Itching Scratching & Bitching On The North Coast [44]

By Mark Pearson


Time to do something different. Canberra was still in the grip of winter so Coffs Harbour sounded like a good starting point to go somewhere. We decided to go north. Didn’t know much about what we’d see, except some national park and lots of sand.

This report contains my recollections of the events of 16-22 September, with additional contributions from the personal diaries of my colleagues, which, uhhmm, sort of found their way into my possession on the return trip.

This was a group of seven men. The Wollongong Pod, Dirk Stuber, Nick Gill and Matt Turner, and the Canberra lads, Arunas Pilka, Mike Snoad, John Caldwell and myself. Of the group, Matt Turner was the unknown quantity. Rumour had it that this man was a natural loner, a ‘solo man’ who could reputedly drink orange fizzy drink without spilling much down his chin. A man who liked do run his own show without having the frustration of negotiating with others. Although his social skills were questionable, there was no doubting the man’s strength (he could apparently do 10 chin-ups with a loaded sea kayak strapped to his waist!).

Matt was also known to be competitive, and there were strong rumours of a rivalry between himself and Stuber that had developed during some recent day trips, a rivalry that continued on at the Wollongong Pod’s weekly cheapo roast dinner at the Dapto RSL. Here, apparently, Matt had the rare ability to get under the skin of the nauseatingly confident Stuber. A quality I admired.

The Action

After a long and tedious drive to Coffs, the highlight of that afternoon was a prolonged visit to Clint’s Crazy Bargains, this shop having its best trading day ever as the group purchased hats, bags and shoes and many other items that we just couldn’t resist.

That night, tensions were evident in the Coffs Harbour Yacht Club over dinner. Dirk, the self appointed leader of the pack, was finding himself under severe pressure from the goading Matt. Suddenly, after only eight or nine beers, what had seemed like harmless banter progressed into aggressive posturing, as first Dirk then Matt raised their hackles and circled each other menacingly around the table. But as a result of Dirk’s impressive King Buck posturing, thankfully Matt chose to back down, and some semblance of normal social intercourse resumed.

From Dirk’s diary: “Even before getting on the water, I’m already regretting my decision to let Turner come on this trip…”

After an uneventful departure from some creek mouth, an hour or so later we were at the ‘inner’ island of the Solitary Islands group. Suddenly we were approached by a Waterways boat. The officer was friendly but was keen to check out our gear. Nick impressed everybody by spending some minutes describing his amazing list of safety paraphernalia. However, with the appearance of Waterways, Dirk, Mike and Arunas made themselves scarce on the other side of the island. The officer eventually said farewell and we hunted for the three absconders without success. Round and round that island we paddled thinking they were playing peek-a-boo, but no sign of them. Eventually we headed north-west back to the coast and the next headland where we found them.

As we stopped for lunch a stiff sou’easter suddenly blew up. It was decision time, camp up the Mooney creek around the headland or press on (we had only covered about 12 km). I was for pressing on but the others had heard that the creek was pristine wilderness (that is, after you got past the huge BBQ area complete with children’s playground) and worth a look.

From Dirk’s diary: “Mark suggested that we keep going given the favourable wind, which was a damn fine suggestion. But because he suggested it, we all ignored it…”

After 2 km we eventually found a fine spot out of the wind and lushly grassed. We talked about our final destination… Matt suggested that we not go all the way to Evans Head, but turn into the Clarence at Yamba and paddle up to MacLean or Grafton. As this halved the car shuffle we sort of agreed on this plan. A pleasant evening followed in our wilderness camp, the distant but reassuring sound of large semi-trailers rumbling up the nearby highway eventually soothing us all to sleep.

The next morning started off OK but soon a nasty nor’easter announced itself. For some reason I felt a bit flat and slowly fell behind the group. In fact so far behind that I was free to yell loud and obscene abuse at my colleagues for not listening to my ‘keep going’ suggestion from the day before.

