The Road Will Take It’s Toll [29]

A Tale of Torres Strait

By Arunas Pilka

“The road will take it’s toll”, This glib statement from the weedy character at the Moreton Telegraph Station was treated at the time with the contempt we thought it deserved, later we were to refer to the guy who said it as “the prophet”, “the great sage”, “the wise one” etc. Five days earlier John Wild, Gary Parker, Dirk Stuber & myself had set off from Wollongong in John’s Toyota Landcruiser Troop Carrier towing Gary’s big 4 wheel drive trailer loaded with the gear & the boats and with the intention of driving up to the tip of Cape York and then doing a double crossing of Torres Strait. We made good time to Mission Beach where we met up with Evan & Michelle and went for a nice day paddle out to Dunk Island & did a bit of snorkelling etc.

In the afternoon a north westerly blew up which was good for us seeing as we needed a bit of a workout but poor Michelle couldn’t make headway into it and so she & Evan landed on the southern end of Mission Beach. This necessitated John driving around in the dark for a while looking for them but after they were found we all had a farewell diner for them (Evan & Michelle are off overseas for a couple of years).

The next morning we set of with high hopes, slight hangovers and two extra boats (John had bought Evan’s Vynek & Michelle’s North Sea Tourer from them for the bargain basement/fire sale total price of $900 including paddles, spray decks & PFDs). Again we made good time travelling north until we got slowed down by the Laura Pub. While having the first of what we were to find as the standard Cape priced $3.20 cans of XXXX we were informed that because of the Papaya Fruit Fly infestation fruit could not be carried past Laura. Our dinner therefore consisted of all the fruit which we had bought for the trip north washed down with a few more XXXXs.

After consuming all our fruit we travelled a little further to camp at the Kennedy River where we observed a distinctly fishy smell emanating from the trailer. The source of this was discovere’d to be my supply of tinned herrings, which, under the influence of the vibration from the corrugated road, had opened themselves. A clean up and repack were in order.

The next morning we stashed John’s two spare boats in the scrub to be collected on our return journey. That day we crossed the Archer River (which had so little water in it that we had to search for a waterhole deep enough to get wet in), the Wenlock River, which was about knee deep and were finally coaxed into camping at Bramwell Station by the promise of cold beer.

The next day was to see us reach c J. destination so we broke camp arid headed off with enthusiasm. About an hour or so down the road our high spirits turned to despair when we were passed by the right hand wheel of the trailer. Although the trailer had been built with heavy duty suspension and big Land Cruiser wheels, the builder had used standard Ford stub axles, the added stress of the large wheels and the incredible pounding of the corrugations took their toll and the axle had sheared

After much use of expletives and a little head scratching we decided to unbolt the axle assembly, Pack, the axle, half the gear and two of the boats in & on the Land Cruiser, stash the rest in the scrub and go on to Bamaga to try & get the axle repaired. While unloading the trailer the aroma of curry spices permeated the air, we discovered that a can of Dirk’s sweet curry had followed the example of my herrings and spontaneously unsealed itself.

About 60 km from Bamaga we arrived at the Jardine River ferry. We paid the $80 ferry charge & entry permit, drove the Land Cruiser onto the ferry and then jumped in and swam across the river. On the other side, we were greeted by a quarantine agent who commented that he was glad to see that we weren’t afraid of the crocs, apparently in 1993 someone was taken by a crocodile while swimming the river.

In Bamaga we were told that our best bet for repairs was the marine engineer in Seisia, he wasn’t there but Eric the mechanic next door agreed to speak to him so we left the axle with him and headed out to Punsand Bay where we were to depart for our paddle from. More $3.20 XXXXs to soothe our jangled nerves that night then back into Seisia the next morning. Shell (that’s not how it’s spelt but how it sounds ), the marine engineer wasn’t there again and it was obvious that repairs could not be made that day so Gary & I drove the 200 km back to where the trailer was and collected the remaining boats & gear while John and Dirk stayed behind to make repairs to John’s Greenlander which had sustained some damage from the trip up.

