Cooktown to Cape York
I had been kayaking, walking, cycling for four months on my 24,000km around Australia Expedition and now I was about to embark on a paddle expedition from Cooktown to Cape York. My support team was Tim Fry and John Field. Linda van der Merwe, who had befriended John earlier on in the trip at Gracetown was eager to fly over from Perth to join the crew and to spend more time with John, as well as doing some pastel paintings along the way. Linda is an artist.
I planned to meet the guys 3 times in the 800km journey to Cape York, other than that I would be alone.
September 28th 1990. Cooktown
After a good nights’ sleep I awoke at 6 o’clock realising that this was the day that I would be leaving the security of the shore and heading out along a remote coastline, alone. I had my last breakfast before packing and going over my schedule with the crew.
At the beach I started loading. It was a brilliant morning – clear blue skies and quite warm. With the last piece of gear loaded in the bulkheads I placed the hatch covers on. Inside I had 50 litres of water, enough food for 18 days, a flying doctor radio and other gear to see me through the next two or three weeks. Meanwhile, Tim filmed my every moment.
I gave Linda a hug, said goodbye to the boys and entered the kayak’s cockpit, circled the area whilst Tim took some photos, returned for my camera and took off passed boats and fishermen. Finally I paddled out of the estuary, leaving the mountain scenery that circled the harbour and where Captain Cook had beached his boat Endeavour for repairs in 1770. It was damaged after running aground on a coral reef, but it wasn’t until 1872 that Cooktown really became populated after gold had been discovered nearby. Around that time there was a transient population of some 30,000 people, including 2,500 Chinese. Now there were only 1000 people and the town survives on tourism.
Cooktown soon faded from my sight. In the far distance Cape Bedford was hidden in the rain haze. Over the last hour the weather had deteriorated; the warming sun of the early morning was now shielded by heavy black clouds. Rain squalls drifted across the sea dumping heavy rain showers as they passed over. The wind howled as sea conditions became rougher the further I paddled from the coast and rogue waves kept hurling towards me. The forecast was 20-25 knot winds.
I spotted two yachts rounding South Cape Bedford, their white sails sparkling against the dull overcast sky. Another yacht much further out to sea bobbed in the northerly direction, although it was some time before I realised which way it was going. The further I paddled the higher the swell waves rolled towards me. Approaching Cape Bedford, I became more excited and after rounding it the town of Cooktown was lost forever. Ahead, a new country looked me in the eye. Having spent several months living closely with my support team, I felt a lonesome ache in the pit of my stomach, but there was now no turning back and I would soon get used to being alone again.
Once around Cape Bedford a following sea pushed me north to where a group of four trawlers and one yacht were anchored in a bay. I looked on ahead, searching for the sight of a sandy beach to land, but I saw nothing close by so I turned and landed at a bouldery spot between some hefty rocks on the north side of the cape. Here there was more sheltered from the rough sea, but the landing area was far from perfect. It was only 2.30pm but for the first day I didn’t mind finishing early and I had plenty of time to settle in and prepare a site for my tent and explore my surroundings. At 4.05pm I made a radio sked and then went walkabout. The hill behind my camp was 240 metres high with a flat top and very recognisable from a distance.
The wind was strong and gusty and by the time I returned a rain storm was pounding my camp. By 5.30pm the trawlers had left to go fishing out at sea, while another yacht had arrived in the bay.
I opened the tent door at 5.30am to find the wind had increased. After breakfast I carried the kayak between the rocks, loaded and cast off. Although the sea was much rougher than the previous day the sky was sunny and clear. The Point at Cape Flattery was barely visible in the haze. Huge waves kept rolling through heading towards the shore. I could hear them coming as the crest of the waves curled over and broke. As the swell became larger so did the troughs and I felt very small hidden at the bottom of them. The swell broke all around me but luckily I dodged most of them. However, occasionally one would smack across my deck and smothered me. With the Barrier Reef sheltering much of the coast I was surprised to have such a rough sea. I passed Conical Rock which indicated that I was making good progress. Low Woody Isle was sighted over to my right. A thin mast, not much bigger than a matchstick, moved slowly beyond it, close to Three Isles.
The rough sea spun me from one angle to another. It was hard work and I was a bit baffled as I expected the Barrier Reef would have sheltered me more. Suddenly I felt a thud and a bang that came from my rudder. I felt sure a shark had hit me but I couldn’t be sure, but I noticed that the rudder was loose, hanging off and twisted. It was a big bang so whatever it was it had done some damage. I lost all steering as the rudder started to plough and the kayak began to spear out towards the open ocean. I had very little control so to stop the rudder ploughing I tried lifting it up with the rudder line, but because the rudder was twisted it proved to be a technical and difficult job. Eventually though, I was able to raise the rudder out of the water which helped.
As the strong wind swept from the east, the stern was blown around and the bow insisted on heading out to sea. With as much strength as I could muster, I fought to keep the kayak on track. It was painful and frustrating having to paddle on one side of the kayak, but there was nothing I could do to reduce the torment. As I struggled towards Cape Flattery I sighted a deserted wharf on the southern side. As I passed it by the muscles on my right side ached with the strain. I wanted to surf the waves of the following sea but with no steering the wind made it a difficult job and at one stage I was pushed around 90 degrees and then found it hard to straighten up as the rudder had dropped in the water ploughing again.
Cape Flattery seemed a strange place to have a wharf. The area around it was like a wilderness but it is an important structure as over a million tonnes of silica sand are mined here each year. The mine site covers a lease of around 63km square and has an estimated resource of over 200 million tonnes of silica sand. The vegetation and a 300mm layer of topsoil is taken first for seed removal to assist in regeneration. Cape Flattery Silica Mines is the largest global exporter of silica sand and has the highest production of silica sand for any mine in the world. The sand is exported to Korea, Japan and several other countries for glass industries.
