SOUTH TO CAIRNS
Booking a berth on a cargo ship is the leisurely way to come down from the tip of Cape York, discovers Andrew Bain
THE Great Barrier Reef is indeed a great reef, but today I’m most grateful that it’s also truly a barrier. Along the east coast of Cape York Peninsula, high-wind warnings have dragged on for a week and the Trinity Bay is pushing hard against them. Thirty-knot winds ruffle the ocean but the reef is our shield. The freighter rolls but rarely does it rock.
The last passenger-carrying cargo ship in Australia, the 81m Trinity Bay is making its weekly sailing from the tiny port of Seisia, near the tip of Cape York, to Cairns. That it’s a journey as frills-free as a shipping container is a large part of its charm, giving the two-day journey a salty substance long erased from ocean travel.
‘‘ This is a cargo vessel, so there are no poker machines or nightclub girlies,’’ the Trinity Bay’s purser, Adrienne, informs us even before we leave port. With the first couple of hours full of interest, the need for external forms of entertainment becomes negligible.
On high tide the Trinity Bay weaves through the shallow Seisia shoals and past a memorial plaque on Possession Island marking the spot where James Cook claimed Australia’s east coast as British territory.
Shortly after, the literal high point comes when the ship rounds the tip of Cape York. Every passenger has come to the deck, looking over the cargo of shipping containers and a fishing boat with a blown engine to see the point where Australia peters out to a rocky finish. It half-demands a ceremony, but we simply cruise past at 11 knots. With the twist of a dial (no ship’s wheel here) the skipper turns the freighter south, ploughing through the narrow Albany Passage, its waters as corrugated as the Cape York roads behind us.
With the tip gone, so has much of the enthusiasm for standing on the deck in a 30-knot wind. Suddenly the dining room looks more like a bridge convention, and the television room becomes the scene of a movie marathon (though nobody dares play the Titanic video in the collection). For those caught between cards, Trivial Pursuit and another Jason Bourne DVD, there’s a digital chart of our passage.
For much of the next two days there’s a glorious emptiness to the journey that matches the open sea. Meal times are the only clock to which we tick, with buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner topped up with morning and afternoon teas. Meals are of high-standard pub-grub style, with selections such as pork belly, roast beef and vegetarian lasagna (usually three choices a meal). The 13 crew members get first run past the bain-marie, 15 minutes before guests, while the adjacent bar opens twice a day, in the early afternoon and into the evening. Dress requirements are as casual as the captain’s tracksuit pants.
The Trinity Bay’s cabins share the ship’s asceticism, resembling train compartments with portholes. Each cabin sleeps two or three passengers, with a pair of bunks and one single bed. Five cabins on the upper deck have ensuites, with the rest of the cabins sharing bathrooms.
This is our home for 48 hours, as we will sail inside the embrace of the outer reef, sometimes near, sometimes far. We float by myriad reefs and cays, arising from one horizon and disappearing off another. When land is visible, it’s a beautiful glimpse of a rarely seen coast. Roads touch Cape York’s east coast at only around a dozen points north of Cooktown, and they’re so far from the main drag that few people bother with more than one detour. What the view from the deck reveals are cliffs, beaches, yawning estuaries and boulderstrewn hills.
Though most people on the Trinity Bay take the ship one way and drive Cape York’s bone-shaking roads the other, on board this trip are Melburnian couple Donna and John, who are sailing in both directions with six of their grey-nomad friends.
‘‘ We thought about driving up,’’ Donna says. ‘‘ We really just wanted to get to the tip, so it was perfect.’’
They have five nights on the boat but the better part of two days off, with a day spent on Horn and Thursday islands on the northward sailing and half a day ashore at Seisia, joining a guide for the 40km drive to the tip of Cape York.
Sailing south, as I am, there’s no shore leave but at 5am, 16 hours into our journey, our sleep is broken as the engines slow to a purr and the anchor is dropped. In the pre-dawn darkness a smaller barge, the Temple Bay, motors alongside. We are in Lloyd Bay, just offshore from the Aboriginal community of Lockhart River, and for the next hour loads are transferred between the ships. A kayak, petrol, empty milk crates and a four-wheeldrive ute are lifted aboard by the Trinity Bay’s enormous crane, while a hotchpotch of goods go off to be delivered to Lockhart River.
Though it’s early — there’s a bare hint of sun on the horizon — this is the day’s main excitement, so most of the guests are on the bridge. Some will return to their cabins but some will stay to enjoy the impending dawn.
For most of this second day we see no land, giving us a real taste of open-water travel as the ship cuts across Princess Charlotte Bay, the largest bite in the peninsula’s east coast. Swells rise as we pass breaks in the reef, then they flatten again.
After hours of nothing but water, reefs and cays, it’s an epic event when the bouldery slopes of Cape Melville appear off the starboard bow. Thirty-five guests rush to the railings, and for the landlubbers among us it’s like a homecoming, watching the setting sun paint the empty land like a watercolour.
On the final morning I’m again woken by a stirring on the boat: whales have been sighted. Humpback whales migrate about as far north as Cooktown in July, August and September, and it’s not uncommon to see calves breaching near the ship during this season. This morning there are no such acrobatics, just sprays of water as a small pod of humpbacks disappears slowly behind the boat.
It’s the humpback hills behind Port Douglas and Cairns that are our companions into port. Pleasure craft and reef-bound vessels buzz about us like dragonflies, and Cairns rises from the sea like Atlantis. The wind has stilled, the sea is flat. The reef’s job is done.
Trinity Bay sails from Cairns on Fridays, returning from Seisia on Mondays (arriving in Cairns on Wednesdays). One-way fares for a double cabin are $495 a person (April to October) or $375 (November to March). Transporting a vehicle costs an additional $690. More: www.seaswift.com.au.
Frills-free charm: Watching the sun setting over Cape York Peninsula from the deck of the Trinity Bay, the last passenger-carrying cargo vessel in Australia
The shipping views:
Cairns rising from the water like Atlantis at the end of the cruise; a reflective moment on the reef-shielded sea; the Trinity Bay docked at Seisia near Cape York