The Courier-Mail - QWeekend

Tale of life at the top

With his innate understand­ing of Torres Strait Islanders and the issues that affect them, Aaron Smith doesn’t pull any punches

- Story PHIL BROWN The Rock by Aaron Smith, Transit Lounge, $29.99; transitlou­

Opening a book to find the author abusing you in the foreword is a novel experience although Aaron Smith’s book isn’t a novel. It’s a memoir about his swashbuckl­ing years in the Torres Strait Islands. He lived and worked on

Thursday Island as editor of the independen­t newspaper The Torres News until it folded last year, merging with another publicatio­n and putting him out of a job.

Smith, 51, now lives in Cairns where he works as a freelance writer and for the agency that manages The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, including the Daintree. His time living and working on Thursday Island from 2013 to 2019 with wife Vivi and daughter Sassie gave him rich ore to mine for a memoir but it was also confrontin­g and it has made him critical of white Australia’s political manipulati­on and misunderst­anding of Indigenous culture and its unique wisdom.

In fact it made him angry too, hence the introducto­ry outburst in his book which is so outrageous it makes you smile.

That foreword is entitled A Fore

(Letter) Word and he unleashes a flurry of f-bombs against just about everyone.

In this bizarre cri de coeur he writes,

Aaron Smith, right, lived and worked on Thursday Island and his book, The Rock, gives a fascinatin­g and blunt insight into a region many never visit. Marc McCormack

“… it’s time to wake up and be the better beasts that deep in your selfish, blackened hearts we know we truly can, and should, and desperatel­y need to be.”

When I chat to the author by phone from Cairns he points out that doesn’t only castigate his readers, he gives himself a serve too.

His years living on Thursday Island, aligning himself with the locals who live on the numerous islands sprinkled across the Torres Strait, gave him an innate understand­ing of Indigenous issues and turned him into something of a bush lawyer, an expert on land rights.

“Along the way I also became an accidental expert on constituti­onal law,” Smith says. The book tells the stories of his engagement with these issues and the politics of the region. Being the token journo on Thursday Island ( known by some as The Rock, a slang expression used by bureaucrat­s as an allegory for Alcatraz, and for Australia and the Earth – third rock from the sun), he was always on hand to report when politician­s flew in from the south, including Tony Abbott when he was PM. Trying to get past Abbott’s media minders was tough but Smith managed to get close to Abbott during his visit.

And while he identifies as a leftie and “hardened greenie and ecoterrori­st” in his early years he doesn’t demonise politician­s of different hues. In fact he became friends with some including LNP member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, who he saw a bit of in his time on Thursday Island. He mixes it with Bob Katter too (one eccentric to another) and there’s a very funny episode when Bob Katter, with a rush of blood to the head, decides to save the Torres Strait economy by suggesting promoting its coconut products to the world. Hasn’t happened yet though.

While his narrative on the politics of the place is interestin­g and edifying it’s the passages about his adventures by land, air and sea that really capture the wild beauty and remoteness of a region he grew to love. And he exhibits more than a modicum of derring-do.

“I have always flown pretty close to the sun,” Smith says. His earlier adventures feature in two previous books, Shanti Bloody Shanti: an Indian Odyssey (2012) and Chasing El Dorado: A South

American Adventure (2014).

His latest book is all the more fascinatin­g because he’s writing about a part of Queensland few of us have or ever will visit. In the meantime, we can be there with him but buckle up, there’s turbulence ahead.

What would you spend more or less on?

Different entertainm­ent options. Having a wedding during the pandemic meant we didn’t have a traditiona­l dancefloor segment. We would have loved fire twirling, acrobatics or something interestin­g to fill that gap. But the extra time gave us the opportunit­y to mingle.

Did COVID alter your wedding plans?

We managed to keep our original plans. We are lucky that our closest friends and family live in Brisbane/Qld. There were only a handful of interstate and internatio­nal guests who couldn’t make it due to travel restrictio­ns.

Advice for others impacted by coronaviru­s?

Go ahead with your big day as planned if possible. Don’t put your lives on hold as who knows how long coronaviru­s will be around. Don’t be deterred by the restrictio­ns as your day will still be perfect no matter what. Remember what is important – love!

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