Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sea Kayaking Around Macquarie Harbour

Day One: Strahan to Steadmans Beach

The day after our minor spanking at Macquarie Harbour, we were back on the beach again, earlier this time, and packing our kayaks swiftly with only a light breeze rippling the water. As I was tucking the last few items in my boat, a large woman, wearing a jumper ostentatiously plastered with various rescue logos began questioning me closely. Of course, one of her first questions was "Have you done this before?" No doubt, she was delighted when I replied negatively as she was then free to describe the pounding I would undoubtedly take if I were foolish enough to attempt to paddle around the harbour. "Pinned down at a dry camp at Sophia Point" and "unable to exit Kelly Basin due to three metre waves" are some of the phrases that stuck with me. 

I finally managed to extricate myself from this conversation but, shortly thereafter, just as Doug and I were pushing off from the beach, two more folks appeared to warn us about the "40 kilometre fetch" and the "huge waves" that would soon (I presume) be threatening us. I was a bit surprised to discover that these last two folks were part of a group of 14 sea kayakers from NSW who were, for some reason (perhaps rescue lady had got to them?) were too timid to set off paddling in the harbour. I instantly thought of Gnarly Dog's post about sea kayak clubs - read it here - it is interesting, well written and thought provoking.

It was with some relief, that we paddled away from the beach. It seemed somewhat ironic that, on this calmest of days (with a solid weather forecast), all the doom-sayers were out whereas the previous day, when 20 knot winds had been sweeping into the bay, no-one was about. We skimmed past Dead Horse Point, King Point and Connellys Point and landed on a small beach at Sophia Point. The light wind was dropping, and the harbour was virtually glassy as we paddled south to the Butt of Liberty (really) past a few fish farms in the lee of Liberty Point. Initially, we thought we would stop for the night at Double Cove, but, we were going so well we carried on to Steadmans Beach where we found a good sandy campsite by a fresh water creek at the western end of the bay. 

We had a peaceful afternoon and evening making camp, swimming in the tannin coloured water off the beach, rambling along the sandy beach broken by little rocky reefs and enjoying the comparatively late sunset (around 8.30 pm versus 6.00 pm up in northern Australia). 

 View from Steadmans Beach camp

Day Two: Steadmans Beach to Wrights Bay via Sarah Island and Franklin River

We were expecting some rain and it arrived right around 6.30 am so I crawled back into the tent and we hung out playing chess until about 8.30 am when the weather began gradually clearing. Breakfast was pretty quick, and we were on the water around 9.40 am heading for Sarah Island. Sarah Island was an old penal colony and it is interesting and instructive to wander around the ruins. Life was certainly harsh for all in those days, but especially the convicts who not only worked hard every day, but were flogged as well. In time, Sarah Island penitentiary became famous for ship building and, in one two year stretch, 80 boats were built! Our ancestors were certainly much tougher than we are today. 

From Sarah Island we paddled straight across to Gordon Point at the mouth of the Gordon River. A minor but irritating headwind had sprung up. We thought in passing about camping at Birchs Bay, one of the few long sand beaches in Macquarie Harbour, but, for some reason we wanted to flog ourselves and continued up the Gordon River aiming for a rumoured cabin and landing at Pines Landing. Paddling up river was slow and quite tedious. The scenery isn't particularly interesting, there is no where to land as the water runs right into very dense timber, we were fighting an outward flowing current and an increasing headwind. At 4.45 pm, we were still 4 km from Pines Landing and at our present speed it might take us two more hours to arrive. When we stopped to discuss our options, we were blown backward at a rate of 6 or 8 km an hour and quickly decided to head back down river and find somewhere to camp. 

It took us only about half an hour to sail and paddle back down river to a pretty sandy campsite at the southwest end of Wrights Bay. Although it was late, it was still warm enough to swim before dinner. Sunset over Mount Sorell brought glorious alpenglow and perfect reflections in the now placid water.

Gorging on blackberries

Day Three: Wrights Bay to Farm Cove via Kelly Basin

Our morning was leisurely with a couple of cups of tea, a lazy breakfast of bacon and eggs, before we set off toward the old town of Pillinger deep in Kelly Basin. We had a headwind as far as Charcoal Burners Bluff but that gradually subsided as we entered Kelly Basin. In a small bay at the head of the basin there is a little jetty - no landing only a ladder - and the ruins of Pillinger townsite. It's hard to pull a kayak off here as the shore line is rocky, bushy, and heavily forested. We found a little notch to pull into and wandered around the ruins for a while. 

