The three of us stopped paddling simultaneously. No words were spoken, no signs given. Each of us was totally focused as we drifted silently towards two huge animals 200 metres away. The mother and calf humpback whales rose, breathed and dived every 3 to 4 minutes slowly closing the distance between us. Still no-one spoke. We were transfixed by their presence. There was no rush in their movements. The mother rose, exhaled loudly, lingered on the surface, rolled her head down and glided out of sight in the clear turquoise blue water of Yampi Sound. The calf nestled closely in beside its mother rising and diving easily with her.
One of the family of Humpback whales
These warm waters were their breeding ground, probably for many many generations before and they seemed very relaxed and secure. Ten days earlier off Hall Point we had seen a huge plume more than 2kms away followed a few seconds later by the loud whack of a more playfully aggressive humpback (slamming his tail down?). We had no doubt about the power of these enormous mammals. Wonder and apprehension mingled as they surfaced 30m away and were still closing on us. They dived again. We didn’t speak or move a muscle. We could see gentle surface burls mark their progress as they made a wide arc under us and back to where we first saw them 15 minutes earlier.
The spell was finally broken. We left them to enjoy their peace. A moving and humbling experience which circumstance or the sea gods or whatever had bestowed upon us. To think that the Inuit had designed and paddled small sea kayaks for centuries to hunt whales and other large sea life for the survival of their families – braver and more skilful men by far. Our remarkably seaworthy 5.6m Greenlander sea kayaks are similar in design (Rod had a #*!@## Tasman 19 which was actually faster and could store more gear) and had safely transported us over 700kms through one of the wildest most remote places on the planet, the Kimberley Coast.
Two days earlier we had left Talbot Bay on an outgoing tide which swept us past a line of small chunky islands, the Iron Islands, to the eastern end of Koolan Island. We checked an appealing cliff lined bay around a headland to the north. Unfortunately all the beaches appeared to go under at hightide so we returned to a long narrow beach near the eastern corner.
Early next day we slogged up a steep oiled track to the old Koolan town site. $23million had been spent in the mid 90s to strip the cyclone proof town which had accommodated 800 miners and their families. There is an airstrip in good condition but not a stick of timber, length of iron or strip of footing to be seen. Even the bitumen had been stripped off the roads! We left at 11am to catch the rising tide which helped us through “the drain” into “the canal” with surprisingly little turbulence. A huge tailings heap rose on our right as we approached the old mine site. Names of the ore carriers were painted on the cliff face – Iron Monarch, Iron Whyalla, Iron Kembla etc. We shot the Grade II rapid into a cove formed when the open cut mine, which had gone 85m below sea level, was flooded. The strata of ironstone ore had been nearly vertical so the eastern wall of the pit, which towered more than 100m above us, was delicately balanced and unstable. The history of the discovery and development of the rich ironstone deposits of Koolan and Cockatoo Is make a fascinating story. There were pre-war Japanese investors (?spies!), jingoistic white-Australian journalism and plenty of political heat in the late 30s. When the mines finally got going in the 50s most of the rich ore went to Germany and Japan for decades.
Silver Gull Creek at low tide
After our encounter with the whales we headed up Silver Gull Creek to meet the (in)famous “hermits” Phil and Marion. We had avoided small estuaries like this creek to keep clear of big crocs but 2 boatmen had said they were only a short way up around the second headland on the left and were not to be missed. After no sign of a tin roof or concrete water tank we wearily continued up the creek to eventually see the silver-haired and bearded Phil (or was it a large garden gnome) waving us over to a low cliff. Minutes later we were enjoying some cold beers in their large open shed – with shade cloth on the floor and some of the walls. We soon retired to a concrete tank 5m in diameter and 2m high which was formerly the water supply for Koolan mine. With a shade cloth roof there were plastic chairs around a central plastic table holding the beers and smokes! Clean warm soothing, indeed “healing”, water gushes from an outlet high on one side, piped from a spring in the pandanus 20m away and flows out a “window” 1m wide and 1/2 m high overlooking the creek on the other side.
So we sat in the metre deep luxurious fresh water drinking home brew and yarning with Phil and Marion and a couple of visitors from Cockatoo Island until we’d had enough. This took some hours. Phil had sailed the Barrier Reef for years and several times across the top of Australia until he and Marion had been shown this spot by Vic Cox 5 years earlier. Vic Cox is a Kimberley legend – formerly a professional crocodile shooter and fisherman. As a miner on Cockatoo Island he kept a pet crocodile in his backyard pool which used to occasionally escape the ramshackle fencing and terrorise the village. In 1986 he guided the police to find the body of the American model Ginger Meadows when she was taken by a croc below Kings Cascades up the Prince Regent River a few hundred kilometres NE of here.
