Kimberley Kayak Expedition 1 (part 1)

 

Kimberley Kayak Expedition 1

I have completed six different paddles around the Kimberley Coast. This is a short story of just one of them. The Kimberley is one of the most spectacular and amazing places in the world. It has huge 10 metre tides, giant whirlpools, menacing boils, super fast currents, crocodiles, sharks, snakes, the heat, the isolation, rich culture, Aboriginal paintings and a lot of amazing country. To face different dangers every day makes the journey that much more special. To date I don’t know anyone who has paddled the region as extensively has I have.

My six trips to the Kimberley are:

•Broome to Mitchell Plateau 100 days solo. 1982
•Lake Argyle, Wyndham to Mitchell Plateau 54 days solo. 1983
•Drysdale River Expedition. 1985
•Derby to Prince Regent River and return to Broome 65 days. (With Ken Cornish) 1987
•Around the Kimberley Expedition, (kayak, mountain bike, run 3500kms) 91 days.       With Ewen MacGregor. 1988
• Return to the Kimberley. With 5 friends. 2002

 

Kimberley Kayak Expedition 1

Kimberley Kayak Expedition 1982  100 days solo – Broome To Mitchell Plateau

It struck me, with the power of a bull. My kayak was lifted and I was thrown off balance. I quickly regained my composure and turned to see the large shark that had just rammed my rear left side.

I was horrified, the shark was at least 3 1/2 to 4 feet across, but I couldn’t determine its great length as it faded under the ocean. Oh no, there were two! A six footer, looking like a midget compared with the other that was directly behind my rudder. I stopped. The closest land was about 3 km away. I needed to get there but dashing off could make my position worse. As I powered forward again a large shape suddenly came into view. The big beast was leading the field so I braced myself for the worst, another hit, but nothing happened.

The waiting game was nerve wracking. I knew the shark could overturn me like a matchstick and my chances of doing the Eskimo roll before it started chewing at me were pretty slim. I imagined them going into a complete frenzy and tearing my head off as I capsized.

I couldn’t bear it, the thought made me shudder and I immediately stopped to put my helmet on! I attempted fastening the buckle with one shaking hand, my other was firmly grasping on the paddle keeping my kayak stable and ready or any action that might evolve.

My trembling hands failed to do the strap up, so risking a capsize, I let go of my paddle and used two hands. I didn’t know what good the helmet was going to do, but somehow it felt safer!

 For 98 days I had been solo paddling and exploring the hostile environment of the Kimberley coast, where the unfriendly land gave little respite from the dangerous tides and ever present crocodiles and sharks. I still had 2 more days to go before the finish.

I’d worked in the Kimberley region a few years previously. It’s wild beauty, isolation and challenging, potentially dangerous environment had attracted me to the idea of exploring the coastline by kayak.

In 1898 Frank Hann, a pioneer pastoralists, reported no one without seeing, would believe that such a place exists in Australia. This country is a perfect revelation, especially to those who believe that Western Australia consists mainly of sandy deserts, treeless spinifex, plains and salt swamps. It is astounding. Rivers, creeks and lagoons intersect the whole country”.

The jagged coastline, with steep rugged cliffs and many deep inlets and bays, is dotted with hundreds of islands and is as beautiful as any in Australia.

Because no one else would go with me, I went alone. The route of the early coastal Explorer’s were roughly the itinerary followed. The kayak I used was a Nordkapp, especially designed for sea conditions and used for demanding sea expeditions throughout the world.

My dream of paddling the Kimberley coastline came to me in 1980 so I had been preparing myself since then. The day of departure was getting close, I had organised a lift up to Broome with Robin Butcher who had a trucking company. Then before I was truly ready Robin rang me to say that he was driving his truck up to Broome in 1 ½ days time. My dream had suddenly become reality. Not having a lot of money to spare to drive my battered car 2300 km to Broome and back, Robin had kindly volunteered to give me a lift. As I placed the telephone back on the hook, my wife Jennifer looked stunned.” We only have one and a half days left together,” she said with great sadness in her voice.

“Yes, I replied, trying to hide my own emotions. It was unbelievable, after 14 months of planning and training, we now had so little time to say goodbye. But I’m not going to see you for four months and I won’t know if you’re in trouble, she cried. As I cuddled her I also broke down. The reality of the dangers and the fact that I might not return suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. At that time being close and cuddling seemed the only important thing in life.

When I thought about it I was really going into the unknown and to a place that no-one that I knew had kayaked before. I was going to face crocodiles, sharks, huge tides, the second highest in the world, isolation and an area so remote no one would know if I got into trouble. And with no communications I will really be alone and have to rely on my own mental and physical toughness to get me through.

The next day Jenny drove me to Robin’s place, where we stood in the middle of the water-logged yard, hugging in silence and finally saying our emotional farewells.

Robin was a veteran of long distance hauls and once we had gathered momentum, he only had two short sleep stops on the way up to Broome. On the last stretch between Sandfire Roadhouse and Broome, which was notorious for straying cattle, I’d looked death in the eye for the first time. Robin was fresh from our stop at Sandfire. Bushes lining the gravel verges were just a blur as we rattled on. Like a ghost in the night, two bleary eyes of a steer came thundering from out of the bushes on the left. Robin had no chance to stop as we rumbled along at high speed. Robin quickly swerved from its path but it was destined to collide with us and then crunch. It hit the left mud guard hard, which was inches away from my legs. As we left the road the gravel verges flashed in front of my eyes as Robin tried to regain control of the truck. The truck started ploughing through the low scrub and bushes and was being shook by the ruts in the dirt. The steering wheel vibrated, but there was nothing I could do but to hope.

Like a rally driver, Robin steered us out of the scrub and back onto the bitumen road and calmly said, phew that was close. We motored on as if nothing had happened but it was hard for me to relax and sleep.

K1truck
My kayak is tied on the top trailer

When I arrived in Australia in 1973, my first real job was working on an irrigation project at Camballin, 80 kms east of Derby on the Fitzroy River. Five of my friends who I had worked with in Camballin now lived in Broome, so on arrival at least I knew a few people there. Bob and Mary Kirby had a small market garden 12 miles out of town. Mary was also an artist and sketched people and places of the Kimberley as well as having a small picture framing business. My other friends living in town were Bill Grogan, a school teacher and Gary and Kathy Robinson, who owned Tropical motors a mechanical business.

With Bob and Mary living out of town, Gary and Cathy were delighted to accommodate me until my final departure date. With several minor jobs needing completing, and in no real hurry to leave I expected to be in town for 7 to 10 days. Everything took time. I had to go through my gear again, study my maps, acclimatise and inform the Coastwatch, the Customs, and the police in Broome, Derby and Koolan Island. Letting the Broome police know created a real problem as the police sergeant there didn’t take too kindly to my proposed expedition. The fact that I was a pom took the brunt of his criticism. How long have you been in Australia? Have you experienced the heat? What do you know about the country? Can you paddle? “You poms are all the same, you come over here and get lost in the desert and perish. Poms do all sorts of stupid things without preparing themselves,” he said.

My 14 months of training and preparations didn’t help to change the sergeant’s mind. I had worked in the Kimberley, I held a 24 hour world kayaking distance record, I had achieved second and third places in the Avon Descent, but that didn’t matter and it even seemed to make him more and more aggressive and determined that he was going to stop me from leaving. The foul language he used to belittle me was quite disgusting, especially for a police officer. I made it clear that I was going to leave and I would let him know when, at a later date.

As I left the police station my ears were ringing from the language and angry comments. It hadn’t helped to boost my confidence but I just knew I had to wipe his remarks out of my mind. Did he really hate poms or would he be like that to an Australian doing the same journey. There was one thing for sure, I would be pleased to see the back of him.

I had been continually warned by people in Perth that I was mad doing this trip and the locals in Broome had similar opinions and estimated that I wouldn’t get passed the 200km mark, or my first obstacle, the carpets of sea snakes that swim along the coast. In the 10 days that I was in Broome I heard enough crocodile, shark and snake stories to last me a life time. I started to ask myself, could they be true? Was I mad? Should I throw in the towel and quietly return to Perth?

No way was I going to put off a trip of a life time. I had confidence in my kayaking ability, myself, my will to survive and my preparation.

Cathy’s parents who were holidaying in Broome at the time nicely pointed out to me that it would be an idea to make out my will. Although I wasn’t expecting to die, it was a good idea. The following day I visited the newsagent and returned with my Will papers, which Cathy’s parents witnessed me signing. I leave all my worldly goods to my wife, Jennifer Bolland. Signed Terence Edward Ronald Bolland. The Will was then left with Cathy until my safe return!

The police sergeant still hadn’t finished with me. Two policeman came to the house to check my safety gear, my distress beacon, flares, etc. They went away confused about the frequencies of my distress beacon, so two more policeman returned the following day to see if they thought it was legal. Distress beacons were relatively new and they weren’t totally reliable.

As the days passed my preparations were nearing completion and the time spent in Broome had given me a chance to acclimatise, as in Perth it was winter, but in Broome the temperatures were in the 30s.

In that same period my friend Bill Grogan sent my food parcels to school teachers he knew at One Arm Point, Koolan Island and Kalumburu, as well as to the mining camp at Mitchell Plateau. Other food packs and spare equipment were given to John Woodman at Pearls Pty Ltd, who would send my food and gear to Kuri Bay.

It had been a hectic 10 days and I was eager to leave the comforts of Broome to find out if I could cope with such a hazardous journey. For Gary’s and Cathy’s young son, it meant that he could have his bed back, for me though, it was hard pillows for the next 3 months.

On July 14th 1982, my friend Bill Grogan drove me to the town beach. I had a mountain of gear to pack into the kayak compartments so Bill left me to start the long and tedious job of packing. Every item had its own place and trying to cram in those last minute luxuries that I bought, just wasn’t possible.

K1Start
Packing for the first time turned out being pretty daunting. If I didn’t have it in the kayak when I left I wasn’t going to be able to get it on the way.

The tourists walking along the beach asked the inevitable, “what are you doing,” “where are you going?” Wyndham, I replied. There was a pause, I could see them trying to work out where Wyndham was in relation to Broome and if I was actually being serious. ‘You’re mad,’ the bigger man with the beer gut said. What’s new I thought.

Sally Alston from the local paper arrived. We had already talked about my trip, but now she wanted several photos for the article. As I posed for photographs the police sergeant drew up. I was expecting him to come over and tell me again that I couldn’t go, but instead he just sat there in the comfort of his car and watched me.

As I finished packing there was a slight wind blowing across the brilliant turquoise water which created small waves that pounded the beach. At last I dragged my kayak into the water and with a couple of paddle strokes the kayak sliced through the small waves. A sense of relief came over me. I was away at last and everything I needed was stored in my kayak. Now I could witness for myself the carpets of sea snakes, the attacking crocodiles, and those wondrous whirlpools that I had heard about.

K1Broome2It was nearly time to leave. Ahead 3 months or more paddling around the Kimberley coast alone. I was paddling a Nordkapp Kayak.

Waving a final farewell to my well-wishers, I paddled out into Roebuck Bay, named by another Englishman William Dampier in 1699. His explorations certainly out shadowed my own but as I moved across the bay that once had 300 pearling luggers working out of the nearby Dampier Creek, I felt my own small expedition had similarities.

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My kayak had little freeboard due to all the weight I carried

One hundred years ago the thriving town of Broome also boasted six hotels and had people from Malaya, China, Koepan, Manila, West Indians, as well as Aboriginal and Europeans that all worked in the pearling industry. Pearling had soon become Western Australia’s most important industry but the plastic button caused the industry to decline and was finally overtaken by gold.

In 1942, Japanese Zeroes attacked the defenseless town, destroying sixteen flying boats and several other planes on the aerodrome including two American Liberators. Many passengers occupying the flying boats died. Today, only memories and museum pieces reflect the past, the 300 old luggers have dwindled to half a dozen and instead of workers, the tourists have started to invade the tropical coast.

I passed a lugger that was washed up on the beach near the golf course and it brought back memories of my time in Broome in 1973-74. It could have been the same lugger that I was aboard when it took part in the annual Shiju Matsuri festival lugger race back then. Today tourists come from miles to experience the festival’s atmosphere. As I passed under the high stilts of the 882 metre Broome jetty, I dodged several fishing lines before moving around the coast towards Gantheaume Point and the place of the 130 million-year-old dinosaur prints. The dinosaur prints are only visible at low tide, some 30 metres from the high tide mark, but there was a concrete cast of them above the high tide mark. I carried on paddling around the coast to the southern part of the deserted Cable Beach, where I stopped for my first night’s camp. I only saw two or three figures on the beach in the far distance.

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A washed-up lugger

Cable beach, the town’s favourite tourist attraction, was still deserted when I paddled beyond it and into the unknown, with my hopeful destination being Wyndham, an estimated 2000kms and 3 or 4 month paddle away.

There was little of interest along this long stretch of beautiful beach line so when I saw a vehicle burning along the beach I waved enthusiastically, but they didn’t see me. I was just a speck in the ocean and of no important and it seemed as if I didn’t even exist.

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Camped next to Barred Creek

Two days later I could see a lone walker striding it out along the beach. Soon after a landrover roared over the white soft sand but again it was oblivious to me being out alone on the ocean. The isolated beaches stretched into the far distance and my only companions now were scattered jellyfish and 2 dolphins slicing through the water beside me.

The silence was broken by a mysterious noise. I scanned the sky for signs of a plane, but the cloudless sky revealed nothing. Everything was calm; a ship on the horizon, another turtle and a dugong passed by. The noise became louder, it was eerie, and then I realised that the sound was a small surf wave hitting some rock ledges in the distance.

With the mystery over, I passed the next point and spotted another vehicle but it vanished within minutes. I now entered into an arena of reefs, and all around me the surf kept rearing and breaking. I had to find a way through, but as I challenged the next wave, it broke smothering me with whitewater and hurtling me backwards. After the wave subsided, my second attempt was more successful. The excitement was soon over, however my adrenalin was still pumping.

My camp at Carnet Bay was marked by a large red buoy that had been washed up on the beach. The bay had a bit of history so as I focused on the exposed sand flats, I wondered if any of the $500,000 worth of diamonds was still buried out there. In March 1942, Japanese Zeros, returning from a bombing raid off Broome, chanced upon a DC3 plane piloted by a naturalised Dutchman and former Russian, Ivan Smirnoff. The plane was hit and the engine burst into flames and although wounded Smirnoff made a perfect pancake landing on the sand flats, close to breaking waves that put out the fire.

Smirnoff had been given a package before leaving Java, which unbeknown to him contained diamonds. Soon after the accident one of the crew members returned for the mail and the mystery package from the plane. In the process a wave knocked him over, scattering the items in the water. Some of the things were rescued but not the package of diamonds. A mystery surrounds who eventually found them, but the authorities were only able to track down some of them. It is said that a few were buried in a petrol can near an Aborigine’s hut, a drunken beachcomber was seen giving diamonds away, and a Chinese shopkeeper claimed he had stones worth $20,000 given to him in exchange for goods. I didn’t think it worth my while to go searching.

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The coastline was quite varied

With the tide being fairly high this morning it covered all the sand bar that I had seen the previous day. I dragged the kayak through several dumping waves and with the use of my paddle as support I hopped into my small cockpit. A few minutes later a dugong, looking like a large sea cow, swam by with no concern of me at all. I had dived with them at Coral Bay several years earlier and at that time it was a beautiful experience. A little further as two dolphins came by I heard a strange noise. At first I thought I was imagining it, but I kept listening and it was real. I thought it was some strange noise coming from the deep but it was a coast-watch plane in the distance. I thought they had failed to see me yet again but then the plane turned around and dived towards me. It circled and then flew off towards the Lacepede Islands, leaving me to my own thoughts.

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Cliffs and beaches

Having rounded Red Bluff I felt the tidal influences and the wind blowing directly towards me. The boys on the custom vessel had told me that it was all uphill against the tide, after I rounded Red Bluff. They also told me to watch out for the masses of sea snakes that were so thick they formed large carpets in the ocean. I hadn’t seen a snake so far. Halfway across the bay to Low Sandy Point I saw my first crocodile. Those nobly eyes and craggy nostrils gave me the shudders but as I looked closer it turned out being a stick, which made me much happier. Then I saw two dolphins leap high out of the water. I hadn’t seen them jump so high before so it was a new experience, one of many I expected to witness on my trip north. I caught up with them and there were four, playing about and snorting. They were in no hurry as they mingled and circled me, two of them even slid underneath my kayak.

