Kimberley Kayak Expedition – 4

Kimberley Kayak Expedition 4

& Retracing George Grey’s journey

In the early morning darkness, toilet duties took me along the beach, while Ken busily hauled his gear off a rock ledge. There was a slight chill in the air and the dew had dampened the sand and grasses around me. I dug a hole in the sand and squatted and as I looked out towards the calm ocean and silhouetted cliffs, I day dreamed. A tinge of sadness streamed through my veins at the thought of leaving these unique surroundings. It seemed hard to believe that we were the first to retrace George Grey’s 1838 inland expedition and we were at the same place as Grey was exactly 149 years to the day. Now after weeks of exhausting paddling and backpacking we only had 24 more days of paddling back to our finish destination, Broome. As I quietly gazed out over Hanover Bay, studying the stars and the faint shadows of the cliffs, my tranquillity was suddenly shattered by a loud cry from Ken.

Terry a snake has bitten me, he yelled.

Expecting the worst, I rushed over to him immediately. As I went through the snake bite procedure in my mind, I wondered if Ken had been bitten by a deadly King Brown snake common to the area. If he had, how long did he have to live? I was hoping he was just joking but it was no joke, I could see a huge snake coiled in a cavity below the rock ledge he was sleeping on.

Ken was calm and he felt no pain or discomfort which was promising but not knowing how long the venom takes to react did cause for concern. With my torch beam I scanned his leg. It was riddled with scars from infected mosquito bites but I couldn’t find any snake puncture marks hidden among them.

I shone my torchlight into the cavity to see a giant of a snake that looked like a non-venomous python. That was good news. Occasionally it would flicker its tongue, look me straight in my eye and probably wonder what all the fuss was about. His bulging head gave way to a slender neck and then its body increased in size and again started decreasing nearer its tail. Its eyes looked friendly and its small but dark nostrils a few centimetres from its mouth were lightly pulsating. It looked light brown in my torchlight.

As Ken was feeling no ill effects and we couldn’t find a puncture wound, he sighed with relief. He must only have brushed against it. How lucky were we. We were way in the wilderness hundreds of kilometres from the nearest hospital and if Ken had been bitten by a poisonous snake his chances of living would have been pretty slim.

As a little light started to bring life to the morning the snake started to uncoil and uncoil and then it started to slither from out of the rock cavity. Its head looked huge but its body started to stretch out and stretch out and when its whole body left the cavity it was at least 3 metres long.

Time passed by and Ken suffered no ill health so within the hour we were ready to leave the shores of this unique and beautiful country and head south with fond memories of Grey’s and also our own epic overland trekking expedition in mind.

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Retracing George Grey’s 1838 Kimberley Inland expedition had kept me in suspense for a few years but it wasn’t until 1987 that I managed to interest Ken Cornish, another keen paddler and Ascot Kayak Club member to join me.

After sailing from Europe, Grey started his overland expedition from Hanover Bay, near the Prince Regent River and on foot he and his team meandered southwards towards and across the Glenelg River. His three month ordeal was plagued with problems from the beginning. He had small unbroken ponies from Timor that deteriorated because of the lack of feed, severe weather and the difficult terrain conditions. Grey also became wounded by an Aboriginal spear and lived with his wound throughout the expedition. Despite his hardships he also made some remarkable discoveries, including being the first white man to see and record spectacular Wandjina Aboriginal paintings.

To reach the site of Grey’s expedition Ken Cornish and I had to drive 2300 kilometres north from Perth to Derby and then paddle for three weeks along the treacherous Kimberley coast to the Prince Regent River area. Once there we would start our walk and retrace Grey’s complete route, find the caves, go to his furthest point and try to finish the expedition on the same date and place that he did, but 149 years later. Then we would paddle back to Broome. It sounded simple but to be there at the same time though meant that we had to tackle the Kimberley and paddle up the coast in the wet season.

It was early March and the wet season brought very high temperatures and unsettled weather conditions. A cyclone had recently deluged the area and another was expected to strike at any time.

Our starting point of Derby, one of the original Kimberley pastoral towns and the gateway to the beautiful gorges, is situated at the bottom of King Sound some 130 kilometres from the open ocean and surrounded by mangrove lined shores indented with tidal creeks and mud flats. It boasts the highest tidal range in the southern hemisphere, and the second highest in the world. It has an 11 metre rise and fall at the wharf. The effect of the massive tidal range controls shipping movements, creates swift currents, rapids, whirlpools and boils. The mangroves and mud flats of course create a great habitat for crabs and crocodiles.

Our last night before our departure had been a crazy night. We had so much packing and organising to do, as well as telephone calls, and paper work that we had to leave with the police so I was packing until midnight. We are always thinking about saving money but we were pleased that we decided to rent a caravan instead of camping with such hot, humid conditions.

