A WINTER CRUISE – NOUMEA, VANUATU, QUEENSLAND 2003
Since returning in 1989 from our eight-year trip around most of the world, visiting 43 countries and sailing over 40,000 nautical miles, we had done little more than day-sailing in our 11.5-metre sloop, Cera. However, after an extensive refit over the last five years, by early 2003 it seemed time to take to the seas again, for a short while at least. So, we planned on a winter’s season in some south-west Pacific islands and down along the Queensland coast.
We cleared Customs for Noumea and left Sydney on 29 April 2003, with our friend Col Haste aboard, after a few delays with a minor engine problem and then a wait for a suitable window in the weather. The wait was worth it, because we had a very good start and fair winds for first part of our 1100 nautical mile passage. However, an unexpected depression typically deepened in mid-Tasman, which gave us a full gale for a couple of days and continuing rough seas. A Tasman gale is an awesome thing. As the hours grow into days, the sparkling blue seas are transformed into a great grey landscape of white-topped mountains and foam-streaked valleys. It was relatively hard work for a day or two, but all the newly-installed yacht systems worked well and the trusty old self-steering wind vane coped, as ever, uncomplainingly with the difficult conditions.
We arrived in the middle of the night on 7 May at Amedee lighthouse, which guided us through the narrow pass in the coral reef that surrounds the Grande Terre of New Caledonia. We had been at sea for eight and a half days, quite a good time for the passage. After the rest of the night at anchor in an adjacent bay, we checked in to the convenient visitors’ wharf at the marina in Port Moselle and were quickly cleared in, for free, by assorted officialdom. The marina is very close to downtown Noumea, and Norma’s favourite place, the market, shares part of the seawall with the marina. Noumea is a cosmopolitan but firmly French city, and expensive by our standards. But it’s a good place to unwind and swap stories of the Tasman with other sailors who, unlike us, had arrived totally soaked above and below.
Jill Haste flew over from Sydney, and the four of us rented a Renault Clio for a bit of a tour to the quite remote north of the main island of New Caledonia. Well up the east coast, we stayed across the road from the coral-fringed beach at a very simple “gite”, a sort of local guesthouse. We shared our accommodation with a very active population of bugs and beasties, including rats running around in the woven palm roof lining. The region is one of the wettest places in the world, as the mountains suck the rain from the moist clouds carried by the trade winds. Some years they get four metres. Sure enough, it began to rain very heavily the night we were there, and at breakfast the local lady patron told us we must immediately get going south, as the roads were becoming cut by flooding. Indeed, we had to ford several streams, with a wait for an hour or so at one of them. Water got in through the Clio door seals or somewhere, so that we had more water within the car than we had in the boat on passage.
Back on Cera, we then cruised round the very quiet and rather remote southern part of the island, in continuing rather wet weather. The main cruising ground in that region is the Baie de Prony, a big, rambling inland waterway. The topography is rather stark, because over the years the surrounding hills have been stripped of timber and subjected to mining for iron, chrome and nickel. This has led to extensive erosion of the blood-red soil, with huge but colourful red-brown scars ripping through the green undergrowth. However, there are still some protected areas where trees hang in there and birds still sing. Points of interest include several groups of ruins of penal settlements; New Caledonia was the French equivalent of Australia in the deportation game. Some penal ruins are deeply overgrown, with the tangled roots of fig (ficus) trees encasing their crumbling walls.
Unfortunately during this time Col became ill, with a very high temperature, and we had to get back to Noumea and civilisation in order to allow him and Jill to fly home. What he was suffering from was dengue fever, which is endemic throughout New Caledonia and particularly at this time, following a severe cyclone a few months previously. It is a mosquito-borne disease, and it is likely that Col was hit by the offending mosquito up north, while staying at the gite.
After these good friends had left us, we then spent a few days pottering round some of the anchorages near Noumea, where the local people make simple camp on the beaches, water ski, canoe and otherwise make good use of the waterways. The weather continued very changeable, with a day or two of sunny but windy conditions punctuating periods of overcast and rain as wintry troughs swung through the south-west Pacific. Anchored in Baie d’Orphelinat, just round the corner from Port Moselle and adjacent to a convenient supermarket and bistro we began one of the most frustrating periods to be experienced while cruising, waiting for the mail. Sent off in good time by our friend and house-sitter Lynne, it became hung up in an unforeseen series of strikes and public holidays.
