Wednesday, 19 July 2006

Happenings 2006 Number 3

Gove to Darwin

Around 50 miles west of Cape York there is a convergence zone of currents in the Gulf of Carpentaria where the Coral and Arafura Seas met and mix in what is succinctly know as ‘the washing machine’; these rough confused seas extend for many miles across the top of the Gulf, and are cautiously respected by all cruising yachties, bar none!

We got tossed around in the usual manner and the autopilot had difficulty maintaining its course, but on the positive side the 20/25 kt breeze made for a fast passage and at 0715 hrs on day two, ‘Envy’ achieved her fastest ever speed of which I’m aware, an amazing 12.3 kts surfing down a swell. Man - we’re smoking!!

By late day 2 with 165 nm to Gove, averaging 6+ kts, the washing machine has eased somewhat but still blowing a light gale, and day 3 sees our arrival having averaged 6.3 kt for the 358 nm passage in 56 hours. We had another “sleep of the dead” that night after two sleepless nights in the uncomfortable conditions and the usual sleep deprivation of the first few nights of a sea passage.

Gove is in eastern Arnhem Land on the western fringe of the Gulf. The Canadian company Alcan operates a large open cut Bauxite mine there, and together with its support township of Nhulunbuy also established in the early 1970’s, both are thriving oases in an otherwise red wilderness. They are extremely isolated from everywhere, with 700 km of dirt road which is impassable during ‘the wet’, and everything comes in by sea or air. Since Ansett’s demise, Qantas is the only carrier and airfares are reputed to be astronomical.

Alcan Gove runs a free mine tour of which we partook, and we were interested to hear about the wages and conditions of employees. Virtually any unskilled worker earns $800+ p/week, many others much more, and many get free return air flights home Australia-wide every 5 weeks for 10 days’ leave. Alcan is always short of staff, and we mused about how much money could be earned and saved if one worked there for a few years and stayed off the booze and smokes. You’d be set for life after a few years investing.

The Gove Yacht Club has a picture postcard setting amid its lawns and palms running down to the sandy beach, and is renowned for its hospitality to cruising yachties. During our 4 days here, in addition to the Mine visit, we caught up on chores, had BBQ’s ashore, and were introduced to the famous ‘Darwin Stubbie’, a very large bottle of Beer. Fresh provisions and a la carte dining were had at Nhulunbuy, 15km away, to where everyone hitchhiked and usually got a lift with the first vehicle along. After 4 days’ rest in Gove it was time to get back to sea and on our way again.

The next bit of excitement was to be our passage through the Gugari Rip, a deep, fast running narrow passage at Raragala Island in the southern Wessels Group. More infamously known as the “Hole in the Wall”, it’s a geological fault only a few boat widths’ wide and 25 metres deep where the tide races through at 6 to 7 knots, and which can only be safely negotiated running with the tide and having enough additional hull speed to maintain steerage. ‘Envy’ zipped through it at 11 kts, feeling somewhat like a roller coaster ride sideshow alley.

Across the top of Arnhem Land are scattered several aboriginal communities which require individual permits to visit, and which we applied for in Nhulunbuy (Gove). We were to collect them the next day, but since the aboriginal lady in the Land Council Office had won a $14,000 jackpot at the Club ‘pokies’ the previous lunchtime, she and her winnings went ‘walkabout’ and we never did get our permits.

Nevertheless, after a long 156nm overnight passage and two more nice Mackerel in the fridge, our small squadron of four yachts anchored at South Goulburn Island, another closed aboriginal community. We all voted on taking ‘a sickie’ from our daily work of sailing, so our party of five dinghied ashore to check out the locals.

Equipped with a litre bottle of outboard motor fuel in our backpack (the local kids steal outboard fuel for petrol sniffing), we hiked 4 km up a dirt road to the community and, though permit-less, no one challenged us at all as we walked around the few blocks of the settlement, which contains about 240 aboriginals and three permanent whites.

But the filth did! The locals live in quite modern lowset houses with town water and sewerage connected, that appear totally neglected and/or abused; the unkempt yards, footpaths and streets are a maze of filth, littered with plastic, paper, bottles, cans, broken glass, tins, bags, rags, discarded clothes, kids and scrawny malnourished half-dead dogs. Little wonder access is made difficult to us outsiders.

But you can’t blame the dreaded booze, as this and many other Northern Territory aboriginal communities are ‘dry’, since alcohol was banned some 10 years ago, and Fijian Kava was introduced in its place. The NT government bought Fijians out to teach the locals how to mix this gritty, mildly intoxicating brew made from powdered kava roots and water, and still oversees its importation and controlled distribution within Arnhem Land communities.

Happy Hour that evening was aboard ‘Envy’ where, after a few ‘Sundowners’, we enjoyed Pork Stir fry with fresh Cabbage purchased that day from the Community store on Goulburn, and acknowledged the comment “to enjoy” since we wouldn’t see too much pork in Muslim Indonesia!

