Lessons from Nadgee II [30]

By Mark Pearson

Nadgee again

It had been only nine months since my first trip to this wilderness haven, but it seemed much longer. My good friend Doug Fraser instigated this trip partially in preparation for a west coast Tassie trip he was doing in January. Eventually the dates December 19-22 were agreed and we set about inviting interested club members to participate. A group of six eventually committed to the trip.

Given my inability to do justice to the natural beauty of this area, the following account focuses more on the personalities of the paddling group and the all-important CHIF (Critical Human Interaction Factor) that can make or break this type of expedition. This was also to be the first trip on which I would take a video camera (in a waterproof casing) to record this interaction taking place…

The Group

Tony Peterson had been sea kayaking a mere three months, having drifted into the activity through fishing in his flat-bottomed Kakadu. In a rush of early enthusiasm he had driven all the way to Sydney to purchase one of those handsome Mirage 19’s. Within 2 weeks he realised that a rethink was in order because a) he really did not want to break any speed records and b) he would like a kayak that turned occasionally, especially in an emergency. There followed some further research into an appropriate replacement craft and the eventual purchase of an Inuit Classic. Since then, Tony had devoted much time to customising his new kayak, and to practicing rolls and support strokes in the Dickson pool. But Tony had had limited time for paddling in preparation for this trip. His longest paddle to date was only seven kilometres. So, armed with a good grasp of underwater manoeuvres and general theory, Tony was technically well prepared for the trip. Only time would tell how he would cope with the physical and mental examination that would be set by ocean, rocks, waves and, more particularly, wind.

Jim Croft is a recent convert to the fanatical ‘Pain and Suffering’ sect that operates covertly within the club, and had recently completed the Hawkesbury Classic without actually training for the event (due to atypical last minute decision to actually compete). The total lack of preparation had guaranteed Jim a unique 13 hour orgy of throbbing, mind numbing pain, the news of which caused latent outbreaks of jealousy from P&S sect members that had not taken part. On completion of the race, friends reported that Jim entered a period of deep depression as his body reluctantly adjusted to a state of painlessness. However, within days his spirits were lifted with the discovery that the race had left him a permanently bad shoulder! Jim’s goals for this trip were to abuse the new injury to ensure regular painful twinges, with hopefully the odd stabbing sensation that would make him cry out.

Doug Fraser had about 18 months sea kayaking experience, but substantially more in white-water. Doug, a robust Army Major, had thought sea kayaking a bit of a sissy game until the Point Perpendicular ‘paddle or die’ disaster of July ’95. Here he achieved instant fame by uttering le immortal words “I’m heading for Huskisson” as we fought for every inch against the screaming westerly under the cliffs. As he spoke, the 2kms remaining to our agreed destination of Target Beach seemed just humanly possible, the additional 12 kms to Huskisson unthinkable! Doug, of course, never made it. He was found later that evening capsized and washed up on the north-eastern shore of Jervis Bay by beachcombers. However, not only did his self-belief on this occasion earn him many admirers, this incident also instilled in the man the beginnings of respect for the physical challenge of sea kayaking. Now affectionately referred to as Doug Headwind, he has built a solid reputation for attracting adverse conditions whenever he paddles with the club.

Damon Howes was a new club member, whom I had briefly met at the Rock’n’Roll weekend, who was to partner Doug on the west coast Tasmania paddle in January. Damon was fairly new to sea-kayaking and had just been given a shiny yellow Rosco.

The final member of the group was Club President Norm Sanders. The personality of this individual was accurately described in Lessons 1 (see Newsletter 27).

