Peril in Paradise
Insert taken from my Kimberley Kayak Expedition 1 story
I was in the Kimberley at Cape Wellington and I was ready to head up the Prince Regent River, one of the most unique and spectacular wilderness areas which at that time was rarely visited by boat and never ever by kayak.
The low tide had exposed the reef and coral and it had been a difficult, slippery and a dangerous job just getting the kayak into the water. I was happy when I was afloat just knowing that I had lugged all my heavy gear across a reef that could have easily have carved me up if I had fallen.
In the early morning light and assisted by a rising tide, I paddled around the calm waters of Cape Wellington, one of the most remote capes in Australia. Only 20 metres from the rocky cape something suddenly smashed into the back of my kayak like a raging bull. I gained my balance and composure and in horror I glanced behind expecting to see the ‘Incredible Hulk’, or the sea equivalent. I could see nothing but rings of disturbed water, but I just knew it had to be either a big shark or a crocodile. I was hoping that they weren’t looking for breakfast?
I paddled away from the cape left wondering what the hell it was. Being only inches above the water and no-where to escape to, I really wasn’t in a good place. With no follow up attack it was a relief to be riding a swift current towards the narrows near Uwins Island. Then I noticed a strange phenomenon occurring to my right. I could see a body of water (the tail-end of the outgoing tide) speeding closer and travelling in the opposite direction to the current that I was riding on. It was so strange (although I had seen it happen in the King Sound) to be riding on an in-going current and seeing an outgoing current pass by only metres away.
Like a speeding bullet I passed the islands at the entrance of St George Basin, conquered the tidal disturbances in the narrows and headed across the mangrove lined Basin with the famous Mt Waterloo and Mt Trafalgar in the distance. In this area I was more concerned about crocodiles than sharks. A crocodile survey done in 1978 spotted 189 crocodiles of various sizes in the Prince Regent River, so I knew they were waiting out there somewhere! (It was also near here, but in 1987, a later date, that an American tourist Ginger Meadows was taken and killed by a crocodile. I was nearby at the time.)
The river was named in 1820 by the first European to discover the river, Philip Parker King and the crew of the Mermaid. The river is named after the Hanoverian prince, King George IV, who was shortly to succeed his father to the throne.
The first European to settle in the area was Joseph Bradshaw who established Marigui homestead along the river with his cousin Aeneas Gunn in 1890. In 1891 he discovered the Bradshaw rock paintings on his land. The pastoral venture was unsuccessful but Gunn later documented his memoirs of the time in the book Pioneering in Northern Australia.
After kayaking 63 kilometres from Cape Wellington I turned out of the mangrove, cliff lined Prince Regent River to paddle 6.7 kilometres along Camp Creek to find a camping spot at the end. Mangroves lined the junction of the two waterways, with a huge body of lush mangroves, a perfect crocodile habitat, in two wide gullies either side of the creek. It was perfect crocodile ambush area. I scanned the water for any movement and noticed a log near the mangroves on the left shore, but it moved, it was no log, it was a croc. Trapped inside the narrow creek with two mangrove forests either side of me there was no quick escape. I instantly took a wide berth, moving to my right but the croc swam closer and closer. My heart started to pound like an African drum as I was forced nearer to the thick mangroves lining the right bank. The croc stopped for a split moment, I sighed with relief but it gave chase again. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being pursued by a very unpredictable animal. I daren’t slacken off my pace as a split second might mean life or death.
My body was fixed on paddling hard to get away, but my mind knew that the croc was faster and was it coming to attack, or was just being inquisitive! It wasn’t worth stopping to take a photograph to find out. It was just too dangerous.
I knew that I was intruding into crocodile territory, so really I had to expect that I could be attacked and to never see home again. But it was a gamble worth taking, I was kayaking in one of the most beautiful and isolated places on earth and I knew of no other kayaker who has been here before me. Like an early explorer I thrived in being here in such a hostile environment where danger was part of the challenge and created so much excitement.
My ticker now raced much quicker than Big Ben. I was clipping the mangroves and paddling in a wide arch, trying to avoid those ugly looking nostrils bearing down on me. That nose, which had a slight resemblance to my own, finally started to slow. I began to feel a lot happier, but I couldn’t ease up, it might change its mind. The thought of having to return this way in two days time wasn’t a pleasant one.
