Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon
Torres Strait to Indonesia, via Darwin (September 2004)
We've been in Indonesia since 24 September, so what follows is a bit out of date, and already seems very remote, accustomed as we are now to life in South East Asia. But anyway, on 29 August we sailed into the Torres Strait which lies between the tip of Australia and Papua New Guinea, a shallow stretch of sea 100 miles wide strewn with islands, which are politically part of Oz. Fast currents and strong winds funnel through here, but Nick timed our arrival carefully and we whizzed through the gaps with both in our favour and anchored safely in the shelter of Horn Island, opposite Thursday Island, the capital. After over two weeks in the wilds of northern Queensland this was the place to restock before the 7 day passage to Darwin.
Emu termite mound
As always when we stop somewhere we get interested in everything and stay longer than intended. The Torres Strait Islanders are Melanesian people, with a strong sense of identity, though it's a multi-racial community so there are also Australians, Aborigines, Chinese and others, and no apparent social or racial divisions. Island culture has survived the influence of missionaries (albeit they are keen church-goers!) and the long period, nearly a hundred years, of the pearl shell industry. Family and tribal customs are maintained as modern ways encroach. As they explained, they have the best of both worlds, taking what suits from the western influence while preserving the best of their traditional life. But it was the history of the pearling which was so interesting, the era when diving for pearl shell was a hugely lucrative enterprise here, attracting people from all around. Our anchorage was once full of wooden sailing boats, two masted luggers, dozens of them, which carried the divers to the rich oyster beds. It seems they could be sailed very slowly while the divers walked the sea bed behind, wearing those big heavy helmets and linked to the boat by their air hose and a rope which they tugged to send signals - faster, slower, pull me up, etc. The pearl shell was so valuable that hundreds of men were prepared to risk their lives, right up until WW2 when the demand dropped due to the increased use of plastic. It was very dangerous work; the cemetery on Thursday Island has more than 700 graves of Japanese divers alone. And a faded little museum on Horn Island is full of fascinating stuff covering this extraordinary history, including old photos and personal accounts, -you could spend hours here.
Aboriginal rock art Kakadu national park Northern Territory
But we had things to do. Cruising around the world regularly involves a lot of walking long distances carrying things. We spent a day hauling jerry cans of diesel and bags of laundry along the dusty roads of Horn Island, and making many dinghy trips across to the dock to fill our water containers. For shopping, we took the ferry to Thursday Island, a couple of miles across the water, which was much more fun. Life in the Torres Strait is dominated by the sea and people travel constantly between the islands in small boats and ferries. Thursday Island is the one with all the shops etc, a couple of miles across the water from Horn Island so the busy ferry service is a great focal point of island life and enterprise. We went across most days, waiting on the jetty with school kids, island women in bright skirts, weather-beaten crocodile Dundee types, customs officials in their clean shorts, the odd business person with laptop. The jetty is stained with fish blood and scales as local guys are always fishing over the side or cleaning their catch at our feet. Trucks arrive with mail and goods, a bus brings more passengers. And then we all climb aboard and sit in the wind on plastic chairs under the burning sun as the old ferry boat takes us safely through the reefs to the other side.
On 4 September we whooshed out of the Torres Strait on one of those fast currents into the Arufera Sea and for three days we bowled merrily along in steady trade winds, all sails up, no fuss. Perfect. But then the wind became erratic, often dropping away altogether leaving an oily calm so we had to use the engine quite a lot. A feature of this trip was the attention paid to us by the Australian Coast Watch and Customs who monitor vessels in these waters from spotter planes. They fly low over the yacht and call on the VHF to check who you are and where you're going. This had happened a few times on the Queensland coast, but from Torres Strait on it was at least once a day!
After 7 days, we reached Darwin and anchored a long way from town in Fannie Bay. It's so shallow here we had to anchor one and a half miles off the beach, - a slow dinghy ride to shore, usually getting drenched as we punched into the offshore wind. Darwin Sailing Club was most welcoming and their showers and washing machine much appreciated. It's in a pleasant suburb of Darwin, so we had to get a bus to town, most days as it turned out, to get the chores done. New places mean lots of walking around looking for customs offices, supermarkets, internet cafes, petrol stations and so on. Usually we are in touch with yachties who are ahead of us so can get info from them, which helps. We went three times to the Indonesian Consul to get our visas, and even then we had to encourage them with a box of chocolates! But we enjoyed our visits and had a foretaste of the charm, wit and general friendliness of Indonesian people.
From Darwin we managed to find time for a quick visit to the Kakadu National Park, so experienced something of the Northern Territory. Having left Darwin very early, we saw wallabies and a pair of brolga (a kind of crane) on the roadside and huge termite pillars casting long shadows in the morning sun. At the Nourlangie Rock we climbed up to see Aboriginal art and then spent the afternoon on the Yellow Water Wetlands. Loads of birds here, such as whistling ducks and whistling kites and a pair of jabaroos (a kind of stork) doing a ritual dance. There were plenty of 'salties' too, basking on the mud or gliding in the water, and the river was bordered by swathes of enormous pink lilies. Finally, a quick visit to Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre and then the long drive back to Darwin. It was all a bit rushed and we feel we haven't really 'seen' Australia. We'll have to come back!
Beehive house West Timor Indonesia
On 19 September, we set off on passage to Kupang in West Timor, 470 miles to the west, across the Timor Sea. This passage turned out to be similar to the last one, - half perfect sailing in light winds on flat seas, and half tedious motoring. We were again baked by the sun and that hot dry wind coming off the Australian desert. But it was a peaceful and relaxing trip with no strong winds or big scary seas. On the fourth day, dawn revealed the parched mountains of Timor and we began to see local fishing boats, the first of a great variety of traditional craft that we have now seen in SE Asia. These Timorese boats lie low in the water and are hard to see, but the loud chugging of their basic one cylinder engines is easy to hear so we avoided collision! We turned north into the Selat Semau and anchored off the crumbling sea walls of Kupang. We're having a great time in Indonesia and are now in Bali, so we'll write again soon and try to keep up to date.
Spinning and weaving Ikat West Timor Indonesia
Best wishes from Liz and Nick
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