Oh, and of course there was me. After my crisis of confidence during the last Nadgee paddle, brought about as my inadequacies were mercilessly exposed by Sanders and Caldwell (the ‘bearded ones’), I had re-grown my own beard after two years of shaving. It was not a real sea paddlers’ beard, but a neat compromise that could survive both paddling and office conditions. To further boost my confidence I knew that on this trip I would be more experienced (at least chronologically) than the majority of the group. So, would the combination of experience and facial hair at last accord me the respect that I craved? Would my new Inuit Classic hold all my gear? Would I be fast enough this time to claim one of the few good tent sites? These were the questions nagging at the back of my mind as I endured Tony’s raucous blues-guitar music on the drive down to Womboyn.

The Plan

The trip plan was to depart for Nadgee from Greenglades at the southern end of Disaster Bay (the more risky route though the fearsome Womboyn bar was considered but rejected due to the inexperience of some of the group), returning to Merica River and from there back to Womboyn.

There was one human complication. Renowned camp follower, Jeanette Mill, advised that she would walk in to meet us at Merica river on the third day (Saturday). If conditions forced a change to our plan, poor Jeannette would have to camp alone.

Setting out, Greenglades, Thursday morning.

Tony and I were woken up by Norm’s appalling rendition of Old Man River. Emerging from our tents we were surprised to see Jim’s Magna parked near us. We had assumed (as planned) that it was Andrew Eddy’s car that arrived at about midnight. It turned out that Andrew had pulled out of the long trip from northern Sydney after actually hitting the road, leaving poor Jim to drive down alone. I was quietly pleased that Jim, at last, had been the victim of someone else’s indecision.

The conversation over our first p breakfast semolina centred on the latest U.S. thinking on toilet habits in the wild. Norm informed the group that burying ‘solid waste’ was out, and that the trend now was for crapping in intertidal zones, or alternatively to leave it unburied and smeared around. Both methods meant a quicker breakdown of the material and less impact on the environment. Following this discussion, crapping techniques were to become a central theme of the trip, with some members of the group regularly announcing that they were “off for their morning smear” or, for those not averse to turning their back on danger, an eco-shit in the surging waters surf beaches.

In a display of precision borne of years of army discipline, Doug and Damon arrived 45 minutes late. While they quickly loaded their kayaks, the rest of us drove the cars back to Womboyn and from there paid the shop owner to cart us back to the launch site in his ute. As the four of us walked through the scrub back to the beach we stopped and, without a spoken word, all took a leak. I took this as a good omen for group synchronicity in the trials that lay ahead.

But then a disaster! On reaching my waiting kayak I discovered an empty milk crate beside it which I had obviously forgotten to put back in the car! Memories of the last trip and the traumatic ‘toilet paper’ incident came flooding back as the entire group instantly forgot teamwork and cackled derisively at my error. Luckily our ute driver had hung around and I was still able to have the crate taken back to the cars. I cursed myself and vowed to lift my game.

The fleet was ready to go: Tony, Norm and I in Inuit Classics (Norm in his fibreglass ‘test to destruction’ boat), Jim in the plastic Apostle, Damon in a long, smooth-running Rosco and Doug in a Pittarak. The weather forecast was for south-south-westerlies varying between 10 and 20 knots -the ‘South Westerly’ part was OK, but too much of the ‘south south westerly’ would create problems due to the aspect of this coast. Given he range of experience of the group, we decided to stick to the plan to head south for Nadgee, with the option to turn back to Merica River if the wind really got up. Conditions were calm and pleasant as we set off, but as we left the shelter of Disaster Bay and turned south we were hit by some very unwelcome gusts. I attempted to shoot some very dirty looks in Doug Headwind’s general direction, however, he and his Pittarak had set off at a blistering pace and were already just a dot on the horizon. He slowed up some time later only to receive a thorough lambasting from Norm for breaking formation. A strong feeling of deja vu reminded me that former sea kayaker, John Caldwell had suffered the same fate on the last trip. Some time later I heard agonised groans above the noise of the wind. Jim, paddling hard some 80 metres away to my left, was obviously having a great time!

