A South West Tasmanian Sea Kayaking Saga [40]

By Chris Bellamy

Imagine paddling across the still waters of a vast inlet in South West Tasmania, past Celery Pine clad islands, with superb reflections of your fellow paddlers appearing in the chromium black waters around you and the surrounding mountain scenery towering above you and not a single speed boat in sight to break the quiet enjoyment of it all. Bathurst Harbour is about as far south in Australia as a paddler can venture and still paddle in relatively protected waters. Though not very accessible, this unspoilt waterway can compare with any of the Apple Isles’ best known bush walking meccas on a bright and sunny day. Paddling around Bathurst Harbour and braving the ocean swells on nearby exposed Port Davey, allows the outdoor adventurer to see a maritime dimension of wilderness in rugged South West Tasmania that bushwalkers can but catch a glimpse of.

Today the Harbour is mainly visited by hardy bushwalkers embarking on the South Coast Walk and a few fishing boat and yacht crews. In the middle of the last century it was once a haven for whalers and loggers in search of the Huon Pine. Prior to the coming of Europeans 200 years ago, it had a permanent population of several hundred Aborigines. Today only a few tin miners live on or near the Harbour. Whilst the harsh environment does not support much wildlife on land, the black teatree stained waters of Bathurst Harbour are a different story. Amongst other life forms, the lack of light in the water has attracted plant and other species into the Harbour normally only found at much greater depths elsewhere.

The challenge with this jewel is how to get there with one’s kayak. Bush walkers can walk in or out from Melaleuca with the aid of light planes that will ferry walkers to and from Hobart’s Cambridge Airport. Yacht crews sometimes sail in and fishing boat crews occasionally call by. Some intrepid adventurers have paddled their kayaks from Hobart, while paddling around Tasmania. Most paddlers have used kayaks in these rather exposed waters but some paddlers have taken on an even greater challenge and used open canoes in these waters, refer ‘Wild’ Issue No 16.

This article is an account of a visit by a dozen paddlers in Easter 1999 to Bathurst Harbour organised by Kim and Ian of Kettering, south of Hobart, Tasmania. They had been working on leading a trip into Bathurst Harbour for some two years before our successful trip in Easter 1999. Their challenge was to get the timing right such that a yacht could bring the kayaks in, in weather calm enough to allow the yacht safe passage along Tasmania’s wild and woolly west coast and ensure an enjoyable time for the paddlers to enjoy a few days paddling around the Harbour and if possible, the more exposed waters of nearby Port Davey as well. The alternatives to finding an obliging yacht owner and crew include finding an obliging fishing boat owner or flying in folding kayaks as aircraft luggage as well as finding the necessary funds to cover such costs. In addition, good flying weather for those meeting the boat by light plane at Melaleuca Inlet and the yacht’s return journey was also desirable. The odds for this combination of events occurring were unfortunately pretty long. Particularly when one considers that South West Tasmania has the least amount of sunlight in Australia, a very high annual rainfall and often is lashed by gale force winds.

Working on the theory that Easter is as calm a time of year to visit Bathurst harbour as any, Kim and Ian opted for Easter in order to get the necessary numbers together to meet the cost of ferrying the kayaks in and out. As well as having considerable kayaking skills and access to a fleet of seakayaks, Kim and Ian, in typical Tasmanian style, enlisted the assistance of friends and family with the necessary skills, resources and experience to make the trip possible. The co-leader of the trip was a young Abalone diver who had visited Port Davey on numerous fishing trips seeking the elusive Abalone. Ian’s sister, Jayne, a plant scientist with the Tasmanian Government, has visited Bathurst harbour several times a year to study local plants, came and brought with her a knowledge of not only the local plants but also geology and the history of both European and aboriginal settlement in the area. While the yacht and her skipper came from Hobart, the yacht’s crew came from Flinders’s Island in Bass strait for the adventure and brought with them lots of useful practical skills. Other paddlers in the group included a doctor and a nurse whose professional skills thankfully were not needed. As the only mainlander, I felt privileged to be joining this grand adventure. Lastly, as nearly all of the paddlers and all the yacht’s crew had lived in Tasmania for many years, most of the party had a good understanding of that most difficult and vexing subject, Tasmanian weather.

