Bay­side watch

An un­usual tour to a wa­tery grave­yard

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - LEAH McLEN­NAN

We are whizzing along the bay in a ba­nana-hued hov­er­craft, skim­ming over the milky turquoise wa­ters, send­ing out a roar like a light plane about to take to the sky. With our guide and pi­lot Myles hold­ing the yoke and our phones on flight mode, you could be for­given for think­ing we’re in­deed aboard an air­craft.

It may feel as if we are fly­ing but we are on a hov­er­craft above the rich mud­flats of Broome’s Roe­buck Bay, an area eight times the size of Syd­ney Har­bour and so abun­dant in crit­ters that it was crowned Aus­tralia’s new­est marine park last month. “A salt­wa­ter croc­o­dile was sat out­side the hov­er­craft base four times re­cently,” says Lan­cashire-born Myles, the son-in-law of Roger and June Col­less, who have owned Broome Hov­er­craft for al­most 18 years.

Rep­tiles with snap­ping jaws were the last things on my mind when my two daugh­ters and I ca­pered about on the salmon pink-sand beach be­fore our 6am de­par­ture. But it’s not all Man ver­sus Wild out here on the Kim­ber­ley coast; there are also crea­tures in this bay so charm­ing you’d be tempted to take one home and put it in your bath. How­ever, you’d need a big tub for a dugong, those Zep­pelin-shaped mam­mals that vacuum up the sea­grasses grow­ing in abun­dance in these trop­i­cal shal­lows. For my bath­tub at home I’d pick a snubfin dol­phin, a species so spe­cial that David At­ten­bor­ough’s film crew has just been here for a month film­ing its habi­tat and move­ments.

In this 13-seater Spirit of Broome hov­er­craft we fol­low the edge of the tide, cam­eras pressed up to the large win­dows, click­ing away at rest­less wader birds, green sea tur­tles play­ing stuck-in-the-mud and eight-legged starfish. Af­ter 30 min­utes of whizzing along, lis­ten­ing to Myles’s en­gag­ing “mini-ol­ogy” talks (marine bi­ol­ogy, pa­le­on­tol­ogy, ge­ol­ogy), we land softly, the black skirt de­flates and for a mo­ment I’m back in high school catch­ing a lift in my friend Mered­ith’s mum’s Citroen DS.

Out of the right win­dow there’s a sea­grass meadow ex­posed by the spring low tide. To the left, about 1km off­shore, we see the wrecks of rusted and bar­na­cle-en­crusted World War II fly­ing boats, which are ex­posed when the wa­ter depth is 1.3m or lower. Be­fore de­par­ture, Roger Col­less, a for­mer air­craft en­gi­neer in the Aus­tralian Navy Avi­a­tion Group, has told us the 90-minute tours to see the fly­ing boat wrecks take place about 20 times a year. He says: “With all the cruise ships com­ing to Broome we’re busier than ever.”

Myles climbs out of the con­trol deck, pops open the but­ter­fly cabin door and we pre­pare to emerge into the sear­ing mid-Oc­to­ber sun­shine. It’s only 7am but the tem­per­a­ture is push­ing into the low 30s. Bare­foot on the wet con­crete-like sand, with a damp wood smell in the air, we walk over to the site where 15 an­chored fly­ing boats were de­stroyed dur­ing an air raid.

More than 80 peo­ple, mostly Dutch flee­ing the Dutch East Indies, now In­done­sia, were killed here in March 1942 when Broome be­came the site of the sec­ond most deadly Ja­panese at­tack on Aus­tralia. Back in Fe­bru­ary of 1942, the Dutch, Bri­tish, Amer­i­can and Aus­tralian forces fought many bat­tles with the Ja­panese around the In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago, but as the enemy ad­vanced the al­lies re­treated, and many mil­i­tary planes passed through Broome, trans­port­ing Dutch refugees from Java to Perth.

“It’s been 74 years and the sand and marine life help to pre­serve it,” Myles says. “It’s a war grave so I ask you to not walk on the struc­tures.” While some of the rav­aged ma­chines are hard to dis­cern be­cause of the dam­age they in­curred and the re­moval of parts, there is one Dornier that is clearly vis­i­ble. Its fuse­lage, wings and en­gines sit on the sod­den, steely sand like a beached whale.

“The three en­gine Dornier was like a mas­sive ver­sion of the sea­planes that go up to the Hor­i­zon­tal Falls [on the Kim­ber­ley Coast],” Myles says. I imag­ine the men, women and 20-odd chil­dren sit­ting like ducks be­fore their 8am de­par­ture. If they hadn’t been de­layed by the need to re­fuel, they may have sur­vived. The sur­prise raid took place at 9.30am, re­sult­ing in “a scene of ghastly dev­as­ta­tion”, wrote RAAF pi­lot of­fi­cer Frank Rus­sell who was aboard one of the fly­ing boats.

A fa­ther, who has walked out from Town Beach, lifts his boy into the cock­pit and takes his photo. The lit­tle chap laughs like he’s on a coin-op­er­ated ride at the shop­ping cen­tre and I won­der if it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to climb on the wrecks for happy snaps. I de­cide not to let my daugh­ters fol­low suit and they busy them­selves pulling yel­low sea cu­cum­bers off the twisted metal.

Now, through the alchemy of time, this set­ting has trans­formed from a place of hor­ror and dev­as­ta­tion to one of in­trigue, solem­nity and beauty.

Chil­dren ex­am­ine a wrecked air­craft with the Spirit of Broome in the back­ground, top; a wrecked plane lies in the mud like a beached whale, above left; an old aero en­gine out­side the Broome Hov­er­craft base, left; hov­er­craft pi­lot and lo­cal guide Myles and the au­thor’s daugh­ter Tal­lula, above

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