Friday, December 24, 2021

Over the top and down the other side : Darwin to Southern Queensland

Cape York - the very top right hand corner of the Australian Mainland.
Seasons Greetings to everyone and welcome to a bumper Christmas edition. The blog has not been updated since we were in Darwin 3 months ago. [No excuse, we apologise for the delay and hope to do better.]  We have covered a lot of miles and seen some amazing sights so settle in for a long, long read - you won't need to start your holiday novel just yet!

We are writing this from the beautiful coral cay surrounding Lady Musgrave Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. We entered though a narrow gap in the circle of drying reef into the most turquoise water you can imagine. The island has around 130 turtle landings each night as the females struggle up the sandy beach to dig complex holes to lay their eggs in. The surrounding water is full of colourful life of all sorts and a short dinghy ride takes us to any number of snorkelling spots to witness it all. How lucky we are.

Through the reef gap into Lady Musgrave lagoon

Big mumma turtle heading up the beach to lay her eggs at Lady Musgrave Island

We had a great break in Darwin for 3 weeks. It was lovely to catch up on some town time, eat ice creams and gorgeous fusion food, find a few spare parts, go to the outdoor cinema and hack around the place on the wonderful orange scooters and e-bikes which anyone can use for a small fee. We did our usual mix of culture and nature and although it was very hot and damp for walking in the daytime we did go out each day and found lots to interest us.

We were careful to pick the right weather conditions for our departure because we had a couple of hundred miles of challenging capes and channels to get through in an area of strong tides and few safe anchorages immediately east of Darwin. Apart from sailing past a large thunder storm in the night which hovered over the Vernon Islands, we had a safe and uneventful trip to the Coburgh Peninsular eventually stopping in the historic Port Essington area for a few days. This well sheltered port which is now a national park was a serious contender to be the prime northern port in Australia and was settled by the British from 1838 to 1848. We enjoyed going ashore and having a self guided tour of the ruins of the settlement. The chimneys of the row of houses still standing tall and low lying remnants of kilns, hospital and other buildings scattered over the headland spoke of notions of permanence at the time. The burial ground was a sad reminder of the reality of life and death in such a remote and dangerous place.

British settlement ruins Victoria, Port Essington

Life in Port Essington today

Thriving on the edge

Safer walking through the bush

After a few days of exploring including a visit with the local ranger and another close encounter with a large crocodile on the beach it was time to keep heading east again.

We were close enough to the dry season that the prevailing easterly trade winds were still against us so we jumped on any respite from them we could find. Often this meant motoring in still conditions and increasingly as the season changed we were able to sail more. We had hoped to meet up with Tom and the family in Darwin and again in Maningreda where Tom has taken a job. Neither of these plans worked out sadly and we kept on making slow progress to the east along the coast of Arnhem Land and through the islands.

It was unfortunate for us that all the Aboriginal communities in the remote north were closed to visitors while we were in the area. We would have loved to visit them but had to be content with sailing past and marvelling at the beauty of the places people were living.


Endlessly fascinated by mangroves... and birds

I see you! An agile Rock Wallaby hiding at Wessel Islands

We seem to have developed a love of squeezing through narrow gaps in the good ship Upstart and we had three more opportunities before rounding Cape York. The first was the Cadell Straight between Elcho Island and the mainland, then the famous Hole in the Wall [Gulgari Rip] in the middle of the Wessel Islands. The last of the three was a bit later at Cape York where we found Albany Island and sailed through the Albany Passage. The island is so perfectly diagonally opposite from our home town we were convinced it was named by someone who had the map upside down.

Shooting through the famous Hole in the Wall at Gulgari Rip, Wessel Islands

Trying unsuccessfully to get a good shot of the Albany Passage at dawn
Island life - idealic home on Albany Island

We made stops in Gove on the eastern end of Arnhem Land and also in Seisia which is the northern most stop on the western side of the York Peninsular. As often happens we found ourselves in the company of sailing friends at Seisia also waiting for the right time to round the cape. We decided to go on the ferry and have a day out to the beautiful Thursday Island which is the main island and admin centre of the Torres Strait. There were 9 of us and we managed to secure the services of a lovely local man in a mini bus for a couple of hours and had an hilarious tour of the island with him. Being in the north in the off season does have its advantages but by the time we rounded Cape York we were over the heat and humidity and looking forward to making some miles to the south.


Salty sailors take a tour

Thursday Island in the stunning Torres Strait

We had lovely sail with the wind behind us leaving the narrow and tidal Albany Passage in our wake as the sun came up and just over 48hrs later we sailed into the very pretty harbour at Lizard Island. Little did we realise but we were heading to one of the mecca islands for Queensland boaties. There were about 30 boats anchored in the bay. More boats than we had seen together for a very long time - welcome to the Coral Coast of Queensland!

Busy Lizard Island anchorage. Lovely to have clear waters again.

Lizard Island flora

At about this time we  were running out of anything fresh in the way of vegetables and were on our last slightly wrinkly apple so it was time to find a shop. We headed for Cooktown leaving at midnight and arriving for breakfast after a great sail with the wind on the beam averaging 7.5 knots.

Cooktown was great, just our sort of place really. Lots of history, lots of daggy tourist stuff and mangoes falling off the trees in the main street. Despite a fleet of local and somewhat eccentric boats, for some reason it has a reputation for being a difficult anchorage so very few cruising yachties go there. 

Some of the local Cooktown fleet

Captain Cook and his crew exploring in the Endeavour in 1770 hit the Barrier Reef a bit further south then rowed and drifted the ship north to the inlet at what is now Cooktown to do some repairs which turned out to be be pretty major.

Historic advertising!

