Russell Darnley OAM

Born in 1947 Russell Darnley had grandparents who were children at Federation, lived through World War I and struggled as parents through the Great Depression. His parents had their first jobs as World War II broke out. Growing up in Sydney with a seafaring father gave him an interest in what lay beyond. His childhood saw the birth of multicultural Australia, which he embraced, and ended with Conscription and the Vietnam War, both of which he resisted. As a young adult he travelled the world and discovered that his interests lay in South East Asia. Working respectively as teacher, administrator, researcher, director of a field study centre in Indonesia, consultant to the Australia Indonesia Institute, educational writer and digital education pioneer he was awarded the OAM for his voluntary work after the 2002 Bali Bombings. Russell’s outlook is eclectic and interdisciplinary, passionately scientific, yet profoundly spiritual.


Russell interviewed on the ABC about Indonesia – its people and culture. Seen and Unseen book trailer

Russell's Facebook page

Russell's Twitter page

His moving poem about Bush Fires

Russell on The Guardian


Camphor Silk and Ivory


Immersed in a five year old’s sense of grief at Sid’s passing and dad’s long sea voyages, I slept uncomfortably as driving rain and strong wind swept down the narrow passage. Loose corrugated iron rattled, trees swayed and high-tension wires droned.

Disturbed by the sounds, I woke sitting up and peering out into the passageway. An amber coloured face hovered in space, unmoving, unsmiling. I blinked it remained. In a state of terror, I recognised it as the Tiki from the sail of Thor Heyerdahl’s raft.

“Mum, there’s a face at the window!” I screamed. “Please make it go away!” Warm arms gathered me, yet the face remained. “It’s still there!” I cried.

“Hush, darling. There’s nothing, just the wind and the rain.”

“No, I saw the face! The face from the raft in the huge waves.”

“It’s gone, darling. Quiet now. Don’t wake your sister.”

When storms raged or tropical cyclones tracked out their unpredictable paths through the Coral Sea, I often woke at night wondering if my seafaring father was safe. A mother’s obvious concern drove the feelings, my fears rendered more vivid by the startling cover picture on his copy of Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon Tiki Expedition. Pitching down the face of a huge Pacific wave, Thor’s balsa wood raft seemed tiny and helpless.

Families with fathers who go to sea on ships are challenged by their comings and goings. Family dynamics change with the demands of shipping while for those at sea life is a confrontation with elemental powers so aptly described in the words of this psalm:

Those who go down to the sea in ships,
Who do business in many waters,
These see the works of the Lord,
And His wonders in the deep.
He spoke, and a stormy wind arose,
And its waves were lifted up.
They mount up to the heavens,
And descend into the deep;

When, as a boy, I asked my father how he decided to go to sea, he said, “I’ll tell you this, son: I didn’t have much choice. My dad left when I was young so I had to start work early. I needed a reliable trade and picked up an apprenticeship in Fitting and Turning at Cockatoo Island. I’d done my time by 1944 with some extra studies in steam engine maintenance and operation. I was qualified to join the Merchant Navy then but they wouldn’t let me go because I was working in a strategic industry. Cockatoo was the largest dockyard in the southern hemisphere.”

“I didn’t know that, Dad.”

“Yeah, I finally got a posting in May 1945 as an engineer on the Taroona bound New Britain.”

Reading through my father’s meticulous shipping records after his death, I came across his description of the vessel. He wrote:
Taroona was an ocean going passenger ferry, a twin screw, oil burning express turbine steamer. During the war, she was requisitioned and refitted as a carrier of troops and general cargo. Her refit involved the mounting of a 4” anti-submarine gun on the stern and anti-aircraft guns on the upper decks. Heavy armour was placed around the guns and the bridge, consequently she was very tender, and inclined to pitch and roll excessively in rough seas. Despite these modifications she could still manage 18 knots top speed although was restricted to about 16 knots.

Gleaning details of Dad’s merchant naval history from his papers was difficult. He talked about the sea, ships he sailed on, ports he visited and people he met but not a lot about the work he did. Gaining a sense of his working life was easiest when he met up with his old sea mates like Barney.

Barney lived in an apartment at Kings Cross. It was full of the signs of the sea, coral, cowrie and nautilus shells, starfish, ships in bottles, paintings of foreign ports and all manner of unusual objects. When we visited him, I loved playing with his wind up elephant all decked out in the finery of the British Raj. I also sat on the edge of conversations in that space where adults often forgot children were present. They reminisced about the ships they served on, the peculiarities of different vessels and the men they worked with. Taroona often came up in conversation.

“Allen,” I remember Barney saying to my father, “if my recollection serves me well, before the war, Taroona was on the Bass Strait run between Port Melbourne and Launceston, right?

