February 01, 2009

Cruising lesser-known Australia: The Torres Strait Islands aboard Orion

Green Hill Fort, Thursday Island
The tiny islands of the Torres Strait were the first clues Seventeenth Century explorers had to the existence of the mysterious Southern continent. Modern adventurers are now rediscovering these otherwise insignificant islands and uncovering their role in our nation’s history.

Virtually next door to Cape York, on Possession Island, is a rather tired-looking white concrete monument, yet it represents a place of significant importance for all Australians both newly arrived and indigenous. It marks the spot where, in August 1770, Lieutenant James Cook, laid claim to the whole eastern coast in the name of King George III.

In 1606, the Portuguese explorer Luis Váez de Torres sailed these same waters and the Strait now bears his name. Only weeks before, Willem Janszoon in the tiny Duyfken (Little Dove) was the first European known to have sighted the coast. He landed, but due to a bloody altercation with the “'wild, cruel, black savages', did not lay claim. So, after exploring and laboriously charting much of the east coast, it was left to Cook to make the historic claim to the Great Southern Land.

Now, some two centuries later, the state-of-the-art expedition vessel, Orion has brought modern-day adventurers to make their own discoveries in the Torres Strait.

Possession Island is one of those remote, inaccessible and forgotten parts of Australia few people ever visit and perhaps that is its own special beauty. An old, long-abandoned gold mine, now occupied by a colony of bats, stands guard over the forlorn monument to Cook’s odyssey.

A few days later, we find ourselves on Lizard Island, standing at the summit of Cook's Look. From here one can vaguely grasp the enormity of the task undertaken by early maritime explorers and navigators, subject as they were to tidal changes and seasonal prevailing winds. As far as you can see, north and south, lies Cook’s so-called ‘labyrinth of reefs’. We now know this as the formidable Great Barrier Reef. With no charts for reference it is truly amazing how Cook eventually managed to find a way in, through and out of this vast patchwork of coral reefs in the flat bottomed 33 metre bark Endeavour. It wasn’t without incident however.

Today, on board the 103 metre mega-yacht Orion, a glass of vintage Hunter Semillon in hand, we have no such concerns. This purpose-built 5-star expedition cruise ship, just three years old, contains all the necessary technical equipment to ensure safe and comfortable passage through any Torres Strait or Barrier Reef - even Antarctic seas, as she does during our summer months.

This seven night voyage to Torres Strait includes a diversity of destinations and activities from snorkelling on isolated sandy outcrops and coral reefs, to experiencing the laid-back colonial atmosphere of Thursday Island (Waiben).

Located 45 kilometres from the tip of Cape York and lying in the Torres Strait that separates Australia and New Guinea, Thursday Island, or TI (as it is known locally), with its strategic importance and pearling history, is the principal administrative and trading centre for the islands.

We arrive early morning and have to wait until the tide eases before we can anchor. Alongside TI's main wharf is a grey-hulled Customs intercept ship deployed to monitor movement in this area. Unfortunately these islands provide convenient stepping stones to and from New Guinea for illegal immigration and smuggling. Occasionally surveillance helicopters and fixed wing aircraft buzz overhead, lingering for an extra look at Orion, now at anchor in the jade-green waters of the harbour.

In town, the locals (seafaring islanders of Melanesian extraction unrelated to mainland Australian Aborigines) move with that slow, particular gait that is a hallmark of people used to living in high temperatures and humidity. Well aware that any hurried activity will result in unsightly sweatiness, they smile knowingly as we bustle past, eager to discover the secrets of TI. But for us there is no need for concern. A handful of well placed pubs, yellow and red ‘XXXX’ signs beckoning, are set at convenient intervals along the wide main street that forms the commercial heart of Thursday Island. Peak hour may see four vehicles on the road at the same time. For us, peak hour catches a few Aussies in the pub watching the Ashes unfold. Some things never change regardless of where we are.

Historically TI has been well guarded. Overlooked by Green Hill Fort with its array of big six-inch guns, it was constructed to repel a feared Russian invasion in 1898. Used again in World War II, the fort is worth a visit and houses an impressive military museum within a complex of tunnels and bunkers. A strenuous walk up the hill to the fort will bring more knowing smiles and waves from the locals. Better to take the bus.

