My friend the slack tide, a 15 knot breeze, gorgeous multi-coloured rocks of Cape Voltaire, the white of our sails and the deep blue of the Indian Ocean; whales breaching, mackerel on the boil, screaming, diving, seagulls; Mystique on autopilot, Jon and I with cups of tea in hand and grins on our faces.
Ahhh, the moments that make the nail-biting angst all worthwhile.
A third of the way into our four month voyage from Wyndham to Derby we had managed to get ourselves a more powerful outboard with a longer prop and a new house battery for Mystique. Both had arrived on the fortnightly barge from Darwin to Kalumburu. We had power enough to run our chartplotter and our autopilot. Not spending hours everyday at the tiller had increased the overall pleasure of the voyage immensely!
Cape Voltaire is yet another magnificent Kimberley feature. On its headland are two hills, one of jumbled white rocks and, immediately next to it, a pyramid composed of fluted brown columns. It is also one of those pokey-out bits of the convoluted coast that the Western Australian Cruising Guide warns about: “in a fresh wind against the tide, steep-sided waves are generated. Large overfalls exist (2.5 metres) in the vicinity of Lavoisier Island.”
There is conflicting information about which way the tide flows as it ebbs and floods, so we decided to play it safe again by transiting the passage between the island and the cape at slack tide. Worked a treat!
We had a fantastic day’s sail south from the cape past cliffs that looked similar to the iconic Bungle Bungle domes. I was stoked to be heading for the well-protected maze of islands and promontories in the vicinity of Winyalkan Bay.
We rounded Wollaston Island to drop the pick in a calm anchorage on its south east. Aquamarine water, brilliant white beaches and orange cliffs: home for the next few days. A home that was to reveal some amazing secrets!
Respect is paid twice
We spent the next day putting around in our dinghy and going ashore to stretch our legs, on the lookout for art and interesting geology. By noon we found a sheltered place to have lunch under a shady sandstone overhang where a coolbreeze drifted over the creamy white slabs of rock beneath.After our sun-dried tomato, rosemary and olive-studded damper we both meandered off in different directions, scrambling over jumbled stones, managing to stay in the shade the whole time.I found myself at the entrance to a narrow cleft. Rock walls rose up several metres either side above my head. The moment that I stepped into the ravine the air quality changed in a strange way. Suddenly it felt thicker, as though the space was filled with a tangible ‘presence.’ Instantly, I thought “there’s someone buried here, for sure!” I looked around for evidence of bones or a paperbark bundle, the traditional method of internment in this country. I could not see anything except the smooth orange walls either side of me and white shells underfoot. As I looked skyward I noticed a ledge about 2.5m from the ground with a pedestal of rock leaning against it. The pedestal looked climbable so I carefully edged my way up. I gingerly peeked over the edge. Nestled against the back wall was a human skeleton! It looked as though small gnawing animals had torn the paperbark wrapping away from its bones. The skull was balanced on top of the long bones of the arms and the legs which had been painted with red ochre. The lower part of the paperbark covering was still intact enough to conceal the smaller bones of the ribs, hands and feet which must have settled down below the long bones. I gazed in silent awe for several minutes, then backed away reverently, down-climbing the pedestal to the shelly white ground below.
One day I would become just that. One day all that would be left of me would be some beautiful old bones. I felt a renewed sense of carpe diem, and went to find my lovely Jon.
Under a full moon we sat in Mystique’s cockpit, sipping on a minuscule amount of single malt whisky. On an 8m trailerable yacht for a four month voyage, everything is rationed.
“Check that out,” said Jon, nodding towards the silver and black, moon-lit water. About 30m away from the boat was a dark log shape that was slowly floating in a wide arc around us. The ‘log’s’ spine was covered in jagged armour plating, which glinted metallically in the moonlight. A head emerged from the water, a shiny dark dragon silhouette, with prominent eye and nose bulges.
“It’s a croc!” I said. “It looks like it’s going to do an entire lap around us.” We watched it for several minutes as it made its lazy way twice around Mystique.
Jon grabbed the boat hook and leaned over the side and began thrashing the hook around in the water. Immediately the croc turned towards him and came straight to the edge of the cockpit, raising its head in an attempt to look into the boat.