Having endured a false start in autumn 1998, the Gods smiled on the 1999 attempt when enough numbers, combined with access to a yacht and crew, along with good weather made it all possible. Just when preparations for loading of kayaks and stores were shortly to commence, a late cyclone intruded down into southern Australia in late March 1999. Luckily a week away it appeared to dissipate and the chances of a good high appearing over Tasmania looked good. So the Tuesday before Easter, the ketch ‘Prudence’ set sail for Port Davey. Unfortunately heavy seas and a gale were encountered past South West Cape and ‘Prudence’ had to take shelter in Recherche Bay until the seas abated. This delay put the trip on hold until the weather improved. Frustrating as it was, we had to wait in sunny Hobart until the weather on the West Coast improved. Then the crew aboard ‘Prudence’ radioed in good news and the charter plane booking was firmed up for Easter Saturday morning at dawn.

The Cessnas took off into the dawn of a bright sunny day and the run down to Southport along the D’Entrecasteaux Channel was in perfect weather. Unfortunately once we rounded South Cape, the rugged coastal scenery beneath us became increasingly covered in cloud. Approaching Cox’s Bight, one could see the lowland plains to the south of Bathurst Harbour, old marine terraces with hills subdued by age, rising steeply to majestic peaks.

After dropping down through the cloud over Cox’s Bight, the planes landed at Melaleuca airstrip, and soon we had our packs down to the water. A quick radio call confirmed our arrival had coincided with that of ‘Prudence’. After unloading the plastic kayaks from Prudence’s deck, we soon had the kayaks ready and loading our packs on board ‘Prudence’, we were soon gliding along the waters of Melaleuca Inlet in our kayaks. At the end of the Inlet we stopped for lunch at ‘Claytons’, once a tin mining family’s proud homestead in the wilderness. As the sole such haven in this wilderness, all other unoccupied huts and houses from yesteryear having been removed years ago by the Tasmanian NPWS, the house and its jetty are a mecca for visiting sailors today. Like many a hut in the high country the log book bore many interesting entries, made by sea faring adventurers sailing around Tasmania, Australia or indeed perhaps the planet.

After lunch we paddled into Bathurst Harbour and later, the Bathurst Narrows. Fortunately west coast Tasmanian tides are not that strong and we cruised on, paddling past the lofty Mount Rugby towering close by above us. At the western end of the Narrows we came upon the sea link between the Old Port Davey Track and the South Coast Track. The link consists of a rowing boat beached on each side of the Narrows which enable walking parties to ferry themselves across. They do need to leave the boats the way they found them. No doubt solo walkers must find this last aspect a real challenge.

On Saturday evening we landed at Balmoral Beach, a brilliantly white beach of quartzite, contrasting with the dense green forest behind it, which nestles at the foot of Balmoral Hill and faces Joe Page Bay. Unlike its Sydney namesake, this beach bore hardly any trace of previous human visitation, despite being a popular campsite for the few sea kayakers who come this way. There we made camp in the forest within an easy walk of a creek carrying very palatable water into nearby Horseshoe Inlet.

