Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

An Isle and a Reef

About fourteen miles north from Dunk Island, and three miles off the coast of North Queensland, lie the Barnard Islands, so named in 1819 by Captain (afterwards Admiral) Phillip P. King, in honour of his friend Edward Barnard.

Though condemned to spend most of the time as two isolated, jungle-covered knolls, the southernmost portion of the group (generally known as the South Barnards), is a single formation. A shallow sea separates the detached parts, but low-water spring tides expose a broad bond of union, an irrefragable proof of their oneness and indivisibility. The alliance may be secret, but is very secure. It frets the intemperate sea, and makes it froth and roar with rage. Outlasting all the blustering fury, it is stolidly irresponsive, too, when the coiling coquette gently slaps its face with the softest of white flounces. This rustic bond, defiant to all the moods of the unstable sea, confirms the legitimacy of the union of the Isle, and forms an interesting feature in a pretty scene.

Another reef, or ridge, or causeway, true as a surveyor’s line, juts out from the western point, almost parallel with the main and complete connecting-link. This smaller spur acts as a break-water, and the terminus is furnished with a rough T, which, though rather jumbled and broken seems to indicate that Nature designed, in her off-hand way, a plan worthy the imitation of man.

The smaller of the ridges is basaltic, and in its ruggedness resembles the jaw of “some pre-Adamite beast setting its teeth against the sky;” yet the larger portion of the Isle is coarse sandstone, or rather conglomerate, with basaltic blocks and boulders. A miniature bluff, sixty or eighty feet high, accentuates the south-western aspect, and at the base of it are strewn huge blocks which the vortices of the sea have torn down. Rather a rich brown in general tone, the exposed surfaces of the bluff display an attractive collection of geological fragments, rough and angular pebbles and sharp chips of speckled granite quartz of the purity of alabaster, reddish-grey porphyry, with occasional pieces of brick-red sandstone, nodules of greenish-black basalt, etc.

Under the attacks of the sea, the bluff is being rapidly broken down. Ledges, niches and hollows have been worn on the precipitous face. Just out of the reach of the salt surges, the rock is fretted with the fibrous roots of fig and umbrella-trees, pandanus palm and hibiscus bushes. The better half of the Isle may be best described as a mass of conglomerate and basalt resting upon a platform of basalt of extreme density. At a rough estimate it is less than twenty acres in area.

Originally, save for two or three of the steeper individual slopes, the whole surface was covered with jungle. A great part still remains, the luxuriousness of which seems extraordinary when one regards the thinness of the soil and apparent sterility of the rough conglomerate. The vegetation is there, glorious in its profuseness and healthiness. Very many years ago the islet was the headquarters of a béche-de-mer fisherman. He began the clearing of the western aspect, where the soil is red and very fertile. Then another took up his abode, extended the clearing, planted coco-nut palms, several kinds of fruit trees, sugar-cane, sweet potatoes, taro, etc., etc., and went his way. The last-comer revels in the fruits of former industry, for the man who demonstrated the resources of the soil now resides at Murdering Point, three miles to the west, and the islet smiles complacently to itself, except when sportsmen come to do violence to its birds.

The chief vegetable feature of the islet nowadays is the marvellous robustness of its papaws. Upon this ideal spot the plant has set its foot, and is at home. No one who admires the papaw could, without breach of courtesy, attribute to it the vulgar habit of crowding upon and elbowing away other vegetation possessing equal rights to a common plot. But if the papaw is not in this particular republic of vegetation becoming tyranically rude, it is at least very boldly asserting its rights. On the slopes, on the edges of the jungle, among basalt boulders, on the highest elevation, on rocky terraces, where there is no soil save in cracks and crevices, deep in the heart of the jungle are self-centred groves of papaws. At the base of a romantic cliff of basalt reposes a forest of papaws — not spindly weaklings, but sturdy plants, thirty feet high, fruitful and odorous. Up and over the verge of this little basaltic precipice the facile wind blows from a befittingly narrow ravine, heavily freighted with perfume of a whole grove, down upon the lusty heads of which we admiringly gaze.

It is the very paradise of papaws. They flourish in places, and situations, and under conditions hitherto considered impossible or unseemly in such a discreet and orderly plant. They have abandoned all reserve, submitting to the touch and strong embraces of the aboriginal plants of the isle, and even stamping them underfoot or shoving them away from accustomed places.

In genial air, and soil to its liking, the natural habit of the papaw finds true expression. With its tap-root squeezed and flattened in the crevice of a rock, it sends its feeders over the surface, gripping like a parasite, and gathering sustenance from uncompromising conglomerate. The gale may uproot a seemingly ambitious plant, but it will not die. It grows as it lies recumbent, with a kink in its neck, gamely contending for its share of sunlight, and offering abundant and easily gathered tribute — fruit large and without spot or blemish. Tons of papaws might be gathered where, according to accepted tradition, the plant could hardly be expected to grow. Is there a satisfactory reason for the wonderful vigour of the desirable plant among basalt and conglomerate?

Yes, plainly so.

Possibly for thousands of years this islet has been one of the “rookeries” of the white nutmeg pigeon. Millions have mated and reared families here, and thousands do so to this day. On the 11th August we saw the first flight of the season of nesting birds. So vast are the flocks that the very rocks must have become saturated with manure; for the birds breed during the first part of the wet season, and the average annual rainfall is about 140 inches.

