MATES SHARE 50-YEAR BOND
Rescue led to lifetime friendship
DEEP in a banana plantation at Tullera, near Lismore, sits an unlikely pair of mates, each covered in sweat and red soil, tending to their growing share-crop of Hawaiian sweet potatoes, taro and cassava – crops destined for Brisbane’s Pacific Islander market.
These men have laughing eyes and a sparkling energy that belies their age. The elder is 83 years old, the son of a wealthy industrialist. The younger, 67, was, literally, a child of nature.
Peter Warner, the elder, calls himself the black sheep of a family that wormed its way into the living rooms of many Australians – a man who chose adventure over the status quo, despite the choice to work in one of Australia’s most successful corporations: Electronic Industries.
Peter’s father, with the help of his grandfather, founded the company on the back of the early home entertainment era, manufacturing the “Mickey Mouse” crystal radio set in the 1930s and later the Astor brand of black-andwhite television.
The result gave Peter many opportunities, most of which he shunned in favour of a life at sea – and later on the land.
Mano Totau, the younger man, comes from a more humble background in Tonga but the two were united in extraordinary circumstances and the bond that formed has never been broken.
Flash back to 1966 and try to visualise the incredibly rugged coast of Ata, a jungleclad rock falling directly into the sea south of Tonga with no sandy beaches, let alone a safe harbour.
Peter was there aboard his Tasmanian cray boat.
Seabirds were everywhere and the screaming of those creatures was almost deafening but something grabbed the attention of Peter and another of his crew.
“I noticed a burnt patch on the cliffs and thought ‘this is strange’,” he recalled.
At the same time a crewman said he had heard voices above the surf and birds. Before their eyes they saw the naked figures of six young men, with long matted hair, waving their arms and shouting out to be rescued.
Mano was one of those six schoolboys who, nearly two years prior, had stolen a 25-foot whale boat and drifted over the horizon towards adventure, rather than sitting school exams.
A storm had dismasted their small craft and smashed its rudder and, a week later, they washed up on Ata where they had to survive on only the generosity of God.
In fact, the first months
This article in the Northern Star from 1972 describes Warner’s plans to trade mutton flaps out of Ballina. were brutal. Trapped between the cliffs and the sea, they survived on raw fish, seagull eggs and little water.
Only after one of their party scrambled to the top of the island did they discover a lost garden of Eden, planted by the earlier island inhabitants – most of whom were blackbirded away to slave in South American guano mines.
Atop the island of Ata the boys found pools of fresh water and they feasted on coconut, paw-paw, taro, oranges and even broad beans, recalled Mano who said that despite the hardship the experience of survival was the most rewarding of his long life.
When they regained
OLD MATES: Peter Warner and Mano Totau while trimming macadamia trees at Teven, near Ballina.
Peter Warner’s trading ship Ata bound for Tonga. strength, they made fire by rubbing wood against wood and they nurtured that flame through thick and thin.
There was sickness and injury and loneliness. But the time on Ata honed the islanders’ incredible gift of patience. It made them resilient and set them up for life in the sense that nothing would ever be so hard again.
Remarkably, the six young men remained stout friends throughout their test of endurance – a bond that exists to this day.
“They created a micro-civilisation,” noted Peter about the epic test of survival.
The two oldest boys became the leaders – one was spiritual and led the castaways in hymn and sermon. The other was more practically minded and created fire and built shelter.
There were many times those two leaders fought over ideology but each time they would walk to opposite ends of the island, camp alone and cool off. When they united again, there was no problem.
But when the castaways were brought home to Tonga, the authorities did not take such a mature view of their predicament. They were locked in jail for the original offence of stealing a boat.
Only after Peter had words with the police were they brought out of their dark cell and allowed to sit naked under a sprawling tree, awaiting their verdict.
Taro root ready to plant at Tullera.
As thanks for Peter’s involvement, the King of Tonga granted him permission to fish the nation’s water and there began a 25-year involvement with the country and its people.
Peter’s first step was to return to Sydney where he ordered construction of a steel mother ship with freezers and a small fleet of dories. He named it the Ata and flew his Tongan crew – six of them the boys he rescued – to Australia to set off in search of greater adventure.
There was no shortage of wide-eyed times but these days Peter and Mano work away from the sea, providing staple food products to islanders living locally.