Mallacoota to Tallowa Dam [35]

A Story of Three Men in Some Boats

By Mark Pearson

Thump! I brought the car to a halt after hitting the creature at about 70 kph. The poor wallaby managed to hop away, but my 9 month old Magna had a smashed headlight and shattered bumper. This was the Imlay Road, linking Bombala to the extreme NSW south coast – 50 kms of forest and not a fence in sight. Not a good place to drive a car after dark, what with a marsupial seemingly stationed beside the road every couple of hundred metres.

We had arranged to meet ‘in Mallacouta’ at 9.00 pm. Because of the accident I arrived 15 minutes late. As I cruised into sprawling central Mallacouta I realised that the place was bigger than I had expected. With my eyes searching for a sign indicating a campsite, suddenly a scary looking weirdo figure darted out from the trees waving his arms above his head. I instinctively swerved and made to accelerate away from the danger, but then realised with relief that it was none other than Norm ‘Sea Dog’ Sanders, who, along with the talented John Caldwell, were to be my companions on this trip.

Yes, just three of us – five other spineless, pathetic so-called sea paddlers had pulled out of this brilliantly conceived trip, but I’ll not waste paper naming them here. It was a three-night/four day paddle heading for Nadgee River. We had not done a car shuffle because of northerly winds forecast later in the weekend. With luck, we’d sail back to Mallacouta.

Norm directed me to the nearby lakeside caravan park, where John was boiling the billy. We reviewed the damage to my car. Norm reported that his car had overheated on the way down from Tuross and he’d also been lucky to make it to Mallacouta. He looked at me accusingly` “do you know what you’ve done ‘Killer” he said, stabbing a callused finger in my general direction “you’ve organised a trip that’s not only departing on Friday 13th, but also the Ides of March … ancient mariners never set sail on these dates, these car problems are just the start and heaven help us when we actually get on the water and the Ocean Gods get hold of us ….” etc etc.

Norm’s words had the desired affect, and I had a fitful sleep during a rainy night. Come morning, we packed our kayaks in steady drizzle. We set off as the rain band was tailing off and blue skies appeared in the west. The forecast was for strengthening south westerlies, and, sure enough, some minutes after we exited a tame Mallacouta bar, the rustling of the Sea Dog’s beard announced the beginnings of a breeze.

Some time later Norm and I raised our sails – the first time for my new handmade sail – 40% larger than the original factory job, and with my new innovative Extendamast( option, giving me better forward visibility. An uneventful hour and a half later, during which nothing much happened and not one wild creature was seen, we landed at Gabo Island and walked up to the lighthouse at the southern tip. The view to the south showed that the sea was now whitecapping.

Norm prepares to land on Gabo Island

On the way back to the kayaks John and I took a detour to the north of the island and happened upon a tiny graveyard in a densely wooded glade. There were just three headstones which marked the last resting place of a baby, a young woman and a man who had all died between 1860 and 1880. It was an eerie place and a stark reminder of how tough life was back in those times. We arrived back at the cove to an impatient Norm and studied his chart of the approach to Cape Howe. We decided to land at Howe beach and stay the night if a decent camping spot could be found. On the chart there were several ominous Nearly Always Breaks warnings in scary italics scattered across the area of water to the south of the Cape and up to a kilometre to seaward. This was going to be interesting.

I was last to push off, and carelessly laid my paddle beside the kayak to attach my spray skirt. The rising shore dump suddenly lifted my heavy kayak up and sideways onto the paddle. I waited to see if the boat would lift off it, but no joy. I finally got out to see my worst fears realised – the centre of the carbon-fibre shaft was crushed courtesy of the Classic’s razor sharp V-keel. I looked up to see Norm sitting 30 metres offshore giving me a told you so ‘Ides of March’ smile.

By the time I had untied my spare paddle and secured the broken one, John and Norm were some distance ahead. The swell was now pumping and quite large waves were striking south facing rocks on the western side of the island. Our first test came quickly – the gap between Gabo and the mainland was lively, with waves breaking powerfully on each side and a narrow channel, perhaps 60 metres across, where the rollers steepened but did not break. We made it through without too much difficulty or unwanted expected surfing thrills.

