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Our home for the next week would be the wonderful Coral Discoverer. She had just come in from a week on the Great Barrier Reef. For a day there had been a storm of activity for the crew as they had to transfer stores, including, most importantly, the cake and coffee. Meanwhile, we checked in at the Pullman Hotel, and went through the laborious, but necessary, process of covid form filling and temperature taking.
The guests were ushered upstairs in to the A-Deck Lounge, a beautiful space with great views from the huge windows, and large screens which would show off talks and pre-caps. Our Expedition Leader Lea was there to take us through the trip and introduce the Guest Lecturers, myself (Damon) and Tom, both biologists based (more or less) in Cairns. Before dinner we also completed our drill and this was followed by a snorkel briefing, including all the safety signals needed for rescue operations. That night everyone was no doubt tired by a big day of travelling, instructions and form filling. Once on board we would be far away from the world of covid and live happily in our own safer ‘bubble’.
For the fit and furious we left slightly earlier than most, for our claiming of Fitzroy Islands highest peaks, including the lighthouse. It was pre-emptive coffee and snacks at 0700 and then a small brave band of us boarded the Xplorer and stormed the beach. The walk up was slow and steady. The humidity of the jungle was high, but once we reached the peak the cool mist cooled us down. The walk joined an old road made of coral cement, and then terminated at the lighthouse looking out over the expansive blue Coral Sea. Our small party made it back safely. Unfortunately, the folks on the easier walks had a number of stumbles in the jungle, and one couple finished their trip just one day in. All the walks, (the stroll, the short walk, and the long mountain hike), all eventually converged on a beach just past the resort. We took turns visiting the turtle research station, where there were a couple of resident Green Turtles, the more common of the local species. The snorkelling began from the beach, straight from underneath rainforest that leaned over the green water. The water was still murky from the last few days of rain, so there wasn’t a huge amount to see.
After lunch we arrived at Sudbury Cay. The weather was slightly windy and the murky conditions from this morning continued. However, in the water a number of turtles were spotted. Many of the passengers also had time to wander about the tiny coral cay; with no vegetation there was no way of getting lost, and with soft sand, now way of getting hurt when they fell over!
We woke up to sunny day, and were allowed a slight sleep in. The granite peak of Lizard teased the hardened hikers. We stormed up along the ridge in the footsteps of Lt. Commander James Cook, captain of Endeavour. He had clambered the hill twice in 1770 to try and get a good view that would allow him passage out of what he called the ‘labyrinth’, and what we now call the Great Barrier Reef. But as soon as he escaped and into the open Coral Sea, he realized he had made a mistake and came back in again! We were rewarded with great views on a very slow way up. James Cook was in his early forties when he came up here in the cool, dry winter, we were considerably older than that, and here in the wet summer! When we came back down, we were careful to crab down the hill. At the same time there was an easy walk that strolled across the island to the Blue Lagoon. Brooke Shields was not there.
Once back down on the ground, it was time to take our clothes off, and put some more clothes back on – those mandatory stinger suits! Reports from underwater were of many fish and lots of giant clams. We returned to the ship for lunch and some engine rooms tours, and then the afternoon activities began. The wind had picked up again slightly, and it was tricky to get the sails up on the Glass Bottom Boat, but we managed it. And then we started the very first post-covid Glassy tours. Where most boats are told to avoid the reef, I was to drive the boat OVER the reef! We managed to slide over many of the giant clams of the famous Lizard Island ‘clam garden’, while I explained their fascinating long-lived biology.
This morning saw us heading toward the channel between Stanley and Flinders Island. As the ship approached the island group we could see the magnificent sandstone cliffs, very different from the granite boulders we had been clambering up and around on Fitzroy and Lizard Islands. We landed at a small spot between the mangroves, and most of us began our stroll across the island. We hadn’t been here for the year and a half that covid had upended everyone’s lives, so we were not sure what the condition of the track may be. But there had been so very recent work and improvements, and the hike turned out to be very easy indeed. The first part of the track took us over the multiple of middens, seashells left over from many an Aboriginal barbeque. Then as we stepped over Beach Morning Glory in flower, we strolled along the peaceful beach and could see many turtle heads poking out from the glassy clam sea. We then split into two groups and I took mine up to look at the rock art at ‘Ship Cave’, with AEL Alana as my ‘tail-end Charlie’. At the main site there were crocodiles, rays, fish and, most importantly various types of ships, including both European and Asian. After lunch we headed out on the Xplorer once more, this time to investigate the remote Davey Cay. We had some great fish and coral viewing along the edge of the bommie drop-offs. After a quick return back to the mother ship, we returned for a spot of seabird twitching. This tiny island is known as breeding spot for Brown Boobies, and it did not disappoint. There were more Boobies here than on Bondi Beach at Xmas day.
