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Australia to South Africa

Off the Botanical Gardens, BrisbaneWe spent six months tied up tied up to pilings in the river off the Botanical Gardens, in the very heart of Brisbane, waiting out the cyclone season, exploring Australia overland, and repainting Tarka's bottom. Then in the Spring of 1987 we launched into what we would later decide was our most exhilarating stretch of sailing: more than a thousand miles to the NNW, all the way up to Cape York. Apart from the first couple of days, we were able to anchor every night in the lee of a high island or on the mainland, the daytime winds were consistently fifteen to twenty knots from dead astern, and the chop was rarely more than 70cm. Tarka recorded some of her best runs, up to 60 miles a day in the twelve hours of daylight, with no assistance from current. In the south we were often close to resorts: “Get Wrecked on Great Keppel” was the slogan of one such outfit, that appealed to the younger crowd but the further north we went, the more remote things became. At Middle Percy Island we rowed ashore to a small shack in which passing boats have painted their names for many years – one was John Guzwell's world-famous Trekka, also from Victoria; a phone and a sign invited us to call up to the main farmhouse and for the next two days old-Etonian Andy entertained us with raucous tall-stories of island life, while bottles of his home-brewed “rocket juice” periodically exploded in the basement.

At Lizard Island, whence Captain Cook spied, to great relief, an escape from the reefs that almost cost the life of the Endeavour, we fell in with Anna – a tiny steel twenty-footer from the Netherlands, with Wim and Karin on board. The 18-year-old Karin had literally jumped ship from her parents' much larger boat to sail with Wim, and asked us to intervene so as to restore speaking terms with them; we became firm friends all the way to South Africa.

Tarka and Anna, Lizard Island, Great Barrier ReefAnnaSeveral times, aircraft from the Australian Police's Coastwatch buzzed us, and at Cape York honoured us with a visit by launch; later we wrote to them in Canberra and they sent us a photo of Tarka from the air. We calculated the tides for the Endeavour Strait with great care and passed without incident; but later, half-way across the Gulf of Carpentaria and 150 miles from land, encountered a 20ft-long saltwater crocodile wallowing about; no swimming in these waters. We paused briefly at Gove, a strange company (bauxite-mining) town on the western side of the Gulf, then began the long haul to Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, glimpsing Timor far to starboard. 

The phosphate which accounted for Australia's taking possession of this remote place was almost gone, but the spectacular birdlife that created the phosphate was still here: noddies, a unique morph known as a Golden Tropicbird, the very rare Abbott's Booby. There was a “yacht club” but, as at Gove, it was really only an excuse for a bar: for much of the year Christmas is untenable as an anchorage, and even in calm weather the phosphate ships could not tie up but had to load, instead, via huge cantilevered arms that reached out from the cliffs. The population was in drastic decline: a large Chinese cemetery bore testimony to the hundreds of Malay Chinese that had once worked the phosphate.

Cocos Keeling atoll, 700 miles further to the west is another Australian possession. The diving was, as at Suvarov, superlative, both for the fish and the coral that were to be seen; HMS Beagle stopped here (in fact our chart was the result of surveys by Captain Fitzroy) and it was Cocos that led Darwin to his theory of how coral reefs and atolls are formed. There were five or six yachts in the lee of Direction Island for most of our two-week stay; every day there would be some sort of group activity, from Hermit Crab races, to potlucks under the shelter on the beach, to snorkelling. Once a week we chartered a launch to take us all over to the other side of the atoll, where there is an airfield and a few buildings housing officials; we would time this to coincide with the weekly flight from Perth, whose crew were obliging enough to accept from the yachties orders for fresh vegetables (exactly why this flight continued to run was not clear – it seemed to be to support the crew who maintained the airfield, so that the flight could come...). Running in heavy weather, Indian OceanPrior to WW1 Cocos had been an important station for the transoceanic cable – in fact you could see remnants of the cable itself – and as such it had attracted the attention of German raiders such as the Emden; in WW2 it had been an Allied base for flying boats; then when the post-war air age began it had been a staging post for Constellations flying from Australia to South Africa. Meanwhile, on some of the remoter islands that ring the atoll, a small community of Cocos Malays went about their traditional ways, harvesting copra in near-feudal subjection to the Clunies-Ross family, who until very recently were the sole owners of the place. For such a small and now quiet place, there was a lot of history here.  