To make life easier for mail-checking and pre-departure preparations, we decided to move back to the Port Moselle marina. This turned out to be a good decision, because just after we had picked up the long-awaited mail came the unexpected announcement that an out-of-season tropical cyclone (“Gina”) had formed to the north of Vanuatu and was heading our way. Flurries of activity followed, including the running of 75-metre lines from the boats to cyclone chains on the bottom of the harbour with the assistance of a local diver. With a clearly defined eye, Gina reached its maximum intensity of 950 hPa just to the north of New Caledonia on 8 June. The next day it had changed direction and was heading south, towards us, but it was by then rapidly filling and downgraded to a tropical depression. We heard later that a cruising yacht was caught and lost at sea in the storm.
The depression didn’t do much good for the local weather, of course, which was already not much to write home about, but we were free to get on with a bit of cruising. We pulled out of the marina and started working our way back down the main island. This was difficult, against the reinforced south-east trade winds, but there are several sheltered anchorages on the way, including one of our favourites in the Baie de Prony. Once out through the tide-ripped Havannah Canal at the south-east corner of the Grande Terre, we pulled in for three days at a delightful bay known as Kuebuni, which is surrounded by a circle of little islands and protected by a tortuous passage through coral reefs that were hard to see in the afternoon light.
At Kuebuni we walked round several of the fringing islands, watched warily by sea eagles as we explored the rock pools on the ocean side and looked for pretty patches of coral exposed at low tide. On one of the beaches, Norma found a beautiful and almost perfect shell of a nautilus, a rare find to add to her collection.
Time to get moving towards Port Vila, and early in the morning of 20 June we retraced our path out through the coral reefs, using one of the features of our new electronic navigational gadgetry. This had left a trace on our computer chart as we had edged our way in through the coral in a few days before. So, all we had to do was to follow this little red line on our way out. Getting out at this time of the day would have been impossible in the “old days” of navigation because the light was in our eyes and the tide was high, making the coral reefs invisible.
This started our passage from New Caledonia to Vanuatu, heading direct for Port Vila. The route took us through the Loyalty Islands, which are part of New Caledonia. However, the French authorities now don’t allow yachts to call in once they have cleared out from Noumea. That was of no great consequence to us, because we had visited these islands on a previous trip. The passage is a fairly short one, not much more than 300 nautical miles, and the first day was pleasant as we beam reached in well-established trade winds. But on the second afternoon the wind switched north-east and strengthened, creating a highly uncomfortable two-way swell and accompanied by squalls that kept us busy all the second night.
On the third morning we pulled in to the harbour at Port Vila, on the west side of the island of Efate, and in the afternoon lapsed into the semi-comatose sleep that follows such a passage. Short passages are often more tiring than longer ones, because we don’t have the time to settle into the routine of passage-making and half the time we are inevitably working on making landfall somewhere around where we were aiming for.
We like Vila, which we have previously visited on a short flying trip but to where we have not sailed before. The inner harbour is well protected, and a local yacht cruising services organisation has laid several moorings in the very deep water. This overcomes difficulties with anchoring, because space in a reasonable depth is very limited and the anchor holding questionable.
There is easy access to a floating dinghy dock, garbage disposal and water, which are the staples of the cruising day. It is a short walk to the centre of the simple Pacific town, attractive in a funky way, with a good market for local produce and several reasonable supermarkets. We also had the pleasure of catching up with some ex-pat Australian friends with a motor racing history who have settled in Vila. They helped us ferry stuff around and took us for a great drive up to the north of Efate island for lunch of excellent “poulet” fish at a simple resort run by some local villagers.
Tourism seemed very depressed, with many Vila restaurants quiet to the point of desertion. A new waterfront hotel, near completion, was optimistically being offered for sale with little hope of ever being filled until conditions improved. Port Vila is on the cruise ship route, but only a couple called – for just a day each – during the two weeks we were there. However, there was steady custom coming in from the yachts, which as ever were providing support for the local economy at the grass-roots level.
