Thursday, April 2, 2015

Paradise Found: Around Maria Island By Sea Kayak

Rheban Beach to Darlington, Bishop and Clerk: 
With the light breeze gently dropping, Doug and I paddled east from Rheban Beach, past tiny Lachlan Island with its resident population of sea birds, to a small half-moon of white sand backed by turquoise water on the very tip of Return Point on Maria Island. We jumped out of the kayaks and rambled back behind the beach onto a grassy plain where a dozen wombats grazed lazily and pairs of Cape Barren Geese rested. At almost 20 kilometres long, 10 kilometres wide and made up of two lobes separated by a narrow isthmus, Maria Island is a National Park where, most importantly, no vehicles are allowed. A daily ferry service runs from nearby Spring Bay, but, once on the island, you must walk, bicycle or kayak. 

 One of the many wombats at Point Return

Disallowing vehicles is a small barrier - there are many good easy walking tracks on the island and the old roads are easy to bicycle (you can even hire bicycles from the Rangers Station on the island), but it has a big effect. Even on a sunny weekend in late March, there were not that many visitors, and, the lack of humans has allowed the island to return to a more natural state where kangaroos, pademelons, Tasmanian devils, Cape Barren geese, possums, parrots, finches, scrub fowls, and more wander about the island with impunity. Maria Island is truly paradise found.

 "Wombat Bay" at Return Point

As beautiful as Return Point is, we were anxious to get up to Darlington, the site of an old penal settlement so that we could hike to the top of two prominent dolerite columns - Bishop and Clerk - that look out over the mainland and the Tasman Sea. It was a gloriously sunny day, one of those that make you think you are no longer in Tasmania, but have somehow been translocated to Queensland, and, as we paddled north, the light wind dropped away to nothing and we glided silently north drifting over huge beds of sea weed swaying in a rippling current, watching fish darting for cover in the immense stands of kelp as our boats cast a shadow. 

 Ruby's Cottage on the hill above the campground

Darlington has a jetty, a Ranger Station, and the remains of the old penal settlement now converted to museums, bunkhouses, toilets, and, a mess hall. The hills are rolling but windswept, grass kept low by all the grazing animals, small stands of tea tree and further back larger eucalpyts march up to the denser inland forests. We gobbled a late lunch and at 3.15 pm, set off along an old dirt road that leads up a grassy vale to Skipping Ridge. Skipping Ridge is a broad grassy ridge where you can walk along the top of the 100 metre high limestone cliffs of Fossil Bay. As you gain elevation, the view gets more spectacular as you look north over Maria Island to Ile Du Nord, Ile Des Phoques and the Freycinet Peninsula. The track enters large stands of eucalypt and climbs more steeply to arrive at the precipitous summit of Clerk, where you gaze over the nearby dolerite column of Bishop and dizzyingly down to the blue ocean below. We walked down as the evening light was painting Skipping Ridge golden yellow leaving the Fossil Cliffs in dark shade. 

Doug ambling up Skipping Ridge

Nights are a raucous affair at Darlington. The resident possum population is rambunctious and, as soon as the sun sets, a half dozen of the most brazen emerge and begin climbing the rafters of the picnic shelter where the tables, counters and barbeques are situated. One particularly cheeky fellow fell from the tall ceiling down to the floor before shaking himself (herself?) and scurrying off. The geese begin to squabble, and the Tasmanian swamp hens angrily pursue each other across the grassy meadow, all seeming to grow fractious as night deepens. 

 On the Bishop looking north to Freycinet Peninsula

Ile Du Nord and Mount Maria:

After our whirlwind tour of Freycinet National Park (a trip too long for the available weather window) we were hoping to have the weather conditions to allow us to spend a full day at Darlington before we continued paddling around the island. I checked the marine weather forecast before I got out of my warm sleeping bag the next morning and noted that while this day was forecast to be windy, the next two days had light winds and were favourable for paddling the exposed east side of Maria Island. 

