Captain James Cook

Stuck on the Great Barrier Reef


Historians still debate which explorer was the first to see which piece of land or ocean, but there is little doubt that Captain Cook was among the first to see quite a bit of the unknown world. His three voyages, which started in the late 1760s and lasted through the 1770s, were not successful in their goals of finding a great southern continent north of the polar ice or in finding a Northwest Passage from the Pacific Ocean, but they did much to advance geographic knowledge of the day.

Cook was murdered in Hawaii during his third voyage after sailing as far north as Alaska. the natives thought him a god and treated the crew with great kindness, but eventually the welcome wore out and problems arose. Cook's method of dealing with trouble was invariably to take the local chief hostage until hostilities were settled, but on this occasion he miscalculated the anger of the native mob and was stabbed and stoned to death on the beach when he turned to give orders to his ship while retreating. His body was ripped to pieces, but most of it was returned several days later for proper burial.

This excerpt from his famous journals is taken from the voyage of the Endeavour, when the ship encountered the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Nothing had prepared them for navigating this dangerous stretch of water, and the near death of the entire crew is written about so calmly that it is hard to believe they are alone and halfway around the world, stuck fast off a previously unknown coast. It was during this trip that they discovered the dingo and kangaroo, whose name resulted from a misunderstanding of the aborigine language.

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Hitherto we had safely navigated this dangerous coast, where the sea in all parts conceals shoals that suddenly project from the shore, and rocks that rise abruptly like a pyramid from the bottom, for an extent of two-and-twenty degrees of latitude, more than one thousand three hundred miles; and therefore hitherto none of the names which distinguish the several parts of the country that we saw, are memorials of distress, but here we become acquainted with misfortune, and we therefore called the point which we had just seen further to the northward, CAPE TRIBULATION.

This capes lies in latitude 16 degrees 6' S., and longitude 214 degrees 39' W. We steered along the shore N by W., at the distance of between three and four leagues, having from fourteen to twelve, and ten fathom water; in the offing we saw two islands, which lie in latitude 16 degrees S., and about six or seven leagues from the main. At six in the evening the northernmost land in sight bore N. by W. 1/2W. At this time we shortened sail, and hauled off shore E.N.E., and N.E. by E. close upon a wind, for it was my design to stretch off all night, as well to avoid the danger we saw ahead, as to see whether any islands lay in the offing, especially as we were now near the latitude assigned to the islands which wee discovered by Quiros, and which some geographers, for what reason I know not, have thought it fit to join to this land. We had the advantage of a fine breeze, and a clear moonlight night, and in standing off from six till near nine o'clock, we deepened our water from fourteen to twenty-one fathom; but while we were at supper, it suddenly shoaled, and we fell into twelve, ten, and either fathom, with the space of a few minutes; I immediately ordered everybody to their station, and all was ready to put about and come to an anchor, but meeting at the next cast of the lead with deep water again, we concluded that we had gone over the tail of the shoals which we had seen at sunset, and that all danger was past, before ten we had twenty and one-and-twenty fathom, and this depth was past; before ten we had twenty and one-and-twenty fathom, and this depth continuing, the gentlemen left the deck in great tranquility, and went to bed; but a few minutes before eleven, the water shallowed at once from twenty to seventeen fathom, and the before and lead could be cast again, the ship struck, and remained immovable, except by the heaving of the surge that beat her against the crags of the rock upon which she lay. In a few moments everybody was upon the deck, with countenances which sufficiently expressed the horrors of our situation. We had stood off the shore three hours and a half, with a pleasant breeze, and therefore knew that we could not be very near it, and we had too much reason to conclude that we were upon rock of coral, which is more fatal than any other, because the points of it are sharp, and every part of the surface so rough, as to grind away whatever is rubbed against it, even with the gentlest motion. In this situation all the sails rubbed against it, even with the gentlest motion. In this situation all the sails w4re immediately taken in, and the boats hoisted out to examine the depth of water round the ship, we soon discovered that our fears had not aggravated our misfortune and that the vessel had been lifted over a ledge of the rock, and lay in a hollow within it; in some places there was from three to four fathom, and in others not so many feet. The ship lay with her head to the N.E., and at the distance of about thirty yards on the starboard side, the water deepened to eight, ten, and twelve fathom. As soon as the long-boat was out, we struck out yards and topmasts, and carried out the stream anchor on the starboard bow, got the coasting-anchor and cable into the boat, and were going to carry it out the same way; but upon sounding a second time round the ship, the water was found to be deepest astern; the anchor, therefore, was carried out from the starboard quarter instead of the starboard bow - that is, from the stern instead of the head - and having taken ground, our utmost force was applied to the captain, hoping that if the anchor did not come home, the ship would be got off, but, to our great misfortune and disappointment, we could not move her; during all this time she continued to beat with great violence against the rock, so that it was with the utmost difficulty that we kept upon our legs, and to complete the scene of distress, we saw by the light of the moon the sheathing-boards from the bottom of the vessel floating away all round her, and at last her false keel, so that every movement was making way for the sea to rush in which was to swallow us up. We had now no chance but to lighten her, and we had lost the opportunity of doing that to the greatest advantage, for unhappily we went on shore just at high water, and by this time it had considerably fallen, so that after she  should be lightened so as to draw as much less after as the water had sunk, we should be but in the same situation as at first, and the only alleviation of this circumstances was, that as the tide ebbed the ship settled to the rocks, and was not beaten against them with so much violence. We had indeed some hope from the next tide, but it was doubtful whether she would hold together so long, especially as the rock kept grating her bottom under the starboard bow with such force as to be heard in the fore storeroom. this, however, was no time to indulge conjecture, nor was any effort remitted in despair of success; that no time might be lost, the water was immediately started in the hold, and pumped up; six of our guns, being all we had upon deck, our iron and stone baliast, casks, hoop-staves, oil-jars, decayed stores, and many other things that lay in the way of heavier materials, were thrown overboard with the utmost expedition, everyone exerting himself with an alacrity almost approaching to cheerfulness, without the least repining or discontent, yet the men were so far impressed with a sense of their situation, that no an oath was heard among them, the habit of profaneness, however strong, being instantly subdued by the dread of incurring guilt when death seemed to be so near.

