Being a sea kayaker, a trip to the magic Whitsunday Islands has been on my agenda for a long time and when Mitch phoned to say there was a window of opportunity on the horizon I got in early and phoned the group leader, Bradley, in Queensland. It turned out that the group were all members of the Sandgate Canoe Club and, after a yarn to be certain that I had all the necessary gear and was competent as a sea kayaker, “Yep, we’d be pleased to have you along, just post me up $52 for the fortnight’s camping in the National Parks and Bob’s your uncle.”
Around 7.30am we were down at the Shute Harbour ramp unloading kayaks and what appeared to be a semi-trailer load of kayakers and gear of all shapes, sizes and colours scattered about like an influx of refugees. The wind was howling and gusting to 35 knots, and the forecast was sounding pretty much in tune with our somber mood. Gusts to 40 knots teased a disturbed sea of 2.8 metres. Our original plan for a comfortable paddle across to Henning Island (around 18km), camp overnight, then on to Whitehaven Beach camp soon fell into the reject basket.
“Plan B” was activated. After consultation with the skipper of the barge “Scamper”, we loaded everything aboard for a ferry across to Dugong Beach camp in Cid Harbour on Whitsunday Island. $70 per person included the kayaks and gear securely tied in place on padded racks.
With the tide starting to ebb and the wind romping through from the south-west the trip across the Passage should have been relatively sedate but, let me tell you, the ride was pretty damn rugged! The ramp went down onto the beach and we made short work of unloading. With the barge making its way out from behind Cid Island, we had Dugong camp to ourselves.
Everyone scanned for the ideal camp site, marking our preference by placing gear on the chosen spot. We weren’t the only ones doing the scanning though. Two huge iridescent black Torresian Crows were quietly surveying from their perches and then gliding on drooped wings to any unattended food packs. Spearing with a heavy plunging bill they twisted into the packs to steal the contents. When discovered, they would hesitate for a micro-second, grasping at a prize before a languid flight into a nearby tree, then sounding off with a nasal, “arrk-arrk-arrk-arrrrgk”. I’m pretty sure that translated into something like, “ha, ha ,ha, haaar, suckers!” Several resident goannas also made their presence felt by stealthily smelling out food packs, grasping with intimidating claws and attacking the food cover with aggressive tearing twitches of powerful jaws and teeth. We quickly learned to secure our food and scraps.
Dugong Beach proved to be an excellent choice of campsite for the next few days as the weather system lingered on with the odd rain squall and continued wind.
Tuesday and Wednesday came and went with an occasional rain squall riding on the darkness of the nights, hassling the trees to groan and screech in their resistance. Bradley, Rhys, Fay, Mitch and myself, being the intrepid souls we were, decided that we should “mount the mountain”, well at least scramble up the 1396 metre Whitsunday Peak.
Southwards gave a clear view to Hamilton Island with its resort, so inappropriate for such a pristine area. Directly below to the west was Sawmill Beach, where myriads of yachts looked like a team of white plastic ducks in a bathtub, hemmed in by Cid Island and the whitecaps intruding from the Whitsunday Passage.
On the descent, through the bush and over boulders, Fay slipped on a mossy rock. In the process of saving herself from a serious fall, she severely sprained her left wrist. Painfully, she made it back to camp where Phillip, ever attendant, taped the wrist. However by Thursday breakfast, the tissue had ballooned, sadly putting the kybosh on any further paddling for her on this trip.
At 6.00am, out of a snug sleeping bag, toiletries and breakfast seemed an unconscious forgotten happening. The clouds were really low, almost like a dense fog enclosing us and all the camp in its mysterious mist. The rain drifted around and splashed on us softly, becoming more intense, but giving us time to take shelter on top of the covered tables. The metal roofs drowned out conversation as they were bombarded by the onslaught of the tropical deluge.
