Over The Top Of Oz


 By Liz Tosoni

Tom and I have returned to Feel Free from our summer work in Canada, and now we’re hard at it, doing all the maintenance chores we do when we’re “on the hard” -- the nuts and bolts stuff of the cruising lifestyle. This phase may not always be the most exciting, but it’s terribly important nonetheless.

We’ll tell you more on that later, but in the meantime, as we work on the boat, I’ll tell you another story, one from the land down under. We left you there in our last log, experiencing our storm of storms. This time, the story was set aboard Feel Free instead of Hoki Mai. The year is 2004.

We’d miss our new Aussie friends such as Tim, Trish, David, and Matthew from the catamaran Quoll, and the laid back lifestyle, but we were stoked to make the big move up the coast and “over the top” of the country.

Feel Free was moored in quaint Bundaberg on Australia’s east coast, having sailed there via numerous north and south Pacific island countries. We had so enjoyed our lengthy stay in the country of kangaroos, koalas, crocodiles, rainforests, deserts, and friendly folks. We would miss our new Aussie friends and the laid back lifestyle, but it was time to make the big leap -- up the Coral Coast inside the Great Barrier Reef, over the top of the country through Torres Strait, and across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Darwin and on to a new ocean. Like migrating birds, we’d be one of the dozens of international cruising yachts that flock that way every year.

The coast is dominated by the southeast trade winds that blow enthusiastically April through November from Cairns north to the Torres Strait, and you can generally count on reliable sailing conditions during that period. Inside the Great Barrier Reef, there’s moderate to no swell, the seas becoming flat calm within hours of a wind dying.

Alan Lucas warns, in his invaluable guide, Cruising The Coral Coast: “Otherwise, that area between the outer and inner edges of the reefs has been surveyed to standards between sketchy and thorough. Generally, people sailing into this area should treat the exercise as an adventure, not as a means of having a relaxing day’s sail.”

So, we regard the dangers of this enclosed seaway with a great deal of respect. South of Cairns there are plenty of island groups with parks, tourist attractions, towns with shops, pubs, and everything you need. After Cairns, it becomes more and more remote and towns are few and far between, so a yacht has to be independent and fully equipped with repair materials for every contingency and provisions to last the entire voyage.

We day hopped all the way from Bundaberg to Darwin, with only a few overnighters and although we saw a lot, we missed a lot too. You could spend your entire lifetime cruising this grand waterway. During the four-month cruise from Bundaberg to Darwin, we stopped a total of 44 times, taking two months to sail to Cairns, and another two months from Cairns to Darwin. This time period allowed us to enjoy a huge range of islands and anchorages.

Cairns was an important stopover during our four-month sail from Bundaberg to Darwin. We stopped a total of 44 times, taking two months to sail to Cairns, and another two from Cairns to Darwin.

We departed Bundaberg in mid-March and arrived in Darwin mid-July, a distance of about 2,000 nautical miles. The plan was to leave Darwin for Indonesia near the end of July in order to maximize the sailing season in that part of the world and therefore we couldn’t linger any longer than we did.

We got plenty of wind, which made for great downwind runs. We set up the rig: poled out jib to starboard, staysail and main to port, and away we flew. Rarely did we need to use the engine the entire east coast. Skies were a constant brilliant blue and rain was rare. The least enjoyable weather was the passage from Thursday Island after rounding Cape York, to the Wessel Islands, across the Gulf of Carpentaria. The seas gradually became ugly and miserable, with wind against tide rounding Cape Wessel. Tom got thoroughly drenched in the cockpit a couple of times, looking and feeling “like a stunned mullet,” an apt Aussie expression, after waterfalls poured on top of him, caused by the shade provider channeling the waves directly at him -- a pretty hilarious sight.

The Wessels appeared extremely uninviting from afar -- a long length of barren-looking dry rock, but once around the corner, in the lee and anchored, the scene was transformed to stunning and stark -- long stretches of virgin sand interspersed with scrubby bushes, layers of rocky ledges, baby blue sky, clear green seas, flat calm.

