Cliffs, Reefs and Remote Islands
I glanced up squinting tiredly through my salt encrusted eyes. I focussed momentarily on a reef that had just appeared. I glanced again and the reef had gone. Jolted by the surprise I lifted my posture and checked around me more thoroughly. Suddenly a whale rose like a submarine, lifting water that then spilled off its back and into the ocean. The huge whale crashed down leaving the ocean stirred and confused. Spellbound and surprised, I just couldn’t believe my luck, what a spectacle! Moments passed before the whale disappeared and the sea calmed. I scanned all around me wondering with some apprehension where the whale might surface again.
It was time for another expedition. I was itching to start my Geraldton to Carnarvon expedition after several months of having Ross River Virus and being unable to do any physical exercise. My 610kms journey (a 410km ocean paddle and a 200km walk), would take me along a coastline that had historical shipwrecks, the first permanent landing of white men in Australia, a world heritage area, two nature reserve islands rarely visited, whales migrating, and the most westerly mainland point of Australia. I would also walk the longest stretch of cliff line in Australia. To ensure I had the best back up team I chose Judy Shaw and Phil who were very experienced outdoor people and people I trusted.
Phil & Judy my support team
I had been laid up for several months, due to contracting a sickness called Ross River Virus. Up until then I had been very active in the outdoors, so it was an enormous shock to my system when I couldn’t do anything. Ross River Virus or Fever, as it is sometimes referred to, is transmitted by mosquitoes and seems to affect people at varying levels. Although it’s not generally life threatening, it can be very debilitating and frightening when you first contract it. One day I was great, the next all my joints were stiff, aching and pretty painful. After completing many expeditions, my latest being a 24,000 kilometre walk, cycle and kayak around the remote parts of Australia continuously for one year, I was feeling pretty down. It was as if my world had come to an end.
The following months I found it hard to walk, nearly impossible to kayak and even painful when changing gears in my vehicle. The worst thing though, was not knowing, what I had. It was a relief, when a couple of weeks later, I was diagnosed with the virus. It appears that I was one of the lucky ones however, because many people have it for years, but I was able to start light training after 7 months.
Since my big trip around Australia, I had been dreaming of paddling, walking and cycling around the USA, but my lay up had put a temporary halt to that trip. I was still determined to do it though, so when my health started to improve, I planned a smaller expedition to find out if my fitness and endurance level would hold up. I chose the mid-west of Western Australia because it is remote, rarely visited, and it issued a challenge.
The aim was to ocean paddle and walk from Geraldton to Carnarvon. Geraldton (population 30,000) is 421kms north of my home city of Perth and is the major town in the Midwest region. Geraldton has a big rock lobster industry, and exports them all around the world. Although it is sparsely populated between Perth and Geraldton, there are even fewer people between Geraldton and Carnarvon. The coastline is famous for several Dutch shipwrecks, though very isolated for much of the way, it has some spectacular scenery and is rich in history. Carnarvon (population 8,000) is on the mouth of the Gascoyne River, 900kms north of Perth. It services the Upper Midwest region of Western Australia, and grows many tropical fruits, but is well known for its bananas.
Between Geraldton and Carnarvon there are two main settlements. A small tourist town of Kalbarri lies 150kms north of Geraldton. It is a great place to relax, go fishing along the coast or in the Murchison River mouth. The coastline is very scenic and rugged, with high cliffs dominating the area. Walking in the spectacular gorges, which run through a beautiful national park, is another favoured pastime.
Over 200kms north of Kalbarri is the world heritage area of Shark Bay. Shark Bay is famous for its dolphins at Monkey Mia, Shell Beach, the Stromatolites and the Shark Bay Marine Park. Every day dolphins drop in to swim in the shallows and entertain the tourists. It’s one of the rare occasions that people can interact with dolphins in their natural habitat. Other than these two locations there is little between Geraldton and Carnarvon.
Sunday September 1996:
At last I was ready. I entered the kayak paddled away from the beach and completed a circle for the sake of the cameraman. I had a quick look over my shoulder before heading north along a coastline where three Dutch vessels, the ‘Batavia’ (1629) the ‘Zuytdorp’ (1712) and the ‘Zeewijk’ (1727) were wrecked, well before Captain Cook was ever born. My kayak was called a ‘Mermaid’ which was a good stable, sea worthy and reliable boat capable of carrying huge loads. It wasn’t as fast as some of the more slimmer, longer kayaks, but speed wasn’t a concern on this trip.
Progress had been slow against a Northwest wind and I wasn’t at my usual fitness level, so when I had paddled 25kms to Coronation beach it was time to stop. I felt a little tired from my first days ordeal. My exit from the ocean to get to Coronation Beach didn’t look good though, there was a reef breaking 500 metres from shore and I saw no safe spots to paddle in. I looked on, waited and then made my run. I paddled hard on a lull in the wave pattern. For the first 100 metres progress was good, but then the swell started to build and break behind me. When it caught up I began to surf, as my bow started to dive I suddenly saw a reef below me. Instantly I turned into a sideways position to prevent my kayak from nose-diving. The wave broke, I held a high brace as the wave swamped and bounced me sideways until it dissipated. I straightened up and accelerated once more, but another wave caught up which repeated the procedure, leaving me bouncing uncontrollably again until it dissipated.
I made it to shore where Judy and Phil were waiting and after making camp on the beach, an old friend, Kate Rickerby, and her husband, gave me surprise visit. Later Alec, a friend of Judy and Phil, brought along some T bone steaks, salad and a barbecue plate. A beer, a mug or two of port and a brilliant sunset was a perfect way to end my first days paddling.