After an hour or so the clouds lifted, helped along by the southerly breeze that scuttled down through the trees and boulders of the hillside like an invisible hand. With the rain clearing and with a lowering tide, a group of oyster gourmets paddled across Dugong Inlet via Lady Island, to a magnificent crop of huge oysters. In the meantime I trolled through the inlet and hooked a beautiful queen fish. I had my hands full, so Ken paddled over and did the killing and gutting.
We were up and packing by 5.30am the next day. A welcome break in the wind and heaving seas had us planning an 8.00am start on the water.
I was ready by 7.30am but what with ginning time (an archaic word for begin which we tended to over use), paddles didn’t start slapping water till around 9.00am.
A tow was set for one of the double kayaks with injured Fay in the rear. Brad in the front. Mitch volunteered to do the tow. Being an ex-army man one would have imagined that he’d had enough of volunteering! The tow was good up to a point, then, as we came out of the wind shadow of Whitsunday Island, Brad called that he would set up the sail. So tow unleashed and sail pulling, the overloaded double surged ahead at 7km/h plus (GPS reading). In singles with sails up, sizzling down 1.5 metre waves, leaning forward, using paddles for extra speed, some of us registered 16.6 km/h. Exhilarating! On this northerly crossing from Cid Harbour, we were bearing up into the southern tip of Macona Inlet to Curlew Beach Camp. The waters in the Passage were still pretty lumpy but we certainly made short work of the 12km run with the sou-wester lashing at our sterns.
We had perhaps 2km to go to our destination at Curlew to paddle, when, looking back, I could see that four of the group were making slowly toward a small beach to the west of Turtle Head. They waved us on, so we beached at Curlew floating centimetres over rocks at mid-tide. What happened? With just a short distance to paddle, Geoff and Leannes’ grossly overloaded double started wallowing. The cockpits and rear compartment of the kayak steadily filled with sea water that was trickling in from the leaking rear hatch and an ill-fitting spray skirt. Overloaded and with the extra weight of water, the stern up to the rear cockpit was actually beneath the surface. Wallowing, and with no steerage, they made it not to the beach but to the metre-high rocks around from Turtle Head. With the assistance of Ken, Steve, Ian and Carl steadying the double and holding it away from the rocks, they managed to offload, a little at a time, and secure gear onto the rocks, then bail out most of the water. They were then able to paddle through the short chop around the headland to Curlew, where we were waiting.
A gear retrieval party set off, climbing over the rocky outcrop but found they couldn’t get through owing to the steep boulder-strewn terrain. Several kayaks were dispatched for the successful gear retrieval.
Certainly the kayak was dangerously overloaded with gear. Geoff even had a bag of gear stuffed into his cockpit, which would have made it almost impossible for him to wet exit, should the need have arisen. Along with some items of food that were reduced to a soggy mess, Geoff’s mobile phone was drowned. While all this was taking place, another misfortune was unfolding. A rusted section of rudder cable broke in the other double. Fay was unable to do much except try to steer with the paddle tucked under her immobilized arm, levering with her good hand. The alternative was to drift in circles. By the time they came in most of the rocks were showing, drying in the sun and wind.
The wind had picked up again and was wailing like an Irish banshee spirit so we were happy to have made an early landfall. The campsites were pretty good with three table seats and an open pit toilet, around which we erected an awning for minimum privacy.
Sunday dawned and I was up and breakfasting by 6.00am. With a more subdued wind and abated sea Mitch and I decided on a paddle around Turtle Head and into Nari Inlet. Most of the crew opted for a paddle in the opposite direction to Hook Island Resort to replenish supplies of water, food and, of course, grog. Phillip and Fay were happy to potter around camp. Mitch and I paddled into a mean short chop with the breeze picking up encouraging small whitecaps in the passage. However, once we swooped around into Nari Inlet it was sails up to take advantage of a brisk southerly on our sterns all the way to the top end.
This is a beautiful inlet of around five kilometres intruding into the southern section of Hook Island. Quite a few craft had taken anchorage in here and we endured some cheeky comments on our fine sailing. Mind you, it was a bit of a slog when we reversed our course for the home camp run.
