2002 Dec 25: Christmas on the Clarence River, Queensland

The year of 2003 has brought us wonderful fun and many new friends in Australia. Kim and her fun family visited us for Christmas last year, then visited Sydney. In the new year we continued to cruise the beautiful waters of Tasmania, going first up the incredibly beautiful rocky coastline of the east coast, and in March, around to the wild and woolly Tasmanian west coast. By the end of June we were ready to head north to the Great Barrier Reef. Dorothy’s sister Helen joined us there in August, and we continued to sail north to the Whitsunday Islands just inside the GBR, for some SCUBA diving and snorkeling, at every island we visited. The fish and coral are in better condition the farther one goes from the mainland, and we were enthralled by what we saw underwater. Helen took hours of underwater video. After her departure, we continued north, then turned around when the northerly winds filled in, for lovely sailing south along the east coast of Australia, to avoid the summer cyclone season in the tropics.

This was to be our first Christmas away from Kim and her family, and we were trying to keep both our chins up and look forward to sharing the holidays with them next year. In November Dorothy enjoyed helping Kim with the moving adventure from San Francisco to Seattle, where Kim and Alan have relocated their family to Beautiful Bainbridge Island, just a 30 minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. We all attended the Nutcracker Ballet performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company, and enjoyed Sarah’s running commentary (so cute).

The Aussie pre-Christmas celebrations brought us a bit of culture shock and good entertainment. While we were at a lovely little resort town north of Sydney called Sanctuary Cove, we attended the town’s annual “Carols by Candlelight” music performance. Each little community has one of these, and we found it amusing and fun. The city fathers set up several hundred chairs in a small parking lot next to a small park, erected a stage, and passed out leaflets containing words to Christmas carols. A large swing band called “Swing Force” set up their 4 trumpets and 4 trombones, drums, clarinets, saxophones, keyboards more. The performers included three opera singers who could really belt out the carols, almost drowning out the voices from the audience, an Elvis/Sinatra impersonator crooner named “Ace”, a Marilyn Monroe/Eva Gabor impersonator singer, a Pavaroti impersonator/singer, a pair of female swing singers/harmonizers, two high school age jazz dancers dressed sort of like cheerleaders, child dancers dressed in Christmas finery, Humphrey the Bear (a large man dressed in a bear suit and overalls (must be a local TV character)), a nativity scene with local children, Santa (baby) sung by Marilyn/Ertha Kit. The singers reminded the children in the audience that there were only “17 sleeps” until Christmas. Many of the children in the audience kept time to the music with chemical lightsticks and necklaces, and some young people lit candles and sparklers. At intermission, some hair products company representatives handed out samples of shampoo and cream rinse to everyone in the audience (?). We had a lot of fun, and so did everyone else

After Boxing Day, Dec. 26, begins the “silly season” when factories close and everyone goes to the beach. There seems to be enough beach to go around, too. There are miles of it in New South Wales. As Jimmy Buffet sings, “We’ve got everything but snow.” (Unless, of course you are in Hobart, Tasmania, where they sometimes get snow on the mountain in December, which is summertime downhereunder.)

We departed Sanctuary Cove and anchored near the Southport Sea World for the night. The morning of December 16, we motored out through the Goldcoast Seaway at 0315 hours, in order to pass through the Seaway at slack water. The brightly starry sky was followed by a beautifully slow dawn. A favorable boost from the East Australian Current increased our speed over the ground, so in order to not arrive early at the Clarence River Bar, we slowed Adagio down a bit. Dolphins joined us several times in the afternoon. We crossed the bar on a flood tide, and tied up to the Visitor’s Dock at the Yamba Marina at 4:30 in the afternoon. Terry helped with our dock lines and recommended “Coyotes” for Mexican food.

This attractive small town at the mouth of the Clarence River was being evacuated due to flooding when we sailed past in early 2001. By contrast, during this year’s visit we were not allowed to hose down Adagio due to water restrictions imposed – due to a prolonged drought. Yamba was preparing for the “Silly Season” which began roughly on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, and lasted into February. The campgrounds were filling up, and young people carried their surfboards through town. The fresh seafood shops displayed an abundance of inexpensive, locally caught prawns, crabs and fish. We joined the Aussies who were buying seafood for their barbies and deep fry pots.