Jon stepped quickly back from the edge, “it’s attracted to the sound of the hook thrashing in the water, makes ‘em think there’s a fish in distress.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t make ourselves quite so attractive. Not when we have to get into the dinghy again tomorrow. I’d rather the local crocs didn’t start their conversations with, ‘you know those distressed fish in that yacht over there ...”
We heard an incredible story a month later from some yachties about the crocodile activity in the Winyalken area. Just four nautical miles from where we had been anchored, a couple had gone ashore in Swift Bay in their inflatable dinghy. They pulled up on the beach, the woman remaining seated as the man stepped out. He turned around and to his absolute horror saw a 4m crocodile about to attack the Zodiac.
“Get out now!” He screamed. The woman leapt to shore as the croc clamped its jaws down on the back of the boat. It thrashed around with the Zodiac in its mouth, the boat was totally destroyed.
Seems crocs are not overly fond of inflatables.
The couple were stranded on the beach for four days and nights without food or shelter until some friends of theirs sailed into the bay and noticed the unattended yacht. Fortunately for the couple there was a spring of fresh water on the beach which they had seen marked on a chart. Also, fortunately for them, their mates decided to investigate and saw them on the beach, frantically waving. After hearing that story, we never went ashore again without a grab bag full of emergency food, water, sat phone, EPIRB, and fire lighter.
A mile from where we were anchored in Winyalken was a stunning beach, a brilliant curve of white sand with gigantic house-sized orange blocks of stone behind it. Jon and I had been catching up with some equipment repairs on Mystique over a number of days. Both of us stopped our work numerous times to gaze at the tantalising, pristine beach.
Its magnetic pull had been getting stronger and stronger until finally Jon put the rudder and the epoxy aside and said, “lets go check it out!” I immediately stopped sewing the third patch onto my threadbare pants and stowed the freshly caught fish in the cool cupboard.
As we landed the tinny on the pristine beach we saw a large tender appear from a fjord to the south west making a beeline straight toward us.
“Looks like we’re gonna have some company,” I said. We sat down to wait for their approach. It was a large tinny with a fixed canopy shading several people. As it swept around, backing up to the beach, we noticed it was powered by not one, but two, 350 horsepower outboards. Jon and I glanced at each other and raised our eyebrows.
We introduced ourselves to the obvious leader, Charles, a tall, well-dressed young man who was followed by a gaggle of giggling women and another young man, all equally well-presented and manicured.
“Where have you come from?” asked Jon.
“From Darwin,” came the reply, “we passed you a few days ago near the Kingsmill Islands. We’re delivering the motorboat to Broome.”
That was almost the total sum of information that the group was divulging, they certainly were not answering any questions about who owned said ‘motorboat’; translation: 100 foot, three storey, gin palace with theatre, swimming pool and resident chef!
“There’s some great art here. You can follow us if you like,” said Charles as he turned to lead his group up into the complex maze of sandstone rocks. Jon and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, why not? Might be a cultural experience, in more ways than one.
We tagged along, listening but not comprehending, as the women continued to giggle and look at their phones, snapping pictures as they walked. We appeared to be invisible and were unable to engage them in conversation, despite numerous attempts. They would not make eye contact with us. Somehow they seemed a little alien, as though they were moving through the Kimberley in a floating penthouse, stepping out briefly onto the land to photograph the obligatory sights and carrying with them their carefully constructed bubble of privilege: a buffer between themselves and the reality of their environment and other people.
Still, it is all relative. Here we were, thinking, “oh my god they smell bad, they reek of perfume and aftershave!”
There they were, thinking (or perhaps not) “oh my god they smell bad, they reek of human and fish!”
Here we were thinking, “they need 700 horsepower outboards on their tinny to feel safe and no-one else outside their floating gin palace is of any consequence.”
There they were thinking, “they are an accident waiting to happen in their under-powered 2hp-driven dinghy (presupposing they noticed) and why do they keep bothering us with attempts at conversation?”
So, in the end it was a cultural experience, the Wandjina art was nice enough and the humans were a curious wonderment of unsolved riddles.
Our next move in Mystique was under gentle sail just 5nm deeper into Winyalken Bay. There was an interesting looking rock ledge, a few kilometres long, that we wanted to explore. Several long overhangs at the back of the wide ledge looked like they might be ideal places to find some Gwion Gwion art, otherwise known as Bradshaws.
