It was Christmas break. Michael and Emmanuel were off to spend a couple of days camping and fishing on Coochiemudlo Island. With Michael’s two metre aluminium dingy and 10hp motor they would explore the island and its surrounds.
‘Time to leave boys.’
‘Ok Dad, gear’s in the boat.’
‘See ya Mum.’
‘Bye Mrs James.’
‘Take care boys.’
A twenty minute boat ride from Cleveland meant the boys could have their camp set by lunch. Michael’s Dad towed the dingy behind his much larger boat, dropping them on the eastern side of the island.
‘Call if you have any trouble Michael, you have your mobile.’
‘Yes Dad, bye.’
The boys motored into shore, and dragged the dingy up the beach. The tide was on the way in so Michael secured the anchor to a tree.
By lunchtime their tent was up and the campsite set. They were just off the beach, surrounded by trees and protected from the wind and the heat of the sun.
‘So Em what do you think so far?’
‘This is very grand,’ Em replied, ‘Blue skies, calm waters, beautiful beaches and no one around.’
‘Better that way. Our gear’ll be safe in the tent. No one’ll know we’re here. We’ll be like the phantom, visible by day but at nightfall we’ll disappear.’
‘If I don’t smile, no one will see me at nightfall…being black has its advantages.’
They both laughed at Em’s joke.
‘What do you want to do, fish or take a walk around the island?’ Michael secured their tent and belongings.
‘I should like to see around the island,’ Em said. ‘I have never been on an island or a boat, before. You are very lucky Michael to live in such a beautiful place.’
‘What’d you do for fun in Sudan?’ The friends recently met when Em moved into the area and joined Michael’s class at the local High School. Michael hadn’t asked him about his homeland.
Emmanuel’s family, along with a number of others came to live in the Cleveland area. Michael’s head master told the students the Sudanese families were from refugee camps in Dafur. Here they experienced death, sickness, starvation, and horrors people in Australia could not comprehend.
Michael checked out Sudan and Dafur on Google earth. He also researched refugee camps on Wikipedia.
‘We did not have much fun. We lived in a refugee camp in the desert until my father was able to get a visa to come and live in Australia. We were very excited when the authorities told us we were coming here to live. Life for us was very dangerous.’ Em spoke seriously and Michael listened unable to imagine a life full of danger.
‘Let’s go fishing.’ Michael grabbed some lunch and drinks from the esky. ‘We can look around the island from the water.’ He had no reply for Em. As a thirteen year old Australian; he could not comprehend these horrors.
They dragged the dingy back into the water and set off.
‘How big is the island?’ Em asked as they rounded the northern tip.
‘Dad said it’s about 5 square klms. Should take about two hours to get around.’
‘What’s that over there?’ Em yelled, pointing towards a rocky outcrop.
‘Whoa sit down Em!’ Michael yelled, holding tight to the side of the boat. Em lost his footing, slipped on the wet bottom and landed with a crunch in the anchor well.
‘I’m sorry Michael…I did not think it was so unsteady.’ Em pulled himself back up onto the seat.
‘Yes, I’m fine.’
‘Ok… next time you see something point from the seat.’
‘I understand.’ Em held tight to the gunnels. ‘Over there, near those rocks I saw something come out of the water. Are there sharks here?’
‘Probably, but they’re dolphins.’ Michael began steering the boat towards the rocks. Fascinated by the dolphins playful antics, the boys watched from a distance as they chased small bait fish. As they neared the rocky outlet Michael spotted a dugong feeding on the grassy bottom. He turned off the motor and they drifted quietly so as not to frighten it away.
‘So what is a dugong.’ The boys watched fascinated as their boat floated over the large white creature.
‘I don’t know too much about them. I know they’re called sea cows because they feed on sea grasses. They’re pretty big so I don’t think there’d be much here that’d attack them.’
‘Hmm.’ Em watched as the large mammal swam slowly along the bottom feeding, oblivious to the boat above.
‘We’re getting to close to shore, better go.’ Michael started up the engine. ‘Let’s go fishing we might even get something for dinner.’
‘Ok, but you’ll have to show me how,’ Em replied.
The boys rounded the western side of the island and Michael cut the motor.
‘We can drift along here,’ he said as he baited up a line. ‘Just drop it down, no need to cast when we’re drifting.’
‘What sort of bait are we using?’
‘My line is pulling,’ Em yelled excitedly but this time he remembered to stay seated.
‘Great fish,’ Michael said as he helped Em bring in the large bream. ‘That’ll be great for dinner. It’s getting late I think we should head back to the tent. We’ll keep going this way so we’ll pass the township.’
From the small boat the boys could see the golf course at the south-western end of the island and what seemed to be a track that went all the way around.
‘Is that a walking track?’ Em asked pointing towards some people he could see on shore.
‘Yes, it goes all around. We could walk it tomorrow, if you want.’
‘That would be fun.’
‘“Can you ride a bike?’ Michael asked as they watched a couple of boys riding along the track.
‘Yes.’ Em waved at the boys on the island. They had stopped riding and seemed to be watching them.