Back at Punsand Bay that night we soothed away the day’s frustrations, with a few more $3.20 XXXXs and went to bed anticipating finally being able to get on the water.

The next day the 25 knot South Easterly that was blowing when we first arrived was still blowing. This was not part of the plan, we had delayed our trip from July/August to Late September/October to avoid the SE Trades and had been assured that the winds at this time of the year averaged 5 to 10 knots and from varying directions.

Our first leg was to be a relatively t short hop from Punsand Bay to Little , Adolphus Island about 28 km to the east. We delayed our departure till midday in order to get some assistance from the tide. The wind.against tide had kicked up a fairly uncomfortable chop and so it was fairly slow going to Little Adolphus.

Once we got there we became aware of our next problem, the tide was low and because of the fringing reef there was nowhere to land on the island without a long carry across broken coral. We opted instead for a small, unnamed rock with a tiny beach that we could land on, at the top of the beach was a small flat section of sand that we hoped would be above the high tide mark. This is where we made camp and planned the next days crossing. Our destination was to be Sue Islet 49 km to the northeast.

The next day dawned calm and clear and although a continuing southeasterly would have been of assistance for the days paddle it did seem to indicate that the winds of the past 3 or 4 days were a temporary aberration. We set of shortly after sunrise. After an hours paddling we checked our progress on the GPS, we were making good progress (about 8km) but contrary to our expectations we seemed to be under the influence of an ebbing tide and were drifting slightly to the east. We made allowance for the tide and paddled on checking the GPS every hour. At about the half way mark we discovered that the tide had changed and was carrying rapidly to the West, we made continuing corrections but after about 7 hours of paddling we were well to the west of our mark, fighting a strong tidal current and still had not sighted land. At this stage I began doubting modem technology but within the next half hour of paddling we sighted land. It was Poll Island about 5 km short of our destination. We decided not to push on and camped the night on Poll Island.

The next morning the tide was out, and the edge of the reef was about one and a half kilometres away, we could carry the boats across all that broken coral or have a bit of asleep in, we chose the latter. After breakfast we explored the island and at about 11am the tide had risen to fill the lagoon inside the reef sufficiently for us to paddle around to the northern side of the island where we had discovered there was a channel through the reef. We had already decided not to make much distance that day and so spent a couple of hours snorkelling on the reef prior to paddling across to Sue Islet. This was to be the calmest day we experienced the whole trip, the ocean was as flat as billiard table and with the heat haze there was no horizon giving the whole scene an eerie surreal feeling.

Sue Islet, or Warraba as it is known by the locals, has a community of about 100 living on it. We were met on our arrival by Walter, an enthusiastic quarantine officer who introduced us to the island’s chairman. While Dirk & John stood in the sun chatting to the chairman Walter took Gary and myself to fill our water containers from the rainwater tanks, at least we could stay in the shade. After cold drinks at the IBIS shop we made the 6km crossing to Bett Islet where we made camp at the north eastern tip where the reef only extended about 50 meters from the island. That night we lit a fire to cook the fish that Gary and Dirk had speared that morning at Poll Island. We had no idea what these fish were and so were a little worried that they might be poisonous but no one got ill and they turned out to be delicious, one fish of about 3 kg was particularly good, we discovered later on that it was a juvenile red emperor, mature fish growing up to 1.2 meters long.

The next days target was Gabba Island, a distance of about 45 km. We decided to go via Yam Island. An inhabited island about half way. It was another calm day but as usual the currents and tides didn’t cooperate and we seemed to make slow time. We landed on Yam Island for lunch and assuming that the settlement was on the other side of the island (it was just around the headland) did not bother to visit the natives.

