Over the Top with Storyteller

Sat 10 Jul 2010 23:01

Position  12.27S  130.51E

It's hard to believe that we've been in Darwin almost two weeks without a moment to  write a blog. The delights of Darwin are many, and together with all the preparations for the trip to Indonesia, we have been very busy running around--by public bus mainly. Australian Customs, Indonesian visas, refuelling,vaccinations, learning a bit of Indonesian, provisioning for 3 months in the heat--around 32 degrees during the day-- have been an almost full time job. Darwin is a funky, bustling tropical city that is a real transition between Australia and Asia, with markets full of exotic produce. 

The tides are so enormous that the marinas have to be entered through locks that open only at high tide. When arrived in Darwin from Port Essington we had to anchor off the town for a couple of days in order for divers to spray the hull to get rid of any nasty molluscs that we might have picked up in the marina in Cairns.  We'd had to leave at threee in the morning to make the most of the current running at 3 and a half knots--exhilarating!  We were surprised to see that the US Navy was in town-- an aircraft carrier and a couple of helicopter carriers, so our first few days were shared with thousands of sailors thronging the bars and souvenir shops. Didgeridoos seemed to be the most popular purchases, and the icecream shops came close to running out of supplies. During 'the Dry" a year's worth of social activities are packed into a 3-month period. The shops are full of glamorous hats for the races, fire crackers explode for Cracker Night, The Darwin Show is on, and best of all, the Deckchair Cinema shows arthouse movies under the stars each night, with wine, beer and the most delicious Asian food available. And when you feel like a change,  the large Greek population in Darwin ensures wonderful seafood cafes. 

There are at least 100 yachts  preparing to join the Sail Indonesia Rally--I suspect we are the only motor boat. Everyone is really enjoying the opportunity to be in one spot for a few weeks after the almost non-stop 2000km  trip from Cairns. 
The trip up the inside of the Barrier Reef was wonderful, but quite demanding, especially when encountering passing ships in the narrow shipping lane. One ship's Australian pilot was particularly aggressive to foreign yachts, abusing them over the radio, which made us feel embarrassed and ashamed. "You've got a sail up, so you must be in dreamland", was his charming comment. All the way from Cairns to Darwin there has been a very visible Customs and Naval presence, with yachts being called regularly from border control planes and ships. We ran into trouble when we went ashore on the Wessel Islands in Arnhem Land. There we were having a peaceful fish in an estuary, keeping an eye out for crocs, when a very fast Navy inflatable approached us to tell us that we had no right to be on Aboriginal land without a permit.  The problem is, of course, that there is no way to obtain a permit. One of the crew was a very affable Torres Strait Islander, who seemed to be quite amused by the whole thing, but his CO  definitely lacked a sense of humour. Evidently Indonesian fishing boats used to come down to this area, but we saw no sign of any. The islands themselves are completely uninhabited, so it's a bit hard to see what the fuss is about. So far we have heard nothing more about the incident, but we were  photographed and all our details taken. So if Australians are wondering where their tax dollars are going, we've seen plenty of them being spent up in  Northern Australia.

There have been many highlights on the trip from Cairns, some of them quite thrilling. (We had no communications to speak of for three weeks, as even our shortwave reception was poor. We didn't even know of the Kevin Rudd assassination for several days, which was pretty upsetting for a political junkie like me. We did have a copy of the David Marr essay in the Quarterly however, so it wasn't a total surprise. )

Going north from Cairns we had very strong winds, which were appreciated by the yachts, but really spoiled the couple of days we spent at Lizard Island. We also had a surprisingly strong favourable current which helped greatly with the fuel consumption. It was great going north, but made us realise going back the way we came would not be a good idea. A ship out of Singapore or Malaysia seems like a much better idea.

 We had a lovely time at the Low Isles, unlike Steve Irwin, who met his end there from a freak stingray sting. The snorkelling was outstanding with dozens of huge turtles a special highlight. From there we travelled long distances each day, generally weighing anchor at dawn each morning and reaching our next destination just before dark. Despite the strong trade winds, the sea was always calm, thanks to the Great Barrier Reef which provides protection from the swell. As we travelled north we followed Cook's journal and became more and more impressed with his seamanship, not to mention good luck when a change of wind or tide saved the Endeavour from disaster. I kept my eye on the plotter for days on end and barely read a word of my novel as we wended our way through reefs. It was not the place to lose concentration.

