Archive for August 2010
Howick Island 17th August
14° 29’.772 S
144° 57’ .014 E
A nightmare anchorage, just to teach us a lesson for relaxing. Such a heavy swell (“a well-developed southeast trade wind sends a beam swell along the north of Howick which can make conditions uncomfortable”) that the boat was rocking 30° to either side from the perpendicular during most of the night. One wishes the writers of cruising guidebooks wouldn’t use understatement. We got out of there with curses as early as we could the next morning.
Bathurst Bay (Cape Melville) 18th August
14° 12’ .223 S
144° 28’ .216 E
Another miserable anchorage. A heavy swell made the boat rock uncomfortably, and howling winds blew at over 20 knots all night, the sound given a vicious edge by the whine of the boat’s wind generator. The anchor dragged slightly at the usual ‘interrogation hour’ of 3am, though letting out more chain took care of the problem immediately. Even the surroundings exuded a forbidding, albeit fascinating atmosphere. Giant, smooth granite boulders piled into mountainous hills rising as high as 500 metres came to the water’s edge. Almost barren of vegetation and infested with snakes, these seemed like a landscape I remembered from one of Sindbad’s voyages:
“The valley in which I found myself was deep and narrow, and surrounded by mountains which towered into the clouds, and were so steep and rocky that there was no way of climbing up their sides. As I wandered about, seeking anxiously for some means of escaping from this trap, I observed that the ground was strewed with diamonds, some of them of an astonishing size. This sight gave me great pleasure, but my delight was speedily damped when I saw also numbers of horrible snakes so long and so large that the smallest of them could have swallowed an elephant with ease. Fortunately for me they seemed to hide in caverns of the rocks by day, and only came out by night, probably because of their enemy the roc.”
No diamonds – at least the Queensland’s Department of Parks doesn’t mention them – but it looked just the place for gigantic serpents of mythic proportions. It’s warned that attempting to climb these hills is much more difficult than it looks, the boulders being so large that far from being stepping stones, they become insurmountable barriers, forcing climbers away from their chosen path…
Morris Island 19th August
13° 29’ .440 S
143° 43’ .317 E
It was a long day’s sailing and motoring to Morris Island – 11 hours. This was a lovely little anchorage though, and I’d have liked to go ashore. The island itself is a tiny coral cay about ¼ nautical mile long and 1/10th mile wide, at the edge of a vast reef which is a full 5 nautical miles long and 1 ½ miles wide! The cay tapers at both ends to narrow spits of pale sand crisped by waves. A lone palm tree waves bravely from one end and a crest of punk-y spikes marches along the entire length of the island. Both are remnants of British Admiralty policy of the 1800’s – food was to be made available on Great Barrier Reef islands, for the use of shipwrecked sailors. The spikes are the inflorescences of sisal plants, intended to be used to knock down coconuts from the palms. The sisal plants thrived, but of the coconuts palms there is only the lone survivor.
It was also nice to anchor in sand for a change. The usual blue mud we’ve been getting, is of an extraordinarily glutinous and adhesive quality and mixed with coarse grit, it clings in great immoveable lumps to the anchor when it’s raised. Once the anchor has been raised we have to move off immediately, but a clogged up anchor doesn’t set well the next time, so the stuff has to come off. Dragging the anchor in the water doesn’t work, I’ve tried leaning over the safety lines while en route and jabbing at the problem with the boat hook, but that isn’t very effective either, so I’ve been reduced to scooping it off with my favourite heavy plastic kitchen spatula while hanging/squatting on the bowsprit like a cross between a monkey and a badly carved ship’s figurehead.
Night Island 20th August
13° 10’ .869 S
143° 34’ .366 E
Night Island was a pleasant enough place, made very interesting indeed by our neighbour at the anchorage: a large motor cruiser attended by not one, but 3 runabouts and a couple of bright yellow helicopters. These buzzed back and forth delivering people onto the island, who were then ferried to the cruiser by large dinghies. We were, of course, very curious. Curiosity was satisfied when one of the dinghies came alongside and the skipper, on behalf of the charterer, invited us for drinks at 6 that evening and then dinner to follow. Goodness!
