fishing villages called the North Coast. One day they decided to boat across to Old Woman Island, the whale-shaped island off the coast just north of what was then the tiny village of Maroochydore. It was called Old Woman Island because an old woman was the only resident and she did not like visitors, as the boys soon found out. After fleeing the woman’s screeching, they explored the seaward end of the island; the bulbous end which from the shore looked like the whale’s head; and Maurie’s mate fell down a hidden hole.
While down the hole he yelled out “Bones! Bones!” not only for the one he had nearly broken in his leg, but also because he had landed in a cave where bones lay scattered. Maurie ran back to their boat, grabbed some anchor rope and then climbed down to his friend who was crouched, terrified, in the near dark.
Maurie described that there lay two human skeletons. One was as if the body was laid in state, where rust on the bones and the rock upon which it lay indicated a sword which had dissolved, leaving only a hilt clad in body fingers. A second pile of bones indicated another man had perished nearby.
On exploring the cave they found the sea accessed part of the cavity and in the water lay the remains of two cannons, one large, heavy and encrusted, almost deteriorated by the ocean, and the other smaller, upon which there was a barely readable insignia of Lisboa 143.?, meaning Lisbon, capital of Portugal and the 1430-and-something date.
So, just a short trip from popular local beaches might lay proof of Portuguese visitors, maybe over 300 years before Cook!
After escaping from the cave, the boys hurried back to Maroochydore, told their story and arranged for the Brisbane Museum to have a truck ready so they could transport the smaller gun to be collected. Remember, relics were not treated with as great value then as they are now. Maurie said they found access to the cave from the sea at low tide and slung the smaller gun under their old dingy before they rowed their find to where it was collected by the museum’s people.
The War started a few years later.
After the tale was told I glanced at Dad and his eyes shone! Every man is thrilled at a mixture of discovery, ancient bones, and an easy trip. Any such discovery could turn accepted historical convention onto its conservative ear.
Morrie was certainly a talker though and after some time we managed to extricate ourselves and made our plans.
I was, at that time, involved in the tumultuous mess of brawling businesses broadly described as the Tourism Industry and I had a few industry friends who might like to be in on our little escapade. In some way it felt like the Magnificent Seven, assembling a team for a potentially life-changing adventure, but without the physical peril or murdering Mexicans.
First was Franz. Impossibly good looking in a typical blonde European way he ran a local attraction and he was all in!
We continued on our search for worthy companions for our adventure. Like the Little Red Hen, many did not want to do any work but only wanted to be included once something was found.
Keith, was definitely in! But our key issue, only a minor one of course, was how we could get our intrepid team, including my dad and old Maurie, across to Old Woman Island only one kilometre off the coast north of the Maroochy River.
For the team now consisted of myself, Franz and Keith, each of us in our early forties and relatively fit and experienced with the sea. Then came my father who was in his early 70’s but in good condition, and then old Maurie, who had just nudged his 90th birthday.
We needed a boat and we needed to cross early in the morning when the weather was mild and the sea flat. Finally, as the Island was known not to possess any kind of beach, we relatively younger fellows were to be clad in wet suits, Navy Seals style, just in case we had to launch ourselves into the heaving ocean to protect our precious and potentially fragile cargo.
“No worries!” Keith exclaimed, “I have an inflatable boat we can use!”
I wanted to be sure. “This boat has a motor?” I imagined us paddling vainly in circles. Keith was not concerned, “Sure, it’s a small one but will get us the couple of kilometres across to Old Woman Island. Yeah”, he scoffed in the fashion which had me ashamed to even doubt. ”No worries!”
“And it will take five of us across okay?” I bravely persisted.
He paused only a second and frowned, “Yeah mate, she’ll be right”.
The morning was set and the spring day arrived, calm and clear. Dad and I collected Maurie at first light and he must have been excited because he never stopped talking. He seemed to interpret that I was the most likely to give heed to his stories. In the thirty minute drive to the coast he barely took a breath.
“Let me tell you about when I was young”, he started.
It was ridiculously early and I had not started my heart with a morning coffee so was at his mercy.
“When I was a boy I used to clean the aeroplanes on a small landing strip near my Uncle’s place out west. I didn’t get paid, I just loved the planes and one of the blokes there, Paul McGinness, asked me if I would like to learn how to fly, so he stood on the wing and leaned over the cockpit and told me what to do and he had me flying in no time.”
I frowned, “So, he was standing on the wing as you flew.”
Maurie nodded happily, “Yeah! He told me what to do though and after a while he let me fly by myself. He and a few other blokes started a little venture called QANTAS and when I was old enough I became one of their pilots.”