“A reef such as one speaks of here is scarcely known in Europe. It is a wall of coral rock rising perpendicular out of the unfathomable ocean.”  (Captain James Cook/Journal of the Endeavour)

You won’t go hungry in these parts, our Aussie friends told us.

When I first read those words years ago, I had an image of a watery Great Wall of China. Sailing in the great Navigator’s wake, we wondered what he was seeing when he penned those words, as they couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, the Great Barrier Reef starts at Lady Elliott Island, a coral cay north of Bundaberg, and ends in the Gulf of Papua. It’s about 150 miles wide at the south end and gradually becomes less and less wide the further north you go. It’s made up of 80,000 square miles of reef-protected sea, and it stretches some 1,260 miles. There are low lying coral islands or cays and rugged continental islands, both large and small, some 400 in all, as well as hundreds of rocky outcroppings and shoals. 

Our day of hiking with friends followed a winding path up the green-mantled mountainside under a leafy arched canopy.

Dunk Island in the “Friendly Group” is a gem. Here you have more than 6,000 acres of scrupulously protected tropical rainforest. Our day of hiking with friends from Bedoin (Chris and Mandy) and Libele (Frank) followed a winding path up the green-mantled mountainside under a leafy arched canopy. It was a primeval scene of vines and creepers looping and winding their way around thick tree trunks with roots as clumpish as elephant feet. Leaves gleamed luxuriantly in the light-dappled jungle.

The Whitsundays between Mackay and Bowen, have the greatest concentration of islands and countless protected and idyllic anchorages. The recreational harbor is Airlie Beach, a bustling tourist hub. Our favorite spot in this area was a fjord-like inlet called Nara Inlet at the southeast end of Hook Island. In the late afternoon, we went ashore and hiked a path up the hill near the head of the bay to find a large “rock shelter” or cave, which had formerly been used by Aborigines. Inside were numerous ancient pictographs, mostly turtle-like shapes, in red and yellow ochre. (Later, in the Flinders Group of Islands, we found more intriguing aboriginal cave paintings depicting dugongs, turtles, birds, snakes, lizards, sailing ships, dingoes, and other unknown objects.) Several boats were at anchor in this pretty spot, the trees alive with white sulphur-crested cockatoos and kookaburras that screeched and chattered at dusk, while the waters took on a milky green hue at that hour of the day.


At Nara Inlet we went ashore to find caves, which had formerly been used by Aborigines. Inside were numerous ancient pictographs in red and yellow ochre.

There are lots of well-protected nooks behind huge humped, bold headlands such as Cape Upstart. We were first there in 1988 aboard Hoki Mai. This time, we saw luxurious houses on shore. You can only get there by boat -- it’s a seven-mile trip from “the mainland” so everyone has boats in front of their houses. The shoreline, with giant boulders looking like beached prehistoric animals, could be a setting for “The Flintstones.” We were able to tuck in fairly close to shore, in 22 feet. We took a stroll down memory lane – walking and rock climbing the beach as far as the cape, then gathering oysters from the rocks close to the boat. Dinner was oyster nuggets, breaded and deep fried golden brown, washed down with a fine Australian wine.

Lizard Island, 50 miles north of Cooktown, is a dry island with excellent protection and holding in sand. The waters of Watson’s Bay on the northwest side, the anchorage of choice in the south-east trade wind season, are so clear you can view your anchor at all times. Our niece Tracy was with us, and here she got her introduction to snorkeling. The many reefs adjacent to the bay were rich with a multitude of varieties of live coral and tropical fish as well as gardens full of impossibly large giant clams. Their velvety bodies pulsated with iridescent purples, greens, and oranges. This was the Great Barrier Reef at its best. Tom, Tracy, and I spent hours in the water, spellbound by the extraordinary colors, shapes, and designs.

