Travelling North — the 2004 A.R.S.E. tour from Cooktown to TI
With thanks to my paddling buddies (in no particular order): Rob Mercer, Andrew Eddy, Peter Groenewoud, Richard Birdsey, and Vince Browning, without whom this trip wouldn’t have been the same.
First Day Jitters
“He pushed his mind through and pulled his body after…” I could hear Richard and Rob’s voices as I dozed off to sleep. Richard was reading aloud from a thick paperback. Rob interjected every now and then but I was too weary to listen properly let alone perform the mental gymnastics that would have been required to enter their conversation. I was deeply exhausted by the heat, the long day’s paddle and the anxiety of setting out on such a long trip in such a remote area. But my subconscious picked up this phrase and little did I know then how it would keep replaying over in my head on days when I felt too tired, or the conditions got too tough or the distance seemed too long. It was to become my mantra. Tonight however I rolled over and was soon in a deep sleep — dreaming of the long journey ahead.
Keeping Australia On the Left
Looking at the map it seemed straightforward enough: paddle more or less east out of the Endeavour River, turn left and keep heading north until you run out of coast. But we knew that there would be times when due to distance or haze or rain we wouldn’t see land. As well as the four big bays (Princess Charlotte, Lloyd, Newcastle, and Shelbourne Bays) that we would need to cross, island hopping, finding suitable campsites, returning to the mainland, and navigating through reefs and shoals would necessitate the use of accurate navigation tools and methods. So it came as no surprise that for several months before the trip our living room floor became a sea of charts that reached from the entrance to our living room through the kitchen to the back door and that we spent many evenings marking out bearings, distances and approximate travel times. We added notes from previous expeditionary logs, tide charts and topographic maps, discussed plans and, finally, set an itinerary.
Our Island Homes
Our first crossing was to the Turtle Group of islands. It was dead calm as we launched from Cape Flattery. “The only wind we are getting is the one we are creating by paddling into the still air,” declared Vince authoritively after a short while and I, for one, had to agree with him. It was hot. The water was clear and shallow, colourful fish darted under our kayaks. Rounding the tall dark brown buttresses of the Cape a long sweep of dazzling pure white sand abutting a tall green mountain range came into view. The beach seemed to go on endlessly but we finally reached Point Lookout and like Captain Cook, over two centuries previously on a similarly clear day and at the same time of year, we too could “look out” to the reef and islands and understand why Cook had named this headland so. From here the Endeavour’s route would take them out through a gap in the reef to the safety of deeper water. However, with our crafts’ shallow draughts we had little concern about either running aground or forging ahead into the afternoon sea breeze that had sprung up. So, after crossing the shipping channel we took a more northerly course through the maze of reefs and islands. At first a barge crossed our path and then as the seabed shallowed and its make up altered from sand, to sea grass, to reef, we were accompanied first by dolphins, then dugongs and finally turtles — the namesake of the group of islands where we were to spend our first night offshore.
“I guess it’s going to be grade 10 campsites all the way,” said Rob early on in our trip planning “on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the best” he added. And so we all pictured beaches backed by arid scrubland providing limited shelter from the sun’s intensity and buffeted by the prevailing southeasterly winds. But, sheltered behind rocky headlands in a grove of trees or on beaches facing north, nothing could have been further from the truth. Such was the beauty of the area that on most days we would launch early, paddle until mid afternoon and enjoy the remaining hours of daylight on land.
On Coquet Island we camped on a concrete slab under the navigation light tower on the northwest spit — the only clear, flat spot on the island. A steep climb up the rusting tower provided CDMA phone reception. We caught up on news from home. Richard read, Vince baked a damper, Andrew desalinated some water, I wrote in my log, and Rob and Peter cast their fishing lines. “It’s like primitive life” Vince observed, “Everyone has something to do.”
At Wilkie Island we found a cool lunch spot where we listened to the beautiful birdsong being played out in the neighbouring mangroves. Rob interviewed us and even now when I listen to the tape played back the birdsong is paramount and, so strong is the association, I can replay all the feelings, smells and coolness of that afternoon nestled in the damp sand and sheltered by overhanging branches.
At Cape Sidmouth we saw evidence of a trail of destruction brought by a not-so-recent cyclone as it crossed the coast: a path cleared of trees, littered with debris and an almost intact timber dinghy left high and dry. Behind the campsite was a grove of stunted paper barks. I hauled myself up a small quartzite over-hang to a flat area where ochre-coloured termite mounds stood two metres tall. I sat and watched. Their hues at first intensified and then fade through to pale lemon as the angle of the setting sun’s rays became more oblique.
The giant rounded pink granite domes of Cape Direction provided a sheltered lee shore to pitch our tents. An afternoon of scrambling over grassy tussocks dotted with rounded rocks to a high vantage point afforded 270-degree views to the north and south providing us with a glimpse of the remoteness of the Cape. A lone aluminium dinghy motored past after a day’s fishing, its occupants acknowledged us and we waved in reply. These were the first people we had seen since Cooktown.
