Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Nature of Adventure: Airlie Beach to Bowen by Sea Kayak

Over 20 years ago, Doug and I did a nine day sea kayak trip around the Whitsundays using our Feathercraft double “folding” kayak. We were both between jobs – a delightful six month hiatus during which we kayaked around the Solomon Islands, through Marlborough Sound in New Zealand, as well as whitewater paddling on rivers in southern NSW. All these years later I can only remember strange and seemingly unrelated details about our Whitsunday trip. I know we were hungry. We had no transport and all the groceries we brought on the trip had been arduously carried on my back from the grocery store some few kilometres distant under a baking tropical sun. Shocked by how full my back pack was getting, I just, at some random point, stopped. It turned out that I stopped a wee bit too soon. Aggressive white tailed rats (a native rat) chewed everything at the camp at Whitehaven Beach and we were so afraid they would chew a hole in the fabric skin of our kayak that we anchored it off-shore (the only time we have ever done this) overnight. And, finally, on one amazing day, we shot through Solway Passage on the incoming tide and, riding tides and wind, raced back towards Airlie Beach on one of the most effortless days of paddling I had ever had. 

 Doug heading north a tiny island paradise
Here we were again, launching from Airlie Beach, but, instead of heading east to the main Whitsunday Islands, we were heading north, along the shores of Dryander National Park to Gloucester Islands National Park, a group of island rumoured to be quieter and less busy than the bustling main islands of the Whitsunday Group. As usual, we were amazed at just how much gear can be stowed away inside a sea kayak and, in light winds we paddled north with our kayak sails listlessly catching the minor breeze as we ambled north passing narrow headlands, deep bays, and scaring turtles as they surfaced in the aquamarine water. 
Our first nights camp was on the northern side of a long spit of land (Grimstone Point) sheltered under large shady fig trees behind a sandy beach. The tides in the Whitsundays are some of the largest on the east coast of Australia so we were timing our departures as much as possible to catch favourable tides. Mornings, instead of rushing out on the water early, were spent bouldering on the granite boulders and slabs of the rocky shorelines or wandering along the beach. 

 Moon rise, Saddleback Island
Our second day was one of those wonderful paddling days that unfold seamlessly. With the ebbing tide, we paddled north to Grassy Island, where we stopped on an exposed rubble coral beach to stretch our legs. The winds, which normally blow at around 20 knots from the southeast at this time of year (the trade winds) were light, so even south facing beaches were benign. From Grassy Island, we passed tiny Edwin Rock and landed on a steep sand beach on the west side of Olden Island for lunch. Swimming off the beach was wonderful and turtles dandled by as we had lunch. The east facing cliffs leading to George Point offered some bumpy water and the current was running around George Point but nothing very intimidating. Rounding George Point, Saddleback Island cut a distinctive silhouette against the tropical sky. 
The campsite on Saddleback Island is on the western end of a large sandspit. On the eastern side, a rocky reef dries at low tide and provides interesting foraging. That night, as we sat having dinner under a daylight bright full moon, I began to think that perhaps, with the benign weather we were having (our second day of light winds with three more forecast), we should have been out on a "bigger" trip. Back in Cairns, I had planned out a series of different trips around the Whitsunday and Cumberland Islands and, we had chosen to start with this modest trip, because, after the long wet season in Cairns we did not feel in great paddling shape for long (30 km) crossings and rough water. Such is the nature of adventure, or perhaps adventurers, even while you are on one trip, you begin to dream of the next. 

 Sunset on Gloucester Island
From Saddleback Island, we meandered past Manta Ray Island arriving at Gloucester Passage around slack tide and paddled easily across to the southwestern shore of Gloucester Island where we found a deluxe campsite under a huge spreading many trunked fig tree. Along the beach, a freshwater stream ran out into the shallow bay and, walking up the rocky creek under massive paperbarks we washed off the days salt each evening in the cool, clean water. 
Gloucester Island runs north-south for 10 km and has a rugged spine of 500 metre peaks jostling up the centre of the island. The western side with sheltered sandy bays and rocky beaches is popular with power boaters. The eastern side features steep red rock cliffs, deep sea caves and only a few scattered rubble strewn bays mostly exposed to the easterly swell. On another day with light winds, we circumnavigated the island paddling in close to the red rock cliffs, nosing into caves, and landing on the steep rocky beaches. Paddling into the only campsite on this side of the island, East Side Bay, we were jostled by standing waves where the orientation of the island changed from north to west. In stronger winds, this would be a much more treacherous stretch of coastline. 

 Early morning
We paddled into Bowen via Middle Island, a day which required an early start, and we were on the water before dawn, and, kayak sailing with a beam wind, we were just able to crane around and watch the sun rise in a spectacular flame of colours over Gloucester Island. The wind helped and we made good time covering the 9 kilometres to Stone Island from Middle Island in about 1.5 hours. Again we were just around slack tide paddling into North Entrance past the disused lighthouse on North Rock and suddenly, after a week out on the water, we were back again among people in a town.

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