Dorothy caught the 0930 Clarence River Ferry from Yamba to Iluka across the river. We watched a pair of ospreys sitting on the navigation light north of Dart Island, and a third osprey soaring overhead. After a 30 minute ride in the fire engine red and white, small wooden ferry, we arrived atIluka where Dorothy photographed a White-winged Triller bird singing happily in a beachside tree. A flock of white pelicans floated with great dignity in the little harbor, and zillions of pea-sized soldier crabs flowed over the sandy shore in waves, instantly disappearing into tiny holes at the slightest movement by the photographer trying the capture them on film. The Iluka Nature Reserve provides a 5 km round trip World Heritage Rainforest Walk , a pathway through tall trees whose branches held large clumps of staghorn fern. Thick Llianas, vines like those out of a Tarzan movie, hung from the treetops and draped to the ground. The dominant trees were Lilly Pilly ( which we grow in our garden in New Zealand as food for the threatened Wood Pidgeon), and Riberry. There were many examples of the strangling roots typical of the rainforest fig trees. These roots extend down from a seed that sprouts in the top of a host tree, forming a web around the trunk of a tree of a different species, and slowly cover and strangle it. The host tree dies, and the fig remains as a tall freestanding tree. Dorothy stepped carefully past one small Giant Stinging Tree whose saucer-sized, heart-shaped leaves are covered with stinging spines which break off and pierce your skin when touched. The best treatment is application of adhesive tape to pull the spines out. Rufous Fantails flitted around in a peek-a-boo game. The trail ended at a climb up to a lookout (for whales) at Iluka Bluff, providing sweeping views of beautiful Bluff Beach to the north and Iluka Beach to the south. Waves coming into the beaches foamed in white crescents as they broke numerous times on the gently sloping sand. The hot sun baked the top of Dorothy’s parasol on the return walk to catch the 1430 ferry back to Yamba.

The deckhand on the ferry lassoed the pilings from a fair distance with an old, floppy dockline with a loop spliced into the end. He showed me a blue swimmer crab he had taken from a crab pot he keeps near the Iluka ferry dock. I asked him about catching fish in the Clarence River. He said that to catch flathead: Buy some “blue pillies” (pilchards) frozen bait and hook the bait through the tail. Place a weight on the line above the hook. Use a hook with a long shank because the flathead sucks the bait into its mouth, and its teeth can cut a fishing line. To catch whiting which are also in the river this time of year: Buy some worms from the bait shop and put them on a hook, with a weight on the fishing line above the hook. Both fish are caught near the bottom. That evening we dined on fresh prawns, fresh blueberries and mangoes. We had never appreciated mangoes until we tasted the locally grown mangoes of the east coast of Australia. Sort of a cross between a peach and a cantaloupe. Perfectly ripe, and gorgeously golden-orange.

We phoned the Harwood Bridge operator, requesting that he open the bridge across the Clarence River for us the following afternoon, so that we could make our way upriver to the “Scottish” town of McLean. His wife told us that the bridge was scheduled to be opened at 1400 hours. After buying more fruit at the Yamba fruit and veggie shop, and fresh prawns, smoked tuna and crab cakes, we departed Yamba at 1230, and made our way beacon to beacon, following one set of leads after another, between the sandbars, out onto the wide flowing river. A large Pelican stood sentinel at the end of the Yamba breakwater as we passed through. At 20 minutes before 1400 we were 20 minutes away from the bridge, right on time according to our clocks, and saw that it was opening already. Good, we thought. A monohull sailboat was positioned close to the bridge, and passed under as soon as it was opened. Then whoops. The bridge began to close. We were still on the down river side. We phoned the telephone number we had been given for the bridge operator, his home, and a man answered, saying that we probably had spoken to the operator’s wife and she had probably forgotten to tell the operator that a second boat would be passing under the bridge. He gave us the operator’s mobile phone number. We phoned it and spoke to the operator who said that, sorry, he would have to close the bridge to let the traffic pass over, then would open it again. No worries. Route 1 crosses this bridge carrying the major north/south vehicular traffic along the Australian east coast, so we waited patiently, although we still had not eaten lunch, and were understandably grumpy. Soon the bridge opened again, and we waved and thanked the bridge operator as we passed under his little “house” which rises with the bridge span.

