Tales from the Top End: Dinghies and Dingos
It isn’t every day that a total stranger tosses their car keys at you and says “I’ll be here ‘til 3. If you could bring her back by then, that would be great.” It’s equally unusual to be greeted on the shore of someone’s island by their pet dingo, to see humpback whales breaching close to your boat, or to be buzzed by a Border Force helicopter. Australia has been full of surprises so far.
As we sail closer to the ‘Top End’, as it’s called, it gets lonelier and lonelier. And warmer and warmer. There are very few boats, just a few huge container ships plying the passage between Asia and the east coast ports of Australia or heading down to New Zealand. There’s an occasional whale, lolling lazily. The last mobile signal was 500 miles ago. The coastline up here is flat and featureless. We are heading for Darwin in the Northern Territory, at the ‘top’ of Australia. We will have covered 2,000 or so miles in Australian waters by the time we arrive (bringing our total in the last 5 months to around 11,500nm). Today, the sky was endlessly, mesmerizingly deep blue over a pastel teal-coloured sea that was at times steep and choppy and later almost completely flat. The sun set under a blazing red and amber heaven. We have seen one other boat today and despite seeing plenty of land, there is not a hint of a mobile phone network. We chatted on the VHF to a tug boat delivery skipper who said he hadn’t spoken to anyone else in three days. It’s very quiet up here.
When we left Mackay, we spent several days cruising through the Whitsunday Islands. Our last stop there was Nara Inlet, a serene and beautiful fjord where we tucked ourselves in right up at the end, some three miles in, and settled down to enjoy the quiet. The last time I have experienced anything similar was many moons ago, fly-fishing on a remote loch in the highlands of Scotland, but that’s a whole other story. AURORA joined us for a second night in our peaceful little paradise with its extraordinary Aboriginal cave paintings, and we invited Eileen and Ken and later, on impulse, also two chaps from another yacht for supper (we’ll call them Tim and Tom, not their real names – you’ll see why shortly). I love cooking and I (as a rule) adore having people to supper, on land or at sea, so I gleefully got busy in the galley and set the table in the saloon for the first time ever (for me, not the boat, obvs). It was all looking lovely and
I was just changing into a frock and thinking about putting on some lipstick before everyone would arrive when we were hailed on the VHF by ‘Tim’, the captain of the other yacht, to ask for assistance. His new and somewhat wayward crew member ‘Tom’ had taken their little (and only) dinghy with its piddling electric outboard and had gone off to the end of the inlet to find a mobile phone signal. Over an hour later and Tom still had not returned – no lifejacket, no VHF radio, no way of contacting him (no mobile phone signal inside the inlet).
Dietmar slung an extra jerry can into our dinghy and roared away to fetch Tim and rescue Tom. As it turned out, Tom didn’t need – or indeed want – rescuing; he said he was perfectly fine, half a mile out beyond the end of the inlet, hanging on to a reef-marker buoy with one hand and whats-apping with the other, completely oblivious to the international rescue effort that had been scrambled. Tim was deeply unimpressed, not just because his crewmate was late but also because he had specifically asked Tom not to go beyond the end of the inlet. Tim and Dietmar eventually made it back to CESARINA slightly before it got dark, where Tim declared that he was furious and would throw Tom off the boat back at Hamilton Island tomorrow, then got stuck into a bottle of rum, sans mixer. We eventually sat down to supper 2 hours late, by which time Tim was several sheets to the wind. I was just clearing the plates from the first course when, Tom appeared at the top of the companionway (Don’t you knock?!). This was a surprise. Somehow I managed to remain gracious and welcoming, despite wanting to punch his lights out and Tim was too drunk by this point to string any kind of sentence together coherently so Tom was spared the unhappy news about his future on board. Anyway, the rest of the evening was pleasant enough – Eileen and Ken are always excellent company – and the food hadn’t suffered from having to wait. The extremely drunken Tim even managed, by a hare’s whisker, not to fall into the water upon reboarding his errant dinghy. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall over coffee the next morning.
Our next stop from Nara Inlet was to be Gloucester Passage and Monte’s Bar. We’d heard that this was a fun place to swing through and have a beer before heading north up the coast. As it turned out, it was all a bit complicated – Gloucester Passage is quite shallow and we missed the tide so had to go all the way up to the other end of Gloucester Island (7 miles) and back down the other side. The ‘bullets’ (winds off the hillside) made that part of the passage interesting; we’d be minding our own business in 12 knots of wind and clipping along on flat calm seas at about 7 knots, when suddenly it would start blowing 26knots. CESARINA had obviously seen this kind of nonsense in the past and took all of it in her stride – helped by her crew who helpfully bore away when they spotted the crazy gusts on the water – and simply picked up her skirts and raced along at over 9 knots until the wind dropped again. It was still blowing a hoolie and quite cold when we finally picked up a mooring ball just off the resort and it felt far too much like hard work to prepare the dinghy so we didn’t bother. I’m sure Monte’s Bar is as good as everyone says but the sunset was stunning and we feasted à deux on the leftovers from last night’s dinner party.
