Monday, April 27, 2020

Nike Factory life Tarzan of AustraliaTa

life Tarzan of Australia

Tarzan isn’t in his jungle tree house. He isn’t under a bridge, or holed up in an empty building, or sleeping off his exertions in a cane field. He was seen just 48 hours ago, tucking into a Chinese takeaway in Cairns, and a few days before that at his bank, where staff complimented him on his smart new shirt.

But since then Michael Peter Fomenko the eccentric son of a former Russian princess has vanished into the monsoonal downpours that roll across the mountains and cloak everything in a watery mist.

More than 50 years after abandoning Sydney to pit himself against the wilderness of far north Queensland, the one time student of Shore School now 80 has become a living frontier legend. Celebrated in books, plays, songs, documentaries and countless articles, he is revered by Aborigines, studied by schoolchildren, pursued by would be biographers and admired by ordinary Australians from the shrinking wilds of Cape York all the way south to the cyclone belt sugar towns of Innisfail and Tully.

But where is he now?

With local courier driver Harold Jung, perhaps the most avid of Fomenko’s devotees, I spend several days searching for the exotic recluse in the Cairns district. Amazingly, every one of the 50 odd people we approach for clues to Fomenko’s whereabouts knows who he is.

”You mean Tarzan?” they say, or, ”The old bloke with the sugar bag?” or ”The guy who paddled a log to PNG?” From the Cairns CBD to the little town of Gordonvale, 20 odd kilometres to the south, every cop, barmaid, shopkeeper, cabbie and farmer we ask has seen him but not today.

”This is normal,” I’m assured by Jung, 44, as we plough on into the storms. Jung has devoted much of the past decade to photographing Fomenko and researching his extraordinary life.

”I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours looking for Micha Nike Factory el,” he says cheerfully. ”And sometimes, even when I find him, he won’t talk to me. I’ve seen where he usually lives [amid the roots of giant strangler fig] and helped him work on his latest canoe, but he occupies his own world, and each time I see him it’s a bit like starting from scratch.”

Michael was born in Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union, to the former Princess Elizabeth Machabelli, a member of the pre revolution aristocracy, and one time champion athlete Daniel Fomenko, a university lecturer. In the late 1930s the family risked all to escape across the Russian frontier to China, later moving to Kobe in Japan, where Michael led a gang of refugee boys engaged in bloody stone fights with Japanese youths.

With war looming in 1941, the family fled again, to Sydney, where Daniel Fomenko became one of Shore’s most popular masters and a wartime radio commentator. But Michael, alienated by language difficulties and his refugee ordeals, felt an outsider at Shore and according to his father began to see himself as a character from Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek epic of endurance and alienation. Strong and handsome, he won state medals as a decathlete and was tipped for a place in the Australian team at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

But by then, to his mother’s dismay, he’d already left the family’s Northbridge home for the jungles of Queensland to emulate the wanderer, warrior and athlete Odysseus. He returned periodically (summoning an early girlfriend from her home with blasts on a conch shell), then quit the city permanently and lost himself in the wilds of Cape York to worship what he called the ”nature god”.

He lived among Aborigines, killed crocodiles and wild boar with a machete, made dugout canoes and almost died of starvation while voyaging alone from Cooktown to Merauke in former Dutch New Guinea. His father joined an extensive Nike Factory search for Michael, who was lost at sea for months, and later arranged for him to be repatriated from Merauke to Australia. (Michael was first dubbed ”Tarzan” by children he befriended in the Torres Strait.)
Daniel Fomenko was his son’s greatest supporter, resisting his wife’s pleas for Michael to be forcibly returned home from his adventuring. But after Daniel’s death in 1960, Elizabeth Fomenko convinced that Michael needed ”help” set about having him committed. In 1964 the ”wild man of Cape York” was chased into a swamp by a mounted policeman, arrested for vagrancy and indecent behaviour (namely, wearing only the front section of a homemade lap lap), then declared insane and locked up in a series of psychiatric institutions, where he was sedated and given electric shock therapy.

