Kimberley Capers [36]

Part 1

By Graham Shaw

Day 1 – Monday 6th July 1998.

A small shark chased Rod’s Tasman 19 into a narrow steeply sloping beach on Myres Is just before dark. It was low tide so we staggered high up the beach with our boats and gear trying to guess the highest reach of the flood tide. By the time Rod and I had the tent up and the soup on a driftwood fire Hudson had caught a couple of good sized bream on crab bait.

Hudson with two coral trout on Myres Island

We had left Walsh Point, 7 km to the west, an hour before and were at last on our way. Just to get to Walsh Pt we had already run an enormous gauntlet. A paddling trip along the Kimberley Coast presented great difficulties. Getting 3 compatible paddlers together for 4 or 5 weeks – placating families and work – obtaining information about water sources, the shark, croc and tidal rip threats and points of interest – organising food and gear for 4 weeks self sufficient paddling and transporting all this as far away as you can get in Australia from our homes in the Southern Tablelands of NSW/ACT. Then after driving 5000kms we had to negotiate the last 20kms of washed out track to the coast. Several tour operators had warned us it can be impassable or a car wrecker and it was my biggest pretrip night-mare. In the event the nearby Drysdale River Homestead-cum-tourist-operator had tidied up the track two months earlier and with my 4 passengers walking and guiding me through the roughest parts the over loaded Pajero only bottomed out twice. Somehow we finally packed the small mountain of food, water and gear by 4pm and were itching to put a paddle, at last, into Kimberley water. This meant stretching one of our rules even before starting – not to paddle in crocodile inhabited waters in the late afternoon or evening.

Peter and Denise, 2 hardy bushwalkers from Kununurra, had kindly offered to drive my car back to Kununurra after a few days exploring the Mitchell Falls area. In Kununurra my wife, mother and children were touring the local area awaiting thier return before driving down the Gibb River Road to meet us in Broome hopefully 4 weeks later.

Day 2

After walking around the island at dawn and a couple of coral trout for breakfast we set off east for another 2 kms to the Kimberley Coastal Fishing Camp of Rob and Liz Terry. A shark bumped Hudson’s rudder as we glided over the reef surrounding Myres Island. I had spoken to Liz by phone and was hoping to get as much info as possible about water sources, crocs, Aboriginal art etc. In vain it turned out – they knew the coast to the north but very little south of Port Warrender. Their water supply and time were also very limited due to the busy tourist season. After chatting for 40 minutes we left their camp between two medium sized crocodiles patrolling the mangroves at each end of the beach.

Rod Hudson heading north out of Port Warrender

That made 2 sharks and 2 crocs and poor water prospects in less than 3 hours of paddling! What would the next 4 weeks brings? Conditions were dead calm, not a breath of breeze on mirror smooth water. Where was the strong land breeze (south easterly) that blew every morning? – and would have helped us out of this giant bay. Our heavy boats and lack of paddling fitness meant slow progress. However the scenery was breathtaking, the sparsely vegetated ridges of an ancient sweeping shoreline, high cliff-lined flat-topped islands and warm turquoise water under a tropical sky. A pod of dolphins made the only ripples on the surface as we passed Crystal Head. A light headwind sprang up after we beached on Sheep’s Head Peninsular for lunch. Desperate for shade we stooped under a low overhang and made short work of a large tin of baked beans, a block of cheese and a loaf of bread. At 4.30 pm we reached Pickering Point and found a broad sandy beach with a narrow cliff lined gully in the rear. The lush vegetation in the gully invited a search for fresh water – in vain. Rod and I returned 400m to a small rocky beach near a patch of Pandanas Palm thriving above a rock platform. The weariness of the day’s paddle melted way when we found sweet water in deep grooves or cisterns in the rock platform under the palms. 20 metres behind them we explored some caves in low cliffs and filled our pockets with the plentiful ripe figs growing there. While cooking dinner we tried our distillation ‘turbo’ billy and managed approx. 300ml of fresh water after an hour. This was a simple distillation device Hudson had made to use as a last resort if our water searches failed. A tight fitting billy lid had 3 copper elbows soldered onto it. Our 1.9m aluminium masts fitted tightly into these and ran at a slight downward angle from the billy. With a wet cloth draped over the masts they acted as condensers for the steam generated by putting the billy filled with sea water on a steady camp fire. With a bit more fiddling we figured we could distil about 500mls/hour – enough to get us out of trouble.

