Sunday, November 5, 2017

More Coastal Kayaks: Point Upright, Tollgate Islands, Tuross Bar

2,617 times. No, it's not the daily (or even cumulative total) of Trump's alternative facts that has been tweeted out. It is the average number of times that a mobile telephone user touches their 'phone. These 2,617 encounters result in an average of 145 minutes spent on mobile telephones per day. And, the phenomenon is not limited to Millennials, Centennials, or Gen-X'ers. I have watched a frightening number of my cohort become addicted to allure of the mobile telephone instantly reaching to swipe when the notification tone sounds.

Paddling around the Tollgate Islands, always fun

I am not a fan of the insidious spread of the “connected” life. Half the time, I don't know where our one mobile telephone, which Doug and I share (inexplicable as that is to most people) is, and I certainly don't interact with our telephone anywhere near 2,000 times per day. But, since we began looking for a home to buy, both Doug and I have found ourselves more than ever connected to this diabolical device. In fact, on only one day per week, do we allow ourselves to be out of touch of the invidious reach of our mobile telephone. That day is Sunday where nothing much happens in the world of real estate.

Tollgate Island spire

Sunday has thus become paddle day, and, to minimize driving (which I also deplore) we try to launch from the closest location to where ever we are squatting when Sunday comes around.

Heading south towards Point Upright

Almost exactly mid-October we met Mike and Mark at Cookies Beach (South Durras) and paddled north past Point Upright to Pebbly Beach where we landed, had lunch, and listened to greatly conflicting stories of Mike and Mark's recent North Queensland sea kayak trip. Even though the swell was not very big, the waves were crashing onto the rock platform at the base of Point Upright (a must do walk).
Point Upright

A week later, Doug and I launched from Maloneys Beach and paddled out to the Tollgate Islands, arguably the best day paddle easily accessible from the Batemans Bay area. It happened to be Doug's birthday, but, as usual, we forwent present and cake for a day out. Looking back at our trip database (doesn't everyone have one?) it seems that most of Doug's birthdays have been spent rock-climbing, usually in the USA, but one year in Mexico, and a few years were spent scrambling up peaks in Canada.

After our usual lap around the Tollgate Islands, poking into a few little bays, we were paddling north to have lunch at North Head Beach when a mother and calve humpback whale started breaching and tail slapping nearby. We quickly paddled over and one whale breached about 5 metres in front of my boat, close enough that the ripple waves as the whale hit the water rocked my boat. Doug declared it a grand birthday.

And that brings me to yesterday, paddling out of the Tuross River, over the infamous Tuross Bar, and north to Mullimburra Point. Before leaving, we tried to ignore both the Batemans Bay wave data - which had combined sea and swell height at well over 1.5 metres - and the rather confronting mass of breaking waves marching in over the bar. Pete, who has intimate knowledge of Tuross Bar, had picked a diagonal line that would take us out through the increasingly narrow channel, hopefully avoiding the largest of the breakers.

Much smaller swell in the afternoon

At Caravan Park beach, it was chilly, grey and surprisingly cold for November, and, just thinking about a dunking in the channel made me shiver. Peter promised such an easy passage we would not even get our hair wet. Indeed, the passage Pete led us through was cunning and relatively easy, although not without the mandatory five minutes of terror which any passage through Tuross Bar (unless the swell is very low) seems to evoke. I am sure, however, my entire boat was airborne over a couple of waves. Doug took a larger breaker in the chest and ended up surfing backwards, which, had his rudder not chosen that moment to jam full port, would not have been too bad, except he was rapidly getting turned broadside. But, somehow, we were magically outside the bar on the open ocean, a bit damp, but otherwise undamaged. Pete managed to wriggle Doug's rudder free, and we paddled north with a light southeasterly wind behind us.

Pete and Doug near Bingie Bingie Point

Pete was off on a big training day, so he left Doug and I at the little beach north of Mullimburra Point and continued north, eventually reaching Burrewarra Point before heading back (a solid 60 km day). Doug and I had lunch and a thermos of hot tea, and then walked the Dreaming Track south to Tuross Heads. I've done this walk numerous times but I always wander off the inland option at some point (at low tide you can walk the entire distance on the beach). Sunday was no different and we ended up walking through open banksia forest and small grassy dales before we found the track again.

