We decided to lap the tip (left) of the Coigach peninsula. Doing it clockwise put us in the lee of the afternoon’s southwesterly once in Enard Bay and better still, we’d catch high tide at Achnahaird, enabling us to paddle up the creek to complete a near full loop back to the car via the freshwater lochs of Ra and Vatachan.
I remember being quite nervous the first time I did this way back in 2013 in my Amigo – in the other direction from Achnahaird. Looks like I’m not the only one – I blame the Pesda guidebook.
It felt like a long old slog west then north between the Ristol islands – the tidal Ristol channel was dry. But by the time we’d passed the reefs of Reiff and reached the sparkling beach at Camas Ghlais (below) we were already more than half way round.
Sitting on the beach, on warm days like this and always looking to refine my set-up to a razorbill’s edge, I sometimes think a sturdy football-sized net bag to take a beach stone would be handy to anchor the boat out in the shallows. This way it won’t beach itself, get hot and purge air which can make the kayak soggy once back in the cool water. It’s one slight drawback of running PRVs on all 3 air chambers. I could probably find some washed up net up among the flotsam and make one. Or I could Buy [a ball bag] Now on ebay for a £1.62. Leaving the sandy bay, I give the Seawave a quick top-up with the K-Pump anyway.
On the north side on the bay we nosed towards a slot cave (above left), but white streaks running down from the ledges suggested nesting birds had hung out ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs. Either I’ve never noticed them before or there are lots more nesting birds around this year. It’s the end of May but there are still tiny snow patches on An Teallach and Beinn Dearg – maybe the season is late.
North of Camas the unrestrained swell was bouncing back off the low cliffs and small dazzling waves were breaking over semi-submerged rocks, making for a rough ride. But it’s all relative and showed what a sheltered life I lead, paddling mostly in and out of the protected Summer Isles.
We passed on sandless Faochag Bay and on turning the point of Rubha Coigach all was calm as the grand panorama of the Assynt peaks came into view (above). From the right: Quinaig; Canisp behind Suilven, Cul Mor, Stac Polly in front of Cul Beag, and the group around Ben Mor Coigach. It’s one good reason to do the paddle in this direction. There’s a bigger version of the Assynt panorama here taken on the road above Achnahaird. I really must work out how to do that panorama photo-stitch thing.
Coming down the Enard Bay side, we tried to explore some other caves with green moss streaked with guano, but got dive-bombed by angry shags.
Back out in the bay an unpredicted northwesterly picked up – time to launch that WindPaddle which has been sitting in my kit bag unused for a year or more. Initially the breeze barely reaches 6mph – we could have paddled faster – but it sure was fun to kick back, look around and let the boat waft quietly along, free from the splish-splosh, splish-splosh rhythm. I wonder if self-driving cars will be the same.
It’s been a while since I’ve done this but the WindPaddle definitely felt better than my homemade efforts from years ago, as well as the knock-off WP I bought a year or two back. I tried a V-sail too but have never really got the hang of kayak sailing. It seems the sweet spot is hard to find: either the wind comes and goes and the sail flops, or it blowing so hard the sail can’t handle it and you’re clinging on. Still, I look forward to giving the WP a spin in slightly windier conditions. For the compact size and light weight I get the feeling it may be worth keeping.
The breeze picked up and we chugged along at a brisk stroll. But even then the WindPaddle feels satisfying to use. I think the key is the sprung tension of the composite batten (rim); it retains the circular shape of the bowl which means it’ll stay up as the wind drops and keep shape as it rises, then can be confidently scrunched down to a packable size without breaking. Doing that during a bit of a blow may be tricky, but it can easily be pulled back and tucked down unfurled over the legs (right). It’s only a downwindish sail but as with previous disc sails, I like the way you can steer intuitively by pulling one line back; a skeg must help but there’s no need for paddle-rudder assistance.
