Old Crocs Tour 2007 [70]

Yepoon to Shute Harbour

By John Wilde

After the success of the ‘Old Crocs Tour 2005’ (see NSW Sea Kayaker number 62), Arunas came up with the brilliant idea of a repeat performance, the main aim of which seemed to be to investigate how on earth we had survived the previous one. A cast of thousands was drawn up, all the young and fit rejected, on the grounds that they might leave us for dead, literally, and finally a modest group was assembled. Out of these there were several late withdrawals, when they realised just how decrepit the actual group would be and finally we were left with the original team: Arunas Pilkas, Mike Snoad and myself.

A week before departure date things were not looking good. Arunas was in hospital after a major organ failure, I was recovering from jet lag and had torn a biceps muscle surfing, and Mike had such a collection of pills and potions to keep him alive that he had no room for any camping gear or food in his boat.

As well as paddling together regularly, the three of us share a lot more in common. One thing is a physio. Our trio has turned a mundane practice into a thriving economic miracle that has to employ extra staff every time we book in. What with crocodile bites, bad backs, dislocated shoulders, Arunas’s recent shoulder reconstruction and a multitude of other ailments, this guy is on a winner. We also keep him well supplied with a succession of hair-raising tales of survival, which most people would find difficult to believe. Unfortunately we have the scars to prove them.

Finally, on a frosty Canberra winter’s morning at 4 o’clock (Arunas likes to do things this way; I think the idea is if you start a trip feeling dreadful things can only get better), the three of us met with two cars to drive up to Yepoon. How three people drive two cars 1600 kilometres is a feat in itself, but without incident and strangely, according to plan, one and a half days later we were entertaining the sea kayaking fraternity of Yepoon with tall stories in the local pub. The next day was supposed to be easy, just the car shuttle. Arunas had neglected to mention that this was another 1,000+ kilometres, to Airlie Beach and back. Then I did feel stuffed.

The next day our impressive crew was ready for departure. Before we left the beach we had to be briefed by the local military, which controls Shoalwater Bay. This was quite reassuring. “If you find an unexploded bomb … Avoid that island ’cause there’s a lost torpedo in the area … Don’t step off the beach as there could be live ammo practice going on in the bush … ” Just those sorts of mundane facts that make life interesting when you are not worrying about strong winds, huge surf and sharks. It’s good to know that in the narrow margin of safety called a beach, your only danger might be to trip over an unexploded shell.

The local paper had also been forewarned of our departure and a windswept photographer was in attendance to get a photo ready for the obituary column. (When in fact this was not required for its original intention, they reluctantly published it on page two of the local rag, together with an article on how lucky we had been to survive the trip.)

So we headed off into a stiff south-easterly, definitely a headwind, for a 15 km crossing to North Keppel Island, which in choppy conditions took about three hours. Unfortunately we lost Arunas somewhere on the way and after Mike and I had landed at a beautiful cove that matched the description of just how wonderful tropical north Queensland can be, we had a conversation about what could have gone wrong. Of course it could have been that his recently reconstructed shoulder had packed up again and he was at the mercy of the elements. Or perhaps it was major organ failure again in which case he was probably already dead. Fortunately, shortly afterwards, Arunas appeared, looking tired but happy. He had not paddled for the previous 12 months, due to injury and hospital stays but now felt that he had done the training necessary to complete the rest of the trip.

On North Keppel there is a beautifully manicured national parks campsite, with lots of facilities. If you are ever in the area I suggest that you use it. We did not, but paddled on, to Conical Island just north of Keppel, camping in thick scrub and prickly pear.

The next few days continued windy and overcast as we made our way north along what was a spectacular and unspoiled coastline, due to the amount of unexploded ordnance that anyone foolish enough to land would immediately discover, probably to their great regret. Off Port Clinton we had a close call, as this section of the coast is not sheltered by reef and there was a big swell running. Arunas and I, paddling casually and chatting away, suddenly heard a big boom just behind us as a couple of massive rollers broke onto a submerged reef. That brought us back to reality, as we paddled further out to sea and began taking notice of the conditions again. With the solid winds behind us we settled into 40-50 kilometre days with ease and progress was steady.

