Cape York & Arnhem Land Trip Report
DAY 1: Darwin & The Tiwi Islands
We were greeted at the Darwin Wharf by Captain Gary and met some of the crew as we boarded Coral Discoverer. After signing on with Purser Manfred and his assistant Willow we had time to settle into our cabins, get familiar with the layout of the ship and meet some of our fellow passengers. Shortly after we gathered on the bridge deck, life jackets in hand, for a safety briefing and an introduction to the crew. Manfred introduced the hospitality team and briefed us about the ship. Expedition Leader Jamie introduced us to David Bosun, a well-known Torres Strait artist from Badu Island who is travelling with us on this cruise. Jamie introduced the expedition team, Assistant Expedition leader Annie and Guest Lecturers Ian and Tom.
During our voyage across Beagle Bay we gathered in the bridge deck lounge for a presentation by David Bosun, “An Introduction to Torres Strait Art”. It was interesting to learn the background behind David’s art and the connections to his traditional culture. David will be running art workshops throughout the cruise and many people are looking forward to joining in.
A feature of this cruise will be our visits to Indigenous communities along the Top End and the Torres Strait. Few of us had visited an Indigenous community before and there was a sense of anticipation and adventure as we stepped ashore at Nguiu on Bathurst Island. We were met on the beach and the group divided in three for a tour of the community. The Tiwi community is famous for its art and textile designs as well as the ‘pukamani’ poles erected for funerals. During the afternoon we visited St. Therese’s Church – a Catholic Church decorated with numerous Tiwi designs and still used for masses in the community. A Roman Catholic priest called Father Francis Xavier Gsell established a mission here in 1911 and there is a strong mix of Christian and traditional culture. Our guide, Trevor was baptised in this church in the baptismal font decorated with the beautiful geometric Tiwi designs.
We visited the Ngaruwanajirri Art Gallery in an amazingly decorated corrugated iron shed with a curved roof. The name Ngaruwanajirri means ‘helping one another’. The gallery is a cooperative started in 1994 and local artist’s work at the centre producing paintings, lino block prints, batik silk scarves and ironwood carvings. There was a large range of art available for sale and several guests purchased artworks. The stop at Nguiu also included a visit to the museum to learn more about the more history of this fascinating community. We were entertained by our guides, Trevor and Thaddeus with some traditional dancing supported by some of the older Tiwi women. A smoking ceremony followed and we were all ‘smoked’ to protect us from spirits as we travel along the Tiwi Island coast. What a great way to start the trip!
Back on board Coral Discoverer (or CD as we like to call her), Captain Gary hosted ‘Welcome Aboard’ drinks in the bridge deck lounge. A magnificent tropical sunset completed the day and it was soon time to head down to the dining room where Chef’s Carl and Jamil had prepared a delicious seafood buffet.
DAY 2: Victoria Settlement (Port Essington) & Black Point
After an overnight steam from Nguiu, Captain Gary dropped the anchor at Port Essington in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. After an early breakfast we boarded the Xplorer for an excursion to the long-abandoned Victoria Settlement. We were fortunate to have Head Park Ranger, Alan join us for the excursion and he gave us a good background to the area before we went ashore.
Once ashore, we split into two groups with one group doing a longer walk through the settlement. We walked through a shady area of monsoon vine forest eventually coming across the remains of several old buildings that were part of the Victoria Settlement, a community established by the British in 1838. The settlement was just one of a number of attempts by Britain to develop communities along the northern coastline. All ultimately failed but Victoria Settlement lasted for 11 years. We wandered around the ruins trying to imagine what life must have been like for the settlers; people used to British weather, flora and customs. The surrounding country ultimately proved too harsh and the settlement was abandoned. All that is left are the stone remnants of various buildings, including the munitions magazine, chimneys of the married quarters, and ruins of the hospital, bakery and quartermaster’s store. The cemetery holds the remains of the many settlers who were destined never to leave.
