It puts a Thursday night trip across the M62 into perspective when you discover the lengths people have to go to in order to enjoy Rugby League in Far North Queensland.
In more normal times than these, we can take heading to a Rugby League game for granted.
We are spoiled for choice when it comes to public transport getting us to and from the games, having car parks within walking distance to stadiums, ushers showing us to our seats and feasting on the array of food on offer whilst we watch the greatest game of all.
But what if you didn’t have those luxuries and relied heavily on the community to make things work?
What if the journey to the ground you were attending consisted of a plane ride, an 8-hour drive by 4WD before setting up camp for the night along an endless stretch of dirt road?
Still yet to reach your destination though, you then must drive your 4WD onto a car carrying ferry to continue your journey.
It’s not until you cross the great divide between civilization and into the unknown, that you are then in for another 65km drive.
That’s what’s required to attend the NPA grand final each year in the township of Bamaga, the destination of the famous Yusia Ginau Oval in Cape York Peninsula at the top end of Queensland.
One club that has reached numerous NPA Grand Finals, the Alau Eagles, are one of a handful of clubs in this remote part of Queensland, where the cost to play in the competition can be upwards of $1000 per week given the diabolical modes of transport required to get to the various grounds.
15-year Eagles veteran and club legend Peter Lui explains why he loves the Eagles, his heritage and the somewhat curious way of getting around to play in the powerful NPA competition.
“I was born in the small indigenous township of Umagico.
“Umagico is a small coastal township in the Northern Peninsula Area Region at the top of Queensland.
“It’s only a small place with a population of about 500 people, but everybody knows everybody.
“Umagico is one of the five indigenous communities up here that form the Northern Peninsula Area, or as we call it, the NPA.
“The Eagles formed in 1988 with one of our elders Seriat Young founding the club some 32 years ago.
“In these parts of Queensland, it’s a big deal to make the grand final up here.”
The township of Umagico, home to the Eagles, is one of several traditional Aboriginal camping grounds on the western beaches of the northern part of Cape York Peninsula.
This sacred area was once home to the Gumakudin people before colonisation took over.
The Northern Peninsula Area consists of five communities with a total population of about 2,000 made up of Seisia, New Mapoon, Bamaga, Umagico and Injinoo, some of Aboriginal and some of Torres Strait Islander origin.
“It’s a great atmosphere on any given day game day, as you only have to look at the community of how passionate they are up this way.
“Our kids will try to mirror the players on the field, elders will congregate under any shade possible and the players not only play for the love of the game, they’re all representing our respective tribes.”
Alcohol is banned at all grounds in the competition and there is no such thing as a canteen.
Teams will simply cook up and sell local dishes of crayfish and chicken for the hardy souls who make the pilgrimage on any given game day.
“I believe the standard in the NPA competition is quite good considering our barren landscape and harsh conditions.
“We’ve had a few standout players come through our system since we changed the rules of no alcohol at our club.
“One bloke that springs to my mind is a player by the name of Daniel Mairu.
“Daniel’s a weapon out on the field, a real good indigenous fella and a totally gifted footballer.
“We also have some other notable players at the club such as Celestino Mooka, and Michael Namok who have been standouts for the Eagles over the years as well.”
But for sheer loyalty and dedication, the award for the king of the Eagles nest must belong to Lui himself, a veteran of 15 seasons in the NPA competition and a prolific point scorer.
His sheer love for the Eagles is infections to say the least.
“Back when I first started playing for the Eagles, I must admit the competition was much stronger and harder.
“It’s no disrespect to the current competition, but back in the early days a lot more players were running around, it was just real hard weekend football.
“We had a lot of the older generation teach us how to play Rugby League the way it was played up here then and that was rough and tumble. We owe a lot to the pioneers at our club, it’s taught us to survive.”
Fundraising at the Eagles is their way of surviving.
There are no big cash prizes, no raffles to win a new car and certainly no plasma televisions on offer.
Fundraising here is simply fashion parades with the players, throw the sponge at the coach competition, a game of quoits and purchasing some of the local foods that the volunteers have cooked up including fish and chicken dishes.
Fairy lights are erected amongst the trees as night-time falls and the heat becomes much cooler and tolerable given the sweltering conditions during the day.
“Anything goes to get the cash flowing for the various teams in the competition.
“You won’t find big luxury hotels up here or a lot of the modern luxuries like the mainland, in fact we get our supplies either shipped in by boat or by plane.
“To us, we are used to it and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Lui is not joking when he speaks of non-luxurious surroundings in the Cape.
For the best part of your visit to the various towns in the NPA, you’ll see makeshift antennas for local radio stations to keep residents informed with local news, thatched roof makeshift grandstands and many corrugated iron houses that have been erected with what materials have been salvaged or bought in from the mainland.
On Grand Final day in the NPA competition, it’s simply best described as seeing is believing.
Every man, woman and child in around the Cape make the pilgrimage to Bamaga for the big dance, a day that comes with a lot of pride and passion.
Flags and streamers hang off 4WD’s, elders of the various indigenous tribes come together to share their thoughts on the big game, and it gives the supporters a chance to be swept up in Grand Final mania.
“Grand Final day is something else up here mate, it goes off.”
However, with the euphoric frenzy of grand final day, spare a thought for the players’ preparation on game days.
Club jerseys are flung over the barbed wire fences and players get rubbed down laying on the sand.
But certainly, the best thing for the players and supporters would have to be the local indigenous dancers who perform a war dance before many big games.
The Eagles have now adopted an incentive program in where they offer players to get paid whilst they behave.
“We pay our players if they come to training, don’t turn up intoxicated and put in a good effort.
“We also focus on community spirit and teaching the younger generation how important Rugby League is and having them go down the right path in life.”
Nowadays players from the Alau Eagles will spend quality time together spearfishing for crayfish or having a BBQ with family either after games or during the off season.
In these harsh remote areas, you simply must make ends meet and do what you must do to survive.
There are many other competitions up in the top end of Australia, with one being the Zenedth Kes Rugby League competition.
This is a five-team competition based on nearby Thursday Island.
To get there you must travel by dinghy over to the island where the journey continues.
On your arrival, a one-hour boat ride awaits you from the jetty at Seisia, meandering past the various islands in the Torres Strait, through to Thursday Island.
There you will be greeted by teams such as Mulga Tigers from Badu Island, and the Thursday Island based Roosters.
Playing Rugby League in this part of the world is not for the faint hearted with the oppressive heat and the sheer remoteness both contributing factors for both players and supporters.
Road conditions can be difficult in the region also, especially during the wet season when large potholes will appear, and roads can be washed out or completely inundated by water.
During the dry season, fires can restrict vehicle access along roads, it’s quite a harsh part of the world if Mother Nature has her way.
“Sometimes you just need to get off the beaten track and sample how Rugby League is played in remote areas.
“I honestly believe that Cape York is one of the most beautiful places on earth to visit.
“The history, the people and the culture, it’s quite beautiful.
“We are survivors and our communities all band together as one, to ensure its rich cultural ways are never forgotten.
“That’s what I love about this place.”
As the sun sets across the hot and humid top end, nothing can erase the smile on Lui’s face, the king of the Eagles nest who hails from a faraway corner of Australia.
The Alau Eagle has landed.
This feature was first published in Rugby League World, Issue 468, April 2020