Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Australian adventures

Calliope arrived in Mackay on 25th May, so we have been in Australia almost
three weeks - time to bring this blog up to date!
We had an uneventful crossing from Noumea to Mackay, taking just over six
days. Uneventful suits us just fine and the new/replaced rig behaved
perfectly under close observation and frequent checks. Reassuringly, we had
Andy (Tiny) Duff on board, and we also had Jonatan (Jonny) from Israel, who
played guitar to entertain us. We arrived, tied up near the fuel dock and
were inspected by a sniffer dog, customs (who sealed most of our alcohol
away under the sole (floorboards) and bio-security, who found a few little
bugs (harmless) hiding in some raffia decorations we'd bought on the wild
east coast of New Caledonia. This was our first taste of Australian rules
and regulations. My image of the country was a place of free-spirited
individualists; it turns out they're all subject to more bureaucracy than
you'd believe possible.
Mackay is not a beautiful place - it's a coal mining and sugar cane growing
/ processing centre - but it was a good stepping stone from which to explore
inland. We drove into Eungella National Park, up steep roads into a cooler
mountain climate, where we saw platypuses (surprisingly small and rather
endearing) swimming in Broken River. We also had a great hike up Finch
Hatton Gorge to a waterfall and a cooooold swim. One evening we joined a
few other Oyster friends at a rodeo, very definitely a local event, not
staged for tourists. The guys riding bucking bulls and horses are
absolutely mad, we decided, admiring their lassoing techniques - the double
act where one rider loops a rope around a calf's hind legs, another its
front legs - record time was 6 seconds! Watching the spectators was
entertaining, too...
From Mackay, we headed out to the Whitsunday group of islands, many of which
have Lake District names - our first overnight stop was Keswick. Like
several others, it has a resort and this one was still in operation; many
closed after Cyclone Debbie and their future is uncertain. We tried to go
ashore for a walk on Lindeman Island, which has a ghost-resort which used to
be Club Med, but were met at the dock by Australian military who were using
it for a training exercise! We managed a walk on Goldsmith Island instead
through scrub which was almost as unwelcoming.
Next stop was back on the mainland at Abell Point Marina near Airlie Beach.
Best marina ever - they even lent us a courtesy car so we could dash around
provisioning, picking up our repaired asymmetric sail and getting vital
supplies of hydraulic coolant and oil. This is not my (Nicky's) favourite
kind of shopping, so it was a delight to find lovely shops on Hamilton
Island, which is a wonderfully unreal bubble of a resort, where everyone
gets around in golf buggies (this being Australia, seat belts are
obligatory!) The Oyster World Rally golf tournament was played, amongst a
million lost balls to which we added another 150; the groundsmen spraying
for the wrong kind of weeds said they had killed 6 Tiguan highly poisonous
snakes in the last week, and the competitiveness carried over into
go-karting, too. Sadly the Hobie Cat dinghy regatta was cancelled due to
the resort management thinking the wind was too strong; they couldn't accept
that we had made it halfway round the world on boats and probably knew what
we were doing. Instead an impromptu volleyball tournament sprang up on the
beach and much good humour was displayed, if not a lot of skill. There was
also time in Hamilton for some R'n'R by the pool and good massages and a
great party to celebrate Nigel on Venture's 70th birthday.
Whitsunday Island was next: we spent our first day there in Tongue Creek,
from which a short walk takes you first to a spectacular viewing platform
and then down onto Whitehaven Beach, which is 7 km of pure silica sand,
dazzlingly white. We walked and then clambered on rocks along the side of
the river estuary, marvelling at the range of cobalt/turquoise blues.
Armies of tiny crabs, about 2cm in diameter, with bright blue bodies,
scuttled into holes in the sand and in the shallows, spotted rays came
close, seeming curious. Truly wonderful - but oh, the bay was horribly
rolly that night and very little sleep was had. The following day we
motored to the southern end of the beach, where a dozen Oysters gathered for
a barbie and a cricket match on an excellent hard sandy wicket. We were
much envied for our inflatable beach lounger - thank you Alex!