“Yeah that’s it, Barney.”

“So it was early on in the war, she had a refit for carrying troops and cargo up to New Guinea, right?”

“Right and as you know I joined her towards the end. We arrived at Wewak during late May 1945.”

“How did you manage to unload, by the way? I guess there were plenty of our boys around. Were they drafted to help?”

“We used captured Japanese troops to unload onto lighters. Despite what’s said about Japanese soldiers never surrendering, this lot seemed very happy to be out of the action. We could still hear the sounds of battle in the distance.”

My father often spoke of that first voyage and the distant sounds of battle as the AIF 6th Division pursued elements of the Japanese XVII Army through the Torricelli Mountains between between Wewak and Aitape. In its rugged terrain some 13,000 Japanese troops managed to keep up a limited action but without supplies they soon surrendered.

“That was the closest you came to the action then?” Barney asked as he set a glass before Dad and poured out a generous shot of rum without any comment. As they both settled into Barney’s sumptuous armchairs, I reasoned that this must be what they often did.

“Apart from a close call,” Dad said, “and I mean inches, with a Japanese mine in the Coral Sea, it was turning out to be a quiet war for me, but then God strike me pink, I had a serious fall while topping up piston rod sealing oil in the refrigeration compressor.”

“How’d you manage that, Allen?” asked Barney.

“Well, it was forward in the bow and the sea was rough. We were on the edge of a tropical cyclone.”

“That explains it then. Bastards of things those cyclones!” Barney exclaimed.

“Yeah, bloody hell! It laid me up for a few days but you know how it is youth triumphs over pain. It’s only in later life it counts against us.”

“I did a few voyages up that way after the war,” Barney added. “I liked working into the eastern parts of Melanesia, New Britain, New Ireland, the Solomons and the New Hebrides. Luxuriant, exotic, the people are very warm and friendly.”

“Yes, I like the people. Can’t say my Pidgin’s very good though, Barney. How’s yours?”

“I’m getting there.”

Apart from all the technical information and commentaries along with the brief character sketches of crewmembers from skippers to stokers, time spent on the edge of such conversations opened up a wider world for me. Ports are full of conversations like this and port cities usually outward looking, the antithesis of insularity, a wellspring of tolerance and worldliness. It was a privilege to grow up in this milieu.

My father was an assiduous collector of anything that caught his eye. On his immediate post war voyages through Melanesia, his knowledge of the region broadened. When we heard his footsteps in the passage and glimpsed his form through the translucent panels of the front door, we kids peered at his abstraction hoping to see how much he was carrying. When the door finally opened and after a simple “Hello Dad,” formalities were cast aside. “What have you brought back this time, Dad?” we asked.

Within our family, Melanesian artefacts, particularly those from the Solomon Islands, made frequent appearances. Fine tightly woven pandas mats; baskets and containers were a feature of our picnics. Numerous other artefacts even tanned crocodile skins were playthings.

Dad never did master Pidgin and, in a joke at his own expense, often told us of one trip through the Solomon Sea en route to Rabaul back in 1948: “I was amazed to see Bougainville’s Bagana volcano in full-throated explosive display. I stood on the deck in the evening watching blasts and surges from the cinder cone. There was a man standing nearby, a Melanesian.”

“Him make big noise,” I said, hopeful of a response.

“Yes, the volcano is atypically active this evening,”came the erudite and patient reply.

“I felt quite stupid,” he said, grinning. Insufficiently educated in details of local culture, uncertain of the man’s status and unaware of the intellectual traditions of the Tolai people, he tried to communicate in his own version of Pidgin English and it went pear-shaped. He told and retold this story as if to expel his residual feelings of discomfort.

In the early 1950s, my father eased into coastal shipping but was sent to Hong Kong to bring a vessel back after a refit in 1953. This was a change for all of us. Until then he’d coped well with the challenge of malaria in Melanesia. Now he confronted a different array of microorganisms.

Back then, smallpox and typhoid vaccinations were compulsory for Hong Kong and Chinese ports. Both inoculations can have quite dramatic effects on a person and he experienced painfully adverse effects from both.

Going on seven, I remember him saying: “My God, I barely know what day it is. I can’t move my arm. I have a fever and I feel like death warmed up,” he complained. “If I’d known it was going to be like this I’d have given the whole flamin’ thing a very wide berth.” Bursting into tears he slumped over the table.

I’d never seen a man cry before. Noticing the huge abscess on his arm, I remember thinking it was very serious but I could do nothing to help.

“Imagine what it would be like to be covered in these. I can see why smallpox was a killer in the old days,” he said, wrestling with the pain.

