Isobel Marriner joins the Queen Mary 2 for the first royal circumnavigation of Australia, following the journey of a famous explorer - though in a rather more opulent style
More than 200 years ago, a young naval officer called Matthew Flinders set sail from England, intending to circumnavigate and map the coastline of what was then New Holland and New South Wales, but which he would later prefer to call Terra Australis, the great Southern Land.
Flinders was not of maritime stock; the son of a doctor, he had been bewitched by the sea after reading Robinson Crusoe. Just married, he had intended (against Admiralty regulations) to take his wife with him on his ship, the Investigator, a recommissioned naval sloop originally built as a collier. But before the ship left British waters it ran aground while he was below deck with Mrs Flinders, and in the ensuing furore he was forced to leave her behind.
Two centuries later, black, sleek and enormous, the Queen Mary 2 is berthed at the container port at the end of the Brisbane river and is visible for many kilometres around. She would have dwarfed the Investigator, which measured about a 10th of her size.
When seeking directions at the airport we are asked "are you going to see the Queen Mary?" and there are squeals of excitement when we say that we are actually about to sail on her.
In a maiden port, it's a big deal.
Long after Flinders' adventure, the grandest of the world's ocean liners is part-way through her own historic "Royal Circumnavigation" of Australia; the first of Cunard's fleet to do so. And she is carrying a little piece of Flinders with her in the form of his journals, precious pieces of Australian maritime history on loan from the State Library of NSW.
In all her glory, the QM2 is as far removed from Flinders' leaky little sloop as it is possible to be; however there is still a sense of discovery, of charting the unknown, for this is not a cruise - though the Cunard liner has all the luxury and entertainments that you would expect on a top class cruise ship - it is a voyage.
While a pelican cruises leisurely for fish at the mouth of the river and metal birds swoop in to the airport, we watch from the balcony of our cabin as the QM2 is loaded with crates of beer and wine and mountains of fresh food - there is little chance we'll be getting scurvy on this trip.
Flinders had restocked his Investigator in Port Jackson (Sydney) with less toothsome fare, including salt beef and flour, rum of course, and some livestock to provide fresh milk and, later, meat; fresh supplies were dwindling in the colony and he was aghast at the exorbitant prices. He took aboard new crew members to replace those who had died or become unfit on the voyage out - due to the lack of available sailors some of his new men were convicts who were promised their freedom at the end of the journey - and an Aborigine named Bungaree to assist in his dealings with the "natives", and sailed north ...
Leaving port on the QM2 is all fanfare; the beaches around the port are lined with people and, hundreds of feet above, with champagne in hand, we experience the first of a magnificent series of welcomes and send-offs. Small boats pull up alongside taking photograph after photograph as port security craft race up and down, keeping them at a respectable distance.
Inside, we dress up for cocktails and dinner, then stroll through grand saloons that hark back to the glory days of the ocean liner; there are chandeliered ballrooms, sweeping staircases and bas-relief wood panels. Smartly dressed stewards flit about and in the three-storey Britannia dining room we are whisked to our table, where we are spoiled for choice with an extensive menu. No maggoty biscuits and hard cheese for us.
At the Whitsunday Islands we awake to be greeted by another flotilla of smiling, waving kayakers and pleasure boaties; we are becoming accustomed to doing the royal wave. That morning a catamaran collects us directly from the ship and ploughs through choppy waters to the Great Barrier Reef where we can dive from a pontoon and admire the glorious sea life. Though Cook was the first to record the reef it was Flinders who first charted a route through its hazards. In his recollections, A Voyage to Terra Australis, he described the reef as "glowing under water with vivid tints of every shade betwixt green, purple, brown, and white; equalling in beauty and excelling in grandeur the most favourable parterre of the curious florist."
At Cairns our VIP welcome also includes a swarm of helicopters flying overhead. We disembark by tender to be special guests at the Yorkey's Knob game fishing club and gratefully throw down a cool beer while the temperature soars and we wait for our shore excursions. Later, as we sail away from Cairns at sunset, the thunder rolls, and dramatic plumes of lightning arc into the sea.
