The Prom [56]

Wilson’s Promontory National Park Sea Kayak Trip

By Justine Tonner-Joyce

January 14th – 20th 2004, Port Welshpool to Tidal River, Mark and Justine Tonner-Joyce in Single Dagger Apostles

Wednesday Jan 14th: Drive Melbourne to Welshpool (3 hours 15 mins)

My experience with the ocean is limited to a few Tasmanian ferry trips, my husband’s sailing stories and a nine day sea kayak trip on the South Coast of New South Wales. That nine day trip last year gave me new confidence that I could cope with wind, waves, surf landings and almost cope with sharks. As well as confidence, I developed a love of bobbing around on the ocean. I had been looking forward to our Prom paddle for months but still found it hard to get certain fears from my mind.

After crawling up the Monash Freeway we stopped for fuel. “How far is it to Foster from here?” I asked the servo bloke. “Heard of it…bloody cold down there…Truckies call it Frost-er”.

Into South Gippsland a massive cloud bank became visible in the distance. That would be the Prom we guessed. We avoided the frost and checked in to Welshpool Motel for a last bit of ‘luxury’. But even the soft bed did not keep away the sharks and Bass Straight scaries.

Thursday Jan 15th: Paddle Port Welshpool Boat Ramp to Johnny Souey Cove (20km – 4 hours 15 mins)

Sea Kayaks are a bit like Dr. Who’s Tardis I reckon. Miraculously, the gear all fits in. A calm morning and an outgoing tide made the Corner Inlet crossing easy. Leaving at high tide meant we could cut across the shallows and make good time in the light westerly. We’d been warned about trying to paddling against the massive tide. Luckily that day high tide was not at 3am! The cloud cleared as we landed at Biddies Cove for a leg stretch after two hours of paddling. What a relief, we’re at the Prom.

Past Entrance Point we stayed close to the shore as we could see breaking waves out at Sand Island. The wind picked up slightly to a five knot south westerly we made our destination before midday.

Not sold on Johnny Souey Cove as a camp site, Mark suggested Rabbit Island. After a very easy landing I wandered around the south end of Johnny Souey, found the camp site overlooking the beach and we decided to settle in. The beach was alive with gulls eating fish, fish eating tiny hermit crabs, tiny hermit crabs eating March Fly larvae and March Flies eating us. And it was all to ourselves! One of the reasons Mark and I make a great match is our love of isolation. Solitude (together) revives us. More remoteness means more wildlife — most importantly more fish. It allows total focus on wilderness…and skinny dipping! Spending the afternoon reading cyclist Lance Armstrong’s inspirational book in the sun and watching Mark fly fish was blissful.

Friday Jan 16th: Paddle Johnny Souey Cove to Refuge Cove (21km – 4 hours)

We woke again to cloud, very light wind and set off at 7.30am. Passing Rabbit Island we spotted our destination, Horn Point, way off in the mist. Perhaps it was the ebb tide against us, perhaps my sore bum, or perhaps the building south westerly but Five Mile beach seemed to last forever. The Cathedral, the aquamarine water and the curious sea birds were great distractions. Although there was little swell, the cross head wind was now about 10 knots and increasing. We decided to not waste any time and bypassed Sealers Cove, my second favourite beach in the Park and headed for Horn Point.

It was only when we passed Horn Point into the protected waters that I really felt I’d returned to the Prom. Cormorants and seals dive in clear blue-green water. White sand meets lush slopes. The black cockatoos call plee-eerrk and slowly beat their wings. These three protected coves nestled together (Smith, Refuge and Larkin) are the reason I love this place. The ochre-faced boulders are never quite as beautiful in photos, but even so, I snapped away with my disposable camera. We landed at Refuge for a beach lunch, followed by a read, a swim and a fresh water rinse-off in the creek. More bliss.

Mark and I watched perplexed as a newly arrived group of six began tossing things from their motor boat into the Cove. What sort of person would litter in this pristine place? I was about to yell out when, through his binoculars, Mark noticed they were wiping tears from their eyes. Roses, they were throwing roses…in memorial. We laughed in relief that we’d stayed quiet and were then sobered by the reminder that the Prom can be deadly.

Selfishly I wanted the mourners to leave, along with the steady stream of hikers descending on the Cove. It’s understandable that Refuge Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the Prom but that didn’t stop me from wanting it all to ourselves. Solitude feels like escape, like we’ve come further than anyone is willing to go. It makes me feel ‘hard core’.

Although I love solitude I also enjoy swapping stories with hikers and rangers. A number of hikers were envious of our boats and questioned us about our journey. Many said they’d be scared to tackle the ocean but I reassured them fears can be overcome. One guy asked to hire my therma-seat for a fee. Others drooled over our wine, Port, fresh vegies and array of smoked meats and horses doovers. The ranger let us know about the empty boaters’ camp site at the north end of Refuge Cove so we were alone again. That night the storms began to build.