We returned to Coral Discoverer for lunch and shortly after we set off again to visit the Black Point Interpretation Centre. The small Centre was full of artefacts and information about the early people who lived in the area. The history revealed thriving generations of Aborigines who successfully lived here, where the British settlers had been inept. The communities along this stretch of coast had a lively trade for several centuries with the seafaring Macassans from what is now Indonesia. The Macassans were seeking trepang (sea cucumber) and remains of their large iron woks were displayed. This trade is little known by the vast majority of Australians familiar with stories of Britain colonising the continent, and those of European explorers and seafarers.
The walk in the afternoon had been very hot, and for many of the guests it was the first real experience of what this part of Australia can be like at this time of year. The chance to return to Coral Discoverer, air conditioning and afternoon tea was welcomed. David Bosun, our resident artist had been running art classes through the day and he continued these with a group of eager participants until later in the afternoon.
DAY 3: Maningrida
During the night we steamed further along the Arnhem Land coast passing various islands such as Croker and Goulburn Island. Shortly after dawn we steamed passed Entrance Island into the wide mouth of the Liverpool River where we anchored near the remote Aboriginal community of Maningrida.
After breakfast we boarded the Xplorer for a visit to the community and once on shore, we divided into three groups with the first group boarding a bus heading to the Maningrida Arts and Culture Centre. The artworks here were stunning with a lot of the work destined for art museums and exhibitions in Australia and overseas. Several world famous Aboriginal artists work at the centre. One of the artists, Doreen gave us an interesting demonstration showing how the Pandanus plant is used to make many useful and decorative items such as woven baskets, mats and dillybags. There were many items available for us to purchase including bark paintings, wooden carvings, necklaces, woven mats, earrings and postcards.
During the morning we visited a museum that housed some very old traditional artefacts. A couple of the local Aboriginal women, Una and Ester explained the various items including two types of watercraft, a dugout canoe and a bark canoe. There were old photographs of traditional dancing and even some examples of children’s toys made from old powdered milk tins and so on. Another place we visited was the Babbarra Women’s Co-operative Centre. Many activities are undertaken here but by far the most well known is fabric printing. Some wonderful designs are produced using the screen-printing method and a large table, nine metres long, in the building is used to print long lengths of fabric. During the time of our visit five of the women screen printers were overseas opening an exhibition of their work in Paris. Some of us purchased screen printed fabric and other items from a store in the women’s centre.
We headed back to the ship in the Xplorer with our very skilful driver Aiden keeping everyone and our purchases nice and dry. We boarded the ship and shortly after First Officer Rob ‘pulled the pick’ (raised the anchor) so we could continue our voyage along the Arnhem Land coast towards our next destination, Elcho Island. After lunch, Ian gave us a fascinating presentation about the very complex system of kinship used by Aboriginal people. Ian was able to bring his personal stories into his talk to help us understand the complexity of the system and how it underpins the culture of Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land.
As we steamed further east, David Bosun continued with the art classes this time introducing us to Lino Printing.
DAY 4: Elcho Island, Galiwinku and Gawa School
We awoke this morning anchored off the Galwinku community on Elcho Island. As we headed to shore in the Xplorer, Ian gave us some background about the community, a place close to him as he spent many years there as a child and later as a teacher. On the beach several Elcho men were preparing their vessel to go turtle hunting on a nearby island. Ian spoke with them and they showed us the special spear used to catch turtle. Our destination however was the Marthakal Arts Centre and a young woman who managed the centre gave several people who needed transport a ride to the gallery. The rest of us walked the 500 metres up a small hill to the centre enjoying wonderful sea views on the way. In the gallery shop was an excellent selection of locally made art including carvings, weaving and many paintings.
There were also Morning Star poles – long staffs decorated with paintings and exotic feathers. The work that had been put into some of the art was meticulous and painstaking. Several women treated us to a demonstration of the process of mat weaving. The first step in the process is peeling back and selecting certain parts of the pandanus leaves into long thin strips, a difficult task that was made to look very easy by the women. The leaves were then coloured using natural dyes from roots and bark, all boiled together in a tin on a fire near the gallery. The strips are then delicately woven into baskets and bags. Some of these items take weeks to make and the detail and colours are incredible. Following this demonstration we were treated to some traditional dancing by a very talented male dancer and some great didgeridoo playing.
