The Great Barrier Reef of Australia

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sailing up the Great Barrier Reef

Jumping Crocodiles!!

Setting off after several months in Bundaberg

April 17th dawned clear and bright – just right for throwing off the dock lines and venturing off on another adventure. Cheshire Cat and her crew were at last heading out up the inside of the Great Barrier Reef and ‘over the top” to Darwin.

We dropped anchor at Middle Percy Island where Vanessa, Gary, Eliot and Marina on Neptune II joined us in the attractive sandy bay where white cockatoos screeched in the shade of the palm trees. The beach was terrific – and our first swim of the year felt wonderful!

The big attraction here is an A-frame shack, full of cruiser type memorabilia. The first telephone station in the area was set up on this shoreline in 1962 and since then visiting yachts have left personalised momentos with their yacht names carved or painted onto wood, coconuts, stones and anything else they have found in the nearby A-frame. Secret messages stuffed into bottles, pictures, paintings, flags and assorted rope work makes the shack an interesting place to visit. Of course we had to get busy and find some wood so that we could pin our name up amongst all the others.

Mike and I checking out the little lagoon in Percy Island. There were hordes of fruit bats nesting in the mangroves
There is an old homestead on Middle Percy Island – recently subject to a great deal of controversy as the last leaseholder died and the will is contested. We met Kate, the current resident – a woman of great determination – who is planning to restore the homestead to it’s original self-sufficient state, possibly with an historical bent. As the land hasn’t been cultivated for some years everything has almost reverted to the original arid and overgrown scrubland found on all the islands in the area. Previous owners had a sheep farm, herded goats and used horses to manage the gardens and farm. They made bread, honey and preserves that they sold to passing yachtsmen. Now there are no sheep any more and much of the goat population has gone wild. Kate does have a tame nanny and her two little ones, several peacocks and a couple of well-loved dogs, but little else seems to be in decent condition. All supplies have to come from the mainland by boat so it is lucky there is a great little lagoon hidden behind the beach. (We found masses of giant fruit bats noisily arguing amongst themselves in the mangroves back there) But fencing the gardens to protect them from birds, goats, kangaroos and fruit bats seems to be an impossible task without machinery and the manpower to use it. So they need a lot of help – volunteers gladly accepted! I think it would be a terrific undertaking – if only I was nearer to home and maybe a little younger! The walk up to the house was an energetic uphill 4 km hike. The short cut was a seemingly vertical 2 km scramble.

We left Middle Percy reluctantly, continuing on to visit the islands of Scarfell and Brampton. The last island has a resort on it – they were particularly unfriendly to cruisers – although all we wanted to do was have a beer and let the children have a splash in one of the pools! The anchorage was quite unattractive; lots of muddy shoreline when the tide was out, so we opted to move on quickly.
The renovated A-frame building on the beach
Our guidebook promised Thomas Island would be sheltered and there would be a beach – so that is where we went. Again this was scrubby little island – host to a national park and not much else. There was, however a nice beach and we three boats - Neptune II, Juliet and David on Reflections of Hayling and ourselves from CC enjoyed a very pleasant happy hour and a great barbecue here!

Welcome to the Whitsundays!

This is the famous and popular cruising ground for Australians – lots of charter companies – particularly catamarans, sail here. CC had to pop into Hamilton Harbour to re stock with the always essential beer and Mike’s ciggies, but we soon rejoined our buddies on Whitehaven beach. This beach is reputed to be the longest most beautiful sandy beach in the Whitsundays, but although it is nice, it wasn’t as breathtaking as we expected. We heard that much of the sand has disappeared – presumably lifted away by a cyclone. It was interesting to see a helicopter and a seaplane on the beach – alongside several little shade tents they seem to favour in this country. I guess you can hire a helicopter (or a small float plane) to take you out for a day on the beach. But as there is no shade from the very aggressive sun you need the tent as well!