I raised the sail again, a tricky manoeuvre in itself in the wind, and instantly got up to speed. Due to my larger sail area I was now faster than Norm and significantly faster than the sail-less John, so to let them catch up I occasionally set out on diagonal ‘reaching’ legs.

Now well clear of the shelter of Gabo and having got used to the wind strength I was starting to feel more in control and loving it. The sail buzzed loudly as it vibrated with the sheer speed of wind over nylon. Beam on to the wind, and with my paddle trailed out wide like an outrigger, I was screaming along. Judging by the way the paddle was hissing along the surface, I estimated my speed to over 12 km/hour. Downwind I was obviously much faster, although it took concentration and fast but light paddle strokes to keep the Classic straight. When I did I was rewarded with spectacular surfing rides which seemed to go on forever.

The author under full sail

The swell was growing by the minute – my companions were now disappearing for long moments in deep troughs. Communication was only possible from within 15 metres of each other, and for the most part we didn’t want to get that close anyway given occasional wild and uncontrolled surfing rides. Occasionally I would turn upwind to let John catch up, and the sight of the monstrous sea was something to behold. It had t be 4 or 5 metres high I shouted to Norm – 2.5 to 3 he wisely corrected. Still bloody huge anyway – I remembered thinking how little in common this activity had with my job at the Commonwealh Department of Veterans Affairs.

As we closed in on the Cape, we were aware that huge waves were breaking not only along the beach to our left, but also on many submerged reefs to our right. At this stage we had no idea what lay ahead and that was the frightening thing – if reefs awaited us at the end of this corridor we were going to be in grave danger.

And then it happened – I km south of the Cape, as I turned downwind again, I found my kayak tearing down the face of an oversize and very steep wave. I was aware of the dark wall of water looming above me to my left and then a roar as it broke on my head and shoulders. I instinctively braced and then braced even wider as the wave continued to hammer down on kayak and sail. Then I was out of it, and was greeted with the odd sight of sheets of water draining from the rig. Relieved still to be upright I looked over to Norm who, having witnessed my little manoeuvre, shouted that “he’d had enough fun for one day” and whipped down his sail. I needed little convincing to do the same.

Minutes later we rounded the Cape without further major trauma and found immediate respite from the sou’wester off the east-facing Howe Beach. “How about granting me Sea Proficiency for that brace” I shouted to Norm. “No” he said firmly “not until I see a written application in triplicate, evidence of a comprehensive first aid kit, a two-way radio, GPS, half a dozen flares and a v-sheet”. Bastard!

John Caldwell finds shelter behind Cape Howe

We decided to land – Norm and I doing so without much difficulty at all. But as John positioned the Seafarer for his run, a set of waves appeared that seemed to come almost from the east, and were out of scale with what Norm and I had experienced – John was forced into some frantic backpaddling as he found his kayak threatening to run down the face of some uncomfortably steep 2.5 metre waves. The set went on and on; 11, 12 13 waves – typically of paddlers who are safely ashore, we watched in glee from the beach at his discomfort. Our glee was misplaced. For this was the Ides of March paddle, and we were witnessing the first sign that the Wind God had passed the baton. The Surf God had announced himself.

John makes his run into Howe Beach

We stomped around the Beach for a while looking for a camping spot. During this exercise we noticed a protuberance in the centre of the beach – it was the diesel engine of a wrecked fishing boat lying about 30 metres offshore – just under the waterline was about 6 metres of jagged looking hull remnants

Eventually we found an excellent area in the trees on the south end, complete with fireplace and seating planks. It was obviously a fishermens haunt from the days when vehicles could get in.

Norm and John enjoying a well earned rest at the sheltered camp at Howe Beach

Norm walked up to the dunes and again contacted his mate the Gabo Island lighthouse keeper – he confirmed that the swell that afternoon had been 3 metres with the wind averaging 30 knots, with gusts to 39.

