Victoria, an abandoned settlement

We anchored off Adams Head, deep in Port Essington, and set off in the relative cool of the morning to explore the abandoned settlement of Victoria. The temperature was still in the thirties.

In the early 1800s, England had settled parts of the eastern coast of Australia but was concerned that the northern reaches of this vast continent might be vulnerable to Dutch and French expansion from their colonies in the East Indies.

Two military bases were set up, Fort Dundas on Melville Island and Port Wellington on the Cobourg Peninsula, but both settlements failed due to the harsh conditions. The English government persisted, and in 1838 set up the civilian settlement of Victoria at a site much farther inland, at Adam Head on the shores of the large Port Essington bay.


Surveys had shown that there was a plentiful supply of fresh water, and also that the area might support a successful trepang trade. We’ve seen traces of similar activity (trepang are also known as beche-de-mer, or sea cucumbers or sea slugs) all over the northern islands and coasts. Mrs Watson of Lizard Island was there because her husband was a beche-de-mer fisherman. The sea slugs themselves were traded at great profit to the Chinese who regard them as a delicacy. I tried one once in Shanghai, and it was indeed very expensive but also tasted pretty much the way that you would expect.

The settlement began bravely, with a prefabricated Governor’s House, a church, a hospital, thatched and shingled cottages, and a military barracks.


For food they had vegetable gardens, imported water buffalo, and a peaceable trading relationship with the local aboriginals and with visiting Macassan (Indonesian) trepang fishermen.

Unfortunately the original survey had been conducted in the wet season, and for the other six months of the year the colony had to rely on ever deeper wells.


A cyclone hit in the second year, and destroyed much of what had been built. The supply ships came only intermittently, and the soil turned out to be so poor that their gardens were barely better than subsistance. Malaria became a way of life, eventually killing almost a quarter of the residents.


At times fully half of the population were in hospital, not only from malaria but also from dysentery, influenza and scurvy.

After eleven hard years, the political situation had changed and foreign incursion was no longer regarded as a threat. The survivors were shipped out and the settlement was abandoned.

Some of the buildings were subsequently and intermittently used by freelance trepang fishermen and hunters tracking the now wild water buffalo, but the bush soon moved back in. It didn’t take long for most of the signs of civilisation to be erased.


Epiphany at Black Point

We were becoming a little jaded with the sail across the top of the Northern Territory. Access to the entire shoreline is essentially forbidden to non-Aboriginals without a permit, and permits are not easy to get. The rest of our world consists of featureless waters and small islands that we’re not allowed to visit either.

This morning we found ourselves at anchor off Black Point, Port Essington. The bay has a pronounced roll and we awoke irritable and grumpy, and not looking forward to more mindless mileage. We feel that we’ve seen little in the last thousand miles apart from sea water and the inside of a few pubs. Without our university work to keep us occupied and to fuel our discussions, we probably would have cracked long before this. Were we going too far, too fast?

Port Essington is part of a national park, and there is a ranger station at Black Point. I called up the ranger on the radio to see if it was possible to get a permit to go ashore at the nearby historical settlement of Victoria, and received the welcome news that no permit was required for day visits. Eager to see a new face after a week at sea, I tossed the dinghy over the side and rowed to shore to get more details. Just as I was setting the anchor on the beach, the ranger’s helicopter lifted off from behind the treeline and headed off seaward. Darn!

I went up to his house anyway and found the visitor centre, which was closed. Persistence paid off as I found an unlocked rear entrance and spent a happy hour or so wandering around the nice little museum there.

On the way back to the dinghy, I stopped on the beach and dug my feet into the baking hot sand. Scattered around me were hundreds of shell and coral fragments. I picked up a handful and realised that I was looking at more individual new things than I had seen in the entire past week.

The realisation hit that, although sailing is fun, I am first and foremost a land mammal. There just isn’t enough variety on the water to keep me that interested. Rowing back to Pindimara, I imparted this new-found wisdom to Bronwyn, who of course had worked it out for herself weeks ago and was waiting for me to catch up.