Sunday morning saw a misty dawn which soon cleared to a day of brilliant sunshine. The plan for that day was to paddle north up into Joe Page Bay, then into Manwoneer Inlet and finally into the tree shrouded Spring River, lined by tightly spaced paperbarks and tea trees, disturbing flocks of black swans along the way. We were able to paddle as far north as Border Hill before log jams across the swift flowing Spring River had us trying to turn about in our sea kayaks. Lunch was had on a tiny beach, which we shared with a small red bellied black snake. We then paddled back to Balmoral Beach in yet more sunshine with superb reflections in the chromium black water. True to form, the weather changed on us and we paddled the last two kilometres through a squall on storm tossed waters, however it soon passed us by. As with the previous evening, we ate well that night, sitting around our clearing in the dark forest, dining by candlelight, finishing up with some lovely fruitcake that Ian’s mum had brought with her. Those who choose to go for an evening stroll later in the moonlight along the brilliant white beach were greeted with the sight of a lovely still bay and the sight of the neighbouring mountains towering above the still moonlit waters of Joe Page Bay.

On Easter Monday we were on the water early, ready to head off for Spain Bay, an ocean beach in nearby Port Davey. After everyone was ready, we made our way westwards across still waters with the morning mist lifting off the water and mountains around us into Bathurst Channel. Paddling down the channel we passed a couple of yachts moored in Bramble Cove. Soon we had the ocean swells rolling under us as we made our way into the exposed waters of Port Davey and turned south into South Passage, inshore of the Breaksea Islands. The sight of large waves breaking on rocks close by and the great heaving kelp beds was most impressive. By mid morning, we had landed on one of the few sandy beaches we saw in a cove near Knapp Point and left our boats there in order to walk over to Stephens Bay and beyond. We walked across moorland covered by a thin blanket of buttongrass, dominated by a sedge that recovers quickly from fire, unlike the lush green forests that once clung to the poor thins soils beneath them, that thousands of years of burning off by the aborigines had removed.

As an avid bird watcher, I soon became side tracked by the birdlife in the remnant forest adjoining Spain Bay and left the party in search of the elusive, endangered Orange Bellied Parrot. I was in luck and chanced upon a resplendent young solo male. These birds visit Bathurst Harbour each year to breed and return each autumn to a few coastal sites on the mainland, in southern Australia, to spend the winter months.

The rest of the group walked on to Stephens Bay, past dozens of dead fairy penguins strewn along the beach. Later they came back with tales of giant shell middens built up during the days of the Aborigines as well as lots of flotsam and jetsam from across the world, wrecked boats, seal and whale skeletons they had found at Stephens Bay. Having all reluctantly returned to the kayaks, after such an interesting diversion, we paddled together back to our campsite at Balmoral Beach in perfect sunshine, pushed along by a strong tailwind. Typical of west coast weather, our last night was a wet windy one with a strong tide combining with big waves crunching onto the quartzite on Balmoral Beach.

Tuesday morning saw us break camp and paddling back to Melaleuca Inlet. This time the wind and wave conditions were more typical of Bathurst Harbour and we donned our full wet weather gear. Just before entering the Bathurst Narrows we were hit by a brief hail storm and the kayak foredecks were covered by a temporary coating of white ice. It was a relief to enter the Narrows to escape the increasingly more powerful wind and waves. Several times we pulled into a beach on a lee shore for a quick snack and a drink and to escape the rigours of the weather. Unfortunately the worsening weather precluded a stop on the Celery Top Islands. ‘Prudence’ carrying all our gear entered the Inlet before us and not only had to cope with wind gusts but a falling tide and plenty of reefs upon which her keel could be caught. Luckily we all made it back to the mooring near the airstrip well in time to catch our planes back to Hobart.

As before, the Cessnas dropped down out of the cloud and came to a stop on the airstrip in no time at all. In freezing weather, we loaded ourselves and packs into them for our return flight. Our pilots said it should be a smooth flight back and it was. The coastal scenery was most dramatic with big waves breaking on the beaches beneath us. The views of the ever present offshore islands stretching into the distance were most impressive. The Maatsuyker Group with its lonely lighthouse perched on high, still defying the weather after all the years, looked most striking. Coming behind us, ‘Prudence’ had a fast return trip back to Hobart, running before the wind, across stormy seas. It was a wonderful trip for all of us but were we lucky with the weather!


Tasmaps 1:100,000 Port Davey and 1:100,000 Old River