Kimberley Kayak Expedition 6 – Revisited
After paddling around the Kimberley coast for a year in the 1980s on four trips, I was dying to revisit it again so in 2002 it was time to head north once more. The Kimberley is one of the most special places in the world, it has its many dangers and its rewards, but it’s not for the faint hearted.
On other trips I have paddled the Kimberley solo or with one other person but this time there were going to be 6 of us, Pam Riordan, Tel Williams, Gary Nixon, Don Kixon and John Dinucci.
Having paddled this area several times before and having spent a year paddling along the Kimberley coast on different trips, I became the leader. Although every member of the team were experienced paddlers knowing the area did have its advantages. Three of the members, Don, Gary and Tel, who were great sea kayakers hadn’t had much white water experience, Pam had a lot of white water experience, but she probably wasn’t quite as fit as the others. Whereas John was an excellent whitewater paddler, an excellent sea kayaker and was as fit as a bull. So it was my job to lead and John’s job to bring up the rear and make sure we were all together in a pack.
It was a long drive to Broome in two 4 wheel drives, and a bumpy ride up to Cape Leveque on gravel tracks but we got there safe. Now with the dangerous bit over we prepared for the fun part of our journey at the Cape Leveque camping ground.
At 5.00am the next morning we emerged from our tents, it was already light and a chorus of birds were singing away. I could hear snoring beside my tent and it was Don, who had said the night before that he was going to have the billy on for us when we rose. When he eventually woke up he said, this is not usual, I never sleep in. It must have been the Kimberley air.
We slowly had breakfast taking in the early morning warmth and the wildlife singing and twittering that we never hear in Perth. The palm trees rattled and the red dirt and cliffs along the coast gave us another indication that we were far from home. Part of the 1970s and 80s the Kimberley had been my home. I had worked in Camballin, on an irrigation station in 1973-74 and spend over a year doing my trips in the 1980s so things were more familiar for me here than the others.
The time came when we filled our water bottles, paid for the campsite and motored down to the beach to unload the kayaks. The tide was well out and sand packed firm so the cars had no trouble gaining traction. Don, Tel and Gary were packed first and sometime later we were all ready to go. The cars were taken back to the campsite and we seemed to wait forever for the drivers to return. With the tide coming in fast we had to pull our boats back up the beach so they didn’t get swamped.
At last we were away pushing against an easterly wind. The shoreline at this point was a long line of sand dunes, nothing too inspiring but it was the turtles that were keeping our interest. Swan Island from afar seemed joined to the mainland, but as we closed in a small gap started to appear. Swan Point opposite was low with a small rocky cliff. The current in the middle of the channel was moving pretty quick and we were soon to join it. The current raced swiftly over a rock shelf creating some good sized standing waves which splashed over our decks. For a bit of fun we started surfing some of the waves.
Once out of the channel we were in the notorious King Sound. Ask any skipper that has been in this area with a boat or yacht, the King Sound is not to be messed with. With the second highest tides in the world, attaining over 10 metres in height and gathering speeds well in excess of 15kms and hour and faster around the islands and reefs it can be like paddling a huge rapid river, but on a much bigger scale. To make it even more exciting these tides have two high and two low tides a day so every 6 hours the tide changes.
To make for a safer passage it’s best to paddle in this region when the tides are on neap, when there is less movement in the tides and the current is slower, but it’s not always that easy to plan to pass over all the tricky spots on neap tides. We were about to cross the King Sound on neap tides but on our return back across the King Sound we would be up against the spring tides which means the water movement is the highest and fastest. Not only that we will be crossing back on the highest of the spring tides in that year, so it doesn’t get any stronger than that.
Once we rounded Swan Point and looked south into the King Sound there were a large scattering of islands which we were going to make our way through by the way of Escape Passage, to get to East Sunday Island. Escape Passage was named by early explorer Philip Parker King who was caught in the strong tides in his sailing ship and incredibly managed to manoeuvre through the passage and escape.
We paddled off in calm conditions side by side. I kept checking behind and although we were moving forward Swan Island seemed to take a long time to get away from. The current at this point seemed to be against us but a little later crossing over to Talboys Island the current started pushing us across to the south west and it was accelerating faster the closer we got to the island. Over to the east of us the current was punishing the rocky outcrops that looked as if a boat was stranded on them but turned into being orange and white rocks.
The deeper we paddled into Escape Passage the quicker we moved along. Beaches on Tallon Island looked inviting so Pam suggested having lunch there, but the current was now too fast for us to cross over. Instead we paddled towards the island further south and got swept along at a terrific pace. We kept close to the shoreline so as to not get swept away and then we paddled into an eddy at the south end of the island to gain the safety of calm water.
