Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Broughton Island

Seal Rocks to Broughton Island:

Broughton Island is where sea kayakers dream of going when they die. A sprawling island with tiny sand coves, sea caves and arches, clefts and gauntlets, and a half dozen other islands scattered nearby. Although Broughton Island is only about four kilometers off-shore, access is usually longer and most sea kayakers paddle out of Port Stephens.

As usual, our plans changed a dozen times before we set off, but, in the end, forecast northerly winds convinced us to paddle to Broughton Island from Seal Rocks. As the gull flies, this is a straight line distance of about 35 km, but obviously longer in a kayak which never travels in anything even remotely resembling a straight line. All I knew was it would be a long way without a comfort stop as we would be paddling a few kilometres off-shore.

We got to the imaginatively named "Number One Beach" at Seal Rocks just as the sun was rising and unloaded the boats and gear onto the beach. This was our first trip with our new water carriers made from Ron and Jean Simpson's design and packing sufficient water for the trip was much easier than before when we had a bunch of odd-shaped plastic bottles picked up off North Queensland beaches.

Looking Glass Isle

Heading around the rocky cliffs of Sugarloaf Point I looked up at the lighthouse 30 metres above us. On our last multi-day kayak trip Ron had confessed the secret that all sea kayakers harbour that we want tourists at lighthouses to look down and watch us paddling our tiny craft through huge waves and stormy seas and think how brave and daring we are. In reality, every time I pass a lighthouse the ocean is either calm as glass - thus providing no spectacle - or rough as guts, in which case I have my eyes screwed shut from fear and can't appreciate the tourists gawping at me anyway. Mostly, however, no matter what the sea state, no-one is about, which was the case with the lighthouse at Sugarloaf Point. Our daring maneuvers around Seagull Island went unnoticed again.

Far away to the south we could just see a blob or two on the horizon in the hazy distance, one or both of which we assumed was Broughton Island. As usual, I had forgotten to bring a compass so we could not take a bearing - surely a sound case for a deck mounted compass. In any case, we headed for those bumps, alternately pointing the bow towards the most easterly and then the most westerly as we really could not decide what was island and what was mainland.

The northerly wind was completely absent, the swell under a metre and paddling slowly south was mostly just a wee bit tedious. We were a fair distance off the coast which was all long sand beach and it was hard to tell if we were even moving. In fact, after a while, Doug became convinced we were not making any southward progress, stuck either in a weird time-warp, or more likely a northerly running current. I thought Yagon Gibber Headland was gradually moving away from us but could not be entirely sure. Without a compass, there was nothing to triangulate off and the more Doug thought about it, the more convinced he became that our progress was virtually nil.

Eventually, Doug decided to check our position using our mapping application on our mobile telephone. So, he turned the 'phone on, marked our position, turned it off, paddled for 20 minutes, turned it back on and noted that we had in fact moved south. Meanwhile, I dribbled along paddling 100 strokes and waiting for him, paddling 100 strokes and waiting, etc. until he caught up.

Sunset from Coal Shaft Bay

On we went. After two hours, we decided to have a short break. I was thirsty but wouldn't drink because my next comfort stop was still hours away. I had eaten no breakfast, so choked down a hard-boiled egg, but it was mighty dry without a whisper of liquid. I sat on the ocean for a few minutes, thought "Stuff this, I may as well paddle", and started off again before even five minutes had elapsed.

Around about 11 am, pretty much right on schedule for this time of year, the northerly wind arrived, weakly at first, but quickly increasing until, with our kayak sails up, we were briskly riding down the wind waves. Our speed dramatically increased and Broughton Island rapidly came closer and closer.

The shortest way into the sheltered beach at Esmeralda Cove is via Fishermans Passage between Broughton and Little Broughton Islands but, from our angle of approach, the passage was invisible so we went around the southern end of Little Broughton Island. The wind made for bouncy conditions around Little Broughton Head, but we were now only two kilometres from landing. We pulled the sails down as the wind was swirling in the lee of the islands, sometimes blowing down in strong downdrafts, and paddled the last distance into Esmeralda Cove.

There were a dozen sea kayaks already on shore as we staggered out of the boats 5.5 hours after leaving Seal Rocks. A swim, a leak, some lunch, some tea, all the good things followed. There are five campsites at Little Poverty Bay, three large wooden platforms and two grassed sites which you book and pay for on-line. We had booked one of the wooden platforms and from our vantage point above the beach we stood about with our lunch and tea watching the dozen kayakers getting ready to launch.

Esmeralda Cove

Such an organized bunch we had never seen. Sea kayakers are like mountaineers, strong willed, independent and intractable to coercion. Any pod leaving the shore will almost instantly break apart with kayaks going in every direction regardless of conditions. This group, however, had a long briefing on the beach. Then they gathered in a circle and engaged in various calisthenics and warm-up exercises. Kayaks were carried to the water. Another briefing ensued. Finally they launched. Then there were various safety drills. Some people eskimo rolled, others performed assisted rescues, some swam, a couple even stood in their boats and paddled them SUP style. It all provided highly entertaining lunch time viewing. Eventually, however, all the paddlers were back in their boats ride side up, another on-water briefing was held, and they paddled off around the island.