Some 15 km later the wind was about 20 knots and rising, so we called a halt at the totally forgettable creek at Arrawarra. There was a tiny commercial caravan park here so the group split in search of more pristine wilderness to camp on. Some time later Matt had found a site… an old vehicular track that was flat enough, but who’s location involved lifting our kayaks up a 5 metre ledge to get them out of the high tide range. After dragging my boat along an almost dry creek bed for about 500 metres, lifting Matt’s boat was an ordeal in itself, it weighing about the same as a laden double. Nick, Matt and I set up camp. But where were Dirk, Arunas and Mike? Some time later they made an appearance, freshly showered… of course we were absolutely disgusted at how easily they had surrendered their wilderness values for the cheap thrills of an un-powered site. That night, we again were lulled to sleep by the comforting sound of large semi-trailers rumbling up the nearby highway.

Tuesday arrived. Fearful of another nasty nor’easter we had agreed on an early start and the two groups rendezvoused at the creek entrance at 7 am. We set off into a small surf break, the wind about 10 knots from the west. We did not know at this stage where we were heading and how far we were going. Just that we wanted to get as far as we could given our short paddling days to date. This, plus the changing conditions, was to make this an interesting paddling day… the drama day of the trip.

As the day proceeded, I observed for the first time in some detail Matt Turner’s on-water behaviour. Dirk had said previously that was a ‘spurter’ and that’s exactly what he was. Matt’s routine seemed to be to shoot ahead of the group, slow down, stop, dawdle, head out to sea, then spurt a kilometre or so back to shore to track along a beach. Thankfully, you’d then forget about him for a while. That is, until he’d startle the crap out of everyone by stealthily approaching from behind and shouting a greeting. It’s fair to say that the highly erratic presence of this man led to increased stress levels in the rest of the pod.

Another example of Matt’s unusual behaviour was evident soon after leaving Arrawarra. Nick and I were 400 metres ahead of and outside of Matt as he skirted a rocky headland, when he stopped and issued a series of loud, excited yelps. We accelerated back over to him thinking he was either on to a huge fish or he had seen something really special, like a mermaid or something. However, on getting there we found that all he had seen were some bloody dolphins (which did not even have the grace to reappear).

From Matt’s diary: “That morning I saw some dolphins and for some reason I couldn’t help but let out a series of loud, excited yelps…”

Some time later the westerly dropped and we actually started to feel uncomfortably warm as we maintained a good pace. Then the first few hesitant puffs of a south easterly. As it began to blow steadily I was all smiles as I dramatically erected my red sail.

But what was a welcome change for me turned out to be less popular with some of the others. John and Mike were soon to be getting very cross indeed as their craft demonstrated nasty weathercocking tendencies. Mike, on his maiden voyage in his ply boat was perhaps more pissed off than John, as John at least knew that his Seafarer would behave badly in these conditions.

An hour or so later we landed for bladder relief and to discuss possible destinations. John and Mike had fallen back during the last leg, and Matt, his leadership ambitions again coming to the fore, had noticed this. Me, my sympathy level reduced because of my ‘Tail End Charlie’ experience the day before, and knowing these two were resolute paddlers, greeted Matt’s concerns with a yawn.

The sou’easter was now intensifying and it was noticeably harder to clear the beach after such a brief stop. We were now passing national park and the coast was starting to look OK in parts. We headed on another 10 km until we reached the park campsite, whose name I forget. Dirk and Nick landed on a south-east facing beach to check it out. Arunas and I continued around a small rocky point and landed on a more sheltered strip of sand.

Matt had landed further still but came back with the news that there was no room for us all in the camp. He then shinned up a near-vertical slope to find some cleared areas that would have been good camp sites if we could secure the boats against the high tide on the beach below. But due to the good chance of getting sprung by Rangers, we decided to keep going to Sandon River, 12 km north. I was now starting to realise that Matt Turner was a genius campsite finder… skills we were going to need on this coast where good sites seemed rare.

The sou’easter was now howling at over 20 knots and Dirk and Nick had a real struggle to clear that little beach that was now subject to powerful close-packed two metre waves. I myself was a bit nervous as I raised the sail shortly after clearing the protecting reef. This was my first serious sailing event in my brilliant new Explorer, and I was unsure how she would handle, being of narrower beam than the old Classic.

