Monday, May 21, 2012

Meditations on the Voyage

As I spent time on the elliptical machine this morning in the gym I flicked TV channels to get “caught up” on the world we are passing by. A few things got my attention

One of the most striking was that of distances. We have sailed over 2000 nautical miles since we left Sydney and have 500 to go until we reach Darwin. Essentially that tells us a bit about how big Australia is – we sailed due North (pretty much) until we turned West into the Torres Straits after Cape York so, without doing the research, that’s not dissimilar to the North-South dimension of the US or the distance between Cape Town and where I grew up in Salisbury (Harare).

Much of that distance we were sailing within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; which tells you how huge this tremendous natural wonder really is.

The other striking thing as we sailed over the last few days has been how close we have been to shore. For much of the time certainly within a mile. 

The coastline for much of the time has dense vegetation all the way down to the coast and, at night, very few lights can be seen. This is a powerful reminder that only   ~ 22 million people live here; subtract Melbourne and Sydney and clearly the contrast to the East Coast of the US is even more jarring.

Besides being close to land we are also sailing very shallow waters – right now we have 20 meters clearance – I hope our captain has learned from the Costa Concordia experience!!!!

Exploration of the Australian center by white explorers was taking place in the mid 1800s just as took place in Africa. We watched a movie called Burke and Wills that dramatized such an expedition from Melbourne north to the Gulf of Carpenteria. The director of the movie (who is on board talking about his career) highlighted the wrongheadedness of these poor brave people who eventually died in the effort.
The most amazing thing to me was the way Burke, in particular, refused to acknowledge or accept help or direction from the Aboriginal people who essentially were alongside them all the way there and back as they starved and died. This was very unlike the African explorers who did exactly the opposite. The story of Burke and Wills and the other expeditions are still the stuff of Aboriginal folklore.

Another story that got my attention. The means of transportation across the Australian center to Darwin. At the time of Burke and Wills it was walking or horses and camels. The camels came from Afghanistan and ‘Persia’ and they were tended by people who became known as Afghans (wherever they were from). Today there is a railway that follows the route – very luxurious – and it is of course known as the ‘Ghan’!!! Again, with no accurate data to support it, my guess is that the run from Melbourne to Darwin via Alice Springs on the Ghan is not dissimilar to the trip I regularly made between Cape Town and Salisbury.
Maybe one of these days………..

Native Aboriginals still live a relatively undestroyed existence in the Northern Territory. Our lecturer tells us there is a history of Aboriginals in this area going back 2500 generations – a history recalled in legend and in rock art.
Documented in their history and art record are the trading visits of ships from Indonesia (Macassars) which took place centuries ago; then the visits by Dutch explorers in sailing ships who were charting the spice routes and gave their names to Arnhem Land, Groote Island and the area we are right now – Wessels Island. The Dutch were followed by the British – first by HMS Beagle (on this voyage without Charles Darwin) who named Darwin after their absent scientist.

The closest land mass (other than Australia) to where we are now is Papua New Guinea with Indonesia to the West and only Pacific Islands like Fiji to the East. During WW2 these were invaded by the Japanese and represented their farthest line of advance. The top end of Australia was reinforced by Allied troops – particularly American – expecting an imminent invasion. Horrendous campaigns by Australian troops in the jungle of New Guinea and naval successes at the battle of the Coral Sea and Midway eventually turned the tide but not without Darwin having suffered – more later

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