We parted company with Neptune II at this stage and went with Reflections to Border Island where we expected to find some world class snorkeling. The little bay had some mooring balls so we grabbed one each and went exploring. The coral was good – and even better at a slightly different area the next day, so at least we got a little glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef life. Next we visited Nara Inlet – a fiord like alley where we could anchor in safety. We went to shore and visited a cave to see some aboriginal paintings. This was a nice little site, very well presented by the national park, so it made a very agreeable little detour for us.

As we sat in the cockpit in the late afternoon Mike and I heard a curious noise above us – when we looked up we noticed a sulphur crested cockatoo sitting on the spreaders. Instead of a raucous squawk it made a gurgling noise as it peered down at us. Mike fetched some bread and it hopped down onto the boom and feasted for several minutes. What a pity we didn’t have any real bird food on board!

Airlie Beach was little more than a stone’s throw away. We were going to go into the marina but discovered it would have cost us about 80.00 dollars for one night, so we opted to anchor off the Yacht Club. It was an easy walk to the shops so we could buy groceries and we had a great inexpensive dinner at the yacht Club. Reflections won the draw – a tray of different meats! Back packers dominated the local area and all the roads were full of parked campervans. The shoreline around the bay is well preserved with gardens and trees, open air barbecues, showers and an excellent lagoon area where there are not one but three swimming pools.

Cheshire Cat left her boat buddies and made way for Gloucester Passage – stopping briefly at Monty’s Eco resort that we had read about and thought was worth a visit. We couldn’t raise anyone on the radio so decided to continue on our way – arriving at Cairns a couple of days later.

Marlin Marina in Cairns was a very nice surprise – not as expensive as we anticipated, the facilities were clean and if the staff weren’t overly friendly we assumed that was because it was so big and run by the local town as opposed to a private enterprise. The town was bustling – once again – mostly backpackers, but we cruisers soon found a handy bar to gather in for happy hour and a couple of cheap eateries – especially the “night market” where we could get a good Asian meal for less than 12.00 dollars. I was quite amazed to see so many people nicely dressed up, so to speak – general wear seemed to be sloppy t-shirts and thongs, but here we found good shorts, nice dresses and even high heels on the ladies! Yet again we were very impressed with the shorefront. The bay itself is pretty ugly with nasty goey black mud uncovered when the tide goes out, but shoreline gardens and an attractive boardwalk make it all very pleasant. A terrific swimming pool and a host of free fitness classes and entertainment in the town made lively entertainment.

We found all the boat bits and supplies that we needed after several long hot walks and quite a few bus rides. Our new AquaPro dinghy was repaired – all the handles and glued on attachments had fallen off, within a year of purchase. Not a good start to our relationship! I started to make a dingy cover – maybe to be finished in Darwin. One by one the dock spaces in the marina filled with yachts arriving daily and it was evident that it was time for us to leave.

Lizard Island became my favourite place of the whole passage. We arrived at about midday – at the same time as blanca and Leo on Promesa who sailed in from a different direction. The beach was terrific; and the other yachts already parked quickly informed us that it was a tradition to meet on the beach at 5pm for cocktails. That was OK by us – at one point during our visit there must have been about forty people from about 25 anchored yachts gathered and busily chatting away!

Yachts anchored in the beautiful bay - seen from near the top of "Cook's Look" CC is in there somewhere!

Captain Cook came here in 1770 and climbed the very steep hill nearby to see if he could find a way out of the area. He was fed up with having to navigate through all the reefs. We climbed the hill as well – oh, my! That was a bit strenuous and I found that I am not as fit as I thought I was. Possibly not quite as young as I thought either! After admiring the views and the many coral reefs all around we made sure to sign to book at the top as a record that we actually made it up there!

Some time after Cook’ s visit the island was settled by a group of people setting up a ‘bech de mer’ business. Unfortunately they didn’t know or (more likely) ignored the fact that the island was a sacred area for the local aboriginal people – they used it for sacred ceremonies and for ‘coming-of-age’ rites for the young men. Several of the settlers died over a period of rime, but things came to a head when the camp was attacked and a woman, her baby and a servant escaped from Lizard in a tin tub. They later died on a nearby island for lack of water. Many aboriginals were massacred in retribution and they no longer visit the island.

