Saturday, July 1, 2017

Fraser Island Sea Kayak

Urangan to Big Woody Island:

Pack a sea kayak for an ocean kayaking trip at any boat ramp in Australia and some old white guy with a gut - and I don't mean Santa - will come along and begin lecturing you on the dangers of setting out to sea in such a small, and, to an outsider at least, clearly unsuitable vessel. Right on cue, as we were loading our kayaks with a weeks worth of food and water at the strangely quiet Urangan marina, along came the old white guy lobbying out his opening salvo of "Do you know about wind on tide?"

It was windy; blowing strongly enough that when we had lunch before leaving, I had to make the salad behind a fortress built of dry bags to prevent the lettuce from being blasted over the parking lot. Perhaps that was why the marina, with three 4 lane public boat ramps and a couple of other private boat ramps, was so strangely quiet.

The old white guy hung around right up until we paddled off from the boat ramp, alternately complaining about modern times and trying to convince us that we faced certain death outside the marina walls. As Doug pulled away from the boat ramp, he shouted one last warning "The current will be ripping once you exit the marina."

It is only four kilometres across to Big Woody Island, passing by Round Island along the way. At low tide, the two islands are joined by a big sand flat, but at mid tide, we could paddle between the two islands to a small barely distinguishable point on the NW side of Big Woody Island where we camped for the night. This might seem like a pathetic effort for our first day out, and, you are probably thinking that the old white guy was right to be concerned about our safety, but, we wanted to catch an ebb tide across to Moon Point from Big Woody Island, and the high tide was really early in the morning.

As we were right around the shortest day of the year, the night seemed long, particularly when the bugs began to swarm around sunset (5.00 pm) forcing us into our tent. Morning could not come soon enough.

Sunset over Hervey Bay

Big Woody Island to Awinya Creek:

There is a big reef extending north from Big Woody Island that you have to clear before you paddle NE to Moon Point. Because Fraser is such a low sand island, Moon Point looks far away even though it is only about 8 kilometres. We started paddling across, our boats feeling heavy and sluggish so fully loaded, anticipating any moment to be hit by a strong northerly current but, it just didn't happen. The wind, however, was happening, blowing a solid 15 knots from the south with just enough westerly in it to fill our sails nicely and push us rapidly across to Moon Point.

It felt as if we flew past Moon Bank which, at all but the highest tides, is now dry and lightly vegetated, and continued sailing happily northward to Coongul Point. Moon Ledge, a long, low sandbank runs almost 6 km north from Moon Point to Coongul Point and offers shelter from the wind chop.

Coongul Creek forms a big and changing lagoon behind the beach and a number of yachts were moored in the lagoon. Sheltered anchorages are scarce for yachties out at Fraser Island and we were to find yatchs tucked into all kinds of unusual ancorages during our week long trip.

At Coongul Point we pulled in for breakfast and were enjoying the solitude until a couple of 4WD campers pulled up and began to unload all manner of gear. This was our cue to leave. It is inexplicable in a developed country (with a massive diabesity problem brought on by crappy food and sendentary lifestyles - but don't get me started) that the infernal combustion engine is allowed to drive just about everywhere in National Parks to the clear detriment of environmental values.

While we were onshore, the wind had switched to the southeast and was blowing at around 20 knots. We moved off-shore to catch the wind in our sails and, I at least, caught more than I bargained for. Due to some faulty kayak packing which left my bow too light, I could not hold my position and was gradually being blown west to the mainland.

After a couple of iterations of pull the sail down, beat into the wind back inshore, hoist the sail and get blown back out again, I settled in to a groove sailing along the shore-line with less wind, but more forward movement, while Doug sailed along further out.

Soon, it seemed like time to find somewhere to camp for the night as our aim for the trip was to paddle comfortable days not beat ourselves into the ground. However, we soon discovered that the best campsites (indeed, in some places the only camp sites) are beside creeks and all the creeks are accessible to vehicle based camping. Now the 4WD enthusiasts will scream and shout about this, but the reality is that where the infernal combustion engine goes loud music, drunken parties, huge (and illegal) bonfires, garbage and human excrement surely follow.

Tide, however, was in our favor as the camp area just south of Awinya Creek was now cut-off to vehicles from the south and north and we found a nice little spot sheltered from the wind beside a salt water lagoon. While we faffed around getting the tent up and wondering if those dark clouds scudding over head portended rain, it began to rain. We quickly got a tarp up but not soon enough to save much of our gear from a thorough soaking. Despite our plans to paddle easy days we had covered around 40 kilometres.

Fraser Island beach

Awinya Creek to Wathumba Creek:

One of the issues confronting a kayaker planning a trip to Fraser Island is the prevailing wind which blows almost incessantly from the south. This is great for speeding northwards up the island under sail, but results in some difficulty getting back. The last weather forecast we had was for light winds later in our trip so we had planned to paddle north for 3 days, allowing 4 days to paddle back south.