We plodded on. I followed Norm as he tracked closer to the long Newtons Beach shoreline to maximise land shelter. After much waving and encouragement, the tiring Tony was also coaxed into coming in closer for a bit of relief. Tony’s demeanour told us that he was not overfond of getting too close to land when afloat. Some time later Jim surprised everybody by catching a fish (a snook) with lure attached to unsportingly thick line and an ugly handreel. I immediately consigned snooks to the lower end of the fish intelligence spectrum. The remainder of the paddle was uneventful, with the wind staying at moderate levels thanks to the partial shelter of the cliff line. One notable feature was a recent rockfall from one of the cliff faces – something to think about for those of us who like to cruise near the rocks. Tony’s stamina finally gave out, about two kilometres from our destination (although it must be admitted that I was also pretty stuffed by this stage), and the gallant Norm towed him for about 35 metres before passing the line to the eager and energetic Doug. We landed in unusually small surf, much to the disappoint of my video camera. The paddle to Nadgee River took four and a I half hours.

After rejecting Norm’s secret upriver ‘camp site’, (which would have been great if we had brought machetes and had a couple of days to clear tent space), we eventually put to sea again and set up camp at the ‘Nadgee Hilton’ – a site in the teatree scrub at the southern end of the beach. This is a good sheltered site, with accommodation for 6 to 8 tents, but is a difficult and risky launch area if the surf is up. After lunch, setting up camp and a couple of hours of local exploration, we were ready for dinner. Damon had brought some hi-tech DEHI army food which he was pleased to let others sample. All had Trangias except for Doug, who had an MSR. As Doug’s other reputation was for exploding molten canned stuff over everything within a 10 foot radius, he was banned from cooking in the Trangia epicentre. And so it was that Doug, after wolfing down his canned stuff, then joined the group and commenced criticising our beloved Trangias and the delicious and adventurous dishes we were creating. Unfortunately, this dinner-time behaviour was to become Doug’s routine throughout the trip. As the conversation developed it soon became apparent that Damon was a really nice bloke with some interesting tales about his 12 months living deep in the Tasmanian wilderness.

After the meal, the Inuit Classic owners discussed the performance of the new kayak, particularly as this was the first time it had been paddled laden for any distance. Doug immediately interrupted to say he was not impressed by any feature of the new design and, still smarting over Norm’s reprimand, added hat he resented having to restrain his Pittarak from it’s natural ‘into the wind’ speed. The group was not too surprised by this outburst and did not retaliate. For it is well known in paddling circles that Pittarak owners are traditionally dismissive of other kayak designs and the Pittarak’s strong headwind performance so far had obviously increased Doug’s air of superiority. I quietly hoped for some beam, or preferably tail winds, to really show up some of the other characteristics of Doug’s vessel. We drank some Lambrusco before hitting the sack about 9 pm.

On Friday Morning, after slurping down more delicious Semolina (except for Doug, who had a preference or canned cereal), we decided to paddle down to Nadgee Lake, 3 to 4 kilometres to the south. Tony, fatigued from the previous day, took the opportunity for some restful fishing from a nearby rock platform. The wind was again blowing from the south west at about 15 – 20 knots, and we began the now customary plod into the chop and swell. At Nadgee Lake beach the surf conditions were reasonable benign for this fearsome place, with waves of about a metre breaking about 15 metres out from the steeply shelving beach. After I surfed the Classic in, I got ready to video Doug’s run. As the camera rolled I was pleased to see Doug confidently position himself to catch a good wave. And then, suddenly, his confidence seemed to evaporate and he backed off, obviously shaken. I guessed that Doug, after watching me surfing in so effortlessly in the Classic, had momentarily forgotten that his mount was a Pittarak, it’s meat cleaver of a prow poised to bite deep in the wave and hurl him out into the surf. A crestfallen Doug then slunk into the beach on the back of a small wave to a cacophony of boos I from the watching group.