A gardener will tell you that, if you place a quarry at his disposal and provide him with manure and water, he will convert it into a garden. Nature on this spot provides an apt illustration, and this sumptuous display of fruitfulness reacts on the birds. In spite of the raids of sportsmen, nutmeg pigeons come in thousands, and are not without company. During a morning’s all-too-hasty exploration I noted also the tranquil dove, rose-crowned fruit-pigeon, scrub-fowl, brown quail, leaden flycatcher, black-and-white flycatcher; varied honey-eater, eastern swallow, white-rumped wood-swallow, silver-eye, black-and-white caterpillar-eater, nightjar, sacred kingfisher, sordid kingfisher, black-cheeked falcon, osprey, brown kite, and the shrill tern whose call has been described as a blending of a cat’s mieow with the squeak of a rusty key.

The bird season is yet at its beginning. No doubt this informal census might be triplicated if the observation extended over a week. Of course, it is inevitable that I should urge upon those who are in closer association with the Isle than myself to strive to have it proclaimed a sanctuary for birds. Shooting in such a spot is not sport, and might be described as sacrilege.

Between the South Barnards and the mainland extend King’s Reefs, miles of coral-rock and sandy shallows. There is a passage through the reefs; but it is so intricate that in default of exact local knowledge its navigation is dangerous, though at high tides the smaller coastal steamers may pass in almost any direction without concern. Though not as fruitful as many a similar area adjacent to the coast, King’s Reefs are decidedly interesting to the observer of marine fauna. Varied and fantastic forms of coral are not plentiful, but huge blocks standing on sturdy pedestals, tipsy toadstools, and irregular mushrooms are common enough. Narrow fjords, sparkling clear, wind through and intersect the masses of coral, and fish, bright as butterflies and far more alert, flash in and out of mazes more bewildering than that in which Rosamund’s bower was secluded.

On the sandy flats, and among corals of less robust habit, starfish are plentiful, the commonest variety being about a foot in width, red, with black bosses. Though bright red seemed to be most fashionable, the colour occurred in all shades, the lowest tone being a creamy pink. One fish obtained on the main reef was about eight inches long and, though belonging to the gaily decorated parrot species, struck quite a superior note, its colours being alternate bands of vivid vermillion and the boldest blue, the eyes flame-hued with sapphire-blue pupils, and the prominent teeth like flawless turquoise.

Two days were spent in exploring the islet and its surroundings, the last being devoted to the outlying detached portion of the reef lying to the south about a mile and a half distant from it. This was found to consist of basalt boulders, of no great size, and coral, the patch being narrow and about a mile long. Deep water “docks” occur, and at low tide — the very lowest of the year had been availed of — there are several lagoons more or less partaking of the nature of coral gardens. Here and there, in the confusion of oyster-covered basalt, are slight depressions, in several of which were accumulations of basalt pebbles, oval or rounded, and about the size of a hen’s egg. Many were covered with a thin scale of lime, and the regularity in size and shape — due to attrition, no doubt — attracted attention. Strips of muntz metal, three pieces of round iron encrusted with oysters, and several pieces of thick plate-glass jammed together between two boulders, provided evidence of the portions of some forgotten wreck.

From one mass of coral seven varieties of fish were poked, and the whole lagoon teemed with small and alert creatures with rare ability for concealing themselves in coral puzzles. Shells — clams, cones and cowries — were plentiful, many being handsome, if not uncommon. Time did not permit a careful examination of all parts of the reef, but sufficient was seen to cause continual pleasure and to excite the wish that just for once the tide would cease to flow, so that all the hours of daylight might be spent in observation. Not that the reef is over-rich in novel forms of life, but the circumstances were exceptionally favourable for minute investigation. While one admires without constraint the lustre of living shells, and the remarkable garments of invisibility which certain species throw over their shoulders, for richness of colour and diversity of design some of the lowly corals and sponges, and those inanimate “growths” which fixedly adhere to the under-surface of stones and blocks of coral, are not to be surpassed.

These dull stones, partially buried in sand, reveal in blotches, in daubs and in patches all the extravagancies of a painter’s palate. Are such brilliant colours and tints — unimaginably profuse and delicate — necessary features for animals of such crude organism, when they appear to be mere disembodied splashes and drips from the brush of the Great Artist?

Look at this fantastic patchwork brightening the obscurity of an up-turned stone with glowing orange! In perfectly regular, minute dots a pattern of squares cut into right-angles by intersecting lines, and slightly raised in the centre, is being worked out; but the fabric is ragged on the edges. With miraculous precision the design is being followed, each stitch the counterpart of the other. Unless this other formless blotch of sage-green interferes, and by more robust habit crowds it out, the whole under-surface of the stone may be covered with a quilt of orange. Why is this particular miniature dome of coral of so rich a mauve? Why is it bespangled with millions of snow-white crystals? And why — where no appreciative eye sees them — should parti-coloured algae flaunt such graceful plumes?

What marvellous fertility of imagination in form and hue is exhibited in every quiet pool! For the greater part of the year all this reef is under water, inaccessible to man — and man alone, probably, is the one product of Nature gifted with qualities which enable him to find disinterested pleasure in the parade of colour.

Until the flowing tide bade us begone we lingered, and as the lagoons gurglingly filled, we saw ripples from shoals of fish scurrying back to accustomed haunts as sheep along familiar tracks to their folds.

And so, up with the little lug-sail. Vagabonds that we were, we knew not (and the day was far spent) where we should rest that night. We had slept on a dissolute isle — the empty bottles and defilement of battered meat-tins told the tale — and whither, on this superb evening, would the breeze condescend to waft us? Back to the dissolute isle or over the empurpled sea, on to some clean Australian beach? It mattered not. Ours was a state of absolute indifference, and as for the zephyrs, they were sweet with indecision for many minutes.

Then, under indolent easterly airs, across to Nee Morna, and beneath shady calophyllums, with the harvest moon illuminating the gloomy headland, to spread our rugs. It would not be seemly to record how many fish, sniggled from coral recesses and baked on the embers, were eaten. This, with apologies for its lack of romance, is not a fish story.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32