Ken was tired and I think feeling unsure and concerned of what we were doing, so he crashed at 9.15pm. The police had put doubts in his mind as they said we could become lost, be washed away with the tides or be eaten by crocodiles. The cost of a rescue would be huge and if we weren’t found our families wouldn’t get any insurance money for seven years. It was Ken’s first expedition and he had never been separated from his wife Vivian and his two children before, so it was a big step and he was really wondering if he doing the right thing?

It seemed that everything, plus the stress of packing and trying to get all our gear in his small kayak was weighing heavily on his shoulders. For me it was much easier as I had done several other such dangerous trips and been away from my wife.

We had driven a long way so there was no turning back for me and when Ken was rustling at 5.00am to start our first day of the expedition it was a good sign. It wasn’t long before we had driven down to the wharf and were trying to squeeze a huge amount of gear into our small kayaks as a reporter was trying to get photos and an interview with us before we left. The smell of rotting fish left on the boat ramp urged us to pack quickly but it’s never easy packing on the first day as there is always something you can’t squeeze into the compartments. Within 30 minutes the tide was streaming out so fast it had soon exposed twenty metres of mud. Finally we were packed but it was impossible to drag the heavy kayaks through the thick oozing mud at the bottom of the ramp so we had no alternative but to lift them to the brown murky water trying not to slip or hurt ourselves.

000031Packing on the first day out is always the worst

So at 7.30am on Monday 9th March 1987, with perspiration pouring down our faces and mud lathering our legs we entered our small kayak cockpits and paddled away from the Derby wharf. There was no chance of landing to stretch our legs on the first 35 kilometre section of thickly lined mangrove shoreline until we reached Point Torment, so we kept paddling keeping a close eye out for crocodiles. Despite it being a crocodile habitat, we saw no sign of them but the water was brown as mud so they were probably well camouflaged and watching us. The day was steaming and 35 kilometres is probably not that far to paddle, but after the lack of training in the last two weeks it was far enough on the first day. With aching bodies we entered the shallows of Point Torment as a large fish jumped out of the water near Ken and another hit me on the side giving me quite a thump and surprize.

000029All packed and ready to leave Derby

We were well happy to land at Point Torment on the only beach that afforded us safe camping away from the rising tide. The mud flats of the low tide stretched 600 metres from the beach and after landing our daily ritual started. One hundred and forty kilograms had to be carried to the safety of the beach, taking two hours to complete. Menacing mosquitoes, sand flies and the heat made us very welcome on our first night out. We were in crocodile country surrounded by mud flats and mangroves, not the best place to be camped but Ken’s and my snoring would have kept them away. With crocodiles on our mind, the tent flapping throughout the night, hundreds of hermit crabs crawling over our gear and attacking our cooking pots, sleep was hard to muster. It was so hot that in the middle of the night that we both woke and decided to move the tent to face it towards the wind, but it didn’t help, and to make matters worse we allowed mosquitoes to get in.

The weather eventually cooled at 5.00am which made sleeping possible but it was time to get up as we had a big day ahead of us. It wasn’t pleasant entering the darkness of a mangrove forest being attacked by squadrons of mosquitoes from all angles. The tide was 200 metres out but we had no choice but to walk up and down the exposed flats several times to get to the water and load our kayaks.

Being paddle fit from the start of our journey was fairly crucial as on our second day we had to cross a 45 kilometre bay with no landing spots and a huge tidal movement. In such open water the unpredictable tide was a concern as we just might get pushed back to where we had come. We also didn’t know if crocodiles were lurking beneath the brown water or if the wet season heat would be too much and destroy our dream.

The low Point Torment soon vanished and all we could see behind us was the shimmering heat haze. We were soon lost to the solitude of Stokes Bay and the perilous sea. For 8 hours the mystery and movements of the ocean kept us in suspense and it was hard to know what the tidal effects were having on us but we were crossing the bay on neap tides, the best time, as there was less rise and fall of the tide. Our fluid intake was high so we had to make sure we had enough water at hand and in 8 hours on the water Ken had consumed 7 litres. The high ridges of the mainland were a welcoming sight and when we finally paddled into bluer waters and scurry up a safe shelly beach we were so happy to have the dirty brown water of the King Sound behind us. I walked up the beach and found a small gulley with crystal clear water. We unloaded, settled for a cool refreshing wash and rested near the small stream. We were in a completely different world to last night and a much better one.

The cliffs behind our camp were too inviting so we changed into our walking gear and went for a stroll and capture some of the beauty from the high hills. Twenty minutes later we found another gulley with a bigger stream and two wallabies that bounded across the boulders. Exploring around the area of our camping sites was really special as we knew that no other person would have walked or seen the country where we walked.

