Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

The Serene Sea

No sort of tedium dulled the too brief trip over the serene sea. No device for killing time by eating inordinately, or quarrelling, or flirting, was needed, though we had one custom in common with life on an East Indiaman before the age of steam — ceremony was banished.

Porpoises, snow-white terns sitting on drifting wood, sea-eagles, ospreys, sea-snakes, sails, the smudge of steamer-smoke and its ten-mile plume, sunlit isles and speckless sky, with no sound save the purring of the engine and the prattle of the water against the bows — a catalogue of the commonplace, and yet stimulative of entertainment and content. Not one of the three would have exchanged places with far more favoured mortals. Here was, indeed, the freedom of the sea — the sea in its happiest and most alluring and loveliest of moods. No restrictions existed. The little boat sought out ways of her own, nosing shoal-showing buoys and beacons, and hugging the land whensoever and wheresoever she chose.

New aspects of familiar scenes thus become revealed. Seen from such a low level, the heights of Hinchinbrook and all the shoulders and spurs and ridges of the mountain demand uninterrupted attention, for are they not transformed? Bold and clean-cut, the skyline with its abrupt declivities, its peaks and contours — here the profile of a giant with beetling brows, long, slim nose and babyish lips, there a succession of irregular notches and knolls — are projected against a perfectly limpid atmosphere, while in vale and gorge

Just a faint cloud of rose shall appear,

As if in pure water you dropped and let die

A bruised, black-blooded mulberry.

And this tinted haze seems to magnify trees and obtruding rocks, revealing hitherto well-guarded secrets. The sources of torrents which in the wet season seam the brown rocks with silver, now cushioned with moss and islanded with yellowing sedges, are shown by an occasional flash and glitter as the sun plays upon them at a reflective angle.

Each time the channel is explored from the deck of a steamer some new feature stands to the credit of the gaunt hills, and those who know them best make free to assert that it is beyond the capabilities of man to carry in mind all their individualities. A few miles back Leafe Peak was a perfect cone of delicate blue. More than once it has seemed to change its position, and now it might stand for a model of Castle Hill, Townsville, as that was wont to be ere nakedness shamed its base. There is legend extant that the name is derived from the ribbon of leaves which almost invariably stretches from the mangroves and jungle at the foot to the mangroves of the flats of the mainland; and it is further said that hereabouts the northern and the southern current meet, creating the watery ridge defined by leafy flotsam. But there exists a counter-statement to the effect that the name commemorates that of one of the surveyors of the channel. It is a good name, whatever its origin; and perhaps the wavering line of yellow leaves, as permanent in its perpetual renewal as the impassive rocks, will retain its hold on the imagination as an emblem of unity between the mountain and the mangroves, when good folks in holiday humour have ceased to concern themselves about the name of a mere man.

In days that are gone an adventurous black “boy” told of a short cut from Ramsay Bay, skirting the mangroves of Missionary Bay, to the channel. No one credited him, though he gave dramatic evidence in support of his account, describing the manner in which the spurs and slopes of certain mountains interlocked. Viewing the landscape from the deck of the hasty little boat, the route taken by the “boy” was easily discerned, and since the chart shows that the distance from the mangroves in Missionary Bay to those of the channel is not more than four miles, the pass ought to be better known.

In popular imagination the mountains of Hinchinbrook, however picturesque and grand, are too severe, rugged and precipitous to tempt any but the boldest and toughest of athletes; but a resident of the Herbert district undertook many years ago to demonstrate that from a mountaineering point of view the difficulties of ascent were not so great as appearances suggested. For the love of the thing he rowed across the channel from Lucinda Point, fought his way through the jungle, scaled the shoulders of Mount Diamantina, and signalled his presence at the great rock on the summit by smoke in such a short space of time that the Mount might well have felt humbled. A singular feature of the boulder surmounting the rugged height is that it seems to be a pivot round which other elevations swing — at least, such is the illusion as the boat runs down the channel and out to sea to the south-east, and from whatsoever aspect the stern boulders of the mount are viewed, they seem to express aloofness and disdain. Not so the nooks and coves in the sheltered parts of the channel, which coax little boats to spend quiet hours within rocky arms, and promise gurgling lullabies the livelong night.

Within such a cove the boat lay in silence and serenity. In the deep shadow of the morning a fast steamer, blurred with mist, came rushing down the channel — a white blotch with a backward-curling smudge of smoke, calling to mind one of Turner’s masterpieces; but that famous picture lacks the foreground of bold declivities and the distances of hills aglow with the beams of the rising sun. Thence the course was to the northern extremity of Pelorus Island, avoiding the shallow shoals opposite Lucinda, and, when a clearance was made, direct to Pioneer Bay in Orpheus Island.

Here is good shelter for small boats in all weathers, save the uncommon and brief winds from the west which seldom raise a sea. The entrance needs to be known, for it is interlocked by boulders and blocks of coral. Thence the course lay almost due south, miles to the westward of the steamer track, close past Dido Rock, with its outlying sandbank, snow-white in the distance — not much larger than, and somewhat of the shape of, an upturned boat. Most of these islands, rocks and shoals bear the names of men-of-war, derived in the first instance from the classics. Is it not possible, then, that the steep-faced, weather-scored rock which bears the name of Dido caught the fancy of surveyors who had in mind the citadel that valiant woman built on the African coast, when a storm drove her fleet there, and she bought of the inhabitants as much land as could be encompassed by a bull’s hide cut into thongs?

Swarms of welcome swallows issued from the crevices of the red rock, circled round the boat, twittering greetings, and flew back to their nests when their invitations to stay were disregarded. At Herald Island, where anchor was dropped at 4 o’clock in the afternoon close inshore, flocks of swallows again paid the boat respect, perching on the rigging and spars, and making themselves easy and familiar.

Two or three spent the night on board, and the rest of the colony seemed to have homes among the low granite boulders and blocks that fringed the shore just above high-water mark. Here, as elsewhere, the sea was sparklingly clear, so that isolated rocks crowned with brown, wavy seaweed, rounded masses of coral and dead shells, gleaming white, were revealed, and the merging tints, pale-green to deep-blue as the water deepened off-shore where the sand was soft and pure white, made the heart glad. It was invigorating, too, to wallow in such stainless water before sunrise, the air being crisp and the only sound that of the cheeping of the welcome swallows.

Suddenly clouds gathered in the south-west, and before a moaning wind the serenity of the sea fled, chased by white horses. The boat lay snug under the spit until the early snack of coffee and biscuit was disposed of — then, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race, she swept disdainfully round its apex and with frolic and saucy capers flew homewards.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32