The wind was howling, the sea a mass of white caps, gusts were hurling me across the water and every second stroke seemed to be a support stroke as waves broke over the back of my kayak. I didn’t need a sail, my unfeathered paddle was enough. At other times I found myself thrust forward with great speed as I went sliding down the face of the following sea. The gale was well upon us now, blowing us ever closer to the famous Wineglass Bay.
This was the worst weather we had paddled in during a trip that had begun several weeks before. We were all experienced kayakers with a lot of surf experience, and although the seas were intimidating there was the pleasure and satisfaction that comes when the boat and you are working efficiently together. Dirk, looking ahead through the wind driven water, saw a beach tucked well inside a bay and signalled us to make for shore. Eager to get to Wineglass Bay and unaware how quickly the gale had pushed us along, I was sure we could not be there yet. However, the wind had moved us at nearly twice our normal paddling speed, confusing me slightly. With the wind behind it wasn’t long before we reached our destination and were sitting on the beach looking back at the galloping white caps.
Wineglass Bay was about halfway through the 650 kilometre trip that started three weeks previously when Mike Snoad, Dirk Stuber and myself set off to paddle from Devonport to Hobart by the north, then east, coast of Tasmania.
The idea for this trip came after I’d read an account of an old sea kayaking journey by the Reverend Fred Fairey. In 1879 he said goodbye to his wife and child on the banks of the Forth River and set off in his wooden ‘Rob Roy’ canoe to paddle to Hobart, visiting his parishioners along the way.
It seemed to be a trip worth following and after several months of planning the three of us set off from Canberra, picking up the ferry at Melbourne. A leisurely cruise across Bass Strait saw us at Devonport the next morning, near Reverend Fairey’s starting point. Somehow we fit the mountain of equipment into our kayaks before hauling them into sea and turning east.
The wind was strong at 25 knots on the first day with a one metre swell, but thankfully it was behind us. My expedition-laden kayak felt slow and sluggish as we set off, loaded as it was with several weeks’ worth of food, extra water and all my photographic equipment.
We stopped for lunch on a small rocky outcrop called Wright Island, as this was where the Reverend spent his first night. The two of us with fibreglass boats heard that awful scratching sound of grating keels as we tried to maneuver our heavy boats onto the rocky shore.
Pushing on in the following seas with my well-laden kayak I began to notice some discomfort in my forearm. By the time we landed at our first campsite I had all the painful symptoms of crepitus tendonitis. Aware of the implications of this type of injury and knowing I would have to continue doing the very thing that caused it, instilled in me a disappointment that I may be forced out of the trip on the first day. We were carrying a comprehensive first aid kit, so I swallowed some anti-inflammatories and decided I would re-assess the situation in Bridport; which was three days’ paddling away.
The second day the wind had died down and we followed a mostly deserted shoreline of undulating hills, rolling sand dunes and clear blue water. In the gentle sea conditions with no swell we enjoyed the paddling, ducking into little bays or landing on sandy beaches. The shallowness of the water was new to us, and even up to a kilometre offshore we could still see the bottom. Several cottages, probably holiday shacks, were interspersed along the coastline but there seemed to be no-one around.
Large standing waves at the mouth of the Tamar River, fishermen trawling too close and a long slog through a southeast headwind brought Bridport into view on the fourth day. After setting up our tents on a grassy beachside camping ground, our thoughts went to food. Four days of camp cooking sent us searching for the pub for a decent meal. ‘Ask a local’ is a good adage to paddle by.
“The pub? You can’t miss it, it’s on the main road in,” said our local in a somewhat authoritative voice, “there is only one way into Bridport and one way out.”
“We came by kayak.”
“Umm! Then there’s TWO ways into Bridport.”
The pub was quiet and friendly and because it was somewhat off the beaten track we were quite a novelty. Dougie, the local cray-fisherman, had many yarns to spin, providing a wealth of information about the area. Fisherman are a great source of local knowledge and although they think you are slightly mad going to sea in such small craft, they are always helpful in giving advice about weather, tides and possible campsites.
As I had suspected, four days of paddling had not helped my tendonitis. The local doctor had little sympathy and gave me a stronger dose of anti-inflammatories. But I knew more substantial action was needed to alleviate the pressure on my arm if I didn’t want to jeopardise my part in the trip. I felt my only option was to put a rudder on my kayak to limit the number of steering strokes needed. Not having owned a kayak with a rudder fitted and aware of the constant debate they cause, I was interested to see what difference it would make.
