Our Diary Australia - Part 6

I dived into crystal clear water to inspect the damage - luckily it was, as suspected, just a big chunk out of the front of the keel - nothing that half a kilo of epoxy filler won't cure at next haul out!

Departing Cooktown, our last taste of civilisation for a while, we continued our journey north, the next destination being Lizard Island. This is the most northerly destination on the east coast that most Australians aspire to reach - what a lovely spot. Well worth the effort - lovely anchorage, glorious walks and the company of many cruisers keen to party! Here Captain Cook climbed the mountain in search of an exit through the Barrier Reef. The view from the top of Cook's lookout is stunning, right out beyond the Barrier.

We spent a week here, just chilling, with the knowledge that after leaving this idyllic spot things will get tougher. Winds on the Queensland coast in the last quarter of the year are reasonably predictable -SE 15-20 knots. Our departure from Lizard was no exception, we were making good time so decided to leave behind Howick Island (a favourite stop over) and press on to Ninian Bay. This is one of those places that looks great shelter on the chart, but in reality is miserable. The bay is too shallow to tuck in, so we had to anchor in an exposed spot. The winds steadily increased to 25-30 knots during the night so at dawn we decided to run to Flinders Island for shelter. As we rounded Cape Melville the winds were over 30knots complete with heavy squalls in reducing visibility. As luck would have it, shipping was heavy, so we decided to cut short our trip and tuck in behind Cape Melville.

We ended up staying here for three nights and rode out 50 knot winds. After slowly dragging our anchor, we laid a second and sat there comfortably until the winds abated. Flinders Island is the next main stop, a very protected anchorage with a few places of interest, rock art, burial sites, etc. Time was now starting to march on so our stop here was a too short and we pressed on to Portland Roads, (to get telephone reception - 3-days away!) We stopped at Morris and Night Islands on the way. We had a few calls to make and collected and answered emails at this small community before setting off for Margaret Bay.

I must digress here a little and talk about coconuts! Throughout our travels in tropical waters, from the Caribbean through the Pacific eventually to Australia, we have never been too far from a coconut palm, however I have been surprised to find that coconut palms are few and far between in tropical Australia - they are treated as ornamental trees so you find them in parks, resorts and occasionally in gardens. This I could never understand. Conditions in this part of the world are ideal for growing this amazing plant and could provide loads of pleasure and income. One anchorage we stopped at was a little island called Morris Island. Here some enterprising sailor had planted coconut palms as sustenance for stranded sailors and also, thoughtfully, planted some "Century plants" that throw up huge stalks, ideal for knocking down coconuts! But elsewhere, nothing. Why? The answer may be two-fold. I have come across a reference that the Parks and Wildlife Commission decided that the coconut palm was not native to Australia and set about pulling up all the palm trees growing in National Parks! It is also evident that coconuts require a little bit of human intervention to enable them to flourish however the local indigenous community are not known for their horticulture so no help here! As Billy Connelly observed, if you are swimming in Australian waters and someone shouts "SHARK", most people run from the water… The Aborigines, however, shout "DINNER" and jump in! Maybe this has become the fate of washed up coconuts!

So where is this taking us you may ask - well, Margaret Bay is one of those lovely anchorages - white sand, mangroves and the odd coconut palm. However across the Cape on the windward side, along a path marked out with "blue" objects, you come to Indian Bay. Completely fringed with coconut palms ten of meters deep, this 10km beach restored my faith and shows that, left to their own devices, coconuts can thrive in Australia. Margaret Bay and Indian Bay are not part of any National Park and lie hundreds of kilometers from the nearest road. I'll leave you to ponder the rest… (I have started my own crusade and when I see a likely coconut washed up on the beach, I plant it in spot where it is likely to thrive!)

Ever northward we plod - our next destination Cairncross Island was just a stop over before the final stretch to round Cape York. With a nice breeze behind us we set off for this next staging post, however the anchorage looked uninviting so we decided to try to make Escape River. We arrived just as it was getting dark at low water. We started to feel our way up the river - the only hazard shown on the chart and pilot being a rock on the starboard side. We spotted this and felt confident proceeding ahead - as we motored on, all of a sudden we came to an abrupt stop with an almighty Bang! We had hit an uncharted rock! I put the engine in hard astern and crept back. Thankfully we were off! A quick inspection below - all ok - no water flowing in - but where to go if the charts couldn't be trusted? Discretion being the better part of valour we turned around and found a suitable spot at the river entrance and dropped anchor alongside a myriad of pearl rafts. A safe but restless and uncomfortable night ensued. Couldn't dive to inspect the damage as we were in heart of murky crocodile-infested waters!

