Thursday, May 29, 2014

Memories of Nitmiluk

Sometimes I think that life is simply a series of startling images indelibly imprinted like permanent watermarks onto our consciousness. Lying under the stars on a sand beach at the bottom of Katherine Gorge listening to the hiss of the rapids upstream dazzled by bright stars in the dark of a moonless night with the hulking bluff of Smitts Rock rising above. Diving into the olive green waters of the Katherine River from smooth sun-heated river rocks at sunset and swimming in the warm river as the colour changes from olive green to inky black. Watching the sun rise from a vertiginous perch over the eighth gorge as the rocks warm to flaming red and the night-time creatures scuttle back into dark crevices away from the heat of the day. Smelling the dank, musky scent of a thousand fruit bats as they leave their daytime perches in riverside trees and stream across the darkening sky. Doug and I lay stretched out on the cooling sand at the bottom of Katherine Gorge, damp from swimming in the river, bedazzled by swirling stars and I wonder if this is how the indigenous people felt in this dream-time place before the coming of white man and the wholesale destruction of their culture. 

 Sun down at Smitts Rock

On a more prosaic level, to truly experience Nitmiluk National Park you must get off the tour boat, the short track to the lookout, away from the groaning buffet at the Visitor Centre, the bistro at the pool and either walk or canoe into the upper reaches of this deep wandering river country. 

The Katherine River rises to the northeast in Arnhem Land and traverses stone country heading west to join with the Daly River eventually running out into the Timor Sea. At the heart of the National Park, the river has carved a series of deep gorges through the surrounding sandstone plateau. Above the river it is hot and arid, woolly butts grow among long dry spear grasses. There is no water, and precious little shade. Side gorges with seasonal creeks run from the surrounding high country over water blackened cliffs down into the main gorge where tall palms grow in the damper ground and sand beaches appear intermittently between narrow gorge walls. 

Looking upstream at Nitmiluk

Launching the kayaks from the boat ramp we paddled first downstream to shallow rocky rapids scaring up a freshwater crocodile from the sand banks who bounced, kangaroo like, into the water at our approach. Turning upstream, we kayaked under steep sandstone walls, into the narrower confines of gorge one. Portaging from gorge one to gorge two is easy if you ignore the sign directing you the long way and simply float your kayak up a series of shallow rocky rapids. The second gorge zig-zags up between towering cliffs, past darkened dry waterfalls, and caves and fissures in the rock harbouring tiny dusky bats. Another easy portage gives access to the third gorge which ends abruptly where large boulders block the flow. We swam and scrambled over the rocks to look into fourth gorge but turned back with the canoes from this point. 

 Doug under Nitmiluk cliffs

A day later, we packed two days of food and walked up onto the escarpment and followed the track east through stone country to the eighth gorge. An indistinct track leads down into the base of the gorge and a small sandy flood strewn beach where we spent the hottest hours of the day swimming back and forth across the river only hiking back up at sunset to camp by a small waterhole. A few minutes along the outflow stream you could perch high on the edge of the gorge and watch as the sun rose and the black cliffs washed out under the white hot sun. 

 Above the gorge

Walking back, we circled through the Jawoyn Valley following a marked track over sandstone platforms by caves and pagodas. Aboriginal art, estimated at 7,000 years old, adorns the walls and roofs of small caves revealing a more nomadic way of life - a hunter with spear and crocodile, a long necked turtle. 

Long necked turtle

Further west we took another side track out to Smitt Rock from Dunlop Swamp. A small waterhole on the plateau top offers good swimming but the real beauty lies down a short steep track over talus slopes to the base of the gorge and along a rock platform that abuts sheer cliffs to a broad sandy spit under paperbark trees. Smitt Rock looms out of the river, a steep rock island between sheer gorge walls. We ate dinner by the water, listening to the hiss of rapids and the slap of fish. "Is there any place you'd rather be?" I asked Doug, who shook his head, lay back and watched a shooting star flash across the sky. 

 Sunrise Gorge Eight

Running Rapids on the Roper River

Ahead of me, Doug was balanced somewhat precariously on a submerged log and was attempting to pull the kayak over using a couple of branches sticking perpendicularly into the air, when, I saw a large tail slithering down the bank, heard a big splash and registered the back of a crocodile sliding into the water a metre in front of him. We were paddling our kayaks up the Roper River in Elsey National Park which had not yet been declared "clear" of saltwater crocodiles after the wet season, and, when I yelled "croc!" I was sincerely hoping that the big lizard I had seen was one of the harmless Johnstone River (freshwater) crocodiles and not a large, hungry or territorial "saltie." 