I saw no-one, as I was preoccupied with my rudder, though a fishing boat passed between me and Cape Flattery but motored on without noticing me in the heavy swell. The swell eased as I moved north-east around the cape searching for a landing spot. Four prawning boats lay at anchor, while a powered vessel was on its way out to sea and a yacht was positioned deep in the bay. A beach spread along the bay from Cape Flattery and Lookout Point and I found it difficult to decide where to make camp. Coconut palms lined the bottom of the bay close to the yacht, but it was too far for me to paddle back. It was 1.30pm, low tide and really too early to stop but there was no point going on with a broken rudder.
The low tide made me work hard as it was a long walk to the beach carrying my gear. After a closer look at the rudder the bang had broken a bolt, so to make sure it wouldn’t happen again I decided to use fibreglass and resin to attach it firmly back in place. Meanwhile several Aboriginals drove up and down the beach heading to and from their camps south of me. As I relaxed on the beach in the warm balmy dark evening, lights from the trawlers that had gone out to sea earlier patrolled back and forth in the far distance.
September 30th Sunday.
A yacht anchored close by overnight without me noticing. I paddled across to it as I left camp. Two English girls on a one year permit were first to say good morning. They were in slick bathing suits, looking stunning. The skipper from Cairns then appeared and I couldn’t help thinking that he was a one lucky guy. I moved on before I got too excited. A powerboat headed towards me as I crossed the bay against a strong breeze, but on a much calmer sea than the previous day. The men were from Tweed Head. Their boat rolled badly while we talked. I was a bit concerned it would roll and capsize me so I tried not to get too close.
When I moved away I made good progress towards Lookout Point where I noticed a light on the rocks. There was quite a big ship anchored nearby. The famous Lizard Island now lay about 35 kilometres north-west with a few large reef areas between us, but it was too far to make a diversion. Near the point I glanced at an inviting beach but I hadn’t done enough paddling to stop. Further on, the coast was inundated with mangroves and I knew I had no hope of stopping so I skirted the reefs and made good time. The conditions soon became rougher; however the wind was in my favour and I covered 20 kms in 3 hours.
I felt my rudder shudder as I heard a large bang behind me. I turned and I became quite concerned as a large dark shape swam away. I expected it to be a shark, but I wasn’t able to tell as the shape was too dark, too deep and swift. I moved on continuing to search for sites on shore. The map indicated the river entrance that I was passing was the Starcke River. I had read that it was a beautiful spot but it was still too early to stop. Reefs broke well over to my right and turtles began to circle me. They weren’t trying to attack but basked in the sun for a few moments before diving, disappearing and then surfacing again, oblivious of my presence. Some of the larger turtles looked more like heads of crocs. I was well aware that I was in crocodile country, but I was a lot more relaxed than when I paddled around the Kimberley coast which was known to have many more crocodiles.
The sea continually changed from smooth to rough. The coastline and beach was now fronted by rock ledges and the sound of the waves penetrating the hollows echoed across the sea. With the eerie sounds, the turtles and the thought of a shark hit, I dreamed on, wondering what was around the next corner. Once around it, I struggled across a shallow bay leading towards Jeanie River. I spotted a four-wheel drive and landed. There was no one around so I found a small patch of sand and attempted to put my tent up with great difficulty, the wind ripping out the pegs as quickly as I placed them.
A four wheel drive came roaring along the track. Tom and Larry, who were really surprised to see me, jumped out of the vehicle with beer cans in their hands. At the same time a dinghy powered slowly towards shore and Tim and Neil jumped out with three crabs and a couple of fish. While we were having a chat rain showers poured from the heavens. In the meantime they invited me for dinner. Sausage, bacon, potatoes, peas, raw fish in vinegar; what more could I ask for? We had a good talk helped along by the rum in our coffee. Everyone retired at 12.45am, but I found my diary and jotted down some notes till 1.00am.
October 1st. Jeanie River.
I said my goodbyes to the fishermen and paddled across a small bay to Murdock Point. The shallows around the point were causing several waves to break without notice. I set my sights on Red Point and made good speed thanks to the wind, which had strengthened and the waves that were getting bigger. I passed between the point and Noble Island at 11.00am. Here I met three yachts anchored behind the island and sheltering from the severe wind. I had a word with the people in all three. There were two couples in their mid – forties and a man by himself. They had been sheltering from the strong easterly winds for three days. The wind was too strong to sail against, they said. They found it hard to understand how I could cope with the wind but I did have the wind in my favour much of the time so it was easy. I was desperate to go to the toilet so when I was out of their sight of the yachts I had a pee in my cup, which I keep in my cockpit for that purpose. The wind was so strong once out the lee of the island that I was blown like a light cork across the water.
As I moved across to Barrow Point, the wind increased in strength even further, causing the sea to be one mass of white caps. When I turned to watch the waves heading from behind, I could just see the Howick group of islands and two huge ships motoring in the not-too-far distance. Shooting overhead were several Torres Straight pigeons and the ocean was dotted with turtles and plenty of sea-weed.
Making it to Ninian Bay, I skirted some scattered islands and found a small sandy beach on the mainland between some mangroves and rocks, so landed. The tide was out so I collected oysters and sat on a rock to eat them, waiting for the water to lift my kayak high enough up the beach so to avoid lugging my gear too far. I moved under a shady tree, erected my tent next to some boulders and made a radio sked. I left a message regarding my progress and then went for a walk up the hill.
When darkness fell, I spotted lights from a yacht out in the bay; it must have been there earlier but the sun had been in my eyes. My right eye was sore from the salt spray. Only minutes after crawling into bed, I was dead to the world.
October 2nd. Ninian Bay.