After a big roast and several cartons of port of the Chateau Cardboard variety we could now understand why 2 experienced boatmen were several kilometres out in their description of where the shed was!
The ‘Leewin’ in Yampi Sound
It took us a day and a half to recover and move on, this time to Crocodile Creek just a few kilometres south. We paddled into the head of this small estuary where a postcard perfect waterfall tumbles into a pool. Squeezed into the gorge next to the pool is a tin roofed shelter holding the biggest crowd of people we’d seen for 3 weeks. Moored in Yampi Sound just outside the estuary was the Leewin, a “tall ship” used by the West Australian Government for youth training. A surprise to us, people were swimming and diving into the pool. The young biologist advising the crew said crocodiles only held their breath for 20 minutes and they had watched the pool for 30. So we jumped in for a brief swim, doubt still firmly in the back of our minds. (A week later in Broome I visited the crocodile farm and asked the guide how long crocs can hold their breath – answer : 90 minutes!!!) They were just finishing a huge BBQ and there were plenty of left overs! This was the fifth time we’d dropped in just in time for lunch in the “remote Kimberleys”. I was becoming convinced there is a sixth sense touring sea kayakers possess – “lunch sense”. On a long trip lunch is the hardest meal of the day to make interesting and you can sniff out fresh food from way off.
After three hamburgers I left Rod and Hudson teaching the eager youth of WA the finer points of expedition sea kayaking and set sail for Colin’s Cove on Cockatoo Is approximately 13km north.
A condition of my leave from my family was a trip to the small resort on Cockatoo Island by them at the time I planned to paddle past. While a little expensive this was a very worthwhile plan by my wife and I enjoyed two very pleasant days with them in this stunning setting overlooking some of the Buccaneer Archipelago.
It was very difficult to get my head back into expedition mode for the final demanding week. We left at dawn on Thursday 30 July (Day 25) for the north end of Gibbings Island 10km to the SE. Just as we reached the northern end of the island the Utopia, Todd (and formerly Kym) Keevil’s fishing tourist boat came around the headland and offered us breakfast of bacon and eggs on toast. Was this a seventh sense we were developing – “breakfast sense”? There is said to be a good source of water at the back of the south-western beach on Gibbings Is but we couldn’t see it from our boats. We then headed for “Silica Beach” on the northern end of Hidden Island which required a determined paddle against a strong tidal stream around the last headland. The beach was worth the effort – very fine, ultra white sand and a little crystal cave to the right. After a snack we sailed SE between Hidden and Bayliss Islands looking for the entrance to Whirlpool Pass. We made for a small beach just before a headland which we supposed led to the passage. After lunch we launched apprehensively – we’d been told a story where a large runabout had been sucked under by the very large whirlpool at one end of the passage. However after about 15 minutes we realised we’d paddled just past the entrance to the true passage and were in the shallow chicken run to the east. After a short grunt against the current we returned to the true passage entrance which looked deceptively like a cove and were swept past a low rocky point on our right. 20m east of the point was the very impressive metre wide vortex of a whirlpool. However our fears evaporated as it would take some very determined paddling to get close enough to have any worries. In less than half an hour we were through the 10km passage on the ingoing tide into Strickland Bay. Sheep’s Head Is, 10km to the SE, was our day’s destination. 53km, our biggest day and much of it with tidal assistance. The fishing was excellent and included trevalli, stripeys, bream and a couple of sharks. We camped near the graves of some of the early hard hat pearlers.
Next morning we missed another narrow passage east of Sir Richard Is. when heading for Cone Bay. This was getting close to the notorious Sunday Straight. The last 2km was a hard slog against the tide and finished with an overfall created by a sharp underwater rock 30cm below the surface. Standing waves and small whirlpools trailed behind the overfall. Sailing south across Cone Bay in the late afternoon we reached the base camp of Maxima Pearls which is a small island off the long southern shore of this deep bay. The manager courteously told us where water and campsites were along this steep shoreline but no invitation to join them. We set off in fading light to a narrow green gulch in the cliff line 1.5km to the west. A scramble up a creek led to the decaying shacks of 2 hermits, X & X, who dropped out of the rat race in the 70s to this ultra isolated patch of rainforest. They had abandoned it some years earlier. For us it was a very poor campsite because of the rock landing and long gear carry to any level area. We continued west into a golden sunset anxious to find a beach above high tide. And we did – Johnston’s Camp, the best camping beach of the whole trip. Almost no carry, a freshwater stream under large overhanging Melalucas and a beautiful outlook.