Along the shore were several of the small commercial fishing boats set up for a night of pocket-netting for prawns. They secured the boat in a spiderweb of anchors and pilings, within whose restraint the vessel steams at night to disturb the bottom and drive prawns into a net streamed astern. By 1500 hours we were tied up to the public pontoon, essentially in the center of the town of McLean. The electrical outlet on the wharf was functioning, but the water tap had been turned off due to water restrictions. Showers were required before we could lay our weary heads down on our clean pillowcases for a bit of a read and a nap. We awakened to the dusk chorus of birdsong ashore, and our new friend the White-winged Triller was belting out a staccato of pleasant notes. For dinner: fresh prawns and Steve’s killer red sauce with horseradish, figs, and tossed salad.

In the morning we went ashore to explore the Scottish town of McLean. They have decorated their light poles with Tartan patterns. We had not heard the bagpipes yet, but expected to hear them playing Christmas carols soon. The local history museum, in several restored historic cottages beneath an enormous mango tree was filled with fascinating displays from the surrounding farming community. The curators had arranged a very old school room, a doctor’s office and other realistic scenes from the past. The Scottish Cairn at the top of the hill overlooked the town and river.

We lunched at a pretty waterfront cafe’ and watched the locals. Most shops are directly on the waterfront, opposite a small shaded park, or only a block or two away. We shopped for veggies& fruit and a new water hose. There are two small groceries, two butchers and a fruit and veggie shop here. Nice looking prawns and blue swimmer crabs for sale in the fish shop. Locals also catch mudcrabs in the river.

Sunset finds a band setting up on the riverbank – no more than 5 meters from Adagio, It turned out the band leader was the electric guitar-playing/singing pastor of the Church of Christ, including a teenage girl drummer and trio of singers. Nice music. We met another cruising couple from Melbourne, who had anchored nearby. They planned to cruise up the river, too, but someone had stolen their dinghy and outboard motor.

The next morning brought us another beautiful day in drought-land. We bought fresh pears and lettuce, then prepared to head up the river to Ulmarra. The barometer had been steady for days. A flock of large white pelicans glided past the boat, wingtips skimming the water. Several small commercial fishing boats have been motoring upriver and some downriver. One trawler was towing a net, perhaps for prawns. Sleek bodies atop long rowing shells glided past us as effortlessly as the flying pelicans. We departed McLean at 1145 hours, motored away from the dock and smack into the submerged Nine Pin Rock, as if to test the integrity of our mini-keels, double bottomed hulls and to give the townspeople something to talk about. We had done everything in preparation for departure except look at the chart before moving. We kicked ourselves all the way to Ulmarra, following the winding, farmland-edged river. Very pretty.

We arrived at Ulmarra at approximately 1430. Two car ferries crossed the river in front of us along the way. We waited for them to reach the other side of the river before proceeding over the top of the heavy cables which pull the ferry back and forth. When the ferry is berthed at either side, the cable drops down to below 3 meters in depth.

We had come as far upstream as it was possible in Adagio, as the overhead cables are lower than the 25M height of our mast. Rain showers line the horizon south of us . The weather was hotter north of us, so we’re in a comfortable location. Peacock and rooster calls sang out from ashore and a large praying mantis was hanging upside down from our starboard lifeline. We observed a diurnal pattern: calms and still winds and waters in the morning followed by choppy sea breezes against the ebb tide in the late afternoon, just when the cook should begin preparing for dinner. The current swings us broadside to the seas and Dorothy takes a Bonine tablet. Soon after dark the waters calm and we dine comfortably.