‘Just ignore them Em.’
‘What are they saying? I can’t understand them.’
‘Nothing.’ Michael moved further away from the shoreline.
‘This is the main part of the island. The ferries bring people over for the day and the barges bring people and their cars.’ Michael said as they watched swimmers and people on paddle boats laughing and playing on the beach.
They arrived back at their campsite later afternoon. Anchoring the dingy securely, they had a quick swim to freshen up. Early that evening they cooked their fish and sat around a small fire talking until late. Em told Michael about his family’s trip from Dafur to Australia.
It was still dark when Michael woke to the sound of something hitting the tent.
‘Em are you awake?’ Michael gently shook Em, beside him in his sleeping bag.
‘Yes Michael. I hear them…they have been here for a while…two of them. I’ll take care of them. Like I said, being black has its advantages.’
‘What are you going to do?’ Michael asked in a whisper.
‘Frighten them so they don’t come back.’
Slowly Em got up. He was already out of his sleeping bag…the zip to the tent down. With a scream that made even Michael’s blood run cold Em charged out of the tent. There were further screams and scrambling as the intruders grabbed something off the beach and ran for the road.
Michael came out of the tent. ‘Who was it? Anything missing?’ Michael did a quick check around the campsite while Em ran up the beach.
‘I think it was those boys from yesterday. They grabbed their bikes. But I don’t think they’ll be back tonight.’
Michael dropped to the ground. ‘My god Em, what was that noise?’
‘Our tribal war cry.’
‘I don’t think they’ll be game to leave their homes for a week.’ Michael said laughing. ‘Look over there.’ Michael pointed eastwards. ‘The sun’s coming up behind Straddie. I think I’ll stay up.’
‘I’ll stoke the fire.’ Em said as he stirred the ashes and added some wood.
‘Do you want your sleeping bag?’ Michael asked as dragged his from the tent.
‘Yes thanks.’ The boys crawled back into their sleeping bags beside the glowing flames of the fire.
‘What was it like during the war?’
‘Scary, I lost some of my family. My grandfather taught me that cry. He was killed during the fighting.’
‘I can’t believe they found us. I’m sorry Em…I thought it would be safe here.’
‘It’s not your fault. There are bad people everywhere and they can be any colour.’ The excitement of the evening was too much for both boys. With the added warmth of the fire, before long, they fell asleep.
They woke to the sounds of squawking sea gulls. The fire was out and the sun was a yellow glow in the eastern sky. The day promised to be warm and cloudless.
‘Comin’ for a swim,’ Michael called as he ran down the beach. They swam close to the shore.
‘I’m starving,’ Em said as they came out of the water.
After a breakfast of cereal and toast over the rekindled fire, they decided to walk around the island.
‘Let’s get an ice cream from the shop?’ They had reached the road.
‘Ok, but what if we run into those boys from last night.’
‘Like I said, they’ll still be inside their house, under the bed.’ Michael laughed.
‘Hey you, we’re gonna get you. Abos aren’t allowed?’ It was the boys from last night. They threw their bikes on the ground and picked up two bats waving them menacingly at Michael and Em.
‘He’s not aboriginal, he’s from Sudan.’ Michael shot back. ‘I thought you’d both be under the bed too frightened to come back here.’ Michael tried to sound brave but they were bigger and older than Em and himself.
‘We don’t care where he’s from, he’s black. Pack up your gear and get out of here.’
‘Go away and leave us alone.’
The boy closest to Em swung his bat. Em ducked and grabbed the bat as it swished by. Although Em was only fourteen he was tall for his age and looked much older. The bat was now in his hands. Standing with his feet apart, bat swinging overhead, he let out a war cry, guttural and intimidating in its deliverance.
The other boy threw his bat at Michael. Michael stumbled to the ground, winded and bleeding from the nose where the handle caught him. Em began walking towards the aggressors, eyes bulging, the sound of what seemed to Michael, a hundred thousand African warriors, coming from him. The two attackers now unarmed, ran onto the road, grabbed their bikes and took off towards the houses.
Em threw the bat on the ground and went to Michael.
‘You ok Michael.’
‘Yes, just caught me on the nose.’
‘I think we should call your father. They might come back.’ Em helped Michael to his feet and they turned back towards their camp.
‘This time I don’t think they’ll be back,’ Michael said. ‘Let’s not worry Dad. Why don’t we go out in the boat, do some fishing?’
‘What about the tent? Do you think they will come back while we are not there and do more damage.’
‘They won’t know we’re not there. I don’t think they’ll want to here you make that sound again. We’ll make sure everything is secure, don’t leave anything outside. I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ Michael knew if he called his father they would have to go home. He wasn’t ready to leave the island just yet.
They packed their belongings inside the tent and secured it as best they could. Michael packed a lunch into the esky. They grabbed their fishing rods and took the dingy to the north western end of the island. The fishing was good here.
By early afternoon they had caught dinner, been snorkelling one at a time around the rocks, saw more dolphins and again watched from the dingy as the dugong from yesterday fed on the sea grasses.
