The Money Trail – Destination Darwin…
The promise of employment had been unsuccessful in Gove and the money, well, was still flowing out... The decision was made. Venture forth and head to Darwin in the hope of improved riches. We’d met many fantastic people and enjoyed our stay at this northern mine town. Before leaving, fortune shined on us with some lovely late downpours. In one afternoon we collected 100 litres of divine rain water. ‘Tiata’ got a nice bath, the red dust rinsed off. Then the following day we sat her to dry on the beach at low tide and cleaned off her hulls. We were ready to set sail.
The Mission Resumes
Our track advanced north to the Wessel Island group. A line of Islands situated to the North West off Cape Arnhem. The strategy was to slip through the ‘Hole in the Wall’ also know as by the more precarious name -The ‘Gugari Rip’…..A narrow passage of disturbed water that passes between Guluwuru and Raragala Islands. The Channel is 64 meters wide and 9 meters deep. With currents that surge though at 9 knots and on big tides up to 12knots. Hence the tides were given careful consideration. We had a couple of extra hours on hand. So we stopped for lunch at Cotton Island which is on route before continuing north to our destination.
It is recommended the passage be navigated at around slack water. With slack water turning east about 5½ hours before High Water Gove and maximum flow at 1½ hours before High Water Gove.* Did you get that…? The wind was blowing about 20+Knots with an uncomfortable side slapping swell of about 2 meters as we made our way to the passage. The approaching channel was looking very restricted. The ocean was incredible; sweeping past us and forcefully colliding into the desolate coastline. The entire area shrouded in a blanket of mist. As we approached the narrow entrance opened up to us. The surrounding water was bubbling fiercely and making no sense at all. I was holding my breath as we ventured in…
The current and the confused water were incredible and we were forced through the entrance. Fortunately we were running with the tide, if somewhat juddered about. Once inside the water flattened and we were able to enjoy the ride. The landscape within has an otherworldly look. The layered rock of earthy vibrant colours: Orange, reds and dark browns streaked the jagged rock face. The names of passing vessels from years long gone were remnants of another era. Low scrub and stunted trees. Two giant eagles swooped and rode the wind as we progressed through the strange but beautiful terrain. Then before we knew we were through, safely on the other side. By this time it was late afternoon, so took a left turn and ran down Raragala Island and anchored in protected ‘boot shaped’ Guruliya Bay. Once we anchored we were treated to yet another lovely sunset in a deserted bay.
Pushing the Tide
Next morning we decided to continue south and tuck inside Echo Island and through the Cadell Strait. Narrow and very shallow at times it’s best to approach on a raising tide and follow the some what dog leg track. At times there was barely any water below us, I was on watch as we snaked through the narrow channels, finally reaching deeper water. We had approached on an incoming tide but nevertheless half way through the tide was flooding in from the south. We were forced to push tide which made it a long slow journey.
It’s a pretty run through with lofty mangroves on the Napier Peninsular and on the south of Echo Islands signs of life were apparent with houses, sheds and a barge landing ramp. Further around the point the main settlement of Galwin’ku. A plane flew overhead and a couple of tinnies filled with kids returning from a day out fishing, reminded us that we were not alone in this vast isolated region. We pulled up a just on sunset anchoring halfway down Howard Island which looked across to Echo Island.
We were undecided where to stop the following night. The anchorages are few and many are said to be somewhat uncomfortable. After a long slow day the winds began to pick up and we agreed to continue through the night and on to Malay Bay for a couple of day’s respite.
Just before noon and some 171nm later we were skirting Cape Cockburn the entrance of Malay Bay. The winds had picked up and the entrance was quiet choppy so we sailed deep into the bay and found a little sandy beach to anchor off in this large uninhabited inlet.
Croc Skull and Cone Shells
Our time spent at Malay Bay was wonderful and peaceful. I spent the days exploring the deserted beaches which were devoid of human presence: bird, dingo and marsupial imprints dotted the sand – not a human footprint in sight. Combing the beaches I came across an assortment of cone shells all ranging in various sizes in beautiful colours and one morning there lying on shell and rock covered beach: a crocodile skull. What a prize…We still hadn’t witnessed any in the area but we were certainly reminded of their presence. As I walked Rudy coasted the shoreline trawling as he went.