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The tides out in Cascade Bay

As we moved on we were surrounded by high hills, steep cliffs and beautiful sandy beaches. In another part of Australia we would be swimming but not up here. Tidal currents slowed us but we still reached Cascade Bay camp by 3.00pm where we climbed the high ridge the following day and got more spectacular views of the area. You could spend months around here and not get bored. The area was now familiar territory for me as I paddled this section in 1982 on my first solo Kimberley expedition.

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Ken having a drink on top of the range in Cascade Bay

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Cascade Bay

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Our campsite on the sandy beach below the range

The ten metre tides created super swift currents especially around Hells Gate where there was a cluster of islands just off a mainland point of Crawford Bay. No other place in Australia will you see such swift currents. The coastline north from here zig-zag for thousands of kilometres as large and small bays indent it, again like in no other place in Australia. Huge orange sandstone cliffs towered down to the water’s edge preventing beaches from forming although there always seemed to be a beach within a few hours’ paddle.

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The tidal rapids at Hells Gate

 In Cone Bay we camped on a beach next to a sweet running stream and climbed the cliffs to visit the next bay along which had the shack that a guy called XenX had built. He was eventually arrested for taking drugs and when we arrived at the buildings they had been vandalised and the area was overgrown. When I visited it in 1982 and met XenX and his friend it was in immaculate condition. It was sad to see it in such a state.

K4ConeBayHCone Bay from the top of the range

A couple of delightful small pools fed by a small stream made the ideal place to cool off. Ken who has been suffering from a sore back in the last two days and so early into our trip lay in the pool and just relaxed. We continued looking around the two shacks and followed a concrete path made of local stone when a brown snake slithered behind me and in front of Ken. The lush overgrown vegetation, banana and papaw trees, buildings in ruin and lots of water was an ideal habitat for snakes.

Views from the top of the cliff were just amazing and we could see our route ahead thread between a mass of islands which formed the stunning Buccaneer Archipelago. You couldn’t falter the scene. Back at camp another thunderstorm threatened, the wind gusted strongly and our gear got scattered as we tried to erect the tent.

We crossed Cone Bay to be stopped at Datum Bay by the low tide. Underfoot was all reef and corals with black tipped sharks patrolling the shallows for food. They came within metres of us and we were shocked by their size and we were happy they darted off in another direction when they saw us. The tide started to come in and when it was high enough to float the kayaks we got pushed along the channel and into another section of exposed reef which made us get out to prevent our kayaks from being pushed over the sharp coral. We didn’t count on the current being so powerful as it was a mammoth task trying to hold onto our boats. We had no choice but to jump back in them or our kayaks would have got washed away without us. The tide suddenly started to come in from the other direction and it was if the taps were turned on full blast from the north and the south. We paddled out of the channel against the current as fast as possible.

We had crossed Cascade Bay, Crawford Bay, Cone Bay and after crossing Strickland Bay we entered Whirlpools Pass with the currents swirling. It was 38 degrees and that evening the moon was full. I knew of a water rock hole a few kilometres across the island so we went for a hot walk and found the rock hole full of water and a perfect place to cool off.

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Ken walking to find water at Whirlpool Pass

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A view of the Whirlpool Pass area

Two days later we arrived at Koolan Island where our first food drop was waiting. We stayed overnight courtesy Bob Stoeski who let us use his flat and treated us to meals. With replenished food supplies we paddled away from Koolan Island and further into the wilderness. The tide was advancing quickly into the surrounding bays requiring us to perform a 5 kilometre ferry glide across the swift currents.

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At a small cove near Talbot Bay

We paddled into a small cove that was full of debris and logs of all sizes floating up and down with the tide. The heat was intense. We dragged our kayaks up the beach to start unloading. Ken entered the shallow water and crouched down to cool off. As he stared across the cove, a sudden movement in the debris caused him to leap to his feet. He saw a shape rise and move and he nervously shouted crocodile and immediately ran from the water.

I dropped my gear and turned. Ken was running for his life. I quickly extracted my rifle from its case and at that moment the leathery reptile disappeared beneath the surface. The rapid tide had reached our kayaks and waves started dumping into our open rear compartments. The crocodile lost important, swamped kayaks were now our immediate concern. I rushed over to Ken and held the rifle towards the lapping surf whilst he dragged the kayaks further up the beach.

The crocs absence posed a mystery, was it swimming closer to us and would it strike? We watched for ripples on the water and at last the croc rose, its whole body surfacing at once and revealing its 4 metre length. Its magnetic eerie stare chilled us. It soon sank out of sight.