The turquoise water, and peaceof Lizard island, held us – and so did a wonderful bottom of suction-cup sand.

A Wildlife Wonderland

Sailing in these parts is as much about good winds as it is about the wildlife. Lady Musgrave Island is a navigable coral lagoon with diaphanous turquoise waters, at the southernmost end of the Great Barrier Reef, just 50 miles north of Bundaberg. Between November and January, loggerhead and green turtles nest on the tiny patch of land there, the hatchlings emerging and going out to sea. Our nephew Scott was with us for his first sailing experience and a memorable one it was. Under a full moon we were privileged to witness female turtles painstakingly dig with back flippers large holes in the sand, then drop dozens of bouncy white ovals into well-made nests. Swimming and snorkeling amongst the mothers in the surrounding waters was an unforgettable experience.

Our nephew Scott was delighted to be able to swim and snorkel amongst the mother turtles at Lady Musgrave Island during his Christmas visit aboard Feel Free.

While moored in the Burnett River at Bundaberg, my sister Mary and her husband Chet were our visitors and their intro course was “Bats 101.” Every dusk, like clockwork at precisely the same time, hundreds upon hundreds of singing flying foxes, or fruit bats, came pouring out of the heavens, soaring overhead in search of their evening meals, paralleling the river. The cacophony lasted 15 minutes exactly. Curious about where they came from, the four of us dinghied upriver to find out. We discovered the trees bulging with them, “hanging out” upside down in their treetop condos, dangling like clusters of brown berries, resting before their next exodus.

Mud crabs were the highlight of Island Head Creek, north of Gladstone where we holed up for several days. It was a “strong wind warning” outside the creek, but inside, these waters were flat calm and the fishing was good. Although we didn’t have the gear to “crab,” Aussie professionals and yachtie friends were generous and always shared their catch. Besides the succulent crab, cod and bream were also regulars on the menu. As our friend Roz of the Aussie yacht Lady Marion said, “You won’t go hungry here, mates.”

Mud crabs were the big highlight of our stop at Island Head Creek, and friends always shared their catch.

In some areas, butterflies proliferated and we sometimes found ourselves sailing along, surrounded by blankets of these lovely light winged, colorful creatures, even five miles out to sea. We wondered why they were there and how they’d find their way back. We hiked to the lighthouse while Feel Free lay at anchor at Pancake Creek and there we found butterfly heaven as we ambled along the path, accompanied by legions of Blue and Common Tigers, oblivious of us as they fluttered, darting and flowing in precise formation as if as one, from flower to flower.

Crocodiles have recovered dramatically in numbers since the ban on hunting them, and have actually become a menace. The saltwater variety, “salties,” can grow to seven meters. We were forever on the lookout, especially near the mouths of rivers, and although we love to do laps around the boat for exercise, in northern Queensland and the Northern Territory it was out of the question. But for all our concern, our one and only sighting was while at anchor in the vicinity of Thursday Island. Three crocodiles were seen fairly close to the boats, slinking among the mangroves, one being about four meters long. Other than that, croc tracks in the sand were the only evidence of those fearsome creatures.

What a satisfying feeling to anchor in the lee of Cape York. Rounding the top of the great continent was for us a huge milestone: we’d crossed over into a new ocean and a new world after years of sailing the Pacific. Of course, it was a must to walk the winding trail to “The Tip,” the northernmost point on the mainland of Australia. En route, the curious attraction was several awesome, giant anthills, pyramids really, fabricated by tiny insects. Wonders never cease in Australia.

Hiking to the tip of the country at Cape York, the curious attraction was several giant anthills, appearing like pyramids, punctuating the trail.

Our Australian voyage “over the top” was about strong winds, fast sailing, family visits, great fishing, modern marinas, pristine wilderness, endless skies, and surprises around every corner. We were sad to put “the lucky country” in our wake, but felt that we were the lucky ones, forever enriched for the friends we made there and the experiences we had.