With the current being so fast it was interesting watching all the others spin into the eddy. The team was excited with the speed of the current and to think we were experiencing it at its slowest. A sheltered rock bay at the end of the island made a great place to have lunch. We pulled up to the rocks and let the boats sit there and just drift. Nearby a beach curlew and two oyster catchers were noisily moving among the rocks and probably a little annoyed that we had invaded their territory.
About 20 minutes later we were on the move again crossing over to an island west of Sunday Island. We kept closer to the islands so as to keep out of the faster current that might drag us into the open, island-less part of King Sound. We had a spot on a hill to head for, but it seemed that Don had decided on another spot as he started heading more over to the west and further into the fast current. Nearing the small Hancock Island Don joined us and we soon all scooted towards the south west tip of Sunday Island.
Near the tip a rocky outcrop stood in front of us and the water was rushing through a narrow channel. I advised the crew to take the longer route around the rock but John, Pam and Gary decided to have more fun so went between the rock and the tip just missing a large boulder that was partially hidden underwater, which they were unaware was there, until they looked back. It could have been disastrous if one of them had hit it. This narrow escape and the last few hours of paddling the swift currents had been a learning experience for the group and being so isolated I think everyone realised that they had to take even more care to ensure a safe trip.
Being in the shelter of Sunday Island and out of the main current we now focussed on East Sunday Island and our campsite. The wind suddenly picked up as a dingy with four Aborigines on board flashed by waving. We arrived at the campsite, which had a steep beach and a sandbar just west of it and the beautiful rocky backdrop that gave our camp a great feel. With the tide being fairly high we didn’t have too far to carry our gear, although the coarse sand and lumps of coral made walking a little uncomfortable.
We settled in and climbed the ridge to look at the swift current between our island and Mermaid Island 15 kms across the channel. Later we drank a cup or two of wine, helped down with tuna and tortilla’s with parmesan cheese, followed by home dried apple and custard that Pam had provided.
As the stars shone bright we sat and talked developing a special friendship and admiring our surroundings. We went to bed early just after 8.00pm. It was a hot night.
By 5.30am we had all risen. We had until 9.00am to get ready, so we didn’t need to rush. The tide was ripping along the beach at an enormous pace, jump in and you would just float to the end. We all sat and relaxed along the cliff face keeping cool in the shade. By 8.30am our beach was fully exposed and the shallows were getting shallower so it was time to get going. The idea was to start our paddle across the channel on the latter part of the outgoing tide and by the time we were halfway across we would be paddling on an incoming tide. We lifted our boats into the water and started dragging them through the shallows but then another reef was being uncovered before our eyes that stopped our progress.
Beneath our feet were huge cone shells, some with the creature walking away, clams that were agape and trochus shells littered in the pools. Our second portage to deeper water was more difficult because of the rock pools and changing depth in water, but by 9.15am we were away heading to Mermaid Island with several turtles surfacing around us. Mermaid Island was the name of Captain King’s ship.
As we moved away from the island we hit the current and soon after started to drift. It wasn’t long before we could see a beach on Tree Island, our closet island, which we intended to use as a leaving place on the way back across the sound.
Birds dive bombed the water and fish flurried and jumped ahead of us. Although the tide was supposed to be on the turn we were now drifting fairly fast and over to the east where we were headed we could hear the tidal rips, rapids and waves breaking on the rocky reefs and shores. The disturbances looked fairly big from where we were and to be pushed onto them just wouldn’t make our day.
The further we paddled the closer we were being pushed towards Tree Island. The outgoing tide was still going out long after it was supposed to have turned, which happens a lot in these waters. We had already drifted about 3 kms so we stepped up our paddling speed and soon-after the tide turned and we were pushed back on track.
The weak incoming tide helped us to head south along a line of rocky islands and reefs to a beautiful cove on the north westerly side of Mermaid Island. The low tide accentuated the different browns and reds in the rocks above and below the high tide mark. It had taken us 3 hours to paddle the 15 kms.
We carried our gear up to the beach and Don soon erected a shade which was very welcome as the midday sun was fiercely hot. Before using it we sat in the water trying to cool off watching at all times for those little crocodile eyes.
After oysters, cheese and pitta bread for lunch I donned my walking clothes and scaled the hill behind our camp. Don donned his paddling clothes and paddled into the bay to catch a fish and Gary and Tel tried fishing from the rocks.
