Tuesday, November 06, 2012

G'day Australia!

The boat was there on Friday afternoon; parked in the bay. It was a sleek, grey-and-orange catamaran called Cattitude. Dili doesn't have a marina so I asked a local with a small dinghy to take me across to it. As I boarded the skipper, a stocky man with a moustache and shortish beard, barked at me asking what I was doing on his boat. I pleaded my case as succinctly and eloquently as I could, saying that he was my last chance and putting myself at his mercy. He said sure, no problems, he was going back to Darwin in a few days and there was room on board ... but it would cost me $8000. That was obviously way out of my budget and I asked whether he might not consider lowering the price a little, to which he agreed and said that I could come with them as long as I gave him a decent bottle of rum. A deal to which I warmed far more readily. He then broke out a few beers from the freezer and insisted I stay and hang out with him and his mates for the afternoon, ominously asking me whether I "know what you're getting yourself into".

Our home and transport for the crossing from East Timor to Darwin: Cattitude.

Of course I didn't, but Jim (for that was the skipper's name) was certainly more bark than bite. He turned out to be quite a kind, yet gruff, codger. And sure, he would give me an earful if I did anything wrong, but that was just his way, and in fact he was very forgiving and friendly. Over the next few days I stayed on the boat and helped out as I could to try and make myself useful whilst we awaited the arrival of his friend and his 16 year-old son to accompany us back to Darwin. Finally on Thursday morning, fully loaded with enough food and beer for the crossing, customs cleared, we pulled up the anchor and set sail heading east. Well, to be honest there wasn't much sailing. The prevailing winds between Australia and Timor are southeasterly. Handy when going from Australia, but blowing straight up your nose when going in the other direction. So for much of the time the sails were down and we were motoring along at a gentle five knots. Similarly I learnt that at such times there isn't that much to do on a sail boat, apart from eat, drink (we had quite a beer collection to get through), sleep, read and shoot the non-existent breeze, whilst every few minutes checking the wind and bearings and making sure that the autopilot is keeping the correct course.

Pete was well-prepared for the voyage and had brought along his laptop as well as a selection of films to watch during the hours of inactivity.

The sea was very calm for almost the entire voyage. It was a strange feeling to be in the middle of a seemingly endless expanse of blue sea which would meet blue sky at a radius of about 6km around us. A circle which we would carry with us, the fog of war potentially hiding anything and everything outside of it. Whilst below us the water was inscrutably depthless, only the navigational charts indicating  that the bottom might be 30 or 3000m below. It all looked the same to me. I can easily understand how this uncertainty caused early seafarers to invent the most fantastical stories of sea monsters, mermaids and the like. The sea is so bland on the surface and yet below is a whole world of which we are only minutely aware. There could be any number of strange beasts in the water column below and you would be blissfully unaware. As with the weather there was little action on the critter front, although we did see some flying fish, a sea snake way out to sea that looked hopelessly lost, some tuna hunting schools of baitfish, and on the last afternoon a pod of little dolphins played along our bow wave for a few minutes.

A pod of dolphins joyfully jumping in front of our bow as we approached Australia.

And finally, on Monday morning we arrived in Darwin. Customs and quarantine officers came out to clear us and make sure that all organic produce was disposed of before entering the country (it was hard for me to see good foo being thrown away like that...). Then Jim brought me ashore on his dinghy (the boat had to remain at anchor until its hulls are inspected so that there are no foreign creatures brought into Australian waters - Aussie authorities are very strict on biological control) and I set off towards the city centre, excited to be on a new continent. In fact there are quite a few things I am looking forward to:

  • being able to speak English to pretty much anyone and everyone I meet and know that I will be understood.
  • being able to walk on the pavement and not have to look out for open manhole covers, food stalls, uneven surfaces, etc.
  • warm showers.
  • things generally working and running on time and not needing 4hrs to travel 100km..
  • anonymity and not having everyone and their dog shouting "hello Mister!" at me and asking me where I'm going.
Don't get me wrong though, I love travelling in Asia, its friendly chaos, the safety (Asia is probably the safest continent to travel in if you discount traffic accidents), the variety of cultures, and curious people. In particular here are some specific things that I will miss:

  • rice (as well as other food that goes with it) and cheap fruit.
  • being treated as someone special and spontaneously invited to dinner, stay the night or meet the family by complete strangers.
  • being able to afford eating out and pretty much anything else I really want to do.
  • the unpredictability of completely different cultures.

Leaving Timor in the early morning sunlight to discover a whole new land of adventures.

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