This is Uncle Dan Mosby. An Elder and storyteller of Masig (Yorke) Island of the Kulkalgal Nation in the Torres Strait. He has kindly given me board during a recent trip to the beautiful sandy coral cay island in the central Torres Strait.
When I first approached the open door of his home, I could hear him alah (call loudly) for me to come inside with that booming voice that only them uncles know how to command. He called me into the dining room, where he was seated in a wooden chair with his mobility walker beside him, a big grin on his unshaven face and his hand resting on a little green book. He summoned his strength and stood up to greet me with the phrase I’ve come to accept as the way most older people in the region will relate to me: ‘hello gel blor Zoseph’ (hello Joseph’s daughter).
We spent the next little while yarning about the last time my dad came to stay in his home in 2009 for a funeral of a dear relative. He told me my dad sat where I sat, and (very characteristically), brought some whiskey to sip while regaling each other with tales of their younger days working in the west on the pearling boats at Kuri Bay and travelling from island to island on cutters and in luggers across the Straits in the 60s and 70s.
He said this while resting his hand upon this little green book. He took a moment to pause and smile, no doubt reflecting on the good old days. He then moved his hand to push the little green book towards me, revealing the gold italicised lettering that read ‘Visitors Book’.
Uncle Dan said to me that, like my father, I too would have to sign the book. He said everyone who had ever stayed with him in his home in Masig over the years had signed this book. I said of course and that it would be a pleasure to sign it as my dad once did. I cautiously and curiously turned each page of this old but well-kept catalogue of memories and read each entry with keen interest.
The first inscription in Uncle Dan’s Visitors Book is dated 3/7/1986, on a page parallel to one that has the weight and heft of various politicians' business cards. Each entry requires the name of the visitor, their home or state they currently live, and a short message. There was no discernible pattern in visitation. Entries on a single page could be many visitors a month, even days between each other, to no visitors for months or until the next year. The only consistent thread was the reflections of Uncle Dan’s hospitality, and (what I would soon come to know for myself over the next few days), his epic yarns.
Uncle Dan has the gift of the gab. Any word in a sentence or a glance at an item in his home could spark a memory of his that will lead you to find out the most curious of tales and adventures he’s had across his lifetime. At breakfast on my first morning in his home, and before heading off to attend a meeting, Uncle Dan and I enjoyed a cup of tea together. I was still tired from the work of the evening before, and was very much in the phase of waking up when I noticed a fat gecko on the ceiling which I just blankly stared at in my tired state. Uncle Dan caught me looking up, thinking I was admiring the ceiling of his home. Soon I found myself enthralled listening to him recall how he built his home on Masig.
He shared how he drew up an open plan house during his time working on the boats across the Straits, and when he returned home he set about chopping down silky oak trees that he said is the best, most long-lasting timber to build a home. He shared how he carefully measured each of the rafters and a king pole for the ceiling, and how his friends and family helped him with each part of the house. He shared how he got a few of the bigger items in his home to the island on a self-built raft back in the 70s when Masig didn’t have a ramp to help boats offload cargo.
The next thing I knew he was telling me about how he built a raft to get his car off the cargo boat and onto this island – the first ever car on Masig he proclaimed proudly. The fat gecko had scurried off by the second sentence of the yarn. I smiled, now fully understanding what the many previous visitors had meant in their reflections in the Visitors Book.
Uncle Dan’s Visitors Book has been signed by many throughout the years: Fred Hollows, federal and state parliamentarians, climate scientists, bureaucrats, travellers from Kathmandu to Greece, some of my own family members, Torres Strait Islander regional leadership, and my personal favourite entry, Mr James Bond.