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Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon
To Australia, June and July 2004
Here we are in the Sunshine State (Queensland), where we arrived on 17 June. There's sunshine all right, not a cloud have we seen, but a cold south westerly wind is sweeping up the coast and temperatures are down to 1oC at night. Locals are calling it the Big Chill.
We left New Zealand on 17 May, Tokomaru looking very fine wearing a brand new set of sails. The old sails were in a sorry state; there was barely an anchorage in the Pacific where we did not have to stitch seams back together. And then the mainsail ripped on the way from Tonga to N Z, and we used the storm sail for the rest of that passage, which was quite enough sail anyway! On passage to New Caledonia, we soon reefed our new sails as strong winds found us and the first 48 hours at sea left us feeling shaken and tired after all those months on land. Things quietened down for a day and we were able to sort ourselves out and get some rest. Then we were hammered again for 4 days (force 6/7), but this time forward of the beam and pushing us east, so we couldn't lay a course for New Caledonia. In winds rising to 45 knots, we took the mainsail down altogether, reefed in the genoa some more and even reefed our mizzen sail. After that, the winds were very changeable and it was hard to know what sails to have up. It would shift quite quickly from 9 knots to 28 knots. But there are always compensations. This strange, squally weather was lit by the most spectacular rainbows, brilliant colours gleaming against the dark clouds, and seemingly so close. Another delight was 'our' albatross. It would come gliding towards us on its great wings, turn on the wind and circle the boat and then soar off again, always to return until we had moved too far to the warmer north.
On 26 May, the mountains of New Caledonia rose on the horizon and we picked up (as they say) the Amadee lighthouse marking the way through the reef into the wide and windy lagoon. Another three hours and we were tied up in the city of Noumea and dealing with customs and immigration. Noumea is very sophisticated compared to other Pacific island capitals we have seen. The country has been aggressively colonised on account of its mineral wealth, particularly the mining of nickel. French culture dominates the capital; the patisseries, (often with a chocolatier!), are as chic and precious as anything in Paris. There is a long history of strenuous rebellion and uprisings by the Kanak people, who have maintained their languages, culture and traditions in the face of an ever increasing French population, and have won political representation. Things are more settled now. A dance festival, held in the elegant main square, drew a big crowd of all races.
The Kanak dancing is enjoyably anarchic compared to what we saw in the Society Islands and the Cook Islands, with startling costumes trailing feathers and fronds, and wild head-dresses of hair and wool. Noumea museum has a spectacular collection of costumes, carvings and ceremonial masks (huge and scary!); also traditional sailing canoes with paddles, bailers, fishhooks and nets. This is by far the best museum we've seen, beautifully laid out and softly lit. It is staffed by Kanak women, elegant in the New Caledonian version of the 'mother hubbard' dress, a roomy cover-all garment introduced by missionaries all over the Pacific. This has remained in fashion on all the islands and these modest women are greatly offended by the nakedness of western tourists.
We had time for a brief trip to the other side of Grande Terre, the main island. The empty interior is mountainous, without a sign of habitation. The landscape is all red soil, covered in a featureless dusty scrub. (After New Zealand, you have rather high expectations of scenery!) In our 4x4 we were able to leave the road and set off over the 'piste rouge' to explore this desolate landscape. After a steep climb over a pass, we suddenly had a view of a nickel mine, a huge dusty red scar spread across the valley. It was pleasant at last to reach the east coast, wooded and green again, where there is the occasional village. Here the Kanak people offer accommodation in traditional huts on the beach. It's very basic; no shops, bars or restaurants. We were kindly welcomed by women and served a meal of papaya and fish and yam. Otherwise we were alone in this quiet, deserted place. At night, outside our hut, the surf boomed on the reef, the wind rustled the palms and the moon cast shadows on the sand. You could almost believe in spirits! At low tide in the afternoon, we went fossicking in the rock pools and discovered some strange sea creatures. A woman was nearby, was collecting shell fish, possibly our dinner! In the morning we snorkelled over coral in the shallow water. Later that day, along the 'piste rouge' we found a waterfall tumbling into a deep pool of soft fresh mountain water, so we swam again. It was a very nice little holiday.