We settled down for dinner. Entree was a delicious fresh tailor I’d caught, baked in foil with herbs and lemon and was delicious. As the conversation developed I realised that this was the first trip I had been on with Mr Caldwell since Nadgee two years ago. John had recently moved from the southern highlands to a property east of Canberra and it soon became obvious that there were subtle changes in the man. For a start, Johns’ language seemed far less couth than before, and several times Norm and I nearly choked on our noodles as he casually let forth with an unbroken string of choice 3, 4, and 7 letter words. John the Herbalist of Mittagong had indeed become John the Profane of Bungendore!

More surprising still was the revelation that John, much to the disgust of his good and gracious wife Jutë, was now a card carrying member of the One Nation Party (although this did explain why the gorgeous image of Ms Hanson adorned all John’s T-shirts).

John also had a peculiar after dinner ritual which we observed with some interest. First he would carefully wrap some dried, fine leaf matter into a little square of paper to form a thin tube, then light the end of this tube, which would burn very slowly. Fascinated up to this point (by what we thought we was the construction of an elaborate fire lighter), Norm and I just about fell of our chairs when he then put the unlit end in his mouth, sucked in the smoke and blew it out again!

Given the quality of the camping area, we decided to use it as a base, and go for a day paddle up to Nadgee Lake the next day. After a peaceful night we awoke the next morning to a constant roar of serious surf. Set after set of super powerful 3 metre waves were now pounding in – we knew that paddling was out of the question until things settled down.

But there wasn’t much to do on Howe Beach – it was bounded on the south by the dunes of the Cape, to the west by dense scrub and to the north by a rock platform too dangerous to climb over. I jumped in the Classic for some serious bracing practise, and was surprised by the power and sheer volume of the metre high white water. The south-north rip was fast indeed and I was soon too close to the wreck. Paddling back into the rip while having to brace heavily into surging white water intent on driving me far up the beach was hard work. I gave up the activity after only fifteen minutes – this was a bad beach.

After drying off I got together with the guys. We agreed that Norm should have a go at finding the track which would take us to Nadgee Lake, or even an escape route back to Mallacouta if the beach refused to settle down.

Meanwhile John and I sat on a rock and positioned an imaginary kayak in various areas of the surf and attempted to visualise it’s attempts to get out. We decided that a diagonal route was the only way to go starting on the south end of the beach, holding position against the rip as close to the breaking waves as possible and then hitting the accelerator as soon as a set seemed to be ending. But time after time our virtual kayak was smashed by the next set of monstrously powerful waves. We assumed that the kayak would have been thrown backwards, it’s occupant deposited in the wreck zone, or into the rip where both kayak and paddler would be taken inexorably back into the big stuff and a horrible fate.

After just one hour our virtual kayaker had sustained terrible injuries on the rocks, had been impaled on razor sharp wreck metal three times and had drowned due to the rip more times than we cared to remember. Not to mention the time he probably died of fright a millisecond before one particular raging four metre monster smashed down on his puny kayak. But then a reasonable lull, and John and I celebrated the very possible survival of our gallant kayak as it made it’s way out to open sea (on it’s fifteenth attempt)! Now all we had to do was get the other two off safely! This was a terrible beach!

Norm then returned to report that, despite his 50 years of bush skills, he had failed miserably to find any trace of a track. We were stuck on the beach of no return. Norm continued to mutter about the Ides of March and all that. It wasn’t looking good.

Throughout the day we walked on the great dunes in our continued search for a track. What we did find were several other small camping areas interspersed throughout the trees and scrub on the southern end. In total, space enough for about 40 tents – apart from the Grade 6 surf, the total lack of sheltered water and vehicular access, not to mention the 6 hundred kms distance to Sydney, surely this was a great location for the next Rock’n’Roll weekend!

Norm admiring the big sets coming in. They were much bigger than appears here

The swell continued to increase until by late afternoon it was an appalling but magnificent sight. About this time we started to run out of superlatives to describe what was before us – the waves were breaking so far out it was had to guess their size, so we carried out a surveyors measuring exercise, lining up the wave crests with the horizon from an elevated position – the marked position was over five metres above sea level.

