You have both been at the helm for 14 hours. You’ve both got your hands covered in grease, up to the elbow deep inside the guts of your sick engine. Two exacting hours later and you’ve finally got her purring again. You almost manage to get excited about the success before tumbling into a deep exhausted sleep. Familiar?
We had lost all engine power on the final leg of our otherwise cruisy traverse around the most northern capes in Western Australia, the notorious Cape Londonderry and the more friendly Cape Talbot. Fortunately, our anchorage just south of Talbot was ideal for the engine repair as the water was calm. Perfect really, we were too wired for sleep having safely crept into the darkening bay under the gentle pull of our rainbow spinnaker. We channelled all that post sailing ‘high’ into the delicate choreography of the fine art of motor surgery.
We started late the next morning. I was excited by the prospect of the day’s goal: the Drysdale River. The sense of of being tucked up inside a river was going to be a nice change after the previous four weeks of sailing up the exposed western shore of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.
“How long do you want to stay?” I asked.
“Could be nice to leave Mystique anchored and wander around in the bush for a few days looking for Bradshaws, what do you reckon?” returned Jon.
“Sounds great to me.” That is what I was there for really. A four month explorative tour of the open air galleries of the Kimberley Archipelago and a bit of fondling of voluptuous boab trees.
Bradshaws, or Gwion Gwions as they are also known, are possibly the oldest rock art in the Kimberley, having been dated to at least the last ice-age 22,000 years ago. At that time the planet was much drier and vast areas of the Kimberley, now under water, were thought to have been fertile land inhabited by the people who made these incredibly distinctive and elegant ochre drawings.
Many of their drawings, across thousands of square kilometres of Kimberley wilderness, are still visible above the current sea level, under rock overhangs that would have once been the high points of that ice age period. The Gwion Gwion art style is very different to the more modern but equally prolific Wandjina art. Jon and I both felt a strange attraction for the Gwion Gwion images and were keen to discover yet to be documented examples in this untracked coastal wilderness.
Just inside the mouth of the Drysdale River there is a lovely deep keel anchorage tucked in behind Curran Point, with attractive sand dunes on the northern beach and some islands midstream, where the fishing is reputed to be good. Further upstream the Drysdale is only navigable by catamarans and lifting keelers.
It is a broad shallow river with plenty of sandbars and rocks midstream. For the first few miles the river estuary is so shallow that the sand, rocks and seaweed create an incredibly rich gold and green watery tapestry.
Retracting the keel on our 8m trailer sailer Mystique we were able to motor on up, using the last hour of the incoming high tide with Jon standing on the bow keeping a lookout for the channel of deepest water. We zig-zagged all over the place.
Seven nautical miles upstream the river deepens and then continues past an old fishing camp and does a dog leg around a small point where it is blocked by a rock bar just below some freshwater rapids.
As we motored past the fishing camp a wild looking fellow emerged from one of the tin sheds and came down to the water’s edge, gesturing to us to tie up on the mooring opposite camp. We yelled our thanks but continued slowly, 180 degrees around the point, anchoring in 12m deep water. Jon hopped in the dinghy and set up four lines from the stern and bow to the river bedrock, holding us securely midstream.
We settled down to a feed of crispy pancakes with honey and tinned pears before making an early evening tinny expedition up to the low falls for a wash and water collection. Amongst the rapids, several bath shaped bowls of rock begged us to try every one of their sublime natural spas. Who could resist such an invitation?
The next day we packed a picnic lunch of flour to make into damper, some peanut butter, mung bean sprouts, our billy, some tea, powdered milk and dates. We also took a first aid kit and satellite phone and wore gaiters to protect our legs from snake bite.
We wandered through the thick tropical scrub, climbing over chaotic piles of rock, getting our clothing snagged and becoming drenched in sweat in the 35 degree heat.