While we were thus employed day broke upon us, and we saw the land at about eight leagues distance, without any island in the intermediate space, upon which, if the ship should be gone to pieces, we might have been set ashore by the boats, and from which they might have taken us by different turns to the main; the wind, however, gradually died away and early in the forenoon it was a dead calm' if it had blown hard the ship must inevitably have been destroyed. At eleven in the forenoon we expected high water, and anchors were got out, and everything made ready for another effort to heave her off if she should float, but to our inexpressible surprise and concern, she did not float by a foot and a half, though we had hightened her near fifty ton' so much did the day-tide fall short of that in the night. We now proceeded to lighten her still more, and threw overboard everything that it was possible for us to spare, hitherto she had not admitted much water, but, as the tide fell, it rushed in so fast, that two pumps, incessantly worked, could scarcely keep her free. At two o'clock she lay heeling two or three streaks to starboard, and the pinnacle, which lay under her bows, touched the ground, we had now no hope but from the tide at midnight, and to prepare for it we carried out our two bower-anchors, one on the starboard quarter, and the other right astern, got the blocks and one on the starboard quarter, and the other right astern, got the blocks and tackle which were to give us a purchase upon the cables in order, and brought the falls, or ends of them, in abaft, straining them tight, that the next effort might operate upon the ship, and by shortening the length of the cable between that and the anchors, draw her off the ledge upon which she rested, towards the deep water. About five o'clock in the afternoon, we observed the tide begin to rise, but observed at the same time that the leak increased to a most alarming degree, so that two more pumps, however, were kept going, and at nine o'clock the ship righted; but the leak had gained upon us so considerably, that it was imagined she must go to the bottom as soon as she ceased to be supported by the rock. this was a dreadful circumstance, so that we anticipated the floating of the ship not as an earnest of deliverance, but as an event that would probably precipitate our destruction. We well knew that our boats were not capable of carrying us all on shore, and that when the dreadful crisis should arrive, as all command and subordination would be at an end, a contest for preference would probably ensue, that would increase even the horrors of shipwreck, and terminate in the destruction of us all by the hands of each other, yet we knew that if any should be left on board to perish in the waves, they would probably suffer less upon the whole than those who should get on shore, without any lasting or effectual defense against the natives in a country where even nets and fire-arms would scarcely furnish them with food, and where, if they should find the means of subsistence, they must be condemned to languish out the remainder of life in a desolate wilderness, without the possession, or even hope, of any domestic comfort, and cut off from all commerce with mankind, except the naked savages who prowled the desert, and who perhaps were some of the most rude and uncivilized upon the earth.  