It was another reasonably long day, some against the tide and I had aggravated a strained hip by a full boat carry the evening before. I was not feeling good about the upcoming crossing of Sunday Straight – a potential epic. We had heard many stories about the difficult sea conditions in many of the places we had been – Walcott Inlet, Talbot Bay Gaps, The Gutter and the Drain off Koolan Island, Whirlpool Pass etc. But all had been easily navigated by sea kayak by timing our run with the tide. However on Cockatoo Is an Aboriginal mackerel fisherman had said “you ain’t seen nothing yet until you’ve seen Sunday Straight.” He looked at our sea kayaks and just shook his head. A Malcolm Douglas video showed appalling seas with steep breaking standing waves across the straight when a strong wind opposes the strongest tidal current on the whole coast. We had timed our attempted crossing to coincide with neap tides. If we couldn’t cope with the powerful current we could be swept out into the Indian Ocean over overfalls and treacherous reefs or swept deep into King Sound forcing an overnight paddle or a camp amongst the mangroves and crocs.
Johnston’s Camp, Cone Bay
On Saturday 1/8/98, Day 27, we headed west from Johnston’s camp at 7am on the last half of the falling tide and were swept along a narrow channel between a series of small islands on the way to Mermaid Island. In Fantome Passage there were areas of smooth water followed by a surface ruffled by the running tide. The last kilometre to the southern end of Mermaid Is was a slow slog against the tidal stream. Rod was two hundred meters ahead and paddling strongly around a headland. Hudson and I got out of our Greenlanders to haul them over a shallow reef for the last 300m. The tidal rip against us was strong but between us and Wybran Is, 1km to the south, it was soberingly impressive.
Tidal currents (note the smooth appearance of the water – a “boil”) in Sunday Strait, heading towards Escape Passage
We finally pulled into a long beach on the SW corner of Mermaid Is at 11am to find Rod lounging in the shade. The tide continued to fall till 11.35am meaning that high tide the next day would be approx. 6am. We wanted to head-off with the last hour of rising tide tending to push us into King Sound then have the first hour of falling tide push us out of King Sound back towards Sunday Is. An intentional dogs leg.
Sunday Island was 13km away to the west. We could pass it to its north or south. The south route leads on to Escape Passage which heads NW to Swan Point – the last headland of the Kimberley and only 10kms north of our final destination, Cape Levique. The north route skirts a series of reefs and overfalls just to the north of Sunday Is and heads due west to Swan Point. On an ebb tide it means a long adrenaline charged paddle to keep clear of the spectacular overfalls and reefs. Any wind would complicate the sea surface – especially one opposing the current (which would also be a headwind).
Being the only opportunity we would have to see the overfalls I was keen to do the northern route but I was concerned about my hip holding up to the extra effort. Hudson, older and far wiser, preferred the southern route. An earlier departure time, 4.30am, would take us south, a later time, 5.30am would take us north with a small risk that we would miss Sunday Island altogether and end up in the Indian Ocean.
We dozed in the shade, ate oysters, and as much of our remaining food as we could manage and argued the toss all afternoon and evening.
Day 28 Sunday 2/8/98. In calm conditions paddling three abreast we departed Mermaid Island at 4.30am navigating by compass and starlight. We encountered a rough patch within a few minutes which was worse than I expected requiring reflex bracing in the dark. It soon dissipated but just as quickly returned – a little nerve wracking. After an hour we checked our progress. The eastern sky behind us was lightening and stars were fading but our course looked good. It seemed to take ages for the sun to rise which it finally did around 6am. We could now see we had been swept 5 or 6 km into King Sound and adjusted our heading further to the north – Cookie’s camp was somewhere to the north and at 7am we were able to fix our position by taking bearings off Pelican Island and Lone Rock. The camp was approximately 3km due north. I don’t know where Hudson had secreted some carrots but he could see the roof of the camp long before Rod and I. It was on a beautiful beach with crystal clear water but was deserted.
Cookie’s camp, Sunday Island
We pressed on to Escape Passage and were whipped along on the outgoing tide. Squeezing between a big tug pulling a barge and the largest whirlpool of the trip early in the Passage was a memorable moment. An Aboriginal family were trolling out of a dinghy as we shot past to Swan Point. 500m off the point is Swan Is. and between the two a shallow reef which builds standing waves in the outgoing tidal stream. We rode these for a while as we glanced down through the clear water at the vibrant life on the reef beneath, and gazed pensively to the north, our last view of the Kimberley Coast which had held us for a month.