“Hey ET, I’m thinking about doing a tinnie trip to the tip with a mate. I’ve got a five-metre tinnie for the trip and we’re going to travel from Cooktown to Weipa. What do you think?”
A long pause followed as my boss, Andrew (ET) Ettingshausen no doubt pondered the sanity of his 4WD specialist.
“You’re doing this in one boat?”
“No, a good mate of mine, Bill Collyer is bringing his 4.8m tinnie as well.”
“Sounds interesting,” responded a pensive ET. “You know you’re going to get wet going out of Cooktown and there are plenty of cyclones around this time of year.”
Of course, I agreed and pretended that I’d already thoroughly thought through all of the contingencies. I also made a mental note to try and stay dry leaving Cooktown.
Now I readily accept that bobbing up and down in a tinnie for days on end may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But throw in a few bonuses, like constant petrol fumes (320 litres of jerry cans stowed onboard), cold baked beans for lunch (because you can’t cook the fish you caught in the boat without an explosive result) – and let’s not forget the constant salt water spray provided by the Pacific Ocean – and you’ve at least got the ingredients for an adventure. Actually, saner people might call it the perfect recipe for torture by tinnie…
Our formula for adventure included two standard tinnies – mine a Blue Fin Gulf Explorer and Bill’s an Ozcraft 485 – modified for extra fuel storage. We carried enough food and water to last 14 days, but with a never-ending source of food at the end of a fishing line and lure any time we wanted it, we knew food wouldn’t be a problem. Sea trials conducted with full boats before we left gave us a pretty good idea of fuel consumption and allowed us to pre-plan our refuelling points. It was mostly a matter of taking with us only what we absolutely needed as we didn’t have a lot of space for the luxuries of everyday life.
A few weeks after my call to ET, there we were leaving Cooktown, and our departure, as predicted by ET, was wet. In fact, the first four hours of the trip were so wet we might as well have been swimming. It was at this point that I found myself thinking that it wasn’t too late to turn back. We had around 1500km ahead of us and I was beginning to have my doubts. In hindsight, I’m sure Bill was thinking the same thing, but since we were in separate boats and neither of us was willing to be the first to call it quits, we battled the salty elements and pushed on. To our relief, the white caps and spray subsided and by the end of the first day we were setting up camp on a beach roughly 200km north of Cooktown. Not a bad effort for day one, we thought.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
After rolling out the swags and consuming my ration of dehydrated Deb Potato, it was time for some shut eye, which came fairly easily after a long first day. But around 3am I awoke suddenly to the sound of breaking waves that seemed a little too close to my swag. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I spotted what appeared to be a log floating in the shallows just metres away. The only trouble was, the ‘log’ was peering back at me from a pair of beady eyes at one end of its long snout. The 3m saltwater croc was easily big enough to have dragged yours truly, swag included, off into the night. I stood there for a while watching the big salty, thinking how cool it was to be out there and then I looked around and cracked a smile. Locals advise that campers should set up their camps at least 50m from the high tide mark for just such a scenario. We’d set up camp nearer low tide and had been too tired to consider the difference a few hours might make. Just as well this croc wasn’t carrying a tape measure…
Day two gave us our first chance to wet a line. Now, the few times that I’ve been fishing with ET on the show I’ve had ‘indifferent’ success, to say the least. In fact, when fly-fishing on a recent trip in Tasmania, ET gave me the nickname “Tangles” for obvious reasons. My excuse was that I only like catching ‘real fish’ – big stuff, not the small fry that we were targeting. So, needless to say, I was pretty eager to catch a few monsters on this adventure. I’m sure you’ve all heard how great the fishing is up at the Cape, but let me tell you, it’s sensational! My popper was wet for only a few minutes before a nice mackerel decided to destroy it. Memories of my Tassie trip faded into oblivion as, throughout the remainder of our adventure, we wrestled with the likes of giant trevally, tuna, Spanish mackerel, coral trout, finger mark bream, barramundi, queen fish, various sharks, mangrove jack and sweetlip to name a few. If you can’t catch fish up here, you’d best hang up your rod and take up stamp collecting…
It was on day four we noticed a potential problem – fuel, or rather our dwindling supplies. The sea conditions were worsening and Bill’s new 50hp was sucking the fuel back like it had grown four extra cylinders. In fact, my 90hp Evinrude E-tec was using less fuel than his 50hp powerplant. If we continued the way we were going, we wouldn’t get to our scheduled refuelling stop at Lockhart River. With the wind picking up, we decided to sit it out and camp on an island not far from Cape Melville. To our surprise, we found a corrugated shelter and a rainwater tank the EPA had set up, so for the first time since we’d departed Cooktown, water and shelter weren’t an issue. We had all the luxuries we needed and at night we celebrated our good fortune with a feast of coral trout and mud crab. If we had to delay our progress, this seemed like as good a place as any to do it.