Although this croc had stopped the chase I still faced several kilometres of thick mangroves ahead where there could be more waiting but I reached the end of the creek without incident. Here I could see nothing, but mud, mangroves and slimy rocks but just when I felt there was no hope and I may have to turn and go back, I noticed a narrow passage between some cliffs that led me into a pool and paradise. Before me were lush trees, beautiful fresh water streams, polished rock ledges, a cliff face and a waterfall a few hundred metres up stream. What more could a man ask for. Within minutes the tide had turned and the water allowing me to paddle into the pool was gone. Beyond my pool now, was just mud.
In 6.5 hours I had paddled 70 kilometres. That was my best achievement yet. Needing a rest and the enthusiasm to face the croc and the hostile world out there again I settled in for a 2 day break. People had camped here before as there were chairs made from the local timber.
Excited of being in such a beautiful place I just wanted to explore the country by foot as it felt much safer. I soon started my trek and a few hundred metres away I climbed around two waterfalls and followed the creek further into the interior. The creek was teeming with birds, lizards and wallabies but it was the scrub bulls, which were in a prime condition that I had to avoid. Being miles away from the nearest cattle station I expect the bulls hadn’t seen a human being as they stood their ground. For a moment I felt like a matador. I wasn’t scared of bulls as I had been brought up on a farm, but these heavy beasts weren’t your typical bull, they were frightened of nothing and were happy to give chase.
After several hours of walking I returned to wash, write and to relax. I had been paddling solo around the Kimberley for about 85 days and as my mind wandered, and the longer I relaxed and thought about home, the more I began to feel homesick. Up until now my trip had been action packed and I’d had no time to get homesick, the excitement saw to that. But now, as I washed and shampooed my hair with the sacred fresh water, sewed my deteriorating clothes and cleaned my equipment I had time to think about home and how Jenny was coping without me. Out here I had no way of communicating and letting her know where I was and if I was safe.
After a two day break I was ready to face the dangerous world out there again so at 2pm when the tide eventually reached my campsite I paddled out of my safe heaven, through the cliffs and along the corridor of mangroves. Within 200 metres I spotted a 6 foot croc sunning itself on a rock ledge. It was oblivious of my presence so I quietly paddled by it pushing hard against the wind and incoming tide heading back towards the Prince Regent River. Twigs and logs floated by. Most reminded me of a crocodile so I strained as I looked for those bony eyes and nostrils in the murky water.
After passing the point where the croc had previously given chase, I was able to relax. Once out into the main Prince Regent River, large wind waves, which had generated enormous power as they swept along the very straight, long river, tossed me around like a cork. Being back on the water to face such elements meant the excitement grew again and my feeling of home sickness soon faded as I realised I loved being out there. By nightfall, I had only paddled a few kilometres against the swift current, and I had no choice but to find a camp along the unsuitable, mangrove, cliff lined shoreline.
At the first chance of seeing a way up a cliff, I manoeuvred my kayak through some mangroves and between two large boulders and anchored. I checked the water and mangroves around me with a keen eye before disembarking and trudging through the thick oozing mud and near impenetrable mangroves to find a campsite. The sand-flies and mosquitoes wasted no time in attacking my exposed skin, my long pants were locked away in the bulkhead of the kayak.
The mangroves blocked my way to the cliff top and I had no choice but to chop a narrow path through them with my tomahawk. It was hard moving my gear from the mud, but it was more agonising lifting my 35 kilogram kayak through the mangroves and then climbing an uneven ladder of sandstone boulders to a height above the high tide mark to be a bit safer.
When I reached the top, the hard work and effort was well worth it, the view was simply amazing. One slip over the 20 metre cliff edge though, and I would find myself sharing a place with the mud, the mangroves, the crabs, crustaceans and maybe the crocs. So it was best not to fall!
Up on the cliff I felt safe from all the dangers and my hammock was strung above the cliff edge between 2 trees overlooking the magical Prince Regent Reserve. I relaxed and watched rock wallabies bound off into the night and viewed a spectacular electrical storm in the southern skies. Oh, what a place to be! Lovely one day, perfect the next! Once more, I realised why I was here putting myself in danger.