East of the beach we found a river, the entrance was bubbling with fish most of which were big mullet. There’s something mysterious as you delve into the depths of these little off shoots. The trees envelop the water’s edge making it impossible to see what lies around the corner. A wonderful indulgence of sailing is when you’re out enjoying the beauty and the abundance of nature it’s free...
Wetlands and Lost Towns
An early morning departure ensured a good run through Bowen Strait and we were putting down anchor at Black Point by early afternoon. Port Essendon is a vast picturesque inlet. The ranger station at Point Black was our first stop being the Garig (local language name) Gunak (land) Barlu (deepwater) National Park we notified the rangers. The park covers some 4,500 sq km which includes the entire Coburg Peninsula and marine areas. It home to Dugongs and 6 different types of marine turtle. We spotted a manta ray feeding on top of the water, dolphins and on entering a huge flock of Christmas Frigate birds. These huge birds have immense angled wings that span over 2 meters it was an awesome sight to see so many of them feeding on the ocean.
It’s worth a visit to the ranger’s station. They were very helpful and had lots of knowledge of the area. There’s a little shop open from 4-6pm mon-sat where you can get an ice-cream, fuel and a small selection of groceries and around the point near the jetty is a little beach where it is easy pull up the tender. Beyond the station is a 1.5km wetland walk. There are still signs of the damage from Cyclone Ingrid (make sure you ask the rangers to show you where they sat out the Cyclone– very snug indeed…..) and was the first wetland to be recognised as a Wetland of International Importance. We walked around late in the afternoon, the water overflowing with reeds, tall gum trees and lotus flowers in abundance.
The next morning with fact sheet in hand we anchored off the Victoria Settlement. From 1838-49 they struggled to live cut off from the rest of the world except by unreliable sea communications. It’s a well defined track, but be prepared for it to take a couple of hours. It’s a beautiful walk with a slight climb which bestows stunning views out over the water and up the cove. We hiked past crumbling buildings and through an old graveyard, the names of many that perished in this hard land. After our walk we headed deeper down the inlet and spent the night in the calm protected waters.
The Final Leg
Our next stop was Popham Bay in readiness to head around Cape Don and onward to Darwin. Rudy figured about a 4.30am leave to ensure positive currents. We awoke to a beautiful still night the stars mirrored on the water surface. All was looking superb as we hoisted the sail and before long we were shooting along on flat water at a speedy12knots.
Then we rounded Cape Don into Dundas Strait and all hell broke loose. Within minutes the winds were blowing at over 30knots and the seas, which we were heading straight into loomed before us engulfing us on many occasions. Dundas Strait bridges the waters of the Arafura Sea and Van Diemen Gulf. At its narrowest point it only 15miles and immense amounts of water rush through at each tide. The wind is also funnelled through the gap making for a surprising adventure.
That was it for the next 30nm. The sea constantly rose over us as we punched south. My beautiful basil plants were the victims of the journey. They dissolved before my eyes there was so much salt in the air. I held on whilst Rudy kept us on track. Luckily we had the tides pushing us along and even though it was uncomfortable we were moving along at over 8knots. The sun rose and slowly the ocean and the winds eventually died down and by the time we reached the Vernon Islands later that day they had receded to nothing and we had to motor sail the final leg into Darwin.
We made our way past Fannie Bay, around the port and spent our first night at Frances Bay. We anchored just off the Diana beach Cruising Yacht Club where we were greeted to our first Darwin sunset and it was a stunner. There is a jetty to tie up to and we easily stepped ashore. The Club is very minimal to say the least, with no walls, it ensures a good breeze and within minutes we were enjoying the wonderful hospitality Darwin.
The following morning we headed back around to Fannie Bay which was to be our home for the next few weeks. Amazingly Rudy acquired employment with little effort and within 2 days he had a job and even better it included a car. We were right to venture on and trust our instincts Darwin is a wonderful, dynamic city. The sunsets are awe inspiring and friendliness and kind assistance we have received is bountiful. How long we will stay is unsure for it is all part of our ongoing adventure. For now we are enjoying being able to get around and explore the Northern Territory in-depth.
* Data from John. M. Knight’s Northern Territory Guide