Smallpox was still a world health issue at that time. Almost 25% of people inoculated suffered fevers and a third became too sick to work but the contract to join the ship as Chief Engineer was already signed so the next day, he boarded the plane for Hong Kong.

A telegram announced his return and soon after, a squeaking front gate and familiar footsteps marked his arrival.

“Hi, Dad, what did you bring this time?”

“Nothing. Just me,” amazement filled small faces, my little sister’s reaction drifiting into puzzlement then grinning he said, “Nothing yet. Russell tomorrow you’ll come with me to the ship to collect our cargo.”

“Great, Dad. The ship, wow! Did the crew come with you from China?”

“No, son, it’s an Australian crew; the Chinese crew stayed there.”
Next day we caught a taxi to Walsh Bay and climbed a steep gangway onto the ship. In a few paces, we stepped through a doorway arriving at the head of a companionway that dropped steeply into darkness. Below something very powerful emitted a constant rumble. It smelled of oily kerosene.

“Stay close behind me, son, and hold onto the rails.”

“It’s hot, Dad. Why do those pipes have bandages? What’s that black thing, hanging on the peg, it looks like a witch? Why is it so hot? What’s that rumbling noise? There’s water down there, is the ship going to sink? Are we safe?”

“It’s all fine, son. This is just the engine room. That rumbling noise is the diesel engine; it makes the electricity when we’re in port. There are no witches and the water down there is the bilge, it helps us balance the ship.”

“It’s noisy down here, Dad.”

He tapped a dial and said something to a man wearing a greasy boiler suit who appeared from behind a tangle of bandaged pipes.

“Let’s go up to my cabin. I’ve checked the engine room.”

We climbed back into the light and in a few more steps entered his cabin.

“It’s not very big, Dad, only about as big as our bathroom.”

“Cabins are small, son.”

My eyes caught a Gilbey’s Gin bottle full of threepences and sixpences.

“That Dragon on the bottle reminds me of the one on the Viking boat in the picture,” I observed, just hoping he might say, “Take the bottle; it’s yours,” but he had other plans.

Gesturing towards the far end of the cabin, he drew my attention away from the horde, “Here’s the treasure chest.”

A carved wooden chest sat inviting investigation.

Eyes wide, I pleaded, “Can we open it? Can we open it, Dad?”

“We can have a quick look,” he teased with authority.

Its lock was a mysterious etched brass device that he slid open with a strange ‘L’ shaped key. An amazing bouquet filled the room, a little like eucalyptus something like mothballs yet different and subtler.

“This is a camphor wood chest, son,” he said. Then, in a practical tone he added, “It will be ideal for storing our winter clothes through the summer.”

“What are all the carvings?”

“There are Chinese men and women, great trading junks and dragons. Wait till we get home and you can have a closer look.”

“Is it a pirate’s chest, Dad?”

“Maybe it is. Now wait here while I call the taxi truck to move it.”

Once home, the chest yielded a wonderful horde of silk and ivory, handcrafted table clothes and serviettes and numerous small artefacts, the scent of camphor transforming our small flat into a part of China.

Intrigued by the deep carvings and the remarkable lock I asked,

“Can you show me how to open the lock, please, Dad?”

“Of course. Place the key into this small slot at the base,” he said demonstrating. “Press in till it clicks then pull the lock apart. Easy see. You try.”

For hours I played with the lock and key mechanism fascinated by its simplicity and amazed by its difference though what really engaged me were the deep carvings. They challenged my aesthetic reference points. I tried relating it to the Willow Pattern plates we had, to the romantic story of the lovers becoming doves. There was a connection and but these figures were robust, deeply incised and most unusual. Dragons lurked in those deep recesses and spread across the brass lock plate. Powerful human figures radiated strength and intent. I was drawn to the chest’s power and audacity.

“I like this chest, Dad; it’s beautiful. Can you tell me the story?”

“I can’t really, son. Chinese civilisation is ancient and complicated. This is just a small part like a window.”

“I thought Japan and China were almost the same but the boxes are very different.”

“Which boxes, son?” Dad asked.

“You know, the Japanese pilot’s earplug box from the war – it’s different.”

I reached across to the bookcase next to the camphor wood chest and I picked up the small carefully crafted box. Its finely finished pale pinewood unadorned save for a few characters etched onto its surface. A minimalist small clip fastening it shut.

Two neatly crafted earplugs nestled inside.

“Where’s the pilot who wore them?”

“He’s gone, son.”

“Gone where?”

“Just gone.”

Thinking about the pilot, unknown and unseen, imbued this object with a ghostly presence. It was a difficult feeling. It was much easier to think about the camphor wood chest.

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