By MARK PEARSON
It had taken me a while to realise. I had been sea kayaking a long, long time. Eighteen years. Hundreds of day paddles, dozens of long weekend escapes, and a good number of ‘expeditions’ that had taken me as far south as Fortescue Bay in Tassie and up to Cooktown in FNQ. But I was finding my favourite escape hobby was no longer so enjoyable. I wasn’t experiencing those special moments, wasn’t my usual self around the camp. Had even been a bit grumpy and irritable on recent trips. I went to a behavioural therapist about how I was feeling. She encouraged me to go through my sea kayaking history.
And so I did. The beginnings, joining the NSW Sea Kayak Club, learning to roll, scary surf, the rubbish leaking early boats. Making friends. Enjoying my first camping trips. The excitement of it all.
But then as the years passed the story darkened. I witnessed the emergence of the brand-based factions. The urbane but supercilious Mirage clique, the rather odd Pittarakers, the appearance of annoyingly smug Nadgee owners in the late 90’s. The destruction on rocks of my little Inuit Classic on 31 December 1999. Then on to the new century, the Flare Incident and the age of the Chicken Littles and the obsession with waivers, legal protection and TAFE-style certification. And throughout this period, the culture wars between the Cruisers, a large group of relaxed and psychologically well-balanced sea paddlers, and Bruisers, a sub-group of fastidious zealots obsessed with grinding out kilometres for no real reason. And how that even though I wasn’t a Bruiser I always seemed to end up paddling with them.
I then started to talk about the club members and how annoying they could be. The rough, tough, bearded Aussie blokes whose ‘sense of mateship’ was offended if you didn’t drink beer or camp within a metre of their tent. The dietary experts who always seemed to be smugly munching on a muesli bar to demonstrate their ‘glycemic index’ awareness. The electro gadget freaks crapping on about waterproofing pump switches and GPSs and Waypoints and carrying half a ton of batteries in a boat I would have to help carry. The nervous bloke who’d blow his ‘panic whistle’ if he had a stone in his bootie. The neat freak mummy’s boys with their colour-coded gear and expensive tapered dry bags designed to fit so snugly into the ends of their Mirages. The tough women paddlers with their coarse sense of humour and dirty laughs. That guy who seemed to be sexually aroused by John Howard PM! I found myself letting it all out.
It was a painful exercise, but recounting these memories was helping. And after several sessions, it was becoming clear. In over 200 paddling events since 1994 the number of times I wasn’t surrounded by members of my sea kayaking club I could count on one hand. My therapist finally put her finger on it: what I needed was a total break. Not so much from my favourite ocean pursuit, but from the human element of the NSWSKC.
So I went on to Google Earth to find somewhere far away. I zoomed in on the other side of the northern hemisphere. And there I found Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides islands on the west coast of Scotland. 57 degrees north. Mountainous. Rugged. Remote.
I then searched the web and found an outfit called Highland Ascent, and booked myself three days of sea kayaking complete with ‘wild camping’ on this famous island. It was done! Some 17,000 thousand kilometres from NSW, the haunting Isle of Skye would be the place where I would try to rediscover my kayaking mojo.
So physically I would be far away from my problems, but the therapist warned me that my NSWSKC trauma ran deep; the big challenge would be to keep repressed memories from invading my mind.
And so it was that at Kyleakin on 20 July 2011 I met my guide Andreas. Andreas was a German who had arrived in Scotland in 1996, fallen in love with the place and six years ago had set up Highland Ascent as a mixed outdoor adventure business. So Andreas was now a German Highlander, which gave him a very interesting accent indeed.
It was high summer but even here was unseasonably cold thanks to a fresh northerly wind that had been blowing for a week. Because of this a large air mass had been sucked down from its usual home in the arctic circle a couple of thousand kilometres to the north.
Given the wind and the forecast, Andreas suggested a route on the southern side of the island. We would start at Torin in Loch Slapin, go south to explore some spectacular rocky headlands then turn west then north up Loch Scavaig to make camp at Camasunary. We would then head west to explore the dramatic Loch Na Cuilce and walk up to Loch Coruisk before heading southwest to the Isle of Soay for night 2. Day 3 would be circumnavigation of Soay and then cross over Loch Scavaig to Elgol and the waiting car. Bewitched as I was simply by the evocative names of these places I nodded in agreement. The route also skirted Skye’s dramatic ‘Black Cuillins’, probably the UK’s most dramatic mountain ridge. And 20kms a day sounded good to me to explore and enjoy a new coast.