The dinghy arrived at exactly 6pm, and on boarding the luxurious cruiser we were greeted by about a dozen young male and female crew in uniform, one of whom was bearing a tray of strawberry daiquiris. Heaven! We were then given a tour of the boat which ended in the lounge, where we chatted with a group of rather jolly men, almost all American executives with a moneyed aura about them and regrettably well-developed pot-bellies, before meeting our host, who was a bowed, elderly, impish man, obviously struggling with poor health but determined to enjoy himself nevertheless.
His name was Fred Turner, and for anyone who doesn’t agree with McDonalds’ corporate policies, we might as well have supped with Satan. We dined on roasted quail, reef fish with lobster sauce, excellent wine and the chef’s apple and pineapple crumble, which had all the men very quiet and very busy for a while. Frankly, I’d have been happy with sausages and beer as long as someone else cooked them and cleaned up, so this counted as a lavishly hedonistic evening!
It seems that Mr Turner has been coming to the Great Barrier Reef – in much the same sort of style – for some 35 years. While here, he invites his family and friends to enjoy the experience with him. Some of the men there had been his friends for almost that long, in fact. We happened to be there during the second wave of a guys-only holiday, and they were obviously having a wonderful time.
Lloyd Bay 21st August
12° 52’ .501 S
143° 21’ .535 E
A reasonably quiet anchorage, though no protection from the wind – just no waves or swell. It was very shallow where we anchored in a blind inlet near the river estuary, about 11’ deep at low tide, leaving us only about 4’ under the keel. The water was muddy and one shore was lined with what looked like the Forest Primeval. The other was inviting white sand with a healthy crocodile population, according to one of the crew with whom we’d spoken during the previous evening. Mmmm!
Cape Grenville – Margaret Bay 22nd & 23rd August
11° 57’ .449 S
143° 12’ .301 E
The trip from Lloyd Bay to Margaret Bay was fairly miserable because once again the winds were above 25 knots all the way. The Captain got soaked by waves en route and we were a bit nervous about the anchor dragging. It didn’t drag, but during the night the lashing holding our shiny new snubber broke. We made up another with a plain stainless steel hook we had been using for something else, and that works fine.
A snubber, btw, for those people sensible enough not to have to know about them, is basically nothing more than a thick rope with a gadget at one end – there are various patent kinds – that hooks into or grabs the anchor chain. The rope leads back to the boat, where it is fastened to the Samson post. Then the anchor chain is let out a bit more so the snubber is underwater, the rope taut, and the chain a tiny bit slack. That way, when wind or swell make the boat heave up and down at anchor the shock is taken up by the elasticity of the rope rather than the chain and windlass. This is easier on the windlass and also on the people in the boat. It also gets rid of the horrible, dungeonesque clanking noise the chain makes when it’s jerked about under load.
We had pulled in at Margaret Bay to rendezvous with one of Sea Swift’s mother ships, which supply the fishing fleet with fuel, water and stores and unload their catch which is returned to Cairns for export. I’d heard about the service from some pleasant people in Brisbane, who had been kind enough to give me lots of excellent advice about anchorages for the trip north, and we’d picked up the schedule from Sea Swift’s headquarters in Cairns. The ship was scheduled to show up at 3:00pm but we’d been warned timings were only approximate, so weren’t surprised when it moved majestically into the bay at dusk. It was dark by the time the shrimp trawlers which had been waiting around at anchor during the last 24 hours were able to be offloaded and refuelled, accompanied by much VHF chattering and grumbling about ‘crook’ backs and painkillers.