Morning came and I was back into the kayak, showing little signs of stiffness, which pleased me. I cut through the water towards the reef break, waited for a lull and accelerated before the waves returned. The sea was calm on the other side of the reef with little wind. The hot sun beamed down and reflected off the water instantly making me feel drowsy. I passed two small river mouths along the coast before reaching the Bowes River mouth. Here the murky brown water filtered out from the river and made the ocean look like a chocolate mousse with ripples. I pushed on across it and just before a point close to Horrocks, I glanced up squinting tiredly through my salt encrusted eyes. I focussed momentarily on a reef that had just appeared. I glanced again and the reef had gone. Jolted by the surprise, I lifted my posture and checked around me more thoroughly. Suddenly a whale rose like a submarine lifting water that then spilled off its back and into the ocean. The huge whale crashed down again leaving the ocean stirred and confused. Spellbound and surprised, I just couldn’t believe my luck, what a spectacle! Moments passed before the whale disappeared and the sea calmed. I scanned all around me wondering with some apprehension where the whale might surface again. I had ridden bulls and bareback horses but I didn’t have riding a whale’s back, in mind.
I watched two whales
It rose again, this time I was able to focus on the experience. When it dived, the tail fin would sweep slowly out of the water and then slice smoothly underwater. Hiding in the shadow of the larger whale, a smaller whale muscled so close they looked as if they were one. I turned and paddled closer, following them. I hunted for my cameras hidden in a rear hatch and started taking pictures. At times it was really hard to determine if there were one or two whales, or if they were on their backs or bellies. They were playing, moving very slowly and at times came to a complete halt, so it was easy for me to keep in contact. The big one was probably 30 to 40 foot long with barnacles encrusted on its large head. At times only a huge, solitary fin broke the surface of the water and it was then that the whale looked very much like a giant shark.
Humbled by the experience, it was time to move on and face a surf break at Horrocks Bay. Once on the beach I was greeted by a couple who were whale spotting, and they told me that the whales had followed me for about a kilometre after I had paddled away from them.
Wind and rain swept with ferocity through the caravan park that night. By morning the storm had turned the sea into one mass of white caps and the wind was so strong it was near impossible to walk along the beach. The reef break was now huge. Incredible to look at, but suicidal to attempt to leave, so I had a rest day.
A storm lashes the reef at Horrocks Beach
By the next morning the weather had cleared and the wind had eased, but the reef break was still huge, with a 3 – 4 metre swell running out at sea. I paddled north, inside the breakers that surrounded the bay. I stopped a hundred metres or so out from the beach, near a red buoy where I paddled in two days earlier, and waited for a lull in the crashing waves. The breakers were a frightening sight. Why was I going out? I waited longer than usual to ensure I picked the smaller waves. I didn’t want to attempt to challenge the crashing waves prematurely. While waiting, the wind continually pushed me away from my take off position. Unfortunately the dumping surf never let up, there wasn’t going to be a lull and I knew I couldn’t sit there all day.
The noise of the dumping waves and the whistle of the wind was enough to get my blood to boil, but somehow, even knowing that I had a slim chance to break through the barrier of hurling waves, I felt fairly calm. I had been in this situation several times before, however, these waves were big and truly an invitation for disaster.
I could ponder no longer, so I made my move. I paddled strongly and mounted one, two, three rolling waves. Luck was on my side as I paddled vigorously and confidently to clear them. I gave out a sigh of relief when I thought I was out of trouble. Suddenly another huge breaker reared up 30 metres away and curled straight towards me. It was gigantic. Seconds past allowing me time to collect my thoughts, I was facing a sea kayakers worst nightmare – a wave that looked impossible to penetrate.
The wave broke and a wall of white water 3 metres high hurled towards me at a destructive speed. I had a little more time to consider my fate. With such power in the wave, I just knew that I wouldn’t get through, it was just too big and furious. Although I didn’t want to think the worst, a capsize was inevitable. I quickened my pace to take the wave by the horns, hoping to break through and show the it who was boss, but I was no match. No more time for thinking, devastation was on my doorstep. I was powerless, the wave hurtled me over backwards and wrapped me around and around until I had no idea what was happening. I was caught in the turbulence, bubbles and frothy water. After several flips and a couple of attempted rolls, the wave left me confused and parted from my boat. I still had hold of my paddle and the kayak was within an arms length, but my map and some dried fruit were floating several metres away. With the wave gone I was left floating in the ocean on 3 – 4 metre swell and with the possibility of another wave bearing down.
I paused and gathered my thoughts. The shore was 300 – 400 metres away and there were 3 or 4 sets of breakers pounding the reef that I had just paddled over. Because I paddle alone a lot I had developed an outrigger system to allow me to get back into the kayak easily when it was as rough and within a minute I had it set up and was back in my kayak. Water lapped around my waist, so I started pumping out the water with my foot pump. At the same time, I placed my spray cover on, re-positioned the outrigger and paddled off rising and falling with the big swell.
It was an epic departure, but I was now safe and the scary stuff was behind me. In all the 20 years of sea kayaking, that was only the third time that I had parted from my boat. I felt good about the self-rescue, practice and forward thinking had me safely back in my boat in no time.
I moved along the coast pumping out the water from my cockpit and riding a swell that had me vomiting. When my stomach was emptied, I felt better, but a disconcerting splash behind my stern, stirred up by a following shark soon grabbed my attention. The day had only just begun and I wondered what else could happen! However Apart from seeing two more whales, the rest of the day to Port Gregory went without a hitch.