It blew hard every day we were at Cocos, the breakers booming on the reefs day in, day out. All of us were nervous about the next leg westwards, but one-by-one we trickled out, to a barrage of horns and trumpets from the yachts left behind. And indeed this was the windiest leg of our entire circumnavigation: three weeks of winds between 20 and 30 knots, with heavy seas coming up from the Southern Ocean. Two days out from Cocos, the paddle on our Navik windvane snapped off and was lost; we hand-steered for two days but then improvised a rig by which the jib was linked to the tiller (using blocks and a deadening length of surgical tubing) and which allowed us to self steer once again, The interior of La Reunionalbeit heavily reefed down.

We made an interesting stop at impoverished Rodrigues Island, a less interesting one at Mauritius, then made a final halt at Reunion Island before heading to Africa. Reunion was a revelation: expensive (it is a part of France) and the port is artificial, but the mountainous interior of the island is spectacular in the extreme and can be explored by a network of well-maintained footpaths; we hiked to the top of the Piton des Neiges, overnighted there, and were bitterly cold for the first time in many months.  The three great “cirques” (extinct volcanic craters) of Reunion are inhabited by the descendants of slave owners who were impoverished when abolition came and fled to the interior in shame; they are known as the petits blancs des hauts.

Our African landfall was fraught. The target was Durban (1500 miles) but for the last several days of the passage we had no sun sights and were concerned that the powerful Agulhas Current (which sets to the southwest at up to 6 knots) could sweep us far past. Accordingly we aimed for Richard's Bay, a day's sail to the north. Throughout our last night at sea it blew hard, rained torrentially and our rigging was lit up by St Elmo's Fire (a form of lightning); huge tankers and freighters passed across our bows every few minutes, and – at sunrise – we picked up a local radio station informing us that on account of the heavy weather the Port of Durban was closed. As the coast became more distinct we were not at first sure whether we were off Durban or Richard's Bay – by describing what we could see to a shore station we were finally assured it was Durban, and that we would be allowed to enter, notwithstanding the weather. Tied up next to Anna, Point Yacht Club, DurbanA pilot launch came out and saw us through the steep standing waves inside the breakwater, and finally to a safe berth at the Point Yacht Club, alongside our old friends Anna.

Apartheid South AfricaSouth Africa in 1987-88 was an interesting place; just outside the yacht club a sign warned us that “This Beach is Reserved for Members of the White Race” and at the club itself we were cautioned not to talk to any non-white staff. Middle-class white South Africans were most hospitable and kind to us, but – while anxious to assure us that “South Africans aren't all racists, like you've heard” - did not seem to be aware of the artificially high standard of living they enjoyed, with huge estates and many servants.

Local yachting gurus Chris and Libby Bonnet gave what we understood to be an annual talk on how to negotiate the tricky section of coastline between Durban and Cape Town and, when all the conditions came together (it took six weeks and came just before Christmas) we ventured out once more. We raced south with the help of the Agulhas current but, with a southerly buster due, ducked into East London for Christmas. Outside, it blew 70 knots; inside, the customs shed beneath which we were tied up blew over; fortunately it fell towards the shore and not on top of us, but we then had to crawl in to find the forms we needed to fill out.  You could not walk upright in the streets on Christmas Day. On the 26th we went to the beach, where everyone was having a good time and wished us a Merry Christmas; later, members at the yacht club, aghast, told us we had been on “the black beach”.

Gradually the course eased from SW to W; as long as the easterlies kept blowing, we kept going. When they weakened and reversed, we ducked in: at Port Elizabeth, at Cape St Francis, at Mossel Bay. Then, one bright and crisp afternoon, with albatrosses wheeling to port, we were at another milestone on the voyage: that low grey line to starboard must be Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of the continent. By next morning we were off the other Cape: Good Hope. The fog rolled in, the wind died and we inched our way north into the Atlantic; by dawn we were off Hout Bay and could hear the throb of fishing boats coming and going. 

The blown-down customs shed, East London Reaching past Cape Agulhas

Hout Bay is an indentation in the rugged Cape Peninsula, just south of Cape Town itself and we made its little fishing harbour our base for several weeks as we explored the Western Cape overland. Highlights were visits to both Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope; the lighthouse at Good Hope is disappointingly tiny and perched on a ledge half way down a cliff; the original light at the top was, it seems, too frequently obscured by fog to be of much use to passing mariners. 

 Hout Bay, Cape Peninsula, South Africa  The lighthouse, Cape Point, Cape of Good Hope

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