Once again, our departure for the other islands was delayed by waiting for some important business mail. I have to say that I sadly underestimated the practical and financial difficulties in absconding from our small consultancy for half a year.
We had an unusual spell of calm, dry, hot weather while we were in Vila, and we had those conditions when we sailed out and round to the north end of Efate, to the huge harbour of Havannah. This has nothing but the tiniest local villages around its shores, but was a used as a base for the US Navy during WW2. The deep bottom is littered with the rubbish discarded from their ships. A local villager has a display of several hundred contemporaneous Coca-Cola bottles at a roadside stall!
We anchored in a protected bay, and were joined by two Kiwi yachts that we had come across in Noumea – and in one of which, as happens, I provided medical advice for the skipper. We were probably the only yachts in the whole of Havannah Harbour; so much for the doomsayers who go on about how crowded the good cruising places have become.
The anchorage lay off a collection of gardens and plantations on the Efate mainland that were hidden in fertile land beyond the mangroves. These are worked by villagers who live on the islands which form the northern shore of Havannah, and who paddle across in tiny outrigger canoes every day (except Sunday, of course) to tend their crops. In the morning, one or two would stop at the yacht and ask whether we wanted any of their produce, including coconuts, long beans, Chinese cabbage, bananas and sweet corn. They take the order along with some plastic bags, returning in the evening with the goods. In Efate they appreciate a cash transaction (although we are talking very small dollars here!), because the alternative is to take the produce to Vila market, but they are also very grateful for items such as school stationery, cutlery and other household goods.
A particular favourite with us is the “drinking nut”, a green coconut that has to be cut down from a tree rather than waiting for it to fall. The flesh is rather tasteless (albeit a useful nibble at sundowner time), but the water has a marvellous flavour that melds superbly with the sundowner of choice, including whisky and rum . . .
The trade wind cracked back in with a vengeance as we lay in Havannah, but we had finally to move. So, at 3:30 one morning we set off to sea again. As turned out to be typical for this season of cruising, we sailed out into a solidly reinforced trade wind, gusting to near gale force and causing us to regret unreeving the third set of reef lines. We had left early to ensure a daylight arrival at our next destination, Lamen Bay in Epi Island.
The main attractions promised for Lamen Bay were what was promoted by the tourist authorities as a “tame” dugong with which you could swim, and a friendly little resort. However, Norma’s antennae had already been set quivering when she saw photos of people riding the dugong’s back, although we were assured the animal was content with such close human attention. Further, as we dropped anchor, the sounds over the water of “Aussie-oi-oi” from the beach resort were not encouraging in terms of local culture.
The very strong winds had brought a significant swell into the bay, and as we rolled at anchor through the later afternoon we decided to press on the following morning. Predictably, we pressed on into a yet another strong wind, behind us, but combined with currents swirling between the islands and a nasty cross-swell it was far from being a comfortable ride. It was therefore into blessed peace we sailed, as we entered Port Sandwich, near the south-east corner of Malekula Island. The harbour was named by Captain Cook, like countless other Pacific landmarks, this time after the Earl of Sandwich and inventor of a handy foodstuff. The protection provided by the harbour is excellent, but it is not favoured by those who like to swim and snorkel because – as in much of eastern Malekula – the risk of shark attack is reputed to be very high. Although we are sceptics on most shark stories, this is one we accepted.
We anchored near a small jetty, from which it is a three-kilometre walk to the settlement of Lamap. This was once, we were amazed to learn, the third biggest town in Vanuatu. That was then – now, it is a sadly run-down place, with the original French school (the islanders in Malekula are French-speaking), post office and even a bank, all empty and decaying. The Catholic and Anglican schools, and the medical clinic, were however fully functioning and active. We made friends with the ladies running the local kindergarten, where we found that to take a photo with the digital camera and show the kids – and, indeed, the adults – the immediate result on the little camera screen was to cause huge hilarity and an immediate scrum to take a “look-look” (a word from the local pidgin language, Bislama).
Half way to Lamap, however, there is a very basic little shop, dead handy, and a source of good home-baked bread and staples such as eggs. For vegetables, the chances were that while walking along the track, a villager – typically reserved but very friendly and interested – would emerge to offer pamplemousse, bananas, pawpaw and root vegetables. In return, money was little use but return gifts such as kids’ toys, clothes, and books were much appreciated.