I fought through tangled vines that tried strangling me several times, carpets of deep spinifex, spindly trees, dead branches and precariously unstable rocks that made walking difficult. The view from the top of the ridge was well worth the effort though. I could see the lone figure of Don in the calm bay on one side and the current streaming by the island to the west on the other. The prominent rocks clear of vegetation towered beautifully above the surrounding area. I climbed them and accepted the grand views of the islands to the east, the north east and to the west. It was a stunning view. About a kilometre away a forest of mangroves were spread in the valley. A little further on there was a higher point with an overhang and big fig tree. I searched the overhang for Aboriginal paintings but saw nothing apart from a small bat that fluttered around.
I climbed further to another high point but it had more trees and vegetation and had less spectacular views. I descended and I was thankful of my gaitors that protected my shins as I wobbled over the loose rocks and tripped over the vines. Back down the hill the crew were talking or writing diaries and the rock face had now shaded an area to sit beside. Later Tel, Don and Gary did the manly thing and tried fishing again. They paddled and drifted out in the bay, but came back defeated. We had no fish to cook in the beautiful campfire coals. Instead we listened to Don’s interesting diving exploits.
When the fiery red sun descended over East Sunday Island we started cooking, dried beef and rice, followed by milo and biscuits. What no fish in the Kimberley!
The stars were bright and Scorpio was very evident.
Tuesday 1st October
I laid in my tent listening to the guys talking, the water lapping up the beach, the birds singing and watching the condensation dripping from my tent. The sun was still well beyond the ridge behind us when I rose but the sand flies were pinching at our heels.
We slowly started to load and by 9.00am we were away. It was well before we needed to go to take advantage of the tide, but we thought we would take it easy along to the south end of Mermaid. We paddled at a relaxed pace admiring the orange rocks. Turtles were bobbing up all over the place. The current was against us and going out so we moved slowly taking shelter along the reef shore. Fish were jumping, turtles were surfacing and a school of sharks were milling around out in the faster water. We moved over to check.
Don threw his line out and caught something that straightened his hook, probably a shark. The tidal currents were streaming around the island so we had no chance to get across the channel to Scott Island. While waiting in the eddy Tel said he spotted a croc so we decided to move away. There was an island about 500 metres out. The current was pretty quick but we were able to get across to it. We stranded our boats on the sand and walked onto a rocky hill where we were able to check the currents across the channel. It was still too strong. After about 40 minutes we decided to give it a go. Don was already out there fishing.
The current still felt swift so we sat for a while in an eddy. A few minutes later we gave it a go and we had no trouble reaching Scott Island where there were plenty of beaches. Don spotted some mangroves in a bay so he asked if he could go and find some crabs. We moved in and stopped in the shallows of a reef and waited for him to return with nothing in hand. Pam thought we were mad stopping in crocodile country.
We moved around the next point and then the current started to quicken in our favour. It was great paddling. As we moved along Pascoe Island the current eased that was until we had to cross over to Pecked Island then it was quite swift and against us so we had to do a big ferry glide before paddling along the coast heading towards Cascade Bay. The cliffs were absolutely beautiful. We took it easy and just took in our surrounds.
By the time we reached our camp the tide was well out. We felt it was too far to walk our gear so we decided to wait for the tide to rise which lift and push our kayaks closer to the beach. Meanwhile I went to explore a great little mangrove creek nearby. I returned and took photos and we sat on the edge of the mangroves in the shade and waited. The incoming tide started pushing our kayaks slowly towards the beach. We relaxed, talked and looked on taking in the red ochre cliffs, the hills and boab trees looking down at us. It was a stunning scene. Eventually the flood tide had our boats at the bottom of the beach so it was time to unload.
We sat around our campfire chatting having a drink of wine taking in all the splendour.
Incredible birds sounds broke out just before dawn. It was time to rise and ready ourselves for a walk to the top of the range behind us. I had already climbed it 3 times before but it is so beautiful up there I never get tired of seeing the view. After a quick breakfast we were walking along the beach beside the cliff before climbing the ridge.
The going was pretty tough from the start, but it got tougher as we gained height. We followed a gully for a while and then broke off to find an easier route. As the ground got steeper the rocks moved under our feet quite dangerously. We started passing green ants. I had warned the guys about them earlier and within five minutes Pam was shouting and had her shirt off trying to shake the green ants off. They do bite.
The view from the top of the range was magnificent. We explored, had a group photo and moved across to another vantage point for another amazing view. Then it was time to descend and the trip down was much easier and back at camp we were soon ready to leave. As we moved off the view of the rock cliff face opposite our camp to the north was more magical in the morning light than when we arrived the previous day. It was hard to take our eyes off it.
