Thursday, 25 July 2013

Kakadu and Darwin

Ubirr sunset
With 10 days to go until our great launch out of Australian waters, Hugh and I took a car to Kakadu for a couple of days to escape the hustle and bustle of boat preparations in Darwin. After walking through the cultural centre and watching the people standing in the water, fishing in Cahills Crossing (not minding the 'beware crocs' sign) we went to Ubirr and peered over the diverse landscape below. We were perched on a huge sandstone rock escarpment that was formed from volcanic action some billion or so years ago, towering above the savannah plain and monsoonal forest below. Our guide told stories of the Aboriginal rock art and the significance of this place to its owners. Whilst sitting in silence to listen to the birds calling each other across the plains we watched the sun set on the horizon sending brilliant colours across the land. It truly was a beautiful place, rich with thousands of years of Aboriginal history. An Aboriginal elder 'Kakadu Man' Bill Neidjie who has passed away now, had great visions for the continuation of the Kakadu stories and culture, he dreams of people from all walks of life and ethnicities telling the stories of this sacred place so that they are not lost in the sands of time. This is one reason why we are lucky enough to be able to come here and experience such an amazing wonder.

Emu roadblock
After spending a night on the Merl campground affectionately known by locals as the mozzie pit, we awoke early and made our way to Nourlangie and climbed up to see the base of another huge rock escarpment. We decided to do a walk to the Gubara rock pools and took the 15km drive on the dirt road. Halfway there we were stopped by an emu who was clearly disinterested in us passing. We managed to get lots of photos of the roadblock and his mates before they sprinted off, with their heads down, bolting into the scrub. After an hour long walk in the hot savannah, it was refreshing to reach the monsoonal forest which provided shade and an abundance of bird and spider wildlife. We were deeply disappointed to reach the mostly stagnant water of the pools and no relaxing swim after our trek was to be had. After some enthusiastic but unrewarding bushbashing and bouldering in search of a waterfall, we trudged on back through the hot savannah to the car (slightly different to the way the Aboriginals would have travelled the land).


That afternoon we went on a sunset boat cruise through the Yellow Water, the West and South Alligator Rivers. Crocodiles were spotted relaxing on the shore, catching the last of the days sunshine, or patrolling the waters to see if any freebies were to be had from the boat passengers (we were advised to keep our limbs well inside the vessel). We also spotted an amazing array of bird life, with datas, kites, eagles, kingfishers and ducks a-plenty. Another amazing sunset to close our time at Kakadu.

Wangi Falls
Later that week Dad came to visit all the way from wet and cold Sydney. Thankfully Darwin put on a show, and 33C of beaming sunshine greeted him at the airport. At 7am the next morning, Dad and I met Rob our guide for our tour to Litchfield National Park. After the lack of swimming at Kakadu, Litchfield was a welcoming contrast, providing waterfalls and rock pools at every turn. We also got a snap next to some enormous termite mounds and listened to the interesting history of Darwin from our tour guide. The planner in me was very intrigued as to why this city looks so different to all other cities in Australia and why it was so dense in the city centre, with no low level housing to be spotted. The three cyclones and bombing of Darwin had virtually demolished all history of early European settlement, leaving a clean slate for high rise unit blocks to fill the city precinct. 

After a day long tour of swimming holes and lookouts over amazing waterfalls we stopped by at an old tin mine to see the harsh life that the miners here would have lived through with malarial mozzies, searing heat and humidity and the flooding rains of the wet season. The mine closed in 1951 after a particularly wet wet season and now houses bats and snakes, which is a fairly persuasive way to keep people out of the old mine shaft I think.

Dad and I returned to the boat to see the new wind generator installed and functioning and the oven fixed! I should go on holidays more often!