From the boat, we could watch the day-to-day activities of the local people. These include tending their coconut and cacao plantations, and their wandering, healthy-looking beef cattle and pigs (the latter being a sign of wealth rather than a source of food). The main cash crop is copra, dried coconut. The nuts are hacked open and the scooped-out flesh dried in a two-level structure of corrugated iron, with a slow-burning fire heating the layers of coconut above. The dried product is packed into sacks and, along with passengers and bags of other produce, shipped off to Port Vila in one of the small inter-island trading boats that call at the jetty from time to time. The rather dilapidated surface of the jetty, requiring very careful footing across the several missing planks, might make a plaintiff’s lawyer reach for his papers, but there would be little to be gained. The cheerful people are very poor, certainly in terms of cash, subsistence living in cottages with walls of woven leaves. We enjoyed visiting a local family near the water’s edge. The man of the house was having difficulty reading, and we had the great satisfaction of giving him an old pair of Norma’s reading glasses and hearing his spontaneous exclamation, “wow”!
Our problems with weather on this trip continued. After three days the number of yachts in the best anchorage in Port Sandwich went from two (including us when we arrived) to ten, as the clouds gathered, the winds built, and the rain poured. However, we made the most of it, as Norma relished the abundant water and did all the laundry and filled the boat’s water tanks.
When we were able to get away again, we sailed further up the coast of Malekula to another well-protected bay – again, more like an inland sea, much bigger than Pittwater. This was Port Stanley, little visited by cruising yachts because there’s not much to do apart from enjoying the rather wild scenery. The main activity is being visited by, and “entertaining”, the several passing villagers in their outrigger canoes. Throughout the whole of Vanuatu the local people have learnt to their cost that the mainland carries a high risk of malaria. As we had noted in Port Havannah, they have deduced that the best avoidance scheme is to live on the smaller offshore islands and paddle across to their gardens (as they call them), where they grow most of their produce. They are very skilled paddlers, undaunted by strong winds and choppy seas, and it is typical to see a line of little outrigger dugout canoes heading one way in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon laden with fruit and vegetables. A yacht at anchor presents a great opportunity to visit and talk, and offer produce for trade. Money is of little use in the more remote areas. A can of corned beef, for example, is worth a mound of delicious pamplemousse, a hand of bananas and a bag of limes as well. “We have plenty”, they would say, as they heaped the stuff on us.
On the invitation of the local village chief we were invited to visit a small island village, and were shepherded around by three teenagers. They introduced us to all the notable elders and their relatives (practically everyone), and proudly showed us the tiny frond houses they had built for themselves after their initiation ceremonies. They also took us to a coral reef sanctuary where they are cultivating giant clams. Many senior Pacific islanders realise that the giant clams, which were once a significant source of food, are in danger of dying out from over-harvesting, and have established these sanctuaries (or “clam circles” as they are known in some places) to re-establish the species. Back on the boat, we of course then had to print out copies of the digital photos of the boys and their dwellings, to their delight as the paper rolled out from the printer.
In our final inter-island passage in Vanuatu waters we had a very fast sail in a strong trade wind north to Luganville, at the southern end of the large island of Espiritu Santo. On the relatively small Aore Island opposite Luganville town there is a working plantation with a small resort that (unlike many) really welcomes visiting yachts, and has laid down moorings in the very deep water as an alternative to the reportedly very uncomfortable anchorage directly off the town. Once again, the rain set in with a vengeance. According to an ex-pat Australian running a dive operation, this was the wettest “dry” season in his six years in the country.
Luganville, reached by a small ferry from the resort, is a rather weird – albeit friendly – little town. There are several small Asian-operated stores strung along each side of the freeway-wide main street, all seeming to sell the same eclectic variety of clothes, hardware and food, both canned and fresh. There is the usual excellent Pacific island market for fruit and vegetables, and a butcher with stocks of the superb Santo beef. This is a major export product, especially for Japan.