Fitting a rudder after starting an expedition would not be easy but here luck was on my side. Jeff Jennings, one of Tasmania’s formidable sea kayakers, lived in Bridport and he very kindly offered to help. Our visit was rather fortuitous for me as Jeff was driving out to Little Musselroe, one of our planned stops, in a few days to pick up some Victorian paddlers who were crossing Bass Strait. As Little Musselroe is only two days paddling away I stayed back to help fit the rudder, planning on meeting Mike and Dirk there.
Dirk and Mike headed off at four in the morning to miss the expected strong sea breeze as they had a long open crossing from Bridport to Croppies Point. As it turned out the breeze never came but the heat did so the early start proved useful. Jeff and I drove into Little Mussleroe a few days later just as Mike and Dirk were pulling their kayaks ashore. An hour later the Victorian paddlers arrived, tired but elated after the rigors of a Bass Strait crossing. For those unfamiliar with this area, Bass Strait is the main stretch of water separating Tasmania from mainland Australia and has a reputation for dishing up some of the worst seas in Australia. Last year in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race it claimed six lives. It is also a Mecca for experienced kayakers looking for a challenging trip. For although on a map it looks like it is too large a crossing to attempt, there are some very well placed islands, allowing one to island hop all the way.
With my arm feeling better, I was ready to get back on the water and looking forward to visiting Swan Island. However, it wasn’t to be and a severe bout of food poisoning left me incapacitated for several days. Thinking the illness had passed, I joined the others for a paddle out to Swan Island, only to be hit again just after we landed. We set up camp in a small cove on the southern shore and while I recovered in the tent, the others explored the island. One of the interesting aspects of Swan Island, apart from its lighthouse, is its numerous venomous Tiger snakes. We found this out after wandering around the island in our usual footwear of either sandals or bare feet.
This wasn’t mentioned in the Reverend Fairey’s log but he did mention the hospitality.
“On our arrival at the house I was shown into the parlour, and then introduced to Mr and Mrs Baudinet, their niece and family. It was some little time before the family recovered from their astonishment, but my comfort was not forgotten. When we sat down to tea I was enabled to feel quite at home. In the evening we gathered a congregation of eight persons, and Mrs Baudinet (her grave is still on the island) played for us on the piano.”
I was now faced with a dilemma, for it had been three days since I had eaten and I felt weak and dispirited. I was forced to accept that I was not yet fit enough to manage the long paddling days ahead. Therefore, for the second time I decided to pull out and try to catch up with the others in a few days down the coast.
After two days of travelling through the Tasmanian countryside on the back of several delivery trucks I caught up with them at Binalong Bay near Saint Helens, about fifty kilometres down the coast. To get off Swan Island I hitched a ride with Dougie, who was out to set his cray pots, one of which he attached to my kayak to act as an anchor, while we steamed around in a choppy sea setting the rest. Jeff met me at Musselroe and gave me a lift back to Bridport. My spirits were sinking, here it was the tenth day and I was, in paddling terms, only four days from the start. I could see my part in the trip disappearing like a piece of flotsam on the ebb tide. As I began to feel better I felt more positive and determined not to miss out on the rest of the trip. I arranged for a truck to take me to Launceston and another from there to St Helens, where I finally met up with my companions.
We read in the Reverend’s log, “I had been told that if I attempted to land at Falmouth I should suffer shipwreck, as it is one of the worst places for landing on the East Coast.”
Jeff also had warned us about this section of coast. Its steep beaches produce nasty shore dumpers making it difficult to land. This was the only place that the Reverend came out of his boat and we followed the coast looking for a suitable place to come ashore. Although we were all very experienced in coming through surf, landing a heavy expedition boat in a large shore dumper has the potential for breakages. Arriving at Beaumaris, several kilometres north of Falmouth, we sat outside the surf line studying it for a while and decided it wasn’t too bad. I stowed my hat and sunglasses, picked a reasonable sized wave, and headed for the beach. As the wave broke and I started to broach I threw my whole body into the face of the wave, going underwater for the first few seconds, though it seemed like minutes, and with a solid high brace managed to execute a beautiful beach landing.
