Farne’s World Cruise – Australia

Brian Lowrie

After nearly a week in the Louisiade Archipelago of Papua New Guinea we needed to get going west again. After a BBQ on a deserted island with three Aussie yachts the previous evening we set off through the surrounding reefs, into deep water and towards Australia’s “Top End”. We had considered avoiding Australia all together and heading for Indonesia after hearing accounts of the quarantine treatment and Coast Watch control of visiting yachts but decided we were keen to see as much of the Aussie and Aboriginal experience as possible.

It is 500 miles to the Torres Straits and it took us only three days with the trade wind “enhanced” by the landmasses of PNG and North Australia – following the track of Captain Bligh, but in our case with a series of waypoints to follow with the GPS. It is 100 miles through the Torres Straits and you aren’t allowed to stop so we hove to that night before carrying on through quite intricate channels through coral shoals until we reached the better buoyed Endeavour Strait and Prince of Wales Channel, past Tuesday and Wednesday Island. We had been buzzed by Coast Watch planes that try to control movement through Torres and asked if we’re checking in at Thursday Island but we preferred not to stop there as it is a difficult anchorage with strong tides and also a reputation for overzealous officialdom. After 24 hours we emerged out into the Gulf of Carpentaria which, with a flat sea and good wind, we crossed in two days.

When we have no fresh provisions we fish, and it having been many weeks since we had seen a shop we were trailing a lure on a heavy duty 100 kilo line. What we finally dragged along side was a six foot sail fish with a 12 inch snout and huge royal blue “sail”. Fortunately we managed to remove the hook with long pliers and let it swim away we were happy to open a tin of tuna that day.

We were bound for Arnhem Land, a huge lump in the middle of the Northern Territory. In the 1930’s the government returned it to the Aborigines totally. Few travellers can get there and even fewer yachts, so we were pleased to check in at the excellent harbour at Gove. The customs and quarantine cleared us with less difficulty than we had been lead to believe – they are only there because of the discovery of huge reserves of bauxite, which is conveyed to the port and processed with a plant 6,500 employees – run by Alcan. The workers fly in, work their shifts and fly out again and all the supplies come by ferry from Darwin. The bauxite discovery was followed by finding manganese and uranium and the land now is leased back from the Aborigines.

We spent four days anchored off the yacht club at Gove before setting off for the English Company Islands and then Wessel Islands. They are barren reserves that are virtually uninhabited. Most of the Aborigines live in settlements and on Elco Island where essential supplies (flour, sugar, fuel, tobacco, kava), can be shipped in. We were able to take the passage through the Wessel Islands, known as the “Hole in the Wall”, a mile-long cut only 100 metres wide where the tide runs through at up to nine knots. As it turned out we were early or the tide was late and it was only two knots. Easy compared to the Corryvrechan or through the Farne Islands.

The Wessels are part of a group of 34 islands scattered across the top of Australia . Long before Cook made his famous landfall fleets of up to 60 prows with maybe a thousand people headed down to these islands during the northwest monsoon to trade for the humble sea cucumber. These floppy truncheon like creatures which breed in warm shallow water were highly prized by Chinese merchants and doctors as an aphrodisiac. Also called trepang or beche-de-mer, these creatures were first boiled too remove their toxins, smoked to preserve them, sliced and transported by the boat load back to China. In exchange, the Aborigines got their first iron for tools, gin, etc. The practice was stopped by the Australian government (fearing perhaps Asian immigrants), but in the Louisiades of PNG of these unlikely sea creatures to Japanese and Korean traders is the only remaining cash crop after the demise of copra.

After a night in the Wessels we skipped our travels west to Port Essington, a huge natural harbour at the west end of Arnhem land. In 1848, the British began a settlement at “Victoria”, Port Essington, designed to become as large as Singapore in order to dominate the Timor Sea and its trading routes and deter foreign interlopers French, Dutch and Spanish. A mixture of bad luck (hit by a cyclone after 12 months), bad planning and poor logistics – inadequate supply ships and a desperately harsh climate, condemned the settlement to failure and after 10 years the project was abandoned . The remains of the military garrison with the governors residence, Quartermaster’s stores, houses, hospitals and cemeteries stand as a lonely reminder of the failed project. We spent a pleasant couple of days in Port Essington. It is a nature reserve and only twenty visitors are allowed at any one time. Then taking the strong tides through Van Diemen Gulf past Cape Don and inside Melville Island we returned to the delights of civilisation in Darwin at the end of August.

The Australian Government puts a considerable effort into controlling its northern borders. Frequently we were overflown by Coastwatch planes, fleets of fast custom patrol vessels roam the Timor and Arafura Seas from a base in Darwin and they have a significant naval presences too. They control people movements, goods and particularly fish, frequently intercepting foreign fishing vessels and impounding them and burning them. With their 200 mile limit patrolled continuously they preserve their fish and prawn stocks and keep out fleets of old Asian fishing vessels that decimate the fish stocks in the Pacific. The migration of boat people is also controlled. Any who are picked up are sent to Christmas Island for “processing” far away from mainland Australia.

We spent two weeks in Darwin, a pleasant modern city growing fast, particularly because of many local mining operations (diamonds, uranium, manganese, coal, bauxite and offshore oil). Now tourism is also becoming important – Darwin is a gateway to Kakadu and Kimberly national parks. We were able to wash the boat and clothes, spend ages on the internet, eat out, cycle around town, fix the boat up again, stock up with fuel, food and booze, but the season was coming to an end and we had to catch the last of the south easterly trade winds.

In Darwin we had intended to obtain the necessary cruising permit to visit Indonesia , but we were told it took 4-6 weeks and we didn’t have that much time. So after a short delay to wait for a new EPIRB (replacing the battery on the existing one would cost nearly twice the price of a new one), we left Darwin in mid September. We sailed 200 miles to the Kimberly Peninsula stopping for only a few days, long enough to realise this huge remote area would need a lot longer and a boat with a shallower draft to allow you over the sand bars to explore the magnificent gorges that lead inland. Onward then across the Indian Ocean on the next stage of our voyage.