Keep Australia on The Left [44]

By Eric Stiller

Bantam Books, Sydney 2000

Review by Peta Kennedy

I wish I could find something nice to say about this first-hand account of a two-man paddling/sailing expedition. I read it from cover to cover, wanting to find out how it all ended and what they learned along the way from their experiences.

Eric Stiller was working in his Dad’s Klepper kayak shop in downtown Union Square, New York, when he planned to kayak around Australia in a Klepper Aerius II folding kayak, similar to those used by various special forces troops around the world – the Australian Z forces used British copies of the Kleppers in their WW2 raids on Singapore. Eric found inspiration from the Atlantic crossing by Hans Lindemann in 1956 and in the journeys of Ralph Diaz also in Kleppers. Eric’s paddling companion is Tony Brown, a very fit 20-something from Sydney with minimal kayaking experience and with a laisser-faire attitude toward planning and charting, and with little understanding of the ocean’s currents, tides and winds. It is from Tony that the book derives its title. Ironically, it is Tony who ultimately is the more suited to the task.

The author researched, planned and trained thoroughly for the trip and yet I had no sense of theory being applied throughout the entire journey. It reads like a ‘how-not-to’ and I found myself becoming increasingly irritated with the author as he became increasingly belligerent toward his travelling companion and, to boot, self-pitying when his girlfriend (little more than a fantasy of his own making) dumps him mid-trip (c’mon). Pretty standard on trips of such magnitude, personal dynamics played a major role. The pressure of the trip, the difficult conditions, particularly in the early stages of the expedition, and personality clashes and differing expectations took their toll.

Given that they set themselves a tight schedule, they made some very curious decisions en route in regard to obtaining supplies (eg: paddling up river to Mackay to visit the post office when they could have done all this more easily on the coast). This and similar diversions added unnecessary distance. They then risked life and Klepper by going across the opposing tips of the Gulf of Carpentaria, rather than follow the inner coast, requiring five days and nights of continuous paddling with monster seas and unreadable currents in very marginal conditions. Fortuitously, their landfall at Nhulunbuy was well chosen and, through the generosity of strangers, allowed time for recuperation and regrouping before the next leg to Darwin, where the journey comes to an abrupt (though not surprising) end.

The book is crammed with interesting snippets of information (not all accurate) and provides some good information on (where-not-to) landing sites. Aimed at the American market, it would have benefited from an editor with local knowledge. Anyone contemplating paddling the east coast would do better to consult any of the books of Paul Caffyn or Geoff Toghill for accurate practical material or either the NSWSKC or Victorian Sea Kayak Club web pages for more detailed information.

I didn’t envy Tony’s four-month aft paddling position – not once did they change over. I would have been tempted to whack Eric with my paddle within the first week. It is a mark of Tony’s disposition that the trip lasted as long as it did.

For all its faults, it is definitely readable. Take it with you on your next long paddle.