Expedition Base Camp Darwin Style

Expedition base camps are usually unremarkable places dedicated to the utility of adventure. Not so the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association in Darwin, Australia with it’s overabundance of rare and exotic characters. For those waiting patiently for book 3 to be published, this excerpt is for you.

Expedition 360 expedition base camp. Darwin, Australia

“How long have you been in Australia, Andy?”

Trimmed white beard, jug handle ears, and a gammy leg, the old Glaswegian had his shirt off, sporting a barrel stomach covered in a thick fleece of chest hair.

“Thirrrty-six years,” he replied happily.

“You’ve kept your accent well.”

“Och aye. Too tight even tae give that away!”

Belly shaking with laughter, he turned to climb the ladder to his single hull sailing boat, one of forty or so dilapidated vessels propped up on stilts in the Dinah Beach car park. Having been recently laid off and given the heave-ho by his wife of twenty-six years, Andy had split from Freemantle and made the club his home. Like Alcoholic Rodney in the catamaran opposite, he had absolutely no intention of going anywhere. Rent was cheap. The bar was within teetering distance, and sold the cheapest and coldest beer in town. It was the ideal retirement set-up. When I’d asked how much longer he thought it would be before his boat was ready to launch, Andy had pressed his whiskery face to mine, and hissed “Yearrrs!” with hearty optimism.

In the event the club lost patience with the liveaboards and forced them to expedite repairs and return their hulks to the sea, Andy had taken the precaution of drilling a hole through the bottom of his. The aperture was three inches in diametre, guaranteeing his craft never went near water again. And it had another use. At regular intervals throughout the evenings, we’d hear the Clink! Clink! Clink! of another beer can clattering into the dustbin below.

Lourdes and I had spent almost a week at our new residence, the thirty-by-fifteen-foot concrete pad next to Andy’s. Scavenging local materials, we’d erected a makeshift shelter of tarpaulins supported with driftwood, the corners anchored to car tyres weighted down with gravel. Moksha was rolled down the road on her cradle and given pride of place. What gear we’d managed to salvage was spread out on the ground to be inventoried, creating an obstacle course of pots, pans, charts, books, Tupperware containers, and other paraphernalia. At the back of the lot, behind Moksha, we pitched our tents between the piles of refuse left by previous occupants.

Such was our new expedition base camp.

It was also an office-cum-workshop. A stack of abandoned pallets served as a desk to order parts, write proposals for replacement gear, and fill out visa application forms. Another stack became a workbench to strip down the wind generator, service the pedal units, and resuscitate all manner of corroded electronics with the help of Australia’s answer to WD40, a potent engine spray called “Start Ya Bastard.” A local supporter, James Walker, loaned us deck chairs and a fridge to preserve food in the tropical heat. We cooked meals on camp stoves.

In spite of the open-air appeal, certain drawbacks of running a business alfresco quickly became apparent. The boatyard was hot, humid, and noisy—birds screeched in the nearby bushes, doves cooed, geese cackled and honked on the adjacent property. From dawn until dusk, our brains shuddered to the sound of sawing, hammering, and chiseling, and our ears convulsed to the whine of power tools. A two-foot-long monitor lizard, mottled brown with primrose yellow underside, shared our tent space, feeding off dead rats poisoned by Andy. And being the wet season, the skies opened like clockwork at two o’clock every afternoon, producing a river running through our camp. During these gully-washers, we dashed around shoring up the tarps, preventing reservoirs of rainwater from collecting on the roof, and doing whatever else we could do to keep our fragile little abode from collapsing.

To our fellow Dinah Beach denizens, the notion of pedalling a boat to East Timor, a shorter but otherwise comparable voyage to the club’s once infamous annual race to Ambon in the Maluku Islands, was ridiculous to the point of insulting. “But why?” they would ask, shaking their heads. Some, like Captain Seaweed, a sun-roasted Swede in a permanently affixed captain’s cap, even became irate—which struck me as odd. As a haven for those clearly ill-suited to society’s norms, giving sanctuary to ex-cons, cons on the run, and misfits in general who could otherwise expect to be rounded up if found wandering the streets, the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association seemed to me the perfect home for the expedition.

A few, like Andy, “got” the concept of human power and offered to help. Leon from Darwin Ships Stores found cheap and used equipment to replace what had been trashed or stolen, including lifejackets from the Royal Australian Air Force. Kris, a shipwright who lived on a homemade junk anchored in the creek, replaced Moksha’s spirit guide with a turtle native to the waters we’d be pedalling through. The majority of people, however, treated us with thinly veiled skepticism. As we’d found in the past, it took the endorsement of the media to win over the Average Joe. A current affairs programme, ABC Stateline, ran a story, and suddenly we were worth speaking to.

I was in the club workshop one day, grinding off a pedal corroded to a crank arm, when I heard a voice behind me. “So vot heppens in der rof wezzer?”

It was Captain Seaweed, his breasts sagging and folds of skin hanging off his shoulders like an old bull elephant. He had just two teeth left in his head. His eyes were cerulean blue and sunk back into their sockets.

Without waiting for a reply, he added, “Ent vot ebout der waater?” He was the type that talked at you, not with you, delivering his sentences in the monotone machinegun chatter of Scandinavians.

I gave answers, but when I tried to explain our route, I was interrupted. “If ya goin’ up dare to Indonesia, oy’d floy der Shveedish flag oy would. Doze crazy facking baarstards, dey’ll shoot’ya if ya say you’re Hamerican hor Heenglish. Floy der Shveedish flag. Dey never done nothin’ to nowan!”

He had a point, albeit a paranoid one. Ninety-eight percent of Indonesia’s 220 million inhabitants were Muslim, the highest percentage of any country in the world, and Islam produced more than its fair share of fanatics. A number of these, members of the radical Jemaah Islamiyah group, had recently been turfed out of Ambon and Maluku following bouts of religious cleansing between Christian and Muslim communities. It was this same looney tunes outfit that had slaughtered two hundred and two people, including one hundred and fifty two foreign nationals, in the 2002 Bali bombings.

From then on Captain Seaweed became one of our biggest allies. An accomplished sailor, he was a wealth of information on the hazards of the Beagle Gulf, the body of water immediately north of Darwin. Most crucially, he photocopied detailed charts of the Apsley Straits, the narrow sea passage between Bathurst and Melvin Islands, which offered the best route to clear the eastern edge of Timor to reach Dili.

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