Entebbe bound …

Just a few last minute arrangements and then airport here I come to catch a Qatar Airlines flight for Entebbe via Doha.

Hey, that’s the same Qatar that just got ostracised by the rest of the Gulf states for their support for terrorism. Entebbe rings a bell too.

June 27, 1976, Air France flight 139, Israel to France, hijacked in Greek airspace by four Palestinian sympathisers. It was diverted to Benghazi, Libya, another familiar name, and after refuelling there it flew to Entebbe where it received a warm welcome from President Amin. Four additional freedom fighters joined the original hijackers. The army made some helpful alterations to the old airport terminal to where the hostages were transferred.

In subsequent days some of the 248 passengers were released. Ultimately the hijackers were holding 106 hostages which included 12 crew and 84 Israelis. They issued some demands and set 1 July as the date on which the killing of hostages would start. Diplomatic efforts saw that put back to July 4, it suited Amin, whilst the spotlight was on him he could fly to Mauritius to hand over chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity.

And it suited the Israelis just fine too. It gave them just enough time to put together a rescue mission that was spectacularly successful. Seven hijackers were killed, somewhere between 33 and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed when the troops opened fire on the rescuers and 11 fighter planes were destroyed on the ground.

Three passengers and the Israeli commander were killed in the raid. Some were injured. Dora Bloch, 75 years old, was left behind.

Idi had a major tanti. Kenya had given some minor assistance to the Israelis. Hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda were murdered as a consequence. Poor Dora Bloch was dragged from her hospital bed and killed, as were doctors and nurses who tried to intervene.

It sometimes seems as though the world has gone mad but it was always thus. Would I be better off heading to London, Paris, Manchester? As the French say plus ça change



Cooktown …

There was a time when every Australian child knew that Captain Cook discovered Australia. Not exactly true, of course, but quite possibly more than today’s school children know about the early days of the European influx that led to our modern society.


James Cook was born at Marton in Yorkshire in 1728. He was a bright lad of humble origins. The family moved to Great Ayton where his father became a farm manager. His father’s employer paid for young Jimmy to go to school.

Cook’s career at sea began in the merchant navy as an apprentice on a coal carrier. He studied diligently those subjects that he would need to take charge of his own ship, mathematics, navigation and astronomy, and at the end of his three year apprenticeship passed his exams. Three years later he was promoted to mate. Soon after that he passed up the chance to take command of a collier to join the Royal Navy.

That was a move that saw him starting at the bottom all over again. In 1755 Able Seaman Cook joined HMS Eagle. By 1757 Cook was master of The Pembroke. This was a time of war. The Seven Years War (1755 – 1764) has as good a claim to being a world war as any subsequent war. It pitted Britain against France with virtually all of Europe aligned with one side or the other and dragging in their colonies notably Canada.

It was during this war that General Wolfe surprised and defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City, a pivotal moment in Canadian history. To put the troops in position to launch the attack it was necessary to navigate up the tricky St Lawrence River. A three month siege preceded the battle during which time Cook on The Pembroke surveyed and mapped the river. And it was Cook that led the troop carrying flotilla into place.

Cook went on to survey and map the Newfoundland Coast.

By the conclusion of the war Cook’s talent as a map maker combined with his obvious competence put him in good stead with The Admiralty. Meanwhile the Royal Society was urging a voyage of exploration in the direction of the much anticipated Terra Australis (necessary to balance the great land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and keep the globe from toppling off its axis). They proposed that Alexander Dalrymple, a noted geographer, be in command. The First Lord of the Admiralty’s response was that he’d rather cut a hand off than have a civilian in charge of a navy ship. Cook was acceptable to both these august bodies.

First step was Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. Which was duly observed on a clear night on June 3rd 1769. After which our James opened a sealed envelope revealing the rest of his super secret instructions, essentially search the Pacific.

Early October saw him arrive in New Zealand, the first European visit since being discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642. Cook mapped the entire coastline, discovering in the process that the North and South Islands are separated by what is now known as Cook Strait. One of his few errors was not recognising that Stuart Island is similarly separated from South Island.

Having completed his task in New Zealand Cook had a problem. He could discover nothing by heading north west and returning home via The Cape of Good Hope. It was late autumn, his ship was not fit to take a southerly route to round Cape Horn. He outlined his thinking in his Journal and determined …

… upon Leaving this Coast to steer to the Westward until we fall in with the East Coast of New Holland, and then to follow the direction of that Coast to the Northward

Europeans had been bumping into the north and west coasts of Australia aka New Holland since 1606 (Janszoon on The Duyfken). For almost all the rest of the century the Dutch pretty much had a monopoly on the place accumulating quite a list of discoveries. It was 1699 before the poms got involved, William Dampier exploring the west coast and collecting the first botanical specimens to reach the scientific establishment.

