Alone With Myself on Broughton Island [34]

Dramatised for the NSW Sea Kayaker

By Mark Pearson

It was a week before our departure for a family holiday in Port Stephens.

“Why don’t you go off for a trip to Broughton Island” said my wife.

“What…alone?” I said, incredulous that my normally safety-conscious partner was suggesting such a thing.

“Why not” she said, “you know you’ll only end up arguing with my family if you hang around too much”.

I immediately got excited.

“… and you can cut that out right now”, my wife said tersely “there’ll be none of that stuff in this marriage thank you!”

I desisted and started planning.

In all my paddling career I had never really ventured anywhere substantial alone and certainly not overnight and was unsure of whether it was a good idea or not. After all, it could be dangerous, or boring, or both. And, more seriously, how could I write a decent trip report without a good variety of unwitting companions to denigrate and slander … there was a real risk I might only manage half a page!

But who could go with me. January was a bad time of year for most. What about Norm Sanders? I knew he had not ‘done’ Broughton and Norm was a man always looking for an excuse to get away from civilisation and womenfolk. I rang Norm and committed myself to a 2 night trip if he would join me.

“Well ‘Killer, I’d love to come” he said, “but it’s such a long way away, and there’s Sydney and all that, and the heat, and the crowds, and all the boats, then I’ve got to drive ba …. “

I hung up quickly to save the man from destroying a fine reputation. There was no-one else. I was alone.

And so it was that a heavily laden car carrying a heavily laden sea-kayak arrived in busy Port Stephens on Saturday January 17th. The family settled in, went for a swim and relaxed. I was in no rush to shoot off to the island and wanted the conditions to be favourable. Given that I had not paddled much at all since the Port Douglas-Cooktown trip five months before, I had no desire (unlike some) to battle into a nor’easter or return into a southerly. I decided to bide my time and hitch a ride to Broughton on the rear-end of a front.

Things happened quickly. There were hot northerly winds on Sunday and as the evening wore on thunderstorm activity to the north and south. I checked my safety equipment again – the spare paddle securely mounted on the rear deck, my sister-in-law’s mobile phone in the dry bag.

“It’s got a dodgy battery”, Susan had advised, “but you might get one call out of it”.

I rang the local coastwatch, who were friendly and informative. A southerly was forecast and there was an official strong wind warning. Things were going to plan, but the wind warning was a bit of a worry. I decided to get up early in the morning, ring for the latest forecast and then make a decision.

I awoke at 5 am and made the call. The news was good – the southerly was running at 15-20 knots but diminishing. I returned to my sleeping wife. Realising that this might be our last shared moment I suddenly felt the poignancy of the moment. With a tear in my eye I leant over to give my life partner a tender goodbye kiss.

“Go away” she mumbled without even waking. Disappointed, I turned away and headed off for my greatest challenge yet.

It was dark as I reached the sheltered departure point at Shoal Bay. As the light increased it revealed an overcast and threatening sky, with Mount Tomaree and the Yacabar headland shrouded in mist and a grey wind-flecked ocean beyond. As I gazed with some trepidation at the scene I became aware of the growing presence of two influences within my consciousness. Doubt and Confidence introduced themselves, explaining that they were normally very shy around strangers, but that given that I was going to be alone, they would be pleased to act as my unofficial consultants throughout the trip.

Before I could respond Doubt was off the mark, telling me that the whole venture was ill-conceived and that I should go straight back to a warm bed with my wife, like the other 20,000 blokes in Port Stephens. Confidence disagreed strongly, reassuring me about my four solid year’s of experience and adding that if the Tuross Bar couldn’t get me then this was nothing. But, I thought, the Tuross Bar nearly did get me! Sensing my weakness Doubt really got stuck in, reminding me that I hadn’t even tried for my Sea Proficiency yet. Confidence was unfazed, retorting that this was mainly due to Sanders being an absolute bastard, and anyway a bit of paper doesn’t prove a good paddler, just a paddler who craves pieces of paper ….

Irritated by this squabbling, I blocked out any further discourse and concentrated on loading (I had commenced the job so luxuriously the boat seemed ridiculously full for a one night trip). I then donned my paddling gear. My last piece of equipment was a borrowed heart rate monitor – I knew that this was the most vital piece of equipment for those glamorous racing paddlers whom we all admire, so I just had to have one. I turned the monitor on and to my great relief, saw incontrovertible digital proof that my heart was actually beating.

Everything ready, I eventually hit the water at 6.15 and made for the Port Stephens heads. Although this area can be tricky when wind and tide are opposed, it was reasonably calm. As I neared Tomaree headland I checked my heart rate – a steady 72. Brilliant!