Now there is a very up market resort on the island, as well as a scientific research station. Here they host visiting scientists and students from all over the world who come to study the reef or life on the nearby islands We were lucky enough to be able to visit the research station and learned a little about the beautiful reef areas around us. Later when we went snorkeling we saw amazing coral – many, many different varieties – in several separate areas, together with all kinds of exotic reef fish. Just beside the yacht anchorage there is a ‘clam garden’ where we saw lots of giant clams. They were massive and our host at the research station told us they could be up to 70 years old! This was The Great Barrier Reef one hears so much about!

So we spent several days – exploring the reef and the walks on the island, in beautiful weather and amongst old and new friends. Most of the yachts are going the same way as we are – off to Indonesia. There is some speculation as to how well we are all going to manage – it will be interesting to see how over 130 yachts in one anchorage will deal with everything!

After our little holiday at Lizard we headed north again – this time making a non-stop passage up to the top of the continent.

We waited for a few hours (and managed a few hours sleep - which was good as we have been travelling for three days and two nights) at a very small reef about 20 miles down the coast in an attempt to find the right tide to take us through the Albany Pass. It's only 3 miles long and we wanted to get there with the tide going our way, not against us. We have three different tide tables and still we managed to get it wrong!! Small consolation that every other boat so far has also got it all wrong! I think we are amongst the first to come here so far - lots of yachts behind us, we can hear them on the nets.

We should have waited until at least an hour after the change of tide to let all the water get through the pass before we went - hoping to go with the current. Same thing happened to us in New Caledonia – we timed our arrival at Albany Pass just at low tide, not realizing that the great exit of water through the pass wouldn’t really finish for some time after low tide. This applies to crossing the bars at river mouths as well, (although we don’t have a great deal of experience with that type of bar!)

Right at the top of Cape York - the northernmost tip of continental Australia. There was Nothing much to see - a few bushy sort of trees and the odd island. A beach or two - but not to be stood upon in case of crocodiles! Voracious and eager to see one in little pieces - or so we are given to understand. (More likely the owners of the land attempting - very successfully - to keep us away!!)

The little harbour we are anchored at Seisia is sheltered by Red Island - just a blip in the ocean, but much better than all those reefs we have anchored against in along the east coast! The "town" if you can call it that is just a jetty with a car park (supplies come in by freighter); a campground - for all those intrepid tourists that don't mind driving over 1,000 miles of dirt road to get here; a small supermarket and a gas station. Red dust covered roads. An occasional crocodile.

Captain Cook sailed here in the 1770's, and after that the white man proceeded to take over everything they could think of - dispossessing the native aboriginals. Now the original inhabitants have some of their land back - mostly up here in the back of beyond where there is very little value to it. White settlers abandoned their 'stations' and we have seen horses running wild, are told the wild cattle roam freely. Bush turkeys strut around the campground. Nobody seems to care for the farms any more.

I had a very enjoyable day trip across to Thursday Island in the Torres straits – including a bus tour around the sight. We visited an old fort – they were bombed expensively during WWII. So was Darwin – the city received over 64 bombing raids from the same guys that attacked pearl Harbour!

I also learned a lot about the pearl divers that came to live in the islands, many losing their lives diving for the mother of pearl shell. The trade died out after plastic was invented and used for buttons quite recently, but a local cemetery shelters the hundreds of Japanese who lost their lives. An old diving suit was on display in the museum – I must be getting on a bit as a cousin took diving instruction in the early 60’s and wore the identical suit! Big bell helmet and heavy weighted shoes included!

Also - salt water crocodiles! We cannot swim and are even fearful of leaving our rubber dingy in the water at night - we are informed that it could be a teething ring for a croc!

Mike has rune out of beer (too many happy hours on the beach) and a generous local ran us into Bamaga - the next "town" (it has a police station, a post office and a hospital of sorts) to the ‘bottle shop’. This was a drive thru - one can only buy a single case of beer per car per day! It would appear that there is an alcohol problem with the locals. In Cairns we could only box wine after 4 pm! Weird regulations, don't you think?

