Round The Corner [56]

A Sea Kayak Trip from Devonport to Hobart via the West Coast of Tasmania.

By Stuart Trueman

A new ferry service started up January 2004, which runs from Sydney to Devonport. This makes things much easier for NSW Sea Kayakers to paddle Tasmania. Just get your kayak down to the ferry, have a few drinks as you watch Sydney disappear, dinner then perhaps a movie. After a good nights sleep you enjoy breakfast as you pass between Deal and Flinders Islands, around lunchtime you are in Devonport. What a great way to start your kayaking holiday.

The staff were very helpful, but gave a few sceptical glances when they found out my plans, and opened a side gate allowing me to put the kayak in the water 50 metres from the ferry. I was off, less then two hours from the ferry landing.

I had 2 weeks of food and everything else needed for the 4 weeks until my return ferry. I was not too bothered about paddling the north coast as there are no currents, no swell, plenty of safe landings. There was a low passing over the state and the east coast was copping a beating with gale force winds, heavy rains and storms. This meant I got some nice Easterly winds giving me a shove, it also meant that things were a bit wet and stormy. I left Rocky Cape and headed for Stanley to make some last minute phone calls before heading down the west coast where there are not many opportunities for checking in. The weather forecast was for 5-10 knot north easterlies. It had been raining on and off all night and there was still a shower or two early morning but nothing to worry about. I set off and had the wind behind me and dark threatening clouds on all sides. Getting wet is not something a kayaker should worry about, wind is the enemy. I was not worried as I saw a dark bank of cloud creep up behind me half an hour after starting paddling. The winds picked up and up and up, as did the seas. This kept up for seven hours. Then it rained; you could not imagine being able to force any more water out of the sky than was being dropped that morning. Although the intense beating of the rain being driven against me at over 30knots was loud enough to drown out the thunder and seas of 2-3 metres had built up it’s a strangely calming experience on the ocean when its raining hard, it seems to ‘flatten’ the seas. After a few hours of this I didn’t fancy landing at Stanley as the wind driven waves were heading directly for the town. Knowing that if I could not find a safe landing I could not paddle back into the wind to escape and would be committed to making do with the best I could find. So I decided to paddle round the headland called the ‘Nut’ and get to the beaches on the ‘lee’ of the weather. My impressions of that paddle are of a steel grey sea under a grey sky blended together with grey rain. Visibility was down to 20 metres at one point as I forced my way passed reefs and a small island. I passed the island recognising the close call, when I saw a group of seals asleep in the water on the ‘lee’ side. Its then that you realise its not really the environment for man!

I found a landing and after recovering walked into Stanley to make a phone call. I saw a police rescue launch returning. It’s a terrible feeling to think that someone may have seen me and called them out on my behalf. This dialogue and others are worded to make them seem dramatic and interesting reading but I never thought at any time during the trip that I was not able to deal with the conditions. Small consolation to the police that had to head off into that storm.

That was day three, I was not even on the West Coast yet!

The West Coast has a fearsome reputation as a rough unforgiving ocean with limited shelter. Weather is quick to change and can be incredibly violent building huge seas and making the coastline a very dangerous place for a kayaker seeking a spot to land. A South West swell is generated from the wild Southern Ocean and is constantly about 2 metres no matter what the local weather is doing. It is also a beautifully rugged area, truly a wilderness with large areas having no access other than boat or walking tracks. This is the challenge, the rewards and why I choose to paddle this area.

I had never seen the West Coast before and was apprehensive about ‘going round the corner’ and rounding the north west tip of Tasmania, Cape Grim. The name does nothing to ease the tension. It is to do with not being able to see what’s coming. It was a calm day and I had nothing to worry about apart from the currents as the north coast tussles with the west coast over the two-hour difference in tides. As you can’t see the coast until you round the cape you don’t get the ‘feel’

On these trips it’s important for me to always be in sight of the ocean to camp on beaches, walk up hills to view the ocean and always be ‘in touch’. If I lose that constant familiarisation with what’s going on its harder to get that feeling of being in ‘touch’. Sounds a bit hippie. If you turn up at the launch after leaving your warm bed at home wind the car window down and its blowing 20 knots, swell is 3 metres and a sea of 1 metre is running over the top with white caps every where, you’d be inclined to wind the window back up piss off and top up the caffeine level. However, if you have spent the last few days paddling through the same stuff and you’ve been camping in the rain for three days. On top of which you’ve not had a shower for 10 days, the insects have left their mark and the stench of the dead whale you’ve had to camp next to is overpowering you have no problem paddling. Its less of a jump from one environment to the next, and you are in ‘touch’. As soon as I had rounded Cape Grim and could see the West Coast I felt a great sense of relief. I had planned this for months and I could now see what I was up for and so start to build a feeling for the coast. The sense of mystery was removed as I got familiar with the area I was passing through.

There is no doubt that reports like this one will build a picture in the mind and everybody’s picture will be different. But until you are actually there you really don’t know; that’s part of the excitement and challenge.

The weather was as good as it gets for the area for the duration of my trip. I had perhaps five days where the weather made things hard. The forecasts were good, they gave an excellent picture of what was happening overall. A couple of times a local storm would take things to another level but these only lasted a couple of hours. I met another kayaker near Hobart who was waiting for the weather to improve before paddling Strahan to Cockle Creek with three others. He commented that I had done well as he’d been watching the weather, and noticed it had been blowing strongly against me. I didn’t bother arguing but it comes back to that ‘feeling’ and the fact that I was in touch with the situation. The forecasts would be for S-SW 15-20 Knots and 2-3 metre SW Swell but when you wake up and its calm you can get a paddle in before things get too bad. If I waited until the forecast was for winds less than 20 knots I’d still be there.

