Port Davey [65]

By Stephan Meyn


Phone Rings.

“Hi How are you?”

“Fine — I am going on a trip to Tassie, Port Davey.”


“What a surprise, me too.”

“Oh, when?”

“January 5.”


“This is really a surprise.”

Having a good friend book the same holiday as yourself without either knowing of each other’s intention is a bit strange. But it makes for a much nicer holiday. More prosaically it probably was the flyer put into the club magazine by Roaring Forties Seakayaking with that stunning photo taken from Mt Rugby.

South West Tasmania

Paddling in SW Tassie is a unique proposition. Its remoteness has kept it out of most commercial activities. It has been declared a National Park and is part of the Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Human activity before settlement consisted of two to three Aboriginal tribes who lived a nomadic existence in an area that is not only wild but also sparse in its ability to sustain life. They would venture out in bark canoes onto Port Davey and the coast. Trips to Matsuyker Island were not uncommon.

Later on the Huon Pine was discovered in Port Davey, resulting in a boom economy with about 1000 people living in the northern area of the port. However, once the pine trees had been cut down, the population disappeared and even the odd whaling station was a hard proposition. Slowly mankind disappeared totally from the area and it was so remote that in WWII there was a genuine fear it could be used by German warships as a hiding place — prompting the government to host an expedition there.

There is only one area where there is an ongoing settlement, at Melaleuka, between Bathurst Harbour and Cox’s Beach, is a set of tin mining leases that have been going since the early 1900’s. Here Denny King lived and worked. He pioneered much of the nature conservation effort and was a driving factor in the area becoming a National Park. Today Melaleuka is still being tin-mined by a family who took over the lease from Denny King.

There are three ways to access Port Davey. You can walk in either from Lake Pedder or from Recherche Bay — either way it is about a five day exercise. You can take a cray boat in, which takes roughly 24 hours. The fastest way is by light aircraft to the airstrip at Melaleuka. This airstrip today is busy with dropping off and picking up hikers for the famous South Coast Track.

Getting ready

Planning, as far as it can be called that, consisted of reading the materials supplied by the good people of Roaring Forties kayaking and organizing passage on the “Spirit of Tasmania”. Since I had bought a folding kayak earlier I was keen on trying it out — nothing beats being able to paddle your own craft. In order to get it in on time, I needed to freight it over in advance. A quick trip to Air Express and it was on its way to be picked up by the operator at Hobart Airport. (I love folding kayaks — they are made to travel like this).

A week later and I had arrived at Hobart. Kim had already advised me to be ready to fly in earlier so I would have a chance to get my folder unfolded and be ready when the others arrived. The trip was enjoyable — if you like flying in Tasmanian weather. When we took off we had a cloud ceiling of 1000 metres — Mt Wellington was just dipping into the clouds. The ceiling meant we couldn’t fly direct but had to hug the coast. Despite the clouds, Tasmania showed off what it had to offer: lots of protected waters around Bruny Island and the Huon River valley. All that started to change when we rounded South East Cape. Here the surf on the beaches told a different story — you don’t want to land here if you can avoid it.

As we progressed the cloud cover started getting lower. The pilot asked to another aircraft that had taken off 30 minutes earlier about the conditions ahead. The response came in a reassuring voice — just a few rain showers over Cox’s beach.

By the time we arrived at that spot we were down at 250 metres. The pilot turned inland over the beach. Down below we could see the hiking trail that is the start (or end — depending on how you go) of the South Coast Walk. Ahead of us was a white strip in the middle of the grasslands, the Melaleuka landing strip. A quick S-bend to avoid Half-Bald Hill and line up for final approach and a minute later we touched down.

On the ground we unloaded the plane. Toby, one of the two trip leaders, and I were to ferry supplies to base camp and then I could assemble Moritz.

Base camp was about 45 minutes down the creek and at first it looked incongruous, a set of platforms with tents on them that are large enough to stand up in, a kitchen and roofed dining area and elevated footpaths. Toby told me this is to ensure the environmental impact is minimised. At the end of the season all of it will be dismantled and then re-erected the following spring.

We returned to the airstrip and I unpacked Moritz. No damage, everything was there. The kayak looked tiny next to the Packhorse Doubles. Thirty minutes later I sat in it in Melaleuka Creek and was lazily paddling around when I heard another aircraft. The weather had improved and they had been able to fly direct over Tassie. We met the rest of the group — David, then a British couple, a couple from Sydney and a young woman from Alice Springs. Apparently it is the first time she has seen a sea kayak.

The rest of the afternoon was about settling in. Afternoon tea indicated that this is going to be a good trip.

“When you travel in Tasmania assume it will rain — that way you won’t be so disappointed” was the advice given to me. Truly, getting a mindset to deal with rain is very useful. Of the seven days, we had three days with rain and only two days with some sunshine. I had brought a pair of long overpants which I put on whenever I got out of the kayak to avoid getting hypothermia by standing in wet and windy conditions in my paddling shorts. At camp it was also a bit of a battle to avoid too much moisture creeping into the sleeping arrangements. I carried a hammock instead of a tent with me and its biggest advantage was that I didn’t tend to get puddles of wetness inside as tents sometimes do but the downside was that it took time to get into the right position in the swaying hammock.

