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Darwin to Cairns by boat: An unexpected weekend in Gove

As we made our way across the top of Australia it felt as though Gove was this mystical place far, far away. Perched at the edge of the NT before the coast dips down to the Gulf of Carpentaria it was going to be our last stop before an estimated three days to sail over to the Cape York peninsula.

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After some very uninteresting scenery for the trip so far (the NT is flat as) I was extremely happy to wake to find some amazing rock formations on islands and happily grabbed my camera.

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We were sailing through the islands that make up the ‘flourish’ of the NT. Looking like dripped ink on a map they require careful navigation but provide … scenery. This was a new experience for us having previously had a view of the ocean and occasionally extremely flat land.

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At one point we passed through a narrow passage and found ourselves pushing through a tidal current. Because of the strength of it there was nearly a 5ft difference in height from either side. You can see how they have tidal ‘waterfalls’ in the Kimberley’s and I certainly didn’t want to fall overboard at that moment!

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With perfect conditions forecast we were keen to get in to Gove, refuel and get supplies as fast as we could before taking advantage of an unusually good weather window that would have us crossing the Gulf in just 2 days over nice calm seas.

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I was on watch as we got closer and closer, first seeing nothing but a grey smudge on an otherwise perfectly blue vista.

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Mikey and I had flown to Darwin via Gove, a stop that involved us getting off the plane for 30 minutes and standing in what was considered the airport. Pretty much just a big room with a bag x-ray machine perched by the side of the red dirt runway I jokingly put a picture on Facebook bemoaning our lack of time to explore the metropolis.

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Well, they do say be careful what you wish for…

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Having not ordered fuel ahead of time we arrived in Gove to find we needed to have given 48hrs notice. It was a Saturday morning on the day of the AFL final so there was nothing to do but suck it up and wait until Monday morning.

The thing about Gove (or, technically, Melville Bay where we anchored) is that if you look one way it’s actually rather pretty. Blue water, palm trees and boats bobbing around makes for a nice view.

Another bonus? We were reliably informed that there hadn’t been a croc attack here for well over a week!

But then…

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…look to the left and there is the enormous Bauxite mine and refinery.

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Less appealing to look at, it spits out smoke and noise with sirens wailing intermittently and it’s lights obscuring any hope of star gazing.

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Faced with two days surrounded by water we couldn’t swim in Mikey did what any sensible man would do and took off in the tender in search of fish.

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There are several wrecks in the bay and each promised potential barramundi or other delicious delights.

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Unfortunately after the third time he lost a lure to a monster barra he gave up deciding to save his gear for our gulf crossing which turned out to be a very good idea.

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There was thankfully a boat club on land and we decided there was nothing more to it, we’d better go get drunk with the locals. As the sun set and the bottles on our table grew we felt slightly better about being stuck there. This place really did have a lovely sunset. And lovely cider. Mmmm. Cider.

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Better hafsh some more yummy shhhhider yeah mmmm….

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Yeah, we felt less positive in the morning, nursing hangovers on a boat offering no escape from the heat. Deciding to stock up on supplies, and not knowing the next time we’d have anything resembling a shop Mum and I set off on a mission to the town.

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^^^Massive supply barge.

Mum and I had been reliably informed by some fellow cruisers that it would be dead easy to hitch hike the 10km in to the town proper and get some supplies from Woolies.

I’ve not yet experiences true red, outback Australia. That dust gets on everything and within minutes I knew my feet would never again be their usual colour again. All of the boats anchored in the bay were at various stages of discolouration and it was easy to spot the ones who’d been there a while. Our poor boat required a decent amount of scrubbing before the tinge started to fade, and that was after only 48 hours.

It did lend itself well to ‘you’ve got red on you’ Shaun of the Dead quoting though.

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Have you ever been camping and woken to find your tent has been converted un to an oven and you simply must get out in to fresh air or you’ll die? That’s pretty much the heat in the NT, in Spring. After 15 minutes of standing in the sun and no luck we were beginning to think a $60 taxi ride would be our only option or we’d literally cook.

