Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 58 of 165

Chapter 20: The Torres Strait

During the night of December 27–28, the Nautilus left the waterways of Vanikoro behind with extraordinary speed. Its heading was southwesterly, and in three days it had cleared the 750 leagues that separated La Pérouse’s islands from the southeastern tip of Papua.

On January 1, 1868, bright and early, Conseil joined me on the platform.

“Will master,” the gallant lad said to me, “allow me to wish him a happy new year?”

“Good heavens, Conseil, it’s just like old times in my office at the Botanical Gardens in Paris! I accept your kind wishes and I thank you for them. Only, I’d like to know what you mean by a ‘happy year’ under the circumstances in which we’re placed. Is it a year that will bring our imprisonment to an end, or a year that will see this strange voyage continue?”

“Ye gods,” Conseil replied, “I hardly know what to tell master. We’re certainly seeing some unusual things, and for two months we’ve had no time for boredom. The latest wonder is always the most astonishing, and if this progression keeps up, I can’t imagine what its climax will be. In my opinion, we’ll never again have such an opportunity.”

“Never, Conseil.”

“Besides, Mr. Nemo really lives up to his Latin name, since he couldn’t be less in the way if he didn’t exist.”

“True enough, Conseil.”

“Therefore, with all due respect to master, I think a ‘happy year’ would be a year that lets us see everything—”

“Everything, Conseil? No year could be that long. But what does Ned Land think about all this?”

“Ned Land’s thoughts are exactly the opposite of mine,” Conseil replied. “He has a practical mind and a demanding stomach. He’s tired of staring at fish and eating them day in and day out. This shortage of wine, bread, and meat isn’t suitable for an upstanding Anglo–Saxon, a man accustomed to beefsteak and unfazed by regular doses of brandy or gin!”

“For my part, Conseil, that doesn’t bother me in the least, and I’ve adjusted very nicely to the diet on board.”

“So have I,” Conseil replied. “Accordingly, I think as much about staying as Mr. Land about making his escape. Thus, if this new year isn’t a happy one for me, it will be for him, and vice versa. No matter what happens, one of us will be pleased. So, in conclusion, I wish master to have whatever his heart desires.”

“Thank you, Conseil. Only I must ask you to postpone the question of new year’s gifts, and temporarily accept a hearty handshake in their place. That’s all I have on me.”

“Master has never been more generous,” Conseil replied.

And with that, the gallant lad went away.

By January 2 we had fared 11,340 miles, hence 5,250 leagues, from our starting point in the seas of Japan. Before the Nautilus’s spur there stretched the dangerous waterways of the Coral Sea, off the northeast coast of Australia. Our boat cruised along a few miles away from that daunting shoal where Captain Cook’s ships wellnigh miscarried on June 10, 1770. The craft that Cook was aboard charged into some coral rock, and if his vessel didn’t go down, it was thanks to the circumstance that a piece of coral broke off in the collision and plugged the very hole it had made in the hull.

I would have been deeply interested in visiting this long, 360–league reef, against which the ever–surging sea broke with the fearsome intensity of thunderclaps. But just then the Nautilus’s slanting fins took us to great depths, and I could see nothing of those high coral walls. I had to rest content with the various specimens of fish brought up by our nets. Among others I noted some long–finned albacore, a species in the genus Scomber, as big as tuna, bluish on the flanks, and streaked with crosswise stripes that disappear when the animal dies. These fish followed us in schools and supplied our table with very dainty flesh. We also caught a large number of yellow–green gilthead, half a decimeter long and tasting like dorado, plus some flying gurnards, authentic underwater swallows that, on dark nights, alternately streak air and water with their phosphorescent glimmers. Among mollusks and zoophytes, I found in our trawl’s meshes various species of alcyonarian coral, sea urchins, hammer shells, spurred–star shells, wentletrap snails, horn shells, glass snails. The local flora was represented by fine floating algae: sea tangle, and kelp from the genus Macrocystis, saturated with the mucilage their pores perspire, from which I selected a wonderful Nemastoma geliniaroidea, classifying it with the natural curiosities in the museum.

On January 4, two days after crossing the Coral Sea, we raised the coast of Papua. On this occasion Captain Nemo told me that he intended to reach the Indian Ocean via the Torres Strait. This was the extent of his remarks. Ned saw with pleasure that this course would bring us, once again, closer to European seas.

The Torres Strait is regarded as no less dangerous for its bristling reefs than for the savage inhabitants of its coasts. It separates Queensland from the huge island of Papua, also called New Guinea.

Papua is 400 leagues long by 130 leagues wide, with a surface area of 40,000 geographic leagues. It’s located between latitude 0° 19′ and 10° 2′ south, and between longitude 128° 23′ and 146° 15′. At noon, while the chief officer was taking the sun’s altitude, I spotted the summits of the Arfak Mountains, rising in terraces and ending in sharp peaks.

Discovered in 1511 by the Portuguese Francisco Serrano, these shores were successively visited by Don Jorge de Meneses in 1526, by Juan de Grijalva in 1527, by the Spanish general Alvaro de Saavedra in 1528, by Inigo Ortiz in 1545, by the Dutchman Schouten in 1616, by Nicolas Sruick in 1753, by Tasman, Dampier, Fumel, Carteret, Edwards, Bougainville, Cook, McClure, and Thomas Forrest, by Rear Admiral d’Entrecasteaux in 1792, by Louis–Isidore Duperrey in 1823, and by Captain Dumont d’Urville in 1827. “It’s the heartland of the blacks who occupy all Malaysia,” Mr. de Rienzi has said; and I hadn’t the foggiest inkling that sailors’ luck was about to bring me face to face with these daunting Andaman aborigines.

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