We’re exploring Australia and learn that there’s still hope for the Great Barrier Reef, especially if we apply the wisdom of the indigenous Aboriginals.

Nouméa (NCL) – Darwin (AUS)

“It’s time”, Ivar decides. “Australia awaits!” The anticipation of sailing to our next destination and exploring Australia has set in. The landscapes promise to be out-of-this-world, the wildlife unique, the country immense and varied in its geography. Yet Australia is also known for ecological and social challenges, with reports of wildfires, coral bleaching, and the inequalities between the first inhabitants, the Aboriginals, and those who came later. What will we find? Will it live up to its reputation?

The Great Barrier: A Reef with a Reputation

 “I’m worried about the Great Barrier Reef,” Ivar says while we study the route from New Caledonia to Queensland. The gigantic reef extends for more than 2,500 kilometres along the tropical part of Australia’s east coast and forms somewhat of a barrier on our intended course.

Yet Ivar is not talking about that. A dramatic scene from the Netflix documentary Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet is still fresh in his mind. In the informative film, Professor Terry Hughes, one of Australia’s most renowned coral scientists, bursts into tears when he talks about major coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017, and 2020. What has happened to this extraordinary reef once known to be unparalleled in beauty to any other coral reef in the world? When exploring Australia, will we find ways to revitalize the reef?

Based on the latest weather forecast we decide to leave New Caledonia behind us and set course to Cairns, the go-to destination to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, that means we will skip a large part of the Australian East Coast, as the city is located quite far north in Queensland. However, a more northerly route allows us to bypass a windless part of the Coral Sea.

Our decision pays off. On most days, there is a nice breeze and our mainsail and genoa do an excellent job of pushing us westward. On days with light weather, the gennaker keeps us going. After ten comfortable days and 1,200 nautical miles we approach Queensland’s coast.

We only realize how vast the Great Barrier Reef is when we get close to it. We need to find a way through the chain of coral islands that seems impenetrable. Coral patches are drawn everywhere on our map. They extend from the sea floor, sitting just below the water’s surface. Only a few buoyed passages lead through the labyrinth of coral, but they are out of our way.

Floris zooms in and studies the map. “It should work here,” he points out. “There seems to be enough space between the corals.” Anxiously, we sail towards the first coral head. To our relief, it turns out that the patches of coral are quite far apart and the water between them is deep. In fact, we hardly notice that we are leaving the ocean and entering the reef. After we have made our way through the wide zone of coral, it’s still around 40 nautical miles to Cairns. “Everything is big here, even the distances!” Floris remarks.

A Priceless Treasure

It’s quite busy in Cairns, as the Ironman triathlon is taking place on the day we arrive. More than 3,000 participants swim, bike, and run as if their lives depend on it, cheered on by a crowd of supporters. This crowd comes on top of the tourists who travel to Cairns to visit the Great Barrier Reef. From the wide range of excursions and diving trips on offer it’s obvious that tourism is big business here. In addition, Australia’s fishermen catch millions of dollars’ worth of seafood around the reef. We read that these sectors together provide the economy with more than AUD 6 billion (about € 4 billion) a year. More than 64,000 jobs are directly and indirectly dependent on the reef.

Of course, it is essential for good fish stock that the reef is healthy. And tourists don’t come to see dead coral either. Yet the reef’s value is not just economic. Coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef are home to a disproportionate amount of marine life. As a result, the health of the rest of life in the ocean depends to a large extent on it. In turn, healthy oceans are of vital importance to humans: they are a source of oxygen and food and play a crucial role in keeping the climate stable. Finally, coral reefs protect the coast from destructive waves generated by hurricanes.

For all these reasons, the Great Barrier Reef is a natural resource that serves economic, social, and health concerns. Like many other beautiful, environmental treasures – it’s priceless. Thus, unsurprisingly, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

Dead and Alive

Cairns turns out to be a visitor’s paradise and an ideal gateway for exploring Australia. We stroll through its many parks, admire works of art scattered throughout the city, and swim in the man-made, crocodile-free, lagoon. After a week of enjoying land life, we stock up on supplies andsail further north. Finally, we get to visit the famous Great Barrier Reef!