 Doug heading up the Roper River

Our easy paddle up river had lasted all of one kilometre when the wide Roper River abruptly shallowed up and the first of a series of small grade two rapids began. Undeterred, we had continued to work our way up, hauling the boats up small rapids wading waist deep in the water. After our first crocodile sighting, we pulled back into deeper water to regroup and easily convinced ourselves the reptile was harmless, and, about "as big as me" I said, "so not very big." We continued on, aware now that we might actually see a few lizards. Sure enough, not 10 minutes later, a rustling in the bushes, heralded the sight of another somewhat smaller crocodile sliding down from the midst of some pandanus palms and disappearing into the water ahead of us. 

 Portaging near Mulurark

We had a long stretch of easy paddling up the now broad river and noted a National Parks sign on the bank. A half a kilometre further on, we got to a rapid that was difficult to drag the kayaks up due to the narrowness of the river, the speed of the water, and a large strainer lying right across the river. After three hours of paddling upstream intermittently dragging our boats, we decided this was a good turn around point and easily paddled back down to the National Park sign for a break on the bank. As we were having tea and lunch, a family came by, jokingly asked if we had seen any crocodiles, and were shocked when we replied "yes, two." "Can I swim, Mummy?" asked the little girl. 

 Doug doing the kayak limbo

On the way down, we decided to count the rapids we had portaged, ten in all, eight of which we managed to run in the sea kayaks with only a bit of bumping over shallow sections. I was surprised how naturally all those leaning, sweeping, and ferry gliding skills from whitewater kayaking (something I haven't done for about 25 years) instinctively came back. Grade two rapids in a sea kayak are not particularly exciting but I did get a small flash of the old thrill that running rapids in a whitewater boat used to bring. So many fun sports to play at, how do the Australians find time to do all that sitting? We came across one more crocodile on the way down but this one was dead, head low in the water, tail out and looking somewhat flat and desiccated. 

 Running a small rapid on the Roper River

Simply F**king Retarded

We are up in the Northern Territory staying in the spacious campground at Elsey National Park where the sun at midday could blow your head off, and I sweat just thinking about rolling over in bed at night. The temperature varies between a delicious low of about 30 degrees, which, if you are lucky, it might plummet to in the early hours of the morning and 33 degrees the remainder of the day and night. Standing out in the sun when there is no wind, it feels as if your body might just burst into flames and your life force flare out like an asteroid streaking to earth. 

In the evening, when the sun slips away, I feel as if I can finally simply breathe without sweating, and, at the same time, every single camper in the campground (apart from us) lights a wood camp-fire. I understand we are in an age of political correctness where people are vertically challenged not short, horizontally rounded not fat, and differently abled not disabled, but, euphemisms aside, lighting a wood fire when the temperature is 30 degrees and the planet is rapidly heading to a climate induced burn-out is simply fucking retarded. 

 Roper River kayaking

I frequently wonder, as I watch these representatives of what is supposed to be, the most intelligent species on the planet, if any of them ever says to themselves "What the hell am I thinking? I've been sitting here all day, prostrate with the heat, it's 30 degrees and I'm lighting a fucking fire? Am I a complete imbecile?" Apparently not, as all over campground, the wood fires are winking on. 

Anyway, dullards aside, Elsey National Park is on the banks of the Roper River. This twisting turning braided stream rises as a creek north of Mataranka and west of Katherine and runs a long and convoluted course out to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Along the way countless other small rivers and streams join in, the river splits, meanders, rejoins, and eventually flows out into the shallow waters of the Gulf almost 300 km away in Limmen Bight. 

A well marked hiking track runs the length of the park from the clear spring fed swimming pools at Rainbow Springs east to the tufa falls at Korowan on the Roper River. Yesterday, we walked the length of the park, and, although we had a swim in the thermal pools at Rainbow Springs, the best swim we had was in the spring fed creek where the trail crosses the Little Roper River on a low metal bridge. Here, the water was clear, deep and running fast, and, as you have to walk to this spot - no infernal combustion engine access - there was no-one else about. We splashed around for half an hour in the near body temperature water doing front levers (water assisted) under the bridge and attempting to mantel onto the bridge from the water (surprisingly difficult). 

A National Parks crew (of two) have been hard at work improving and rerouting the main track after the wet season floods, which must be hellish work in the pervasive heat. It's great to see the government promoting a healthful activity like walking, but disappointing to see how few people take advantage of the trail network. I've spent about 10 cumulative hours walking about the park on the tracks and have seen no more than a handful of other walkers almost all of them on the short 1.2 km walk to Stevie's Swimming Hole. Most of the other campers here seem to think that the chair under their butts (large) is permanently attached. Perhaps, after all this time in the hot weather (and by a campfire) it is.