We were last in the queue and motored slowly up to the side of the great mother ship, which was well padded with giant, round orange and yellow bollards, bright in the glaring deck lights. Our gearbox stuck at the worst possible moment, so Captain and cockpit got drenched in a gush of warm salty water being pumped from the side of the ship’s hull – water which was on its way back into the bay after having been used to cool the giant freezers. The refuelling went smoothly after that though, and then we went back to re-anchor. This time I was the one who got soaked, by a beautifully timed cloudburst.
We were only scheduled to leave at 3pm the next day, on an overnight sail to catch the rising tide in the Albany Passage. I spent that morning doing laundry and cobbling together a new piece for the outboard-motor harness; a gale-force gust of wind had whipped the missing piece out of The Captain’s hands at Lizard Island. He did necessary things with the chart plotter and engine filters in the meantime.
About an hour before we were to leave, 3 young, smiling, bare-chested fishermen with starry tattoos, clutching beers and only slightly inebriated, roared up to the boat in an aluminium dinghy littered with sticks and leaves, and asked if we’d like to join them on the beach for beer and a prawn barbecue. The answer was, ‘No, we can’t, because we have to leave’. The rejoinder: ‘Why not just leave a day later?’ was the only rational response to such insanity, but unfortunately our schedule took precedence. So after chatting for a while they motored off again, wishing us a safe trip and telling us to visit their boat next time we were in the area.
Anyone would be justified in wondering why we’re doing this trip if after all the expense, hassle, physical and intellectual discomfort and work, we don’t have a spare afternoon to spend enjoying the company of people we’d otherwise not meet. The negative decision was wrong at so many levels: intellectual, philosophical – even in terms of simple good manners, because those guys are on their shrimp trawlers for weeks on end with no other company and their invitation was gracious. For me it was pretty much the tipping point as regards travelling anywhere else in this boat; when the method by which one chooses to travel is allowed to become more of a barrier than a gateway to other people, places and cultures then it’s time to find another way of moving around.
Seisia- Bamaga – 25th August
10° 51’ .038 S
142° 21’ .060 E
We left Margaret Bay at 3pm, exactly as planned, and reached Cape York at about 8am on the morning of the 25th August, so we’re now officially Over-the-Top.
The winds had been mild during the night, and The Captain was glad we’d taken the decision to bypass the Escape River and just go for it. I’d been rather looking forward to catching mud crabs in the river with our new crab net, because it’s supposed to be swarming with them, but we did save another day’s sailing.
We took the Albany Passage between Albany Island and the Cape York Peninsula to avoid the major shipping lanes and to make the trip shorter. It was very early when we passed through on a rising tide, as planned, but the flow was not as strong as we’d anticipated, so we glided rather sedately through the ½ mile wide, 3 mile long passage flanked by low hills and the occasional shallow bay and yellow sand beach. The rocks were black and the vegetation of the wild jungle-y sort, so in spite of the low light it was rather beautiful. The solitary small homestead in the passage, set back from a beach fringed with coconut palms, was reminiscent of Polynesia.
Once through, we soon came to a scattering of rocky islands sparsely covered with dry vegetation, and began seeing the ‘magnetic ant hills’ (termite nests, in fact) I’d read about. Some of these become huge – much taller than a man – but we were so far from shore that it was difficult to judge their dimensions.
Now we’re anchored far out in the bay south of Seisia, the coastal port of the aboriginal settlement of Bamaga. We shan’t be going ashore, though during the Friday night beach-side barbecues, the music by local bands is supposed to be brilliant. Tomorrow we set sail for Gove. That will be a 3 day/2 night non-stop slog, so we’re keeping fingers crossed that the winds will remain benevolent.
Cape Flattery 13th August
14° 57’ .117 S
145° 19’.518 E
This was a fairly nondescript anchorage, except for the blindingly white silica sand dunes far in the distance. It was simply an overnight stop en route to
Lizard Island 14th, 15th, 16th August
14° 39’ .603 S
145° 27’ .060 E
The first evening we sat on deck with gin & tonics in hand, watching as the sun sank through a sky decorated with an airy scribble of transparent clouds and melted into a deep indigo sea. Close by, a turtle raised its head occasionally for a breath, and in the distance sea birds were whirling about a patch of reef where skittering splashes told of frantic activity under the water’s surface.