… I’m discussing my plans. “60kms in 3 days!” growls the Bruiser with carpal tunnel scars on both wrists, “you could do that in a day mate!”
Andreas had brought two very decent fibreglass sea kayaks. He would paddle a very slick looking red P&H Cetus and me a black Island Kayak Expedition. As we packed he told me he had packed a spare midge head net. Such had been the wind I had forgotten about the renowned Scottish midge (Culicoides impunctatus), but I knew that the Aussie sand fly was also in the Culicoides family. I had suffered over the years at the hands of the little Aussie bastards and wondered how their cold climate Scottish relative would compare.
As we set off I did a stocktake of the conditions. The air temperature about 13°C, but the northerly wind chill was making it feel more like 3°C. Even though I was fresh out of a Canberra winter this was hard to take. But I had lugged my paddle and warmest paddling clothing over from Australia to ensure I was comfortable on the water. I wore a compression top, polyester short sleeve top, long sleeve Reed Chillcheater, heavyweight cag and Sea to Summit long pants. And I needed them all. For the first time since Tassie in 200I, I wore a beanie on the water. With the water temperature about 11°C, I decided early on not to practice any wet exits. I noticed Andreas wore no gloves which I thought was silly. But when my own gloves got wet I soon realised that bare skin in this wind was actually warmer.
We blew down the coast enjoying small surfing rides. Having never rented a kayak before I was pleased with my boat. The seat was comfortable and it was reasonably responsive, even though as the wind increased I did need some skeg.
… I’m with a Bruiser come kayak designer. He owns his own business. He’s listing the deck design features on the ‘Hubris’, the new kayak he has put on the market. There are many features. It looks good. He wants me to buy one on the spot. Strangely, he doesn’t offer me a test paddle…
The rock formations got more and more interesting, some headlands resembling the sandstone and granite formations of the NSW south coast. We entered some spectacular caves where I encountered a species of cormorants that nested high up in crevasses in the walls. They didn’t move but bravely vocalised their warnings. Very unlike the skittish characterless creatures we see so regularly on local NSW waters.
Andreas stopped occasionally to point out coastal features or distant mountain ranges, most of which he had climbed. But in between times we paddled along with long periods of just enjoying the scenic experience in appropriate reverential silence.
… I’m paddling the southern Whitsundays. I’m with a Sydney paddler. He’s a commercial salesman. He’s good at talking. He talks and talks and talks. After thirty minutes I’m exhausted just listening. I’m forced to pretend my kayak isn’t tracking well and veer away. Five hundred metres away, I can still hear his voice…
Then half an hour later we close in on a series of larger caves on and over the water line, one of which was the famous spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie hid for some weeks after defeat at Culloden in 1745. Turning north we were full on into the northerly and I actually enjoyed the last seven kilometres of good honest grinding into tight packed wind waves on the way to the camp at Camasunary.
Camasunary was a nice bay with a spectacular valley/mountain backdrop. A river on the left was the outflow of Loch na Creitheach. At the other end of the beach was a beautiful stream strewn with little tumbling waterfalls. On the flat ground was an old crofter cottage, now a ‘bothy’ of the Mountain Bothy Association, which maintain these old cottages for walkers all over Scotland.
We set up camp. I was mightily impressed that Andreas pitched his tent a respectable 20 metres from mine, unlike so many in the NSWSKC, usually the bull snorers, who have absolutely no concept of personal camping space. I walked along the shore, trying to imagine what life would have been like for the crofters who would have lived here up to about fifty years ago. Two Tornado fighters of the Royal Air Force then flew over at a frighteningly low level, banking sharply to follow the glen as it curved to the northwest. Dangerous job even though you could tell they were loving it. A couple of days back I had passed a monument to two dead Tornado pilots near Glen Coe.
Returning to camp Andreas was preparing dinner. Hamburgers cooked on a neat little portable BBQ washed down with a bottle of French ‘syrah’. Not bad but I still prefer good old Australian shiraz.
