Stories of the remote Nadgee wilderness and the challenging conditions to be found down there had aroused my interest for some time. Being relatively new to seakayaking I hadn’t visited the area but was quite keen to check it out. A club trip to Mowarry point over the October long weekend in 1998 gave a glimpse of the northern part of this spectacular area and had me keen to see more. Knowing little about the landings and having only Fishkiller’s infamous ‘Mallacoota to Tallowa Dam’ story to rely on, I decided to dig a little deeper into the club’s electronic archives, and found talk of potential landing spots at Gabo Island, Nadgee Beach, Nadgee Lakes, Newton’s Beach, Merrica River, Bittangabee, Mowarry Point, and the fearsome Howe Beach, with its shipwreck lying just under the water in the middle of the beach. What I didn’t realise is that many of these spots are quite exposed if the conditions aren’t quite right, and my group’s experience at the time was a little on the light side. Which is a nice way of saying we didn’t know what we were doing.
Dave Winkworth must have spotted this a mile away because as I asked him for a little info on the area he eyed me critically and mentioned doubtfully that… “Conditions can get pretty fierce down there you know…” Never having been one to listen to good advice I planned the trip anyway. My fiancee Vicki and I settled on a week during early January ’99 as the time to go.
On January 3rd we had the Pintara loaded up with my Pittarak and Vicki’s home-made wooden Chesapeake on top, heading down to Bombala for the night at Cath & Charlie’s place.
Next day we headed for Mallacoota. The forecast was 10-20 knot northeasters but the sea was dead flat, so I was keen to get going and make the most of the perfect conditions. Vicki was feeling sick though, perhaps with fear and trepidation of what lay ahead so in the end we left at 5pm for a short paddle to Tullaberga Island where we stayed the night. Next day we were on the water by 7am and on our way to Gabo. Conditions were ideal and I was optimistic. The forecast we had was much the same as yesterday, for winds up to 20 knots or so, and I was a little wary of what the weather may bring in later. We arrived at Gabo around 8am and the wind was just starting to pick up.
By the time we walked up to the lighthouse the sea was a mess of whitecaps everywhere and testament to how quickly conditions can change in this area. After a cup of tea with the caretaker and a bit of a look around we returned to the boats to clock up a few more miles. I was hoping to get to Howe Beach that day. We rounded Telegraph point and got the brunt of the wind in our faces. This was going to be tough. We plugged into it for a couple of hours but the wind just got stronger, a good 25kn with stronger gusts — it was difficult to make progress. We pulled in on the windswept beach a couple of kilometres before the Iron Prince point and headed up behind some dunes for shelter, having only made about 11or 12 km for the day. We found some nice lakes that the Gabo lighthouse caretaker had mentioned, the bushwalkers use this spot as a campsite on the Nadgee Wilderness coastal walk.
After spending the afternoon playing charades to pass the time I suggested a 5am start for the next day to beat the wind. Vicki seemed keen for that so we were up at 4am for a quick breakfast and the trudge down the beach to our boats, on the water in the pre dawn light to face whatever the ocean had in store for us today. A small surf breakout and then Iron Prince Reef awaited us, where it “Nearly always breaks” according to the marine chart. I was hoping to sneak in close to the shore and avoid any breaking waves. As it turned out it wasn’t breaking but the waves steepened up to a point where it really seemed that they would — the tide seemed to be just high enough to keep them very steep but not quite breaking. It was intimidating facing these enormous walls of water in the half-light of dawn, climbing up them for an impossibly long time and then slamming down the other side. The swell had clearly picked up and I worried about what may await us at Howe beach. The sea conditions were beyond anything we had experienced but things still seemed under control, at least until the sky went black and the wind picked up from the south-west, whipping the sea up into a frenzy in no time. Things weren’t looking too good for a little while there and Vicki told me later she thought “I’m going to die today”.
Some fins appeared in the water to my side and I jumped about ten feet (well it felt like ten feet) then I realised they were dolphins. Vicki was pretty happy about that and reckoned they’d come to save us. We had a look at Howe beach and things looked a little out of control, waves breaking a couple of hundred metres offshore and thumping down a bit too hard for my liking. I decided on Nadgee for our camp that night instead. Six kilometres later we got to Nadgee and the whole beach was closing out. Huge sand-filled dumpers dredged up the sandbanks and thumped down with enormous force. Well, this was it and we had to land. Vicki looked worried. Being a little more comfortable in the surf I suggested that I could paddle my boat in and swim out for hers, paddle hers in and she could swim in. She started to cry. I thought of an alternative plan. “Well, let’s keep going to Merrica River. It should be a lot more sheltered there…” Well I hoped it would be.
We plugged along northwards, thankfully the wind had dropped significantly and despite a lot of rebound from the cliffs conditions were reasonable provided we stayed a couple of hundred metres out. We passed Newtons Beach and were chugging along past Jane Spiers Beach, when I heard the most amazing sound of water on water, like an enormous waterfall was pouring out of the sky into the ocean around us. Turned out that a huge school of pilchards were on the run, leaping out of the water everywhere and moving past in a frenzy. I wondered what was underneath them to make them run like that. The cliffs at the end of Jane Spiers Beach came into view and as we edged into Disaster Bay the weather seemed to clear a little more.
Heading in along the cliffs towards Merrica River, we came across more clapatois, which took some getting used to again after the more predictable conditions off Newtons and Jane Spiers Beaches. Never having been in this area before, we worked from the map to find the Merrica River entrance. The entrance proved to be well protected and we had no problems landing here and paddled up to a beautiful, deserted campsite nestled amongst the trees. We felt well satisfied with the day having covered 30km and it was still only 10.30am, the benefit of an early start. We paddled up the Merrica River gorge and came across a small runabout and some teenagers throwing themselves off the biggest cliffs they could find. I cringed in anticipation of hearing a body go ‘splat’ on the rocks below as they had to leap out quite a way to clear them. No ‘splat’ occurred but it was not a leap that I wanted to make at the time. Continuing up the gorge to the end was really nice relaxing paddling, then we returned to the campsite for a walk up to the ranger station just to check the place out.
Next morning we were on the water early again for the trip across Disaster Bay to Green Cape and on to Bittangabee in dull, overcast weather. Just past Green Cape some large fins flopped lazily up in the air and in the water. They looked like a pod of small whales lying on their side but it was difficult to tell from a distance. A little further on Bittangabee came into view — what a great, sheltered little spot that is. Again off for a little walk around to see some of the historic ruins nearby and then on to Mowarry Point for the night. Conditions were bumpy with a bit of slop about but nothing to worry about too much. A pleasant night at Mowarry and then we were on the water early for the trip into Boydtown, where we arrived in pouring rain but calm conditions about 8.30am.
Somewhere just before Boyd’s Tower a couple of flying fish strutted their stuff right in front of the nose of our kayaks. Never having seen one before I was amazed at the distance they can achieve, over 50 metres in one case. This little fellow came so close I felt I was staring him in the eyeballs as he whizzed past. After changing into some less wet gear in Boydtown we stashed our kayaks nearby and hit the road for the hitch back to the car in Mallacoota. We got a lift straight away but only for 3km, which put us in the middle of nowhere on top of a hill out of town. Never mind, we seemed to be on a roll and twenty minutes later a lovely couple from Melbourne stopped by and took us all the way to Mallacoota, dropping us off right by the car which we’d left at the Police station there, opposite the Coastal Patrol caravan.
All in all this is a great trip that I’d recommend to anyone keen to see the remote and beautiful coastline that Nadgee has to offer. But beware — they don’t call Gabo ‘The Witch’ for nothing!