Recently I read a biography of the famous English explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779). He was an expert sailor, surveyor and cartographer who mapped thousands of miles of the Southern Hemisphere over three epic ocean voyages.
Cook was the first British explorer to set foot on the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales. He was also a pioneering European explorer in other Pacific islands including New Zealand, Hawaii, Tahiti and Easter Island. Before his voyages to the Southern Hemisphere, he had mapped the coast of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River as a Navy officer.
On his first South Seas voyage, he started out crossing the Atlantic Ocean and went around the southernmost tip of South America to reach the Pacific Ocean. After a break at Tahiti he proceeded to circumnavigate the two islands of New Zealand. Then he travelled west towards Australia, which was at that time unknown to the rest of the world.
He sailed north along the east coast of Australia, marvelling at the fertile land and amazed at its flora and fauna. One day the crew spotted a mysterious large creature on the grass in the distant. It disappeared quickly, hopping like a rabbit and leaving grassy dung behind. After several more sightings, they described the animal to some natives they had met. What was it called?
"Kangru," was the reply. This, according to some, means "I don't know" in their tongue, but the name stuck.
On June 11, 1770 east of what is now the city of Cairns, he ran into trouble in the Great Barrier Reef. His ship HMS Endeavour hit a reef, punctured its bottom and got stuck. After twenty-three gruelling hours of effort, and jettisoning numerous heavy items such as cannons, the ship came free. It was the most serious incident of the voyage so far. Cook and several of his men could not swim. Although the water was only four or five feet deep at high tide, all would die if the ship sunk. Cook, however, faced adversity with calm determination.
This particular episode resonated with me. Two years ago, I went to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, on my way to Michaelmas Cay Bird Sanctuary. From a glass-bottomed boat, I saw colourful, intricate corals, fish, turtles, plants and other life-forms that comprise the largest living ecosystem in the world. Our shallow boat had to steer slowly and carefully to avoid hitting corals; it is hard to imagine Captain Cook's challenge navigating through here.
After freeing the ship, Cook continued northward through treacherous waters. At the northeastern corner of Australia, the ship turned westward and sailed through the Torres Strait towards Indonesia. In Batavia (Jakarta) the ship was repaired but her crew became very ill from mosquito bites and bad food. The ship set sail but lost one third of her crew to malaria and food-borne diseases.
When Cook returned to London, he earned the respect and admiration explorers and scientists. He also had an audience with King George III.
Cook led two more expeditions to the Southern Pacific. On the last voyage, when his ship was moored at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii, a boat belonging to his ship was stolen by the local natives. Events deteriorated leading to an unfortunate attack during which Cook was killed.
(Captain Cook: The Life, Death and Legacy of History's Greatest Explorer by Vanessa Collingridge.)
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