With Port Gregory being sheltered by the reef several kilometres long, my arrival and departure was easy. However, landing at Lucky Bay that afternoon was going to be a little more turbulent. I made steady progress along the coast to the start of another reef section that protected the coastline for several kilometres. Here I moved out to keep away from the surf pounding the reef as whales swam by. I moved on searching for Lucky Bay, an area of beautiful white non-vegetated sand dunes. My eyes strained to find two shacks that were supposed to be there. On several occasions shapes on the horizon looked like houses, but on closer inspection turned into sand patches amongst the low vegetation. I seemed to paddle for ages and my energy was starting to deplete. I was grateful when the shacks finally appeared. I longed to get to shore but there were no gaps in the reef to get through, I paddled on. At the same time I found a small gap my support vehicle laboured across the soft sand dunes. Judy and Phil obviously spotted me, as they stopped opposite the gap, which was a good 50 metres from the beach. I paddled through it with care, and once inside the reef, I did a sharp left to prevent being demolished by the shore break at that point. Inside the reef the water was very unstructured and confused making paddling quite difficult. I finally beached in the middle of a huge bare sand dune area to make camp.
It was a blustery night camped on the dunes with no wind protection. Sand particles built up around my swag. It was like being in the Sahara desert in a storm.
My departure through the reef was less stressful than my entry, as I knew exactly where to go. The wind whipped waves onto the kayaks bow as I headed north, forcing me to paddle hard to keep the boat running. The day was going to be tough, 45 kms in distance, 25kms of cliffs and an estuary entrance at Kalbarri that has a notorious reputation for being rough and difficult to negotiate.
When the cliffs appeared the wind lightened which lessened my anxiety. The day became better as the afternoon approached but experience has shown me not to become too complacent. Whales moved along the coast heading south, while I moved north being dwarfed by whales on one side and high cliffs the other side.
A few tourists stood aloft the cliffs as I paddled closer to the river mouth. I searched for landing spots just in case the river mouth was too dangerous to paddle through and at one point I noticed a small beach nestled between two cliff headlands. Although a large surf dumped on it, I kept it in mind. Passing Red Bluff a charter boat stopped and all on board asked me where I was going. The skipper said that the tide was going out of the river entrance, so it would be very tricky if not impossible for me to get through, at least until the tide has turned. “If you have problems wait for me at the river entrance until 5.00 pm, I will give you a lift in, my next charter is then”.
The cliffs near Kalbarri
I took a wide berth around the extended reef protecting the Murchison River mouth. I kept a sharp eye on the surf breaking on the reef and the surf pounding the rocky shoreline as I moved around the reef’s northern end. Moving closer to the river entrance, the gap became narrower and a swell started to form, which created an unusual wave pattern as the river shallowed. The noise of the dumping surf on the shore rocks became deafening. The salt spray leaped high into the sky giving me blurred images of the Kalbarri roof tops. My pulse quickened as the sea vibrated with the wave refraction’s rebounding from both the shore rocks and the reef. The kayak wobbled and see-sawed on and in the hollows of the wave troughs. Surf waves started to come in from behind. One wave broke on me, I braced and it carried on through to the beach. The water bounced violently shaking the kayak. I paddled through it getting closer to the calm of the river. Finally a small wave picked me up and surfed quickly towards the beach. I glanced up to the lookout on the hill and noticed a crowd looking on. I sat on the beach for a short time taking a breather and resting my stiff, battered body, reflecting on the day.
Phil and Judy were waiting at the car park nearby. After tying my kayak onto the roof I strapped a bush shower onto its stern and stood underneath it letting the fresh cool water cleanse my salt encrusted body. I looked north. There, lay 200 kilometres of cliff line that I was now about to walk. One journey had finished another was about to begin.
Landed at the Kalbarri river mouth
I crossed the river by rowboat on a one way ticket late that morning after shopping in town. With a loaded pack the soft beach sand smothered my ankles as I walked around the inlet to the coast. I stopped near a rock platform to take photos of the rugged coastline and cliffs ahead. I had only heard of one other person, who had walked the full length of this coastline, now it was my turn. The map showed very few features in the region where I was about to walk.
Leaving Kalbarri for a 200 km walk along the Zuytdorp Cliffs
There were no cliffs for the first few kilometres, only a severely sloping soft beach that stretched along the coast in a small arc, that made walking tough on my ankles. A reef just covered by the water took the full beating of the crashing waves. Even along here, only a short distance from the river mouth, landing a kayak would be treacherous.
Rock headlands and rock platforms started to appear, but the majority of walking was still on the soft sand. The further north I walked though, cliffs started to form forcing me to make detours. Goats roamed the rocky platforms and cliffs in their dozens, leaving the platforms completely covered with goat droppings.
Herds of goats were along the first part of the coastline
This part of the coast was one of the driest in W.A. It was also very isolated and inhabitable with no one, or no building fronting the coastline for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. There were very few tracks and although some were indicated on our map, once used by abalone divers many years ago, they were now well deserted and virtually impassable.
Old shacks once used by the Abalone fishermen
Evidence of abalone fisherman littered the cliff tops – rubbish, abalone shells and parts of buildings. I pushed on skirting the cliff tops and scampering up and down gullies that steepened as the day progressed. Many of the deep gullies gouged the earth several kilometres inland. I checked my GPS hourly. It gave me very accurate kilometre readings but it didn’t take into account the diversions and up and downs that I had to encounter. The heat strengthened hourly throughout the day. Goat sightings were becoming much rarer, and although their presence still left scars on the environment, their tracks made walking easier. Kangaroos however, were still resident in high numbers. They stood before me, sometimes only metres away and then fled bounding across the scrub. My spirits were always lifted when I watched this magnificent sight.