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Cliffs and beaches

I eventually came to my resting place and dragged my kayak up above the falling tide. The hard day had taken its toll, I needed to wash and freshen up straight away. With the absence of crocodiles in this area I was able to lay in the magical northern waters, relaxing and soothing away my aches and pains. Being no restriction on nude bathing out here I was naked as a jay bird but my white backside and the inquisitive flies soon reduced my bodies exposure time in the sun. I didn’t really relish sitting in the kayak for hours with a sore, red bum.

I lifted the kayak on my shoulder and walked. The 35kg weight was killing me and once I hit the soft sand I dropped it and dragged it the rest of the way. There was no doubt, I needed a lighter boat if I was to carry it or I was going to break my back.

Along this sandy section of coastline I used a mosquito mesh tent but the smoke from my fire was often a real nuisance as it wafted through the mesh. The view from inside though was brilliant. I had a panoramic view of the stars and the lighthouse on Lacepede Island was flickering away. Several bright stars were being lost every few minutes as the earth slowly revolved. I could see bodies of water on the sand flats that had been left behind by the falling tide and the stars above were being mirrored in them. In the far distance white foaming waves reflected as they broke continually in the shallows.

When I crept out of my mosquito proofed tent two oyster catchers were searching the beach for food and a kestrel was perched on a log on the sand hills. The heavy dew had saturated everything.

The surf was dumping as I waded out with my kayak waiting for the big ones to pass. The backwash was playing havoc, dragging the kayak back and forth up the sand. A rogue wave pushed the kayak sideways. I tried to straighten it out but another wave smashed into it forcing it sideways up the beach and slamming it against my legs. I trotted back quickly but eventually the surf beat me. It bowled me flat on my back with the kayak hurtling towards me. As the wave subsided the kayak was sucked back into the trough leaving me with bruised legs. After bailing the water out, my second attempt was more successful.

Passing Camp Inlet I focused on the breakers that were slamming into a low point off Beagle Bay 2 kms ahead. Here three dolphins passed me and numerous turtles surfaced gasping for air. I was told of a pearling hut in Beagle Bay where I could obtain water. The bay was 20kms deep and 8 kms wide. In the distance haze I noticed a shape in the bay which soon turned out being a yacht which was opposite a hut on the mainland. I felt excited as I was going to talk to people.

I paddled over to the hut and saw people walking around. I pulled in beside an inflatable boat as a man walked towards me. Nearby a couple and two children were running over the sand dunes. I asked if I could camp there the night and Steve who owned the shed, said no problem. It took four of us to lift the heavy kayak onto dry land without unloading it, so we could go for a coffee. Dennis and Annette Ford and their two children were from the yacht in the bay. They were on their way to Darwin. It had taken them 6 months to get here from Perth.

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Beagle Bay Pearl Farm

The shed was part of Steve’s Pearling operations in the bay. He had pontoons out in the bay and a cray boat anchored around the corner. Later on that afternoon when the tide was out Steve and I walked along the mud flats to his crayboat to drain the bilge which was listed over in the mud. On our return Dennis and young Russell were catching mud crabs in the mangroves and soon after we were heading across to the yacht in their rubber duck for an evening meal. Annette welcomed me aboard and within 30 minutes we were eating the crab for entrée followed by lobster and salad and fruit salad for sweets. It was a hard life for yachties!

Soon after breakfast Steve and I went to the cray boat. Not only did it have bilge pump problems but it had generator problems as well, but it eventually started. We moved to a pontoon anchored in the bay and Steve started sorting out some of the dead shells that were in the hanging wire baskets beneath the pontoon.

K1StevePearlingPontoonAnnette watching Steve sort the shells

The pontoon was made of tree saplings, bound by rope and 44 gallon drums which were keeping it afloat. To balance on the saplings which were a few feet apart, was hazardous to say the least. It would have been less dangerous to be a tight rope walker. Steve said he had fallen off them several times. The dead shells from the baskets were sold but the ones that the pearl had taken were left for 18-24 months to develop the pearl. All the dead shells were later being cleaned by Steve while Dennis, Annette and myself did a spot of fishing, but without success.

K1StevePearlshellSteve sorting shells

Later Steve cruised up a creek to show me the Norman’s Lugger Camp and old boat building yard. In the early days Beagle Bay was a busy place with many boats being built there. We could see old water tanks, anchors, keels and other assorted bits and pieces. For dinner Steve cooked fish balls and we had a great discussion about the Falklands war.

Cloud cover had made the temperature too hot to sleep in. My mind was very active thinking about the rest of the trip, improvements to my gear and the hardships ahead. Finally when I did sleep, I awoke after having a nightmare. Jenny was having a baby.

After cooking Steve’s breakfast of fish balls, I washed my clothes in freshwater, checked through all my gear and added a strip of fiberglass along the hull at the stern of the kayak. This was to prevent the kayak from wearing out along that section as I would be dragging the kayak up the beach all the time. Although I had been away for 8 days, two of my collapsible water bottles, made in Canada had already split at the seams. Not very encouraging so I was pleased I had bought several different water bottles with me.

Dennis, Annette and their two children had left in the early hours of the morning in their yacht Spindrift 111. It was sad to see them sail out of the bay. At lunch time Steve’s sister Judy and an Aboriginal friend Nan arrived with a load of coconut palm trees to plant around the shed.

That afternoon Steve made the decision to go into Broome with his sister and friend to conduct some business. He started showing me how to use the power plant so I had electricity when it got dark but I quickly decided to go as well. I had 30 seconds to gather my gear and jump in the back of his ute. After running to the ute I threw my swag into the spare wheel, jammed in my back side and wedged my feet on the tailgate and away we went. The high powered engine sped us off along the rough sandy track, across a flood plain and back again through the bush, with only just enough room between the trees for the ute to fit through. Over every bump the three 44 gallon drums sharing the ute tray with me jumped around quite dangerously.

As the dust flew and branches whizzed passed my ears, the fast bumpy ride was quite exciting. After about 20 miles we came to the main gravel track to Broome, but that didn’t mean the road improved, in fact in places it was worse. At one stage one of the drums tried to jump into my lap as we criss-crossed the road avoiding the pot holes. Moments later the 4 wheel drive slid sideways off the road and into the bush. Steve regained control and stopped. “Are you alright,” he asked, threw me an orange and took off at full sped again.

Within two hours we were in Broome and Steve dropped me off at Bill’s place. Unfortunately Bill wasn’t in, so I bought an ice cream and queued up at the telephone. The telephone system in Broome was awful as there was no direct dialing system and all calls had to go through the operator on a ring back system. There were too many waiting so I walked to Gary’s place to find that Gary and Kathy were at Mary’s art exhibition opening night. It was about 2kms to the library so I picked up my pack and ran there. I knew it was Mary’s art exhibition opening night, but it was so lucky that Steve had decided to come to town on that night. By the time I arrived I was dripping wet with perspiration.

As I walked through the door, Mary’s face lit up, she was so happy to see me, especially on this night. We met with open arms. In the few years I had known her she had always been like a mum to me. When I left Broome no one ever believed that they would ever see me again, well not so soon at least. But that’s what life is all about, being full of surprises. You can’t imagine how much it meant to me, walking in as I did. The timing was perfect.

The other fantastic thing about the night was that Mary sold 30 of her 40 sketches, at an average price of $150.00 so she was very pleased. She also got more orders to do copies. Mary started sketching in Camballin, east of Derby although she had been a commercial artist in New Zealand. After saying my farewells to Mary, Bob and friends I telephoned Jenny. She seemed very relaxed and was coping well without me.

By 5.00pm the following day Steve and I left Indian Ocean Pearls in Chinatown and headed back to Beagle Bay. The ute had a full load and we were pulling a trailer which got a flat tyre 30 minutes down the track. We left it there and headed for the Beagle Bay Community where Steve robbed a tyre from an abandoned car. Steve decided to go back to his camp instead of fetching the trailer and by the time we got there it was 10.00pm. At midnight Steve and I went out in the bay to move his boat on the high tide so it didn’t get stranded on the mud flats as he needed to use it the following day.

Steve went back to fetch the trailer in the morning so I decided to take a paddle on high tide to Alligator Creek to where the old Norman’s Lugger Camp and boat building yard was. I had arrived too soon as the tide had covered most of the derelict pieces so I paddled up and down Alligator Creek trolling a lure in the hope of catching a fish. I was pretty proud when I caught my first fish, looking similar to a barracuda, then I caught another and another. I was on fire and I had teeth and hooks flying in all directions. Being wedged into my unstable kayak, it wasn’t the most ideal place to land such an aggressive fish. When enough was enough I gutted them next to the Lugger Camp.

K1LuggerC
The site of the old Norman’s Lugger Camp

By the time Steve had returned to the shed from fetching the trailer that morning I had fried the fish, but Steve wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was about them, he said they were Wolf Herring and were shit fish and full of bones. He was right, they were riddled with bones, but to me they didn’t taste too bad.

I had written for permission to visit the Beagle Bay community so I decided that today was the day to take off. I needed to have a high tide to get right up the creek to where I could get out close to the settlement, so I left on the incoming tide in the hope the tide would be big enough to get me right up the creek. When I left the pearling shed it was impossible to see the creek at the far end of the huge bay so I took a compass reading before leaving. From a distance, two pelicans standing at the creek entrance looked enormous, but were a shadow of them-selves when I got up close. With the help of the current I quickly passed them and entered the domain of curlews and other marsh birds that waded on the sandbars and creek edges. There were also majestic Brahminy kites perched on trees every few hundred metres along the creek as well as fish that leapt from the shallow water and often startling me. Ibis called out as they flocked from the mangroves and white herons darted in front of me. It was a real bird sanctuary so at times I stopped paddling, relaxed and enjoyed my dried fruit lunch as the swift current hurried me along the creek for kilometres.

Spectacular clouds of birds circled overhead and a pelican became agitated as a bank of water, created by the swift tidal current upsurge, raced towards it. Eventually I lost the mangroves and the creek narrowed to a 1 – 2 metre wide ditch that cut through the bare mud flats which crawled with crabs. A large flock of black cockatoos, oblivious of my presence, squabbled and screeched in the trees on the edge of the salt pan a few hundred metres away. The creek eventually became too shallow to paddle so I dragged the kayak onto the mud and over to the trees where the cockatoos were and where I was to share the night with hoards of mosquitoes.

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Near the end of the creek. Beagle Bay that way.

After a pancake breakfast I headed across the salt pan and found a track leading towards the mission. The 4km track was firm and great walking but the sun was hot although trees started to appear and gave some shade. Amongst the trees several different birds were whistling, crowing and cooing and the sky was noisy with screeching black cockatoos.

Cattle and dingo tracks were spread across the sand patches and when the track turned into thick bulldust, walking suddenly became a little more difficult, but luckily it didn’t last long. The country was becoming more and more beautiful as the gum trees and pandanas palms thickened.

At last I sighted the church. Cattle charged across the track in front of me and horses grazed inside a paddock contained by a buckled wire fence. They fled when I approached. As the church bells tolled midday, I met Mathew Cox, the community’s headman, who I had earlier obtained permission from to visit the community. I took refuge in the shade of a cool white wall and ate nuts and sultanas. I was approached by father Francis, who was 79 years old and had been in the Kimberley for 52 years. A few minutes later brother Joseph, another pioneer of the Kimberley came across and invited me over for lunch. This kind 80 plus year old clergy man said he had been kicked out of Germany many years ago. Then, as we were preparing to eat, a younger brother William walked in and joined us for lunch.

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Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay

They have mass here on a Saturday rather on a Sunday because most of the Aboriginals go fishing on Sunday. Father Francis had a busy afternoon as he had to conduct a funeral, so I moved over to the church to take some pictures before it started. The church was built with local materials in 1916-18 and is decorated throughout with pearl shells. The Pearl Shell altar was extremely stunning.

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While the mother of pearl has been used to decorate the main altar, the interior of the church is decorated with shells, including mother of pearl, cowries, volutes and olives.

As I was changing film an Aboriginal man came up to me and introduced himself as Butcher Joe. He was an artist and writer and his works have appeared in several books. He was very sad and lonely, as his wife had just died and it was her funeral. A few minutes later a ute drew up to the church and the coffin was unloaded as Butcher Joe walked silently across to the father’s house.

At 3.45pm the church bells rang out. People had come from miles around and although I didn’t know if it was my place to be there, I followed and sat at the back of the church. The church soon echoed with noises as kids, dogs and adults screamed and talked. A dogfight broke out in the doorway and the loser came yelping into the church, but after receiving a swift slap on the backside from a sister it soon darted out again.

Like myself many people didn’t know the prayers or hymns so stood in silence. I was surprised to hear the Aboriginals sing and pray in Latin. They had a beautiful tone. Butcher Joes grand daughter, who was about 30 read out a piece and the emotion of the whole affair made her breakdown in tears.

When the service was over the ute returned for the coffin and the crowd grew larger as the procession moved through the township. The sun was going down behind the pandanus palms and gum trees and the white crosses shone brilliantly behind the large crowd that had gathered. As four men lowered the coffin, children and relatives threw handfuls of dirt onto it. As the father prayed and the coffin was buried, Butcher Joe, who was embracing a friend, broke down.

I hadn’t been to a funeral before and what a moving experience it was. I had to rub a few tears from my eyes and try to hide my own emotions. When the prayers were over, Father Francis hugged Butcher Joe and as people began to filter away a dog approached one of the crosses and urinated on it. As I moved back towards the church the beautiful red westward skies, associated with the massive dark clouds, turned the brilliant white church a tinge of pink.

Father Francis invited me to stay in their guestroom for the night and join them for meals, and use a toilet that three friendly frogs had made their home. It had been such an interesting but sad day and I had leant so much about the Catholic Church and the Aboriginal community. I slept extremely well with my head cushioned in a soft pillow.

The church bells rang out at 6.00am. I didn’t really want to get out of bed as I was so comfortable but I promised myself that I would go to church. It was before sunrise and mist lingered over the nearby fields and apart from a crow squawking the mission was still and quiet. I walked over to the white church that contrasted with the darker skies. Inside Father Francis, brother Joseph and William were meditating. After 3 sisters entered, mass was conducted and concluded in 30 minutes.

I left the still and silent mission grounds and walked briskly back to my kayak hoping the sun would rise to warm my icy hands. After 40 minutes I could see my kayak under the shade of a tree on the edge of the mud flat. There was no water in the creek that I came up so to get back to the water I had to drag the kayak along it for some 500 metres before I found water coming out of another creek. It wasn’t enough water to float the kayak so I tried dragging my kayak across the creek. The mud was deep and it was like a big suction pad making it impossible to move. To add frustration my feet wouldn’t grip so I had to unload the kayak before being able to cross two other small creeks.

I should have waited for the tide, but I was too impatience to get going. It was extremely hard work to reach deep enough water to float the kayak and by that time I was panting and my heart was beating like I had done a 20 kilometre sprint. I returned for my gear and by the time I was ready to load the kayak my whole body was muddied. I loaded and slipped off the muddy bank and into the channel and immediately barged through a bush in my way. I paddled for several kilometers but then the channel widened and became shallow with sand bars which made me exit the kayak again and drag it across them.

The birds that had greeted me on the way up were now silent. They just watched me glide passed them heading towards the creek entrance and into the deeper lake. As I left the creek and started my journey across the lake I rigged up a lure and although there were several jumping fish, none of them fancied my lure. A large manta ray joined in and leapt through the air beside me and slapped down on the water putting on a great show. I was now feeling much better in the deeper water after such a hard portage.

When I reached Steve’s Camp it was deserted so I prepared myself to leave on the morning tide. At sunset I walked over to a bunch of pandanas palms as I had been told that if I dug down beside a pandanas palm I would find water. I dug down with a shovel for over a metre and didn’t even find a damp patch. Close by I noticed that Steve had dug down about 2 metres and had lined it with two 44 gallon drums and still no water. Although I lost a lot of sweat by digging, I gained a beautiful picture of the sun setting through the palms.