For the first 10 minutes or so I felt distinctly uncomfortable… to maintain direction I was leaning right back, and gripping my paddle tightly in a stern rudder position on the downwind side of the kayak.

This worked well, but I was vulnerable to capsize with my paddle blade so close to the hull, and my reaction time in terms of downwind bracing had to be good when stronger gusts threatened to flick me over. I was finding it difficult to sail a course directly to the Sandon headland so contented myself with a reaching leg heading north-east followed by a short but fast downwind run to catch some glorious rides. I was slowly pulling away from the other guys. A couple of times I allowed the Explorer to continue her turn into the wind until I was almost facing back from where we had come.

Nary a fellow paddler could be seen, except for the occasional flash of colour as a distant companion momentarily crested a wave. This was now full-on hairy-chested kayaking. The swell was now in excess of 2 metres in a chaotic sea. As usual at this point, I wondered what the hell we were doing out here, but at the same time, loved the fact that I was out there. Not a vessel anywhere… on this north coast afternoon, the ocean truly belonged to sea kayaks.

I then nearly capsized with fright at the sound of a loud voice behind me… it was Turner, who had so typically crept up on my blind side to say that he couldn’t see Mike. I shouted back something to the effect that what was the big deal, that I couldn’t see a friggin’ thing but him anyway. Matt screamed back that he was worried, and that Mike had been looking tired earlier on. To which I basically bellowed it was every man for himself, that if I could stay upright with my rampant red sail rig trying to do otherwise, then those without canvas up should certainly be able to do the same.

At this point Matt realised that I wasn’t the nice guy and team player he had expected, and he spurted off to try and find someone with a more sympathetic ear. We were to find out later that the sympathetic ear he found was Dirk’s.

From Matt’s diary: “It was pretty rough and I was really worried about Mike, but Fishkiller turned out to be a total prick who really couldn’t give a stuff, luckily Dirk was more concerned…”

From Dirk’s diary: “…bloody Turner came up and said he couldn’t find Mike. Even though I had confidence in Mike I felt obliged to do something and so ended up bobbing around for some time in that rough sea trying to spot him. As it turned out Mike had already passed us and was in no trouble whatsoever. I’m now really regretting my decision to let Turner come on this trip…”

Soon after I was rounding the Sandon Point headland in a flurry of largish waves. Here I saw that Arunas was coming round closer to the point, he too catching a huge ride to end up in calmer water.

We talked about the goings on ‘back there’ and possible missing paddlers. And so, like a pair of WW2 fliers waiting for the remnants of their squadron to fly in, we waited. Slowly, one by one, they came round that point. Snoad, Turner… then Caldwell… then Gill. But where was Dirk? I felt my stomach tightening as cold fear gripped me. Suddenly I regretted all mean things I had said about this largely misunderstood man. But suddenly there were cheers as the green Nadgee came into view.

We entered the estuary, I quickly gave Matt a sniff of a tent peg and he was off and searching. About half an hour later he found a reasonable scrubby spot beside what is truly a quality waterway. We set up camp and prepared for dinner, with much to talk about after a 50 km day.

That evening, Dirk, not a happy man after the on-water stress (not to mention 347 sand fly bites on the back of his hands), called us to order and brought up the issue of the days trauma and how the ‘viable pairs’ concept might have avoided the confusion out there. I sat there listening to the ensuing debate for some time… all the usual terminology was in play …Tail End Charlie…blah blah… communication… blah blah… well, I think… blah blah… group spread… blah blah… moral dilemmas, blah blah blah… I’d heard it all so many times before and still no clear resolution. I remember thinking what’s so wrong with the odd missing paddler anyway? Got to have something to talk about at the end of the day!

Then, after we had finished dinner, Nick made a startling discovery. Our campsite was on an island. Not only that, this island was shrinking… luckily only Nick had to move his tent as the king tide came up.

