The Scourge of the Northbound Kayaker [59]

By Peter Dobbs Clement

Ahh! The Whitsundays: Idyllic isles of romantic dreaming. Where the sands are pristine and the waters teem with beautiful fish. Where city life is another long lost planet away. Where breakfast can be had with clouds of butterflies, in the warm breeze of sunrise, and dinner, to the splashing of feeding schools of fish. Where we drift off to sleep to the mournful call of curlews parading the tide line.

I was fortunate indeed to be invited to paddle the Whitsundays with Mark Berry, Rick Martin and John Wilde. Trevor Gardner had mistakenly chosen to go to Iraq instead. Our choice turned out to be a fantastic trip.

What could have been possibly be lurking there? Created by what motive of God that could have taken even the slightest edge off our blissful rapture?

If only the tourist brochures told the true story….

“Ah! Queensland – mosquitoes one day, sandflies the next!”

If only before the trip I had read Wilfred Reeves’ (1912-1968) poem, I might have been more vigilant.

…Where policeman birds parade the
beach for weeks without their food
To arrest the female turtles
That go swimming in the nude
Where sandflies that are bigger far
Than two Alsatian dogs
And unemployed mosquitoes
Live in holes they picked in logs…

He was referring to his tribal homeland of Fraser Island. The sandflies that we found or more correctly, found us, where incredibly tiny but with the appetite of two large dogs.

Aware of a few mosquitos and the sandflies we had applied repellent. This was fine. That was until Mark and I waded in the sea one evening to clean the dishes and forgot to re-apply it. These little sods bite without you being aware of it until several hours later. In our case, it was large, very itchy lumps and I even developed large, red blotches out of all proportion to the size of the beasts that caused them.

We were all bitten to some extent and during the course of our two week trip came across other paddlers for whom these bloody flies had become a major problem. One party had stopped midway on their trip to stay at Hook Eco Resort after one of the girls developed a bad reaction. They were stuck there in a state of extreme frustration. Another party at the same resort had incredible bite-to-bare skin ratios despite repellent use and one of these guys was bandaged from his neck to his ankles. He informed Mark that he had reacted once before with recovery taking eight months after coming down with toxic shock. I remembered reading that Donna Edye who had paddled from Cooktown to Wollongong had also been hospitalised with blood poisoning as a result of sandflies (NSW Sea Kayaker issue 56).

Our experience was probably typical of what you might encounter in Northern waters and I decided I had better do some research into this problem for my own future reference.

I wanted to know:

  • How not to get bitten;
  • How to lessen the effects of bites;
  • What dangers bites presented;
  • What were the alternative repellents;
  • Why we had a problem in some places and not others;
  • What medical supplies should have been in our kits;
  • Why us;
  • Who invented the bloody things anyway

After trawling the annals of medicine, thousand web pages and forgotten taxpayer funded research projects, I can hopefully avoid having to make a repeat sprint for antihistamines at inflated Airlie Beach prices ever again.

The beasts that caused so much woe, sandflies, are more correctly called biting midges. Small blood sucking flies the family Ceratopogonidae, if you really must know. These are different to the true sandflies which are not found in Australia and are different again to the small black biting flies which appear after floods in inland areas of Qld and NSW.

There are many species of this fly, each with different biting and breeding habits. Thirty-three species have been recorded in the Darwin area alone. Some do not bite vertebrates. Some prefer cattle, some domestic animals and only a few are serious pests of humans. This is an important distinction as it may explain why infectious pathogens are not transmitted to humans by these insects in Australia.

Coastal midge problems would appear to be from species which breed in mangrove swamps and move from there to feed. The fact that they travel from the breeding ground may account for us not being troubled by them when paddling through an area of mangroves near Crayfish Beach on Whitsunday Island. These particular species are major pests which generally invade recreational and residential areas near coastal swamps.

The number of midges hatching from pupae and then moving to feed is related to the lunar cycle. Hatching increases rapidly around the neap tide but females, who do the bloodsucking (NB. I am not making a comment here of a sexist nature – read into it what you will), disperse to feed on blood two days before the spring tide. This reaches a peak on the day of the spring tide with marked abundance when there is a full moon. They are also numerous around the spring tides with a new moon. This would explain why our party suffered the most bites on the highest tide with a full moon when arriving at Cockermouth.

The breeding occurs in areas of mud associated generally with mangroves and certainly the areas where we had the most trouble were creek beds existing close to the landing/campsite such as at Cockermouth and Haselwood. Interestingly we had little trouble where beach and camp areas were on coral rubble which is unfavourable breeding material.

The insects have a peak daily feeding period about one hour either side of sunset and a smaller peak in the one hour after sunrise, periods when they annoyed us the most. They seek shelter if the wind is above 8km/hr and our experience would concur with that. So set the tents up where there is more likely to be wind, away from vegetation and swampy areas, go to bed early and sleep in. This should help avoid most of the buggers.