Also worth visiting is the well presented Gab Titui cultural centre on the waterfront near the wharf. It offers visitors an insight into the diverse island cultures and the impact of the pearling trade. The art gallery, featuring indigenous art (often representing stories linked to the sea) may tempt you with an irresistible must-have painting or carving. The art from this area is highly regarded around the world.

The history of pearl diving in the area is a fascinating and often tragic story. Take a visit to the Japanese Shinto cemetery where literally hundreds of hard-hat pearl divers are buried, victims of the dreaded 'bends'. The ‘lucky’ ones were merely crippled; while the unlucky suffered a painful death. It is believed the reason Thursday Island was not bombed by the Japanese during World War II was because so many Japanese are buried there.

Like somewhere out of a Somerset Maugham novel, Poruma Island is a narrow coral strip bounded by fringing coral reefs. Most of the 180 'saltwater people' still use traditional methods to catch the Spanish mackerel, sailfish, marlin, trevally, shark and dugong that inhabit these clear waters. Nowadays the Torres Strait Islanders are friendly and welcoming. Years ago, or so we are told, trading between some islands included the odd shrunken head.

Our scheduled visit to Masig (Yorke) Island was cancelled because “they were not ready for us.” Unfazed, the expedition crew organised a visit to Roberts Island. Totally uninhabited, Roberts is an idyllic small sand island, surrounded by vodka-clear waters perfect for snorkelling. The Zodiacs shuttled guests between Orion and the beach to allow everyone to stay for as short or long a period as they wished.

This is not ‘cruising’ in the popular sense. This is an emerging form of cruising for Australians: Expedition Cruising. A little harder edged, Expedition Cruising offers engaging experiences and soft adventure in more remote areas.

Zodiacs are the preferred form of transport to explore waterways (or the labyrinthine reefs), and provide access for guests who would rather hands-on experiences in preference to watching the world (life?) slip by from a recumbent somnambulant state, as their ship glides from one predictable port to another.

Yes, there are deck chairs, a sauna and a spa but certainly no quoits, bingo or fancy-dress parties. Expedition Leaders replace Social Directors. Typically the ‘ELs’ and Guest Lecturers include marine biologists, anthropologists, botanists and historians - onboard specialists and guest presenters who provide in-depth information about aspects of the destinations to help enhance the experience and broaden the mind.

A glance at a typical expedition cruise itinerary will invariably include a range of destinations (some unfamiliar, but that is all part of the adventure) that take passengers into remote places where you can get your feet and hands dirty and meet the locals. No sign of fast food or tacky souvenirs on these voyages. Just the occasional XXXX.

Our stop at Stanley Island, as we return southward to Cairns, is a highlight for those interested in indigenous rock art. Here we see numerous cave paintings – but with a difference. Many are just a few hundred years old, the most recent completed as recently as last century. Hence there are paintings of first contact with Europeans including a variety of ship designs indicating a range of visitors and time frames. Fascinating. Returning to the ship we see numerous turtle tracks left in the white sand but there is no temptation to swim as even here there is the risk of crocodiles.

Cairns marks the end of our remarkable journey. At the very north of Australia, and then some, lies this undiscovered region - at least in the modern sense - remote, vibrant, tropical, reflecting an absorbing blend of mainland and island cultures. Almost forgotten by Cook, now rediscovered.


Facts on Orion

With 75 European officers and hand picked crew and just 106 guests (100 maximum for Antarctica) Orion has the highest staff to guest ratio of any Australian based ship, ensuring life onboard is anything but rugged.

It is, however, the luxurious accommodation and facilities that distinguish it most from other expedition ships in Australian waters. All 53 staterooms and suites are exterior and include a sitting area or living room, direct Internet access, flat screen TV, DVD and CD player, marble bathroom and choice of twin beds or queen-size bed. All cabins offer large oval, rectangular, or sliding glass floor-to-ceiling windows.

Five-star amenities include a spa, sauna, masseuse, hairdresser, boutique, several lounges and a computer centre equipped with Internet access.

The dinner menu is created by Sydney's renowned chef Serge Dansereau (of The Bathers' Pavilion fame), as recently featured in OCEAN. Presenting local produce, as far as possible, and offering an extensive wine list, life onboard combines luxury with expedition cruising, proving that even in the Torres Strait they are not mutually exclusive.

Combining mental food for thought and a stimulating environment, Orion is a ship with plenty of opportunity for an exhilarating holiday.

For further information contact Orion Expedition Cruises: 1300 361 012 (Australia), visit www.orioncruises.com.au or see your travel agent.

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