Driving and Walking: Mount Isa to Mataranka

I hate everything about driving. The endless sitting, the tedium, the burning of fossil fuels and subsequent destruction of the environment, the boredom of sitting for any length of time longer than about one minute with nothing to read and no puzzle to do (I get a headache). I abhor it all. Conversely, I love walking and could easily walk for 8 to 10 hours a day every day of the year - particularly if I could always walk on tracks and trails that are new to me. Forest, meadow, mountain, beach, it doesn't matter, I love to walk. 

Unfortunately, from Mount Isa we had a lot of driving to do. First to Camooweal, a community of 300 people about 190 km west of Mount Isa and then north on bumpy dirt roads to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. We stopped a night in Camooweal which meant I could walk for a couple of hours on a track down by the Georgina River where 30 or 40 caravans were parked with generators running and the ubiquitous Australian sitters plunked on their backsides in lawn chairs for hours, even days. Apart from the human nuisance, the track was very pleasant along the Georgina River past waterholes green with water lillies, the air filled with the raucous call of Sulfur Crested Cockatoos and the odd haunting trumpeting of Brolgas. 

 Lily pond on the Georgina River

The drive to Boodjamulla was very painful and, at the start of the trip, I had to work hard to calm myself and not panic at the thought of five or six hours sitting. Doug found the entire trip very gruelling as he was worried the entire way that the kayaks would rattle off the roof, the oil pan be unceremoniously ripped from the underside of the vehicle, or all four tires puncture at once. I simply drove as carefully as I could and then did not fret. After all, there was nothing more I could do. 

We stayed three nights at Boodjamulla National Park (the topic of a separate blog post) but then had to endure the return drive to Camooweal. In Camooweal, I finally felt my virus had receded enough for me to return to more vigorous exercise and, our last morning there, I got up at first light and ran sprints down the red dirt road leading out of town as the burning red sun crested the flat red earth and then came back and plunged into the cool water of the swimming pool. 

More driving confronted us. West along the Barkly Highway through the flat and featureless grassy plains of the Barkly Tableland where a line of trees seemed for ever on the horizon but which we never reached. We turned north at Barkly Roadhouse ($2.10 litre for diesel fuel) and drove for long distances each day across the same flat, featureless plains to the Carpentaria Highway at Cape Crawford (a long way from the sea). At Cape Crawford, we detoured east to Caranbirini Conservation Area, though how we convinced ourselves to drive 64 km out of our way is unexplained. 

 Organ Pipe formations at Caranbirini

Caranbirini has about 8 km of marked, not necessarily well, walking tracks and we walked the entire distance impervious to the midday sun we were so glad to be out of the car. The turrets and spires of the sandstone formations (called organ pipes) were tantalising to climbers and, as we wandered along them, we couldn't help eyeing potential routes. 

We had initially planned to travel north for a couple of nights into Linmen National Park but the prospect of almost 300 km of dirt road driving for 2.5 km of walking track deterred us and we continued west to reach the Stuart Highway just south of Daly Waters. The treeless savannah gradually gave way to lightly timbered eucalpyt forest with sporadic waterholes along drying creeks. 

 I could climb this and this and this....

One last push north brought us to Mataranka, a small service town near the Roper River where we turned east again and drove, gratefully, only 12 more kilometres to Elsey National Park where we could finally remove our bodies from the vehicle for a few days and engage in those activities for which humans are designed.

Travels In Boodjamulla

Boodjamulla National Park in north western Queensland is one of those strange places where people whose most vigorous daily activity is getting on and off the toilet (sadly not a squat toilet) are suddenly impelled to walk for multiple kilometres and even to canoe. Perhaps the bone-shaking six hour drive on rutted red dirt tracks knocks loose some nerve junctions and the resulting new synapses recall more ancient times (not metaphorical) when their bodies did what all animals with legs are meant to do, walk.

After our own neurone shattering drive, we were excited to have two full days when we did not need to get into the car and could walk, kayak, even run, and need only sit once a day (remember, the latrines are not squat toilets). Our first day, we only had time to walk up to the Cascades, a series of surreal tufa formations where fallen trees are entombed in tufa deposited by the mineral rich water. The water was low after a dry wet season and we had to lie down to get wet in the water. As dusk fell, we hiked up a set of stone stairs past red rocks radiating heat to a look-out on a free standing island in Lawn Hill Creek where the red cliffs of the gorge above deep green waters were visible through the lucullan vegetation. 