At shower time we filled our pots and washed on the beach but one of us stood with the rifle just in case. We retreated to a rock ledge not far from the waters’ edge when we saw a shadow under the water heading straight towards us, it didn’t look as big as a croc and it turned out being a turtle. A small wallaby hopped around the rocks and straight past us. We both just about had heart attacks.

We moved further down the coast occasionally being hit by sharks and although fearing crocodiles more than sharks we were forced to make a detour up a tidal creek to find water. After about 1 kilometre our route was barred by thick mangroves so we had no choice but to tie our kayaks to mangrove branches and walk the last 200 metres to a shallow pool in a rock hole which gave us all the water we needed.

On our return the tide had risen and stranded our kayaks 10 metres from the cliffy shore. I didn’t fancy swimming out to them but I had no choice, crocs or no crocs. I slipped carefully into the water and gingerly swam out to them trying to create little splash. The ropes fastening the kayaks to the mangroves were well underwater so I had no choice but to duck dive down a metre to untie the knots. My eyes stung as I fumbled with the ropes beneath the surface.

Through glassy eyes the drowned mangrove limbs waved with the currents and bubbles created by hidden crustaceans rose to the surface. It was a silent underwater world, a magic mystery that I would have cherished in safer waters. I eventually got them free and towed them to the shoreline and we quickly jumped back in.

We paddled out of the creek as threatening storm clouds eased their way to our evening camp site on Helipad Island. Thunder, lightening, strong winds and then a violent downpour bombarded us. We rigged our spare tent fly in a hollow and within minutes we had collected a heap of water. Now we had too much water and we couldn’t carry it all.

Two days later we camped in Secure Bay before moving on to Walcott Inlet where we checked out the huge whirlpools in the river entrance that I paddled through on my 1982 trip. That day I could have died. It was too dangerous to try it a second time.

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Ken fishing at the entrance to Secure Bay

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The currents around the entrance of Walcott Entrance

Leaving the Walcott Inlet camp we needed a 4.00am start to catch the tide and avoid trudging across too much mud. The moon filtering through the clouds gave us enough light to move around. Large channels, carved out by the water, zig-zagged the mud flats which was rapidly being exposed as the tide receded. To get our loaded kayaks to the mud and off the section of boulders we had them sitting on timbers so we could drag them down without damage. We slid them down the timbers and onto the mud where they slipped beautifully until a deep channel stopped our momentum. I managed to jump across it but while Ken was trying to push my kayak over the ditch he slipped into the mud and water up to his waist. Bloody fine state I’m in, he yelled, as he looked around anxiously for crocs.

Once out of the ditch, it wasn’t long before we reached the swift tidal stream rushing out of Walcott Inlet. We entered the fast running current that was riddled with eddies, boils and whirlpools. The sun had just risen giving us glowing glimpses of the fiery rays trying to escape from behind the clouds. The red ochre cliffs lit up. We moved across the current carefully, with our rudders in full swing trying to control our craft. A large boil started to form. Its sides opened up like a developing earthquake. It became bigger and bigger and started to erupt. The boiling water lifted at least a metre above the rest of the sea and then changed and opened up and formed a whirlpool. I was struggling to prevent myself from being dragged into it, but it subsided in the nick of time.

Without warning another boil formed, first the outside crater and the hole and then the eruption. We seemed surrounded as one more formed on my right side. Ken was directly in its path. There would be no chance of him keeping upright in such a destructive force of water so he desperately back paddled to escape its violent eruptions. Relief was in sight as we crossed the entrance of the inlet and moved away from the powerful tidal effects.

Relieved but pretty excited with our dangerous crossing we paddled further north following the coastline to Raft Point passing High Bluff and Eagle Point a magnificent part of coast. High ochre cliffy islands, masses of mangroves and the huge expanse of water of Doubtful Bay was a stunning sight from the water but more so from the cliff tops. The wet season was hot and humid but it had its advantages as we found another freshwater creek. Days later we arrived at the pearling settlement of Kuri Bay. Nothing could please us more than to have a short rest, collect our food packs and receive the hospitality of the management.

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A few from Raft Point

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Ken collecting water from a fresh water soak

From Kuri Bay we only had a couple of days of paddling before reaching Walker’s Valley, near Prince Regent River and the main focus of our trip, to retrace the footsteps of George Grey’s 1838 journey. We had faced crocodiles, been hit by sharks and pushed around by tides and tidal rapids but it was all worth it when we rounded High Bluff and recognised the land features that Grey described in his diary.

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Unloading at Kuri Bay

K405kenA few kilometres from the Prince Regent River

Paddling into Walkers Valley, and within 30 minutes of our destination we passed a small pocket of tropical rainforest that was being fed by a cascading stream of water from the cliff top. It was quite a beautiful surprise.