We were on the hunt for Gwion Gwions and came across a few faint paintings here and there but nothing stunning enough to really reward all the exhausting scrambling. We did find a small clearing with some fairly crude Wandjina art under some overhanging rocks.
There is a repeating figure amongst this art style that we were to see again and again, of a powerfully rotund dude with extraordinarily enlarged baby making bits. The exact opposite of loveliness really, probably not a very politically correct statement but hey, sometimes you just gotta tell it like you see it.
We visited our Drysdale day spa again to wash off the sweat. As we lounged blissfully, each in our favourite spa bath, Jon said, “when we came past the fishing camp, did you notice the bright orange dinghy tied up at the rock shelf?”
“Mmmm,” I replied, my eyes shut not really interested in discussing yet another boat at this particular moment.
“Well, I reckon that was the same dinghy that we saw salvaging the wrecked yacht as we came around Cape Londonderry.”
I sat bolt upright, “you’re right, it did look like that! Let’s visit the camp tomorrow and find out what that bloke knows.”
We dinghied around to the camp the next morning, bringing pancakes topped with our secret information extraction weapon; no-one can eat Mum’s cumquat marmalade without breaking into a soporific smile. In this happy ‘drugged,’ state they want to tell you all!
We stepped out carefully onto the barnacle-encrusted rock shelf just 25m down slope from a simple three-walled shed. By the time we had tied off to the metal ring in the bedrock the camp man was on his way down to greet us.
He was slightly stooped but obviously very fit, a man of the bush and the sea; his face weathered and his clothing sturdy and worn. He stepped nimbly around the detritus of sailing paraphernalia that lay scattered everywhere over the broad rock shelf and came to a stand still, his bright blue eyes astutely summing us up.
“Gidday, I’m Don, come on up to the fire for a cuppa.”
Over a cup of billy tea (and our SIEW) we discovered that Don had indeed been salvaging material from the wrecked yacht. It had run aground a week before on its return from Indonesia, foundering on Cape Londonderry during a stormy night. The family had been rescued by a passing catamaran and had returned to Perth.
Don, being a frugal old bushman, hated to see the incredible resources on the yacht wasted. Future storms would likely destroy any currently viable gear that remained on board.
“They can have it all,” said Don, referring to the owners of the wreck and gesturing to the multitude of gear that was laid out to dry on the rock slab. “I’ve been in touch with them. They just have to come and get it.”
Don invited us back for the evening, “there’s a few bushwalkers expected tonight. We’re gunna have a cook up. You might as well join us.”
Don accompanied us back down to our tinny. As I began clambering into the boat a flash of movement in the water had me leaping back from the edge. “It’s just Codley,” laughed Don, “he won’t hurt you. When he’s around you know the crocs aren’t anywhere nearby.”
The 2m long yellowy brown mottled cod nosed up against the rock shelf and Don pulled a tidbit of something out of his pocket, dropping it into Codley’s open mouth. “I’ve known Codley for years now,” said Don. “We’re great mates.
“He got a fish hook caught in his mouth. He came up to the shore here and rolled over on his side to show me that hook. He stayed still the whole time while I cut it out. Bloody smart fish!”
That evening Don’s camp was abuzz with people: two brothers who had been out walking for weeks looking for Bradshaws and a couple from Melbourne, Jenya and her boyfriend, who had started their walk from Don’s camp and had spent six days walking across the peninsula to Glycosmis Bay.
We chatted excitedly about the beauty of Glycosmis as Jon and I had been there just a week earlier in Mystique (CH October issue).
“What about that rock-hole above the falls,” I asked, “you know, the really long deep one that you can’t see to the bottom of? There was no way known I was going swimming in that. I know it doesn’t make sense, only fresh water crocs up there, but it gave me the creeps!’
Jenya looked at me in a somewhat stunned manner and glanced across at her boyfriend, “yes, we know that waterhole.