I started crossing the 10km wide Ninian Bay at 7.15am. Close to shore two yachts were anchored, sheltering from the strong wind. The hilly Cape Melville National Park lay on my left. Ahead in the distance I could see Pipon Island, just off the cape. A crayboat headed towards me but then veered off 500 metres distant. Wedge style rocks were stacked on the point. Other large rocks were bundled around the coast and on the hill. It was a fairly bumpy ride owing to the wave reflection off the cliff and the heavy sea. Within metres of Black Rock Point, I noticed the words (spring) in big letters. The sea was too rough for me to risk landing and because I had several litres stored in the kayak, I decided to keep going. From behind a rounded boulder, the head of a dingo pup peered. As I moved on, the pup came out of hiding and walked playfully towards the water. I glanced back as it skipped along the small sand beach to the base of the huge boulders. It was alone. I could see no parent hiding amongst the boulders.
Two rock islands fronted the cape and as I passed them and edged into Bathurst Bay the waters became calmer. In 1899 a pearling fleet was sheltering from a cyclone in Bathurst Bay. Three hundred people died when the cyclone hit. A memorial stands two kilometres from the tip of Cape Melville. There were no yachts in the bay which saddened me as I was looking forward to socialising. I stopped paddling opposite a black stony mountain and beached. The mountain was similar to the one I had seen before Cooktown, bare of any vegetation, just a big black pile of rocks, piled up. Investigating the area, I stumbled across rubbish left by fishermen. It was very hot so I soon returned to my kayak to save energy and moved slowly along the coast. The beach, although beautiful and stretching for kilometres, had the odd drum, a box and esky forming visible land marks along it. The day and the area were now very peaceful, perfect and isolated.
The sun fried me as I moved around the calm bay. My spirits lifted as I sighted a man walking around an area of shaded trees. At last a chance to have a natter! He offered me a cup of tea so I disembarked and walked over to his shady camp which was occupied by two other friends and about five dogs. They were on a pig hunting and fishing trip, hence the several rifles and knives I could see around their camp. That day they have netted eight garfish which they shared with me and which tasted delicious. Apparently there were lots of feral pigs around, which the dogs would chase to exhaustion point before the men shot them. Although they were very friendly I had my concerns and memories of the film ‘Deliverance’ came to mind. After talking for sometime, I felt safe enough to camp within 50 metres of their camp that night and returned later to have two coffees before crawling into the light-weight swag next to my boat.
October 3rd. Bathurst Bay.
The wind played havoc in the night, waking me on several occasions but I slept in until 6.15am to make up for it. It was calm by the time I moved on. I met three people fishing, I had a word with them but they didn’t even ask me what I was doing – strange. The day was hot and the wind non-existent. Paddling became a chore. Without wind and water movement, I became drowsy. It seemed to take forever moving through Rattlesnake Channel to a camp spot on the mainland opposite the Flinders Group of islands.
The wind had now picked up and the tide was out about 100 metres, leaving deep mud to walk through to get to the beach. I took a load of gear to shore with difficulty, then I tried dragging the kayak half loaded across the mud but I hurt my back, so I had no option but to make several trips across the mud. A drink of coffee and rice pudding slid down really well after my marathon effort. I rested for a while before going for a short walk spotting buildings at the head of the bay. Apparently a resort was planned for the area. A film of scum floated on the water out from my camp, similar to an oil slick.
As the sun set over, a barramundi fisherman in his dinghy came over and had a talk. He said if I needed anything, he was in his boat around the corner.
October 4th. Bathurst Head
When the wind stopped blowing in the night, the mosquitoes came out. I awoke at 1.30am, 3.30am, 4.30am and finally got up with the moonlight at 4.50am. It was probably going to be the biggest day of my kayak journey north and I just couldn’t afford to sleep any longer. I had 65kms to paddle, which included a 55km open crossing.
Leaving my cove just as it got light at 6.00am, with the sun rising behind the dark shadow of a hill, it was a dramatic scene. Collecting my thoughts after a 2km paddle and rounding the final point before my big crossing I noticed two boats anchored in the bay. The sea was calm, I looked ahead to my destination in the west, but there was nothing but haze. Likewise to the north. The only feature in the far distance was a solitary peak over to the south east with nothing but haze and space either side of it. I was really heading into nothing, crossing a 55km wide expanse of water on a spring tide, the time of the highest tides and fastest current flow. Being washed off course could be a major problem.
I paddled into a huge scum slick which looked like a tail end of an oil slick, but in fact it was the result of coral spawning. A black, oily line developed along the side of my boat. A sea snake invited itself into my territory, but I gave it a wide berth. 5km, 10km, 15km and the sea was still calm with a slight wind. I was hoping for south-easterly winds to blow which would help me across the huge bay but I was out of luck. At 18kms from shore I got my first hazy glimpse of land. High peaks floated in the sky, but I was too far away to see the lower areas, because of the haze.
The sun and calm conditions made it hard to stay awake and I dozed for moments at a time which wasn’t a good idea. I also found it hard to bring life into my paddling and eventually I tried singing to keep awake. Although mountain peaks rose above the haze over to the south-west it took some time before land appeared directly in front of me. In fact, smoke from a bush fire was the first real evidence of a world being out there.
The water was so clear beneath me I could see fish swimming and the thought of the sharks down there didn’t worry me. Several kilometres to my left a cliffy island (in fact called Cliff Island) looked inviting. It was too far out of my way to detour so I paddled on, longing to get to shore, to rest my aching back and chest. Trees started to appear on the mainland and I now felt pretty close and confident of reaching land without incident. I celebrated with some sweet rice and dried fruits. As the northerly winds picked up, I imagined I saw posts of a jetty, but they disappeared as I closed in. When I reached the coast, I was still several kilometres away from my destination of Port Stewart. Then when I got close to the coast the water became so shallow I had to move back out to sea to find deeper water.