Midges are attracted to bright lights and of course we sat round yarning with our head torches on and wondered why they avoided our repellent smeared faces but burrowed into our hair to bite scalp! It has been shown that they are not attracted to red or yellow lights but that’s ok, we only took bright white LED headlamps. I’m sure they were pleased about that. It would be interesting to see what pests you might attract if you tried camping with a red light hanging over the campsite!

And of course, to prove we had our timing spot on, the annual peak breeding season is August to October with the lowest numbers in the wet season of January and February.

One repetitive story I came across on numerous (even commercial) websites is that the midges urinate on you and that is what is aggravating. This is just not true. They inject a salivary secretion and it is this which we react to. There is a classic allergic response with no noticeable effect for the first bite but subsequent bites producing a reaction. The average reaction for newly exposed victims is a small red spot which develops into a domed blister with a hole at the top. More sensitive people can develop a red swelling over a few centimetres. This was certainly the case for me.

When we called into Lindeman Club Med for a coffee I was pretty uncomfortable with the stares the staff were giving me.

“Look at this …dripping wet, filthy kayaker with leprosy or something. Put the price of coffee up so they leave straight away…”

And we did, too!

Reactions last three or four days and then slowly subside. Soothing lotions such as Eurax, Stingose, Medicreme, Democaine etc give relief from bites and help prevent secondary infection. The main danger in tropical climes is scratching the bites and thereby allowing secondary infection to take hold.

Tea tree, Eucalyptus oils and Aloe Vera gels can be useful too. More severe reactions require antihistamine treatment. Telfast worked for us, though Phenergran or Vallegan are recommended as well.

The best cure is simply avoidance. Also being aware of the moon and tides when extra care should be taken to protect all exposed skin which should be easy for kayakers. Then it’s a case of covering up and applying repellent.

In the ‘Middle East Area of Operations’ where TG had been sent, midges or sandflies present a major problem. There they carry one of the most virulent strains of Leishmaniasis, a disfiguring viral disease, some strains of which are fatal if left untreated. I am sure TG would have had good briefing about this nasty and also about the prevention of bites. The Defence Force use Permethrin or Bifenthrin impregnated clothes combined with repellent on skin. This product can be bought at farm supply stores as it is used to protect horses from “the Queensland Itch” caused by midges. A solution can be applied to tents and clothing. Interestingly, Leishmaniasis was recently discovered in red kangaroos in the Northern Territory but the midges are not believed to be a carrying vector for humans. The buggers that bite kangaroos don’t bite us and vice versa. Kangaroos also have been found with midge borne choroid blindness disease in W.A.

Now, on our trip, we had several brands of repellent which worked ok but there are repellents and repellents. I was increasingly concerned that most of my reaction was due to the cocktail of chemicals being rubbed into the skin. Mark felt the same way. There are basically two types of active ingredients available in the manufactured products. Deet or di-ethyl toluamide has been around for about fifty years and you know you have it when you kneel inside your tent and your legs stick to the now melted plastic. This is not a good thing relative to how much you spent on your gear. The newer Picaridin was developed by Bayer after testing 20,000 products. It has been bought here by S.C.Johnson who market Autan Repel which can be found in supermarkets. This one doesn’t melt plastics which is a good thing. Repel in aerosol or gel has been reported as being ok for babies under 12mnths, a claim none of the other brands are willing to make. So if you are planning to make babies on your trip…..

If you are like me, you will be worried about chemicals in general and keen to see what natural products have some historical benefits. I found plenty of tips on this one.

Oil of any sort acts as a barrier to being bitten so spread your sunscreen then liberally apply any suitable vegetable oil. Adding Citronella, Lemongrass, Lavender, Pennyroyal oils will greatly add to the repellent effect. On Thomas Island we met a yachting couple who had run a charter business for a while. They had suggested that being smeared in oil also protected you from Irukanji stings. Don’t forget to turn over and fry the other side.

One tip was to dissolve Eucalyptus, melaleuca, grey myrtle, Huon pine, citronella and clove oil in vodka, then mix with water for spaying on. Personally I think you would be better off rubbing on the oil and saving the vodka for a more general tonic.

There are several commercially available natural blends such as “Boys from the Bush” and “Walkabout” which are sold through Australian Geographic. They were developed from concoctions used by Aborigines.

But the best thing I found from all the research done was this….locals build an immunity to these terrible little mongrels. What does this mean to a sea kayaker? When you find your idyllic isles of romantic dreaming such as Wilfred Reeves…

Have you heard of Fraser Island
Where the whiskey rivers flow
Where cockatoos and parrots
Stand upon their heads to crow
Where the porcupine goes fishing
With a whip snake for a line
Where instead of making honey
The bees are brewing wine…

Then just stay there. With the help of your oil and vodka you too will build an immunity and all your other troubles will go away as well.

A nuisance they may have been but the midges did not spoil our trip. Paddling in the Whitsundays with three great guys was an awesome experience and the testing things only served to enhance the great times. Go there!

What would I carry in my kit next time?

  • Aluminium Sulfate gel such as Stingose. It worked for Mark until he ran out. It is also listed as being good for relieving blue bottle stings;
  • Telfast or other non-drowsy antihistamine;
  • Natural oil blend repellent or Picaridin based gel;
  • Vodka