There is a wonderful book by historian, Ian Wilson, called ‘The lost world of the Kimberley’, in which he describes the European discovery of Gwion Gwion art, a particularly elegant style of rock painting which has been dated to at least 22,000 years ago. Wilson explores some fascinating hypothesis about the origin of the people who created this art, suggesting that they may have migrated from Madagascar by boat. He concludes that “[Gwion Gwion] provide not only Australia’s but the world’s clearest window on the lives of our ancestors back in the Ice Age. Very few people realise the extraordinary national treasure that we have in our own ‘backyard.'
Jon and I left Mystique securely anchored in a shallow channel which almost dried at each low tide and took camping gear with us up onto the rock ledge. Our first day walk north along the ledge revealed several individual skeletal burials on rock shelves under the shelter of one of the huge orange overhangs. The next overhang along had a magnificent Gwion Gwion image of a sophisticated canoe with high prows at each end, suggestive of an ocean going vessel with a possible rudder and sail. There were five people inside the boat, one of them paddling and one fishing.
Next to the boat stood four people with elongated head ornaments; common to this style of art. We returned to our camp extraordinarily happy with the day’s find.
The next day we trekked south and while looking for some midday shade, discovered another wonderful art panel of several warriors with boomerangs and barbed spears. Winyalken proved to have been a popular home to the Gwion Gwion artists.
There was one more place to visit from our camp on the ledge before returning to Mystique. On top of the ridge behind us was a dome-shaped rock formation that looked like a classic Turkish mosque with a minaret roof. We took day packs and after a couple of hours walking were almost there. A final climb, bridging our way up between a rock face and a tree with a foot on each, saw us at the entrance to the ‘mosque’.
It was a hollow space the size of a small room with three ‘doorways.’ We climbed inside and had our lunch of Turkish halva in the company of the delicious cool zephyr that flowed though the airy structure. No art, but magnificent views over Winyalken Bay and fantastic geology!
We headed back down to camp and then onto Mystique. It was lovely to be back on board our little floating cubbyhouse after three days of camping.
Mystique, had spent each low tide with her belly in the mud but was none the worse for her gentle contact with the sea bed.
That afternoon, as I sat quietly on deck I was treated to the magnificent aerial ballet of a stingray on the hunt. Several times it leapt clear from the water, seeming to fly with its giant wings outstretched either side. Before twisting in mid air and diving into the water on the trail of some terrified fish.
New age moment
It was hard to leave Winyalken as there was so much potential art hidden amongst the extensive rock gullies and ridges. We finally managed to drag ourselves away, upped anchor and sailed around a small peninsula into Mudge Bay.
On entering this bay we were escorted by a lone dolphin for a mile or so who frolicked at our bow, repeatedly diving under one side and reappearing on the other.
We anchored in deep water behind the protection of a small island that sits in the middle of the bay. The sun set over extraordinary balancing rock formations only several hundred metres from the boat. They reminded us of the neolithic stone arrangements in Britain and it seemed appropriate to dub them, ‘Mudge Henge.’
After doing a spot of yoga the next morning on Mudge Henge we went in search for fresh water, exploring a small inlet in the dinghy and finding a narrow stream at its head. We filled up several of our ten litre water bags and were about to head home when Jon noticed something sparkling in the grey bedrock of the stream. “Hey Suzy,” he said excitedly, “you’re gonna love this!”
I went to have a look at what he was pointing at and was amazed to see a seam of large clear quartz crystals. “Oh my goodness!” I gasped, squatting down to examine some of the extraordinarily beautiful five-sided, single-terminated crystals. Several had separated from the embedded seam and were perfectly formed with crystalline sharp lines and perfect pointed ends.
As we arrived back at Mystique the day was about to become even more classically ‘new age’. The sun was low in the sky and we were preparing dinner when we heard the distinctive sharp breath exhalation with which a dolphin announces itself. We both climbed out of the cabin to have a look.
About 15m from us was a pair of dolphins and, cradled between them, the smallest baby dolphin I have ever seen. The trio remained floating almost motionless for about five minutes, lying together, their sides touching each other.
It appeared that the baby was suckling from its mother and being supported by the other adult.
“I think we just saw that baby dolphin have its first feed after being born,” I said, grinning at Jon. “First its yoga, then crystals, followed by dolphins! What next, maybe a rainbow? If I see a rainbow next, I think I’m gonna puke!”
Dramatic turn around
There was no rainbow and I did not vomit, but I was seriously nauseous as the day finished in only a slightly-less cliched manner: in perfect calm with the water all around us mirroring the most magnificent purple and pink opalescent sky that you ever did see!
