A Whale of a Time in the Whitsundays [58]

By David Whyte

Thump! A huge whale breeched not more than 200 metres in front and was coming straight towards me. Thump! 150 metres this time. Mark was yelling at me to get my camera out but I wasn’t game as I only had my SLR with me. Closer and closer it came and then at the last minute veered ever so slightly to my side and came crashing down not more than 20 metres away; so close I felt some of the spray from the splash. It then continued past and when it was safely away I got my camera out, but unfortunately I didn’t have the zoom lens on and the shots were a little far away.

This was the first day of another spectacular trip through the Whitsundays starting from Mackay and finishing at Bowen 2 weeks later. Five of us started and finished with none of the group spread we had last year. But it wasn’t incident free and the start of this trip had an eerie familiar ring to it.

Arunas and I drove up from Canberra with 3 kayaks on top of Mark’s car. Andrew drove up from Sydney by himself with Harry and Mark flying. We left on a cold Canberra morning and in one day managed to do 1600 km arriving at Mt. Morgan near midnight and stole a sleeping spot at the local dam. It didn’t take long before we arrived in Mackay the next day and while we were lounging around in a local café we noticed a car go past with two sea kayaks on top. As we didn’t know what sort of car Andrew drove and not real sure what he looked like Arunas ran out and waved him down. It wasn’t Andrew but two kayakers who had just done the trip we were planning. These two were to become known as Saint Dave and Saint John for reasons that will become obvious later. They were camped near Andrew in the same caravan park so we arranged to meet later for a meal.

First off Arunas needed to get some sand pegs but, strange as it may seem, these weren’t easy to come by in Mackay. Arunas attempted to explain what they looked like to one camping storeowner and finished by saying,

“You know, just like snow pegs”.

“Snow pegs eh, we don’t have much call for them up here”.

We drove around to the Caravan Park at Black’s Beach and a beautiful spot it was. In fact it was an ideal starting spot. Great campsite right next to the beach and the beach sloped enough so we could easily launch no matter what the tide. In fact it’s a perfect spot to start this trip. It’s just a pity it’s been sold to developers and next year it will be full of condominiums.

While Mark was still on the plane the rest of us decided it would be best to go a day earlier as the weather forecast for Monday didn’t look good. I could hear the alarm bells ringing as it was reminiscent of last year where the rush to leave early saw Matt head off with the car keys in his pocket. We rushed around reorganizing everything so we could do the car shuffle that night. This meant leaving as soon as Mark got off the plane and going on a 4 hour trip. John very kindly offered to follow us up in his car and drive us back, for which we were forever grateful. Mark arrived about 17.30 and Arunas said.

“Don’t worry about your gear, we got it out of the car, it’s by the tent. Dave has to leave straight way”.

So I set off again after having already done a few hundred kms that morning. John came up behind and Andrew went with John to help with the driving. Ray, a friend of a friend offered to look after our cars so we met him in Bowen around 8pm. Ray had been working that night for the Lions Club manning a food stall at the North Queensland Rodeo, which was on in Bowen that evening. Just before we left we asked him where we could get a bite to eat and his best advice was the Rodeo, so we followed him down. We must have looked a sight, and judging by the stares we got, we did, in our kayaking shirts and sports sandals lining up with all the Cowboys and Girls in their riding boots and Akubras ordering a Hamburger. Andrew wasn’t game to ask if they had any vegetarian ones.

It was nearly midnight when we got back to the caravan park only to be greeted by Mark who looked like someone had told him he had to paddle a Nadgee for the trip.

“We have a problem! There was another bag.. it’s got all my paddling gear in it – it’s still in the car. It’s got my gladiator hat (how could I leave with out it), cag, gloves and shorts.”

Now the hat wasn’t a problem as I carry several and lent him one of mine. Which he lost in an incident – more on that later. But there was worse to come.

At the crack of dawn Mark again appeared, this time looking even worse. “Dave,” he said with a slight quiver in his voice, “my skirt was in that bag, too – I have no spray skirt!” Mark had made this terrible realisation at 1am and had consequently not slept well at all.

We sat down and tried to come up with alternatives. For half an hour we had all our gear in front of us trying to work out how we could make a spray skirt. It was reminiscent of the movie Apollo 13 where a team at Houston was trying to design a way to fix a tank leak on the crippled spacecraft with a limited number of items.

