What Were We Thinking?
‘Can I go home?’ Mr Cool begged me. It’s day one. We’ve just arrived at a beautiful deserted camp spot on Henning Island after a glorious four hour paddle from Shute Harbour with almost no wind and near perfect conditions, and my son wants to go home. And this was a good day …
My husband Ian and I had been dreaming about paddling the Whitsundays for two years, never having been before. Just one small problem. We have two kids. Should we leave them at home, or take them with us? Could we combine our passion with kayaking with a family holiday? Let’s face it, the kids were not exactly champing at the bit to go kayaking with us at any other time. We had to make sure we could do the trip safely and we also knew that we risked turning them off kayaking forever.
After many chats to other sea kayakers and discussions with Neill and Hayley Kennedy from Salty Dog Sea Kayaking based in Airlie Beach, we decided to give it a go. If we could take the kids on a kayak touring trip anywhere, it seemed like the Whitsundays were ideal. Tropical weather, natural beauty, well serviced by boats, plenty of access to alternative routes and sheltered harbours should the winds blow up and if worst came to worst there’s Neill’s barge and other boats that could take us out. So we gave the kids the option. Come with us, or stay with the grandparents for two weeks. They chose to come. We knew what they were in for — they didn’t.
Day 1: A beautiful start
Shute Harbour to Northern Spit, Henning Island — 16 km, av. speed 7 kph
It was school holidays, mid October 2007. The deal we struck with Mr Cool (14) and Lulu (12)* was that we would kayak tour for six days then spend another four to five days at Airlie Beach in a ‘resort’.
So after a day spent buying food and packing, we dragged our two reluctant paddlers away from the hotel swimming pool and caught a maxi-taxi with all our bags to Shute Harbour. The reality started to dawn on them as we crammed the boats full. At the last minute, we ditched a bag of food that was largely full of snacks for the kids — a decision we came to regret later. To this day, Lulu still talks wistfully about the marshmallows and Oreo biscuits we left behind.
We’d hired two Eco-Niizh plastic doubles for six days with a scheduled water drop-off at the halfway mark at Whitehaven Beach, and a pick-up by barge scheduled seven days later from Crayfish Beach on Hook Island.
Neill and Hayley had been wonderful in helping us plan a realistic paddling schedule with kids and checked our itinerary around the tides, with suggestions for good places to paddle and camp. We hired a VHF radio and also took our mobile phones (we knew we had limited coverage, but they were useful on Henning Island). We allowed four litres of water per person per day, and had around 50 litres for the next three days. Salty Dog had supplied the water bladders and plastic bags, and we’d supplemented these with some of our own dry bags. We were able to leave all our suitcases and ‘land clothes’ in their safe storage at Shute Harbour.
We set off around 11.00 am, making the most of the perfect weather and spotting our first sea turtles as we headed out into the sparkling turquoise water. Ian and I were thrilled to get such good weather to start, but both kids found the paddling tedious and hard work. I don’t know what they were complaining about, Ian and I reckon they only did a single stroke to around a thousand that we both did. They got bored in the boats, and were happy to land. Lulu found the secluded campsite delightful and ran around in great excitement, enjoying the freedom of camping on a non-crowded beach with beautiful white sands. We even had a visit that evening from a tree kangaroo. Mr Cool however was feeling trapped — five more days of this!
Mr Cool wrote in my trip diary that night: ‘If you go on another trip like this, be sure not to drag me along (bring sails).’ Lulu’s comment: ‘Wuss’.
That night as we lay in the dark, there was suddenly a great commotion outside the tents — a very bizarre animal or bird noise. Lulu was fast asleep and didn’t even notice, but she awoke with a start as Ian ran around the campsite in his undies screaming like a lunatic, ‘It’s all right kids, everything’s fine. EVERYTHING’S FINE!’ We were off to a great start.
Day 2: Hell on kayaks
Henning Island to Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island — 21 km (4 km extra!)
My stomach twisted into a knot at 0600 when I heard the wind howling around through the tent. We’d planned an early start ahead of the wind change — the forecast was for 10/15 knots rising to 15/20 knots in the afternoon. But already we could see small white caps ahead. We packed up quickly, and decided to go on. I hadn’t anticipated that I would feel so anxious about taking my beloved children into this environment.
We went straight into a headwind, slowing us down to only 4-5 km/h. Mr Cool was miserable, Lulu cold but bearing up. It was tough paddling, but within our capabilities with the kids. It was never dangerous, but Lulu found Fitzalan Passage scary as we plunged into some small breaking swell. This was not what we had in mind! Thank God for the stability of the Eco Niizh plastic boats; I never felt in any danger of capsize. They may be slugs to paddle compared to our nice sleek glass boats at home but they were definitely the right boat for the job with less experienced paddlers on board.
