Botany Bay by Alan Lucas

Few moments in white-Australia’s history are more remarkable than when Captain Arthur Phillip despaired of settling his First Fleet in Botany Bay and chose instead to move it to Port Jackson after a brief reconnoitre by ship’s boat.

While preparing for the fleet’s departure from Botany Bay, January 1788, his people were amazed at the sight of two ships on the southern horizon sailing towards the entrance, their flags identifying them as French. They were L’Astrolabe and La Boussole of the La Perouse expedition, their crews no doubt equally startled by a bay full of English ships.

Anglophiles are apt to forget that other countries also spawned remarkable navigators, Jean-Francois de Galaup, Duke de la Perouse, being a French naval hero who admired Captain Cook no less than the English. Indeed, one of his duties was to expand on Cook’s exploration of the vast Pacific, the results of which humbled him to a point where he told Lieutenant Gidley King, visiting him from Sydney, “He (Cook) has done so much, he has left me nothing to do but admire his works.”

Captain Cook’s Memorial and its parkland is a great reason to go ashore at Kurnell.  / The Captain Cook Buoy, the first port-hand nav aid in Botany Bay, lies off Captain Cook Park at Kurnell.Gidley King was the last person to speak to La Perouse, his expedition disappearing after six weeks in Botany Bay, it’s fate not being discovered until 1826 when Irish captain, Peter Dillon and his crew were offered relics of Astrolabe and Boussole at Santa Cruz islands in exchange for fish hooks.

The two ships had slammed onto a reef in bad weather and it would seem that all but twenty members of the expedition were cannibalised, the lucky twenty escaping in a boat they had built from the wrecks, their fate becoming a mystery that has never been solved.

In many ways, La Perouse and Captain Cook led similar lives, both being firm but fair leaders who carried out their commissions with dedication and determination, even sharing similarly tragic deaths at the hands of Pacific Islanders.

Nowadays, when sailing between Sydney and Botany Bay, one feels exhausted at the thought of getting an engineless fleet of square-rigged ships out of Botany Bay against a southeast wind and then, after running into Sydney Harbour, beating them up-harbour to Sydney Cove.

It is even more exhausting to realise they did it after nearly nine months on hard tack with scurvy starting to stir. It’s no wonder a couple of minor prangs occurred as their cumbersome ships jostled to escape through the narrow entrance.

Botany Bay mapAnd if that were not enough, soon after landing in Sydney Cove, where living conditions were deteriorating at an alarming rate, Lieutenants King and Dawes assembled a crew hardy enough to row them back to Botany Bay to pay Captain La Perouse a courtesy call. As well as the above-mentioned last words of La Perouse, they discovered that the French expedition had been out for three years and was embarrassingly better victualled and equipped than the English.

Regardless of how far off Sydney’s International Airport you might be, the continuous line of planes coming into land is an awesome sight from the deck of a masted vessel.This snap-shot of a precious moment in our history leaves no doubt that the English organisers of the First Fleet were less generous than their favourite enemies.

Reflecting on grand maritime moments makes sailing through the hallowed portals of Botany Bay a very special event despite the area being hammered by the ugly stick of commercialism, a few examples being Sydney Airport, Port Botany, Kurnell Oil Refinery and the desalination plant.

Nevertheless, Botany Bay grows on you, especially if your first anchorage is off Kurnell from where a walk around Sutherland Point and Captain Cook’s Landing puts you in a seriously reflective mood. And when you tear your eyes away from the rock where Mrs Cook’s nephew, Isaac, was the first white man to land, and look across the bay’s entrance to the La Perouse Museum, the old cable station, Macquarie Watchtower and the tomb of Pere Receveur, the first Frenchman to expire in our fair land, there is an understanding that extraordinary things happened here.