Saturday Jan 17th: Refuge Cove

Saturday was spent reading and eating in our sheltered spot. The wind howled in the tree canopy and it showered on and off. Having made the decision to wait a day we walked to Kersop Peak to view the conditions. Waiting was a good decision. It was difficult not to get blown off the lookout. Waterloo Bay to the south was white with chop. I felt proud looking north to our barely visible starting point, Port Welshpool.

Back at Refuge the ranger radioed Tidal River from his hut and got the forecast. Sunday; south westerlies easing, Monday; building north easterly. A lovely bloke, we chatted about the area and asked him about the south end. He gave me hope that we’d make it around. Mark was curious about this man’s life in a hut. “Not married, no kids” the ranger confided. “My partner’s over at Sealers Cove.” He must like solitude and wilderness even more than us!

Sunday Jan 18th: Paddle Refuge Bay to Little Waterloo Bay( 11km – 2 hours 20 minutes)

We woke to hard rain and then the sound of our 5am alarm. Gusts of wind swayed the tree canopy and soon we slipped back into sleep. It later cleared and we had breakfast and read on the beach until midday when Mark announced “Let’s make a run for it.” In hindsight we could have waited a few more hours. Our shortest paddle was to be my hardest ever.

We rounded Cape Wellington with no trouble and Mark warned it was about to get tough. Into 20 knot headwinds, the 4km from the cape to the beach was 100 minutes of pain. Lance Armstrong’s words rang in my head “Suffering is good for you”, “Pain is temporary but quitting stays with you forever”. I kept an eye across my right shoulder at the shore. I’ll give it 20 hard strokes and move to that red boulder. 30 more and I’ll be at that gully. Another 20 I’ll make North Waterloo. The beach is getting closer. But in between pushes and self affirmations I sobbed. My back and arms burned. Mark seemed to be cruising which made me feel even more pathetic and angry at the wind. But he urged me on and eventually I was on a small wave heading for the white sand of Little Waterloo Bay. Armstrong was right – the pain was gone. We smiled out at the transparent water.10 degrees warmer and we could have been in Far North Queensland. Black cockies glided over the treetops and I collapsed on the tarp.

That night we ate as if we were about to cross the Bass Straight tomorrow rather than just skirt it. Starting with semi-dried tomatoes and rice crackers we moved on to basil pesto spaghetti, vegies, smoked pork, and then plum pudding, custard washed down with half a bottle of Port. Planning a quick, early get-away we repacked our boats except for our tent, sleeping stuff and breaky. The Milky Way lit up the beach and I stared out at the calm water, hoping it would stay that way.

Ready as we’ll ever be for Bass Straight.

Monday Jan 19th: Paddle Little Waterloo Bay to Tidal River (Intended to camp at Oberon Bay) (27km – 5 hours)

A 4.45am start now sounds absurd but it’s amazing how easy it is to get going when you know you’ve got a big day ahead. Not only did we have a big day, we had a strong north east wind forecast looming. Before the first kookaburra laugh our adrenalin got us from our sleeping bags to breakfast to the beach in record time. We tip toed past sleeping hikers and stuffed in the last of our gear with the sun barely poking through. It was beautifully calm. Turning back to collect the last dry bag I felt a coolness on my face. A faint Westerly I noted with some anxiety and fresh memories of yesterday’s struggle.

We dragged the boats down to the water ready to launch by 6.30am. The half meter waves were big enough to allow a sense of satisfaction at getting through but too small to scare me. Mark helped me out. From behind the break I turned to see Mark in his boat still lodged on the sand. He seemed to be waiting for the tide to come in. Then I remembered — he hates getting his feet wet.

For years the lighthouse has been an enigma for me. Previous Prom walks had resulted in skipping the lighthouse route. Stories of wild seas and rugged cliffs had fuelled my anxiety about paddling there. But today I felt ready — a bit like Froddo approaching Mount Doom.

Eventually we were on our way south on the calm flat sea. Once past Waterloo Bay the lighthouse was back in view. Distant Rondondo Island, a massive granite pyramid, glowed in the sunrise. I strained my eyes to the water beyond the lighthouse spotting the odd whitecap. Mark said, as if to read my mind, “I suspect it’s going to get a little rough around the bottom”.

Lance Armstrong, Tour de France winner, talks about the wind in his book; sometimes it’s your greatest enemy and other times it’s like the hand of God at your back. That day God was on our side. “It must have been the day I prayed for you” my mum later shared. Our boats began to fly along as the northerly strengthened and the swell grew. We knew the forecast, but the force and speed of the change in conditions thrilled us. Ahead of schedule, we peered up at the lighthouse.

