NSW Sea Kayak Club – Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour [74]

By Philip Woodhouse

If it had not been for the NSWSKC Rock’n’Roll last year, I would never have known that Port Davey in south west Tasmania ever existed. I had heard of Melaleuca and the South Coast Track from friends who had walked it but as far as I was concerned since I was no longer being paid to carry my house on my back, they could have the experience all to themselves. Stephan Meyn’s presentation at the Rock’n’Roll about his trip to Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey with Roaring 40°S Wilderness Tours certainly ignited my curiosity about the area. Moreover, the fact that with the tour, you fly in then kayak seemed to me the only way to visit this World Heritage wilderness area. However, I need to get there.

Green F32 was the Rock’n’Roll raffle ticket which saw Greg Murray and I being treated to a most excellent and pleasurable kayaking trip one could ever imagine. The prize was a three day trip for two with Roaring 40°S Wilderness Tours and on Stephan’s advice we extended the trip to a seven day tour.

From the time I telephoned the folk at Roaring 40°S to being dropped off back at the hotel in Hobart I was impressed by their helpfulness, organization and operation. You are sent an information sheet and a gear list, which as it turns out, is all that you need. One chap on our tour is travelling the world and just decided to go on the seven day tour and was totally kitted out with quality camping equipment provided by Roaring 40°S. Of note was an observation and comment by one of the guides that he found the best footwear for the area was Crocs™. These shoes were versatile enough for him to both paddle in and walk around in, thereby reducing the need for several sets of footwear. Importantly he found that with his feet being constantly wet, sandal straps and grit cut and grazed his feet and the injuries were slow to heal. Another consideration was that the small pebbles encountered on some of the beaches in the harbour could easily be extracted.

The only change to the clothing list I would make would be to replace the two cotton T-shirts with two polyester ones.

On the first day of the tour we were picked up from our hotel in Hobart and driven to Cambridge airstrip where under the careful observation of the two guides, Nathan and Dan, eight of us packed our personal gear into 70 litre duffle bags ready to be loaded into the Cessna 206 and Norman Islander aircraft operated by Par Avion. On a warm clear day we took off and while climbing to 4500 feet flew over Hobart and headed for the airstrip at Melaleuca.

The sights of SW Tassie from the air were brilliant — we saw all of the major features bushwalkers talk about. As we flew past Federation Peak (1225 m) I looked out the starboard window onto the peak and thought, ‘Flying, the only way to bushwalk’.

As we approached our destination a cold front was bringing drizzle and grey cloud from the south west towards the airstrip but we still had magnificent views of the area we were about to explore over the next seven days and even out to the Maatsuyker group of islands.

On the ground, the drizzle had arrived so we packed the Paddling Perfection Sea Bear II kayaks and quickly got onto the water and headed for the standing camp at Forest Lagoon. What we were to encounter here was ‘unbelievable’!

The standing camp is seasonally set up and pulled down by the Roaring 40°S crew but the facilities were brilliant — so much so, if you have a partner who is not into kayaking and camping and you would like to expose them to this magnificent location, take them on the three day Bathurst Harbour tour.

The sleeping accommodation has comfortable camp stretchers and the tents have screen doors and large windows that enable you to view the surrounding flora and lagoon.

If it is raining you can sit there in comfort and listen to the sounds of tranquillity. After recovering from the shock of the sleeping accommodation we were treated to entrees of sushi in the dining area while the guides prepared and served our dinner of fresh salmon and warm salad followed by a luscious dessert.

Day two greeted us with a grey sky but you could clearly see the vista that surrounds and envelops the observer. Departing Forest Lagoon, we made way up the brackish tan-coloured waters of Bathurst Narrows under the sentinel, Mt Rugby, with its bush gullies, button grass ridges and rocky outcrops. Passing Joan Point and the dingy that has been provided for bushwalkers travelling the Port Davey Track to cross Farrell Point, we paddled to Balmoral Beach and landed on the white pebbles that glistened like sparkling wine bubbles in the sunlight.

Departing the beach we made our way through Bathurst Channel into Force 3–4 winds before turning into Bramble Cove and our next campsite.

After setting up camp and then being served a delightful lunch we explored the cove which had been the site of a whaling station in the 19th century. Nathan and Dan guided us around, pointing out the areas of historical significance and telling us about the area’s history.

After entrees and dinner we watched the sun set behind the Breaksea Islands that protect Bathurst Channel from the swells rolling up from Antarctica into Port Davey. A few weeks before, local fishermen in Port Davey ran for cover when 8 to 12 metre swells rolled on in.

Day three greeted us with Force 1–2 conditions and a 0.5–1 metre swell; that is to say amazingly perfect for the location. The pod of five kayaks made its way to the Breaksea Islands where we ‘shot the gauntlet’ and headed NW across Port Davey to Whalers Point. Virgin-looking (slightly bushy and untouched) flora rimmed the shoreline like a laurel wreath before the button grass-covered hills rose behind like the head of a bald man.

Crossing Bond Bay we encountered Force 5 headwinds that ceased when we arrived at Curtis Point where we stopped for a break — typical. Pushing on, we landed at Settlement Point at the head of the Davey River and set up camp for two days.