Soon after leaving Cairns, we reach an area of the Great Barrier Reef that is more protected than the rest. In order not to damage the coral, anchoring is not permitted. Instead, and to Floris’s delight, there are mooring buoys. They make hopping between beautiful islands a piece of cake.

From Michaelmas Reef, where we marvel at thousands of sea birds nesting on a small patch of sand, we sail in day trips to the Low Island and Hope Island. We snorkel each day and are shocked by the amount of dead coral we see.

Yet there is also quite a bit of healthy coral, surrounded by many different types of fish. They like to hide in the three-dimensional structures and use them as breeding grounds. Predator fish circle the reefs, looking for opportunities to strike. Colourful parrotfish gnaw on dead coral and make room for new growth. When in balance, it’s a perfect ecosystem.

A Perfect Storm

The south-westerly trade winds blow strongly when we sail further north. Flying only the genoa we reach our next destination, Lizard Island, in a long day trip. We find a sandy spot to anchor right next to a coral reef. The next morning, we float above it with masks and snorkels. We see beautiful coral in all colours of the rainbow and gigantic clams.

“Those giant clams grow extremely slowly and must be very old”, Ivar says amazed when we climb back on board. “It is striking that the condition of the coral differs so much per location. Maybe they can tell us more at the research centre?” Floris suggests.

We make our way to the Lizard Island Research Station and encounter numerous large lizards along the path. Captain Cook named the island after these fascinating, prehistoric-looking animals. At the research station, we read reports from scientists who have researched the Great Barrier Reef for decades. We learn that the amount of coral has halved since 1995.

The threats come from all sides, like a perfect storm. Water pollution from industry and agriculture hinders coral growth. Coral-eating starfish are a pest, partly because their natural enemies have been overfished. Warmer seawater, caused by the global climate crisis, kills algae with which the coral lives in symbiosis. The coral skeleton that remains turns white – a phenomenon known as bleaching. In addition, hurricanes become more intense because they extract more energy from warmer seawater. Their power destroys the coral. Finally, a lot of CO2 in the air makes water more acidic, because seawater absorbs it from the atmosphere. The more acidic water makes coral growth more difficult. It is this complex cocktail of threats, all the result of human behaviour, that causes coral to die. Yet, we notice that the reefs that are less exposed to these threats – because they are protected and in a sheltered location, for example – are much healthier.

Time is Running Out

Is there still hope for the Great Barrier Reef? We think so. First, large sections of the GBR have been granted marine park status and seem well protected. Moreover, in the past year, coral growth was measured because there were no violent hurricanes and outbreaks of coral-eating starfish and the results showed that the coral has resilience. Still, the threats are existential. We’re on a destructive course to lose this world heritage site. Thankfully, due to modern science we know which human-induced threats we need to eliminate for the coral to have a chance to recover. Ecosystem protection, agricultural reforms, and climate action are in our own hands as humanity. So, the coral’s survival is fully up to us.

Sea Levels and Salties

Soon after leaving Lizard Island, the strong trade winds fill our genua again. On our course further north, we follow a well-buoyed channel between Queensland’s coast and the Great Barrier Reef. Nevertheless, the shelter is intermittent, as the ocean swell sometimes finds its way through the coral patches. The fetch in the sea area between the reefs and the coast is considerable, causing steep waves. On the plus side, we are sailing fast and make it to the northern tip of Australia, Cape York, in only three days. We look forward to exploring this part of Australia.

“It’s hard to imagine that the ancestors of the Aboriginal people crossed here on foot more than 60,000 years ago when the sea level was much lower,” Floris remarks while we sail through the Torres Strait. The strait is now over 20 meters deep and notorious for strong currents. We round Cape York and hug the coast, unaffected by the current.