The Ones That Didn’t Get Away
“The sea in this country is much more liberal of food to the inhabitants than the land; and though fish is not quite so plenty here as they are generally in higher latitudes, yet we seldom hauled the seine without taking from fifty to two hundred weight” (Captain Cook in “Captain Cook in Australia” “The journals of Captain James Cook edited by A.W. Reed.) And so it was that on most afternoons, using spinning reels and lures, Rob and Peter hauled in a more modest feed of fish from these pristine waters: Queen fish, Trevally, Mangrove Jack, Mackerel, Barramundi, Golden Trevally … and on one afternoon delighted us all with an entrée of the largest, sweetest oysters we had ever tasted. Whether sautéed with garlic and ginger or eaten sashimi style with soy sauce and wasabi these marine delights augmented our humble fare of pasta, rice, grains and dried vegetables.
We are sailing, we are sailing, across the water, across the sea
It was an overcast blustery day. With sail up I was skidding along daydreaming when I heard Vince taunting Rob with “bet I can get the fastest top speed”. We became like a group of school kids arguing over who could go faster. The ride was certainly exhilarating as we pushed our limits. On landing we checked our GPS’s to find all our individual top speeds were over 20km/h but Vince and Rob proudly took out the line honours each clocking a touch under 30.
Paul Caffyn was right when he said Cape Melville reminded him of Old Nick’s marble winnings. Millions of rounded granite boulders piled high form the entirety of the headland and even more rounded granite boulders, heaped up, confronted us as we rounded the Cape. It looked like a recreation of a 1960’s sci-fi movie and I half expected to see a rocket landing and some form of alien life come out to meet it. Later on the beach Richard pointed out some tracks: four distinct claws astride a long meandering depression. This is certainly no alien and I am glad we are camped further along the beach and well above the high tide mark. We carefully placed the kayaks around our campsite and set our tents up nestled within their midst.
It was late when we arrived on Stainer Island. The day that had started early and windless had, after five hours of relentless paddling, seen us lunching under a navigation marker on Wharton Reef. At this rate, I figured it would take us until ten o’clock at night to reach the mound of sand two metres high and roughly the size of a football field that the charts mark as Stainer Island. I wondered whether our navigation would be accurate enough in the dark not to miss it altogether. However on launching after lunch a strong wind sprung up, our speed increased, our estimated landing time became earlier and we all noticeably relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the day’s paddle.
We pulled our boats up under the lone she oak tree. I went for a walk. I couldn’t see land, let alone our starting point in the Stanley Owen Group. Half way round my circumnavigation I stumbled across some fresh tracks: two sets of flipper marks in the sand. I looked above the tide line and notice a mound of sand. On closer inspection I could piece together the story: a female turtle had hauled her heavily laden frame up the beach, laid her eggs, and then covered them before returning to the sea. I stood silent for several minutes in awe hoping we just might be lucky enough to witness the fledgling turtles journey down the beach to the sea.
Barrow Point looked like a real croc venue with mangroves flanking a small muddy bay. With evening approaching and a quickly falling tide we decided to land while we still had some water under our hulls. We set up camp quickly. Later we ate our fill of oysters, and consumed a huge dinner of fresh Barramundi in ginger accompanied by coconut and lemon grass rice, washed down with a slurp of “Chateaux Le Box” that Vince had procured from some yachties. We shuffled off to bed thinking little of the cloven hoof marks and deep holes we had dodged when setting up our tents and were soon lulled to sleep by the wind rustling the trees overhead and the lapping of water across the mud flats. A few hours into our slumber I was abruptly awoken. I heard some yelling followed by a deep thud and then a squeal. Had a week in the wilderness turned our co-paddlers feral? I urged Rob to find out what is going on. It turned out that we were camping over a dining area for a family of wild pigs and Vince and Richard were chasing them away hurling both abuse and logs at the intruders. Fortunately for us Vince has a good aim and we didn’t hear from the pig family again that night.
And Then There Were Four …
Like Captain Bligh we stop at Restoration Island to rest and recuperate.
Although communication and transport links have improved, I suspect that that the landscape here has changed little since Bligh’s time. From seaward a tall wooded mountain range flanks the coast and a remnant rises abruptly from the sea creating Restoration Island. On its northern shore thousands upon thousands of years of wave action have created a sandy spit. Here tufts of coarse grass and numerous palm trees hang on tenaciously. The resident caretaker, Dave, was jumping about waving and yelling that we are late. Using two-way radio a local pilot has been giving Dave regular updates on our whereabouts and by his reckoning we are overdue. I think he had forgotten our mode of transport is non-motorised. After showering we were given a guided tour of the island. There were water tanks, an old slab floor partly eroded by the sea, a vegetable garden, a shed, a satellite dish, a wind generator, a fibreglass two room cabin, his “home” and an outdoor guest bedroom with “en-suite”. Dave is an avid collector and as well as displays of small trinkets and shells, larger flotsam can be seen in the beams and wall panelling of the buildings or stacked up ready for his next project. Rob and I snared the en-suite accommodation and the others pitched their tents under the stars.