We returned to Coral Discoverer and after lunch Tom gave us an informative presentation about Seabirds and Shorebirds of the Tropics. Meanwhile, the ship steamed to the northern end of Elcho Island so that we could visit the tiny and very remote Gäwa community. We were going to visit a school that we had been told was a delight. We set off for the island and even though it was school holidays there were a few kids waiting on the beach and ready to welcome us to their school. The short walk to the school took us through the community of about 50 people, most of which are children. The principal Rachel and Teacher’s Aid, Daphne greeted us and shared the background about the school and the small community. The children are taught both in English and their own language. We watched a few short films that the schoolkids had made. A couple of the films featured songs that the children had written, performed and produced – the result was very professional and the music and singing were fabulous. We also watched a performance of traditional dance and music – one of the older girls, Hannah was an outstanding dancer who impressed us all. The school has a mix of children and it was indeed a delight. The children and teachers had prepared some paintings for sale and several guests bought them. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the ship for another delightful evening of drinks and great food before retiring to bed.
DAY 5: Guluwuru Island, Gugari Rip and Yirrkala
Our first excursion today was just after dawn to a beach on the southern end of Guluwuru Island. Not everybody joined this early bird trip choosing instead the chance for a little bit of extra sleep. Guluwuru Island is one of the Wessel group of islands – a chain of long, narrow islands that extend nearly 100 nautical miles from the mainland into the Arafura Sea. We spent over an hour exploring the remote beach on the island. There were lots of different shells and pieces of coral on the beach. Ian dug up a Ghost Crab to show us – these crabs are the same colour as the beach and move very fast. We also found dozens of tracks made by Hermit Crabs. At the western end of the beach we heard the beautiful call of a Mangrove Golden Whistler that was hiding in a small patch of mangrove. Unfortunately, there was a fair amount of plastic flotsam with most probably coming across the Arafura Sea from Indonesia. We also saw evidence of a tsunami that has occurred here in the past. The large slabs of sandstone above the high tide lie in positions that would not be the result of normal weathering, indicating other influences. Given that Indonesia, a very seismically active area is not far away, a tsunami would appear to be the best explanation.
We returned to the ship for breakfast before going through the ‘Hole-in-the-wall’, also known as Gugari Rip. This is a narrow channel between Guluwuru and Raragala Island through which a large volume of water has to pass. This results in highly turbulent currents and very fast flowing water – up to 14 knots. The passage of time and water has carved a deep channel between the islands. Some of us boarded the Xplorer to take photos of Coral Discoverer as it steamed through the ‘Hole-in-the-wall’, while others boarded the Xplorer to take photos of Coral Discoverer as it passed by. There was fair amount of wildlife around with a large crocodile watching the ship as it sailed through.
During the morning we steamed through the English Company Islands and around the Gove Peninsula before anchoring off the community of Yirrkala. David continued running art classes with a session this morning on printmaking. After lunch we went ashore to the Aboriginal community of Yirrkala. We were welcomed to Yirrkala by several young men who performed the ‘Morning Star’ dance. Israel Yunipingu sang the vocals and DJ played the didgeridoo (yidaki). We visited the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre, where a huge collection of artworks was on display. Many of these artworks are destined for buyers overseas (including galleries and museums). Yirrkala is where the famous ‘bark petition’ painting was produced when mining was about to be started on their traditional land. A copy of the ‘bark petition’ is held at the art centre and the original is on display in Parliament House in Canberra. As we returned to the beach, Ian and Jamie showed us a memorial to the coast-watchers from WWII including Rev. Len Kentish, who was captured near the Wessel Islands by the Japanese and later executed in Timor. Ian showed us a small memorial to HC ‘Nugget’ Coombes, former head of the Reserve Bank and strong supporter of Aboriginal rights. We returned to the ship and shortly after we started the long steam across the Gulf of Carpentaria towards the Torres Strait.
DAY 6: Crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria
Today we steamed across the Gulf of Carpentaria a long sea crossing of over 30 hours. After breakfast Ian gave an interesting presentation ‘Time & Tide – The Legacy of Lake Carpentaria’. Ian talked about a large freshwater lake that once existed in the middle of the Gulf (where we where at that moment). This large lake existed up until about 7,000 years ago when it was flooded by rising sea levels after the last Ice Age. Since Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 65,000 years they would have lived around the lake during its existence. In fact, as Ian pointed out, the freshwater lake features in Aboriginal oral history across Arnhem Land and in Queensland.