Not much later, we reach the town of Seisia. A massive saltie, as the giant salt-water crocodiles are called here, welcomes us to its territory and opens its mouth when we cross by and sail to our anchorage spot. Fellow sailors have told us stories of bumping into crocs on shore or getting bite marks in their dinghy, which leave us slightly wary of the waters.

“Do you think we can go to shore with a potential killer so close?” Ivar wonders. Our dinghy is an inflatable kayak, so not exactly croc-proof. A single bite and we become the croc’s lunch meal! However, our resolve to get fresh supplies trumps our fears, so we launch the kayak, jump in and paddle as fast as possible. With our eyes fixed on the reptile’s every movement, we reach the relative safety of the beach, only to hear from the locals that there is a second crocodile in these waters. “But you should be fine during the day”, they reassure us. We have no choice but to take their word for it. Fortunately, the crocs don’t seem to be interested in us, so we safely make it back to our boat after getting fresh produce and exploring the area between the beach and the supermarket (to call it “town” would be a bit of an exaggeration).

Crossing Carpentaria

With lots of fresh fruits and vegetables we start our next leg to Darwin in good spirits. It’s around 700 miles to westward. Soon after leaving Seisia, we enter the Gulf of Carpentaria, a giant bay that reminds us of the North Sea with its dimensions of more than 300 by 300 miles. A feisty southerly wind blows, but the coast is now too far away to provide any shelter. As a result, high, steep waves regularly hit the hull with great force. We get huge amounts of water over deck and see with dismay how the wind in squalls exceeds 40 knots. We continue to plow further under a double-reefed mainsail and with only a very small genoa. Because of the rough blows that Luci gets, we sleep poorly and hardly eat.

Fortunately, Luci handles these conditions brilliantly and the discomfort is temporary. With a sigh of relieve we round Cape Wessel. We have now crossed the Gulf and return to the shelter of the coast. From now on, it should be very smooth sailing. Fortunately, the wind remains favorable and a few days later we sail into the Van Diemen Gulf. One more night and then we see Darwin’s skyline looming in the morning light. It’s slowly growing bigger, like an urban oasis in the apparently endless, remarkably flat landscape.

Diver in Darwin

Although we’re still in Australia, we need to undergo a thorough bio-inspection when we arrive in Darwin. The authorities here are terrified of invasive underwater species. A diving team comes to inspect our hull and fill the drains of our toilet and engine with biocides. As we recently painted a fresh layer of antifouling in New Zealand, the diver compliments us for having a clean hull and hands us a biosafety certificate. Now we can move to a marina. “The last time we were in a lock is more than six years ago,” Floris notes when we approach the tight entrance to the Tipperary Waters Marina. As a reward for maneuvering through this obstacle, we can moor in a well-sheltered, croc-free and non-tidal basin.

From our new temporary home, we explore the city. To Ivar’s joy, we find a well-sorted chandlery nearby. We then spend hours in the botanical garden, which features awesome trees and flowers. At the waterfront, the beautifully designed public space surprises us. It’s a huge park set around a large swimming basin and an open-air wave pool as its top attraction.

We also meet Dutchman Rob and his British wife Paula, who migrated to Australia many years ago. We spend lovely evenings with them and their family and friends. Once again, we are astonished how easy it is to make new friends and feel at home in a new place. To top it all off, the Darwin Fringe Festival kicks off, with lots of music and theater all over town. Who would have thought we would bathe in culture in Darwin?!

Deep Respect for Nature

Darwin is the capital city of the Northern Territory, an area 32 times the size of the Netherlands with only 250,000 inhabitants. Many Aboriginal people still live in this area. Their ability to survive here for around 60,000 years makes them one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world.

“The Aboriginals must have lived sustainably, otherwise they would have become extinct”, Ivar reasons. We wonder if there is anything left of their culture and lifestyle after all the horrors done to them following Australia’s colonization. If so, what can we learn from them to live more sustainably?