Boodjamulla Morning

Next morning, we had a pleasant few hour amble along the tracks of the southern gorge. I wandered along the inland route, past clumps of striking purple flowers in a shallow gully between two broken ribs of red sandstone rock. A gentle track leads up onto a plateau of flat red sandstone where you can look down into the deep green waters of the upper gorge. A couple of paddlers in rental canoes made V line streaks through the calm water. 

Indarri Falls
The track drops abruptly down to creek level and traverses a dirt path under large cabbage palms, each side of the narrow track strewn with the debris of wet season floods. At Middle Gorge, a shallow tufa falls separates the Upper and Middle Gorges. Cabbage and pandanus palms flourish, and the deep red cliffs fall sheer into the water. I swam in the clear green waters diving off the swimming pontoon and lazily floating under the small waterfalls. 

The next section of track weaves around red rock slabs, through small rock cliffs and junctions, and climbs to a viewpoint of the falls, continuing in a lackadaisical fashion past other view points and sculpted red sandstone outcrops to look over the Constance Range and the grassy plains of the camping area. Another set of stone steps leads down to river level and a cement path, overhung with clusters of palms runs along the river past swimming platforms to the campground. 

Doug paddling in the lower gorge

There are three other marked walks in Boodjamulla, one circles the island stack and gives good views down to the green waters of Lawn Hill Creek. A second leads along the base of the island stack to an old aboriginal camp area where there are some faded rock art drawings and shell middens. Along the way, this walk passes under stunning red cliffs filled with corners, dihedrals and faces, a climbers dream if you could climb without violating indigenous dream-time beliefs. 

My favourite walk was the short stroll (non-walkers would not call this a stroll) up to the Constance Range. The track wanders downstream along Lawn Hill creek and then climbs up red rock slabs and steps onto the escarpment of the Constance Range where an expansive view stretches away across a millennial old landscape of Mitchell Grass and eucalpyt. 

Waterfall swimming

It is a lazy paddle upstream between towering red rock cliffs to the tufa falls at Indarri, and there is a built portage track to carry boats to the upper gorge, where red rock cliffs continue for another half kilometre before subsiding into the surrounding Constance Range. At the end, the deep creek abruptly shallows to a series of ankle deep braided channels lined with large paperbarks. If you paddle after lunch, the gorge is eerily quiet as the hire canoes go out only in the mornings.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Out West

We finally left the Queensland coast about a week ago. In some ways, it was a tough decision. We could easily have spent another year on the coast doing sea kayak trips, island hopping from one tropical paradise to another. However, we are also keen to see more of the country, perhaps even go rock climbing - our other passion - again before we are too old and creaky. Even though we have been on the road for over a year, we have managed to avoid doing a lot of driving or even any long days driving (we detest driving), but, as we move from the coast to the interior of Queensland, it's harder to avoid longer days driving.

The interior of Queensland, much like the prairies of Canada, has a lot of sameness. We drove west from Townsville through Charters Towers (a short walk up Tower Lookout to avoid an entire day sitting) and on to Hughenden. The country in these parts is dry spinifex grass, scattered eucalpytus, and intermittent sandy dry creek beds. The petrol station in Hughenden with holes kicked in the walls, doors hanging off hinges, the metal roof peeling back, was for sale, which sent me into hysterics of laughter as the realtor speak phrase "deferred maintenance" kept sidling through my head. Just north of Hughenden, a sign pointed down some corrugated rattletrap of a road and offered the "Basalt Byway" tourist drive from which I wondered if one would ever exit. 

 The Pyramid, Porcupine Gorge

We drove 70 km north of Hughenden to Porcupine Gorge National Park where Porcupine Creek has cut a 140 metre deep gorge through the sandstone. The campground is at the northern end and a short trail leads down to the bottom of the gorge where the cliffs are broken and short. At the southern end, the cliffs are sheer and a lookout provides a view into the depths of the gorge and the narrow green ribbon of Porcupine Creek. If you lived in these parts, you could walk the full length of the gorge starting in the south and coming out in the north via the national park track. It would likely take a few days as travel in the gorge is slow. 

From Hughenden we kept heading west, generally following the route of the (dry) Flinders River. A series of small towns links the route - Richmond, Julia Creek, and Cloncurry. We camped west of Cloncurry near the Corella Dam where the topography of the country side changed from dead flat to rolling red rocky hills. The area around Cloncurry is riddled with old mines, copper, gold, uranium among other things, but, The Curry as the town is known has likely been superceded by Mount Isa further west. We both contracted some kind of virus along the way and, feeling achy, feverish and generally unwell we rolled into Mount Isa and found a caravan park to stay at while we drugged ourselves up with cold medication. 

