Archive for July 2010
Abel Point Marina, Airlie Beach
20° 15’ 52.95” South
148° 42’ 41.77 East
Just as monkeys in Thailand can be trained to gather coconuts from tall palm trees, this Crew is able – with guidance – to perform simple tasks in areas inaccessible to The Captain.
‘I’ve a nice job for you’
‘See if you can disconnect that red seawater hose leading to the exhaust injection nozzle of the generator at the back. I can’t get enough leverage’
Crew insinuates herself between various greasy hunks of ironmongery in the stern. The result is reminiscent of Tenniel’s illustration of Alice in the Rabbit’s house:
‘Erm…which red hose?’
‘The one at the back.’
‘Oy! Five hoses here, all at the back!’
‘The one behind the black hose.’
‘The big fat black hose?’
‘That’s the one!’
‘Does the end of the red hose look as if it’s been chewed?’
Crew tugs at hose and after a couple of minutes gets it off.
‘Hey – help! You need to pull on my feet to get me out of here…’
Further forays and probing with crochet hooks (very useful gadgets and, no, I don’t crochet though am crotchety often enough) while being issued strict instructions not to be in a hurry, got the nozzle clear. The Captain got it all back together, and flipped the switch. It worked: water gushed out the correct hole at the back of the boat as seawater circulated to cool the freshwater which cools the generator. But the next time it was turned on, no water appeared. So we went through the whole procedure once more. It worked again, once. And then we began Da Capo. ಠ_ಠ
So we left lovely Nara Inlet and the Whitsunday Islands and have been sitting around in Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach for the last 4 days.
The original plan had been to spend a few days at Cid Harbour at Whitsunday Island, but the day we arrived the anchorage was packed with boats trying to escape the wind and unpleasant chop. We anchored, then sat glumly for while – there was nothing to see, the anchor was dragging very, very slowly through the soft mud, the wind was still howling around our ears, the sea was choppy even within the anchorage, more and more boats were coming in…the devil with it!
We upped anchor and left for what is supposed to be the most secure anchorage in the Whitsundays – Nara Inlet.
Nara Inlet, Hook Island, Whitsunday Islands
20° 08’47.06” South
148° 54’ 34.97” East
Nara Inlet is beautiful – almost like a fjord, there was less wind and few other boats. The surrounding hills are covered with hoop pines and airy eucalyptus trees and strange, weathered blue-grey rocks, like magic mushrooms or slumping moon meringues, line the shore. In the mornings and evenings, at the other end of the inlet, we could see flocks of white cockatoos whirl among the pines like snowflakes.
While anchored there we launched the brand new hard-bottomed dinghy and took it to the far end of the inlet, where a short uphill walk leads to an Aboriginal site. It was pleasant to be on land again, the views of the inlet were stunning, and the site was interesting though most of the rock paintings were much faded.
Then the problem with the generator arose and instead of sailing on to Butterfly Bay and Stonehaven Anchorage at Hook Island, and then to Blue Pearl Bay at Hayman Island for some snorkelling, we ended up here.
The problem turned out to be an intermittent electrical connection rather than a mechanical problem. Brushing by the connection en route to clearing the hose got it to start up, deceiving us into thinking our efforts with the nozzles and pipes were having an effect. Also, the engine mounting bolts at the back had sheared, which let the machine give a rabbit-like hop when it turned on and off. We only discovered this by accident while trying to fix the first problem. I believe that’s called a ‘silver lining’. A hopping engine would inevitably have become a leaping engine in a few weeks. The way this trip has been running, this would have happened somewhere really convenient – like off Arnhem Land – leaving us with strictly rationed fresh water supplies and having to run the main engine – using lots of diesel – for power until reaching Darwin.
It’s been a dirty, sweaty and irritating few days, especially for The Captain, who’s been rather heroically doing a dockyard job – streaming with sweat and looking wilder and grubbier as each day progresses toward its frustrating dénouement. Although he enquired ahead by phone, the marina repair people here have been less than helpful due to lack of manpower and materials. They could easily have said they were too stretched to take on the job. Had we known we would be taking taxis into town to get bolts engineered and we’d have to be lifting the generator ourselves with the main halyard, we’d have sailed straight to Cairns to get the problem diagnosed and fixed. Tempers have not been improved by the fact that the moment we arrived the miserable weather became warm and the 25 knot winds we’d been dealing with until then turned into gentle breezes.