Day 2 — Port Davey

We took off early morning with overcast skies but no wind. Paddling into Bathurst Harbour we headed for Mt Rugby which guards the entrance to the channel leading to Port Davey. The channel is at times quite narrow. Around a place called Balmoral it is at its narrowest. There are two dinghies at either side of the channel. This is where walkers coming from Lake Pedder on their way to Melaleuka cross the channel. To do this they must make three crossings, first get across, then row back taking the dingy found on the other side to the starting point and then across a last time to continue the walk.

Getting close to Mt Rugby we discussed what it would take to climb it. While it looks pretty steep the guides told us it can be climbed in six to eight hours. Maybe.

As we exited the channel and entered Pt Davey we saw the Break Sea Islands in front of us. They sit like a bar a few kilometres out from the channel, making it a perfect protection against the sea. We turned right into Bramble Cove, a big bay. This was where we intended to camp for the day. But unfortunately our hopes are dashed — there were two kayaks on the beach. The camping area was taken up by a couple of big tents. A small group of Melbournians had taken a crayboat out from Hobart and set up camp here.

It’s funny but here we are, with our tiny tents and tiny kayaks in these huge surrounds but somehow we feel cramped by the presence of the other group (and body language suggests the same there). So we set off again for another hour of paddling to Spain Bay. We arrived there and found the campground. It’s a large bay and you have to know where to look. Later I hear from others how they camped there and never found this spot.

We decided to stay here for several days. In the evening our guides cooked dinner including a chocolate mud cake with icing.

Day 3 — South West Coast

The weather was good and we decided to go outside. Paddling past the Eastern Pyramids, which are some jagged rocks protruding out of the water, we went out and south. The waves were low but a good swell was going. We could see the odd yacht outside but sometimes all I could see was the top of the mast.

The islands all had a covering of kelp along their sides. The kelp was a thick brown tough-looking seaweed with the consistency of the rubber material that conveyor belts are made of. For us it is as if the rocks have been coated with bumper bar material to avoid scratching the gel coat (or in my case — ripping the skin of my folding kayak). Nevertheless no one was game to try that theory out.

All over the place were huge areas of foam. At first sight it looks like some industrial chemical spill. However this foam is the result of essential oils that get washed off plants on the land and then act like a detergent on the water. You can paddle through the foam and all sound of water splashing on your hull is silenced. Behind the kayak you leave a trail of open water — like a miniature icebreaker.

We decided to land in a bay. All goes well until I go in and suddenly this familiar feeling of swell passing underneath makes me look back. There probably was no surf all day long but right then there is one coming at me. It picked me up just as it was about to break. The nose started to dig in but leaning back the kayak began to surf without a problem and I took a free ride all the way into the bay.

The beach on the bay looked like someone had emptied a giant garbage bin. All kinds of garbage has been washed up here, including a torn rubber ducky and a giant lobster pot. We took the lobster pot to try out the next day.

All along the coast there are caves big enough to paddle into. Because of the benign swell we get to see a lot of them. One is a double chamber cave, large enough to park a bus inside. <<caves image>>

Day 4 — Wallaby and Coffin Bay

This was a long trip. We paddled the length of Port Davey, from the south where we were camped up north. Before we left Spain Bay we planted yesterday’s lobster pot in a strategic spot. Wouldn’t it be nice to have lobster for dinner?

We passed the Breaksea Islands on the outside. Large swell that passes us hits the islands with impressive force, flinging the water 10-20 metres up into the air. They certainly deserve their name because breaking the seas is what they do well.

The northern end is well protected and we had lunch in a place with lots of little channels that can be paddled or traversed on foot. In the afternoon when we started our paddle back, a southerly sprung up, making it a slog into the wind. We tried to shelter behind the Breaksea Islands but it was still hard going. When we arrived in Spain Bay we were relieved. Unfortunately the lobster pot from yesterday came up empty. Back to lamb curry then.

In the evening the weather forecast was a bit worrying. The wind will be a 25kts northerly, turning to 40kts westerly from noon.

Day 5 — back to Bathurst Harbour

The forecast wind had come in. The foam on the waters was in streaks as if someone had given it a rough combing over. The streaks made it all look more dramatic. However the Judd, our guide, was relaxed. They have paddled in this before they assure us. We took off and paddled into the wind. At first it was hard going. Once we got into a little bit of cover from the Breaksea Islands it got better. We battled on to turn into Bramble Cove. What a surprise awaits us there. In the middle of the cove was a bloody cruise ship! How did that get in there? It turns out to be the “Aurora Australis” that has just come back from Antarctica. A friend of mine works on it but unfortunately she didn’t appear to look out.

We stopped at a beach. The wind had become strong and created driving rain and the moment I am out I needed to put on my long overpants. We started climbing the local mountain to take a better look at Port Davey. I gave up halfway. Mountains are no good for my knees. David made it up and enjoyed the fantastic views.