An old fence line no longer has a purpose
When I met up with Phil and Judy on one of the deserted tracks their day hadn’t been without problems. The battery cable going to the dual battery switch had chaffed through, shorting and killing both batteries. Every time they turned off the engine they had to park on a hill to make sure they could roll and jumpstart it. They later returned to Kalbarri to get new batteries.
Two days later I was to meet up with the guys at the historic Zuytdorp wreck site. I bounded along the cliff tops the closer I got to the site, happy as Larry. Although I knew that I wouldn’t see any of the wreck, it was still very exciting. The Dutch merchant ship Zuytdorp, bound for Jakarta from Holland was wrecked on this cliff line in 1712. Aboard were more than 250 passengers and crew and a cargo of 248,000 guilders in newly minted coins. There is evidence of survivors, but their fate remains one of the enduring mysteries in the history of Australian shipwrecks. The wreck was found in 1927 and first explored by divers as late as 1964.
At the Zuytdorp wreck site
The cliffs at this point were around 35 metres high, which were relatively low, considering they gain the height of 250 metres near Womerangee Hill, a little further north. The sky, apart from a few cottonwool clouds out to sea, was perfectly blue. As the late afternoon sun dipped it brought out the ochre orange colours of the low cliffs. A medium sized surf pounded the rock ledges fronting them and when the waves exploded the ledges were as white as froth on the top of a cup of cappachino . These wave surges also activated small blowholes that hissed and shot spray into the air. For me, it was a very relaxing scene.
Blow holes near the wreck site
Beneath the depths of the ocean, just out from the rock ledges were parts of the Zuytdorp wreck. I stared into the ocean wanting to see more of the wreck. Shadows were cast by the setting sun, prompting me to have illusions of the wreck, but these illusions were just that. I stood looking on one of Australia’s major mysteries, wondering what life must have been like for the survivors of the wreck.
As I walked further north gullies that intersected the cliffs were often steep and well vegetated. Here cave overhangs were sculptured out of the porous rock. My boots were no match for the rocky cliff tops. They were being bruised and battered. Water was a big problem out here, after topping up that morning, although the weight, heavy at the beginning of the day was becoming lighter as it became low. The heat and strenuous walk induced me to drink often. By 5.20 pm I reached an old shack 2 kms from my destination, with only 2.5 litres of my 7 litres left. I pressed on across the scrub, dodging bushes and not wanting to arrive after dark. At the top of a small hill my GPS indicated that I had 500 metres to rendezvous point with Judy and Phil who were driving along the overgrown tracks to get to bring me water. Below I could see a grass plain, but there was no sign of Judy, Phil or the vehicle. As I descended I could see no wheel marks on the grass. I climbed the next rise, a large sand patch littered with limestone rocks and walked in a circle among the sand patches choking back a thirst that I needed to quench. There was still nothing to be seen. Darkness began to drift in quickly, leaving me with a slight bout of uncertainty and fear. Where were they! I left them that morning with 25 kilometres for me to walk and about 45 kilometres for them to drive.
I weaved across the sand dune shouldering my hefty pack, back towards the nondescript track. I followed it and found a more defined track leading across the sand dune. There was nothing lying on the other side, no vehicle, no tracks, only an abandoned airstrip. Thirst was throttling my throat as I descended the ridge, but with less than two litres left I was reluctant to drink. A disused track continued east from the airstrip. I stayed where they intersected and formed a cairn with rocks and branches before heading back up the ridge with my little hand held radio to have another attempt at calling the guys. There was no reply. I looked towards the east, straining to focus on the track in the far distance. Where were they! Has something happened to them? If so, what would I do tomorrow if they didn’t arrive? I would certainly run out of water. Would I have to use my distress beacon to attract help?
It was completely dark when I descended the ridge to my pack. There was now nothing for me to do but to arrange my bed. Because I expected to meet up with them, I hadn’t carried my sleeping bag. It was going to be a cold night and the only comfort and protection that I had was my bivvy bag, my clothes and a thin foil emergency blanket. Trying to sleep seemed the best thing to do to conquer my thirst but it was hard. Not only did the cold creep in, but my mind was very active wondering what had happened to them. As I laid there I was planning a course of action, if Judy and Phil didn’t reach me before my water ran out. The nearest settlement or station was easily 100 kilometres away and there was no possibility that I would find fresh water in this desolate and remote wilderness. Somewhere out there were Judy and Phil. Something must have happened for them not to be here but I knew that they would do everything to get to me, even if it meant walking through the scrub to bring me water. They were very capable and I trusted them more than anyone else to find me.
The night had been chilly and I was cold. A layer of moisture was sandwiched between my body and the foil emergency blanket, but the morning sun soon started to warm me through. I unzipped my bivvy bag, crawled out and walked across the abandoned airstrip. There was still nothing. My thirst had not lessened, nor had the strength of the sun’s rays. I climbed the ridge again to gain height and check the surrounding country for any movement. There was none. I then took some water and walked east along a deserted track that the guys would probably use to find me. It hadn’t been used for ages and it was riddled with large sandstone rocks and soft sand. I turned after 1.5kms and sat on the top of a hill amongst the low scrub looking east and keeping several kilometres of the track in sight.
With just a drop of water left, I bed down for the night
By 10.30 am, with the heat bearing down I caught a movement from the south. With great surprise I momentarily saw a flash of white in the far distance. It vanished, then there was nothing but scrub. Then just as my heart began to sink, my white vehicle appeared climbing a ridge like a hero on a movie set. Yes, yes, I was rescued. It was hard to believe that they were coming. I jumped up shouting and waving, but to no avail, Judy and Phil couldn’t see me. They cruised on, slowly winding their way down the rough ridge until they reached the airstrip and my camp. The vehicle stopped, I ran at a swift pace back down the track, forgetting about my thirst. Judy soon noticed me, we greeted one another with open arms.
