Paddling with Heroes [67]

By Mark Pearson

It was September 2005. I guess I had been in a sort of responsibility retirement. I hadn’t led a trip for three years. I hadn’t written a trip report for almost two years. One reason may have been the disappointment at the reaction to my “Survivor” trip report, where I thought our great feat of surviving almost two days on a harvest of fish and abalone had not been truly recognised by the club elite. Did I have it in me to combine the two?

I decided on a Nadgee trip, my 12th to this Mecca of NSW sea kayaking. I hadn’t been down that way for 18 months, and not for a long time in late winter.

So I put out a general invitation to those I knew. Within weeks I had attracted a superb selection of kayakers. Big names such as Havu, Loker and Tottenhofer signed up early for the trip, and there was even the chance of a rare appearance by Guy Reeve, who was keen to test out his manhood on the only true wilderness coast in NSW.

But then amazing news. The John Rymill Memorial paddlers, Messrs McAuley, Truman and Geoghegan, asked if they could come along as they needed to meet to discuss their January 2006 expedition. This request made me instantly nervous; here was I, an unqualified and rusty Trip Leader at best, about to lead an elite trio of future Antarctic explorers, legends even before their great adventure.


The plan was simple: the not quite so famous Harry Havu and I would drive down to Greenglades beach to our departure point, commando camp and be ready for a simple get away in the morning. The rest: the Rymell guys, Paul Loker and some new guy called Richard Styles, would have a restful night at Mr Geoghegan’s country manor. I had declined this option, in the knowledge that the kind host, although wonderfully hospitable, would take it as an insult if you do not help him consume at least a full flagon of Stones Green ginger wine. I knew I had to be at my very best for this trip.

We arrived at about 9.30pm. It was peaceful with no sound but crickets and gentle surf. We set up our tents, had a cup of tea, then I retired to my tent to commence a pre-trip risk assessment. By 10pm the highest risk I had identified was that I would make a fool of myself at some stage in the next three days.

Saturday am — departure

Guy arrived at 8.30am bang on schedule after heroically leaving Canberra at 5am. We waited for some time for the others, finally losing patience and setting off at 9.40am without them. Conditions were brilliant, a light northerly. It was good to be alive, cruising down that wilderness coast. We landed at Little River beach, with this steep little beach offering its usual nasty shore dump even on a good day. After I scuttled out of my Explorer I looked to my left to observe Guy, who seemingly had fallen awkwardly in the shore dump, and was now in a bizarre tussle with his Nadgee, which didn’t seem to want to go ashore. In the surging water Guy seemed to slowly gain the upper hand but then the Nadgee took his legs from under him and pinned its helpless owner into the soft sand. Seeing that the Nadgee was winning this battle of wills I ran over to help. Although unable to speak, Guy was patting the sand with his only free hand, the classic World Wrestling Federation sign of submission. I dragged the Nadgee off him. Mercifully he was uninjured.

We spent a short time looking around this pristine lagoon before pushing off the beach without further incident for the last four kilometres to Nadgee River.

Saturday pm — arrival

We landed at Nadgee River in moderate surf. But it was a different looking place — for the first time I could remember the inlet was closed to the sea by a sand bar. The long dry had at last told in this part of the world.

Despite the loss of the bulk of my expedition, I was justifiably proud of having guided Harry and Guy to Nadgee River with only the one minor incident. But things quickly went wrong. Harry stubbed his toe on a rock carrying the kayak up to the site. I took this accident personally, knowing that if only I had done a proper risk assessment before commencing the carry from the beach this wouldn’t have happened. The toe was bad, with the nail hanging off and blood and soft tissue oozing everywhere. In fact neither Guy nor I could stand the sight of it so we told Harry to go away and bandage it up.

Then, just as I was starting to forget about them, the rest of the group arrived. We greeted Mr Truman and Paul Loker, only to be told there had been an incident on the water. Mr Geoghegan had been “spidered” — luckily a rare event but every sea kayaker’s worse nightmare. Feeling a tickling sensation on his left leg, he had pulled his skirt and reached down to scratch it only to be bitten on the left hand by a large arachnid which, for some unknown reason, had taken up residence in the musty cockpit of a Nadgee. Although the spider met a watery fate, Mr Geoghegan’s hand was already swelling as he came ashore.

I then met Richard “Angophora” Styles for the first time. Richard had a pretty boy face, sculpted body, highly educated manner and a truly impressive “codpiece” spray skirt. But despite all this, his friendly demeanour and obvious popularity with the others, I somehow took an instant dislike to him. And it wasn’t long before my judgement was confirmed when, although Richard was a GP, he point blank refused to look at Harry’s toe or Laurie’s hand on the grounds he didn’t “bulk bill”, especially in the wilderness.

With everybody settled in, I surveyed the fully-populated site with dismay. Nadgee river is a tight little camp and with nine tents side by side it looked like sea kayaking’s version of the Gaza Strip but even dirtier and more run down. Tents were so tight that the corner of Guy’s actually overlapped the corner of mine. I realised that Guy and I could play footsie during the night and I really didn’t know Guy that well.