A large turtle surfaced just in front of me and milled around on the surface until it sensed my presence. Racing the light I chased some dolphins north into the wind and into the glare of the dying sun. I didn’t want to camp along a low lying coast when I was so close to my support crew at Port Stewart. Sticks stuck in the sand looked like tall posts from a distance, providing false hopes that I was nearing destination. Eventually I came across a freshly-placed stick stabbed into the sand with a bottle on it. I knew then Tim must have been around there waiting, but there was no sign of him. At the end of a sand bar and at the entrance of a small insignificant harbour called Port Stewart there was another flag, but still no Tim. It had been a long day – 65 kilometres and 12 hours 15 minutes of paddling.
I was really happy when I passed through the bar entrance and cooeed to attract attention. Crossing the bay, I had wondered how it would feel to arrive at camp and it felt fantastic, but when I saw no sign of the crew the feeling diminished a little. The sun had long gone and darkness circled the bay. As I paddled across the still inlet, ripples refracted off the slender hull in a V formation and the full moon started to creep above the tree tops. I passed some mangroves, aided by a swift current. At the bottom of the inlet, in the darks shadows, I could see a lone figure. It was Tim. I was quite overjoyed and started singing at the top of my voice, Suzanne by Leon Cohen. Suzanne takes me down to her place by the river. I sang louder and louder and chased the moon’s shadow towards the shore. I felt so happy. Filtering from behind some trees, John and Linda appeared next to Tim so I made a beeline for them. Lifted by the joy of the crossing, the sight of the moon and the sound of my song, it was such a great feeling to be back with friends.
I dragged the kayak over the sand bar and swamp, had a short rest and then had a fresh water shower near the camp. Tim later gave me a back and shoulder massage, which relieved my stiffness before retiring.
October 5th. Port Stewart.
I began my rest day lazily, taking my time to get up and have breakfast before attempting any washing. Linda had completed a pastel painting by then. We sat under the shade of the tarpaulin that stretched from the vehicle and discussed her work. Over in Western Australia when I first met Linda I wasn’t very keen on her new style, (I liked her traditional style better than pastels) but after seeing more of her paintings I was just beginning to enjoy them. We first met Linda in Gracetown near Margaret River. It was a few days after the start of my trip when I paddled into the Gracetown Bay. John and I were in the parking area when she came across. Are you Terry Bolland she asked and that was it, she invited us to stay at her place that night. That evening she went up on the hill and started pastel painting the rocks and ocean. I walked over and that was the first time I saw her paint. John and her instantly hit it off and became close friends and had kept in contact since then. She jumped at the opportunity to come up to Cape York. A year later they married.
Linda had been busy painting in the last few days so there were several painting to look at. One of my favourites was one she had finished the day that I arrived. It was of John sitting next to the four wheel drive vehicle playing his mouth organ. It captured the burning sun that tried to infiltrate his shaded area and the typical pose that he had taken up over the last few months. It showed our home, our vehicle, our life style.
It was a restful day but the toggle that I used to drag the kayak up the beach had broken so I had to replace it by fibreglassing two straps to the bow. After finishing the repairs I went for a walk along the road and tropical rainforest and later around the creek to take the flags down that Tim had erected as markers.
October 6th. Port Stewart.
As I started packing Linda made porridge. Tim and John were also packing up to leave and I felt a little put out when they didn’t offer to help me carry my kayak to the water’s edge. It looked as if they were in a hurry to get away or was I being too sensitive? I eventually asked them for help.
The high tide covering the mud flats ensured the creek looked beautiful in the morning light. However, the slime of coral spawn started to creep in with the tide leaving a horrid scum on the beach. I said my goodbyes at 8.40am and as I paddled from the shore I couldn’t help but think how magical it had been when I arrived a day earlier.
The coast was low with mangrove forests behind the beaches. As I passed Claremont Point I kayaked into the path of a group of dugongs. Here the sea shallowed with sea grass covering the bottom, an ideal area for dugongs to feed. I paddled amongst them, intrigued and honoured to be there to watch their giant nostrils break the surface and then dive again. There were a dozen or more. It was some time since I had seen a dugong at such close quarters. I dived with them about 15 years ago in Western Australia. My journey continued towards Rocky River where the shallows were a haven for dozens and dozens of turtles. I enjoyed creeping up and surprising them. Their faces looked bewildered and sad as their weepy eyes registered my presence next to them.
I made camp after 47 kilometres, just south of Chester River, on a beach choked with rubbish, bottles and driftwood. The tide was at least 150 metres out testing my endurance as I carried the gear above the high tide mark. I made camp next to a huge log. All the bottles and rubbish had drifted onto the beach aided by an ocean current; rubbish that people on ships had thrown overboard. The sight annoyed me; a wilderness adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef was being polluted by people on ships miles and miles away. With the rubbish lining kilometres of coast line, it didn’t matter where I camped, I couldn’t get away from it.
After dark I heard a hoarse cough, which may have come from a turtle or could it have been a crocodile. I couldn’t spot anything with my torch so I decided to live with the mystery! I watched the moon come up at 8.30pm.
October 7th. Chester River.
I wanted to get going early so consequently, I woke several times in the night. A huge falling star welcomed me in the dark early morning, crossing the sky at a burning pace and with intense brightness. As it flashed before my eyes I thought I would witness the star crash into the ocean but then it faded moments before it hit the water. The show came to an abrupt halt.
The tide was hundreds of metres out so there was no chance of my moving early so I waited until the tide changed and started coming back in. Within 30 minutes of leaving I passed Chester River keeping well out from the coast because of the low tide and shallows. The coast was still low but the McIIwraith Mountain Range, Hobbs Hill and Round Mountain were the main features inland. At 11.30am I came across Campbell Point, a long sandy spit hiding the Nesbit River. I cruised up to the end of the spit and stopped. It was a very pleasant and deserted spot with sand bars, an inlet and a small lagoon. It was an inviting place to stop, but exposed and the river was probably home to salt water crocs.