Until….dah dah dah daaaaaaaaaaah! An awesomely beat up ute pulled over and a gruff voice asked where we were headed.

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Meet Brian, our hero and owner of a truly astonishing moustache. A crabber by trade, he catches muddies up here which are then flown to Melbourne to be sold in the Victoria markets. That’s quite a few air miles!

He asked how we were getting back and, upon hearing we’d be grabbing a taxi, said he only had a few errands to run and would be waiting in the pub for us and to come and get him when we were done.

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For a place with only a couple of thousand residents they didn’t scrimp on places to buy booze. One supermarket and three bottle shops? My kind of town!

We were surprised to find that the only bread sold was frozen, a necessary result of how far food must have to travel to get here. All the veggies and fruit looked decidedly worn and we found that when we got it back on the boat it went off a lot faster than usual.

Once our two trolleys (mine piled high with crates of red bull) were full we made our way to the checkout and got served by a very young looking lad with a big smile. Introducing himself as Cameron he instantly realised we were passing yauchties and began asking questions. After a lovely chat he said he’d see us at the boat club later as his family were going out there for the evening.

Food bought it was time to find our mate Brian again, although this Walkabout pub is a little different to the chain bars we get in the UK…!

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After sharing beers and chatting to the amused locals Brian dropped us back off, chatting about his life in Gove the whole way. He was brought up in Weipa just across the Gulf and visited here in 1984 where he promptly decided he’d stay! It was nice to meet a true local and it’s a reminder that even though I’ve covered a lot of ground there is still much of Australia to visit, including parts I hadn’t even considered before.

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Waiting for dinner at the boat club later that night we suddenly heard a voice. “Jill! Francesca! Hi!” it was our friend Cameron from Woolies! Bringing us to meet his family they said he’d already chatted about meeting us that day and we all spent a lovely hour or so swapping stories and asking questions. One of the better things about small, isolated towns is that real sense of community which is something we got a taste of during our stay in Gove.

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^^^Our mate Cameron at the boat club!

The next day we woke early, excited to make our 8am fuel stop and set off. We didn’t however, factor in ‘NT time’ and found it was going to be closer to 1 or 2pm. Deciding this was ample time to venture in to town and grab some fishing supplies Mikey and I set off together hoping to find another Brian.

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Did I mention that Gove is home to the longest conveyor belt in the southern hemisphere? So yeah, there you go.

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Pretty damn exciting.

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Walking along the road with our thumbs out we watched our feet go red and council cars zoom past. It being a Monday the boat club was shut, seriously reducing the amount of traffic going past.

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We watched the mine workers whizz past, each signalling they were on the clock and not going to town. Wondering if we could order a taxi to ‘just past the conveyor belt bit’ finally someone pulled over. A mine worker who’d just finished, and who was actually a teacher at the school and doing some extra hours during the holidays. He’d pulled over because he knew Cameron’s parents, had seen us at the boat club that weekend and put two and two together.

Gove, nice people.

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“I could live here”, Mikey said later, gazing out over the blue water with his feet stained red and a cold beer in his hand. As the sun slipped lazily down, my face still warmed by the breeze, I couldn’t help but absolutely disagree.

A town this size? Yes. Hell, it’s a metropolis compared to Mission Beach. But Gove is isolated and during the wet season can be completely cut off by road for weeks at a time. Also, and I cannot emphasise this enough, this is a town where you can’t buy fresh bread from the supermarket. That’s 40% of my dietary needs gone right there.

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So our time in Gove wasn’t as terrible as we’d though it might be and, capped off with an awesome experience with some pilot whales (more on that later), I did feel a little bad about how desperate we were to leave it. It was an experience of a town that I’d otherwise never have gotten and, rather than see it as a massive inconvenience, it was pretty cool to live like a local for a weekend.

So thank you to the people of Gove, it was not only the ones mentioned here that were kind. Gosh, writing this I’m almost feeling nostalgic for the place. Can someone remind me about the croc problem there? Thanks.

This post is one of many about my experience of sailing from Darwin to Cairns. Click here for the rest of them!

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