We’d been at the helm since midnight, braving a big four-metre swell off the Escape River mouth and racing ahead of gale-force winds gathering quickly to the south. There was no place to hide, but as long as we didn’t lose heart, we hoped to be tucked around the tip of Cape York before the weather went to hell.
The crayfishing dory came out of nowhere, our first sign of life after three long weeks at sea. It appeared, suddenly, tossed clean out of the water atop a huge cresting wave, propeller spinning. It veered towards us for a crazy mid-sea conversation, sidling alongside our wildly surfing 35-foot catamaran as we battled to hold course in the heaving ocean. Over the roar of the waves we confirmed exactly two things: yes, we were indeed all “mad bastards” and yes, we would most definitely like a catch of fresh, $100-a-pop painted crays. The seadog tossed them over our rails as we surfed recklessly at 13 knots, Dave gripping the helm to keep the boats from colliding while I raced around the deck, scooping up crayfish before the water crashing over the back rail reclaimed them.
As abruptly as it had arrived, the dory peeled away, back to its mother ship rolling at anchor behind the slenderest of sand cays. With dinner in the bag, we coasted alone through Albany Passage at dusk, rounding Cape York as the sea finally calmed. We toasted a ‘Tip of Australia’ sunset and another outstanding day at sea with buttery, pan-fried crays and the last of our cold beers.
Credit for All Images: David Bristow.
We’d sailed out of Cairns on the back of a cyclone, bound for Darwin three months and 2,652km away. Island-hopping up the Coral Sea coastline from rainforested isles to barely-there sand cays, we inched slowly north, waking to swim with green sea turtles and throwing down the anchor in some of the bluest water on earth.
Sunkist, we dragged our heels at Lizard Island — barely a week’s sail from home — snorkelling over fringing reefs abuzz with blue-spotted rays, moray eels and magnificent lionfish. When a mid-sized saltwater crocodile settled into our baby-blue anchorage at Watsons Bay, frightening off the island’s five-star resort guests, we had the sea entirely to ourselves. Rangers declared the croc nothing but a nuisance so we went scuba diving and sat on the seabed watching reef sharks circling overhead.
Girthed by 24 shimmering, white-sand beaches and luminous coral reefs, Lizard Island is an idyllic spot by any standard, despite receiving a regular hammering by tropical cyclones every few years. Over two unforgettable weeks we swam ashore and beachcombed, climbed Cook’s Look to marvel at an Indigenous ceremonial site tucked beneath the summit, and abseiled off granite cliffs onto faraway Coconut Beach.
Mad, drunken fishermen woke us in the dead of night, begging for booze and cigarettes, but we’d already drunk our beers at sunset with our feet dug into the sand beneath fragrant frangipanis. Only the threat of worsening weather and the arrival of a more-than-curious bull shark sent us back out to sea to battle broken rudder arms, flagging motors and rolling anchorages that stole our sleep, night after night.
Halfway up Cape York, the last cyclone of the season crossed the Coral Sea, chasing us deep into Princess Charlotte Bay, where we tethered the boat to sturdy mangrove trees, stripped the decks clear and nervously awaited the wild winds.
We caught barramundi, baked pie, filmed crocs and finally, when Cyclone Ann ran out of puff, weighed anchor and sailed back to Flinders Island where dugongs surfaced mere metres from the boat. Dinners here were a smorgasbord of queenfish, mackerel, golden trevally and delicious flowery rock cod.
Also accessible to mainlanders by tinny, Flinders Island National Park is a bewitching destination, home to the Aba Yalgayi saltwater people who fished, camped, painted and buried each other on this remote group of eight sandstone isles. Their Yindayin rock shelters are the best on Cape York, and the sandstone lookouts and rugged, shell-strewn beaches are a castaway’s dream.
Anchored off Flinders Island we hunkered down against yet another round of gale-force winds, getting pummeled in bays that sheltered fishing trawlers. Eventually our itchy-feet sent us back out to sea to surge up the coast, escaping the sea’s onslaught with brief stays at Morris Island and cyclone-devastated Night Island, before skimming across the seagrass beds into beautiful Margaret Bay.
With a dubious reputation as a beachcomber’s nirvana, Margaret Bay and its south-facing beach over Indian Head gather vast amounts of sea junk: fishing buoys and plastic buckets, toothbrushes and bottles and some curious treasures too.
We picked up fishing lures, a wetsuit, a kayak paddle and a packet of Assorted Creams that somehow washed ashore intact. Starving, we devoured two biscuits each before declaring them inedible and leaving them for the pigs. Instead, we searched for the right size thong to replace the Teva Dave lost to the boggy peat marsh on the morning’s rugged, overgrown hike and, not surprisingly, found the perfect fit.