We are two-thirds of the way through our trip and are on schedule. We fish, cook, eat, help Dave with the chores. Richard is called home urgently. It is fortunate there is an airport nearby and Dave motors him to town in his dinghy. From there Richard organises a lift to the airport and his kayak waits for the barge to ship it to Cairns.
Vince has itchy feet and fears losing momentum. He decides to continue ahead of us. From our original group of six we are now four — Rob, Peter, Andrew and myself. We stay another night.
The rounded granite rocks of Cape Melville proved to be suitable shelter from the scorching midday sun. We drank from a fresh water spring beneath a boulder marked H2O in large lettering and filled our water bags. As it was only a short paddle from both Bathurst Bay and the water tanks on Flinders Island our need for water wasn’t desperate but at any opportunity we restocked our supplies.
Round the corner at Bathurst Bay, if you are energetic, you can walk along the four-wheel drive track to a water hole. As well as being good for drinking it is reported to be a safe spot to take a dip. However, I wasn’t going to test that theory.
Ussher Point provided another opportunity to fill up. From seaward it looked like a desert oasis complete with swaying palms and green grass. Rivulets of water flowed down the sand resembling a delta, only in miniature. I suspect this fresh water flows from some underground spring welling up through a softer spot in the rock.
There were few places we camp in close proximity to four-wheel drive tracks. As well as Bathurst Bay, Captain Billy Landing offered such a place to scavenge for water. On arrival we befriended a four-wheel drive family. Here Rob’s smooth talking enabled us to procure ten litres of water, a few yarns and some apples — the first fresh fruit we’d had for weeks.
“Watch out for those short-legged swamp doggies … my neighbour’s prize bull got taken by one just last week.” Cautionary tales like this from the locals just whetted Vince’s appetite for some excitement. For the rest of us it just made us more cautious. But with Peter, it just made him jumpy. When Rob decided to manoeuvre carefully onto the beach at Captain Billy Landing, Peter thought he heard Rob say, “Be careful of the crocs” and he took some convincing that it was a rocky not a “croccy” landing. Meanwhile Vince was filming his own exciting documentary on nearby Hannibal Island. After his successful target practice on Barrow Point with the resident pigs he decided that throwing a log at the resident croc would ensure an afternoon of excitement. This incited the croc into action, leaping into the air, attacking the log and turning it into sawdust. All this was captured on video. As it was getting dark Vince realised he had no choice but to share the only bit of flat land on the island with the toothy critter.
Who Said We’d Never Make It
“Maps, especially simple ones, can offer very hospitable and kindly portraits of a place. Maps of the Torres Strait cannot depict the powerful currents rushing between the islands, the strong wind, the numerous reefs … ” (Paul Theroux, “The Happy Isles of Oceania.”)
After crossing the shallow shoals of Newcastle Bay we landed through low surf at the beach adjoining Fly Point. Two landcruisers pulled up. Their occupants poured out and offered us sandwiches, sweets and coffee. I gladly accepted their hospitality and was more than happy to chat with them while Rob, Andrew and Peter made a hasty climb up the trail to the top of the headland. From there they could see Albany passage. The chart indicated it flows at seven or more knots so we wanted the current, tide and wind all to line up. I secretly hoped it wouldn’t and we would have to wait for the morning’s tide. This would give us a chance to camp at Summerset Bay and explore the old homestead and surrounding grounds. They returned triumphant. While the channel looked like a seething mass of whitecaps and tumultuous water at the time — when the tide turns we would be able to scoot through at well over15km/h. After some very tricky maths to work out the tides Andrew was exuberant in announcing that at 14.16 the tide will turn. So at 2.10pm I waved goodbye to our new-found friends. As we launched they drove to the top of the headland to video our progress. Albany Passage became a bit of a blur. I didn’t even get to see Summerset Bay.
My disappointment however soon turned to elation. I saw the unmistakable boils and whirlpools where the east flowing Arafura Sea and the north flowing Coral Sea collide. The sign read: “You are standing at the northernmost tip of the Australian continent.” Emotions overwhelmed me. It’s a heady mix of excitement, relief, and pride. I drink it all in as I am pushed and pulled by both my mind and the currents.
Later when we pulled into the caravan park at Seisia the management and occupants were waiting our arrival. It turned out they have all been treated to a viewing of the video footage and want to know more about our trip. We spent the night entertaining them with our tales, calling home to family and friends, and toasting the end of another successful “A.R.S.E.” trip.