The Wanderers Return [30]

By Doug Fraser (photos by Damon Howes)

In 1993 Damon Howes and his wife Deanne spent a year of their life near the Wanderer River on the South West coast of Tasmania, sponsored by Australian Geographic (Full details of their year are in Issue 36). While there, they constructed a hut in the wilderness and both had a strong desire to revisit the site. Damon developed a plan to return by seakayaks, however, as they now had a family it was not feasible for Deanne to undertake the trip. Damon planned the expedition in mid 1996, however, in October his paddling partner had to withdraw so he extended the invitation to me, which I gladly accepted.

We were to paddle south from Strahan 80km to the Wanderer River then upstream to the Campsite. The return trip would retrace this route. Due to the possibility of stuck on shore while we waited for conditions to improve we carried seventeen days food and fairly extensive safety equipment, including EPIRB’s and a HF radio. I would paddle my Pitarak for which I had just constructed a sail and Damon would paddle a Rosco which had a factory made spinnaker arrangement. We agreed that we would paddle as far as we could whenever we had fine weather but anticipated that we could be limited to 10-20 km per day if it was safe to put to sea.

Given the background to the trip there was inevitably some PR to be associated with it. I arrived in Canberra at lunchtime the day before we were to depart and planned to spend the remainder of the day packing, fiberglassing and shopping. Unfortunately I found myself spending hours with various media agencies trying to emphasise the fact that plenty of other people had paddled the area before. At sunset we found ourselves standing in our underpants looking like idiots who had lost their boats in Lake Burley Griffin. To add insult to hypothermia Jim Croft happened along and we new that there was no way we could keep this a secret.

The trip to Strahan was uneventful and the local Police were very helpful in ferrying our vehicle to a safe location. Recent massive seas had resulted in the destruction of a fishing boat with the loss of two lives and Damon’s local contacts were unavailable as they were involved in the search. The seas were still rough on that first night, however we thought we were safe at the Hell’s Gates camping ground. This was not to be the case, and at around 11 pm a drunken 15 year old, straight out of Deliverance, crashed through Damon’s tent breaking all his poles. When the rest of the Neanderthal adults from the camping party congregated around it was obvious that the only mature one was a 12 year old. Needless to say we did not sleep soundly that night.

The Trip

Day One: Sun 12 Jan – We awoke and were glad to see that our kayaks were still in one piece and that everything was still there. After the previous afternoon’s strong winds it was pleasing to see that the sky was clear, the sea calm and the winds were light. In keeping with our game plan we headed off at around 7 am and thankfully encountered no current at Hell’s Gates. We rounded Cape Sorrel after one hour and noticed that even in the relatively calm conditions there were strong surges and a particularly dangerous reef about 500m from the tip of the Cape. Due to the relatively calm conditions we were able to pass between the Cape and the reef. On rounding the Cape we encountered a leading swell of about 2m and light headwinds. Despite this we were able to maintain a speed of around 7 Km/hr. We kept about 1 km to sea as there were numerous reefs which we found to be accurately marked on the 1:25,000 maps.

About 12 km south of the Cape we passed Sloop Rocks which served as a useful landmark. By lunchtime we had reached Gorge Point (29 km) which was originally to be our night location. Despite being a good campsite we decided to head for Varna Bay (a further 18 km) and make the most of the good conditions. Varna Bay had many reefs and exposed rocks, and while the Southern end was safe to land, we were unable to find a satisfactory campsite. Although we were feeling tired we decided to head for Hibbs Lagoon making a total day one distance of 55 km. Hibbs Lagoon Beach faces the South West, hence it catches the full brunt of the swell. Rather than doing a surf entry we negotiated the relatively calm seas behind the rocks on its southern boundary. We set up camp on the beach and slept well.

