We set off on our last long passage of the Oyster World Rally, saying a sad farewell to South Africa promising that we would return to this wonderful country soon... the Rugby Lions Tour in 2012 maybe??!
This passage ahead was a long 5,000 miles, with only remote islands in between us and the Caribbean. The first part of the passage was to St Helena, a British island in the middle of the South Atlantic with a population of 5,000 very friendly "Saints". It's famous as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile and death. but more importantly for us it's also known for Whale Sharks,.We managed to time our arrival to meet the Whale sharks on their migration south. These amazing creatures grow to over 15m and we were lucky enough to meet a very friendly and inquisitive one; although it was a little disconcerting being chased by a whale shark with a 6 foot wide open mouth.
The next island was Ascension Island, basically a military and communications centre (weird that it had the worst internet of our trip!), The island has only 800 inhabitants, most of them on contract for a couple of years and they loved having some new Oyster friends to play with. We were made very welcome and had a great time with BBQ's, Karaoke nights and diving with the locals. There was an extra bonus for Andy and Hugh being a British RAF base they had lots of great British beers!
Our third stop was a total contrast – the beautiful islands of Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off the coast of Brazil. Both Ascension and St Helena had been very much working islands with limited tourism, Fernando was the total opposite - think Ibiza for Brazilians...wonderful beaches, beautiful people (in very minimal attire) and great cocktails...the perfect place to help Hugh celebrate his birthday!! Unfortunately we only had 4 days there before we had to set off again for another 5 day passage up the Brazilian Coast. An eventful passage with highs and lows...the high - we caught and landed an amazing 7 foot sailfish, the low- we got caught in a squall and managed to break our hydraulics. The joys of sailing!
The final stop on our travels to the Caribbean was Devils Island (real name Iles Du Salut, part of French Guiana) – a French penal colony that operated in the 19th and 20th century (famous for the film Papillion). The prison was infamous for its harsh treatment of detainees, with a death rate of 75% at their worst and with fierce currents and a large shark population escape was almost impossible. But escape we did and set off for our final long passage along the coastline of Venezuela, Surinam and Guiana - although following recent reports of Venezuelan pirates looking for some easy pickings we decided that the safest option was to sail in close formation with our fellow Oyster boats (a harder task than it looks when you have different sized boats and a strong current). Luckily no sign of these new “Pirates of the Caribbean” and we arrived safely in Grenada, where we tied up in their lovely new marina completing our last overnight passage (hoorah!!) . It's over 2 years since we started our journey in the Caribbean and it's a bitter sweet feeling - great to be back and nearing the completion of our amazing journey and yet really sad that we will be saying good-bye to our Oyster family and that our adventure is coming to an end.
Reunion to South Africa heralded as the toughest rally passage highlighted the need for navigational skills. Departure was delayed 6 days due to storms and the boys spent much time discussing navigation and the weather. When the wind finally abated it had left behind waves and swell and as we left port for the first 8 hours the ride was uncomfortable.
Over the next three days however the forecasts continued to change with no clear passage to Durban. Our SSB radio net was full of discussions about lows, high winds, slowing down and other possible ports. Vela's forecaster told them they would be 'suicidal' to cross the strong Agulhas Current which rushes down the African coast when the wind was against it due to the impossible seas. In the end 5 boats stopped at Madagascar, Port Dauphin, 3 more headed to Mozambique and the rest pushed on hoping for a better forecast. The Foreign Office had plenty to say about both Madagascar and Mozambique. Kidnapping, mugging, don't drive etc.
With an intermittent auto pilot we chose Madagascar. Fishermen in wooden dugout canoes paddled in the bay. Going ashore loads of kids including 2 year olds offered to dinghy watch. Customers an immigration took place at a shady table with a guitarist, a few chickens and ducks. Into the countryside we were enthralled by lemurs, unique to Madagascar. Unafraid they took bananas from our hands and sat on us. Rain halted the promise beach BBQ and Edwin, our guide, invited us to his house and 20 of us shared delicious grilled lobster with his family in his wooden one room shack and tiny courtyard.
Weather window identified, we set off again past an unforgettable sight of a huge gigantarium of whales waving and tail flicking like mad. The rally atmosphere resembled a tense adventure movie. The weather was kicking up outside Durban, the wind was liable to turn 180 degrees and the safe passage window shortening. The leading boats started doing circles in the middle of the ocean waiting while others were rushing for the weather gate.