The next morning Dirk announced that he was having sleepless nights courtesy of the bites, that he had the shits big time, and that he had decided to head up to Yamba to acquire some anti-histamines. He was pleased to announce that Arunas would accompany him, both as a safety measure, and also to assist him along the way in scratching the many bites that were in those hard to reach places. The fact that his plan clearly demonstrated the viable pair concept to us cynics obviously pleased Dirk no end, and he was distinctly chirpy as he paddled off.

We packed leisurely and eventually set off on what was a glorious morning, the waters of the Sandon River as crystal clear as any estuary I have ever seen. A great place but for the sand flies. On getting to the ocean we found that there was some swell about, enough to keep us honest when choosing our next landing point.

We were not sure of our next camp, so after about 10 km we started to check out every likely headland or creek entrance. But the swell combined with the small reefy headlands made landing a risky procedure, so we pressed on several times despite wanting to stop. One thing was for sure, with vehicles and dwellings on almost every headland, this coast was no Nadgee.

We eventually came to the uniquely named Shelley Beach, only 5 km from Angourie, but located within a rare bit of the national park in that there was no vehicular access. And this was a beautiful beach. Five minutes later we had landed and a minute after that Matt announced he had found the site of the trip – lush grass, sheltered from the nor’easter and with ocean views. We declared that this would be our home for two nights.

After four days of being on the move it was nice to relax at last and take in the area… the weather was magnificent, we fished and swam, went on some nice walks and Matt provided an inexhaustible supply of miso soup. The mood was good and the remnants of the group were having a great time.

But from Matt’s diary: “I brought heaps of food on this trip and just as well, as some of the others would probably have starved on what they had…”

But suddenly our dreamtime existence was disturbed. Dirk and Arunas suddenly returned; two large dripping men bearing horror tales of their experience camping in a ‘school holiday’ infected Yamba ‘resort’. With the return of our one and only ‘viable pair’, the atmosphere had somehow changed for the worse. And things did indeed turn ugly soon after, when Nick had to be physically restrained by Mike after the hungry Dirk and Arunas were caught helping themselves to his precious hommus.

From Nick’s diary: “Today I caught the guys eating my hommus and I really lost it… very nearly lashing out and kicking them in the head as is my habit with marsupials. I can’t believe it… eating my hommus…!”

Later that afternoon, the issue of the final destination for the paddle finally came to a head. Arunas, already a bit peeved that Evans Head was not to be attempted, finally lost his normal cool on hearing that John and Nick decided that they would stop their paddle at Yamba, and not do the 25 km up the Clarence to MacLean. Words were exchanged, and exchanged again. The mood was now ugly, so I went fishing with my old mate Mike, and we caught a couple of decent fish.

As it turned out the group fractured into three on the morning of departure. Dirk, Arunas, Mike and I got up at dawn in an attempt to get some flood tide help us up to MacLean. Matt slept in and left to join us later, and the Yamba-bound Nick and John left later still. That evening we were all reunited in MacLean, and we spent a memorable evening at the old pub watching the Olympic opening ceremony.

And thus ended the trip apart from the long drive home. Dirk (who else) had complicated the return in that both he and his boat had to be deposited in Gosford. Knowing this I proffered the sensible suggestion to our ‘driver’ (Arunas) to place Dirk’s kayak (which we had brought up) on the Wollongong car (thereby allowing the Canberrans to head home the inland way). But this idea was of course ignored. It was my turn at last to have the shits.

And I was proved right as Arunas’ tactical error was revealed. Typically, the scheming Turner and Gill seized the chance near Newcastle to foist the troublesome Dirk onto us. And as we stuffed around in Gosford unloading the man and his gear, the knowledge that the Wollongong pod were virtually home gave us all great comfort. Finally, some 15 hours after leaving MacLean, we eventually arrived back in a freezing Canberra at half past midnight. An appropriately crap ending to a slightly underwhelming trip. But at least the weather was good.

Postscript: The diary entries used in Itching, Scratching and Bitching on the North Coast were recently found to be fakes, but unfortunately too late to stop this account being published. The author apologises for any embarrassment their inclusion may have caused his trip colleagues.