Gabba Island is completely fringed by reefs and most of it’s shore is covered by mangroves. The only campsite we could find had a fair stretch of reef in front of it and we knew that true to our luck when we wanted to leave it would be low tide, we were right, the next morning carrying our boats across the reef took over an hour of backbreaking work. The southeaster had sprung up again (it was to continue virtually unabated for the rest of the trip) giving us a rear quartering sea for the Northerly crossing to Dauan Island. John with his sail was revelling in the 25 knot wind but Dirk began to succumb to sea sickness. With Dirk in tow John under sail was still going faster than Gary or myself! As usual the tide changed and we once again had to battle an opposing current to reach Dauan.

Dauan is a mountainous island of granite, in contrast to the closest other islands of Saibai and Boigu and the Papuan mainland which are flat and alluvial in nature. The island has a small community of about 100 so we set off in search of their chairman. He was away and we were directed to the council office where we were told that we could not camp on the island but that we could stay in the guest house. The offer to stay somewhere with a shower and overhead fans seemed to good to be true until we were made aware, after about 3 days, of the tariffs, $35/person/night, $20/family/night, $150/familylweek or $175/group/week. As well as making no sense these tariffs were on the expensive side for a two-roomed shack with a hole in the roof.

Each night we went to bed with high hopes that the 25 knot South Easterlies would abate during the night but each morning was the same. We started considering our alternatives for getting out, we needed only 3 days of favourable weather to paddle back but it was looking increasingly unlikely that we would get them. The locals when asked what the weather would do would simply shrug their shoulders and smile and the weather reports on ABC Far North gave no more cause for hope. The only other reasonable escape was to put the kayaks on to the goods barge to Horne Island which was not due until the following Thursday and to fly to Horne From Saibai.

On the third day on Dauan we paddled over to Saibai and then across the narrow channel to New Guinea where we landed among the mangroves. While we were on Saibai we checked out the “mud” airstrip which reputedly closes as soon as the humidity rises above 100% and the famous Saibai Canteen, the only place in Northern Tores Strait where alcoholic beverages are sold. The canteen turned out to be a shipping container with some fridges inside from which for one hour a day Victoria Bitter cans were sold at $72/case.

On Sunday, our fourth day on Dauan I was looking out the window of the guest house and saw a barge coming towards the island, it was the fuel barge and after some negotiation with the operators of the barge and discussions amongst ourselves we decided that we should not wait till the Thursday and put our boats on the fuel barge. After waving our kayaks goodbye we booked our plane fares at the council office and as we walked back to the guest house to await next morning’s flight the wind turned to the north and it began to rain heavily. The realization that now that we no longer had our kayaks the winds had become favourable for a return crossing and that the airstrip we were to fly out from would by morning be a skating rink was enough to plunge Dirk into the deepest depression any of us had ever seen. The fact that we found Dirk’s melancholy hilarious did not seem to improve his humour.

The rain stopped at about 4.00 am and with it’s stopping the southeasterly returned. In the morning the locals were pessimistic of us being able to fly out but a few phone calls confirmed that the airstrip was still open. We were ferried across to Saibai by dinghy and flew to Horne Island, which acts as the transport depot for Thursday Island. It was Monday morning and our kayaks would not to arrive till Tuesday night and not be available for collection till Wednesday morning.

Camping is not allowed on Thursday or Horn Islands an so we caught the ferry across to TI to look for accommodation. We discovered that TI was also an expensive place to stay and ended up opting for the Mura Mudh, a native hostel on the outskirts of town. A misguided tour of TI takes about half a day so the remainder of our time was taken up in one of the few pubs in town or gathering mangoes that had fallen from the street trees. Despite the fact that mangoes fall from the trees they are for sale in the shops at $14.00/Kg.

Wednesday morning after haggling about the price of cartage we collected our boats from the docks on Horn Island for the 30 Km paddle back to Punsand Bay. Because we were paddling to the South East the wind was still blowing from that direction at it’s usual 25 knots and so we had a long slow grunt of a paddle back to Punsand and the end of our Torres Strait kayaking adventure.