 Glassy waters in Mercury Passage

I squeezed out of the tent before sunrise to have a hot cup of tea as streaks of red cloud streamed across the island. There was a rising northerly wind blowing choppy waves onto the beach and it was cold wading into the water to launch my kayak but I wanted to paddle around Ile Du Nord and Bird Rock in the early morning. Ile Du Nord is about a kilometre off Cape Boulanger and has less bird life than Lachlan Island but it was fun to paddle around, bouncing in the sharp chop before slipping into more sheltered waters. Doug had wandered over to the Fossil Cliffs but came down to Cape Boulanger as I paddled past. 

 The Fossil Cliffs at the north end of Maria Island

After breakfast, I headed out to hike up Mount Maria, at 717 metres, the highest peak on the island that offers a tremendous view of McRaes Isthmus, the southern lobe of Maria Island, and the Tasman Peninsular. This track is one of those delightful rambles that is impossible not to enjoy. Passing Ruby Hunt's old cottage, the old road wanders through stands of large eucalpyts to cross Counsel Creek passing wetlands where water birds nest to Hopground Beach and then turns east to follow Counsel Creek as it tumbles through the forest up to a pass near Marra Hill. The old road continues south down to Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove, while the Mount Maria track branches off and follows a densely wooded ridge up to scree slopes below Mount Maria. The track is a little narrow here as the trees meet overhead and even I, at a diminutive 158 cm, had to walk this section half hunched over. 

 Looking south from Mount Maria

The final scramble up scree slopes might be challenging for some but is well marked with orange arrows. It does pay, however, to look around a little for the best way up the steeper sections. On top, there is the standard Aussie trig and the view! Cape Lesueur and Point Mauge shelter the wide curve of Shoal Bay, while Cape Maurouard spreads broadly into the Tasman Sea. To the south, showers were darkening the hills of the Forestier Peninsula. On my way down, I met Doug minutes from the top. On the walk back, I had a dunk in Counsel Creek and wandered past the ruins of the Oast House. As I strolled the final 100 metres back to the campground, the showers moved up from the south, and, just as it began to rain, I sidled under the shelter for a late lunch. Doug arrived back, somewhat wet having been caught out, a half hour later. In between rain showers, I wandered around the ruins, museums and buildings of Darlington, and finally out to the forlorn cemetery overlooking a now grey Tasman Sea. 

 Lonely cemetery near Darlington

Darlington to Riedle Bay:

Once again, I checked the marine weather from my snug sleeping bag. Two more days of light winds before the next cold front and trough swooped across the state. In the dim light of predawn, we packed our gear and made breakfast under the shelter. The tent was soaked by rain and heavy dew, but I had learnt early in our Tasmanian adventures to bring a few plastic bags to put the tent in to save wetting all our other gear. Gradually the sun cleared the hills and by the time we were packing the boats on the beach, we were getting the first tickles of warmth. 

 Cape Barren Goose at Darlington

From Darlington, it is about 28 kilometres around the east coast to Trigonia Corner where we planned to camp. There is no where reliable to land until you reach Whalers Cove after 23 kilometres as the entire east coast of Maria Island is wrapped with steep limestone and granite cliffs. Under certain conditions, you can land, with difficulty in Beaching Bay which faces due east and is barely sheltered by a couple of small rocks in the mouth of the bay.

 Granite cliffs on the east side of Maria Island

There are two things worrying about these long passages with no opportunity to pull ashore. One is whether your bladder can hold out (easier for men who can carry a pee bottle), the other, and infinitely more pressing is what would happen should sea conditions become difficult to manage in a kayak. Even with the best forecasts and sea conditions, one sets off on these journeys with some trepidation. Generally, I seem to spend the first 10 to 20 minutes of the journey imaging all the things that could go wrong in my head and brainstorming various mitigation strategies. But, such unproductive worrying is hard to keep up for long, particularly when the paddling is as interesting as it is on the east coast of Maria Island. 

Doug looking small under the granite cliffs

Rounding Cape Boullanger, we passed the white streaked Bird Rock and followed along under the limestone cliffs of Fossil Bay. There are big roofs, caves and even stalagmites (or is it stalactites?) dripping down from these cliffs. Above us, we could see the dolerite columns of Bishop and Clerk. All the way down to Beaching Bay, the paddling was absolutely stunning. The coastline is pocketed with sea cliffs and arches, rocky islets, and clean granite slabs. A half dozen waterfalls cascade over cliffs into the sea, the most beautiful one had a tiny green pool at the base sheltered from the swell by rocky islets. At Beaching Bay, I managed to scramble ashore for a bladder break (why do I drink a half litre of coffee before these long paddles?) on big rocky boulders that rolled in the swell. Mistaken Cape protrudes out into the Tasman Sea and here the coastline turns east as you paddle past Little Raggedy Head under the shadow of Perpendicular Mountain. We had such calm sea conditions that we could paddle right along side the cliffs, weaving into the passages between the cliffs and small rocky islets, and dipping our kayaks into sea caves. 