Lizard Island looks barren, but is one of those bewitching, austere landscapes that rewards attention to detail with a myriad of small and large beauties. The beach is of soft, white sand except near the rocks, where the fine layer has been swept away. There it becomes coarsely crystalline, almost pure quartz from the decomposed granite of which it’s formed. On the upper beach, some areas of the sand were paved with tiny white shells, as fine and delicate as a baby’s fingernail, and strangely shaped seed pods littered the high tide line; around them wove the mysterious tracks of animals that had gone about their snuffling business the night before.
The water was crystal clear the next day, transparent and warm. When I began snorkelling, it was almost like floating in glass. The coral gardens were unbelievable. If you remember the photographs of the corals on the jetty at Airlie Beach, try to think of them grown to hallucinatory, Brobdingnagian proportions. The hand-sized orange plate coral with ridges was represented by a specimen the size of a very large dining room table. Soft finger corals a few inches long, at Lizard Island towered like trees. Corals shaped like chanterelle mushrooms were the size of bathtubs.
But the giant clams were the most astonishing sight of all and I gasped at first seeing one (NB: not a good idea when snorkelling). The largest were a good 5’ long and I could easily have curled up within them. The outer shells were grey, ridged and gnarled, encrusted with sponges and corals, and photographs don’t capture the contrast between this outer shell and the exquisite texture and colours of the living mantle. Imagine the finest, softest, deepest purple silk velvet, shot through with bronze highlights and scattered with hundreds of minuscule, iridescent green rings. The inner membrane at the centre is pierced by two large vents. Peering inside the largest, one can see into the core of the creature and see what looks like a crisp white ruffle of purest white fluttering over a background of milky opal membranes. Some of the clams have tiger striped mantles in green and violet and black, others prefer to cloak themselves in shades of gold and brown; all have the tiny iridescent green or blue eyes.
I delicately tickled one of the clams, to see if it really would snap shut. Slowly and jerkily, as if reluctantly activating a piece of ancient, massive, creaky machinery, the clam closed the two ridged halves of its shell a few inches, then stopped. Further tickling would have been lèse majesté , so I left it and played with the myriad of small, brightly coloured fish that were nipping at my yellow gloves. The photo above is not mine, alas, but gives some idea of what they look like.
That afternoon I trekked to the south west side of the island, through pandanus and mangrove swamps, eucalyptus groves and stunted dune vegetation that stabilises the fine white sand hills. The beach was littered with seed pods, coconuts, pumice and similar detritus cast onto the shore by the prevailing winds. I didn’t stay very long, because it was too windy.
The walk to the top of Cook’s Lookout the next morning was reasonably strenuous. When I told him about it, my son expressed surprise that I’m still fit enough to have accomplished it after so much time on the boat. I told him it was a case of the battery chicken so relieved at being let out of her cage that she was carried along by sheer enthusiasm. I also climbed over Chinaman’s Hill and had another snorkelling session that afternoon. The bill for the exertion was presented by my body the following day, but I didn’t care!
The photos of the Cook’s Lookout walk are in order of ascent and descent, but don’t capture the scent of dry grasses in the sea breeze and the faint, sweet perfume of flowers and aromatic eucalyptus. The wind whipped at the summit, where a couple arrived shortly after me and we all took triumphant photos of each other. Facing towards the sun, cloud shadows chased each other over a brazen sea; facing the other way, reefs and islands showed as turquoise and brownish patches alternating with the indigo blue of deeper water.
I didn’t want to leave…
From this entry on, it’s unlikely we’ll be stopping for more than a night or two anywhere and even less likely that we’ll be getting off the boat except to refuel, so entries will be briefer. Photos may be lousy too, unless we get close enough to the shore to actually see something interesting!
Love – and am missing you all,
Half Moon Bay Marina & Yacht Club at Yorkeys Knob.
