An Ancient Trade

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map 3 table head
Map 3 Port Essington: Black Pt to Table Head


Fri 19 Sep 03

0045:  With the anchor down I can finally secure Lowana IV for the night and then relax. Turn the spreader deck lights off. Big yellow half-moon just breaking the horizon and starting to light up the bay with a faint orange light. Both of us remark on how beautiful it is.

Let the motor run for a while longer in neutral to stabilise temperature before turning it off. The silence is lovely. Look again around the bay. Water slightly ruffled. Silvery shoreline in the moonlight. A peculiar barking noise signals the presence of a crocodile somewhere nearby. Call Kajan on the radio. Pete is just about to clear Vashon Head. Still going hard out there but making better time against the tide. He’s got loose shroud stays on the mast which is wobbling under pressure of the wind, so he has to keep the motor speed down.  He also hadn’t cleaned Kajan’s hull prior to departure and he thinks there’d be growth on it which would also be slowing him down.

Feeling very tired. Delma wants to wait for Pete but it’ll be a good couple of hours before he gets in. Lay down some storm boards in the cockpit to make a bed for Delma. She can’t stand being closed up inside and prefers to sleep outside when she can. Put up the cockpit canvas cover to keep the night dew off and bring up a spare foam canvas covered mattress from the quarter-berth.

Delma quickly makes her bed and is soon on it. She says she’ll be awake when Kajan Pete arrives but I doubt it. She’s tried to sleep whilst underway but couldn’t so I reckon she’ll be as tired as I am.  Contact Pete again. He says he’ll probably head directly for Table Head which is another 5 miles further in.

0500: Get up to a call of nature and see Kajan sailing past further out. It looks to me like he’s just got in so I get onto the radio to direct him into our anchorage.  Switch the spotlight on and off.

0530: Kajan finishes anchoring 100m further out. We both say goodnight and go to bed.

0930: Both of us sleep in. Glorious morning. Fine, sunny day with slight wavelets and a light breeze. Mildly surprised to see we’re actually anchored further out from the shore than I’d thought last night. We’re about 400m from Black Point itself but I’m not going to bother shifting unless I have to.

04 on deckLeft: On deck. At centre left is a life ring in a blue bag which is attached to a dan-buoy – a floating pole with a flag on top. They’re used to mark where someone has gone over the side. A home made light slung over the boom is used for external lighting and anchor light at night.

Delma says that Kajan had actually arrived a couple of hours earlier than when I’d seen her at about 0345 hrs. Pete had first set his anchor off Black Point and Delma had wondered what was taking him so long. Eventually he’d pulled up his anchor before coming to anchor ner us.

Pete later tolds us he’d been unable to pick out my anchor light against the back drop of other lights onshore. Unfortunately for Pete my anchor light consists of a low-current home-made light, connected to the batteries by alligator clips and slung underneath the boom. It throws a good light but if it had been at the top of the mast then it would have been easier for Pete to pick it out. When he’d first tried to anchor he’d been a bit concerned about the chain rumbling over rocky ground and decided to move rather than getting snagged up.

1100: Set about putting up the main shade canopy. Wind blowing from the north directly down the port. No sign of movement over on Kajan. Enjoy a lovely cooked breakfast of sausages and eggs. There seems to be a problem with the top layers of food in the freezer not freezing. A visual inspection finds frosting along the suction line reaching onto the compressor itself, indicating overcharging of refrigeration gas. Vent some of the gas then clean up the motor and check the oil levels.

Look out across the water towards Kajan. All is quiet and no sign of movement there yet. Pete would probably still be sleeping in. Suddenly Delma gasps when a loud splashing, popping noise causes her to look past Kajans bow. There’s a big splash about 200m further out where something big is feeding out there. It happens again a few minutes later. Probably a large pelagic fish or shark maybe.

With the housekeeping done we drop the little red fibreglass dinghy off the stern davits and get it ready for a trip to shore. Call Pete on the radio to inquire if he wants to go ashore. He’s just got up and wants to have some breakfast first but asks us to ring his wife Avis to tell her he’s okay. Motor over to Kajan where he gives us the phone number.