Huge cliffs narrowed our passage where a welcoming crocodile leapt off a nearby ledge. To escape the narrow channel it swam under our kayaks to a forest of mangroves that we had just passed further downstream. The water then became wildly alive with dozens of large mullet milling around the shallows not far from where we were getting out in Walkers Valley. Within minutes of landing the tide had receded, leaving our landing spot devoid of water, for another 6 hours at least.

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Unloading at Walkers Valley

The light soon faded, and as we prepared dinner a thunderstorm struck, sending us scurrying for cover. I threw my tent fly over our gear and squatted in a small cavity of the cliff as streams of water drenched me as it ran down the rock face. It was pitch black, except when spectacular streaks of lightning exploded above the gully. My left leg became entangled in a thick spider’s web as I tried to squeeze further into the crevice. Luckily I wasn’t afraid of spiders but I soon became very cold which encouraged me to retreat under my tent fly for extra warmth.

Ken was nowhere to be seen. He had disappeared along the valley when the storm started. In between the noise of thunder, the spectacular streaks of lightening, a weird and mysterious howling cry echoed from the cliff top which carried on most of the night. When the rain stopped Ken appeared and we settled in for the night.

By the time we were fully packed for the overland trek the morning sun was beating down and the fresh smell of the evening storm had faded with the heat. Our packs were heavy. As well as having backpacks we also had heavy day packs strapped to our front, which made seeing very difficult. We calculated them weighing around 40 kilograms and I only weighed 60 kilograms. Leaving the mullet to advance with the rising tide we stumbled away from camp and along the valley of huge paperbarks trees, lush vegetation, big boulders, and vines and spinifex hiding potholes full of water that we trampled in.

On reaching Grey’s main camp site we found the landscape being exactly as he described it in his diary, except the vegetation was really overgrown and we had little hope of finding any discarded equipment so we moved on.

Grey’s Diary

On the 29th January we began in the afternoon to load our horses. Mr Walker’s pathway was completed by means of a number of circuitous and sharp turnings; it led directly up the face of the cliffs which were almost precipitous and 180 feet in height.

To commemorate the completion of this really laborious undertaking I named the valley “Walkers Valley”

Already weary and tempers frayed from our ¾ kilometre trek, we were faced with the difficult task of spiralling our way up the rocky slopes of the cliff. Rests were frequent. Ken wheeled his machete around, trying to slash the tangling vines, but with little effect. We had achieved little by nightfall, the terrain, heavy packs and the heat made us stop regularly.

We rose early in the morning but the terrain still forced us to stop every 200 metres. Ken had his first brush with green ants which gave him an insight to what was to come. Their attack was deadly, as their nippers pieced into his skin, causing severe jabs of pain. He angrily threw his pack to the ground and we rested again, our packs were just too heavy.

We turned on the Flying Doctor Radio for the morning schedule to hear some distressing news. An American women, Ginger Meadows had been taken by a crocodile only a few kilometres away from us in the Prince Regent River. A search was on to find her body, but no other details were released. We wondered how the news would affect our wives. The police wanted us to return as they said it was too dangerous for us to be out there. I don’t know if they realised how far we were away from civilisation.

After struggling a few more kilometres we decided that something drastic had to be done with our heavy packs. The radio, battery, solar panel and safety gear had to stay. So we decided to half our 22 days of food to lighten our packs and help us keep on schedule. We each hid 11kgs of rations under a big boulder hoping it would still be there and not taken by animals when we returned. Losing so much weight helped us to walk faster. By 2.15pm we were in the Lushington Valley at a spot where three small streams merged. Beneath my shadow I noticed a rusty, worn axe head blending in with the coppery coloured rock. It was difficult to believe that we could find a piece of civilisation in this vast wilderness where very few people have ever trod. Did it belong to Grey’s expedition or was it used by Aboriginals that could have once been in this area? It was a mystery.

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Following Grey’s route we ascended out of Lushington Valley moving through some large sandstone pillars and Liverstonia palms. The top of the pillars gave us a magnificent view of the Prince Regent River, Mount Trafalgar and Mount Waterloo. By the time we had reached another gully we were totally exhausted, so we camped close to a small cascade. In 8 ½ hours we had only walked 8 kilometres. We were getting to know what problems Grey had experienced and he had unbroken ponies with him to attend to.

Grey’s Diary

I have been severely wounded in the hip; another spear had just cut my right arm and a third had deeply indented my powder-flask, whilst lying in a haversack, immediately over my stomach. My wound began, by degrees, to get very stiff and painful and I was, moreover, excessively weak and faint from loss of blood; indeed, I grew so dizzy that I could scarcely see and neither of the others were capable of leading the party back to the tents. I still pushed on until we were within two miles of the tents, when as I tried to cross a stream, I strained my wounded hip severely, just reached the other shore and fell utterly unable to rise again….

