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Strait Talk

Fascinating culture. Reams of history. Accomplished art. Katrina Lobley on why the Torres Strait Islands should be on your must-visit list.

Just 150 kilometres of sparkling saltwater separates Cape York Peninsula from Papua New Guinea. Scattered across this narrow stretch of sea – like a handful of emeralds – are five island clusters that collectively form the archipelago known as the Torres Strait Islands.

View of boats on the water through a tree on Thursday Island in North Queensland.

Even though the islands aren’t far from mainland Australia, they remain very much off the beaten track for tourists. This splendid isolation adds to their otherworldly charm. Yet those who make the effort to reach this culturally unique part of Australia will find vibrant communities that very much celebrate their age-old connection to land and sea. 

Of all the islands, perhaps tiny Thursday Island (known as TI by the locals) is the best known. Home to about 3,000 residents, this multicultural outpost has an intriguing history that includes being a one-time base for pearl luggers. For a poignant reminder of the island’s pearling past, visit the heritage-listed cemetery that houses a memorial to Japanese pearl divers, hundreds of whom are buried there. The cemetery also provides a historical snapshot of the island’s occupation, as it’s the final resting place for a variety of faiths and nationalities, including Muslims, Buddhists, Pacific Islanders and the Torres Strait Islanders themselves.

After visiting the laidback main street and perhaps chatting to some of the friendly locals, wander towards the oceanfront to find the architecturally striking Gab Titui Cultural Centre, which displays fascinating ceremonial artefacts such as feathered headdresses, contemporary craft, sculptures, shell jewellery, carvings and artworks. The Torres Strait is known for its distinctive black-and-white lino prints that illustrate the many myths and legends that are part of this region’s Indigenous culture. Some artworks are for sale so you can always bring a piece of the Torres Strait home.

View a Welcome To Thursday Island message from the Harbours Corporation of Queensland

On the island’s highest hill (which isn’t all that high, clocking in at just 58 metres) is Green Hill Fort, built in the 19th century as part of Australia’s defence against possible Russian invasion. It was decommissioned in 1927. After enjoying the panoramic views over surrounding islands (Friday Island lies to the west while the much larger Prince of Wales Island is to the south) and poking around the restored gun emplacements, take time to explore this former ammunitions store. A maze of underground tunnels and rooms houses the Green Hill Fort Museum. 

Explore outback Queensland by custom-designed 4WD and discover Horn Island

Those with an interest in military history will find even more to pore over on nearby Horn Island, located south-east of Thursday Island and only a short distance from Cape York Peninsula. The island was used as a World War II base – at its peak, it was home to some 5,000 troops. Following the Japanese bombing of Darwin, it became an advanced operational airbase. Few Australians realise that Horn Island was the second-most attacked location in Australia after Darwin.

You’ll be able to see wartime aircraft wrecks and anti-aircraft gun emplacements in the bush. At the Torres Strait Heritage Museum, veterans’ photos, diaries and personal items reflect the island’s pivotal role in World War II. The museum also explores the region’s pearl-diving history as well as the rich culture of the Torres Strait Island people.

View of Thursday Island cannon, Queensland