Day Two: Mon 13 Jan — The second day saw almost unbelievable conditions for South West Tasmania with the seas being glassy flat. We headed off without incident, except for being plagued by mosquitoes which came for us even though we were up to 3 km offshore. We paddled around Hibbs Pyramid which is a prominent 79m feature at the southern end of Hibbs Bay. A further 5 km south we came to Niblin Point which is the home of a large and playful seal colony. We entertained each other for about an hour before it was time to move on. This was about the only sealife we saw on the trip except for a large white pointer which did not bother us as he said he was waiting for one of those Innuit Classics, as the were easier to catch and the contents were much softer. At around 1 pm we arrived at Christmas Cove which is guarded by outcrops of jagged yet picturesque rocks. The water in the Cove was brown from the tannin flowing from the Wanderer River, however the yellow sandy beach was an attractive finish to the southern leg of the trip. We pulled the boats through the mouth of the river and set up camp in the tea tree by the waters edge. Using a piece of abalone in a stocking Damon was able to catch a crayfish which provided a change from dehydrated rations for that night.

Day Three: Tue 14 Jan — Again the weather was fine and we decided that rather than having a rest we would go up to the hut site that day. The 10 km paddle upstream was a very pleasant wilderness experience as most of the river was a tranquil pool surrounded by spectacular fern and rainforest. After about 6 km we came to our first pebble races which continued intermittently for the remainder of the river. While they were not difficult to negotiate they did do a lot of superficial damage to the unwieldy sea kayaks. On arrival at the pull out point we then walked for about 3-4 km to the hut site where we set up the HF radio and Damon made a radio telephone call to his wife. For Damon this was an emotional homecoming marred by the fact that his wife could not be there with him. For me, I was just glad that it was him and not me that spent a year of my life in this place. The return trip to the campsite was uneventful, however we were tired after 100 km of paddling in the previous three days and decided to rest the next day.

Day Four: Wed 15 Jan — The weather finally turned and for the whole day it poured rain, bringing out every sort of bloodsucking creature ever invented. Obviously we were the only show in town so the day’s highlight was intercepting leeches and sending them to fiery death. Surprisingly, despite the change in weather, the seas were still relatively calm. By the end of the day however, the swell had started to rise. The weather forecast for that night predicted that the seas would begin to abate by midday the next day but predicted up to 30 kn headwinds the day after.

Day Five: Thu 16 Jan — It had stopped raining, however the seas had got bigger. Looking out towards the entrance of Christmas Cove could best be described as intimidating, with what appeared to be a continuous barrier of surf. Despite this we decided that we should venture out and try and make as much distance as we could before the northerly winds arrived. At lunchtime we put to sea, and despite our trepidation we were able to negotiate the breakers at the entrance of the Cove successfully. The swell was about 4m with 6m sets coming in every couple of minutes, however, there was no wind and virtually no chop so we decided to continue. Although originally only intending to do 10 km to the Spero River I decided that, from the amount of spray coming from the proposed landing point, it would be better to head to the known landing point at Hibbs Lagoon. Rounding Niblin Point we decided to forget the seals this time as clapotis had made the seas were chaotic. Even though we were 1 km offshore every second stroke tended to be a support stroke which slowed us considerably.

Finally we reached Hibbs Bay and the seas became more predictable. In hindsight it would have been advisable to check the landing points on the southern end of the bay as they would have offered some protection from the SW swell, however, we pressed onto the known landing at the lagoon. Hoping to get protection from the surf I decided to get a closer look at the area protected by the rocky point we had used three days earlier. As I was manoeuvring Damon let out a shout, and I turned around to see what appeared to be a 5 meter wave bearing down on me and ready to break. Frantically I backpaddled, just cresting the wave as it was starting to break. I had a rapid change of sentiment and decided that we would land on the beach, through the surf, in or out of our boats.

I picked an area which we had previously identified to be free of rips and I went in first. Surfing was out of the question in these monsters so I just broached and braced until the waves spat me out. I had rolled a couple of times and was making good progress when I decided that I could now surf a 2m wave coming for me. I picked it up well, however I saw the nose of the Pitarak disappear into the froth then I felt it hit the bottom and I was catapulted end over end. Rolling back up I surfed the next two waves backwards then found myself ashore. I got out of my boat and waved to Damon who now headed in. Knowing that it would be extremely unlikely that he would be able to stay in his boat I waded in as far as I could go ready to recover him. I was surprised to see that he successfully made it at least two thirds the way in before he finally came out. Thankfully his experience with surf skis meant that he was not fazed, however, instead of swimming the boat in he had to recover his $500 EPIRB which he found floating beside him. I recovered his boat and we pulled them up into the lagoon and its lovely camp site. That night we had a restless sleep, plagued by possums and thoughts of THAT wave.

