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 Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­tures: Andrew Bain

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

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