To those only who have waited in a state of such suspense, death has approached in all his terrors; and as the dreadful moment that was to determine our fate came on, everyone saw his own sensations pictured in the countenances of his companions; however, the captain and windlass were manned with as many hands as could be spared from the pumps, and the ship floating about twenty minutes after ten o'clock, the effort was made, and she was heaved into deep water. It was some comfort to find that she did not now admit more water than she had done upon the rock; and though, by the gaining of the leak upon the pumps, there was no less than three feet nine inches water in the hold, yet the men did not relinquish their labour, and we held the water as it were at bay; but having now endured excessive fatigue of body and agitation of mind for more than four-and-twenty hours, and having but little hope of succeeding at last, they began to flag; none of them could work at the pump more than five or six minutes together, and then, being totally exhausted, they threw themselves down upon the deck, though a stream of water was running over it from the pumps, between three and four inches deep, when those who succeeded them had worked their spell, and were exhausted in their turn, they threw themselves down in the same manner, and the others started up again, and renewed their labour; thus relieving each other till an accident was very near putting an end to their efforts at once. The planking which lines the inside of the ship's bottom is called the ceiling, and between this and the outside planking thee is a space of about eighteen inches, the man who till this time had attended the well to take the depth of water, had taken it only to the ceiling, and gave the measure accordingly; but he being now relived, the person who came in his stead reckoned the depth to the outside planking, by which it appeared in a few minutes to have gained upon the pumps, eighteen inches, the difference between the planking without and within. Upon this, even the bravest was upon the point of giving up his labour with his hope, and in a few minutes everything would have been involved in all the confusion of despair. But this accident, however dreadful in its first consequences, was eventually the cause of our preservation, the mistake was soon detected, and the sudden joy which every man felt upon finding his situation better than his fears had suggested, operated like a charm, and seemed to possess him with a strong belief that scarcely and real danger remained. New confidence and new hope, however founded, inspired new vigour; and though our sate was the same as when the men first began to slacken in their labour through worriness and despondency, they now renewed their efforts with such clarity and spirit, that before eight o'clock in the morning the leak was so far from having gained upon the pumps, that the pumps had gained considerably upon the leak. Everybody now talked of getting the ship into some harbour as a thing not to be doubted, and as hands could be spared from the pumps, they were employed in getting up the anchors; the stream-anchor and best bower we had taken on board, but it was found impossible to save the little bower, and therefore it was cut away at a whole cable; we lost also the cable of the stream-anchor among the rocks, but in our situation there were trifles which scarcely attracted our notice. Our next business was to get up the fore-topmast and fore-yard, and warp the ship to the south-east, and at eleven, having now a breeze from the sea, we once more got under sail and stood for land.