We decided to take a little holiday from our holiday, and instead of continuing westward turned inland, deeper into the bay in the direction of the ruined town of Victoria some three hours away.

It felt good to be heading for a real destination that we could walk around on, rather than just another palm-fringed inaccessible beach on the way to the next one. In addition, Port Essington is sheltered from the swell but not from the trade winds, so we were soon creaming along at a steady seven knots. Flying fish sparkled across the water before us, dolphins cruised serenely alongside. Even heeled over, the boat hung reasonably steady in the flat azure sea, and Bronwyn popped below for long enough to bake a batch of scones.

Things were looking up.

Across the Arafura Sea

We didn’t have permits to go onto aboriginal land anywhere across the Northern Territories, so we did not get off on Raragala Island and did not plan to set foot on land again until we got to Darwin. Cruisers who were doing the distance more slowly had applied for permits with variable results. One boat’s applications got repeatedly ‘lost’. Another boat got every permit that they asked for, but dated in such a way that there was no way that they could possibly use them.

Not only did we want to become embroiled in aboriginal bureaucracy, but we were also aware of the impending cyclone season, so we decided to skip Arnhem Land completely. We drew a straight line on the chart across the Arafura Sea to the Cobourg Peninsula near to Darwin.



We were at sea for two days and two nights, during which time we sighted no land, no ships, no planes, and only three items of interest. The first was a banded coral snake. The second was a very lost ten-inch crab, swimming at the surface miles from shore. The third was a juvenile petrel who roosted on our dodger for most of the second night, completely unconcerned with the comings and goings of crew with bright lights and cameras.


On the morning of the third day we sighted land and dropped anchor on the south-western side of Grant Island for a rest. We couldn’t go ashore, because even this was aboriginal land, but we couldn’t face any more sailing and needed to get some decent sleep. After a few hours the swell turned around and began to hit us on the beam, which is never comfortable and a sure fire trigger for lost sleep and tinkling crockery. The good news was that the sea conditions were right and there was room to swing about; I could finally try a trick that Virginia had mentioned to us months ago.

Picture this: We’re at anchor. Boats at anchor are designed to point into wind, so the wind is coming from dead ahead. The swell is slapping into us from starboard (right hand side). I got a long rope and tied one end to the anchor chain where it dropped over the bow roller, and the other end to the port stern quarter (left back) of the boat. Returning to the front of the boat, I let out ten extra metres of anchor chain, dragging that end of the rope far below the surface of the water. Strolling back to the stern end of the rope, I attached it to a winch and wound it in, dragging the stern around to port, and pointing the bow into the swell. Rather than streaming off the anchor in a straight fore-and-aft line, the boat was now hanging sideways on a Y-shaped harness. The rocking stopped. Brilliant. Thankyou, Virginia.

In the morning we got up and looked at the perfect and inviting beach. Ah well. We had no permit, and anyway it was time to move on. We hoisted sail and headed out of the bay.

Just for a change we had a perfect combination of strong following winds and a swell that was directly astern. We could move around the yacht freely, read books and concentrate on small tasks without feeling seasick. It seemed as good a time as any to learn how to make an eye splice.


We’d planned to reach Black Point in the large bay of Port Essington by midnight, but we were making cracking progress and turned into the entrance shortly after nightfall. It was a pitch black moonless night, and much of the territory up here is not well charted. There are some spot heights and guesstimated contours, but even these are only 95% certain to be within 2 metres vertically and 500 metres horizontally, which is quite a lot of uncertainty. Nevertheless there wasn’t much that we could do about it, so we charged through in pitch darkness at something over six knots and, navigating by GPS, dropped anchor in 5 metres of water a respectable distance on the chart from the invisible reef and the invisible shore.

Once everything was ship-shape, I got out the big spotlight to have a last check for any hazards, and illuminated Black Point Beach only a few metres away in front of the bow. We hastily weighed anchor and backed off a few hundred yards before putting it back down again.