Worse, I thought about the likely disturbance level from tent zips. Two zips layers on each tent, eight guys getting in and out only once during the night that was a minimum 32 annoying zip movements! Not too mention any number of less savoury air movements following the traditional sea kayakers heavyweight dinner. A light sleeper’s nightmare beckoned.

I thought about my options. I knew I already had made a bit of a reputation for keeping away from the group and paddling “alone” out on the water. Years before I had realised that it wasn’t for me to be paddling along for hours beside a cashed up Sydney Mirage paddler while he bangs on about how safe he feels now with his new solar powered Shark repellent device on board, or how his new $400 “Camel” backpack hydration system works so well, while there’s me sucking on some old Gatorade bottle.

So, not surprisingly, I’ll work quite hard to get some space and some natural silence when on the ocean. I thought about applying this ethos to the camping environment. I had already established a sort of precedent for this in 2004, moving my tent 150 metres along the beach at Gloucester Island in the Whitsundays to escape generator noise and, yes, it had been worth it.

Searching for wood earlier I had noticed an area high above the site, a quiet glade where one could only hear gentle insect noises and the muffled sound of the surf below the nearby cliffs. I knew I would be happy there. The decision was made.

It was a bit of a climb but I gathered up my tent and gear and made the effort. Of course, the others grumbled in an Aussie sort of way about me showing a lack of mateship. But they were placated when I calmly explained that as Trip Leader I needed time out to contemplate tomorrow’s Float Plan.

Friday night

We assembled for dinner. I looked around the camp we were nine men with no women around to interrupt the wonderfully natural phenomenon of male interaction. I observed the magical ebb and flow of the camp conversation, the subject matter spinning in ever widening circles but always returning to a general reassuring topic. And that topic is nearly always gear.

We moved from reminiscing on Army/Navy days, tales of drunken debauchery, John Howard’s statesmanlike politics, rights of manhood in different cultures, the most effective moisturisers, Mr Geoghegan’s female cheese inspector (a buxom lady who always attracted a largely male audience as she emerged from the freezer) then almost seamlessly, we were back to talking about the pros and cons of shellite versus gas camp stoves. It was marvellous stuff.

But in all this, despite the fact seven of the nine in the group actually lived with womenfolk (how insidious has this practice become?) not once during the evening was there a mention of their various relationships. I thought about this. Perhaps this was what men needed, random unstructured discussion of a range of issues and knowledge sharing, but safe in the knowledge there was no need to go into the diabolical complexity of their own domestic arrangements. These guys needed a rest from all that. It was right.

Saturday am

The sound of the surf had increased overnight and indeed the beach was a heaving, surging mess. It looked like messing with our planned day trip to Cape Howe and possibly Gabo Island. Mr Truman studied the scene for a while before declaring confidently “we should get off OK”. Even though I worshipped the taciturn Mr Truman’s every gruff utterance, I was not so sure.

One by one the gallant group tried to blast out through about seven lines of surf. Some made it to the fifth break, but all failed. Richard blew his roll and washed ashore some minutes later wet but still annoyingly well groomed.

Harry nearly made it but then he became unstuck and came out a long way out. His Mirage arrived back at the shore line long before he did, its disgusting rudder flapping around in the wash like a living thing. It was then I panicked, screaming out “Rudder pin, rudder pin!!” I had suddenly realised the inverted Mirage could lose its pin any second, and with that the rudder could be lost forever leaving poor Harry out here in the wilderness with 580cms of uncooperative fibreglass! I grabbed the boat only then to realise the wily Finn had cleverly secured his pin with a strip of Velcro over the top.

With the last sodden sea paddler washed ashore, I contemplated jumping into my boat and having a go. I knew that in the Inuit Explorer I had the one kayak in the group that was nimble and athletic enough to get over and through these waves. But the thought of getting out there beyond the break line just to prove I could, well perhaps it was not appropriate behaviour for a trip leader.

Saturday pm

I noticed over dinner that Mr McAuley’s head lamp projected an eerie red light, not the bright white beam we all had. When questioned, Mr McAuley politely explained that the red light was adequate for camp use, with the added benefit that it didn’t destroy his night vision.

I thought about this. Surely this one comment emphasised the more advanced level of thinking that has been attained by a select few within our club. Even the Rymill trio’s beanies were cleverly designed, with an acrylic under layer to stop itching, and a woollen upper section for heat retention.

I realised that night that these guys were pushing the boundaries of design and functionality all the time. Attention to detail was in their DNA. There was truly a massive gap between the elite and the ordinary in the NSWSKC. The John Rymell trio were the crème de la crème, crack sea paddlers. SAS commando’s to my humble Army Reservist.

And just to confirm these thoughts I then had a personal disaster that summed up my own expeditionary limitations. After chopping my onion and garlic and carefully adding cooking oil I was alarmed to find the oil was behaving in a very non-oil-like way, in that it was frothing and foaming and smelling funny. With dismay I realised the “oil” was dishwashing liquid. Luckily I had brought a spare onion and garlic and one of the Rymill professionals took pity and gave me some oil. My one consoling thought was that at least my red face wasn’t affecting Mr McAuley’s night vision.

… to be continued