To my amazement we were not faced with raging seas crashing onto jagged cliffs. I felt surprisingly safe and calm. I’m sure the EPIRBs, mobile phone, VHF radio, PDFs, towing harness, compass, detailed maps and first aid kit helped me feel safe and calm. There was little chance of seeing another human beyond the lighthouse. The south west corner of the Prom is mostly inaccessible. Even so, on his particular summer day, with all our gear, I felt safe. I felt the solitude.

The timing was uncanny. Just as we turned our boats around the south east point the wind began to turn. By the time we were on our way to the southern point the wind once again became a hand at our backs. The easterly strengthen and the swell grew. I leant back and used the paddle to brace as the boat surged, and surged again with each wave from behind us. It was more thrill than fear that had my pulse racing. I surprised myself with my confidence. We can do this, I realised. At the same time Mark was far from relaxed. He feared for me. “I’m just not sure what this wind will build to” he reiterated. I tried to reassure him “If it makes any difference, I feel good. I know I’ve survived two meter swell and surf landings at Short Point (NSW) last year”. My confidence buoyed him but he explained that he would rather share his concerns and have me understand the risks. I didn’t want to think about risks. It was not the swell but the pain of a head wind that scared me and for now we were hooning.

Periodically little penguins popped up their heads making peep-peep sounds. They looked vulnerable yet at home in this wilderness. South Point was hard to discern as it blurred with Wattle Island. Once Mark was convinced about it’s location he suddenly relaxed. In between varied levels of anxiety we were both in awe of the view. Cliffs towered over us so that I had to crane my neck to see the top. The dry wind-swept islands were uninviting but added interest to the Bass Straight horizon. I tried to imagine the granite ‘bridge’ that once linked Tassie to the mainland pre-ice-age. Same rocks, I thought, just more water. A glimpse of prehistory captivated me.

Having passed between tree-less Wattle Island and the South Point we continued to skirt the cliffs to avoid the bigger swell. Three hours into our paddle we reached the spectacular South West Point. Mark compared the block-like rocks to a giant Leggo structure. Relieved at reaching the lee side we had a short snack stop. Mark steadied my boat as I relieved my bladder over the side and I was quietly proud of our on-water balancing act.

The wind continued to grow and began to turn more east-nor-east. We now had to contend with strong, boat-stopping gusts of up to 30 knots. Balls of wind rolled over the cliffs, hit the water and scattered in all directions. All the way up to Oberon Bay we paddled just a couple of boat lengths from the cliffs to stay out of the convergence zone (where the prevailing wind met the water; Mark explained).

At Oberon Point, 10.30am, we stopped to consider our overnight options. If we stuck with our plan of landing on Oberon Beach, a tough paddle into chop and head wind faced us. Plus, if the waves increased the next day we could have trouble getting through the surf and home for work commitments. We decided not to risk it and kept paddling on to Norman Bay.

We’ve made it this far, another hour with the wind on our side sounds doable.

Having seen few people all week and not a soul all day it was a shock to see the hordes at Norman Beach. We pulled over to a yacht, chatted to the crew to re-socialise ourselves and asked them to take a celebratory photo of us bobbing on the aqua water. Mark was in disbelief that he has lived in Victoria all his life and only now discovered this stunning place.

There was a sense of accomplishment about making it around the Prom but the aim was not simply to get around. The aim was to get away. We were happy to respect the conditions presented to us and chose from two different routes; either around the Prom or backtracking to our start point. Having paid for campsites for either route, we were well organised as usual. We were more than happy to make the most of a near-perfect opportunity, allowing us a safe passage to Tidal River.

Small clean ½ meter waves at Norman Beach meant an easy landing among kids on boogie boards. We dragged the boats over the sand bar and up the tannin stained Tidal River far enough to find a quiet spot to collapse. “look out dear,” a woman warned her boy as we passed “they’ve got their whole life in those boats.” It was the end of our journey and the end of our solitude. Flocks of kids waded in the river and played in the surf. Parents kicked the footy or sought shade under beach domes and rock ledges.

Superb catering meant, on the last day, we could still dine on ‘Gourmet Thins’ sun-dried tomatoes, French cheese and salami (and yes, they appeared to be salmonella-free). Mark sat reading on a rock while I could no longer keep my head up.

Once I’d recovered a little I decided to seek out a camp spot, which proved not as simple as the last few nights. Not even the crowded beach prepared me for venturing into the camp ground, which can only be described as feral. There was literally not a free square meter. “Tidal River Camping Ground is Booked out”. Entering the shop I think I came as close as I ever have to experiencing a panic attack. Thirteen types of cereal had never seemed more excessive and overwhelming to me than at that moment. Then the queue; why do they have to stand so close to me!? Oh, for the solitude of Refuge. Needless to say we did manage to adapt back into normal life and avoid social phobia.

That evening we plonked our tent in a not-so-official camp site. Well, we are mariners, you know.