Sea-water distillation apparatus

A reverse osmosis hand pump would have been an alternative but these are expensive and complex. I have spoken to a seakayaker and a fisherman who had both found these pumps unreliable when needed. Our spirits were high in spite of a hot breathless night when the mozzies and sandflies were merciless. At 1.30am dingoes howled nearby adding to the primeval feel of the place.

Day 3

At first light, 5.30am, we were up to behold a mirror smooth golden sea. I found a faded message in a whisky bottle dropped in Admiralty Gulf by a bored crew member (Darren Toons of Darwin) 5 years earlier.

At 8.30am we departed for Bigge Point. The shoreline was now much lower and it was difficult to distinguish headlands from the many islands in the distance. Bigge Point is a small rocky island joined by a short sand spit to a low rocky shoreline – great place for morning tea. The tropical heat of midday seeped into our heavy arms as we plodded west to the mouth of Admiralty Gulf. We almost nodded off several times until a rising NW headwind made us fight for balance and progress. In a small inlet just inside the gulf we had lunch of baked beans and salami on mouldy bread. Nearby pandanas patches on sand showed no sign of surface water. A sacred site to all sea kayakers, Krait Bay was just a few kilometres south of the gulf. Near the entrance of the bay I noticed a rusting metal object the size and shape of a World War II sea mine. It was half exposed at low tide on a reef under the northern headland. The bay was named after the Krait, a 27 metre Japanese fishing boat used in the famous Jaywick raid on Japanese held Singapore Harbour in Sept 1943. Six Australian and British Commandos left the Krait 50km from Singapore and island-hopped by night in 2 man sea kayaks. They managed to avoid detection by nearby Japanese patrol boats, observation posts and planes and Malay fishermen to place limpet mines on 7 heavily laden ships. These were sunk or severely damaged on 7 hour delay fuses. They then returned 80kms over several nights to rendezvous with the Krait. After 33 days in Japanese waters and 47 days and 8000kms after leaving Exmouth Gulf they returned unsung heroes. Krait Bay was used later by the Special Reconnaissance Department sailing the Krait on secret operations between the Bay, Timor and Darwin. The only evidence of their past presence were several piles of rusting five gallon drums and the sea mine.

Day 4

Heading south we rounded Davidson Point, a dark orange and yellow sandstone bluff typical of the Kimberley Coast, named after the leader of the Jaywick raiding party. Two kilometres later we set sail off Cape Voltaire – a dark basalt column headland – for Water Island 15kms to SW. The Coast Watch turbo prop passed low over us mid morning. We landed on an eastern beach and after an hour stumbling over loose boulders and prickly spinifex I found rock cisterns holding slightly brackish water on rock platforms 5m above high tide on the western side of the island. Explorer Capt. PP King noted these in 1820 when he named the island. “Gaiter Island” would be a more appropriate name but we were very happy to fill our water bottles. The water was less salty than currently popular sports drinks and if its good enough for elite athletes it was good enough for us. One of our party was having trouble with his rudder control lines as we pulled into an unnamed island just south of Cleghorn Island a little before dark. He managed a very good impersonation of Marvin the paranoid android in Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Moonrise south of Cleghorn Island

Day 5

Parrot fish baked on hot coals for breakfast. The sailing was pleasant as we headed SW towards the low spread of Bigge Is. on an easterly breeze. One of 4 dolphins playing next to Hudson nearly jumped on his lap – a hazard we hadn’t anticipated. At 3pm we arrived at a remarkable little beach on the SW corner of Capstain Is where Paul Caffyn camped on his circumnavigation of Australia by sea kayak. The headlands are sandstone but deeply honeycombed like limestone caves. Fascinated we explored these for a while but then decided to continue south into Scott Straight for a few kilometres to reduce the next day’s long crossing. At dead low tide on dusk we began a long gear and boat shuffle across wet sandy flats and then 100 metres up a gently sloping beach. We marvelled at the huge live nautilus shells and luminescent lights on the flats. An evening stroll 100m to the north to a mangrove fringed inlet revealed no red (croc) eyes in Hudson’s big Dolphin torch. We were tired but content.