Moving along the cliffs and then between Pecked Island and the mainland I expected to see a croc as I had done before, but I was disappointed when we passed through the stunning channel without seeing one. As we approached Hells Gate where the currents are usually extreme, today there was little movement, which was again quite disappointing as I wanted the guys to see how powerful the current was around there. The tide though wasn’t at the right height. We renamed it Fizzle Gate.
We moved past three great campsites before entering Crawford Bay. I thought I spotted small eyes of a croc but it never appeared again. There were turtles galore though. It didn’t take us long to cross Crawford Bay and reach the point of Cone Bay where there was a big splash behind us. Probably a shark! Then Don and Tel sighted a small croc and this time it was real.
A couple of kilometres along the bay we came across Johnson’s camp, a beach with shelter and water. We relaxed, filled water bottles and washed our clothes. I went for a walk along the range crossing ridges and gullies which were pretty tough. Thistle like plants half dead spiked my trousers but at least I got great views of the bay. A wallaby bounded away as I traced my steps back across the ridges and gullies. By the time I returned the crew were sitting at the water’s edge on chairs eating tinned oysters and drinking wine, except for Don and Gary who vowed not to drink on the trip because they didn’t buy any.
As the sun set we moved away from the cool spot at the water’s edge and started preparing dinner in the shade of the high cliff. It was Don’s birthday so we had cake and candles that wouldn’t blow out.
After having a leisurely breakfast we headed across Cone Bay in perfect conditions. A fishing boat was working across the bay. Our paddle was interrupted with several photos and rest breaks and when we started passing oyster/pearl beds we looked back towards the southern cliffs and they were stunning.
We started to move through Sir Richard Island channel and it wasn’t long before sighting a two metre croc. The narrow pass was a beauty and as we turned out of it to go north we paused at the point to eat nuts, watch two kingfishers on the rocks and two dolphins that circled us. We were surrounded by beautiful small islands as we crossed over to Mary Island where we found a sheltered spot amongst the mangroves and rocks for lunch. It was a great little hide-away, but Pam wasn’t at ease as she thought that crocs would be around.
Crossing Strickland Bay the wind picked up from the south-west giving us a lift to the channel between Hidden and Dunvert Islands and the start of the Whirlpool Pass. Here Tel and Don got out of their boats to cool down. Pretty brave in these waters, I thought! With the current in our favour we moved into the spectacular S shaped Whirlpool Pass where turbulences pushed us around and the current aided our passage. When the passage opened up we made for our camp on the right hand side of the pass where a beach greeted us and a spectacular cliff looked down on us.
After carrying our gear ashore Don went out to fish and I climbed the highest point to get a better view of the pass. The view of Don fishing below in the clear waters was picture perfect. Descending and walking along the oyster laden rocks at the bottom of the cliff was a real hazard and could slice my booties and feet open so easily.
We decided to go and find a rock waterhole that I have been to three times before on other trips. A quick breakfast and a cup of coffee and we started our great trek towards the rock waterhole. After a short steep section it flattened and then I took the team to see the colourful sloping rocks.
We then moved off through the scrub dodging trees, spinifex and rocks. Within a kilometre I could see the team were a bit frazzled. We pushed on over a narrow peninsular, water on both sides with tall slate looking rocks towering west. After another scramble over another high point we crossed another narrow neck.
We climbed another ridge, this time the walking was easier. When we reached the top we could see the rapids created by the incoming tide going through a narrow gap. The guys were too hot, too tired, and not so interested to see the rock hole anymore so I went on alone. I followed my instincts towards the gulley. The trees, like fir trees were thick. Eventually I came out and followed the ridge to the gulley. A few mangroves were scattered around the entry to the gulley and the tide was well out. I found the rock hole but there was no water in it, just a couple of very small black fresh water crays chasing a bit of moisture. I returned to the guys passing the tidal rapid, climbing the hill and disturbing some parrots with blue wings.
Back at camp we started loading and headed across the bay for a gap between two islands. The going was slow. The islands were so different, darker, less trees but more spinifex. We pushed on, the island on our left had some magnificent colours and when we reached the next point we beached had lunch and a pee.
We moved on into Coppermine Creek and found a nice beach but there were shacks and a shed so we decided to keep going and found a beach at the south end of Margaret Island. John went for a walk and brought back two black buoys. He later fell to sleep using one of the buoys as a pillow.
We moved away from camp by 8.30am. We passed through the gap between Margaret Island and the mainland which was wider than it looked and once through it we could see Cockatoo Island. On our right though there were huge cliffs lining a gully which were spectacular.