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Sunset through the pandanas palms

With the wind howling across the 10km wide bay I wasn’t looking forward to the paddle ahead. I had been spoiled over the last few days and now I had to face the elements again. On the other side of the bay I landed on a lovely sheltered beach surrounded by pandanas palms and healthy looking trees. I dived into my hatch and retrieved some rice pudding that I had cooked up the previous night. It was beautiful. I strolled along the beach eating it and thought about my friend Steve Pilton who would be racing in the Avon Descent today. We had paddled the Avon as pairs twice and had come second and third.

I wanted a photo of my beach, but for some reason my expensive Nikonos V underwater camera wouldn’t work. I had no one to share my trip so photos were a big part of recording it. I still had my trusty Minolta SRT 101 that I generally used on land. It had been stolen once when I was in Senegal, West Africa, but I managed to get it back after the thief was caught.

Once around Emerian Point and Chimney Rocks the fight against the wind was more strained but the coastline became very scenic, sandstone cliffs that had formed strange shapes and figures in the rock. As I landed close to Perpendicular Head a sea eagle took off from a nearby tree and hovered over me. Joined by a number of hawks they peered down upon the impressive crumbling cliffs that I was walking beneath on my afternoon stroll. Crabs and cockroaches by their thousands darted around the reefs. Added to the fascination of the sandstone shapes and figures there were caves with assorted sizes of chimneys that were eroded in their roofs, which you would expect to be featured in fantasy books.

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Interesting formations

I returned to camp by the cliff top, being aware of the unstable edges and gathering burrs on my trousers as I pushed through the bush. Once I had collected firewood I stripped off to air my body and have a good wash. Before leaving Broome, Bob Kirby had given me a large chunk of salted meat and after having a portion of it every day for two weeks it was getting low. I will miss it when it’s gone.

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As the days passed I became more confident in the things I did. Soon I had a routine worked out and was always busy. My own priority was my own safety. My lifejacket and survival vest were always worn whilst canoeing. Even if I had to survive by myself without the boat, the survival jacket contained water, food Eltar distress beacon, flares, compass, heliograph mirror, fishing lines, mask, snorkel and every conceivable safety device. Small things, habits practiced, pleased me. I washed several times a day and attended to any cuts so they didn’t become infected.

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The cliffs were so varied

At the same time as I was heading north New Zealander Paul Caffyn was paddling around Australia and was in the area. I was hoping to meet up with him, but with all my detours we missed each other.

Only the eagles and hawks acknowledged my leaving across the very chopper Pender Bay. The waves hitting my bow splashed into my face leaving a mixture of salt spray and blockout cream to creep into my eyes. The irritation and blinding effect made me squint uncomfortably towards the sun. As well as chafing under my arms and around my waist the crossing was far from enjoyable. Most of the chaffing was caused by the salt spray drying on my clothes, which in turn felt like cardboard. It became very important to change clothes every day and wash the salt from them regularly.

As the tide receded, the bay became shallower causing reefs with breaking waves to appear. I suddenly became trapped inside them and had no alternative to head out to sea trying to escape the shallowing waters. My fear was to be trapped on a sandbar in the middle of the huge bay. As I cut through the breaking waves other reefs ahead were appearing at an alarming rate. The tide was going out in front of my eyes. I continued paddling over several more breaking waves towards Cape Borda landing about 400 metres from the beach.

I unloaded the kayak and dragged it on the sand flats and walked to an old stock yard. After finding two fresh water soaks I returned to watch the tide creep up pushing my kayak towards the beach. It looked quite funny as it moved closer to my camp on its own.

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My spare split paddles were used as tent poles

I woke early to a moon on the horizon reflecting its light and its shape in the shallow water that created a multitude of moons across the bay, similar to the Stairway to the moon in Broome.

Once through the breakers I headed towards Tilbata Creek and Shag Rocks. Vapour clouds screened the sun, the glare forcing me to squint and fall into a trance. My limbs felt heavy after two hard days of paddling but within two hours the breaking waves around shag rock forced me to liven up and be more alert. The coastline became rugged, the rocky cliffs being battered by the pounding surf and the increasing wind ruffled the weedy sea.

I continued along the coast half asleep and when I saw two figures in a tiny flat bottom dingy in the ocean opposite a creek I thought I was losing my mind. The dingy was so small I didn’t believe it was on the ocean. As I drew closer I realised that there was an Aboriginal man and a white man in the boat. I eventually pulled up to boat and met Sandy an Aborigine and Paul, from the WA Museum, who were fishing. We talked and as I was interested in what they were doing, they invited me to spend some time with them, so I jumped at the idea.

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I met up with Paul and Min from the museum and an Aboriginal family

On shore I met Min who was also from the Perth museum, and Aboriginals Ester, Sandy’s partner, Aunty and younger Aboriginals Peter and Burnadet. They were teaching Min and Paul the traditional ways of fishing and hunting. Sandy and Peter had caught a turtle earlier, so in the afternoon I watched it being dissected and later that day we had turtle, fresh fish and beautiful oysters for dinner.

When morning arrived I went spearing crabs with Peter and Burnadet. We devoured fish and crabs for lunch and then caught 12 reasonable sized fish in 1 ½ hours, mostly blue bone and rock cod, and had a feast for our evening meal.

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Going for a fish

For my next valuable lesson Sandy was going to show Paul and I how to make a spear so we walked out to a wattle tree forest to find a slim but straight sapling. On the way Sandy spotted several native bees entering a small hole in a tree branch. The bees were black and smaller than the common fly and apparently unable to sting. To get to the honey though, Sandy had to chop at the limb of the tree with his tomahawk to get to the nest and collect the honey. The honey tasted superb mixed in my rice pudding that night.

After selecting three of the straightest saplings from the forest, Sandy took his tomahawk and cut them down before trimming their branches. We returned to camp and lit a fire. As soon as it was giving out a hot constant heat Sandy put his 8 foot sapling in the fire at the point where it needed straightening. The spear was heated at that point and then taken out of the fire and placed between a fork in a tree and then Sandy put pressure on the part needing straightening and held it there to cool. Every time it cooled it got a little straighter. Sandy repeated this over and over again until the spear was straight. When the spear was perfect, a steel rod was bound to the end but first the rod was made hot and a ridge was burnt into the end of the spear for the rod to fit perfectly and firmly. Before steel rods the Aboriginals just heated up the end of the spear to harden it. Things have changed. Sandy also used his bare feet to bend the heated spear. He didn’t seem to be effected by the heat, but I wasn’t game to try it on my tender feet.

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Sandy straightening a wattle to make a spear

It was a slow process but it worked well. Having seen Sandy make a spear it inspired me to give it a go but first I had to walk back to the small wattle tree forest, which was over an hours walk away. When I started looking for a sapling I soon realised that Sandy had taken the straightest ones so my choice was a little more limited, nevertheless I cut two wattles just in case one went wrong.

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Paul making his own spear

Back at camp I made a fire but my first attempt to straighten a sapling failed as I left my first wattle in the fire too long and it started to roast. My second attempt turned out to be quite professional for a novice, and I was quite proud. It took several hours to make it though as the bark had to be taken off with my pocket knife, it had to be fired and straightened several times and then a groove along the point had to be shaped with my knife and then the steel rod had to be heated to burn a better seat into the spear. To finish off I wrapped copper wire around the metal rod to keep it in place. Hey presto – my own spear. How clever was that.

From then on I carried the spear along the outside of my kayak and when I went bush I carried it at all times. It became a friend, a protector, a walking stick and whenever it was close by I felt more secure.

My survival course continued. Our next lesson was to watch Sandy do a spot of fishing, but this time he wouldn’t be using a fishing line, he would be doing it the traditional way and spearing a fish from a tree. Paul and I sat in a dingy in the creek about 20 metres from where Sandy had perched himself on a mangrove limb. He sat there several metres above the rising tide with spear in hand just waiting for the tide to rise and the fish to arrive. For over an hour he waited, and we waited and watched as the tide flowed up the creek and crept higher and higher. Sandy’s eyes were glued to the water which eventually started to cover the mangrove limb and then reach his waist. We couldn’t believe how patient he was. We could see fish swimming below him, but Sandy made no attempt to spear them. By this time I was getting a little bored as there was nothing happening and we had been waiting a long time.

Then when the tide was full, Sandy’s left hand started to guide the spear underwater and his right hand slowly stretched to the top of the spear. Suddenly – wham! He plunged the spear beneath the water and fell in after it. For several seconds Sandy was under the water and the surface was a mass of bubbles. We didn’t know if Sandy had speared a fish, or if Sandy was drowning?

Suddenly Sandy’s head broke the surface. He had a large grin on his face and to our surprise he still had his thick spectacles still in place. Moments later he raised his spear and on the end he had a large Trevally fish. Because his spear was barbless, he had no choice but to dive in and place his hand over the end of the spear to prevent losing the fish. Keeping one hand over the spear though made it difficult for Sandy to swim to the dingy. It had taken him nearly two patient hours to spear the fish, it was a big one and he didn’t want to lose it. We didn’t realise until later that Sandy was only after the Trevally fish and not the other fish that had swam beneath him. For generations Sandy’s relatives have stood on that particular mangrove bough to spear Trevally fish.

We returned to camp for another fish lunch and then Paul mentioned he had a special task for us to do. There was ancient old fish trap at Karrakacka Bay, near Swan Point, which he wanted to survey before it fell into worse shape than what it was at the moment. They were hoping to build a scale model later back at the Perth museum. Our drive took us over a rough bush track over a salt plain, a dry billabong and finally over sand dunes, where we came to an abrupt halt. At the dunes we had to let the tires down to give the vehicle more traction, but as the vehicle climbed the sand dune, a branch from one of the scrappy trees became lodged under the 4 wheel drive and ripped a hole in the fuel pipe on the reserve tank allowing the fuel to drain away. Paul’s surveyors tape saved the day as it was lashed repeatedly around the gash to seal it up.

Sandy and Ester had brought their dogs which had lost a large amount of hair and were scratching most of the time. This didn’t seem to worry Sandy and Ester as they were their companions and they slept close to them at night as well as finishing off any scrap food or fish heads that were left over.

The tide was in so I spent the morning crabbing, trying to shoot fish with my compound bow without luck and I explored a beautiful area around the billabong. It would have been a great place for Aborigines to live.

By the afternoon the tide was out so it gave us our first chance to survey the fish trap. The trap was a wall and made completely of stone that spanned between two rocky islands. When the tide came in, fish would swim over the wall and when the tide went out the ones that got trapped by the wall were just picked up. Pretty simple really. When the trap wasn’t in use, a hole was made in the wall to allow fish to move in and out freely.

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Fishtrap

Paul brought his surveyors level so I held the staff and he took levels of the trap at different points along the wall and the surrounding area so he could build a scale model once back in Perth. We just managed to take all the levels he needed just before the tide started to rise again. There was another trap at One Arm Point, which is in better condition and it occasionally gets used.

That evening Sandy caught us an octopus and stingray which we had for our evening meal. The stingray took a bit of preparing because it had to be soaked in sea water and then in vinegar to get rid of the mercury in its body. Fried in the wok and accompanied by some vegetables it became a magnificent meal.

We returned to our camp near Lombadina and by now I was pretty confident that if I ever became stranded along the coast I had a better chance of surviving. With all the things I had learnt over the last week I thought it was time for me to go out in the bush and look for honey.

For an hour I paced along the edge of the salt flat checking every paper bark tree, but finally, weary as I was, I detected a very small hole, not much bigger than a ball point pen with a type of black volcano funnel entrance and with tiny bees entering and leaving. I must admit I didn’t expect the hole to be as small as it was.

The branch was about ten inches in diameter, a large portion of it being bark or hollow so it only left me with 3 inches to chop through. It wasn’t something I would do everyday but knowing what to do and how to find a bees nest may be important if ever I found myself in a survival situation. The honey was very tasty in the rice pudding for supper.

I was now pretty pleased with myself as a honey hunter, a spear maker, a fisherman and having learnt so much about living off the ocean so I was full of confidence and ready to move on with my journey north. I think being brought up on a farm, having worked with farm animals and in the fields, helped me to be a more practical person. Only last year I worked in a butchers shop for a few days skinning sheep as part of my preparation.

To leave my gang of museum friends and Bardi Elders, who had taught me so much and who I respected enormously, was a sad affair, but I knew I couldn’t be sheltered from my daunting task that lay ahead for ever. It was time to move on and face the wild, and the wilderness ahead of me.

When I was back on the water it seemed strange to be paddling again after being shore bound for over a week. My day’s destination was Cape Leveque. It wasn’t long before I could see a high structure, which at first looked very much like a water tower, but suddenly it turned into the Cape Leveque lighthouse. I pressed on struggling against the tide, before stopping for a few minutes to eat dried fruit and have a drink, which acted as a pick-me-up, and allowing me to develop a racing speed towards the beach at the south end of the cliffs. Securing my helmet I raced towards the beach on the back of a wave. The wave dumped heavily on the beach a few metres ahead of my bow as I rode the rising waters to shore. The backwash dragged the kayak sideways down the steep beach before I had a chance to get out. Within seconds the next wave hurtled me back up to the safety of the beach and to where I camped beneath the orche coloured cliffs.

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The surf at Cape Leveque

The dumping surf of the rising tide awoke me to a new morning. The light from the lighthouse had been skimming the ocean all night warning ships off the rocky reefs along the coast. Walking from my hidden camp behind the cliffs, I moved towards the oasis that surrounded the lighthouse. Coconut palms, deep green grass and vegetation, watered by a powerful sprinkler system. The green vegetation contrasted with the dry local bush.

I found the lighthouse keeper and he allowed me to have a look around the lighthouse and fill my water bottles before heading back to my kayak and moving off again. I was a little concerned about the dumping surf. It was the worst that I had come across so far. As the waves broke in quick succession, I couldn’t imagine getting through them without being bowled over. I fastened my helmet and counted the larger waves. There was a pattern and in-between each pattern there were one or two smaller waves. When I noticed a flat section, I quickly dragged the kayak down the beach into the shallow water. The water slop between the waves hampered my efforts to enter my small cockpit, but with no time to lose I paddled like fury punching through a wave towards the calmer waters. I was safe.

The lighthouse stood proudly on shore as I passed through the gap between it and Leveque Island. I left the stunning colourful cliffs and crossed the bay with the coastline being sandy. For some reason my wrists started to ache as I closed up on Swan Island but the sight of a dugong, some turtles and a dolphin took my mind off it. The surf was dumping furiously along the coast so I had no intention of stopping before entering the King Sound some 15 kilometres away.

As I approached Swan Island standing waves formed a barrier across the passage between the island and the mainland. It looked pretty scary at first although it was calmer close to the exposed rocks near the shoreline but the current was still rushing at a terrific pace. I had paddled a lot of white water rivers, so I found it quite easy although being way out here, it still got the adrenalin pumping. As I paddled out of the current and into the King Sound it was like entering a forbidden world. The massive tides in front of me would now control my movements and the crocodiles would certainly keep me alert. It was like closing one door and opening another.

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The current running by Swan Island

With the tide pushing into the King Sound at a terrific pace I took advantage of its power and paddled on to One Arm Point where my food parcel was waiting at Ron and Margaret Peason’s home. Ron and Margaret were working in Camballin when I worked there and Ron being a teacher was also friends of Bill Grogan. I left my gear on the beach and walked into the community and found Ron’s home. Ron and Margaret warmly invited me to stay for a few days.

As I walked around the community to get my bearings and to find out where everything was, I came across two girls fishing near the point. The tide was racing through the gap between the mainland and some islands at a terrific speed. I arrived to find they had their lines snagged and one of the girls wading out in the water up to her ankles to retrieve it. It looked a little dangerous and I didn’t really want to act the hero and volunteer to wade in and untangle it, so I suggested they cut their lines. They didn’t like that idea so I moved into the water next to her. As we both waded further a school of fish suddenly came jumping up over the rocks towards us with four white tipped reef sharks following close behind. We leaped out of the water instantly as the sharks physically bounced over the rocks determined either to catch the fish or us. It was a frightening and unforgettable experience and just to see the terrifying look on the girls faces was equally as frightening.

I left them to it and returned to the community and met Eric Hunter one the most respected Aborigines in the community. Eric invited me to go out onto the reefs to collect trochus shells. I was not only keen to go trochus collecting but I was also keen to view the famous and formidable tidal rapids of the King Sound before I attempted to cross it by kayak.

I met Eric down at the beach near where his powerboat was anchored. The trouble was it was a anchored 100 metres from the beach, because of the high tide. The situation was simple; take off your shirt and swim. With huge sharks around and the possibility of a huge crocodile, I was pleased when Eric volunteered to swim and fetch it.

