August 2001 : Cape York to Darwin



This month began with the second anniversary of our departure from Bristol in August 1999. The ‘warm up’ celebration, the day before, was a gigantic buffet meal at a characterful Aboriginal ‘wilderness’ resort at Cape York, with Vagabond celebrating the second anniversary of their departure from Gosport. We never make joint plans with them or deliberately stick together, but more often than not we find ourselves at the same place at more or less the same time. Simon and Sarah are great company and having cruising ‘mates’ definitely enhances our experiences ashore and on passage. Being 11 foot longer than they are, we always beat them everywhere we go which makes us feel good – but we know who the real heroes are! Our own anniversary was celebrated the next day on board Perdika at Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. We were also rather pleased and relieved to get that day’s passage under our belts – out into the Torres Strait – reputed to have the strongest trade winds in the world, plus tidal flows not only extremely strong but also curiously unpredictable – and all in reef strewn waters.

The Torres Strait Islands are a world apart from mainland Australia. The inhabitants are Melanesian – like the Papuans and Fijians, and vastly outnumber the white administrators, teachers, etc. It felt more like a colony than part of the home country. The atmosphere is very ‘Pacific’ – basic, poor and scruffy – but exotic. Little boats whizzing around at high speed to the evident and understandable glee of their occupants reminded us very much of the Pacific and Caribbean islands. We were told that the islanders live basically on welfare – how true this is we cannot say – unemployment was not in evidence on Thursday Island – but we didn’t visit the other islands, which are off limits to whites without a permit. It all seemed pretty cheerful to us although judging from notices in many of the shops about shoplifting, crime is a problem.

From the extremely windy anchorage off Thursday Island, we then had to brave our way on through the Torres Strait between more reefs and islands. With those tides and that wind, we found ourselves making 11.5 knots at one stage – requiring quite speedy navigation! Our next port of call was Gove, 350 miles away, which we reached in a couple of days of uneventful sailing, finding it strange to be out of sight of land after two months of coastal sailing. Gove – the port, bauxite mine and associated works, plus the township of Nhulunbuy were established in the 1970s - utilitarian concrete, relieved by the luxuriant tropical foliage curling around everything. There is a welcoming yacht club there, with an ‘ex-pat’ atmosphere reminiscent of the yacht club in Suva, Fiji. This is not an ideal place to stock up – supplies for the town arrive by sea barge from Darwin – itself far distant from anywhere else – so it is expensive. The town and works are effectively on an island, with the ocean on three sides and on the fourth the Aboriginal Homelands of East Arnhem Land – off-limits to whites. The highlight of our stay was a visit to the Arts Centre at the Aboriginal Community of Yirrkala. A friend of a friend works there and was able to show us around the print shop and very impressive little museum and to enlighten us on the Aboriginal lifestyle, culture and the land rights struggle. The shop selling local bark paintings, pandanus weaving and wooden carvings proved too great a temptation. More ‘art’ than souvenir, we found the local style extremely appealing. We bought not only a basket and a wood carving, but also inevitably a didgeridoo! Sadly we have so far not shown any great natural talent for the instrument!

From Gove to Darwin – 450 miles – the tide becomes an even more serious issue, with three major tidal ‘gates’ to contend with. The first of these is the ‘Gugari Rip’ - a narrow passage of about a mile through the Wessel Islands. Otherwise known as ‘The Hole in the Wall’ the passage is only 64 metres wide, through which the tide rips at up to 9 knots. Having made all the tidal calculations, Vagabond arrived at exactly the advised time, to report washing machine conditions and a current of up to 5 knots against them. Arriving about an hour later we encountered swirling water and slight adverse current – but nothing to spoil the huge enjoyment of the experience. The geology is extraordinary – less like a natural feature than a canal cut in ancient times, now fallen into disrepair, with regular shaped large stone blocks collapsing into the water. Having passed safely through, we continued westwards the 300 miles to the next ‘gate’ at Cape Don, finding it quite difficult over that distance to time our arrival to a specific three hour period. We had been told that the wind typically weakens further west, but found the opposite, and having pulled out all the stops in light winds over the first half of the passage, then had to try to slow down on the second leg. By a miracle of timing we found ourselves at the right place at the right time to make the second and third tidal ‘gates’ in one run. Anticipating seething maelstroms it was all rather anticlimactic.