We were back at Tuross in time for a late afternoon tea, Pete arrived in time for dinner.  

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Under A Blood Red Moon: Shoalwater Bay By Sea Kayak


I have wanted to paddle Shoalwater Bay for so many years that I can't remember when the idea originated. The map for the area is stamped prominently with “Prohibited Area” and, as you drill down and look closer and closer, a maze of bays, passages and islands appears. Parts of the marine chart are marked “Unsurveyed” and the names alone – Strong Tide Passage, Cannibal Group, Canoe Pass, Perforated Point – conjure up evocative images of adventures to come. Then there are the eddies, overfalls, and crazy tidal races that the marine charts hint at; the currents that run at up to 6 knots, the isolated islands and shoals. How can a trip through these waters not promise a wonderful adventure?

But, before embarking all sorts of details have to be sorted: where will you camp, how much food you will take, how will you manage the car shuttle, and, most important, where can water be procured. We were a group of 7, 2 double kayaks, and 3 singles, and, over the preceding months we had sorted out most of these issues with more and less trouble and expense. Favours were called in from friends, money changed hands, and, when it was all sorted, we had two cars parked at our end-point, Armstong Beach, and one car, left at the start, Bangalee. Between the Bangalee and Armstrong Beach lay 350 km of wild ocean paddling.

Day 1: Bangalee to Nine Mile Beach, Byfield National Park

The first day of a long sea kayak trip is all about fitting all your gear, food, and water into the boat so that it is reasonably well balanced and settling in to the routine of life on the water. Unless you've been paddling recently, which luckily Doug and I had, the kayak feels heavy and slow, shoulders and arms begin to ache, the sun beats down a little relentlessly. But, coming off a series of long kayak trips, Doug and I felt fit, and, as a bonus we had a pleasant light tailwind that puffed out our sails along with a favorable tidal current.

North of Bangalee, the coast is low scrub covered dunes. There is a minor change in the topography at Water Park Point where Corio Bay breaks the coastline, then 9 Mile Beach stretches north to Stockyard Point. Our group was in high spirits, kayak sailing north with humpback whales breaching off shore.
Around 4.00 pm, we started to look for somewhere to camp and found a likely looking spot about an hour south of Stockyard Point. We made camp on some succulents at the top of the beach, and I went walking north along the beach finding a series of mineral laden seeps that would provide freshwater in a pinch. That night, the moon rose, heavy, full and dark crimson, an omen of the days to come.

Day 2: Nine Mile Beach to Freshwater Bay

Today we truly leave civilisation behind. We paddle north around Stockyard Point where there is a small pretty bay sheltered between two headlands. A couple of kilometres north is Five Rocks Point at the south end of low lying Five Rocks Beach. Just north of Three Rivers we land on the beach and find a small but rapidly flowing waterfall. It is surprising to see such clear fresh water coming in such abundance out of the dry hills that have not seen rain in months. Doug and I fill a 10 litre jug of water as, although we are only two days out, such quality fresh water is not to be passed by.

Soon we are at Cape Manifold, heading northwest now to Freshwater Camp. It is calm around Cape Manifold and we paddle close into the shore. There are sea cliffs up to 100 metres high, caves, chasms, slots, and detached pinnacles of rock all the way from Cape Manifold to Cliff Point and Freshwater Bay. On a detached spire of rock at the entrance to Freshwater Bay a large sea eagle has a nest and it gracefully takes flight as I paddle past.

There is a bushfire smoldering at various points along the shore of Freshwater Bay, a remnant of military manoeuvres in the last month. In the coming days, the fire will spread wildly along the coast and winds will blow the smoke so thickly that it chokes our throats and noses and we have to paddle by compass.

Despite this highly visible reminder of mans inherent destructiveness, Freshwater Bay is a beautiful spot. A long curving sand beach fringed with eucalpytus forest and looking out onto a delightfully blank ocean, empty of vessels or any other sign of man. While the others settle under the trees at camp, I wander a long way north up the beach. The sun sets red, but not the deep crimson of the previous night, and a small lagoon forms on the beach as the tide comes in.