With the wind absent I crossed over to Cape Sidmouth. The hill looked like a pair of boobs from a distance. I started singing to take the aches and pains off my mind. The sight of cattle on the hill surprised me – were they scrub cattle or part of a domestic herd? At Friendly Point a place of several termite hills I stopped to stretch and have a short rest.
Paddling across the next bay I found myself losing time and water depth as the tide was going out quickly. This made me eager to find a camp spot before dark. Torres Strait pigeons flew overhead from all directions. I noticed a sole coconut palm on the beach so I decided to make camp next to it. Again the beach was littered with junk while, behind the beach, a low area spanning along the coast was a favoured spot for mangroves.
As I looked along the coast I spotted a woman, but after further investigation my eyes were playing tricks as she turned out to be a sculptured log. I had paddled 52 kilometres.
October 8th. Near Voaden Point.
The low tide forced me to wait until 7.00am to leave. In calm conditions I spotted my second crocodile of the journey, near Night Island. I had paddled for 4 hours 40 minutes before beaching at the first red, rocky point. It was a beaut spot with a shady tree, two large palms growing next to huge rocks, a grassy hillside and rocks fronting part of the beach, which I could see stretching for kilometres. I set up the flying doctor radio but had limited success in getting a message through. By the time I had taken pictures of the area an Aboriginal couple (with two kids) in a power boat landed on my beach. The boat had ‘Ranger’ painted on its side. While I talked to the man the kids played in a very small rubber dingy. He had played football the day before and was showing me his bruises on his leg and head. He dug for bait in a crab hole while the lady, who looked pregnant, waded into the water in her dress, to look for bait next to the rocks. Only seconds after throwing his line in, he caught a fish and seconds later he had another, this time a much bigger one. I wish my fishing was as successful.
As I paddled across the next bay, I noticed a coral spawning slick, so I diverted around it. At this point the water was shallow with a sandy bottom. A large shadow like a weed patch lay straight ahead of me, but this was no weed patch, it was slowly moving. I checked the clouds in the sky but there were none to cause a shadow and as I powered closer to the shadow, I realised it was a huge manta ray slowly searching the shallows with wing tips occasionally breaking the surface. The excitement of the pursuit energised me and my stiffness now forgotten.
I moved around Round Point and passed Mission Hill with a stiff breeze now blowing. Coconut palms and old huts left indications that this was once an Aboriginal Mission. I kept going, not wanting to invade Aboriginal property. Then for some reason, as I paddled, I had thoughts of my arm being bitten off by a shark, paddling ashore with one arm, calling the Flying Doctor, erecting my tent and wondering what to do with the arm that I was able to retrieve from the sea. What a thought! It’s funny what goes through your mind when you have so much spare time.
A power boat was speeding further out to sea. There was probably a good fishing reef out there. Moving passed rocky islands and Villas Point, I focussed on Cape Direction and a huge rock that looked like the large stone figures on Easter Island. The point looked a beautiful place to camp, deep water for a good start in the morning, but little shade from the wind. I tried to land half-heartedly but failed to get out of the boat before a wave pulled me back out to sea. I reversed and had another go at beaching. This time I made a quicker exit, although waves dumped inside my cockpit before I pulled the kayak up the beach. Sighting rubbish above the high water mark, I decided against staying, gambling on a cleaner, more sheltered beach around the cape.
Once I was through the pounding surf break, the sloppy sea increased as I rounded the cape and May Rock. It was well worth the effort though, as around the corner an idyllic beach was nestled between large boulders and rock slabs of the cape. Large razor shells littered my landing spot on the sheltered beach. I dragged the boat above the high water mark and took photos of the area. I felt so happy finding this beautiful cove and amazed at the rock slabs, many next to trees. Near my camp a vertical rock stood 15 metres high.
Finishing my first food course I lay on the top of a large rock looking up in the sky and thinking of all those people who would be afraid of sleeping out here under the stars. The stars were magnificent. What a place to be! By 9.45pm I had completely finished desert. In the distance, a light house near Chilli Beach was flashing and the lights of two ships slowly faded away. I kept scanning the sky, building my own impressions and pictures from the stars. At midnight I awoke, hot and sticky, having fallen asleep on top of the big rock. The clouds had moved in. It was time to retire so I put up the tent without the fly. I fell asleep, but it started raining, so I got up again and put on the fly sheet. I dozed again, but I was awoken when the wind started to make the fly flap.
October 9th. Cape Direction.
My sleep pattern had been disturbed too many times in the night, so I overslept. I broke camp leaving at 7.00am on low tide heading across Lloyd Bay towards Chilli Beach, with a slight wind behind me. The Aboriginal community of Leichhardt River lay to the west, however I felt that I shouldn’t visit it without permission. I developed a great paddling rhythm and found myself arriving at the palms of Chilli Beach ahead of time. I couldn’t see any markers or people so I didn’t know quite what to do. There was a house ahead, an island opposite it and a small rocky island out from the beach. I saw a tarp and car hiding behind the palms and scrub so I walked over and had a word with Neil, a train driver from Innisfail. He had seen my crew, but he didn’t know where they had camped. After asking two more campers I found the camp, however no one was there. Returning to the beach I spotted Linda and John hand in hand up the beach. Tim was nowhere to be seen but he returned from a run some time later.
After a huge lunch I started my washing and then went for a walk along the beach. Lines of rubbish had been caught among the trees and grass turfs. That evening over conversation Linda tried to find out what drives me on.
October 10th. Chilli Beach.
There was a good breeze filtering through the gap in the trees at breakfast time. Linda cooked eggs, toast and beans and they tasted great. The tide was low when I packed to leave but the sand was beautiful and firm. I paddled away from the excellent campsites hidden amongst the thick foliage and palm trees. It would have truly been a paradise if the rubbish hadn’t have been there.
A soft coral reef was hidden just under water between the mainland and Restoration Island. This island was named by Captain Bligh when he and his fellow castaways stopped here during their 700km journey to Timor after the mutiny on the Bounty.