From the outside, Mount Isa appears a soul-less town. On the west side of the Barkley Highway and right against the western side of town, the Xstrata mines dominate the view and the town. Smelter stacks spew heavy metals into the air, a huge slag pile stretches for kilometres, as does the open pit mine. A brief shower of rain overnight coated our white vehicle with greasy black mining residue that simply cannot be good for human health. 

Walking around downtown Mount Isa I noted that half the store fronts were some kind of social service agency while the other half were laboratories offering drug and alcohol testing. Stout iron railings blocked every intersection to pedestrian access and made it very difficult to walk around town. I wondered if these railings are to prevent impaired individuals from staggering out into the traffic. Apparently, every nine days, a child is diagnosed with lead poisoning. There are none of the tidy houses, well tended gardens or pleasant public areas that one usually sees in small Australian towns. My overwhelming sense of The Isa was a town with no community that exists simply to extract maximum wealth in minimum time with a damn the consequences mentality. Tomorrow, we move on.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Complex Trips, Complete Plans

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and accept information that reinforces our existing opinions while avoiding and discounting information that would challenge our current beliefs. I have long known that, when it comes to planning trips, my past experience has appeared to support my contention that, the more complex the trip, the more complete should be the plan. The trips I have done that have been the most problematic have been those where the plans were incomplete or inadequate. Whereas, my most successful trips have been those that have been planned to the smallest detail and have included options should the primary plan not work out due to weather, partners, conditions, or time constraints. 

 Sunset at Steens Beach

Sometimes I wonder if, my working theory - the more complex the trip the more complete the plan - is actually being supported by past evidence or whether I am simply susceptible to confirmation bias. Of course, it is possible to head out with minimal to no planning and have a successful trip, especially if conditions are completely benign, your partners are uniformly strong, and your trip is simple and easy, and, perhaps most important, your definition of success is loose. A lazy day climbing at your local crag is much easier to pull together on a whim than a two week ski traverse in a remote area of the Coast Mountains during mid-winter. 

In any event, our last sea kayak trip only increased my commitment to my "complex trip/complete plan" theory. With big tides, strong currents, camps accessible only at certain tidal heights, complex geography and unpredictable nautical hazards, it took me a long time to plot out a route that got us around hazardous points and across channels at slack tide, facilitated travelling with the tidal flow rather than against it, and allowed access to and egress from our camps at appropriate tide heights. 

Despite an incredibly smooth trip, there were still new lessons to be learned and old lessons reinforced, and here they are, in no particular order:
  • If you have the luxury of delaying your trip until the weather forecast is favourable, do so.
  • Not all, or even most, nautical hazards are marked on the chart. Some of the biggest standing waves we encountered were not marked on the chart at all. Expect to find haystacks, over-falls, whirlpools in many locations such as prominent points, in narrow channels, at the north and south ends of islands, etc.
  • Use slack tide and the tidal current to your advantage.
  • Check all the charts. One of our nautical charts marks 3 to 4 knot tidal currents at the south end of South Molle Island, while a different scale nautical chart of the same area shows no especially strong currents.
  • Finally, the more complex the trip, the more complete the plan.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Unsafe Passage: Around Hook Island By Sea Kayak

Shute Harbour to Dugong Beach:

In order to catch slack tide at the south end of South Molle Island, we had planned to start paddling from Shute Harbour at 9 am. Not only would we round Roma Point at slack tide, but we would cross Whitsunday Passage when the wind and tide were congruent. But, when you wake at 5 am and are anxious to start your trip, there seems little point wasting time so, on the first morning of our seven day trip around Hook Island, we were on the water before 8 am and paddling east out of the narrow channel between the mainland and the cluster of three islands (Repair, Tancred and Shute) in Shute Harbour. Dark rain clouds were massing over Whitsunday Island, rain squalls moved up from the south and a gusty south wind was blowing. 

We had recently heard from a friend that the passage between Mid and North Molle Islands marked "unsafe passage" on the nautical chart is, in fact, the main thoroughfare through the Molle Islands and the route of choice for kayakers heading east. This passage was our fall-back position should the waters off South Molle Island, marked by whirlpools and standing waves on our chart, prove too rough. I hoped to paddle the south route as we would be returning via the north route and Doug hoped to paddle the south route as he thought it was shorter than going to Dugong Bay via the north route. We decided to paddle out and have a look. Should conditions prove too difficult or dangerous, we would paddle north up South Molle Island and use "unsafe passage." 

