Sometimes our cruising life seems utterly strange, even to us. In the ten days we spent traveling the 121 miles from Port Bundaberg to Mooloolaba, our current stop, we have had a humpback whale flipper surface twenty feet from our hull, practiced archery at an eco resort on the largest sand island in the world, listened to the sunset howling of a dingo, met two wonderful Australian cruising couples, gone aground in a narrow channel, navigated a wild passage known as the “Mad Mile” to round a dangerous sand bar, suffered a bumpy night at sea during which I puked overboard no less than six times, shot through another sand bar entrance at Mooloolaba in low tide through a six-foot breaking wave to the applause of onlookers on the rock jetty, and docked at a marina where we ate a late lunch at a Greek restaurant and fell into bed that night after consuming—this is rare for us—a whole bottle of Outback Jack chardonnay.
Let me explain…
It began with our leaving Port Bundaberg on 21 June. We originally planned to head north to explore the Great Barrier Reef, only to learn that part of the area we expected to traverse would be closed for military training exercises from 23 June to 27 July. So we opted instead to sail south to Brisbane, of which we had heard many good things and where we had a number of contacts. The only disadvantage of striking south is that the southeast trade winds would be against us. Still, if we took advantage of the light wind days, it shouldn’t be too uncomfortable to motorsail.
The trip began with a bang. We were barely outside the Port Bundaberg channel and in the midst of raising the mainsail—me at the helm, Eric hauling on the main halyard—when I saw a large, mottled gray flipper slice up out of the water and almost immediately disappear again into the sea. There was no time to shout to Eric, and it would have been unwise to distract him in the middle of a maneuver anyway, but in a flash I knew I’d seen a humpback whale. This is their migration season, when some 25,000 humpbacks swim north along Australia’s east coast to mate and calve. The southern humpback is 39-52’ long and weighs 25-30 tons, but I could see nothing of the huge body in the opaque water. It is both thrilling and a bit frightening when such close contact occurs.
From Port Bundaberg we had a fair sail to the entrance of the Great Sandy Strait, a 40-mile tidal passage full of nook-and-cranny anchorages that separates Fraser Island from mainland Australia. At 76 miles long by 14 miles wide, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. It is also a national park and a World Heritage Site that encompasses a startling range of ecosystems from sweeping beaches to rainforest to mangrove swamps and freshwater lakes. The wildlife includes laughing kookaburras, wild dingos and the occasional saltwater crocodile. We anchored for several days off Kingfisher Bay Resort, an eco resort that blends beautifully into its forest surroundings. Whereas some resorts around the world disdain cruisers and forbid them even to land on the beach, Kingfisher invites you to swim in their pool, walk their trails, dine at their restaurants and participate in their ranger-led lectures and tours.
We plunged right in, attending a program on the mammals of Fraser Island and a forest hike, both free. For a modest fee, we tried our hand at archery, an entirely new experience for me, Eric having had one or two sessions in Boy Scouts decades ago. The instructor advised not to try aiming too hard. More important, at least for beginners, is to develop the right stance in combination with how you hold the bow and draw the string. Though some of our initial shots missed the target altogether, we gradually got the hang of it. It helped that the instructor taped a mini chocolate bar to the bull’s eye for extra motivation.
We also took a full-day bus tour that included stops at beautiful Lake McKenzie, the island’s largest freshwater lake, and the windy east coast where sightseeing planes land on the beach and ships like the Maheno come to grief. We had already glimpsed a dingo on the beach by the resort; here we saw two more. One night, safe on the boat, we had the eerie pleasure of hearing a dingo howl in the dark. Fraser Island has a total dingo population of approximately 200, spread among 25 or so packs. They are nocturnal hunters and scavengers, and their diet depends on their territory. Those that live near the shore take fish and seabirds; those in the forest dine on berries and nuts. Their strong teeth can punch into and tear open aluminum cans. They do attack humans. The entire resort is fenced and electrified, and judging from multiple warning signs, parents especially don’t want to let children out of their sight. Should a dingo approach, the drill is to stand back to back, maintain eye contact—this is how alpha dingos intimidate younger ones into submission—and call for help.
But suppose no help is nearby? I told Eric that if we went hiking we should take our baseball bat or air horn. He said he didn’t need either because if a dingo lunged at us, he can run faster than me. Big mistake—the ranger leading the tour explained that if you run, the dingo identifies you as prey and will swiftly pursue. The biggest problem for the dingos, as you might guess, is being fed by humans, despite numerous warnings and huge fines for doing so. The more accustomed dingos get to human food, the more they approach people, and the more attacks occur. Those that become too aggressive must be taken off the island and shot. A petition with nearly 45,000 signatures is circulating demanding an end to this practice.
At Kingfisher, we met two Australian boats, one of which was already on the lookout for us. The contacts began via a lovely Aussie friend of ours named Tammy Hood, who was crewing on the sailboat next to us in Santa Marta, Colombia, eighteen months ago. Tammy had alerted her Brisbane mates that we were coming, and we quickly received enthusiastic offers to put us up, take us grocery shopping and show us around. This camaraderie is one of joys of cruising, and at Kingfisher we were intercepted by Andrew and Karen Wild on Wildlife, who invited us for drinks with friends of theirs, Paul and Marg Drake on Akaroa. In addition to wine and good company, all four shared with us a wealth of local knowledge. Wildlife was headed north; we and Akaroa continued south.
