Was there ever such a feeling ? This glorious feeling of quietly slipping your mooring and ghosting out to sea, with the promise of a thousand freedoms.
We are sailing into the vast and empty Cape, on the North East tip of Australia.
“If I was a bird and lived on high
I’d lean on the wind as the wind went by
and as the wind carried me away
I’d say well, that’s where I wanted to be today”
World War 2 pilots flying to PNG, (like my own Dad), received classic directions, “Just keep Australia on the left.” In the years since then, people have been frantically filling up all Earths’ empty spaces with towns and roads – however Cape York exists in this day and age as a vast, beautiful, untouched area. No bureaucratic troubles, no mooring fees, just empty bays, reefs, fish, and beach combing.
Jenny and I have offered to deliver my sister Maggies’ 10m Trimaran “Uluru 3”, from Port Douglas to Thursday Island, and it is February, cyclone season. In fact we will make the acquaintance of two of these marauders – but let’s open at the start.
Port Douglas .. is a cheerful happy go lucky place. The previous week, in their inaugural Yacht Club race, “Blue Jacket” was leading early, yet came home last .. because they had to stop and check their crab pots ! There is sheltered anchorage in the creek, and we shared a great sing-a-long at the “Bottom Pub”, with the loveable rascal, and unofficial Mayor, Shakey Potter.
Sailing north is all mountains hard against the sea. A wild dreamland of dense rainforest. Snuggled into this is a haven for yachts – the Bloomfield River.
The bar is shallow and tricky, yet shelters a charming sense of remote peace. Who could ever forget our first night. After a leisurely sail with a gentle sou easter. and new book of Biggles adventures, we anchored hard against the forest. Imagine a jungle towering above your mast, all alive with a chorus of birds; rain drops clattering on leaves; the soft plop of fish jumping; and a myriad other sounds mingling in fresh air and moonlight ..
Cooktown greeted us with a “Cyclone Watch”, but what a relaxed, one off, place to shelter in. The tides of life ebb and flow, and wash larger than life characters into its furtherest estuaries – such as Cooktown – where they live a grand and free life, divorced from any rat race.
As the potential cyclone approached we moved “Uluru 3” into Racecourse creek, a deep muddy anchorage lined with tall mangroves. However the low passed by. There were a few strong wind gusts, but heavy rain, which flushed a great parade of logs downstream. (Good learning curve for future selections of Cyclone shelters).
Another one promptly formed 140 nm NE, but is was moving away so we hauled sail for Lizard Island. This is spirited sailing country, with reefs scattered around like gems in an empty ocean .. and one of lifes’ great joys is to discover one of these gems for yourself. Other folk may have been there, or you may have read stories and seen photos – but each gem can hold a gift specially for you.
Lizard Island welcomed us at sunset, after Danny Dade and his merry crew on “Gamefisher”, passed close by and tossed over two welcome cold beers.
Dawn invited Jen and I up the hill to “Cooks Look”, where we sat alone with a rainbow and wide blue sparkling ocean. It is a unique island, with an exceptional coral reef and lagoon on the south side, plus a sheltered bay on the NW. Today, (being February), we have the entire bay to ourselves. People from Europe could never conceive this scene.
White beaches, clear water o’er reefs covered in multi coloured giant clams. Plenty of fish, and living history. Here’s where the Chinese gardener was speared by hostile Aboriginals, (while Mrs Watsons husband was away), and here’s where she escaped to sea inside a beache-de-mer tank. Here brood the selfsame hills and sacred grounds – impervious to time tourists and passing yachties.
But sail we must, and must learn to sail ! In the shipping channel, huge, silent steel monsters lurk in rain squalls, then suddenly charge out doing 20 knots ! If you’re belting along at 10 knots, no radar or GPS, compass in one hand, jib sheet in the other, chart between your teeth, and tiller held by your toes – reefs everywhere, no where else to go, rain squalls blotting out vision .. well it’s actually bloody good fun .. wouldn’t miss it for the world
Thus we sail up the coast. Some days in rain, some in sunshine, always exploring.