“I didn’t want to go in it either. After being told I was stupid, several times mind you, I walked in up to my shoulders and just stood there a while. Then there was this thrashing in the water next to me and something latched onto my armpit and breast. It was sort of like being punched. I started screaming and flailing around with my arms until it let go. I got out of that waterhole damn fast. It was a 1.5m long freshie. The wounds it made needed closing with steri-strips. Then there’s the risk of infection, but it’s O.K, it’s healing well.”
I realised how fortunate I was to be journeying with a man who had a healthy respect for my intuitive fears.
Danger seems to lurk most strongly when your guard is down. As the night around the fire progressed the wine fuelled stories became grander and funnier. I went to check on the dinghy, to make sure its rope was long enough
to cope with the quickly dropping tide.
There in the dark, I came face to face with the creature that haunted my dreams. Poised between myself and the dinghy was the grandmother of all monsters. There ‘she’ was, an armoured top-order predator, eyeing off her potential food, a soft bellied primate, with deeply focused deliberation.
There I was, momentarily, quivering in my reef sandals and then, suddenly, there I wasn’t. The next instant I found myself 20m further up the slope at the edge of the firelight pointing at the crocodile and yelling, “down there! Big croc!”
Don casually poked the fire with a stick, “don’t worry about it. They won’t come up to the kitchen until we go to bed.”
“They! You mean there’s more than one?” I yelped.
“‘Yep, take a look in the water behind her.”
I aimed my head torch down past the monstrous creature on the rocks and saw three other sets of red eyes, bobbing silently at the water’s edge. They all appeared to be lined up, their noses pointing straight to where we stood together around the fire, safe for the moment.
“Well, I’m not going back to Mystique in that,” I said, pointing at our little dinghy with its 30 centimetre freeboard. Not waiting for an invitation to stay, I continued, “I’m staying right here, but not in this kitchen either! Much, much further up the slope. Maybe in a tree.”
“It’s O.K,” said Don, “you can sleep in the little tin shed up the slope there,” he pointed vaguely uphill. “I reckon I can even rustle up a few blankets. Now, how about a nice cup of tea?”
We left the Drysdale the next morning with a mud map from Don of the simplest route out of the river. He had advised us to pass through the Governor Islands area at slack tide to avoid standing waves. We took his advice and sailed across into Napier Broome Bay, anchoring 3nm north of McGowan Island Beach.
It was an exposed anchorage but the weather was settled. We had always planned to pick up fuel at McGowans, which is on the mainland not an island, as we had used 90 litres of our 140 litres of petrol running our two-stroke Yamaha eight horsepower outboard, since leaving Wyndham in the Cambridge Gulf seven weeks earlier.
We had heard that light airs were more of a problem than heavy weather in the Kimberley during winter but we had not expected to use the motor quite so much.
In distance, McGowans was only about a third of the way to Derby, where we planned to finish. We had used more than half our fuel, so we needed to buy more fuel and another fuel container.
The approach to McGowans is littered with hidden rocks, some which are marked with buoys. Check the Western Australian cruising guide for the approach or, better still, contact the campground before leaving home. Call them on VHF16 for current conditions.
We anchored over gently shoaling mud 100m off McGowan Island beach. It is exposed and has the potential to be rolly.
A preferable and relatively well-protected anchorage is Honeymoon Bay, approximately 3nm south east from McGowans. Another advantage of this anchorage is it sells fuel, but you will have to pre-order.
Going ashore the next day was a bit like having tickets to the circus! There were kids somersaulting and cartwheeling on the beach; fishermen standing round in groups loudly discussing the HP of their engines and their tackle of preference; mothers sun-baking with magazines; a father trying to extricate a splinter from the foot of a howling child; dogs everywhere chasing each other in circles, getting underfoot and flicking sand on everyone.
A huge gin palace was anchored a few metres off the beach and pumping vast quantities of diesel to it from the enormous fuel tanker on the beach. $21,800.00 worth of diesel, to be exact.