The dorsal fins of four dolphins appeared. Now we’ll see some action we thought, after all what dolphin could resist the chance to show of it’s skills in such waves. But the dolphins, even though brilliantly placed high on the steep green face of each wave, seemed strangely stiff and immobile, and appeared to be waiting for one amongst them to take the lead. The dreadful truth dawned upon us .. even the dolphins were paralysed with fear!

As dusk descended we went for a walk to the headland and watched the swell tracking from slightly south of east. The swell lines were clearly visible many hundreds of metres out to sea as they made their menacing way in. As the awesome things broke thunderously into translucent whiteness some 4 hundred metres off shore, one couldn’t help admiring this special show the Surf God was putting on.
From this elevated position Norm again radio’d his mate the lighthouse keeper – he gave us the cheery news that this was the biggest swell he’d seen hitting the Cape in his two years on Gabo.

Dinner that night was subdued, with the constant roar of the surf an ever present reminder of our confinement. Time pressure was building, for John and I had work commitments the next Wednesday – we basically had to set off for Merica River the next day or face a 40 km paddle, 220 km car shuffle and 340km drive home on Tuesday. ‘Organic John’ relieved his stress by gleefully pointing out the chemical and preservative content of just about every item of food that passed my lips. Norm wasn’t happy and commented often that the thought of flat water paddling was becoming more and more appealing.

That evening, the freakish power of this surf was confirmed – for the first time ever Norm was too scared to enter the shallows for his daily eco-crap, and was forced to borrow my toilet paper and head for the scrub.

Monday morning and we scurried down to the beach. The news was better – occasional big waves, but most only a ‘modest’ 3 metres! But there were definite lulls – some as long as a minute. We spent at least an hour studying the trends – surely we were setting a club record for surf watching here.

We packed up. As I applied Blistex to my wind-blown lips, John still had the presence of mind to remind me of the nasty chemicals I’d be licking on the way out.

I was first off the beach. We had talked a lot but really had no plan, no preferred departure order, just a common strategy of how to get through. I held position as close as I could to the break-line, the white water and rip still disconcertingly powerful and requiring full blooded strokes to hold position.

And then I sensed the beginnings of a lull and I was off, paddling as fast and efficiently as possible, through massively powerful white stuff. 200 metres of ‘no mans land’ to cross – I estimated about 70 seconds to safety. But it was a cruelly long and fearful 70 seconds, my eyes straining to see round the point to check out what might be coming in. I was lucky, nothing came in big enough to break where I was and I only had some large greenbacks to climb up and over. I was out. I was incredibly relieved, but simultaneously peeved that such a dream run had robbed me of a decent camp-fire yarn in trips to come.

I turned to look back to see John’s Seafarer airborne as it powered over the face of one of the steepening waves I had passed over. He had made it but only just. John joined me and described his horrific close call.

But where was Norm. John reported that they had been together when they hit some surging white water but Norm had been swept back. Due to the size of the swell and our distance form shore we only got a glimpse of him every minute or so. There he was on the beach emptying his boat. Some minutes later he pushed off again and we waited. And waited. Norm was surely biding his time for a lull. And then we saw him again – this time near the wreck and sideways on the beach again. In frustration and helplessness, John let forth a record string of four letter words. I thought about Norm’s superfine paddle blade – not the ideal weapon for these conditions at all.

Norm left his boat and sat down for a good 10 minutes – he was obviously tired or hurt. Or, I thought hopefully, maybe he was doing all this just to piss us off. And then he was dragging his kayak like a dog pulling a sled, taking long rests every 20 metres or so. He had given up fighting both the rip and powerful sidewash and was taking the land route back to the launch zone. More huge swells the size of houses moved underneath us. Norm rested again and slowly got back into his kayak.

John and I had now been bobbing around for an hour. This was a time when radios would have been priceless. Our conversation was tense and subdued – we realised that the Sea Dog probably had only one more effort left in him. If he failed we knew that we would have to go back in through this stuff, to surely be run down by express speed behemoths and hurled into the rip and the wreck…. “F—” we chorused in unison at the mere thought of it.