… Shoalwater Bay. Alone with two Bruisers. It’s my turn to cook for one of them. I’m using his new cooking stove. The controls are fiddly. I burn food on the bottom of the pan. Offer to wash up. But the offer is coldly refused. By burning a new non-stick pan I have broken the Bruiser code. The atmosphere around the camp is strained. It is Day 2 of a 12 day trip…
Andreas was turning out to be an interesting companion, with a huge range of knowledge and interesting Germano-Scottish insights into the ways of the world. This was just what I needed, conversation that enlightened and entertained. I thought how refreshing this was compared to spending night after night listening to the opinionated bigots, techno fetishists and weed-smoking dribblers of the NSWSKC, whose boorish discourse had so often forced me to seek early refuge in my tent.
The conversation turned to climate change. I told Andreas that many Australians did not believe in it. That we had a politician called Tony Abbot who had a ‘direct action’ policy which I tried to explain. In his sophisticated European way, Andreas is both puzzled and amused at this.
… I’m talking to a Bruiser from Sydney. He owns his own business. He seems to be suggesting that climate change is a socialist-inspired conspiracy. I’m polite but hyper-ventilating. I realise that Shock Jocks and the Murdoch press are definitely winning. I decide to get drunk…
But even an interesting conversation couldn’t mask the fact that the north wind was blowing hard through that valley behind us, and despite our ‘full metal jacket’ clothing it was Andreas who eventually suggested we found shelter in the bothy. Here we found three young Belgian bushwalkers.
Now I had never met a Belgian before. I remembered a Monty Python sketch from the 70’s entitled ‘Prejudice’, where there was a TV competition to find a derogatory term for the Belgians. Mrs Hatred of Leicester said “Let’s not call them anything, let’s just ignore them!”, and a Mr John of Huntingdon said he couldn’t think of anything more derogatory than the term “Belgians”. But I digress. And I must say I was immediately impressed by the perfect English of these refined and knowledgeable young men. They were obviously well-educated, and I enjoyed learning about the origins of this slightly obscure nation state. As I retired to my tent I remember thinking what a shame it was there weren’t more of these sophisticated Belgians in the NSWSKC, the only Europeans the club seemed to attract were dour Germanic/Scandinavian types.
Going to bed at 10pm when it is still not even remotely dark is strange. But with my tent on the lushest green grass I’ve ever camped on I was soon asleep. I woke up just after midnight for the call of nature and was stunned to see that the sky behind the clouds still had a glow about it. Amazing.
The next morning I resisted the impulse to get up at the crack of dawn, as dawn was shortly after 4.15 am. I lay there truly thankful that I would not have to suffer a ‘Dawn Creeper’ walking around centimetres from my tent. After a pleasant second sleep I was flushed out of the tent at 7am due to a surprisingly hottish morning sun. We breakfasted on Aldi muesli with coffee before casually loading the boats.
… I’m packing my kayak. I feel I am being observed. I look up to see the Bruiser looking directly at me. He is a public servant, with a life so empty he has put many nights of thought into perfecting a camp dismantling/kayak packing method that only takes twenty two minutes. So he now sits on a rock and watches, his smugness enveloping my thoughts. He is waiting for me to make a mistake in my own haphazard routine. I pretend I am not aware of this, but my stress levels are increasing as I struggle to concentrate. And then it happens, I make the mistake…
We headed south west round the corner into the beautiful craggy bay that is Loch Na Cuilce. I see a tiny rocky islet at the entrance no more than 20 metres across and decide to land. It is difficult but I manage to do it without scraping Andreas’s kayak. I feel exhilarated to be one of only a few to ever set foot on this barren little rock. Andreas dutifully takes the photo.
Then we pass a small colony of Atlantic grey seals. These are shorter bodied and with rounder heads than our southern species. Noticing they would follow our kayaks but would dive when we turned to look at them, I paddled backwards. It worked, they would come within a metre of the ‘stern’, lifting their round heads high as they scanned you with large black inquisitive eyes.
We then paddled past some small waterfalls tumbling down the near vertical slopes of the Cuillins. A river dispersed with some force down some rocky ledges into the sea, the current making it hard to position the kayak for a photo. We landed and walked up to the steep sided and dramatic Loch Coruist immortalised by Sir Walter Scott’s description ‘For rarely human eye has known a scene so stern as that dread lake, With its dark ledge of barren stone’. Yes it was a forbidding place but I would have loved to carry the kayaks up over those falls and paddled up to the loch. One for the bucket list.
After lunch we paddled up to “The Bad Step” … a spectacular part of the coastal walking trail which gives pack-laden walkers some stress as they traverse a near vertical rock face above the cold azure water.