It was once very different. During WW2 Luganville was the focal point of a massive US military base spread throughout south-east Santo, where men and materiel were gathered for the support of ferocious operations in the Solomons and elsewhere in the Pacific. There were several naval yards, with up to 100 ships anchored in the channel between Luganville and Aore Island, four hospitals and five airfields. After the fierce fighting of the war the Americans sailed off home and left Luganville a ghost town. Remaining signs of their presence include the expanse of the main street and several corrugated Nissan (Quonset) huts which, while quietly rusting, still serve as workshops and warehouses for the locals.
There are other more subtle signs of the precipitous departure of the US forces. They simply dumped their gear, hundreds of tonnes of it. The most amazing result can be seen at a headland near the town now called “Million-Dollar Point”. The then Condominium government refused to pay for the unwanted machinery, and so the Americans just tipped it into the sea. At low tide engine blocks, diggers, gearboxes and the like are exposed over a length of hundreds of metres of beach, gradually merging with and becoming part of the fringing coral. Snorkelling or diving reveals whole trucks, jeeps and bulldozers lying in deeper water. It has to be said, however, that after the horrendous human losses sustained by the US forces in the Pacific war, the dumping of some metalwork must have seemed to be a pretty inconsequential matter.
In deeper water off Luganville lies the wreck of the 22,000-tonne President Coolidge. This was a luxury liner refitted as a troopship. She hit “friendly” American mines in the channel, sank nearby, and is now a major attraction for divers from all over the world.
We hired a Hilux four-seat ute with a driver as our guide for a day, and throughout south-east Espiritu Santo saw several more signs of the US presence all those 60 years ago. Airstrips are apparent through the undergrowth, with the occasional crashed aircraft to be discovered among the surrounding trees. The foundations of a large US hospital rest on a hilltop in a coconut plantation, with a gorgeous view over smaller islands offshore to the east. One of these was named Bali Hai by James Michener, whose house is still there on the waterfront where he stayed and wrote Tales of the South Pacific and other books after the war. One of the less pleasant mementoes of the American presence is the broad-leafed vine planted by the US forces as camouflage for their equipment. This has run amok (as it has done in Efate), and covers vast acreage of natural forest and bush, strangling it to death.
The countryside in general is lovely, though, and the friendliness and courtesy of the islanders (known as “Ni-Vanuatu”) unmatched in our experience. We had one particularly lovely experience. Another Australian yacht, old Vanuatu hands, knew that a local primary school on Aore Island wanted uniforms. The yachties had obtained bags of unwanted uniforms from an Australian school, sailed again to Santo, and with them on “Children’s Day” we went to the village primary school and doled out the clothing and other schoolie stuff such as pens and pencils. The kids and the teachers thought it was wonderful, treated us with their gorgeous smiles and sang for us.
After enjoying the facilities of the Aore resort for a few days we sought solitude again, and found it in a beautiful bay just up the east coast of Santo. After negotiating two tricky and unmarked channels through coral shoals we anchored in clear, light blue water, with little more than coconut plantations and mangroves to be seen all around. At night, with a new moon, the lights on Cera were the only sign of human presence, with the only other glow coming from the bright tropical stars. A little further up the coast we found another beautiful bay, again with its protective guard of two sets of coral shoals to be negotiated, and again which we had on our own until joined by Kiwi friends on a similar meander up the coast. We tried to get in to yet another coral-fringed bay further north, but were beaten after two attempts. On the first, we nudged a coral head; and on the second, we went gradually aground on shoaling sand. That was enough, so it was back to Luganville and the welcoming Aore Resort and the several new yachty friends who were making up a substantial proportion of the resort’s clientele.
But it was time to go, and the tiresome business of “clearing out”. Immigration was fine, but Customs was very sniffy about our having cruised part of the Santo coast without reporting in to them first. They had spied us in one of our idyllic little anchorages . . . But we had not actually broken any laws, just not complied with a bureaucratic procedure, and so we got the essential clearance papers without which any subsequent country will give a yacht skipper a very hard time on arrival.
We had decided by this time to abort our original plans to sail further north to Papua New Guinea and the Louisiades archipelago. We had much enjoyed Vanuatu, and had spent more time there than we had pencilled in to our original plans. The Louisiades were a long way away, required another long southerly sail back against the prevailing winds to northern Queensland, and we would be very pushed to spend sufficient time there to make the most of it. Further, the trip plan had always included a cruise of the Whitsundays and the rest of the Australian coral coast, and we had to be back in Sydney by mid-October.