It was, however, impossible long to continue the labour by which the pumps had been made to gain upon the leak; and as the exact situation ot it could not discovered, we had no hope of stopping it within. In this situation Mr. Monkhouse, one of my midshipmen, came to me, and proposed an expedient that he had once seen used on board a merchant-ship, which had sprung a leak that admitted above four feet water an hour, and which by this expedient, was brought safely from Virginia to London; the mater having such confidence in it, that he took her out of harbour, knowing her condition, and did not think it worthwhile to wait till the leak could be otherwise stopped. to this man, therefore, the care of the expedient, which is called fothering the ship, was immediately committed, four or five of the people being appointed to assist him, and he performed it in this manner. He took a lower studdingsail, and having mixed together a quantity of oakum and wool, chopped pretty small, he stitched it down in handfuls upon the sail, as lightly as possible, and over this he spread the dung of our sheep and other filth; but horse dung, if we had it, would have been better. When the sail was thus prepared, it was hauled under the ship's bottom by ropes, which kept it extended, and when it came under the leak, the suction which carried in the water, carried in the oakum and wool from the surface of the sail, which in other parts the water was not sufficiently agitated to wash off. By the success of this expedient our leak was so far reduced, that instead of gaining upon three pumps, it was easily kept under with one. this was a new source of confidence and comfort, the people could scarcely have expressed more joy if they had been already in port; and their views were so far from being limited to running the ship ashore in some harbour, either of an island or the main, and building a vessel out of her materials to carry us to the East Indies, which had so lately been the utmost object of our hope, that nothing was now thought of but ranging along the shore in search of a convenient place to repair the damage she had sustained and then prosecuting the voyage upon the same plan as if nothing had happened. Upon this occasion I must observe, both in justice and gratitude to the ship's company; and the gentlemen on board, that although in the midst of our distress everyone seemed to have a just sense of his danger, yet no passionate exclamations or frantic gestures were to be heard or seen, everyone appeared to have the perfect possession of his mind, and everyone exerted himself to the uttermost, with a quiet and patient perseverance, equally distant from the tumultuous violence of terror, and the gloomy inactivity of despair. In the meantime, having light airs at E.S.E., we got up the main-top-mast and main-yard, and kept edging it for the land, till about six o'clock in the evening, when we came to an anchor in seventeen fathom water, at the distance of seven leagues from the shore, and one from the ledge of rocks upon which we had struck.  

This ledge or shoal lies in latitude 15 degrees 45' S., and between six and seven leagues from the main. It is not, however, the only shoal on this part of the coast, especially to the northward; and at this time we saw one to the southward, the tail of which we passed over, when we had uneven soundings about two hours before we struck. A part of this shoal is always above water, and has the appearance of white sand; a part also of that upon which we had lain is dry at low water, and in that place consists of sandstones, but all the rest of it is a coral rock.

While we lay at anchor for the night, we found that the ship made about fifteen inches water an hour, from which no immediate danger was to be apprehended, and at six o'clock in the morning, we weighted and stood to the N.W., still edging in for the land with a gentle breeze at S.S.E. At nine we passed close without two small islands that lie in latitude 15 degrees 41' S., an d about four leagues from the main; to reach these islands had, in the height of our distress, been the object of our hope, or perhaps rather of our wishes, and therefore ai called them HOPE ISLANDS. At noon we were about three leagues from the land, and in latitude 15 degrees 37' S.; the northernmost part of the main in sight bore N. 30 W.; and HOPE ISLANDS extended from S. 30E. to S.40E. In this situation we had twelve fathom water, and several sand-banks without us. At this time the leak had not increased, but that we might be prepared for all events, we got the sail ready for another forthering. In the afternoon, having a gentle breeze at S.E. by E., I sent out the master with two boats, as well to sound ahead of the ship, as to look out for a harbour where we might repair our defects, and put the ship in a proper trim. At three o'clock, we sa an opening that had the appearance of a harbour, and stood off and on while the boats examined it; but they soon found that there was not depth of water in it sufficient for the ship. When it was near sunset, there being many shoals about us, we anchored in four fathom, at the distance of about two miles from the shore, the land extending from N. 1/2 E. to S. by E. 1/2 E. the pinnace was still out with one of the mates, but at nine o'clock she returned, and reported, that about two leagues to leeward she had discovered just such a harbour as we wanted, in which there was a sufficient rise in water, and every other convenience that could be desired, either for laying the ship ashore; or heaving her down.   

