As we reach our final 10-day countdown to exiting Australia the feeling in the air is getting more and more exciting. We have pulled in to Lizard Island, probably the last destination anchorage this far north, at the least the last one where you can swim, snorkel, and paddle board freely thanks to crocodiles on the mainland. We’ve only been here for a few days but a lot has happened. Dozens of boats have arrived here to wait out the wind and rain that drove everyone north from Cairns, and a large number of them are also participating in the rally to Indonesia with us. Still others, like ‘Exit Strategy‘, are old friends of my parents’ having crossed from Mexico together 4 years ago. So the atmosphere for us has been one of reunion and making new friends and acquaintances. The radio chatters daily with boats organizing friendly events from hikes to snorkeling and tours of the island’s research center, and it’s quite a fun and happy time as boats that will spend the next three months in close proximity start to get to know one another.
Happy 4th of July!
There was even an impromptu 4th of July celebration on the beach ‘organized’, such as it was, by one of the four American boats in the anchorage. It was a hilarious and jolly evening with Canadians parading around in umbrella hats plastered in their red, white and maple leaf flag while children from at least three different nationalities raced up and down the beach, sparklers in hand. Someone gave the kids gummy bears to roast over the fire in the absence of marshmallows (to mixed results) and in true American fashion people from all over the world gathered to meet, drink, and laugh together. The night was by far the most multinational and in some ways the most American celebration of our independence that I’ve ever seen and on a tiny island half a world away. It was a fantastic time and speaks to many more happy memories in months yet to come.
Almost two and a half centuries ago the famous Captain James Cook of the exploratory vessel ‘Endeavor’ landed on this island due to its high peak from which he would be able to see the surrounding reefs for miles in all directions. He named it Lizard Island due to a preponderance of lizards he found here, only a small amount of which I’ve seen here mostly in the form of little goanas scurrying about when the sun shines. Today there is a steep, rocky trail that one can take to the top of the mountain to the same vantage point Cook looked out from so many years ago, and my two young friends Josh and Sam (from ‘Mikado‘) and I decided we wanted to see the view. It took about an hour of scrambling up sheer rock faces and narrow gullies in slight misty rain, but about 359 vertical meters (~1100 feet for my American friends) in roughly 3 kilometers of track later we summited to stunning views of the island, surrounding lagoons and reefs, and every islet and weather system for many miles in all directions. At the top are several informational panels detailing not only Cook’s visit but the significance of the mountain to local Aboriginal cultures going back more than ten millennia. Next to one of these panels overlooking the expansive ocean is a gigantic, 2.5 meter (~7-8 foot) tall cairn to which it seemed traditional to add a stone when reaching the peak of the island. In a small wooden box next to the stone pile is a guest registry in a watertight box which people over the years have signed and left notes, flags, and mementos in on this historic mountain, and we happily added our names to the list of successful hikers. It is truly a great and one-of-a-kind hike.
Lizard Island Research Center
The Lizard Island Research Center is one of four such facilities located along the length of the Great Barrier Reef. The narrowness here of the reef and the shelf on which it sits, as well as proximity to the mainland without many detracting factors such as river runoff and lack of detritus from any major urban centers make this site as ideal as it gets for studying coral reefs. As a result much leading edge research regarding reefs is done here, including the much publicized bleaching events, effects of climate change on the coral, and the entirety of coral reef ecosystems. Established in the early 1970s, the facility maintains an impressive 70% occupancy rate of its 37-person capacity year round, most of which consists of research teams doing field work from all over the world, while we were there a group was visiting from Switzerland. However, many filming groups (such as the BBC) also use the Research Center frequently for documentary-type work, and student groups from both high schools and universities also come to make use of the island’s ideal location along the Great Barrier Reef. This is all supported, amazingly, by a full time staff of only four people; two directors and two maintenance personnel. One of the directors, a very friendly man named Lyle, was kind enough to give a large group of us visiting yachties a tour of this great place as well as tell us a lot about the important research that takes place there. This amazing and educational experience would have made the windy anchorage worthwhile all by itself, and I’m grateful to have seen it.
The Director Lyle holding and explaining a Crown of Thorns starfish, one of the most deadly predators of coral reefs.
Up and out of the Land Down-Under
So we’ve spent a few wonderful days learning about reefs, snorkeling, hiking, and meeting friends both old and new. We have seen turtles, giant clams, a view that has been sacred for thousands of years, some of the prettiest, most inviting beaches thus far on the Queensland coast, and we drank and laughed in celebration of a holiday a world away. Tonight we leave with familiar friends for another overnight passage up the coast, pushing once more upwards towards Cape York and Thursday Island. If Cairns was a staging area, then Lizard Island has been a send-off, a glorious celebration and bookend for our time here so far that is drawing so rapidly to a close. In only a little more than a week’s time, I’ll be writing you all from the northernmost point of Australia before we leave for Indonesia, but for now just know that if you ever get a chance, Lizard Island is worth a visit. Cheers!
A thunderhead moving across the ocean.
Another view from Cook’s Lookout