Soon after he was freed in 1969, Michael took off again for his beloved jungles. He returned to Sydney only twice more, the last time in 1988, for his mother’s funeral. Shortly before her death Elizabeth Fomenko told Nina Oom one of Michael’s three sisters she’d been wrong to put him in hospital.

”She said she was sorry,” Oom told me in 1998. ”The sad thing is, but for all that enforced ‘treatment’, Michael may well have returned and settled down by now. I think he was running away from a part of himself Nike Factory people couldn’t understand, but there was another part of him that would have liked to be ordinary, with a lawnmower and a wife.”

In 1985 photographer Arthur Mostead and I stumbled upon Michael Fomenko camped on the edge of the jungle at Ayton, a tiny settlement near the Bloomfield River. He welcomed us to his campfire ”My name is Mr Fomenko” and insisted on sharing his supplies of Coke and chocolate bars (bought with his disability pension), while we lay back under the stars talking.

With the dirt of the earth ingrained on his leathery skin and erratic tufts of hair about his ears and nose, the perfectly mannered recluse insisted he’d never heard the term ”nuclear war” and was shocked to learn that Johnny Weissmuller had died.

In a sort of stream of consciousness, he ranged across his near death at sea (”I didn’t capitulate!”); why he fled Sydney (”I was a little boy just a silly little boy looking for nature”); women (”I admire women but girls are hard to get at any time, but, well I have made love I’ve had two or three girls, nothing very much, just a little”); illness (”There are wild ways of looking after yourself but the best thing is exercise, if you have the guts. It might take guts to exercise against the things I do”).

Although giving his age as 55, Fomenko seemed to believe he’d been away from Sydney only a short time. ”I can go home,” he told us. ”Any time. I could. I’m only quite young in the future, it might suit me to be a doctor it’s what I always wanted to study. I feel I could be of value as a doctor ”

As we drove off, he called after us, ”Goodbye. Lovely of you to call in.”

Soon afterwards, Nina Oom went north to visit the brother she hadn’t seen for 10 years. But when she found him running about on an empty beach and tried to embrace him, he didn’t recognise her, saying ”I have to do my exercises!” then pushed her aside and fled. Nina left

a sign on the beach identifying herself and eventually he sent word for her to meet him at the tree he was living under. They had several days together before he abruptly disappeared. (Nina Oom died in 2008.)

About 1990 Fomenko shifted his base from the cape to an area south of Cairns, where he’d lived after first coming north as a young man. Locals grew used to the sight of him loping effortlessly along the highway between Babinda and Cairns on supply trips, trademark sugar bag on his shoulder. As time wore on the lope became a trot, then a shuffle. Tarzan began spending the worst of the wet seasons in empty buildings and economy hotels, returning to his jungle lairs in winter. He turned 80 last year.

At one stage, as we search for him near Cairns, my guide Harold Jung points through a downpour to a door like opening worn through the wall of an otherwise impenetrable piece of jungle.

”In good weather,” he says, smiling to himself, ”that’s one of Michael’s entry points. You see him beside the highway, then pfft! he’s gone.”

Jung’s life parallels that of his hero in remarkable ways. The son of an iron hard German migrant, he grew up toiling like a man on the same cane farm, near Gordonvale, where Fomenko lived when he built his first log canoe. Drawn to feats of strength and endurance, Jung (who still has his boyhood Tarzan comics) teamed up with his father Bruno in gruelling hand cane cutting contests and became a competitive body builder.

As a courier driver, he often saw Fomenko running beside the highway and began giving him lifts, visiting him at his tree house, and gathering material for a book on his life. He had little idea of how to go about it, yet even after being diagnosed with a rare stomach ca Nike Factory ncer in 2001, Jung didn’t give up. Often sick, he travelled thousands of kilometres between cancer operations to seek interviews with members of Fomenko’s family and visit research libraries.

”I don’t know about it being an obsession,” he says at his home in Cairns, where a whole room is devoted to his Tarzan files, ”although other people would probably say that. I’ve just always been interested by people who don’t quite fit into the normal world.”