To replenish our fresh water we paddled up Blackwater Creek until we got to a waterfall that separated the saline from fresh. The day was 30°C outside, and 38°C inside my tent, so when we exited the kayaks we first had to get over the shock of the cold water before we swam over to the waterfall which we climbed and then sat around in the freshwater ponds. Settlement Point had been the site of a 19th century ship building community that harvested Huon Pine for their operations and export.

Living in this isolated part of the world with its contrary weather and unforgiving seas was certainly challenging in the age when ships were wood and men were steel. One story was of a gunfight between two communities at the time — the loggers upstream and those at Settlement Point — which took place because provisions were scarce and people had resorted to survival mode.

On day four we paddled up the Davey River trying to find any signs of Huon Pine regrowth, of which there was little. The banks of the river were lined with multiple varieties of flora and the waters were populated with Black Swans, ducks and sea eagles. Entering Davey Gorge we continued up to the second set of rapids. Here we played around in the Sea Bears as though they were white water boats.

Back down the gorge, we had lunch on a sandbar surrounded by variegated vegetation and fresh water that rippled over dark tannin-coloured pools. When no one spoke the sounds of nature transported your soul through the lush vegetation and across the babbling waters.

Back at Settlement Point the guides once again provided us with abundant tasty meals made from fresh rations and to cap the day off we all sat on the beach eating dolmades, drinking red wine and watching the clouds float on by.

Day five was an early start since the forecast, which was only available by satellite phone, was for Force 6 conditions increasing to Force 8 in the evening. It is here where the knowledge and experience of the guides was put on display as they were well aware of the vagrancies of forecasts in such a location. The operators of Roaring 40°S, Kim Brodlieb and Ian Balmer, have chosen their guides well — for example Nathan Wedding, who also runs sea kayaking trips in Norway and is starting in 2009 to run trips in Vietnam and in 2010 in Croatia and Turkey.

On this trip, Nathan was mentoring Dan so between them they formulated a sound plan to get us back to Bramble Cove before the weather isolated us at Settlement Point. Heading up to Curtis Point, Dan made the decision for us to cross Payne Bay and head for Berry Head. Here the coastline consisted of small cliffs dotted with sea caves. We sheltered behind Mavourneen Rocks and stretched our legs before paddling to Kathleen Island then past Boil Rock and into North Passage between Mt Milner and the Breaksea Islands.

In Bramble Cove we explored the rocky coastline and even paddled into a sea cave that was incredibly deep to the point whereby I could not see Greg’s headlamp or kayak ahead of me as he and Helen kayaked deeper into the cave and around the corner. After setting up camp at Bramble Cove we went down to the beach and watched the wind rip up the waters of Bathurst Channel and then some went on a walk up Mt Milner.

By evening the rain had set in and the guides cooked our gourmet meals — garnished with individually plucked parsley — under the tarp and even in the rain while the rest of us sat under the shelter, eating snacks and drinking red wine. In fact, Pam accidentally brought along a bottle of 2002 Moondah Brook Shiraz which she graciously portioned out to those who brought along chateau cask. During this time of delightful indulgence, Greg’s tent flooded and wet his bedding — unfortunately much to everyone’s amusement.

The day six forecast was for NW swinging to SW Force 8 conditions. Fortunately for us the force 5–6 wind was on our backs as we paddled and surfed along Bathurst Channel. At Balmoral Beach a squall came through and pelted us with hail before passing and leaving us to bask in warm sunlight before the next squall pelted us again with hail. Passing through Bathurst Narrows we just sat in our kayaks and let the breeze propel us along into Bathurst Harbour and then after a short punch into the wind we landed back at the standing camp at Forest Lagoon.

On the morning of the final day, I lay in my bed looking out of the window across Forest Lagoon towards Mt Rugby thinking how nice it would be to live in such an area. After breakfast we took a short paddle across Forest Lagoon to Claytons Corner where we landed and ascended Mt Beattie to take in the panoramic views. From this vantage point we could see across Bathurst Harbour to the Ray Range and Spiro Range in the east. To the north was the Rugby Range and to the north east the Western Arthur Range. The view to the west showed us where we had been kayaking over the last five days — along Bathurst Channel to Port Davey. To the south through the Melaleuca Valley lay the Maatsuyker Island group.

On return to camp we loaded the kayaks and headed the five or so kilometres up the Melaleuca Inlet to the airstrip. After repacking our duffle bags we loaded the aircraft and headed east back to Hobart. After taking off, Bathurst Harbour lay below, quiet and inviting. As we flew along, the landscape with its ranges, valleys and rivers unfolded beneath us with no signs of roads or dwellings. After landing back in Hobart the guides drove us back to our hotel where after a shower and change we went to the pub and reminisced about the past seven days and planned our future return.

I would like to thank the operators of Roaring 40°S Wilderness Tours, Kim Brodlieb and Ian Balmer, who through their generosity supported the NSWSKC 2008 Rock’n’Roll as platinum sponsors. I would also like to thank Nathan and Dan who for the seven days demonstrated what it means to be a sea kayak guide as they served, crewed and led the tour. For sea kayakers, get some friends together and go on a seven day tour. If you are a not into tramping around the bush and camping or have a partner or friend who is not so inclined, go on a three day tour as the experience is brilliant.

Remember: ‘Don’t count the cost, live your life’.