Thus, our clearance was for the port of Mackay in Queensland. As usual, we sailed out into good weather with a good forecast, and as usual on this season’s trip conditions rapidly deteriorated into a near gale-force trade wind whipped up by what the Australian Bureau of Meteorology was pleased to call an “active ridge”. So, we had a typically rough passage even after the wind dropped, because it veered to the south-west and we had to punch into it. However, it calmed as we approached the Great Barrier Reef. This approach inspires some awe and commensurate care, because the gap we were aiming for – the Hydrographers Passage – is less than a mile wide in a stretch of otherwise unbroken reef extending for countless miles on either side of it. The passage does have a lighthouse, and we again blessed electronic navigation, but even so we timed our arrival at the entrance for dawn so that we could see what we were doing. Arriving boats are strictly not allowed to stop anywhere before arriving at the Port of Entry, so we could not actually see anything of the outer reef apart from a few distant cays and some breaking water. From the outer reef it is still 70 miles to the coast, so after being buzzed by a Coastwatch plane we sailed slowly through another night before finally arriving in the early morning at Mackay, 1200 nautical miles from Luganville.
We were quickly cleared in by Australian Customs and the Quarantine Service (having been assessed as “low risk”!), and moved into a berth at the new Reef Marina. This is on the coast a few kilometres from downtown Mackay and is a huge operation, with residential properties sprouting all around it. The marina is expanding with a view to attracting the megayacht fleet, with appropriately-sized berthing and maintenance facilities. After clearing in we moved into maintenance mode ourselves, with a long list of things to attend to on the boat after a few months away and well over 2,500 miles of sailing plus over a thousand more to go before getting back home. There was also a huge pile of mail to wade through, with once again some pressing business matters to attend to that were a rude awakening from our (temporarily) hedonistic existence.
As soon as we could we moved on, at first northwards for a while, heading for the Whitsunday Island group. First stop was at a gorgeous little mainland anchorage, Port Newry, rather off the beaten track. The “port” is formed by a collection of small islands, all national park lands, heavily wooded and reputedly the home for many koalas, not that we saw any. They are reputed to swim between the islands, which was a bit of a surprise to us. What we did see were many turtles swimming round the boat and peering up at us. We were also adopted by a pair of little swallows, who decided that we would make a suitable springtime nesting site. We tried to tell them we would be moving on in a day or two, but they were very persistent. We were sorry to leave them, but it was time to press on north.
The Whitsunday group of islands, off the central tropical coast of Queensland, is claimed in local publicity to be one of the world’s top cruising grounds (against some tough opposition, in our view) and is the home of several fleets of charter yachts. We approached via the attractive main channel through scores of islands, large and small, being passed by a humpback whale who surfaced and waved a white fin at us before continuing his annual voyage back to Antarctica.
The Whitsundays are often referred to as “the reef”, as in Barrier Reef, but in fact they are a bunch of islands that were once part of the mainland and have a similar topography. To our eyes, they are far from being “tropical”, being not dissimilar to Sydney sandstone country at a casual glance. As a group, however, they are very pretty and well justify their high scenic reputation. Many have upmarket resorts on them, others are national parks. The problem, we found, was that the anchorages generally did not approach our high standards for the term “good”. Admittedly, we did happen to be there during a very windy period, with the winter trades ripping through the islands and generating howling gusts off their hilly peaks. The tidal range is very wide, which creates strong tidal streams. When the wind is against the stream it kicks up a rotten seaway, which hangs in as a swell that finds its way into most anchorages and sets up the boat to roll, roll all night, even in the few anchorages that appeared from the chart to offer all-round protection rather than the open roadsteads that are more common between the islands. We heard an American on the VHF radio plaintively exclaim that “Ah’m looking for serm pro-tection!’.
The photos in the yacht charter and tourist brochures, we concluded, were taken during calmer times! We felt sorry for some of the charterers who, just as we observed in the Caribbean during the winter trade-wind season, were finding the whole business of sailing and anchoring in such conditions a lot more trying than they had anticipated.