Clearing the headland I was suddenly subject to the southerly, probably running a fairly consistent 15 knots. Put up the sail urged Confidence; no, said Doubt, not yet, wait a bit. I thought about it. I’d last sailed in 25 knot winds south of Cooktown and, despite a couple of close calls, really enjoyed the challenge to my concentration and balance. I raised the sail.

Paddling and sailing simultaneously (as one does in an Inuit Classic), I was soon making good speed and cleared CabbageTree island at 6.40. Despite it being peak holiday time there was not a boat to be seen, all presumably deterred by the wind warnings. The ocean was mine.

But where was Broughton? My heart rate jumped to 86! I knew it was about 16 kilometres north of the heads but in the greyness of this dawn the island was nowhere in sight. For the first time using my famous Casio compass/ altimeter/ barometer/ thermometer watch in earnest, I set a course of about 30 degrees NNE. Was this was an adventure or what I thought? Paddling to an unseen destination alone on the high seas with only a dodgy mobile phone to help me. This was great!

The southerly was weakening as the peaks of Broughton Island eventually came into view. It was an attractive looking island, it’s sharp peaks and almost X-shape being much more interesting than that of Montague. As I approached the south western side of the island, as expected, I was starting to feel a little bit fatigued. I reached the western shore of the island some 2 h 45 minutes after leaving Shoal Bay.

I continued round the Island to a beach on the northern side. Dave Winkworth had advised that although Esmerelda Cove offered better camping facilities, there were cabins nearby that were occasionally inhabited by riff-raff from Port Stephens. I landed, walked around the knee for half an hour high scrub, but couldn’t find any sign of David’s supposed ‘5 tent capacity’ clearing (I was later to find out that the site was 300 metres east of my search area). I eventually settled on a small sandy spot behind a little dune. Shelter enough from a nor’easter and with a nice eating position overlooking the beach.

After setting up camp I ate a hearty brunch and then went for a short paddle to explore the north side of the island. I then returned to the camp – attempted to rest up in the tent but was driven out by the heat (36 degrees according to my watch). I then realised that Broughton Island is a place that doesn’t offer much in the way of shade. I finally grabbed my book and headed to the western end of the beach where a small cave at the foot of a cliff gave me some relief from the sun. I read for a while before taking a nap. The day was passing slowly.

I noticed that the small bombora just off the beach was now offering a surfable wave breaking onto a submerged rock platform. Confidence urged me to give it a go and have some fun – but then Doubt quickly reminded me that renowned kayak-breaker Dirk Stuber had surfed this very bommie. And that the same Mr Stuber had induced poor innocent Paul Hewitson to hole his beloved Mirage in a gauntlet on this very island. And I didn’t have the luxury of a team of kayak repairers like Mr Hewitson had. All this was proof enough that this particular surfing zone was for Crazy Bastards only. I thanked Doubt for the advice and told Confidence to shut up.

I thought about going for another paddle but given that some red areas on my fingers might become blisters with too much paddling too soon. I eventually walked across the island to check out Esmerelda Cove.

It was 6 pm by the time I got back to base and it was time to eat. As I prepared dinner a man and a woman came ashore from their moored catamaran. After walking up the beach for a while they turned back and suddenly approached my camp. My heart rate leaped to 205 with panic! Unless I ran back into the scrub immediately I was going to have to converse with strangers! Questions flew around in my hermit-like state of mind. Would I be a babbling idiot after so long without human contact? Did I smell? And how would they react to my unkempt beard (which had not been trimmed for two days)?

Before I could do anything the man said hello and we drifted into a pleasant “you paddled all the way out here in THAT” conversation. With relief I realised that my spoken English was still acceptable and my social skills had not yet left me.

As we talked we noticed the little islands north of Broughton had disappeared. A sea fog was amongst us and thickening. Within twenty minutes the farthest boat on the mooring had become a ghostly shadow.

After bidding the nice couple farewell I again studied the foggy and rather eerie seascape. This was only the second time I had seen a fog like this on the east coast, and I was unsure how long it would linger. Visibility was now down to 100 metres. My inner companions returned. Doubt was worried that it would not clear in time for my departure in the morning. Confidence looked forward to the chance to use my watch in earnest.

I returned to dinner preparation. On a rather barren beach for wood I had found just enough sticks to get my Chris Soutter designed Ned KellyÓ chip cooker fired up and was soon ready to consume a large bowl of noodles, onions and peas in a tasty Thai red curry sauce.