We took lunch on the jetty and got a weather forecast from a couple in a yacht who were anchored in Kelly Basin. As we expected, a change was due the next day, then a few more days of good weather and light winds. Although there is a camping area at Pillinger, it is not very good and not kayak friendly. There are no real sites, just some very small areas (not particularly flat) in dense forest an awkward carry from shore. There's also leeches. It didn't take much to decide we would look for camp elsewhere. The yachties were anchored off the only small beach in Kelly Basin so we paddled into a minor headwind north to Pine Point. In Farm Cove, we found a small pebbly beach tucked in behind Pine Point. We had to level a campsite out of the pebbly beach, but the site was sheltered and had a huge fallen log that made a great table. The evening was incredibly hot, more like northern Australia than Tasmania and we were in and out of the water to stay cool. 

 Pillinger ruins

Day Four: Farm Cove

Sometime in the night, the NW change arrived, it cooled off, clouded up and we woke to light rain. We could have made slow (very slow) progress up to the next camp we knew of (near Braddon Creek behind Phillip Island) but every time we thought of packing up and setting off, the wind increased again and it rained again so we ended up staying where we were. 

Day Five: Farm Cove to Strahan via Braddon Creek Camp and Sophia Point

The wind dropped over night and the weather cleared. We left camp early at about 7.30 am and got a welcome push from some light SE winds up to the beach behind Phillip Island where we stopped for breakfast. This would be a good camp as the beach is wide (the widest in the harbour), but it would be exposed to westerly winds. There is a skanky cabin by Braddon Creek but you'd have to be fairly desperate to stay inside, although, if you didn't mind the piles of junk about, you could have a sheltered camp on the ground outside. 

From Braddon Creek, we continued to Sophia Point getting a diminishing push from the wind. The sun was hot so we had a swim at Sophia Point and took the time to make some tea with our lunch. Doug was half a mind to camp another night as there is a reasonable length of beach just around Sophia Point but I figured we were only two hours from Strahan and the comfort of our podmobile so we ended up continuing on. 

We are both glad we did as we had the most fun paddling on the trip on our last leg (13 km) back to Strahan. Rounding Sophia Point, we found a 15 knot NW wind blowing and were able to unfurl the sails and rip along covering the 13 km in about 1.5 hours. It was the most interesting paddling of the entire trip. 

 Ruins on Sarah Island

What You Need To Know:

Winds are reported to be primarily from the W to NW, but, we had northerlies, southerlies as well as the more typical NW wind. There is no swell, and precious little tide change, so you only have to worry about wind waves. The harbour is oriented NW to SE, so, presumably, a NW wind could blow up a nasty chop over the 30 km length of the harbour. 

We noticed water levels rising significantly at camp only when a NW wind was blowing. Otherwise, the tidal change seems to be about 30 cm (at most). There is very little boating traffic, even on sunny warm weekends in summer. A couple of fish farm boats may be spotted in the distance, and two large catamarans go out to the Franklin River and Sarah Island every day carrying tourists. Close to Strahan, you might see a float plane taking off. 

Campsites are scattered but reasonably frequent, it's just hard to know exactly where you'll find a spot to camp. Apart from Braddon Creek camp, we saw no other evidence of campers anywhere. Camps that we heard off but did not visit include Betsys Bay, Double Cove (in the eastern deeper bay) and near Eagle Creek up the Gordon River. 

It appeared, as we paddled past, as if there would be beach camping at Birchs Beach, Big Pebbly Beach (which is sandy), between Dinghy Point and Gould Point and around Sophia Point. I would expect to have to camp on the sand and maybe level your own site. At some of these camps you'd get sand-blasted in NW winds. There are lots of creeks flowing out so theoretically drinking water should be easy to come by, but, we only had access to a creek at one camp (Steadmans Beach) so were glad to have carried 30 litres of water. The best camp at Steadmans Beach is by the creek at the west end of Bryans Bay. 

The paddling is not really that interesting. There is not that much marine life, even birds are not plentiful and there's a certain sameness to the scenery. But, you will have almost the entire harbour (all 100 km around) pretty much to yourself, the sunsets are glorious, swimming off the beaches is wonderful, and, despite all the warnings to the contrary, this is pretty good trip for beginners with no swell, no tide, no currents to contend with. I'm glad I did the trip, but, it's unlikely I'd do it again, but, then again, when would I ever!

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