The Old Crocs tour of F.N.Q.
I suppose that some people regard me as a ‘bruiser’. I’ve done my share of 4 am starts in Bass Strait. I’ve paddled for hours with no sight of land on a crossing to New Guinea, spent nights storm bound on Maatsuyker Island, Australia’s most southerly light house and I’ve done my share of hairy breakouts through surf on the Nadgee Wilderness coast. I don’t remember ever getting presented with my Gore-tex sock, but I do own a pair of Gore-tex lined boots if that will do. Mind you, I wouldn’t like to try wearing them inside my Y fronts.
Of course, I have always been aware that there is another type of paddler. A mention of a good ‘bruising’ with my wife gets me an elbow in the ribs and a swift kick out of bed. My wife, I have to confess, is a ‘cruiser’. She is happy to go for a quiet trip out to the Tollgates, or even a trip over the Tuross bar on a calm day, and paddling with her is a different kind of experience. She spots the shy Kingfisher on the lakeshore. She doesn’t just see the Sea Eagle; she knows where it nests and how many chicks it is likely to have. On trips with her we return with abandoned birds nests, colourful feathers, interesting bits of driftwood, a few shells. We don’t pump muscles or compare heart rates, discuss propeller blades, rudders or skegs. We stop to watch the swans, look for whales or dolphins.
Last year I took part in a very pleasant trip to the Whitsundays, ably led by Mark Berry and in the company of Rick Martin and Peter Dobbs Clement. The latter two had never been kayak camping before and well beforehand we discussed the fact that this was going to be a relatively easy trip, allowing for plenty of time to pack in the mornings and the chance for Rick and Peter to develop and pick up new skills. Even on the drive up from Wollongong to Mackay I could tell that this was a ‘cruiser’ trip in the making. Mark had a list of likely motels to use, depending on our progress. Before 10pm we would book in, have a good night’s sleep and be ready for the road again at a respectable hour. In my experience ‘bruisers’ drive ’til midnight, pitch their dark coloured tent on the edge of the road and are off again before dawn in a manner that would do the SAS proud. Funnily enough, we still managed to drive from Wollongong to Mackay in a day and a half.
In the Whitsundays we would agree each evening what time we would start paddling the following day. Funnily enough, tides, winds and weather usually conspired to make the ideal time to leave at about 11am. How Mark managed to make the elements conform to this pattern for two weeks solid I have no idea, but it was very well done. After a cup of tea, a leisurely breakfast, a bit of a snorkel amongst the coral and perhaps a bit of fishing, we would hasten away, lest the currents got the better of us. No up before dawn to catch the outgoing tide, a cold cup of water and a muesli bar before a 50km crossing. Obviously we were not trying! Group spread was minimal, we’d chat about families, the weather, and the beautiful scenery. We would gather around to help if someone hooked a fish, felt like a break, or wanted to visit another beautiful beach for a swim. Apart from the occasional ‘burst’ [Mark and Rick were in training for the Hawkesbury], we were relaxed and uncompetitive. A very sociable bunch and a great trip.
A few weeks ago I retired from work and one of my main short term goals was a trip that I had been promising myself for years – a 1,000kms along Cape York, probably a bruiser trip, but that is the nature of the beast. Unfortunately it was not to be, as I dislocated my shoulder 2 weeks before the starting date and with all gear bought and food drops in place I had to pull out. Dave Winkworth, not to be put off, set off on his own, by the sound of it, in appalling conditions, whilst the other two team members, Arunas Pilkus and Mike Snoad also aborted for different reasons.
Two weeks later, by now in desperation and on plan 42b, I rang Mike to see if he was interested in a ‘cruise’ up Hinchinbrook. He jumped at the shorter trip and by the evening Arunas was on board also. A few days later we were doing the typical thing, camping by the road on the way up, but by Lucinda, Arunas was beginning to weaken and with torrential tropical rain sealing the deal, we booked into a motel for a good night’s sleep.
Our first day on the water was a real cruise for Mike and Arunas. Unfortunately I was in my own personnel ‘bruising’ space, barely able to paddle with my arm and struggling to hold my paddle in my left hand. Contrary to popular rumour, I did not end up taping my hand to the paddle shaft, but it was discussed as a possibility. The dislocation, which occurred in a remote location on a white water river, was not relocated for a couple of hours. This had left me, beside the torn tendons and muscles, with considerable nerve damage, affecting 5 muscle groups in my arm and hand.
