Hairy Racing Snakes Cross Bass Strait… The Long Way [79]

by Mark Schroeder

5 am, Sydney, sleepily loading a mountain of gear into the car. I’m standing with a spare rudder in my hand wondering whether to bother packing it… ‘Yeah, chuck it in. Why not?’ And with those words we break the ‘Sydney suction’, on the long drive to Port Welshpool. Nearly a week later that quick decision was to save our trip … But not before it had already been endangered by several other misadventures.

Ti-i-i-ime is on my hands, yes it is.

— The Rolling Stones

Twenty days, no less, it took us to kayak across Bass Strait from Victoria to Tasmania, perhaps a week longer than average. But here’s the thing: I wish it had been longer.

This journey takes you to some of the wildest, least trammelled and least impacted places you could ever hope to experience. I wonder about paddlers whose focus is simply ‘getting there as quickly as possible’; I can’t help feeling they deprive themselves of the best aspect of this route — a thorough exploration of these special, far-flung places.

Did we battle the famous five metre swells and gales? No, thankfully, we paddled in mostly balmy weather on calm seas. Doing battle with the worst of the elements in Bass Strait is neither advisable nor always necessary, so long as you give yourself the time to enjoy your journey and are not hell-bent on just ‘knocking the bastard off’ as quickly as possible. Bad weather provides just the excuse you need to stop and explore. When two stormy fronts passed us, we got busy enjoying first Wilsons Prom and then Deal Island over a few days, both magical places where I could happily spend weeks exploring the monolithic granite boulders and sensuously curved orange slabs, the shy seal pups and fearless fish, the brutally muscular and ever-inquisitive sea birds. These were not places I was in any hurry to leave.

This trip challenged our endurance, but not our big seas technique; the sheer sustained grunt required for the series of long crossings certainly pushes the paddler — plugging toward a distant island for five, six or eight hours is very different to hopping over to Broughton Island, I can tell you… that smudge on the horizon, almost imagined at first, never seems to get bigger. Of course you should have your rough-water skills at the ready — at an average depth of 50 metres, the strait arcs up almost instantly the minute the wind blows — and we did call on those skills briefly a couple of times.

Our first attempt at crossing from Wilsons Prom to Hogan Island (in a good following wind) was thwarted about 12 kilometres out by an unforecast but savage squall, thick with lightning forking hungrily seaward from inky black skies. The retreat back to land was a sustained battle into steep short seas, stinging wind and hard-driven monster-drop rain. (This event produced a damaging hail storm in Melbourne.)

A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

— John Steinbeck

Sitting out bad weather for the next three days after that retreat, camped in a perfectly formed, trackless cove, the next round of misadventures eventuated. First, during a quick fishing paddle in another squall, my mast snapped in half. At about 3 am the next night, I was shocked awake by fearsome roars, groans and gurgles which I did not identify as human at all for some time until I realised it was poor Matt being ravaged by severe food poisoning (suspected cause a Wrasse which we sunned rather too long before cooking).

It took a couple of days to get both back up to full strength (in the case of my mast a tent pole repair kit and a wooden spoon handle were pressed into service, Matt simply required rest and absolutely no mention of fish), until finally on day four the storms passed, and with considerable relief off we headed once more. After all the setbacks and hold-ups we were abuzz with excitement and anticipation; conditions were good and all was well…

… Until at around 12 kilometres I heard a ‘clunk’ and my steering pedals went slack. Glancing backwards I was sickened by the sight of my rudder hanging in pieces; I could see at once that the aluminium had completely sheered through and it was destroyed beyond repair. Setting off to cross Bass Strait in a rudderless Raider X is unthinkable — the boat’s a pig without steering. I was stunned and then furious, and Matt hurried over to see about my screaming obscenities, quickly grasping the implications of the problem.

Struggling forlornly back to Refuge Cove in a sizeable sea with an unsteerable boat, we gloomily agreed the whole trip was over without a replacement rudder, and debated whether or not we had packed it in the car; we couldn’t remember but in any case we figured by the time we got back there too much time would have been lost to continue with the trip. We were utterly distraught and the water never looked so cold and unforgiving.

However, pulling into the cove we spied a Parks Patrol boat moored close to the beach. We landed and putting on our sorriest faces we told the National Parks guys about our predicament…to our delight they offered us a lift in their boat back to Port Welshpool. We cached all but essential gear, crammed the kayaks and a tent onto the boat and motored off to the ‘big smoke’ where we were greatly relieved to find my spare rudder in the car. Over a welcome feed at the pub we sombrely considered our progress — after five days, we were back to square one.

A pre-dawn start saw us set off for the second time for Refuge Cove — 50 kilometres of unplanned paddling during which we attempted to re-establish a sense of optimism; surely nothing else could go wrong. We made good progress and that night we were treated to an on-board dinner provided by some lovely yachties. Things were looking up.