Then our boat decided to make strange noises - clutter, clutter, bang, bang. Skipper Hugh dived into the water to see if the propeller was alright without getting hit by 45 ton of boat or sharks. After rather a lot of noise in the middle of the night the 'ropecutter' - the eponymous piece of kit to protect the propeller- fell off. At least there was silence.
We discovered a new way of sailing - motorsailing with all sails up and engine on, to go hell for leather, to try and make Durban. Otherwise the options were to head backwards or north. Tenterhooks didn't even begin to cover it. In the final stages the wind got up and the boat surfed as we approached in darkness. With the impending gale force winds Durban Port was broadcasting messages to container ships outside to lay down extra anchors, stay 12 miles off and add extra lights. Entering the harbour was very hairy. Unexpectedly 2 container ships were coming out of the tight gaps with tugs. In the dim light we weren't sure where our passage lay. At one point one of the tugs was in our path. Our options were to head to rocks or container ship. Fortunately the tug reversed. When we at last got into the marina Sea Flute and Tianelle were waving torches from the dock lighting the way and with only 200 metres to go the wind finally abated. Hugh had done a magnificent job helming We repaired to the Royal Natal Yacht Club for celebratory drinks. Things went with a swing, Altair arrived about midnight and we eventually left the club around 2:30am. Tianelle and Altair crew carried on celebrating on the back of a boat before they fell in the water.
But sailing was not over. The wind gods declared the time was right for a non stop trip to Cape Town. Out we popped with the fleet and promptly lost 16 miles while we executed a makeshift fix on autopilot again. This time Navigator Andy ensured we rode that Agulhas Current Bronco reaching 17 knots of boat speed whilst dodging container ships, oil field and the Cape of Good Hope to return to lead the fleet in thick fog in Cape Town. When the fog cleared the majestic Table Mountain revealed itself as out back garden for the next 2 months.
Bidding fond farewells to Indonesia we set sail for South Africa, 5,000 miles across the Indian Ocean. Our plan, to experience and hopefully enjoy, four islands on route that reportedly, in their own right, are spectacular, we were not disappointed!!
First stop Christmas Island, a small Australian outpost, famous for crabs and phosphate! Oh My what a place; isolated, sparse, minimal, yet charming, not just for the super friendly people but the way the whole community existed together and got on with things. Like taking us diving into caves, swimming with huge travelly, off-roading around the rugged volcanic coast, oh and sharing the odd drink or ten. The other local inhabitants are 'red crabs', billions of them. Every year they migrate from the hills down to the sea to spawn and back, literally going over, under, through, anything in their path? Then after a few weeks the young crabs pop out of the ocean and do their own march inland, totally unique, absolutely extraordinary.
Next stop Cocos Keeling a bunch of islands now part of Australia once privately owned by a Scottish family who made it famous for; coconuts, inviting the queen and joining the commonwealth!! The coconut industry, now in decline, employed migrant Malayans, who now live as a Muslim community on one island in perfect harmony with the more Aussie orientated settlement on another island. In fact the Cocos are renowned for their picture perfect tropical islands, of which we tried to make the most. We canoe safaried around them, snorkelled and dived in the reefs off them, 'spotting the elusive dugong hurray' fired up many superb bbq's, generally relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Then the long hop, 2,400 miles, 11 days, to Mauritius, a fairly fast, sometimes furious passage, arriving slightly shaken, a little stirred but in one piece. Mauritius is probably best know for its resorts, set on idyllic beaches, which as we found by jumping ship and staying at The Prince Consort were indeed world class, swinging in hammocks, splashing in seas, sipping, slurping cocktails, even swung golf clubs, thank goodness for low cost balls!! What we didn't realise is it's indelible charm created by a diversity which includes a wealth of religious buildings, some incredible landscapes offering unforgettable walks/clambers/climbs, Le Mourne being one of them, fascinating colonial history including a stamp worth £2m!! Indian influenced memorable curries (fill your boots Andy), mouth watering variety and quality of fruit and veg at the colourful markets, even a visit and trial at a sugar and rum factory. We even learnt that the favourite rarely wins at the second oldest race course in the world. Mauritius, life is not just a beach!! And finally we received a heartening ship’s blessing from four different denominations, proving religions can and should exist in harmony.