“We have been driving for hours”, she said. “The roads were that rough and overgrown, we could walk faster”. One of us had to walk ahead and clear limestone boulders and bushes away that lay or had grown in the middle of the track. It was the worst track we had ever been down. We drove until nightfall before camping, as it was too dangerous to go on.
My vehicle had suffered a beating, but it didn’t really matter, they were here, I had water, and I could carry on to complete my expedition. For the next hour I drank, ate, washed and packed for my next section. I was happy to move on, to face another few days of uncertainty.
We had been told that the track heading further north was impassable as it never gets used. Having already experienced major problems, Judy and Phil decided to drive right out to the highway and come in from the other direction, a detour of 360 kilometres for a 35 kilometre walk.
I said my goodbyes and this time packed my sleeping bag and 9 litres of water and started walking. Walking was rough and when there was a faint track it was overgrown. I passed parts of an old shack and a pile of rubbish below the cliffs. I could see that fisherman and abalone divers were once here but by the state of the shacks and faint tracks they were long gone. The odd snake slithered away as I walked through some beautiful gorge country. If there was water along the section this could be a popular hiking trip but there wasn’t, it was very dry and remote.
As the cliffs grew higher I made it to Womerangee Hill (287m), the highest point along the coast and where I made camp. The wind was blowing a gale and the dry grass covering the hill was like a tinder box ready to go up. I tried to find shelter from the wind but it was impossible. I felt it too risky to build a fire, so I ate my dried food soaked in cold water. It was crunchy but still palatable.
Camped on the highest part of my journey
The cliffs near Womerangee Hill
The cliffs just got bigger and because there was no track in for Judy and Phil to bring me water we had arranged to meet up at a well near Tamala Station, — it was easier for me to walk to the well, than trying to get the vehicle to the cliffs. The heat increased as I left the cliffs and headed inland following a sandy area 4 kilometres long. The wind had sculptured patterns and shapes in the large dunes. As I approached the well the air was hot, full of flies and had the smell of cattle dun. It was my real first signs of outside intervention since leaving Kalbarri. Cows scattered as I passed them, creating a cloud of dust that drifted towards the well. The track was sandy, but it was easier than walking on rocks. Once on the top of the ridge I could see Tamala Station and the turquoise waters and inlets of Shark Bay in the far distance.
The cliffs were impressive
They hadn’t reached the well so I walked further to Tamala Station and waited for some time. When the guys arrived they started telling stories of their ordeal. My walk had been easy compared with their test of endurance. The track out to the highway had been a nightmare to negotiate. They had been bogged in sand, had difficulty with huge rocks and had blown out a new back tyre, as well as being chased by a landowner. Navigating had also been a problem, as the track on the map didn’t correspond with the track that they were trying to follow. They had been on the move all the time, yet I had reached rendezvous point well before them.
Detouring off the coast meant that I had to walk much further than originally intended, however it was a much safer plan. Now refilled with water I had to get back to the coast, so I lost no time and started walking again. The heat, sweat and chaffing around my backside had caused a discomforting rash. Blisters on my toes, that had not fully healed made walking pretty painful at times, especially the first few steps after each rest. I didn’t care too much though, I was on my last walking section and I knew nothing could stop me from reaching my goal.
Bushes were knee high as I returned to the coast the following day where the walking was flatter. The cliffs were high and as soon as I reached the cliff edge I spotted a whale passing by.
The cliffs closer to False Entrance
I met up with the guys at False Entrance, 40 kilometres south of Steep Point. There was a track a little better than all the others they had been on so it allowed them to reach me. It was the first break in the cliffs since leaving Kalbarri. I walked onto the beautiful beach with a sense of enjoyment and achievement, it was so satisfying being so close to the finish of the walk. The white beach flowed around the bay in a semi circle. The heavy surf pounded the beach and a flat rocky reef just out from it with enormous force. About six breakers curled their way to the beach sending up spray that drifted into a haze. I was in awe of the sight and I dreamt of coming into this bay by kayak one day.
At the False Entrance (Dulverton Bay) and the first beach along the way
I started my day early as I wanted to cover the last 35 kilometres of unknown territory in one day. I moved across a sand swept area running parallel to the coast and descended and ascended small sand dunes before breaking through to the coast at Crayfish Bay. The bay was as stunning as False Entrance, but slightly smaller. About six sets of surf rolled in and crashed on reef just below the beach. The beach sand was soft and it impeded my progress and put strain on my body. I reached the end of the bay where the tooing and frowing of the surf was creating waterfalls among the rocky headland.
At every hour I drank and checked my position. A lot of the coastline, although spectacular was pretty featureless which made navigating a challenge. I came across Thunder Bay, an incredible rocky bay full of reefs and breaking waves. I descended a shaly cliff to the rocky floor. The rock formations were an interesting sight. Rock pools, like spa baths were frequently inundated with large waves. It was an inviting sight, but I looked on then moved away towards the blow holes. The cliffs now lined the coast all the way to Steep Point.
I imagined the lighthouse to be right on the point, but it stood 500m away. I was weary as I reached the most westerly point of Australia having just walked 35 kilometres. I paused on the cliff top when my vehicle came motoring along the gravel track with no exhaust system. The corrugations in the road had vibrated the exhaust system apart. It sounded like a train!
Dozens of cairns made from local rocks were piled high around the Steep Point sign. Several had signs or letters in bottles left on them, stating the party that had built them. Such as- the 1996 East-West Expedition Across Australia. I had never seen cairns built on this type of scale in Australia before. It is something you would find in Japan.
