By Ron Chambers
After the previous days activity at Mallacoota, breaking camp and packing the boats was a desultory affair; we knew we had plenty of time before Alice and Mark arrived so we took our time. Some final purchases, a last shower, a final cleansing ale etc. I think we were all keyed up in some way; pleasant prospects and fear of the unknown mixed with time to kill is strange brew.
Larry Gray popped in to say hello and tell us that he would be paddling as far as Gabo Island with us, which was good news. We were going to Larry’s place on the evening before to see some of his slides, but couldn’t go because his projector was on the blink, so this would give us a chance to talk to one of the doyens of Australian sea kayaking.
With the arrival of Alice and Mark, everyone jumped to the task of putting those last few items in their boat and helping Alice and Mark get ready. We also had to endure the scourge of all one-way kayak trips – the dreaded car shuffle. All the cars did a Keystone Cop chase of Frank, as he led the way for the 75 Km from Mallacoota to Bittangabee Bay. All of us then piled into Frank’s Subaru for the return – six bums and five seats – very squeezy! Bittangabee was selected because it gave us the option of a safe exit if weather or time prevented the complete journey to Eden.
Back in Mallacoota, we checked with Larry and agreed to meet him at the entrance at 1800 for the paddle to Gabo, after which we headed for the boats and got into the water suffering a few hernia’s hefting the heavily laden boats in the process. It was good to be on the water and off after all that packing, shuffling, waiting etc.
A 1m plus surf greeted us on the bar. It didn’t look too bad but there was the occasional big set coming through which had to be watched and timed. Chris was unlucky enough to be a bit sideways when one of the bigger sets hit him and knocked him over. He rolled successfully, got knocked again, rolled up again but lost it after the third roll. His out-of-control Nordkapp did a nose stand and hit Alice and her Icefloe. Frank and Bruce rapidly surfed in to give assistance. Fortunately, no one was hurt although Chris’s boat did sustain some nasty damage to the gelcoat.
It was about 1830 when we all got underway on the 14Km paddle to Gabo Island, punching into a 10-15 knot northeasterly and a short, steep (about 1m) chop. “Just aim a bit left of the light”, said Frank. The journey was uneventful but we were all glad to land on Gabo at about 9 pm.
Who should be there to greet us but Larry Gray in his Pittarak. No-one saw him leave but there is only one way to get from Mallacoota to Gabo and that’s the way we went. We can only think that he slipped past us during the drama in the surf and powered his way a bit more inshore than the route we took. Anyway it was good to see him as we wearily unloaded, carried the boats up off the beach and made camp in failing light, with the wind picking up and some grey clouds gathering.
Gabo Island, and it’s smaller neighbour Tullaberga Island are two of the largest penguin rookeries on this part of the coast, so we had to compete with them going up the ramp from the beach and put up with the little buggers tripping over our tent ropes during the night.
After some hasty tent pitching, changing out of wet clothes, and cooking by torchlight, we whiled away the evening talking and playing Larry’s didgeridoo. All this was lubricated by a cheeky little red, (not to mention the odd port and/or scotch) so it was a fairly hilarious night (morning actually). The “didg” was the highlight with everyone having a go and making some really disgusting sounds. Larry’s position as virtuoso of sea kayaking didgeridoo players is safe.
With typical ingenuity, Larry has made his didg from 50mm plastic pipe which is jointed to allow it to be stored in a sea kayak, although I doubt whether it would fit through anything but a Pittarak’s angled fore hatch. The secret to a good didg, according to Larry, is the lip orifice which must be smaller than the other end; Larry built up his orifice using silicon, which also gives it the right tactile feeling. The final touch to his high-tech didg is the Aboriginal motif decoration (vinyl paint of course).
Tuesday, December 18 saw a late rise and relaxed breakfast. The wind had swung round to the southeast and picked up to about 20 knots, so maybe we were all hoping that the longer we took, the more the wind might moderate.
As we packed and carried the boats down to the beach, the owners of one of the two yachts moored in Gabo’s tiny anchorage rowed ashore to take out another mooring line, which didn’t auger too well. It turned out that Chris Mills had bought his Nordkapp from them in Sydney, which is a fairly bizarre coincidence. They were very happy to see their beloved sea kayak restored to its former glory and being used in its element.
The wind was not going to moderate, so we hit the water at 1130 for the 16.5 Km journey to Black Head. As we pulled out of the shelter of Gabo’s little cove, it was clear that the passage to Cape Howe was going to be pretty exciting. The wind was gusting up to 25 knots right behind us, creating 1 to 1.5m seas. John Dowd covers it pretty well when he talks about force 5 kayaking “Large waves form; white-caps are numerous. Weather for experienced kayakers.”
This was right on the margin for a lot of us, but personally, even though it was frightening at times, it was also very exhilarating; probably the most exciting thing I have done.