We battled on with our unhappy passengers in the afternoon after a lunch stop. Unfortunately we’d made an error when loading the map data into the GPS, and overshot the campsite. This cost us an extra hour and several extra kilometres paddling at the end of the day. We had to double back to Chance Bay, battling the swell once more. We arrived quite late, then found the camping area was up the hill, so we had to lug everything up the steps. There are picnic tables, but no loo (going in the bush was ‘totally disgusting’ declared my daughter). To top it all off, Mr Cool moaned all night from muscle pain and just sheer misery. Ian ended up in the tent with him, and Lulu ended up coming into my tent with a stomach ache, so none of us got a good nights sleep. I think if the barge had turned up the next morning, we’d have all jumped on it.
Day 3: It can only get better from here …
Chance Bay to Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island — 8 km approx.
Day 2 had definitely been the low point of the trip. We acknowledged it was tougher than we expected, and we had a long talk about how a negative attitude guarantees that you will have a bad time — and about how camping and kayaking challenge you in so many different ways. Yeah, right, another lecture from Mum and Dad. The big question — if he can’t go home, can Mr Cool manage to have a good time for the rest of the trip stuck in a kayak with his parents without his electronic toys or creature comforts?
We got off to a slow start, leaving at 9.45, which put the tide lower than expected. This gave us an ‘exciting’ ride through some rocks, especially when Mr Cool stopped paddling mid-way through running a gauntlet while I was using a steering stroke in the back!
Solway Passage needs to be treated with care, especially if there are strong winds going against the tide. We had an easy run through with a rising tide and SE winds finally blowing us exactly where we wanted to go. We arrived at the beautiful but crowded Whitehaven Beach at around 11 am. It really is a magnificent spot, despite the crowds. The sand is 99.89% pure silica — thought to be due to a longshore drift depositing sand from the south — so pure that it was used in the Hubble telescope.
We set up camp while the kids swam and played on the pristine white sand. Even Mr Cool couldn’t resist his sister’s games when she asked him to help bury her in the sand, turning her into a sand mermaid.
Usually we like camping on our own, but strangely enough, the contact with other people was just what we needed. Having other people around helped ‘normalise’ the trip for the kids, and many campers expressed their admiration to the kids for having kayaked so far already. However, we were not on the beach when the Salty Dog barge came at midday on the high tide and dropped off two other campers. The barge left without dropping off our next 44 litres of water as planned. Neill may have intended us to share the water containers he dropped off with the other campers, but they thought it was only intended for them. We tried radioing Neill from a commercial operator’s barge, but no luck. We counted up our water — just 4 litres left — and there is no water available on any of the islands.
Just as we were wondering what to do, a fellow camper called Anthony came over and gave us 20 litres of water, saying he’d heard what had happened. That act of kindness from a total stranger completely lifted our spirits.
The real turning point for Mr Cool came when he and Ian decided to make a sail. They went ‘hunting’ along the beach and came back with a broken elasticised tent pole. Perfect for a mast and boom! They cut up the spare groundsheet, added ropes and somehow bound the whole thing together with tape. It was a miracle of invention, and Mr Cool was rightly proud of it. The kids were finally having fun!
Day 4: Rest day, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island
We expected that Salty Dog would come back again this day with the water, but Anthony offered us another solution. He and his family were going out that day in his motor boat and he would need two trips to get his whole family and gear out. He gave us another 10 litres before he left, then he personally refilled a container with another 20 litres of water and phoned Salty Dog for us while at Shute Harbour to let them know and save them the trip. He’d now supplied us with 50 litres — plenty to last the rest of the trip!
Lulu wrote in my diary: ‘Anthony was really nice and he helped us out so much’. His kindness left a big impression on the kids and we were truly grateful. It was more than just the actual water — it was the boost to our spirits and morale.
After lunch, we paddled across to Haslewood Island to snorkel, giving Mr Cool and Ian a chance to try out the sail. It worked! Ian paddled and Mr Cool held the sail up and used the ropes (heck, he wasn’t paddling anyway!). We finally managed to find the coral. Unlike NSW where you find fish in bombies or around the rocks, the coral gardens here can often be found smack bang in the middle of the bay, where you’d least expect them. It was wonderful snorkelling at Chalkies Beach.
