July 2001 : Mackay to Cape York



"Cool Bananas" from Perdika. We are picking up the Aussie lingo – "no dramas", "not a worry in the world", "she’ll be right" ….. This has set the general tone for a great month’s sailing up the Queensland coast.

My cousin spent a couple of weeks with us early in the month. Here are her thoughts on the voyage:

She fails to mention the ‘snake incident’! While out for a walk on Orpheus – one of the Palm Islands – Susanna spotted a snake slithering away from the path. It suddenly started to dawn on her – as our resident native Aussie guide – that she should have briefed us – and reminded herself – about the dangers of snakes, which at this time of year (winter) while not frequently spotted, are at their most dangerous being in a semi-hibernated state and potentially bad tempered at being woken up. We should have been wearing boots, carrying antidotes and have informed someone of our route! This was an uninhabited island and we were of course in flip-flops! It certainly added a frisson to the walk, as the path gave way to an area of long, perfect snake-concealing grass!

Thank you Susanna – we enjoyed your stay too – and not just because of all the wine and chocolate you brought with you!

We dropped Susanna off in Cardwell, notable not only for its delicious mud crabs, but also for its remarkably wide and shallow bay – such that we had to anchor a mile out and dinghy ashore across choppy water we were later told was the haunt of three crocodiles! From there, we continued our progress up the coast, stopping off at places too numerous to mention – so just a few highlights –

Mission Bay, just south of Cairns was our first encounter with indigenous Australians – amazing that we had seen no Aboriginals at all until that point. We were finding ourselves increasingly intrigued, not to say disturbed, by the negative attitude and apparent lack of sympathy of white Australians generally towards the Aboriginal population - dismissed as lazy scroungers and trouble makers. From our reading, it seems to us that the Aboriginal people have been hideously messed up by the white man. Deprived of their own culture and lifestyle, whilst also denied citizenship of modern Australia until quite recently, this must surely go some way to explain current social and economic ills? We had also been warned of Aboriginal hostility towards whites, which whilst understandable, made us feel a little nervous as we dinghied over to the settlement of Yarrabah. We need not have worried. In this former mission station we met only with helpful politeness, being given a lift to the local museum, and then back again by one of its staff! The museum contained a poignant display of the achievements and progress of the settlement and its inhabitants. The settlement itself was basically very poor. Despite good school, health and community buildings it reminded us more of a Pacific island village than mainstream Australia.

From Yarrabah we continued the few miles into Cairns. As we had anticipated, the place is dominated by tourism. As we entered the channel to the harbour first thing in the morning, we were met by what looked like a mass evacuation – the enormous ‘fleet’ of trip boats leaving for nearby reefs and islands. Our own venture into mass tourism took the form of an inland trip to Kuranda, a village 21 miles inland from Cairns on the Atherton Tableland. We travelled there by train, ascending 1,000 feet, on the dramatic line built in the 1890s to link the inland farming area to the coast. The original charm of Kuranda itself was totally obscured by tourist shops, restaurants and bars and was something of a disappointment. However, the trip back on the 5 miles of cable-car right over the rain forest was spectacular. We did manage to find some local colour, in a pub in a Cairns backstreet where we were the only tourists. In the exceedingly utilitarian ambience, two of the regulars were having a row, being smoothed over by the barman, while a girl clad in the scantiest of bikinis drifted around selling raffle tickets – and coughing rather unglamourously! She was, we later learnt, a ‘skimpy’ – a typical feature of outback pubs!

