Albatross Dreaming [80]

By JOHN WILDE

Bass Strait is often seen as a challenge, a ‘rite of passage’ for the serious sea kayaker. The chain of islands across the strait provide a means to an end: shelter, camping and protection from storms; it is only if the weather is inclement that any time is usually spent exploring the islands themselves.

This is a big pity, as the islands have a great deal to offer. They have a wonderful variety of fauna and flora, wilderness, beauty, isolation from the ‘maddening crowd’ and a rich history of aboriginal settlement, sealer, ship-wrecks and light houses.

One of my best experiences in Bass Strait was to use a charter boat to get to Deal Island, then spend two weeks with twelve other sea kayakers, exploring the many islands round about, walking at leisure on Deal Island itself and socialising with a merry group.

Thus, when Jeff Jennings, of Maatsuyker Canoe Club, invited Mike Snoad and I to join him on a club paddle around islands off the north-west of Tassie, I leapt at the chance. I had paddled in the area thirty years ago and had memories of big seas, strong winds and sheltering from storms. I was not going to be disappointed! Perhaps this time we would also make the fabled Albatross Island, one of the three Australian nesting sites for the shy albatross.

So to Denium Hill, mainland Tassie, just off Robbins Island. Maatsuyker club have a reputation for hard paddling and Mike and I knew that the honour of mainland sea kayakers was on our shoulders. Would we have to eat raw shark meat and sea weed to survive, no bar-stools or blow up armchairs on this trip. I even left my pillow behind.  Would we be able to take the pace against these hard men? Would we ‘let the side down’?

Four members of the club appeared and they seemed like nice blokes. Some of them even had wives and families. We got to talking, yes, we might be OK. As we loaded our boats I noticed one of them fitting in a case of beer. Wow, these were normal guys, not machines. I began to relax.

Leaving at high tide, so we could cross the extensive sand flats that dry out for kilometres at low tide, we had a fair wind and soon we were cruising along in relaxed style.

So to the first night to Stack Island. Unfortunately this was in the midst of a penguin and mutton bird colony and as dark drew on their raucous cries started to fill the air. Next squadrons of mutton birds [sooty shearwaters] started to crash into the bush all around us and somehow these distractions seemed to last all night. You would think a bird as graceful in flight as a shearwater would know how to land, but no, they must have missed that lesson.

Next day, somewhat sleepless, but raring to go, we headed out to Penguin Islet, a pelican breeding site, as well as the home of many other birds, then to Cave Bay, on Hunter Island, to camp and explore a cave which was inhabited by aboriginals 30,000 years ago. Wow, there is a lot to see around here!

Next we visited Three Hummock Island, where John and Bev, the caretakers at Chimney Cove, a 50 acre lease on the otherwise national park island, made us so welcome that, when we had completed a circumnavigation of the whole island over two days and were then stormbound again at the Cove, they allowed us to use the homestead next to our camp to cook and shelter in.

During the next few days we helped them install a 20,000 litre water tank and cut tracks on other parts of the island as part of their lease agreement with national parks.

Finally the weather moderated and we looked clear to try for Albatross Island. We were still uncertain if we would be able to actually land there, as there are no beaches and the only option is to land at the base of cliffs in a rocky gulley, often impossible in a decent swell.

A trip back to Hunter, then a 20 kilometre ferry against a current up to 4 knots, dodging ‘Dangerous Bank’, a break up to 4 metres in height, saw us draw near to the black rocks of the island itself and the first albatross, adult birds with a wing span of over 2 metres, started to hover over us.

At the gulley the sea was calm and Peter, the only one of us with a plastic boat, was persuaded to land first to help us drag our loaded, glass boats over the rocks.

There we were in a paradise of birds, seals and fish, on an island about one kilometre long by 100 metres wide, jutting out into the main current of Bass Strait like the prow of a ship cutting through the water at speed, as the currents sped past.

Our gulley was covered with pig face plants and a steep climb led us to a huge cave where the sound of seals below was amplified to giant qualities. Lastly a steep slope of several hundred metres took us to the top of the island and there they were.

Hundreds if not thousands of young albatross, patiently waiting for the adult birds to descend and feed them; above, dozens of mature birds gliding effortlessly with huge wings, swooping off the cliff face, riding the thermals and looking like gods. Now this really did seem like a dream, but no, this was for real.

For further details, check out Jeff Jenning’s video on YouTube: search for Albatross2010 or jeffdjtube. It’s worth the time.

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