From Margaret Bay we raced on north, sailing around the tip of Cape York to take the famous picture beneath that famous sign, and sticking out our thumbs in seaside Seisia for a supply run into Bamaga. Within minutes, a pair of Thursday Island elders slowed their shiny LandCruiser and we savoured the air con and polite conversation on the ride into town.
Groceries bought and beers replenished, we waited impatiently for less wind, then plunged into the treacherous Carpentaria Straits regardless, getting pummelled for our restlessness by wildly pitching, shallow waters. Flushed out into the Gulf of Carpentaria’s heaving 30-knot sea, we kick-started our biggest challenge of the trip: a non-stop, 610 kilometre, three day sail to reach the NT’s Arnhem Land coast.
The steep, side-swiping swell demanded an exhausting, white-knuckled grip on the helm. The seasickness that sailors swear never affects them hit most on board pretty hard. We snatched sleep, fully clothed, in between tiresome stints at the helm, and grabbed whatever snacks came ready-made. Booby birds took refuge on the boat rails overnight, leaving us at sunrise with a fish-strewn deck, until finally we shouted ‘land ahoy’ on the wilder side of the gulf.
We anchored in Gove Harbour and hitched again into town, climbing in with an Indigenous elder tackling his daily commute to Nhulunbuy’s university. He was en route to giving visiting medical students an Indigenous orientation.
Scooting along with one hand on the wheel, he showed me photos of his latest grandchild and talked about sailing and boats and the time he crewed to Indonesia with his wife and the seasickness that had her bent over the rails for three days.
“Nothing like crossing the Gulf though,” he said. “That sea sure is mean.”
And so it was. None of the tricky passages, raging currents and pitching seas to follow came close to challenging us quite like the Gulf had. Instead, our cruisey sail through the Arafura Sea had us exploring uninhabited islands and plucking unsuspecting barramundi out of great sweeps of reef-fringed beach.
We saw no other boats and no people, but wandered with great herds of goats on deserted North Goulburn Island and caught so much tuna we had to stop fishing when the freezer was full. All that isolation and the continual headwork of navigating the mind-boggling, boat-stopping tides and currents plunged us into the self-sufficient realm all adventurers eventually enter: dependent on nobody but ourselves, too far off the grid to rely on help.
It’s an intoxicating sort of confidence that grows with every challenge ticked off. But it’s never the kind of thing you take for granted when there’s no chatter on the VHF and Telstra has left you high and dry.
GARIG GUNAK BARLU
A taste of civilisation finally came at Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula when our daughter befriended the ranger’s youngest child. Talking a mile a minute after too long at sea, we relished the friendly chats and cold beers, and bushwalked along Caiman Creek collecting cockle shells for the campfire.
The local ranger Robbie took us hunting for mud crabs and roasted ‘long bums’ on the fire, which he assured us were excellent tucker. As it turns out, long bums — which look like mud whelks and taste like mangrove mud — were a really tough sell.
Instead, we turned our freezer full of fish into flash-fried bites and a crowd-pleasing Sri Lankan curry, and shared sunset ales with the national park’s two resident families while tallying up enormous crocodiles lying on the beach.
Before leaving Cobourg with a hand-made spear and a kids’ play date set for our arrival in Darwin, we motored deep into Port Essington to explore the Victoria Ruins, relics of Northern Australia’s first white settlement. Sooner or later disease and isolation sent these pioneers packing for the more favourable site of Darwin.
Accessible only by boat, the ruin’s lush, palm-fringed hiking trails were all our own — if you don’t count the enormous buffalo we surprised near the cemetery, which ran like wild when it finally caught our scent. We anchored off Adams Head and slept all night long, snug in the sheltered waters that must surely have enticed those early settlers too.
By now Darwin was firmly in our sights, and once we’d rounded the formidable Cape Don and been spat out by the steep, pitching sea to the other side of the Vernon Islands, we were faced with the city’s bright lights, ablaze with colour.
As we motored closer on our first windless night at sea, we felt the push and pull of that baffling inner conflict preceding every adventurous journey’s end — that paradoxical state of craving a slice of civilisation but knowing that, after you’ve drunk the first cold beer and enjoyed the initial celebrations, the pleasure of an easy life will slip away to be replaced by a creeping void that only the next adventure can fill.
All adventures are like that. But one as big and long and thrilling as an ocean passage is incredibly difficult to beat. So with Indonesia on our horizons, this ‘across the top’ adventure may well be just the beginning.