After a short break for morning tea we joined David in the bridge deck lounge for his presentation ‘Torres Strait Art’. David showed us a short film about Torres Strait culture and explained the development of art in the region. This was followed by a short presentation from Australian Geographic Managing Director, Jo Runciman entitled ‘Introduction to the Australian Geographic Society’. Jo gave us a short history of the Society that was formed in the 1980’s by Dick Smith and information on some of the projects they are involved in now and in the future. Coral Expeditions has been in Partnership and Australian Geographic since 2019 bringing together a shared heritage of exploration and conservation of the coastlines around Australia.
After lunch those of us interested in snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in the coming days attended an in-water safety demonstration with Jamie and Annie. Guests selected their snorkelling equipment in readiness for our diving activities on the East coast. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing or joining David for some more printmaking. Some of us took the opportunity to catch up on sleep, or read a book. We enjoyed pre-dinner drinks in the bridge deck lounge as we watched the sun go down in Gulf waters. We wined and dined our way into the night as we continued our voyage across to Queensland.
DAY 7: Badu Island and Moa Island
This morning we were anchored near tropical Badu Island in the Torres Strait. Few of us have ever been to this part of Australia that lies very close to Papua New Guinea. As were enjoying a leisurely breakfast the expedition team went to Badu community to pick up Laurie Nona, a councillor from Torres Strait Regional Council. Laurie welcomed us and explained some of the social protocols we should be aware when visiting the island. As we boarded the Xplorer David pointed out some of the Torres Strait Pigeons that were flying low over the water on their annual migration south. David also noticed a pair of green turtles mating on the surface a couple of hundred metres away. We headed quietly in the direction of the mating turtles when David told us the behaviour of the female turtle indicated there was a shark below. We watched this amazing spectacle for a few minutes before we headed for Badu Island.
The journey there took us passed many small islands and coral reefs and after landing at the boat ramp we had an enjoyable stroll along the foreshore to the Badu Art Centre. We had a special kai kai lunch that had been prepared by the island women. We piled our plates with crayfish, chilli fish, pork, fish curry, lamb curry, sop sop (sweet potato and cassava cooked in coconut milk), salads, fried scones and damper. But that wasn’t all because the ladies had prepared desert, custard and tapioca and it was hard to resist. Luckily we had a long walk back along the shore to burn up some of the calories. Back on the ship we were treated to some traditional dancing by people from Moa Island, who were brought across from Moa Island in the Xplorer. Six young men in their traditional dress performed several dances including one using bows and long arrows. David introduced the dancers explaining what each dance was about and as they danced two men played the drums and the women sang. The group from Moa Island had prints, woven baskets and other craft work available to purchase on the bridge deck and some of us joined them for jewellery and weaving workshops in the lounge. It was a pleasant afternoon and as we farewelled the Moa people they sang songs from the Xplorer as they headed to shore. Shortly after we were all sitting in the dining room enjoying pre-dinner drinks followed by a fabulous BBQ and a wicked array of desserts prepared by our chefs Carl and Jamil. But the day was not over yet and Chief Officer Miles had prepared a humorous presentation for us about the night sky. We then went to the top deck to look at the stars and the beautiful moon. Miles had a special computer program that helped us identify different stars and planets in the night sky.
DAY 8: Thursday Island and Cape York
Coral Discoverer left our anchorage near Moa Island before dawn. As we enjoyed our breakfast we were steaming to Thursday Island passing many islands on the way. After ‘dropping the pick’ at Thursday Island we went across to one of several jetties for a ‘dry landing’ straight onto the jetty. We split into two groups so we could do both activities on the island. One group joined Sue from Peddells who took us on a tour of the island in a comfortable air-conditioned coach. We headed up to Green Hill Fort, the site of a gun battery built in the 1870s to repel a possible Russian attack. We explored its guns, the underground bunker and took in the fantastic views of Thursday Island and its surrounds. We continued further around the island to the cemetery where we saw the graves of numerous Japanese divers who died (from the bends) here in the old pearling days, and Sue explained the island custom of ‘Tombstone Opening”. On the way back down we passed the Quetta Cathedral, once the smallest cathedral in the world when there was a Catholic Bishop on the island. Now a church it is named in honour of the 134 people who drowned in the Quetta, a ship that sank in less than 3 minutes east of Cape York in 1890.