 Doug in unsafe passage

Visibility from a kayak is never great. As the kayak sinks into a wave trough, the view ahead all but disappears, and, even on a wave crest, you can only see a short distance from where you sit at absolute sea level. We could see white-caps and standing waves as we approached Roma Point, but they didn't look too bad and we thought we would simply give the point a wide berth. However, as we approached the point a large squall with heavier rain and obscured visibility moved over us. I suggested to Doug that we paddle into the beach (Sandy Bay) at the south end of South Molle Island and let the squall pass over as I did not want to be out in the middle of Whitsunday Passage during a period of poor visibility. Not only would we lose our landmarks, but we would be almost invisible to passing boat traffic. 

This is when the trouble began as we soon discovered we were stuck in a tidal rip that runs at 3 to 4 knots. With our full metre square sails up, a south wind, and paddling as hard as we could, we simply could not escape the tidal rip that was pulling us inexorably towards the haystacks and standing waves off Roma Point. We could only communicate by shouting at each other, nuanced decision making was impossible, and, at some point, we decided to ferry glide west towards Beak Point. After 1.5 hours of tough paddling, we finally pulled into the calm waters between Coral Point and The Beak to regroup. 

While we had the cold breakfast I had packed we discussed our options. Clearly, paddling south of South Molle was out of the question and, we weren't even sure we would get across Molle Channel anywhere, but, I managed to convince Doug that we were now near slack tide, and could hug the coast line heading north where the current would be reduced by friction with the land, and ferry glide or even catch the current south to Daydream Island and then onto Mid Molle Island. Paddling around The Beak, Daydream Island looked so close and the paddling was so easy that we decided to head straight over to the south end of Daydream Island. We crossed easily, some minor standing waves, riffles really, at the south end of Daydream were all we encountered. There was some minor current riffles between Daydream and South Molle, but we crossed easily to the east, passed over The Causeway between Mid and South Molle Islands (easily passable in a kayak with a 3.00 metre tide) and pulled into Paddle Beach on the north end of South Molle Island for Doug to adjust his sail. 

Doug crossing Molle Channel

Although we had started an hour ahead of schedule, we were now an hour behind, and were mildly concerned that we would arrive at Dugong Beach on the west side of Whitsunday Island at low tide and thus be unable to access the camp-site. But, we were anxious to continue, the wind was gradually easing and the squalls clearing so we began the nine kilometre paddle over to Cid Island at around 11 am. The first two kilometres past Deedes Point took a long time as the kayaks see-sawed up and down in the metre swell, but, gradually, we caught some wind in our sails and we began to pull further and further from South Molle Island. A couple of kilometres out from Cid Island, the waves eased, but the tide and wind were both carrying us north so it was still hard work to pull into the lee of Cid Island where we regrouped. Dugong Beach was off to our northeast, Whitsunday Peak making a good marker for where the camp was located, as we tiredly paddled the last few kilometres to camp. 

Dugong Beach has two covered picnic tables as well as several other open tables, seven separate camping sites and a track that leads over the headland to the south to Sawmill Bay and the start of the track to Whitsunday Peak. We had a late lunch and mug of coffee and then, as the day was rapidly waning, sprinted along the track to Sawmill Bay and up to Whitsunday Peak to catch the view of the islands before dusk. On the way back, we swam in a pool in the freshwater creek and arrived back at camp near sundown. 

 Dugong Beach sunset

Dugong Beach to Crayfish Beach:

Next morning, we could feel the previous days exertions, but, the forecast was for light winds and favourable conditions for paddling the exposed east side of Hook Island. We left camp sometime after 8 am and, in dead calm conditions paddled 12 km north along the west side of Whitsunday Island to Cairn Beach at the northern tip. The boats, loaded with seven days food and water, were heavy and sluggish to paddle and it was hot work under the clear sky. At Cairn Beach we were tempted to hike up the track to Whitsunday Cairn, but we still had ten kilometres to go to camp and the calm winds tempted us to paddle north while conditions were so benign. 

Sailing up the east side of Hook Island

We caught the current out through the narrow channel between Hook and Whitsunday Islands and paddled steadily north. There were standing waves off the point south of Mackerel Bay and large sandstone cliffs eroded into deep caves as you paddle west towards Crayfish Beach. Crayfish Beach is a beautiful spot tucked into a sheltered bay at the south end of the larger Mackerel Bay. The shallow sheltered waters of the bay are full of coral, and the tiny beach with a few grassy campsites is one of the most beautiful on Hook Island. After another late lunch, we launched the boats again and paddled over to the west side of the bay where we tucked the kayaks into a rocky cove and snorkelled until the tide threatened to strand the boats over coral gardens, among coral caves and grottos, where tropical fish flickered in the light, reef sharks prowled the short coral walls and turtles were startled from reverie into deeper waters. 

