Friday, September 18, 2009

Dampier to Onslow via the Montebello Islands

Dampier is a port for the iron ore mines of the Pilbara and natural gas from the North West Shelf. Karratha is the main township providing housing and services for the workers and their families. Dampier is located on a peninsular and separated from the mainland by a vast salt pan from which salt is mined and exported. We were surrounded by mountains of iron ore and salt when anchored in Hampton Harbour in Dampier and the boat was soon covered in red dust.

We hired a car for 2 days and were able to shop in Karratha for supplies as well as collect Carmel from the airport on Tuesday 8 Sept after her long flight from Sydney. We had not seen Carmel since March when she left to start her new job with the ABC in Sydney. It was great to see her and to catch up on all her news over a bottle of bubbles in the cockpit watching the lights of Dampier and listening to the rumbling of the conveyor belts as they transported the iron ore out to the stockpiles next to the wharves.

We enjoyed dinner at the Dampier Yacht Club on Wednesday evening before heading off to Enderby Island on Thursday. We decided to sail out to the Montebello Islands, 60 nautical miles from Dampier and left Enderby Island at midnight to arrive in not very accurately chartered waters in the middle of the day. It was a lively crossing with strong headwinds and very lumpy seas. We sailed between two large gas platforms and were pleased to enter the calm waters inside the outer islands of the Montebello’s. (20 27.5S 115 32E) Our chosen anchorage was Brandy Bay located at the entrance to a lagoon on Hermite Island. Many bays are named after alcoholic drinks eg Champagne Bay, Claret Bay, and Vermouth etc etc. We read an article by a yachtsman whose dream is to drink a bottle of each beverage in its namesake location!! There were two yachts anchored in the bay and a third sailed in on our third morning - an unusual sight, 4 yachts in the one anchorage. One of the things we often comment on is the low numbers of cruising yachts in this part of the world. We saw a few in the Kimberley’s however along the west coast we mainly see yachts in harbours, not during our journeys between major towns. There were also a few fishing boat charters cruising around the islands.

These unique islands are low lying rugged limestone covered in spinifex and termite mounds. They are also the site of British atomic testing in the 1950’s. We decided not to venture into that area as our cruising guide recommends not going ashore for more than one hour per day – we did not want to glow in the dark. The waters are home to many sea creatures including stingrays, turtles, dolphins and reef fish as well as sea birds and small finches (Zebra Finch) with red/orange beaks and striped black and white tail feathers, who visit us each morning. We enjoyed four beautiful evening reef fish meals provided by our keen fisherman – Cran, as well as some fresh oysters collected from the rocks near our anchorage. Many of the channels are shallow and best navigated at the top half of the tide. We have experienced strong winds during our stay however were able to enjoy swims off the back of the boat crystal clear waters and today off the beach in our new anchorage in Manision Bay. We have used our kayaks for the first time since leaving Queensland. We did not want to have a close encounter with crocodiles in the NT or Kimberley so the kayaks have not had much use to date.

Today Friday 18 September we are underway from Great Sandy Island to Onslow, a township on the coast. We left the Montebello Islands on Wednesday and have a lively sail to Barrow Island, zigzagging through the shallow reef, around gas platforms and around low lying islands that are off limits to visitors because of the gas and oil extraction. All the islands in this area are low lying; some have large storage tanks on them which stand out from a distance, often being visible long before the actual island itself. We have been fortunate to see many whales during our travels, many surfacing not far for our boat rolling on their backs and flapping their tails or flippers on the water’s surface, or just broaching creating an enormous splash. Yesterday we came across a large whale sleeping on the surface, at first it looked like a large shiny black log but as we came closer the tell take shape of its back alerted us – so altering course we watched as it floated past in the current sending the occasional spume of water and air skywards.

Barrow Island is a nature reserve and it is not possible to land there. There are some unique plants and animals living on this island that require vigilance to protect them from extinction. We had a visit from the survey vessel and another from a shore based worker to advise us not to go ashore. It is good to see the Chevron employees taking an active interest in looking after this island and proud of the fact that they have the opportunity to help protect it. We were fortunate to be able to secure a safe overnight anchorage here as we made our way back to the coast.

We are all keeping well and enjoying Carmel’s company. Our time is spent reading, doing normal boat maintenance and creating interesting menus for our evening meals. We are lucky that all our friends enjoy cooking - much fun is had in the galley each evening. The IPOD gets a good work out however there is no TV reception most of the time. We watch the odd movie or music DVD and have been fortunate to be able to pick up local ABC Radio in some pretty remote locations – thank you Aunty!

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