Mark: “What if we cut a hole in the bottom of a refugee bag and put the straps over my shoulder?”

David: “What if we cut up all our underpants, take the elastic out and sew it to a piece of my spare fly?”

Mark: “No. But I have it; I will sew a Tshirt to my cockpit cover and use that.”

Then Saint Dave comes over. “John’s got a spare skirt.. I’m sure he’d lend it to you. Mark then tried it on, it fitted! Better still the two good Samaritans then gave him a pair of swimmers, some natty purple shorts and a beige business shirt. It was unanimous, Mark Pearson had never looked better on any trip even when he tried the G-string on – more on that later, too.

With the tropical morning gleaming off the calm sea we set off for Keswick. Mark and I had originally thought about catching a ferry across after last year’s slog but we were glad we didn’t. The proximity of the whales and their breeching made it one of the best paddling days I have ever had. There was one time, before we even saw the whales, when they were under us and our cockpits acted like speakers resonating with the sounds of their voices – awesome.

When we left the beach we noticed the huge amount of gear on the top of Andrew’s kayak.

“Andrew, we tend to put our gear inside our boats”.

“I can’t, it’s full of food”.

What would feed any other kayaker for month would only last Andrew a week.

But still, Andrew had to feed himself and his voice.

From Keswick we paddled the 16nm over to Scawfell Island, which I last visited as a young sailor in 1973 aboard HMAS Anzac. This was a deviation from last year’s trip but well worth the effort. A big bay sheltered from the SE made it a popular anchorage for yachts heading up from down south. It had covered tables, a water tank with water in it and hordes of blue butterflies that were so thick on the ground they were like a carpet. I was chatting to a German couple who had been sailing around for 10 years on their yacht. They were interested in how far you could go in a kayak so I told them about their fellow countryman Oscar Spec, who paddled from Berlin to Australia and was promptly arrested, as it was the start of WWII. I mentioned my conversation to the others and Andrew pipes up:

“I hope you didn’t mention the war.”

“I did, but only once and I think I got away with it.”

While we were at Scawfell the Rangers turned up for the first time in 8 months and checked our permits, which were a bit dodgy but they didn’t notice. Mark hooked a large fish which tangled up his fishing gear and he lost the lot and nearly capsized. Mark’s next incident would be a bit more dramatic.

The flow of the tides had an impact on my paddle to Cockermouth. I didn’t check the tide charts that day and Mark and I headed for the east side of Cockermouth and the rest to the west. Mark later changed and went to join them but as I approached the east side of the island I didn’t appear to be getting any closer and was moving away to the east. I was practically on Silloth Rocks before turning west and slogging straight into the current. The last leg of this 15nm crossing seemed like I was paddling in a time warp and not going anywhere. Although Cockermouth is a lovely island and has some of the best snorkeling just off the beach, the sandflies give you quite a pounding. We only spent one night there this time, as it was a bit cool for snorkeling.

On the day we were to leave Cockermouth a strong SE’ly was kicking in. Mark had been complaining about the lack of a decent sailing wind until now.

“I want some white knuckle sailing, the sort that makes you feel you’re alive.” Neptune picks up on comments like that. So we had a bit of group spread, the rest of us wanted to spend the night on Carlisle to try and find some hidden lake that Arunas knew about. Mark’s plan was to head to Goldsmith via the northern end of Carlisle where we would catch up the next day. Mark headed off and was whistling along like a Sydneyto- Hobart contender and was nearly out of sight in no time. Even the sail over to Carlisle was pretty exciting and a few times I put my sail back down but the wind was more side on for us.

Sailing down the picturesque channel between Carlisle and Brampton saw us call in at Carlisle camping ground for lunch We were going to camp the night there but the day was still young and a beautiful breeze was going straight to the next destination so we said. “Bugger the lake” and set off for Goldsmith. “I bet Mark will be glad to see us.” Now Mark had a good few hours start by the time the rest of us eventually left Carlisle and therefore I couldn’t work out why I could see his black sail in the distance behind me as I neared Goldsmith. When we got to the campsite the epic came out. “Bad day on Tuross Bar” all over again. (Refer to NSW Sea Kayaker Vol. 25) Best we let Mark tell his tale …

“Well, there had been surprisingly little friction. I wanted to go to Goldsmith, the group wanted to go west to Carlisle to see some dumb lake. To me the wind said ‘north’, and also I wanted to stay ‘wilderness’ and keep away from Brampton resort and its motors. So I had politely told the rest of the pod that they really didn’t have a clue, that their island selection sucked, and that their so-called plan to waste such a good wind had flies on it. Even to the point when we set off from the beach I thought they would recognize superior wisdom and weaken, but no, they stuck doggedly to their crappy idea. I suppose it was all about pride.