Amazing how time zips past, Canada Day came and went - we were treated to huge fireworks displays (actually to mark Territory Day, but who cares) It was pretty unnerving at times as lots of the houses that surround the marina let off theirs - and they are really close to the boats. Noisy as well! It must be a very expensive day for some as I suspect fireworks are not a few pennies any more.

The last couple of days have been fairly cool - and instead of getting on with jobs I have been lollygagging. We visited a local market one day at a suburb called Parrap. There we found stalls selling jewellery, clothes, knick-knacks and many others offering snack foods. It was very popular - crammed with people actually. After an hour of that we sashayed off to the sailing club with friends to meet others and to do a book swap. The swop was a great success - we are stocked up with reading material for the next few months I think - very important! We also had lunch there and arrived back at the boat just in time for showers and a bit of a rest. But then we went off again to join some of the cruisers from this area at a different sailing club!

Yesterday a neighbour on the dock offered to take us to see the jumping crocodiles. This is a particularly Darwinian tourist extravaganza. I was busy putting the finish touches to the dingy cover I've made, when the offer was issued, so downed tools immediately and off we went. After an hour or so and a visit to the nearby wetland visitors centre (although it is all far from wet at present, being the dry season) we drove down a gravel road to Scotty's famous splendiferous jumping crocodile locale.

Sunbathing on the river bank.

After hanging around for a bit - snake watching (I wasn't allowed to have it as I had sunscreen on) we trooped down a rather shaky homemade gang plank to the tour boat with about fifteen other intrepid tourists. And it was al that I expected - we spotted crocs sunning on the muddy banks (of the Adelaide River) and occasionally one would be waiting and would swim across to the boat. Then it would be offered a piece of meat and would have to jump up a couple of times before getting the tasty morsel and off we would go again. Scotty was the driver and he kept us entertained with a few facts about the crocs - but mainly dire warnings of not to go anywhere near them on any occasion.

We arrived home just in time for a music gathering at the docks of our marina - bring a chair and a plate was the idea, and if you have it a musical instrument. It turns out that we have a professional sax player (with instrument) and as usual several guitar players - some very good. A young boy from one of the yachts brought a didgeridoo - and played it, which I think is quite difficult. And one of the lady cruisers came out and we discovered a pretty good voice - a wonderful change! Several hours flew by - there were a couple of birthdays to celebrate, much chat and many happy faces.

This termite mound is massive and as hard as concrete and could be over 50 years old.
Darwin is very hot - although the locals call it cool at present. The town is spread out so busses are essential - I got free travel yesterday - the bus driver noticing I was of a certain age! I will probably get a weeks pass - costs about 15.00 for the week. I am off out and about on Tuesday - to look at some waterfalls I think. (Not that I haven't seen a few of those) and after that I will have to buckle down to getting all the rest of the jobs done.

The Sail Indonesia group is growing daily - about 140 yachts leaving on 18th, mostly all here now, so it is getting quite exciting. I am a little disappointed about the way it is being organized - we don't have a list of anchorages - or a route that we are expected to follow. I suppose we will find out more at the information session - but things are pretty loose at present, to say the least. Difficult to plan where we have to go - especially as we are a bit shaky on our geography in that area! Hopefully it will all work out in the end, but there are a great many yachts - and the anchorages could be very deep for us.

These are slightly different termite mounds - each one is built facing north/south
We are crowding the shops – clearing the shelves of all the food and wine. Cheshire Cat has more food and drink on board than she ever did before – goodness knows why as it isn’t as though we are doing a long sea passage! Meat orders have been collected from butchers – freezers stocked to the gunnels. Propane tanks are being ferried back and forth across town; appointments for fuel top-ups are priority. Book swaps, information swaps have been made – hopefully we are all content with reading materials. The laundries will be inundated, and all the fresh fruit and veg will disappear in the blink of an eye on Friday – the day before departure!

Another adventure!