With no further ready entertainment available, Doug and I ambled over to Providence Beach and wandered along the beach in either direction scrambling over the rocks and enjoying being out of our boats. After a couple of hours we sauntered back, put the tent up, had dinner, and strolled over to watch the sunset from Coal Shaft Bay. The ubiquitious fisherman were casting lines off the short cliffs and drinking tinnies. Here at last were some tourists who were impressed with us. Although they had all come out in power boats, they were terrified of sharks, waves, the ocean in general, and swore they would never paddle a kayak on the ocean.

Back at Little Poverty Beach the other kayakers had headed up Pinkatop Head for sunset and we watched their head torches congo line back down after dark.

Providence Beach

Around Broughton Island:

Next morning, the mystery of the strangely cohesive sea kayaker pod was solved. The entire dozen of them was up early, packing their kayaks just after sunrise went I went down to the comfort station. "We are with the military, Ma'am" one strapping young lad told me. A weak southerly was forecast mid-morning and the group were hustling to paddle back to the mainland before its arrival.

Another hours entertainment for us as we made breakfast and drank our litre jugs of coffee. This morning, the pod was all business but, there was still a long briefing followed by a round circle of calisthenics and warm-ups. Should the invasion arrive by sea kayak, Australia will be well defended.

Our plans for the day were much less ambitious. We would doddle around the island in our kayaks, exploring all the little coves and crannies. It was a perfect day for it. Sunny with a very low swell. First stop had to be Conspicuous Cleft. Just off the south end of Broughton Island is Looking Glass Isle and, slightly north of midway along the island, a tunnel leads right through the island from east to west. I expected the tunnel to be reminiscent of the Blue Cave on North Tollgate Island, a dark and menacing slot always churning with large and powerful waves. But, the cleft is much wider than that, although you could not turn a kayak around in it, and lit with green light from above. The first time through, I heeded Doug's warning to "paddle smartly" and whipped through very quickly. Way too quickly to get a good look in the tunnel. So, we went back through much more slowly. Part way through, a minor horizontal waterfall was blowing spray out into the tunnel and the bright sunlight lit up the clear green water. A magical place.

Cons Cleft

A bit further north on Looking Glass Isle there is a second cleft but you cannot paddle through this one as the ceiling has collapsed. We poked in as far as we could and then headed north and meandered around Coal Shaft Bay. The modest southerly blew in as we were paddling north from Coal Shaft Bay towards Providence Point stretching a band of cloud across the sky. This section of the island is riddled with narrow sea slots that you can back a kayak into. The water is clear and gardens of sea weed wave under the kayak with flashing silver fish. Coming out of one sea slot, I turned around to photograph Doug who was backing in and watched with horror as my day hatch cover - normally tied on with cord - dropped off the boat and slowly floated down into the depths. I frantically jabbed at it with my paddle trying to scoop it up before it disappeared but it was gone.

Doug suggested I jump into the water and swim around in case I could see the kayak cover and retrieve it. This really seemed rather extreme to me. We would have to retrieve my face mask, which was securely packed away in my back hatch, I would have to take off my spray skirt and life jacket, and jump overboard, and what about all those sharks those fishermen had been banging on about? But, replacing a day hatch would also be difficult, and no doubt, expensive, so I agreed.

Doug managed to take the spare paddles off the back of my kayak, unhook my back hatch cover, take the neoprene inner cover off, and scrabble around for my face mask while we bobbed off-shore rafted up. I took off all my usual kayaking gear and slipped over the side, while Doug struggled to keep both my boat and his from being blown on to the rocks by the southerly wind.

Doug heading into Conspicuous Cleft

The water was warm, clear and offered really good snorkeling. There were all manner of different sea weeds and sponges growing and lots of different fish. Inshore, however, where I had dropped my hatch cover, the water was foaming from surge and I was getting sorely bounced about. I swam up and down but the whole endeavour seemed hopeless. The water was fairly deep and without swim fins it is was questionable whether I would even be able to get to the bottom if I saw the hatch cover. Which was also highly questionable as the surge could have moved it a long distance and the reef was full of nooks, grannies, and tall sea-weeds all of which well hid a hatch cover.

After a bit, I swam back to the kayak and thankfully climbed in and tugged on all my kayak gear. Doug's next suggestion was to land the kayaks in one of the sea clefts and scramble along the rocks to peer into the water for the hatch cover. This seemed as dubious of success as the last endeavour but still worth a try. We pulled into the nearest narrow cleft, and tugged the boats up the rocky shore. Easy enough at this tide height, but that would change.

Doug went overland to the next cleft south while I went along the rock cliffs. There was one deep slot between me and the cleft where I dropped the day hatch where I had to jump into the water, swim the slot, wait for the surge to retreat at the other side, then scramble out. We met up above the location where the hatch had been lost and this time Doug volunteered to jump in and look.