The following morning we set off for Bowen. We had read that this sleepy little place was a classic example of a coastal Queensland town and worth a visit. We had a glorious sail across the bay on flat calm, teal-coloured waters under a blazing sun and attempted to come into the marina at high water, late morning. There was just about enough water but it was very tight for space and blowing hard, plus there was only one little pontoon in what looked like shallower water and the other available spaces were between pile moorings – the idea of trying to tie our old girl up to a pair of these without assistance was enough to make Dietmar reach for the cigarettes. Part fishing vessel port, part yacht graveyard, the place seemed deserted. There was one old boy pottering about on his even older boat and apart from him, not a living soul. No one was answering any radio channel and the advertised telephone number went straight to voicemail. We decided to go back out into the bay and drop the anchor instead.
We braved a fierce chop to set the anchor and return to the marina in the dinghy. By the time we got back (looking more than a little windswept), there were two people on the pontoon. The first man we spoke to explained where the rubbish should go and where we could go to get fuel. The second, busy polishing the hull of his yacht, had overheard the conversation and tossed me his car keys, saying the fuel station was far too far to walk and that while we had the vehicle – a “it’s a white ute, nothing special but she runs alright”, we could pop up to Horseshoe Beach which is really pretty. If we could be back by 3pm, that would be great as he had to go and pick his son up for a sailing lesson. Excuse me, pardon, what? This guy had absolutely no idea who we were, didn’t even ask our names. Said that other people had done good things for him in the past and he liked to help where he could. Dietmar and I looked at each other in disbelief. Momentary doubts about his sanity, motivations, whether or not it was insured and all the other sensible things any sensible people would have checked, any such thoughts were washed away in a wave of impulse. This isn’t the first time Dietmar and I have done something quite reckless without really thinking through the potential negative consequences. After all, only a pair of complete crazies would set off through the Panama Canal together, in a classic yacht, having never sailed together before…
Anyway, as it turned out, the ‘ute’ was indeed a bit of a heap and was a dog to drive – the suspension was knackered and the steering was wholly unassisted. Still, the windows wound down ok, the radio worked and was already tuned to a station that was blasting AC/DC when we turned it on. Sunglasses on, volume up, what could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, nothing at all. We doubled the value of the old heap by putting 10 bucks’ worth of fuel in it and drove off to the beach which was, as promised, beautiful. We picked up a pack of 6X beers from the supermarket on our return journey and delivered the pick-up safely back, on time, to the extremely kind man who we then found out was called Mark (“but everyone calls me Grover”). We received a charming email from him and his wife the following day, with photos of CESARINA at anchor in the bay. What lovely people.
We dinghied back to CESARINA, still bucking at anchor in the bay, to drop off our shopping and extra fuel and then returned to the marina. We intended to wander up and have a mooch through the town we’d only driven through, but we stopped in at the Yacht Club on the way and got chatting to ‘Bazza’ in the bar who decided that we needed to see the place properly. Dietmar and I couldn’t believe our luck as he volunteered to take us on a quick tour. From the comfort of his 4×4, we saw Bowen from the top of Flagstaff Lookout and looked down on the little town nestled between mines and meandering rivers, before visiting some of the other viewpoints. Another incredibly kind person. He dropped us off at the top of town so we could walk back down through it and waved away our thanks. He’d visited England last year and the people there had been really kind to him too. Crikey.
Bowen is famous for 3 things: its mangoes, its murals, and the filming of the Nicole Kidman/Hugh Jackman movie ‘Australia.’ We enjoyed the first two and felt like we were in the third when we wandered in to the bar of the Grand Hotel, where men are Real Men (all farmers, fishermen or miners, most still in their work gear) and the women appeared to come in two versions: Working, or Scary. Both kinds were tattooed. Wow, lots of tattoos. Half of the bar area was festooned with huge tv screens showing a variety of sporting events, from greyhound racing to boxing to trotting races to football. Something for everyone. On another screen, the current odds for various events flashed and scrolled. Two other screens showed Keno game after game. Turns out you could order your steak and chips and your pint of beer, and have a little flutter while you were at it. I got lost on the way to the loo and discovered another bar, darker and busier, with row upon row of fruit machines. In the twilight, I could see a lot of people, mostly women, feeding them. Flashing lights in the gloom. A little other-worldly.
