8th and 9th May, 1993
Bruce Easton and I started from Sydney early on Saturday morning. It was a sunny day. Mackeral scales and mares tails streaked the upper levels of the sky. With eyes raised to the heavens, partly in supplication, I hazarded a guess in Bruce’s direction.
“High winds,” he replied, as we tied my Greenlander to the top of his car.
Too late for a change of mind. We were off on my biggest aqua-adventure to date. Out to Broughton Island. An unknown. A trip “offshore”.
The car trip was, as car trips often are, uneventful, and we soon saw Alex Preema’s kayak sitting on top of his car in Port Stephens. Alex directed us to a launching spot and we detoured for pie and chips and Bruce’s vegetarian something, arriving as Alex finished loading his boat.
I’d never loaded a kayak with camping gear before but felt instinctively that heavier things should go in the middle. A few goatskins of water would I thought, be helpful and soon we were on the water.
Alex, in his eagerness, had forgotten to batten down his back hatch. Fortunately we discovered that before we ventured off and we fixed it.
Nervousness and excitement jostled for lead position as I warmed up my paddling muscles. We passed through the twin headlands of Port Stephens and out through the islands scattered around the entrance. The sea was taking on a special colour, an omen for the trip. It was like green liquid glass. A deep succulent emerald.
Boondelbah and Little Island lay ahead of us and we shouted queries at each other. Should we go around Cabbage Tree Island or between it and North Head? We decided to go out around the island named for the palms that grow all over it. As we swung around to the north, we saw Broughton Island as a faint smudge ahead.
Above: Michael Maleedy discovering Sea-Caving (Photo: Bruce Easton)
“Doesn’t seem too far”, I thought, “something like Manly to Long Reef, maybe a bit more”. Off we paddled, a south-west wind blowing spray off choppy waves of about half a metre. We’d gone for about an hour and the grey smudge of the island was no less of a smudge. Looking back, Cabbage Tree and the Headland still stood out clearly. We’d hardly moved. I felt much more tired than hours of paddling usually makes me feel. The idea of being offshore and committed to a long paddle was obviously draining me more than I would have expected.
It was at about this point that the first dolphin leapt from the water. He was about an oars length away on the right of my boat and made me gasp with shock. Much more than the dolphins of film or photo, this creature was solid and abrupt. For all the world like a dog. A sea-cur. They weren’t there for long, these delightful creatures. Just enough to cause our three craft to move instinctively closer together, for we humans to exchange appreciative looks and mouth appropriate sentiments and then they were gone; leaving us to paddle on, lost in our own worlds of wonder and delight. A world I’m sure you fellow ocean-canoers also inhabit.
It took us about two and a half hours to reach the island and we entered a long, thin bay which sheltered a sprinkling of fisher folks huts. We pulled ashore just north of this little village and quickly set up camp. There was just enough light to allow for a quick exploration of the island so off we set again to hug the coast to the north. Bruce is an adventurous soul. He poked his way through all the nooks and crannies while Alex and I stood off wondering at the bravery or stupidity of Bruce’s confidence. I didn’t actually see the wave which almost wiped Bruce out but turned at the shouts, to see him metres away from a cliff, cresting a breaking wave. His Klepper and skill had saved him again.
We continued around a large bay and then headed south to investigate a sea-cave we’d noticed on the way to the island. We approached the cave as close as we dared to see the swell disappear into it and explode against the walls and spray create magnificent plumes of energy. “No! Not today. “Not any day”, I thought, as I tried to imagine manoeuvring my unwieldy Greenlander in such a confined space.
Night was falling, so we went back to camp for a hasty meal. The food was barely eaten when I was overcome by sheer exhaustion. I crawled into my sleeping bag and was instantly asleep.
I woke suddenly with an aching back. The muffled sound of the sea reminding me were I was and my stomach an empty pit. I had to eat! I looked at my watch. It was 11 pm as I stuck my head out to see that the leaden sky was weighing down the night, hiding a sky I’d hoped to see white with stars.
My clattering and banging in the cooking lean-to that Alex had provided brought him questioning into the night. What was I doing? Eating!? At two o clock in the morning? I was never to live this down. Alex to this day is convinced that I’m an eccentric night-nibbler. For the rest of the trip I had to endure taunts and jokes about my nocturnal peculiarities. True, there was nothing edible on the entire beach the next morning but, hey, a guy’s gotta eat!