Our other activity was a visit to the Gab Titui Art gallery where some of us took the opportunity to have a barista made coffee and purchase some arts and crafts. As well as art for sale there is a small museum with some interesting displays about the former days of pearling in the Torres Strait. There were some beautifully made models of the old pearling luggers. We returned to the ship for lunch and shortly after we had the option of returning to the island for some free time. It also happened that the islanders were celebrating the end of the football season with a grand final (Rugby League is popular on the islands). Once back on Coral Discoverer we set off for Cape York.
We had a few options when visiting Cape York, the most northerly part of the Australian mainland. The most energetic joined our expedition team going ashore for a five minute walk across rocks to the tip of Cape York. The remainder stayed on the Xplorer for a cruise through the narrow channel that separates the top of mainland Australia from the two islands just offshore. The sunset was beautiful and the champagne went down well. After numerous photos were taken we eventually had to head back to the ship and the evening ritual of a delicious dinner. During the night we cruised through the inner passage of the Great Barrier Reef to Forbes Island where we will start our first exploration.
DAY 9: Forbes Island and Restoration Island
Today is our first day on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the weather was superb. The northern section of the GBR is windy for most of the year but today the wind dropped and we were treated with glassy smooth seas. Shortly after breakfast we headed ashore through the bluest, clearest water imaginable. Our destination was Forbes Island; now a national park, with some coconut palms, a gravesite and the base of a hut revealing an earlier. Here, Frederick Lancaster ran a beche-de-mer operation with Aboriginal assistance until his death in 1912.
On the beach some of us went for a walk with Ian and Danny across a saddle to the other side of the island passing the grave of Frederick Lancaster on the way. Some of us went for a beach walk with Tom looking at some of the plants growing above the beach. There was also a lot of pumice, or ‘floating rock’ – highly aerated rock blown out of explosive volcanoes which had subsequently drifted to the beach. Sadly a lot of plastic rubbish had also washed up. Some people went for a swim while others donned their masks and fins and went for a snorkel in the clear blue waters. In the water there were lots of large clam shells, blue starfish, coral and colourful fish. After a wonderful morning swimming, exploring and walking on this remote uninhabited tropical island we returned to the ship for a well deserved cuppa. Tom gave us a presentation ‘Sailing the Labyrinth – Marine Explorers, Shipwrecks and Castaways on the Northern Great Barrier Reef’. This gave us an idea of the early exploration of this area and some of its little known stories, including the sad tale of the French cabin boy, Narcisse Pellitier. He was left for dead on a beach but saved by Aboriginal people who he lived with for seventeen years. Unfortunately he was taken from them and returned to France against his will.
We then steamed further south along the reef and anchored off Restoration Island. Captain William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) landed on the island in 1789 after an epic ocean crossing in an open boat with 18 men. He named it Restoration Island in gratitude to God for their deliverance from the sea. When we arrived on the island a well-tanned gentleman with flowing grey hair who has lived there for over twenty years welcomed us. The former millionaire, David Glasheen had a book for sale that he had written called the ‘The Millionaire Castaway’. Several other people also live on the island and after some socialising and beachcombing we returned to the ship. Later in the evening after dinner some of us joined Annie and Willow in the Bridge Deck Lounge to join in for a fun games night.