Wathumba Creek, which supposedly marks the limit of where vehicles are allowed to drive, was tantalizingly close, only about 13 km north. Today we planned to have an easier day, doddling up the island, past the vehicle zone and into blissful isolation.

It was a chilly morning and all our gear was wet so we had a later start than normal drying off what we could before packing it all away in the boats. I made sure to load the bow of my boat much more heavily in anticipation of a day sailing.

We had a light tail wind and found ourselves at Wathumba around lunchtime. A couple of yatchs were anchored in the lagoon, although at low tide, they sit dry on the sand. While we were having lunch, Steve, a friendly yatchie came by for a chat. Yatchies are really the only folks who understand sea kayakers and, as well as a good chat, Steve offers us water - which we don't need, but more importantly, an updated weather forecast - which we don't absolutely require but which no kayaker ever turns down.

Apart from the next day, when winds should be relatively light, the forecast is for moderate to strong southwesterly winds. Grand for sailing all the way to Rodney Point, but terrible for returning to Urangan.

We continue on, the lure of the vehicle free zone still strong although we now have some concerns regarding the paddle back to Urangan. We are now almost 60 km from Urangan, a distance we have covered quite easily in a couple of days, but, which will be a bugger to reverse if the forecast holds true.

Heading north we get in and out of the boats a couple of times at likely looking campsites but all we find is lumpy ground covered with long and scratchy salt resistant tussock grass. Landing and launching the boats repeatedly is difficult with the wind blowing onshore and wind waves washing into the boat continually.

Five or so kilometres north of Wathumba we see vehicles on the beach! Landing again, we find a vehicle track (new, one of our yatchie friends later tells us), and, for some inexplicable reason, Queensland Parks and Wildlife has allowed vehicles to drive out onto the beach and travel north and south for 50 to 100 metres. So, 4WD'ers being what they are, every vehicle on the island has to drive all the way to this northwest area of the island - that looks remarkably like the rest of the west coast - and right along to the sign prohibiting vehicles to the south and to the north, idle for 10 minutes, then turn around and drive off again. Braver drivers even edge past the sign before turning and returning on the bush track.

I'll admit we were finding Fraser Island a bit ordinary. Paddling up Platypus Bay, the scenery, while lovely, is all the same, and the continual rumble of vehicles driving mindlessly up and down was disturbing. We had seen virtually no bird-life - which can't be a surprise to anyone when the beach is as busy as a four-lane highway - and very little marine life. Getting away from the infernal combustion engine was not proving very easy, and, we had that strong wind forecast looming over us.

In the end, we decided to paddle back to Wathumba and a decent campsite rather than scratching out a lumpy bumpy one on the beach. Between Wathumba and the new track, the vehicles do not go, so we had some hope of a night away from bogans.

Paddling back into the wind was not as bad as we feared and we made reasonable headway, although by the time we had unloaded the kayaks and set up camp, it was dark. The moon, however, was nearly full, and the beach as bright as daylight, so we went for a lovely long walk. A pod of dolphins even cruised by the beach as the sun set.

Wathumba Lagoon fish

Wathumba to Awinya Creek:

Next morning we decided to have a day out of the boats exploring Wathumba Lagoon on foot once the tide went out. Steve thought this was a bit weird as it was the only day when the wind would be favorable for heading south, but now that we had given up paddling further north, we wanted to enjoy our time on Fraser Island, and Wathumba has the advantage of being away from vehicles.

As the tide drops, I go for a long exploration to discover the source of Wathumba Creek. The lagoon is almost completely dry and I walk a long way up river. Away from the vehicles, the sand is alive with soldier crabs, small fish, and other marine life. Alive also with sandflies and midges which are soon sucking off litres of my blood. Eventually, I get to the narrow river lined by thick mangroves on either side and I cannot get any further without swimming. The source of the Wathumba will have to stay hidden.

I push through the bush and over the dunes to the beach where the low tide has created a perfect walking beach and I walk north to the vehicle area. Half a dozen 4WD's are split between the two signs, having driven right up to the signs and just a car length beyond the sign. More come and go as I walk back. Once again, there is no sign of life along the beach.

During the day, the southwesterly wind has blown up, but, around 4.00 pm, as I am making some tea, the wind drops right down and, after another updated forecast from our yatchie friends, we decide to paddle south under moonlight to Awinya Creek.

We manage to get the tent down and all our gear packed in 40 minutes, and, as the sun dips down, we paddle out of Wathumba Lagoon and head south. It is gorgeous alone on the water under a full moon. The sea has quickly calmed and, apart from a cold wind that drains off the land, it is calm and peaceful. At Bowal Creek, I spy some campsites and we pull, in, but, we decide to continue on to Awinya Creek and our previous campsite. 

