The 1996 Rugby Tour [27]

A Sea Kayak Trip in Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey

By Andrew Eddy

Stephen Brady and I had met at the New South Wales Sea Kayak Club Rock-and-Roll weekend in 1994 at Patonga. I assembled and paddled my new Feathercraft foldable kayak to Patonga from Bobbin Head on Friday and beached it at the campground before walking into town. When I arrived back, an hour later, there were two Feathercrafts! Stephen was assembling his almost-identical new boat only a few metres from mine.

A year later, at the 1995 Rock-and-Roll weekend ,we were both ready to plan a trip which, unlike most club trips, would necessitate foldable kayaks. We had both been considering various remote places and had independently arrived at the idea of paddling in Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey. It had all the requisites of a first long trip for foldables: a remote area accessible only on foot, by small plane or by boat; few people; and fairly sheltered waters. We chose to go in mid-summer, to catch the warmest weather, and to make use of some free time that Stephen had before starting a new job in Adelaide.

We planned on spending the maximum possible amount of time on the water, so I booked tickets to Hobart on a Friday afternoon and booked our charter flight out to Melaleuca airstrip for the Saturday morning. This did not allow time for shopping for food in Hobart, so we had to take all our food for ten days from Newcastle and Sydney. To be fair to TasAir, I had booked a plane for two passengers and the equivalent of four large rucksacks. I had estimated 110 kg of baggage. When we turned up at Sydney airport we found that we had 134 kg of gear in six large bags! The counter staff had us repack the two kayak bags, which were 34 kg each, in order to bring them down to under 30 kg. Now we had seven large bags. When we had done this they apologised for charging us $10 each for the excess baggage!

On the Saturday morning, when we turned up at TasAir for our charter flight, they swapped us from the Cessna three-seater to a five seater and we flew around the south coast of Tasmania with two tourists on a joy-flight. The weather was warm and clear, so we got excellent views of the channels and beaches near Hobart (a wonderful area for another kayak trip) and of the rugged coastal scenery of the South Coast Walking Track. The pilot flew close the coastal mountains and as we came up to Coxs Bight took the plane right down to fly along the beach just above the waves. Have you ever been surfing in a Cessna? He could not land us on the beach due to the weight, but promised the tourist couple that, once he had dropped off the kayakers and our gear, he would take them back to Coxs Bight and land for a little while.

Melaleuca airstrip is a very short strip of white quartzite gravel, rated for single engine planes and restricted to pilots who have been certified to land there. At Melaleuca there is a ranger station, staffed during the summer, a couple of Nissen huts as overnight accommodation for walkers and a small tin mine nearby, which is run by couple who are resident year-round. Melaleuca is the terminus of the South Coast Walking Track and the Port Davey Track and is around four to eight days’ walk into the South West Wilderness from the nearest roads.

We landed late in the morning, took our bags down to the jetty at the end of the airstrip and assembled our kayaks on the jetty. The jetty was blocked by boats which made it impossible to load the kayaks in the water, so I paddled my kayak and towed Stephen’s about a kilometre around to Melaleuca Lagoon, found a little beach near the bushwalkers’ hut, and we loaded our gear there.

When Max and Sheila Newman wrote of their trip here a few years ago they mentioned that when they launched into the Lagoon they “… got stuck in shallow water, much to the amusement of a couple of small girls paddling in the water! Gathering [their] dignity …”. Within a few seconds of launching we found ourselves in the same predicament as Max and Sheila. The water was too shallow to float the kayaks with our weight, and the mud was too deep and soft to wade through. Stephen and I had been joking that the best way to avoid the notorious knee-deep mud, bane of the Tasmanian bushwalker, was to see South-West Tasmania by kayak. We laughed and compromised, with some weight on the coaming, and still up to our thighs in the mud and soon reached the channel.

As we paddled up Melaleuca Inlet, we soon had our first glimpse of Mt Rugby. During the next eight days, we were rarely out of sight of it: it rises 771 metres straight out of the Harbour and is central in the Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour area. It became obvious why we had to climb it. The general plan for the trip was to paddle out into Port Davey, the more exposed body of water, and see some of that while the weather held good, then come back in, walk up Mt Rugby, and paddle Bathurst Harbour.

On our first night we discovered a problem that a kayak-camper will have everywhere in the Harbour; the typical shore is either a short cliff of quartzite gravel topped with steep button-grass moorland, or a short beach of quartzite gravel up to high tide, topped by a metre-high step of peat, with Melaleuca (Ti-tree) scrub on top of that. Camping places by the water are few and far between. That evening we cooked on the beach before the tide came up, and pushed our way through the scrub to the button-grass moor behind. A spotted quoll (a small marsupial carnivore, about the size of a cat) sniffed at the kayaks in the dim light.

Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour are joined by the Bathurst Channel, 12 kilometres long, but only between 200 metres and one kilometre wide. I had visions of tide races, eddies, boils and other horrors, but in reality a tidal range of about a metre creates very little exchange between the two bodies of water. We had a very quiet paddle out to Schooner Cove, a sheltered anchorage just inside the western end of the channel. There is a small clearing, large enough for three or four tents, and fresh water from a creek. The cove was first recorded early last century and is well known to yachties passing through. We met one such yacht, returning to Melbourne via the west coast from the Melbourne to Hobart race. They measured an ebb current of only 1.3 knots.

Our “best-case” plan would have taken us out into Port Davey and north into Payne Bay, up the Davey River to the Davey Gorge. This was an ambitious plan, which would allow a south-westerly wind and swell to bottle us up in Payne Bay for an indefinite period. The weather was still good on the following day, so we headed out the channel into Port Davey. There was a low swell running and very little wind, however we took the conservative option and paddled north, partly in the shelter of the Breaksea Islands, past the Boil Rock (aptly named – the sea boiled with only half a metre of swell) and up to Kathleen Island and the Needle Rocks. We then turned south, back past the Breakseas and Shanks Islands down to Spain Bay.

Spain Bay is a sheltered ocean beach, surrounded on three sides by land and has fine white sand up to well above high tide; good camping. There is some fresh water in soaks at the mouth of a creek but we had plenty of water ballast from Schooner Cove. We beached the kayaks at the head of the beach and sat in the shade for lunch. The sun was hot and strong and Tasmania was in the grip of a heat-wave.

Later in the afternoon we crossed the peninsula to Stephens Bay, which is fully exposed to the south-west. It, too, is a sandy beach but has rock outcrops at about water level and would be a treacherous landing in almost any sea conditions. We spent ages pushing our way through the scrub at the head of the beach to get there, but two fishermen told us of the track (!) back to Spain Bay. The track gives a high vantage point over both bays. I took pity on a poor lobster which had its uropods stuck in the soft sand at the edge of the water, unable to walk forwards or flip itself backwards. It may live to see its grandchildren. We had plenty to eat anyway.

The wind started to pick up on the following day and the sea was a little choppier. It continued to rise as we paddled back to the channel. By the time we were well inside the channel the wind had produced sixty centimetre wind waves, so we had an exhilarating ride down through The Narrows, surfing our laden boats.

The ranger at Melaleuca had insisted on a float plan, and since we had no intention of planning more than four days ahead, we aimed to be back in Melaleuca about two days hence to proffer a float plan for the second half of the trip. Max and Sheila Newman had mentioned the hut at “Claytons” in their article and we had heard it mentioned by yachties. Near the hut, in amongst the rain forest, there is a spot big enough for a tent. Fishermen have taken over the maintenance of the hut and keep the rain water tanks in good repair. The hill behind the hut gives clear views toward Mt Rugby and over the nearer parts of Bathurst Harbour. We camped overnight, left our gear and paddled down to see the ranger then paddled back to Claytons.

The entire South West Wilderness seems to be covered in peat soils, so the fresh water draining out of the soils is infused with tannins. Much of the fresh water is the colour of coffee or tea; white paddle blades look brown in the water. The negligible tidal flushing of the harbour means that the salt water is coffee-coloured too, and the high proportion of tannins in the water gives the water foaming properties. Wind creates streaks of foam which push up against the shore in bands of white froth. This can be a harbour with a good “head” on it. Claytons cove was rimmed with foam when we got back, and it continued to build after we returned.

The next day was to be a short paddling day; from Claytons around the point and across the channel to Platypus Cove. Angus Finny had told Stephen about a track which ran up Rugby from the cove and a spot up Platypus Creek with space for a tent.

The previous days’ wind had brought in some cloud from the south-west and this cloud banked up against Mt Rugby at about 300 metres altitude. We were not certain of having views at all from the top. It took about two hours to climb up through the cloud to the peak at 771 metres.

At the top it was windy and cold but through sporadic breaks in the cloud we could look down over the places we had paddled, would paddle, and over some of Tasmanias best known walking country, including the Western Arthur Range and down to Coxs Bight. The cloud, thick scrub and very steep bouldery ground had us geographically embarrassed for a little while on the way back down.

We took a short evening paddle without gear, to enjoy the sunset and the quiet at sea level.