Just because we were back on mainland Australia did not mean however that our ordeal was over. We still had to get ourselves and the boats and the trailer back home. A phone call to Shell revealed that the trailer axle had not yet been repaired but he assured us that it would be by 3.30pm the next day. After some XXXXs that night to try and restore our shattered faith in humanity we spent the following morning somehow getting all our gear, 4 kayaks and ourselves into and on the Landcruiser.

In Seisia, Shell’s workshop was all locked up so we got some fresh bread, tomatoes etc and went down to the beach to have lunch. While there we noticed a woman on the jetty catching small fish and then throwing them back in. On further investigation we saw that the water under the jetty was black with countless thousands of sardines and the woman was using them as live bait to try and catch one of the large fish that were occasionally feeding on them. We watched as she pulled the line up to avoid it being taken by a large fish, she explained that it was a large black trevally and that because she only had 60 Ib breaking strain line that it would simply break her off and that she was trying for some of the smaller queenfish or mackerel. On seeing this I borrowed Gary’s 300 Ib fishing line, tied on his largest hook, borrowed the woman’s sardine catching rig and with a fresh sardine on a hook almost the same size tried my luck. Within a few minutes a dark shape came up from the depths, took my sardine and disappeared. I braced myself for the tug of war that was about to ensue but with one huge tug the fish was gone and had taken the hook with it. Although I tried again I could not tempt another fish to take the bait.

At 2.30 pm we were back at Shell’s workshop, it was still locked and Eric next door informed us that Shell’s Step Father’s funeral was to be held at 3.30pm. Despairing at the thought of not getting the axle that day we adjourned to the beach again for another hour. When we got back to the workshop a little after 3.30 it was still locked but sitting outside on some saw horses was our newly repaired axle.

Faith in humanity restored we squeezed the axle in amongst all the other gear and headed South, crossed the Jardine and made our way to Elliot Falls to camp the night and have a refreshing swim in the river there.

While at Elliot falls we heard rumours that it had rained on the Cape and the rivers were rising. So it was with some urgency that we made our way to where we had left the trailer, reinstalled the axle and made our way to the Wenlock River. The Wenlock was only a foot deeper than when we had first crossed two weeks earlier and we were told that it was already falling. Having crossed the Wenlock we were sure that nothing would stop us now and we were in high spirits again until we got to the Archer River.

The Archer which when we first crossed it was no more than a trickle was now 8 meters over the causeway with the pub on the other side. John raised himself to hero status amongst the others gathered on our side of the river by paddling across and bringing back supplies for those not prepared for camping out. The next day the river had fallen to about 2m but by now was falling much slower and it soon became apparent that we would have to spend another night waiting. The following day at about 11.00 am the river was down to 0.8m and traffic started to move. Surely now nothing could stop us.

Only 10km past the Archer we were once more plunged into despair as a wheel again fell of the trailer, the other side this time. By now we were well rehearsed in the routine of unloading the trailer, turning it over, unbolting the axle, etc. We took the axle to Cohen and being Sunday were lucky to find the mechanic at his workshop. He kindly made a temporary repair to the axle, which allowed us to get the trailer to Cohen. The next morning a more permanent repair was effected by utilizing a second hand beam axle and we were once more on the road, now paranoid about the strength of the trailer axle to the point that we were quite often travelling no more than 5 kmh over the corrugations. We retrieved the Vynek and the North Sea Tourer from the Kennedy River and late that night finally reached the sealed road.

The following two days we drove almost continuously and were back in Wollongong in the early hours of Thursday morning, tired, covered in red dust but happy that the odyssey was over. In almost 4 weeks we had done only 8 days paddling, the rest of the time being taken up with driving, waiting for the weather to change, waiting for the kayaks to arrive on TI, waiting for repairs to the axle and waiting for the river to go down We had achieved our goal of crossing Torres Strait but had not been able to do a return crossing as intended. With repairs, flights and cartage the trip had involved us in far more expense than anticipated. On the positive side the frustrations of the trip had put the friendship between us under a good deal of stress but it had survived and I think was strengthened by the experience.

Some advice to anyone intending a similar trip: Don’t take an insulated cup.