But we did find some good spots. Airlie Beach is a charming small town, very much attuned to the tourist and yacht market, and we enjoyed the craft stalls and fresh fruit and vegetables at the beachfront Saturday market. Shute Harbour is the centre for commercial operations such as ferries, but is an excellent and well-protected anchorage, again attractively surrounded by a bunch of little islands.
At the Whitsundays we turned round and started south again. We were first faced by a strenuous windward beat back down to the big marina at Mackay, where we stopped only for a couple of days before welcoming the long-forecast change to northerly winds. We then grabbed the chance to take some big steps down the long east coast, bypassing some anchorages that had been on the original plan. By coincidence, we would have been denied the opportunity to call in to some of them anyway – they are part of a vast training area for the Australian defence forces, and at the time were prohibited areas because of huge exercises involving US, NZ and Japanese forces. To the sounds of massive explosions far inshore, we carefully tracked down outside the out-of-bounds sea area, warily watching in the light of a full moon two warships that were unhelpfully running without navigation lights.
We made a stop at a coastal marina for a short rest before making way again, once again getting tangled up with the military exercises, this time offshore from the major port of Gladstone as we passed it in the middle of the night. We were surrounded for a time by six warships, one of which seemed intent on running us down until we warned it of our presence when under a mile away. We learnt later from a retired naval friend that on exercise they run “silent”, which means not even using their radar. More welcoming were the several whales and large indo-Pacific humpback dolphins we – well, Norma – saw on the way down.
On this leg we officially sailed out of the tropics as we passed Cape Capricorn. The northerly winds had become well established and quite strong, giving us such a good ride that during the night before arriving at our destination, at the port of Bundaberg, we kept shortening sail to try to slow down our over-eager vessel. As we entered the Burnett River the blustery wind was driving straight into the marina at the river mouth, and we decided to continue the ten miles or so up the river to Bundaberg itself. There, after rather anxiously negotiating for about ten miles the winding, well-marked but rather shallow river, we came to relieved anchor off the attractive town.
Assisted by an excellent chandlery we tackled some essential maintenance tasks while sitting in the river, rotating on our anchor chain every few hours under the dual influences of wind and tide. We made sure the tide was with us as we made our way out down-river, and anchored near the mouth in preparation for an early start the next morning. Our target this time was the harbour at Urangan, at the head of Hervey Bay.
Hervey Bay is immense, open to the north, with the mainland to the west and Fraser Island to the east. The bay is a major centre for whale-watching excursions, and the harbour was busy with the several large cruise vessels going in and out. We were lucky enough to see, on our approach, two humpback whales jumping from the water, breaching, backwards for some reason best known to them, baring their white underbodies to the sky and coming down again with an immense splash.
This stop, which should have been a happy one, was made very sad by the unexpected death from incurable cancer of our bright little Maltese, Snowy. His final symptoms developed very swiftly, and after a quick and painless decline he died in the arms of our wonderful house-sitter, Lynne, who loved him at least as much as we did.
But the cruise must go on, and we set off south on a wandering path through the Great Sandy Strait, which meanders through scores of low little islands between Fraser Island and the mainland. Apart from being an interesting trip in itself, it is an alternative to sailing all the way round Fraser Island offshore. For us, the only problem was that the channel depths in many places were pretty marginal for our two metres draft, and once again we had to take careful account of the tides. Fraser Island, over 120 kilometres long, is the largest all-sand island in the world, and is a World Heritage site as well as being internationally recognised as a wetland transit site for migrating birds. It is also heavily forested, and we enjoyed some long and very quiet walks through unspoilt woodland, along tracks of sand the consistency of talcum powder – quite hard going! We met several other yachts, including some old friends, in the popular “Garry’s Anchorage”. This is named after one of the island’s original Butchulla people, an Aboriginal horseman and tracker who was born in about 1900 and lived there.
