Northern Australia cruise, Cape York and Arnhem Land: A trip into our wartime history

It's while we're traversing the phenomenon known as the Hole in the Wall that Michael Hermes, archaeologist and one of the lecturers on this cruise from Cairns to Darwin, talks about the Kentish Affair.

The Hole in the Wall (also known as the Gugari Rip) is a quirk of geography, a turbulent and narrow channel between Raragala and Guluwuru islands just off of the north of Arnhem Land. The Kentish Affair, which happened in nearby waters, marks the only time an Australian – and a civilian priest at that - was captured by Japanese forces in Australia during World War II.

We are here on the southern edge of the Arafura Sea between Australia and West Papua on the 8th day of a 12-day cruise on the Coral Discoverer, a 36-room expedition ship which less than an hour ago negotiated this very channel.

It's not exactly perilous but the strength of the water's ebb and flow and the 70-metre width means that larger ships have to negotiate certain tidal deadlines or be condemned to go the long way round, a detour of 10 or more hours.

Instead, we crept through the gap without incident, most of us standing on deck to gawp at the narrowness of the passage, the birdlife and the large white paint graffiti on the rock walls left there by previous ships. Yes, we're looking at you HMAS Wollongong (1988) and HMAS Ardent (1978).

And now we're back in the ship's runabout to take a more leisurely turn through the passage and then back across the nearby bay. It's during this that we see white-breasted sea eagles, osprey, sooty oyster catchers, a feeding pod of snubfin dolphins and a huge eagle ray which leaps right out of the water next to the boat.

Before returning to the ship we stop off at Raragala Island for an early evening stroll among the dunes just back from a long, untouched beach. The sky is big and blue, birds are squabbling among the stunted scrubland and our shadows almost perceptibly lengthening as the sun drops away in the west. Coral Discoverer is anchored nearby, sitting calmly on a glassy sea. It's a marked contrast to the start of the cruise which began, quite literally, under a cloud.

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IT ISN'T an auspicious start. Cyclone Marcus has only recently swept wetly through the region and now potential party-pooper Cyclone Nora is bearing down on Arnhem Land and Cape York, bringing with it gale-force winds, rain and swollen seas.

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We've hardly even left port when a planned visit to Cooktown is cancelled due to the inclement weather. The wind, says the captain, is gusting 25 at Lizard Island (whatever that means) and how that changes in the coming hours will affect what we do there.

There is, says expedition leader Steve Cox, a 95 per cent chance of rain tomorrow. We might want to stay inside and do some knitting: "It ain't going to be sunny."

Luckily, in its infinite wisdom, mankind has invented (a) seasickness pills, (b) the seafood buffet, and (c) alcohol – a combination which ensures a good night's sleep in cabin B08 forward.

The next day dawns sluggishly (in cabin B08 forward anyway) and a glance outside shows a leaden sky but no rain. Plans to climb Cook's Look, the peak named after the good captain himself, are scotched. The climb is too dangerous when wet but the peak is also hidden in the sort of sodden clouds that look like cotton wool soaked in grey water from a washing machine.

There isn't much to Lizard Island. Just 10 square kilometres in all, it boasts an exclusive 40-villa luxury resort on one side, a research station, a small airstrip and Cook's Look. From the main beach there is an easy walk over the mangroves (thanks to a new boardwalk), past the airstrip and on to the long strand of Coconut Bay and aptly named Blue Lagoon.

Of course, if it's sandy beaches you're after you might just as well stay at Watsons Beach and go snorkelling just off the water's edge or along the cliff wall where Cook's Look plunges into the ocean. Both are excellent.

There are squally touches of rain but mostly it stays away and, apart from the occasional cloudburst at sea, we are blessed with blue skies, pastel dawns and spectacular tequila sunrise sunsets all the way to Darwin.

In the ensuing days we visit Flinders and Stanley islands (Wurriima and Yindayin to the locals) in the company of Aboriginal elder, harmonica player and traditional owner Danny Gordon. On Flinders he shows us where the sailors from HMS Dart, on a hydrographic survey of the bay in 1899, carved the name of the ship and the date into a rock along the southern shore in an act of late-Victorian vandalism. And on Stanley he leads us on an easy walk to the island's interior and a cave overhang festooned with ancient ochre rock art.

