As I stepped off the ferry to Thursday Island’s main wharf, a gust of wind almost lifted my sunglasses into the deceptively idyllic Torres Strait – its notoriously shallow waters and razor-sharp reefs have plundered many ships since the Spaniard Luís Vaz de Torres became the first European, to navigate this remote passage on the northern tip of Australia in 1606.
“The southeast trade winds can get up to 25 mph in winter, then in summer we get the fierce northwest winds that bring the storms,” said local tour guide Sue Johns as the ferry’s other passengers departed for their awaiting tour queued bus. “That’s 12 months of bad hair days,” she joked as we rumbled around the small, hilly island.
The administrative capital of the Torres Strait Islands, Thursday Island (known locally as “TI”) is one of more than 200 islands that were once part of a land bridge between Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula and modern-day Papua New Guinea. That changed around 8,000 years ago when rising sea levels flooded the landscape at the end of the last ice age.
Home to about half of Torres Strait’s approximately 6,000 residents, about 80% of whom identify as Indigenous, TI is not your typical tropical island vacation destination. There are no backpacker hostels or family resorts. With saltwater crocodiles patrolling TI’s beaches, it’s too risky to take a dip. And then there’s the relentless wind. But there’s still good reason to visit this far corner of Australia, some 2,700km north of Brisbane. And I’m not talking about the opportunity to have a pint in Australia’s most northerly pub, the Torres Hotel, alongside FIFO (fly in, fly out) workers, most of whom work in government jobs from health to defense.