1130: Once ashore we make the necessary phone calls to Pete’s wife Avis and to our daughter Karen. Delma also has the phone number of an aboriginal man named Andrew who works at the Royal Darwin Hospital. Arrangements had been made to meet him here and we were to ring him once we’d reached Black Point. However there’s only an answering machine at the other so we leave a message.

The first white people understood to have been in this area are Peter Pieterzoon in 1636, Abel Tasman in 1644 and Matthew Flinders in 1803. And the whole of northern Australia has been visited by Makassan’s from the Celebes in Indonesia since the 1600s.  Signposted historical relics tell of their ancient trade. They’d been coming to collect trepang, also known as beach-de-mer or sea-cucumber which are soft-bodied marine animals, which was put through an extensive boiling, drying and smoking process. Their market was China who used them for medicines and food. The Makassan’s used to sail here at the start of the Wet monsoon season with its NW winds and return home at the start of the Dry season with it’s SE winds.  It was a pretty good feat of sailing. Having sailed both the Arafura and Timor Seas myself I can say it can get pretty nasty out there!  Many must have been lost at sea.

12 ancient tradeRight: Old woks used for boiling trepang.  The sign says the trepang was boiled for 10 hours with bark from mangrove trees for flavour, then buried in sand for 24 hours, the skin removed, boiled again, dried in the sun then slowly smoked over a low fire under bamboo and woven palm huts.

At the Park Ranger’s office we find a small museum where Conservation Commission Ranger John Williams (Junior) meets us.  He’s the Assistant Manager of the national park. It’s generally known as Gurig but it’s proper title is Garig Gunak Barlu National Park.  John is a well built young aboriginal man of about mid-thirties, well groomed and clean cut. He’s a traditional owner of the land and is one of about 17 members of his clan, but he and his brother are the only members actually still living here on their tribal land. Like so many other clans and tribes since the 1950s, most of them have left for the cities and towns where there are more facilities.

John says we won’t need a permit if we sleep on board and don’t camp ashore, but we can visit ashore as much as we like. A water tap is available behind the boat-shed where we can get fresh water and privacy for a quick wash. He advises us to avoid going out to the actual Black Point itself since it’s a sacred site.   He mentions  there is a walking trail we can follow if we want to do a bit of hiking. Plenty of bird life. Most tourists here come to look at the birds or for the fishing. He says that fishing charters are available for booking at the park store.

Inside the museum we find exhibits of an early British settlement which had been attempted further down the port. And at the back of the museum is a small canoe in which a man had drifted from Indonesia and survived to land ashore here. Unfortunately I don’t have much more detail about this now but it apparently something of an epic survival feat.

05 office and museum 07 diorama
Park Rangers Office and Museum at the Gurig National Park A diorama of the Victoria Settlement probably circa 1840s. There was a hospital, officer’s quarters, 24 cottages a baker’s oven, fortifications, a graveyard and a jetty, which was rarely needed.
08 dolls 09 survivor boat
Settlers made little concession to the tropical climate. They persisted with thick woven clothes e.g. the marines still wore full uniforms including chokers. An Indonesian fisherman believed to be from Roti Island went fishing one day probably in the 1960s? He finally ended up landing at Black Point.

The idea of the settlement was originally to establish a major trading port along the lines of Singapore, in competition with the Dutch who imposed high import costs.  There were also rumours in 1837 that the French were planning a colony in the region.  Two previous attempts on the Tiwi Islands to the north of present day Darwin and at Raffles Bay to the east had already failed.

Victoria settlement named after Queen Victoria was established late 1838.  Just in time it seems because in February 1939 two French warships entered the harbour looking for another ship La Perouse. The first year went fairly well with good crops planted. The place got demolished by a cyclone and storm surge later in 1839. Shipwreck survivors joined the small population in 1843 bringing some skilled people but otherwise the place was rarely visited by traders or anyone else for that matter.  It got pretty boring.  Disease and fevers became endemic and the place started to deteriorate. Nobody came and it all got pretty pointless, not helped alegedly by at least one commander who was a bit of a martinet.