We bought our 90l of petrol and were about to head back to Mystique when the hue and cry was raised. A young couple had just arrived that day in a four wheel drive with a bunch of kids and a trailer. Their very large new dinghy, which was resting unsecured on the water’s edge had succumb to the rising tide and was rapidly disappearing towards the Indian Ocean. The young male owner was starting to undress, preparing to swim out to try and save it.
“Don’t do it,” I said, “too many crocs around. Well get it for you.”
It was a bit choppy and the tide was flowing fast, so it took a couple attempts of circling the runaway boat. Our small engine powered us back to shore very, very slowly.
On our triumphant return the young couple were very grateful. The woman pressed fresh steak, bacon and fruit on us. We accepted graciously and left quickly. That night we had the most excellent red Thai steak curry that I have ever eaten!
We went ashore again the following day. Jon wanted to do some repairs on the dinghy out of the water and I wanted to hitch a ride 70km into Kalumburu to do a massive fresh food shop. I returned laden with watermelon, apples, oranges, cabbage, carrots, onions zucchini, capsicum, cheese and chocolate!
There was just the small matter of the extra fuel container to sort out. Camped on the beach were four young men looking sufficiently scruffy to suggest they might have been roughing it a while. Or maybe their appearance had something to do with the empty pile of Jim Beam bottles on the grass? I noticed several 20 litre fuel containers on their trailer.
“Hi guys, heading home soon?” Lots of head nodding. “Any chance of buying a jerry can off you?”
“Got any spirits,” asked one of the lads, “we’d swap you a container for some spirits.”
I then made the annoying mistake of saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” and wandered off to find Jon.
Now Jon is fairly good at taking one for the team, but not when it comes to his whisky. He absolutely baulked at trading his only bottle for a fuel container.
“But we need it,” I argued, “they won’t trade it for anything else.”
Jon shook his head, “no, there has to be another way! You’ll work it out.”
I paced back and forth along the beach, head down, thinking and kicking sand. Then I saw the gin palace still anchored close to shore. They would have spirits. I waved to the skipper who was reading a paper on the bridge deck and finally caught his eye. He poked his head out of the cabin.
“Any chance of buying some spirits off you?”
“I’ll go ask,” he replied and disappeared into the guts of the ship for a few minutes before returning with a three-quarter full bottle of something in his upraised hand.
“How much do want for it?”
He looked at the bottle quizzically, as if to find the answer there, “does 20 bucks sound OK?”
You betcha it did, deal done! It was a bottle of the finest single malt whisky. Half an hour later and I was I skipping back down the beach with jerry can in hand. I jumped to a stop in front of Jon, spraying him with sand. He looked up from his dinghy repair to see me grinning wildly and swinging the empty fuel container like a hand bag.
He grimaced, “damn waste of the best single malt whisky I ever saw in me life! Me highlan’ da’ will be turnin’ in is grrrave!”
That night we sat in Mystique’s cockpit watching silhouetted figures on the beach moving around in the firelight. The smell of roasting meat wafted over the water and the 3m salty, who had eaten our rather unpalatable anchor float earlier in the day, was lying in the shallows off the beach no doubt doing its own bit of salivating over the rich smells. Apparently It was all too much for the croc, who slipped silently away into the dark.
We had a mission to complete before leaving Napier Broome Bay. I had several long and complex satellite phone calls with an outboard motor supplier in Darwin. We felt we needed a more powerful engine with a longer shaft and now, almost miraculously, a 10HP, 4 stroke outboard was on its way to us via Shorelands fortnightly supply barge to Kalumburu.
We sailed across to the boat ramp in Lee Bay, near the entrance to the King Edward River, where the barge was expected to dock within the next 24 hours. From our shallow, sandy anchorage we could see the most magnificent lone boab, complete with an eagle on her nest in its upper limbs.