Today was a perfect geological contrast; we would be visiting one of each of the two main types of island we have on the Great Barrier Reef; Forbes, an example of a continental shelf island, and Magra, an example of a coral cay. The former we visited in the morning. Here we crossed over a coral reef forming a literal barrier to the bay. We landed on a beautiful sand island and Tom our guest lecturer took the group off to visit Lancasters lonely grave. Meanwhile, the first of our guests ventured into the clear calm water for a snorkel. While the reef wasn’t the most colourful, there were fish to be seen, including a huge guitarfish, a large type of ray. Upon return to the ship we had lunch, and this was followed by me giving a talk on the common groups of fish encountered on the coral reef, including Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Parrotfish, Wrasse, the Damselfish (including Nemos!), and Surgeonfish & Tang.
In the afternoon we landed on Magra Islet. This tiny cay was exposed at low tide and we took the opportunity to visit the intertidal shallows. All four of the expedition team lead the passengers into the ankle-deep water where we saw a huge range of fascinating critters. There were Horseshoe Clams, Sand Sea-stars, Brittle-stars, soft and hard Corals, Sponges, Ascidians, Clownfish, and Sharks. And there were at least five different types of sea-cucumbers including black, sandy black, spiny Stichopus and floppy wet-sock Synaptid sea cucumbers. It was like being a kid again, searching through rock pools. We then clambered onto the beach and fully circumnavigated the island. There were White-breasted Wood-swallows and Varied Honeyeaters dancing about, as well as Crested Terns and Whimbrels on the flats. There was also several drag marks of Salt-water Crocodiles. This was a reminder of why we did not snorkel here…
Today would be our last day on the wet and wild east coast of Australia! And the plan was to get to the very top of that coast. So as we woke to board the Xplorer, it was still dark outside, although humid in the pre-dawn air.
The walk to the tip was covered in salt water cyanobacteria, which made the rocks extremely slippery. The crew laid out their blue and white towels for the guests, as I raced ahead to find the Cape York ‘tip’ after all these years. Everyone had their photos taken near the sign and then enjoyed a glass of champagne or orange juice, or both. The more relaxed headed back to the ship, while those ready for some more adventures continued with myself and Tom along the Cape York ridge and down into the moist monsoon forest. As it was the wet season and access was limited for 4WD’ers, and the tip had been closed recently, the area was unusually clean and very lush. So it was a good time to look for some wildlife. We could see and hear the colours and trills and of Rainbow Bee-eaters and the coos of Bar-shouldered Doves. We also spotted Imperial Pigeons flying overhead, Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters in the forest canopy, Dollarbirds in the sky, and good views of Broad-billed Flycatchers. The highlight was a small group of Palm Cockatoos briefly glimpsed at the start of the jungle, although they didn’t hang around for long.
The rest of the day was spent crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was the start of our long journey across to clear into Darwin, the capital of the ‘state that ain’t’ – Darwin. On rest of the day at sea we did a few lectures. Tom recounted tales of explorers both well known and not so well known, while I looked at the making of these coastal landforms past and future. The rest of the day was filled in with deck time, and the late afternoon saw an explosion of flying fish skimming and gliding across the silky smooth ocean waters. I photographed at least 3 different species, and now I have only 300 photographs to sort through!
The Weather Gods have looked kindly on us for this crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The sea was glassy and flat when we emerged from our cabins this morning. The Gulf is not usually this calm!! Our Expedition Leader Lea was also generous this morning and gave us a ‘sleep-in’ that was much appreciated after the pre-dawn excursion on Friday. Tom shared with us his passion for birds with a humorous and informative presentation ‘Twitchers, Megaticks and the Magic of Birdwatching’. Shortly after the crew practiced a safety drill ‘Man overboard’ that involved the captain doing a turn around of the ship and launching the Xplorer to retrieve the lifebuoy that had been thrown overboard. Our next activity was a Travel Quiz hosted by Lea. Most of the passengers are well travelled and completion was very close but in the end it was the ‘Bukwalla’ team that won the prizes – Coral Expedition stubbie coolers. After lunch some of us opted for a ‘nanna nap’ while others did a bridge tour to learn more about navigating a modern ship through these waters.
Later in the afternoon Damon gave us an interesting presentation ‘Why is the Sea Blue’ that posed many questions about the tropical oceans. At various times during the day some of us spent some time out on the decks checking out the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria and occasionally were rewarded with sightings of sea snakes and beautiful flying fish escaping the bow wave of the ship.
On the morning of our second day the wind had dropped to almost zero. The sea was so calm that the clouds reflected in the glassy calm. Many of us enjoyed looking out for more Flying Fish and Sea snakes before we went to listen to Tom’s presentation ‘Seafarers on the Arnhem Land Coast’. Tom informed us about the Macassans from Indonesia and their annual voyages to the Arnhem Land coast, a fascinating story of their interaction with the Yolngu people. Following a safety drill with the crew Captain Nathan informed us that the weather was so calm that we would be able to go for a swim. The ship slowed to a halt and the Xplorer was lowered into the water. Jo then motored off a safe distance from the ship. We donned our swimsuits, signed the manifest and exited the ship via the platform into the beautiful clear blue waters of the Arafura Sea. It was fantastic!