Day 3: Freshwater Camp to Port Clinton

A southerly wind blows up over night and is blowing a steady 15 to 17 knots when we leave in the morning. Our plan is to kayak-sail north to Quoin Island which lies only a kilometre off shore. The sky is blue, the wind almost perfect, and, in a single kayak with a one metre sail, I am flying along, easily staying ahead of the rest of the group, a phenomenon which is generally exceeding rare, if not unknown for me. I am, however, keeping an eye on the rest of the group behind me. Capsizes while a group is under sail can quickly result in a wide spread between paddlers.

And, one moment we are all right side up, the next, Smitty is out of his boat and floating beside it. I quickly reef in my sail – quick release systems are really handy – pull up my rudder and paddle back to where Smitty is now rafted up with Tim and MF in their big stable double kayak. Some gear has come adrift and Smitty's fishing rod, which was not tied on, is long gone. I am actually surprised that more gear has not got lost given the cluttered state of Smitty's deck. The North Queensland paddlers have decks and cockpits full of loosely stored gear that would not last five minutes paddling down on the south coast of NSW where launching and landing through the surf is common. Not to mention the tongue lashing that would ensue from at least one salty old local paddler about having untidy decks.

I'm keen on trying a T rescue, but the Smitty is not, so Tim laboriously pumps Smitty's boat out by hand. This takes quite a while and leaves a fair bit of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat, which is why most sea kayakers (ourselves included) have installed simple battery operated bilge pumps. It took us a few years to finally put bilge pumps in our plastic boats but the resulting increase in our confidence and safety net was well worth the trouble.

Smitty is oblivious to instructions on the best way to wet enter a boat and simply flings himself in like a half-drowned dog when Tim declares the boat ready. After this, there is quite a bit of confusion. This is common on sea kayak trips as it is hard to gather an unwilling – or even sometimes a willing - party together, particularly in strong winds. Smitty takes off in one direction, followed by Pete and Alison, Doug and I head in towards the shore, and Tim and MF choose an option somewhere in between.

In the end, the Queenslanders are racing off to our planned camp near Port Clinton staying well off-shore to avoid any rough water. Doug and I are interested in exploring the coast and don't know what the hurry is to get to camp, so we poke along the shore line close in exploring caves and cliffs. I see two very large flatback turtles mating and shortly after that find a very long deep cave that twists and turns back for about 50 metres. As I paddle in, a bat flies out. Doug and I take turns backing in and then paddling out. When we emerge, the rest of the group is long gone and we have to hurry to catch up.

It becomes more obvious over the coming days that we have different paddling styles. Doug and I are happiest when ambling along close in to the coast-line, exploring the cliffs and caves or detouring out to off-shore islands. My strategy is to try to see everything I possibly can as I do not know whether I will ever pass this way again. The Queenslanders, on the other hand, like to get the paddle day done as quickly as possible so that they can spend their afternoons at camp. Neither option is inherently wrong but a group that can not sort out these two different priorities is sure to experience some friction.

We land on a north facing beach near Port Clinton, just off-shore is a small unnamed island, and further north lies Entrance Island. After lunch, Doug and I paddle out to the unnamed island and then unfurl our sails and with a 20 knot tail wind sail at great speed into Inner Head even though the tide is running out. After exploring the nearby beaches we paddle back into the wind to camp where the rest of the group has spent the afternoon.

Day 4: Port Clinton to Pearl Bay, Split and Dome Islands

The wind has eased overnight but we are still able to sail and head north via Entrance Island where a ripping tidal current is running west. Catching the tide, we paddle into Rankin Islet where the tidal currents are picking up big waves and the rebound bounces our boats around. It is great fun paddling between the mainland and Rankin Islet through a small gap and we are still bouncing around in tumultuous water on the north side. The Queenslanders head out wide to avoid the rough water while Doug and I bob along in the rebound following the rocky coast all the way north to where the coast turns west at Delcomyn Island.

We land in the southwest corner of Pearl Bay where we heard there may be water and camping. There turns out to be neither, and the group decides to head north along the beach looking for better camping. Doug and I leave the group here to paddle out to Split and Dome Islands, a few kilometres off-shore. A friend had told us that it was possible to paddle right through Split Island and despite the somewhat rough conditions we are keen to try.