It is another 6 kilometres to Awinya Creek, so another hour, and we are both chilled by the time we arrive.  Camp and dinner are quickly sorted and around 9.00 pm we crawl into the tent. It is a cold night, and we have brought only overbags, not full sleeping bags, so we end up huddled in all our spare clothes in our inadequate bags. During the night, I keep looking at my watch and counting the hours until daylight and warmth, 8 hours, 6 hours, .4 hours..
Hervey Bay sunset

Awinya Creek to Bowarrady Creek:

The sun, when it finally crests the island, feels wonderful the next morning, but with the sun comes the wind, blowing strongly from the southwest. By the time we are ready to leave, the wind is into our faces at 15 knots and the water is choppy. Hoping it might drop a little around midday, we delay a bit before going, making a second cup of tea. Perhaps the wind eases a little, but, if it does, it picks up again very soon, but we set off nevertheless.

It is slow going into the wind and it takes almost two hours to paddle the 5 km to Bowarrady Creek. Bowarrady Creek flows fresh out to sea here, making a very small lagoon behind the beach. A yatch is pulled into the narrow anchorage and, when we get out for lunch, Charlie (the yatch owner) comes over to offer us hot tea. Charlie, like all the other yatchies we have met, has horrendous stories of bogan drivers and the garbage and excrement they leave.

We waffle back and forth about paddling further south today. The wind has only got stronger, and, according to Charlie, the next camps south are all full with vehicles. Behind the lagoon, there is a little sheltered campsite in the trees, and we will be safe from bogans as this camp is now inaccessible to vehicles.

Eventually, we decide to camp for the night. Doug drags his boat up and over the beach to the lagoon while I come up with the brilliant idea of paddling down to the mouth of the creek, a kilometre away, and "floating" the boat up the draining creek. Mistakenly, we figure that launching into the creek will be dryer than launching off the beach next morning.

This was definitely one of my worse ideas. Doug had his boat in the lagoon within 15 minutes, while I spent the best part of an hour dragging my boat up the shallows left behind the draining creek. The millimitre of water left in the creek at low tide is clearly not enough to float a kayak. In the end, I have to unpack the boat, ferry loads along the creek, drag the boat, ferry loads, and repeat until I finally get into deep enough water to drag the boat up beside Doug's.

It is cold again overnight and we huddle in all our clothes again watching the clock and waiting for morning.

Low winter sun

Bowarrady Creek to Big Woody Island:

The alarm goes at 5 am and I get out to check the wind and tide height while Doug stays in the tent shivering under his bag. The adiabatic wind is still draining cold air off the island, and it is chilly wandering around in my paddle clothes trying to gauge the tide height by my dimming headlamp - first trip ever I have forgotten spare batteries. Back at the tent, I crawl into my bag for a minute to warm up, and, if it wasn't so cold, it would be tempting to stay there but I know it will be at least as warm in my boat, so we get up, pack by headlamp, and set off down the creek to the ocean.

The creek is not quite deep enough to paddle, so we have to drag the boats a bit, and, launching through the creek outflow, I take three big waves over the bow getting thoroughly wet in the process.

We are both stiff with cold so it is hard to get into a rhythm paddling but as the sun gradually rises, we begin to feel some warmth on our backs, and at least the wind is still light. At Coongul Point, we pull out and spend a leisurely 1.5 hours having breakfast and taking a walk. There are no vehicle campers but a couple of yatchs are in the lagoon behind the beach.

The wind is more southeasterly today than southwesterly and we make reasonable progress all the way to Sandy Point where we pull out again. We have now decided to paddle back to Big Woody Island for our last night out, and, leave once the tide has switched to flood.

It is a slower crossing than a week ago, as the wind is not as favourable, but, we do manage to reef the sails fairly close to the wind and get a little push along. At Big Woody Island the tide is out, way, way, way out, and getting to land requires a few hundred metre carry. We cannot leave the boats as the tide is rising so fast they will be carried south, so we take it in turns carrying in our essential gear and minding the boats. Doug volunteers to bring the boats in with the tide while I set up camp.

Doug looks cold and lonely standing out in the water as I organize camp, and, as soon as I have camp all set up, I take him out a big mug of hot chocolate. Eventually, well after the sun has set, the tide has come far enough in that we can lug the boats the last distance into the beach and settle in for the night.

Just bad timing that's all

Big Woody Island to Urangan:

We are up fairly early in the morning to catch the tide and avoid a southwesterly wind. Passing Round Island at a higher tide than before we notice that it is full of birds. There are many more boats out than a week ago, and coming into Urangan harbour, we see that the ramps are very busy. I manage to pull my boat out on rocks beside the ramp, while Doug edges into a corner of the cement ramp. A friendly fellow cleaning the toilets nearby lets us use his hose to wash all our gear.


Before we leave Urangan, I look around for old, fat white guys who want to tell you how deadly sea kayaking is but they are all strangely absent. Driving south, we hit a pineapple stand and buy four big juicy pineapples for $5.   

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