Anyhow, the passage between Cockermouth and Carlisle was rough indeed.. An 18-20 knot southerly hitting a strong south flowing tidal current. I was a little tense early – not only had I not sailed for a few months, I had a new 2.07m wing paddle that I’d never even been in the surf with, and I knew it would not be as reassuring as the old flat Skee.

But after ten minutes of paddling my magnificent Inuit explorer, now confirmed as the most responsive sea kayak in the southern hemisphere, things were going OK. Rudderless & skeg-less, as that sort of blatant cheating is not for me, I soon got into my busy sailing rhythm, carving across waves, bracing left, ruddering right, surfing down some nice wind waves. The paddle was not as good as a flat but I was no longer thinking about it much and to me that was a good sign.

Then I realised I was getting cold. Waves were breaking over me regularly and with only a cotton business shirt the wind chill was getting me. I decided to close in on the northern end of Carlisle, find a sheltered spot, and put another top on.

As I got within about a hundred metres of the rocky tip of the island a much stronger wind gust, probably caused by the nearby cliffs, hit me hard. I leaned into a fast and radical brace. Then a second big gust.. The boat suddenly slowed and the wing paddle gave me little warning that its limited bracing surface area was inadequate for the load. I went over. This was a shock. In seven years of the practice, I have not capsized during ‘serious’ sailing, only when being a bit slack and getting distracted by seeing someone catching a fish, or seeing a lady rubbing sun tan oil into her ample breasts. Anyhow I was upside down, and there was no chance of a roll. I had the sail double tethered to stay up.

So I did the wet exit. Dave’s hat was gone – the first casualty. At this point I was a little worried by the situation. I had never rolled a boat with a wing paddle so that was an unknown. I was also alone, and knew that if I didn’t get sorted out here I was likely to blow away from Carlisle into rough seas.

So I started my self rescue routine. Glasses and sandals came off and were stowed. I tethered the sail and mast. Put my mask on, positioned the paddle on the right side of the boat. Slipped under the boat, head up facing the back of the cockpit, which was eerily quiet out of the wind. Then spent 20 seconds charging my lungs with air (at this point I remember thinking how absolutely weird this all was… here was I alone about 10kms from my pod, with my head in the hull of an upside down kayak..). Finally I did the somersault, grabbed the paddle and set up for the roll.

But where was the water surface? I reached and reached and wiggled my bum but it was simply not there. I tried a roll but of course it failed. Out I came. Again and again I tried but the same result. I re-emerged beside the Explorer … she was pointing towards the island, but was not lying straight in the water. The combination of wind and current was holding one side down. The side I needed to roll from (of course I can do an offside roll, but with a new style of paddle didn’t even think of it). A gnawing memory reminded me of the Bad Day at Tuross Bar, when I couldn’t roll that Dancer, and that day could have killed me….

I suppose I could have turned the boat round to point the other way but at this point I realised that the boat appeared to be drifting very slowly towards the rocks, so I decided to swim her in. This took a few minutes but I kicked and used my free arm with a grim determination.. After all these failures I was now very keen to get my feet on land!

Once I could stand on a submerged rock I managed with difficulty to right the Explorer and jump back in and start pumping. I’d also lost a sandal. I was now cold and tired. I decided to ditch my plan, and headed to the channel between Carlisle and Brampton, to rest up, get warm, and then find the others.

I found a little beach and lay in the sun for twenty minutes. Then I returned to the boat for something to eat. I looked up … three hundred metres away in the middle of the channel was the amazing sight of four sea kayaks, under sail and in line astern, heading at speed in the direction of Goldsmith. My companions appeared to have changed their collective mind.. perhaps they had missed me? I waved, raised my sail, but none of them, not one, looked over! I shouted a range of obscenities strongly linked to their inability to stick to a plan. Still no response. They were disappearing fast into the whitecaps. Even though I was still cold, I had no choice but to leap into the Explorer and give chase.