16° 48’ 04.86” S
145° 42’ 27.04” E
This is a smallish marina – 200 berths on 3 jetties – with a new club house overlooking the basin, and we were lucky enough to get a berth for 4 nights. It had been recommended to us by several yachties as a pleasant alternative to Cairns Harbour, and it has an unusually relaxed and intimate atmosphere compared to the other marinas we’ve stayed at.
The water was muddy and there weren’t many fish to see. A sign warned of crocodiles and I kept a sharp and hopeful lookout for pairs of googly eyes protruding above the surface, but was disappointed. We’re now in serious crocodile territory and they’re known to infest the mangrove swamps and creeks from here on north, especially the Daintree River, but we have yet to see one.
Aside from providing crocodile habitat, mangrove creeks are a refuge for boats during tropical storms. The marinas around Cairns provide protection against cyclones but nevertheless, when an alert is sounded, yachts are required to make for the many large mangrove-lined creeks running off nearby Trinity Inlet, where they go as deeply into the thickets as possible and moor up in a web of criss-crossing lines. The photo will show why: those roots could tangle up even the fiercest winds and waves.
We spent most of the 3 days in Cairns working on the boat, so didn’t see much of the surroundings. The Captain wanted to install a new circuit breaker for the loo holding-tank macerator pump and get the generator electrics fixed once and for all. I wanted to clean the boat properly for the first time in a couple of months; laundry had accumulated and there was also provisioning to do. Generally it was a case of getting prepared for the next part of the trip. From here on, it’s unlikely we’ll be pulling into any more marinas for at least a month unless something goes wrong. Shopping will become more difficult and we hope to be doing most of our re-fuelling from Sea Swift’s ‘mother ships’ that travel between Cairns and the Gulf of Carpenteria. These supply fuel to the shrimp trawlers that ply the northern waters, and fresh food and other supplies to the otherwise isolated communities within the Gulf area.
Cairns lies on the Barron River floodplain and the rain-forest clad mountains of the Great Dividing Range rise straight from these flat lowlands, which are covered in sugar cane fields, of which many are now being sold for development. We had arrived at the beginning of the sugar cane harvest. Anchored at Orpheus Island, looking toward the mainland, we had watched the cane fields being fired, sending great plumes of smoke into the sky and, at night, creating glowing islands in the distant dark. Here, they were harvesting the cane without burning the fields first. On the day we left, under a low, dark, heavy sky, in fields bordered by palm trees with limply drooping fronds, green machines moved slowly along the face of each row, raising puffs of pale dust and shredded leaves that settled quickly in the still, humid air. In the distance, cane bins – narrow-gauge railway box-cars made of steel mesh – were being heaped high with pieces of chopped sugar cane before driven along temporary tracks to factories for processing.
The climate in North Queensland is tropical, and people here divide the year into 2 seasons: The Wet, and The Dry. During the wet season the temperatures are between 30° and 35° and it rains. It rains a lot. Between November and May, some months average over 400mm of rainfall, and locals who can afford to leave for Sydney or Tasmania, do so. During the dry season between June and October the average monthly rainfall is 35mm and the temperatures are about 25°. This is when yachties and other tourists from the south come up to play among the corals of the Great Barrier Reef and visit the rainforest.
We did take one day off boat slavery to take the Sky Rail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda. The Sky Rail project caused an international uproar in environmental circles when it was proposed, because it traverses the heart of the World Heritage listed Barron Gorge National Park Wet Rainforest. For once, all the fears proved groundless, and hundreds of people a year glide above the rainforest canopy without harming it, while learning enough about the biology of the area to be impressed and made aware of both its importance and richness.
