The NSW Sea Kayak Club ‘Back Care’ Expedition to North Queensland
Wednesday 18th August was a typical winter’s day in north Queensland — sunny, warm and windy. This was the day our expedition would end in dramatic circumstances.
Arunas Pilka, Mike Snoad and I had left Cairns just over three weeks earlier, bound for Thursday Island in Torres Strait, a distance of about 1000 kms. We’d driven together to Cairns, and paddled north as a close-knit team, camping on the mainland and islands within the vast Great Barrier Reef.
From our campsite that morning on a sheltered beach near Thorpe Point, we planned to follow the coast to Round Point and then strike out for a 37 km crossing of Shelburne Bay on a compass heading of 320 degrees Magnetic.
From our launch we paddled in following seas to Round Point where we departed the coast for the crossing. The massive white sand dunes of Shelburne Bay, stretching away to the south west, reflected the morning sun. With building seas and winds, we surfed wave after wave across the bay, Arunas and Mike being assisted by their sailing rigs. As I had the only marine compass on deck, the navigating duties were mine. Surfing down the waves, a quick glance at the compass and a touch of stern rudder stroke would keep our group nicely on course.
With haze on the horizon, we didn’t expect the western shores of the bay to come into view for some time. Our objective was Messum Hill, an 81 metre high sand dune within a mess of 60 metre high dunes. A none-too-prominent land mark for us, but we were comfortable with our mantra “when in doubt, head west.”
Every ten minutes or so, I turned around to check for a black and a blue sail — Arunas and Mike respectively. Nearing a reef system in the bay with several small clumps of mangroves visible, I looked back to see one black sail only – Mike had been engulfed by a big wave and had gone over. I turned around to go back and nearly backward looped on the first wave!
Mike self-rescued OK and retrieved a few floating bits and pieces.
“Lets land on the island ahead for lunch,” I shouted over the wind.
Arunas and Mike nodded in agreement. We approached the mangrove stands and saw that they were part of a huge reef system, which disappeared over the horizon to the south. So, skirting the reef to the north, we soon found the “top” and paddled around to a small sand cay protected from the wind on the north-western tip of the reef. A prominent sign above the beach here proclaimed this place to be Macarthur Island. From here, the coastline and Messum Hill were visible, 12 kms to the west. Shallow warm crystal clear water and clean white sand fringed by reef greeted us as our kayaks touched the beach. This was heaven on earth, no doubt about it!
With the boats just clear of the flooding tide, I stripped off and entered the water for a swim in the shallows. Mike prepared a fire for a cuppa at the top of the beach and Arunas circumnavigated the island, a journey of about 4 minutes duration!
Arunas joined me at the water’s edge. I sat down next to my boat as Arunas stripped off and waded out into the sandy shallows of our little cove. He flopped forward into the water, a little further out than where I had swum, but still in only thigh-deep water. We joked briefly about his lack of faith in my navigation…….
And then it happened…..
Arunas let out a cry — a half scream, half shout. He was on his feet, there was terror in his eyes as he looked at me. The surface around him was froth and foam, the sand all churned up. A big animal had him by the leg. Was it a shark? Was it a croc?
I jumped up and ran out into the water the ten or so metres to him. Below the surface I could see the outline of this thing. It was a big crocodile, and it was trying to sweep Arunas off his feet in a death-roll.
Arunas stuck his fingers in its nostrils. It didn’t let go. He put his hands in the croc’s mouth, attempting to prise open the jaws, cutting his hand on a tooth. Still it wouldn’t let go, it’s teeth firmly embedded in Arunas’ right leg. I straddled the croc’s back and put my arms around its smooth hard belly and hung on.
Whether it was me on it’s back or not, we’ll never know…but it did let go. It shot through so powerfully with barely a flick of it’s tail, back out onto the reef from where it had come. I felt the curve of the croc’s body as it spat me off. THIS was a big hard strong animal.
The croc was gone, but would it come back? I stood up next to Arunas. We were now in deep shit! There was an angry croc out there and we were still in its hunting territory. It now had four legs to choose from!
“Get out of the water Dave,” yelled Arunas.
“Not without you mate….come back with me….keep coming,” I coaxed.
I held my arms outstretched out in a defensive position as we retreated.
Mike was there with us at the water’s edge, and we now worked as a team to care for Arunas. We lowered him to the sand. His right leg was a mass of puncture marks and ripped flesh, but luckily there was little blood loss and minimal shock for him. I put my rashie around Arunas’ thigh as a precautionary tourniquet. We were later to find that the croc’s teeth came perilously close to his femoral artery.
At the water’s edge we were still in danger. The croc could come back at any moment.
We helped Arunas to his feet and I supported him from behind, my face on his shoulder, as the narrowness of his escape hit me.
“Oh shit mate, shit shit, oh God.”
We moved together further up the beach, Mike and I observing Arunas as we went. We didn’t want him to fall over because if he did, we didn’t think we could pick him up again.
At the top of the beach we lowered him to the sand again with a plastic bag behind his leg keeping sand out of his wounds. I put up the tent while Mike stayed with Arunas. Mike and I took turns to stay with him at all times. As we lifted Arunas to take him to the tent, he nearly passed out.
To this stage, there had been no talk of calling for help. I’d earlier thought that we could tow him to the mainland where our map showed 4WD access to the coast, but would there be anyone there? Infection was going to be Arunas’ big problem — crocs have dirty teeth. We had to get help quickly or Arunas could die.
Mike had brought an EPIRB with him but none of us had ever had to use one in an emergency. If ever there was a time, this was it. (I wonder how the Maatsuyker Club, who shun such modern rescue devices, would have handled this scenario?)
