Upon arriving in the Flinders Group of islands, we found one other boat in the anchorage. The kids and I went to shore and Cobin flew the kite for a while and we gathered shells before heading back to Charm for the night. We were at Flinders Group because I had read that there was an indigenous cave with paintings in it that I wanted to see. The next morning, we planned to dinghy over to Stanley Island across the bay, walk along the trail to the cave and then leave to get some miles in on our way to Darwin.
Of course, that all changed. While we were eating breakfast, the man on the boat next to ours, who we later learned was Ron, started yelling and indicated we should turn our radio on. Joe said, “He probably wants to tell us we’re on top of his anchor.” Instead, he introduced himself as a local that knew the islands quite well and asked if we wanted to join him and his companion, Annie, on a hike to see the indigenous caves that were off the beaten track. This sounded like something we couldn’t miss. He told us to pack water, food, and to wear strong shoes for hiking. Having just carried the two girls’ hydrapaks up and down Lizard Island, Joe requested that not everyone bring a backpack loaded with water and I (having cleaned said hydrapaks) agreed.
Annie and Ron came over in their flat-bottomed dinghy and introduced themselves. Annie is from the UK and Ron is from New Zealand but they have been living together on Siri of the Sea for the past 15 years. Whereas we were spending one night in the Flinders Group, they had been there for three weeks. They spend six months of the year at sea and the other six months of cyclone season at the dock near Cairns. There are very few places to resupply out in the islands so they pack six month’s worth of provisions. Wow! That’s living on a boat on an entirely different level. They are delightful people and full of knowledge about the islands, including the recent crocodile sighting – on the beach where they went to get fresh water to wash their clothes! I always knew I loved our washing machine but I didn’t know it was saving us from danger.
We followed Ron and Annie in their dinghy named Tintin to a spot in the mangroves where we tied off the dinghies and clambered ashore, hoping the tide would be right when we returned and we wouldn’t have to drag our dinghy over too much corally/muddy sand. For the next several hours, we followed Ron through the bush, pushing our way through branches and bushes and learning all kinds of interesting tidbits as we made our way to a burial cave up in the hills. Very early in the hike, Ron stopped and grabbed something off a branch and gave it to Marin to eat. When I leaned in to see what it was, I discovered that it was an ant! These green-bottomed ants would jump on us from their nests in the trees and give vicious bites but they also had tasty butts. It’s nice when revenge is literally sweet, although in this case it was more lemony than anything. Cobin told me repeatedly, “No wonder they are biting you when they see what you’re doing to their friends!” I felt it was the other way around – I was biting their friends as retribution for them tasting me.
Ron also showed us lucky beads (small red poisonous berries) that his mother gave him to keep in his pocket so he would perform well on tests or in other endeavors. He also pointed out termite mounts and “middens” which are areas away from the water where large deposits of shells can be found. Ron told us that this Is where the Aborigines would cook the shells and eat the animals inside. He used the middens to locate the caves since the natives would not travel far from a food source to find shelter.
Annie chatted away, telling me about her previous life as the wife of a naval officer and the contrast with her current life. She seemed quite content to traipse around with Ron in the bush, pointing out green ant nests to avoid or helping the girls through thorny patches. I quickly realized that I had severely underestimated our need for water for the day and was regretting that I was the only one in the family that had packed water. I started rationing it as I realized that Ron’s plans were more involved than just a simple walk through the bush.
We eventually found a cave that had wire over the opening to keep people out. We could see small piles of bones inside and Ron told us that it was a burial cave. He told us that over the years he has visited the cave, he has noticed that other visitors have reached in with sticks to pull the bones out so the burial site has been significantly diminished over the years. Cobin and Joe hiked around to other cave possibilities on the ridge while the girls and I ate our lunch with Ron and Annie.
Then we headed back to the dinghies, finishing off the last of our water along the way. The kids were getting quite grumpy and Annie felt that Cobin was looking dehydrated so Ron sat down and they rationed out the last of their water to the kids and me. Joe seems to be able to exist without water. It was like a scene out of the movie called “The Bounty” that we just watched, with everyone carefully drinking their small mouthfuls of water and savoring every sip. Joe proposed that we make a run back to the boats to get more water and then set out on part 2 of the hike to see the cave art in another set of caves.
Thankfully the tide was in our favor and no dinghies had to be hauled anywhere. Joe, Ron, and Cobin went back to get water and some home brew of Ron’s and the women and girls stayed behind. Annie discretely reminded me about the crocodiles as Tully clambered on the mangroves close to the water’s edge. I think she didn’t want me to scare Tully but I figured that was the best way to keep Tully safe so I told her to get back so a crocodile didn’t eat her. She wasted no time in finding a more secure spot to play. Marin took Annie off to try to find some edible creatures living in shells that Ron had promised to cook up for her. By the time the men had returned, the tide was coming in and Marin was still empty-handed so that culinary adventure would have to wait. Cobin brought us frozen treats in the form of popsicles and Annie awaited hers with trembling hands, saying she hadn’t had anything so delicious in months.
Revived, we set out on another trek through the bush, following Ron up to a cave with paintings of dugongs (manatees), dragonflies and other figures. Ron figures these drawings are probably from the 1800s. He prefers these hidden caves to the one we were planning to visit, calling them “authentic.” Telling us that the Australian government hires artists to “touch up” the other paintings, he scoffs. “Would you hire someone to touch up the Mona Lisa?” He believes that they shouldn’t tamper with the art because it detracts from its original form. We never made it to the site set up for tourists so I can’t give an opinion but it sure was a more memorable experience this way.
After seven hours of bushwacking, all of us were ready to head back to the boats. I offered our shower up to Annie and she wasted no time in coming over, telling me that usually she would have to dump buckets of freezing water on her head from the tank on the crocodile beach. We made tacos for everyone and Annie presented us with a beautiful painting of a turtle on a piece of turtle shell they had found on the beach.
The next morning we left Flinders Island, happy for Annie and Ron as their long-awaited yacht friends had shown up, eager to see the cave paintings that they had heard about.
All of us on Charm were nursing scratches and delayed itching from the green ants’ revenge and were glad to have a few uninterrupted travel days on the boat to rest, heal and recover from our tour of Flinders Island. Annie and Ron were such a delightful surprise – it’s amazing how people consistently make the difference in our experiences. Instead of a forgettable visit to a tourist site, we now have new friends and a great memory of our day in the bush.
Flinders - 3 Flinders - 2 Flinders - 1