Gove, also known as Nhulunbuy, Australia
By David Gray
It’s around 10pm, and we have just entered the ‘Malay Road’, so named by English explorer Matthew Flinders to commemorate his meeting with “Malay” fishermen during his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803. Captain ‘Dusty’ Miller gives his patrolmen their final briefing in the bow of a landing craft sailing west along the coast of Arnhem Land. His indigenous soldiers seem extremely calm and relaxed to me, but then one, who is from an Aboriginal community located a long way from the coastal regions, asks to be excused and is violently sea sick for the rest of the journey. ‘He is simply not used to riding in boats’ is the explanation from a fellow soldier, who can’t help but laugh at his mates’ discomfort. ‘Dusty’ continues his briefing, and explains that the patrol’s orders are to look for signs of any illegal or unusual activity, which usually involves illegal fishing boats, in the area encompassing what are called The English Company’s Islands (named by Flinders after the East India Company). They will be part of Operation ‘RESOLUTE’, the Australian Defense Force’s contribution to the government effort to protect Australia’s borders and offshore maritime interests.
Captain Miller and his four patrolmen, 33-year-old Lance Corporal Danny Daniels, 24-year-old Lance Corporal Vinnie Rami, 27-year-old Private Jonah Thinglere and 24-year-old Private Drew Perry, are Australian Army Reservists serving with the North West Mobile Force, the Regional Force Surveillance Unit better known as NORFORCE. Formed in 1981, this infantry regiment conducts reconnaissance and surveillance patrols in remote areas of Northern Australia, including the indigenous Aboriginal reserve known as Arnhem Land. It consists of 600 soldiers, which includes 60 regular army officers, and around 240 indigenous soldiers from remote Aboriginal communities. These indigenous soldiers are really what make this unit unique. Their local knowledge about the terrain, the flora and fauna, and the means to which these can be used to sustain their time out on patrol in the ‘bush’, make them an invaluable part of an army that performs active patrols in the largest area of operations of any military unit in the world – some 1.8 million square kilometers (695,000 square miles) – that includes some of the most remote areas on earth.
I learn that the landing craft we are travelling in is officially called an LCM8. Its bow ramp is finally lowered after a slow and bumpy five hour ride to our drop-off point. Looking at the small boats rocking on the swell, I am now glad I took the Army swim test before embarking, which involves swimming 100 meters, and treading water for five minutes, fully clothed (and that includes hiking boots). The patrol’s two inflatable boats, called Zodiacs, are pushed down the ramp, and we clamber aboard. We are now trying to find our way using just the illumination of a half-moon, and millions of stars. The destination is still some 30km (18 miles) away – a small beach on what’s called Astell Island. Our first attempt at landing is a somewhat scary experience. With visibility extremely low, and with less than 50 meters to the beach, we are suddenly caught on the crest of a wave that up until just seconds before, was impossible to see. Sixty-year-old Dusty, with his many years experience having joined the Australian Navy in 1968 and serving during the Vietnam War, calmly advises his driver to turn around, as he ‘doesn’t want to go surfing tonight’. After checking several more beaches for waves, we finally find a calmer beach shortly before midnight. The greatest worry now becomes saltwater crocodiles. Dusty leads the exodus from the boats, with his soldiers sweeping the sea and shoreline with torchlight, looking for the telltale red eyes. Fish are jumping at the beams of torchlight, when suddenly just a few feet from the boats, something splashes on the surface of the water, and I ask ‘Is that a croc?’ Two of the soldiers, who have already entered the water, dive rather unceremoniously back into the Zodiac, much to the delight of the rest of the group. But it turns out to be nothing more than a sting ray, which of course is not exactly a comfort, but compared to a ‘croc’, it will do. Once all the equipment has been brought ashore, we set out our sleeping bags, and after a quick meal, it doesn’t take long to fall asleep.