The Great Barrier Reef in Winter Mackay to Cairns


We drove the 300 kms inland from Mackay to the town of Emerald in the Central Highlands, the road climbing slowly all the way, and as dusk fell, looked for a room. NO VACANCY. Everywhere. Finally in desperation we asked one of the No Vacancies if he could suggest anywhere. He looked at us pityingly, and said hadn’t we heard of the resources boom? All the rooms in the 30+ motels in Emerald were taken by miners, often 4 to a room, often traveling 60kms to their mine each day. But luckily it was Emerald’s annual show, and 1 or 2 rooms in a seedy place opposite might have been vacated by reps, as the show ended today. And so it was, we grabbed the ‘lucky last room’ for A$90, swept past a cockroach guarding the door, tin foil on the windows and working girls in mini pants and were ‘home’ for the night.


Australia is big on Returned Servicemen, so we dined at the RSL, big, brightly lit, cheerful, wouldn’t have been out of place in the north of England in the 1970’s . Next day we drove further west through the town of Sapphire, to the township of Ruby, where we panned for sapphires at Miners Heritage working mine. The sapphires are found about 10 metres below the surface and date back to when Australia was covered with volcanoes which spewed out sapphires (very hard crystalline Aluminium Oxide, quite different from diamonds which are carbon). The colour comes from impurities. Claims are 30metre by 30 metre squares, and each person can have 2 – so a family can have perhaps 10 – but they must work it or relinquish it. This particular mine had a rich vein, so we found 3 small sapphires in a bucket of ‘wash’ – first sieving out the dust, then washing to aggregate the heavier sapphires to the bottom of the pan, then inverting and searching. But we couldn’t find the big one. I reckoned I still owed Nicky an engagement ring to replace the one stolen from Intrepid in the Caribbean, so we chose a largish sea blue/green sapphire from the ones found in their mine, and had it set into a ring in town.


The largest coal mine in the world is at Blair Athol, near Clermont. Started in the 1980’s it must also be the richest in the world, as its 30 metres of coal is only 30 metres below the surface. So RTZ (the owners) dynamite the top 30 metres, bulldoze the fragmented top 20 metres, then use a HUGE dragline to remove the remaining 10 metres in 130 tonne buckets to expose the coal, which is then dynamited in more controlled explosions, loaded onto 10 metres wide trucks to a rail loading gantry and exported to Mackay. Well, actually to a new port just south, so that’s what the 20 or so bulk ships were waiting for as he sailed through them the week before. Coal is about A$85/tonne, (₤30) and is exported mainly to Japan. The mine progresses across the countryside at a slow pace – they moved a whole town 20 years ago when large chunks of rock from the dynamiting started falling in the school playground; and resident koalas are persuaded to move by felling all the trees round them, then waiting till they wander off to find more food, then fell the tree they were in. Behind the mine the ground is filled in, 30 metres lower than before, and refoliated, and the koalas wander back. The mine itself will run out of coal seam after producing about 100+ million tones in 2011, but they hope to start a replacement a few miles away, so they can continue to use their German made equipment. The mine only employs about 200 workers, top salary of A$110,000/year is earned by the drag line operator, mining and oil seldom provide much benefit to a country, because by keeping wages high, they make most other businesses uncompetitive – and indeed farmers complain that they can’t compete with the mines for workers, and meat works are bringing in Brazilians to cope – at the same wages as Australians.   


Even the oil companies are feeling the higher costs needed to increase production – oil drilling rigs used to be a snip at $64,000/day, now you cant get them for $250,000/day. This quadrupling in cost matches the increase in oil price at $65/barrel, up from $15 or so a few years ago. Australia is a key player in world resources – they are pleased that they have finally persuaded China to accept a long term 19% increase in the price of iron ore – all of which will translate into higher costs to China, which will have to pass them onto the developed world, (China has been subsidizing inflationary pressures by absorbing cost increases up to now) so the Fed will probably have to raise interest rates which will hit confidence and the stock market and stop price rises driven by demand – but not those driven by costs. So Australia may end up driving the very inflation that kills this particular boom.