Ninian Bay is a good mud bottom anchorage, teeming with Mangrove Jack. Stanley and Flinders Islands have a harbour between them that would be wall to wall marinas elsewhere on Earth .. and here we meet the spiritual force of Aboriginal dreamtime.
There are cave paintings on the Eastern edge of Flinders, so we go ashore and walk that way. Then, inexplicably, Jenny suddenly feels ill. She’s very fit and healthy, so tis strange. We decide she’ll wait here, while I go ahead and look. No probs, but on my return Jen is still feeling unwell. We begin to walk back, then bingo, she suddenly feels all good again.
The answer to this this mystery came later – so let’s jump ahead for a moment.
On Thursday Island I was fortunate to make friends with Alf Mills, a highly respected local man .. and on mentioning this strange incident, Alf said “yes, that part of Flinders Island is traditionally taboo to women.” Now if we had known that before, it could have been auto-suggestion, but we did not. So that ancient force still lives. Also, a lady Yachtie, good friend of mine, had the exact same experience. Take this how you will.
At Wilkie Island, dusk began to fall, gathering thousands of Torres straits pigeons along gleaming folds of sunset – drawn on invisible wires like lost components of the island returning home. The Nesbit River offers Barramundi, Mud Crabs, and a remarkable lagoon on the northern side. The Lockhart River is a primeval jungle of mangrove forests, whilst the Olive River is our norths best kept secret.
One of the great things about “Cruising” Sailing. is that there are no timetables, wind and tide grant free passage as it suits them, so yachties can pause here an there .. and what better way than to play beachcombers.
As one combs these vast and empty beaches, the gentle rhythms of life slow you down. Waves rolling in, clouds, wind whispering through Causarinas, all relax you .. lay you bare .. erased by todays’ tides of all yesterdays scribblings.
Cyclone “Pierre” bobbed up while we were at Cape Grenville. 100nm east. The trusty barometer, winds, sea swell, and sky looked ok, so we waited at Indian Bay eating coconuts. Two and a half hours later the weather folk had him 100nm east of Cooktown. That was a shift of 200nm ! Then he zoomed off south to the Broadsounds at an average speed of 20 knots ! True. Never underestimate what a Cyclone can do.
He must have had some attraction, cos a lady cyclone, “Rebecca” turned up one day later, so we fired up the iron sail, and ran north.
Cape Grenville itself is rather special, with Perry and Harvey islands. Haggerstone Island floats in a vista of palms, while further out are the Forbes Group.
The coast here varies from sand-capped hills to great blazes of orange cliffs, and is full of surprises if you venture close to shore. Wandering up Orford Bay we found a light aircraft crashed, not 200m from the wreck of a 11m yacht ?
But it was Somerset which stole our hearts. This deserted settlement, on the mainland west of Albany Passage, was originally established as Australias version of Singapore. The romance of these days gone by lingers in an idyllic setting. Here are graves on a deserted beach, and ruins of a grand homestead overlooking the passage, with it’s cannons still in place.
Yet, to Jen and I, the magic lived in a beautiful cave under the cliffs.
Curtained in a fine lace of water and mist drifting across it’s face, live vibrant Aboriginal paintings. We looked out from here, and saw clearly what it is, a window to the entire east coast of Australia.
The end of this voyage was Thursday Island. For goodness sakes don’t miss it. We arrived with an apprehensive, negative outlook .. then found only courtesy and open hearted friendliness. Island folk have an inherent dignity. They are quite capable of handling the materialistic world, yet have managed to retain a gentle, easy going lifestyle, which leaves time for the things that really matter in this life – playing with children, traditional festivals, prayer, and sing-a-longs with relatives and friends on the beach at sunset.
We walked out on the verandah of the old Grand Hotel. There in moonlight “Uluru 3” lay peacefully at anchor. We were in a remote, enchanting part of our world. From inside where the marvellous Mills Sisters were singing, flowed forth warmth, friendliness, and laughter. There was a moon on our left, a star on the right, and life was well worth living.