I waited on the rocks above, just out of the surge line, while Doug swam back and forth. Once, he even swam down and I was modestly hopeful that he had found the cover, but, it was just some interesting fish. Eventually, he also declared defeat and swam back towards the rocks. I acted as lookout and when the swell was lowest waved him in so he could scramble back on shore without getting beaten up by the waves.

Back at the kayaks, the tide had dropped considerably and launching the boats was now quite difficult. A large rock had appeared in the middle of the surge channel and the southerly blow had picked up enough wind waves to wash nastily over this big boulder. We managed to man-handle Doug's boat over, and I stood in the sloshing surge, struggling to keep my feet, while he got in and quickly paddled out of the constricted channel. Left by myself, I somehow managed to bump the boat over the obstacle - plastic boats are good for something - and in a lull in the waves, I vaulted in and paddled quickly out without fussing about putting on my spraydeck.

Evening Light on Pinkatop

North of Providence Point, Inner Rock lies about a kilometre off the northern tip of Broughton Island. Another 1.5 km east is North Rock. Of course, we had to paddle around both. Doug is convinced I suffer from FOMO, which is not a fear of missing out on what other people are posting on (anti) social media, but the conviction that something really interesting lies over the next ridge line, in the next valley, atop the next peak, or on the other side of the furthest island. FOMO has dragged us many kilometres out of our way. Doug especially did not want to go out to North Rock as it would mean paddling back into the 15 knot southerly, but, such is the power of FOMO that we did. And yes, it was worth it.

Providence Beach made a grand spot for lunch and a thermos of tea, before we continued our circumnavigation. On the way east to Fishermans Passage we found a couple of big sea arches that went right through the rock. The tide was just a wee bit too shallow to paddle right through but we paddled around into the entrance on either side. There was also another horizontal shower, more caves and clefts.

We passed by Fishermans Passage and paddled along Little Broughton Island to the spot we had arrived at the day before returning to paddle through the Fishermans Passage. There is a small island in the middle of this narrow passage and the water is shallow at low tide. There were more big caves and sea arches to explore on the west side of Little Broughton Island but with current and wind, it was getting a little bumpy.

On the south side of Broughton Island we wove around a few more rock reefs protruding in the falling tide and finally back into Esmeralda Cove. As we paddled in, I looked for the track up to Pinkatop Head. It leaves from an old National Parks sign just above the rocks a short scramble east from Little Poverty Beach.

On the tent platform next to us, a huge edifice, worthy of a United Nations refugee camp had been set up by three fishermen. They had a massive tarpaulin stretched across the half acre platform, three tents, stoves, lights, refrigeration units, and 18 fishing rods. Our small backpacking tent looked insignificant beside the ghetto city.

A relaxing afternoon cup of tea was quite difficult as we listened to some kind of nasty 1980's bad rock, and listened to "fuck this, fuck that, fuck the other." Similarly disturbing was breathing second hand cigarette smoke. Had we been smart, we would have moved right then to another platform down the other end of the beach but we did not know whether any of those were booked.
I put ear plugs in and wished I had a gas mask as well.

Before dinner, we scrambled along the north shore of Esmeralda Cove and found the rough track that goes up to Pinkatop Head. We arrived just as the light was casting a wonderful glow over the landscape.

Sunset at Broughton Island

There is mobile service from Pinkatop Head so we checked the weather forecast which was good for one more day and then decidedly nasty with a strong southerly flow bringing gale force winds and heavy rain. We managed enough mobile reception to book a spot on the daily bus from Tea Gardens to Bungwahl to retrieve the car.

Back at camp, things were still a "fucking mess," but, for some reason we persevered with our camp for another hour until we finally had enough. We picked up our tent and carried it off our platform, along the beach, and set it up on a grassed site. Instant relief from glaring lights, bad music, foul mouths and polluted air. Why didn't we do it sooner?

Broughton Island to Hawks Nest:

There are few places I would rather be than out on the ocean at sunrise in a kayak. It's not that often that we are on the water that early, but, every time we are there is that magical moment when the sun tips over the water and the ocean is painted crimson.

It's about 17 km into land at Hawks Nest and we were counting on the low swell making landing easy. We were away too early for the wind so had to paddle all the way in, and, once we'd picked out the large white building of the surf club, we aimed for that. There was a small shore dump, but nothing too bad and we landed easily, carrying the boats and gear up to some picnic tables near the surf club.
On the track to Pinkatop Head

Doug had a big breakfast as he had elected to do the bus shuttle which might involve a tedious 11 km walk along the road from Bungwahl to Seal Rocks. After he left to get the bus, I made my own breakfast, washed all the gear and the boats, hung everything out to dry, and, was just settling in to a MOBing session when Doug arrived back, having got a lift from Bungwahl out to Seal Rocks. And, just like that, another kayak trip was over.

You can view the video here.

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