Moonshines end - Yongala
I DON’T BELIEVE IN GHOSTS, but if I did, they’d be here. You can still see their faces. They’re not the sort of faces you see any more, although that’s not because these men are dead, but because in the century since their passing we’ve traded their naivety for our “sophistication”. And that shows, principally from the neck up.
And we don’t do moustaches like that these days.
So here they are, sepia-tinted, large as life, stuck to a wall in memoriam – the officers of the ss Yongala, posed for the photographer, captured for posterity, now benignly watching over the glass-cased model of their beautiful Edwardian ship.
The small gallery in the Maritime Museum of Townsville creaks underfoot. It’s like a ship inside and out, so it’s no great surprise to discover that this was once the office of the pier master in a past life, before they moved the building to its present position on Palmer Street, overlooking Ross Creek.
Here, lovingly curated, are housed some of the artefacts recovered from the wreck. There are deformed skylights and portholes; stained glassware and porcelain; the bell; a photograph of the racehorse Moonshine, Yongala’s most celebrated victim; and an artist’s impression of the ship on the brink of oblivion, swamped by the sea.
I can barely bring myself to look at Bill Knight, head cocked with a trace of a smile. He looks too kind for this end. Tomorrow I’m going to dive the ship that became his grave, and I feel guilty, because I can’t wait.
The Greyhound bus takes me south along the Bruce Highway towards the small town of Ayr, just over an hour away. I journey in the company of Max Gleeson’s detailed account of the Yongala, purchased at the museum gift shop. The vessel was commissioned, along with a sister-ship, Grantala, by the Adelaide Steamship Co, to meet the demand of the Gold Rush coastal routes in the late 1890s.
Built in Newcastle-on-Tyne, launched in 1903, she was a beautiful 363ft vessel, state-of-the-art for her day, fitted out in walnut and oak, with the capacity to carry 110 First Class and 130 Second Class passengers, plus cargo.
She boasted staterooms, smoking room, music room, saloon and a magnificent staircase in the dining room, all whisked along in fine style at an impressive 16 knots. Her name came from the Aboriginal word for “broad watering place”, in line with the company’s policy of christening its ships in the indigenous language.
As the Gold Rush panned out in Western Australia, the company switched to ply the northern coast, and Yongala commenced the Melbourne-to-Cairns run in 1907, with Captain Knight in command.
Born in Bromley, England, in 1852, William Knight came to Australia as a sailor and patiently learnt his trade. His first command, the steamer Glanworth, ran aground on only his second voyage. However, having served a six-month suspension, he was taken on as a mate by the Adelaide Steamship Co, and subsequently given command of its steamer Wollowra.
Knight duly became an experienced, respected captain, and by 1901 his portrait was centre stage among his contemporaries in the line’s promotional literature.
The bus pulls into the crossroads at Ayr, and I’m left standing alone in single-storey rural Australia. A radio plays to itself through an open window.
I call Yongala Dive. It will send someone to pick me up when the dive-boat returns, in an hour, maybe two.
In a scene straight from a Coen Brothers movie, I wander across the deserted street to the supermarket.
I’m the only customer. Then I find treasure for dinner; a tin of Stagg Chili. I’d give this place UNESCO World Heritage status, no question.
Back on my bench at the bus stop, I turn the page to Yongala’s final voyage.
She departed Melbourne for Cairns on 14 March, 1911, making her usual scheduled stops, and at Brisbane received a racehorse trainer with his new acquisition, Moonshine. Livestock as freight was not unusual, and the horse joined a red Lincoln bull already aboard.
Yongala departed Flat-top Island for the 200-mile leg north to Townsville in the early afternoon of 23 March, and was sighted five hours later by a lighthouse-keeper in worsening weather. The vessel and 121 souls on board were never seen again.
Other shipping sought shelter after receiving storm warnings, but the Yongala, without radio, sailed straight into a cyclone. Overdue at Townsville, the assumption was that Knight had taken refuge, but when other ships arrived and there was still no word, an extensive land and sea search began.
THE LIGHTHOUSE-KEEPER AT BOWLING CAPE GREEN found a bag of chaff on the beach, and a steamer arrived in Townsville having recovered detritus, including an inscribed door from Yongala’s promenade deck to the music room. Then the badly decomposed remains of a horse was washed ashore.
With the ship now lost beyond doubt, a disaster fund was launched, showbiz got involved and over time, with no sign of the wreck, Yongala slipped into maritime mythology.