As the tide receded rocks started to appear all around us. At one point we had to pull ourselves forward on the anchor rode to clear a bomie that had appeared under the stern.
We watched a local person meander far out onto the newly exposed reef, seemingly walking on water and probably harvesting shellfish in the magnificent evening light.
The barge materialised on the northern horizon the next morning. After she docked we contacted them on the VHF and were advised to motor over in the dinghy to a low loading gate on its port side. Several smiling crew members where there to greet us and three of them manhandled the 40kg motor gingerly down into the dinghy.
It was a dicey business. I breathed a sigh of relief when it was safely balanced in the floor of the dinghy, rather than at the bottom of the bay.
One of the crew said, “we’ve caught too many fish. You want some fish? Anything else you want? Fruit maybe?” They loaded us up with trevally, oranges and limes. Their generosity was as much of a gift to our spirits as the food was to our bodies. We motored back to Mystique feeling replete in every way.
We had our new motor, at last! I had learnt a thing or two from listening to the blokes on McGowans talking about who had the biggest HP engine. I decided not to even pretend to be modest about the prowess of our new motor.
“Hey Jon,” I said, “the motor deserves a name. Any ideas?”
He thought for a moment, “how about, ‘The mighty sea slug,’ or ‘The sea pony’?”
“Nah,” I said, “you’re supposed to talk it up more. Maybe something like, ‘Cyclone slayer,’ or ‘Bucking sea stallion,’ or even ‘Big nautical rooster’?”
“I’ve got it!” said Jon, “if we really want to do him justice he should be named after one of our flock, after our biggest, toughest rooster, ‘Enzo the magnificent’!”
“Perfect!” I said, “when we’re alone we can just call him, Enzo, but only when we’re alone, right?”
We had a fantastic fast sail out of Napier Broome Bay and rounded the Anjo Peninsula in the channel it forms with the Sir Graham Moore Islands. As we left the channel the wind picked up from the north. In hindsight, we should have stopped in one of the several protected anchorages on the islands, or the peninsula.
We began our southerly run towards Middle Rock. The wind continued to increase. With the rather large fetch between Indonesia and ourselves the ride became a wild one, the following sea breaking into the cockpit.
I was at the tiller, managing to keep Mystique balanced but I was also terrified. We were heading for the challenging overflows and standing waves that surround Middle Rock (MR). What were they going to be like in these conditions?
It was getting towards dark. Were we going to make it through the 14m wide channel east of MR in daylight? We wanted to eyeball the rock, as it is not where it says so on the charts. We were trying to time our passage with the low slack tide to avoid the worst of the rough water in the channel and to get a visual on MR but that particular moment in time also happened to be very close to sunset.
Suddenly, there it was in the dusk light, a large tooth of a rock, absolutely unmistakeable now at low tide, plus the sea had begun to flatten out. The wind had not abated at all so I found it hard to believe how benevolently calm the water had become.
I started laughing, almost hysterically, was this really the mythical Middle Rock? Were we really there, already? If so, the fear inducing Middle Rock had just turned into a kitten.
In the dark we followed the chart plotter to anchor in a sheltered bay off the north west end of Eclipse Hill Island.
We made a short sail the next day in delicious light airs to Freshwater Bay and a very secure anchorage with a delightful fresh water creek. A forty six foot yacht appeared nearby and we dawdled over with an offering of fresh fruit. The crew of three had just arrived from Indonesia and it was a great sunshine filled afternoon of animated conversation.
Before sunset, Jon said, “we’d better get back to Mystique The crocs can see in the dark and we can’t. Distinct disadvantage really.”
The skipper looked around at the calm blue water, “there wouldn’t be any crocs here, would there?”
Jon and I glanced at each other a little confused, for a brief moment we both thought maybe the skipper was joking. Apparently crocodiles do not stalk the dreams of every Kimberley sailor; but hey, these guys had only just arrived. Maybe it takes some time to develop a little twitchy croc neurosis. ≈