At sunrise the next day we pushed off for Hogan Island, finally our first big section of open ocean. But some 20 km into the 50 km crossing our new-found optimism evaporated into the shimmering endless expanse when we realised that in our haste to get going we’d screwed up our reading of the tides, turning the crossing into an epic upcurrent and upwind slog. After 60 km and 11 long hours we stumbled onto Hogan completely depleted, however the unpopulated island’s remote charms revived us a little and soon we even got used to the smell of rats’ piss in the quaintly derelict hut that provided shelter. Matt still wasn’t 100% (the violence of his vomiting had pulled muscles in his ribs and back and he was plagued by a persistent and productive chest infection) so the next day saw us take time to recharge and enjoy the island and its dense, fearless wildlife… .magnificent Cape Barren Geese, albatross and sea eagles wheeled in the grey skies, marsupial rats so tame you could pat them dotted the tussock and chewed on every bit of plastic we had, and tens of thousands of penguins released an ungodly racket each evening, necessitating earplugs to catch any sleep at all.

At this point we had come to accept that battling for every step was the norm, so the next day when we were blasted across to Deal Island by 15-20 following knots and exciting seas, we were on a real high, although a sting in the day’s tail was added by a vicious williwaw (gale force wind funnelled and accelerated by land contours, a feature of Deal Island) and a nasty shore dump. Safely landed, we eschewed the usual camp area which was high on the smell of a nearby rotting whale carcass and instead set up on the hillside among the acacias and wallabies, a fortuitous decision because they protected us superbly from the next three days of SW gales (the acacias, not the wallabies that is).

Now if you want to be stuck somewhere truly remote, Deal Island is about as good as it gets. The place is paradise and full of history to add spice — we even got to mop out the colonial lighthouse which had been flooded by the storm. The cross at its base inscribed ‘baby’ was a sombre reminder of the harshness of the old lighthouse-keepers’ existence. Even a day of heavy rain was alleviated by sharing endless cups of tea and yarns with the wonderful resident caretakers, who paradoxically knew nothing of the sea but had spent years exploring Australia’s remotest deserts.

And so finally on day 13 we set off for the big one (60 kilometres) to Flinders Island, another long hard day of slogging towards a never-nearing smudge on the horizon, finally arriving after 10 hours … whereupon our whole trip seemed finally to turn the corner. Tired as we were, to our delighted surprise from that point on, everything went like clockwork and we took advantage of the calming effect of a huge high pressure system for the remaining six days of the trip to visit as many of the islands of the Furneaux Group as we could find the energy for, supplementing our dwindling food supplies with easy fishing bounty (pike and squid) along the way.

Finally, on day 16, fatigue caught up with us and we needed a rest day. So we paddled for 10 kilometres, jogged the five kilometres to the base of looming 2500 foot high Mount Strzelecki and climbed to the top for the most amazing views of our watery arena. Bloody strenuous for a rest day but literally the high point of the trip. Dodging copperheads on the way down, Matt and I decided there are two kinds of Bass Strait paddlers: those that summit and those that don’t!

After a brief visit with the incredibly friendly folk of the Aboriginal village on Cape Barren Island, the area’s most picturesque and well-tended settlement, we progressed easily for the next couple of days, camping on ever smaller islands, until our final camp site was selected. This tiny island — measuring perhaps 60 by 40 metres — was to be our jumping-off point for the last crossing. As we negotiated a rock landing, in the red light of sunset, a dolphin noisily slapped a fin on the water applauding our day’s efforts. There we spent our last cosy night among a noisy multitude of penguins, Cape Barren geese, shearwaters and thumb-sized ants, dreaming nervously about tomorrow’s paddle across notoriously rough Banks Strait, taking assurance from the fact that at least it was short at less than 25 kilometres.

Thanks entirely to luck rather than flawless planning, our stove spluttered and died empty of fuel just as the morning coffee boiled and we packed the boats for the last time. Though the fast flowing tides meant that accurate navigation was tricky, Banks Strait was very kind to us, smooth throughout. However, hazy fog reduced visibility to below five kilometres which meant that we were quickly out of site of all land. Quite disorientated, we followed a compass bearing and did our best to track the effect of the strong currents on our position and likely landing point. Being whited-out for the whole crossing was a little nerve racking and we played it safe.

We sighted Tassie with whoops of delight a few kilometres upcurrent of our final destination, where we were eventually met by a champagne-wielding angel from the Tasmanian Sea Canoeing Club who, taking one look at our scrawny frames and unshaved faces, immediately christened us the ‘hairy racing snakes’. After supplying a friendly welcome and delicious, luxurious refreshments, Cynthia drove us to the ferry terminal and we will be forever very grateful for her generosity.

And so, on the ferry back to Victoria we had our first wash in three weeks! Scrubbing away the brine and grime, I reflected on our superb journey: great people, amazing places, what a privilege. My feeling is that with the appropriate amount of preparation (including lots of fitness for those long slogs), the right approach (including lots of time to await the right conditions) and of course a great paddling partner, most adventurous souls could paddle Bass Strait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In hindsight, our mistakes look obvious: under-preparation. My boat could have been better prepared (I should have replaced the rudder before the trip), as could Matt’s body (he should have taken antibiotics to clear up his chest) and better prepared navigation skills would have helped us plan better for the strong currents… but hindsight is cheap and easy and preparation time is always limited. I wouldn’t change a thing; it was precisely solving these challenges as a team with perseverance, luck and determination that provided the real satisfaction of our trip. Doing so in such a beautiful if unforgiving setting only made it sweeter.

To rush it would be a crime.

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.

— Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, author of Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way), 600 BC-531 BC