After a lunch we had another look at a seaman’s old grave. The plaque says he fell off the mast at the age of 23. Across the bay we visited what’s left of a whaling station. The vegetation, as slowly as it grows, has covered completely what’s left of it and you have to look carefully to see any indications of a once human activity.

We continued on through the channel. The wind had turned and was from behind us. While the Breaksea Islands have stopped the swell here completely the wind waves were coming from behind with a vengeance. They were short, just a little longer than my kayak, and it kept burying its nose into the back of the wave in front just when the wave in the rear lifted up the stern. As a result, for the first time in the trip, I had troubles keeping up with the doubles. At one point the kayak broached heavily and a wave broke right on top of it, stoving in the spray deck. For a moment I was stunned. Should I stop and try to put this **** sprayskirt back on? About 300m further on was the tip of the headland that protects Schooner Cove, our destination for the day. Everyone else was about there. I decided to make a run for it. After all, this thing has sponsons and floatation bags. It’s supposed to float! When I caught up with everyone I got some funny looks. Why I am so out of breath?

When we entered Schooner Cove the rain had finally set in. It hadn’t decided if it wanted to be rain or dense fog. Visibility was about 50 metres. Halfway through the cove we ran into a yacht that was anchored there. The thought of everyone in there having tucked in with some hot grog helped propel us eagerly to the shore. However we were disappointed as the campground was occupied by someone else?! Again?! What is this place? Bondi Beach on a summer weekend? Arrgh!!!

No-one was there but three tents, a mess tent and the biggest ice box I have ever seen in the wild. Garbage bins revealed lots of cans of beer. From several indications we deduced that this was the Department of Primary Industries — probably investigating a kind of tree root rot that has infested the area.

We debated if we should try to squeeze in or paddle back to base. The latter would mean two-and-a-half hours more paddling. But the prospect of having those big (and dry) tents standing there was persuasive. By then we were all nice and wet. We decided to push on.

We arrived somewhere at 7pm. Oh it’s so nice to stand up in the tent and being able to dry out. In the evening Toby made chocolate covered strawberries.

Day 6 — Celery Top Islands

Overnight the winds were howling but finally the front passed and in the morning specks of blue sky peeked through the cloud as if to say, “come out, it’ll be nice weather”.

We got into our kayaks. Unloaded they are so much easier to handle. We paddled into the middle of Bathurst Harbour. After yesterday’s effort we simply drift lazily around the Celery Top Islands. A sea eagle didn’t notice us until we were right under him. The islands got their names from the Celery Top pines that grow on them.

As we got around the top island and started heading back a dinghy came towards us. In front was a guy with a video camera — at first look the camera gave the impression that someone has gone a bit troppo on their hobby. But the persistence with which they followed us and filmed us soon gave a different picture. It turned out that Paravion and Roaring Forties Kayaking had sponsored a film crew to shoot a promotional video.

Day 7 — Claytons Cottage, back to Melaleuca

In the morning we had the opportunity to visit Claytons Cottage. It was originally built out in Port Davey at Bonds Bay. But frequent storms had been threatening the boats at anchor, so they picked up the cottage and moved it to this spot. David and the others feel like walking — so they climbed up Mt Beattie and enjoyed spectacular views from Bathurst Harbour, Bathurst Channel to Melaleuka.

After lunch we headed back to Melaleuka. Somewhat sad to leave this magical place. We paddled through the narrows, where sticks with beer cans mark out the navigational channel to the airstrip.

When cleaning up my sea kayak a few boxes of eggs came out of the hidden ends of the kayak. Or should I say, the boxes came out, the eggs had turned into some kind of saltwater omelette (uncooked). It’s amazing how much you can store in this tiny kayak.

We spent part of the day exploring the area, including the cottages Denny King built for hikers and the observation area for the orange bellied parrot.

When the aircraft arrived we packed all gear into the smaller aircraft and sat in the larger one. <<I,age of luggage going into aircraft>> The take off was spectacular — we passed Bathurst Harbour. The wind had picked up and the foam streaked over the surface. We flew across Tasmania, looking down on rivers and mountain lakes that would take days to hike to on foot. Thirty minutes later we were back at Hobart airport where Kim greeted us. We slowly dispersed to our various spots to rest and recuperate, slowly building up a romantic view of our trip.

Postscript — Self Planned vs Guided Tours

The Port Davey trip was a guided tour, organised by Roaring Forties Sea Kayaking. Going either way, whether planning your own trip or booking guided tours, there are advantages and disadvantages. When you plan your own trip you have much more freedom, both beforehand and during the trip in deciding where to go (well, you still have to persuade the rest of the group). The extra effort in researching the trip beforehand usually pays off, because by the time you do the trip you usually already have a deeper insight in the area.

On the other hand, in a guided tour you benefit of the tour guides deeper knowledge of the area. In our case, when the weather forecast for day five was for 25 kts freshening to 30 plus for the following day. I would have cleared Spain Bay on the night before. The guides however could assess the situation better and knew we could paddle out on our own on the day.

Much however will rely on the quality of the tour operator and the guides. Their ability to gel the group and to offer something for everyone is a factor that you cannot predict. We were very lucky to be with this tour operator and the guides who really made it worth it.