Friday, October 23, 2015

Turning Back: Norfolk Bay By Kayak

"Some times you turn back when you should keep going, and some times you keep going when you should turn back. The challenge is to know the difference."

Day One: Eaglehawk Neck to Lagoon Beach:
We pulled the kayaks up onto Lagoon Beach shortly after 4.30 pm and climbed up onto the low dunes behind the beach looking for a flat and sheltered campsite. Although the sun was shining, the wind always seems cold in Tasmania and in early October, the wind seemed to cut through our paddling clothes making us shiver. A small depression in the dunes offered a sheltered kitchen site, and, with a bit of shovelling we could level a reasonable tent site nearby. We hauled loads of gear up the beach and while I brewed tea and set up the tent, Doug wandered up onto a higher dune to retrieve the next days marine forecast.

After a scant six paddle days in the previous five months, we had decided to set off on a circumnavigation of the Tasman Peninsula, a distance of 150 kilometres over five days. Pointless to plan any extra days on this trip as there are scant landing sites. In fact, on four of the five days we would have two possible landing sites only, the one we left from in the morning and the one we landed on at the end of the day. The entire trip felt very committing as this coastline has some of the highest sea cliffs in Australia and is pounded by the relentless swells of the cold Tasman Sea.

Sunset at Lagoon Beach, PC, Doug B.

Despite a somewhat mixed forecast, we had decided to come and "take a look" although how we were to take a look at the ocean off Cape Raoul without committing to paddle the entire distance was not really clear. In our desire to paddle this coastline and make the most of our few remaining days in Tasmania, we had somehow overlooked how heavy and sluggish our loaded boats felt, how out of shape we were for long days in cramped cockpits, even the fact that we still had no effective bilge pumps for our kayaks. We had, as Doug said later, "no real plan B."

We launched the kayaks on a falling tide from Eaglehawk Neck, the narrow spit of land that connects the slightly less rugged Forestier Peninsula from the wild Tasman Peninsula and paddled west into a light headwind. The south side of Eaglehawk Bay has many homes, but the north side has a few oyster leases, some timber operations, and just a few scattered farms or holiday cottages. We passed Dart Island about a kilometre to the north, and I thought that the grassy looking west side might make a nice campsite. Near the Mackeral Islets we got out of the boats onto a narrow rocky spit of land for a brief leg stretch; it had taken us two hours to travel eight kilometres.

More uses for spare paddles

Bypassing Flinders Bay and Sommers Bay where there are a few homes, we paddled across to Chronicle Point and then across Norfolk Bay to Whitehouse Point with a moderate wind from the northeast. This afternoon sea breeze came up each day we were out, some time between noon and 2.00 pm and it moved across the water in a defined line. Conditions changed from glassy to choppy in a matter of minutes always presaged by smooth rolling waves and the sound of breaking waves.

Paddling past Whitehouse Point on a very calm day

From Whitehouse Point, the paddling was more interesting as we had the multi-hued sandstone cliffs to look at and the waving beds of many different sea weeds easily visible in the clear water below our keels. At Green Head we turned south and had a tailwind for the final two kilometres down to Lagoon Beach. After almost seven hours in the boats, we were certainly ready to land and make camp.

"I need you to listen," said Doug as he came back from the higher dunes with the latest marine forecast. The always a bit iffy forecast had deteriorated to another series of strong or gale force wind warnings and we needed to give some thought to whether or not we would continue with our planned route. But, at 5.00 pm, after a long day in the cockpit, I knew I was not going any where, and, as the sun dipped and the wind blew, getting back into damp clothes and a wet boat was very unappealing.

After dinner, hot drinks, a walk on the beach, we crawled into our tent and considered our options. Continuing on meant getting up in the dark the next morning, packing, setting off at first light and paddling south for 30 km where we hoped, but were not completely sure, we could land on the north end of Wedge Island to make camp. A 20 knot wind was forecast to arrive by around noon. If we were lucky, we would only have to push into it for the final two, or perhaps three, hours. The following day, we needed to paddle 33 km in a two to three metre swell, a one metre sea, and, with luck, light and variable winds. That distance of 33 km was contingent on a surf landing on the southerly facing beach at Crescent Bay, which, really seemed unlikely given our limited (virtually none) experience in surf landings. Paddling into Safety Cove to land on a sheltered beach would add four more kilometres.

Fragile start to life, Pied Oyster Catcher eggs

The third day and last day of the forecast period had a strong wind warning for southerly winds and we knew without deliberating that we would not set off to paddle around Cape Pillar and Tasman Island in that kind of weather and sea. The fact that this fourth day would be another long one - 34 km - with no landing sites was really irrelevant. Our fifth and final day on the water would be relatively short at 20 km and familiar as we had paddled the section of coast from Pirates Bay to Fortescue Bay before, and, while there were no landing sites, there were also no prominent headlands and currents were mild.