Between squeezing into tight spots and helping The Captain when he needs an extra pair of hands, doing the shopping and laundry and cooking and washing the deck and interior of the boat, I’ve been scouting around and taking photos. Otherwise there’s little to do or see within walking distance.
Airlie Beach is anodyne verging on tacky. The foreshore has a nice man-made salt water lagoon so people can swim during the jellyfish ‘stinger’ season. A well-designed boardwalk leads west along the foreshore from Airlie Bay past the town and the marina and two more beaches before ending opposite nearby Pigeon Island. Along the main street of town are shops selling swim wear, travel & tour agencies, a drug store – no post office – and rows of bars and restaurants catering to a clientèle ranging from about 17 to 27, travelling on a limited budget. It’s obvious that people with money go to Hamilton Island or the luxurious resorts on various small privately owned islands within the Whitsunday group.
The marina is packed with large charter boats of various sizes, decorated with racks of wetsuits and scuba tanks. These take tourist groups out to nearby islands for day trips and longer cruises, snorkelling and diving tours, beach walks and barbecues. The biggest one is an enormous catamaran which looks like a slightly more aerodynamic Starship Enterprise. It comes in every night heralded by several mournful hoots of the ship’s horn. Crowds clutching towels and swimwear gather in the early mornings before their boats leave and listen solemnly to briefings given by people their own age but with woven ankle bracelets, better tans and more interesting hair (so far I’ve counted 4 young men with dreadlocks and earrings a la Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean). “There will be plenty of food on this trip. For those of you who have been saving money, the next few days will reintroduce you to fresh fruit and vegetables, and we promise you will not be served pot noodles!”
A hike up into the hills behind town was a welcome chance to get some real exercise. Two wallabies broke cover and bounced down the trail ahead for a few hundred yards, dozens of large black and white butterflies floated through the trees and the light-dappled forest smelled delicious. I’ve been trying to define the scent and can only liken it to an excellent pale, aromatic pipe tobacco.
The coral growing under the jetty was a real surprise, because some of the formations are so large. Usually, when one takes photos of coral underwater, the result is dull without a flash. But because these formations are right under the surface it was possible to get true colours in daylight just by leaning over and casting a shadow over the water to remove most of the reflection. The only problem was not losing my balance and after one close call I made sure to keep my ‘centre of gravity’ lower to the ground.
The swallows: they swoop through the rigging, perch on safety lines, sit on jetties and mooring lines and anchors. They chirp and twitter constantly from the moment dawn breaks until dusk. They’re a species native to Australia and nearby islands called the ‘Welcome Swallow’ (Hirundo neoxena) and are utterly lovely. We first saw them in Geographe Bay in Western Australia some years ago, when dozens would roost overnight all over the (other) boat. They make a bit of a mess, but no creature so graceful can be called a pest!
Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, although real Aussies, are definitely considered pestiferous because they eat houses – not entire, of course; they just gnaw on the softwoods used for window frames and weather-boards, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage if not stopped.
Green tree ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) are another species native to Australasia and are unusual members of the ant family. They’re also known as Weaver Ants, because they weave leaves together to form their nests. Adult ants form chains to pull the leaves together, then other ants bring larvae from the nest and squeeze them so they produce a kind of silk, which is then used to ‘stitch’ the leaves together. They’re aggressive creatures, and swarm out when the nests are touched, biting and squirting formic acid.
There are many nests in the trees and bushes along the board walk, and having read that they’re sometimes eaten and taste rather good, I tried one in the spirit of scientific enquiry and with apologies to Kliban: ‘Love to eat them pismires, pismires what I love to eat. Bite they little heads off, nibble on they tiny feet’. They taste O.K. – a bit like gritty lime juice – but I shouldn’t think they’ll be coming to supermarket shelves near you any time soon.
Tomorrow morning early we sail for Magnetic Island, leaving the Whitsundays, which have been a disappointment because of the weather and the seemingly inevitable delays which have again robbed us of precious time to do anything but travel north as quickly as possible, missing so much of what we’re here to see.
The plan now is to spend a couple of days at Magnetic Island, then do the same at Orpheus Island. Then we remain at Cairns for three to four days. We need to provision, because after that shops become less accessible. There will be minor boat repairs and I sincerely hope we’ll have time to take in a bit of the countryside further inland and some cultural sights before heading north again. There’s such a long way to go yet!
Best to all from us both
The next stop after Gladstone was Pearl Bay.