The wind was really howling over Nadgee Lake so we abandoned plans to paddle it and went for a walk to locate a freshwater soak and yet another secret sea paddlers camping area. On return to the beach the wind was now so strong some of the kayaks had been turned 90 degrees from their parked position. Norm kindly gave me some of his ‘carbo-cake’ to give me an energy boost in the cold conditions. As I chewed and chewed the rocky morsel, my aching jaw muscles caused me to wonder if I was expending more energy on ‘eating effort’ than I would get from the food itself. I fully concentrated on the chewing in the hope of some rewarding flavour but, looking around some minutes later, found I was now I alone on the beach and my companions were on their way! I swallowed what I could and launched quickly.

Hitting the water earlier than we had planned gave the weather Gods insufficient notice to swing the wind round to the north. At last I had the chance to try out the new kayak in a tailwind. I wasn’t disappointed; the rudderless Classic took little effort to maintain direction and was regularly picking up long straight surfing rides. The lack of the sideways broaching common to longer kayaks meant I was making very good speed indeed. I was interested to note that having caught up with Doug (who was first off the beach but had to stop to drop his rudder!). I was very soon about 60 metres in front of him and pulling away. I was on the verge of developing my very own air of superiority when I thought that perhaps the speed was not due to my kayak but the turbo-boosting qualities of Norm’s carbo cake. Before I could analyse this further, Damon, testing out his spinnaker rig, capsized near me. Damon pleaded with me to help him back into his boat, but I explained that I had to film the action and that he would have to wait for rescue by the expert salvage team of Jim and Norm. After Damon was refloated we headed home and were greeted by the sight of an excited Tony jumping up and down on the rock platform brandishing a dead wrasse.

After lunch, during which Tony amused the group with his inept attempts at cooking on his new Trangia, we spotted three sea kayaks heading north about 500 metres offshore, making quick time with the following wind. We pondered whether one of them was well-known Mallacoota paddler Larry Gray, perhaps heading for Merica.

We had each brought about 8 to10 litres of water to last us two days at Nadgee. Jim, after swigging down and/or cooking away 7 litres on the first day, was perplexed as to why he was down to his last litre by Friday afternoon. Hearteningly, the group, rather than attack Jim for foolish profligacy, decided instead to take pity on his poor rationing skills, and donated enough water to keep him alive until he a could get fresh supplies at Merica.

We then scattered as various interests were pursued. Jim had dropped his hand line at Nadgee Lake and went for a walk to look for it. Damon went snorkelling, Doug waxed and polished his Pittarak and Norm ventured into his beard in search of ticks. Tony and I decided to head up river for a couple of hours fishing.

After catching a couple of nice bream for dinner we paddled back downriver to the bar to find the surf had built up as a result of the southerly. As we maintained our positions in the wash, Tony intensely studied the surf, glanced anxiously at the nearby rocks, looked at the surf again and then gazed longingly at our destination – four hundred metres away at the other end of the beach. So near and yet so far. I attempted to reassure Tony that his kayak would have little trouble in dealing with these waves, but having read the first ‘Lessons from Nadgee’ many times, he was loath to put his fate in the hands of anybody with experience. A larger than average set roared in and Tony’s decision was made. Alone, I then broke through the surf, paddled up the beach and landed in time to compliment the slowly approaching Tony for his world record beach carry!

By 5.30 pm Doug and Damon at last had their hi-tech army radio, (including 200 d metres of aerial cable strung along the beach), set up to receive the evening news. The forecast was not what we wanted to hear – winds swinging round to the north at 15 to 20 knots. After all the sou’west and southerly winds, we had expected (and thought we’d earned) a reasonably calm day with perhaps an afternoon sea-breeze. At a gloomy dinner that night there was an inquest as to why we hadn’t departed that afternoon with the help of the now rapidly diminishing southerly. The bitter disappointment led to an outbreak of recriminations as inter-personal skills were totally discarded. Norm blamed Tony and I for fishing for too long, Tony blamed Jim for taking such a long walk, Jim blamed Damon for taking three hours to tune a radio, I blamed Doug for continuing to attract headwinds and Doug blamed the Inuit Classics for no apparent reason at all.