I was so tired I was asleep by 8.00 pm, but, before we both drifted off we made a tentative plan to continue toward Wedge Island. We could always paddle into the sheltered Wedge Bay where a series of small hamlets line the coast. With luck, we might even be able to take the once daily bus from Nubeena back to our car at Pirates Bay.

Early morning fog over Lagoon Beach

We had a cold and slightly damp night. Mesh tents like ours (MSR Hubba Hubba) are not really that practicable under certain Tasmanian conditions. When the dew is heavy and the night is cold, the moisture in the air condenses inside the tent on your sleeping bag or drips from the fly through the mesh onto your sleeping bag. Either way the night is damp and cool. At 5 am, when we should have got up, I was huddled in my bag having spent the last two hours curled into a ball to conserve heat. For perhaps the first time, I felt old, all my 52 years seemed to sag onto my body. Getting out of our wet tent, into damp clothes, packing up, and paddling hard for six or eight hours was just not going to happen. Doug was also awake and, after checking the marine forecast again, we decided, surprisingly quickly, that we were going to turn back.

Day Two: Lagoon Beach to Monk Bay
With the pressure to make steady progress into uncertain conditions relieved, I felt much better. This was a trip that I knew was too hard, both physically and technically for me at my current level of expertise, and, I did not feel that deepening disappointment with myself that I usually feel when I turn back out of fear not lack of ability. Turning back when prudent seems reasonable, but turning back because of cowardice carries the connotation of failure.

We stayed in the tent for a little while, but the sun was slow coming so I got up and put the kettle on. It was a beautiful morning, clear except for fog that was drizzling slowly over the sand dunes from the brackish lagoons behind the beach. The fog spread across the surface of the ocean and dribbled out towards Sloping Island. A Pied Oystercatcher was sitting on its nest of speckled eggs scratched into the sand just below us, while a second Pied Oystercatcher patrolled the beach. Apart from the gentle swell rolling onto the shore, the morning was silent.

Paddling past Green Head, PC, Doug B.

Now that we had no fixed plans for the trip everything changed. Kayaking became about the journey, not the destination. We had breakfast and hot coffee, packed the boats, paddled south around Lobster Point admiring the forests of kelp along the shore and landed on the north end of Sloping Main Beach.

Back in the boats we paddled back around Green Head and into Lime Bay. This is a lovely sheltered but shallow bay with vehicle accessible camping, and, infernal combustion access means bogans so after a look around, we continued on rounding Whitehouse Point into Monk Bay. We found a campsite on the small sand beach, with some sheltered rock slabs as a kitchen area and had the inevitable brew. A well flagged but rudimentary track runs all the way from Lime Bay down to Plunkett Point and I strolled along this before dinner. The very best campsite, that we found after unloading the boats and setting up camp is actually a minute or two south of the sandy beach on a grassy knoll above a pebbly beach.

Paddling into camp at Monk Bay

Day Three: Monk Bay to Dart Island
The next day we continued our leisurely explorations of Norfolk Bay. The night had been cloudy so it was considerably warmer and drier in the tent and we paddled down the coastline passing Ironstone Point and Plunkett Point. From Plunkett Point we skimmed Salem and Cemetery Points and then landed on a rock platform at Deer Point for breakfast. Apart from breakfasts in the high mountains, this must be one of the most scenic breakfast locations I've ever experienced. Sandstone caves arched behind a large flat sunny and warm rock platform all surrounded by crystal clear water and waving fronds of sea weed. It was a tough spot to leave.

Continuing east we grazed along Premaydena, Glenila, Eli and Parkinsons Points. The conditions were so calm and the water so clear that I could see crabs swimming by under the boat and white starfish spotting the sea floor. Amazing how ungainly crabs always seem, doomed to scuttle sideways, but, they prove surprisingly efficient swimmers. At Parkinsons Point the afternoon sea breeze blew up, moving across the water in a straight line and we paddled into Newmans Beach where the tide had exposed large areas of white sand and wandered about for a half hour before using the spare paddle to prepare lunch.

Breakfast at Deer Point, PC Doug B.

We were only 10 or 12 kilometres from Pirates Bay yet without speaking about it we knew we would stay out another night. It was just too wonderful to be out on the water again where life is a simple matter of packing the kayak in the morning, journeying through the day, and finding somewhere to camp at night. Continuing north along the Symphony Hills we found a couple of small pebbly bays where we could have made camp but decided to try and find a campsite on Dart Island. On the southwest end of Dart Island we found a tiny protected harbour and pulled the boats in. Up under the tea-trees there was a sheltered grassy campsite and out above the harbour some large rock slabs made a good kitchen. We were soon setting up camp and brewing some tea. Before dinner we walked around the island following the rocky shore. I found some old stone fences and a lot of very fine netting in lines up in cleared areas.