The waters here are potentially treacherous and we have taken on board a local pilot to navigate as the QM2 sails in between the reef and the mainland, affording us close-up views of untamed coast; great white sandy dunes and, later, pinpricks of light in the dark, where small towns dot the coast. It's a special feeling, skimming the edge of the land. Says Flinders of a captain navigating the reef: "If he do not feel his nerves strong enough to thread the needle, as it is called, amongst the reefs, while he directs the steerage from the masthead, I would strongly recommend him not to approach this part of the coast."
With several days at sea before we reach Darwin we have time to be seduced by the attractions on board. The QM2 is the only vessel with a planetarium at sea - all you need do is lie back and the universe will come to you. There is the Flinders display to catch up with in the library (the QM2 has the largest library at sea) and a chance to check our position on the huge map there. By day the swimming pools are full in the heat, and sun lovers turn scarlet or chestnut as they bake on the rows of loungers, reading fitfully or gazing at the horizon. By night there are musical shows, panel games and cabaret, and in the wee hours we open up the balcony of our cabin to be embraced by the glorious warm fug of the tropical night.
As the QM2 approaches Cape York, there is a perceptible air of excitement. The usually laid-back Australians, making up most of the passengers for this leg of the voyage, are filled with a sense of awe as they are about to round the northernmost point of their country, seeing it in a way they - and we - are never likely to do again. They bank against the rails like paparazzi, cameras and camcorders clicking and whirring as the top of the Top End glides by.
Then we are round and into Torres Strait. Big jellyfish drift slowly by; now and then a turtle flaps lazily off the side and flying fish skim their way over the impossibly blue water. It is easy to imagine how Flinders' crew would feel if their ship was becalmed; we are moving at a relative snail's pace.
Commodore Christopher Rynd - the senior officer of Cunard's fleet, who was born in Waiuku - explains why negotiating Torres is a painstaking exercise. The Strait is so shallow a faster speed would drive the QM2's bow down, dangerously close to the shallow bottom - but go too slow and she would make no headway against the currents. Easy does it. The Commodore is self-effacing and ineffably polite, commending his staff for their professionalism, answering our many questions and taking the time to pose for photographs with star-struck journalists. His modesty is disarming, perhaps a little reminiscent of Flinders who named no island, river or headland discovered on his voyage for himself.
From Thursday Island our welcoming committee is a sole tin-topped dinghy, but it is a welcoming committee, and the waving and halloo-ing is still energetic. It's our last human contact (apart from our shipmates, of course) until Darwin, and we head across the Gulf of Carpentaria and into the Arafura Sea, parting company with Flinders' course.
For us it's more time spent in idle pleasure - we watch the crew take part in a Shrove Tuesday Pancake race, take high tea with Veuve Clicquot served in tea-glasses and relax as the end of our journey approaches. But it's worth reflecting on poor, brave Flinders who, in the "Gulph" discovered his ship was rotting and unseaworthy and headed to Timor to seek a replacement. When there was none to be had he limped back to Port Jackson in the Investigator, but the water he had taken on in Timor proved bad and that voyage was dogged by dysentery and scurvy. And this was not the end of his troubles, for, returning to England he was taken by the French and was not to see his wife again for nine years.
Travelling in comfort on the QM2 I have had small taste of his adventure, and a sense of the bravery and sacrifice it would have demanded. I was grateful for that privilege and I salute him - one ancient Marriner to another.
Further information: Queen Mary 2 will sail around Australia again in February 2014.
A 23-day roundtrip voyage departing Melbourne on February 17 is priced from NZ$8709; from Sydney on February 19 from NZ$7289, and from Brisbane on February 21 from NZ$8709 per person twin share. A 22-day circumnavigation departs Fremantle on February 12, 2014, priced from NZ $8319 per person twin share.
The 2014 circumnavigation will also call at the Whitsundays, Darwin, Adelaide and Bali.
Isobel Marriner travelled on the Queen Mary 2 as a guest of Cunard.
Sources: A Voyage to Terra Australis by Matthew Flinders; Encountering Terra Australis by Jean Fornaserio, Peter Monteath, John West-Sooby, Wakefield Press 2004.