As we got closer to Cockatoo Island we could make out big diggers and haul packs working in the mine. My attention though soon turned to the rear of my kayak when a 2-3 metre shark started following me. It was swimming near the surface so we could see its dorsal fin and it kept following for quite a long time and then disappeared and then followed again. Why it liked me I didn’t know as there were 5 other kayaks across from me or did it like the colour red of my kayak?
A few fishing boats and barges were anchored near Cockatoo Island. The mine was a big eyesore with machines busy in the mine. When we pulled up at the rocky beach a fishing boat Utobia was anchored in shallow water. I asked the skipper where we could get some fresh water and he pointed to a fire hydrant. A store was over the ridge, he said. Our first priority was collecting fresh water before finding the shop which had no-one there, but the skipper phoned a worker to open up.
There was a bar area which was petty grubby. We thought it was the resort but it was where the workers hung out. A girl came and I bought two beers and two snickers bars and they tasted great. The bar didn’t have much else apart from a cask wine which I bought for our nights around the campfire.
It was so hot Pam and Gary jumped into the swimming pool fully clothed and the young girls using it soon jumped out. Before leaving I had a quick dip myself.
The tide had gone out a few metres so we carried the kayaks to the water watching backpackers on the wharf catching fish. The wind made paddling a little difficult so we kept close to the vertical shores to get shade from the wind but we became truly exposed to the wind when we crossed over to Irvine Island. There was a nice beach on the east side of the island but we decided to go around to the west side.
The wind petered out when we moved through the gap between Irvine and Bathurst Islands. Tel and Don started fishing and Tel hooked a decent sized fish. Once through the gap we paddled on the western side of Irvine Island and the cliffs were really impressive.
A lighthouse appeared on an island on the south-west side but we were more interested in finding a beach. As we turned into the shelter of a bay two beaches stood in front of us so we picked the best one and landed.
There was little room on the beach when the tide came up, but we managed. There was however plenty of drift wood scattered on the beach for the fire, we had shade from the western rocks and with the fish caught by Tel cooked chunky and fried in garlic which tasted great, we really had it good.
We had wine and oysters for entrée and watched an eagle swoop down to pick up some fish remains.
We were up at 5.20am had breakfast and started carrying our gear down to the water. By 7.30am with the water up to the bottom of the beach we set off towards Dampier’s Monument near Lord and Byron Islands. We heard whale sounds so we stopped and listened, but we couldn’t see any whales and when we started paddling again we heard the sound again and then we realised the sound was coming from Don’s squeaky rudder!
Within a kilometre of Lord Islands the current accelerated and started to push us into the sound and away from where we wanted to go. We paddled hard to reach the island and then we had to paddle hard again to get to Dampier’s Monument. It is an island 97 metres high. Dampier had come through this area in 1688 aboard his ship the Roebuck. We gathered at the southern end of the island and decided to go anticlockwise around it. As we nipped around the eastern end against the current Don spotted a whale. And it was a whale and not the sound of Don’s rudder. He and John moved over towards it. It disappeared for some time then came up again.
Don and John continued the chase and the whale came up close to Don. I tried getting my camera ready but they were too far away. Then the whale rose again really close to Don. What a thrill he got. He started paddling backwards with his hands which he had his camera in.
The whale took off, but later it appeared to our left. John and Tel followed the whale into the distance. Being surrounded by islands it was a magical place. We left it and paddled towards Lord Island trying to avoid all the overfalls and breaking waves that were all around us. We headed for a narrow gap between Lord and Byron Islands which was lined with mangroves and a gulley on our right was choc a bloc with pandanas palms. When we hit the mangroves the guys had the lines out and Gary soon had a fish.
It was a great paddle against the current but then we came to a small rapid and it took quite a lot of grunt to get up it. We collected at the top of the rapid and then moved on skirting the mangroves. Once out of the channel the current assisted us for a while. At the end of the island there was quite a crossing to Hidden Island. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem but the current between the islands was pretty fast. The ferry glide was going to be tough. Looking back I could see we were drifting in the wrong direction but I was determined to go to the eastern side of the island. The current made us drift in a big arch, but we managed to claw our way back.
We could now see beckoning beaches on Hidden Island. All we had to do was to get there. It was a tough ferry glide but we managed to get into a bay that had pure white sand, just like Esperance. It was hard to understand why such a beautiful white beach was in an area with the second highest tides in the world, with the fast currents and with so many mud flats around.
The beach was as white as white. What a magical place, but it was disappointing to see a bbq plate discarded at the top of the beach. Once out of our kayaks the beach sand was extremely soft but before striding it out we just walked into the water, cooled off and chatted before I climbed the ridge to get great views of the incredibly extra white beach that dazzled my eyes. The beach was so white and dazzling that even in the photos they looked over exposed.
