First Cook, then Bligh then Us !
The question was could we drive our tinnies twelve hundred kilometres from Cooktown to Weipa and survive? The answer was we could and did!
We are to start our adventure in Cooktown named, as you know, after Captain Cook. But Cook was not the first here; the first Australians have lived on this coastline for thousands of years. We will see some evidence of their occupation, crumbling fish traps, shell middens and rock art but little remains unless we look hard. Perhaps in the stillness of the night, we will fancy we hear, beneath the murmur of the waves, the click of sticks and the stamp of feet, but it is just the ghosts of the past. The Maccassins were here also seeking fish and beche-de-mere but how long ago is anybody’s guess. And the first Europeans, the Dutch blown off course in their run to the East Indies, were here too.
Just south-east of our starting point, Cook struck a reef in June 1770, east of a cape that he named Cape Tribulation – the name says it all! Badly damaged, he staggered north seeking a place to land and repair the Endeavour. Across Weary Bay (once again not hard to guess why he named it so!) and into the then unnamed Endeavour River. Here the ship was beached and repaired, an effort that took nearly 3 months. When we look at modern charts, the wonder is not that Cook hit a reef, but that he had come so far without hitting at least one! Hopefully our modern chart plotters and depth sounders will enable us to avoid this fate.
We have arranged to pick up fuel at Flinders Island and Lockhart River so with a steady south easter blowing we set off for our first camp site at Cape Flattery. We plan to average about 100 km a day. The first day, half way to our first camp site, and trouble has struck, the bigger boat has water in the fuel. We tow them into a sheltered bay and find that there seems to be water in both fuel tanks. No choice but to empty the tanks into buckets then decant the petrol back into the tanks leaving the water and a little petrol in the bottom of the bucket. Then we must remove the plugs on the Suzuki 4 stroke and turn it over until all the water has cleared the injectors. Fortunately, the tide has receded and we are working on a beached boat – good news since the area is lousy with crocs! Later that night we get the engine started and stagger off to our swags.
Fresh in the morning, we set off again only to be beset by the same water problem again, fortunately this time we get it early and are able to continue on to our camp at Cape Flattery using a spare cruise tank. Here we empty the tanks yet again and remove the water and deduce that somehow water is driving up into the tank vents, a combination of the south-easter and a more heavily loaded boat than normal. We relocate the breathers and that problem is over. Ninian Bay here we come.
Our camp site at Ninian is not ideal with crocs continually visible cruising off the beach but a nice barra has made a great meal for all with some left over for breakfast. We discuss whether the camp fire will keep the crocs away or attract them - I maintain that we need the fire so we can see what is eating us. Morning dawns and despite our resolve to get up from time to time and bank up the fire no one has stirred. The south-easter has died away, the sea is turquoise and the Flinders Islands beckon us away to the north. With a couple of stops to pull in queenies, mackerel and GTs - all of which are released, one fish a day is our self-imposed bag limit - we arrive at Flinders for a leisurely lunch and an exploration afternoon visiting the cave paintings.
Once again a beautiful day greets us and we set off on a glassy sea for Eden Reef where we will refuel. The main barrier (reef) is now just off our starboard with the mainland 30 km. to our west and reefs extend as far as the eye can see. Occasionally, as the mood takes us, we stop and fish but pulling in 20 and 30 kg. pelagics soon takes its toll and we move on, it is far less exhausting driving the boat than fishing. Refuelling takes us a few hours then it is off to the nearest atoll for lunch and a swim. The reefs are dotted with atolls which form on the north west corner of the reef lagoons, they vary from a hundred metres across to a kilometre or so and all are extraordinarily beautiful. We push on and reach our camp site at Morris Island where we make sure we say hello to Fred, the only resident. But Fred rarely answers, what a splendid grave site he has gazing out over the sand and sea and lulled by the call of terns.
A four metre croc cruises up and down the beach watching us set up camp, no moon light swims tonight – or any night come to think of it! Red Emperor for dinner and Lockhart River for refuelling in the morning
Lockhart and its giant black lip oysters (delicious!) has come and gone and we call in to Restoration Island to see Dave, the resident hermit, who looks after the crumbling and long defunct resort. For a hermit, Dave really does enjoy a bit of company and a few hours pass as the yarns get more and more incredible. Restoration Island itself plays a significant part in our voyage
During Cook’s later voyage in the Pacific (in search of the North West Passage) he had on board a young sailor named William Bligh. Bligh, like Cook was to write his name in maritime history and, perhaps, as a navigator was as good as his mentor. In August 1787 Bligh in command of the Bounty set off to collect breadfruit from Otaheite (Tahiti) and take them to the West Indies. After completing his task, Bligh was preparing to set sail when his crew under the guidance of Fletcher Christian mutinied and set Bligh and his remaining loyal crew adrift in a longboat with a little food and a sextant. Then followed probably the most remarkable bit of seamanship and navigation ever seen as Bligh set out to row to Batavia (Djarkarta) in the Dutch East Indies. He was set adrift by Christian in late April 1789 and reached Batavia in October without losing a man.
