22 Days on the Barrier Reef [27]

By Graham Shaw

Imagine twenty two days on the Barrier Reef
Vibrant life in clear water gliding beneath
Riding low on light wind and warm waves
North on prevailing South-easterly Trades
Thin kayak hull slicing the sea easily
On which coral island will our next camp be?

Launching sea kayaks next to verdant Daintree
Jungle mountains towering rugged on our lee
Osprey wheeling soars Cape Tribulation
Rhythmic arms strengthen in exhaltation
From all cares small spinnaker draws us free
Which tropical fish will our next meal be?

A large dark shadow passes quickly beneath
Only thin glass fibre between me and his teeth.
Clearing the decks as storm winds howl
Try for Cooktown or throw in the towel
Following sea rages as we brace and surf
Blown from Point Archer we make safe berth

Into the far north we enter the Never- Never
Wind and sea easing , coral islands forever
We snorkel and fish our freedom we`ve earned
Big crocs low freshwater, our only concern
Five days on our own, no other people we see
Dolphins sea-turtle, dugongs our company.

Half a litre of freshwater is all that is left
Melville’s dry boulders hide salvation in a cleft
On Flinders Islands in Princess Charlotte Bay
We visit ancient art and prawn trawler for the day
Colin and Freda treat us to outback hospitality
After prawns tea and cake, seaphone home for free!

Fifty eight kilometres on a breathless hot day
Plodding across smooth waters of this giant bay
We miss by nine hours Neville on Burkitt Island
Phone messages relayed via wives in South Highlands
No food drop, Port Stewart upwind out of our reach
Navy divers have beer and barby, a huge meat feast.
We evade two storms and force a late ride
The next planned camp is awash at high tide.

Crocodile drag marks on the Island of Night
We search for mud crabs in mangroves for respite
Like Bligh we touch mainland at Cape Direction
Hot shower & tea from caretaker of Restoration.

Passing some ferals we paddle leisurely West
As over Portland Road the sun silently sets
Neville is fishing and Allan has tea
We discuss hieroglyphs and aborigine
Barbara joins us to shop and tour ’round Lockhart
Tall tales of strange animals as we slowly depart.

Straining into head wind the fabled Forbes Isles
We gain a lee beach to stretch for a while
Big pleasure boat beckons at anchor nearby
Fine wine, fresh food we’re invited to try
Later we snorkel, stunning reef drops away
Hudson catches perch to keep hunger at bay.

Then a native long house, vegie garden and hens
Guest house wonderland of Roy, Anna and friends
Repaying their kindness we feed pigs coconut
And roll a fuel drum up to generator hut
In ten minutes we spear trout and crayfish
Anna gave us fresh herbs to add to our dish.

In gale force winds we make for the lee
Of Cairncross Island, splash, it hides from me.
Later Hudson fishing spies a log floating
It has eyes and teeth and is all the while gloating
To escape the storm we camp on his beach
A fence of kayaks to rest beyond his reach.

Sailing winds so strong we lunch next day
At Turtle-head Island where we planned to lay
Eating dinnerplate oysters as big as your hand
We set course for Cape York unsure where to land.
Albany Passage races , wind and tide in our favour
We ride Coral Sea surging , foaming into Arafura.

Imagine sun setting as we paddle between
Cape & York Island, it`s the end of our dream
Biggest day by far, 80k`s in 8 hours
We search for the car and camp under flowers
More than 800k`s have passed ‘neath our hulls
No more fishing and cruising with Coral Sea gulls.

22 days – Logistics

Hudson Pratley from Crookwell and I each paddled a Greenlander IV sea kayak fitted with spinnaker sails from QCraft (Brookvale) and retractable rudder.The rig worked well but was a bit awkward setting the sail in gusting winds-occasionally needing a strong brace to avoid wet ears.

We had laminated 1:100,000 maps of the full length of the trip and used a Silva bushwalking compass strapped to the deck to navigate. This was necessary when low islands were more than 10kms apart or visibility was low. We found it to be very accurate. Tides and winds made no significant impression when we paddled on a direct map heading.

Port Douglas to Cooktown has the most stunning coastal scenery with “rain forest to reef” just as the travel brochures say.This trip can be done with a commercial group providing all gear and support (Reef Promotions – phone 070 514777.RnR Rafting -phone 1800 079039- do the east coast of Hinchinbrook Is – also highly recommended). Further north the coastline has very long dry sandy beaches and dunes,barren headlands and mangrove bays and estuaries.

Water is definitely available on Lizard Island, Cape Melville(obvious white signs on granite boulders) Flinders Island-N.W. swampy area-, Lockhart R and Portland Roads. We’ve been told its also available on Noble Island- N.E. end in a well (we couldn’t find it),up the Pascoe and Olive Rivers, Forbes Is (we couldn’t find it),in a lagoon behind dunes just south of False Orford Ness, Turtle-Head Is (but the pearl farmers may be unfriendly)and Albany Is . If you paddle along the beaches there are said to be some soaks coming from the dunes.We lasted five days with a total of 20 lts water, 2 lts UHT milk and a pile of fresh fruit with no difficulty when we failed to find water on Noble Is.