Gary cooked the fish that was caught that day and then had a game of 9 hole golf with Tel while I wrote in my diary. The wind picked up that afternoon so we cooked in the gulley. Believe it or not it got quite cool that night.
The tide wasn’t high enough by the time we were ready to leave so with time to spare we decided to have a cricket match on the sand flat. Tel used his Ainsworth paddle which was a true testament that they were tough. It was great fun and I thought I was still young so I did two flying somersault dives and survived.
When the water eventually reached the base of the beach we dragged and carried our boats to the water and paddled away punching into a southerly wind. We came to the end of the island where we had to climb a tide race to get out in the open. The wind made paddling difficult, although up to now we have had it too easy.
Looking towards the mainland we noticed an unusual island that looked similar to the ones you might find in Thailand or in a James Bond movie.
We soon started to drift and the closer we became to Shirley Island the further we drifted. I signalled the crew to paddle faster but it was no good we were losing the battle. We quickened our pace towards the cliff shore to try and use any eddies along the cliff. The current was still moving quickly. but it worked. However there was a lively current trying to move around a rocky outcrop and more resistance as we tried to get around the first point. For a while we stood still. Our arms were moving but the kayaks were only inching forward.
After successfully getting up the rapid we had yet another one to fight. With great relief we made it. Our next target was to go through the gap between Shirley and Dorney Island hoping that the water wasn’t going to be against us. It wasn’t so we just sat in our boats and let the water take us.
We found a beach on Dorney Island to have a quick stop before crossing over to three unmnamed islands.
Although the current didn’t seem to be too much against us, the closer we got to the islands the harder it became. We couldn’t believe it when we noticed the currents were spiralling north through the islands instead of our want for it to go south.
Standing waves and overfalls were over to our left of the channel. I led the team towards the right island and stopped just north of it. The water was gushing through the channel at an enormous pace. The question was, could we climb it.
I gave it a go and managed to inch my way up. Gary followed and I thought he was going to go over when he hit the current but it managed to keep upright. The others followed. Just when we had thought we had completed the task we realised that when we relaxed we weren’t moving.
One by one the team climbed the rapid and then paddled to a beach nearby. It was about noon. We pulled our boats up. Don, John and I went to climb the ridge while the others sat in the water trying to cool down. It was an impressive sight from the top of the hill.
Within the hour the current had eased enough for us to make a move. We still had about 9kms to go. The paddling was slow as we left the islands but we sped up the closer we got to Wall Island. As we climbed through the gap between Wall and Margaret Island there was little resistance. An eagle’s nest was a top a tall column. We paddled along the vertical cliffs of Wall Island in search for a beach. There were no beaches so we had a quick impromptu meeting and decided to head for Margaret Island.
By this time the current had quickened and a rapid was developing between the islands. We quickly hastened over to Margaret to avoid being washed away. We cleared the gap and within 500 metres found two good beaches that joined to one with a rock outcrop in between. Don and Tel started fishing and I soon joined in and caught a shark. Then Tel caught one and Don caught some smaller fish.
About 4.45pm I walked to the point to get some footage of the rapid between the islands. I wasn’t disappointed, it was raging and I mean raging. Back at camp Tel and John were skinning the sharks. Gary cooked it in dried coconut milk and water, and with beans, curry mix, garlic and rice it was tasty. We had a good campfire and enjoyed being out there under the stars. I woke up when the tide was high and lapping up the beach.
We had to get up early so we could get our boats on the water before the tide went too far out. It was decided a 4.00am roll call was needed to get away by 5.30am. We nearly managed it. Water draining from the sand carved deep gullies in the beach.
We were ready and off by 5.35am executing a big ferry glide towards Mermaid Island. Instantly we drifted north-west. Wall Island was soon passed but although we were making headway we were slipping fast. Within 2 kms of Mermaid we changed tack and started ferry gliding across to Wood Islands. A reef that was exposed ran for a kilometre or two so we needed to get behind it and be out of the main current. As we ferried across we passed over a messy set of overfalls. Just as we were going okay another current started pushing us back the other way. We paddled hard towards the reef hitting currents that were opposing us. After battling to the exposed reef which was a good two metres out of the water the current changed and then eased. In the breaks in the reef water was gushing through the gaps with enormous power and much faster than we could paddle.