A fishing vessel was anchored in the lee of the island on which stood a house and shed on a small flat section not too far from the high tide mark. It was another little piece of paradise. As I rounded Cape Weymouth and paddled into the bay Tim stood waving from the beach and he was encouraging me to land. I landed to find Tim had made friends with this guy Brian who had nearly completed building an amazing house on the hill overlooking the bay. I was invited to sample his hospitality, his coffee and his mother’s baked cake. He writes for Geo magazine and talks regularly to ‘Australia All Over’. His mansion high on three metre stilts had window frames without glass, which meant there was no barrier from the bush. I left the coffee and cake party at 10.30am.
Aided by a light S.E. wind I skirted passed Portland Roads and Rocky Island and perched on the hill I noticed a lookout similar to that of an air raid shelter. Moving on and passing several fishing boats anchored in the Portland Roads Bay, I moved towards Fair Cape and the hilly country. Middle Reef was over to my right. A dingy, with Aborigines on board, motored by and later, an old yacht motoring from the north against the breeze headed in a southerly direction. A lone dugong crossed my path, but its appearance was brief.
The scenery was especially rewarding, big hills, stony points, a lone coconut palm, huge rock slabs and beautiful beaches. I sang loudly as I was making excellent time with the breeze behind me. Just before Mosquito Point I made camp on a scenic beach. Rocks lined the northern part of my camp whilst my southern boundary was formed by a very small cove and a solitary mangrove. I made a radio sked to the flying doctor base and the reception was brilliant.
As I sat under the canopy of stars with a light breeze blowing, two lights were flashing from the Farmer Island direction. By the time I retired the wind was strong so I placed rocks on the tent pegs to prevent the wind from lifting my tent in the night.
October 11th. Mosquito Point.
It was 4.45am and what a dramatic sunrise – black clouds with red rays of the sun filtering through the small gaps in them, whilst the pandanas palms in the foreground quivered and rattled in the breeze. It was a sight that everyone should be able to witness at breakfast time.
Instead of following Temple Bay around I decided to take the more direct route across to Cape Grenville via the Piper group of islands. When I left, flocks of sooty terns dived around me, feeding off the schools of small fish. Another sea bird, that I couldn’t put a name to hovered only a metre or two above my head, seemingly wanting to land. It had a friendly face. On its departure it glided and skimmed the waves, gathering speed and then shooting directly up into the sky. Later a similar bird returned. It was one of the friendliest sea birds that I had come across.
I skirted Piper Islands 1km to the west of them and later saw a pole on a distance reef. The pole turned out being a light beacon on Young’s reef. I felt excited when I spotted a small beach on the reef as it meant I could stretch my legs. Apart from a small sandy spit the coral island would be underwater at high tide. Dead coral littered the island and apart from the light, three scanty trees and about five pieces of steel, a rusty chain and pools of sea water, there was nothing. I sat next to the kayak in the middle of the ocean eating a snack and thinking about Jenny on a reef that beared her maiden name and which soon would be inundated with water. I left Young’s Reef which was 25kms from my previous camp and 10kms from the mainland at 12.10pm. I took away memories of Jenny who I hadn’t seen for four months.
Way out to sea a large tanker motored along, followed by a tug pulling a large barge and in the far distance the white sails of a yacht slowly faded from my view. There were people out there, but I was just a spec in the ocean that no-one could see. The sea became rougher as I closed in to Cape Grenville and its’ off shore islands. It was 3.00pm when I moved between the tiny islands and the mainland. Coconut palms had taken hold on a big island close to the cape. As I rounded the cape a huge cockroach appeared on my front deck walking in the direction of my bow and to higher ground. The bow then plunged through a wave and the cockroach held on. Sometime later another wave buried the bow, but this time being more powerful the cockroach went for a swim.
Further Margaret Bay sheltered two fishing boats and a yacht from the prevailing south-east winds. I started crossing the bay and nearly collided with two dugongs that were probably in love. The wind assisted me to a cove on the other side of the bay about 5kms from Round Point. Two coconut palms became a backdrop to my camp. I had paddled 60kms. Trawlers worked out at sea that night.
October 12th. Near Round Point.
At 6.30am I paddled out of the cove passing dark rocky ledges. I moved between islands on my way to Round Point where the water was magnificently calm and clear and a beautiful beach looked inviting on the mainland. The sound of cooing pigeons came from the mangroves on one of the islands.
The coastline of Shelburne Bay carved westward for several kilometres before heading north again. Mangroves lined part of the coast, but it was the super white sand dunes that dominated the bay. White Point was the most prominent feature. Instead of following the coast I set a compass course directly across the bay for Macarther Islands. I couldn’t see them, but they were somewhere out there and it would save me several kilometres to cut across the bay. I could however see Bird Island but it was too far to my north-east for me to aim for. Before me a pack of sooty terns were in a feeding frenzy, diving at incredible speeds and plunging into the water and surfacing with a feed.
At 10.20am I approached Macarther Islands. I aimed for Bushy Island the closest and followed its reef edge around to the west side. The reef dropped off quickly but with the water so clear I could see the fish and corals without taking a dip. The water depth and colour changed frequently. It looked inviting, but I resisted the temptation to swim. Egrets were searching for food on the exposed reef. The beach on the west side was very steep and as I pulled in I could see crocodile tracks descending into the water. Not a huge croc, its foot prints one metre wide, but nevertheless a croc and they turn up on an island that could be classed as paradise.
I spent an hour on the island before heading on a compass course across to the mainland. My back started to ache so I started singing to take my mind off the pain. The sun reflected off a tin shed of Captain Billy Landing where my support team was going to meet me. When I was a kilometre away John and Linda started waving balloons, while Tim was filming from the hill. This time they made sure that they were there and I knew they were waiting. Pounded by small waves the beach was frothing with coral spore. It looked dreadful. I landed beside timber posts and a boat ramp and once on shore the principal and his partner from the Forrestfield Primary School in Perth quizzed me about my journey.
