Cape York and Torres Strait
Paddling up the coast of far north Queensland in August this year left Ben Eastwood and me with many lasting impressions.
First, the crocs are big and hungry! So are the sharks, and so are the fish!
We launched at Port Douglas on 01 August this year intending to paddle north right up to New Guinea. 28 days and 1,000 km later we arrived on Australian-owned Saibai Island, the northernmost stop on our crossing and about 3 or 4 km off the coast of PNG.
We had some superb paddling conditions with winds of 30 knots and above for several days running, which made for some very fast and exciting downwind paddling and sailing. We also had nearly a week of flat, calm conditions, which meant great visibility through the glassy clear water but long hard slogs in the boat with little relief from the stifling heat. The fishing north of Cooktown was great. Ben caught the record fish of the trip trolling off Decapolis Reef, north of Cape Flattery, a giant Queenfish of around 15 kg. We also caught Coral Trout, Trevally, Sea Perch and Mangrove Jack. Just off Wharton Reef Ben hooked something big enough to tow him out to sea into a 25 knot wind! He played it for about half an hour until, much to our mutual relief, whatever it was spat the hook and broke free. You can certainly feel pretty small in your kayak while playing a big sea monster that could just as easily have YOU for dinner!
A trip like this can certainly give your gear a workout. I was very happy with my new Nadgee Expedition in all the conditions we encountered. There was little difference in speed at sea between the two boats, in fact in some conditions the Nadgee appeared to be faster than Ben’s Mirage 580. There was certainly a dramatic difference when the neoprene hatch cover on the Mirage worked its way loose during a roll and Ben ended up with an extra 35 litres of sea water in his rear hatch! We also had a gear failure just out from Portland Roads: the plastic rudder foot pedal hinge on the Mirage snapped in benign conditions. This was no doubt due to the stresses of strong winds earlier in the trip. We fixed it with a door hinge supplied by Dave Glasheen from Restoration Island. Later in the trip we had a paddle fracture right across the blade, fixed that night around the campfire. Interestingly we both took propeller paddles, and had no problems using them in the conditions we encountered.
With the southeasterly trade winds providing downwind conditions nearly the whole way we elected to take sails on our kayaks to aid our progress. I had a home made sail of about 1 metre square while Ben’s was purchased from a mob in Adelaide and was similar in size. Both sails were mounted on a universal joint (dinghy tiller extension fitting) forward of the front hatch, in a design similar to that made popular by Norm Sanders a few years back. This allowed us to raise and lower the sail with one hand, and paddle or brace as needed with the sail well out of the way. In strong winds it was sometimes a challenge to stay upright. We clocked speeds of 22 km/h (12 knots) on the GPS several times when surfing down the biggest waves in 30 knot winds. I knew we were travelling fast when my boat started to sing. I’m still not sure exactly what it was but when launching down the biggest waves during that brief moment or two of acceleration an audible humming noise emanated from the boat, possibly vibration of the rudder or rudder cables. There is no doubt that considerable stresses are placed on your gear in these conditions. One memorable moment was approaching Cape Melville when I turned around to see Ben upside down in very strong winds. He stayed in his cockpit and folded his sail away underwater, rolling up spectacularly and gasping for breath. The deckline fitting to which he had attached one of the shrouds for his sail had pulled clean through the deck, leaving a decent sized hole that we repaired that night.
As we approached Old Man Rock just before Restoration Island I caught a large wave that came from nowhere and went screaming down the face, burying the Nadgee’s nose in the trough and underneath Ben’s fishing line. He ended up with more than he bargained for when his lure snagged up around my sail! As his line was trolling some distance behind his kayak he thought he had the mother of all fish for a moment or two until I let him in on what was going on! “No, you’ve got ME mate, put that gaff hook away!”
The Torres Strait was a highlight and we were both keen to cross it as a fitting finale to the trip. From the tip of the Cape we did a four day crossing via Little Adolphus Island, Saddle Island, Gabba Island and then Saibai Island. The first day was a short 15 km but the last three days were each around 50 km with very little wind, ensuring that it was a weary duo that dragged their kayaks up the mud of Saibai Island 3 km off the PNG mainland. This is one of the northernmost Australian owned islands in the Torres Strait and the closest to the PNG mainland, a convenient spot to finish our kayak crossing. We were hoping to paddle across the narrow channel to land amongst the mud and mangroves of mainland PNG, however a recent tightening of restrictions on this international border prevented us from doing so. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have asked! We stayed on Saibai for a couple of days waiting for the next barge back to TI (Thursday Island). Although there is not much on Saibai Island the people were friendly and we enjoyed the brief stop there before returning south. We were invited to give a couple of talks to the islander kids at the local school, which was a memorable moment in itself.
Ben and I parted company at TI. He was heading on a solo mission by barge and kayak right around to Darwin, while I had work and other responsibilities to return to back in my other life. There were mixed emotions at our departure, the trip had gone like a dream with very few hiccups. It was sad to see such a great trip come to an end – although for Ben there was a whole new coast to explore down to Weipa and then across Arnhem Land from Nhulunbuy to Darwin.
Some information that may be of use to future paddlers: north of Cooktown we found water at Cape Melville, Flinders Island (water tanks near the landing in Owen Channel), Portland Roads (water tank near the boat ramp), Forbes Island (a well on the northwest side of the island), a soak on the mainland at Ussher Point, on Turtle Head Island and at the tip of the Cape. There are reputed to be a few other soaks along the coast and some inland freshwater lakes (e.g. behind the dunes just south of False Orford Ness). We also heard that fresh water was available in or near the Pascoe, Olive and Harmer rivers. It may be possible to top up supplies with some of the mother ships that service the trawlers, although we didn’t find the need. We shipped our kayaks back with Jardine Shipping, which was very inexpensive ($50.00 to TI and $50.00 to Cairns). Camping and fires are prohibited on many of the islands by Queensland NPWS – check with them before leaving. The logistics for exploring the Cape and Torres Strait by kayak turned out to be pretty straightforward considering how remote this coastline is. It’s a fantastic part of the country – but as Arunas Pilka, croc attack survivor, said before we left – just don’t go swimming!