As we sailed out of Cairns, we passed the replica of Captain Cook’s vessel ‘Endeavour’. We have been in the wake of Cook’s first circumnavigation in 1770 right across the Pacific, to New Zealand and now Australia. From Cairns the place names given by Cook take a dramatic turn – Cape Tribulation, Weary Bay, Endeavour Reef, Hope Islands and Cooktown – reflecting Cook’s troubles there. Anxious to get off the coast and into deep water away from the ‘shoal’ areas besetting him (he didn’t appreciate the extent of the Great Barrier Reef), he ran up on Endeavour Reef, holed his ship and then managed to get her off and into the Endeavour River for repairs, at the spot where Cooktown is now situated. The small population (around 1,600 today) is rightly proud of its heritage. The wide main streets contain some wonderful old colonial style buildings dating from the gold rush era of the 1870s when the population was 30,000 – having grown from nothing in 1873 to a town of 65 pubs in 1874! We arrived at a most opportune time - the historical focus while we were there was on Captain Cook. The highlight was the entry of the replica ‘Endeavour’ - watched by most of the population and firing its gun - it was quite an emotional scene. Festivities included Aboriginal ceremonies and a street party, plus the opening of the refurbished local museum. On top of all this was Cooktown Races. Walking out of town to the racecourse, making desultory attempts to hitch a lift, we were picked up by the local Senator no less – hot foot from his appearance as guest of honour at the museum opening, to a similar role at the races. It was downhill from then on as we lost on every race. Nevertheless we enjoyed the occasion – including the ‘best dressed lady’ competition - and at least still own Perdika! Our final coup was to spot a group of kangaroos – by coincidence at the first place they were ever seen by white men.

Whilst anchored in the extremely shallow waters of Cooktown Harbour (by our calculations we had 0.04 metres of water under the keel on the lowest tide of our visit), we hired a 4WD for a two day foray into the outback. We discovered that rolly though we had sometimes found the sea, this was as nothing compared to the roads. We travelled about 100 miles on a horrendously corrugated dirt road, passing through another Aboriginal settlement, acres and acres of giant ant hills of several types, and various other scenic wonders to reach Laura – the next town – comprising one shop-cum-petrol station, one pub/hotel, a Town Hall, and some rather taciturn locals. The next day we returned to Cooktown by another unsealed road via a spectacular Aboriginal Rock Art site. A major feature of the trip was the road itself – interminable and straight – the odd snake slithering off to the side, kangaroo corpses, fords to cross, and the terrifying approach of lorries throwing up great impenetrable clouds of dust.

From Cooktown we continued north to Lizard Island – scenically beautiful and with a fascinating history and very welcoming coral research station. Its turquoise blue sea, white sands and brilliant snorkelling were reminiscent of the Pacific reef islands we visited. Until that point, despite having travelled northwards inside 600 miles of the Great Barrier Reef, we had not actually seen the outer reef at all. It begins over 60 miles offshore, edging gradually closer to the mainland. From Lizard it was only about 10 miles to the outer reef and we ventured out there for a day to ‘The Codhole’ – Australia’s premier dive site – a fantastic experience with spectacular coral, enormous groupers and even a shark. The fish are not as numerous here as in the Pacific, but the condition of the coral is certainly more beautiful.

From Lizard Island we progressed the 200 miles northward to the top of the Cape York Peninsular, with one overnight passage and several windy anchorages. This is certainly the emptiest stretch of coast we have ever travelled – no sign of human life, nowhere to get provisions beyond Cooktown for 300 miles. Prawn trawlers are re-supplied by mother ships at sea. Australian Customs keeps a vigilant watch over these waters. We have been overflown and called up several times by their spotter planes. The sailing has been wonderful. With an endlessly reliable supply of wind from behind and north flowing current, we have made fantastic passage times, and all in sparkling sunshine. Highlights of this stretch were the well-hidden site of wonderful Aboriginal cave paintings on the Flinders Islands, and the day we passed first Wallace Islet in the distance, followed by Halfway Islet and finally tried to anchor off Cairncross Islet – sadly unsuccessfully – too much coral. The navigation has been interesting, with numerous isolated reefs, islands, trawlers and major shipping to contend with. It was a surprise to us to find a major shipping route inside the reef. Presumably it cuts distances and the waters are flatter inside the reef than out. Australia apparently prefers these ships to come inside the reef where they can anchor in case of difficulty, rather than risk drifting on to the reef from outside. It has been most entertaining to listen to the VHF communications between these ships politely negotiating their way past each other in the narrow channel.

Our final anchorage of the month gave us the significant achievement of having rounded Cape York, the northernmost point of mainland Australia – ‘The Tip’ as they call it! This is a ‘lively’ anchorage to say the least with strong tides competing with strong winds and Perdika hardly knowing where to point – but it is great to have got here.