 Doug near Cape Maurouard

Just past Cape Des Tombeaux we paddled into narrow Whalers Cove for lunch. Montgomerys Creek runs into the cove and although shallow, the cove seems to provide a sheltered anchorage for yachts and fishing boats. Emerging after lunch, we paddled through a narrow passage over a bed of kelp at The Keyhole and weaved through big red boulders at Red Rocks Point. Heading east into Riedle Bay, one of those winds that spring from nowhere and quickly blow themselves out, came up from the east and we had a stiff paddle into Riedle Bay. I was determined not to be blown back the way we had come as I was ready for an afternoon cup of tea and concentrated on steady strokes to make headway against the wind. 

 Doug weaving between rocks and cliffs

We landed in Trigonia Corner where tiny periwinkle shells sprinkle the beach. The water is inviting to swim, clear, teal blue and calm, but, cold. The typical Tasmanian swim is to get in as swiftly as possible - no need to prolong any agony - and stroke vigorously to try to generate some heat, admit quickly that the water is freezing, jump out, look back longingly and think "maybe I should have stayed in longer," then, counter that almost immediately with "no, that's enough." With beaches on either side, and a track down the middle, McRaes Isthmus provides a few hours of enjoyable beach meandering. On his rambles, Doug saw seals on one side of the isthmus and dolphins on the other. 

 Rheban Beach launch site and Maria Island

Riedle Bay to Rheban Beach via Point Peron and Cape Leseuer:

We had no mobile telephone reception from Riedle Bay, but, Doug had got the marine forecast the night before and conditions were favourable for the final exposed paddle past Cape Maurouard and Cape Peron, so we had no excuse to lie in our sleeping bags in the morning. It had been a cold night and I didn't think it would be much colder out of the tent than in. Doug and I were using overbags not full sleeping bags but this would have to be the last trip for that as they were not nearly warm enough in single digit temperatures.
We had breakfast, packed the wet tent away, and I, yet again, drank a half litre of coffee. I made it stronger than usual for some poorly thought out reason and felt uncomfortably jittery for a few hours afterward. The southern half of Maria Island is slightly less rugged than the northern half, although there are cliffs and crags all the way around to Cape Peron, a distance of about 14 kilometres. It is possible under certain conditions to land in Haunted Bay but this adds 2.5 kilometres of paddling. 

 Chilly breakfast on the beach at Riedle Bay

Paddling out of Trigonia Corner I again began to ruminate on all that might go wrong, but my usual cogitations were interrupted by a curious fur seal who swam along side our kayaks for a time popping up every few seconds to inspect us curiously.  Shelving granite rock platforms give way to orange granite cliffs near John Bulls Rock. We had a light northerly tail wind pushing us down the coast and seemed to quickly reach Cape Maurouard and Lesser Pyramidal Rock. Again, sea conditions were such that we could weave our way between cliffs and rocks, past No Good Bay, Greater Pyramidal Rock, and across the entrance to Haunted Bay. We paddled under the crumbling Glenoth Cliffs to Cape Peron where I was able to paddle the dark and narrow passage between Cape Peron and Perons Pyramid. Abruptly, we turned north up the west side of Maria Island and immediately the topography changed from vertiginous cliffs to gentle hill sides. 

 Cape Peron and Perons Pyramid

We were now paddling directly into a 15 knot northerly wind and so we slowly pulled along the western coastline. Although we were mostly sheltered from this wind at the south end of Maria Island we knew it was there and that we would eventually have to paddle in to it. In a kayak, with 30 centimetres of freeboard, your relationship with the ocean is intimate and you always know the direction and strength of the wind.
A rocky beach near Green Bluff allowed us to pull in for our first break - my bladder had held out admirably well. We stretched, snacked, wandered about, and then continued north. 