Those fears were reasonable, however. These are the oldest (415 million years) continually surviving and truly pristine rainforests on earth, and once covered the entire Australian continent. Now, although they cover only about one thousandth of the Australian landmass, they contain:
65% of Australia’s ferns
21% of the country’s cycads
37% of its conifers
30% of its orchid species
36% of Australia’s mammals
30% of its marsupials including tree kangaroos and possums
60% of its butterflies
Kuranda itself is an ‘arty’ town. It was originally built in the late 1880’s during the height of the area’s timber industry and short-lived gold-rush. Coffee was grown there for a while, until severe frosts in the early 1900s wiped out the crop. In the 1960s it became hippie heaven – sorry: ‘alternative lifestyle’ heaven – and remnants of that era can be seen at stalls selling hash pipes and incense as well as local honey, stuffed cane toads, chunky leather goods, mandalas, wind chimes, dream-catchers and massages.
We passed on the cane toads. These are an invasive species in Australia and are toxic enough to kill a dog that is unlucky enough to bite one. They’re such a pest that in parts of Australia where they are common, ‘sports’ have developed in which cane toads are used as balls, such as cane toad golf and cane toad cricket. In an attempt to dispose of the corpses, people came up with several bright ideas: having them tanned, then stuffed and mounted in antic positions, or turned into coin purses with dangle-y legs and glass eyes, or into singularly hideous, flabby, leathery toad-shaped objects to strew around casually or keep in a pocket (as one does). But we did visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary and Birdworld.
Birdworld was by far the more interesting and amusing. We were warned before entering about dangling earrings and eyelets on hats – the birds like to pick them off. No one mentioned that rubber shoes are vulnerable. A macaw decided Croc-strap was what he wanted and had neatly gnawed one of mine in half before I could gently remove him. It’s well to be gentle when dealing with an animal that can bite your little finger to the bone if it feels so inclined…
Once the shoes had been stowed in my bag and out of sight, the bird decided I needed a pedicure and began biting crescent-shaped chunks out of my toenails. Another parrot played kissy-face, nibbling off my lip-gloss, which was a rather weird sensation, but parrots seem to like me so I wasn’t too worried about being bitten. Boris – as we subsequently learned he is called – remained on my shoulder during the rest of our visit, quietly crooning to himself and occasionally leaning over for another gentle nibble of my upper lip. The macaw was packed off to indulge his foot fetish with some other hapless tourist while we went to see the cassowaries, which were the real object of our visit.
They’re extraordinarily dinosaur-like creatures – much more so than ostriches or emus – and have huge appetites. One in captivity reportedly ate 20 mangoes in two minutes! They’re native to the Australian Wet Rainforest, and are absolutely essential to the survival of over 150 plant species. Some of the fruit they can digest is so toxic no other animal can eat it – so cassowaries are the only animal that can disperse these seeds. Should the birds become extinct, so will the plants dependent on them in the wild.
Cassowaries have also had a rather bad press, being called ‘the world’s most dangerous bird’. As is usually the case, translated into less anthropocentric language this means: ‘able to defend themselves effectively when harassed or threatened’. They will chase humans – usually when they’ve been led to associate humans with food and when none is forthcoming or when people infringe upon their space. They also seem to have a marked dislike of dogs and will chase cars, though more cars and dogs kill cassowaries than vice versa. But the injuries cassowaries cause consist of the occasional puncture wound or bruise – rather like the injuries inflicted upon paparazzi by celebrities who’ve finally had enough.
There has been only one properly documented death-by-cassowary. This was in 1926: a 16 year-old and his younger brother were trying to club the bird to death and the older boy suffered a puncture wound in the neck, from which he bled to death while trying to run away. Serve him right.
We left Cairns on the morning of August 10th, in a fine, persistent, unpleasant rain that didn’t let up all day. We anchored off
16° 17’ 33.63” S
145° 29’ 27.04” E
The first attempt failed, but we changed position slightly and the anchor bit the second time, which was nice because by then we were soaked to the skin. The anchorage was lovely though, even in the rain, and we were sitting amidst trawlers that are part of the Cairns shrimp fleet. These wait at favourite anchorages during the day until evening – when the shrimp come out – to begin trawling.