At Pearl Bay, another superb haven, with a number of yachts anchored in the bay, fantastic views out to Split and Dome Islands and only a couple of signs warning us about the dangers of accessing the bush beyond, we began to feel quite at home. Here Mike produced a wonderful fresh vegetable curry, which we were just about to eat, when Arunas decided it was time to give us all the details of his latest, rather grisly operation, involving a re-bore of the nether regions, which as this is a family magazine, I will not detail. Suffice to say, the food did not seem so appealing, but such are the joys of comradeship in an isolated and beautiful environment.

A visit to Dome and Split Islands was high on the agenda the next day and we were not disappointed. At high tide and in calm conditions, local paddlers go right through the split, which would be spectacular, but in rough conditions we settled for a hairy landing on the pebble beach at the entrance to the split and some photos, before heading to Supply Bay. This is the site of one of the biggest signs in the world, true to form ‘DANGER, BOMBING RANGE’.

From here we had opted for the island route, involving a series of open crossings — through some of the most beautiful islands you could wish for — including Hexham, the Percy Isles, Digby, Prudhoe, Scawfell and the Whitsundays Group. The weather had also come to the party, with clear skies and gentle winds giving perfect paddling conditions.

All these islands were stunningly beautiful; many small coves, sandy beaches, beautiful grey-green water over coral and sand, and often hoop pines on rocky coastlines right to water level; whales and turtles for regular company.

There were a number of highlights, including some big tidal races that required being in the right place at the right time, as there were certainly places running at five to six knots, way beyond the speed of a kayak, in tidal streams around and through island groups.

At Middle Percy we came across a scene that could have been out of a movie on Robinson Crusoe. In a stunning bay, fringed by coconut palms and with some of the whitest sand you could imagine, is an old ‘A’ frame hut of magnificent proportions. This has been a popular destination for yachties over many decades and most have left a marker or exhibit of some form, listing the yacht name and crew. We decided that it was high time for a rest day here and spent a wonderful day exploring various beaches and coves, finishing the day around a bonfire on the beach with a number of yachties, who even donated us some fresh fruit and bread. On one late evening, Mike and I paddled around an island, just as the sun was setting and a full moon was rising. What magic.

Our biggest crossing was from Prudhoe to Scawfell, close to 60 kilometres, which we began at 4 am to make the most of what we knew would be poor tides, heading initially for the lights of 40 or more big coal barges lining up to go into Mackay — a surreal sight in the dark. Soon after dawn the current swang against us and we began a long slog, with virtually no wind, against the tide, which in total lasted close to 10 hours. But Scawfell was to prove well worth the effort. Generally quite a rocky island, there is one very sheltered, perfect campsite, with toilets and fresh water. Although Parks and Wildlife only visit the lonely island once or twice a year, true to form, they arrived the following day, checking our permits and being impressed with our gear and preparations. I paddled around the island. The cliffs, coral, fauna and flora were fantastic, including a pair of nesting sea eagles at the top of one of the most impressive cliffs.

Sad to leave this sanctuary and knowing that we would soon be on the ‘tourist path’, it was lovely to land at Cockermouth for lunch and see a humpback whale, playing in a tidal race just off shore, entertaining us for nearly an hour as it rode the waves, surfacing regularly to get back on the front of a wave. When we left, Arunas managed to get a surf on the same wave, with this majestic creature directly behind him.

That night we camped at Carlisle and figured we should check out the resort on Brampton, just across the way. All went well — though we paid a fortune for the smallest basket of fish and chips — until I decided to have a wash, my first in two weeks, in the sink at the gents. (Arunas described it as a full-on bath, perhaps that was the problem.) At this point it was realised that we were ‘non-residents’ and we were escorted off the island. As we settled down on our $4 a night campsite we thought we had the best bargain.

Several days later we also made the mistake of calling into Hamilton Island. About the muddiest, over-crowded, littered, building site you could imagine. Why anyone would go for a holiday there I cannot imagine. Mind you, the bakery and supermarket were very well received as we feasted on fresh food. My visit to the bottle shop didn’t impress Mike and Arunas, who were both on the wagon due to ailments, but hey, someone’s got to celebrate, though I did have a headache the following day to add to our list of injuries.

So, after 18 days, the ‘Old Crocs’ had triumphed again, Yepoon to Shute Harbour, approximately 600 kilometres, through some of the nicest scenery you could wish for, in the wonderful company of good friends who can still enjoy an adventure together despite decrepitude.