As we headed towards the Glenelg River we descended the McDonald Ranges leaving the sandstone country for the plain below. With the plains came the long grass that towered over our heads, scrub cattle, donkeys and millions of flies that annoyed us every minute of the daylight hours. We couldn’t eat, write or relax unless we were locked inside our mosquito net.

At last Grey’s first major discovery, the Glenelg River was reached. Climbing a hill gave us a terrific view of the extensive mangroves, sand flats and the wide Glenelg River that meandered its way to Doubtful Sound and the open ocean.

It was below our present position on the mudflats of the Glenelg River that Kingsford Smith had to make a forced landing in his Southern Cross aircraft. On March 31st, 1929 he and three other aviators were on their way to Wyndham and their ultimate goal England. Extremely bad weather and a misunderstanding forced them to fly miles in the wrong direction and finally run out of fuel. They landed on the mudflats below us. A search was mounted and on 12th April 1929 the Southern Cross was found by Les Holden in the plane Canberra.

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Looking down to the mudflats of the Glenelg River

Following donkey tracks we marched on to some tidal rapids 15-20 kilometres upstream of the Glenelg River. Below the cascades thick mud, steep banks and mangroves lined the river. Due to the low marshy country, Grey had to make a diversion to a hill named Mt Stewart, to prevent his ponies from bogging down.

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Upper part of the Glenelg River

As we ploughed past Mt Stewart through the long grass, with hidden boulders to trip us over, the heat was unbearable and I was beginning to feel sick and dizzy. The humid heat and with being couped up inside a kayak I had developed boils on my legs so I was taking antibiotics. My energy level eventually faded so I let Ken lead and push down the long grass and I followed him in a daze. I finally had to stop as the blistering heat was intense and I was feeling faint. A large boulder cast a short midday shadow. I tried to hide from the heat behind it without much success.

We had been on half rations for several days and although we had hunger pains we still felt healthy well up until now. I soon began to vomit, until my stomach was completely empty. Minutes later with slightly improved health we continued at a crawling pace through taller and thicker grass until we reached another boggy creek. My stomach wanted to explode so I sank to my knees. The tall grass towered over me and a stagnant pool of water lay beside. I vomited again. No breeze could get to me in the stockade of tall grass and the fiery sun only increased my discomfort. We were locked in, the heated grass prison barred all routes out except for the narrow path we had come. This route was retraced and a campsite found on an uneven rocky outcrop with Mt Lyell looking down on us.

The following morning I felt fit enough to make tracks towards the Glenelg River where giant paperbark trees grew prolifically on the southern side. The shallow water glistened as it flowed over the sandy river bed. Downstream a deep pool gave us our first opportunity to fish. Within minutes eleven black bream were being prepared for our evening meal. For 8 days we have been on half rations so this would be our first substantial meal in that time.

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Catching fish at one of the rock pools. A blessing after being on half rations

For the next 2 days we followed Grey’s route from the river and arrived at the 26th March Cave, the first important cave that Grey had found.

Grey described the cave……..

There appeared to be a natural hollow in the sandstone rocks; its floor elevated about five feet from the ground and numerous flat broken pieces of the same rock, which were scattered about, looked at a distance like steps leading up to the cave, which was thirty five feet wide at the entrance and sixteen feet deep; but beyond this several small branches ran further back. Its height in front was rather more than eight feet, the roof being formed by a solid slab of sandstone about nine feet thick.

Grey had discovered Aboriginal art never before seen by white man. Inside the cave Wandjina figures dominated the ceiling with other paintings, including a native carrying a kangaroo, further inside. We believe that we were probably only the third party to see the paintings.

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Aboriginal paintings in the 26th March cave

Leaving the tick infested cave we forged on for 2 more days to reach our ultimate goal the 29th March Cave. Along our route a gorge with pools, small cascades and a four metre waterfall, flanked on the left side by a vertical cliff that stood in our path. With ribs protruding, I posed for a photo in front of the picturesque falls. The days on half rations and hard physical exercise had eaten away the little fat I once had. Our shirts were wet with sweat so we took them off to dry them on the hot rocks.

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The 26th March Cave

A food pack was broken open and our rations of nuts and dried fruit were placed on our stone table. We counted them to make sure our measly lunch was equal. The one muesli bar was broken in half and measured. We sat on the rock admiring the scenery, eating each nut and dried fruit individually, savouring their excellent taste.

We forged on criss crossing the now flatter plateau and descending into another small stream where two dingoes played close to the creek. We crept up and watched.