Just around the corner from Mudge Bay is Bigge Island, which is the second largest island in the Kimberley and a popular stop over to view both Wandjina and Gwion Gwion art. It is a significant cultural site to the Wunabul people and permission should be sought to visit from the Wotjulum Community at Kalumburu.
Bigge Island forms the western edge of Scott Strait, which is hazardous and should be negotiated close to slack tide. Going around the outside of Bigge is possibly a simpler option and allows for anchorage on its north west corner, in Wary Bay near the art site.
There is good holding as the sea bed there is grey mud and is protected from the east and the south. Watch out though for scattered rocks and a wide fringing reef within the bay.
If you decide to take the inner route of Scott Strait, there are good anchorages at both ends of the strait to wait and stage your transit with the most favourable wind and tide. We went through the strait from the north to the south, which is arguably the easiest direction of travel.
We caught the flood tide just an hour past slack. There is a significant reef in the middle of the strait. We could see it up ahead as there was plenty of white water all along its edge. “Lets go west through the wider passage,” I said.
Jon shook his head, “we’re starting to get some big swell coming up through that side of the passage. It looks calmer on the eastern side of the reef. Try to swing over to that side.”
I turned Mystique, to try to cut across the top of the reef and slip into the the eastern passage but, almost as soon as I turned her, I realised the current was going to pull us onto the reef before we got that far. We were being pushed broadside towards the reef faster than we could make headway, which was pretty damn scary.
“It’s no good, Jon we’re going to have to pass on the west side,” I said, yanking the tiller hard to port and swinging us back around again. We pitched pretty badly going head on into the wind and waves, but it only took five minutes to get past the reef with the current and engine on side.
“Lets get into some calmer water,” said Jon. “See that inlet on the port side there, let’s turn hard and head for that.”
I turned Mystique and she was suddenly broadside to the swell, we had both forgotten that our keel was raised. Suddenly our sweet little yacht was uncharacteristically rolling around like a drunken sailor. Jon leapt to the winch, lowering the keel and Mystique’s wild rolling began to slowly stabilise.
We pulled into the unnamed inlet, just south of Scott Inlet and dropped anchor in sheltered water. It was such a relief to be out of the wind and the swell and the current. I went below to make us a cup of tea.
Almost straight away Jon called me, “come and look at this!”
“Can’t it wait?” I asked.
“Well, I just thought you might want to see this. It looks like a big turtle but it’s behaving strangely.” I popped my head out of the companionway, “yep, looks like a turtle.”
“But it’s just floating there, for too long. Maybe it’s sick, or injured?”
It dived and simultaneously we both said, “maybe a croc?”
The kettle was boiling so I popped back down. “It is a croc!” exclaimed Jon, “I reckon it’s four metres long and it’s right here next to the boat! Come and have a look!”
I grabbed the camera and scrambled into the cockpit. Sure enough there it was. Grinning up from the aquamarine cool water, astutely eyeballing us.
I could read its mind but it was more like it spoke the words out loud because I am sure it had a polished English accent when it asked, “wouldn’t you like to join me for a dip? You must be awfully hot up there old chaps?”
I was feeling mesmerised by its hypnotic stare and a little floaty, Jon started quoting Len Zell, from his book, ‘A guide to the Kimberley coast’: “salt water crocodiles have been around for 250 million years and are unquestionably the most efficient and feared estuarine predator on the planet. Rather than chewing they tear their food and swallow in gulps.”
Well, that snapped me out of my reverie. I stepped back from the edge of the cockpit coaming and snapped off a few rounds on the camera.
Then it sank from view and we never saw it again, but I wondered if perhaps we were under almost constant surveillance ourselves?
We lay in the dark being gently rocked towards sleep by Mystique’s rhythmic undulations on the water, “hey, Jon. You awake?”
“Mmmm ... just ...”
“Do you ever get the feeling you just want to throw yourself into the maws of a crocodile?”
“Sometimes I do; yeah. It’s sort of like wanting to step off a cliff just to see what it’s like. Reckon the croc experiment wouldn’t be a good way to go though.”
“Glad to hear it, now go to sleep.”
At this stage of our journey we thought we still had two months left to continue our voyage to Derby, but a disturbing realisation occurred in the next few weeks that had us seriously reconsidering our plans. ≈