We put our question to Sara Jones and Jamie Thomas of Wayapa Wuurk, an organization that is committed to the well-being of the earth, mind, and body. Jamie has Aboriginal ancestors and set up this organization together with Sara. The name means “connected to country” in his family’s Aboriginal language. “One of my Elders said: ‘The state of the world is what it is because people are disconnected from the land they are living on. Disconnected from the cycles, the seasons, their responsibilities, and from listening to those who have that connection. We can’t be healthy when Mother Earth is sick.’ That really resonated with me, so Sara and I set out to reconnect people with nature”, Jamie begins.

“All cultures once lived much more in harmony with Mother Earth, but that relationship has been disrupted in many ways. Think of the exploitation of the earth and its pollution as a result of greed and materialism. The Aboriginal people have retained their connection to the land longer than Western cultures, some of them to this day,” Jamie continues.

“The other thing that we have lost is intergenerational well-being: honouring our ancestors and taking care of the land today for generations to come”, Jamie laments. “You didn’t take more than was necessary. Wildlife populations and plants were kept healthy because unwritten rules and customs dictated that you didn’t’ take more than you needed. In some cases, only certain groups were allowed to eat a certain animal species, or only at certain times of the year”, Jamie explains. “There is a reason Aboriginals are referred to as stewards of the land. They survived thanks to a deep respect for nature on which they depend”, he adds.

Colonial Horrors

Sara’s and Jamie’s words make us realize how far removed our Western culture has become from being connected, or in sync, with nature. The Aboriginals have had their connection violently taken away from them. According to the authoritative Australian professor and writer Marcia Langton, when the British started to colonize Australia in 1788, the continent was no wilderness. Rather, it was a managed series of landscapes. That’s because the Aboriginals were not only hunters and gatherers, but also used smart aquaculture and agricultural methods. They had fish traps, cultivated grain, yam and onion, and managed the grass to promote fertile soil. The Aboriginals traditionally lived in the open air, which made them experts in reading the light and shadows of the day, the movement of the stars, the colour, direction and shape of clouds, the signs of smoke and dust, the levels of water, the direction that birds were flying, and the tracks and scats of animals. They predicted the weather from the rings around the moon and the seasons from tracking the movement of ants and birds. They knew that seasons began with the appearance of particular ecological indicators, like the flowering of a particular tree or the appearance of particular insects, and understood which weather patterns were associated with each season, such as wind, temperature, rain, or dew. They used almost every plant in some way, also for bush medicine.

When the British arrived, the colonizers forced Aboriginals from their land, often violently. Farms and grazing animals changed the landscape, ending the Aboriginals’ ability to hunt, gather, and fish. They starved as cattle and sheep polluted waterholes and destroyed grasslands along with their agricultural plots. As a result, many Aboriginals became dependent on rations and handouts.

Nature in Art

Despite the hardships, some surviving Aboriginals managed to sustain their way of life. We are eager to meet Aboriginals who still personify a strong connection to the land, so we leave Luci behind in Darwin, take out a campervan (possibly the best way for exploring this part of Australia), and embark on a journey of discovery of the Northern Territory. 

In Kakadu National Park we soon encounter traces of the Aboriginals. They left paintings of animals and social gatherings on rocks all over the park. Some date back thousands of years. The Aboriginals depicted fish and other wildlife to honour the animals that provided their tribes with food. The hunters hoped that their artistic tributes would help them be successful in their hunting endeavours. Their art clearly reflects the deep bond that they held with nature. In addition, we conclude from the images that the Aboriginal people only ate what was available locally and, by definition, in season. Naturally, knowledge of the environment, the cycles of plants and animals, and the weather patterns were essential for their lifestyle.