The morning was still and the sea was like glass as we sped through Pancake Passage hitting turbulence’s that shook the boat. With a powerful motor and Eric’s skill he was able to keep the boat in full control as we crossed over the currents. He slowed when we entered shallow water and at the same time he saw a turtle. Being short of meat, he cut the engine, picked up his spear and waited for the perfect shot at the turtle, but it never came; the turtle was too smart. (Only Aboriginals are allowed to hunt turtles.)

We moved through Meda Passage with the vertical cliffs of Sunday Island to the east and Roe Islands to the west. There used to be a mission on Sunday Island and a lot of sacred ground, so the elders asked me not to go there when I’m paddling through the area.

The fast ride and the fun of turtle hunting was over when the tide was at the right level for us to work, so we moved to the northern corner of East Roe Island, the last island before Sunday Strait. Approaching the point I saw the frightening tidal power. Huge rapids were created across the Sunday Strait as far as the eye could see. Standing waves were more than 2 metres high and frequently a wave would explode even higher. The speed and force of the water was incredible and I knew after seeing this, that all the unbelievable stories I’d heard about the area were true. Tides in the area vary by more than ten metres. With the enormous volume of water flowing into the King Sound which is strewn with islands and rocky outcrops, no wonder the currents exceed fifteen knots. The King Sound has the second highest tides in the world, the highest being in the bay of Funday in Canada.

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The huge tidal rapids

Once landed on the reef, we had to work quickly before the tide changed. Eric issued me with a bucket to collect the trochus shells that were scattered amongst the rocks and reefs. The shell is cone shaped and is used to make jewellery and buttons. In the late 1980s the Indonesians hit the news for poaching them in Australian waters. The meat from the shell can be eaten, although the ones I tasted were pretty chewy, but I’m sure they would taste delicious in a survival situation.

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The tide ripping out. We wait until it returns to float the boat

Foraging in the pools and under ledges for the shell was a worrying business as blue ringed octopuses and other little deadly creatures waited patiently in the shadows. But being out here on the reefs watching the tide change by the minute and trying to avoid being stung or bitten was quite exciting.

Our buckets, then bags soon became full and Eric was pleased with our few hours work, bagging approximately $180.00 worth of shell. On our way home we checked the trochus population on Hunt, Sunday and many other islands which would be collected on another day. Later that day we boiled the trochus shells to extract the animal inside.

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Eric Hunter collecting trochus shells

Back at Ron’s and Margaret I was fed and given great hospitality. Ron was the local headmaster and up here the school started early and finished early giving Ron lots of time to go fishing. Ron is a very successful and respected fisherman. I remember in 1973 when I worked in Camballin, 80 kilometres east of Derby Ron was also the headmaster there and there weren’t many days when he didn’t come home, from going fishing, without a huge barramundi.

School had finished so it was time to go for a ride with Ron. We hopped into his dingy and he adjusted the throttle and powered across to Swan Island, about 9 kilometres from One Arm Point. He wasted no time rigging up. “Get your camera ready”, he shouted above the roar of the engine. Within minutes he had caught two big mackerel, but the sharks had a feast of them before Ron could reel them in.

I never imagined that fishing could be so exciting. Ron latched onto a large mackerel that leaped repeatedly out of the water. The 30lb mackerel looked like a helicopter in my camera lens. After Ron had reeled it into the boat, I waited for his next leaping torpedo. My wait was short; he soon hooked another mackerel that rocketed towards the cloudless sky, with a shark in full pursuit. The water was boiling as the shark was determined to steel Ron’s prized catch. Ron had already lost two mackerel so he was quick to gaff the fish only moments before the shark approached the dingy. The excitement kept on coming and I just couldn’t believe what was going on. No wonder he loved fishing and being in the Kimberley. Soon after the rich red sunset on the horizon stopped our fun and signalled our speedy return to One Arm Point.

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Ron Pearson with his prize mackeral

Ron was keen to try different kinds of fishing so the next day we took out my compound bow to see if he could shoot a fish with a bow and arrow. This time we headed for some islands across from One Arm Point and floated around the shallows. Ron stood on the bow of the boat and I steered us through the mangroves. Ron saw a fish, he aimed and shot, but he missed. We soon found out that it wasn’t easy to shoot a fish under water with an arrow. Ron tried several times, but with no luck. The arrow didn’t seem to penetrate in the water far enough or it was because he just couldn’t judge the refraction. But it still felt good being a hunter even though we returned home being unsuccessful.

Finally as neap tides approached (the slowest of the tides) it became time for me to move on. Before leaving the hospitality of One Arm Point I gave my thanks and appreciation to Ron and Margaret who had looked after me a for a few days and to the members of the Bardi community who had been extremely friendly and helpful to me whilst I stayed there. It was again sad to leave but I still had a long way to go and a lot of isolated wilderness country to explore.

As I left One Arm Point I paddled over to a fish trap in the nearby bay. It was much larger than the one we surveyed off Swan Point and it was still used by the Aboriginals on occasions. On the way I met Lou a traditional raft builder. The rafts he made were used to stand on and spear dugong from them. He was proud that he was the chief raft builder. He said his father used to make at least 3 rafts a year for museums around the world. Lou was at that moment heading to Dugong Bay on the other side of the King Sound to cut some more timber to build his next raft.

I left him and moved across the violent currents that ripped through the islands between One Arm Point and Sunday Island. I was steering for East Sunday Island a little further and closer to the exposed waters of the King Sound where I would make a 15 kilometre crossing of the Sunday Strait to Mermaid Island. To thread my way through the islands to East Sunday everything I’d learnt from white water paddling had to be put into practice here on the ocean as the currents were amazingly fast as I had found out when I went out with Eric. One slip of concentration could have resulted in being washed out to sea, where there were no islands to hide behind.

I fought my way across the fast currents ferry gliding from one island to another where I was able to find an eddy behind them. Although I knew that other people in boats had been this way I felt like an early kayaking explorer and it was highly possible that a kayak hadn’t been this way before.

Once in the lee of Sunday Island the sea calmed and there were turtles and more turtles swimming around me and not in the least stressed about me being there. I paddled slowly in a buoyant mood just watching. I was now in no rush as I crept closer to my campsite on the south-eastern end of East Sunday Island and to the place where Eric Hunter said he often used.

When I landed I thought I was alone but soon after a dingy came into view. It had an Aboriginal poised on its bow, with a spear in his hand and ready to lunge into the water. Suddenly he leapt and with a big splash he came up holding the shell of the turtle. The spear had inserted a flute into the shell and was attached to a line so it couldn’t get away. I was a little sad to see the turtle being dragged on board but I had to realise that for the Aboriginals it was their way, their right and what they had been doing for years. They had already speared one other turtle.

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Camp at East Sunday Island

A wooden frame, used as shade by the locals was standing on the beach. I looked out across the water to see my next land fall 15 to 20 kilometres away. It wasn’t really that far but it was the feared currents of the King Sound that were the real concern. I was just getting used to being alone when Martin Shafford and his friend Francis powered into the bay, with Martin shouting to me, how would you like turtle steak for supper. Within minutes they unloaded a heap of firewood from the dingy which was going to be used for cooking the turtle and boiling the trochus shells that they had collected.

Martin soon started butchering and preparing the turtle for supper. With the fried turtle he also knocked up a damper, considerably better than my own. I pulled up a seat, some sand from behind me and Martin dished up. My taste buds were keen to taste something so different from what I was used to. Martin had cooked it beautifully. It was so tender and tasted similar to chicken but much better than any other meat I had eaten for some time. I loved it.

At that moment three more Aboriginals arrived in a dingy. They had brought Martin and Francis some tobacco and were on their way to do some turtle hunting themselves. The moon was fairly bright for their hunt but first they stayed for supper, as there was enough turtle and damper for a dozen people. After a bit of chit chat and a good feed they were on their way motoring steadily across the still waters hoping to catch their own turtle to feast on.

As I busily scribbled the daily events in my diary by the light of the fire, Martin caught a nice big snapper from the beach. “That’s breakfast,” he said.

Martin couldn’t sleep so he cooked the fish in the early hours of the morning. We ended up having fish and damper for breakfast which was somewhat better than my cereal. Francis was also in charge of cooking the trochus shells, which had to be cooked for a certain length of time so the meat would come out of the shell with ease. He said if they were under cooked the tails would break inside the shell and it would be hard to get the meat out.

After our big meal I walked across to Martin who was wearing rubber boots and now busily collecting shells off the reef. I soon realised how sensible it was to wear them as the coral was very crunchy underfoot. Any cuts to the feet by the coral would soon get infected. At the edge of the reef, where there were rocks and boulders covered with jagged oysters and slime, several blue spotted fantail stingrays glided around me in the shallow water.

As I had a few hours to spare before I paddled off into the unknown I decided to walk across to the channel, which lay between East Sunday Island and Sunday Island. As I trod the waters I could see several dorsal fins of sharks criss-crossing the shallows. I wasn’t at all concerned but suddenly I got a fright as I disturbed a large dark spotted fish which dashed from near my feet and into the deeper water. With my heart rate back down I started following another large fish with spear in hand at the ready, but it was too smart and hid itself amongst the mangroves. As I chased another the water became very cloudy as the mud underfoot started to engulf my legs, sometimes up to my knees.

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Trying to spear a fish

Stingray after stingray lifted up from the mud and fled my advance as I shuffled my way through the shallow murky water. To stand on one could be fatal. Another stingray passed, I tried to spear it but I missed and then it turned towards me and darted between my legs with its spiked tail at the ready. My heart thumped as it fled in the mud cloud that I had created. The near miss encouraged me to stop spearing fish and leave the waters and find firm ground.

As I stumbled through the thick mud to get out I stepped between hundreds of long cone snails littering the mangroves. Although not poisonous or dangerous they looked menacing. I eventually managed to get out of the oozing mud and came to a line of overhanging sandstone rocks that lined the edge of the mangrove thicket. I walked along the edge of the rocks near the mangroves and then as luck should have it, I spotted a giant mud crab, which with my new fishing skills managed to get it out of its burrow and into my fish bag. Dinner time was now catered for. My route back to the camp by land wasn’t an easy one as I had to stumble across sandstone rocks, crevices and thick bush.

For dinner that night we had crab, octopus and turtle and being under the stars in the middle of the King Sound, it can’t get much better than that. This time the turtle was boiled, but it didn’t taste as scrumptious as the fried turtle we had the night before.

It was now time to move off, get away from people, become independent and fend for myself and find a true wilderness and be alone. Frightening as it may seem I was looking forward to it. Martin and Francis were up with the birds and left well before I started to pack up my camp and load my kayak for my journey across the King Sound. Although the crossing was perceived to be treacherous I wasn’t expecting it to give me a lot of trouble as the tides were on neap which is when there is the least water movement.

As soon as I left the East Sunday Island shores and the lee of the island there was a brisk current but I was able to make headway as I headed for Mermaid Island 15 kilometres away. The ocean was calm so I was able to focus on Mermaid Island which I could just see the outline of in the distant haze. The water currents seemed to ease the further I paddled away from shore but then by the half way mark it started to move again. I knew it would only get faster, so I didn’t dawdle.

This was my first big crossing in such a formidable place and although I knew that there was a community of One Arm Point only 25 kilometres away it still felt very remote. Swirls started to appear, running by me as if they were on a mission to get somewhere. Then as I looked towards the trees on Mermaid Island I could see that the current was causing me to drift and I could no longer head straight towards the island without crabbing along. It was time to make haste. Within 5 kilometres of the island I felt more secure as I now knew, if the currents were to liven, I would still be able to ferry glide to one of the islands around Mermaid. The ocean then started to ruffle further and sea birds dived out of the sky and into the water in the hope of getting a fish feed. Within minutes the birds went into a frenzy, but a few minutes later they moved away following the large school of fish that was creating a great feast.

I could now see beaches on Mermaid Island which I believe was named after Captain King’s ship. King explored this area in 1820 and on my way north I would retrace much of his journey. The current had now become quite fast but it didn’t matter I could see my landing spot, although I did nearly get swept passed it. I pulled ashore on a nice sandy beach quite proud of myself. I had done my first big crossing. It had been much easier than I had imagined, only because I crossed over when the tide was on neaps and at it slackest. With neap tides there is less vertical rise and fall in the tide creating less water movement but with spring tides there is a greater rise and fall up to 10 metres. Tides change every six hours.

I was now safe on an island in the middle of King Sound but there wasn’t any one close by to help if a snake or crocodile decided to have a go at me. I had no communications with the outside world either, only a few flares and a New Zealand distress beacon that was said not to be fully reliable. When activated it locked on to radio frequencies of a passing aircraft. The trouble was there appeared to be few aircraft that came over this region, but I wasn’t too concerned as I didn’t expect to get into trouble.

I was now enjoying my own company so when I had all my gear ashore I was keen to continue my crusade to find water under pandanas palms and in creek beds. I took off and soon found a gully with palms which had freshly experienced a bush fire. I dug down beside a palm and within less than a metre I found water. I was pretty proud, but unfortunately the water was black from the fire and although fresh, I didn’t bother taking any, but I was happy with my find.

After successfully crossing the treacherous Sunday Strait I felt more relaxed about what lay ahead. Although I knew the currents were getting faster as the spring tides and full moon approached, it was a relief to know the islands were much closer together and I didn’t have another long crossing for a few days.

Leaving Mermaid Island I started to feel the full force of the current pushing through Fantome Passage. Although the tide was coming in and I was riding a current deeper into King Sound, I couldn’t believe it when there was another current only metres away, running out and in the opposite direction to which I was going. I concluded that it must have been the tail end of the out-going tide. It was a strange experience.

The fast current helped me through the gap between Pascoe and Long Islands but hours later as I approached my destination for the night I started to lose the brilliant blue ocean to find some receding murky water of the low tide in Cascade Bay. Overhead a flurry of chestnut feathers drifted down to the sand flat as two magnificent Brahminy Kites flying above me pursued a third one. It was quite a display.

My heavy kayak came to a halt in the shallows several metres before the tidal sand flat. In the distance I could see a small beach fronted by a few pandanus palms. It looked inviting but I didn’t relish the long walk, so I decided to paddle along the shallows in the hope of finding a closer spot to get out. The sand and mud was interspersed with patches of sharp coral, which at times scraped my hull. A shark patrolling the shallows moved across my path, it looked quite small so I decided to give it a scare and accelerated towards it. Unexpectedly the shallow water forced the shark to the surface and I suddenly became aware of its frightening size. A moment of panic struck me as the 2-3 metre shark turned my way. My heart pumped as I thought an attack was inevitable but as it powered past my paddle I could see it was as panic-stricken as I was.

Stingrays darted off in all directions as I shuffled my feet apprehensively through the murky shallows trying not to stand on one. With a few reef sharks skirting the shallows it was a very active piece of water. The light was fading quickly and on my first journey towards camp I counted 800 paces. My luggage weighed heavily on my shoulders and my feet sank deep in the soft sand and patches of mud. I was oblivious of the spectacular scenery and setting sun.

My back was at breaking point as I staggered on my fourth and final run with my 35 kilogram kayak on my shoulder. I hadn’t taken every bit of gear out so it was so heavy. After nearly 5 kilometres of walking my strength eventually faded dropping the kayak to the ground only 20 metres from my campsite. I was buggered and I could do nothing but to drag the kayak those last few metres. It was only now I was able to look at the spectacular scenery and setting sun.

I grouped all my gear on the beach and by now it was virtually dark and only thirty metres away there was a mangrove lined creek that lurked in the shadows. It looked a good crocodile habitat so my priority was to light a fire, a big one, to ensure they didn’t come into my camp!

With the fire blazing I tied my hammock between two pandanas palms and started cooking my evening meal. Sweat ran down my face as the fire radiated its heat on an already hot night. Noises in the bush surrounding me started to develop and increase. There was something out there scurrying in the dry vegetation and I imagined it being snakes. I lit two more small fires to protect me from all sides. I needed more wood so I moved out of my fire zone and dragged a large log back to fuel my fire. A spark drifted into the air and dropped in the nearby dry grass and unexpectedly set the grass alight which then lit up the leaves on the pandanus palms. Giving me no time to rescue my hammock from the blazing inferno, I desperately grabbed my spare paddle and started to shovel sand onto the fire. The dry palm fronds on the two palm trees holding my hammock flashed in flames, lighting up the sky like two beacons. The fire had soon got out of hand and all I could think about was being responsible for lighting a fire that would probably destroy half of the Kimberley.