It’s back to work again next morning as we sail off to our next island anchorage, each day inching closer to Darwin. But it was a double whammy sad day; I caught and lost two more fish off the troll line, and my beloved laptop computer, which runs our electronic charting at sea, finally succumbed to old age after 9 faithful years since its purchase in Florida in ’97. Fortunately we have two more laptops aboard.

Another 53 nm passage (and another big Queenfish shared and eaten fresh that night) finds ‘Envy’ at anchor in Port Essington, with its large Stone Monument at the entrance which helped those long ago navigators identify the port when it was the Territory’s first European settlement prior to Darwin.

Subsequent nightly anchorages at Alcaro Bay and Cape Hotham followed, before our 3am start to catch the all important tide into Darwin, where we arrived safe and sound, with only minor breakages, on Wednesday 5 July, after 54 days and 2240 nautical miles out from Brisbane. A fast trip with fresh following winds all the way, saw ‘Envy’ averaging around 6 knots, with mostly clear sunny skies. All in all, a very good passage - the stuff memories are made of.

Ninety six yachts had entered the “Sail Indonesia Rally – 2006” and with limited space available in Darwin’s three Marinas, berths were at a premium and only the early birds got their worms. Fortunately we were one of them and got an excellent berth at Darwin’s best marina at Cullen Bay, from which it was easy and convenient to explore the town, do maintenance, reprovision etc. whilst most boats rocked at anchor wherever they could find shelter, and had to dinghy ashore.

‘Envy’ spent 16 wonderful days in Darwin, our first visit, and both Aud and I are singing its praises. We never got to see Darwin pre cyclone Tracy, but whilst much of its old charm and character (so we’re told) was lost that 1974 Christmas Eve, the new Darwin is modern, vibrant and most attractive, and still very much on the move.

It has great maritime environs, and notwithstanding the humid ‘wet’, the present ‘dry’ season is cool and very comfortable. With no water restrictions everything is nice and green, and densely planted tropical gardens are popular.

In shades of colonial USA, you could do much worse than “Go West young man, to Gove, make your quick-(ish) fortune, and invest it in Darwin”. What’s this talk about unemployment and the ‘dole’!

We have good N.Z. yachtie friends now living in Darwin, who spoilt us nicely with fine dinners, laundry and shopping transportation, so to Bruce & Kate we say many thanks.

Between sail re-stitching and other urgent boat repairs and maintenance, the usual requirements of clearing Australian Customs, obtaining Indonesian Visas and Cruising Permits, (which all take ‘Indo’ time), Rally briefings, information sessions and socialising, doing Tax Returns, arranging Offshore Insurance, the usual obligatory shopping, writing this ‘Happenings’ Report and taking a couple of “work day sickies”, we just haven’t stopped, so now I will, until we met again, hopefully soon, in “H-4”.

Darwin, July 2006

Happenings 2006 Number 2

Escape River to Gove

The jewellery world has long had a romantic obsession with Pearls; indeed they are one of the primary reasons for early European settlement of the top of Cape York & the Torres Strait, and with depletion of the original natural beds, a cultured pearl industry now flourishes throughout this area.

It’s late afternoon after a blowy 70 nautical mile passage as ‘Envy’ enters the Escape River, a day’s sail from the ‘tip’, and the river’s muddy coloured waters appear totally covered with thousands of seemingly impenetrable round black floats. Caught in the late afternoon glare we cautiously edge ‘Envy’ through this maze of floating balls several hundred metres wide and obscuring the narrow channel, our first of many Pearl Farm experiences, to seek the sanctuary of a sheltered anchorage 2½ miles upstream. Each float suspends a wire cage holding six pearl shells which have been artificially seeded to grow a pearl, harvested after 2, 4, or 6 years depending on the size of pearl required.

Since the morrow will see us past the tip of Cape York, Audrey and I reflect over a ‘Sundowner’ what we’ve seen cruising this vast Queensland coast. The Great Dividing Range influences much of the coast south of Cooktown, with some wonderful mountainous skylines interspersed with lower rolling hills & valleys, and savannah grasslands; the Peninsular then offers the contrast of mostly lower undulating country with extensive areas of coastal sandhills, much of it covered in low scrubs.

On the other hand are the scores of islands, a mixture of sandy cays or the peak tops of a long since buried continental shelf with their odd and sometimes spectacular mix of scenic bays, beaches and rugged rock escarpments. North of Cairns the Great Barrier Reef sweeps in to claim some of the action adding additional beauty and navigational challenges, though the channels are well marked, and offers somewhat protected waters which make for pleasant sailing.

The following day would see the culmination of a wish since early childhood. Less than 20 miles northward lay the site of old Somerset, in Albany Passage almost at ‘the tip’, to where my pioneering great-grandfather Frank Jardine, led the first European overland expedition to reach the tip of Cape York in 1864/65, and had the Jardine River named in his honour.