Elaine and Denis flew in from Oregon to sail with us for 4 weeks around the Whitsunday Islands and up the coast to Cairns. From Oregon its nearly a 24 hour plane journey – and the wind was blowing so hard that we took them to about the only place where you can see duck billed platypus in the wild – at Eungella National Park. We stayed at the Broken River Mountain Retreat – neat cabins (A$90/room) and wandered the 100 metres to the bridge to see after just a few minutes these 2 foot long marsupials swimming around, then diving to burrow for grubs on the bottom. They mainly come out at dusk, although we saw a few at 2pm, so have lots of photos of dusky watery swirls where a platypus used to be.


We set off next day in boisterous 30 knot winds, doing 7.5 knots only because we had reefed down to small sails, and finally made it into the lee of Goldsmiths Island as dark was falling, and anchored in 3 metres just off a coral reef. Then on to Hamilton Island, in full gale force winds and rain in the Whitsundays, every Australian’s dream holiday destination or wedding venue. Developed in the 1980’s the island is not exactly eco friendly, and the rain and wind made the friendly yacht club sports bar more appealing than the beaches. Denis went off to dive the Great Barrier Reef (10 dives in 3 days including 2 night dives), and Jenny Burger flew in from the USA. Driving rain and the World Cup continued to force us into the Yacht Club, and we watched England beat Paraguay, then sailed to Airlie Beach catching a neat long tailed tuna on the way – Jenny watched with interest as I filleted it on the back of Intrepid as the gales swept by.


Airlie Beach is on the mainland, and is garish but Beaches was an equally good barn of a sports bar, so we watched Australia beat Japan with 3 goals in the last 10 minutes at 2am in the morning. A crocodile safari was so rainy that the crocodiles stayed at home and weren’t seen, then we set off to Hook Island, in continuing 30 knot winds, but the anchorage at the end of mile long Nara inlet was safe and secure, and we explored the island’s Aboriginal caves, and Jenny and I successfully dammed a waterfall, then tore it down to watch a torrent descend the steep hillside.


Then north to Stonehaven Bay, where Jenny and I in wetsuits snorkeled the beautiful coral reefs – and sailed back to Hamilton for Jenny and Elaine to fly to Sydney. Meanwhile Intrepid had 3 days to get to Townsville in 3 long hops. First anchorage was delightful, tucked into Greys Bay north of Bowen, but the 2nd night was awful, behind Cape Bowling Green which was about as flat as its namesake, and offered about as much protection from the wind rain and swell. On the positive side we had caught another fish so Denis and I sushied, then we had seared blackened tuna just a few hours old – we are starting to better appreciate the different varieties of tuna – most is fairly red, and tastes almost like steak, but some varieties cook to pinky/whiteness, others do better with currying.


Finally the last day into Townsville in 25 knot winds, (the weather is driven by high pressure over Tasmania, whose winds rotate anticlockwise to produce South Easterlies up the Queensland coast). Townsville is the biggest town in tropical Australia, a military town (eg Tobruk Memorial Baths) but also export port for coal, iron, sugar, zinc, copper, cattle etc. and home to the longest running wet T shirt competition in Australia. The Battle of Coral Sea was fought offshore Townsville between 2 fleets that never saw each other. Although the Japanese sunk the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, the battle was the first strategic defeat for the Japanese in WW2, and headed off a probable Japanese invasion of Australia.


During this trip we heard of the very sad loss of a young friend of one of us on board – it appears the yacht he was on was hit by a rogue wave at night, and knocked over until her mast was parallel to the sea. 2 people were washed overboard, a 3rd was only just held on by his life-line; one of those washed over was rescued (with severe hypothermia), the other died on the way to hospital. It illustrates what the sea can do. All we can do is try to learn lessons from this tragic incident.


At school in East Grinstead, Sussex, Nicky and Elaine had a best friend Kate who eventually emigrated to Tasmania, and more or less lost touch. We managed to contact  her, and by a fortunate chance her son is a doctor in Townsville, so yesterday the 3 friends were together again for the first time in 35 years and didn’t stop talking. Denis and I concentrated on the fine Pinot Noir from Tasmania, and talked to Sam, Kate’s son. He confirmed the problems in Aboriginal communities caused by alcohol and the breakdown of the traditional way of life. The Federal and State Governments have been ambivalent about this, sometimes allowing ‘self-rule’ which however was often abused resulting in disorder, violence and child abuse. So now there is a firmer approach including limits on alcohol, and sentences that are not mitigated because the crime was ‘customary’. Smut has also hit Queensland – not porn but cane smut which blights the sugar cane reducing yield to next to nothing. 12 farms are in quarantine near Bundaberg, but other parts of Australia have coped with smut by planting lower yielding but smut resistant strains of cane so our rum and sugar may still be OK.