Cape Howe was our focus. Once we had achieved this objective, we would get some shelter from the wind, and the slant of the coast from here to Black Head would tend to take the sting out of wind for the rest of the trip.
It was during this crossing that Bruce Lee was re-christened “The Shepherd of the Sea” or Shep for short . It was really something to see Bruce and his Greenlander charging across the sea with paddle flaying and spray flying as he went to someone’s aid or gathered in the stragglers. I think all of us were helped by Shep sometime during this trip.
Good luck, skill and Shep all contributed to us making Howe Bay, in the lee of Cape Howe, where we sought shelter from the wind and waves. We all rafted up to pump out, have a drink, something to eat, and a change of underwear.
The coast from Cape Howe to Black Head did not really have any decent place to land, so we pressed on in easier conditions for another hour or so to finally reach our destination at about 1430. No dramas here as the surf was only about .5m and spilling nicely.
Black Head, in Nadgee Nature Reserve is a very beautiful and comparatively isolated part of the coast, with good camping on or off the beach in the heath. Some of us decided to camp on the beach whilst others headed for the bush. However, pitching camp came a lot later. The wind had moderated and the surf was very attractive so some of us went for a swim whilst others played in the surf. Later on, Frank Brian and Shep carried their boats over the sand bar on the entrance of Nadgee river and paddled up this small, brackish, tanin-brown inlet where we all ended up swimming and having rolling lessons etc. The afternoon was spent in this delightfully relaxing way – a real tonic after the tensions of the morning.
Dawn on Wednesday, 19 December greeted us with cool conditions and drizzle. We were underway at about 1130 with a nice 5-10 kt. NE wind and lumpy but pleasant sea, which enabled us to hug the cliffs and examine the very impressive sea caves in this area. Shep nearly got creamed when he paddled into a cave and looked around to see a large green one just about to break on him; he hastily back-paddled his way out and needless-to-say, did not get in quite so close again.
We landed for lunch at about 1430 at Newtons Beach, heading off for Merrica River at about an hour later. By this time, the breeze had picked up to about 10-15 knots so it was a hard slog the rest of the way.
Merrica River hauled into view at about 1730 and was a most welcome sight, as the 18 Km from Black Head had seemed to me to be a lot longer. We towed the boats up through the narrow entrance into the small lagoon and paddled about another kilometre upstream looking for a campsite. Nothing suitable (except for the delicious oysters) so we paddled back to the entrance and made camp on the verge of the scrub and the sand.
Thursday, 20 December was overcast and dry but not a good day for paddling. A twenty-five knot wind, three metre swell and two metre waves are not ideal for sea kayaks, especially as we would have to cross the aptly named Disaster Bay and round Green Cape to reach our objective, Bittangabee Bay. Frank decided to call a rest day and to get away very early on Friday to try and beat the wind.
Franks’s decision was borne out when Shep decided to test the water and paddle out into the Bay. He made it nearly to Green Cape before returning with the report that the conditions were very rough; even he had difficulty, so it would’ve been out of the question to try the notorious Green Cape. Not to worry though, as we spent the day lazing around, writing up our logs, paddling, rolling etc etc.
The highlight of this interlude was probably when Mark donned his wetsuit and mask and retrieved a bag full of oysters off the rocks. We roasted these (and some mussels) on the coals of the one and only fire we had on the trip. What is there to say – how about delicious, wonderful, scrumptious, divine….. Mindful of the early start, we all hit the sack early.
The last day for most of us, Friday December 21, dawned overcast and dull. The swell had abated to 2 – 3 metres and the dreaded wind had dropped to 5 – 10 knots; not perfect conditions but good enough to have a go for Green Cape and Bittangabee Bay.
We were all aboard and paddling out of Merrica River by 0630. After we got through the surf and halfway across Disaster Bay, we rafted up to make the final decision on Green Cape. The swells were still big enough to cause nasty clapotis off the cliffs so Mark, Alice, Heli and I decided to head for Wonboyn, a small inlet in the centre of the crescent of Disaster Bay, whilst Frank, Bruce, Peter, Chris and Brian decided to have a crack for Bittangabee. As it turned out, it was probably six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. Frank and the others reported that Green Cape was “bloody rough” but quite okay, whereas we had to get through a fairly nasty surf over Wonboyn bar (which we all did okay).
The Wonboyn group started to walk to Bittangabee, and the Bittangabee group started to drive to Wonboyn so it was inevitable that we met halfway. Transfer from Wonboyn to Bittangabee was done quickly, and I guess the trip ended at about 1 o’clock on Friday.
We were all elated that we had finished and sad that it was all over. Chris and I had to get back to Sydney so farewells were hurried. For me, this was a fantastic trip, in a beautiful part of our country with fine companions. What more is there to say, except……
Thanks to Frank Bakker on behalf of everyone. Frank’s leadership, in sometimes difficult conditions, was always done with easy-going competence, understanding and humour which made for a safe and enjoyable trip.