“The EPIRB Mike — switch it on,” said Arunas, as we propped him up on cool waterbags in the tent.
Mike wedged the little yellow EPIRB into the sand at the top of the beach and switched it on. It immediately began singing its song to the satellites.
We dressed Arunas’ wounds, administered strong painkillers, a double dose of antibiotic capsules and his favourite black tea. We kept a written record of all medications and obs for the paramedic we hoped would come soon.
There was nothing more we could do for Arunas but we still had other jobs to do.
We moved the kayaks to the top of the beach out of the reach of the tide and placed two of them in a V, the internationally recognised distress sign. We cut up a large yellow plastic bag of Mike’s and made a 2 metre long V sheet. Using another yellow bag, we attached it to a paddle as a signal flag. We wrote the words CROC ATTACK — ONE EVAC in the smooth sand of the beach in 1.2 metre high letters. We did this many times as the strong wind continually smoothed out our writings. We also prepared a smoky signal fire.
We saw several ships travelling north way out to the east in the inshore shipping channel but were unable to attract their attention … and then … exactly 2 hours after the attack, we were buzzed about 6 times by a Coastwatch Dash 8 aircraft. It banked low over our island.
“You bloody beauty,” we shouted. “You’ll be out of here soon Arunas, he’s seen our sign for sure.”
Mike and I then cleared a helipad on the top of the island which we marked with a large yellow plastic “H” and sat down to wait — there was nothing more we could do.
We heard the resonating “thump thump thump” of the chopper before we saw it, coming in low from the north and homing in on the EPIRB signal. What a beautiful sight! The pilot landed the chopper and a paramedic and volunteer assistant went to Arunas in the tent.
Paramedic Dave Barz inspected Arunas’ wounds, pronouncing “You’re not going to die,” inserted an intravenous line and within ten minutes Arunas was gone, on his way to Thursday Island Hospital.
Arunas, we’d agreed, would arrange a fishing boat to pick us up from the island as soon as possible. We had 2 weeks food and unlimited fresh water with our desalinator. We were content to share this island with the crocodile. It was gone for now but would come back later.
Mike and I sat down and made a cuppa, trying to “come down” from the tension of the previous 4 hours:
“Shit,” I said, shaking my head.
“Yeah, shit,” sighed Mike.
As the sun disappeared behind the coastal sand dunes, we were preparing dinner. Suddenly 2 rubber duckies full of sailors appeared off our beach. We ran down to the water:
“Don’t get out in the water, there’s a big croc here,” we shouted.
They ran their boats up the beach and jumped out. A few sailors carried automatic weapons. The croc appeared on the surface off the point at our beach.
“There he is,” called a sailor, and we saw weapons being cocked and raised.
“You’re not going to shoot it?” we questioned. They didn’t, but we think they would’ve if we hadn’t been there.
“Where’s the patient? I’m a paramedic” said one of the sailors.
“You’re too late. He went hours ago,” we replied.
The Executive Officer then introduced himself:
“We’re from the minehunter HMAS Huon which is waiting out in the channel. There are also three warships standing by to assist out in the Coral Sea. We’ve come to rescue you.”
“We don’t need rescuing. We’re OK,” we replied.
“We’ve come to take you to Thursday Island,” he said.
“Can you take our boats too?” we asked.
“No can do. Just you.”
We folded our arms; body language speaks volumes.
“Then we’re not going,” we said.
This was going to be interesting! We know the Navy is in need of some good publicity after the Collins Class Sub problems but can you imagine the tabloid headlines: “SEA KAYAKERS REFUSE TO BE RESCUED BY NAVY!” There was a flurry of radio chatter to the mother ship. The Ex came back to us:
“OK, we can take the kayaks too.”
And so we left this beautiful place to the crocodiles, with our kayaks balanced precariously across a rubber duckie. Mike and I were well looked after by the Navy. We were transferred to the Thursday Island Navy boat at 4am in mid channel near Thursday Island — the Huon was in a hurry to get to Darwin — East Timor matters, we think. The T.I. Navy boat was full of media — cameras, reporters, spotlights — you name it. These guys work fast and the Navy needed good publicity — remember?
Meanwhile, at Thursday Island Hospital, Arunas was also being well-looked after. They kept his wounds open for a week before stitching him up to check for infection and pumped massive amounts of powerful antibiotics into his veins. There was no infection at all.
Mike and I stayed with the Navy and Army for a few days — they were terrific — we had accommodation, a place to keep the boats AND they kept the media away. We thought if we didn’t say anything at all to the media that they would go away but that was naive — they just made stuff up! Cheque-book journalism is alive and well and living in little Thursday Island. — there were lots of offers! In the end we took their money and did a TV piece for “Today Tonight.” We gave the proceeds to Torres Volunteer Rescue and Thursday Island Hospital. We met Paul and Rhys on T.I. They are the island’s resident sea kayakers and they gave us great hospitality. Mike went for a day paddle with them in their Rosco’s.
Thursday Island, the commerce hub for all the Torres Strait Islands is one laid-back place. No-one gives a stuff about road rules and many of the cars are held TOGETHER by rust! One night, we were returning to our hostel after visiting Arunas when a car came down the main street in an erratic manner:
“Let’s get up on the footpath Mike. This guy may have had a few.”
It was the local paddy wagon.
We shipped the kayaks back to Cairns with Sea Swift for $50 each. When Arunas was discharged we flew back to Cairns, picked up the vehicle and kayaks (thanks Mike) and, with the patient on a mattress in the back, headed for home, stopping at hospitals each day for Arunas to have his wounds dressed. It was nice to finish as a team.