We arrived in Darwin with a bare 10 days before our Australian visas and cruising permit expired, with quite a list of jobs. This stop completed the first four month leg of our homeward voyage, so we had to face repairs and maintenance, plus preparations for the next four month stretch. Southeast Asia will be quite challenging in various ways. Petty crime, we gather is a major problem and so we have beefed up security both on Perdika and the dinghy. We (Chris!) worked on a system designed to minimise both the likelyhood and effects of lightening strike – as thunderstorms are a feature of the area. There is no real consensus on what measures to take, but we felt we had to do something – so that when we’re out there sitting amongst the lightening we don’t just wish we had! We have acquired a vast number of new (photocopied) charts with wonderfully evocative names – ‘Selat Lombok and Selat Alas’, ‘Approaches to Surabaya’, etc. We spent time on the Web updating our travel and cruising guides for Indonesia, and also obtaining the latest government advice on where to and not to go – given the current political turmoil there. All this, plus routine maintenance, varnishing, provisioning, refuelling, taking on water, etc. etc. Simply getting ashore in Darwin was a time consuming exercise. The harbour has a massive tidal range at the best of times, but we were there for the most extreme in six months. We would like to have berthed in one of the locked marinas, but Darwin is fighting potential infestation by the black striped mussel. Being a foreign boat, we would have been obliged to haul out for inspection and treatment – which we thought too much hassle for a short stay. Our only option was to anchor a mile offshore – which meant a dinghy trip of about 20 minutes each way, usually in choppy water giving us a regular drenching. The compensation for this was the Darwin Sailing Club premises ashore with free showers, cheap meals and drink, a welcoming atmosphere and fantastic sunsets overlooking the yachts at anchor.

All this meant not so much time for the delights of Darwin. What struck us first about the place is its position. Well over 1,500 miles from Brisbane, Perth or Adelaide and about 2,000 from Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra – with nothing very much in between. It is hard to see why Darwin is there at all – a lonely outpost of Australia only about 500 miles from its South East Asian neighbours. It is also surprisingly small – about 80,000 – equivalent to somewhere like Watford – which I thought it vaguely resembled! The town was completely devastated over Christmas 1974 by Cyclone Tracy and has been completely rebuilt without any great charm or finesse. Despite all this, it is a perfectly normal place! We were lucky enough to have arrived in time for the Festival of Darwin and attended an amazingly avant garde production involving dance, song and mime with a cast entirely of aging white and Aboriginal women (the latter performing topless), apart from the main character – a woman, played by a man! We also watched the Grand Parade – a great community effort of floats entered by the many different ethnic communities living in Darwin, primary schools, local companies, scouts, etc. which most of the town seemed to have turned out for. Our one day outside Darwin, to a nearby National Park was somewhat disappointing. Much of the landscape, dry at the best of times, had been subject to a ‘controlled burn’ by the Rangers, leaving it looking like a smouldering war zone.

Now we have left Australia after three months of great sailing- wonderfully reliable strong winds always in the same good direction, and constant sunshine. We have been spoilt forever. About the country – at least most of the part we saw – mixed feelings – perhaps an ‘I’m alright Jack mentality’ we didn’t take to. Maybe our view has been coloured by the incident on Christmas Island currently being played out as we sail across the Timor Sea, with Australia refusing to have anything to do with the would-be illegal immigrant survivors of a sinking ship rescued by the Norwegian cargo vessel.

In our first two years, we covered 18,655 miles since leaving home, which averages out at a rate of 1.064783 miles per hour – ‘Around the world at one mile an hour’. Could be a good title for a book?!