It does not take long to paddle out past an unnamed island to the south end of Dome Island. Both Dome and Split Islands are small but spectacular, riddled on both east and west sides with sea caves and cliffs that fall sheer into the water. We find the “split” in Split Island but it looks rather confronting in the surging water. At its narrowest point, the split is not even a paddle length wide and a couple of large rocks are alternately covered and revealed as the sea sucks in and out. After watching the west side for a while we decide that negotiating the chasm will be safer with the surge pushing us through rather than paddling against it and we make our way around to the east side.

The east side is even more amazing than the west with deep sea caves and a full sea arch leading into the split. There is a moderate sized amphitheatre leading into the chasm and we paddle into this waiting and watching the surge suck in and out. Soon after saying to Doug “just take your time, there is no rush,” I, in a decision inexplicable even to myself, rush forward and paddle like hell to get through.

At the last moment, the sea sucks back and the big rocks are revealed and, fearing that I may break my rudder I quickly pull it up. Just then, a bigger wave picks me up and slams me bow first into the north side of the cleft. I see the blow coming but am not quick enough to start back-paddling or take any other aversive action and the boat shudders as it hits the cliff then bounces backwards. Doug is horrified but, also amazed as, apparently, I did not miss a single paddle stroke just kept going my arms whirring away at full speed. Somehow, I ride through the split to the calmer west side.

Looking back at Doug I see him alternately miming thumbs up/thumbs down. My brain is too addled to work out that this is supposed to communicate “Is it safe?” and I merely sit there, somewhat stupefied hoping that my bow has not been holed 4 days into a two week journey. Eventually, Doug realises I am not going to signal either way, and, with perfect style and timing, he rides through on the crest of a surge.

We are not only ready for lunch but wondering whether my caved in bow is already leaking, so we head into shore. The Queenslanders have set up camp about a third of the way up the long beach that backs Pearl Bay and, as we get close to shore, we see the three kayaks lined up on the sand. Camp is pleasant with good shade, a small beach between two rocky headlands with a good seep that supplies fresh water if you dig a hole at the south end near the rocks. Doug and I fill up a 10 litre jug even though we are expecting water at Pine Trees Point the next day.

Day 5: Pearl Bay, Pine Trees Point and Island Head

I am sad that we are passing by the Clara Group of islands without a visit, but most of the group has no interest in the extra paddling this would involve, although conditions are again favourable. Instead we head north up Pearl Bay and out to Island Head. There is a tidal race at the south end of Island Head which is easily avoided. Doug and I end up behind the Queenslanders again who seem to be in a sprint for camp near Pine Trees Point. Island Head is an interesting island with a sea eagle roosting on the cliffs. The flooding current pushes up some bigger waves on the north and east sides, but once we pass to the west it is calm.

Pine Trees Point, where we had planned to camp is lovely. Big granite boulders and slabs make up the easterly headland that shelters the beach but a cyclone has stripped the shade trees and, although we had expected fresh water, there is none available. Although we had a good water seep the night before, some people in the group are short of water so we decide to head west to the next beach in case the creek there is running. No water at the next beach, which, when you look at the topographic map is probably not a surprise, so, after a lunch break that drag out too long, we go on.

The next bay west has a lovely camp with shade trees and a little succulent cover, but again, no water. Although it is late and Doug and I are both hungry and ready for a mug of tea, we offer to head west again in search of water while the Queenslanders set up their camp. We find no water, but do get a chance to look at the entrance to Strong Tide Passage. It is late when we get back, our boats still need to be unpacked and camp set up in the last dying light of day. Truthfully, it had been a wearying paddle with wind and tide against us and I am a bit miffed that no-one seems to appreciate our efforts or even offer us a helping hand with our kayaks and gear.

Day 6: Strong Tide Passage, Marquis Island, Leicester Island

Belying its name, the current in Strong Tide Passage does not seem that intense, although we are careful to enter at slack tide as the flood begins. In any event, we have an easy passage. Townsend Island to the north is low lying but the Peninsula Range to the south is rugged and almost truly mountainous looking. It would be nice to come back and climb one of the peaks.