“Yep”, he nodded, his eyes twinkled and mustache twitched with humour, “but that was after I was a pilot in the war, well until I was shot down over Indonesia that was.”
I looked at Dad and he appeared convinced, but my experience was that old tales where often that, just tales. I had the beginnings of doubt about old Maurie, for if he told untrue tales about his life, it was likely our jaunt to Old Woman Island was also nothing but a tale.
“What happened to you then?” Dad asked, captivated.
“Oh I was caught by the Japanese and they crucified me!” he continued nonchalantly.
“Really?” I asked, trying not to let my growing misgivings show, but we had pulled up to our departure point near the mouth of the Maroochy River. We were on the much more accessible southern bank and fortunately it was a perfect, Spring day, for the surf needed to be non-existent as crossing the bar of the Maroochy River could, at times, be suicidal. We climbed from the car and greeted Franz with a wave. He had his wet-suit donned and looked all pumped up and ready to go.
As we clambered from the car, Maurie talked non-stop but I missed much of his saga. I was keen to get to Keith’s inflatable craft and get us all on board. I could see us tearing across the water like an SAS raiding party. The adrenaline began to surge as I imagined the salt spray and the wind in our hair as we hurtled into history. There would be news stories, discussions with academics and archaeologists, and of course infamy and notoriety.
Maurie and Dad met Franz and Keith. I was struck by how we tended to live such banal lives, where much of life’s savor is washed away in our desires for predictability and stability. As I looked toward Old Woman Island, I realised neither I nor anyone I knew had ever been there. It was so close, yet suddenly so mysterious.
I pulled on my wet-suit and dive-boots and headed down the beach to the River. Keith had gone to lock his car and we waited by the shore, next to where someone had left a child’s yellow inflatable raft. I turned to follow Keith so we could watch him jet from where he had moored his boat only to find, with horror, he gestured to the child’s boat.
He had covered the tiny engine with a towel. Forget about horsepower, it looked like the output would be measured in guinea-pig power. I suspected a joke but he looked serious. My fears were not isolated to my own little fantasy world as Franz asked casually, though with a hint of rising panic, “Um, will that hold us all?”
There were five grown men, two of them older gentlemen for whom we had to care and hopefully keep dry. When I looked at the little child’s boat I felt uncertain. God knew what would happen if a half decent wave hit. I had visions of men flying everywhere to land into the shark-infested ocean. Maybe we would get into the morning papers, but for all the wrong reasons!
Keith appeared unperturbed. “Yair, she’ll be right!” he affirmed as he pulled the starter chord for the motor and it roared to life with a mosquito-like whine.
I looked to Dad and Maurie but they happily clambered into the boat to sit onto the sagging floor in the middle, almost filling the craft, and I passed a look to Franz who merely shrugged and took a seat the only place he could, on the roundly inflated side of the boat. He had to do so gingerly as he risked tipping the craft, so I sat opposite and Keith took his seat at the rear next to the motor and we were off – well sort of.
Five grown men on some kids’’s inflatable raft. I sincerely hoped that no-one we knew saw us.
It was a beautiful day, with wispy mares-tails in a cobalt sky which looked to promise a picture-postcard experience. As we puttered over the crystal water we passed the potentially treacherous Maroochy River Bar with barely a ripple and Maurie decided to continue his tale. “You know how I was saying I was shot down in the War?” and I nodded, not sure what would follow. I had yet to decide if Maurie had lived the most adventurous life ever, or if he was just an old bullshitter. My impressions tended to propel me to the latter theory, but it looked like I had little choice as I was going to hear his story anyway. ‘Well the Japs caught me and crucified me to a sign at the centre of a native village.” Keith made a noise which sounded like a snort, but Franz, polite as always, made no comment. Maurie however looked to Keith and appeared hurt that his life recollections would be placed under any misgivings. “I was crucified you know,” he exclaimed as he rolled up the sleeves of his light pullover he wore in the morning breeze. “See, I have the scars!” and to my surprise he had the pale, papyrus-like scars through his bony wrists and the palms of his hands. “I had to stand to take my weight but in the end I just hung there. The Japs left me for dead and I was lucky that some of the local villagers rescued me and carried me by boat through the mangroves till we got to our lines.” He kept talking, his eyes lost in memories as he rolled down his sleeves, “They would have been killed by the Japs if they had caught them helping me, but they did help me and in the end I survived.”
“Bloody hell Maurie,” exclaimed Franz in his Flemish accented English, “that is a hell of a story. Has anyone ever written this down?”