The Whitsunday Passage was somewhat rougher and the chop steeper by then and this proved interesting as the southerly was on our beam, with the occasional boomer attempting to unseat us. That little trip was about 13km.
The other group came in a short time later, around lunch time. They were happy enough with their outing as they enjoyed cappuccinos in the comfort of the Resort lounge. The price of a roll of toilet paper, for the unprepared, was $4 per roll. Use that as a benchmark for other items.
The weather forecast for Monday indicated 30 knot winds with gusts to 40 knots, so we didn’t budge this day. However the oyster gatherers, Ken and Mitch, paddled up into Macona Inlet at low tide and gorged on what they reckoned were just the best and biggest, mouth-dribbling oysters ever.
Tuesday, reveille at 5.00am, and we were up checking the weather. It was still a little off-putting out in the passage but the forecast was for moderate seas and 15 knot winds from the south-west, veering south-east. Meeting again at 7.00am we discerned that the white horses were being tamed and the wind was losing its stamina. Packed and moving on the water by 8.30am with a slack tide, our destination was Maureen’s Cove in Butterfly Bay at the far northern end of Hook Island. Phil and Fay opted to remain at Curlew for the next few days, hoping that the rest would be beneficial to Fay’s wrist sprain. We arranged to pick them up later in the week by paddling around from Hook Island Resort.
We paddled comfortably on a slight chop, avoiding the overfall turbulence around Turtle Head Rock, past Ravens Cove and Nari Inlet. Most of our ten kayaks were able to hoist sail and the ride was a real blast, hooking along on a 10 knot breeze.
At one stage, using my oversized sail, I was ripping along, bow almost completely buried at around 15km/h. The speed felt incredible and there was just no time to think. The skeg was down and rudder was down, “Scary!” Scary because I had no time or wasn’t game to change a thing. I was concerned that I would nose-bury and perhaps pitch-pole. There were several yells of, “yahoo, yippee, go oo Noel!” as the Nadgee surged past our small Armada. Finally I was able to veer off the wind and douse the sail, take some deep breaths and get the nervous smile off my face.
We eased into the sheltered beach of Stonehaven for smoko-break. As we eased out of the shelter of Stonehaven we felt a wind shift. Murphy’s Law kicked in again. The wind actually shifted from the sou-wester to a mean nor-wester, right on our nose. We were about to find out what hard work into heaving seas, with rising tide and blasting head winds, was all about. Following the high, barren, rocky coast line on the north-west side of Hook, and just to the north of Stanley Point, Hayman Island was clearly visible each time we topped the swells.
About 500m from Alcyonaria Point, we were all doing it really tough. Bradley, paddling a stitch and glue single with rather high windage and gear bags lashed on deck, was pushed relentlessly broadside to within the clutches of the uncharitable and high rocky shore. Reacting very quickly to the dangerous situation, he rocketed vertically out of the kayak and landed on the seaward side of the cockpit into the rebounding water. The scene was reminiscent of a fighter pilot ejecting from his damaged plane in the course of an aerial dog fight battle. (Brad is an airline pilot after all!) Swimming to the bow he was able to maneouver out about 20m into deeper water. He scrambled back into the cockpit, only to be bucketed out over the other side by a wave. He got the kayak upright, managed to scoop out some water and once again swim the kayak back out of the grasp of the rocks. Well, talk about a cool dude. I eased over to him and he asked, “Are you doing anything Noel, reckon you could take this towline?” I did and started hauling back into the northerly but found I couldn’t handle the tow in these conditions. I let go of the rope as Mike and Ian took over, rafting up and helping Brad to get back in, pump out and get his spray-skirt on. At this stage we lost two hand pumps and Bradley’s hat. Turning my kayak back into the nor-wester took all my strength. The wind-driven spume hammering off the two metre waves was blinding, and paddling out of a trough meant closing my eyes and digging in deep and strong.