Although I had a way out, the fire was burning from three sides but my efforts to control the fire were fruitless, as it grew bigger and I became overheated among the circle of flames. Helped by a barrage of green bushes the flames started to fade and I was finally able to smoother them as the dry vegetation had virtually dried up. Exhausted and with an overwhelming thirst I sat beside my gear and stared into the charred undergrowth. As the wind spiralled into a little whirlwind, small burnt particles were sucked up into the air and then fell down like confetti. I was amazed to find my hammock still hanging and had somehow been miraculously spared.

I was relived that the nightmare was over, but the rustle in the bush was nearly as loud as it was before. Being brave, and with my torch in hand I tiptoed to the burnt vegetation to find an army of hermit crabs advancing towards the ocean. I watched them march through my camp. My imaginary snakes were no where to be seen!!!

At 6.00am I slid out of my hammock and had breakfast with the smell of fire and the blackened surrounds. Last night’s drama just showed me how things can easily get out of hand. My camp was nestled between two high ridges and cliffs so I just had to take the opportunity to explore the area and see what was around. This just wasn’t a kayaking trip, it was also a trip for exploration. Not far from my charred camp I found water dripping from a rock crevice with a shallow pool of fresh water beneath it. It was only a slow drip but I decided to put a water bottle under it to at least catch a little water while I was away.

I was intrigued to see if there were any monster crocodiles hiding in the mangrove creek nearby but there didn’t appear to be, however there were several large fish. The tide was out so the fish were trapped in the pools. It presented easy fishing but I was more interested in exploring the area so I left them to swim free.

To get to the top of the cliff at that point meant pushing through a jungle of vegetation which I felt too hard to attempt so I moved along the coast trying desperately to find an easier way to the top. As soon as I started my zig-zagging climb it was hard, hot and steep but upon reaching the top I was blessed to find a magnificent panorama. I could see for miles over the ocean and the land. The blue ocean of the King Sound was dotted with large and small islands and had a coastline that zig-zagged in all directions. I hopped from rock to rock following the cliff top stopping in the shade of a boab tree on the cliff edge that overlooked the finest of views.

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A beach in Cascade Bay

There were no traces of water in the gullies at the top of the ridge and as the undergrowth became thicker and harder to walk, I quenched my thirst regularly. One hour exploring on top was all I could spare as I needed to leave with the high tide at 11.30am. I descended a lot quicker than I went up and when I reached my water bottle under the drip of water, it was overflowing, so I soon changed it for another. To help replenish all my empty water bottles I started filling them from the shallow pool beneath it. There were a lot of particles and algae in the pool so I filtered it through a cloth, which soon became thick with dirt. Water was precious so I had to take the opportunity to collect it whenever possible.

It took me 1 ½ hours to completely pack my kayak and in that time I continued to change my water bottles and ended up with more water than I anticipated. The tide was high and was on the turn so unlike the previous day I had much less walking to do to get to the water’s edge. Sharks and fish patrolled the beach shallows and I thought they would be easy targets for my spear, but when I did throw it, I always missed. It turned out that I wasn’t as good at spearing as I thought I was!

My busy tasks in the mid-day sun created such thirst and perspiration that a lot of the water I collected I had been drunk by the time I left. By 12.40pm I was floating away amongst the sharks that still occupied the shallows. The mud-sand flats hidden by the high tide certainly changed the un-hospitable and fearful appearance of the previous night as it now looked quite beautiful. I looked back at the charred pandanas palms and undergrowth and left my unforgettable camp with the outgoing tide, which enabled me to make a swift exit. I was soon passing steep cliffs on my right, which were so impressive, even Albany with all its beauty couldn’t compare with them.

The speed of the water increased as I moved between Pecked and Pack Islands where boils and cross currents had formed. It wasn’t long before I was nearing a patch of serious white water and unbeknown to me I was heading into an area the locals of Derby called ‘Hells Gate’! Fast, furious currents, standing waves, small whirlpools and boils were being forced through the narrow channel. The walls and rocks closed in as the boils swirled me in all directions. It reminded me of our wild water championship course at Harvey, although there, I paddled a 13 kilogram slalom kayak that is designed to turn, unlike my fully laden 140kg, 17 foot sea kayak.

The sound of the tidal rapids were loud but I managed to take an easier chicken route around them closer to shore. At last I cleared the racing tide of Hells Gate and moved around a point where I made camp and where I could still hear the rumble of the Hell’s Gate rapids. My beach was littered with firewood so I eagerly boiled the billy, washed and tended my cuts and grazes, whilst tuna fish were leaping crazily in the bay. I wondered if sharks were after them or were they after smaller fish!

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Currents at Hells Gate

As I checked the shoreline on the low tide many prickly black chitons were tightly suckered onto the rocks. That wasn’t unusual but I actually saw them move, which I think it must have been the first time I had seen them do that. My camp was also surrounded by wallaby and several other animal tracks.

Surprisingly after sleeping high on an uneven rocky ledge, I had one hell of a good night’s sleep. As I left my swag I could see a crocodile swimming lazily up and down, one hundred metres from my beach. It was pretty creepy. By the time I was ready to leave the croc was two hundred metres away and my eyes were peeled on it as I cautiously paddled across the still, hot and beautiful Crawford Bay towards Cone Bay. A big splash slapped behind me. I presumed it was a large fish or it could have been a shark rather than the crocodile but whatever it was it was close.

K1Swag7The rock wasn’t flat as a bed but you don’t grumble when you are trying to sleep away from the crocs.

I was helped into the beautiful, peaceful, cliff lined Cone Bay by an obliging current and my objective here was to find the camp of a hermit called Xenex, who has lived in the bay for a number of years. As I paddled along the cliffs the bay came alive. A light aircraft flew over, heading towards Koolan or Cockatoo Islands and then the Coastal Surveillance plane buzzed over me. Minutes later I noticed a power boat anchored. Eager to find out where Xenex’s camp was I merrily pulled into this little oasis that had a fresh water stream cascading from the cliffs. Two boys and a girl were playing near the boat and a couple who were on the beach could hardly believe their eyes when they saw me paddle towards them. Kevin Johnson introduced himself, his wife Robin, sons David and Nigel and his daughter Stephanie. They were holidaying there. They’d come by boat from Derby, 150 kms away and this had been their paradise holiday destination for several years. They had even made a toilet, had fresh running water, shade of the trees and their own bathing pool. Apart from knowing that crocs were around, it was a paradise.

K1ConeBay1Paddling into Cone Bay

As soon as I had unloaded Kevin asked if I wanted to go with them fishing, crabbing and sight seeing at the bottom of the bay. I jumped at the idea. When everyone was aboard Kevin opened up the throttle and powered towards the bottom of the bay. Within 600 metres we passed Xenex’s camp and cove, his green boat was anchored away from the rocky shore. He had no beach so landing looked difficult.

It was beautiful to sit back admiring the spectacular scenery, the hot wind blowing in my face, a cold can of Coke in my hand and Kevin giving me a personal sight seeing tour. As the bay narrowed we were joined by another family, camping on the other side of the bay. The contrast between the northern and southern sides of the bay was quite impressive. On one side, there were large boulders with many boab trees growing in the darker soil and on the other side, a redder soil and rocks with a fairly barren landscape and no boabs at all.

The bay turned into a creek which meandered upstream protected by a fortress of mangroves lining its shores where we spotted a crocodile that looked some-what bigger than my kayak. It was enough to send shivers along my spine. Eventually the muddy shallow water halted our progress and forced us to turn around and head back towards deeper water where both boats stopped to fish. Catfish and shark seemed to be the only fish biting and a momentarily a lack of concentration from one of the guys on the other boat saw a shark take off, with his rod, line, hook and sinker.

Although the adults failed to catch anything worth while the kids were having a ball virtually hand feeding the garfish. Two kilometres from our fishing spot we passed a huge set of crocodile tracks that climbed up a very steep muddy bank and were lost among the mangroves. My stomach fluttered once again as this crocodile must have been extremely large. We hadn’t spotted the tracks on the way down.

Our ride home was much less enjoyable as the wind had whipped up in the bay creating choppy waves that the boat continually slammed into. Back at the cove I was given the honor of having the first bath in the crystal clear rocky pool. The water temperature was perfect and soon my salty, sweaty body and my hair was rejuvenated. I laid back content with my guest bathroom surrounded by lush vegetation of a small pocket of rainforest.

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Looking down Cone Bay from the ridge top

Our friends across the bay had invited us to join them for an evening meal, so later Kevin powered us 10kms across the bay to our bush restaurant in no time. We passed the incredibly thin and sharp spectacular Razor Island as the sun was setting. With the tide out, Kevin had no alternative but to leave the boat several hundred metres from the shore, which meant that we had to slip in the mud and walk to it. As we headed towards our host’s camp we met Rick from Derby Toyota.

No sooner had we arrived, cheese and pickles were handed out, followed a few minutes later by some huge cooked oysters in batter or garlic sauce. The camp and BBQ overlooked the whole bay. I was surprised to see what went on way out here as we were 80 kilometres by boat from Derby and I really expected to see no one in this vast unspoiled wilderness. To be invited out to a meal unequalled in the city was just a fantasy, but it wasn’t. We cooked our fresh fish in the cool breeze under a canopy of bright stars and drank beer and cool drinks. Inside the room of tarps, our forth course was being served. Cream cakes, fruit salad, whole paw-paw in wine juice followed by chocolate and sweet coffee. This was certainly a demanding trip!

Dressing up for such an occasion in the Kimberley when transported by a boat is not very practicable. With no jetties to anchor to, the craft can only wait in deeper water for its occupants to walk over the mud flats and reefs often up to their backsides in water. So as we clambered aboard to go home we shouted thank you and zoomed into a brisk wind and choppy waves back to our own piece of paradise.

Toast and honey, baked beans, jaffles and some weetbix brought a civilized touch to my breakfast. The short rest here allowed me to wash my clothes in freshwater and fiberglass the rear section of the hull, where after dragging the kayak had started to wear away. When it was dry David and Nigel had a paddle in my kayak.

After digesting my fish lunch I climbed up the thick undergrowth of the gulley to the cliff top where the scenery was absolutely beautiful. I was making my way to Xenex’s hide out in a rainforest gully about 600 metres away. As I reached his cove and descended a gully through the thick foliage I was greeted by a growling dog. I stopped in my tracks, not wanting to become an enemy of the dog and admired the make shift home that was made of corrugated iron, wood, concrete, tarps, stone, bottles and was surrounded by a wire fence.

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The house that Xenex built

I called out and a guy called John answered. I asked if he had seen a white elephant running this way. Sure have, he replied, it went that way. Xenex wasn’t there but two of his friends were. John asked me in. You are just in time for coffee he said. His shelves were stocked full of foods, herbs and spices. Eujene, John’s friend, also sporting long hair and a beard came in from the garden. I wasn’t expecting to see two people, in fact I was only expecting Xenex who apparently was in Derby at that moment. John had been living there for four years but Eujene was a new-comer only living there for a few months. They were both from NSW, although Eujene was born in Croyden, England.

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John and Eujene

Apparently a number of crocodiles and snakes lived in and around their camp. John said that two crocodiles were living close to their cove and a few months ago it managed to climb the rocky gully and made its temporary home in their back garden. They often get a deadly venomous snake that lived under their fridge and had two harmless pet pythons that visited them regularly. They had a kitten once but it didn’t last long, the snakes saw to that.

A few metres away there was an uncompleted shack that they were building of local stone and it had bottles cemented between the stones and into the walls. They wanted a building that was more substantial and would stand up to a cyclone. It wasn’t the best place to be in a cyclone, they said.

Paw-paw, bananas trees, veges and other fruits were growing in-between and around the terraced gardens. A lovely sweet clear running stream cascaded over small rock ledges through the middle of their small estate. Steps made from flat rocks led to a flat slab area towards the stream. The water was 2 – 3 feet deep and 8 to 9 feet long and a perfect bathroom if you don’t mind sharing it with snakes, lizards and frogs.

About twice a year they make a trip to Derby in their small dingy to buy supplies. John said, “it was a dangerous task motoring their overweight small dingy back over the unpredictable and often rough King Sound.” I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t met the famous Xenex but maybe next time as I knew there would be a next time. I left the contented pair to live what seemed like an idyllic life. Their oasis was certainly an isolated paradise.

Back at the Johnson camp I was hot and sweaty so I slipped into the amazing bathing pool for my last wash before heading out the following day. For my last meal in this civilized world, Kevin and Robin cooked giant oysters, fish, baked potatoes and damper and of course that was complimented with a beautiful cold beer. I didn’t really drink, but sometimes one has to go with the flow. It was a shame I had to leave!

I left my friends at 10.00am aiming to cross Cone Bay and paddle through the passage of Sir Richard Island and the mainland at high tide as Kevin said there was reef in the passage that could be a problem. He also said that the currents around Datum Bay before the passage get very nasty. Before going through the islands I took no chances, I stopped on a beach and climbed the ridge to check out the tidal movements. It was worth the climb just to see the scenery from the top although the currents didn’t look too bad.

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A hot steep climb to see the view

I descended and paddled through the channel and islands at the change of high tide and it didn’t pose a problem at all. Paddling at the peak of high tide was usually the best time to go through tricky areas especially on neap tides because there was less water movement. But on spring tides the change of tide doesn’t last long and the water is often going out when the incoming tide is coming in.

My aim was to camp on Mary Island, a few kilometres after the passage, but its vertical cliffs gave me no alternative but to move across the choppy bay towards Whirlpool Pass. I stopped before the pass and landed on Dunvert Island and immediately carried my gear above the high water and climbed the ridge to get a higher view of my route ahead. I was trying to get as much of an idea of the currents through the pass as I could. The view again was outstanding. When I returned back to camp I stretched my hammock between two pandanas palms. As the breeze cooled my heated and tired body, and the dry leaves rustled in the wind, I watched the sun disappearing over the ridge. I was very comfortable and contented in my hammock as I was stretched out naked and drifted into deep thought. I was extremely happy with my trip so far as I had learnt so much, seen so many beautiful places and met lots of friendly genuine people. Nothing seemed to worry me any more and every day I gained more and more confident.

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Perfect evening for relaxing

As darkness crept in, the full moon lifted from the ocean throwing a dramatic reflection across the water and lighting up my world around me.

I had a few hours to kill before I could attempt the paddle through Whirlpool Pass. The tide was low so with spear in hand I walked along the shallows before collecting my survival kit and pack for a walk along the high ridge to check the tidal patterns and currents below. To the north-east I could see Strickland Bay and tucked in between the islands there was the bay called the Graveyard. Apparently many pearl divers had lost their lives there.

I spotted a 3-4 foot snake which demanded the right of way, so I detoured around it. Where was the safest place to be! Was it kayaking with sharks and crocodiles or walking amongst the snakes. They were all deadly. A snake bite out here would be fatal for me and that was another reason why I always carried my survival kit with my first aid kit, bandages, distress beacon, flares, signaling mirror etc.

By 12.30pm I was ready to tackle the notorious Whirlpool Pass. I left nothing to chance as I timed my passage so I would be in the pass on high tide and with the least tidal movements. With spring tides upon me, by all my readings of the pass, I couldn’t afford to get it wrong.

The words of Captain Stokes rang through my mind…..Stokes’ Diary, 1837 -1838. We experienced violent whirlpools, the first of which from want of experience handled us very roughly, suddenly wrenching the oars out of the men’s hands and whirling the boat around with alarming rapidly – and shot down a fall several feet, the boats bow being fairly buried in the boiling current……………………..

It was yet another beautiful channel with a U bend near the centre. Reaching there I had the assistance of the current, but when I reached the north-east end of the channel the current really accelerated me along and within minutes was throwing me out into very choppy waves of the open sea. I could see no beach, but as I passed a high point with cliffs on my right I noticed one that would adequately suit my needs. By stopping here it would also give me the opportunity to check out a water hole that Eric Hunter had told me about, which was two kilometres away, on the other end of the island. By the time I had unloaded the tide had started to rip out creating bigger boils and whirlpools as the current increased.