After everyone had calmed down we discussed the two options – a night paddle or a dawn start. It would be a three quarter moon so light would be OK but only Doug (as always the odd one out) had any experience night paddling. Caution dictated a 6am start – we again primed up our Trangias to make semolina and packed what we could.

It was still dark when we were awakened at 5 am by the loudest rendition to date of Old Man River. We packed the tents and sat down for breakfast. Tony, despite encouragement, forced down his cold (but still magnificent) semolina with a lack of enthusiasm that nearly earned him an official reprimand from the President.

The kayaks were loaded by 5.50 am and we made our final preparations. A horrified Doug suddenly pointed out that Norm had just brazenly eco-crapped slap-bang in the middle of the launch zone. In what was already a tense situation, our stress levels immediately soared. One by one, we pushed off from the shallows, meticulous about where we placed our hands, all haunted by the vision of something unspeakable washing up the foredeck, all silently cursing the Sea Dog and the habits of North Americans.

As we rounded the first headland we felt the first gust of wind. Unbelievably, the northerly had decided to commence at 6 am. I again shot the filthiest looks I could manage in Doug’s general direction. The group split. While Norm and I again reduced our exposure to the breeze by hugging the cliff line the others persisted in maintaining a course 400 hundred metres out amongst the whitecaps. Having by now become familiar with the foibles of my companions, I knew exactly why they were doing what they were doing. Jim was out there to extract the most pain out of his left shoulder, Tony to avoid any chance at all of hitting those nasty rocks, and Doug to maximise the physical challenge of it all. Damon was presumably following Doug in deference to rank (30 minutes later Damon risked Court Martial by joining the smart set).

As the paddle continued, the head wind increased to about 12 to 15 knots, at which it remained constant. About three kilometres from Merica, Tony at last acquiesced to Doug’s persistent requests to tow him. I landed first and filmed the group’s arrival at the inlet to Merica river. Norm was nearly taken onto rocks by a wave that must have been all of 14 inches! Luckily his Sea Instructor instincts came into play and he saved the day with a masterful capsize and roll.

We were soon all ashore, Damon pointed out a dark lifeless shape lying just above the tide line at the far end of the narrow beach. We surmised that it might be the carcase of a marine animal of some size, possibly a dolphin. We were hungry so decided to set up camp first, then returned later for a closer look at the unfortunate creature.

As the tents went up at the superb Merica camp area, three Pittaraks rounded the bend of the river. Doug smiled for the first time in days at the sight of possible Pittarak soul-mates, but they were heading out for the ocean and Womboyn. These were the kayaks that we had seen from Nadgee river – the paddlers were young Victorians who had hired the boats. I noticed that each kayak had a short surf board strapped to I the aft-deck, presumably so that the guys could take advantage of any wilderness breaks (or I mused, perhaps Pittaraks are now fitted with ‘lifeboats’).

Soon after we bade the Victorians farewell there was a shout as a figure approached from the direction of the beach. “It’s Jeanette!” we all chorused in unison. Jeanette explained that she had walked in earlier from the ranger station and had decided to wait for us on the beach, but had dozed off in the sun. We matched this information with earlier events and came to a disappointing conclusion -the ‘carcase’ mystery was I no more!

Late on Saturday afternoon, I reflected on the material I had mentally collected for this account. With a shock I realised that the central character of Nadgee 1, Norm Sanders, had been most un-newsworthy. In fact, almost annoyingly, he had been polite, calm, helpful and even-tempered throughout the entire paddle. I momentarily panicked as I faced the possibility of having no central character to weave a plot around. But then I realised this time I had Colonel Fraser.