Since we hadn’t gone up the Davey River to the Gorge, then perhaps we could paddle up the Old River, at least to the first set of rapids? Bathurst Harbour was calm, sunny and glassy-smooth in the morning so we paddled slowly beside the shore, up towards North Inlet, Swan Point, Black Swan Island. There is good reason for all the “Swan” place names: black swans may be the commonest sea-bird in the Harbour, flying in flocks of up to fifty.

As we sat on the gravel of Black Swan Island, the wind started to pick up again. It generated wind waves up to fifty centimetres, which were parallel to our chosen course and which forced us to paddle further out into the harbour, to take them partly on the bow, and to allow us to surf down them into the mouth of the Old River. It is a quirk of the local topography that makes a south-westerly appear to be a westerly when you paddle down Bathurst Channel, but appear to be a southerly when unprotected by the low ground between Coxs Bight and Melaleuca.

The first set of rapids, about two kilometres up the Old River had a large gravel bar with a little shade, so we ate lunch there and waited fro the wind to die down in the afternoon. Stephen had brought a new self-rescue accessory, called Sea-Wings. These are two sponsons which sit uninflated on the deck behind the cockpit, and when needed can be quickly clipped in place and inflated to add enormously to the kayak’s stability. We spent some of the time on the gravel bar fitting and adjusting the Sea-Wings, then testing them. Sea-Wings on an already-stable kayak make it possible to get up and walk around in the kayak. It is also possible to do some surprisingly aggressive leans without bracing.

By late afternoon the wind hadn’t dropped, so with only three hours of daylight we set out from Old River for the southern side of the harbour at Moulters Inlet. We quickly met the strong southerly winds coming across from Coxs Bight, together with their fifty to sixty centimetre waves. It took two and a half hours to paddle five kilometres over to the shelter of Mt Fulton. We have no photos of this leg of the trip, since we both needed both hands on the paddle!

The sunset colours on Mount Rugby and on the clouds were well worth the effort to reach the southern side. We were lucky to find a tiny clearing in the ti-tree scrub, large enough for a tent. Without it we would have had to bivvy on the beach gravel (and hope that a neap tide really is a neap tide) or on the waterlogged peat (with the same tide problem).

Our last paddling day started out dead calm, sunny and warm. The reflections in the flat-as-glass water were perfect mirror images. If you want to photograph another paddler in such conditions, don’t stop. The slightest movement of your hips will ripple the surface. The best pictures come when you are gliding at about half a knot; almost no wake, but enough speed to stay ahead of the ripples. We paddled right around the Celery Top Islands (the Celery Top Pines must have been logged out long ago) and down Melaleuca inlet to the lagoon, where we disassembled and dried the boats and gear and carted it up to the airstrip.

From walkers we had met at Melaleuca, on the three times we had been through, we had heard of two bushwalkers who had flown into the beach at Coxs Bight on Boxing day with a load of pancake mix and coffee and who had been serving these pancakes and coffee to everyone walking down the South Coast Track. Two girls who were staying with relatives at the Melaleuca mine heard about this, borrowed a briefcase, walked the twelve kilometres down to Coxs Bight, pretended to be (very young) health inspectors in order to close the “Peripatetic Pancake Parlour”. There were so many people walking through the South-West Wilderness after Christmas that I was glad we had had a way to see this part of the country and see so few people

The TasAir pilot took us back to Hobart by the inland route, right over Bathurst Harbour, Old River, the Arthur Range, Federation Peak and the Huon Valley. From the plane we could see the lines of waves across Bathurst Harbour, swept along by the wind.

We spent the next day as tourists in Hobart, and when we fronted up on the last day at Hobart airport, the counter staff didn’t bat an eyelid at our pile of gear. They were even better than the Sydney Ansett staff.


Location: South-West National Park, Tasmania (43 deg S 146 deg E), part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

Time: January 12 to 21, 1996.

Group and grading: Two paddlers, trip planned for NSWSKC grade 2 (weather could take grading to 3). Daily distances up to 20 km, trip total 120 km.

Maps: Tasmaps (Port Davey 1:100,000 and Old River 1:100,000), Nautical chart for Port Davey (surveyed 1899, 1902, 1922 !), tide tables (Hobart and Stanley), Australian Pilot.

Gear: 10 days’ worth of food, camping gear, two Feathercraft K1 Expedition Single kayaks, and paddling gear.

Flights: Ansett scheduled flights between Sydney and Hobart, TasAir chartered flights between Hobart (Cambridge airfield) and Melaleuca.