On the paddle back, we came across a whirlpool. Lulu and I paddled into it and it spun us a complete 360 degrees. That evening other paddlers from the ACT arrived in their Mirage kayaks (also NSWSKC members!). We had no luck again that night getting the weather forecast on the VHF radio, but tuned in at 7.30 pm with the other paddlers to their shortwave radio. The forecast for the next day was 15-20 knots SE. As the commercial operator said to us, ‘You’ll be laughing now, downwind all the way to Hook Island’.
Day 5: Downwind all the way!
Whitehaven Beach to Peter Bay, Whitsunday Island — 12 km
As promised, the wind was behind us. We had a rusty start, didn’t manage to get off until 10 am. The sail made a huge difference — Ian and Mr Cool flew down to the end of Whitehaven Beach, while Lulu and I slogged along behind. Mr Cool was quite the sail-master and it worked a treat!
We stopped at the end of the beach and walked up to the point to take in the picture-postcard views of Hill Inlet. Setting off after lunch, rather than paddle the more sheltered but longer route around the bay, we were confident enough to head straight to the next point, to take advantage of the following sea as the winds were only about 10 knots.
We arrived at Peter Bay as planned about two hours after the high tide. This beach can only be accessed at high tide, as it has a long low tidal flat. Any thoughts of snorkelling disappeared after Lulu counted 21 stingrays. We camped that night with two other kayakers, Sandy and Jordan. By now, the normally intrepid Lulu was covered in mozzie bites and having trouble sleeping, so she ended up in the tent with me again. In fact, I’m not sure if Ian and I spent a single whole night together in our tent the whole trip!
Day 6: Not all high tides are equal
Peter Bay, Whitsunday Island to Crayfish Beach, Hook Island — 12 km
High tide was at 6.30, and we’d estimated that we’d be OK, seeing as we’d arrived the day before two hours after high tide. Think again. High tide was at least half a metre less than the previous afternoon’s tide. At 6.30 Sandy and Jordan were already packing their fibreglass boat as the tide was rapidly disappearing. They were gone in half an hour. Ian and I just looked at each other and sighed. We knew it would take us at least two hours to feed everyone and get going.
The kids helped us shuffle dry bags and gear down to the disappearing water’s edge, at least 300 metres. Ian and I dragged the boats along the sand and packed them at the water’s edge. Even as we packed the boats around 9.30, the water kept disappearing and we had to urge the kids to hurry.
It was smooth sailing on the water again, with pleasant 10-15 knots winds behind us. It was so spectacular and beautiful, we were all in awe of the natural beauty. Hook Passage is another narrow tidal stream with strong currents, and a reputation for flukey winds and overfalls. The best time to cross is at slack tide, which in our case was at 11.30 am so our timing was perfect. At slack tide and with low wind, it was an easy crossing.
We stopped at Hook Island Resort to visit the underwater observatory and for a treat — bought lunch! We were also able to check the weather report. It looked good. That afternoon, we still had another six kilometres or so to go to Crayfish Beach where we were due to be picked up in the morning by Salty Dog. We offered the kids the option of camping at Hook Island Resort instead ($30 per tent) if they’d had enough. To their credit, they both opted to keep going to the end. I was so proud of them — Mr Cool had really swung around, and Lulu was displaying true grit despite being covered in bites.
The final leg was truly spectacular. With almost no swell, this was paddling at its finest. The turquoise sea and the dark volcanic rocks rising straight up were a landscape I hadn’t expected to see in Australia.
Crayfish Beach is tucked in on the south side of Mackerel Bay South. Neill had told us this was his favourite spot. On pulling in, I could see why. It really is the most magnificent harbour, straight out of Gondwanaland. We set up camp and had our best snorkel in the clearest water we’d seen yet with a huge abundance of marine life. The only downside was the ferocious march-flies — apparently they’d only just arrived the week before. Note to self: Next time kayak in September! However, it was such a beautiful spot, and a fitting end to our trip.
Day 7: Back to the land of the flushing loo
Neill’s barge arrived at high tide early in the morning and took us and some other campers out. Even the resilient Lulu declared she was ‘over it’, and looking forward to getting out. We retraced our entire journey on the barge, picking out our campsites and remembering our trip. When we arrived back at Shute Harbour, Hayley noticed the change in our kids. She commented that she’d often seen the same pattern with teenagers, who started off as reluctant paddlers on ‘Mum and Dad’s dream’ but ended up enjoying themselves.
Once in the apartment at Shute Harbour, no one wanted to budge except to go to the swimming pools. The kids raced around the apartment exclaiming in delight: ‘Water in a tap!’, ‘Flushing loos!’, ‘A pillow’, ‘A bed’, ‘A shower!’. They really had developed an appreciation of the home comforts they normally took for granted.