My walk finishes at Steep Point where Judy & Phil met me with my kayak
Judy & Phil took photos before I walked east along the coast to a shell beach where I was to launch my kayak. Several fishermen and women fished from the cliff tops. Large red balloons floated high in the sky giving the area a strange and unexpected feel. These balloons were connected to fishing lines, which stretched them well away from the cliffs. Steep Point was very isolated, you needed a 4 x 4 to get there, however it has become one of Australia premier fishing spots. There was no shade, but each campsite had a generator and fridge to store beer and big catches.
The high cliffs shaded the bay, which was mysteriously calm. It was so violent the last time I had paddled it. It was a short 4km paddle to my campsite. The sun drifted lower in the sky causing shadows and coolness to creep in. Reaching the camp I spread my gear messily on the ground hoping to gather it into some kind of order for the next days paddle. With a beautiful sunset to finish the day, I found it difficult to rush. I retired just after midnight still not quite ready.
The bay was fairly calm in the morning, so it looked like my crossing to Dirk Hartog Island was going to be easy. Ahead of me I had 240kms of isolated paddling and a big 55 kilometre open sea crossing to Carnarvon.
I cast off wondering if I had said everything to Judy and Phil. I wouldn’t see them until I reached the finish. I focussed on a wreck near Cape Ransonnet as I paddled across to the island. There were rumours that the boat had been transporting drugs when it ran aground. Seemingly there is some justice in this world! Reaching the southern point of Dirk Hartog Island, I was greeted by two eagles perched on their nest and a little further, on a small off lying island, an eagle took to flight. Immediately gulls moved in to pilfer the nest for eggs or chicks, but the eagle continually swooped down to protect it.
The small cliff line now shielded the bay from the swell, but a breeze coming from the southeast, gave me a lift up the coast. The island’s shore seemed to have more eagles and cormorants on it than on my last visit. Reaching the homestead, the only inhabited building on the island, I was greeted by Kieran, the island manager, a young lady who was the cook and a male work friend. Kieran told me that Jenny (my wife) had rung, I immediately contacted her. She had bad news for me, my good friend Tim, had died after being knocked off his bike crossing Australia. The funeral was going to be in Melbourne and a memorial service in Perth on Saturday. Tim had been my support crew for one year on my Australian trip. He had also supported me on several smaller trips and was to go with me to the USA. Now he was gone. He was great person, loved to help anyone. Tim had just cycled across USA and was cycling across Australia, an adventure he had always dreamt about.
The cook had a fresh sandwich and a cold coke waiting for me when I returned from the phone call. I found myself with a big lump in my throat and holding back tears as I told them the news. I was stunned and couldn’t really believe it.
After lunch I left the homestead. Close by, a small island nature reserve was packed with birds, cormorants, pelicans and a lone Eagle flying overhead. A huge flock of Cormorants were in a feeding frenzy further out. I paddled towards them, tears rolling down my cheeks. Memories of Tim flooding back to me.
I continued my journey though filled with sadness, passing Notch Point and Quoin Bluff South. I finished my paddling at 5.30p.m. on a small beach surrounded by cliffs, north of Herald Bay. It was an unusually peaceful night with not a breath of wind. I sat there staring into the ocean and night sky, recalling the great times Tim and I had spent together.
I left on a morning high tide with a slight breeze blowing. The water was a beautiful light blue and sheltered by cliff line and sandy points. Eagles were still present and cormorants flocked in their hundreds. I couldn’t help but stop at a beautiful shallow bay, where several ponds were protected by sand cays. Close by, an eagle was perched on a stunning red cliff, which dominated the shoreline. The sky was alive with masses of brilliant white terns gracefully swooping and landing all around the sand cays. Turtles, rays, small sharks and dolphins floated close by in the warm water. It was as though I had my very own aquarium.
A large flock of cormorants
The cliffs decreased as my journey north continued. The day had been perfect and as I moved around small surf breaks of Cape Levillain, beautiful Turtle Bay came into sight. The land-form at Cape Levillian was low, but as it arched around towards the west and Cape Inscription, the dunes formed into sand cliffs which became higher and higher, until vertical cliffs developed closer to the westerly point.
In the bay a lonely post indicated the position of an old jetty. Above the post, on the high sand cliff, steel tracks, from an old horse driven rail system sat weathering away. It was here, in the early days when the lighthouse was manned, that they brought stores ashore. I searched for a beach that wouldn’t be inundated by the high tide. I had little choice but to make camp 100 metres west of the post, where a high narrow strip of sand was guaranteed to stay above the high water mark. With every thing safely in place I climbed the cliff and walked towards the cape. I had been here once before, and like then, it was a sight to behold. As I looked down, my boat was a mere spec on the beach. A few hundred metres west of it, a shore reef covered by shallow water extended around to the cape. Where the reef dropped off the potential for diving looked magnificent. I continued my journey to the light house, harassed by Ravens. Here the high cliffs formed shadows as the sun descended in the west.
I was at the spot where the first Europeans set foot on Australia’s West Coast on the 25th October 1616. Little has changed here since then, apart from the lighthouse being built, a derelict cottage and a four wheel drive track. It’s probably the most isolated place of historical importance in the world. I looked north in search of the distant Dorre Island. The island’s cliffs some 30kms away reflected like a beacon due to the brilliant sunset. By the time I had taken photographs of history and beauty, clouds moved in at a rapid pace and formed a mackerel sky.