Finally all the paddlers were safely around Alcyonaria Point and the wind was then on our port beam. The kayak spread by now was pretty distant. Although we could still see each other I think it was virtually every person for themselves. Steve paddled up to the point and turned back with the news that it was pretty calm once we turned the corner. With Butterfly Bay on our right it was still a tiring paddle into Maureen’s Cove camp which didn’t seem to get closer in a hurry. We were against a current that swirled out of the Bay as the tide came in. The beach here is all broken coral and quite steep. It was a good campsite though, with shade, tables and importantly a pit toilet. We were all feeling pretty pooped and jaded, and in need of some nourishment. We had paddled 19.6km, experiencing pretty adverse conditions.
On Wednesday everyone was happy to have a slack day. The water and air was still, and how most people think of the Whitsunday Islands when they see all those perfect photographs.
During the afternoon most of us snorkeled over some terrific coral reefs. Huge fish abounded, unafraid and sporting the most amazing colours. Smaller ones darted in and out among the vast array of varied coral. I didn’t stay in too long as the water was surprisingly cold and I didn’t have a spring suit.
Thursday and another 5.00am reveille woke us. We were on the water, paddling away at 7.05am. This early start was to take advantage of the favourable tide and to miss at least some of the wind. Destination was Hook Island Resort, giving us a 17km plus exhilarating paddle around the top of Pinnacle Point, (where the advice is “if there are whitecaps, don’t do it!”), then down the eastern side of Hook. It took around three hours to grind onto the sand of the Resort. Once again, some of us were feeling a bit pooped, especially after battling the heavy swell and turbulence of Pinnacle Point. GPS reading around the point indicated 10 km/h even through the swirling currents.
There were really good campsites at the Resort and Brad negotiated a deal for us, down to $17.50/day from $25. I had to have an ice cold beer, even at $6 for a stubbie.
After lunch Brad and Rhys paddled down and around to Curlew Beach camp and brought Phil and Fay back to the Resort. Although the trip was only around 8km there and back, the boys were a bit stuffed. It had been a long day for them, and all that gear took some packing!
Saturday, and the rain had found where we were camped last night. This resulted in a damp pack this morning, wet tents, yuck! Anyway we were all on time, on the water at 8.00am to start the paddle to Cockatoo Beach camp on the southern tip of North Molle Island. Fay made arrangements for the barge “Scampa”, to pick her up along with her kayak and all their extra gear and meet us at Cockatoo camp.
For once the conditions were quite reasonable crossing the Whitsunday Passage and the weather was sunny. It was a fairly relaxed paddle and sail, with the 16 or so km taking close on three hours to hit our last camp site at 11.00am. Phil and Fay decided to return to Shute Harbour on the barge, as Fay’s wrist was pretty bad by this time.
Cockatoo Beach camp, at the southern end of North Molle, gave us views of Mid Molle and South Molle Islands, with Daydream Island between us and the mainland. There were many good camping sites here, along with two toilets and unbelievably, rolls of toilet paper! Fresh water was available from a tank, replenished from the metal roof of the shelter and table.
Sunday and there seemed to be a lot of ginning time this morning. Half of us spent around an hour just waiting about. I think that we were all a little sad that this was our last day. Cockatoo Beach to Shute Harbour was about 5km of leisurely paddling, and we were able to pull into a nice little beach adjacent to a park with tables, fresh water and access for our vehicles. This was very convenient, and by lunch time we were back at the caravan park.
During the evening we all got together for a debriefing and farewell meal at the Tavern. Next morning Mitch and I were on the track. Toowoomba loomed up 13 hours and 40 minutes later and next afternoon I was back in Coffs Harbour.
The group was terrific and my appreciation goes unreservedly to, Mike and Linda, Phil and Fay, Carl and Rhys. Ian, Ken, Steve, Geoff, Leanne and Mitch. A special thanks to Bradley for sharing his holiday and organising ability with us.