Cook’s crew had several interactions with the local people some of which didn’t go too well. In the end one of the Elders suggested that they should go sit down at a spot not far away which was often used for reconciliation to sort out the differences between them. This was a good and successful meeting and is now commemorated with a couple of really stunning steel sculptures in a pretty and peaceful park.

Local man of peace, the Bama Elder who reconciled with Cook's crew.

White and Black cockatoo feathers and other motives symbolising
resolution of the cross-cultural conflict with Cook

Our next trip took us to a very different place indeed, Port Douglas on the southern end of the famous Daintree wet tropical forest. We sailed past Cape Tribulation and the rain forest seeing the clouds and mist obscuring the tops of the mountains, heaping up in great cumulus mounds full of rain.


Cape Tribulation and the now familiar sight of rain clouds

The town itself is a centre for tourism, tours, clothes, food and massive pubs. There is not much else in the centre of town. We did find a car hire place and booked a little car for a day to take us back north over the Daintree river on the chain ferry and up into the wet forest.


Daintree River car ferry

Daintree River delta where the forest meets the sea

We had a great day under brollies [good thinking Jenni!] exploring in the dense lush green world up in the hills. Again due to Covid and being in the off season there were not many people around which was lovely. We were very impressed with the way boardwalks and bush walks were made and maintained so that there was no need or temptation to go wandering off the track. In one place we parked a few k’s away from the walk trails and hopped on a courtesy bus for the last bit of the climb up the hill. Lots of care taken everywhere we went to preserve the delicate landscape while making it very accessible and satisfying to walk through. We crossed running streams on wobbly suspension bridges, walked a boardwalk with rainforest on one side and mangroves swamp on the other, listened to a cacophony of birds and critters and just generally marvelled at the beauty of the country we live in.


Rainforest brollies


Mangroves, rainforest, low-tide - everything happening here.

Nature's treasure everywhere

After a windy rainy week in Port Douglas we set off south again for the Whitsunday Islands. We did a bit of island hopping for the next 150 miles or so including the excitement of getting the spinnaker up for the first time since last May for about 10 hours of good fast hooning. We finished that section arriving in the dark at Orpheus Island which is part of the beautiful Palm Island group. We would have liked to explore but the lovely north wind was still blowing the next morning and we set off again after an early breakfast. We had to sail past the big Palm Island to get clear winds and as we emerged on the other side into a wonderful 15kt north easterly we noticed another yacht on a converging track with us coming from Townsville to the west. The AIS showed us that she was another 40ft monohull, also bowling along at 7-8kts. Well as you can imagine the race was on! “Astrid” was about 5 miles ahead of us to start with and we stayed together for the next 20hrs. Upstart slowly pulled ahead and we passed her in the night just off Abbot Point and arrived at Hook Island in the Whitsundays 3 miles ahead of her just in time for brekky. Through the night we had sailed passed Cape Upstart the namesake of our lovely yacht who was built near there. Sadly we couldn’t stop there as we had hoped to, but Upstart was in her element fast sailing on a beam reach. This was the best sail we have had in a very long time, we averaged 8.1kts for 20 hours. Arthur the auto pilot managed to steer the whole way and Upstart enjoyed stretching her legs as much as we did. 


At last we have a spinnaker up, champagne sailing!

 We stayed for a few days resting in the sheltered anchorage at Hook Island before starting our way south again island hopping and doing a few miles at a time, sometimes 10 sometimes 80. The weather was a bit ordinary, lots of rain and a few days of strong southerly which we took in the marina at Airlie Beach - another full on tourist centre.

The iconic Whitsunday Islands
Hook Island local, every pirate ship needs one.

Hook Island rock face

Anchored in South Molle Island
Thanks to friends for the drone shot

Eventually we met up once again with our friends on Mad Fish and also on First Romance at the Keppel Bay Marina. All of us hiding while some southerly weather passed. We had found another narrow passage which looked interesting to go through. It is called The Narrows [who could resist!] and separates the mainland and Curtis Island. In the middle of the 30 mile passage is a section about 10 miles long which dries at low tide and some parts end up 1.8 metres out of the water. This is where the famous cattle crossing is, and sure enough right there on the bank as we motored past is a large holding pen for cattle, fencing, crush etc. This is where seafaring meets farming for sure. We had a great day doing this strange passage, two boats we had met were ahead of us and the Mad Fish was behind.

Cappucino sailing in the muddy waters of the Fitzoy River mouth north of the Narrows.

Negotiating the Narrows

The cattle crossing.
Yards under water at high tide

After a few hours of bucolic peace and joy we emerged into the industrial madness of Gladstone with its massive coal exporting facilities and several aluminium smelters. Dodging the ships and tugs we sailed straight past all of that and had a lovely night anchored at Facing Island ready for the next stage of the journey.

Welcome to Gladstone - no thanks!
It was a short hop to a couple of little anchorages hiding behind sand spits on the coast. First off we went to Pancake Creek which was very pretty and then a whole 10 miles to Round Hill Creek and the little holiday town of 1770 where we stayed for a few days enjoying the atmosphere of low budget camping holiday makers enjoying themselves.

The delightful 1770 anchorage, well protected by sand bars

Getting used to ominous looking skies as the rain falls hard on Queensland this summer

Lady Musgrave Island was our last chance to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef before heading further south. The weather has been kind with blue skies to enjoy the amazing underwater scenes. Seeing huge greenback turtles lumbering ashore at dusk to lay their eggs has been a beautiful bucket list experience.


Lady Musgrave Island treasures


Since we started writing this blog we have moved further south and are now at K’gari [Fraser Island] and the Great Sandy Strait where we will be until early in the new year.  


Wishing everyone a happy and safe festive season. 

Here's a few more wildlife pics for you to enjoy.

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