After a mercifully quiet night on Border Island we sailed gently up to Hook
Island, where we snorkelled in Pinnacle Bay with four or five huge manta
rays. They didn't seem nervous about us at all and provided you didn't get
spooked by their wide open mouths, they would come within a metre. Awesome
creatures!
On 11th June we headed out into the ocean. We could see a couple of masts
but absolutely nothing to show that we were nearing part of the Great
Barrier Reef. Rounding an undistinguished brownish buoy, we picked up a
mooring in a depth of only 7 metres. We were attached to the ground in the
middle of the ocean - extraordinary! The water was glassy still and blended
with the sky, so there was hardly any horizon. Only two hours' motoring
from the Whitsunday Islands, this was Bait Reef. Someone had fun naming
these reefs - from Bait, we passed Barb and moved on to Hook, then Line and
Sinker! Sunrises and sunsets here are incredible. As I type this, it's
6.30am and the sky is orange / peach / apricot / mauve, while the still
water seems coated with a reflective film, mirroring the dawn. When we get
back to internet-land, you can be sure we will send/post lots of
photographs. We are with SunsuSea (Mariusz and Paulina) and Sea Avenue
(Don, Dave and Carol) and have gathered for sundowners on each boat in turn
to ooh and aah at the sunsets. As the tide drops or rises, parts of the
reef become visible, so that from flat expanses of water, isolated
'boulders' appear, then clusters and eventually a line of coral like a wall
enclosing this still reef.
So what happens inside these reefs? Lots of coral 'bommies' to be avoided
with careful navigation and a lookout at the bow in polarising sunglasses.
Great snorkelling, less impressive diving, with fish we haven't seen before
and some now familiar from all across the Pacific - my favourites are still
the tiny blue fish which retreat into their finger coral as you approach.
Big angel fish, funny, brave clownfish, busy parrot fish and lizard fish
which do their best to impersonate the coral they are lying on. There are
also GT or giant trevally which like to hang out in the shade under our
boats. Yesterday we took the dinghy across the reef to a permanent platform
which has been set up for tourist boats to visit. We think it may be where
Pippa spent a (rainy) night when she was here a few years ago.
Unfortunately our vision of cocktails (or at least ice creams) was not to be
- the employee there informed us that they can't serve outsiders (probably
due to more of those darn Australian regulations) so we turned away and
followed the reef to a totally implausible spot: a waterfall, 30 miles from
land! Hardy Reef is completely encircled by coral, so when it fills or
empties as the tide turns - and tides are about 2 metres here - all that
water has to get in or out, which is does through three narrow channels:
even the widest is only about 15 metres at its broadest. Grade three rapid,
tempting for the kayakers amongst us - and apparently it can be negotiated
in a yacht at very high water, when the waterfall has stopped.
This is our first time on the Great Barrier Reef, so we don't have anything
to compare it to. There is lots of dead coral and some damage is clearly
recent from Cyclone Debbie (poor Debbie on Meteorite is being given a hard
time about this!). But there's also fantastic live coral in strange and
intriguing shapes and every colour imaginable. At least here, we don't feel
there's any need for doom and gloom about the Reef. And there's so much of
it! We won't get to visit the group of Lath, Plaster, Brick, Girder and
Rafter Reefs, nor Oublier (was that named because someone forgot it was
there, or perhaps because they wish they could forget running into it - or
just perhaps because these special places are somewhere you really can get
away from it all and forget everything?) Don't worry, we haven't forgotten
you and will keep you posted as we continue north towards Cairns, where we
plan to arrive in two weeks' time. We have been watching Suits (thank you
Pippa) and WWII in Colour (thank you Michael) and reading Home Fire by
Kamila Shamsie for the Oyster Book Club - an excellent modern retelling of
the Antigone story.

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