Some minutes later Norm pushed off again and almost immediately we could see by his urgent strokes that he was on his way … this was it! I looked out to sea – three huge greenbacks were rolling in. With dismay we realised that Norm was surely doomed.

Spontaneously, John, in a fine baritone, began to sing a stirring and ancient Inuit chant in remembrance of Norm Sanders, the Old Sea Dog. I pondered an appropriate epitaph – ‘great knowledge, lousy timing’ came to mind. The first of the three waves roared as it crashed down 150 metres from shore. 30 seconds passed, another of the three roared in its death throes. But then a miracle, Norm’s yellow Classic suddenly rose high over the back of the last wave of the set – he was still in with a fighting chance.

But then he stopped paddling. Unbelievably, he was fiddling around with something on his deck. And then the strangest sight in the history of Australian sea-kayaking – although still deeply in the danger zone, Norm’s sail was suddenly up, yellow and defiant in the face of extreme danger. He sailed over to us slowly and serenely without paddling another stroke.

John and I were incredulous at the cheek of it all, but something wasn’t right – there was a vacant look in Norm’s eyes. “Are you OK” I asked, genuinely concerned. “Tallowa Dam” he said looking straight through me and pointing northwards, and again “Tallowa Dam…”. With shock we realised that the Sea Dog had indeed experienced mega-trauma while climbing the faces of those three giants, and was now a mere shell of the vibrant man we had known but an hour ago. His one and only aim in life now was to seek the sheltered calm of a southern highlands impoundment!

Concerned, John and I looked at each other. Tallowa Dam it is then, we agreed. We turned north with the aid of a strengthening southerly. 8 kms later, the surf at Nadgee Lake beach could be seen to be as fearsome as where we’d come from. Half an hour later, the surf at the north-east facing Nadgee River beach, our traditional camp spot, looked easy.

For the next hour or so again I sailed and paddled, again the swell was sizeable and the wind over 25 knots, and again the experience was invigorating. Norm was too tired to paddle strongly and relied more on sail-power. I kept my eye on him and close to Newton’s Beach he indicated with sign language and grunts that he was cold and needed a rest. We put in, warmed up out of the wind and ate snacks.

Norm began to snap out of it, and hesitatingly, like a man using a new language, began to relate his terrible experiences on the beach – the driving white water, capsizing in the shallows, being crushed by the Classic and hurting his back and neck, straining his knee during the energy-sapping haul and finally his near death experience climbing almost vertical faces on those waves … waves he insisted would have broken on him but for the fact he had willed them not to!

Landing for a rest at Newton’s Beach

We departed in higher spirits. As I punched out through increasing surf at Newtons, I was hit hard in the face by a nasty 2 metre wave, cracking my sunglasses. My equipment was sure taking a pounding on this trip. As we turned north west into Disaster Bay the wind, turned south easterly , so maintaining an unbroken sequence of following winds for the 55 kms covered so far. Not inviting Doug Headwind on this trip had paid off indeed!

After a typically restful and soothing night at Merica River we headed back to Womboyn the next morning with Norm, now back to full oratory power, repeating ad nauseam that he was “65 for God’s sake”, and swearing that he would never, ever, head down this way again.

Norm surfs in at Womboyn Bar

At Womboyn we had to pay $80 for the 110 km ride to Mallacouta to get the cars, thus continuing the budgetary pain of this trip. As we waited for the lift, I took advantage of Norm’s stiff neck by regularly pointing out imaginary rare birds high in the sky. The pick-up took forever, and Norm, his pain levels at last affecting his normal calm temperament, gave both John and I both suffered severe tongue lashings as we packed the cars.

Alone on the long trip back to Canberra I reflected on the paddle. Cape Howe was all I had imagined it to be – Grade 6 territory indeed. It was without doubt the most challenging trip I’d been on, with many intense moments, and some periods of near terror. But I’d come through, and my experience level had gone up another couple of notches. Still no Sea Proficiency qualification, but I wouldn’t have missed this one for quids.

In future months, if you’re lucky, you might see Norm Sanders on Tallowa Dam. But I hope not. I’m hoping he’ll join me the next time to again ‘do’ Nadgee. The place where sea paddlers go.