Even before Temptress reached the Pacific her first mate had a list of creatures to avoid all beginning with the letter S – on land snakes, in the water sharks and sea snakes. Australia has added a few more to the list namely Spiders (though according to at least one source all Australia’s the dangerous ones congregate around Sydney so here in Queensland we need not be concerned), Stingers otherwise known as the box jelly fish, fortunately it is not yet the season for them as their stings are fatal; in any case we won’t be swimming because if the Sharks don’t get you here in Queensland the Salties will!
The saltwater crocodile was hunted almost to extinction in Queensland until hunting was banned in the 1960’s. Now the locals will tell you they are in such numbers as to be a huge menace. Queensland has miles of gorgeous beach and thousands of islands but in the majority of the area swimming is inadvisable as if the Sharks don’t get you the Salties will. Tourists have to stay in boats or on dry land well away from the mangroves. Fishing not surfing or swimming is the preferred water sport. Alan Lucas goes as far as to advise not loading a fishy dinghy, even a hard one with children and smelly dogs! Cairns has a beautiful and free swimming lagoon built in the park on the esplanade complete with sand, no one in their right mind would swim in the creek that loops around the city.
Ships log: Cairns to Cooktown 86nm
From Cooktown we sailed north; the state of Queensland is huge, far bigger than it appears in the atlas. It was still over three hundred nautical miles to the northern tip, Cape York. The shipping channel inside the barrier reef is marked just sufficiently for Temptress to continue at night, hopping from one light to the next; usually as one disappears the next appears, each with a ten mile or so visibility. This is not passage making but tough pilotage or as we cal it mark one eyeball navigation between or around the reefs, cays and islands that are scattered haphazardly between the barrier reef and the mainland. It requires the crew to be alert for course changes and for shipping. We see two or three Panama Max sized commercial ships taking advantage of the flat seas for more economical trips between ports every day. Then there are the brightly lit fishing boats pursuing their own odd courses back and forth around the reefs.
We opted to take the long haul west across Princess Charlotte Bay, staying north of the Flinders Islands rather than the newer and just slightly shorter Lads Passage which follows the very outer edge of the reef. The inshore route is prettier with the ever changing coast and the islands to view and we hoped to stop for a few hours rest enroute which wouldn’t be possible on the Lads Passage.
As we crossed the bay we hooked and released a small reef shark, however a little later our fishing efforts paid off with an enormous wahoo. This member of the tuna/mackerel family has tasty firm white flesh, much enjoyed by the pair of us. This was our second wahoo since leaving Cairns but more than twice the size of the first one – we may not be so keen on wahoo in a week or two as we estimate that some six or seven kilos of the fish are now in either the icebox or the fridge! In addition to fish “fillets” (actually six or seven portions from each fillet) some wahoo trimmings have become a dozen or so fish cakes for lunches and the fillets from the smaller fish are being cured in salt and sugar for tasty sundowner nibbles.
Just after midnight on Monday we dropped the hook in Ninian Bay, it is one of the few easy anchorages to enter in the dark of night along the whole of the coast, a shallow bay facing north, well protected from the SE trade winds. Disappointingly we didn’t spot any dugongs in the few hours we were there, despite it being a designated sanctuary for them.
Ships Log: Cooktown to Ninian Bay 92nm
Early the next morning we headed north again. Our goal was Margaret Bay just inside Cape Grenville. Mid afternoon found us wending our way through the Home Islands to seaward of the cape. One of the islands had some signs of habitation in the form of buildings, a radio mast and two boats alongside a jetty. The nearest township is Portland Roads some forty miles south as the crow flies across the sea, much, much further by land and this was the first habitation we had actually seen since leaving Cooktown. The mainland coast is mostly sand dunes with dazzling white silica and there are few roads this far north.
To the north of the bay is Sunday Island a mound of reddish rock with a few scrubby trees, this is the spot where Bligh and his men stopped to collect water and capture some seabirds for food on their amazing passage to Indonesia. Bligh knew of the island from his previous voyage in these parts as a master on one of the ships of Captain Cook’s second expedition.
Also, according to Alan Lucas author of the cruising guide, in 1844 a newly wed couple inadvertently spent their honeymoon on the same island after the ship taking them to India went down with all hands nearby and they somehow not only survived but made it to one of the few islands with fresh water; they were there several months before being rescued stating it had been an ideal honeymoon! Nothing so romantic for us, we washed a trug full of dirty laundry and hung it up to drip overnight in the cockpit; incredibly the breeze was warm and dry all night and the majority of the clothes were dry when we woke.
As I was taking pictures of the sun setting before supper I saw what initially I thought was a line of three turtle heads odd I thought. The penny dropped as the shape disappeared beneath the surface again, I’d been looking at the snout and part of the back of a Saltie swimming over a mile offshore! Did I say that if the Sharks don’t get you the Salties will? The milky jade coloured water was tempting but neither of us will be swimming in the sea voluntarily yet awhile no matter how hot it gets.
Ships log: Ninian Bay to Margaret Bay 192 nm
At four am with the last quarter of the moon rising we hauled up the anchor and sailed north again under just the jib; the extremely early departure hour was due to our wanting to visit the Escape River a few miles short of Cape York. To enter this wide estuary Temptress needed to be there with at least a couple of hours of daylight left and it was a good seventy nautical miles north so a long days’s sailing beckoned. As the Lads Passage had rejoined the inner route we saw more shipping, often inconveniently at the pinch points where the mile or so wide lane passed between two reefs or islands, one ship even called us up to ask our intentions from some five miles away.
Several lifetimes ago Temptress’ crew would never have dreamed of entering an unbuoyed river channel involving crossing a shallow bar at low water and heading up stream with only some sketchy electronic charts and a cruising guide to advise us. Now however we are veterans of the Pacific, up for the challenge in order to experience the quiet of the Queensland wilderness. The only sign of human life were a few low houses tucked in the trees above a boat tied to jetty on Turtle Head Island which forms the north side of the estuary. According to our charts there is an airstrip on the island too but it wasn’t visible.
Once up river only a few clusters of grey floats forming a few pearl farm rafts indicated anyone ever visited the river. On the sand banks to starboard just above the waters edge a huge Saltie sunbathed. In the mangroves on the landward fringes flocks of egrets had gathered looking from a distance for all the world like blobs of cotton wool dotted in the trees and in the brown rivery smelling water fish were jumping everywhere. The silence was total once we were anchored the loudest noise being Temptress’ fridge burbling away quietly in the background and terns squawking as they fished. At dusk tree frogs called whilst after dark there was just occasional splash of fish and the hum of mosquitos; we dug out the mossie nets for the first time in months, sprayed ourselves with jungle formula and lit a mossie coil just in case but didn’t suffer any bites. It truly was a spot to Escape but for Temptress the Pacific sailing season is almost at an end, the cyclone season is approaching so we must hasten to Darwin some 700 miles west, checkout and sail north to Indonesia and beyond.
Ships log: Margarets Bay to Escape River 73 nm current position 10 59.20S 142 39.66E