Conversation was rather stilted over dinner (for it had been a long day and Doubt and Confidence were no longer speaking to each other) and I finished the meal quickly – in fact so quickly I had to take a casual walk down the beach to walk it off. By 8.30 I was feeling tired enough to retreat to my little tent and was soon lulled to sleep by the regular sound of small waves expiring on the beach. Some minutes my heart rate probably dropped to 54.

I awoke at 1am to a terrifying noise emanating from the scrub. Banshee screams punctuated a great cacophony of “oooohhhhhss” and “eeeerrrrhhhs” and large shadows moved at speed across the tent. My heart rate hit 245! I lay there desperately trying to identify what could make such a noise but it was beyond my experience. Why does this always happen when I camped alone I thought (at this juncture Doubt took great pleasure in reminding me of the noisy pigs that had terrified me at Tantangara Dam in ’91). Or was I imagining it all – I contemplated turning the videocamera on just to record the noise for posterity but couldn’t bring myself to turn my torch on to find it. Too scared to move, I lay there trembling and calling out for mummy, before eventually sobbing myself to sleep.

Awakening at dawn there was no sign of the creatures or their secret night ritual. The fog had lifted and a calm but overcast day revealed itself. I gulped down my entire supply of CretebixÓ (eight Weetbix) knowing that getting home would not be a problem. I packed up camp, donned my gear and paddled east, through a rocky ‘pass’ and then down the eastern side of the island past the entrance to Esmerelda Cove. Despite Doubt tutting away in the background, I finally paddled through a sea cave that runs right through the south eastern arm of the island and was greeted by the sight of a distant Cabbagetree Island.

As I drew away from Broughton Island I realised that the conditions were ridiculously good. A gentle north easterly swell, the occasional puff of breeze from the east and lifting cloud. I was 4 kilometres offshore and the ocean was truly benign. At this point even Doubt admitted that it would take a freak event to cause me any further worries.

About 200 Shearwaters crossed in front of me, all flying inches above the water. Although this was a great sight on the smooth rolling ocean I was later to find out that these were the critters who had woken me up the previous night. A large pod of dolphins then cut across my bows, the hiss of air from their blow holes a dramatic sound on this silent sea.

As the sun made it’s presence felt in the still conditions, a shimmering heat haze developed. I was now paddling with rhythm and making good speed. I was hot and thirsty but decided not to spoil my momentum by stopping for water. Some minutes later, slightly to my right, twenty white Mirage 21’s appeared, moving slowly, their paddlers chatting casually and enjoying the scenery. I waved vigorously and made to call out, but hesitated; something wasn’t right here – Mirage paddlers are rarely seen this far from Sydney, never paddle at less than top speed and are certainly too preoccupied to look around and talk to each other! I grabbed my bottle, gulped down some water and squirted more on my face. On opening my eyes I found that the bizarre flotilla had disappeared – amazingly, it had just been a hallucination – presumably caused by a combination of loneliness and dehydration.

An hour later I reached the north face of Cabbagetree Island, I stopped for a short rest and a handful of dates. The easterly breeze was increasing and I put up the sail as I entered the heads. The silence of the ocean was no more as motor boats moved in and out of the Port.

As I approached my destination I reflected on the merits or otherwise of paddling alone. On the plus side I had appreciated the lack of hassle while I was packing, and that I didn’t have to take any gear that someone else couldn’t fit in. And I had the pick of the tent sites and could also paddle as fast or slow as I wanted. And I didn’t have to engage in one of those interminable on-water conversations. You know, the ones when you end up paddling for hours beside some bloke who ends up getting all emotional about his marriage breakdown, or how his favourite pastime is dismembering wild pigs, or how his groin rash is playing up something rotten because of tight, wet neoprene pants. This was a real plus.

But there was a definite downside. For a start I had to put up with the dubious presence of Doubt and Confidence. Company I wouldn’t inflict on anyone. And I was always aware of the lack of human companionship as I moved around in the almost deafening silence – particularly at meal times and when exploring. Time also passed very slowly – hermits must experience a very long life indeed. All in all, I think I’d rather have company – even Doug Fraser and his Pittarak. Yes, even with Doug!

Half an hour later I landed beside the boat ramp at Little Beach, only 100 metres from our unit. The beach was full of families enjoying the balmy weather, with fathers throwing their kids around in the water. I looked forward to resuming this role but was pleased to have satisfied the more adventurous part of me, even just for a day and a half.

Tired, hot and again very thirsty, I stepped out of the kayak. Suddenly I heard my name called out. I looked up to see my wife running to me across the beach.

Flinging herself into my arms she sobbed “darling, you’re alive” and peppered me with kisses. My heart rate hit 276! I made to respond but hesitated …something definitely wasn’t right here. I again grabbed my bottle, gulped down some water and squirted more on my face.