I pottered around camp and climbed the high peak and watched the water stream out of the pass. It was an extraordinary feeling sitting on the high peak thinking and watching the world go by! This is living. It was truly an amazing experience in one of the most amazing and beautiful parts of the world.

As I awoke from my nights sleep the moon was just disappearing over a ridge as the sun was rising over the islands. My task for today was to search for the water hole I had been told about and hopefully return with replenished supplies. I liked to have my supply of water topped up at all times even if I knew another water source was nearby. I never knew if I was going to be stranded for days on an island, so it was important to have good supplies. I would try to carry up to 50 litres of water which equated to 50 kilograms.

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North end of Hidden Island and Whirlpool Pass

I packed my survival kit and empty water bladders for my walk. I climbed a ridge to find several large mineral stained slabs in a line a few metres apart along the island and pointing up around 160 degrees. They were strikingly stunning and quite remarkable, but looked very un-natural.

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The north narrow neck of Hidden Island

As I walked along the ridge of the narrow neck of the island I could see a school of large mullet swimming beneath me and further along there was a 15 foot crocodile swimming in the shallows next to the rocky shore and only 500 metres from my camp. Its tail swayed, propelling it along at a slow leisurely pace. I started to film it but it was too far away to get a really close up shot. I crept down the cliff face and moved within 15 metres of it. Mullet started swimming towards it and I expected they were its next meal but as they passed within inches, the croc never blinked an eye lid. Hearing my presence the crocodile quickly sank its body leaving only its head out of the water to investigate its surrounds. It spotted me and it dived at once and sped off under water at a terrific speed.

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The north narrow neck of Hidden Island

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A croc cruising near my camp

K1Whirlpool3North end of Whirlpool Pass

I left the croc to float in the sun further out in the pass and followed numerous kangaroo trails up and over a small ridge to a dry watercourse below. A few metres after descending into the gulley, hey presto, I saw the water hole that Eric had told me about. A big lizard sunning itself nearby took off as I approached. The water hole was a round hole about 5 foot in diametre and at that time about a metre deep. In the wet season it would have been deeper. It looked clean, it tasted clean and it was extremely cold, which was a surprise. I filled all my 4 litre wine casks before stripping off my sweaty clothes and teeming the nice cold water all over me. It was lovely and refreshing.

I sat naked in the sun, eating my lunch, relaxing and watching about 15 finches hop closer and closer to the water, but if I gave the slightest movement they flew off again. They say where you find finches, water is always close by. There were also hornets and flies and they were much braver and insisted that I shared the water hole with them.

As I walked back to the camp, this time around the coastline I was soon deafened by the tremendous noise of a large rapid that was created by the incoming tide racing through a narrow channel. It was a perfect place to play if in a white water kayak, although the thought of crocs would make it just that little more dangerous. As I looked on I heard rustling in the dry grass and as I turned to look a large goanna lizard slowly crept towards me. The goanna was harmless, although some people say they have been known to run up you, thinking that you are a tree. I moved on and then a wallaby hopped away disappearing over the hill. It was the first wallaby that I had seen on an island but I’m sure they are all over the place. On my return I noticed old man crocodile lazing out in Whirlpool Pass only 200 metres away from my camp.

K1WhirlRapidA tidal rapid between Hidden Island and the jagged mainland

When-ever possible I tied my hammock from trees, palms and today a boab tree. I felt more secure being up in the air, but in reality a croc could easily get to me if it wanted to as I was only two or three feet off the ground.

My excursion had taken me 4 hours so at 1.00pm I left against the wind and tide heading through several islands with my destination being Margaret Island. I had time to paddle to Cockatoo Island, but the wind and tide were still against me, so I beached near Margaret Island. Stopping didn’t mean rest time as I had about 2 hours of unloading and making camp, as well as cooking my own dinner, washing up, and stringing my hammock half way up the hill. What happen to servants!

The moon’s bright light assisted me to pack in the early morning. It was 5.00am and I needed an early start or the falling tide would expose the reef and leave me to carry my gear for several hundred metres. Only minutes out into the calm waters something hit my stern. I glanced behind but saw nothing. It was a mystery, although I imagined it would have been a shark checking me out.

As I neared Cockatoo Island I could see an ugly scar all along the island. Cockatoo Island was a mine site. It was soul destroying seeing such destruction which was once a beautiful island. They were mining for iron ore and much of the island had been dug away and sent to Japan, although this open cut mine has produced work for many Australians and boosted the Australian economy. For hundreds and hundreds of miles the spectacular wilderness is virtually untouched so it was so sad to see so much destruction taking place here. A part of my heart slumped into the deep dark ocean.

A reef lay between me and the iron ore littered beach, so I waited out from the island for the tide to rise, until I was able to go ashore. Two canoes with outriggers were being brought down to the water. I couldn’t imagine who would be mad enough to use canoes up in the Kimberley apart from myself. I landed and walked over to the two men. “Malcolm Douglas,” the man said as he shook my hand. “Sean Dixon,” the other replied. I recognised Malcolm from all his books and films and Sean from a canoeing magazine. Sean told me they had just come down one of the rivers in Walcot Inlet and went out to the Montgomery reef and now they were heading for Derby.

K1Malcolm
Malcolm Douglas and Sean Dixon

The canoes were fitted with outriggers, a sail and a small petrol motor that they used most of the time on the ocean. Malcolm was making another film for the TV and he said his schedule was tight. I watched them pack their gear and leave having a few problems with a motor that had been swamped the previous day.

I would have loved to have a few hours with these intrepid explorers, someday we may cross paths again. They left and the canoes became smaller to my eyes as I unloaded, but soon after the buzz of a motor started to get louder. Malcolm was back. He had forgotten his dog. He whistled and his dog came running down the beach and jumped into the canoe and off they went again.

K1Malcolm2
Malcolm loading the canoes

As soon as I had unloaded I went to see the island manager and asked him if I could stay a night. He said I could and organized a tour of the island for me. Huge machines were working in the extremely deep open pit mine. It was interesting to see the mining operation but it wasn’t a pretty picture.

With the iron ore beach being close to the houses the locals used it as a sun bathing platform rather than swimming. A lady and her kids were enjoying the peace and quiet and relaxation. Another had the same idea, but she brought her dogs and they were running riot. The beach at the back of the island was much more pleasant as it was sand.

At 6.40am in the quiet of the morning and when most people were getting ready to go to work I moved off kayaking parallel to the open cut mine and the whole length of the island. It was low tide, there was a slight wind as I paddled towards Koolan Island. I passed an amazing geological art form and layered rock that created a wave pattern at Nares Point.

As I paddled through the ‘Canal’ and then the ‘Drain’ and came closer to Koolan Island mine site, iron ore dust clouded the skies and the noise of haul packs and machinery echoed down the channel. With the tide in my favour I passed the wharf, a couple of tug boats and other assorted boats. A large mountain of iron ore tailings formed an unnatural hillside which was slowly taking over the mangroves. At that point I couldn’t imagine what it was like to have a 7 to 4 job. My life now consisted of all Sundays.

I was pleased that the current heading towards the ‘Gutter,’ a narrow entrance separating the mainland from Koolan Island, was going my way. The closer I got to the ‘Gap’ the more turbulence, small whirlpools and boils were created. I flew through the ‘Gap’ and then the current eased as I followed the shoreline around to the landing area on the east end of the island where I could land. A local offered me a lift up to the settlement where I called on Bart Northam my main contact on Koolan Island. He was a mate of my friend Bill Grogan. I had never met Bart or his wife Marie before, but it didn’t seem to matter as they were very friendly and opened up their house, their larder and their hearts to me.

During the next two days my aim was to collect as much information about my route ahead. In the main site office I met Mr’s Brown who invited me home for tea and meet her husband Ivan, who knew a lot about the area. When I arrived Ivan’s friend was also there, so they both studied my maps, writing snippets of information over them. They only listed one waterhole along the next section of coastline and that would take me two weeks to reach. It was also way up a mangrove lined river and too dangerous for me to go up. So my prospects of finding water looked grim, however I still felt confident that I would find water in one of the other notable creeks on my map.

Ivan soon solved my water problem for a week or more at least by saying he had planned to go boating to Walcot Inlet the following Sunday and said he would meet me on a beach on the west side of Fletcher Island, near the entrance to Walcot Inlet and bring me water. When we sat down for the meal I savoured the delicious roast lamb and drinks.

K1RubbishtipA view from the Koolan Island Rubbish tip

From the open shutters of Bart and Marie’s house there was a magnificent view of the Indian Ocean and the wilderness islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago. Their garden also attracted snakes some harmless, many deadly, lizards, and birds. The minor birds were encouraged into the house, through the open shutters, by the temptation of feeding on honey off a spoon. The island was a haven for naturalists and wilderness lovers.

K1Minorbirds
Miner birds were very friendly

Beneath our window, as the heat scorched the dry grass, a miner bird suddenly played dead as a pigeon swooped down towards it. The miner bird rolled on its back, spread its wings flat on the ground and laid perfectly still. The pigeon touched down, walked around the area of the miner bird, but the miner bird stayed frozen. Another miner bird flew down and tackled the pigeon but the frozen miner bird still didn’t move. The pigeon took off and the miner bird suddenly came alive, ruffled its wings and flew off in the opposite direction.

The wildlife around here was pretty friendly and that included a tick that had attached to my left testicle. Although it was funny, it wasn’t funny and the local remedies of getting it off didn’t appeal. You can burn it off with a cigarette, or pour mentholated spirits over it, or prise it out with a knife, they said. At 31 and for someone who hasn’t yet produced a child, these options seemed a little too severe for my tender loving very necessary parts.

I telephoned the medical centre and asked the lady if she knew the best way to remove a tick from ones testicle. She advised me to come into the medical centre to get it removed, so I did. The receptionist asked me what was wrong and I was a little embarrassed to say, so I said it in a soft voice as not to alarm other patience’s. I had a tick on my testicle. Luckily a male nurse attended to me. When he managed to get it off, he said the tick wasn’t as dangerous or infectious as if it had been a kangaroo tick. My mind wasn’t truly convinced, what if it does get infected as I’m paddling along the remote coast.

Rob Sherwood was another keen boater who also invited me to dinner. He had a half finished yacht in his back yard. Rob kindly agreed to make me a tripod for my 16mm movie camera so I could take footage of myself as I found it was difficult to do that without one.

Rob talked about the ‘Gaps’, the Horizontal Waterfalls which I was going to visit and he said he was taking his friends there in two days time and he would probably see me there.

Bart and Marie had been tremendous hosts, but were at school when I departed the township with my supplies on my back. I had a 20 minute walk down the steep hill back to my kayak. It was extremely hot and my pack was really too heavy, so I took it easy along the gravelly slope. I had over 20 days of food and 26 litres of water and all the rest of my gear that I somehow packed into my craft.

I was disappointed to leave my new friends, but it had to be done. As I paddled away I was alone again. I was told of a skeleton and skull on the nearby Iron Island, a short distance away, so I stopped to have a look. I climbed a rock ledge to where the human skeleton lay. I took a photo of the bones, the flashed dazzled the poor fellow and I saw him blink. I said sorry and good bye and chased the tide southwards into Talbot Bay.

At the extreme south end of Talbot Bay are two narrow gaps, which open into two smaller bays. The tide rushes through the gaps with such force that it creates a spectacular waterfall and giant rapids. It’s now called the Horizontal Waterfalls. The area was once the site for a proposed tidal power station, plans for which have since been shelved. My aim was to kayak through the gaps.

Talbot and Dugong bays have excellent reefs, and Aborigines once used this area as a major hunting ground for dugong and turtles. The local mangrove timber was also used for making their traditional rafts which Lou told me about at One Arm Point. I reached a dot on my map that Rod Sherwood had placed on my map. It was a beach but it wasn’t as I imagined, so I paddled further to make sure it was the right one. There were no others so the dot must have been in the right place. The beach was stony and a boat’s engine was scattered near the mangroves and beer bottles in their hundreds were scattered all over the place. Pieces of steel, a bed with a foam mattress were further up. Another camp to the right contained a bbq plate, more beer bottles and turtle shells. I checked the trees to see if my hammock would swing between them but they seemed to be too spindly and a sanitary towel on the ground soon chased me away. I couldn’t believe I was in the wilderness and people actually came picnicking at this dump, but I suppose that is why it is a dump. It was depressing to have to unload at such a rubbish tip but I was told there wasn’t another beach for miles.

Because I was unsure with my water supplies ahead I decided to try cooking in salt water, but not only did my meal taste salty, flavourless, I hadn’t cooked my soya beans long enough so they were still crunchy. I was unhappy with my campsite, now I was unhappy with my meal, so I didn’t bother making damper.

With my hammock erected between two trees and away from the sanitary towel I relaxed as darkness moved in. I started to hear rustling in the undergrowth and it turned out being rats foraging in the rubbish a few metres away undercover of a moonless night. Within minutes they were all around my camp.

Rats are one animal I don’t particularly like, although the older I get the more tolerant I have become. I had issues with them whilst growing up on a farm. Snakes and spiders are much nicer. I heard a larger animal running in the bush a few metres a way. I thought it might be a dingo or a wallaby but no matter how much I shone my torch I couldn’t see it. My fires flickering flames soon ceased to glow leaving me with pitch black darkness and rustles and noises of rats and other critters running around me in circles. I kept cursing the place and shining my torch whenever I heard one come near. It was really one of the worst campsites I have ever had.

I managed to sleep and had nightmares that couldn’t be forgotten. I dreamt that someone had bought a front end loader, dug a hole and buried my kayak but my next dream was much worse. I dreamt the tide had risen and my kayak was floating away. Two crocodiles came onto the scene and I run beside them and then run out into the water to retrieve the kayak, but another croc started chasing me. I stabbed it with my spear but it was like jelly, I stabbed it again and although it was like jelly my spear bent and the croc changed into a bull nosed ape with four legs. I then awoke thank God. What a night.

I laid in my hammock day dreaming and then I noticed that my kayak was still there. I was packing up when I heard a roar of an engine. It was Rob who was on his way to the gaps to show his two friends Trevor and Clair how spectacular they were. Rob suggested throwing my kayak on to his boat and ride the few kilometres to the gaps. I was happy to leave the rat heaven. It didn’t take us long to reach the gaps. The first gap was the widest, the second was only about 9 metres wide both with sheer vertical cliffs. It was a magical place to be. We motored through the second gap and Rob cut the boat’s engine out in the deep water. Here I slid the kayak in over the stern of the boat, crawled in and sat in an eddy close to the second gap and under the high cliff, whilst Rob and friends fished. I went for a paddle through the two gaps as the tide was on the turn and there wasn’t much water movement. It was magic.

K1GapsApproach
Approaching the Twin Gaps (Horizontal Waterfalls)

When I arrived back the water was starting to move into the bay and was squeezing through the last gap and starting to create turbulence. I returned to the eddy. The boys had caught a couple of garfish to use as bait to catch a bigger fish. Rob soon latched onto a large turum which nearly dragged him over the side of the boat. As the fish swam in all directions and around the boat it was giving Rob a fantastic fight only his leather gloves prevented his hands from being sliced open by the hand line. The strength of the fish dragged the boat towards the shore and the crafty fish tangled the line around the oyster laden mangroves and snapped the line.

K1Gapsclose
The second Gap

My spraydeck had created a sauna inside my cockpit and being sheltered by the high cliffs it was extremely hot. Rob suggested I did an Eskimo roll to cool down. I wasn’t at all keen, with all the crocodiles and sharks around, but I didn’t want to be a chicken either. Over I went. As the daylight faded I was hoping that I wouldn’t mess up the roll. I came up relieved and went down again. After doing a few rolls, I quit whilst I was ahead. Cool and with clear nasal passages my stage show came to an abrupt halt when a shark started to mill around.

K1Gaps2
Paddling through the second Gap

With the tide filling the bay and now racing out it was the time to give the rapids a go. I knew I had to approach the first section of the drop perfectly because the water was being deflected from the canyon walls with great force, making the sides of the canyon a dangerous area. The excitement started as soon as my fully laden Nordkapp kayak slid down the drop through the large stopper, standing waves and then into the whirlpools and boils, which pushed me from side to side like a cork. I found myself bracing, trying to remain upright and facing the right way. My rudder helped me to keep a straighter course and to avoid being spun 360 degrees.