On his epic voyage, Bligh reached the coast of New Holland (New South Wales, Terra Australis) at Restoration Island. Here, as the name suggests, his crew were able to somewhat recover from the trip from Tahiti mainly by eating oysters the quality and size of which we have sampled. He made his way up the coast through Endeavour Strait (Torres Straight) and on to Batavia, some 1200 leagues. We shall follow in his footsteps, or should I say oarstrokes!
We leave Dave and Restoration and head north to Forbes Is, a jewel in the midst of hundreds of large and small reefs. This is an idyllic spot amongst the coconut trees and protected by the fringing reef. Two of the crew go snorkelling while the rest of us climb to the top of the hill and look out across a simply astonishing vista of reef, sand, coral and distant atolls. The water is so clear we can easily see the giant clams on the bottom of the lagoon below us and watch the GT’s and sharks cruising the rising tide. I cannot resist, I climb down and get my light spinning gear and head to the lagoon. First cast and my popper is swallowed in a blast of white foam. The battle does not last long, 400 metres of braid are run off in a blink as I get spooled. Ah well, plenty more poppers where that came from. I guess Bligh had no shortage of fresh fish after he reached the coast. Tomorrow we follow his footsteps further as he heads for Batavia.
By morning tea the next day we, are off Cape Grenville where three sets of currents meet. The sky is just a cloud of black and white terns, thousands and thousands feasting on the bait fish pushed together by the currents. An hour of frenzied fishing follows with twin hookups the norm. Trevally, tuna, mackerel, bonito attack the lures almost as soon as they hit the water – and the terns are so thick that they continually fly into the lines as we fight the fish. An hour or so later we retire to a nearby island to have lunch, sore arms, sore back and exhausted. Time to head north for Pandora Rock named after HMS Pandora which struck the rock and sank there.
Of course the Bounty story does not end at Batavia. On hearing from Bligh, the British Admiralty sends out a ship, the HMS Pandora, to capture the mutineers and bring them back to justice (where, after a fair trial, they will be duly hung in the best Naval tradition!). The Pandora collected those who had stayed on Tahiti and, while returning to Britain, struck a rock and sank within minutes. The mutineers were locked in small cages on deck and most were drowned - the three who survived the sinking were eventually taken in chains back to England. What was their fate? Were the three, which included a 12 year old cabin boy, hanged? Perhaps as we pass Pandora Rock we will find out! But the Bounty story still is not ended. Fletcher Christian’s descendants to this day live on Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands and Bligh was to go on to become Governor of NSW – and face yet another ‘mutiny’, the infamous Rum Rebellion!
We pass Pandora Rock and at long last round the Cape - Cape York the most northerly point on the main land. Cape York is a 4WD mecca and curious trekkers watch as we swing past the Cape only forty metres off shore. If they only knew! Compared to our adventure the task of driving your car to Cape York seems rather mundane – and for us no one will turn up to help if we get into trouble.
After rounding the Cape, we set course for Thursday Island to reprovision, refuel and have a hot bath. For those who have not been to TI the cemetery and museum are well worth the time. Refreshed we set sail for Vrilya Pt south of Bamaga, we are now heading south and on the western side of the Cape. Once we start south, we immediately run into Dutch names. In 1605/1606, Willem Jansz sailed along this coastline in the Duyfken. He in fact thought that the coast was part of New Guinea despite the fact that he had actually been in the Torres Straight at the same time as Torres who showed that New Guinea was an island. Jansz charted some 300 kms of this coast and landed at the Pennefather River near what is now Mapoon. He eventually turned around at Cape Keerweer and headed back to Timor. He was probably the first European to land on Cape York although others certainly passed along this coast.
The western side of Cape York is quite different, no coral reefs, no islands and a flat almost featureless coast line. The coast is dominated by brilliant white beaches that run for hundreds of kilometres broken by the occasional low bauxite headland. Jantz found this coast line so uninviting that he stated that the land was completely worthless and a waste of time and effort to claim it for Holland!
The fishing this side of the Cape is nearly as good, better if you like to chase barra. We pick our way into the mouth of the Jackson River and find a camp site as elevated as possible. After chasing barra for the afternoon we entertain ourselves that evening by drifting around the estuary watching the crocs with the spot light. They are completely unafraid of us and swim past and under our boat close enough to touch – if you were that crazy. Their size is a salutary reminder that this is their place and we need to be careful.
It is our last day as we set off for Weipa. We call in for lunch at Pennefather and make one last stop at the largely intact remains of two P47 Thunderbolts, their US Navy markings still clearly visible. These two set out from Cairns on a ferry flight to Port Moresby during WW2. The ferry pilots were given very specific navigation instructions – “follow the coast line on your left to Cape York and you can not miss New Guinea”. They carried out their instructions to the letter, they kept the coast line on their left up to Cape York then down the other side until they ran out of fuel just north of where Weipa now is. Both landed more or less successfully on the beach front and in fact were duly found unharmed, not quite sure what was said to them when they got back to base. Their P47’s have been there ever since.
Our trip is finished. Of all my adventures, this has got to be the best, this is the last untouched frontier in Oz. It was difficult, tough, exhilarating and scary, in fact, it was just plain bloody marvellous. Oh by the way, the three Bounty mutineers? They were duly sentenced to be hanged but the King intervened, pardoned them and said they had been punished enough.