Ludwig Leichardt the explorer arrived on foot exhausted and bedraggled in 1845 after exploring the Gulf of Carpentaria. His arrival delighted the settlers and indeed, the nation itself.  However the lack of trade and the cost of maintaining the place led to its abandonment in 1849; the settlers were taken away and the buildings destroyed by ships shelling.

One other attempt at settlement in northern Australia was made at Escape Cliffs nearer to Darwin in 1864 just north of the mouth of the Adelaide River. It was from here that a explorer/surveyor party explored the Darwin/Palmerston area.  Escape Cliffs derives from the settlers being driven out by hostile aboriginals.  Darwin was then established at a place they called Palmerston in Darwin Harbour in 1869 but moved to it’s present location later on.

After a quick wash at the tap behind the shed we return to the boat. The water is calm and it’s a beautiful day so the trip back out is relaxing and pleasant. Motor over to Kajan to find out how Pete is doing. Find him sitting on an upturned milk crate with a solar shower bag slung up on the boom and having a wash. His main job for the day is going to be assembling his new 12ft fold-up dinghy. It later proves to be quite a task. Return to Lowana IV for a lunch of salad and the last of the corned meat.

1435: Do a radio sked and establish contact with Brunei Bay Radio but it’s not good enough to pass any information. Delma’s reading a book. I’m feeling a bit tired so lay down to have a rest. Can’t sleep so get back up after half an hour.

1615: Pete calls by in his newly assembled dinghy and proudly shows it off. It’s 12ft long with three bench seats and made of a plastic material used in the aircraft industry. It’s pliable but appears strong, He takes us out for a spin but I find it a bit disconcerting at having a floor in a dinghy that bends, buckles and moves under the feet whilst underway. A sticker announcing it can take a maximum of three persons in only in calm water doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm for it. However Pete’s as pleased as punch with it so I guess that’s the main thing.

Go ashore again but this time with Pete in his dinghy. The water is quite clear on approaching the small sandy beach, and there are lots of hand sized starfish littering the bottom. A small stingray of about dinner-plate size suddenly jumps out of the water nearby as we pass, quickly does a flip and lands back in the water with a solid plop.

On landing we help Pete pull his dinghy up past the high water line before setting off towards the little store. It consists of a single square room with a back office and stocks rudimentary stores … and there’s not a lot of that either. Buy an ice cream, dry batteries and coffee which are a bit pricey but to be expected. The store only opens between 4 and 6 pm.

10 black pt ramp 10 gurig store
Landing area behind the Black Point jetty.
“Lowana IV” anchored out to the left.
The Gurig store.
11 furphy 12 furphy cart
BBQ made from an old Furphy Water Cart An example of a portable Furphy water cart.

Go with Pete to have another look at the museum. Later take a walk along a track to the shoreline where we’d first approached last night. Small oysters line the rocks in abundance. We make our way down towards them making sure to keep away from the nearby black rocks sacred site which give Black Point its name. Pete, a 62 year old man who says he is 50, slips and falls on loose rocks while climbing down to the waters edge. He receives a slight graze on his upper right hand thigh. Not much of an injury but one does need to be careful of infection around oyster beds in remote areas.

Since we don’t have any oyster gathering tools with us we return to the dinghy and head back to Lowana IV. Have some sociable drinks and a chat in the cockpit. After dark Delma serves dinner of goulash before we participate in yet more drinks, and a few more…

2230: Pete departs singing a sea shanty as he slowly progresses in his dinghy towards his own darkened boat. We hold a spotlight for him. Suddenly his outboard motor runs out of petrol but he continues singing and cackling as he takes up his oars. He finally reaches Kajan and a cheery goodnight floats across the water. Delma cleans up while I run the motors to cool the fridges and set up our beds.

