Bass Strait Bliss [53]

By Mike Snoad

It’s still dark at 5:30 am as I push off the beach into the small surf. There is just a hint of silver streaking the sky above the sea to the east. This place, Winter Cove is my idea of paradise. I’m sad to be leaving but also keyed up for the long and possibly rough day ahead. Nearby the Fairy penguins are also on the move. They group up in the sand hills near their burrows then rush down the dark beach in small groups and disappear into the surf. I wonder what drives their behaviour? Is much different to my motivation for being here? Is it just survival of their species by gathering food for the chicks? Do they have any fun? They have good reason to be nervous however. In the pre-dawn darkness the silhouettes of several large sea birds can be seen circling ominously overhead. The chicks back in the burrows gradually quieten down. I guess they know it will be after dark before their parents are back with food.

The last four days at this magic place in the middle of Bass Strait on Deal Island have been bliss. The strong westerly winds have kept me here but it has not been a hardship. Mornings sleeping in followed by leisurely cooked breakfasts including brewed coffee. All this still in the comfort of a warm sleeping bag. Plenty of time to laze about and explore. Even time to clean out the mess in my Blue Water kayak. A few minor repairs to my gear, then a wander out onto the rocks below the headland to catch some fish for dinner. Tonight dinner will be sashimi appetisers followed by fish chowder with steamed rice and steamed fresh vegies on the side. Mmm! Three years earlier four of us spent a frustrating eight days here. Our focus at that time was on crossing Bass Strait, the Holy Grail of sea kayaking in this part of the world. Our weather enforced extended delay meant that we were running out of food and also running out of time to catch the ship back to our starting point at Port Welshpool. This time around, my priorities are very different.

On the water I do a quick check of my gear. The drinking water tube is accessible and every thing looks OK. The GPS attached to the spray deck is turned on and the first waypoint is selected. This waypoint is an important part of my strategy to avoid the potentially dangerous tidal rips that guard the northern entrance to Murray Pass. I paddle east out of the cove then north following the unbroken line of dark cliffs. The reflected starlight on the calm water is my guide for avoiding any rock outcrops. The navigation plan for the day is marked on the sea chart. My plan is to go with the ebb tide in a big arc well clear to the north of Deal Island then ferry glide with the flood tide back to Hogan Island (a total distance of about 45 km) My motto is ‘Go with the flow, Don’t fight it’. I use the GPS to monitor my speed and cross track error as I go.

Shortly before 7 am I am about 4 km north of the entrance of Murray Pass and heading northwest towards the fading flash of the lighthouse on Hogan Island. In the early morning light the silver grey sea is calm except for some large swirling patches indicating that serious ‘stuff’ is going on down below. This is not a good place to be when the sea gets up. Not far from here on a previous trip, Dave, Dirk, Arunas and I traversed a large overfall with intimidating standing waves as we approached Deal Island from the west (see NSW Sea Kayaker Issue 45). I suspect it was not far from here that Vince Browning decided that ‘being terrified is not fun’.

For a brief moment the sun puts in an appearance. It’s pure gold as it clears the lumpy horizon before hiding in the grey cloud cover overhead. In those few moments the northern cliffs of Erith Island also glow golden against the grey sky backdrop. The distant lighthouse high up on Deal Island is a bright pinprick of reflected light. Its lamp has been retired for years but its imposing outlook is undiminished. Sooty albatross and other large sea birds circle with wing tips brushing the water, watching, and waiting. On the surface wary penguins rest in small groups then dive as I approach. I muse for a moment about keeping penguin hours. I’m out of bed with the penguins in the morning. I’m on the water far from land with them during the day then we are into our beds about the same time not long after dark. At least I don’t have any noisy chicks to feed.

Some time later my rhythmic paddle strokes are interrupted by a loud snort and a splash from close behind. What was that! Nothing to be seen at first, then a dusky seal pokes its shiny head up behind me. It has a comical face with water droplets glistening on its long whiskers. It’s soon joined by several others and they seem to be following me in a line astern formation. Next I see a dolphin off to the side, and then more. They seem to be travelling in a line parallel to the seals. It looks like they are imitating each other as they leap clear of the water with arched backs all in formation. How good is that?

Hours later by early afternoon I am approaching Hogan Island from the southeast. Even with light westerly winds the easterly swell combined with a strong tidal set and some serious rebound off the cliffs, make the last few kilometres hard work. If I had followed my navigation plan for the day religiously I would have had an easy ferry glide approach from the east instead of this mess. I guess this is a trade off for the earlier wild life entertainment.

Bummer! Breaking waves are closing out the rocky entrance of the east facing cove and tiny beach that is my destination for the day. I watch and wait outside for a while then decide it will be ok if I am careful and time it right. The alternative is to land on the nearby stockyard beach and camp on the steep slope behind the stockyards. That’s not very appealing so I go for the cove and land safely after a few anxious moments.

It’s late afternoon. My cosy tent home is set up and damp paddling gear is drying in the sun on the orange lichen capped boulders that line the cove. I’m sitting on a grassy rise overlooking the cove with the hazy outline of Wilsons Promontory just visible to the west. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I plan to cross to Wilsons Prom via Seal Island a distance of about 56 km. My Bass Strait adventure is drawing to a close. The last two weeks have exceeded my expectations and dreams. Two years of planning and then two weeks of bliss. The ‘Will I/Won’t I/Why do it/Is this irresponsible’ questions are now irrelevant.

Bass Strait has a justifiable reputation for being a wild and dangerous place. This bliss part of my trip was due mostly to the good weather. Luck and careful planning helped but attitude was also important. I was determined to enjoy the journey. Sounds a bit clichéd I know but this remote wild place is very special. It’s too special to rush. My strategy was to be patient; to wait for the right weather however long it took. With one exception I followed that plan. The exception turned out to be a 10 hour/60 km slog into head winds crossing from Flinders to Deal Island. That was challenging! I plan to write up the story of that day another time.