In consequence of this information, I weighed at six o'clock in the morning, and having sent two boats ahead, to lie upon the shoals that we saw in or way, we ran down to the place; but notwithstanding our precaution, we were once in three fathom water. As soon as these shoals were passed, I sent the boats to lie in the channel that led to the harbour, and by this time it began to blow. It was happy for us that a place of refuge was at hand, for we soon found that the ship would not work, having twice missed stays, our situation, however, though it might have been much worse, was not without danger; we were entangled among shoals, and I had great reason to fear being driven to leeward, before the boats could place themselves so as to prescribe our course. I therefore anchored at four fathom, about a mile from the shore, and often made the signal for the boats to come on board. When this was done, I went myself and buoyed the channel, which I found very narrow; the harbour also I found smaller than I expected, but most excellently adapted to our purpose; and it is remarkable, that in the whole course of our voyage we had seen no place which, in our present circumstances, could have afforded us the same relief. At noon, our latitude was 13 degrees 26' S. During all the rest of this day, and the whole night, it blew too fresh for us to venture from our anchor and run into the harbour; and for our farther security, we got down the topgallant yards, unbent the mainsail and some of the small sails; got down the fore-topgallant-mast, and the jib-boom, and spiritual; with a view to lighten the ship forwards as much as possible, in order to come at her leak, which we supposed to be somewhere in that part; for in all the joy of our unexpected deliverance, we had not forgot that at this time there was nothing but a lock of wool between us and destruction. The gale continuing, we kept our station all the 13th. On the 16th, it was somewhat more moderate, and about six o'clock in the morning, we have the cable short, with a design to get under sail, but were obliged to desist, and veer it out again. it was remarkable that the sea-breeze, which blew fresh when we anchored, continued to do so almost every day while we stayed here; it was calm only when we were upon the rock, except once; and even the gale that afterwards wafted us to shore, would then certainly have beaten us to pieces. In the evening of the preceding day, we had observed a fire near the beach over against us, and as it would be necessary for us to stay some time in this place, we were not without hope of making an acquaintance with the people. We saw more fires upon the hills today, and with our glasses discovered four Indians going along the shore, who stopped and made two fires; but for what purpose it was impossible we should guess.

The scurvy now began to make its appearance among us, with many formidable symptoms. Our poor Indian, Tupia, who had some time before complained that his gums were sore and swelled, and who had taken plentifully of our lemon juice by the surgeon's direction, now had livid spots upon his legs, and other indubitable testimonies that the disease had made a rapid progress, notwithstanding all our remedies, among which the bark had been liberally administered. Mr. Green, our astronomer, was also declining; and these, among other circumstances, embittered the delay which prevented our going ashore.

In the morning of the 17th, though the wind was still fresh, we ventured to weigh, and push in for the harbour; but in doing this we twice ran the ship aground, the first time she went off without any trouble, but the second time she stuck fast. We now got down the fore-yard, for-top-masts, and booms, and taking them overboard, made a raft of them alongside of the ship. the tide was happily rising, and about one o'clock in the afternoon she floated. We soon warped her into the harbour, and having moored her alongside of a steep beach to the south, we got the anchors, cables, and all the hawsers on shore before night.

In the morning of Monday the 18th, a stage was made from the ship to the shore, which was so bold that she floated at twenty feet distance; two tents were also set up, one for th4e sick, and the other for stores and provisions, which were landed in the course of the day. We also landed all the empty water-casks, and part of the stores. As soon as the tent for the sick was got ready for their reception, they were sent ashore to the number of eight or nine, and the boat was dispatched to haul the seine, in hopes of procuring some fish for their refreshment, but she returned without success. In the meantime, I climbed one of the highest hills among those that overlooked the harbour, which afforded by no means a comfortable prospect; the lowland near the river is wholly overrun with mangroves, among which the salt-water flows every tide; and the highland appeared to be everywhere stony and barren. In the meantime, Mr. Banks had also taken a walk up the country, and met with the frames of several old Indian homes, and places where they had dressed shell-fish, but they seemed not to have been frequented for some months. Tupia, who had employed himself in angling and lived entirely upon what he caught, recovered in a surprising degree; but Mr. Green still continued to be extremely ill. 

The next morning I got the four remaining guns out of the hold, and mounted them upon the quarter-deck; I also got a spare anchor and anchor-stock ashore, and the remaining part of the stores and ballast that were in the hold, set up the smith's forge, and employed and his mate to make nails and other necessities for the repair of the ship. In the afternoon, all the officers' stores and the ground tier of water were got out; so that nothing remained in the fore and main hold, but the coals, and a small quantity of stone ballast. This day Mr. Banks crossed the river to take a view of the country on the other side; he found it to consist principally of sand hills, where he saw some Indian houses, which appeared to have been very lately inhabited. In this wal, he met with vast flocks of pigeons and crows; of the pigeons, which were exceedingly beautiful, he shot several, but the crows, which were exactly like those in England, were so shy that he could not get within reach of them.

