Rusty and Bronwyn Tully have no neighbours and “wouldn’t have it any other way”.
They live on Turtle Head Island, located east of Bamaga near the tip of Cape York Peninsula.
It’s just the two of them – plus their dogs – that live on the island, which still homes the biggest pearl farm in Queensland.
“Bron and I live like humans are meant to,” Rusty said with a smile.
“We don’t get caught up in any of that neighbourly crap and the day-to-day hassles that everyone else has.”
The Tullys have been on Turtle Head Island for 12 years. They purchased the pearl farm after 18 years living on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.
“We just run it on a lifestyle basis these days but it’s got the capacity to employ up to 30 people if someone bought it and wanted to run it like a big business,” Rusty said.
“I’m getting old – I’m 64 and Bron turns 60 this year – so we just do what we need to.”
At the end of the island’s only jetty is crystal clear water where fingermark and barramundi can be seen in schools, occasionally fleeing from a saltwater crocodile.
“I’ve got a heap of crocodile stories I could tell you but there’s more chance of someone down south getting killed in a car accident than one of us getting taken by a croc,” Rusty said.
“We just live with them and stay out of the water, which is the best way.”
The Turtle Head Island jetty faces a river system that feeds into Cape York’s east coast mangroves.
“We can cut through the mangroves and creeks and get to a spot near the Bamaga Airport if we need to go to the mainland,” Rusty said.
“Usually we have someone waiting there for us to pick us up and take us into town.
“But I often go to Thursday Island instead. I have a lot of friends there and we have coffee and talk about the ways of the world.
“I love photobombing people when they are getting their photos taken at the “Tip”.
“I’m sure a lot of people have got a picture of me and my boat in the background.”
If conditions are good, it takes about 90 minutes to get to Thursday Island by boat. The trip back is longer because of the heavy supplies that come back.
“There’s a great butcher on TI and I’m a red meat eater so I always stock up,” Rusty said.
“When we want fish we can throw a line in.”
Raised in Wollongong, south of Sydney, Rusty admitted he was a bit of a rascal as a lad and got into some strife.
“I was never bad, just a useless rugrat,” he quipped.
When he came to Thursday Island 30 years ago, he was like most white fellas on the island that weren’t working for a government department.
“I was a wandering bum when I came there,” he said.
“I started out working at the pub and then I worked as a truck driver.
“Then I started my own business cutting grass and tree lopping and that transitioned to having a nursery and landscaping.
“We got into the pearl business and had a property on the main street.”
Bronwyn and Rusty might not have an airstrip or regular face-to-face contact with the outside world, but they aren’t exactly slumming it on the island.
They have a petrol generator, which they run for nine to 10 hours a day as required, plus a computer with internet access, which they use to post regular updates on their Torres Pearls Facebook page.
When they get guests, there’s a cottage that can accommodate them, as well as plenty of storage space – a result of leftover buildings from when the pearl farm was a bigger operation.
“We have a beautiful life,” said Rusty.
“We wake up, we go to work, do our thing and stop every day to enjoy the sunset.
“Even in the wet season when the cloud is thick, the sunsets are still amazing because of the colour contrast.”
On the market
Technically the pearl farm and their business is on the market, but the Tullys are in no rush to sell.
“If I was 35 there’s no way we’d be selling because there’s a lot of money to be made,” Rusty said.
“It’s hard work for just two of us and we just get by.
“We sell a lot of our pearls off of our website – torrespearls.com – and we have a little shop on the island when we do get visitors.
“Tourists travelling up to the tip can buy our pearls at Cape York Ice and Tackle in Bamaga. A lot of people like to take home a keepsake.
“If we don’t sell we’ll happily stay here. If we do, we might buy a small farm and get visits from our grand nephews and grand nieces.
“I’m not interested in going into a home. I’d rather die here.”
This article appeared in Cape York Weekly, 25 January 2021.