Later we moved on and crossed the headwaters of the Glenelg River to find Greys 29th March Cave which contained a controversial mysterious figure. This sight had only been visited by 3 other groups.

From Greys Diary…..

The principle painting is a figure of a man, ten feet six inches in length, clothed from the chin downwards in a red garnet which reached to the wrists and ankles; beyond this red dress the feet and hands protruded, were badly executed……….

The face and head of the figure were enveloped in a succession of circular bandages or rollers, or what appeared to be painted to represent such…

Only a few kilometres south of the cave Grey was forced to retrace his steps. The Elizabeth Range became so rugged and precipitous that Grey could no longer move forward and with food running low he decided to return to Hanover Bay.

When we reached Greys turning point on the 10th April 1987 we celebrated Kens 41st birthday with some staminade and dried fruits. With lighter packs and extra enthusiasm our daily walking mileage increased. Greys meandering return journey took us through fertile country of the Glenelg River and close to the large expanse of mangroves and inlets of the Prince Regent River and then south west again to Mount Lyell. Our march continued north-westerly passing Mt Stewart, Mt Trevor and we walked parallel with the McDonald Range until our route turned north and back over the sandstone ranges towards Lushington Valley.

As a cyclone moved along the coast rain developed adding more frustration to our demanding walk. As the rain fell in bucket loads our once overheated bodies were now cold and longing for the hot days to return. Dry gullies suddenly turned into rivers. It was hard to believe the change.

Not far from Lushington Valley we moved through extremely difficult terrain and entered a chilly gully. Just before dark we reached a junction of 2 streams but the ground wasn’t suitable to afford a campsite. We were soaking, our boots were waterlogged and my trousers were chaffing around the belt. At last as the light faded, a small flat spot was found and boulders and spinifex removed to form our bed. As we feasted on normal rations for the first time in 18 days, the moon reflected on the rim of the gorge and its steep sides. How did Grey get his ponies through this country?

In the morning our clothes were still wet, our boots still sopping and our trousers soaked up the wet vegetation. It was early so the sun hadn’t penetrated the depths of the gully. Pandanas palms and other vegetation blocked our way. Vines caught on our packs leaving us in a tangled mess. Our hands and clothes were lacerated by the spiky palms.

After collecting the food packs that we had left behind we struggled through the undergrowth of the upper reaches of Walkers Valley and reached Greys first campsite making us the first people to retrace Greys 1838 expedition. We felt great but there was no time for rejoicing, we had to get moving as the tide was receding leaving rocks wet and slippery. Ken, who had been the target of more green ants earlier in the day, slipped and lacerated his knee on the razor sharp oysters. As the tide streamed out, our kayaks were continually left high and dry, we dragged them with vigour and after winning the race against the falling tide we paddled along a thirty metre pool that became blocked by sandstone boulders. We hadn’t beaten the tide as beyond the boulders the water was 300 metres away, leaving us with the formidable task of dragging our kayaks further over the mud and oyster laden boulders that were once covered by the water.

K4Walkers
Leaving Walkers Valley, well trying

Nothing seemed to be in our favour, the hours of portaging over the trying conditions left us face to face with a crocodile that blocked our route. In no mood to be intimidated we paddled straight over it and headed towards a beach north east of Walkers Valley entrance. It was the same beach and the same date, but 149 years later that Grey finished his expedition on April 15th and with an excess of food we celebrated our success with triple rations.

From Grey’s Diary, April 15th 1838..

…On emerging from the mangroves upon the beach, we saw painted upon the sandstone cliffs, in very large letters – “Beagle Observatory, letters S.E. 52 paces.”

No one who has not been similarly situated can at all compare the thrill which went through me when these letters first met when my eye; even had any thing happened to the schooner, friends were upon the coast, and I knew that Captain Wickham, who has passed a great portion of his life in adventures of this kind, would leave nothing undone which was in his power to ensure our safety.

We now hurried across the beach, an on gaining the highest part of it, saw the little schooner riding safely at anchor….

… On reaching the vessel, we learnt that the mate was gone to the Beagle, now lying in Port George IV, but expected to sail this very day.

It was at 4.00am the following day Ken had an 8 foot snake slither up his legs. When we were able to identify it as a giant non-venomous python, Ken could sigh with relief and leave the shores with fond memories of Grey’s and our epic overland expedition.

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Ken relaxing after the snake episode

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Ken having breakfast and looking out towards Port George IV harbour

We left the same beach on the same date April 15th, but 149 years later that Grey finished his expedition. As we started our three week canoe journey south we followed the cliffs to High Bluff pushing against a strong tide. Behind us was the entrance of Prince Regent River where Ginger Meadows was taken by the crocodile. Once around High Bluff we stopped on the sandy beach which was the first beach that Grey landed on in this area, so we have been everywhere man!