This was going to be a long haul for me. While Mike and Arunas explored our first landfall, at the beautiful Zoë Bay. I sat on the beach chewing aspirin and feeling grateful for our arrival. As I had organised the itinerary and booked the campsites, the following day was our first rest day and although I sensed some frustration, we spent the day relaxing and enjoying this unique spot.
A couple of days later we agreed to stop in for coffee at the small eco resort on Cape Richards at the north of Hinchinbrook. After ordering coffee the attractive waitress promptly laid the table for our lunch. We embarrassingly explained that we were only taking a short break. “Ah, the lunch menu will be up on the board shortly”, she replied. As we relaxed on the deck by the pool reading the morning papers, time seemed to slip by and then, there was the lunch menu. Well, no harm in just looking and it wasn’t bad either. What’s that? Cheap beer also? As we ordered our meals at the bar I’m sure I heard Arunas mutter, “I hope that Dave doesn’t hear about this”.
Later in the day we did the 10km hop to Garden Island, just next to Gould. Mike and I spent an hour of that time chatting amiably about family and relationships while drifting under sail, I caught a small shark and Arunas, not to be outdone, landed an enormous queen fish. In the evening, as we watched the tropical sunset from our idyllic campsite, we tried to polish off one of the fillets from the latter, whilst drinking some quite acceptable homebrew that Mike had swapped the rest of the fish for, with a yacht out in the bay. I seemed to have lost my dependence on aspirin and I think I knew which side of the line we were operating on.
Another 10 idyllic days followed. Mike and I had a massage in Mission Beach, though the woman seemed to think that I was mad as she worked on my injured shoulder. More beautiful islands, with coral fringing reefs, some lovely quiet campsites on both these and the mainland and not a sign on that old Tic Tick Croc, the nemesis of both Captain Hook and Arunas.
At Fitzroy Island, just south of Cairns, Arunas and I suffered a surfeit of cheap red wine in the ‘Raging Thunder’ bar. Unfortunately after the fourth carafe Arunas developed this strange stutter, which led the waiter to understand that we wanted another four. Or at least that’s what I think happened. My memory of the occasion is a bit vague. In the morning, a snorkel over the coral and a climb to the top of the island, at 260 metres, giving expansive views over the area we had recently traversed, seemed to clear my head. That afternoon we managed the 5 km crossing to Turtle Bay on the mainland without incident.
I think that this was all getting a bit much for Arunas. Our final plan was to finish at Palm Cave, ‘just north of Cairns’ according to Arunas, to stay with a friend of his who would lend us a car for the shuttle back to Lucinda. Just before we retired for the night he announced that his friend started work at midday and we would need to be there before that. Mike also worked out the distance to be not far short of 40kms. As we loaded the boats and drank our cold water by torchlight the following morning I was sure that I could see a smile on Arunas face.
If there is a message to these ramblings it is to get to know your companions and the way that you are all going to operate well before you take part in an extended trip.
In my experience, the most common form of group friction is over ‘bruising or cruising’. If you are always after a 6am start, when your companions are only concerned about the taste of the coffee, or how well the bacon and eggs are cooked, you are in for trouble. The easiest way to avoid this is to establish your motives well before the trip begins.
I like paddling with Arunas, he is one of the strongest expedition paddlers that I know, a bit like the character ‘Baloo the Bear’. Mike is different again. He also knows how to push the envelope. He thinks nothing of spending a few days exploring a remote island in Bass Strait before continuing the journey with another 60km solo crossing. I’ve got time for that attitude. Me, I still hope to ‘bruise’ my way up Cape York in a year or two. And Dave Winkworth, he’s a machine. We caught up with him in a bar in Cairns, still on a real high and looking as fit as, after his solo push to the tip. For those into group spread, we are claiming a record. We estimate approximately 900 kms at one stage!
So how do you, the reader, rate? On a scale of one to ten, a Bruiser or a Cruiser? [A Bruiser of course scores ten]. Personally I don’t think that it matters providing that you are compatible with your group. Remember, it is not just reaching the destination that creates a great trip, but the manner in which you do it and how much you learn on the way.