With the tide in our favour ‘Envy’ scooted into narrow Albany Passage and all of a sudden we were in Somerset Bay, a very lovely sandy beached inlet with steep rocky headlands at either end. As a child I studied the large old oil painting, which hung on the lounge wall at Chelmer, of Somerset Homestead atop the hill overlooking this very same spot where ‘Envy’ now rested at anchor, out of the tidal race.

My first reaction is that this snug little bay, perhaps 400 metres wide, was much smaller than I had imagined from the painting and numerous family photos, but far more tropical and attractive. It had taken me 62 years to get here, so with pride, anticipation and excitement Aud & I dinghied the 100 metres ashore leaving ‘Pea Green’ under a shady coconut palm on this tropical sandy beach where once had stood the boardwalk to a substantial boatshed and jetty, while we set about exploring my family’s roots.

In its heyday Somerset settlement held a small garrison of English Redcoat Soldiers, in addition to administration personnel, the government residency, hospital and barracks, plus other buildings, and was fully surveyed as a township. When the government relocated its FNQ administration centre from Somerset to Thursday Island in the late 1870’s, Frank Jardine, who had been the Government Magistrate, purchased the property and made Somerset his home.

Steeped in a colourful history for those times, including Jardine’s Samoan Princess wife Sana, his seabed discovery of silver coinage subsequently made into engraved sterling cutlery, his pearling and grazing exploits and their gentry lifestyle notwithstanding such isolation, Somerset today sadly lies overgrown and neglected.

Little remains since the old homestead burnt down 40 odd years ago, other than Frank and Sana Jardines’ beach-side graves, plus two others, and a monumental cairn with its brass plaque honouring my father, which stands over a metre tall beside the two ship’s cannons and flagpole at the historic hilltop site of the old residency, some 7 minutes walk up through the rain forest from the beach. The extensively cleared residency site offered 180° views across to Albany Island and the fast flowing 500 metre passage between.

My grandfather H.G. Vidgen, another true son of the North, married Jardine’s eldest daughter, Alice in 1899. My father was born at Somerset in 1901 and subsequently purchased the property in 1925 following Frank Jardine’s death and it became our family home until 1948, when father sold the property back to the government. The rest of the Vidgens of that era lived either at adjoining Muddy Bay, or on Thursday Island (affectionately known as T.I.), where my parents also had a ‘town house’, which still stands today.

So that’s today’s history lesson folks, my apologies to those of you who have suffered it all before.

We could afford only a short visit at Somerset, since we needed to work the tide to our favour for the 25 nm run to Thursday Island, where ‘Envy’ subsequently dropped anchor at neighbouring Horn Island, 1km across the channel from T.I., which is exposed to southerly winds. Since strong weather was forecast for the next several days we wanted to be comfortably tucked up, in the company of eight other yachts, with T.I. a $9 ferry ride away.

Bruce’s twin brother John lives at Thursday Island where his work takes him through upper Cape York and the islands of the Torres Strait. Four days were spent with John in his hillside apartment with its panoramic maritime views, while it blew 30/35kts and rained a lot, an unusual occurrence during the North’s ‘dry season’. He tells us there are no privately owned rental residences on T.I., with all rental accommodation owned by the government and in short supply.

Together with cruising friends Trevor & Joan Long off ‘Been-A-Long’, we got comprehensive tours of the Island, and enjoyed meals together, including some yummy BBQ’d fish out of ‘Envy’s’ freezer. Thursday Island is only 2½ km long, has a very picturesque waterfront Esplanade, and two dominant hills, one at either end of this small northern outpost. ‘Millman Hill’ has a wind farm with two huge wind generators that are seen from miles away, while ‘Green Hill’ overlooks the main shipping channel and has an old military Fort, now an interesting Museum.

The wide main street still has a few old colonial buildings, it’s far from modern, and most housing, being government owned, is of a good standard. Local Torres Strait Island people far outnumber all others, and many commute daily in their small aluminium dinghys from several neighbouring islands.

Horn is a significantly larger island but much smaller township; it has the local airport, a very good Museum reflecting Horn’s major WW2 war effort, and Vidgen Creek which ran through Uncle Gordon’s butchery holding paddocks back in the old days.

It’s a long way from Cape York to Darwin, starting point for the “Sail Indonesia Rally 2006”, and it was time to go, so ‘Envy’ and ‘Been-A-Long’ returned an energetic farewell to John as he waved to us close by from the Hospital grounds right there at Vivienne Point, after seven exciting days at Thursday Island, as we raced close by the point doing 9.6 knots with the swift current.

We gave historic Booby Island Lighthouse a safe margin (where early sailing ships left and collected mail from ‘post office’ cave), as we headed out into the shallow and rough Gulf of Carpentaria to commence our ‘over the top’ passage.

Next landfall will be in Arnhem Land at Gove, a hard three day passage away, and as “Envy’ settled into its sea going rhythm I reflected on the previous ten days of excitement, pleasure and discovery as Audrey and I at long last retraced my family roots up here at the top end of Australia.

Remember, a bad day’s sailing (almost always) beats a good day at the office!
Gove, June 2006