Torres Strait Islands: Coming of the Light

By Josephine Sargent 7 November 2013
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We headed to the Torres Strait Islands for the Coming of the Light festival.

Australian Geographic subeditor Josephine Sargent headed to the Torres Strait Islands for the Coming of the Light festival.

SINKING MY TOES INTO the pristine sand of Kemus Beach, while locals mill behind me, dressed in bright, floral frocks, I feel a world away from my Sydney home. Three flights, the last by a small 12-seater, has brought me and photographer Cathy Finch to the westernmost island of the Torres Strait, Erub (or Darnley) to participate in the three-day Coming of the Light Festival.

As the sounds of guitar strumming and singing float around me on the tropical breeze, I marvel at the history of this remote island. Just 140 years ago this year, on 1 July, the London Missionary Society landed on this very beach, bringing with them converts from the Loyalty Islands. Here they faced the bare-chested and fearsome warrior, Dabad, who eventually allowed them onto the island.

On 1 July – the date of the landing of the missionaries – is an important date to Torres Strait island communities, both in the strait and on the mainland. It is a celebration of peace and the arrival of gospel and, in typical island style, locals pay homage to this part of their history with three days of dancing, singing, fellowship and, of course, feasting.

About 320 people call Erub home, and the population has doubled as relatives and friends make the journey home to celebrate the Coming of the Light. It feels like Christmas, as people arrive and unload armfuls of food – sop sop (made with sweet potato and coconut milk), damper, fish, salads, slices of bright pink watermelon – placing them carefully on long trestle tables before joining the throng to chat.
Laughter soon dies down as everyone’s favourite part of the festival begins – the young folk of Erub have ditched their everyday attire of boardies and t-shirts for grass skirts and daris, traditional headdresses, their lithe bodies keeping time to the beating of the drums. Their dances, locals tell me, tell stories of brave warriors and of the hunting seasons.

They are the next generation, still telling these ancient tales of country, and it brings obvious joy to the elderly islanders gathered to watch, wiping away tears, clapping in time, hooting and waving hankies in appreciation.

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