This was to be a short stop as we needed water and Dirk and I wanted to ring home as we both had teenagers who were celebrating their birthdays. Both chores completed we set off back through the surf but this time the force of one wave breaking over my kayak was so strong that it ripped the spare paddles off. We landed again and managed to retrieve one half, but extensive searching didn’t reveal the missing section, so we set up our tents in the sun dunes, hoping the tide would bring it back. The loss of our only spare paddle caused some tension within the group with an air of disharmony creeping in. It didn’t last long and we took advantage of the local pub, which coincidentally was just over the road. During the night the wind and rain came, turning a tricky surf exit into a completely unsafe one.
It was the following morning before we were able to leave and we still needed to get through several sets of breakers. Dirk went first, getting past the shore dumpers, then catching his breath while he waited for a lull in the next set of breakers. Mike and I watched as Dirk powered through wave after wave gaining only a small distance each time. Seven times he was hit by a wall of white water before he was able to push past the last wave out into the open water and recover. Dirk was the strongest paddler in our group and Mike and I looked at each apprehensively. With my arm still strapped, Mike offered to go last and gave me a shove off. As soon as I started I dug my paddle in for all it was worth, hitting the first wave as the top started to break then the kayak made a thunderous crash as the front came down the other side. With the adrenaline pumping I kept going as fast as I could and to my amazement found I was past the surf zone before the next wave broke. “You had an easy run,” was Dirk’s comment. We turned to watch Mike and several times he disappeared behind a wall of water. After one thumping wave had passed we saw Mike’s kayak upside down. He no sooner rolled back up than another wave was on top of him. An exhausted wet Mike eventually pulled up alongside, telling how he had to roll under three waves to get out. Once past the surf the sea was smooth and calm with a large slow rolling swell. It was going to be a long day as we needed to make up for lost time and it was 55 kilometres to our next planned stop at Bicheno.
Vivid red rocks glistened in the morning light as the sea spray hit the brightly coloured lichen. We followed a coastline of rolling hills, semi-green pastures with the mountains of St Marys Pass providing a scenic backdrop. The large swell, which was no problem off shore, stopped us landing and it was mid afternoon before we were able to find a sheltered cove, eventually pulling in at Long Nose Point to stretch our legs. It was here that we deviated from the Reverend Fairey’s trip; he’d hitched a ride on a horse and dray, bypassing the outside of Freycinet Peninsula altogether. We paddled the remaining 13 kilometres over to Bicheno, taking a day off to wash our clothes and stock up on food.
The predicted weather for our day of departure caused us some concern, with strong wind warnings forecast. As the wind was going to be behind us, we decided to head off anyway, though in retrospect we should have waited another day. By lunchtime we were running before a gale.
It was during this day that nature showed us not only its ferocity but also its beauty. While we were paddling I noticed on the far eastern horizon a flock of birds, possibly shearwaters, that had no start, no end, stretching as far as I could see. There seemed a certain poignancy, we rode the sea in our small craft, the shearwaters rode the wind, in their even smaller bodies. A juxtaposition of journeys, ours to enhance our lives but theirs the very essence of life itself. I felt privileged to be witnessing a phenomenon that has probably been happening for tens of thousands of years.
It was this wind that finally brought us safely into Wineglass Bay. Once past the headland the anxiety and vulnerability slowly dissipated and I started to relax as I paddled the few remaining kilometres to the beach. A lack of concentration saw Mike and I upended in the surf. My head hit the sand of the shallow bottom and thoughts of a broken neck quickly sprang to mind; without even attempting any sort of recovery I quickly slid out of the kayak, pulling it up the beach. I was relieved to be on dry land and took in the breathtaking beauty of the bay as the white sands and deep blue water curved around in a long arc. It is easy to see why so many tourists take the short but steep walk over from the car park.
Leaving Wineglass Bay we followed a coastline of towering granite cliffs and more red lichen-covered rocks. Our campsite for the night was a small but sheltered cove on the south of Schouten Island at the end of Freycinet, with the strange name of Hen and Chicken Bay. This gave us an easier run the next day, as we had a forty kilometre open crossing to Maria Island, the only break being a small granite outcrop known as Ile de Phoque, reported to be home to a large seal colony. That night we ate well as a fisherman, whom we had asked for the weather forecast, gave us a crayfish. Dirk managed to find an abalone and I caught a couple of fish on my trawling line.