Saturday, 13 July 2013

600 miles

We left Horn Island with Solstice bright and early, waving goodbye to our new English friends on Bonaire (who we had met in Hamilton and Lizard Islands) who had sailed in late the night before. We rocketed through the Torres Strait, enjoying a joyous 10kt ride thanks to some free 4kts of current (hence the early wake up call). The joy was short lived as we were spat out at the western side of the Strait and right into the Gulf of Carpentaria washing machine. With swell on beam and the boat pitching from side to side, memories of breakfast were not far away. This continued for about 8 hours and the 2 days that we had left to sail seemed like a life term. Fortunately the boat was unaffected by sea sickness and sailed nicely with the 25-30kt breeze right behind us. During my 11pm-2am shift I saw a boat zoom past, assuming it was a fishing boat as I peered at their speed with jealous eyes.

Day 2 came around and Gove was shaping up in my imagination to be the promised land. The pod of dolphins that danced for us at sunset were beautiful, playfully dancing and jumping in the bow wave for about 40 minutes. Together with the cheese and cracker plate and the excitement of the mackerel that Hugh caught it was a lovely evening.

Day 3 and we dropped anchor at 7pm as the sun was setting behind the bauxite conveyor belt next to Gove Harbour. Hello Northern Territory! We set our watches back 30 minutes and enjoyed the late setting sun and ambient evening temperature. To our surprise, Bonaire was anchored up close to shore and returning from having a drink at the sailing club. This was the boat that I had seen while on the graveyard shift, as they rocketed past at 12kts. Having a racer cruiser certainly has its benefits, as they did the same 340 mile passage in less than 2 days! They were pretty smug about it too!

Gove was a red dust town, a regional centre for government services, a bauxite mine and ship loading facility. We visited an Aboriginal art gallery which was in disarray ahead of Kevin Rudd's PM visit to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the historical and landmark 'bark petition' (and a week after Julia Gillards PM visit and memorial service for the passing of Mandawuy Yunupingu). Two different PMs in 2 weeks! What a hotspot on the map! A trip to Woolworths and we had 'done' Gove.

We left Gove, but it didn't leave us. Rust coloured dust coated the boat as we sailed through 'hole-in-the-wall' (Wessel Islands) and onto Port Essington. The Victorian settlement that time forgot. A settlement that lasted for 11 years (1838-1849) before most of the population died from malaria. An interesting experiment in pioneering that can only be accessed by boat. But one can visit the settlement ruins, pop by the quartermasters store, jetty, hospital and cemetery before wondering why such a desolate location was selected. Needless to say the name Port Essington was aspirational, as no shipping trade continued from this location.

The last push to Darwin was fraught with uncertainty. Tips from sailors ahead of us, guide books, electronic mapping and tide details that conflicted made for some interesting planning. Three Capes to round, another Gulf (Van Diemen) to cross and perhaps the biggest challenge of all was the Northern Territory Department of Fisheries to negotiate with upon our arrival in Darwin. We had to round Cape Don 4.5 hours ahead of high tide in Darwin in order to get a lift off the westward moving current, with up to 10kts rushing through. The Vernon Strait and Vernon Islands complicated the passage with strong current and the anticipation of locks in Darwin certainly got us excited. Darwin experiences 7m tides and the locks had been constructed to make marina and riverbank maintenance simpler.

Rounding Cape Don was great, we got a lift off the current and some new gusts of wind pushed us through the water. As we were sitting back enjoying the ride, we could see some overflows ahead. This is the effect caused by two tidal motions meeting with the appearance of a breaking surf and can sometimes look like a whirlpool as the water swirls and the dominant current takes over. The boat plowed into the overflow, causing 3m waves to crash over the bow of the boat and the bow to bounce through the 3m drop. Thankfully this only happened a handful of times and almost stopped the 10.5kt speed we had with the impact. Fortunately everything was tied down well and nothing was broken down below. The boat crept on and recovered, though the highest speed we have ever done in the boat was history as the current strength lessened and we had to be content with moderate wind speed.

The exciting events were over and we settled in for the final 15 hour sail. We entered the long Clarence Strait at sunrise to meet Darwin, our last Australian stop. The end of our 3 month sail from Sydney and the start of a whole new adventure with new challenges and experiences. Darwin would be our home for 2 weeks before we head for Indonesia and take part in the 'Sail Indonesia Rally' with some 100 other vessels from all over the world.


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