Sure enough, come dusk, they all lit their lights, turned and slowly moved off into the distance, booms on either side of the boats lowered and trailing their nets, like a bevy of 18th century ladies lifting their panniered skirts with both hands
Now we’re moored off
15° 43’ 328” S
145° 27’ 385 E
But the coordinates are of no real use, since this is a part of the Great Barrier Reef that Google Earth shows only as a dark splodge without detail!
The day was flat calm when we left Magnetic Island – spookily so, as we motored slowly into a misty white void over a flat calm sea. The surface was littered with drifting sticks and logs – small and large – which had come down the Daintree River, so a sharp lookout had to be kept for really big ones.
Later, and quite suddenly, the wind blew up and had soon it reached 20 knots+ with an accompanying chop. These aren’t really the conditions in which to navigate coral reefs, because charts don’t show individual coral heads – the lookout needs to be able to see them. But because the tide was so low the reefs were above water and we decided we could afford to take a chance, with the proviso that if the going got really hairy we’d just keep sailing through the night.
We moved along at about 1 knot until – what luck! – we found one of only two public park mooring buoys was free! And we’d arrived after 3:00pm, which meant we could stay the night, which was as well because the wind didn’t drop. We’re still here, in fact, as is the boat on the other mooring. It’s been blowing 20+ knots all day (12 August) and no one in their right mind would venture out here to go snorkelling.
Tomorrow the wind should moderate, and we’ll be sailing overnight to Lizard Island.
That’s all for now!
Best from us both,
Magnetic Island – Horseshoe Bay
19° 06’ 15.18” S
146° 51’ 38.21 E
From Airlie Beach we sailed overnight to Magnetic Island. We’d intended to spend a couple of days there, but when we arrived at Horseshoe Bay there were so many jet-skis and powerboats and other boats at anchor that we decided to simply stay the night and move on to Orpheus Island the next morning. Having to avoid shark drum lines at the entrance to the bay helped the decision-making process, as did the rather murky water. Shark drum lines are floating oil drums with baited hooks attached. These are very effective at catching bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great white sharks – which are the species most dangerous to swimmers. Somehow, I didn’t care for a swim and The Captain prefers his water hot anyway, with soap and a good bath brush.
Cook sailed past Magnetic Island in June, 1770. Because of some fluctuations in his compass readings, he named this “rocky and barrenst surface” Magnetical Isle, as he believed his compass problems were caused by magnetic interference from the massive rocky outcrops of the island. This assumption later proved to be incorrect and no one has been able to duplicate the phenomenon, but the name stuck, albeit changed to ‘Magnetic’.
Orpheus Island – Hazard Bay
18° 36’ 40.72” S
146° 29’ 10.20 E
The sail to Orpheus Island the next day was wonderful. First, for a time we had an honour guard of 4 bottlenose dolphins. They played in the bow wave, weaving back and forth, slipping to the surface and down again, turning and twisting to look at us from within their glassy world as we leaned over the safety lines of our floating island.
Then, shortly afterwards, I was called up from below to look at humpback whales breaching. They looked to be a mother and calf and got closer and closer until, finally, they were no more than a yard or two off the bow when they dove under the surface, the larger one showing a long, long curve of grey ridged, barnacle-encrusted flank. For a horrible moment we thought the boat might have scraped them although we weren’t moving very quickly, but they must have known what they were doing. We were too busy standing with our mouths open in astonishment to be very competent.
Orpheus Island looked to be a most promising tropical paradise as we approached and anchored in Hazard Bay. The water was still, and on the horizon plumes of smoke from burning sugar cane fields south of Lucinda, on the distant mainland, rose into a milky evening sky. Later, the fires cast a reddish glow along the distant night shore, and Venus was so bright in the sky that it cast a glittering path on the black water. Even getting seawater with which to flush our wretched toilets was an enchanting experience: bioluminescence made the water sparkle and flash as I poured it into the large translucent plastic bottles, as if I were pouring stars.