In Harmony with Nature

Through locating an organization called Animal Tracks, we get the chance to spend a day with an Aboriginal woman named Patsy. She shows us how to find freshwater mussels buried in a dry riverbed, choose the right leaves from a pandanus tree, and make string from them for rope. She rips off pieces of bark from one tree to cool the skin and from another tree to use as a cover for cooking. Just about every plant has a function. We pluck geese and ducks, put them on green leaves in the fire, and cover the lot with bark to cook the meat to perfection. Meanwhile, Patsy talks about “the right way” – doing things as she learned them from her ancestors, with respect for nature. The “right way” may entail understanding where and when which food source is plentiful, like the goose we are preparing for dinner. It is only because these birds are bountiful that it is okay for the tribe to hunt them, which is the standard used to determine whether any animal can be hunted. By adapting to environmental conditions in this way, the area’s biodiversity is preserved.

“Yarning” – telling stories by the campfire while we prepare the tucker (food), is also typical of her culture. It’s the way to pass on stories, traditions and unwritten rules. At the root of these is a responsibility for the land, nature, and the survival of families and future generations. Thanks to Patsy, we get a sense of what life has been like around here for thousands of years. We decide to dedicate a Sustainable Solution item to the Aboriginals’ way of being “Connected to Country”.

Fire against Fire

On Patsy’s land and elsewhere in Kakadu, we notice black patches of land. “We recently set fire to a section there” Patsy remarks. The Aboriginals use fire strategically to manage the land. By burning small pieces under the right climate conditions, they prevent uncontrolled fire, like fires caused by lightning, from wreaking havoc. The Aboriginals keep the fire small so that the treetops don’t burn, stimulate plants that thrive after the fire, and protect fire-sensitive plants. Plants and animals recover quickly after such a controlled fire and kangaroos are attracted to the young grass. In turn, they are a source of food for the Aboriginals.

Connected to Country

After Kakadu, we explore two more national parks, Nitmiluk and Litchfield in the Northern Territory. We kayak in a stunning canyon, swim in rivers and under waterfalls, and spot wildlife before we drive back to Darwin. The bond between the area and its first inhabitants is almost tangible.

“While the Aboriginals lived in relative harmony with nature for tens of thousands of years, our Western looting culture is largely responsible for destroying the entire biosphere within a few hundred years”, Ivar ponders. “If you consider that the sea level was once so low that people could walk to the Australian continent, you realize how sensitive the Earth’s climate system is. If a minimal change in solar intensity can cause such large sea level changes, we should brace for impact as a result of the massive amounts of CO2 we are now releasing into the atmosphere”, Ivar ponders.

Floris agrees. “The Aboriginals understand that we depend on a healthy planet. That’s why they have a saying: If you take care of Country, it will take care of you.” At the same time, we agree that we don’t all have to live like the original Aboriginals. But anyone who realizes that we are all part of nature, that our ancestors had a close relationship with it, and that we depend on a healthy planet for our own wellbeing and survival, takes an important step. Accepting responsibility for the earth’s well-being is the next step. Thereafter comes seeing it as your purpose to pass it on in good condition to future generations.

Adopting some of the Aboriginals’ beliefs, one primarily being that we cannot be healthy if the earth is sick and acting more in harmony with nature, can really make a difference for future generations. The question is: will you let the Aboriginals, and your ancestors, inspire you to get more “connected to country”?

“In other words, everyone has to apply our sustainable solutions!” Ivar assesses, tongue in cheek. “Almost all of them contribute to a healthier climate and less pollution.” “Yes, the solutions are there, but time is of the essence,” Floris adds. If we want to save the corals, the oceans, the biosphere and thus ourselves, we will have to work hard. As if our lives depend on it. Because they do.


NB: In this logbook entry about exploring Australia, “Aboriginals” is used to refer to the first inhabitants of Australia, meaning tribes of the mainland commonly referred to as Aboriginals, as well as tribes of the islands of the Torres Strait, commonly referred to as Torres Strait Islanders.

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