We see in the sun on Cape York, the Australian continent's northernmost point and, after an unusually calm day at sea crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria, visit the thoughtful Aboriginal art centre at Yirrkala, complete with welcome dance by the local Yolgnu people and a wander around the Coca-Cola can midden they're building out by the sports field.

The gulf crossing was bookended by two interesting snippets from World War II. Pretty much everyone knows that Darwin was bombed in the war but the story of Horn Island and the Kentish Affair are somewhat forgotten in the larger narrative – not so much a theatre of war as an off-Broadway production.

Horn Island is a wee green dot just west of Cape York and we arrive on the simple wharf to be greeted by local tour guide and minibus driver Vanessa Seekee. Along with her husband, Liberty, she has been instrumental in raising awareness of the contribution that Horn Island made to the war in the Pacific.

Today, the island's airport is the main hub for flights in and out of the Torres Strait and the first stop on our tour is to visit the slit trenches that are still in existence, although mostly untended and overgrown, around the airfield. There are plans afoot, says Vanessa, to restore them in memory of the men who served here.

In 1939, as war broke out in Europe, surveyors were sent north to choose a site for a northern Allied airbase. Horn Island was chosen and by 1942 this barely inhabited remote outpost was a garrison of 5000 troops (with 2000 more on nearby Thursday Island). Among them were 880 Torres Strait Islanders who formed the Indigenous Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.

Then, on March 14, 1942, 12 Japanese Zeros and eight bombers appeared on the horizon and attacked the airfield. It was the beginning of a regular pattern which saw Horn Island become the most attacked location in Australia after Darwin. In eight air raids during 1942 and 1943,  500 bombs were dropped on it.

The story of the island and the men who fought here is told in the Torres Strait Heritage Museum and Gallery, out the back of the pub where bits of old planes share a courtyard with the pool table.

The Kentish Affair happened on the other side of the Gulf of Carpentaria in January 1943 when  HMAS Patricia Cam, a wooden tuna trawler requisitioned by the navy, was bombed and sunk by a Japanese float plane.

On board, simply hitching a ride, was the Reverend Leonard Kentish, chief of Northern Territory Methodist missions. After a second strafing run the pilot set down amid the detritus, took Kentish prisoner and disappeared into the sky. He was taken to the Japanese occupied island of Dobo (now part of Indonesia) and beheaded there on May 4 that year.

In all, seven men died as a result of the sinking of the Patricia Cam. The 18 survivors made it to Guluwuru Island (one side of the Hole in the Wall), but two died of their injuries before the group was rescued.

Another highlight of the trip was the visit to Garig Gunak Barlu National Park in the company of head ranger Alan Withers. The park covers 4500 square kilometres of the Coburg Peninsula just east of the Tiwi Islands and was the site of the British settlement of Victoria, which lasted just 10 tough and sweaty years before being abandoned in 1849.

The broken remains of the settlement are still peppered here and there and we pass the ruins of hospitals, houses, kilns and the officers' mess throughout our hour-long bushwalk. Some have been cleared and preserved while others sit in splendid isolation in the forest, slowly being dismantled by vines and plants and the grubbing of animals.

TRIP NOTES

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www.traveller.com.au/australia 

www.coralexpeditions.com 

FLY

Cruises start in either Cairns or Darwin. All major airlines fly to both.

CRUISE

Coral Expedition's 12-day Cape York and Arnhem Land cruise takes in, weather permitting, the remote and rugged coastline of northern Australia. This includes the Tiwi Island and the Torres Strait as well as traditional lands around Cape York and Yolngu territory in Arnhem Land. Guest lecturers are on hand to make sense of what you're seeing. The cruise includes all meals, welcome drinks, access to islands and marine parks, excursions and use of snorkelling equipment. For details of times and prices visit www.coralexpeditions.com

Keith Austin was a guest of Coral Expeditions.

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