The fun came to an abrupt end at about 3am. The wind came up, changed direction, and we began dragging our anchor. The anchor position alarm roused us from our bunks, though I’d already been half-awake for some time listening with growing anxiety to the menacing noise of the chain dragging around on the bottom.
So The Captain had to turn on the engine and bring the boat forward while I had to go out onto the bloody bow, which was by now heaving through an arc of about 30°, to release the rope snubber and bring the anchor in. Then after he had moved us further out from shore for safety’s sake in case the anchor dragged again, I went through the palaver in reverse. It really did seem as if 24 hours could not go by without some unpleasant drama, and 3am is not a good time for dramas. I used a lot of very nautical language, very loudly, and felt slightly better.
The next morning found us hobby-horsing up and down in a really nasty chop until we moved further in – now that we could see the edge of the reef – and in the afternoon it calmed enough that I could take the dinghy to Yanks Jetty and walk on the beaches there for a bit while The Captain read and dozed. The beaches were idyllically pretty and the sand was littered with bits of coral sucked smooth as old ivory by the waves. Yanks Jetty is so-called because it was originally built as part of a degaussing (demagnetising) station during WWII. There is story that General Douglas McArthur used the idyllic setting as a love nest for trysts with local girls…
Rather a lot of cone shells that had been washed up onto the beach the night before. Now, cone shells are beautiful, but the molluscs that make them are predators which eat small fish and suchlike creatures. They sneak up on their prey in a slow and snailishly sinister fashion and then from the narrow end of their shell gradually extend a proboscis, at the end of which is a tiny harpoon with which they inject venom into their victim.
They can also harpoon humans who disturb them, causing great pain and occasionally even death. In the pretty illustrations accompanying cautionary on-line articles the dangerous shells are shown in their full patterned and coloured glory. The problem is that on the beach they’re all covered in a brownish-grey coating, so the dangerous ones are indistinguishable from the ones that aren’t. I cautiously picked one up with a bit of shell and an eye at the end of a stalk peered out at me, so I chucked it and the others of its ilk far out into the water as my Good Deed for the day.
The next day was beautifully calm so I was able to go for a snorkel – hurrah!
Getting to the reef required some interesting rock climbing around the point from Yanks Jetty. I wore my thin wetsuit and heavy Teva sandals and carried flippers and assorted gear – including the camera in a waterproof bag – in a backpack. My new boogie board did double duty as a walking stick. It must have looked awkward, but worked. After inspecting the mangroves, I left backpack and camera on shore well above the waterline but kept the sandals on while shuffling (recommended in waters where there are stingrays) through the shallow water en route to water deep enough in which to don flippers and mask. Then the sandals went into a mesh bag and onto the boogie board and I was set to go!
You’d have to be a lunatic not to wear shoes while wading here and every pamphlet and guidebook emphasises this point. Coral and oyster cuts almost always get badly infected and some varieties of coral sting. Stonefish live in these waters and if one steps on them the venom in their dorsal spines will, at best, cause excruciating pain; they’re impossible to see because they’re so well camouflaged. I startled a small stingray, too. So: why were a couple with 3 small children wading around in the shallows all barefoot? Within minutes of walking into the water the youngest was wailing and dripping blood. Park service employees and emergency crews must despair.
The water wasn’t as clear as I’d hoped, but toward the deeper water giant boulders covered in a skin of blue coral were spectacular, as were fan corals. The usual psychedelic colour combinations prevailed: hot pink next to mustard yellow and bright orange, gas-flame blue alongside iridescent green. There were a fair number of fish, including a variety of large grouper with a skin decorated to look exactly like the pattern of rippled sunlight on pale underwater sand. The large clams were the most delightful, however, and I almost laughed out loud at first catching sight of them. They’re a species that works its way into coral heads so that only the edges of the shells and mantle peek out. It looked as if the coral-covered rocks had many pouty mouths with plump, wavy blue and green lips – Mick Jagger-like. (The photo of them is off the internet, btw.)
Next stop: Cairns