We set off early from Schouten, eventually paddling into some large sea caves on the eastern side of Ile de Phoque which provided some welcome protection from the sun.
“Where are the seals?” asked Mike and Dirk, as it was my idea to visit this small rocky outcrop just to see them.
After a bite to eat we rounded the northern end of Ile de Phoques, to find the seals sprawled out on the rocks like tourists at a popular holiday resort. Our presence caused a chorus of barking followed by a stampede as they came hurtling down the rocks, crashing into the water. The calm sea became a mass of white water as seals were diving and frolicking all around with green bubbly trails in the water below as they glided effortlessly under our kayaks. It was then I remembered that seal colonies often have a resident white pointer shark and I wondered what my kayak looked like from underneath.
Late in the afternoon the sea breeze picked up just enough for us to hoist our sails for an easy run into Darlington Bay on the western side of Maria Island. As in most places we stopped, people were interested in our journey. One of the local rangers, when we told him about visiting the seal colony, confirmed my suspicions, mentioning that a white pointer took a diver there last year. Hmmm.
Maria Island has an interesting history. It was first circumnavigated by French explorer Nicholas Baudin in 1802 and he commented on the large number of Cape Barren geese there; there still is. It later became a convict settlement, then a whaling station, a centre for wine and silk, followed by a cement works which ended with the Great Depression. It finally became a nature reserve in 1960 and is now managed by the National Parks and Wildlife attracting thousands of visitors each year. There are several interesting ruins left from its diverse history and one can stay in renovated rooms that used to be convict cells. Numerous walks are on offer with some that can take several days and the Island is a popular destination for backpackers. One of the more prominent features on the Island is Mount Maria, the summit of which offers wide ranging views back to the Tasmanian mainland and beyond. It is generally a good six hour return hike but we, now being ‘creatures of the sea’, took the easier hike up to the top of nearby Bishop and Clerk. It offers views back to Schouten Island, Ile de Phoque and the expanse of Darlington Bay and is only 3 hours return. I enjoyed the three days we stayed on the Island and it’s definitely worth a return trip.
An ocean of milky whiteness enveloped us as we left Maria in the morning fog but it cleared by the time we hit the mainland. We slipped into a small sheltered cove named Lagoon Bay which the Reverend labeled “a most romantic spot” – he must have been missing his wife. Not long after tea the horizon took on a tender touch with purple and mauve hues pushing aside the ashen grey twilight and bathing the area in soft pastel colours. I knew what this meant and, grabbing my camera and tripod, bolted to the top of the nearest hill. I had just managed to set up when the pastel colours shifted to fiery reds and gold, taking over the whole sky and lighting it up like some sort of apocalyptic Armageddon. I had to slow myself down before I used up my entire supply of film.
It was here that we deviated from the Reverend Fairey’s journey again. To avoid the long and potentially dangerous Tasman Peninsula, he paddled into Blackmans Bay and with the help of the locals carried his canoe over the small spit to Norfolk Bay.
“Two men carrying the canoe on their shoulders marched first, then I followed with the paddle and mast, the burgee of the Royal Canoe Club still flying at the masthead, then a number of young people with the provision-box, lockers, rudder, shark-spear, etc, so that we formed quite a procession, which attracted the attention of everyone in the little township.”
The wind was against us the next day and although we did only twenty kilometres it felt like fifty. It became one of those grin-and-bear-it paddles where you often don’t appear to be going anywhere as you pound into the never ending waves. It is in these conditions that you enter your own world. You can’t talk to your paddling companions, you can’t stop, so you just plod on, locking yourself into a smooth paddling rhythm that allows you to go forward without using too much energy.
The following day the sea was perfectly calm. It seems to be a characteristic of Tasmanian weather; awful one day, perfect the next; neither good nor bad weather lasts very long. Not far from Eagle Hawk is a popular tourist site known as The Blow Hole. Here the sea comes through a long narrow tunnel, finishing in a small alcove. When the waves come in they produce a mountain of spray. The calm sea enabled us to paddle down this tunnel arriving in the alcove to the utter amazement of the tourists lined up along the fence above.