We planned to go ashore in the morning and return to the boat before the rough waters begin. A group of preteen boys swam out to the boat from time to time and, in spite of our asking them not to, they hung off of our mooring bridle,swam under the boat, hung from the running rigging that spans the underwing beneath our salon. When holding on to the hull, they spread the black antifouling paint around. Dorothy took the King’s bus from Ulmarra to Grafton to stock up on fresh produce and Horseradish. She visited the Clarence Valley Regional Gallery for a morning of viewing fine art exhibits followed by an excellent lunch at the gallery cafe’. A cold front passed over as Dorothy was returning to Ulmarra by bus. On Steve’s suggestion, she waited for the rain and lightning to end by visiting Fred and Anna-Liisa at their folk art shop. Fred served up a cup of tea, and then brought Dorothy and her parcels to the boat ramp in his car. A good look around the gallery revealed Anna-Liisa’s beautiful flower paintings, many of which have been featured in Folk Art magazine.

When Steve met Dorothy at the boat dock after the rain stopped, he said that the local preteen boys had trashed the dinghy, during the rainstorm while Steve was inside. They stole the hatch cover for the anchor locker, the deck that we stand on when boarding the dinghy. What a bother. They also stole one of our two mooring lines, an expensive Spectra line from the stern, and a large red inflated fender. The Ulmarra police was in Yamba for the holidays. Merry Christmas!

Yesterday the drought-stricken farmers received the gift of rain. This morning dawned clear and sunny, with a quarter moon in the sky. Steve took the dinghy 10 miles up the river looking for the dinghy hatch cover, and found the large round red fender. Meanwhile Dorothy posted notices in town: “Reward for the return of dinghy hatch cover…….” Although some of the other kids from town apologized and offered to help find the stolen items, they were never recovered. While Steve was searching up and down the river, the dinghy outboard malfunctioned and he was given generous assistance by several residents of the town of Grafton. Such kindnesses from locals almost made up for the upsetting thefts and vandalism.

Rain, lightning and thunder most of last night. Clearing and calm this morning. Baro is rising. Currawongs singing in the trees ashore. Boxing Day and our wedding anniversary. Light rain before noon. Steve walked to the petrol station in Ulmarra to fill up the dinghy fuel tanks. Then Steve searched the stretch of river south of here for the lost dinghy hatch cover. The little boys watch us from shore. The mooring has been positioned too close to shore, making it easy for the boys to swim out to the boat, in spite of this area’s reputation for large sharks! This is the first time I have felt that as soon as we leave the boat, vandals will strike. Not a nice feeling.

Time to head back down the river, and our evening anchorage was at the entrance to a large, shallow lagoon called the Broadwater. A hundred white and black pelicans flew towards their evening roost on a low peninsula nearby. A large hawk soared over the field. Cormorants dried their wings in the trees. This was a very beautiful anchorage, which became spectacular in the lingering sunset.

For our anniversary on the 26th, Steve caught us a large mud (stone) crab for dinner! Now we just have to work out how we are going to get this monster into the cooking pot – while retaining ALL of our fingers and toes. The crab was moving around too much to measure, but must have been two feet across depending on how his claws were deployed. Steve netted the crab while Dorothy started the pot boiling. Then Steve went after the crab with our “Lipper” which is a nifty fisho tool designed to firmly grab the lower jaw of a toothy fish that needs subduing. In this case the Lipper was used to lift the crab by its big fighting claw while Dorothy slammed the pot lid back down. Sorry, no photos, as we were much too focused on our crab feast!

The next morning, eleven small fishing trawlers were working nearby on the river before dawn. They arrayed themselves in an equally spaced formation, unfurled their nets, and trawled their way slowly up the river. Soon they had turned around and were headed back downriver, performing carefully choreographed maneuvers as they passed each other on reciprocal and parallel courses, managing to not tangle in each others’ nets. We seemed to have anchored next to the river’s best prawn fishing. It was raining in the morning as we passed under the Harwood Bridge.

On the morning of December 29, Steve found spectacular photos of the world class New Year’s Eve fireworks in the “Sydney Morning Herald”, and said, “We can be there in time to see this year’s fireworks! Let’s go for it tomorrow.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s