I walked to the shed, nursing a sore backside. My priority was to wash and to wash my clothes to rid them of salt. Another couple arrived and told us they had been skin-diving around the top end every morning; how crazy can you get! The WA couple stayed for tea, pizzas, fruit and custard prepared beautifully by Linda. They told us that a woman had drowned at Twin Falls, which wasn’t far away and another woman had been attacked by a croc whilst sleeping in her tent.
October 13th. Captain Billy Landing.
I watched the sunrise from the shed door and then went for a run along the forested track with Tim. Eventually he stopped with foot pain but I carried on moving further into the forest. There were several species of trees, including huge paper bark trees and palms. Guinea fowl of some description were taking off and flying high into the forest canopy. Many other birds were in song, most of which I hadn’t heard before. It was thick with trees and different types of vegetation lined the creek courses. The scene and atmosphere made me feel really good. I felt as if I was wondering through a forest so old that dinosaurs could be wandering there. I bounded back feeling on top of the world. I caught up with Tim and we had a good talk on our way back.
John and Linda had just finished breakfast and were talking to our new friends. I had porridge for breakfast and talked for the next two hours before having one last cup of tea and loading. The sea was calm and weather hot and the sight of the scum on the water had dispersed overnight, leaving a light blue ocean. With a lower tide and little wind the surf was non-existent. Dotted along the way were small cliffs fronted by palms and areas of sand dunes. Behind the coastal strip in the distance huge bush fires were burning, leaving a blackened smoke trail to be seen for kilometres. Turtles had returned so once again I had something to watch out for and surprise. Just before the wind picked up I started singing to stop me from nodding off in the hot sun. Late in the afternoon I passed Hunter Point, False Orford Ness and camped just south of Orford Ness.
October 14th Sunday. Near Orford Ness.
I had a good nights’ sleep lying next to the kayak in my thin swag. With less reef now protecting the beaches the surf became bigger, waves closer together and the ocean choppier, nothing like the down south however, but it was a nuisance as it was difficult to put the spray cover on when launching without a wave breaking over the kayak and filling the cockpit.
There was a stiff easterly wind blowing as I rounded Orford Ness heading directly to Usher Point where a track came into the coast. There were interesting and beautiful cliffs at Usher Point. Although the sea was rough and the surf was more severe than anywhere along this section, I still decided to land and take photos. I landed with little trouble and admired the amount of red colour that made up the cliffs. The cliffs were fronted by pandanas palms and a lone, tall termite mound stood prominently on top of the cliff edge. There were dark red lava-type boulders and water seeping between two layers of rock. I didn’t need water though, as I had less than two days remaining on my trip to the top. My 100 metre beach was trapped between two headlands. The cliff scene was spectacular, one of the best since leaving Cooktown.
I looked out towards the surf watching it pound the beach continuously. I could see it was going to be hard to leave without getting swamped. As the waves dumped repeatedly I dragged the kayak into knee deep water, faced it into the wind and waves and tried to enter the cockpit and go. It wasn’t that simple as moments later water lapped into the cockpit and started filling it up. I jumped in with little concern about my entry technique as the kayak was being pushed back towards the beach by the wind. Wave after wave broke continuously. There was no let-up in the waves so it was impossible to put on the spray cover, so I had no choice but to crash through the waves without it being on. By the time I reached calmer waters my cockpit was completely full of water. I then sealed the cockpit and started pumping the water out with my foot pump which took about twelve minutes. The ocean became very confused around Furze and Sadd Point, where large waves were coming through in sets.
At Tern Island I was able to see Turtle Head Island where I hoped to spend my last night before arriving at Cape York. I could also see a yacht heading towards the shelter of Escape River. Mangroves now lined the creeks that intersected the large area of Newcastle Bay. I felt less concerned about the sea conditions and more concerned about the crocs as I entered the area. I tried watching out for them, but with the choppy seas that was virtually impossible. The south-easterly winds accelerated my progress to Turtle Head Island and luckily I found a cove half way along it. However the tide was out at least 100 metres leaving me with a long walk. The sand was beautiful, no rubbish and a bit like the golden sands of Cable beach in Broome. As I unloaded, sand particles whipped up by the wind cut like glass as they raced across the large exposed sand flat.
After I made camp the tide started to rush in and after checking my gear I had doubts about being high enough above the high tide mark to avoid getting flooded. Unfortunately thick undergrowth wouldn’t allow me to go back any further so I had to take a chance. I went for a walk and on my return I found a wild pig investigating my camp. I instantly ran towards it and it took off in the bush which was too thick for me to follow. With the days total being 50 kilometres, I only had 30 kilometres left to Cape York.
October 15th. Turtle Head Island.
It was a windy, slightly wet night and I kept waking up thinking it was time to go. I wanted to reach the Cape York as soon as possible. I forgot all about the high tide, but it hadn’t reached me in the night so I didn’t get washed away.
At 4.45am I started getting ready, but it wasn’t until 6.10am that I burst through a small choppy surf. Unlike the previous day the wind was coming from the north-east. The sea was choppy with a decent swell running and a swift current in my favour. Closing up to the mainland I tried focussing on a strange wave pattern in front of me. Within minutes I had caught up with the waves and then I noticed a sand bar. I managed to swerve to the left to avoid it. A large wave suddenly crept up from behind and I started to surf it. The wave was long and it turned out being a great surfing wave. It was one of the best safe surfing waves I have surfed in a sea kayak. It was also the fastest. The speed of the kayak was incredible, with the rudder wires zinging from the wind and speed. I realised I was having a ride of a lifetime, but I was still a few kilometres from the mainland and could easily end up in deep trouble. I then started to travel faster, far too fast for comfort and I felt my free ride, which had already gone several hundred metres, was getting a little out of hand so I angled off the wave to my right. My position then became worse as the boat edged towards the sandbar where waves were breaking. I managed to straighten up and get to a flatter area, but the fun was just starting. Large waves clapping together started exploding in front of me. I had no choice but to head straight through them. As I did I bounced from one wave to another as they exploded. A rocky island way ahead was also being bombarded by waves. I then headed over to my right again to get closer to the main deeper channel where the sea looked a lot calmer. Waves continued to throw me around, but I eventually found a safe haven. Phew that really was a ride of a lifetime.