We eventually stayed for three days waiting for the weather to improve and on the final day, just when I thought this place had the lot, it got spectacularly better. I was in knee-deep water packing the boat when I noticed a large dark shape lurking about 100 metres away. A big dorsal fin pierced the surface and its owner picked up momentum heading for some shallow mangroves not far away. It was a good-sized shark, around 3m long. Just then Bill yelled out, “croc!” I turned just in time to see a large and powerful scaly tail thrashing about as the shark came charging in. The pair of savage carnivores battled for what seemed like ages, but were probably only locked in combat for seconds. The water stirred and heaved as the battle reached its climax. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the shark called it quits, turned away and slowly cruised back into the deep water, seemingly unfazed by the encounter. Meanwhile, I was left still standing in the shallows, with my jaw on my chest and my eyes wired wide open. I had just witnessed my idea of the ultimate showdown! Bill was equally awed and we agreed that, despite the shark’s withdrawal, it had won the battle on points.
Soon after, we headed off. With the weather on our side, we made good time and arrived at our refuelling point at Lockhart River, around 250km from the tip of Cape York, a few days later. Unloading our masses of jerry cans, we realised we had no real means – apart from walking – of getting to the local petrol station, about 7km inland. Fortunately, a friendly local by the name of Phil offered to take us in the back of his ute. We filled up enough jerry cans to get to our next petrol stop at Seisia, a remote settlement on the western side of Cape York not far from Thursday Island. On the ride back to the boats, Phil told us locals had recently caught a 5m croc in the area. He said it bore battle scars suggesting it had been the victim of an even bigger salty. We vowed to keep an even keener eye out as we continued our voyage to Weipa.
Back in our boats and heading north – being careful to keep Australia to our left – we noticed a shack on an island with a guy who had a beard that suggested he hadn’t been near a razor in quite a while. We decided to pull in and say “g’day.” Turns out our ‘Man Friday’ had been living a hermit-like existence on the island for 12 years. During our brief chat, Bill asked if he had many visitors and, as is if on cue, a Frenchman dressed – only just – in a pair of very tight swimmers arrived with a jaunty “bonjour!” At this point, Bill and I exchanged glances and agreed wordlessly that we were obviously intruding and that we’d best depart and leave our happy hermits to themselves.
It was rough and windy now and we couldn’t see any place to camp. All the islands we passed were covered in mangroves and seemed a bit too ‘croc friendly’ for us to roll out our swags. Instead, we decided to beach the boats and sleep in them. I tied the front of my boat to a tree using the anchor rope and threw the anchor out the back using some brand new spare nylon rope I had. The idea was to prevent the boat moving around too much in the night as the tide came in. Little did I know that, as I slept, the new – and, consequently, very slippery – nylon rope I had tied to the anchor came undone. Which meant that the next morning I had to go snorkelling in croc-infested waters to find the anchor. Armed with a filleting knife, I ventured in with the shark vs croc episode still fresh in my mind and I couldn’t help but have visions of a three-way bout with myself as the meat in the sandwich! Thankfully, it didn’t take too long to find the anchor and I emerged relieved, in one piece and keen to get underway.
The 150-or-so kilometre stretch from Captain Billy’s Landing to the tip of Australia was the roughest part of the trip and we were both looking forward to getting to calmer waters on the other side of the Cape. When we did eventually arrive at the absolute tip of the Cape, it was an incredible feeling to realise that we were at the northern-most point of continental Australia. I’ve been to the tip five times in a 4WD, but the feeling I got putting around there in a tinnie was something else again.
IN BLIGH’S OAR STROKES
It was also very humbling to think that on much of this trip, we followed in the oar strokes of Captain Bligh and his men. He was one of the greatest navigators the British admiralty ever produced and how he travelled the distances he did in what was essentially a long row boat using very limited charts is incredible. Bligh and his loyal shipmates were marooned when Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers took over the Bounty in 1789. Bligh and his remaining crew subsequently endured a 6700km ordeal sailing east to Timor, during which he named many of the islands at the top of Australia after the days of the week on which he encountered them; hence Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday islands. My good friend and fellow adventurer, Bill was actually initially planning to do our trip on his own and, from my own point of view, is a modern-day version of the good Captain Bligh.
Fifteen days after we set off, we finally cruised into Weipa. It had been a remarkable journey. We had seen and done so much that would be impossible to experience from a larger boat – although there had been one or two times when we’d wished for one! But we had been to places that hadn’t seen humans in years and had experienced nature in the raw. And we’d done it all in tiny tinnies – despite the misgivings of ET. Personally, it was an achievement that will last a lifetime, but I’m determined to repeat the experience if the opportunity arises. Only this time around, I’m thinking I’ll try something a little different. As far as I know, no one’s done the trip in a kayak. Now that would be an adventure… ¿