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Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru2  in Queensland, July and August 2004

G'day from Cape York, the tip of Australia, where we arrived today, 29 August.  We've taken 10 weeks to cover 1200 miles of the Queensland coast, sailing along in the Coral Sea inside the Great Barrier Reef.  Between the outer reef and the coast the sea is strewn with countless more reefs, sand banks, isolated rocks and islands; and then there are ships and fishing boats (and the odd humpback whale) sharing the space between the obstacles, so lots of careful navigation and no more dozing down below on the night watch!   But at least the cockpit has become once more an agreeable place to be.  The sea inside the reef does not throw us around like the mighty ocean and the sun shines every day.
Rainbow lorikeetrainbow lorikeets
Our first island anchorage was Great Keppel, where we walked to the top for views of more islands, and down the other side for our first, exceedingly chilly, swim.  (Nobody swims in the rivers and creeks for fear of 'salties', the deadly salt water crocodile).  A highlight was the rainbow lorikeets, impossibly colourful birds with blue head, orange and yellow breast, blue belly, green wings .....and you can get really close to admire all this as they like to come and share your picnic!   We also spent time amongst the Whitsunday Islands.  These are gems: sandy beaches, rocky headlands, clear water and wooded hillsides.  The dry climate is reminiscent of southern Europe, but instead of the scent of hot dusty pines, the woods are eucalyptus, or gum trees. There's a bewildering variety of gum tree, - paperbark, ironbark, and the strikingly white 'ghost gum'.   On Magnetic Island (north of the Whitsundays) we went in search of koala bears on the only day it rained and eventually found two, sitting up high in the forks of a gum tree.  They looked rather forlorn, fast asleep, heads resting forwards on their chests and the rain dripping down their backs. 
   koala bearkoala in the rain
In between islands, we've anchored in the shelter of headlands or up quiet creeks among the mangroves.  It's all very scenic with mountain ranges extending along the coast and rolling away inland.  We've met lots of Aussie yachties who've been very friendly.  If there's any socialising going on, they make sure we join in.   On Thomas Island we sat chatting far into the night around an enormous fire of drift wood after the inevitable barbie.                                                                                                                             oyster catchers
On the way up the coast, we stopped in the towns of Gladstone, Mackay and Townsville, - very pleasant with their spacious streets and trees.   You get a sense of civic pride, with lovingly preserved colonial buildings, beautiful parks, monuments, museums and art galleries.   Fluttering banners promote the town's attractions and the passing tourist is made to feel very welcome.  Every shop assistant wants to know your life history, and will gladly tell you theirs!   What seemed strange to us was that the Aboriginal people do not participate in this lifestyle at all.  While you can always buy a didgeridoo or a boomerang, you never see an Aborigine.  But we were beginning to understand why, as some of our new friends (white Australian) often expressed what to us seemed shockingly racist attitudes.  These warm and generous people would seemingly like to run all Aborigines off the land, as the early settlers had done.  They were particularly outraged that they should require a permit to go on Aboriginal land.  But this was alongside a full acknowledgement of Aboriginal history and culture:  the beautiful rock paintings, knowledge of the bush etc.   Stories of how the indigenous Australians looked after the early settlers and explorers are, we were assured, legendary.  We were increasingly confused. 
In Mackay we hired a car and went to Eungalla national park, one of the 212 such protected areas in Queensland. Our mission was to track down the duck-billed platypus.  We spent the day hiking in rain forest under the tallest trees, and saw our first kookaburras. In the evening we waited for an hour by a river and eventually a little platypus came and swam about and dived up and down in the last light of day.  It was no bigger than an otter! They are very elusive creatures, and live in fresh water, so this is our only sighting.  The kookaburras, however, live on most islands and we  often hear their mad cackling wafting across the water at dusk.   Also from Mackay we went to Hillsborough National Park to do some bird watching and hopefully see a wallaby or two.  No luck with the latter, but we think we saw two emus.  We definitely saw hundreds of butterflies! and it was a lovely spot for walking. In Townsville we learnt a lot about coral and fish in a splendid aquarium and spent an afternoon in an equally impressive museum.  The museum has a fascinating collection of things brought up from the wreck of the 'Pandora', a ship which was sent from England to look for the 'Bounty' and bring the mutineers to justice.  The museum also covers the history of Eddie Koiko Mabo's long campaign to win native title to the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait, a historic decision (1992) which recognised for the first time 'the entitlement of indigenous people to their traditional lands under their traditional laws.
