National Geographic : 1949 Sep
Cruise to Stone Age Arnhem Land BY HOWELL WALKER With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author q NSEAWORTHY," said a man in SDarwin, Australia, who knew about ships. "Unsound, I say. What's more, she's slower than a turtle." From the ashes of condemnation, however, the Phoenix rose and put to sea. The 200 tonner, built like a barge, cruised at 4 knots, a fast walk under fair conditions. Older than a century, she managed her years with stubborn scorn for wind or tide; and, in this land of wait-a -while, she showed aboriginal disrespect for time. If schedules meant anything to her or to north Australia, the Phoenix left Darwin 20 days late for Groote Eylandt. Ahead stretched almost 700 miles of fickle seas and weather (map, page 421). Estimated time of arrival she had not. The cabinless bark carried seven passengers, handled supplies for isolated mission stations, and hauled scientific equipment, camping gear, and food for the Arnhem Land expe dition already weeks awaiting her at Groote.* Three of us aboard the Phoenix followed 14 other expedition members who traveled by air. Dr. David Johnson and Herbert Deig nan, both of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D. C., collected animals and birds. I accompanied them on the sea voyage. Among the crew of eight, Skipper Tom Echelby owned the bark and ran her Diesel engine; Jim Johnson was cook, dishwasher, butcher, and boatswain; six natives worked as needed. Visitors Scarcer than Food In her own time the Phoenix barged north east through Clarence Strait. As if standing still, we took a whole day to pass Melville Island. Toward Cape Don's beacon on Co bourg Peninsula our helmsman steered half the night. There is a singular dearth of lighthouses on Australia's north coast. Despite hazardous reefs, hidden sand bars, and treacherous tides of deceptive depths, there are none between Cape Don and Groote Eylandt. At our first port of call we anchored off Croker Island's mission station. Natives se cured a long heavy rope to the ship's stern and took the loose end by dinghy to a scow 100 yards away. Six men on the lighter tugged in unison to draw alongside the Phoe nix; then black backs sweating under the hot sun off-loaded food and building material. Croker Island mission, established early in 1941, receives half-caste orphans between the ages of 3 and 19. Most come from Dar win and vicinity. At present a staff of 7 is training 75 boys and girls for useful jobs in later life. Rupert Kentish and his wife invited some of us to lunch at their house and graciously offered use of their shower bath, a convenience foreign to the Phoenix. They were glad to see us, for the only boat from Darwin with mail and supplies arrives at 10-week intervals. "Visitors are scarcer than food," Kentish said when we tried to thank him. To support her husband's words, Mrs. Kentish produced a guest book, on three pages of which were signatures of all visitors to this mission since its beginning. I counted 60 names, in nearly 8 years! To supplement rations from the outside world, the mission cultivates fruits and vege tables, raises cattle, goats, pigs, and chickens. In well-kept gardens we saw pawpaw (papaya), pineapple and African quince, mangoes, custard apples, oranges and limes, sugar cane, watermelons, pumpkins, peanuts, sweet potatoes, string beans, corn, cassava, and even cotton. The key to Croker Island's cornucopia was water-lots of it. As Tom Echelby said, "Croker floats on fresh water; you dig down only a few feet to find it." Rupert Kentish dug in. He did just about everything around the mission except make it rain. Using wells and plenty of pipe, he irrigated the Unloading stuck to the black. And Phoenix with five pigs, the We stowed garden efficiently. cargo lasted all day. Kentish task, laboring harder than any that night he rowed out to the two large crates, one holding other five hens and a rooster. the livestock on the bow and set course for South Goulburn, 70 miles to the southeast. Dead against an increasing wind, the Phoe nix fought a losing battle. Less than halfway * A full report of this Commonwealth of Australia National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to Arnhem Land, northern Australia, will appear in an early issue of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE. Its object was to study and photograph the Stone Age aborigines of this little-explored area east of Darwin and its animal, insect, plant, and ma rine life. The author, a member of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC staff, accompanied the expedition as writer-photographer.-Editor.