Over dinner we watched the sun set over Norfolk Bay and I thought about what a balm for the soul spending time in the wild is and how so many of our current problems are likely caused, at least in part, by a severing of the natural bonds between man and nature. Surely we would all be better off if, for at least some part of each day, week and year, we left behind motors and powered ourselves, whether by foot, by bicycle or by kayak or canoe and went out again into the natural world to watch the sun rise and set, to be awed by the wonder of the simplest things, like crabs swimming through clear teal water, sea anemones flowering in beach sand, sea birds sitting on delicate eggs on a sandy beach or the way the wind moves across the water in a long linear wave. We could journey with no real destination but a desire to look into the next bay or around the next headland, to land on a deserted beach, to take shelter from the wind behind tea-trees, to lie on rock slabs warming in the sun, and we could remember our place in the world and perhaps be motivated to live with more harmony and less aggression.

Sunset from Dart Island, PC Doug B.

Day Four: Dart Island to Pirates Bay
Our last morning on the water and our last breakfast on rock slabs. Gulls and terns wheeled and dived over the west end of Dart Island snatching fish out of the water after plummeting in a free fall into the ocean. We packed up and paddled across to Mason Point. The highway runs along the south shore of Pirates Bay and, as we paddled deeper into the bay, the sounds of civilization became more intrusive. Cars, buses, motor-bikes roared past disturbing the eerie calls of gulls. I'm always struck by how all of us in the developed world always have somewhere we need to go, right now, as fast as we can. Are all these journeys of such importance? I felt that the closer we got to our own vehicle the more a part of myself cleaved off and went winging back out to the deep green ocean.

Sometimes I think about setting off on a very long walk or kayak, something that would take not days or weeks but months. It's an enticing thought. A long journey that would reduce life to its simplest form. Eat, walk or paddle, sleep, do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next. Continue on until simply moving becomes the goal.
Paddling into Lime Bay

Final Thoughts:
When we first moved to Australia and got back into sea kayaking after a nearly decade long hiatus, I got nervous paddling in a small wind chop and a long crossing was about four kilometres. Since then I've paddled 18 km from the mainland to Pelorus Island, and on the Lizard Island trip, paddled north from Cape Bedford for two hours before even seeing the tiny sand cay that was our destination. I've kayak sailed, albeit not very well, with a 30 knot tail wind, and pluggedinto a 20 knot headwind. In Tasmania, I paddled around both the Freycinet Peninsula and Maria Island, but, I still have scant experience paddling in ocean swells or landing in any kind of surf bigger than about 60 centimetres. I cannot eskimo roll (except on rare occasions) and I am acutely aware that I have not practised rescues in real world situations and have no reliable bilge pump that does not require the use of both hands. In short, I am better than I was, but not as good as I need to be.

Unlike mountaineering, which always seemed to me to be about the destination - reaching the summit - I have always viewed kayaking as a process rather than an endpoint. The journey is what makes the trip, not reaching some arbitrary geographical point. So, although I embraced the "move fast" mantra when climbing, it has not been my motto while kayaking. But, I now realise that some trips I want to do will require me to not only paddle more skilfully, but also paddle faster. Perhaps the two are intertwined, I am too inexperienced to know.

Leaving Monk Bay, PC Doug B.

In hindsight, I wondered if I could have trained for this trip while we were house-sitting in Campania. I could have paddled on windy days - there were no shortage of those - gone out on days with big swells, practised paddling the kayak in the surf, done some real rescues in real cold water. But I realise, I did not want this trip enough to do the required work during a Tasmanian winter. The air and the water seemed too cold, the days too short, the effort involved (all that driving!) too much. Moving inside might make you soft, or age may simply cause the greater desires of youth to dim a little. Both may conspire to make being cold, uncomfortable and scared much harder than it used to be.

There are still big trips I want to do in the kayak. I would love to paddle from Mackay to Thursday Island. I have lately been wondering if it would be possible to paddle right around Fraser Island. Paddling around Wilsons Promontory is appealing, and, perhaps one day, if the fire does not dim too much, paddling right around both Bruny Island and the Tasman Peninsula. If I were really to dream big, it would be to paddle right around Tasmania.

Paddling towards Deer Point, PC Doug B.

And while I day dream about big trips, I loved this little trip in sheltered waters that was not hard, scary or committing. I loved the quiet campsites, the mirror like water in the mornings that echoed the hulls of our boats back up to us. I loved peering deep into the startlingly clear water and watching the gulls whirl overhead. The amount of life bustling away in a single square centimetre of tidal sand amazed me. I loved crawling into the tent tired from a day paddling as darkness fell and waking to the sunrise in the dewy cold of the morning. I loved every single moment of this wonderful trip that, had we not turned back, we would never have done. 

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