As we paddle around the west side of Townsend Island it feels as if the trip is subtly changing character. The islands are now low lying and scrub covered, no more big peaks or impressive sea cliffs. We have a stop at Marquis Island which is small and dries extensively at low tide. The group is keen to find some shade for camp so we paddle over to Dove Point on Leicester Island and head gradually north up the island looking for a camp with shade. Part way up the island, Smitty paddles ahead and comes back to report finding a good camp with shade. It is just lunch time, so I have lots of time for a very long walk on the beach. Although the sun is hot, it is good to be able to walk for a long distance unheeded and I wander along the beach for hours only coming back in the late afternoon.

Day 7: Collins Island and Lingham Island

Collins Island is a low lying scrub covered island and we are only able to be sure where we are heading for by taking a compass bearing. With a favourable tail wind, the crossing is relatively painless and we are soon pulling up alongside the west side of the island. There are old jetty pilings in deep water on the west side but the group heads around to the north side where the tide goes out for a kilometre. There is an old homestead on Collins Island and we are able to secure water from the tank.

Near to Collins Island is Lingham Island and a deep water passage with a couple of small islands in between. We paddle across to Lingham Island and find a lovely camp well shaded with cassuarina trees. In the afternoon, I walk around the island and, with the aid of a compass, identify Stanage Point on the mainland.

Day 8: Collins Island

In the night a strong and steady NW wind blows up, although at our camp the wind is not immediately obvious. Around dawn, I get out of the tent and wander around to the windward side of the island and it is clear we are not paddling on to Stanage as planned today. The weather forecast is for northerly winds followed by southerly winds in the afternoon.

I spend the day walking around the island twice, and, in the afternoon as the northerly winds subside but before the southerlies come up, I paddle over to Collins Island for another walk and some more water. While I am at Collins Island, the sky grows suddenly dark as the smoke from the smouldering fires is blown north by the southerly. This is my trigger to get back in my boat and return to camp. It is a windy night fully exposed to the southerly wind which blows strongly all night.

Day 8: Stanage Point and Stanage

It is another long crossing to Stanage Point and the mainland is obscured by bush fire smoke so we have to paddle by compass bearing. The wind is blowing strongly at first and all of us in single kayaks are sailing happily with barely a paddle stroke. Gradually, however the wind begins to subside and we have to start paddling. Near to Stanage Point, two whales, a mother and calve, begin breaching spectacularly. Amazingly, the mother whale swims directly under my boat and comes up right by my stern.

Doug and I land in Stanage Bay for lunch while the Queenslanders push on to Stanage for lunch at the only store in town. After lunch, Doug and I paddle north to Arthur Point and around into Thirsty Sound. Three kayaks are lined up at the top of the boat ramp and we add ours to the pod and walk the dusty streets into Stanage. The camping area, which is free, is dry, dusty and hot looking, but our friends have rented a house. Although originally intending to camp, we are seduced by clean beds, a shower, and a cool place to spend the rest of the day and decide to stay at the house with the rest of the group. Before dinner, I manage a quick walk up the hill behind town where there are some reasonable views north to the Barren Islands.

Day 9: The Barren Islands and Wild Duck Island

Leaving Stanage we begin a series of days hopping from one distant island to the next. The currents through this part of Broad Sound are large and tidal races are common. As the tide is high when we leave Stanage we are able to take a short cut across the east end of Quail Island, west of Pier Head. Paddling north to South Barren Island, however, the current is strong and it takes us a long time to cover the 8 kilometres to this small rocky island. Another strong tidal race runs in the passage between Barren and South Barren Island but as it is only a couple of kilometres between islands, our drift is not so bad.

We have lunch on the rocks at Barren Island. Neither of the Barren Islands are easy to land on. The tide is with us as we head northwest to Wild Duck Island. On the northeast end of Wild Duck Island we find a reasonable campsite around mid-afternoon. I am curious to see the big beach, old “resort” and lagoons that are located around the middle of the island but I have to sprint around the coast to make it there and back before dark. Luckily, the terrain is easily managed, mostly open rocky slabs above pebbly beaches. The resort is a half-finished, fully dilapidated mess, but the lagoons fringed with drooping paperbarks are pretty. I make it back to camp just as the sun sets.