All necessary supplies and medical services can be readily obtained in Mossman, Cooktown and Lockhart River and Bamaga.Once past Cooktown it’s possible to get out by road from Cape Flattery ( a huge Jap silica mine) Port Stewart, Lockhart River (Portland Roads) and Cape York. You can put your kayak on a coastal trader (e.g. Sea Swift phone:070 351234) from several points on the peninsula or Torres Straight. They will return it to Cairns as deck cargo for $50.You can return with the boat or fly back on regular services from Lockhart or Bamaga. Jardine Shipping (phone:070 351299) can transport cars to Horn Is or Bamaga from Cairns for $650. Cairns Port Authority (070-523888) can give phone nos. and movements of Mother Ships servicing the various fishing trawlers operating throuhgout the reef. These boats can help with supplies and pick-ups from any location accessable to them. Allan Parnell (?)in the last house at end of the Universe (Portland Roads) is happy to act as post restente, mind gear, fill you in on local info, gossip etc.

We approached several prawn trawlers and were well received. We always asked how the season was going (we knew it was a bumper season) and this got things off to a good start. I kept an empty 4 litre plastic water bottle on my rear deck which they readily filled and they always asked if they could be of any help.Twice we phoned home and topped up our supplies of bread, toilet paper etc. We always offered to pay, they always refused. Only the first boat we approached (a Mackerel boat) had two grumpy blokes on board – we moved on.

After Cape Bedford we deliberately chose to island-hop because the water is clearer and the fishing , snorkelling and navigating much better.There are no pigs and less mangroves, insects and crocs.The risk of croc attack is very low and can be further minimised by avoiding estuaries , mangroves and murky water. Getting out of your boat into or next to murky water should be done only if there is no alternative and with your wits about you. A sea kayak presents a large profile and crocs tend to defer and stalk until conditions are strongly in their favour – but they are territorial! The locals delight in telling croc stories …… especially to sea kayakers. One we did believe was several reports of a 17′ croc on Wilke Is just north of Burkitt Is -we avoided it!

Neville Burkitt, a retired farmer and keen fisherman from Bungonia volunteered to drive the car up to Cape York and meet us at Cape Tribulation, Cooktown, Burkitt Is (named after his uncle), Portland Roads and Cape York. However we missed him at Burkitt Island and although we had relayed messages via our wives it caused him undue anguish while waiting 3 days for us at Port Stewart. A very clear arrangement must be made to avoid this if anyone contemplates land support (which is unnecessary) . We carried flares and a hand held CB radio and didn’t use either. We had 2 small mishaps – a strong gust tore off Husdson’s mast step as he was setting his sail early in the trip – repaired that night. One night, I picked up a stick beside the fire to push it further in and burnt the palm of my left hand with five instant blisters. I soaked it in cold seawater for one hour, then plastered it with betadine cream, took a pain killer and went to bed. Next morning it was reasonably comfortable – I placed a leukoplast bandage around it and put on a cotton gardening glove and had no further problem. Small things can easily become a major problem a long way from help. We found our boats to be very seaworthy, handling two very windy days of 35 knots plus. We had no capsizes and only occasionally needed a sharp strong brace – but the adrenaline was pumping! Its important to have similar boats, rigs and abilities because you need to keep together on long legs. Hudson’s fishing prowess was a great boon , he was usually able to get the best eating fish within half an hour. We tried trolling on 80lb lines with lures – but gave up early in the trip when something big broke the line with ease .We decided we didn’t want to catch something that big while negotiating currents and reefs.

We had two rods, two hand lines and a hand spear. Small crab was the best bait. Hudson caught painted crays with a leather glove. Mud crabs , the most sensational food ,were caught by hand or speared in mangroves. We wore sunhats, long sleeve cotton shirts , 8 hour factor 15+ suncream on our face and hands and occasionally wore cotton gardening gloves.

You have to time your run through Albany Passage with a falling tide because the tidal current runs at 4 knots.This is a beautiful area , great camping beaches and islands dotted out into Torres Straight, drawing you on. Several groups have kayaked the Straight with local permission, customs and tidal currents requiring more planning.The drive back from Cape York to Canberra in 4.5 days was a bit harrowing-the first 800 kms was corrugated and collapsed my Thule roof-racks with loaded kayaks twice onto the Pajero roof and caused all 4 shock absorbers to leak. The Barrier Reef is a tropical paradise, disease free, vast and unpopulated,with plenty for the naturalist and hunter-gatherer. It has relatively benign weather and seas (outside of cyclone season) and a bit of spice in the form of some sharp toothed mega fauna and the occasional squall.