The north east extremity of Australia is Torres Strait. That was put on the map in 1606 by Luis Váez de Torres who wrote of “very large islands, and more to the south“. The south east extremity was put on the map by Tasman in 1642. Cook set out to join the dots.

Landfall was well south on the coast on Friday 20th April. Cook named it Point Hicks after the his Lieutenant (a Stepney lad and therefore a cockney like me). Proceeding north Cook discovered Botany Bay and Port Jackson, subsequently the place where Sydney was founded, (according to Melbournians the largest of Cook’s mistakes). Then even further north to the Great Barrier Reef and after bumping into that off Cape Tribulation to the mouth of Endeavour River where he repaired his ship.

The repairs took seven weeks. While they were in progress the scientists went collecting. One of the most important things they brought back was a word garnered from the local aboriginal people, gangurru, which we spell a little differently these days.

This is the place where Cooktown now stands, which is where you can find the statue shown above.

It is a small tropical town, only recently discovered by tourists and not overly commercialised. It is a delightful place to visit just as it is but for me it ranks as one of the most significant historical sites that we have.

Phillip Parker King …

The Poms began to arrive in Australia, to stay, in 1788. They were particularly concerned at that time about the intentions of the French regarding this newly available continent.

Naturally the early explorers were from Britain and Europe, the first generation of Australian Europeans had to be born and grow up for a while. Phillip Parker King was born in the penal colony on Norfolk Island in 1791. His father, Philip Gidley King was the commandant of the settlement and would later be the Governor of New South Wales. Young Phillip was sent back to England for his education and looked forward to a career in the Royal Navy.

In many respects his timing was abysmal. King entered the Navy in 1807, the war with France was at its height, he served with distinction and was commissioned lieutenant in 1814. The following year it was all over, Napoleon once a rooster was now a feather duster, Britain had an enormous navy and no one to fight. Naval officers were put out to grass.

Fortunately for young Phillip his talent for meticulous surveying and draughtsmanship had been noticed. He was sent out to Australia to fill in the gaps in the coastal charting. A number of Explorers had grazed the coast of Oz. Dampier and Cook perhaps the most famous and Mathew Flinders had completed the first circumnavigation by 1803 (although he was somewhat slow getting the results out due to his imprisonment in Mauritius on his way home … for six years. Those bloody French).

The notable gaps were the Kimberley coast, the northern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef and Bass Strait. Between 1817 and 1822 King meticulously filled in the gaps. And when he’d finished that he went to South America and sorted out the southern tip. He deserves to be right up there with Flinders but he is hardly known, a neglected native son.

Montgomery Reef was discovered by King in 1821 and named for the ship’s surgeon. It’s out in a bay about 22 km from the nearest point on the mainland. On a high tide you might pass right over it but as the tide falls it emerges and looks rather splendid.

Montgomery Reef

It’s home to turtles and sharks and at low tide numerous Eastern Reef Egrets and wading birds that have to make alternative arrangements when the water rushes back to cover it all again. The reef is about 80 km long and covers an area of about 400 km². Small sand islands, called the High Cliffy Islands, were home to the Jaudibaia people, excavations reveal their presence as long ago as 6,700 years. They spoke a distinct dialect. They are unique among Australian aboriginals in living on such small islands but fish and turtles were stranded on the adjacent reef twice a day and provided handsomely. The Jaudibaia were reputed to be of impressive stature many reaching 7 feet in height. A film crew for Pathe News visited in 1929 when they found about 300 people. The next time anyone thought to look there were none. No trace and no explanation.

Our visit was graced by a flock of White-winged Terns in full breeding plumage, a stranded turtle and many in the water, close looks at Eastern Reef Egrets and other shore birds such as this Beach Stone-curlew …

Beach Stone-curlew

King’s ship was His Majesty’s Cutter Mermaid. It had been cobbled together with iron not copper nails. As time passed and the nails rusted out it began to leak furiously. During 1820 King selected a suitable beach with easy access to fresh water and careened her. The work took six weeks, numerous holes being plugged with locally cut wooden bungs. The Mermaid still leaked when she was refloated.

Whilst at Careening Bay a memento was carved in a Boab tree.

HMC Mermaid 1820
HMC Mermaid 1820

Admiral Phillip Parker King, FRS, RN died at his home in North Sydney on 26 February 1856.