The following day, Alex decided to climb to the highest point on the island while Bruce and I paddled. We headed off toward the sea-cave we’d investigated the night before. On the way to it we discovered a rock garden which would allow us passage to the south of the island and enable us to approach the cave from the side opposite to the one we’d looked at the day before. Cautious, as usual, I led the way through the jumble of rocks, pausing to let waves pass before paddling furiously to get to the open water beyond. As we left the rocks and cliffs and came out into clear water we saw the first of about twenty soft drink cans floating about, scattered, together with plastic bags full of rubbish over a huge area. We collected them, piling our kayaks high and took them across to a dive boat which had arrived to take advantage of the delightful, crystal waters. The divers agreed to take rubbish away for us and then watched as we edged our way toward the sea cave. From this side the explosions of water against the cliff walls seemed even more dramatic and dangerous. A two metre swell, crashing through a channel about four metres across was something not even Bruce was game to enter. We agreed to move around to the north entrance again and twenty minutes found us following the swell into the mouth of the cave. Strangely, once we’d committed ourselves to the lunacy of entering and once we were inside, all the movement and spray were no worse than a moderately windy day off a headland. Bruce led the way through the passage and hesitated just before the exit. I was picked up and hurtled forward by a following wave. I screamed, “We’ve made it. Go! Go!”. Bruce gave a quick look back, a couple of paddle strokes and we burst out of the gap to the applause of the divers on the boat beyond.
Once we’d been through and realised how safe the exercise was in reality we returned through the cave. The photos Bruce took of this show what seem to be almost calm, flat water. they don’t show the dynamism of the sea in that confined space.
Above: Michael Maleedy leaving Broughton in his wake (Photo: Bruce Easton)
The adrenalin buzz we received from that adventure gave us the energy then to paddle north to investigate the rest of the island’s shoreline. Broughton Island is a pretty featureless heath, but the cliffs and rock formations which ring it, are stunning. The bubbles and flows of once molten rock seem caught in time. I don’t know the origin of the island but looking around from the ocean, at certain points, you can imagine yourself in the bowl of an extinct volcano.
We travelled as far around the island as time would allow and found another cave which led through the cliffs. A quieter cave this time but with it’s own peculiarities. It was very shallow, so had to be navigated on the rise of a wave. An interesting experience and not for those with precious kayaks.
On our way back to the camp site we passed close to a rock outcrop. Fortunately we were not hugging the shoreline as we had previously. A sudden rogue wave leapt out of a completely calm sea. As we watched in awe, it smashed against the jagged rocks, metres from our fragile boats. I can’t imagine how we would have dealt with the situation of being caught between those cruel rocks and that cunning wave. Perhaps a quick capsize to create enough drag to let the wave pass over, then a roll and a fear-filled dash for safety. That wave lived in my memory and dreams for days.
Back at the tents we found Alex sheltering from the rain that had started to fall. He’d had a great time. We envied him what must have been magnificent views from the top of the island.
After lunch we packed and headed north. Rather than paddle round the whole of the island we used the second cave we’d discovered to make the trip a bit shorter. The day was getting on and we had a way to travel so we moved south onto a remarkable sea.
The sky overhead was leaden and heavy and the ocean as flat and featureless as I’ve ever seen it. Every now and then the swell would move through from the south west like a huge creature turning in its sleep. It was sheer pleasure to slink along its surface through a profound silence. Far in the distance was a faint groan I took to be traffic on a highway. The others told me it was the sound of breaking waves on the shore kilometres to the east. Every now and then we’d stop and listen, to virtually nothing. No wind, no water movement. Complete silence, almost. Once or twice on the journey, a light squall would pass over us. If we stopped then, I’d lie back on my boat and listen to the clinking glass sound of raindrops hitting the sea surface.
Eventually the headlands of Port Stephens were immediately ahead of us and we slowed down to luxuriate in the magnificent aqua’s and purples of the shallows around the islands.
As we passed through the twin sentinels of the bay we were met by a a pod of dolphins moving like one animal as they broke the surface. We moved towards them but they disappeared to reappear a hundred metres behind us, then off again in the distance. We were too tired to pursue them and headed for a landing, a quick pack-up and a welcome dinner at Alex’s In-laws.
If this becomes an annual event, as I suspect it will, I recommend it to any competent paddler. It’s a trip that will live in your memory for a long time.