Our last island, Reunion, should be more famous in England as it has the most spectacular landscape we have seen so far. Swiss alps on acid - Jurassic Park meets the moon. We walked down volcanoes into dramatic waterfalls, drove the hair-raising hairpins, dived deep into the gorges in helicopters, hovering over active volcanic plains, eating superb food whilst enjoying breathtaking vistas, generally exploring a best kept French secret!
Islands, like the people on them are hugely different, what an incredible privilege to experience them this way. Next stop Durban.
From Darwin our next leg was a 6 day passage to Indonesia- a country that is rarely talked about outside of Bali ( and unfortunately the recent earthquake) but whose scale and diversity is truly staggering: 17,000 islands, 300 languages, 255 million people, 5,000 km end to end, multiple religions and even their currency has scale...1 million rupiah = £50.
We arrived in Kupang (East Timor), a bustling, administrative city where we had to spend 3 days checking in (they really do love their admin...and their uniforms). From there we spent the next 6 weeks hopping our way along the islands of Flores, Komodo, Rinca, Sumbawa, Lombok and Bali. While this only skimmed the surface of Indonesia we definitely got to witness the rich diversity of the life and landscape of this amazing country.
Much of Indonesia is still relatively new to tourism and lots of our journey has been steeped in local life. Colourful local markets, dodging fully laden motorcycles (6 people was the record!), waking up to the local Mosque’s call to prayers at 4.30 am (sometimes in stereo from competing Imans), traditional villages where the women toil over open fires to create palm sugar and hundreds of outrigger fishing boats that pepper bays and skylines both day and night have all left an indelible mark on our memories. The local Indonesian people are a joy too...the kids greet you like Royalty with the call of “hello Mister” (that goes for men and women) and everyone you meet is friendly, helpful and smiley, probably one of the reasons that their multiple religions co-exist so comfortably.
As we made our way from Kupang through the islands we were treated to some spectacular scenery, passing just some of the 139 active volcanoes scattered around Indonesia: our beach BBQ on the idyllic white-sand beach of Kroko island with a smoking volcano in the background will be a hard sight to beat (although seeing the sunrise from the top of Mount Batur Volcano on Bali comes a close second!).
Our route included a stop at Labuan Bajo on the West of Flores, a bustling town where tourism and local life really come together...trendy coffee shops sit next to traditional fish markets and charter dive boats sit alongside hard-working fishing vessels. Its popularity is driven by its access to Komodo Island - home to the infamous and dangerous Komodo Dragons. We took a trip to the National Park and very quickly spied a bunch of dragons hanging around the rangers huts in the hope of food...and yes they are VERY big and you definitely don't want to upset them. Komodo is also famous for its dive sites and we did 3 amazing dives that included seeing wonderful coral, a dolphin with her calf, numerous Hawksbill turtles and best of all the most mind blowing fly past by 3 majestic Manta Rays.
From Komodo we island hopped across to Lombok snorkelling in glorious isolated bays with crystal clear waters and visiting small remote fishing villages, where we were definitely a novelty. Our final destination was Gili Gede an island on the south of Lombok (luckily unaffected by the earthquake) where we left the boat for a jaunt to Bali with friends and family.
Bali was a totally different experience. We luxuriated in Villa Shambala (with 13 lovely staff), partied at Ku De Ta, Potato Head and Mexicola (where we danced on the tables like teenagers!), recovered with yoga and massages, went site seeing to Temples and Rice Fields and generally lazed around the pool with cocktails in hand....a week of pure fun and indulgence. While we were there we did however experience a few earthquakes, luckily not so strong or too near but they shook the villa and gave us just a hint of what it must be like!!
Our final week was back in Gili Gede, where we met up with all the Oysters in the brand new Marina Del Ray, celebrated Andy's 60th, said our sad farewells to The Tiggys, Calliope and Lisanne (3 of our friends leaving the Rally) and got the boat ready for the 3470 mile sail to Mauritius - via Christmas and Cocos Keeling Islands.
We said our farewells to the Whitsunday Islands and to Abel Point Marina, by far the best marina we have visited on our trip (if Heineken built marinas this is what it would look like). The last night was an informal BBQ in their fabulous Club House, typical Aussie affair with the guys doing all the hard work cooking the meat and the girls providing the green stuff.
So off we set on a 1500 miles passage from the Whitsunday Islands to Darwin, known to the locals as “sailing over the top”. Our first stop was Magnetic Island, 3 miles off Townsville where we met up with Paul and Carol, our good friends from the UK who were joining us on the passage up to Cairns. Paul and Carol are also on a circumnavigation of the globe but their chosen form of transport is planes, cars and bikes!