Day Six: Fri 17 Jan — Damon was keen to head off, however the seas had not abated since the previous day so we agreed to spend the day exploring the lagoon and beachcombing. The northerly winds did not materialise but the weather forecast was still predicting their imminent arrival.

Day Seven: Sat 18 Jan — We dragged our boats down to the beach, and with our hearts thumping we watched the massive breakers. The swell had dropped about 1m, however there were still 5m waves breaking up to 500m from the shore. So that I could assist in his launch and carry out a rescue if need be, I sent Damon off first. He paddled furiously but was quickly being carried to the south and the rocky headland. Thankfully he was able to break through the surf and after 10 minutes I could see that he was clear. I then set off trying to pick the areas where there was a gap in the breakers. After 10 minutes of furious paddling I too was clear and married up with Damon. I decided immediately that we would paddle well out to sea (2-3 km) to avoid the bomboras which were breaking up to 1 km offshore.

Map of Tasmania showing the sea kayaker’s route from Macquarie Harbour down the West Coast and up the Wanderer River to the hut location at Badger Box

Despite the conditions we were making good time and even more surprisingly, I experienced a strange and completely foreign feeling on the back of my neck, which I have since confirmed was a tailwind. After about 20 km the breeze got strong enough for us to agree trying out our sails. Both of us were apprehensive as I had not used mine on the open sea and Damon had capsized last time he had erected his. The sails proved to be successful and augmented our paddling efforts. With conditions as they were however, I decided that we would not put in for lunch, and as we passed Sloop Rocks we feasted on our supply of snacks. By this time the wind had picked up to about 15kn and the boats were travelling under sail only. At this stage Damon’s larger more stable boat proved an advantage, as I lost a deal of speed through having to use my paddle for stability and steering in the large quartering swell.

We were going so well that I decided that we would attempt to round Cape Sorrell instead of landing at Tiddy’s Beach to its immediate south, which appeared from the map to offer some protection. We were right to be cautious about Cape Sorell, and in particular the reef to its north we had previously identified as a hazard. The crashing breakers were impressive and intimidating with spray shooting over 100 ft into the air. We gave everything a wide berth and headed for an artificial harbour just outside of Hell’s Gates. Damon’s wrists were hurting, however surprisingly I still felt fresh after our 57 km paddle. We set up camp then walked over the ridge to examine the Tiddy’s Beach approach. We were horrified when we saw what we would have had to negotiate, which in essence was 1 km of chaotic white water interspersed with exposed reefs. We were glad to have given that one the flick.

Day Eight: Sun 19 Jan — Although only 3 km to the finish we encountered a fierce current flowing from the mouth of Macquarie Harbour and it took us almost 3 hours to reach our final destination. Again the local police assisted and ferried us back to our vehicle. Although difficult to validate, even the locals said that the seas were extraordinarily big which was a great relief as it had seriously tested our skills and judgement.

We had achieved our objective, set some personal distance benchmarks, handled large seas, made some sound decisions and had done it in less than half the time we had allocated. All in all a very satisfying paddle.

Advice For Future Paddlers

  • The best time of the year for paddling the SW coast is Feb-Apr. It can be ideal when a high is centred directly over Tasmania.
  • Although the area is remote the coast is plied by crayfishing boats which can be contacted by radio if need be.
  • The predominant swell is from the SW and its size can be totally unrelated to the prevailing weather conditions. As the locals say, “there is nothing between Tasmania and South America.”
  • Water is freely available and although tannin stained it is unpolluted.
  • Reefs and exposed rocks are accurately marked on the 1: 25 000 Tasmap series.
  • We brought forward our return date, however, the ferry was fully booked. Despite this we turned up and had no problem getting on.