Day 1: Ulladulla to Bawley
Nine sea kayaks are lined up along the small beach inside Ulladulla Harbour. The briefing is short, but complete, spoken in plain English, not in perplexing parables. About half of us know this section of the coast relatively well: where there are sheltered landings and campsites, where reefs and bomboras pick up the swell. There are one or two bruisers in the pod, but most of us are cruisers and this is definitely a cruiser trip.
There is some talk of the long period swell and allusions to bomboras and reefs, but the general plan is to paddle out around Warden Head and turn south with a lunch stop at Crampton Island. Paddling around Warden Head, the sea is as calm as I have seen it, except for the occasional big roller rumbling through. Usually Warden Head is a mess of clapotis and rebound, but today it is pretty smooth. There is just enough wind to sail and the paddle south to Crampton Island is uneventful, apart from a seal at Warden Head.
Surprisingly calm Warden Head
It is easy to land on the north side of Crampton Island for lunch something even the bruisers on the trip can appreciate. Often, we land on the north side of Crampton Island and paddle out on the south side, but today the rip that usually provides easy passage is very narrow, and occasionally breaking big, so we head out to the north again before turning south.
Near Bawley Point, John scopes a reasonable landing just north of a rocky headland and he paddles in to confirm the landing is reasonable. However, we have neglected to discuss a signal before hand so John, after waiting a while for people to land, paddles back out again to tell us the landing is fine. It's a big group and a reasonably narrow easy landing zone so it takes some time for everyone to get ashore. I am getting better at waiting out the back for my turn to land instead of crashing through decapitating other paddlers as I blunder blindly towards the beach.
The crew near Bawley
We carry our kayaks across the sand to a small lake and paddle upstream to a delightful campsite shaded by she oaks. In the afternoon, the group disperses, some paddle the lake, others practice eskimo rolling and I, of course, walk. I find a good forest track that takes me out to an exposed headland and north to another quiet lake.
That evening, as we sit around cooking and eating, John relates the “parable of the bommie:” The story of a young kayaker trashed by a surprise wave near Green Island on the south coast. We all sit around in hushed silence like kindergarten kids at story time. How many of us think “that could be me?”
The pod waiting for a signal from John
Day 2: Bawley to Murramurang
It is a morning when a competent kayaker should be able to get off the beach without getting their hair wet, yet, when I go to launch, my boat gets pushed sideways, and the rip current starts sucking me towards a rock reef. I have to power out without regard to the oncoming waves and take one full in the chest.
Another bruiser on a cruiser trip
We paddle south with a good tail wind even this early in the morning passing Bawley Point and down to Brush Island where we paddle between the island and the mainland. All the times I've paddled this coast and we always go inside Brush Island. I need to go back and paddle around the eastern side.
As we approach Kioloa, Belowla Island resolves itself into an island distinct from the mainland. Mindful of the parable of the bommie, I give a wide berth to the sloping rock platforms of Snapper Point and O'Hara Head. Sometimes these platforms break further out than expected. Just past Dawsons Islands, John paddles into Snake Bay which frequently offers a surprisingly sheltered landing site, although the beach is very small. We have a short break here with Durras Mountain looming above.
This is my favourite section of the coast. Mostly national park with only a couple of small settlements; it is a green coastline, small rocky bays and tiny sandy beaches overhung by gorgeous spotted gums. There are half a dozen little islands, hidden beaches, and sheltered landing spots if you know where to look. There is an influx of tourists over the summer months, but for most of the year, and especially in winter, it is gloriously empty.
Leaving Snake Bay
From Snake Bay we paddle south in a brisk northerly wind. Point Upright is impressive as always and we are ripping along surfing down wind waves with puffed out sails. Durras North almost always has a sheltered landing and we are stopping here for lunch. As usual, there is a little traffic jam as 9 kayaks surf into the beach and I somehow get caught on a curling wave behind Karen.
Amazingly, we are both caught by the same wave, but at different times. Karen capsizes but rolls smoothly back up, while I teeter on the brink of a capsize, caught off-balance watching Karen. I almost manage to brace back up but make the rooky mistake of keeping my head up, instead of down, and, after a long moment caught in limbo, I too am upside down. My roll, unlike Karen's is not consistent and I have to exit the boat and swim in.
Not sure how I managed to swim here
The wind has risen while we are having lunch and the afternoon's paddle is just about perfect. The wind and swell combined make the paddling engaging but not too terrifying and I feel like I am riding on the perfect cusp of adventure where the challenge is just great enough that you aren't completely confident that you can succeed. This is the place where the magic happens.
All the beaches in the Murramarang National Park have a south facing component and most have steep beaches with dumping swells that can make landing a kayak challenging. As usual John goes in first to check out the landing conditions. I am impressed, as always, by John's extensive sea kayaking knowledge. He comes back from the first beach saying “We will have swimmers,” but successfully lands on the second beach and holds up a paddle to guide the rest of us in.
Beach master John
Determined to redeem myself, I follow John's instructions assiduously, paddling hard after a big waves passes and getting over the first break easily, and then side-surfing the second wave into the beach. There are two swimmers, and one errant paddle, which Tony rescues and styles the landing while paddling with two blades in his hands.
Tony bringing back a lost paddle
We have a perfect campsite on level grass under steep cliffs. I walk up in the gorgeous gum forest behind the beach under towering silver barked spotted gums through ferns and burrawang palms with lizards scurrying off into the undergrowth and kangaroos bounding away. The wind slowly subsides and the beach slivers golden as sun sets.
Day 3: Murramarang, Tollgate Islands, Mosquito Bay
There is a big roll of clouds spiraling along the coast when we launch but within an hour or two, the cloud is gone and sun is back. We paddle south with no wind this morning, past headlands and small beaches. Near North Head, my timing while weaving through a rocky reef is just slightly off and I have to paddle hard not to get hit by a breaking wave. When I pull out the other side, John is shaking his head: “That closed out completely behind you” he says, obviously wondering if I have already forgotten the parable of the bombora.
Morning on the water
A couple of people paddle through the wave washed slot near Three Islet Point but I pass by this time thinking that I have used up one of my escapes from bommies already. We have a leisurely break on Judge's Beach looking out to the Tollgate Islands and then with a light snifter of wind, paddle south out to the twin Tollgate Islands.
Everyone loves the Tollgate Islands
We point out the Blue Cave to the non-locals and I am surprised that even John is not going in today but the swell is a bit northerly and the dark, narrow defile looks as evil as it ever does. We wander around the islands, watched by a curious seal, paddling into small bays and passages and finish up on the south side of the island near a big sea arch.
The infamous Blue Cave
John, Steve and Jenny take turns backing gingerly in under the arch, and then Tony backs far into the back just as a bigger set comes through. He side surfs and slips about in the wash and breaking waves, but makes it out without any damage to body or boat.
Steve preparing to enter the arch
From the Tollgate Islands, we sail down to Black Rock some of us passing to the east, some to the west. I am happy to be out on the water with my tribe away from the slow-drip stress of looking for a house, and paddle around the east side wondering how long I can spin out this wonderful trip away from connectivity, away from the world. But, paddling around the south end of Black Rock, I see kayaks with sails flying heading in towards Mosquito Bay and I know that another trip is over.