There was the odd ghost story featuring a rusty doppelgänger, but it wasn’t until 1947, when the Navy took a closer look at an obstruction discovered by minesweepers during the war, that it realised it had found a wreck with dimensions that matched Yongala’s.
When this discovery off Bowling Cape Green was made public, everyone assumed Yongala had been found. It was left to the Queensland Underwater Research Group, with their new scuba equipment, to finally establish the wreck’s identity.
In 1958 they recovered a safe, and although the contents had been reduced to sludge, the serial number was sent to the manufacturer in England, which confirmed that the safe came from Yongala. The mystery solved, the scuba club dumped the artefact into the river and went to the pub for a cold one. Probably.
Christina of Yongala Dive picks me up for the 15-minute scenic drive to Alva Beach. There’s not even a crossroads here, just a small residential community bolstered by the transient tourists of the local trailer park. I’ve arrived in the Twilight Zone, on the fringe of a beautiful white beach.
Yongala Divers Lodge accommodates a dozen divers in neat dorms, or a double room, with a lounge, kitchen and a sunset thrown in.
The dive shop is downstairs, so you can roll out of bed, grab some brekkie, and you’re good to go.
Having sorted your kit, the polished dive briefing takes place under the shade in the garden over coffee and tea, then it’s into the 4x4 to off-road along the beach to the waiting Yongala Express, a 10m rigid inflatable for just 12 divers, guides and crew.
We’re tractored off the beach into the surf. Skipper Bryan navigates the shifting sandbars, then opens the throttle for the exhilarating 30-minute dash to the wreck.
And this is where diving from Alva Beach with Yongala Dive becomes a no-brainer. The boats from Townsville run only when full, and with their trip to the wreck taking three hours over choppy water, when they eventually arrive most of their clients hang off the back for a bout of impromptu fish-feeding.
We suit up. Thin hoods are offered to ward off the odd stinger in the water, and I roll in first with buddy Jamie, a dive instructor from Sydney.
We descend along the line as briefed, although there’s little discernible current, through blue water with at least 15m visibility. The bow at 14m is clearly visible from the surface.
I have seen plenty of footage of the wreck, (the staff at Townsville Maritime Museum will put on a 40-minute DVD for you to watch), and enviously sat through plenty of first-hand accounts, but nothing prepares you for the amount of marine life on this wreck.
DIVE OPERATORS THAT SINK SHIPS to make artificial reefs can only dream of this. Every square centimetre is occupied with a greater variety of coral than you will find on most reefs. This is like a sci-fi world for fish. For them, Yongala is Mega-City One.
We descend over the bow, across the deck, the carcass upright, listing to starboard, and past the forward cargo hold which, according to the briefing, contains some femur bones.
Penetration of the wreck is now forbidden due to its fragility, but you can peer in from outside with a torch. Continuing our “loop” tour requires concentration to avoid ploughing into the prolific black coral trees that have supplanted the lifeboat davits.
The wreck moves. Everywhere. It heaves with life. Shoals bomb back and forth: trevally, jack, yellow-tailed fusiliers and cardinalfish.
Small fry flee from the path of the patrolling schoolmaster – the humphead Maori wrasse. A hawksbill turtle grazes on the wreck, seemingly oblivious to our close-quarters fascination, ignoring us in favour of food.
We drop onto the flat, white-sandy bottom, between masts that lie like fallen maypoles, to examine a pair of marbled rays. The wreck’s inhabitants are so unconcerned with our presence that Yongala might well be a lost outpost of the Galapagos.
As I follow Jamie along the starboard side, he is shadowed by an olive sea-snake that bounds through the water like an enthusiastic puppy.
Another travels across the deck, poses momentarily for a photo, then sells me a dummy and sashays away between my legs. First time I’ve been nutmegged by a sea-snake.
The stern rears above us, a ceiling bedecked with jewellery growth, beneath which the rank and file trevally screen a huge flowery cod. This is the maximum depth of the dive, with my computer registering 28.3m, hand-on-the-sand.
The rudder lies to the port side, but the wow-factor is lifting off the bottom and hanging back to view the sweep of the stern, blurred by frenetic fish traffic.
As we ascend to cover the port side, it’s possible to peer into the bowels of the wreck to spy the cast-iron bath and toilets, and the obligatory decorative anemonefish, before coming along the companionways to the coral grotto that was once the First Class dining-room.
As we near the end of the dive and return to the line at the bow, there’s still plenty of time to observe an impromptu cleaning station for batfish.
It’s no surprise that diving legend Valerie Taylor said that if she had just one more dive in her life, she would chose Yongala. It’s a stunning dive.
Yongala Dive, www.yongaladive.com.au