The lighthouse and lighthouse keepers cottage at the most northerly point of the island
I returned to camp with haste, wanting to erect my tent before darkness. After eating, I lounged around on the high sand strip watching the surf lap up the beach and listened to Ted Bull on ABC radio. I listened to Patricia Dicks, David Dicks mum telling Ted that David’s yacht had completely capsized and righted it self again. David was sailing solo around the world and he was the youngest person to do it. For supper I had a mug of milo and cheese and biscuits, one biscuit being chocolate. I felt quite excited as the red mackerel faded, the clouds deepened and the very bright moon filtered through, when the clouds thinned. Spots of rain dampened my camp just before retiring.
The weather had deteriorated in the night. Rain had developed sending downpours every so often. The weather forecast was far from good, rain extending with north-west winds. I tried to hurry my breakfast, so as to cross the channel before the worst of the weather hit. I was a little apprehensive as I ate my cereal. The weather was worsening, my destination across an open sea to the next island was 30 kms, and the mainland was 90 kms away. If anything should go wrong on this crossing, the mainland was a long way away.
Minutes out from the beach a pod of dolphins crossed my path. I took this as a sign of luck and a fitting departure, but the conditions beyond the shade of the bay looked very depressing.
The wind from the NW soon picked up creating a rough and bouncy sea. Paddling was sluggish, but my GPS indicated that I was travelling at 4.5 km and hour, not the best but at least I was making headway. It was such a lonely stretch of water far from civilisation, far from land, but there is something inside of me that thrives on hardship and difficult experiences. I focussed on the direction of Dorre Island and the task of reaching the calm waters behind it. Over to the east I caught glimpses of water-spouts shooting above the waves. As I got closer to the water-spouts two huge whale tails became visible as they forged against the rough sea. They finally moved across my stern like huge trucks. A few minutes later another whale reared slapping and leaving a mass of whitewater in its wake. It was not the time to collide with one of these giants.
From here the sea became rougher and at the 21 km mark I could just pick up the cliff top of Dorre Island, although it soon disappeared in the haze. I noticed another whale but it too soon vanished. After checking the GPS my speed was reduced to 4 km an hour, which was going to make my journey one hour longer than I expected. The sea continued to rage as rainstorms crossed my path cutting visibility and any chance of seeing the island. As the rough conditions continued, I started to feel a little sea sick and with the swell and waves now breaking, I had to aim by boat slightly out to sea to ensure I didn’t get overturned.
At last, I bounced out of the rough conditions and into a safer waters that were shielded by the high cliffs of Cape St Cricq. By now I was desperate to go to the toilet, so at the first opportunity I paddled over a semi-exposed reef and onto a beach. Once back in the water I was completely relaxed, the worst was now behind me, the sea was calm and the cliffs were a sight to see. They were undercut and many were formed with honeycombed caves, stalactites and columns so incredibly intricate that it was hard to believe that they could have been formed by natural means. I was on a high again. Even on days when you know your life is threatened, they can turn into experiences and scenes that you can never forget. Memories are such wonderful stress relievers.
Cliffs on Dorre Island
Wading birds walked on the oyster ladened reefs that stretched out from the cliffs. The water around me was so clear I could see the bottom. Turtles were easy to spot, even when they dived beneath me. I came across a beautiful beach wedged between cliffs. A cave at the back of the beach was riddled with sandstone columns and stalactites. The cove was magnificent.
I felt so happy and excited, the place felt a little like paradise, although the cliff tops were barren and dry. Yet only 30 minutes earlier I was fighting to stay upright.
I left the scene and moved along the cliffs disturbing a huge flock of cormorants perching on the rocks. The island is a nature reserve, and by law you shouldn’t land, but I had no option to find a beach and camp. After having a strip wash in hot water, a bite to eat, I walked across the island to view the craggy cliff line on the seaward side. Here the sea was more violent. I cooked tea under the light of the full moon.
The coastline continued to be interesting with beautiful beaches being sandwiched between cliffs. In the water the odd dolphin appeared and in the skies eagles still ruled the cliff tops. At 11.50 am I landed and rigged up my flying doctor radio, but although I made contact, I had limited success in getting a message across. I must have talked over half an hour, yet very little that I said was understood. I left at 1.30 pm passed Quoin Bluff North and spotted Bernier Island, Cape Couture and Cape Boullanger. The two islands were virtually joined together by a rocky reef that was being beaten by huge surf from the seaward side. The islands were narow averaging 2kms and 3.9 kms at the widest point.
Making a flying doctor radio sked
I landed on a scrubby beach, surrounded by rocks and reef, 200 metres from the northern point of Bernier Island. Here I changed footwear and scaled the sand cliff for an exploration of the island’s northern tip. The island at that point was only several metres wide, with unstable sandstone cliffs bordering the flat plateau and narrowing to nothing at the southern point of the island. I descended the plateau to the seaward side where a low rocky platform extended some 50 metres west towards the sea. I moved south treading carefully over all the boulders. Two eagle nests intricately constructed on the larger boulders fronting the channel lured me on. I moved past a nest as I made my way to the most seaward point of the island. The ocean was pounding the tips of both islands with undue care and ferocity. It was a fascinating place, beautiful and remote. Suddenly a huge rush of air bellowed from a rock hole behind me. For a moment I thought that I was being attacked by something, but my nerves soon calmed when I discovered what it was. I returned to my kayak, looking back to grab glimpses of the beautiful scene.
Eagles nest on Bernier Island. Looking soth towards Dorre Island
Bernier and Dorre Islands
Cliffs gave way to more beaches, which lessened the wild beauty of the isolated island. I paddled into a strange school of fish. They were about two feet long, swimming very close and often on the surface of the water with their large mouths widely agape. I tried getting closer to study them but as soon as I neared, they dived. I paddled on for half an hour before losing sight of them.