Just as you get used to a place, it is time to leave; time for a last trip to Noumea's wonderful covered market to stock up with fresh stuff for the voyage. Here you can buy anything from a croissant to a cabbage. Chinese, Vietnamese, Kanak and French traders beam at you over piles of shiny bok choy, papaya, limes, avocadoes and every European vegetable you can think of, and fresh herbs..... it's impossible not to buy far more than you need!
Sad to leave our last Pacific island, we set off across the lagoon on Thursday 10 June to start the 780 mile passage to Australia. Weather predictions indicated south easterly winds of 15 knots, ideal. But, inevitably, it was not so, and we were assailed once more by 25 to 30 knot winds for the first three days with a most uncomfortable sea jerking us around. Our lovely food remained untouched as we sipped water and nibbled biscuits and cowered in our bunks behind the lee cloths feeling wretched. Neither of us could be bothered even to boil a kettle! The cockpit was once again a no-go area other than a quick look out for ships.
[Ocean passages can be marvellous, winging across the waves in a favourable breeze, free as a bird. Out in the cockpit on the dawn watch, you wait for the sun to climb above the horizon, then make a cup of tea and reach for your book, distracted only by the gliding flight of a passing shearwater. The wind-vane steers the ship. During the day it's possible to do odd maintenance jobs, bake some bread, read or write, and as the sun goes down we might have a little drink before dinner! At night, off watch, you sleep peacefully in your bunk. And this quiet routine feels rudely interrupted by arriving somewhere and having to face officials and find shops and so on!]
To make matters worse, we had a series of worries and breakages with our steering systems. This time it was not the cables; that recurring problem is now, we hope, finally resolved. In New Zealand we had an electronic autopilot installed, providing an alternative self-steering system to the mechanical wind-vane. In these lurchy seas, it came adrift from its mountings and Nick wasn't able to tighten it. So we used the wind-vane as usual, until that broke, and then we had to hand steer. In daylight, Nick was able to fix the wind-vane and all was well, until we noticed ominous scraping noises coming from the rudder stock. Generous doses of lubricant seemed to stop the noise, but now we are wondering whether we need to have the boat out of the water again to see what's happening to our rudder!
After three days the wind eased for a bit and we felt able to eat. Then it was back to 25 to 30 knots, which seems to be the norm for us nowadays. But the motion of the ship improved and we did in the end get through most of our fresh stuff, cooking up big stews to last a couple of days. At least we made excellent progress with these strong winds from behind, and after a week we arrived off Frazer Island at the south end of the Great Barrier Reef. It was the middle of the night, with only 40 miles to go to the little port of Bundaberg in the Burnett River. But, perversely, the wind went round into the south west, blowing hard from exactly where we wanted to go. So for the rest of the night and all the next day we slowly tacked towards the coast, punching into the steep waves. By evening the wind died away, and we slipped peacefully into the river and then in to a nice marina where the Aussies gave us a warm welcome.
We spent a week in Bundaberg to rest and explore our first Australian town. The surrounding country is flat and fertile and Bundaberg is a centre for sugar cane. The cane fields extend for acres and as this is harvest time, Tokomaru is covered in flecks of ash from spectacular fires. Nick has repaired the auto-pilot and for the time being, we are ignoring the rudder problem!
We are now anchored up a quiet creek, bordered by mangroves and sandy beaches, - very wild. Here we ventured ashore to have our first 'bush walk'. Looking out for crocodiles, snakes, dingoes and other nasties (which guide books make much of!), we set off into the trees. There were dingo tracks in the sand (and we heard them howling at night) but the only wildlife encountered along the track were dancing butterflies and lots of new birds. One common tree was covered in yellow flowers falling to a soft yellow carpet underfoot. The track led up to a lighthouse and then down to the wide sweep of a bay facing the open sea. And (I seem to say this all the time!) we saw no one all day.
The weather is perfect; fine, sunny and dry, and not too windy. The mornings are beautifully still. We're starting to meet Australian boaters and settling in to harbour- hopping up the coast. It would be nice to visit a city, Sydney or Melbourne, and to have a taste of the outback. But with only three months it could be difficult to fit it all in. We have to sail all the way up the coast, around Cape York, through the Torres Straight and to Darwin by early September. And there are countless enticing islands and creeks along the way inside the Great Barrier Reef. So we'll see how it goes.
Meanwhile, no worries, and g'day to all from Liz and Nick
|Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008|