Crayfish Beach to Steens Beach:

On our third day, we were up again before dawn, and, in the last moments of night, launched the kayaks and glided silently north towards Pinnacle Point and the north end of Hook Island. On shore, the rocks and hoop pines were painted red and gold by the rising sun. At Pinnacle Point, we wove in between the mainland and the rocky islets that give the point its name, and gradually turned west towards Hayman Island. The tide was flooding south and the entire north side of Hook Island was mildly bouncy as the incoming tide ran against the north side of Hook Island. 

There were lots of day tour boats in Butterfly Bay, all ignoring the passage of two mangy looking kayakers. We arrived at Steens Beach, a narrow stretch of sand backed by rock boulders and rainforest at 9.15 am and happily pulled ashore for breakfast. All along the northern coast of Hook Island the shallow clear waters support beautiful coral reefs and as we paddled west we would catch glimpses of tropical fish flashing in the sunlight. After a couple of long days in the boat, I spent a happy few hours wandering south along rock shelves and pebbly beaches before returning to camp to snorkel over the reef off Stanley Point. All too soon the sun was dropping over the western islands and another day was over. 

 Sunset at Steens Beach

Hayman Island:

We had a "lay day" at Steens Beach, which doesn't mean laying about, but does mean a break from the daily packing and unpacking ritual and a chance to explore the surrounding area. Leaving camp at a leisurely 9 am, Doug hugged the shore heading south, while I paddled over the edge of the reef south of Stanley Point. At Cockatoo Point we crossed over to Black Island, a tiny sandy island amid an expansive reef and snorkelled along the reef edge among turtles, fish, sharks and rays. A number of tour boats had pulled up to allow the guests to snorkel on the western shore. 

To the west of Black Island, three other small sandy islets are connected by coral reef, and we paddled past Bird, One Foot and Langford Islands and then north across Hayman Channel to pass over the reef between Arkhurst Island and Hayman Island. 

On the west side of Hayman Island, we paddled into Blue Pearl Bay and found an old picnic bench under a spreading fig tree for lunch. A bit of searching along the shore-line revealed the track that leads up to Whitsunday Lookout on Hayman Island. We had a fantastic view down the length of the Whitsunday Group to the Cumberland Islands, the blue waters shimmering in the sun. At the north end of Blue Pearl Bay large coral bomboras rise out of the deep water. Tour operators come here and feed the fish so hundreds of tame reef fish drift around you in multi-coloured waves as you swim over the reef. 

 Dolphin Point, Hayman Island

Continuing north around Hayman Island, we paddled over coral gardens, past large sandstone cliffs and turrets, past Dolphin, Tower and Rescue Points and eventually down the east side of the island. The coral reef extends right around the island and every so often we could catch the bright flash of a multi-hued wrasse. We crossed the narrow channel back to Steens Beach as the last of the tour boats steamed east towards Airlie Beach. 

Steens Beach to Curlew Beach:

Paddling north in the Whitsunday Islands you know that eventually, unless you keep going, you must at some point paddle back into the wind. Our fifth day started with 20 knot southerly winds but the forecast indicated they would decrease during the day. We took our time packing up, and, while Doug read his book under the shade of the casuarina trees I went snorkelling one last time along the shallow reef off Steens Beach. I knew this would be my last snorkel of the trip, and possibly my last for a long while, and I especially enjoyed drifting aimlessly along admiring the beauty of the reef. 

We had a 19 km paddle south and east to Curlew Beach at the opening of Macona Inlet on the south end of Hook Island and calculated we needed to leave no later than around noon to arrive before dark. At 11.00 am, the wind seemed to be dropping, so we loaded the boats and began paddling a half hour later. There used to be an old National Park camping area at Bloodhorn Beach between Baird Point and Ian Point and we pulled in to see if any sign of it remained. There is a flat area under the trees where camping is possible, but the beach is quite rocky. 

 Hoop Pines, aquamarine water, sandstone bluffs

It felt slow paddling to the south end of Hook Island, we were now paddling against wind and tide, but, the coral reef and rocky shore-line provided interest. At the south end of Hook, we tucked into a tiny bay within a bay formed by a large rocky promontory and had a short rest. There were large standing waves off the point west of Nara Inlet which provided a minute or two of exciting paddling. Finally, we rounded the last point before Curlew Beach where big hoop pines stand out on the craggy point and pulled into the sandy beach and camping area sheltered under fig trees. 