K1Gaps1Paddling the second Gap with the outgoing tide

It was impossible for me to paddle back up the rapid, but I wanted more film of paddling in the turbulence so I started creeping along the cliff walls using the eddies where possible to creep higher. After several attempts to canoe up the rapid and having fun ferry gliding, a boil suddenly took control of the kayak and spun me around and towards the rock face, narrowly missing it. The boils and whirlpools moved all over the place, with many of the whirlpools opening up and creating a hole, two to three feet across.

Even Rob’s power boat with the big engine found it too hard and too dangerous to get back up the rapid so we moved down to the easier gap. With it being a lot less turbulent Rob and his friends were eager to power back up it. I watched on. His boat was pushed from side to side and his bow sank deep causing a wave of water to flow over the deck into his cockpit. He continued with full power up the chute at a crawling pace finally managing to win the struggle to the top. The rate of flow started to ease as low tide approached.

It was time to say goodbye to Rob and his friends and carry on with my journey. I only had about 4kms to go to a campsite on an island but as the wind funelled down Talbot Bay the water spray shot over my bows drenching my body and leaving me salt encrusted. I arrived at the rocky shale beach as a burst of activity was happening in the water nearby. Mantarays leapt out of the water creating a heavy slap when it landed. Dolphins cruised the bay and turtles gasped for air as they surfaced.

As the light faded the glow of red eyes were captured in my torch light. A croc was close to my beach and kept a continual watch over my movements. I too was watching it, its presence encouraged me to heighten my hammock. Behind me a bird started to flap in the trees and the crescendo of crickets became louder and my fire became bigger and crackled as I stoked it up.

Those red piecing eyes staring at me presented less concern than my encounter with multitude of rats the previous evening, but I couldn’t be too complacent and there was no way I was going down to wash or wash my dishes at the water’s edge tonight.

I survived the night without a croc biting my bum through my hammock. As I dragged the kayak to the water’s edge I used driftwood placed under my kayak to prevent the hull from being ripped apart by the rock shale. I hadn’t forgotten about the crocodile so I kept my spear and bow close by, although they would do little to stop a hungry crocodile and once in the water I would be at the mercy of the Gods.

As I paddled on towards Turtle Reef in Talbot Bay it was calm and hot and the morning was still young. Turtle Reef, named by the local Aboriginals was a large reef on the eastern side of the bay and at low tide it came exposed. I dipped my hat into the water to let it drip over me to cool me off. With temperatures in the high 30s, my hope of cooler weather in the weeks to come was very slim. For the next 2 ½ hours I paddled in a north-westerly direction but eventually after reaching the open ocean, I left Talbot Bay and headed in a south-easterly direction towards Walcot Inlet. As I didn’t have much information about the rocky steep coastline ahead of me, I decided to stop when I found a beach a few kilometres along the coastline.

I stopped early in the day so the afternoon gave me time to clean my cameras, sew my cloths, do my washing, do small repairs and check out the maps and the terrain ahead of me. With crocodiles being sighted on a near daily basis I decided to sleep on a rock ledge a few metres above sea level, in the hope that crocs couldn’t climb! My sleep was disturbed by a squealing noise near my kayak. I shone my torch to find a native cat checking out my equipment that was lying over the kayak. As long as it didn’t want to share my bed I didn’t mind. Thirty minutes later I started hearing faint sounds in the night. I panned the area with my torch expecting to see red eyes emerging from the deep but then noticed a set of armored vehicle tracks. In fact they were fresh turtle tracks. I jumped out of my swag and followed them up the beach to find a turtle had just finished laying her eggs and was busily hurling sand in a large area around her with her flippers to cover them up. It reminded me of my four nights in Malaysia watching massive leatherback turtles lay dozens of eggs on the beach each night. Poachers often raided their nests using steel rods to stab the sand and find the eggs. Government workers were also employed to collect the eggs but they were taken to hatcheries in the hope of increasing the population. I watched the turtle return to the water.

The night was warm and the mosquitoes annoyed me. I awoke to find several fresh turtle tracks. One turtle had circled my kayak, walked passed my paddle, realised the rock had formed a barrier, turned and crawled back towards the water. Two other sets of tracks also led to the beach. It had been a busy night. Next to me were fresh animal droppings from the native cat that must have checked me out during the night and was starting to dry in the morning heat.

Kim1TurtletrackA turtle left its tracks during the night

K1Turtle
I watched a turtle laying her eggs

Extracting myself from the safety of my sheet, sandflies were really bad forcing me to wear long pants and it wasn’t until I was ready to leave that I could quickly slip into my shorts. The rush to load the kayak and get away quickly had caused me to place too much weighty gear to one side of the kayak and making it have a permanent tilt. Once in the choppy conditions, the kayak became awkward and unmanageable so at the first suitable site I decided to restructure the weight. I landed on a rocky beach with small lapping surf. I didn’t think it was going to be a problem however, trying to rearrange gear when the surf continually pushed a fully loaded kayak against the rocks was much more of a nuisance than you can imagine. By the time I was ready to leave, my cockpit was half full of water. My best chance to prevent the kayak from being holed by the rocks was to enter the kayak and pump the water out with my foot pump away from the surf zone. It didn’t take me long.

With the tide in my favour I enjoyed the extra speed that I was doing along the coast. The coast was indented with several small coves and points. Near a string of small islands, spread in a line for about 4 km, I rounded a point that gave me a view along the coast for about 11 kms. Twenty metres away I noticed an object close to the point moving up and down with each swell of the wave. For a moment I imagined it as a log, but suddenly it started moving towards me. Oh shit, a crocodile. Cold shivers ran through my body as the croc closed in. I had no chance to beach along the rocky shoreline and knowing that the crocodile could easily tear me to pieces before I could get out of the kayak, I had to make sure it didn’t catch me. Crocodiles can also run fast, so even if I did beach, my chances of escaping was probably more remote.

Talk about remote. I was now kilometres away from Koolan Island and with hardly anyone ever coming this way I couldn’t expect any help or person to come along. If I was attacked by a crocodile just the remoteness shattered all chances of being helped. I could only rely on my own resources to keep myself alive.

I decided to veer off out to sea in the hope that the croc wouldn’t follow. It did. The speed with which the crocodile reacted closed the gap very quickly. I paddled like hell changing direction but the crocodile followed and gained on me. The extra speed I manage to find from somewhere was no match as it came within 5 metres. I was praying that it wouldn’t dive as I had seen their incredible speed underwater at Whirlpool Pass. As I paddled further out it began to slow down but it still kept a steady pace behind me. As my heart and arms pumped at an enormous rate it started to lose interest enabling me to pull away. I didn’t stop until I was a safe distance away.

After about half a kilometre I had to have drink, as my thirst overpowered my will to get away from the crocodile. My heart was still pounding. My mind was full of thoughts. I now decided to keep further out from the coastline in the hope there would be less crocodiles out there. I would rather have sharks than crocodiles. It seemed that the crocodile was just seeing me out of its territory, well that was my theory. For the next 45 minutes or more by mind was focused on the crocodile chase, and no matter what other thoughts I had, the chase always came back to mind.

After stopping again, a large splash behind me attracted my attention. Within six metres of my stern a shark was moving away so I powered off looking in all directions over my shoulders. I could feel it was going to be one of those days. As I looked over to Traverse Island three fins broke the surface. I immediately became tense but my fear was soon dispelled as dolphins leapt out of the water.

Passing between Helipad Islands and the mainland the wind picked up causing some horrible wave patterns that buffeted me from all directions. Still a little on edge I had 8kms of sloppy seas to negotiate before reaching the safety of an island north of shoal bay. I had paddled 33 km in 5 1/2 hours. The tide was now going out which allowed me to leave the kayak on the beach without the fear of it being swamped or swept away. I brewed coffee & sat watching a turtle float around my cove. Suddenly a shadow blocked out the sun. My heart missed a beat as I expected something to happen. I looked up and saw a large eagle soaring over head.

My camp was close to 2 pockets of mangroves. The South part of the island was virtually surrounded by several hundred metres of thick mangroves and across on the mainland the mangroves stretched about 20 km along the indented coastline. I just knew, after being chased by a crocodile on a rocky coastline there were bound to be many more around the mangroves in their favourite habitat. By 12.30pm my longing to explore the island had begun. My first attempt to go overland was soon shattered as the bush was too thick for me to penetrate. I retreated along the coastline passing boulder holes that were shaped like a funnel and looked as if they were man made. For a moment my spirits lifted when I found pools of water high above the rocks on a ledge. The water however was salty, so my hopes soon faded.

K1WhiteCliffisland
The islands were spectacular

The rock gave way to muddy mangroves that prevented my progress. Below me five large angel fish cruised slowly in the shallows. At a quicker pace mullet passed them by several times. Back at camp I change into my canoeing booties and shorts so as to walk across the mud flats to a cave on the other side of the cove. It was interesting watching large mud skippers shuffling over the mud. I walked towards them sinking down to my knees and I soon decided that their progress was quicker than mine.

I tried adding a small amount of salt water to my macaroni as I was cooking it, but it still tasted too salty so I gave up the idea. I was trying to save my fresh water, but it was destroying my evening meals so I couldn’t wait to find fresh water again. I was told there was fresh water about 7 kms across from my camp on the mainland, but it was 5 kms up a long and narrow creek lined with mangroves. It meant that I would have to paddle up the creek on high tide to reach the water, but after my brush with the crocodile, I thought it more sensible to forget about it.

I relaxed staring into the sky admiring those millions of stars making up the universe. I had my own names for all the star patterns around me, the hockey stick, the dragon, blah blah

My father came to mind. He had been dead for three years and being 12,000kms away at the time I was unable to attend his funeral. I remember the good times when we owned a farm and we as kids had so much fun and freedom. At the age of seven I used to help him in the fields, drive tractors, many times with my dad steering an implement at the rear of it. I earned two shillings an hour and I soon saved enough money to buy my own pony. I felt sad. It had been a long time since I really thought about him.

My parents split when I was 10 years old and reunited again when I was 13. This was probably the saddest part of my life as my mum, who wanted to start a new life elsewhere, convinced dad to sell the farm in Lincolnshire and buy a grocery shop in Shirebrook, a small coalmining village in the midlands. This devastated me as I had so much freedom and enjoyment on the farm, now we were townies.

Within a month my mum left us again leaving my older sister Janet to manage the shop. Dad couldn’t read or write so it was hard for him to manage it. My brother was back and forth from mum and dad. Two years later with falling sales, the shop went bankrupt and all the money we had from the sale of the farm was lost. As you can imagine my sister and I were not very pleased with my mum for dragging us away from the farm. When I was 15 I returned to the country and lived with my aunty. Four years later I was hitch hiking to Australia.

The morning greeted me with a sky full of birds. Noisy white cockatoos flew overhead as well as honey eaters and an array of other birds including one with a red breast and black wings. A coucal pheasant also took off from out of the dry grass. For there to be so many birds there must have been water close by unless they got it from the heavy dew that saturated everything in the early morning. I started putting plastic bags over my cockpit to collect condensation. My kayak also collected condensation but I had to remember to wipe the salt off the kayak the night before. I only collected a few spoons full that way.

The two and half hour trip across to the ‘Funnel’ at the head of Secure Bay was uneventful, no sharks, no crocodiles, nothing. It was one of my small ambitions on this trip to paddle through the entrance of Secure Bay and the Walcott Inlet. The ‘Funnel’ was roughly 50 metres across and a kilometre or so long before it opened out into Secure Bay where it widened considerable. Arriving at Secure Bay close to high tide meant the water movements would be slower as I paddled through the channel. As I moved through and into the bay it was lined for kilometers and kilometers with mangroves. Being really in crocodile country and having so many mangroves around me I didn’t fancy staying inside the bay for too long so I turned and made a fast exit with the out-going tide.

K1SecureBayETidal currents at The ‘Funnel’ entrance to Secure Bay

Three hundred metres from the entrance I found a nice beach, where there was plenty of firewood, a small boab tree to hang my hammock and a great view of the entrance and the tidal currents.

With several day light hours left in the day I headed out on a walk to a creek a couple of kilometers away. I took my survival kit, cameras and water bottles. As usual the terrain was difficult. Boulders were hidden under the spinifex and grasses which were one of the best defenses for intruders on foot. The Kimberley terrain was like no other in WA. Sandstone boulders, deep spinifex, gullies, ravines and waist deep grasses with boulders underfoot made walking extremely difficult. Walking boots that are made to last for years in normal conditions, only last for weeks here in the Kimberley.

I could see the creek in sight, but even with an increased walking speed it would still take me an hour to reach it. Then as I stepped on a boulder I slipped and in a split second I was on my back looking up at the cloudy skies. I fell on my back and bum but luckily my pack cushioned the fall so I was okay. At this point in time the creek looked too far away, so I retreated back to camp.

K1SecurehammockBoab trees were handy to string my hammock in

The tide was now racing out of the ‘Funnel’ creating some amazing and fascinating
water movements, including big whirlpools. I headed to a high point on the cliff 300 metres away to get a better view and some film footage before darkness crept in. It was a special scene.

K1SecurecurrentOutgoing tidal currents at the ‘Funnel’

My next stop was the dangerous Yule Entrance, which was an entrance 10kms further along the coast that opened up into Walcott Entrance. I was told that there were big boils and large whirlpools in the entrance capable of spinning large boats in circles and sucking down smaller ones. It didn’t seem believable, so I knew I had to find out for myself. It was important though to go through the entrance as close to the high tide as possible, when there was less water movement just in case.

My route along the cliff took me between Fletcher Island and Beer’s Ridge which was on the mainland. Driftwood that was being moved by the tidal currents was thick in the milky brown water of the channel. It made crocodile spotting difficult because every piece of driftwood looked like a crocodile. Mangroves were only 500 metres away at the best of times and the thought of crocodiles lurking certainly quickened my progress.

I arrived at Yule Entrance an hour or so before the turn of the tide as it was still streaming into the entrance at a terrific speed. For a while I waited several hundred metres away, but I felt vulnerable sitting there waiting in crocodile country for the slack tide to arrive, so I started easing myself towards the 600 metre wide entrance. The current was getting faster, but I felt in no immediate danger so I moved in a little further. I could now see rapids to my right so I paddled over to my left and further into the centre of the channel to keep clear of them.

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Tidal currents going into ‘Yule Entrance’ of Walcot Inlet

Suddenly I was being swept into the entrance and beyond. My eyes focused on the cliffs, which gauged my speed. I started to accelerate and I wasn’t even paddling, and then I realised I had been caught in a large tidal water slide. It didn’t matter, I would just ferry glide across to the slack water behind the north wall entrance. Well that’s what I thought, but another rapid and a whirlpool prevented any chance of that. I was now committed to go right through the entrance as my paddling skills and strength couldn’t help me to back track against the current, it was too powerful. The current was now running much faster than I could imagine and although I noticed the spectacular high cliffs to my right I had no time to take in their true beauty. Drops and rapids were also being created by rocky islands and reefs close to the cliffs which were being smothered by the rapid rising tide. I avoided them but suddenly I saw whirlpools, boils and whitewater spread across the channel a few hundred metres ahead.

K1WalcotTidal currents going into ‘Yule Entrance’ of Walcot Inlet

As the channel narrowed, my kayak slid sideways and increased its speed. I was at mercy of the swift current and as I desperately tried to avoid the rapids and the biggest of the boils and whirlpools I could do nothing but dodge them and go with the flow.

K1Walcotin2Tidal currents going into ‘Yule Entrance’ of Walcot Inlet

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Tidal currents rebounding off the rocky shoreline

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Walcot Inlet

Although I could see the big whirlpools well ahead I felt at that moment I was sliding in safer waters as the channel widened and was less disturbed so I tried to get some film footage with my 16mm camera which was mounted on my front deck. I drifted, but I realized I was going faster than I normally paddled. A 16mm camera had to be wound up to take film so I had to reach forward to wind it up which compromised my stability. My camera was certainly different from todays’ technology. As I concentrated in getting the camera going I drifted towards a developing whirlpool over to my right. I then desperately tried moving over to the left, but because the water was being deflected from the rocky shoreline it pushed me back towards it again. I avoided it and some rapid water but then I noticed the whirlpools ahead were huge and full of boils that erupted a metre or more like miniature volcanos. The whirlpools were alive with whitewater, boils and smaller whirlpools. It was something that I had never seen before and it looked terrifying. Although I was nearly pooing my pants I was calm, I had to be. I paddled hard to gather extra speed so to sneak to the right of the big turbulences to avoid possible disaster.