From Cape Grim to Strahan the coast is dotted with fishermen’s huts which often had a water tank attached. These huts are for the most part not used, at weekends I’d perhaps find someone. There are a network of trails used by 4*4 cars and quad motorbikes up and down the coast. It’s still a quiet place and I went days without talking to anybody.

I got to the campground at Hells Gates 15km from Strahan and thumbed a lift into town with some of the local youth. They were in good spirits and dropped me 3km out of town before the main road. I found out later that they rarely got further than this to avoid the local constabulary who would no doubt wonder how they got into such a good mood. I spent the afternoon eating and drinking, laundry and restocking my food supplies from the local supermarket. On my trip back from Strahan to the campground later that day I noticed the car I got a lift in with, smashed up in the ditch.

Fishing is very popular at Port Macquarie where Strahan sits and is almost as popular as tourist cruises. But neither go ‘Round the Corner’ and head south. From Strahan to Cockle Creek there are no huts, no roads just a small air strip at Bathurst Harbour. Time after time I’d land at picture perfect beaches, coves, gulches, bays or harbours that were as they had been for all time. I could never have got to these without a sea kayak, what a way to travel! It is without doubt a beautiful area and worthy of more time and a comprehensive look around. The problem is that when the weather is good I was compelled to travel due to supplies and time restrictions, then when the weather is bad you can’t go anywhere. I was relieved to get to Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour. Apart from the magnificent scenery the fact that I didn’t have to worry about the state of the ocean as its completely sheltered was a huge weight off my mind for a few days. This is an area in itself that warrants a good look around, plenty of paddling & walking to be done.

That nagging in the back of my head kept up and after a couple of days paddling into Bathurst Harbour I was on my way ‘Round the Corner’ again this time the SW Cape. Again the weather was perfect with little or no wind and a 1-metre swell.

On my way along the south coast the forecast was for a 5-metre swell to build during the day. This would make most landings in the area very dangerous, I had no local knowledge and decided to have a short paddle to what looked like the last safe landing before an exposed coast. Its hard to watch the wind die down, the white caps disappear and not paddle on. On the coast of NSW it is very rare that the wind and sea are not immediately connected. I watched an island that was being hit with the swell and noted the height and frequency of the largest swells, then went about exploring, setting up camp, getting water etc. In the calm of the evening after the wind had died down the one-foot surf I had landed in that morning was now 4 foot and my island was constantly awash.

South Cape Rivulet is the last stop before going ’round the corner’ to Cockle Creek, which gives shelter from the seas and marks the beginning of road access and the last leg to Hobart. I went round the South East Cape and 35 knots hit me head on, making the last few hours to South Cape Rivulet a real struggle. Again there was no warning signs or suggestion from the forecast, just local weather for this area. The progress was painful, as soon as I stopped paddling I was blown backwards. I plodded on, head down, it had died down to 20-25 knots as I reached the beach. The swell created dumping surf. I saw a group on the beach, which put the pressure on for a good landing. I got closer to the surf then the group cleared off, that was strange as most like to see a bit of carnage. As I landed, feeling more then a bit tired a couple of kayakers walked over. The Tasmanian Sea Kayak Club had landed just before me, after seeing I was solo decided anybody paddling the area solo would not need a hand landing so went back to setting up camp! It was great to spend the evening talking to like minded individuals after 3 weeks of minimal conversation. The contrast in our approach to kayaking was obvious as I looked at Tasmanian kayaks. Tasmanians favour sails and some have provision for masts fore & aft. They also carry two sets of sails, large sails for light winds and smaller sails for strong winds. One of them had broken off their rudder in the surf, as they set about repairs they displayed a very comprehensive repair kit able to fix up sails, masts, rudders, cables, paddles and kayaks. My rudder less, skeg less and sail less kayak looked bare with just spare paddles on deck.

I reflected on a wonderful trip as I cleaned out the maggots living in the stern hatch and tipped out the rat I had unknowingly trapped in the day hatch, spending the night eating my food and the rucksack. I had paddled every day apart from one in the twenty days it had taken me so far. I plodded on to Kettering where a skipper I had met in Bathurst Harbour put me up while I arranged to get up to Devonport.

The West Coast of Tassie is at the mercy of a huge body of water who in turn has its mood driven by the weather from the Antarctic. There can be one high tide a day or high tide can last for days. Weather changes very fast and the sea state will alter at the same speed. You can be paddling against a calm 2-metre SW swell, then a 15-20 knot westerly will create waves of 1 metre which run over the top of the swell. The westerly and SW swell combine to push you towards the reefs of the coast, which build up the 2-metre swell to 5 metres. Navigation is hard from a kayak, in an unfamiliar area you get a quick look from the top of the swell but islands, headlands, and inlets all blend into one. There are no roads, buildings or farmland to help you make a decision. To get it wrong would mean having to deal with landing on rocks, paddling over reefs, surf landings on rock laced beaches where you could get trapped for days. You have to stay closer to shore than you’d like, to work things out, but not too close. Did that swell break ahead of me? Hard to tell amongst the white caps as I sink into a trough of the swell. A dark cloud builds from the south, just enough time to pull my hood up before its 35 knots and pissing down, Swell has now built up to 4 metres without any help from the reefs. Oh shit! That swell did break before, it layed dormant for 10 minutes, now 2 kayak lengths before me I’m looking down at the kelp covered rocks opening up sucking me in. While all this is happening, in the reduced visibility of the rain, you are looking for an opening amongst the rocks for the only ‘safe’ landing for 20km north or south.

I’ll bet the picture built in your mind is not pretty! Make sure you are comfortable with this image before heading down the west coast of Tasmania.