Cruising Cairns to Darwin

Coral, capes and crocodiles

Text & Photos by Diane Selkirk

Article originally featured in YTM #18 issue - Spring 2015

Cairns is considered by many to be the final cruising stop when sailing the Coral Coast of Australia. If you’re out for the season, it’s a popular turning back point -a place to wait for the steady trade winds to change direction so you can head back to a southern port before cyclone season. If you’re carrying on to Southeast Asia, it’s often the final port before Darwin -a good place for provisioning and getting boat work done before leaping off to Indonesia. But if you’re intrepid, Cairns can be the first stop of an intriguing cruising ground -one that includes a captivating history and abundant wildlife.


When we pulled into Cairns, we thought our stay would be brief. We had a sail that needed repair and we wanted to have our dive gear serviced, but mostly we were eager to keep going. It turned out that Cairns had that welcoming feel of the last outpost on the edge of a remote wilderness. With great restaurants and nightlife, and a gorgeous waterfront park, it was clear this little city is a destination in itself and not just a stepping off point for the Great Barrier Reef.  And while the reef is the obvious draw, we discovered it’s not the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the area; it turns out that the tropical rainforest which includes the famous Daintree National Park is just up the road.


With our sail in the loft, we decided to do a little land-based exploring. For one trip we rented a car and headed into the Mossman Gorge, which is part of the Daintree. The rainforest walk took us on a suspension bridge over the river and through a forest of giant fig trees and spurwood. We kept an eye out for the cassowary bird, among the bird’s nest and elkhorn ferns but didn’t get lucky (or unlucky—these giant birds are said to be aggressive). Our next adventure was on the Skyrail—a fantastic 7km gondola ride over a forest of candlenut, corkwood, native olive and false red sandalwood trees.


Soaring over the rainforest gives you a unique perspective. We were glued to our windows looking down—especially as a gorge and Barron Falls came into view. The trip ends in the pretty town of Karanda, the perfect place for lunch and to buy gorgeous aboriginal artwork as a souvenir before we headed back to Cairns on the historic railway.


Tourist-friendly Cairns was tough to say goodbye to, but we’d been watching the weather looking for perfect conditions. One of our big goals on the trip was to anchor and dive on the outer reef. We’d already been sailing north inside the Great Barrier Reef for hundreds of miles, but south of Cairns the reef is a bit thin and it’s well off shore. Once you hit Cairns though, the reef starts to get closer to the mainland thus making it easier to visit.


To anchor on the reef you need at least a few days of sustained calm. Otherwise you’ll find yourself anchored in heaving seas with invisible (but deadly) reef all around you. This is where Captain Cook wrecked his ship on Endeavour Reef, after all. Lots of sailors who pass through this area are content with anchoring behind islands and exploring the inner reefs. But we really wanted the experience of dropping our hook in what looked like the middle of the ocean, miles from land. So with settled weather forecast we set off for Low Island and then Turtle Bay on Tongue Reef. The reward was anchoring in an endless expanse of sea and diving in.


When the wind started to rise it was time to turn north. The balance with cruising is to go slowly enough to see what you want, without bumping into the seasons that guide your movement from one place to the next. Feeling the need to keep moving meant picking and choosing our stops. Cooktown, where Captain Cook repaired his ship, wasn’t an essential stop (though it was conveniently on the way to Lizard Island). But who’s going to turn down the chance to pose with a large assortment of Cook statues and monuments, their numbers rivalling both the number of pubs in the town and potentially the number of residents as well?


Lizard Island turned out to be both a fantastic and haunting stop. One of its features is the ruins of Mary Watson’s cabin. In 1881,  the young woman, her baby and a Chinese worker escaped their home in a tub after Aboriginal people drove them off the island. They survived a voyage into a nearby island where they later died of thirst. She became a bit of a folk-hero, a symbol of Australian strength in adversity.


Original photos showed ruins that included a good portion of a wall. What we saw was a heap of stones.  Not surprising; a category 5 cyclone sat over the island for 11 hours in April 2014—uprooting many of the trees, closing the famed resort and damaging the vital reef research station. The cyclone’s surge also tore through the pristine coral—much of it containing critical research projects


But by the time we arrived, the research center was up and running, the resort was being rebuilt and nothing could damage the stunning view from the top of Cook’s lookout. Despite the coral loss, the reef still sports heaps of life; big diverse fish, six varieties of giant clams, turtles, rays, sharks and just two weeks before we visited  a crocodile was even sighted. Big salt water crocodiles are a hazard of the coast. And while we expected  to see them in out of the way places, we didn’t expect them in the more populated areas. They do what they want though—and while we never saw one, we did see enough signs to keep us cautious.


From Lizard Island the next natural stop is Cape Melville; a windy cape where piles of huge boulders make it look like Australia is an unfinished construction site. But 15 miles beyond that, is the Flinder’s Group and a national park called Yindayin, on Stanley Island, that contains some of the world’s most remarkable Aboriginal cave paintings.


Each year, only a handful of boaters make their way to Yindayin. But, the reward for going out of your way is a chance to see cave walls displaying wondrous sailing ships: painted in red and outlined in white, some ships have the distinct sterns of 18th century European galleons; while others have the exotic eastern curves of Macassan praus; still others bring to mind early 16th century Portuguese ships. Layered with the ships are other signs of daily life: an eagle ray, crocodiles, dugongs and turtles. The art, which captures the moment of Western contact with the oldest culture in the world, is exceptional and (unless you know to search for it) virtually forgotten.


After we sailed past Cape York, we anchored and hiked out to the top of Australia just to say we could. Darwin was still several hundred miles away so our passages became longer. During the long nights, the sky was bright with stars and each day we had regular visits from dolphins. After we crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria, the earth turned deep red with bauxite. Snug anchorages filled with bird and sea life made us wish we could keep exploring, but our provisions were running out and the time had come to head into the little city of Darwin.