22° 26’.620 South
Described as one of the prettiest anchorages along that part of the coast, with steep wooded cliffs descending to the sea and a small, perfect beach, it was all those things. It was also where we found out that our depth gauge is badly calibrated. This became obvious when the boat began bumping on the ground at low tide while the gauge mendaciously insisted there were still 5 feet of water under the keel. We quickly hauled anchor and The Captain did a Boy Racer – gunning the engine – and we settled again further out like a huffy gull that’s been disturbed after thinking it’s nicely roosted for the evening.
One old boy in Brisbane told us no one’s really ‘done’ the Queensland coast until they’ve been stranded on a bar or stuck at anchor. Not surprising. The tides here are terrific – often 20 feet or more – and measurements aren’t always accurate; the sea around each bay and island has its own rhythm, tides vary depending on the moon, sand shifts during storms, and nature is generally disinclined to be corseted. Depths here are relatively shallow even between islands and often measure a metre or less in the river mouths during the lowest tides. Many areas are only accessible if one ‘works’ the tides: the channel between Fraser Island and the mainland just north of Brisbane, for example, is usually navigated on a rising tide if one comes from the south, timing arrival at the shallowest point midway through to coincide with the tidal high, so one can then follow the ebbing tide to deeper water northwards. Get it wrong, and you’re well stuck in the sand for 12 hours. We won’t be playing these games!
We’ve had other minor hiccups with the electronics. These The Captain mostly sorts out by re-booting or by occasionally reverting to mankind’s traditional solution when faced with a piece of recalcitrant technology: a good thump. Fridges and freezer are still a bit temperamental, loos still not working properly, and random problems resulting from the hammering the boat suffered en route from NZ still surface occasionally. But these minor issues are pretty much compensated for by the new anchor – which has held first time, every time so far – and the new automatic anchor winch controller: crew now presses buttons to raise and lower the anchor and no longer has to wield a rubber mallet to release and control the rate at which it descends. Sweet! And we have also had a 3G wireless network installed, so we can get the internet in our bunks even while anchored in idyllic island coves as long as they aren’t more than about 50 miles from a phone mast. Very civilised!
Next stop was:
22° 00’.720 South
150° 21’.804 East
En route from Pearl Bay we watched a humpback whale less than 100 yards away, breaching again and again. It would launch a full three quarters of its body length into the air then land in the water on its arched back with a crash. Then it slapped its vast flukes against the water’s surface 7-8 times in a row, then lay on its back waving long flippers in the air. We didn’t even try to take photos, but watched awestruck. It seems impossible that a creature of such size and weight should be able to indulge in acrobatics.
We anchored in a small bay with a small, curved beach embraced by two rocky headlands. We were completely alone until early evening, and the silence was broken only by the occasional mewing gull and screech of the resident osprey, which perched on one of two small rocky peaks on the western side of the bay to tear at a fish it had caught.
The sunset was exquisite. They do especially good sunsets in this part of the world; Cecil B. DeMille productions almost every evening, with phalanxes of orange and pink clouds, or clear skies shading imperceptibly from deepest blue overhead to gold at the horizon. The impressive and varied cloud formations may have to do with the fact that we’re close to where two separate weather systems meet.
Come evening the crescent moon rose. Here in the southern hemisphere the moon lies on her back, cradling the globe of her shadowed side between two glowing horns. Venus, the evening star, is always very bright. Later the Milky Way appears – stars like handfuls of glittering dust on black velvet. It’s only when one is far from any man-made source of light that one understands how the night sky could be regarded with such awe and wonder by our ancestors.
149° 40’.080 East
Curlew Island is part of the Guardfish Cluster of islands, and was the last stop before we arrived at Mackay. We anchored for the night just around a headland which offered protection from the prevailing south-easterly wind and left very early in the morning in plenty of time to arrive before dark. The day before, we’d averaged 6 ½ knots for the journey, but there was no guarantee the winds would remain favourable.
The approach was littered with islets and isolated rocks. It brought home how deceptive the view from the deck of a boat can be. On a chart, islands are laid out nicely with their fringing reefs, each distinct from the other, passages between them clear. From the deck of a boat, islands merge into each other. What looks like a rocky shore can change with a within a few minutes and a few degrees’ change of perspective into a group of several islands. Channels appear and disappear in a most disconcerting way and the entrances to harbours usually only become clear when one’s practically in them. It would be easy to sail by a perfect bay and in the past exploratory vessels often did so. Even Captain Cook missed a few!
