A historical story of survival, a handmade dugout canoe, and only bush tucker for sustenance. Mike Atkinson is sailing solo along the Great Barrier Reef and he’s filming himself all the way.
Late last Friday afternoon I jumped on the phone with Michael Atkinson aka Outback Mike. He and his dugout double rigger canoe, the Salty Kangaroo, were anchored up on Restoration Island on the Great Barrier Reef. He’d spent the last few days there stocking up on oysters and coconuts while waiting for the wind to die down. Restoration Island – makes sense!
‘There’s actually a guy who lives here called Dave and he’s had a bunch of docos made about him. He’s very kindly let me anchor the boat, camp on the beach and use the WiFi up at his hut’, Mike said.
When I chatted to Mike, he was on day 35 of his trip sailing through the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville to the Torres Strait, with at least a few weeks left to go, weather pending.
‘At the two week mark I felt quite weak – if you say 1-10 and 10 is normal I was feeling about a 5 after two weeks. Now I’m feeling about a 3 out of 10,’ Mike told me.
Adding History to Adventure
The inspiration for Mike’s journey is the historical story of James Morrill, who drifted ashore just south of Townsville following a shipwreck in 1846. He was found and cared for by the Birri-gubba clan and completely assimilated into Aboriginal society for 17 years, becoming the first white person to live in Far North Queensland.
‘Morrill was only saved through the generosity of Aboriginal people, so I aim to meet as many Aboriginal communities as I go up, seek their advice and assistance and hear their stories.’
‘I did a recce up here last year for five weeks and visited, in person, as many Indigenous people as I could. They prefer to know who you are and then start dealing with you. Just some random guy who’s sent them an email is a bit hard to connect with,’ Mike told me.
Part of Mike’s mission is to use the knowledge, tools, and skills Morrill gained after one year of living with the Birri-gubba clan.
‘I’ll be wearing full 19th century sailors clothing, and surviving with other items Morrill mentioned he had, including a small water barrel, fishing gear, and a possum skin rug he acquired during his time with Aboriginal people,’ Mike said.
A possum skin rug Mike sewed himself. He’s a handy guy.
Bush Tucker For Dinner
Staying true to the skills and goods Morrill had available 175 years ago means Mike’s been surviving entirely off the land and sea.
‘I haven’t had anything other than bush tucker for 35 days. I’ve preserved dried kangaroo meat, coconut flour, and oil and collected native honey as well. Those are my staples,’ Mike told me.
When he’s not sailing through a marine protected zone, Mike’s also been attempting to spear fish for supper, but has found the pickings to be pretty damn slim.
‘The fishing has been absolute rubbish up until Port Douglas, which I think is a sign of overfishing. I fished these areas myself 20 years ago and caught a lot more fish doing the exact same thing. Once the population stops, and it stops pretty much at Port Douglas, all of a sudden you can start catching fish.’
But as he slowly narrows in on the tip-top of the country, Mike’s seen a bit more success with his spear, collecting some whopping fish, a stingray, and even a few sharks.
‘When I catch some pretty big fish, like Queen fish, I’ve been drying them out. I originally thought ‘Oh this is going to be really horrible’, but it actually tasted fantastic! So I’m discovering all these things that the world knew about before but has forgotten. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, why don’t we do this more often?’.
Building The Canoe
Mike’s vessel for the journey, the Salty Kangaroo, is a five metre long double-rigger dugout canoe that he made from a Norfolk Pine in his own backyard.
‘I thought the canoe might take me four months to build but it took me 14 months,’ Mike told me.
Using a combination of hand and power tools, Mike carved and created the canoe single-handedly, with no plan to follow (other than to keep it to five metres in length) and judging it all by sight.
‘I didn’t follow any plans, because he (Morrill) didn’t have any plans to follow. I just know the conditions up here and I kept visualising what the structure, shape, and characteristics would need to be to withstand the conditions.’
‘I knew the bow’s not high enough, the stern’s not high enough. So I just kept going and going and going until I ended up with something I thought could make it.’
Watch a timelapse of the build!
On July 3rd, Mike launched the canoe from Cape Cleveland, just south of Townsville, with the aim of sailing 20-30 nautical miles a day. He’s been lucky with the weather so far, only having to sit out a few days that saw wind over 25 knots, but knows his canoe is limited in its ability to battle the high seas.
‘I’ve incrementally seen enough conditions to know that when it gets a certain way I need to be off the water. I’ve had the rudder snap the first week, literally snapped in half. I found a piece of driftwood and it ended up being awesome. That thing’s kept me going for the last 28 days,’ Mike said.
Although Mike’s aiming to keep this a solo mission and as historically accurate as possible, he’s equipped the canoe with the right modern gear and well above the standard marine safety requirements to get himself back to land in an emergency. He’s also packed a blow-up stand up paddleboard in the instance he ever has to abandon ship.
‘I jump off, put my snorkelling gear on, pump up the raft, pull the paddle out, then I can paddle for 100km if I have to, downwind to the coastline of Cape York then I’ll walk inland to the road that goes up Cape York.’
But Mike says the risks he’s facing are more than worth it.
‘Life is better with adventure in it. There’s risk as well, but the experiences that you have, the people you meet, the places you go far outweigh the disadvantages of doing adventures,’ he told me earnestly.
And although the risk is high, Mike’s not tackling this adventure on a whim. He’s been planning it for years and is relying on the swathe of survival skills he learnt and later taught during his 18 years as a military pilot to see him through.
Once Mike and the canoe have made it back home in one piece (fingers and toes crossed) Mike will be creating a film with footage he’s been shooting during the trip. He plans to tour the East Coast, sharing his journey through film screenings and taking the canoe with him, so people can get a real good geeze at the thing.
Film’s not for you? No worries, he’ll also be writing a book and creating a podcast. He’s got all mediums covered!
Best of luck for the last leg of the adventure Mike!
All photos thanks to @outbackmike