As you can gather we didn't stop here and headed out early the next morning to round Cape York the most northerly point in Australia. After a pleasant sail, that evening found us in Seisia, a lovely anchorage where we could refuel (ourselves and Poco) ready for the wilds of Arnhemland.

Seisia has a well-stocked general store, fuel is available - but no grog. In order to top up supplies we had to get to Bamaga a long 5km walk/hitch hike. Luckily it was easy to get a lift. Restrictions apply and we were allowed 1 case of beer and one carton of wine each - hopefully this would last us the 6 weeks we had planned to get us to Darwin.

With a fair breeze we left Seisia and headed across the 250-odd miles across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Truant Island. The first day we were sailing with a useful 10 knots of breeze, but during the night this fell away so engine on! The wind didn't return for most of our journey across the Top End, which meant the whole journey became a bit of a drudge. No wind, isolated and uninspiring anchorages, no other yachts, no coconut-palmed beaches - just hot and dusty scrubland. We were also nervous about swimming as warnings about box jelly fish and crocodiles were everywhere. Although there were no physical signs, we were always wary. Due to the lack of wind, fuel usage was much higher than anticipated, so we had to find somewhere to refuel. After dodging a waterspout we made a radio call to a passing Customs launch who pointed us to an Aboriginal community on Elcho Island. Here we filled up with fuel and continued island-hopping to Port Essington 4 days away. It was evident that the monsoon season was upon us with huge afternoon electrical storms and squalls. Early settlers tried to create the first economic centre in Northern Australia at Port Essington - a large natural harbour rivalling Darwin which was created 50 years later. Things hadn't worked out and this outpost was abandoned. We spent a week enjoying this area, lots of bays and creeks to explore. Like the whole of the Top End, the fishing was good and fresh fish was often on the menu.

It was now late November and we were booked into Bayview Marina for the 1st of December - the ever increasing storms heralding the start of the cyclone season. We finished our stay in the Top End with a visit to a secluded eco lodge only accessible by sea or air. An afternoon propping up the bar was a nice way to end our trip.

Darwin was about 120 miles away so we planned an overnighter. Tides in this area are notorious (up to 7-8m range) and hence timing is all important. We left Port Essington at 9am and hit the tide to round Cape Don just right - with 8 knots of tide behind us we were swept into the Van Diemen Gulf and hit 20 knots of wind which urged us on. Through overfalls and steep seas we ploughed on until we reached the centre of the Gulf - then, like someone turning the switch, the wind died - we were motoring again! As night fell we could see the storm clouds building and as luck would have it our auto pilot died! I quickly rigged up our backup and we gingerly started to navigate through the many hazards in the Gulf. Just after dark the heavens put on a magnificent display of lightning. We watched the creation of a huge storm cell - an amazing sight. Our first hope was that we could out-run it; our second hope was to go around it, but due to navigational limitations, we finally decided that prayer was the only option! The sky was as dark as a tomb and the lightning was crashing all around. I was convinced we would be hit - the smell of ozone was intense, the wind blew up to 40 knots, but thankfully the seas did not build as well. We navigated through narrow passes with fast running, turbulent tides - Christine helmed while I buried my head under a pillow! (Sorry, I wimped out!!) The only time we could see anything was when a lightning flash occurred (often!). Christine was steering by the compass and regular updates from me for course changes. This seemed like at eternity but in truth probably only lasted a couple of hours! The storm finally moved away and the last leg into Darwin passed comfortably. At dawn we anchored in Fannie Bay and ended the sailing for the year.

Darwin is a crossroads for many people - and we are at our own crossroad again. Our original plan had been to cruise the Kimberley region this year, but having experienced the desolation of Top End so far, the attraction of cruising the Kimberleys has drifted away. So, do we carry on or do we stay? At present we are taking the latter approach - but who knows? Answers on a postcard please!

Christine spent the last cruising season studying for her CIMA exams and successfully passed 5 exams in a week immediately before starting a new job working as a management accountant for a large property development company in Darwin. I am contracting for a shipping company - well, it puts some money in the bank and pays for our stay.

Next time, "Life in Darwin - a booming frontier town!"