Of headwinds, sand hills, wrecks, snorkelling, and big sharks
Peter sent us the daily wind forecasts as text messages on our mobile phones. He never had to change anything but the date. From 3rd April until 12th April 2005 we had a solid S/SE 20-30 knots between the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast. Apparently, two high pressure systems were just sitting off the NSW North Coast without any intention of moving. South Stradbroke, North Stradbroke and Moreton Islands protect the Broadwater channel systems in the south and Moreton Bay in the north from the rough seas of the open ocean. The tidal waters sweeping around the small openings between the islands produce strong currents of up to 4 knots so that any paddler is advised to consider the tide charts when trip planning.
Kevin and I had allowed two weeks for a paddle between the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, launching from Tim Dillenbeck’s private pontoon in Runaway Bay. Travelling north was a breeze with our sails up and the currents with us. Just south of Amity Point on the top of North Stradbroke, we estimate that we made 16 kms/hour – without even putting our paddles into the water. I loved the strong southerly, especially since the island protected us from all seas and swells, leaving the feeling of flat water paddling.
The waters are beautiful north of Dunwich on North Stradbroke: Crystal clear with a bright white sandy bottom, in parts falling dry at low tide. We were blown over the shallow bits at medium outgoing tide – it would have been hard to paddle in these shallow waters, but since the sails did all the work for us, we could concentrate on the wildlife below us. Bright orange star fish, sea cucumbers, hundreds of stingarees, two near-miss collisions with giant loggerhead turtles, dozens of hawksbill turtles and a couple of shovelnose rays made the trip yet another wildlife experience. In the channel between Crab Island and Moreton Island, when we were relatively slow, I finally dared to take my GPS out of the day hatch and measured a solid 11.4 kms/hour ground speed – all winds and currents, no paddling.
Day four took us past Tangalooma Resort where we set up camp for two nights opposite the 12 ship wrecks that had been dumped in the water many years ago to form an artificial reef. Kevin had paddled here before (with Andrew Watkinson and Tim Dillenbeck) but at that time didn’t stop for a snorkel. Exactly that was our intention on this trip. The tidal currents at the wrecks can be very strong, leaving only short time windows at high and at low tide. To our surprise we were the only ones snorkelling at the wrecks. It might be that typical “resort people” have a different attitude of how to spend their days. it might be the deep and daunting channel that has to be crossed between the beach and the wrecks that people shy away from swimming over. Admittedly, we swim regularly and almost live on the water and still we were a little apprehensive about crossing the channel. On the other hand, we had spoken to a lovely elderly couple who had come to Tangalooma for the last 20 years, and there were never any stories of sharks at the wrecks. The snorkelling was definitely one of the highlights of this trip. We saw a dozen wobbegongs patiently waiting for an unaware fish, a superb black moray eel with bright blue patterns, a big octopus, one giant and a couple of medium sized cods, parrot fish, millions of brightly coloured tropical reef fish hiding in corals, one cormorant swimming with us and another one sticking his head under water and checking-out on us, flat heads buried in sand, a shovelnose ray, and thousands of fish. We totally submerged into this underwater world on our lay day, day five.
Day six took us to the top of Moreton Island with the intention to set up camp and climb to the lighthouse. On that day (the only exemption from the rule) we had a strong 15-20 knots easterly blowing and once we had gone past Comboyuro Point, I was struggling to make any headway. After 8 kms I needed a sugar boost, put my paddle away, chewed my Mars bar, and looked into the waters to my right. The shark was looking straight back at me. He was right next to my cockpit, submerged in the water, no fin pointing out, 30 cm away. Before I could even think or express any words, an unspecified “uuhmmm” escaped from my mouth and my whole body stiffened up. The shark turned around and made his way back, right under Kevin’s boat (who didn’t see him). I only saw him for a fraction of a second, but it was a big shark. My break was over. I paddled towards Kevin. There, the shark came again, this time only a black shadow swimming by in the crystal clear water, but only 1 metre away. Kevin hadn’t yet seen anything but the expression on my face must have told him that I wasn’t fantasising. He suggested swapping sides to get me paddling inside of him. We swapped and then we both saw the black shadow coming again, this time the shark swam under Kevin’s boat. I was glad that Kevin saw him as well so that I knew I wasn’t going mad. It was hard to tell how long he was, everything happened so quickly. He was big in his girth; more than 1.5 times the diameter of our kayaks say 80cm, with a long and slender tail about 4.5 metres long. Certainly strong enough to get you into trouble had he decided to attack. This third sighting was also the last scare we got. No attack, no fin out of the water. Was it three different sharks? Was it the same one checking out who was swimming in his backyard? And which of these two options would we prefer? Was it that we were always surrounded by sharks but never knew it and that only the clean waters in Moreton Bay made us freak out? In any case, I didn’t feel like doing a surf landing in those waters near the lighthouse – we paddled to the end of the bay and turned back without even considering setting up camp there at the top of the island. With the strong easterly blowing, the sails got us back around Comboyuro Point and into the sheltered waters in no time. That night, we didn’t feel like a swim and contented with a quick dip just to wash off the sweat of the day. (Back at home our research into sharks, their distribution, sizes, and habits hinted that “our” sharks were bronze whalers.)
The next day saw us heading south again. After five days of howling southerly winds followed by one day of strong easterlies, we had been hoping for a change to the normally prevailing northerly to blow us back home, but that remained wishful thinking for the rest of the trip. We were faced with the prospect of 110 kilometres paddling into a headwind. At least, day seven brought us into shallow waters that fall dry at low tide and that are much too shallow for big fish. We set up camp at the foot of the Moreton sand hills, climbed up and admired the views over Moreton Bay to Brisbane and its bridge. Kevin found an old plastic sheet and we tobogganed down the hills. It was hilarious. I felt like a little kid in the German winter again when we slid down the hill, rolling over and being dumped into the sand so that the sand entered the nose, the ears, and got stuck in our hair for the rest of the trip.
The remaining days will be quickly sketched: Long slogs into the southerly headwind, fighting metre for metre. The tidal currents helped us but they also made us get up at 5:30 am to get them right. In Queensland, no-one seems to have ever heard of sea kayaking. The few people we met along our way were rapt by us sea kayakers, but we also got the occasional comment “ohh liars” when we said that we had come from the Gold Coast and were on our way back now. At the campground in Amity we made friends with a family and a bunch of old fishermen. When we set sail (no, wrong, wishful thinking again – no sailing on the return trip, only hard paddling) at 6:30 am, the family mum, dad, son, daughter, uncle and the fishermen stood lined up to farewell us.
On our last day when we were due back at Tim Dillenbeck’s home, he met us on the water to escort us back home to a fresh water swim and some rolling in his pool before a hot water shower and a civilised lunch.
Trip organising tips:
Except for strong westerly wind conditions, Moreton Bay is a sheltered waterway suited for the not-so-confident-in-the-rough paddler. Beware of strong tidal currents around the edges of the islands. There are many towns and resorts on the way offering the possibility to camp in a more civilised surrounding and plenty of opportunities to refill water and dump rubbish. Camping permits are to be purchased before catching the ferry 😉 Snorkelling at the wrecks of Tangalooma (flippers and snorkel!) and climbing the sand hills should not be missed!! Sand flies can be bad in some areas.