The Mackay Marina was rather more up-market than the previous places we’d stayed at. Expensive apartments and restaurants line the marina’s edge. Mackay is a former sugar town, now losing some of its character as sugar prices have plummeted and coal mining has become one of the big earners in Queensland. Most of the sugar storage sheds next to the marina are being put to other uses, and the surrounding cane fields are being sold for developments.
The fishermen still come in though, and I was able to buy a coral trout off them before the rest were shipped off to Hong Kong – live – in large oxygenated tanks, for sale at astronomical prices. As one of the men said, ‘This lot fly First Class!’
The tiny lighthouse at one end of the marina is amusing. Once inside, one has to stoop a bit to avoid the ornamental ironwork supports. It runs by clockwork, so had to be wound up every 2 hours by the men who tended it. The prisms were hand cast and polished and are beautifully smooth with subtly rounded edges. It was relocated here from Pine Islet and was the last kerosene powered lighthouse in Australia. It’s since been restored, and is now the last fully functional kerosene lighthouse in the world.
Right now we’re anchored in the S.E. corner of Kennedy Sound, off Shaw Island, and are now officially within the Whitsunday Group of Islands.
The wind blew up during the night, and although 25 -30 knots here within the Great Barrier Reef aren’t accompanied by huge swells, the sailing won’t be very pleasant and launching the dinghy to go exploring will be a bore, so we’re staying here for the day, as are the two neighbouring boats.
Our daily bit of excitement was just provided by one of them: it was dragging the anchor and rapidly being pushed out toward nearby shoals. We repeatedly tried to raise the skipper on the radio, but got no answer. Obviously no radio watch was being kept and there wasn’t an anchor alarm to let them know they’d broken loose. Tsk-tsk. Someone from the other boat went over with a dinghy and must have woken the crew of the drifting vessel because a man appeared on deck, raised the anchor and then motored in and re-set it. Then he moved and tried again, then moved off with a tiny handkerchief of sail up, presumably to try anchor somewhere else. We’ve let out extra chain and look to be set rock solid, which is pleasant; our previous anchor wouldn’t have done the job.
Almost five hundred miles north of Brisbane, the temperatures are already much warmer in spite of the wind and the air much more humid – brilliant!
Love from us both,
We ended up staying at Mooloolaba longer than expected – for several days, in fact – after discovering that the main halyard (the rope with which one hauls up the mainsail) had been damaged en route from New Zealand. A new one had to be made up and threaded through the mast, for which we needed the services of a rigger. Like all good craftsmen, the best local one wasn’t immediately available.
The delay wasn’t exactly onerous. Early every morning I’d make a still-sleeping ‘El Capitan’ his cup of tea and then take a brisk morning walk along the fine, pale sand beach, or follow a boardwalk running behind the dunes between twisted pandanus trees and large banksias, for just over a mile to the esplanade. There were always a surprising number of people out: joggers wearing sleek tights and iPod earphones, other walkers, couples strolling hand-in-hand, and swimmers. These last were mostly elderly and looked in magnificent shape, ruddy with health and glowing from their exertions as they rubbed themselves dry. Everyone greeted everyone else with a smile or wave. The esplanade is lined with coffee-shops and decent restaurants. There are some shops selling tourist tat, but not many considering that it’s basically a resort town. I’d get an extra large cappuccino and then walk back barefoot along the edge of the gentle surf – what a heavenly way to begin the day!
The main fishing jetties which service the small fishing fleet and the complex where the day’s catch is processed for export are adjacent to the marina on the seaward side of the peninsula. Fishermen no longer arrive with open holds full of fish nowadays; the catch is sorted on the boats and put into large containers filled with ice/salt water slurry immediately. These are then loaded directly onto trucks when the boats arrive back in port – less romantic, but better for the final product. The local fish shops, naturally, make the famous fish counter at Harrods look just a bit pathetic. Photos are included purely to provoke envy.
One surprising sight at the shore end of our jetty was Jessica Watson’s ‘Ella’s Pink Lady’. It turns out the young woman is based in Mooloolaba. Small knots of people gathered almost every day to take photographs and stare at the pink cockleshell, snapping photos of each other with the boat in the background. Hand lettered signs on both jetty and outside the gate pleaded for consideration and privacy, so the hoopla when she first landed must have been considerable
Since we only have 3 months in which to cover many miles, the idea was to move north as quickly as was reasonably comfortable, sacrificing lesser attractions for the much lauded Whitsundays. So our next port of call was:
23° 49’.548 South
151° 14’.481 East
Gladstone is a very strange place.
