Explore Australia’s Arnhem Land wilderness on a small-ship cruise

By Belinda Luksic

A Yolgnu local with his face and body smeared in white ochre. BELINDA LUKSIC
A Yolgnu local with his face and body smeared in white ochre. BELINDA LUKSIC
Vast, mysterious Arnhem Land is one of Australia’s last great areas of untouched wilderness. The best way to see this rugged, culturally intriguing region? A small-ship cruise. 

It’s dawn in Cape York, and the sky explodes above the sea in a fiery display of pink, red and tangerine.

We’re here to see in the sunrise from the northernmost point of the Australian continent – a rocky platform jutting out into Torres Strait and dotted with large piles of rocks that visitors have added to over the years.

We arrive on the fourth day of a 12-day cruise aboard Coral Discoverer, a 36-room luxury expedition ship sailing from Cairns to Darwin via Cape York and Arnhem Land. The sea is glassy, the sky a cloudless blue and the sun bathes us in warming rays.

Our ship, the refurbished Coral Discoverer. BELINDA LUKSIC
Our ship, the refurbished Coral Discoverer. BELINDA LUKSIC

It’s perfect cruising weather – a stark contrast to the start of the voyage.

Cyclone Nora is forecast to hit the coastline from Cape York to Cairns, bringing gale-force winds, rain and heavy seas.

We’ve barely left Cairns when a planned visit to Cooktown is cancelled. Instead, we’ll head straight to Lizard Island – day two of the normal itinerary – where Captain Nathan Clark says the wind is gusting at 25 knots.

The next morning dawns grey and cloudy but the worst of the storm seems to have passed.

After a hearty breakfast, we motor to Lizard Island in the Xplorer tender. The 1013-hectare national park boasts a sensitively-built, 40-room luxury resort, a research station, small airstrip and a hill known as Cook’s Look.

In 1770 James Cook climbed the 359-metre peak to get his bearings after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef. He named Lizard Island for its large population of goannas – one is sunning itself on the path that runs from the beach.

Plans for us to hike up Cook’s Look are quashed. The steep walk is challenging at the best of times, and today the peak is hidden behind a thick wad of cottonwool cloud.

Instead, we stroll along a boardwalk over the mangroves, past the airstrip to the aptly named Blue Lagoon and Coconut Bay – a stretch of sandy beach and brilliant blue waters dotted with small fishing boats.

Gulls dive and swoop over the sea and the briny scent of salt fills the air. Others brave the waters at Watsons Bay to snorkel, where the visibility and fish sightings are good.

The weather forces more tweaking of the itinerary. By Cape York, things are back to normal and we are blessed with blue skies and glorious sunsets all the way to Darwin.

Days settle into a steady rhythm of shore excursions and lectures punctuated by delicious gourmet meals that include a seafood buffet, an Australian barbecue and three-course à la carte dinners.

Sunset cocktails on the Sun Deck become a pre-dinner ritual. On runs out in the Xplorer, we spot osprey and white-breasted sea eagles, sooty oystercatchers and a feeding pod of snubfin dolphins.

Coral Expeditions, the Australian small-ship cruise operator, has built its reputation on ‘tread lightly’ tours where passengers can gain a deeper understanding of destinations from expert lecturers.

On this cruise, there are lively talks on marine biology and the Great Barrier Reef, indigenous plants, bush tucker and the war and pearling history of Torres Strait and Arnhem Land.

We visit Flinders and Stanley Islands, part of the Flinders Group National Park, with Aboriginal elder and traditional owner Danny Gordon.

On Flinders, Gordon shows us where sailors from HMS Dart, on a hydrographic survey of the area in 1899, carved the ship’s name and date on a large rock at one end of a beach.

On Stanley Island, he leads us on an easy walk inland to a sheltered outcrop where the ancient ochre rock art of the Yiithuwarra people depicts tall ships and animals such as crocodiles, turtles, dugongs and stingrays.

We also stop at Horn Island, a tiny dot west of Cape York that in World War II became the most attacked location in Australia aside from Darwin.

Thursday Island, or TI as the locals affectionately call it, has Green Hill Fort, Australia’s oldest military defences – a walk to the battlements delivers stunning views over the Torres Strait Islands.

Yirkkala is our first stop in Arnhem Land after a day spent crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria. The remote community 700 kilometres east of Darwin is bright with colour: bruised red earth, purple flowers, salt-green

sea and pastel houses. Children splash about the shoreline. Today, Yirrkala is a popular stop with cruise passengers keen to buy art, but the community is famous for another reason:

The 1963 bark petitions that triggered the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were signed here, the historic moment immortalised by local legends Yothu Yindi in their 1991 hit “Treaty”.

Yolngu men and women, faces and bodies smeared in white ochre and brandishing gum leaves, perform a rousing Welcome to Country ceremony beneath the bright morning sun.

A Yolgnu local with his face and body smeared in white ochre. BELINDA LUKSIC
A Yolgnu local with his face and body smeared in white ochre. BELINDA LUKSIC

At the wonderful Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, room after room is filled with local art from the 25 villages scattered across northeast Arnhem Land: delicate basket weavings and striped dilly bags, intricately painted burial poles, ochre bowls and wooden carvings of people and animals.

On Bathurst Island, we drop in on Tiwi Design, where bark art and silkscreen fabrics are notable for their native design and use of bold ochre colours. There is a smoking ceremony and an entertaining clapstick performance of local songs and dances by our tour guides and their partners.

Kimberley-born Samantha Martin, author of the Bush Tukka Guide (Hardie Grant Travel), joins the ship in Yirrkala to talk about indigenous food.

Dressed in traditional costume and white ochre paint, she tells of hunting goanna and plucking barramundi from the sea with her bare hands. We sample lemon aspen and bunya nuts, wild rosella and finger limes, and dip bread into a dukka-like mix of alpine pepper and roasted wattle seeds.

Her talk proves illuminating when we walk into Garig Gunak Barlu National Park with head ranger Alan Withers and discover quinine plants and a nest of green ants. Withers points out the ‘long bums’, bright blue mud whelks lying in muddy banks beneath mangroves.

These are best cooked tossed on a campfire or barbecue, he says. When I ask how to find yams, he laughs: “Why would you bother here? At low tide, you can pluck fish from the rock pools and oysters and mud crabs from the mangroves.”

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