There are sea caves and arches all along this part of the coast and the calm seas made exploring them easy. We checked for abalone by flipping upside down, then eskimo rolling back up. For those of you who haven’t learnt this skill, it has some wonderful benefits apart from self-rescuing. It is a superb way to check out the scenery below without getting out of your boat. A whole new world opens up to you, dark blue depths, graceful seals and giant strands of kelp reaching up to the surface like a hidden forest. The abalone are difficult to spot with their pink spotted shells blending in with lichen-covered rocks. Even the kelp hides them as the long strands dance back and forth across the bottom swaying with the never ending flow of the sea. As you are just hanging there not using any energy you have a suprisingly long time in which to look around and it only takes a few seconds to roll back up. I always carry a pair of goggles handy for just this reason.
As we paddled along admiring the soaring cliffs, we could make out the Lanterns past the entrance to Fortesque Bay. The Lanterns are a series of islands, spread over a kilometre at the end of Cape Hauy. However, the real draw card is two rock formations known as the Candlestick and the Totem Pole. The Totem Pole is a Mecca for rock climbers the world over attracted by this 65 metre column of rock sitting in the middle of a narrow channel. Just getting to the base is a challenge. The sea was still calm and the sky a brilliant blue as we approached the entrance to Fortesque Bay, where we planned on waiting for good weather before attempting the long and exposed leg around Cape Pillar. I thought about paddling the few extra kilometres to photograph the Lanterns in such perfect conditions but, feeling lazy, decided against it and paddled over to the camping ground.
Predictably the weather changed the next day with gale warnings all down the coast. It was like this for two days before we were able to paddle and although it was calm on the third day, it was overcast and dull, ruining any chance of good shots of the Lanterns. I made Mike and Dirk wait a little longer in the morning light but it didn’t change much. When we got there even in the dull light, the sheer size of the Candlestick gave off an aura of power as it rose straight up out of the sea. A moderate swell gave us an easy run through the gauntlet into Munro Bight where we continued on to Cape Pillar.
Tasman Island greets you as you round Cape Pillar. This small island rises straight up for 250 metres with the ruins of an old landing gantry at the base. It was here, before the advent of helicopters, that ships used to bring supplies in for the lighthouse keepers on top of the island. The Tasmanian kayakers often land here by riding the swell onto a kelp-covered rock shelf, hanging on to a piece of kelp while the swell subsides, then quickly getting out before the next set. Shooing the seals out of the way they then haul their kayaks up to the next ledge (otherwise the seals will sit on them), before undertaking the long trek up a steep narrow track to the top. We thought we would give this a miss, though they tell me the views are worth it.
Heading through Tasman Passage following the cliffs, we eventually landed inside Port Arthur at a sheltered sandy beach called Safety Cove. As it was only lunchtime and a beautiful sunny day, we decided to go and visit the old convict ruins. This is one of the most significant historical sites in Tasmania and well worth a visit. Paddling into the cove with the afternoon sun highlighting the sandstone ruins, we were awarded a scenic view from the water. Providing we didn’t land we saved ourselves the $16 entrance fee. Heading back to Safety Cove, we experienced yet again the wonderful hospitality of the Tasmanians. While looking for a public telephone, a friendly local invited us up to his place, treating us to coffee and homemade cake. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, he insisted we take some fresh vegetables and some fish he had caught back to our campsite. This was only matched by another local, who on seeing our tents, invited us up to try his home brew. Several jugs later we staggered back to our tents, remarking on what a great day it had been.
We had arranged to meet the Tasmanian Sea Canoeing Club at White Beach for their AGM but found most of them on a rocky outcrop, Wedge Island, about four kilometres from there. We caught up with Tasmania paddler Mike Emery who had picked up our car in Devonport and driven it to Hobart, saving us a very long car shuffle.
Mike had given us invaluable advice about the coastline and invited us to join his fellow paddlers for a BBQ. It was a mixture of relief and accomplishment when, two days later, we sailed into Constitution Dock in Hobart. Mike and his partner Veronica kindly put us up for a few days before the ferry crossing and long drive back to Canberra.
There is a lot that must have changed since the Reverend Fred Fairey made his trip in 1879 but one thing that hasn’t is the hospitality of the Tasmanians.
Reverend Fairey comments at the end of his log on his “hearty reception and unbounded hospitality”.
We also, throughout this trip, had the same experience – a special thanks to Mike Emery, Jeff Jennings and the Tasmanian Sea Canoeing Club.