I bought us a couple of Keno games, just for the hell of it. With only the slightest idea of how it works, neither of us, unsurprisingly, won anything. But easily the strangest part of the evening was talking to the waitress. She was from Germany and through a string of strange coincidences had ended up waiting tables in this charming but peculiar little backwater. She was thrilled to be able to speak German with someone and would have chatted with Dietmar all night but unfortunately was busy with customers. Another one for his fan club 😉
We walked back to the marina and popped in to the Yacht Club for a quick drink before braving the dinghy ride back to apologise to poor old CESARINA, abandoned to bob in the bay for the day. She was perfectly alright when we eventually, soaked through, got back on board. What an extraordinary day.
Our last stop before Darwin was on Restoration Island. Two days previously we had stopped at Lizard Island and gone ashore with LEXINGTON to the bar where we had scoffed delicious sushi and watched the green flash sunset. A couple had approached Dietmar and asked if he was “the German with the beautiful ketch?” Dietmar manfully resisted the impulse to correct them (“it’s a yawl…”) and they went on to say that they had friends in Horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island a few days previously who had seen his yacht and had rung ahead to tell them to keep an eye out for CESARINA. (!!) They were keen to chat and were full of useful information and advice for our next few hundred miles, including the recommendation that we went to see Dave on his island. They said they would ring ahead for us and tell him we were coming and that he would definitely be thrilled to see us. We had long ago learned that such recommendations almost always lead to an adventure so we set off the next day for Dave’s island, which is in (literally) uncharted waters just off the coast.
We dropped anchor before this little speck of an island, after 180 miles of fairly straightforward overnight sailing in up to 20kts of wind, just after 10am the following day. There was a rusty, battered prawn trawler clinking away at anchor but otherwise the only boats in the bay were either wrecks – two of them – or a yacht up on the beach on stilt supports. A long and deserted white sand beach, fringed with palm trees and low bushes backed onto a steeply sloped, lushly green hill behind. We could see a couple of small buildings but otherwise not much sign of anything or anybody. LEXINGTON came to pick us up in their dinghy, which we gingerly boarded, keeping a sharp eye out for crocodiles…
As we neared the beach (we had been warned to make plenty of noise so that Dave would know we were coming and put on some clothes), a man appeared. Skin tanned dark by the relentless sun, with wild white hair and a similarly wild, long beard, with twinkly bright blue eyes, bare-chested and barefoot, accompanied by what looked like a sandy-coloured dog. This must be Dave, looking like a half-naked version of a tropical Father Christmas. He greeted us heartily and, as promised, knew exactly who we were. He led us to a shack built from driftwood, strung with fishing nets and floats, decorated with animal skulls, shells and bits of old rope. He chatted away enthusiastically, barely pausing for breath, for a good hour before showing us around his island, where he lives alone for the most part. Occasionally he has visitors. Sometimes his visitors, we learned, bring film crews with them. He hadn’t seen anyone for about ten days. His life has been nothing short of extraordinary and at times, close to unbelievable. Slowly it came out in conversation that he has had a wealth of interesting, and sometimes illustrious visitors. He has been featured in more than one documentary, including one with Ben Fogle called ‘Where the wild men are.” He is, without question, what is known as “a character.”
Later we went back to our boats to rest for a while (and give our ears a bit of a break) and returned just before the beautiful sunset to cook supper over an open fire. We talked and laughed around the fire until late into the night. It was thickly, blackly dark when we relocated our dinghy and, keeping an extremely sharp lookout for any ‘swamp dogs,’ as Dave referred to the crocodiles that lurk in these waters, returned to our boats under a sky arched wide with twinkling stars. It had been one of the most amazing evenings of our lives.
His ‘dog,’ by the way, is in fact a dingo. She’s called Polly. A smarter, more affectionate pet would be hard to come by. Dave is very fond of his companion and was quick to explain that dingoes have a terrible reputation and are well-known for, for example, stealing babies and eating them. Previously, Dave had had more conventional dogs but they had either been eaten by crocodiles or killed by snake-bites. Polly seemed unlikely to succumb to either of those fates.
As I write this, we are crossing the Arafura Sea. We’ve just been buzzed by a Border Force helicopter. They were close enough that I thought I probably ought to put some more clothes on. They wanted to know everything about everything and everyone, but they probably didn’t need that kind of visual aid. Anyway, it’s not long now until Darwin, our last stop in Australia. We will, no doubt, have a few more adventures before we leave 🙂