On the 20th, we landed the powder, and got out the stone ballast and wood, which brought the ship's draught of water to eight feet ten inches forward, and thirteen feet abaft; and this, I thought, with the difference that would be made by trimming the coals aft, would be sufficient; for I found that the water rose and fell perpendicularly eight feet at the spring-tides, but as soon as the coals were trimmed from over the leak, we could hear the water rush in a little shaft the foremast, about three feet from the keel; this determined me to clear the hold entirely. this evening Mr. Banks observed that in many parts of the inlet there were large quantities of pumice stones, which lay at a considerable distance above high-water mark, whither they might have been carried either by the freshes or extraordinarily high tides, for there could be no doubt but that they came from the sea.

The next morning we went early to work, and by four o'clock in the afternoon had got out all the coals, cast the moorings loose, and warped the ship a little higher in the harbour, to a place which I thought most convenient for laying her ashore, in order to stop the leak. Her draught of water forward was now seven feet nine inches, and abaft thirteen feet six inches. At eight o'clock, its being high-water, I hauled her bow close ashore, but kept her stern afloat, because i was afraid of neaping her; it was however necessary to lay the whole of her as near the ground as possible.

At two o'clock in the morning of the 22nd, the tide left her, and gave us an opportunity to examine the leak, which we found to be at her floor heads, a little before the starboard fore-chains. In this place the rocks had made their way through four planks, and even into the timbers; three more planks were much damaged, and the appearance of these breaches was very extraordinary; there was not a splinter to be seen, but all was as smooth as if the whole had been cut away by an instrument; the timbers in this place were happily very close, and if they had not, it would have been absolutely impossible to have saved the ship. But after all, her presevation depended upon a circumstance still more remarkable; one of the holes, which was big enough to have sunk us, if we had had eight pumps inst4ead of four, and been able to keep them incessantly going, was in great measure plugged up by a fragment of the rock, which after having made the wound, was left sticking in it; so that the water, which at first had gained upon our pumps, was what came in at the interstices, between the stone and the edges of the hold that received it. We found also several pieces of the fothering, which had made their way between the timbers, and in a great measure stopped those parts of the leak which the stone had left open. Upon further examination, we found that, besides the leak, considerable damage had been done to the bottom; great part of the sheathing was gone from under the larboard bow; a considerable part of the false keel was also wanting; and these indeed we had seen swim away in fragments from the vessel, while she lay beating against the rock; the remainder of it was in so shattered a condition that it had better have been gone; and the fore foot and main keel were also damaged, but not so as to produce any immediate danger; what damage she might have received abaft could not yet be exactly known, but we had reason to thank it was not much, as but little water made its way into her bottom, while the tide kept below the leak which has already been described. by nine o'clock in the morning the carpenters got to work upon her, while the smiths were busy in making bolts and sails. In the meantime, some of the people were sent on the other side of the water to shoot pigeons for the sick, who at their return reported that they had seen an animal as large as a greyhound, of a slender make, a mouse colour, and extremely swift, they discovered also many Indian homes, and a fine stream of fresh water.   

The next morning, I sent a boat to haul the seine; but at noon it returned with only three fish, and yet we saw them in plenty leaping about the harbour. This day the carpenter finished the repairs hat were necessary on the starboard side, and at nine o'clock in the evening, we heeled the ship the other way, and hauled her off about two feet for fear of neaping. this day almost everybody had seen the animal which the pigeon-shooters had brought an account of the day before; and one of the seamen, who had been rambling in the woods, told us at his return, that he verily believed he had seen the devil; we naturally inquired in what form he had appeared, and his answer was in so singular a style that I shall set down his own words: "He was," says John, "as large as a one-gallon keg, and very like it; he had horns and wings, yet he crept so closely through the grass, that if I had not been afeard I might have touched him. "This formidable apparition we afterwards discovered to have been a bat; and that bats here must be acknowledge to have a frightful appearance, for they are nearly black, and full as large as a partridge; they have indeed no horns, but the fancy of a man who thought he saw the devil might easily supply that defect.  

Captain James Cook - Stuck on the Great Barrier Reef - Part 2


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