Day 6

Away early on the rising, south flowing, tide to make Augereau Is at the exit of Scott Straight by 10.30 am. We had an early lunch hoping to cross the outlet of the Prince Regent River, the 20km wide York Sound. However the tide was now falling and therefore running against us. There was not a breath of wind. After 1 1/2 hours we had covered only 4kms and decided to pike and head west with the tide to Tournefort Is. The afternoon Norwester was late so the last few hundred metres gave us our first taste of a Kimberley phenomenon – a hard slog across a very strong current pushed up into steep standing waves by an opposing wind. I wrote up my diary under a shady tree looking out over a beach to Bigge and Lamark Islands. Dolphins played in the channel nearby. A little later Rod landed a 15lb cod which Hudson prepared as a wonderful (UHT) cream Tahitian dish. Time to take stock – 2 inflamed ingrown toenails, chafed knees and crotch, mildly upset tummy, tired lower back, shoulders and arms, a slight chest cold and a sunburnt face, but …….over and above all that….. an all pervading sense of well-being!!!

Day 7

A fresh easterly opposed a powerful ingoing tide creating short steep seas on our port beam as we headed south across York Sound. Our white water experience came through as we used bracing paddling strokes to help us cross a very confused sea. The contrast as we entered the calm of Port Nelson was dramatic. We rounded the first headland to the sound of cheerful birdlife enjoying the cool of one of the few patches of coastal rainforest in the Kimberley. After lunch the wind dropped and we plodded south 8 kilometres in the breathless heat to Careening Bay. It has a beautiful crescent beach surrounded by a steep amphitheatre ridge with a promising green gully in the middle. In 1820 Capt King beached his survey vessel the Mermaid here to carry out urgent repairs. We were unable to find the freshwater he described in a hole near the western end of the beach but easily found the giant Mermaid boab by following numerous tourist footprints.

Day 8

Found wonderful freshwater in grooves on a rock platform under lush pandanus just south of Cape Brewster.

The pattern of our days continued – paddling, exploring, camping, fishing. We saw no other people for 11 days. The isolation and natural beauty of the coast were broken only by a pleasant lunch (and banana smoothies!!) with the staff at Kuri Bay pearl farm and the wonderful hospitality of Geoff Parker at Freshwater Cove Fishing Camp. The whole coast was like a vast uninhabited Sydney Harbour with calm seas, inviting beaches, stricking islands and headlands. Geoff guided us on a bushwalk several kilometres inland to freshwater pools and remarkable Aboriginal cave art and gave us our prearranged food drop.

Wandjina (storm spirits)

We continued south to Montgomery Reef, stunning cliff scenery and freshwater spring below high tide near Raft Point and passed the whirlpools and enormous tidal rips in Yule Entrance at Walcott Inlet .

On Wed 22/7 we entered Talbot Bay and could immediately feel the change of atmosphere – steep enclosing ridges, mangrove flats and dark water. It felt crocy – this was their domain. Here we were not the top of the food chain but potentially part of it and there were only a few millimetres of fibreglass between our bums and their teeth.

A forced bivouac on a low rocky headland added to the feeling – shortly after a spectacular sunset over the bay a pair of red (croc) eyes cruised the water’s edge all night.