Two anchorages later came the tough part—exiting the Great Sandy Strait via the “Mad Mile.” In a southeast wind, this is best done on a rising tide so the wind and tide are blowing/flowing in the same direction, minimizing a choppy wind-versus-tide scenario. The only problem is that both the wind and tide are against you. Definitely a motorsail. Akaroa advised us they planned to wait until very close to high tide late that afternoon when the water would be slack, but being slow to windward and unfamiliar with the passage, we wanted to be well clear of the sand bar before dusk fell. As we began to haul up our anchor, it brought Corroboree onto the shoal, and there we grounded in the mud, a not uncommon occurrence in the shallow channels of the Strait. There we stuck for the next ninety minutes, periodically trying to motor free, our sails up in hope of an assist from the breeze. Finally, the rising tide did the job, and we were off to brave the “Mad Mile.”
Which is where the superb Australian Volunteer Coast Guard comes in. This is the organization I noted in my last blog as being so helpful to Jacob when he rowed ashore near Cairns last month. They are equally diligent in helping every other sailor. Their office at the southern end of the Great Sandy Strait provides up-to-date waypoints to locate the safest passage out and around the shifting sand bar, and with these waypoints programmed into our GPS we knew exactly where we to go. Boats radio in their position at the first waypoint and again when they have reached the end. Should you run into trouble anywhere along the way, the Coast Guard springs into action. One of their small boats sped past us on our way out and returned a while later, leading the way for three powerboats.
At first the going in the “Mad Mile” wasn’t too bad, a little wavy but manageable. This leg being to the northeast, the 15-knot southeast wind aided our motor in moving us forward. Even as the waves increased it was no trouble to hold our course. But it was slow and lumpy and rather daunting to see the waves rise up and break in a rush of white water over the long sand bar to starboard. Turning onto the second leg put us head into the southeast wind, and with the sails no longer generating any lift, we slowed still more. While Eric went up on deck—hooked to Corroboree by his life harness, of course—to secure some of the lines, I endeavored to keep the boat from being batted from side to side. Some testy words ensued, Eric hollering at me to keep her steady, me shouting back that I was trying, Eric yelling that we were heading into shallow water, me retorting with readings from the chart that everywhere around us was shallow water. I don’t mean to imply that any of this was life-threatening, simply that it was bloody bouncy and seemingly interminable. Finally, we skirted the end of the sand bar and made for open water, the “Mad Mile” being four miles long in actuality.
We headed south, aiming toward the resort port of Mooloolaba (pronounced Moo-LOO-la-ba), and as dusk fell we had an easy, hot dinner of canned broccoli-cheese soup. My stomach having survived the chaotic conditions of the “Mad Mile,” I wasn’t expecting any upsets in calmer water now. Ha-ha. About midnight, a delayed reaction took hold, the soup began to resurface, and I dashed up from below and heaved over the rail. After several more heaves, all the soup was gone, but my stomach wasn’t done. It kept going, forcing up bile until dawn. This is only about the fourth time I have been seasick in 14,000 miles. Bleah!
At sunrise we headed toward shore and Mooloolaba. The entrance to the harbor was well marked, and with strong winds forecast soon, we were ready to hole up in a marina for a few days. Though a large surf was also in that morning’s forecast, we expected the rock jetty would provide a protected entry. Wrong. We arrived at low tide to find waves crashing across the entrance. Complicating the issue was a half-dozen crazy jet skiers using the area as a surfing ground. With Eric doing a masterful job at the helm, we timed our shot as best we could between the breakers and the jet skis. At the last second we took a broadside crash on our port side and used that energy to swerve into the center of the channel—unscathed. It was pretty harrowing, and it being a sunny Sunday afternoon, the onlookers lining the jetty had quite a show. They gave us a round of applause.
On leaving the jurisdiction of the “Mad Mile,” the Coast Guard office there had handed us off to their Mooloolaba colleagues, and once in the quiet waters of the harbor, we stopped at the public berth to thank them and say hello. Soon after, we docked at Wharf Marina, a small, friendly establishment in the center of Mooloolaba’s waterfront esplanade. Music, conversation and delicious aromas wafted toward us from the busy restaurants, and I pointed toward the buzzing scene.
“I want to be at a restaurant with a cold beer in my hand in fifteen minutes,” I told Eric in no uncertain terms.
“Fine by me,” he replied.
And so we were. With me in a sundress and Eric in a collared shirt, you’d never guess we were a pair of grubby sailors. Along with the beers came spanakopita and a falafel gryro. An hour later, back on Corroboree, Eric cleaned up the boat and I had a luxurious nap. Dinner was cheese and crackers and that bottle of Outback Jack. The wine in Oz is every bit as good and cheap as in New Zealand, and since we never drink while underway and rarely even at anchor in case of a weather shift during the night, we do occasionally indulge when safely tied up after a tough sail.
We fell asleep that night, thinking how strange our life afloat can be. Whoever thought we’d be shooting arrows at a candy bar on a sand dune island in Australia? Or learning how to out-stare a dingo? Or steering white-knuckled into a place called Mooloolaba? But this is what travel is all about, and we are grateful for each and every episode.
May we also share with you some simple wisdom from the Butchulla people, the indigenous inhabitants of Fraser Island. Although only a handful of their descendants now survive, their three “lores” appear on signage on the island:
What is good for the land comes first
If you have plenty, you must share
Do not take or touch anything that does not belong to you
What more do you need to know?