After lunch the bridge tours continued before Damon did his presentation “Scaly Critters of the Sea’ a timely talk given that we have seen sea snakes, marine turtles and other scaly critters. Wine tasting hosted by Assistant Purser Glenn later in the afternoon had us nicely primed for the fun game ‘Liars Club’ with Lea, Damon. Tom and Ilana. The beautiful weather continued throughout the rest of the day ending with a spectacular sunset that we enjoyed watching during pre-dinner drinks on the sundeck.
Today we were heading for Darwin and after breakfast we joined Damon for his highly entertaining presentation ‘A City of cyclones and very few women: An Introduction to Darwin’. There were lots of laughs with many references to the Northern Territory’s infamous newspaper – The NT NEWS.
When we docked at the Darwin Wharf we had to go ashore and be cleared by the authorities for COVID. We were happily greeted by the NT workers at the wharf and the process went very smoothly. Afterwards we learned that our ship was the first cruise vessel to come to Darwin since the beginning of COVID times way back in March 2020.
After lunch a coach was waiting on the wharf to take us on a tour of a couple of the highlights of Darwin. Our driver, Wynyard was very proud of his town and told us many tales about the city and places to visit. Our first stop was the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT – where an excellent collection of cultural and scientific material is housed. Highlights of the Museum included Sweetheart a 5.1metre crocodile specimen, a Cyclone Tracy exhibit and several boats in a maritime collection. Our next stop was the Darwin Botanic Gardens well known for its magnificent collection of tropical plants including Australia’s only collection of Baobabs (or Boabs). The garden also has a good collection of Australian cycads – ancient plants from the time of the dinosaurs. There are some magnificent shady rain trees in the gardens and we chose a nice shady spot to enjoy afternoon tea.
While we were ashore Chef Jamil and the hospitality team had put together a magnificent BBQ. It was an absolute delight relaxing on the sundeck and chatting with friends with another incredible sunset and a light breeze adding to the ambience. But it was not over yet because Ilana had prepared an Animal Quiz for us to compete before we headed to our cabins for a well-earned sleep.
Just before breakfast Captain Nathan dropped the anchor in Aspley Strait just offshore from Nguiu community on Bathurst Island. Few of us had visited an Indigenous community before and there was a sense of anticipation and adventure for us all as we stepped ashore at Nguiu, one of three Aboriginal communites in the Tiwi Island group. The Tiwi community is famous for its art and textile designs as well as the ‘pukumani’ poles erected for funerals. Our first stop was St. Therese’s Church – a Catholic Church decorated with numerous Tiwi designs. 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. Many older Tiwi people were baptized in the baptismal font decorated with the beautiful geometric Tiwi designs. The church is no longer used for masses in the community having been replaced with a new open area structure.
Our next stop was the Museum where an excellent collection of photographs and other cultural material was on display. Then it was on to 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 artist’s work at the centre, producing paintings, lino block prints, batik silk scarves and ironwood carvings. We also visited another art workshop ‘Tiwi Designs’ where there was an even larger shop featuring a large range of artwork for sale and guests purchased many artworks. We then moved a few hundred metres to a shady shelter where we offered tea, coffee and homemade damper. We were entertained by our guides, Trevor, Ben and Freddy with some traditional dancing supported by some of the older Tiwi women. We also learned about the different ‘skin’ groups, the taboos about inter-group marriage, and the strict rules about who could speak with whom. A smoking ceremony followed and we were all ‘smoked’ to protect us from spirits as we travel along the Tiwi Island coast.
We returned to the ship for lunch and later in the afternoon some of us participated in the famous Cape York and Arnhem Land Quiz. Competition was fierce but in the end it was the “Gladys Gladiators’ team that took the prize.
After an overnight steam through Van Dieman’s Gulf from Nguiu Captain Nathan dropped the anchor at Black Point 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. We landed on a small sandy beach and after walking through the savanna woodland we came 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 in order to maintain a presence in the remote area. All ultimately failed but Victoria Settlement lasted for 11 years. We wandered round 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 the 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 communities of Aborigines, equally able to live here, as 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, more used to stories of Britain colonising the continent and European explorers and seafarers. Some of us joined Tom and Damon for a walk through some Monsoon Vine Thicket located along the edge of a freshwater wetland. We returned to the Xplorer for our last excursion with our wonderful driver Jo at the helm.
Later in the afternoon we joined the expedition team for a slideshow of images taking by them during our voyage. Then as the sun was setting we joined the Captain’s Farewell Drinks before our final dinner together. After our final dinner we headed to our rooms to do the final bit of packing as the Coral Discoverer steamed through the night to our final destination of Darwin.
We said our farewells to each other and the cruise today. We disembarked in Darwin 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. We wish you all the best in your future travels.