Unfortunately for them the weather deteriorated as they arrived and the passage up to Cairns was more reminiscent of a squally day on the Solent! After a bouncy passage we arrived in Cairns. The highlight being a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef on a dedicated dive boat just for the Oyster team. There is no doubt that the Great Barrier Reef has suffered in recent years – whether due to a couple of very serious hurricanes or a rise in the sea temperature we do not know – but the wonderful coral has been impacted.
We said goodbye to Paul and Carol and left Cairns to travel around the top of Cape York. The passage up the East Coast was certainly memorable. The channel inside the reef twists and turns at regular intervals and the constant checking of our position was important to make sure we did not find ourselves washed up on coral (check out the photo of the chart route up the coast, each red cross is a change of course!). The journey was made more complex by the container ships that ply this route. The exciting highlight of this part of the trip was a huge humpback whale continually breaching... literally a couple of hundred yards from the boat – a truly memorable sight.
Captain Cook travelled up this coast in the late 1700’s and we were in awe of the skill required to navigate a ship without engines / charts / GPS etc up this treacherous coast. Every island seemed to have a monument in honour of this amazing sailor. We rounded Possession Island and turned west – aptly named, where James Cook planted the flag and claimed the East Coast of Australia for England and King George!
The trip west to Darwin was fast, with strong winds, beautiful sunsets and some delicious fresh Spanish Mackerel. On arrival we were inspected by the Fisheries Dept, with an expat official wearing his Norwich City football shirt – Hugh’s passion for his beloved Norwich follows him far and wide (actually another Oyster boat tipped him off!)
Having cleared into Darwin, it was a quick trip to watch the jumping crocodiles (no-one swims in the rivers or seas here!), a beer in a typical Aussie pub at Humpty Doo and the sad viewing of the England v Croatia game. At half time Hugh, Debbie and Janice left for the airport to return to the UK for family commitments, (shame the result did not stand at this point!). Andy was left to sort out the boat for their return and the next part of the rally...our trip to Indonesia.
And so to Australia and Mackay in Queensland. A veritable ‘quagmire of customs officers’ checked us in. 4 of them and a dog searched the boat thoroughly. The dog wore protective doggy shoes. Ironic since the officers kept their sturdy boots on. Sniffer the dog was searching for money and drugs. He found piles of low denomination notes from several Pacific countries worth about £4.50.
Part of our mission in this part of Australia was to come close to their unique wildlife although not of course the crocodiles, irukandji jellyfish, stonefish, snakes and spiders. In the Eungella we found some duckbilled platypus foraging for food in a mountain river. The next day we rose at 5am to drive to Cape Hillsborough to see kangaroos feeding against a beautiful dawn lit beach backdrop. Slightly bittersweet with the addition of a park ranger and food pellets to ensure their attendance. Ridiculously upon our return to our lodge we encountered loads of kangaroos and wallabies in the garden and tracks around.
Next stop was Airlie Beach and a meander through the Whitsunday Islands last visited by your intrepid Meteorites 26 years ago. Less busy this time due to Cyclone Debbie (no relation) that hit in March 2017 causing significant damage throughout the islands which is still being fixed up. What could we remember from last time? Certainly the iconic, pristine 7km of whitest sand on Whitehaven beach still as beautiful as ever. The other memory that had curiously stuck in our mind was the cocktail bar in the middle of the hotel pool on Hamilton Island. Also still there. Whilst on Hamilton Island Hugh and David from Sea Flute tried to organise a Hobie Cat race and sort out king sailor of the rally. Sadly the boat hire shop decided it was too windy. Seriously? For round the world sailors??? Watch this space. Beach volleyball owners versus crew had to suffice.
Decamping to Hook Island OMG we swam with giant Manta Rays in Butterfly Bay and didn’t get sucked up into their huge mouths. In Nara Inlet we saw cave paintings of the Ngaro aborigines. Andy alone, remembered we had also been there before. A short 30 mile hop on a seaplane took us to part of the 2,300km long Great Barrier Reef. Apparently visible from outer space the view from our 9 seater plane was spectacular. Despite talk of environment threats our snorkel took us past plenty of coral and sea life and to a standoff with a huge cuttlefish. Now we head up between the reef and the mainland to the very tip of Australia.
The Meteorite Crew
Debbie, Hugh, Janice and Andy