Sat 20 Sep 03

Another glorious day. Calm. Delma says that around 3 am some black clouds came over and the wind sprung up but I was blissfully unaware.

Not a lazy morning. Run the motor to cool the fridges down. Have a brekky of sausages and eggs then clean up. Change the CDs in the music stacker. Delma and I are both a bit stiff and sore from unaccustomed exercise. Air our bedding. Delma reads another 10 pages of her book then conducts an unsuccessful hunt for some cans of iced tea.

So far on this trip Delma has been unable to get the manual flushing system on the Lavac toilet to work properly. All she can pump is air, being unable to get a good seal on the toilet seat. This shouldn’t have been a problem since I’d made two new rubber seals and fitted them before the trip and I’ve had no problems. Finally figure it out that if she sits on the closed lid while pumping the handle it’ll work properly for her, and much more quickly too. A relief for me since up to now I’ve had to do all the flushing.

1100. Delma’s hankering for oysters so with a look at the chart we pick a place called Table Head and decide to go and have a look there. Start getting ready to go. I’d better come good with finding oysters or as cruise director for this voyage I’ll need to open up a complaints department. Though I do happen to know where a tin of smoked oysters sits in the food box which I can “find” should the need arise.

Anchor comes up easily enough and the radio crackles into life. A catamaran entering Port Essington is calling the Black Point Ranger Station. Pull away and start heading south pointing to clear Reef Point before turning into Berkeley Bay. As usual this trip under motor is at about 4 kts. Slight breezes. Sunny and hot. Almost cloudless and only small wavelets. Keep the canopy up and tow the dinghy. Relaxed motoring.

1230: Cover a distance of 5.1 nm before turning to close with the shore where there’s two red cliffs to the north of a little creek called Caiman Creek. The northern set of cliffs are not as prominent as the ones near the mouth. Sandy bottom shelves gradually. There are sand bars across the mouth of the creek which later become exposed at low tide, but they can be clearly seen in the light green water as a soft brown colour.

Afternoon: Dinghy over to the creek. It’s hard to work to make our way around to the southern end of the sand bars to gain access into the creek proper. The channel leading in is also shallow. Pete elects to take his dinghy between the sandbars on the northern side and drags it through the shallows. He’s got a cast net with him to get some fresh bait but there’s little activity in the water and he only manages to catch one bait fish.

Delma and I motor further up the creek to find that after the first bend the water deepens. Lots of mangroves and small oyster patches along the roots. Promising spot for mud crabs. Will come back tomorrow to fish and crab. Return to where Pete is and take a walk along the shore but no oysters on the rocks facing the bay. However we do manage to find some small ones exposed on mangrove roots. We hadn’t brought any tools to open them since this little expedition was only intended to be a recce.

14 on sandbankLeft: Delma standing on a sand bank with Lowana IV in the background.

1500: Return to Lowana IV. Have a few nibbles, a quiet read and a quick nap.

1730: Over on Kajan for sundowners – a few drinks, nibblies and chat. Whilst there Pete supplies us with some Turkish coffee and we inspect some old sun sights which he’d kept from the days of using a sextant before GPS devices became available.

2015: Back on Lowana IV Delma starts cooking tea. Fridges on. Have let out a fair bit of refrigeration gas. It’s not frosting on the compressor any more but it’s taking longer for the fridge and freezer to cool down.  Have a late dinner. Fail to establish communications with BBR. Clean up. Have a hot chocolate drink and put a fishing line over the side since there are fish showing under the boat on the depth sounder. Catch a smallish trevelly suitable for bait tomorrow plus a couple other nibbles but nothing serious..

Read for a while in bed before a breeze springs up. Small wavelets start thumping the boat and Lowana IV begins wandering a little to her anchor. Not too serious since we’re sheltered from NE winds by the cliff but I set an alarm on the GPS anyway before putting out the light and going to bed.

Sun 21 Sep 03

0715: Another lovely day. Water calm like a mirror. Light green colour. Schools of fish shoaling around boat near the surface. Hot cuppa.