Mark and I didn’t get much of a look at Goldsmith last year so this time we stayed an extra day to look around and give Mark a chance to recover from his ordeal. A climb to the top of a hill gave us a magnificent view south from where we came and north to Thomas Island where we were going. And what do you think we found hanging in the trees but another G-String. Going by last year’s trip it appears the Whitsundays is littered with discarded G-strings. Mark couldn’t resist trying the tiny garment on. “Does my bum look big in this? Do I look as good as Trevor?” (Refer to End-Oh! NSW Sea Kayaker vol. 53)

I think I am going to have to seriously look at whom I paddle with in future.

From here we headed off to Shaw where we hoped to find some water in the creek. On arrival at the campsite Arunas said, “I like this place” so we decided to stop for an extra day. We had only been gone a week and we were into our third rest day. This was a real cruiser’s trip. There was fresh water in a pool good enough to rinse our clothes and bodies.

Paddling up the east side of Shaw we saw a bay that look interesting for camping but on closer inspection found it was too bouldery. A week or so later, when Diana and I visited the other side of this azimuth during our yacht hire, we found a beautiful sandy beach and shady campsites. At the right tide you could land on the eastern side and carry your kayak over. If you were low on water it was a very short paddle over to Lindeman to top up with the bonus of a climb to the top of Lindeman for some magnificent panoramic views.

Civilisation and hot showers beckoned us as we headed over to Hamilton Island to restock with food. It was packed with tourists and sailors, as it was Hamilton Island race week. Million dollar yachts everywhere – and they were the cheap ones. Mark managed to buy himself some sandals and as one of my Tevas had fallen apart he gave me the one remaining one from the incident. I looked a bit odd with the two different sandals but it worked. We stayed until evening for fish and chips then had a pleasant night paddle over to the north end of Henning.

An easy paddle the next day saw us at Whitehaven by lunch, and although it was badly infested with tourists by 5pm they had nearly all gone, with only a few campers left. We decided on a big day the next day and went from Whitehaven to Armit Island (60kms) sailing in some decent rain squalls on the way, which was a bit unusual. As I was the slowest paddler the others had to wait in the lee of the rugged cliffs of Double Cone Island, from there it was only a short hop to Armit. Armit had a wilder remote feel to it and it would have been great except for the burrs. I had taken a karrimat instead of a thermarest but I had forgotten how little padding they have and 10 years of thermaresting had made me a bit soft.

From there we went to Gloucester Island – again a lovely and imposing island with huge hills adding to its majestic beauty. We spent another rest day there to explore the island. The vegetation was interesting as there was very little ground cover although lots of trees and shrubs. This meant you could walk for miles through the scrub without much difficulty and every now and then a flash of brilliant colour as a scrub turkey disappeared into the undergrowth. We had another try at fishing, dragging lures along the shoreline but not much luck. Harry hooked a wolf herring which provided us with a great bit of entertainment as we watched a young sea eagle attempt to come down and swoop it off the shore right next to us. The kapok trees were in bloom displaying hordes of yellow flowers contrasting with the dry countryside. And there were no burrs.

There was one down side to the island. A family camped nearby had brought a generator and every night at 6 they started it up for a couple of hours. You wonder why people bother going camping if they have to take a generator with them.

The final day saw us up early for the last leg into Bowen. We all took bearings for the long crossing across the bay but Harry and Arunas misread where Bowen was and went way off to the east and for the first time on the trip I wasn’t the last in. We pulled into a grassy bank inside a marina, which had water, showers and toilets. The rest drove back south and I caught a bus to Townsville to meet my daughter and wife there. Diana and Michelle were on their way to a restaurant and one look at me with my kayaking clothes and odd sandals made them rethink where they were going to eat at. Diana and I came back to Airlie beach to meet some friends and hired a yacht for 8 days to go all over the Whitsundays again.

Although our trip was probably a grade 4, with the island hops and some reasonable size following seas, you could very easily make it a grade 2 trip. You would start from Airlie Beach and do a circular route around the Islands. Even though it’s the main tourist area I noticed enough small bays that are unsuitable for yachts and therefore had no one there.

And finally a special thanks to John and Dave.