“The two biggest questions we get from people before this trip are: ‘Are we going to be hot?’” says skipper Bruce Davey – resplendent in a pair of green-and-pink, fish-shaped thongs and pink pyjama pants with a butterfly print – as we chat over a drink on the front deck. He’s a boatie who likes a gin, served in a blue glass that sparkles as he brings it to his lips. “The other one is, ‘Are we likely to die in a cyclone?’” He leaves those words out there as I study dark storm clouds dancing on the horizon on my port side (that’s to my left, for you landlubbers reading).
“Well?” I ask him, keen for his answer. “Are you hot?” he asks – on the contrary, the whole time I’ve been at sea it’s been positively mild even in February, the prevailing north-westerly blowing in from Indonesia across the ocean cools life down.
“There’s less cyclones round here than people think, and we’ve got places to run to should one blow up unexpectedly.”
“Round here” is some of the last untapped wilderness areas in Australia. We’ve set course from the Gove Peninsula (reachable only by plane from Darwin in the wet season) on M/Y Wildcard to some of the most untouched islands anywhere in Australia… nay, the world.
We’re exploring the Wessel Islands on a seven-day charter by sea; the Wessels, a rugged ribbon-like archipelago of islands off the east Arnhem Land coast, are uninhabited. But for thousands of years an Indigenous population lived here, feasting on fish, shark, sting-ray, dugong and croc.
Skipper Davey – who has plied these waters for over 30 years – has permission from the traditional owner of the islands and is the only tourism operator allowed here at all.
In these new COVID times – when it’s likely we won’t be able to travel beyond national borders till 2022 – finding islands for yourselves like these (I won’t see another soul for seven days), is a little like finding a treasure map.
The gold, in this case, is the waterfalls crashing into the sea, the Indigenous rock art even anthropologists haven’t seen and a 100-kilometre coastline of beaches, fringed by forest and separated by headlands of rugged rock with names like the Sphinx (you can guess what that looks like).
While it’s deemed a luxury trip, the luxury comes in its sheer isolation. In this pandemic age, nothing can be more luxurious than all this wilderness, shared between a motley crew of Northern Territorians and eight guests.
I have a room with a flush toilet, a steaming-hot shower and a queen-sized bed with waist-to-ceiling glass windows offering a view out to the isles, but Wildcard is a working, functioning fishing boat with a matching crew, so if you’re expecting silver service, book elsewhere (but boy, you should taste the fish dinners). And if you want to wear shoes to dinner, you’re on the wrong boat; this is a strict barefoot affair.
What you get on Wildcard is a glimpse at a lost world, and quality time with genuine fisher-folk (the Davey family and some ring-ins – they should have their own TV show) who know this lost world more than any other non-Indigenous person on Earth.
The Wessels aren’t actually that far from Nhulunbuy, the Gove Peninsula’s mining epicentre, but they might be as remote as the Pitcairn Islands. No one is permitted to stay here overnight, and Gove’s weekend fishermen have fish-catching meccas much closer to port.
I arrive at midnight after a seven-hour steam (that’s motor: sorry, more nautical talk). When I wake at dawn, we’re 200 metres off-shore of Finger Falls – and from my place on the bow (the front of the boat: keep up readers), I see water cascade off a bay of headlands. After breakfast, we leave by tender (that’s the little boat on the side of your big one, right?) for the shore, stopping on the way in to drench ourselves under the waterfall. Just beyond our boat, a saltwater crocodile prowls, but it slinks away when we get close. Beneath our boat, a reef shark swims past; a minute later, it is replaced by something almost a metre longer.
“Pig-eyed shark, they’re nasty little buggers,” warns Juanita Davey, the skipper’s wife. With swimming off the cards for the morning, we hike to the top of the falls, scaring rock wallabies along the way. Water teems up here, but in the dry (April to November), when the south-easterly tradewinds blast this coastline we’re exploring, every drop of water dries up, and the Wessels are a different place altogether.
The next day, we move further north to Picture Bay. Mind you, it is only called that on the Wildcard. Early Dutch, Portuguese and British explorer Matthew Flinders plied these waters, but only two sites on the Wessels are officially named. Wildcard has been navigating these waters for 30 years and the Davey family has named every bay here – this place got the name because it is pretty as a picture.
I see their logic. In every direction water thunders from the headlands – a mix of single, long drops and multi-tier cascades. I kayak between the falls, then dunk myself deep in the flow for as long as I can stand it.
Another morning, I take a tender to the shore. The Davey’s son, Tiger, times it so we enter an estuary on high tide, then we slide through tunnels beneath the headland which separates us from the forest beyond.
It’s tight and I need a torch, but on the other side I reach a huge cave chamber half-filled with fresh water. We’re safe from crocs here, so I swim with less trepidation in the dark, till we reach chambers dappled with filtered sunlight.
There are alleyways all through here. Mrs Davey first ventured into these caves brandishing a cigarette lighter when her kids were little, a few decades back.
We come to a dry section of the caves and above us, on the roof, we shine our beams on rock art centuries-old and seen only by a handful of visitors. There are drawings of dugongs, turtles and fish. In another chamber we see evidence of the first Europeans to come here – men with funny hats and funny clothes – as well as Makassan boats (the Makassans, from Indonesia, had been coming here to trade for centuries).
I’ve seen rock art on the mainland, but not like this. This feels like the movies and Captain Davey’s leather hat makes me think of Indiana Jones – how didn’t I notice that before? I feel 16 again, when the world was full of limitless adventure.
“I could spend the rest of my life walking around finding more of these sorts of caves,” he says. “Every time we come up here, we find something new.”
I catch bigger fish than I’ve caught in my life and I swim in freshwater rock pools fed by waterfalls, but it’s the unscripted adventure that will stay with me longer than the 10-kilogram red emperor I pulled in on my second-last day (sorry, but I had to get that in there somewhere).
After we steam back to Gove a week later, the boats at anchor in the bay around us feel more like a flotilla. The bauxite mine on the edge of the bay feels even more of a trespass, and the two tourists joining the local boaties for a cold beer at Gove Boat Club make me feel like I’m at Bondi Icebergs.
Overseas might be off the cards for Aussies this year, but you can bet your life there are spots in Australia that feel just as removed from the reality you know. The Wessels is top of the list.
Take me there
Fly: Airnorth flies to Gove daily from Darwin for about $500 return; and from Cairns for about $600 return (airnorth.com.au).
Stay: Crooked Compass runs a seven-day tour for up to eight people through the Wessel Islands, departing from Gove (Nhulunbuy). The next tour is 1-8 February 2022 and costs $14,795 per person.
Explore more: crooked-compass.com