Settling back to a paddling rhythm I noticed something white on a mainland beach and thinking it could have been my car I raised my paddle and started waving. Receiving no response I assumed it wasn’t my crew which was a relief really because the surf battering the beach looked a little threatening. I continued on being whisked closer to the Cape by a swift running tide. After entering the channel between the mainland and Albany Island I crossed another turbulent area as I manoeuvred around a point where I was going to rendezvous with my support team. I paddled out of the main current and into an eddy and headed towards a rock ledge to get out, but a recirculating current made it difficult to land. It was important to see if the crew were waiting as I didn’t want to pass by if they were there.
Using my paddle as a support I braced it across the kayak’s deck and the rock, but a surge of water lifting and dropping the kayak made it extremely difficult to balance and get out. As I perched on a submerged rock I had to think of a way to get the heavily laden kayak well above the surge line. I dragged the bow up onto a rock and hopped back to the stern, using the underwater boulders to stand on. I grabbed the stern and as the surge rose I lifted it and tried to place it on higher rocks. The weight of the kayak made me struggle and when the bow became wedged between two rocks I was left struggling, with the kayak in mid-air and unable to move across. The strain was too much so I had to reverse the procedure and try to put the boat back to its original position. Overbalanced by the effort, I hung on, trying to prevent myself falling into the water. I stumbled back into deeper water, dropped the kayak on the rocks and saved myself from falling into the water. I moved back to the bow, unjammed the nose and returned to the stern for another attempt which was more successful.
With the kayak clear of the water I ran up the rocks and across several hundred metres of scrub to our rendezvous beach. Although the crew knew that I was meeting them there that day my crew was parked under a tree relaxing. They hadn’t expected to see me so soon. I quickly explained that I had to get back to the boat before the tide rose, so I jumped onto the roof-rack and John drove me back to my boat.
With the help of a push from John, I seal-launched off the rocks. The channel was calm but current swift. I flew along it at great speed. The rocky coastline was very beautiful – in fact, one of the best scenes I had seen since leaving Cooktown. It was dotted with small beaches. A homestead, with coconut palms and looking like a paradise farm, was situated on Albany Island. I passed it by, leaving the pontoons, boats and dinghies to sway with the current. Somerset Beach, the site of a grave and Aboriginal paintings, was next to fly by. The next few bays were full of mangroves, quite uninviting, when you have crocodiles in mind.
I noticed a lighthouse ahead. The sighting made me quite excited as it didn’t look far to go so I pushed on, with the current moving me along at great speed. I was going so quickly it was hard to keep up with map reading. As the kayak moved out of the channel the sea became rougher and mixed with the fast current, it was an uneven ride towards the top of Australia. As a gap in the rock formed off Cape York I realised that an island was fronting the cape and the lighthouse was actually on the island.
I noticed four people standing on the sloping, rocky tip of Cape York. A faded track led southwards up to the highest point of the promontory. The scene looked different from what I had imagined. I hadn’t expected an island to disrupt the view to the north. I felt cheated as I was expecting to look across an open sea towards Papua New Guinea or some exotic island in the far distance. It was not the time to dream and lose concentration however, as the speed of the water at the tip was accelerating through the gap and causing turbulence out from the cape. I crept closer to the mainland so I didn’t get swept beyond the top spot. My kayak accelerated the closer I came to the tip. The people watching on Cape York were intrigued with my presence and sent verbal greetings and a wave. I tried to acknowledge them and at the same time concentrate on manoeuvring the kayak into a small eddy near the tip. I turned in like a true professional, but as I closed up on the rocky shore, the kayak bumped and slid over some underwater rocks that I couldn’t see. Beyond my safe haven, the speeding current was moving over semi-exposed rocks just out from the point. I was stationary and safe in the eddy as Keith Bible came down, waded out in knee deep water and held my kayak. I jumped out, dragged the kayak up the rocks, forgetting to lift up the rudder and bent it. Not many people get the opportunity to land on the tip of Australia by kayak, I thought.
Keith and Stuart were joined by another couple. The women offered me a drink and an orange. I accepted the orange. They took photos and later moved off, leaving me to think before Tim, John and Linda arrived some 50 minutes later. It was a little disappointing being there before them, but it was faster to paddle than to drive. We took some photos, straightened the rudder and I paddled back out into the current heading around the cape once more to get some photographs, turned with difficulty and paddled around the cape and into the bay. The rocky shoreline of the cape changed into a beautiful beach that stretched for kilometres westward. A few boats anchored in the bay were the only sign that life was around. I beached, feeling on top of the world and then just sat there in my boat taking it all in. The paddle was over.
John arrived with the car, after which we took the bike off and loaded the kayak on. I wheeled my bike through the tropical rainforest to the camping area where I did my washing and packed up all the kayaking gear.
Although I had finished my Cape York paddle I still had a long way to go to finish the trip. First I had to cycle from the most northerly point, Cape York to the most southerly point, Wilson Promontory, doing several paddling trips along the way. Then I will backpack 900kms from the most southerly point to the highest point, Mount Kosciusko. Then I will paddle the whole length of the 2500km Murray River from near the highest point to the ocean. Then I will cycle to Melbourne, cross over to Tasmania and walk and cycle around the island. Back in Melbourne I will then cycle across the Nullarbor back to Perth.
So my 24,000km trip still has a long way to go.