By WILLIAM SYMTH
Its calm, but warm currents mean the water is shadowy, and below the point where your paddle blade rhythmically cleaves the water you can see nothing. A heat haze confuses the junction of air and water and the horizon is shimmering, melting.
Several kilometres offshore you are paddling comfortably in these murky waters when a bump to the kayak snaps you into survival mode and you quickly scan the water around you for signs of the debris you have just hit. You see nothing.
You keep paddling, but when a second bump is so fierce it sends the whole kayak lurching violently sideways, forcing you to slam your paddle blade against the surface just to stay upright , you realise you are in the company of inquisitive and aggressive sharks. Black-tipped reef sharks, unhappy with the lack of clarity in the water and confused by your presence, are challenging your kayak to a duel.
Adrenalin floods your body as you await the hit that you may not be able to recover from, and in spite of your almost singular focus on remaining in your kayak you are still, unpleasantly, able to visualise the outcome of a capsize in such hostile territory.
Upon landing later that day you discover that one of your submarine welcoming party has bitten a large chunk from your rudder, which will need to be replaced. Grateful that the only appendage you have lost is one that was attached to your kayak you set about making camp in the wilderness. You are understandably delighted that you had no need of emergency assistance in waters so remote that you would have been fully digested by the time help had arrived.
Welcome to the world of solo, long-distance paddling, on a scale that almost defies description.
If there remains a holy grail in solo kayaking then perhaps the circumnavigation of the Australian coastline, without the aid of a ground crew, is it.
It is a daunting and immense 16000 kilometre trek, in waters offering everything from the uninterrupted might of the Southern Ocean and the associated mountainous swells, to the tropical heat and notoriously unfriendly saltwater crocodiles of the Top End.
It includes three stretches of cliff line that do not offer a landing site for the two days it takes to paddle their length, and which must be tackled in a continuous run as the currents would drive you into the unforgiving land mass should you attempt to sleep. There are complex currents and tidal flows to accommodate and the everyday reality of beach-landings and departures and all the inherent risks they present.
Cyclones, electrical storms, a ridiculous number of venomous or large- toothed marine hazards, exhaustion, dehydration, the kayaking equivalent of bed sores, debilitating weight loss, freak waves -the list of potential problems is limited only by your imagination.
Add to this the staggering demands that paddling 6 to 10 hours a day for the best part of a year would place on the mind and body and you can begin to see the enormity of the challenge.
Only two people have managed the feat, with varying degrees of support or assistance, and are deservedly applauded for the remarkable achievement.
Paul Caffyn set out 27 years ago, at a time when satellite technology was something familiar only to NASA scientists and not the everyday, pocket-sized convenience we know it to be today. He managed the trip in a staggering 361 days. Without the benefit of the safety devices and navigational aids we now take for granted it was a truly astonishing accomplishment and Paul has been the inspiration for many an aspiring long-distance paddler ever since.
More recently German uber-athlete Freya Hoffmeister completed the trip in 332 days with, in her own words, about 20% of the trip supported or assisted. It was an incredible effort by any measure and, with Paul Caffyn as mentor and friend, a fitting new chapter in the story of “Australia by Kayak”.
There remains, however, the question of whether the entire trip is possible without assistance from a support crew and as we speak someone determined to find out if it can be done is somewhere off the coast of South Western Australia, desalinating the Southern Ocean, bumping into sharks, frolicking with dugongs, communicating with whales and growing a fearsome beard.
Stuart Trueman is one of Australia’s most experienced adventure kayakers and has on his paddling resume several solo crossings of Bass Strait, (including one non-stop push) an 800 kilometre jaunt along the Antarctic Peninsula and countless weeks spent on the water in 6 metres of pointy fibreglass, honing his formidable skills.
At least 3 years of meticulous planning – involving logistics that would challenge the armed forces of a small nation- a workplace that is willing to take him back upon his return and a very understanding wife and children, have allowed Stuart to set off on this journey with the goal of an unsupported circumnavigation.
Travelling in a custom-built, Kevlar- reinforced kayak – courtesy of Laurie Geoghegan the water-craft wizard at Nadgee Kayaks – his fully-laden boat will support him for up to two weeks at a time without any need for re-supply.
In order to travel as light as possible a number of parcels, containing conditions- appropriate clothing and equipment, have been posted ahead to be collected as required. These include a desalination kit for the stretches where fresh water cannot be guaranteed, warm clothing for the wintry conditions, spare or replacement flares and batteries and additional dehydrated food packages for the stretch below the Nullarbor.
Stuart is carrying a radio for current weather reports, an EPIRB, and a GPS. He also has the use of a satellite phone until September, which he is using to send his coordinates each day so his progress can be monitored.
He has calculated that he needs to average 50 kilometres a day for every day that the weather permits paddling and has allowed himself about 16 months to complete the journey. A large portion of that may well be spent sitting on his calloused backside on dry land awaiting favourable conditions but he is hoping that won’t prove too much of a problem.
The kayak-chomping shark encounter related above happened to Stuart in the unseasonably warm waters between Broome and Port Hedland. He did manage to replace the rudder. He has also overcome a serious case of heatstroke, struggled with a painful wrist injury, dry-tested his EPIRB only to discover it wasn’t working, lost part of a tooth and had a visit from the ‘Outrageous Beard Police”. Okay, I made the last one up, but the rest are definitely true.
With three-quarters of the journey still in front of him and the enormous challenges that the tropical north will present many months away, there is no doubt that he will be pushed to his absolute physical and mental limits on this incredible trip.
Stuart set off on April 10th and has so far covered around 4000ks. As I write this, on 29th August, he is a speck in the ocean at the base of the immense Baxter cliffs in South Western Australia, with a 160k non-stop paddle ahead of him before he can land again. He is predicting an excruciating 25 hour run on this occasion.
You can follow his progress via the link on the Nadgee Kayaks website, which is updated as often as is possible. We all wish him luck and a safe passage.