MATES SHARE 50-YEAR BOND

Res­cue led to lifetime friend­ship

Daily Mercury - - RURAL LIFE - Jamie Brown [email protected]­ern­star.com.au

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.

PHOTO: JAMIE BROWN

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