On approaching the river mouth one sees freighters anchored out to sea, patiently waiting their turn to be guided into the harbour by the bright yellow pilot boats. On cautiously motoring up the river along one side of the dredged channel our little boat passed acre upon acre of refineries –vast cat’s cradles of steel scaffolding, chimneys and storage tanks, exuding vaguely sinister wisps of steam and smoke. It was a gloomy, chilly, rainy afternoon and the air smelled vaguely acrid. There was a nasty yellow streak in the clouds indicating some kind of noxious pollution, and as we passed by the rusty hulks of freighters being loaded by inadequate-looking gantries, we rather wondered what horrors awaited us.
Anticipation was confounded. The marina was pleasantly landscaped, with well-cared-for clap-board buildings painted white and blue. The staff were friendly and helpful. The wash-room and laundry facilities were so sparkling clean – every surface gleaming – that I felt almost embarrassed using them. On either side of the marina manicured lawns and parkland stretched for about a mile along the river. During the time we were there, they were usually crowded with families enjoying picnics and barbecues, children celebrating birthdays, students lounging around in the sun and the occasional corporate ‘function’ complete with blues band.
Central Gladstone, on the other hand, was curiously desolate. Walking through town on Sunday, I literally didn’t meet another human being for 20 minutes. I’ve seen ghost towns in the U.S. with more life. It is situated on the hill occupied by the original settlement, which is now completely surrounded by factories and industrial parks. Although money has obviously been spent on street furniture – random fountains, trees and brick pedestrian areas – there were few people to be seen even on weekdays and no real shops to speak of. These, it seemed, are located in shopping centres toward the suburbs.
A few undistinguished old buildings remain standing, and a museum housed in one of them was exhibiting some interesting aboriginal art and historical paraphernalia. Otherwise, the main street was lined with ugly modern buildings housing banks, employment agencies, solicitors, insurance companies, engineering and construction services, Chambers of Commerce and Industry and corporate offices: Rio Tinto Alcan Tarwun, Anglo Coal Australia, Boyne Smelters Ltd., Queensland Alumina Limited (the world’s biggest alumina refinery), Cement Australia Gladstone, Orica Australia (they produce sodium cyanide, caustic soda, ammonium nitrate, chlorine, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid and sodium hypochlorite!).
There was also a sign advertising the premises of a corporate entity called ‘Matrikon Solutions for Industrial Agility’. I haven’t looked this up. I don’t want to. The name – so carefully crafted to mean nothing at all – is too fertile a ground for speculative imagination: dancing CEOs and juggling Directors…
We stayed at Gladstone for 3 nights, waiting out a period of bad weather. We ate mud crab for the first time – a Queensland delicacy and considered by many to be the best tasting crab in the world. It was certainly the most delicious I’ve ever tasted and the meat from the monster we bought was almost more than we could eat. Their small cousins look to be identical to the ones we saw in Polynesia, and make the same come-hitherish wave with one big claw at the mouth of their burrows when the tide is out.
However the high point of our stay in Gladstone was – for me at least – the flying foxes. The Captain has seen them before in various parts of the world and is consequently blasé. But I’ve been curious about them since watching them fly by at dusk in Tonga, and so was delighted to find a smallish flock roosting in a mangrove patch along the path to town. At first, walking by, I’d thought they were parrots because of the racket they made but on getting closer could smell their distinctive, curiously musty odour. After clambering around mangrove roots while being stared at by dozens of pairs of beady little eyes I managed to take some photos before the flock decided I was bad news and flapped off to trees a few yards further away, where they remained chittering and rustling and glaring until I left. Later, just for the heck of it, I turned some of the photos upside down and was confronted with a fantastic rogues’ gallery of individual faces.
The bat family can be divided approximately into two groups: the megabats (flying foxes are megabats) and microbats (the little ones that feature in European fairy tales). Fruit bats don’t use echolocation to find their food, which consists primarily of fruit, flowers, nectar and pollen. They have excellent eyesight in daylight as well as at night, and an acute sense of smell. They’re not endangered – yet – but at risk for the usual reasons…
The next leg of our journey – Gladstone to Mackay – is in a separate post.