The next leg took us offshore, and we left the Strait through the notorious Wide Bay Bar. This is a marked but shallow channel, which dog-legs well out to sea between white, curling surf. As it happens, in the prevailing northerlies it was quite pacific, but it was still a relief to reach sea of a depth more than four metres. We then had a fast sail down to the port of Mooloolaba as the north wind inexorably built and built, and we were looking forward to getting into harbour – that is, until we reached the breakwaters. As we approached, we were dismayed to see the heavy swell breaking right across the entrance. A line of marker buoys appeared to be indicating a totally illogical and possibly dangerous route, and were completely inconsistent with our up-to-date chart. We radioed for advice from the local volunteer coastguard, who told us that the entrance was badly silted up, and to follow the winding route indicated by the buoys. This we did with our hearts in our mouths, with Cera leaping and bucking through the surf and edging through the narrow gap between the final buoy and the breakwater end. Listening to the radio from the security of the yacht club marina we heard over the next few days that we were not the only strangers to the port to have been surprised in this way. Indeed, when we finally motored out again in the relative calm of early morning a few days later, we came across an arriving yacht in severe difficulties in the shoaling water. Over the radio we helped them get oriented and safely into port. (Since our return, we have heard that following the near loss of some locals from an overturned boat, the opening has been dredged.)
Southwards, ever southwards, we sailed, again in bright sun and strong northerly winds, and into Moreton Bay and another marina, this time at the little coastal town of Scarborough. We had the luxury of a free berth, whose owners we had met in Garry’s Anchorage and who said we would be welcome at the friendly Moreton Bay Boat Club. There, we sat out the first of the series of equinoctial southerly changes that became something of a pattern for the following several days. We did make good use of the unexpectedly excellent fish market adjacent to the fishing-boat docks. From the weekend crowds, it was clear that people were driving out from Brisbane to stock up on good fresh seafood.
Further south in Moreton Bay, as the southern tail of North Stradbroke Island trends west towards the mainland coast, between these two land masses erupts a tangled mass of little islands. Most are simple mangrove outcrops, while others are quite large and heavily populated. They have some lovely names: try the islands called Coochiemudlo, Karragarra, Tabby Tabby and Woogoompah, while passing Kibbinkibbinwa Point on the way. We went back into channel-groping mode, carefully considering tide heights before making way, and scanning for channel markers in the routine we well remember from our time in the Intracoastal Waterway on the east coast of America. Moving south, the first shoreside settlements were quite simple, with moorings in the channels securing a motley collection of liveaboard houseboats and weird and wonderful yachts never likely to go anywhere. Once past a sort of watergate, with very shoal water – although we only just brushed the bottom – the scene changed dramatically. The skyscrapers of the Gold Coast came into view, and the channels became lined with luxury mansions, outliers of the miles and miles of inland channel developments “reclaimed” from the ancient mangroves.
In the face of dreadful weather forecasts, with gale warnings for the coast we were soon to sail down offshore, we pulled into one of the Gold Coast’s residential/marina developments, Runaway Bay, and hunkered down to sit out the change that was essentially inevitable after our rather unusual spell of generally gorgeous weather. Runaway Bay is one of the area’s first marinas, a bit out of town and therefore quiet, and a good base for bus rides into the glitz of Surfers Paradise and attractions such as the Currumbin wildlife park. As soon as the weather cleared we were out and on our way down to Coffs Harbour, an overnight sail during which we got such assistance from the south-going east Australian Current that we were averaging well over seven knots and had to slow down in order to avoid arriving in the middle of the night.
Coffs is another good port of refuge, free of any significant bar, and once again we tied up to wait out a series of southerly changes. We had plenty to do, in and around this busy little harbour. We have friends in the town with whom we ate aboard and ashore and with whom we travelled up into the beautiful rolling forests and farmlands of the Bellingen and Dorrigo regions. We enjoyed watching the busy fishing fleet unloading their catches in the morning, including long-liners with incredible hauls of huge tuna and broadbill swordfish that were bringing smiles of enthusiasm very rarely seen among professional fishermen. Some small chunks of the swordfish, bought from the dockside fishermen’s co-op, formed the basis of a superb bouillabaisse that we shared with some of our local friends.
Finally, after waiting several days for the passage of a serious southerly gale, we took advantage of the next short weather window and sailed quickly for two days and a night down to Pittwater, tying up in our berth at Newport on the evening of 16 October. Our cruise was over. We had sailed almost 4,000 nautical miles (about 8,000 kilometres), and taken nearly seven months to do it. We were back to the real world again, and it was time to catch up on depleted finances and plan for new adventures some time, somewhere.