By IAN VAILE
Sunday morning, Gabo Island, before dawn. The forecast was 30 knot SW winds and thunderstorms for the leg to Mallacoota. But it was the Monday forecast that got us up before the sun:
Winds: south to southwesterly 25 to 35 knots, becoming southwesterly 30 to 45 knots around dawn then increasing up to 50 knots east of Mallacoota for a period Monday afternoon. Seas: Up to 7 metres decreasing to 5 metres later in the evening. Swell: southwesterly 1 to 2 metres.
The day before we’d landed in bright sunshine for a stroll to the lighthouse: twenty minutes later we were slanted into a sleeting hailstorm with a black and green boiling sky, ripping lightning and a fierce wind lashing our bare legs. The lighthouse keeper let us camp on the island because we couldn’t safely depart in this gale. He didn’t invite us in to his house, he was a busy man, but he was kind enough to unlock the paint store by the dock so we could play with the rats. We were grateful.
Five days earlier the four of us had packed our boats on the beach of Boydtown under grey skies and in intermittent rain: Richard “Sea Eagle” Anderson, David “Mistress” Page, Claudia “Pink Lady” Schremmer and myself, “Blue Note”. Watched only by disinterested gulls, we set off.
By the time we hit the mussel-grounds of the woodchip-mill jetty we were in perfect conditions, smooth seas under a placid grey sky with very little wind or swell. We settled into a paddling rhythm. As we rounded Boyd’s Tower on its bright red headland, and the satanic gantries of the chip mill passed from sight, we left behind the mundane world. In light winds Mistress Sea Shepherd’s Jolly Roger flag flapped indifferently from his stern. We asked him to put it back on his boat where it belonged.
We planned a five day trip with a day spare: Boydtown to Mowarry (13km); Mowarry to Merrica River via Bittangabee (33km); Merrica to Nadgee River (18km); Nadgee to Tullaberga island (26km) then a meander into Mallacoota (7km).
With the good conditions and a song in our hearts we covered the leg to Mowarry in a couple of hours. We pulled ashore at the beach for lunch and decided immediately to push on to Bittangabee. With long hours of December daylight and benign seas we dawdled down the coast, scooting into rock gardens and inlets. The folded rocks and caves are spectacular, with rich red beds of rock and jagged dark teeth reaching out into the sea. When we eventually pulled into Bittangabee the sun was still high so we explored the creek, Sea Eagle spooking sea eagles from the overhanging trees.
Mistress logged into Eden rescue, as we did every morning and night. We all carried VHF sets. Pink Lady had a freshly minted radio operator’s ticket and she used it enthusiastically.
We camped, interrupted only by a strolling pair of Swiss walkers who made the mistake of straying too close to Pink Lady. They departed bearing a bewildered expression and a bag of our rubbish.
A stiffening breeze from the north-east encouraged us to raise the sails next morning. We gazed in awe on the acreage of sailcloth Mistress was deploying: St Elmo’s fire played about the top of his mast as his mighty sail blotted out the sun for hundreds of metres.
On we sped to the Green Cape lighthouse, where a lone seal frolicked with our boats for a few minutes. From Green Cape straight across Disaster Bay to Merrica river is 10km, while following the shore adds another five onto that. The wind was now gusting towards 15-20 knots and we decided to snug in behind the headland and then strike across the bay directly downwind.
This turned out to be a good idea: the southern side of Green Cape has endless fascinating pockets and coves, and protected from the NE winds so we could nudge in to rock gardens and gauntlets. Pink Lady made a fine intentional seal landing with her bow on an exposed rock. Her second (backwards) landing on the same rock was neither intentional nor elegant, she left a chunk of her boat’s nose on the rock to mark her passage. Mistress also had a similar adventure and I’m sure Pink Lady felt better for the company.
Turning our noses to Merrica, we hoisted the sails and set out across the bay while the wind started to throw whitecaps. I’m a kayaker, not a sailor. Under this unnatural mode of propulsion the eight kilometre crossing was exhilarating but a little tense, as my laden boat alternately buried its nose and then tried to broach. Edging awkwardly, I watched my companions cheerfully scoot back and forth across the wind as they drank cups of tea, played Sudoku and ate cucumber sandwiches from their cockpits.
I may have been ungainly and only intermittently in control but I did make landfall first, battling through the mighty 10cm waves to the beach and into the river. We camped at a charming spot protected by tea-trees and set up a little Soweto of tarps and ropes. There was still plenty of daylight so while Mistress annoyed the flathead in the creek the rest of us headed upriver to explore. Past cliffs swarming with native bees and festooned with orchids we came to a block-up and hauled the boats up onto the rocks, the happy grinding of gelcoat on granite bringing back fond memories of whitewater days.
A little upstream we came on an amazing pool, a hundred metres across, too deep to plumb and a rich tea colour. Pink Lady, Sea Eagle and I lolled in the fresh water, a relief after the salt, until we heard rumblings in the distance. Either Mistress had met his match or there was thunder on the way.