I struggled down the cliff with my gear in the early morning and found myself knee deep in mud and water. As I moved with the swift outgoing current I tried to steal as many kilometres as I could before the tide turned. I soon left the main Prince Regent River and entered St George Basin and headed for a beach I had noticed on Marigui Promontory on the way up. As I approached St Patrick Island, I noticed a shimmering wave heading towards me. As I was still being assisted by the outgoing current, the mystery deepened as the wave closed in. It was a tidal bore without doubt, so I paddled at full speed and met the 2 – 3 foot high wave head on. With all my might, I tried hard to penetrate through the wave and avoid a free ride back to the Prince Regent River.
My mind and body became alive and alert as I jumped the wave and fought the opposing current towards the island’s extended reef 300 metres away. Suddenly the current had turned into a fast flowing river and a rapid had formed at the corner of the reef not far ahead. I tried to paddle against the current but it was too strong, and standing waves that had been created, were getting bigger with every minute that passed. With only 3 kilometres to go to reach the beach I fought like fury, but eventually my body gave up, I simply couldn’t do it.
Exhausted, I retreated gracefully and headed towards the island’s reef. Unless I wanted to spend 6 hours on the reef I had only one other chance to get to my beach, and that was to pull the kayak up the rapid by walking along the reef. I didn’t hesitate, I attached a rope to the bow and I started pulling the kayak, but it didn’t work very well, the kayak kept crashing into the jagged reef. I tied on my longer rope and by using my paddle to keep the kayak away from the reef I was able to make slightly better progress.
It was all going well for a few minutes then suddenly the reef gave way, I lost my balance and ended up sitting on the reef. With a slack rope the fast current whipped away the bow of the kayak and it started floating down stream. Luckily I had kept a firm grip on the long rope, avoiding what could have been a most embarrassing situation – my kayak floating away with all my gear in it and me, on an island in the middle of nowhere!
Picking myself up, I desperately hauled the kayak around, pulling it hard and smashing it on the razor sharp reef. I had built it strong so there was no damage. For several minutes everything seemed to be going wrong as I was struggling to keep my feet on the fragile reef. Eventually my co-ordination and system of working started to flow and I was back in control again.
At the apex of the rapid, a small surf pounded the reef and violently pushed the kayak against the coral but once over the crux and into slightly calmer waters it allowed me to jump back into the cockpit and paddle away before being washed back down the rapid by the swift current.
I was relieved to be back on the water but for the next 15 minutes my success seemed doomed, as the current had an endless supply of energy, but after pulling out all stops I slowly crept towards the beach, taking 1.5 hours to paddle the 3 kilometres.
With 3 hours to spare before riding the outgoing tide back to Cape Wellington, I decided to walk up to the distant ridge to see the magnificent view of Mt Trafalgar, Mt Waterloo and the whole St George Basin. Not only was the view magnificent, the thought of myself being the first person to climb that ridge and being totally alone in this unique wilderness was very special.
When the tide was right, I had 2.5 hours to paddle 26 kilometres to Cape Wellington, which I knew was touch and go. With no time to spare, I faced the turbulences again through the narrows and the islands near Uwins Island. I was fighting hard to get to shore before dark and with 5 kilometres to go, I was rammed by something very big on my rear left side. I didn’t see it, but I suspected that it was most probably a shark. The fright encouraged me to paddle with a higher arm action to prevent my hands skimming the water, but in reality that wasn’t going to help, if the shark was serious nothing would stop it attacking.
After passing through a section of standing waves created by the tide and opposing wind and still with 2 kilometres to go, the sun completely vanished and I found myself paddling in the dark. It wasn’t a good idea to be paddling in the dark in this region, but I could do nothing to get me to shore any quicker. To save some distance I headed for the south side of the cape. By the time I hit the beach I had paddled for 9 hours, walked for 2.5 hours and loaded and unloaded for about 2.5 hours, and I still had to cook my meal! Happy to be on firm ground I cooked my meal, relaxed, looked into the night sky and reflected back to the last few days. It had been such an amazing journey and so many things had happened, it had truly been an adventure.
From Cape Wellington the excitement on the way north, never waned. I paddled up to Careening Bay, opposite the Coronation Islands where I saw a huge boab tree. On the tree, which was at least five metres in width, were the words ‘Mermaid 1820’. It was in this bay in 1820, that Captain Phillip King slipped his boat on the beach to repair it. The crew carved the words whilst they waited for the repairs to finish.
My exciting journey continued around the coast to Mitchell Plateau. Check out my story Kimberley Kayak Expedition 1 for the stories beginning and end.