DAY 10: Stanley Island and Flinders Island
This morning we were anchored off Stanley Island in Bathurst Bay on excursion to see Aboriginal Rock Art. Two Aboriginal rangers, Danny and Phillip who have been with us on the ship since Thursday island, led our walk to an occupation site here. The islands are the traditional country of Danny and Phillip’s ancestors, the Yiithuwarra people. On the way we look at some of the interesting plants used by Aboriginal people such as the Yellow Kapok tree. We climbed up a steep track to two overhangs decorated with a great array of art featuring traditional motifs of food items (fish, crabs, turtles, stingrays and starfish), unusual moth images, sorcery figures and contact period depictions of luggers and other ships. Danny and Phillip gave an interpretation about much of the art on show. After viewing the art and enjoying the great views across Stanley Island we walked down to a beach to our pickup point on the Xplorer. Those who decided not to visit the rock art were taken on a slow cruise on the Xplorer along the mangrove-lined channel to look for dugong. David Bosun located one and they saw several turtles as well. Soon after getting back on the ship Captain Gary took us through the Owen Channel in Coral Discoverer. The views of Stanley Island and Flinders Island on either side of the channel were magnificent. Danny explained that these islands were an important meeting place for local tribes, and more recently, a trading post for fishermen.
After lunch we steamed across to Davey Cay on the outer Great Barrier Reef. We anchored close to a low sand cay situated on a large reef. This was another chance to snorkel on the outer Great Barrier Reef. We dived directly out of the Xplorer that Ti-Ari had anchored close to a drop-off on the lee side of the cay. We also had the opportunity to visit the sand cay and see the Brown Booby Birds that were breeding there. Several fluffy white chicks, many looking larger than their parents stayed close to them for protection. Later as we were having pre-dinner drinks Tom told us about a powerful cyclone went through this area in 1899 sinking over 50 pearling luggers and claiming over 300 lives.
DAY 11: Lizard Island
This morning we had the choice of a few activities on beautiful Lizard Island. For those keen or crazy enough to climb up to Cook’s Lookout on Lizard Island it was a 6.00am start. Tom and Annie led the group setting a steady climb up the track. A fresh wind kept everyone cool as they clambered up this substantial granite mountain. After an hour and a half of climbing we arrived at the top, 365 metres above the seas below. The view from on top over the island and surrounding reef was breathtaking. After several photos and snacks we signed the visitors book and returned to Watson’s Bay. Another group went for a walk with Ian and had a great encounter with of one of the island’s namesakes – a big lizard known more commonly as a Goanna. For the rest of the morning many of us snorkelled in the clear turquoise waters of Watson’s Bay. All sorts of fish could be seen such as Butterfly Fish, Parrot Fish, Coral Trout and Damsel Fish.
After lunch we boarded the Xplorer bound for the Australian Museum Lizard Island Research Station on the western side of the island. The directors of the research station Lyle and Anne are both marine biologists who have been running the research station for over thirty years. They are extremely passionate about the reef and the research that is undertaken there. We were shown a short video about the activities and current research being conducted there before we were shown some of the outdoor lab area and study species including crown-of-thorns starfish. Especially interesting was the aquarium full of coral and numerous fish. Some merchandise was for sale and credit cards were soon produced to buy some of the Lizard Island t-shirts. Some of the artists stayed on board the ship during this excursion to complete their works of art with David.
As the sun was setting we joined the Captain’s Farewell drinks before our final dinner together. After dinner Manfred opened the office and we settled our bills. Ouch! Did we really drink that much! After dinner many of us headed up to the bridge deck lounge for the Coral Expeditions Cape York and Arnhem Land quiz. Wow! Did that test our memory of the many places we had visited over the last 11 days. Competition was fierce to see who could claim the honour of the best team. We headed to our rooms to do the final bit of packing as Coral Discoverer steamed through the night to our final destination of Cairns.
DAY 12: Cairns
We said our farewells to each other and the cruise today. We disembarked in Cairns at 0800, going our separate ways. Some of us are heading home while others are continuing to travel. Many of us are hoping to keep in contact with the new friends we have made. We have very much enjoyed this trip with you, and thank you for your interest and appreciation of this spectacular part of Australia.
Captain Gary, First Officer Miles, Second Officer Rob, Chief Engineer Jonathan, Second Engineer Manuela, Third Engineer John Deck Crew Te Ari, Matt and Aidan, Expedition Leader Jamie, Assistant Expedition Leader Annie, Guest Lecturers; Ian and Tom, Purser Manfred, Assistant Purser Willow, Chef’s Carl and Jamil, Senior Cruise Attendant Holly, Cruise Attendants; Leisha, Micaela, Tajah, Sam, Bevin, Zane, Andrew, Lisa.