Thursday Island to Darwin [48]

By Ben Eastwood

Ben’s follow on story from Andrew McAuley’s article Follow the Wind: Cape York & Torres Strait in Issue 47 of NSW Sea Kayaker:

After ferrying our kayaks back to Thursday Island on a barge, it was disappointing to say goodbye to Andy, as he had to return to work. My original plan was to continue paddling into Papua New Guinea. However, meeting the requirements of the Australian Customs proved very challenging especially in a kayak. They expected me to paddle 200 km from Thursday Island to Daru in PNG without stopping. Unwilling to accept this challenge and unable to negotiate around the obstacle without incurring substantial expense I quickly changed my focus to continue paddling towards Darwin.

With a food drop previously organized on Thursday Island it was not long before I was on my way paddling towards Weipa. Doing a solo expedition certainly has an element of increased risk. However, after just paddling 1,000 km from Port Douglas to PNG, I was feeling confident and still a lot safer on the water than driving on the roads.

After eight days of paddling from Thursday Island I arrived in Weipa. I was interested in experiencing the Gulf country, however I was glad I had arranged for a barge to take me across to Nullumbuy in east Arnhemland. While the Gulf country is interesting it is somewhat very flat. The landscape is flat, the tree line is flat, the beach is flat, even the fish are flat. There is little variation in the scenery on the west coast of Cape York. The main highlight during the 8-day paddle was watching a large sea turtle come onto the beach and lay her eggs.

When I arrived at the first aboriginal outstation Matta Matta in East Arnhemland I was greeted by three Aboriginal children practicing their spear throwing. I was well received by the community and had the opportunity to watch them hunt and prepare a kangaroo to eat. The following day I was invited to watch them catch lunch that consisted of spearing a small shark and stingray.

The kayak has a unique ability to break down any barriers when meeting people. I found that any cultural barriers were quickly dissipated when they heard where I had come from and that I was travelling in a ‘lippa lippa’ or canoe. Any apprehension soon turned to curiosity and they were inquisitive to learn more about the trip. The children were particularly excited as most of them had never seen such a small looking boat and were very keen to jump all over it.

Of the six aboriginal outstations visited, I was well received at all of them and was even provided with some cooked turtle eggs on one occasion. The aboriginal people in this region still rely heavily on hunting wild game and fishing for food.

The coastline throughout Arnhemland varied from mangrove coastline to spectacular white sandy beaches. The most noticeable difference between the coastline of Cape York and Arnhemland was the lack of rubbish washed up on the beach. Arnhemland was very pristine while Cape York and the Torres Strait was host to numerous foreign objects washed ashore by the Pacific currents.

Peering into an excavated turtle nest that had been raided by either pigs or a goanna on Melville Island, I noticed two baby turtles that were trapped by the short sandy walls of the dugout nest. They were not much larger than a fifty-cent piece. When I lifted them out and put them on the sand their little flippers kicked into gear as they raced down towards the water. Further excavation of the nest revealed a further four young ones at varying stages of tearing out of their shells. Altogether I released six babies into the wild world of water. The odds are so much against them that even one of my footprints in the sand proved too much an obstacle for one little turtle, I had to give him a hand out.

I was momentarily paralyzed as I sat bolt upright in my kayak. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The crocodile, that was not much shorter than my 5.8 metre kayak, did not appear to hesitate as it started swimming towards me. Fortunately I was close to shore. Unfortunately there were only rocks to land on. Keeping an eye on the crocodile swimming towards me I managed to catch a small wave into the rocks. When the cruel sound of gel-coat and fiberglass scraping off the bottom of the kayak brought me to a halt I quickly bailed out. When I turned around the crocodile was on the next wave in behind me. Using myself as bait I attracted the crocodile away from the kayak. When it seemed to lose interest in me, I ran back to my kayak and reluctantly pushed it back into the water. I had to keep moving so as not to run out of water. It was another three days before I reached South Goulbourne Island and spoke to another person about the encounter.

One of the most challenging days was paddling from Melville Island to the Vernon Islands on my second last day. It did not seem to matter if I was paddling with an incoming tide or an outgoing tide heading towards Darwin, the current was against me all the time. I left Melville Island at 4:30 am. It was very dark and I was conscious of crocodiles. With my headlamp on I checked the black water for eyes before sliding the kayak into the water. I had paddled in darkness for 20 minutes when I flicked on my headlamp and reached behind me to get my cap to stop water dripping in my face. Suddenly I was hit in the face by a wet slimy fish that had jumped up at the light. If I wasn’t awake before I certainly was now.

After seven hours paddling I had only covered 30 km. The current was against me most of the way and I had paddled through plenty of small eddies and whirlpools. The water around the Vernon Islands was going in all directions as the tidal variation for Darwin exceeds seven metres regularly. The strong wind had picked up from the southwest and was blowing me into the mangroves. Keeping a very keen eye out for crocodiles I decided to change course and make the most of the wind. All of a sudden there was a loud ‘BANG’ at the back of my kayak. My heart sank and I had a sickening feeling in my stomach, as I looked around expecting to see a set of large jaws crushing the end of my kayak. To my relief I could only see a dark shadow of a shark swim away from my rudder. My paddling speed picked up after that encounter.

Dehydrated and exhausted after not sleeping the last four nights of the trip because of the heat and humidity and a skin rash developing under both arms, I paddled the final 26 km to Darwin on my last one litre of water. Tired and emotional after paddling 1,800 km around Cape York, the Torres Strait and Arnhemland I sat on the beach in Darwin reflecting on my experiences over the past three months.