0745: Pete offers some fish for bait but is not going fishing himself since he’s not feeling too well. Said he was knackered because he went to bed late.

0750: Called BBR. Establish comms on the 8 Mb frequency. Try to pass a position but don’t know if it was successfully received.  He gives me another frequency to try at 12 Mb. After changing I can hear him calling but he can’t hear me. Go back to the 8 Mb frequency but by now have lost him.

0810: Decide to fix the fridges instead of fishing. Pull out the pressure gauges and hook them up. Run the fridges and spend the next hour fiddling with settings on the low pressure temperature switch. Fridge eutectic plates all satisfactorily frozen up but it becomes pointless to keep trying. Anyway I’m reasonably happy with it and venting some more refrigeration gas finally solves the undesirable problem of frosting back onto the compressor.

1000: Have spent some time resetting the memory channels on the HF radio for music. Pete gives me a frequency of 4.835 Mb for Macca, a popular ABC radio program on Sunday mornings. By the time I’ve dialled it up the frequency is too noisy and the signal fades in and out too much.

1030: Pete has decided to go fishing and is sitting near a sand bar closer inshore fishing. A yacht arrives and anchors to the south of Kajan and Lowana IV. Will probably introduce ourselves later. Delma finishes cleaning up and is now reading her book again. A little while later Pete starts rowing about out there in the blazing sun. Must be hot work.

1100: A dinghy pulls away from the newly arrived yacht and starts heading our way. Shortly after a young French couple come alongside introducing themselves as Laurent and Regine (pronounced Regina). They’re quickly ushered aboard and Delma busies herself preparing some nibbles and drinks while they settle in.

Laurent and Regine had originally come from Toulouse in France but had sailed from New Caledonia. They’d bought their Jeaneau yacht named Itaipu there and are working towards the Indian Ocean where there are some small French islands. Their next leg is to Darwin, then on to Bali and possibly Malaya and Thailand to escape the Wet Season with its cyclones. As we talk it’s generally agreed the signs are there for an early Wet Season and they express a desire not to linger too long in getting to Indonesia and above the equator.

15 sv itaipu 16 laurent and regine
SV Itaipu Delma at left, Laurent and Regine from New Caledonia

Laurent is a geologist and Regine a radiographer. They’re a friendly couple both in the mid 30s.  He speaks good English but while she is able to follow most of the conversation, Laurent often translates to her what’s being said. We discuss tides and passage past Cape Don and through the Dundas and Clarence Straits. As it is they should encounter little problems given the current good weather and the neap tides. In any event I give them all the tides for the area for the next couple of days, plus a contact number for Tipperary Marina and the name of an electrician who does work on Lowana IV from time to time. They work out the tides and figure it would be best to leave this afternoon to be off Cape Don in the early evening so catch the tidal run through the Van Dieman Gulf to Darwin.

1330: Our new acquaintances depart for their own boat. I took around to find that Pete is back on his own boat. Lazy afternoon reading and sleeping.

1600: The yacht Itaipu departs.

1700: Pete comes over for sundowners. Make some loose plans for future activities and he returns to his own boat before dark.

Evening: Have a BBQ dinner of port chops and sausages before settling down with fishing lines over the side. Masses of fish have now gathered around the hull attracted by our cabin lighting on the water surface, and no doubt from occasional food scraps thrown over the side. Catch a few small trevelly suitable for bait tomorrow in a crab pot or on a line.

17 sunset cookingRight: Russ cooking on the BBQ at dusk.

2130: Try a radio sked with BBR but no good. Have a hot chocky drink and chat with Delma for a while. Check fuel and water levels. Have used 60 litres diesel which is more than I’d anticipated, plus 40 litres of water which is less than I’d thought.

Pete informs us by radio that he’s catching a few fish including a couple of small sharks. One has wrapped the fishing line around his propeller shaft where it proceeds to keep banging the hull while it tries to free itself.

MORE TO FOLLOW

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