After a friendly informal yachties BBQ we were promised light winds next day so set off at 0630, and motored for 2 hours, but then clouds started to stack up, the wind increased and we rushed along with sails on  both sides at 8 knots. Until the line screeched off the reel, Denis played it hard as Elaine and Nicky brought the Genoa in, then with Denis having to hang onto the wildly bending rod, he finally brought the fish alongside, and I gaffed it. A tuna, probably a southern bluefin, possibly an albacore, either way perfect for sushi. So as we lay at the mooring in Little Pioneer Bay, the wind whistled through the rigging, the hazy sun set behind more clouds, Denis prepared dreamy fresh sushi, then I seared another part for a perfect dinner as we looked out at 8 prawn boats with bright lights all round the horizon.


Next day we sailed across to Lucinda, a sugar exporting townlet at the south of the Hinchingbrooke channel. Our departure at 0630 enabled us to get over the bar at the entrance – even at high tide we only had 0.8metres to spare, and the tide is about 3 metres! To retain the port, they have built a 3 mile long jetty, and we followed the leading lights in, and ghosted past half the town (20 people) fishing from the old jetty, then into the narrow channel surrounded by mangroves, granity cliffs and looming hills, some up to 1100 metres. Elaine said it looked just like Scotland (apart from the mangroves – and crocodiles). Estuarine crocodiles are relatively frequent here, and dangerous – if you can see one, there are probably 20, and I have been persuaded to stop cleaning fish while standing on the stern platform of Intrepid – apparently crocodiles have been known to catch fishermen this way…….


We anchored at Scraggy Point north of the channel, and Nicky and I tried to go ashore – but I sank up above my knees in mud, and Nic was reluctant to get out of the dinghy in case crocodiles were lurking – another warning from the many leaflets we get. But we managed to find a better beach, and tied to mangrove roots and explored a small part of the island – once used as a resort in the 1930’s, although it must have been pretty basic.


Then north in squally weather to Mourilyan – a natural harbour (though they did have to dynamite the entrance to deepen it enough). Now it’s a commercial sugar exporting jetty with a warehouse 200 metres long, 50 wide and 25 high full of sugar for export. Think of the calories. Its also a base for shrimping boats that go out at night. Denis and I went ashore to find it shut, but we did find a wild Cassowary, about 5 feet high tremendous legs like a small ostrich, which took a fancy to Denis, although whether as a source of food whole, or in pieces or as a mate I’m not sure. Even with legs that alluring Denis wasn’t waiting to find out so we sauntered back to the dinghy pursued by our Cassowary. The tides and currents do weird things here, and Intrepid performed a stately waltz all night long, often within 8 metres of another boat, but never quite touching while we sushied, BBQ’ed, played bridge and admired the stars.


North next morning at first light (0625) destination Cairns 60 miles away. Just north of Mourilyan is Innisfail which was trashed by a 200 mph cyclone in January 2006 – Mourilyan appeared intact although there were some uprooted trees. Squalls raced past us, tracking the Great Dividing Range which is close to the coast here, then we swept past Fitzroy Island and got well and truly drenched until we spotted the 3 mile long dredged channel into Cairns.


Most of the towns we had visited along this coast have been working, utilitarian, usually sugar or ore exporters. Cairns is tourism writ large – thousand of Asian (mostly) tourists, here to see the Great Barrier Reef (which is also close to shore here) and other Aussie icons. So Cairns has been developed to make sure they do, from high rise 4* hotels to luxury dive boats, loads of trendy restaurants. We bashed our way into Cairns Marlin Marina full of game fishing boats and ferries to resorts offshore, and felt a sense of relief as we finished this stage of the journey. Elaine and Denis have been great fun, and we all had a terrific time in spite of gales and rain! They stay on for a few more days. Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary so we are spoilt for choice of places to go.


I now fly to UK for 2 weeks to see my mother and James’s graduation, while Nicky indulges herself in Cairns (and varnishes). Then with James we sail north round the top of Australia, through the dangerous and shallow Torres Straights to Darwin.


We send our best wishes from a rainy and to tell the truth rather wintery Cairns.


Andy and Nicky and Elaine and Denis


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