Unbeknownst to our paddlers, that was a crocodile making that wake between the left and middle paddlers

Next morning after rounding a headland on the way to “the Gaps” I saw a turtle approach Rod’s boat just ahead of me. It was coming towards us at a steady pace holding a steady gaze – very unusual for a turtle! Hudson came round the headland as Rod and I were steaming away. He could see the urgency in our strokes but not the crocodile. He followed our lead, instantly coming to the correct conclusion. The crocodile followed us for a few hundred metres and then disappeared. We kept up a pretty healthy pace for another kilometre before easing off and rafting up. We concluded that the crocodile probably wasn’t more than a couple of metres long and hoped his big brother was well up the creek where he was supposed to be.

The lure of the tidal surge through the Talbot Bay gaps was what drew us into this estuary. For more than two decades we had paddled the white water rivers of the Southern Tablelands and Snowy Mountains. We had recently taken to sea kayaks as a great way to explore remote coastlines. Here was a unique location for sea kayaking in breathtaking scenery where the white water slowly builds to tremendous power then gradually subsides and reverses every 6 hours. This phenomenum is caused by the 10m tidal surge through a deep narrow gap in two parallel ridges of ancient quartzite. As the tide peaks the inflow stops for a couple of minutes then surges back out again creating burls and whirlpools and heavy confused water for several hundred metres as the water tries to level again.

Where sea kayakers dare – shooting the “horizontal waterfall” on the tidal entering Talbot Bay

Timing our arrival at the Gaps was critical. We had to take the last of the flooding tide in, have a look around and take the ebb tide out before it became too powerful. The two crocodiles we had already seen in Talbot Bay had dampened our enthusiasm for taking on the tidal surge at full power. This was Spring Tide time and heavy sea kayaks are not ideal for Grade IV+ white water. The prospect of missing a roll in the heavy turbulent water, a swim and a difficult rescue was not appealing.

In the event the turbulence through the narrowest (2nd) gap within an hour of slack tide (and the first gap within 2 hours) was probably no more than Grade III. However it certainly was big volume with variable surface flows reflecting off the overhanging rock walls and sweeping sideways over the main current and many small whirlpools to leave a despairing brace unsupported.

We stayed a second day to try the gaps at higher power and were invited by Jim to the fancy dress “harvest party” at the nearby pearl farm pontoon. After congratulating ourselves on our good fortune we were turned away by the security conscious managers. Jim thoughtlessly hadn’t advised them of his invitation! More than half a million dollars worth of pearls had recently been stolen from farms closer to Broome. I didn’t think we looked any sort of a risk but on reflection it had been three weeks since we’d had a shower, Rod is a rough diamond and Hudson’s crotch rot did make him walk funny! More than a little peeved we headed back to our camp (which was their rubbish tip) at dusk, aggravation balancing concern about crocs.

Hudson was in deep gloom until 11am next day when Jo Paine, a crew member of the Coral Princess, invited us on board this big luxury tourist boat for beer, shower and lunch – as much fresh salad, cold meats and bread as we could eat!! Being quizzed by aged tourists was more than compensated by the hospitality of the crew and CALM Officer Warwick Roe as we exchanged information while pouring over maps on the bridge. And guess what? Jo runs a terrific sea kayaking hire company in the summer on the spectacular fjord indented Stuart Is off the southern tip of New Zealand – a wildlife and scenic wonderland Ph.NZ 03 2191275 Completley Southern Sea Kayaks Box 130, Stewart Is

Why did two experienced boatmen give wrong directions to Phil and Marion’s up Silver Gull Creek? What dangers lurk up Crocodile Creek? Will the expedition go sub-marine at Whirlpool Passage? Will Hudson’s nether regions ever regain thier former glory? Will we take the chicken run across the notorious Sunday Straight?

Get the next issue to find the answers to these and many other important questions.

Special thanks to Rob your for important help with water sources and historical information

Suggested Reading:

  • “Kimberley Experience” by Terry Bollands
  • “Kimberley, Horizons of Stone” by Alistair McGregor & Quentin Chester
  • “Crocodile Attack” by Hugh Edwards
  • “The Heros” by Ronald McKie
  • “Dream Time Voyage” (Chapter 11) by Paul Caffyn
  • “Discovery of Australia” by PP King

Continue with part 2