The verdict on paddling with kids? Well, it was tough on them for sure, but I’m proud of how they dealt with it. Mr Cool really had to dig deep, but to his credit he dealt with the challenges and could finally see how the kayaks enabled us to have unique access to the country. The sheer beauty of the place won him over. Making the sail empowered him and gave him a way he could really contribute to the trip. Lulu showed real courage and resilience and we may yet make one sailor and one paddler from our progeny. Maybe one day they’ll look back on this trip and appreciate that they had quite a unique experience. After all, it sure beats going to Hamilton Island and spending a week in a resort swimming in pools, doesn’t it, kids? Kids?!
As for Ian and I, it was often hard work, and we were both a lot more anxious than we’d expected about taking our darlings out to sea. The constant anxiety took the edge off our enjoyment. The parental instinct is very strong, and more than anything else we wanted to protect them and ensure their wellbeing. We did feel we’d reduced the risks as much as we could, and we certainly didn’t put them in any dangerous situations. In hindsight I think we were very lucky with the weather, having only one blowy day the whole trip, but had the weather turned bad, we would have stayed put.
So would we recommend paddling with the kids? There’s no easy answer. But the bottom line is that we got to kayak the Whitsundays and we couldn’t have done that without them. We wanted to be able to offer our kids a unique experience that was completely outside of the normal type of family holiday, and we certainly achieved that. It was a great experience to share as a family and we enjoyed watching them both develop their resilience as the trip wore on. The Whitsundays is a mecca for kayakers, and we’ll certainly be back. Now for planning the next trip — in single kayaks and without our children.
- Salty Dog Sea Kayaking were invaluable in helping us plan our trip, itinerary and supplies, and told us about the best snorkelling spots. Both Hayley and Neill went out of their way to ensure we had the supplies we needed, and we were able to hire stinger suits, gas bottles and additional camping supplies we needed as well as the kayaking gear. Being able to take the barge home also helped us plan a great one-way trip and gave us flexibility and (within limits) a safety net should the weather have turned.
- We should have been waiting on the beach for the barge when it was due with our water drop-off midway through the trip. It was not critical at Whitehaven Beach as there were other campers and commercial boats around with water but as there is no phone communication there, it would have been better if we’d been able to speak to them directly on the barge itself.
- The VHF radio was a good back-up for communicating should we have run into trouble, however we did not find it adequate for checking weather reports — this actually contributed a great deal to my anxiety. We were able to use our mobile phones on Henning to check the weather, and we got weather reports from other paddlers and from commercial boat operators at Whitehaven Beach. There was also a weather report available for all to read at Hook Island Resort. Next time however I’d take a VHF as well as a shortwave radio with an external antenna to ensure we caught the twice-daily BOM weather reports.
- You have to plan your trip around the tides, especially beach access and crossing passages, and remember that it’s not just high tide, but how high the tide is that counts.
- We put a lot of effort into finding interesting meals, not just bushwalking style dehydrated foods, and the meals were a real highlight of the day. Hot chocolate and chai latte sachets gave a quick lift on arriving at camp.
- A scheduled rest-day in the middle of the trip gave the kids a much-needed break and a chance for us to relax and have fun.
- We packed each day’s food in a separate bag, plus we had a ‘floating bag’ for the leftovers and the extras like snacks and hot drink sachets. Each night we only had to pull out the two food bags.
- You need to store the food and garbage at night in the kayaks to prevent rats and goannas getting it.
- Salty Dog supplied us with 5-litre and 10-litre water bladders, which we filled at Shute Harbour before leaving. We carried the bladders in our cockpits and when the water was used up, they packed down to a small space. We took our own individual water bottles and hydration packs for use on the boats and on land, which we refilled from the bladders.
- A ‘soft bucket’ full of sea water was great at camp for washing. A second one would have been handy to dedicate to dishes. Other paddlers suggested adding a touch of bleach to the water to kill bugs.
- We used an anti-bacterial hand wash religiously before all meals (doesn’t need water), and only had one incident where my daughter had an upset stomach.
- You really do need to tie your boats up every night.
- It would have been good to have had waterproof cases so the kids could each take their iPod on the boat.
- Even though it wasn’t really stinger season, we didn’t want to risk it. We hired stinger suits from Salty Dog and used them every time we swam except at Whitehaven Beach where there were other people around.
- The snorkelling was a real highlight of the trip. We took our own masks, snorkels and flippers, but there is the option to hire these if you don’t want to bring your own.
* Not their real names