For by this late stage in the expedition. Doug’s ‘Pittarak’ attitude had become intolerable. With each passing day he had become more and more dismissive of anything he didn’t have or couldn’t do; Inuit Classics, Trangias, nutritious food, having fun in the surf, catching fish … . All were part of a long list of equipment and activities ridiculed and scorned. To their credit, the group maintained advanced level inter-personal skills by not retaliating. But by Day 3 we started to wonder if there was some other factor at work. And then it hit us: it was Doug’s diet!

For not only had Doug’s inter-personal skills deteriorated, so had his appearance (the dark circled eyes, jaundiced look and bad breath were now too obvious to ignore – he looked awful!). Although none of us were medically qualified, we knew the risks associated with a hideous canned food addiction such as his. It could only be one thing – Doug was exhibiting the classic symptoms of scurvy!

From this point on we tried to get Doug to eat some fruit, though with little success. Hiding his can-opener was also considered, but this was thought to be too cruel given Doug’s strong emotional attachment to the implement. Sadly, we finally resigned to do nothing but focus on remembering the healthy, broad-minded Doug Fraser we once knew, and hoped for his quick recovery on return to civilisation and vegetables.

The last evening saw Doug and Damon packing their kayaks in preparation for a dawn start. Doug had to get back to Canberra early the next day to commence his family vacation. We sat down to cook our last dinner, only to be immediately disappointed. Whereas we had hoped for new supplies of exciting food and perhaps even some Tim Tams, Jeanette had travelled light indeed, her entire food supply amounting to two tea bags and a packet of Maggi noodles! Jeanette’s appetite had not travelled light however, and the group showed great generosity in sharing their last remaining provisions with the ravenous bushwalker.

Tony did his bit to raise our spirits with further disasters with his new Trangia – cleverly managing to transform an innocent looking pancake into a menacing primeval thing. We tried but failed to finish off our vast supplies of Lambrusco and then retired. The night was warm and balmy. I slept with the fly off my tent and was rewarded with a rare sleep under the stars.

Sunday morning saw the 6 am departure of Doug and Damon. Norm’s heartfelt and booming rendition of ‘Aloja’ only served to quicken their paddling rate as they headed away from us towards the ocean. It was the best morning yet – dead calm and sunny, and the Merica River lagoon had never looked better. The remainder of the group ate a relaxed breakfast before commencing the sad task of the last pack. As 9 am became 10 am and the loading still wasn’t complete, it was obvious that Tony (who vas by now ready and waiting on the water) was keen to get moving. As we prepared to paddle out, Jeanette’s impromptu photo shoot added further to his air of edginess. For poor Tony, already feeling unstable due to stress-induced hip-seizure, had added a headwind phobia to his growing list. Tony suspected the current lull would not last.

We eventually entered the ocean and experienced a rare half hour of beautiful balmy conditions as we paddled casually towards Womboyn, 6 kms to the north-west. Except for Tony that is – his anxiety bout ‘getting there’ had generated vast amounts of adrenalin, and he was soon just a flashing blade about a kilometre ahead. And he was proved right. About 2 kilometres from the bar, a strong northerly sprang up making the last part of our ocean work the familiar battle. The paddle ended with a little bit of excitement as a rare decent sized wave sneaked up on Jim and me as we entered the bar, and we somehow ‘crossed over’ on it’s face without touching.

My 2nd Nadgee paddle was over. The group had covered about 60 kms, 53 of them into headwinds of variable strength. But just being in such a remote area for several days had been an experience valuable beyond words. I look forward to returning already.

And what lessons did I learn this time? Well, bugger all really, except that a milk-crate will definitely not fit in a VCP hatch! On the water there had been no adrenalin-pumping surf or really nasty conditions to test me out, but my camping and boat-loading procedures were definitely more organised and hassle-free than earlier trips so I’ve obviously learned something. And the group, the CHIF and all that – would I venture forth with this particular collection of individuals again? Well they were a strange bunch really, but entertaining nevertheless, so definitely yes, even with Doug!