On 1st August we reached Cairns, a magnet for tourists visiting Queensland's most famous assets, the Great Barrier Reef, scenic mountains and rainforest.  Thousands of tourists every day are organised onto boats to visit the reef, trains to visit the Atherton Tablelands, 4x4s to explore the country etc.  Thousands more stroll through the town and fill the bars, cafes and restaurants; backpackers throng the internet centres.  Given all this frenzied activity, we found Cairns a remarkably relaxing town, successfully accommodating all its tourists.   They've even created a very nice 'lagoon', a sort of big open-air swimming pool, as the 'seaside' at Cairns is a disappointing expanse of mud bordered by mangroves.  We took the train to Kuranda in the lush interior.  The track, completed in 1891, climbs 300 metres through the Barron Gorge passing through 11 tunnels.   We enjoyed the dramatic scenery from our 1930s carriage, taking turns with a young couple on holiday from Scotland to hang out of the window for photos of the front or back of the train winding around the tight bends.  To return to Cairns we took the cable car which carried us and an Aussie couple from Melbourne over the rainforest, suspended above the treetops.  Amazing!
We sailed overnight from sophisticated Cairns to historic Cooktown at the mouth of the Endeavour River.  Cooktown has an old-fashioned charm with its quiet dusty streets and 19th century weatherboard 'hotels'.  Developed during the gold rush, its population rose to 30,000.   It's now about 1500.  Here, Aboriginal people seemed as much a part of the community as whites.  (And contrary to what we had been told to expect, they were not lying drunk in the gutter.)  This is the river where Captain Cook brought his ship, 'Endeavour' in 1770 to repair the damage from striking a reef.  It is extraordinary that he only once struck a reef in these uncharted waters.
                                            Endeavour river
At Cooktown we met more friendly yachties.  Dave of 'Alice' came by to report sighting of a saltie basking on the mud at low tide, just a little one at 7 feet!  We all met up again at the next anchorage on our route, Lizard Island.  It is a dry, sun-drenched island with gorgeous beaches, warm water, and safe swimming, - heaven to the cruising yachtie.   We lazed around here for 6 days, watching the big lizards, up to a meter, shuffling along through the sand and fallen leaves,listening to the soft cooing of pigeons, swimming and snorkelling.   We climbed the 368 meters to the highest point of the island, 'Cook's Lookout'.  He came here to try and spot a way out through the barrier reef and found one which is called Cook's Passage.  (Those early sailors must have had fun naming things after each other or after bits of England they were reminded of.  We passed a headland the other day called 'Orfordness'!  But on a bad day they handed out names like Cape Tribulation or Deception Creek!) 
Anchored Lizard island   Lizard island lizard
Lizard Island was (is?) sacred to the Aborigines. It now 'belongs' to the government as a national park.  One evening, at sundowners on the beach, we met, at last, a woman more than happy to discuss the appalling treatment of the Aborigines and the issue of land entitlements - a human rights lawyer, no less!  She was very interesting and restored our faith in believing that many white Australians care deeply about the history of injustice.  But aside from gestures of 'reconciliation', it seems there is no real political will to change things. 
blue tip fingr coral  blue tip finger coral 2  
Lizard Island is only 10 miles from the Great Barrier Reef, and one morning our friends organised a trip out.  Great to leave the navigation to someone else!  A lull in the trade winds gave us perfect calm conditions.  On the way we watched a whale lying on the surface feeding her calf while another was breeching and diving nearby.  At the reef, the mighty Pacific merely lapped gently at the coral and we could see all the way to the bottom.  We had a great day snorkelling and in such clear water Nick was able to get some good pictures.    
batfish  Parrot fish  
Next day, we said our good-byes and resumed our push to the north, 300 miles to the tip of Cape York, along the most wild and desolate stretch of coast we have ever seen.  There are no settlements north of Cooktown, just bare mountains where white sand blown up on the slopes lies like drifted snow.  Sheltered anchorages are few and far between so we often had to start hauling up our anchor before daylight to make it to the next one by dusk.  Apart from the occasional fishing trawler, these were lonely spots.  At Morris Island, a mere strip of sand, we went ashore.  There is one palm tree and lots of sisal plants.  Apparently, the British Admiralty had a policy of providing many of the Great Barrier Reef islands with a means of support for shipwrecked crew.  On Morris Island they planted coconut palms, and the sisal was to provide a long stick to knock down the ripe nuts!   We met four pelicans and a colony of terns, who were outraged at our intrusion, and saw turtle tracks in the sand.  Our last anchorage was up the wide Escape River, with impenetrable jungle on either side.  In the evening, a strong scent of eucalyptus (or is it ti-tree?) wafted across from the bush, along with strange bird calls.  It was very peaceful. 
parrot fish 2  sweetlips
Thursday Island in the windy Torres Strait is our next stop, and then it's 700 miles to Darwin, so a week at sea.  At Darwin we hope to make time to visit the outback as we feel we've only seen the edge of Australia, and we haven't seen a kangaroo yet!  With barely 3 weeks before our visas run out, we'll have to get a move on.

So, until then, all the best from Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008