About 3 kilometres from the entrance the coastline abruptly turned east and having enough of a wild ride and seeing a good opportunity to get out of the current and to safety I turned and tried desperately to paddle towards a massive eddy behind the corner cliff wall, but as I tried the swift current being deflected from the wall pushed me back into the main current.

Now drifting backwards, I shuddered with fear as I heard an almighty roar behind me. As I glanced over my shoulder I couldn’t believe my eyes, the giant whirlpool several hundred metres wide, was swirling, boiling, erupting and forming several different water levels.

Like a scared rabbit I paddled furiously towards the eddy but it was no good, I was being sucked backwards towards the whirlpool. It was a terrifying feeling, especially after knowing that my whitewater experience didn’t seem to be helping me get away from the two metre turbulent surges and spiraling water forces.

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Giant whirlpools and boils in Walcot Inlet

The thunder of the eruptions became louder as the boiling volcano of whitewater closed in. I strained to turn my heavy kayak to face forward and confront the whirlpool head on. With several almighty forward and reverse sweep strokes I managed to get the kayak turned. Now facing forward again I could see what I was up against. This was not like the smaller whirlpools like I had just passed, it was a giant that spun around converging with smaller ones that just popped up from nowhere. My only hope was to try and paddle around it, using the outer whirl. I was ready to go for it when I noticed another huge, but smaller whirlpool to the left of it. Its raging currents looked less severe and seemingly swirling in the opposite direction of that of the big one. I paddled towards it and somehow managed to keep upright and use its current to get away from the big one. I had somehow miraculously crossed over its raging turbulence, at times using my paddle as support to stop me from capsizing. Using all my strength and whitewater skills I finally paddled out of its powerful hold and into calmer waters. It was hard to believe, but I was safe. My mouth was dry and I was nearly choking with thirst. I ferry glided to the safety of the eddy, to wait nervously next to a near rock wall for the tide to ease. I was in crocodile country but I was happy to sit there for several minutes watching the huge whirlpools, swirl, and erupt like a boiling volcano. Now I believed all those stories.

I remember Steve, who worked on the customs boat tell me that if I paddled into Walcot Inlet I would never get out. Again I didn’t believe such a tale, if the current takes you in, it must take you out, but seeing a gradient in the water level with my own eyes and the current still running in at an amazing speed, when the tide had supposed to have turned, I started to think that he could be right. Shit, now I was starting to doubt myself?

I had paddled into the inlet on the highest of the spring tides, which in turn produces the fastest water currents. Now I was waiting in an eddy 3 1/2 kilometres from the open sea, surrounded by mangrove forests and suicidal currents, and you could say it was a little unsettling. I started paddling back towards the entrance close to the cliffs, but it was still a struggle. A boil, come whirlpool 30 metres on was in my way of escape, but I had a slim possibility of paddling between it and the cliff so I had to give it ago. In between the eruptions and whirls it became calm, giving me enough time to clear it and position myself behind a boulder before it started erupting again. When it erupted the current moved out from the centre and started pushing me towards the rock face. I fended myself from the wall with my paddle and hands. The current pushed me backwards jamming my rudder under a rock ledge and as the boil rose my rudder crunched and it sank my stern in the water compromising my balance. Time after time I was at the mercy of the upsurges until my rudder was free. The water was too powerful to paddle against and a whirlpool was still to my right. Hell knows what I would have done if a crocodile came. I waited. I was eager to get to the inlet entrance as soon as I could, but it was impossible to paddle against the current, I really needed to wait for the tide to turn. Eventually the current eased to a manageable speed so I fought my way along the edge of the shoreline trying to use the slack water behind the rocks and boulders. I passed over many small whirlpools and boils and climbed several fast running chutes, skirted mangroves and continually scanned the water for crocodiles.

With one kilometre to go, an outgoing current helped me out of the entrance but the meeting of the current and the wind waves made for an exploding ocean. I had thought that all my fighting had ceased for the day, but now I was paddling against an ocean of steep high waves which were angered by the swift out flowing current. The steep waves slapped against my bow and I had no time to recover before the next one hit. At times I was feeling a little unstable when the bow was caught on one wave and my stern on top of another and I had no water underneath me. Then my whole cockpit disappeared under water. I had 5 ½ kms of this slop before I was safe on Fletcher Island.

Waves of saltwater smacked me in the face increasing my unbearable thirst. As I turned to the west side of Fletcher Island the waves hit me broadside, making paddling really uncomfortable so I was pleased when I landed on the beach and was welcomed by two ducks and two oyster catchers. It felt good to have survived such a harrowing and dangerous ordeal especially after experiencing it on one of the biggest tides (10.1m) of the year with the fastest tidal currents.

The two ducks flew off to the other end of the beach leaving their large chick under a driftwood pile that stretched the full length of the beach. The 300m beach was littered with numerous turtle tracks. I managed to get rid of the salt water taste in my mouth after making a beautiful cup of coffee. The simple things in life, like a cup of coffee and some dried fruits were heavenly. I tied my hammock between two gum trees up on the ridge over-looking my beach, the mainland and its outlying islands. I relaxed next to my kayak on the beach and when I returned to my hammock for the night I heard a hissing noise coming from near my feet, but I couldn’t see anything. Shit, a snake, I thought. I stepped back and it continued to hiss so without delay I jumped in my hammock to get off the ground and sleep.

I woke to a day more important than Christmas. Santa Clause, alias Ivan Brown planned to visit me on the island and bring water to top up my dwindling supplies. He said, if he wasn’t able to reach me on Sunday, because of a storm or something he would try again on Monday night after work.

Toilet time was usually very stressful and sometimes a painful affair when the sandflies viciously attacked my private parts once I had dropped my pants. It wasn’t very funny so the quicker I did it, the less traumatic it was, but sometimes toilet time just couldn’t be hurried.

Two boats, one yellow, one white came screaming through the heat haze towards my beach. Ivan had arrived. With the tide out I trudged into knee deep mud and into the water walking towards his boat. A cold beer and a soda water were waiting for me. Although I didn’t usually drink, I chose a cold beer instead of a soda water as it was celebration time. I had been dreaming of a cold drink all week.

Six men, Ivan and a dog made up the team. The second boat was given the job of making breakfast so I had bacon, eggs sausages and chops. I didn’t even have that at home.

A 3 metre crocodile noticed our presence and dropped in for breakfast. With all the chops eaten one man threw a hunk of bread over the side and instantly the croc leapt forward opening his mouth wide and grasped it in his jaws. For several minutes the croc made no attempt to eat it and then finally let it float away. As it was circling the boat with 7 men on board, it probably had a different meal in mind! With the rising tide now covering the sand, Ivan powered his boat up the beach. This gave everyone a chance to stretch their legs and look with amazement at my slender kayak. In the rush to get to me, Ivan had forgotten to bring enough drinking water to top up my supplies, so I used the melting ice that was keeping the beer cold in the esky.

By 11.00am, lunch time was declared so we all climbed back aboard Ivan’s boat for some chicken, tomatoes, cucumber, asparagus, cheese, bread, and all the nice things in life. The men were in fine spirits after drinking since arriving and they talked about the mishaps that they have had along the coast and when their power boat was nearly sucked down by the whirlpools in Walcot Inlet. I could now relate to their stories.

After lunch it was time for them to slice back through the choppy waters to Koolan Island 70 kms away. All the food not eaten, mainly chips and biscuits were left with me so I finished up feeling very queasy by the end of the day. I was very grateful for their visit and hospitality. It was strange and very quiet when they left.

I wanted to go back to Walcot Inlet and look at the whirlpools, but this time from the land. I needed to see them from another perspective and see how dangerous they really were, so I left my beach on Fletcher Island and paddled over to the mainland. I had noticed a rocky landing when I passed by two days previously so I headed for that.

It was hot and humid and I could hear the coast-watch plane in the far distance, but as usual it never spotted me. My choice of landing spots between the mangroves didn’t seem at all wise, but some would say that doing this trip in a kayak wasn’t wise, although I always took as many precautions as I could. I came across a prehistoric looking piece of driftwood along my route and there is nothing more sinister and chilling than paddling towards logs that look like crocodiles. However time and experience had now conditioned me to the sudden daily dangers that I faced.

Ahead of me were rocky shores and mangrove fields, some being two and half kilometres long. The low tide mud had recently been covered leaving driftwood, branches and logs languishing. One log looked real and it wasn’t a mirage as it was moving. I still had 500 metres to go before landing on the boulders so I quickened my pace keeping a watchful eye on the crocodile’s position. I soon passed between the mangroves and hit the large boulders and jumped out. I had lost sight of the croc when I entered the mangroves so I didn’t know where it was. They say a crocodile you can see is of no danger, when you can’t see it, start worrying. I started worrying!

My front compartment was unloaded first, to reduce the weight of the kayak and be-able to pull it ashore and out of the water. With the rising tide I couldn’t leave the kayak to be pounded against the rocks so I had to unload it quickly. Being close to the water’s edge and knowing a croc was out there, was pretty traumatic.

Safe in camp I now planned to spend two days exploring the country behind me and watch the whirlpools form from the shoreline. The whirlpools were one of my own natural wonders of the world. Trying to hang in my hammock from a boab tree full of green ants wasn’t easy, but it was either that or sleep on the rocks. My main concern was their tight rope walking ability, I could imagine them crawling along the ropes and attack me in the night.

K1Walcamp1
Camp near Walcot Inlet

I tried to keep cool by washing my body regularly as I couldn’t swim in the ocean in fear of crocs, so I filled my cooking pot with water and poured water over me instead. It certainly wasn’t quite the same as taking a dip but it was safer. It was also important to wash my clothes regularly especially my socks, underpants, and canoeing gear because if I didn’t they would become crusty with salt. With salt encrusted clothes, chafing was more likely to happen, causing rashes and sores. If I got a sores or scratches they would be very hard to heal in this tropical heat and become infected. Hospitals were too far away to be careless so to help prevent cuts, scratches and bites I always wore my shirt and long pants when walking.

The boys from Koolan Island told me that the weather was approaching the suicide season, that is the time before the wet, when the clouds and humidity buildup and it gets steamy, but the clouds don’t give any rain. Last night, when the clouds blocked out the moon and the temperature was far too hot to sleep, I counted 18 droplets of rain that fell on my overheated body. For several days now the clouds have been trying to open up, but as yet no rain. I watched an electrical storm to my south-west but it didn’t develop into anything.

Since I started using my hammock my sleep has been solid apart from a night or two. I thought about my younger travelling days when it was common for me to sleep in the silo bins, in uncompleted houses, on building sites, in bus shelters, in fact anywhere that was dry and safe. But back then I only had people to worry about.

A slight breeze blew through the mangroves which gave a little relief from the heat. It was too hot to have a sheet on so I had no protection from mosquitoes. I read through a letter from Jenny again that Ivan had brought from my Koolan contact. It amused me to hear that Chris Young from Channel Seven had used some of my film footage, edited it and when signing off, said, this is Chris Young reporting from Broome, but he had never left the studio.

For some reason I started thinking about my wedding night and the contrast in temperature, it was so cold then. Everybody at our wedding must have thought that we were going to a hotel somewhere luxurious, but what a surprise when they found out that we had camped on the sea marsh on a cold late October night, only 3 kms from the church. I wasn’t one for luxuries, I had been camping and cheap travelling for the last few years and somehow I managed to convince Jenny that we should have our wedding night in a tent. When we arrived and walked to the top of the sea bank it was pitch black, and the only light we had to put our tent up was from the car headlights. There was no moon because of the clouds. We were both dressed in our wedding clothes, Jenny in a wedding dress, me in my suit. The small tent was rolled out on the wet grass and with hammer in hand I hit the pegs into the ground. We spread the thin mattress on the floor of the tent, threw down our sleeping bags and crawled inside. We were at last snuggled into our sleeping bags, which were full of rice, courteous of my best man Fred. It was cold, so sleeping was difficult. A pumping station nearby, which pumped water from the dykes over the sea bank automatically started up several times in the night also waking us. Well that was back in 1977. My thoughts were then disturbed by a creature rustling in the grass. It was another quoll.

After my very near miss with the whirlpools it was exciting to have the chance to see the whirlpools and strong tidal movements from the safety of shore, so I soon donned my pack and climbed the hill behind my camp and walked to the inlet. Within minutes I was walking over some difficult terrain, long dry grass, hidden rocks, vines, overhanging branches, spiderwebs, gullies, holes, you name it, it was there. I followed the coast around and moved along the cliff line watching the tide coming in. I was gripped with the awe-inspiring sight and the enormous power of the water which changed with each five minutes that past.

Logs with no ability to get out the current were swept away. Occasionally I would notice a couple of dolphins in the water, and rock wallabies that fled from the ridges when I neared. My binoculars brought me closer to the eagles that soared overhead, closer to the honey eaters, swallows and the far distant wilderness, but more importantly I was able to get closer to the whirlpools. Spindly trees were bent over as the winds whipped across the inlet.

I approached a rock cliff face amphitheatre made up of vibrant ochre colours facing towards a clearing and a creek beyond. With the rapids, the cliffs and steep inlet the view was just stunning. More-so because I was alone in this unforgiving wilderness. I left the amphitheatre, descended the ridge, followed the mangroves and crossed over a salt water creek. Doves hidden behind the mangroves fluttered off beneath my feet. I was surprised by their flight and for a moment I failed to recognize that they were drinking fresh water between the slimy weed. The grass around the gully was green, the soil was moist and a stagnant pool of water circled by mangroves, which I thought was salt, was actually fresh. The water became cleaner upstream and a faint trace of flowing water was moving small particles of algae along. I tasted the water and my lips were quenched by the sweet warm freshwater.

K1Walcotwater
I found freshwater

Daring doves swooped down beside me, filling their stomachs for the evening flight to roost somewhere. Butterflies hovered above my head and displayed their delicate patterns of colour. Water was life and like the doves, I cannot live without it. If only I had known that this precious creek was here, it would have saved Ivan and his friends the 140 km trip. I filled my water bags carefully trying to keep the slime and algae out. Once all my bags were full, I moved away from the mangroves and headed home. (I checked the stream on later expeditions to find the creek dry.)

I didn’t bother following the coast back to camp I took the direct route and climbed the ridge, wrestling with my weighty pack. It is often a big effort to find water in this country but I had to collect it whenever I could. Water is life. As I struggled up the ridge perspiration was pouring off me, it was as if I was in a sauna bath. To make matters worse there were cobwebs stretching from the trees which stuck to my clammy flesh like chewing gum on the sole of a shoe. As if walking wasn’t hard enough, there were holes in the ground that unexpectedly caved in under my weight and jarred my legs. I soon had a slight strain develop in my right leg, which encouraged me to take more care. I could just imagine the headlines in the West Australian newspaper, saying a kayaker who has been chased by crocs and sharks, breaks his leg after falling down a rat hole. Nothing is easy in the Kimberley!

Due to the fact that I might have an accident I always left a note on my kayak with my plans and which direction I was headed. It still might have taken weeks for people to realise I was missing but I felt it was a necessary precaution. As another precaution I sometimes left pieces of driftwood on my beach pointing in the direction that I was headed. With no communication with the outside world I had to devise and improvise for the unexpected.

At the top of the ridge I had an amazing view of the inlet but more importantly a view of the whirlpools. They had now increased in size and it was interesting to see them grow. It was equally interesting to be able to see the route I had taken when I paddled into the inlet and how I avoided the centre of the whirlpools and possible death. I also noted that if I would have paddled well over to the right hand side after the first set of rapids I could have paddled safely in the calmer waters of the south-west shoreline. For next time now I know what to do, but it was fun the way I did it. I returned to camp to reflect on the last few days. It had been a real adventure.

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Watching the giant whirlpools and boils

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Walking at Walcot Inlet

 After two days of walking and studying the inlet it was time to move on. A departure on high tide was necessary but because I took too long to load the kayak the tide had gone out about 50 metres by the time I was ready. I now had to drag the kayak down the boulders and on to the slippery mudflats by using driftwood. Thirty five kilos of weight in the kayak was made up with water.

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Camp near Walcot Inlet. The tide out for a few hundred metres

 My journey north continued……………….    End of part 1.

 

Kimberley Challenge $12.00 from Canoeing Down Under

Short stories of five expeditions around the Kimberley Coast

 

 

 

 

 

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