‘I’m worried about our tent.’ Em said as they ate a late lunch.
‘Let’s go back then.’ Michael started up the motor and they headed back.
‘Look at all the birds near our tent.’ Em exclaimed as they got closer. ‘Michael stop, don’t go any further.’
Michael followed Em’s gaze. Their campsite was in tatters. The tent was shredded, their clothing strewn around and their food spread over the beach.
‘Those buggers again! I’ll call Dad…we’ll stay here until I’ve spoken to him.’
Em nodded, searching the beach for signs of the two boys.
‘They are still there,’ Em said excitedly, ‘hiding in the bushes. Don’t look, if they don’t know we have seen them they won’t run away.’
‘What should we do?’
‘Call your father…let him know what’s happening. Then we will go ashore.’
‘Shouldn’t we stay here…we don’t know what they have. There could be more than the two of them.’ Michael wasn’t too keen on confronting them again.
‘Call you father.’ Em said again.
Michael’s Dad told them to stay off the island until he reached them. He was twenty minutes away.
‘If we wait, they’ll get away.’ Em said as Michael got off the phone.
‘Ok, so do you have a plan?’
‘We will approach the beach like we think they have gone. But we have the advantage. We know they are there and we know where they are. Grab something from the boat as a weapon.’
Michael grabbed an oar and Em grabbed the yabbie pump. ‘You’re sure about this Em.’
‘If we can stall them till your Dad arrives we will be fine.’ Em said. ‘Do you think they will be in trouble even though I’m black and they are white?’ Em asked.
‘I’d think so,’ Michael answered. ‘You can’t destroy other people’s property, for any reason.’
‘Let’s take our time, no hurry. Look around the beach like you are trying to see if they are still here. But don’t look where they are.’
They stayed down on the beach giving the impression they were too scared to venture up to the campsite. Slowly they walked towards what was left of their tent. Michael held the oar like a battering ram…Em the yabbie pump over his shoulder.
‘Must have been those boys from this morning,’ Em said.
‘Yes, I’ll give Dad a call and get him to come and pick us up.’ Michael said trying to keep his voice normal. He took his mobile out of his pocket and pretended to dial a number.
Very quietly, so only Michael could hear, Em said, ‘They are coming out of the bush.’
Em and Michael turned to face them—standing their ground. With the oar as protection, Michael yelled, ‘We called the water police and my dad, they’re on their way.’
The intruders stopped, their backs against the bush leading to mangroves, muddy, spikey, mosquito infested mangroves. ‘What are you gonna do, hit us?’
‘If we have to. Come out of there.’ Em moved towards them. Suddenly they turned and started running.
‘Quick Michael,’ Em shouted, ‘run, don’t let them get away.’
Michael dropped the oar and raced after them. The mangroves were like a swamp with large roots sticking out of the sand everywhere. The two boys were obviously not regulars to the island or they would never have run in that direction. First one fell, calling out for his friend to stop and help him but his friend just ignored his cries. Soon they were both down and the mosquitos and sand flies began their own attack.
Em reached the first one and sat on his back. ‘That should keep you still until help arrives,’ he said as he pushed his captors face into the sand. ‘When you get to him Michael, sit on him. We will wait till your Dad arrives.’
‘Got him Em.’
Just then two policemen came running into the mangroves.
‘Well boys, looks like you don’t need us, you seem to have it under control,’ one of the policemen said as he swiped at the mosquitos. ‘Let’s get them and you out of here before we’re all carried away.’
The police officers grabbed the two felons. They trudged out of the mangroves in time to see Michael’s Dad come to shore.
‘Michael, Em are you boys ok? I called the local police because I didn’t think I’d get here in time.’
‘They’re fine Mr James…Constable Morgan and this is Constable Franklin.’ The policemen shook hands with Michael’s Dad. ‘These boys of yours’ have been very resourceful. I think they will have a good story to tell you on the way home.’
Back at what was left of the campsite, Michael and Em stood looking at the mess. ‘Everything’s destroyed,’ Michael groaned.
‘Will you be pressing charges Mr James?’ Constable Morgan asked.
‘We’ll take this pair up to the police station and contact their parents. We will be in touch.’
Before they left, Constable Morgan turned to Em and said, ‘Young man I would like to apologise for the behaviour of these two. Australians are generally far more hospitable.’
‘Thank you sir,’ Em said.
Em wandered around picking up the debris and shooing the birds away.
‘It’s time we headed home. They’ll call if they want any further information.’
They finished cleaning the campsite, putting all the debris in the dingy. Once onboard his father’s boat, Michael said, ‘I think I’ll write a story for the local paper. People need to know what happened to us.’
‘Great idea. Coochie Chronicle is the local paper. We’ll contact them from home.’
‘Are you gonna help Em? We’ll call it A Sudanese Connection. What do you think? ‘
‘We need to let people know bullying is not acceptable.’
‘And the colour of your skin doesn’t excuse the bullying or justify it.’ Michael’s Dad pointed out.
‘Thank you Mr James and thank you Michael. This certainly has been an exciting holiday.’