 Waterfalls on the east coast
Doug B photo

From Green Bluff to Point Mauge the coastline is low rocky pebble beaches backed by dense forest. Robeys Farm is some where here but from the ocean we could see no clearing in the forest. By the time we got to Point Mauge, the wind had dropped to about eight knots and we paddled directly north to a small beach just west of Point Lesueur. The inevitable high cloud was beginning to cover over the sky, but we still had sun for lunch and we took the time to dig out our stove and make tea. I had the typical Tasmanian swim off the beach which felt wonderful once it was over and we wandered on the bracken of the headland after lunch. 

 Nursing joey at Darlington,
Doug B photo

We were torn between making camp on any one of several pretty beaches nearby and paddling back across Mercury Passage before the next frontal system. In the end, we decided to paddle back, as, while it was delightful now, we knew that the 20 knot head wind we would face next morning would be decidedly less fun. It was a bit bumpy paddling across Mercury Passage to Lachlan Island as the channel shallows up north of Lachlan Island. Shelter is gained, however, a half kilometre out from Lachlan Island and the final four kilometres into Rheban Beach is easy. 

 Possum hiding out in the picnic shelter,
Doug B photo

After four days, 90 kilometres of paddling, 25 kilometres of walking, and the joy of finding paradise lost, it was hard to come back to combustion engines and the general craziness that is modern life. If you ever need to slip away for a few days, or even a few hours, to a place where nature still roams wild, take the ferry or a kayak and visit Maria Island. You may find your lost soul again in this wonderful wild place. 

 Paddling near Cape Bouganville,
Doug B photo

Details For Kayakers:

Launch sites are available at Rheban Beach and Earlham. At Rheban Beach, the launch site is a sandy beach accessed through private land. The land owner is accommodating and asks only that the gate be securely closed, garbage be collected, and no camping is allowed. We left both our car and caravan parked there with no problems. The crossing to Maria Island is between 5 and 8 kilometres depending on exact route. Mercury Passage is protected from the dominant southwest swell so you'll only get wind chop (which can be worse). 

There are National Park campsites at Darlington ($13), Encampment Cove and Frenchs Farm (free with park pass). At Darlington there is also a bunkhouse and mess hall (tables, stoves, lighting, etc.). The campsite at Darlington has a covered shelter with picnic tables, barbeques and a couple of propane burners (no lights). Hot showers cost $1. Drinking water is available, but the fastidious may feel the need to treat it (we did not). There is no garbage collection on the island so don't be like the arseholes who surreptitiously slipped their garbage into our food storage bin, take it out with you. At the official campsites, possums can be a nuisance. Behind the Ranger Station at Darlington there are a stock of metal garbage cans that can be used to store food. I would not store food in my tent unless you'd like it ventilated with a few holes bearing the marks of possum teeth.

The west coast of the island is protected and suitable for beginners. Tides are not large and ebb is to the south. There are many beaches to land on. Darlington is well worth staying a day so you can walk up Mount Maria and Bishop and Clerk, or simply wander around the shorter trails and the historic buildings. The east coast is spectacular but probably best left to more experienced kayakers, although you might have incredibly calm conditions as we did. Between Darlington and Whalers Cove, there are no reliable landing sites. In good conditions you might get in at Beaching Bay, but in good conditions you likely don't need to land (unless, like me, you drink too much coffee in the morning). There are a couple of campsites at Whalers Cove but it is a narrow, closed in feeling bay and much nicer to camp on the beach at Riedle Bay. There are many creeks on the island but we found it simple enough to just carry all our water - if nothing else fresh water makes both good ballast and a handy rinse with the left-over at the end of any trip. 

Trigonia Corner, at the south end of Riedle Bay is the most sheltered spot to land and camp. The yachties seem to prefer anchoring on the other side of McRaes Isthmus at Shoal Bay so you may have the beach to yourself. In poor conditions, you could easily portage across the isthmus, there is a track about midway on Riedle Bay, from the exposed east side to the sheltered west side. 

Haunted Bay is a potential landing site as you round the very southern end of Maria Island. Once you turn Cape Peron, there are multiple landing sites although the first few beaches are pebbly. As you go further north there are many sand beaches. The island is a National Park so you need a park pass.

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