The following day as we moved passed Becknock Island a charter boat carrying a few tourists on their way to fish up the Prince Regent River stopped and offered us a couple of beers and some nuts. One of the group said don’t I know you and when I looked carefully it was John McPhee who I had met with his wife on the Eastern Queen coming over from Singapore about 14 years ago. Ken couldn’t believe it, he said where ever you go you seem to bump into someone you know.

We arrived at Kuri Bay at lunch time so we was treated to a curried rice meal and then washed our clothes, had a shower, trimmed my beard and noticed how thin my face and body was. Luckily it was then dinner time and we were treated to a fantastic salad and an omelette. To finish off we had some toast . Later on, back at our quarters Ken was still hungry so he made damper so we had damper and jam for supper.

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Kuri Bay

It was Easter Saturday and we had 2 eggs, bacon and six slices of toast. When you haven’t eaten bread for so long you just want to keep eating it. We stayed another day to check over our boats, do more cleaning and pack all our food packs. When you have been on half rations for 22 days you just want to eat. It was Easter Saturday when we left the comforts of Kuri Bay. We had been treated like kings and we were so grateful now we had to go back to dry foods and a lot of hard paddling. So thank you the management of Kuri Bay, Bob Haddock and the hospitable people of workers.

Just before Battery Point a crocodile started chasing us from its territory. We could do nothing but to paddle as fast as we could and thankfully it kept up but it didn’t try to attack. Paddling to Hall Point Ken was hit by a shark so it was a good time to camp. Since the walk our ankles have been swollen but they were slowly going down.

Ken was tired and seemed to be a little moody so I kept my distance. He had been suffering from a bad back so I don’t know if it was reoccurring but I kept my distance. We landed and had nuts and raisins and later had a 4 course meal, rice, rice pudding, instant pudding and biscuits. Ken was soon snoring and what a racket. I laid back and watched the stars and a satellite whizzing across the sky. Laying there couldn’t have been better.

Scrubbing our pots the following morning the vibrations attracted a crocodile which suddenly came close to our beach. I immediately moved away from the water’s edge. It perched itself in a foot of water for 40 minutes before disappearing. We took off keeping a close eye out but it wasn’t the croc that was going to test us, the tide was streaming into Doubtful Bay when we were crossing it to get to Raft Point. The current was going faster than we could paddle so we had to do a big ferry glide. We eventually got close to the point put we were still being pushed over a kilometre into the bay. Luckily we paddled into a bit eddy and was able to slowly crawl back to the beach at the point.

I was having stabbing pains in my side and Ken had hurting legs, bum and back pain so we were both having fun. A few days later we arrived at Koolan Island and bought some cruskets, as they didn’t have bread, marmalade, cheese, chutney, fruit and chocolate biscuits. We stayed at Bob’s place and the following morning Bob’s wife cooked us breakfast, bacon, eggs and toast. Then we had 3 bowls of cornflakes and to finish off with our coffee we had six biscuits each. Ken made the decision to return to Perth because his back was giving him hell and he had achieved his main objective so he felt to punish his body further was unnecessary.

By 9.20am Sunday 26th April, I left Koolan Island for a 10 day solo paddle across King Sound on 10 metre spring tides. On an overnight visit to Cockatoo Island I met with Vic Cox. Vic had lived in the Kimberley for years and had once been a crocodile shooter. He also had a big pet crocodile (if you could call it a pet) living in his back garden behind a fenced enclosure that was. Vic was the person who had found the American Ginger Meadows, after a crocodile attack.

After an interesting time with Vic I crossed the dangerous currents of King sound, negotiating wild waters that are only believed if seen or experienced. (I would need to write several more pages to relay the excitement of my incredible crossing on the biggest of tides, but unlike many other parts of the trip, unless I write a book I can only gloss over most of the experiences.)

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Leaving the King Sound area, with all its bays, islands and currents was like entering a new world. I would now follow the coastline without the threat of being washed away. At Cape Leveque I stopped to replenish my water supply for the last time, and was invited out for a meal that included dugong and turtle steak that had been captured by the local Aboriginals. My last 225 kilometres to Broome against a persisting current was one hell of a hard slog. Jay, the flying doctor radio operator at Derby, was still my life line to the outside world and on the last night of my 9 week expedition I invited her to a party on a remote beach north of Broome. Unfortunately to my disappointment, she was unable to attend, so I sat there alone, looking out to sea, reflecting on yet another priceless expedition to my favourite part of the world.

The next day, as the sun beat down on the lazy tourists of cable Beach, I arrived in Broome to a solitary welcome.

 

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