A drenching storm rolled through on dusk, temporarily driving away the mosquitoes, but our contraption of tarps proved equal to the job, steering the collected water to where it could cause the most embarrassment. As the glittering blue Steripens came out, I thought I had seen the apex of technology on the trip. How wrong I was.
With strong SW winds forecast the next day we decided on a lay day. I now found I had seriously underestimated the technological prowess embodied in the trip, as the solar chargers, voltmeters, rectifiers and Wheatstone Bridges came out and a parade of different devices were plugged in. I also discovered that Sea Eagle and Mistress had effectively been carrying blocks of lead: they both produced lead cell batteries that dwarfed my puny pump battery, and led Pink lady to muse wistfully and at length about the stability benefits of carrying a housebrick in one’s hand for rolling.
Under my unerring and confident navigation we set out to walk to the ranger hut, a gentle 4km stroll away. An hour later, as we struggled up a sheer rock face in thickets of thorny scrub, I had to admit to maybe just a little bit of erring, but a mere half-hour later we came to the wide road which led directly to the deserted ranger station. We took the road all the way back, and next time we’ll remember the track starts near the other campsite.
That afternoon Mistress provoked gasps of admiration as from his boat he conjured a commercial fibreglass repair kit still in its original cardboard box, complete with rollers, resin and matting. Despite our best advice and our combined years of experience in fibreglassing, Pink Lady managed to make a successful repair to her boat’s rock-bitten nose.
The following day we set out for the southern haul down to Nadgee River. A brisk NE tailwind filled our sails and we stood a little way off the coast to take advantage of the consistent wind. Off Jane Spiers beach we were joined by a pod of dolphins and for twenty minutes they escorted us south, leaping and playing, rushing in near and then further away from the kayakers. As ever, it was fascinating to watch the powerful muscular animals, so wilful and at ease in their environment. The dolphins were also interesting.
And then we were at Nadgee. We landed through moderate surf into the river. The campsite here was not as comfortable as Merrica but nevertheless accommodated all of us easily and well above the tide. We had some time to spare so we navigated the Nadgee as it meandered inland. No sign of the rock walls and large trees here: we were in channels in a floodplain, with high grass and scrub, and occasional stands of spindly melaleucas.
After scraping and forcing our boats through a series of fallen trees we came to a wooded tangle which rose several feet from the water: defeated, we manoeuvred our boats around in the narrow channel and headed back. On the way we gathered water dripping from soaks in the overhanging mud banks. Steripens got a workout that night.
Out from Nadgee in rain again in the morning, but once more calm seas. We headed south to Cape Howe, with not even enough wind to stir Mistress’ Jolly Roger. Eventually through the drizzle the sands of the cape hove into view, revealing a small fleet of abalone boats scattered offshore.
Gabo Island light appeared far in the distance as we rounded the cape. Once more the wind gods smiled, and a steady NE wind saw us directly across to Gabo. To circumnavigate the island we headed for the southern tip. A few fur seals and birds greeted us as we slipped between Gabo and an offshore islet to the south – and then we were suddenly treated to dozens of seals in the water, with groups of twenty or thirty swirling and scooting out past us. It was an astonishing sight, and fragrant as well. We hung around a while and then made for the jetty at the north end of the island. Mistress had been in touch with Mallacoota rescue and they’d told the lighthouse keeper we were coming.
In bright sunshine we set out for the lighthouse, pausing only to admire the titanic thunderstorm rolling in quickly from the southwest. Very quickly. As mentioned, the keeper gave us permission to camp and opened the paint store back at the jetty.
After the deluge Pink Lady, Mistress and I set off to go for a walk around the bay leaving Sea Eagle comfortably lolling at the camp. When we returned he was very pleased with himself, and with little prompting told us he’d been busy. He found a post-hole shovel and had dug four beautifully-formed perfectly round holes, spaced a metre or so apart, behind the shelter of a bush, so that in the morning we would have the best a bush toilet could offer. Naturally we scoffed at his industry but I know secretly we were all looking forward to using them. They worked a treat.
That night we sat and watched hundreds of penguins come ashore and waddle straight past us into the tussocks, under the threatening gaze of a pair of patrolling sea eagles.
The dire forecast for Monday meant we wanted to get out early Sunday, so we rose before dawn, booted the penguins from our tents and made the crossing to Mallacoota, 12km distant, with (astonishingly) yet another nor’easter to blow us on. The bar was wide open, so we paddled serenely through at 8.30. Mistress showed us the way to the ramp, where a couple of the locals from the volunteer rescue service were waiting. Mistress had also lined up the lift back to Eden, driven by Larry Gray’s brother, of all people.
We’d been blessed by the weather gods the whole trip, with calm seas, brisk but not overpowering nor’easters, and some beautiful overcast paddling days. We arrived sleek, well fed, and pleased with ourselves: a great trip in great company.