We sat around in the shelter of the reef waiting for the current to subside a little and then tried to fight our way through the gap. We manage to fight our way up the first section but there then was a bigger rapid. John and I had a few goes at ferry gliding up it but it was one mass of confused currents that went everywhere. We eventually managed to work ourselves up to a beach, but when Don checked it there wasn’t enough room for all the tents with such a high tide. We waited again to let the current subside a little more before attempting to fight the current again to get to another beach. When we managed to fight our way to that beach the tide was 300 metres out so we decided to wait for it to turn and rise again.
As we waited reef sharks could be seen combing the reef for a feed. When the tide reached the base of the beach we landed and started unloading. Don turned over a big rock and touched a worm which left hundreds of small spikes in his fingers. Tweezers were bought out and what couldn’t be plucked out, he just rubbed his hands in the sand.
There were few places to camp due to the high tide but we all managed to squeeze in. Tent erected I walked up the hill to look at the rapids that were spread right across the sound and even more scarier closer to, where several reefs and small islands were scattered.
While walking Tel had a rock break and move under his feet and he ended up having grazed legs. In the afternoon we tried fishing, I caught 3 fish and then a shark but my line snapped. Tel managed to catch a shark and Don caught 3 fish so we had a feast that night. It had been hard to get out of the burning sun, but a cool breeze cooled the evening and it was perfect.
It was another early 4.00am start. The team was ready early as we were keen to get going. We paddled from our beach at 5.20am and waited beyond the shallows watching the water rip through the islands and across the King Sound with enormous power and speed. It was like watching a grade 4 rapid.
We had banked on leaving by 6.30am, but the current was so fast and the water so turbulent that it was impossible to leave our island making us prisoners for a while. We sat in an eddy and as we were eager to leave I paddled into the fast current to see if we could make headway. It was too wild so I ferried back into the eddy and sat with the others. I waited for a few more minutes and paddled back into the current again but it was still too powerful. If we tried to escape the island at this time we would probably be washed into the islands and rocky reefs, so we waited longer. On the third time out the current had eased enough and I was happy that it was safe enough to leave. I had to be sure though, because ahead we had 13 kilometres of swift currents, waves, standing waves and overfalls to endure before we reached the safety of East Roe Island.
Going by our tide chart it was only 30 minutes from the change in tide, however the outward current was still travelling at 10 – 15kms an hour, but we needed to go or we wouldn’t make it to the other side of the Sunday Straits before the inward tide turned and got too powerful. Pam had been concerned about the crossing all night. Understandably really as it was the day of the highest spring tides in the year and the tides in the Kimberley are the second highest in the world attaining more than ten metres in height and current speeds not seen anywhere else in Australia. Crossing the King Sound would be like ferry gliding across a swift river, 13kms wide.
I led the team away from the island ferry gliding against the current as not to lose any ground as we had several small islands and reefs to avoid. A mistake in those first few minutes by any of us could mean being pushed into the rocks and suffer severe physical injury or even death. We made little headway as our boats jumped about like corks being tossed in a tumble dryer.
Gary, Tel, Don and myself took off one after the other but Pam and John were delayed for some reason, so we drifted apart. Being an experienced paddler John’s job was to bring up the rear so he never took off before every paddler was mobile. Downstream of us the water was pouring over the rocky reefs. It was such a mess and although we were well away from the reefs we were drifting towards them very quickly. Gary, Tel, Don and myself cleared them, but Pam was getting a lot closer than we would have liked. John was even closer, but he was positioning himself in a place to help Pam in case she got into trouble. We urged them on.
It was difficult to wait in such a swift current, but after slowing down our ferry glide we eventually managed to group together. When we all cleared the ‘Tree Island’ reef area the water calmed, but it was still swift with overfalls waiting. The calm didn’t last long as we came to another disturbed area. Our boats were again thrown around and our target was slipping away from us as we were being swept out to sea. There were lines of overfalls to our west which looked very threatening, but the current was pushing us north of them.
The wind was getting stronger which didn’t help us any. Pam was lagging a little and we seemed to be getting closer to Gregory Island to our north rather than to East Roe Island to our west. That meant that we were really being pushed in the wrong direction. But if the tide goes out it’s got to come back in, so we had nothing to fear! I have crossed the King Sound five times before and it always put up a great fight. It hadn’t disappointed me today.
We were now about 4.5kms from East Roe Island and sliding further away despite us paddling hard to reach the island. Pam wasn’t quite as fit as the rest of the group, so every time we slowed to wait we slid away a little further. We struggled on getting nowhere and hoping the current would ease. Then at last we started to make progress, although it was at a snail’s pace, but when it seemed that we were going to miss East Roe Island we changed our target and headed towards West Roe Island.