In the year 1770, when Beethoven was born and the Portuguese had been in Timor for well over two centuries, HM Bark Endeavour anchored in Botany Bay to become the first recorded vessel to visit our east coast, followed eighteen years later by the largest planned migration of people in English history aboard a fleet which crossed tacks – almost literally – with a French expedition at the same place and time.

With Georges River offering miles of cruising, motorboats are very popular in the area, this raft-up being a club get-together.And if history fails to move you, Botany Bay is a wonderful venue for round the buoys racing, unencumbered by isolated reefs and shoals. It’s easy to see how the bay’s stark geography fostered competitive boating, while the Georges River winding inland from its southwest corner offers a mini cruising ground.

George Bass, his servant William Martin and Matthew Flinders explored the river in Tom Thumb seven weeks after arriving in Sydney on the Reliance, 7 September 1795. They took just nine days for the voyage and were suitably impressed with their find. Today, it’s hard to imagine the river in its virginal state, but bush reserves and parks promise delightful anchorages scattered along South Sydney suburbia.

The Botany Bay Yacht Club in Kogarah Bay, Georges River, runs regular races in the bay. Outside the moorings in this bay is space to anchor.The only problem in ascending the Georges River is fitting under Tom Ugly’s Bridges, aptly named for anyone frustrated by a mast taller than 5.6 metres. However, the average motor cruiser easily enters this splendid waterway leaving us mugs-with-masts seeking anchorages elsewhere, such as off aforementioned Kurnell with its beach landing and historic park, or in the northwest corner near the Cooks River entrance where a long sandy beach makes landing a dinghy soft and satisfying. Being so close to Sydney’s International Airport, vessels must remain outside an 80-metre limit, clearly indicated by a line of lit yellow special mark buoys.

In northerly winds, this anchorage is a must for all those who enjoy torturing themselves wondering how huge, lumbering jumbos with 400 passengers and 120 tonnes of fuel can possibly lift off and fly despite their proof being large in the way they willingly line up to have a shot at it.

And when making up for this anchorage, it is hard not to look up and pray that approaching aircraft will miss your mast no matter how far away from the restricted area you might be.

Kurnell’s tanker berth is off limits, but dinghy-landing opportunities are available along the beach to its west.In southerly gales Woolooware Bay is hard to beat with its tenacious mud and handiness to marine industries, and if you can fit beneath the 16-metre high Captain Cook Bridge to enter Kogarah Bay, the Botany Bay Yacht Club and St George Motor Boat Club embrace most maritime interests.

Opposite these cathedrals of communal boating is a public park and swimming pool on the headland from which Tom Ugly’s Bridges shoot across the Georges River and discriminate against masted craft.

Botany Bay was at first named ‘Sting-Rays Harbour’ owing to the number of stingrays observed by the crew of Endeavour, and James Cook was surprised at how ‘unconcerned’ were the Aborigines by their presence.

The rock on which Mrs Cook’s nephew Isaac landed is to the left of the memorial.He also noted, “We thought it remarkable that of all the people we had yet seen, not one had the least appearance of clothing, the old woman herself destitute even of a fig-leaf.”

Of native nudity, botanist Joseph Banks made a similar comment in his journal, writing that: “myself to the best of my judgement plainly discerned that the woman did not copy our mother Eve even in the fig leaf.”

The notion of a fig leaf denoting minimal dress-sense seems to have been strong in those days.
Glowing reports by both James Cook and Joseph Banks about the countryside around Botany Bay was why it became the First Fleet’s destination.

Beyond Cape Banks, Botany Bay’s eastern headland, a ship makes up for the entrance. The scene echoes the almost unbelievable moment when French ships were doing likewise as the First Fleet cleared out of the bay. 

St George Motor Boat Club’s wooden boat show.The fact that their reports proved to be vastly overstated was how Port Jackson, one of the world’s finest harbours, was chosen instead, one officer writing that the country around Botany Bay did not “afford a spot large enough for a cabbage garden”.

Nor did Sydney, but that’s another story.