Maurie shrugged and smiled again, his mischievous gleam back as his pencil-thin mustache twitched. “After the war, I flew for QANTAS and did so for about forty years. I was one of their original pilots,” and he looked wistful, “I saw the world!” He looked up as he watched the island get closer, “but I always wondered about Old Woman Island. I haven’t been here since the day we collected the cannon for the museum.” Again there was the twinkle, “It wasn’t a cannon really, but a kind of swivel gun for what looked like light skirmishes, anti-personnel stuff I think.”
Thankfully, the overloaded craft approached the island without incident, though soon we rode smooth emerald muscle of swell that crashed in foamy waves upon the rocky shore. As soon as it was shallow enough, the three of us clad in wet-suits dropped overboard to hold the boat steady and man-handle it to a suitable landing place where Dad and Maurie could safely disembark onto the boulders. One person could have held the boat safely, but we had to do something to justify our wet suits.
Finally, we were on Old Woman Island. Here we would find the cave and see what remained.
The adrenaline surged and, with rising expectation we dragged the tiny boat safely upon the rocks above the surf-line and then hiked from where we had landed at the tail of the whale.
Like most small islands, Old Woman Island was not very impressive. There were a few trees, though most were mere shrubs or stunted dwarf varieties that grew twisted and tortured to follow the unremitting force of the prevailing south-easterly winds. As we wandered up the gentle grassy slope toward the bulbous head of the Island, where Maurie’s cave would be, Maurie became even more animated. He repeatedly told the story of his discovery of the skeletons in the cave and his friend yelling “Bones! Bones!” There was little doubt as to his sincerity, that this was indeed the place.
Half-way to the head of the island we passed a rough camp covered with a blue tarpaulin under which a couple of stoned young blokes reclined in their dread-locked splendor. On seeing us, one of the men lurched unsteadily to his feet and, in spotting the obvious cop-like features of Keith, turned a lighter shade of pale. One did not have to be a genius to know the guys were growing dope, but despite Keith’s sternly authoritative visage and mutterings under his breath, we passed them by. We had more important tasks at hand.
Maurie was almost peeing himself in excitement. He had endured the climb from the boat and up the hill without incident and for some minutes he searched for the opening to the cave.
There was nothing even vaguely resembling a hole, nor that one had ever existed. He was visibly shaken and upset. “It was here, I swear it!” he said. We stood at the crest of a bare hill, only meters from the crashing waves that endlessly pounded the rocky cliff.
“Maybe the cave has caved in?” Dad suggested. We all carefully gazed over the face of the cliff at the jumble of broken boulders below. The cave-in theory certainly seemed plausible.
We clambered down the cliff to explore the rocks and boulders that littered the windward face of the island. We knew this rocky face would bear the brunt of every major storm and cyclone that had passed by over the past seventy-odd years since Maurie and his friend’s discovery. If there was any doubt of the old man’s sincerity it, ended right there on that rocky shore as he wept at his loss. “It was here! The cave was here and the bones were here!” He wiped tears from his rheumy eyes and blew his nose noisily, as old men do.
With our dreams crushed, comforting hands patted Maurie’s shoulder and, as our cursory exploration revealed no bones or sword hilt, we headed back to the little yellow dinghy. The remorseless sea had taken its toll and our meagre searching proved to be futile.
The return back to Maroochydore was an anticlimax. We simply puttered back and then secured the tiny boat onto the roof of Keith’s car. After changing into street clothes we enjoyed a cafe breakfast and joked about what we had hoped to find.
Where to from here? we asked. Perhaps we could initiate a magnetometer survey around the island to detect metallic remains of anchors, just in case the skeletons were remnants of a shipwreck. I since learned that many anchors of that era could often have been simple wooden structures weighed with rocks rather than the iron anchor we see in pirate movies or as tattooed on Popeye’s bulbous forearm. So our efforts became a source of amusement for those who wanted to be included in any spoils but did not wish to invest any time and effort. The world, after all, is full of hangers-on. I did phone the Brisbane Museum to ask if a gun as described by Maurie was handed in before the war, but the amused museum administrator said pre-war museum artifact records were patchy at best, though his tone made it clear that tales of Portuguese remains were a source of continued academic bemusement. Alas, nothing had been found and it was doubtful anything of proof ever would be.
Life went on and we lost contact with Maurie. I only hope someone recorded his amazing stories, for those he told us that day still live with me now.
And whenever I see the familiar whale-shape of Old Woman Island, I can’t help but wonder.
The story of Old Woman Island is based on true events when I world\ed in the tourism industry for what was then Maroochy Shire. The mystery of Maurie’s tale and the sense of adventure is always worth a terrific yarn. But is it a yarn? I have yet to find out.
Rob Shackleford lives with partner, Debra-Jane, at Burleigh Heads, on Australia’s Gold Coast.
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