We managed to claw our way back to within a kilometre of the West Roe Island but then the swift incoming tide started pushing us away from the West Roe Island and back towards East Roe Island. In one way this was good, but we had to be careful not to get pushed passed East Roe Island and back into the King Sound, so we put on the pace and managed to get close to shore and into an eddy at the north end of East Roe. Pam had been the most challenged throughout the last half of the paddle, so she was most relieved to be in an eddy.
We moved to a beach in a small bay around the corner. It had no shade from the burning sun, but it was a great beach and we were able to cool off in shallow water. I walked to the north point of the island, passing two eagle nests, to look out across the Sunday Straits and King Sound from where we had come. It was still full of overfalls and waves.
Back at camp we played ball in the water, tried fishing without any luck, relaxed and I wrote in my diary. We finished off the day by drinking a little wine, eating tinned oysters, watching the tide race by and a bush curlew and 2 oyster catchers feeding in the shallows.
It had to be a 4.00am start. We were ready before the sun came up so we waited for the light. The current was already racing, and I mean racing, but at least it was to our advantage. None of the crew had seen the current run as fast as it was running here and the channel between East Roe, our island and Sunday Island was over two kilometres wide. It was hard to believe that it was the ocean. With the rapid current flying like the wind, the crossing to Sunday Island was going to be pretty exciting. It was also going to be difficult and it was most certainly a dangerous place to paddle, as with one slip anyone of us could be washed away. We had a last minute briefing so everyone knew what we intended to do and where we were headed, just in case we got separated.
We moved into the big eddy of our bay and lined up close to the eddy line. The water was racing at least 20kms an hour, it could have been more. Don, Tel and Gary weren’t experienced white water paddlers and having white water skills would certainly be an advantage in the next few minutes. I led the way by doing a break-in into the fast current. Don, Tel and Pam followed without incident but when it was Gary’s turn, he faltered and got swept back into the eddy. Meanwhile we were being swept away at a very fast pace. By the time Gary managed to get out of the eddy and into the current we were probably 500 metres away. From that distance we could see Gary trying his best to get out of the eddy. At last he was successful and Gary was on the move, with John following him. For this sea kayaking trip you really needed to be a white water paddler and with Gary’s limited experience in white water it started to show.
Our aim was to ferry glide across to Sunday Island and then use a series of islands to move safely into a channel and then paddle on the outgoing current to Swan Island where we would be out of the fast currents of King Sound. Unfortunately Gary and John, who were still well behind, didn’t seem to be ferrying across the swift channel on the same path as we were taking. I became quite worried as it looked as if the current was going to sweep them between West and East Roe Islands. If that happened the team would be split up.
The cliffs of Sunday Island were quite stunning with the sun shining on them but it was hard to take in their beauty when we were performing an amazing ferry glide and watching John and Gary trying hard to power their way towards us. At last we could see that they were making headway and began to get close. Don, Tel, and Pam managed to get out of the current and into slow water near the end of Sunday Island where they waited for John and Gary. I took photos of the crossing where it had calmed. It was good to see them make progress and to be teamed up with them again. We were all so excited about the crossing as we had just been through another unbelievable experience.
We ferry glided from Sunday Island to Pooingin Island and then across to Salural Island. It was good fun and it was a lot easier than our last two big ferry glides but we still had one more big ferry glide to do to ensure we didn’t get washed out into the Timor Sea. To ensure our safe passage we needed to be close to the Apex, Talboys and Howard Islands, these were the last ones before leaving the huge currents of the King Sound and only a few kilometres from the safe haven of Swan Island.
At last we paddled between the mainland and Swan Island and found a beach on the Island to camp for our last night of our very enjoyable trip. It had been such a wonderful journey and it was great to share it with others.
For me the Kimberley and it’s amazing features wasn’t new as I had paddled around it’s coastline for over a year, but for the rest of the team it was new and I can guarantee they will never forget this stunning area and the white water experience they had.
It was hot, we relaxed and went swimming in the clear water off our beach. Pam, who had been afraid of crocs and sharks when we arrived, was now snorkelling further from the beach than any of us dare. Somehow along the way she had lost a few of her fears.
With only a few kilometres to go to finish our journey we took it easy and as we approached Cape Leveque a whale slid passed us. It was a fitting end to a journey that you could never do in any other part of the world.
For me the Kimberley and its amazing features wasn’t new as I had paddled around it’s coastline for over a year, but it is still one of the best places that I have ever kayaked. The Kimberley coast and its environment has lots of extremes and if you are frightened of crocs and sharks or big tides, well it’s probably best to paddle south of Cape Leveque. For the rest of the team the country was all new and I can guarantee it will be a trip that they will never forget.