We weren't too disappointed not to have time to go ashore for days on end, given the constant presence of very large salt water crocodiles. We actually only ever saw one large one, but you knew they were always there.

During the voyage we passed many well known landmarks such as the Lockhart River and Escape River ,where the explorer, Kennedy's remains were found.  We also passed Mount Neville and Donovan Point, right next to each other!  Some of the most exciting passages were narrow gaps between reefs, such as the Albany Passage south of Cape York,  and the famous Hole in the Wall in the Wessel Islands in Arnhem Land, where the tide can run through at 7 knots. Luckily we happened to be there at slack tide and were able to go through twice with very little current, although it was a scarily narrow gap. We'd been told that fish fight to jump on your line in Arnhem Land, although we didn't find it quite that easy. Ray, the keen fisherman with us caught a fair few fish, mainly mackerel and tuna. His biggest triumph was the Golden Trevally you see in the picture, caught on a light rod from the back of the boat when we were anchored at Cape Grenville. He did a fantastic job filleting it although it was a gruesome sight that met Don and Anne from Harmonie when they came on board for a drink--they were treated to very fresh sashimi!

Rounding Cape York was a milestone, celebrated in style with a bottle of champagne. We continued on a few miles down the west side of the Cape to Seisia, a Torres Strait Islander community which is also the stepping off point for the ferries from the mainland to Thursday Island (TI in local parlance). At Sesia we were amazed to find a caravan park full of 4WDs together with a decent store with fresh vegetables.These were the first signs of human activity we had seen fora couple of  weeks, apart from the prawn trawlers and their mother ships at anchor during the day, looking like bats drying  off their wings. Being Friday night it was  music night at the local fishing club, so braving crocs we took the dinghies ashore for barraburgers, stubbies and music by the famous TI identity, Seaman Dan, winner of several Aria awards. Seaman Dan who must be over 80 and is rather frail is THE voice of the Torres Strait. A former pearl diver, he actually is Jamaican with a wonderfully mellow voice and a huge local favourite.  Seaman Dan  cds are our favourite drinking music.
Taking the boats over to TI wasn't very practical due to a bad anchorage and quarantine restrictions, so Anne from Harmonie and Helen, Ray and I took the ferry over for a  very interesting and enjoyable day.  Because of the pre-war pearling industry TI has a particularly diverse population, including a Japanese pearl diver cemetery. The island was evacuated during World War 11 but never bombed by the Japanese, unlike neighbouring Horn Island. Like so many places in Northern Australia, TI has a wonderful art gallery, full of paintings and weaving you would love to own, but fortunately quite expensive, so easier to resist. 

The Torres Strait Islanders are fine people who, like the Aborigines were treated disgracefully until recent times. It was very encouraging to see people of all races mixing very harmoniously during the Friday night gig at the fishing club, and and young Islanders working in the local businesses. We've seen many Indigenous people in our travels around Darwin but very few in jobs. Obviously alcohol, petrol sniffing and marijuana are a huge problem, but we've seen no sign of trouble.

This coming week we'll take a 4-day trip out to Kakadu, then start packing away up all the wine, spirits, meat etc that we need to keep us going for the next three months until we reach Singapore. Last night we joined with other boats to taste a variety of wines prior to making a major purchase. A very funny night, and I fear some may not be feeling too well this morning.

For anyone who is feeling the cold down south, we couldn't recommend Darwin highly enough as a lush tropical city with heaps of history and culture--especially during the "Dry". It's a very busy time of year, though, with accommodation and rental cars in short supply. 

Photos--thanks to official photographer, Helen
1. Fish seen off the back of Storyteller at the Low Isles
2.Cook's Look on Lizard Island
3. Ray's Golden Trevally
4.Cape York on the plotter
5.Aboriginal artist in Darwin
6.Entering the marina lock