Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Eagles-Nest Float

“My raft was now strong enough to bear any reasonable weight.”


Those who study primitive races, applying their wisdom and learning to the investigation of the origin of domestic and other implements and contrivances, inform us that the first boat was probably a log, on which the man sat astride, using a stick as a means of propulsion. In time the idea of hollowing the log occurred, Nature undoubtedly presenting the model and inviting the novice to squat inside. But what was the inhabitant of a certain island in the Gulf of Carpentaria to do since Nature failed to provide a tree big enough to possess the degree of buoyancy necessary for his frail frame, when he wished to cross the narrow channel separating him from a lesser island where turtle are plentiful and unsuspicious?

Being in status something above a wallaby — the largest animal other than himself of his native land which, when hunted, occasionally swam towards the opposite shore, he constructed one or other of two rafts or floats, both derivable from Nature’s models. One was in the form of an eagle’s nest, and not nearly so large as that in which some eaglets are reared, made by interlacing branchlets of white mangrove until the mass was sufficient to support his weight. With a double ended paddle rudely shaped from the thin buttress roots of the red mangrove, and comic in the crudeness and disproportion of its parts, he felt himself safe miles out to sea. When he approached a passing vessel he presented the illusion, not of walking, but of sitting on the water, for the float was almost completely submerged. If it became necessary for his wife to attend him on his marine excursions, she was towed behind, and used her own pedal power. Possibly this primitive raft is the pathetic expression of man’s first struggle against the restrictions of the sea.

The other resource of the boatless islander was another description of float, also retrogressive from the log; the idea not transmitted to him by any high-minded bird, but forced upon his attention by elemental strife. He would have seen that the wind and the waves occasionally tore from his beaches Pandanus palms, and that the matted, fibrous roots thereof floated. Pondering in his dim way, and being sadly an hungered and aware that fat and lazy turtle were basking in the sighed-for shallows, he took a bundle of buoyant roots and light sticks and lashed it securely at one end with strips of bark. He then spread out the other end until it took the shape of a fan, and weaved the strands loosely together with beach trailers. His raft was complete. At least this description applies to that in use to-day, which represents the highest stage to which the design has been brought.

Under the influence of the peril-ignoring hunger, the hunter sat on the float with legs extended frontally. Across his thighs crouched his favourite dog, and behind him, her thin shanks outside his and her skinny arms round his slim waist, sat, uncomfortable, his cowed wife — a necessary part of his equipment. Can he be imagined half turning to his deferential spouse, and saying: “My dear, in the words of Shakespeare,

“On such a full sea are we now afloat

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our’— turtle”?

Is it not edifying, too, to reflect that the timid man, encouraged by the object-lessons of Nature, given in pity of his simplicity, had contrived the only rafts the resources of his island made possible? And does not the fact that he had courage to cross the estranging deep thereon give graphic proof of the inhospitality of his native soil?

Flat and generally of sad aspect, the country of the raftsman lies remote and uncommended. The scented sandalwood is there, dwarfed, attenuated, worthless. The most fragrant of the Pandanus palms is plentiful, the fruit forming the chief part of the vegetable diet of the lean and stunted inhabitants, who find difficulty in fashioning weapons with which to obtain fish and turtle, the land failing to supply straight sticks of the length needed for spears. Each has to be spliced. The islands are expressed in the race they sustain — possibly the lowest of Australian types. Does it not bespeak much to the credit of men and women who have been used to the cities where the advantages of civilisation are at command and its comforts available, that they should abandon the society of kin and friends and isolate themselves in a drear and unfriendly tract for the sake of a few coloured folk whose mental capacities are feeble and whose habits are shockingly disgusting?

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50