At the southern part of Red Cliff Point, I focussed on a beach that was fronted partially by a reef, 50 metres out. I was undecided if to stop on this exposed part of the coast or go around the point to find a sheltered, less exposed beach. Persuaded by my general tiredness I decided to stop, no tellings where the next beach would be.
As soon as my gear was hoisted far above the high tide mark, I took off to climb Red Cliff Point. I looked out trying to see the sights of Carnarvon 55 kilometres away. I just stared eastward into nothing, but the grey – blueness of the sea and sky and my biggest open sea crossing yet. On my return to camp I picked wild flowers to make a wreath for Tim. It was his memorial service the following day.
I washed, erected my tent, listened to the radio and started weaving Tim’s wreath. The weather report was important and as I listened a newsflash came over the radio; – nine people had been killed at Gracetown, in the south west, after a cliff that people were sheltering under caved in. My worries of doing the sea crossing now seemed insignificant. The cave in had buried adults and children watching a surfing competition. Very few survived. I became even sadder as I finished my wreath.
As the full moon rose from the east that evening, the clouds moved away bringing my camp the brightness of the morning just before sunrise. That evening a huge number of small white crabs emerged from holes along the beach. They were great to watch and I had fun taking photographs and walking with them along the beach.
My camp had become more exposed to the weather as the wind in the night had moved to the east. I was hoping to leave before sunrise, but it was still raining and a howling wind was shaking my tent. It didn’t look good outside, but the weather report on the ABC said it would be fine with southerly winds. I looked out a little later to find no change. The decision to leave wasn’t easy. I didn’t really want to sit and wait around on the day of Tim’s memorial service. It would be more special for me, and I would always remember the day, if I paddled the big crossing. With time racing away I decided to give it a go, the weather could be even worse tomorrow.
The reef that protected the shore the previous day was well awash allowing large waves, created by the wind, to pound my beach. It was less than a perfect start to my day as I found it difficult to enter the kayak without being swamped in the rough surf and howling wind. Nevertheless I managed to paddle from the shore, move carefully through a small gap in the reef and head east in the rain, wondering what the day was going to bring.
I toiled against one the roughest seas of my journey making less than 3 kilometres in the first hour. At the present speed it would take me 18 hours to cross, I only had 12 hours of daylight in the day. As the kayak leaped repeatedly from the water, caused by the steep breaking waves, I prepared myself for a paddle at night. For five hours, and with little more than 5 minutes rest I cautiously battled on. It was just before lunch when the wind started to swing to the south east, which gave me some relief as the sea settled a bit. I was no longer punching straight into it and my speed increased giving some hope of reaching land before dark. I couldn’t relax though, much time was lost and the sea was still threatening.
At midday the sight of the coast was still hidden from my view. I could neither see the mainland or Bernier Island from where I had come. There were signs of nothing but the open sea and the sky. My kayak the ‘Mermaid’ was a good stable, seaworthy boat but it wasn’t as fast as some of the more slimmer, longer kayaks. It’s times like this that the extra speed would have been appreciated. As the hours passed I got my first glimpse of the Carnarvon tracking station dish, however it was soon lost in the haze. Later the dish appeared again and this time it never left my sight. The dish seemed close, but I was still 18 kms away, nearly four hours paddling. As the hours ticked by several other Carnarvon features became clearer. The wind had eased, but it and the tide was still strong enough to make me drift and crab towards the coast.
I had increased my speed considerably in the afternoon, and I was relieved to hit the coast just north of the jetty on sunset. As I approached the long broken jetty the water started to shallow. I passed it and headed towards the boat harbour, which was further than I imagined. I could see no vehicle, the swampy foreshore was deserted and I felt quite alone, paddling the shallows in the first faze of darkness.
Three boats anchored out near the channel, I saw no one on them. Had the world come to an end while I had been away? The dark channel led me through a gap in some mangroves. Beyond an array of lights and noise of engines lifted my spirit. Mankind was still alive. I paddled between the mangroves around the fishing boats anchored at the jetty and powered up a beach near the boat ramp. I had made it, I had paddled 55 kilometres, maybe more taking the wind and tide drift into account. I had successfully completed yet another fascinating and challenging trip. With the excitement of landing behind me, I realised that apart from the flood lights and engines, there was no movement in the harbour, and Phil and Judy were no where to be seen. It was a weird atmosphere.
I felt weary, but not totally buggered. Once out of the boat, the wind soon cooled my wet body as I dragged my kayak above the high water mark, mosquitoes savaged me. I wasn’t impressed. I called Jenny from a nearby phone box, to tell her that I was safe and to get the number of the caravan site that Judy and Phil were staying at. They weren’t there so I left a message. There was nothing more I could do, but to change, walk 2kms into town, eat and keep an eye out for the guys.
When I got to town, lots of people were eating and waiting for the bus to Perth. I joined the ones eating, I had some chips, walked a lap around town and returned to my boat in the harbour. When I got back, for what I thought was going to be a lonely night camped with the mosquitoes, Phil and Judy drove up beside me. They were astonished to see me. “We have been waiting for you all day, and when you hadn’t arrived by nightfall we thought you must not have attempted the crossing because of the weather”, Phil said. “Come on, let’s get your gear loaded. There’s a hot shower and a chilled bottle of champagne waiting for you at the caravan park”. We loaded my kayak and the rest of my gear and I turned to look from where I had come, yes, I had done it, completed my expedition and felt ready to tackle my next challenge…….America!
My friend Tim who was cycling across Australia had been knocked down by a car in Victoria and was killed. It was the day of his memorial. I tossed a wreath made from wildflowers into the bay at Carnarvon