Day 10: Poynter, George and Calliope Islands

Today we have another long crossing, this time north to the Bedwell Group where we hope to camp on Poynter Island. We have a light tail-wind and the currents are no problem until we near the west side of Calliope Island where there is a huge tide race rushing along the Heath Shoals and past the southern end of Calliope Island.

Smitty tries to go close into the rocks to “sneak around” this race but gets squarely caught in the standing waves. The rest of the group head wisely around to the west but all of us are looking over at Smitty who is fighting madly to stay upright in the standing waves. All I can see is his sail shaking wildly from side to side and his arms whirling the paddle furiously. At some point he either escapes or is flushed out and he pulls into the calmer waters to the north.

We paddle up the west side of Calliope and Poynter Islands and find some low tide sand at Poynter Island to land but the camping is a bit grim. There is some shade at the high point of a steep pebbly beach but it is under trees infested with green ants, and, the only sand is at low tide, the only camping on the pebbly stones.

After lunch, Doug and I offer to head over to George Island to see if there is a sand beach, although it looks unlikely from the map. The tidal currents are strong, but not too bad and we are able to ferry glide the kilometre crossing between islands. Normally, we would circumnavigate George Island but the currents make such journeys hard work so, after ascertaining that there is no better campsite, we head back to Poynter Island.

With a little work, Doug and I find a little sand camp at the top of the beach, but the rest of the group opts to camp on the pebbles. The night, however, is not without its challenges as the tide rises almost to the door of our tent, and some are forced to retreat with tents to higher ground around 9.00 pm when the tide peaks.

Day 12: Connor Islet

Another long crossing to Connor Islet but the wind is again favourable and the currents seem less overall. Apart from a tidal race at the south end of Connor, which even Smitty avoids, we make good time. We expect to find a sand beach at Connor Islet but at high water all the sand is covered and the only beach is on the eastern side which is exposed to some small choppy swell. It will be another pebbly camp. Shade is missing too, but Pete strings up a tarp which helps in the hottest part of the day.

After lunch, I walk around the big sand flats that the tide has exposed on the east side of the island, follow rocky slabs around the shore-line with lots of fun scrambling, and find a good route up through grass trees to the very top of the island at 61 metres. It is a fantastic view and I can see whales swimming by but I did not bring my camera. I drop down north facing slabs and scramble back to camp. We all camp on the pebbles, luckily, well above high tide.

Day 13: Temple Islands and Cape Palmerston

Back to the mainland today on our penultimate day of the trip. Temple Island is so indistinct against the low lying coast that we need to take another compass bearing to locate it. Tim, as usual, directs the group, but I think he is less careful with the compass bearing this time as we end up off to the east of the island and slightly confused as to where we are.

We have a quick stop on Temple Island but the tide is rapidly running out and we will be stranded with the insatiable sand flies if we do not move off quickly so we head north towards Cape Palmerston. Both wind and tide are with us and we are soon at one of the vehicle based camp areas in Cape Palmerston National Park. Doug and I try to avoid these campsites, but this one is empty, pleasantly grassed and treed, and continuing further north will put us into heavy mangrove and bug country.

Doug and I walk up to Cape Palmerston. I follow the beach and rocks scrambling up and around headlands and come back by the much quicker and easier road. There is much damage to the environment here by 4WD's which have beaten in dozens of tracks down on to the beaches, many within mere metres of each other, and there is also a lot of garbage and human excrement lying around. After two weeks of isolated camping it is quite disappointing. Humans have a way of ruining just about everything.

Day 14: Glendower Point, Armstrong Beach

Doug and I are sad the trip is over but I think the Queenslanders may be ready for civilisation. I am already thinking about the next time we paddle this coast-line and how we will stay on the off-shore islands and avoid Stanage.

We again have favourable winds and paddling in Ince Bay a dugong swims past my boat. Usually these unusual animals are seen for only seconds but this one swims along near the surface for a little longer before realising I am close by and quickly disappearing. We have a break at Glendower Point before kayak-sailing the final 12 kilometres into Armstrong Beach. As always, I am back on the mainland feeling mixed emotions, happy to experience such a wild and wonderful place, and sad that all too soon the trip is over.  

Photo credits: Mostly Doug Brown