Curlew Beach to Paddle Bay:

On our penultimate day, we had 15 knot southeast to southwest winds and left Curlew Beach before 9 am. The day's paddle was relatively short at 15 km, but we had a 13 km crossing of Whitsunday Passage. This was an unusual crossing. Initially, the sails seemed to be lifting the boat and speeding us up, other times, my boat felt heavy and sluggish, and seemed to crawl forward. An hour into the trip, I reefed my sail in as I was having trouble managing the full metre square in the burly cross-wind. We had the ebbing tide in our favour, but the northerly push we had from the wind was probably counterbalancing any southerly assistance. The final few kilometres into the small beach on Mid Molle Island seemed to take an inordinately long time, especially as my bladder had long since reached capacity. I had a comfort stop on the beach, but Doug stayed in his boat, and we paddled the last 1.5 km into the wind to the open campsite at Paddle Bay on South Molle Island. 

Kayaks in Blue Pearl Bay

There is a now defunct resort in Bauer Bay on the north side of the island and an intersecting series of trails. After lunch, we hiked up Lamont Hill - the view is largely concealed by the surrounding forest, and then south to Mount Jeffreys, a windswept grassy summit with wonderful views of the island chain. Finally, we walked on an open grassy trail with expansive scenery to another lookout near The Horn on the northeastern end of the island. We walked back to our camp through the resort and along the rocky shoreline. That night the sunset blazed in a glory of colours for an hour before finally dimming into night.

Paddle Bay to Shute Harbour:

The last day was very short, around two hours to paddle the seven kilometres west to the south end of Daydream Island and then south past The Beak and into Shute Harbour. The wind was blowing at 15 knots, but these waters are mostly protected so waves were small. I felt sad our trip was over, privileged to have travelled in such favourable conditions, and once again, stunned by the amazing sea kayaking available in northern Queensland.

The last sunset

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Island Dreaming

Desolate beaches, blazing red sunsets, empty dawn mornings, the fiery sun on the eastern horizon, kayaks floating silently over clear green waters, many coloured tropical fish dancing over gardens of coral, sandstone cliffs stretching down into translucent waters, hoop pines standing sentry on rocky promontories, tidal rips and standing waves, kayak sailing and tenuously paddling kayaks into the wind, packing at dawn and unpacking at dusk, the memories of a seven day trip around Hook Island in the Whitsunday Group. 

Somehow, a day by day report of our trip around Hook Island in the Whitsunday Group of islands seems too pedestrian a format to capture the nature of this much anticipated, partly feared sojourn among these beautiful islands traveling in that most intimate of boats, the sea kayak. It seems impossible to describe the excitement and anticipation of the night before we leave, when the gear is all packed, the plans are complete and the last weather check has been made. It's also impossible to communicate our ephemeral feelings as we watch the last sunset of the trip blaze in brilliant hues of crimson and red across the western sky, the colours stretching out across the cloud caps in time and space for an hour after the sun has disappeared.

 Dawn on the east side of Hook Island

I have probably never planned a sea kayak trip, including the six weeks we spent circumnavigating the Solomon Islands or the four weeks around the Palau Islands as carefully as I planned our second Whitsunday Islands trip. Each day was designed to ensure we paddled with the tidal ebb and flow, campsites were plotted so that we reached them at mid or higher tide, and slack water was used to cross difficult channels or round exposed points. Not only was this trip meticulously arranged, but we also stuck to our predetermined schedule! Apart from spending an hour or more caught in a tidal rip near the south end of South Molle Island, the entire week long trip unfolded flawlessly.

Sea kayak trips have much in common with long ski traverses. Both activities require traveling through untracked terrain self-propelled, relying on your own judgement and skill to deal with the hazards and complexities of travel. There is always the ceaseless push and pull between taking the time to explore the landscape through which you travel (climbing peaks on ski traverses, circumnavigating islands on sea kayak trips) and making distance while conditions are favourable. One can seldom, if ever, know in advance when to push forward and when the weather favours dallying. 

The last sunset

If you are lucky, your judgement calls prove correct, peaks are ascended, islands circled, and the next day, conditions still allow forward progress. At the end, there is always the deep satisfaction of time spent in the wild, the lessons learnt, the experiences shared, the sunrises and sunsets that allow us to step out of time for just a moment and treasure the beauty of our earth.