We reluctantly left this magical place turning west along the coast which would end at the peninsular of Rubha an Dùnain. With the weather improving to the extent that I was able to take the beanie and cag off, we explored another eight kilometres of picturesque cliffs and coves before turning east to cross the passage to Soay and our second night camping spot.
… we are on the Murramarang coast. My local coast. Day 2 of a trip. A visiting Bruiser from Wollongong seems to be assuming leadership without a mandate. He owns his own business. I suggest camping at Snake Bay, he ignores me, saying he knows a really good spot. I tactfully try to make the case for my suggestion. He brushes me aside as he would one of his indentured workers. Half an hour later the Bruiser proudly leads the group into Snake Bay…
Andreas was suggesting a camping spot in Soay harbour, a deep inlet that almost bisects the island “although ze midgies can be mur-durr in there” he said in his unique twang. With the wind dropping in the late afternoon I was alarmed at the thought and as we paddled towards the island I spotted a possible elevated site at the entrance to the inlet which would be more spectacular and less midge friendly than the inlet – but could we land?
After a few minutes we located a rock ledge and, standing in the freezing water, managed the tricky lift out. After this I was damp and cold and quickly got into dry clothes, always a golden moment in my sea kayaking day.
… I am with a Bruiser. We arrive back on the Tasmania mainland. It is cold and wet as we load the kayaks onto my car. Stuff is everywhere as we hurriedly get dressed into dry clothes. Now he is asking if I have seen his underpants. I say no. But then realise with dismay I have put on his! It is an awkward situation. Despite profuse apologies the damage is done. I had disrespected a Bruiser’s clean underwear. Broken the Bruiser code. The drive to Devonport is frosty with little conversation…
We set up camp on two grassy spots big enough to pitch our tents and enjoyed the spectacular view over a cup of tea from a comfortable rock platform. Then we walked up the inlet to the ruins of buildings that for a few years processed huge thresher sharks for their oil in the early 1950’s before thankfully going bankrupt. I had hoped to see one of these six metre creatures with their huge tail fin before the end of the trip, but time was running out.
Dinner was pasta with a bottle of shiraz I had brought along, our meal made slightly more exciting by the constant aggressive squawking of two tern-like birds who hovered above us. Their ground nest was nearby and they weren’t happy with the first humans ever to camp on this spot.
We marvelled at the sun descending slowly along the ridge opposite. Today had been scenic sea kayaking at its best. We were millionaires. Memorable.
Waking up next morning I was shocked to find no wind, a warm sun and glassy water with the spectacular Cuillins providing an amazing vista. But ten seconds later I became aware of thousands of ‘things’ in the air around me. The midges had arrived, and were hungry for a feed of human after a week of wind. And man, do these things mean business. No slow circling and sizing you up before gently settling on your skin like their laconic Aussie relatives, these were kamikazes coming in their dozens to land on your face and bite immediately. After killing many I desperately ran to the tent and grabbed the head net. It felt terrible and claustrophobic but I loved it. Andreas finally got up and we enjoyed bacon and egg rolls with tea, lifting our nets briefly for each surreptitious mouthful. Then the chill wind came up again and the midges disappeared back to their swamp. Never has a cold breeze been so welcome.
We packed up and headed off for a circumnavigation of Soay, a less spectacular shore line but still offering a number of sea caves full of colourful rocks and more bird nests. Looking up we saw the occasional wild ram observing us from the cliff tops. A couple of hours later we landed on an east facing bay for a toilet break. A gruff bloke with a Yorkshire accent appeared and invited us up to his half-restored croft for tea and biscuits.
Andreas and I swapped boats and I enjoyed the final seven kilometres paddling the very responsive Cetus to the picturesque village of Elgol. We unpacked and I sorted the gear while Andreas walked up the steep winding hill to get his car.
… the end of a four day trip. We land at Mallacoota. It is cold and drizzling. I stay to tend the kayaks and gear while three Bruisers head up the hill to get the cars which are parked at a local kayaker’s house. I stand and wait in the rain. And wait. Hypothermia is setting in. Sometime later the Bruisers return in their cars, relaxed and warm after enjoying tea and muffins courtesy of the generous host.
It was over. I had loved every minute of my first and hopefully not last northern hemisphere trip. But had I found myself? Had I lifted myself out of my sea kayaking depression? Only my therapist would know.
Footnote: Mark Pearson returned to Australia in August 2011. He has yet to paddle with members of NSWSKC.