A restored pearl lugger is set to appear with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. June Alexander reports from Darwin
FROM collecting trochus shells in the Timor Sea to sunset cruises on Darwin Harbour with an aphrodisiac pearl meat appetiser, the old lugger Anniki has seen it all. Now it is set for stardom as a mission boat in the movie Australia, tipped to make waves as Australia’s answer to Gone with the Wind.
Anniki’s story is almost as colourful as that of the movie’s lead characters, played by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Owner-operator Mal Soutar found the lugger looking a little forlorn in 2000 when bringing his sailing ketch, Star Chaser, back to Darwin from Sydney. Its pearling days over, Anniki was lying on a mooring off Thursday Island and Soutar remembers thinking: ‘‘ It didn’t look too bad on the outside.’’
Two years later he bought the lugger and set it on a fresh course in life, cruising on Darwin Harbour. First, he tried to acquire Anniki’s sister boat, the Antonia, but it had been given to James Cook Maritime Museum in Townsville, so he negotiated for Anniki. He became its third owner, buying it from Phyllis Ah Loy and her son Peter, who had used the lugger to catch crayfish and collect shells for pearl farms in Queensland.
Harold Collis had built Anniki in Cairns in 1956 for a Greek pearling master, Jack Zafer. It joined Zafer’s small fleet of pearl luggers; Phyllis Ah Loy’s family had run several of them, including the Anniki and Antonia.
The lugger has been very much a workhorse of the sea, but it already has tasted movie stardom. ‘‘ Back in the 1960s it featured in a documentary, Pearlers of the Coral Sea, with Antonia,’’ Soutar tells me. ‘‘ No other boat had collected so much shell in its time.’’
Anniki’s pearling days ended with the arrival of new boats in 1999, but it was not idle for long. In 2000 it carried the Olympic flame from Horn Island across to Thursday Island. In 2002, Soutar set about the rebuild.
He put the 32-tonne lugger on the deck of a ship at Thursday Island and took it to Cairns. ‘‘ Her hull is all spotted gum. The decks are Australian beech;
the masts, imported Oregon.’’ If not for a shipwreck though, Anniki would not be here at all. ‘‘ When Antonia was being built, the ship bringing the motor from England was wrecked,’’ Soutar says. ‘‘ Another motor was arranged, but some time later a crate turned up, salvaged from a shipwreck and containing the original motor, covered in sand. Rather than waste the motor, Zafer decided to build another boat, improving the design. He named it Anniki after his two children, Anne and Nicholas.’’
Anniki spent its first six months collecting trochus shells for the button industry, which was also the main use of pearl shells in those days. ‘‘ Every now and then you found a pearl, which was a bonus,’’ Soutar says. ‘‘ In the late 1960s, plastics took over from the shells in button-making and at the same time the cultured pearl industry took off.’’
Its makeover complete by July 2003, Anniki began providing sunset cruises on Darwin Harbour. Besides beautiful sunsets, passengers are treated to pearl shell meat, prepared simply with lime juice, coriander, white wine vinegar and a little ginger, and served on the shell. Now mostly sold in Asia as a delicacy, the meat retails at about $150 a kilo and is a reputed aphrodisiac.
Meanwhile, Soutar has been busy grooming Anniki for its role in Australia, changing the ropes back to the original and ensuring all modern fittings are removed, ‘‘ so it looks like a 1942 boat’’. Soutar says he may appear in the movie as an extra.
As for Anniki, movie roles aside, its future seems secure.
Last year the lugger was listed on the Australian National Maritime Museum’s historic maritime register. Australian Harbour Cruises operates on Darwin Harbour, including sunset cruises on the Anniki from April to the end of November. More: www.australianharbourcruises.com.au.
New life: Formerly a workhorse in the pearling industry, the Anniki, above and right, is now used for sunset cruises on Darwin Harbour