It was nice to look around in the quiet but I also missed that thrill of thrust when a sail catches and holds a good passing gust. Eventually we could stand the relaxed pace no more and the geef paddle-assisted us towards a stony beach at the mouth of the Allt Loch Ra creek. Squawking oyster catchers were guarding their nests. Left, by the bothy at Badentarbet last year; don’t stand on the eggs.
Refuelled, we paddled upstream for a bit then I tow-waded the boat, reminding me of the shallows of Shark Bay in 2006 – a good way to rest after what felt like days of headwinds. The short wade brought us to within a couple of minutes’ portage of Loch Ra just over the road. Now on fresh water, we dragged through the reeds before another short portage over into the adjacent Loch Vatachan. Picking a passing place close to the shore, the geef walked off to get the car while I rinsed off the seawater – another good reason to paddle this loop clockwise. It’s 15 miles and about 5 easy hours to loop the Coigach loop.
Looking for shark attacks? – go here Sea kayaking on the Ningaloo? It’s here Packrafting the Fitzroy River – this way please Originally written in 2010
“Why doesn’t anyone paddle around Shark Bay, Jeff? It seems ideal for beginners like us.”
“Name puts them off I reckon. It’s famous for big tiger sharks. National Geographic did a doco there once.”
“Oh really?” I said. “I thought it was just a name…” and took a thoughtful sip from my coffee.
It was 2am in a roadhouse on the Coastal Highway north of Perth, Western Australia (WA). I’d flown in from London that evening with my boat-in-a-bag and together with Jeff’s girlfriend Sharon, we’d hit the road for the 1000-kilometre drive to Shark Bay.
Perth-based Jeff and Sharon were river paddlers and windsurfers and I’d done a couple of French rivers in my trusty Gumotex Sunny as well as some coastal days, but the three of us were new to sea kayak touring. All we wanted was a safe but inspiring introduction and despite the name, we were sure the shallow, sheltered waters of Shark Bay fitted the bill.
The Bay itself is really a stretch of the otherwise exposed WA coast on the Indian Ocean, and the Shark Bay area is protected by two thin peninsulas which protrude north for 200 kilometres, like elongated harbour walls. But at an average depth of only ten metres, Shark Bay is of little use to shipping and is best known for the daily dolphin visits at Monkey Mia beach. A regular tide of tourists flow in and out of the resort, but having made regular visits there myself as a guidebook writer, I’d long suspected there was more to this ‘Australian Baja’ than beachside photo opportunities with Flipper and the family.
Apart from anything else, Shark Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the time one of only a handful which fulfilled all four criteria, being an area of evolutionary significance; ongoing ecological processes; superlative natural phenomena and biological diversity. With such impressive credentials we were sure its less-visited corners would be ideal for a mid-winter’s exploration in kayaks.
Once I established with the local parks service that paddling in such an exalted environment was permitted (Australia is full of rules), I was surprised to find just one online account of a kayak tour of the Bay: a quick visit by Australian canoeing legend Terry Bolland. Compared to Bolland’s adventures in the croc-ridden inlets of WA’s northern coast where ten-metre tides run like rivers, his Shark Bay excursion read like Lance Armstrong pedalling down to the shops to buy some milk.
Jetlag meant I was conveniently wide awake for the overnight drive and as the sky coloured with the dawn, we crossed the 26th parallel and passed a sign welcoming us to the fabled ‘Nor’ West’. We rolled into Denham, halfway up the Peron Peninsula and Shark Bay’s only settlement, populated by a mixture of snowbirds living cheek-by-jowl in the caravan park, permanent retirees in pristine bungalows and some fishing and tourist operations. We parked outside the café and waited for it to open.
For once the plan was not too ambitious. Paddle north from Denham about 60 kilometres to the tip of the Peron Peninsula, round Cape Peron to the east side, then cover the same distance south to Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, a trip that might take up to a week. We aimed to take advantage of the prevailing southwesterlies on the exposed west side of the Peron and deal with the same as headwinds on the more sheltered southbound leg.
There was no fresh water on our route and even the townsfolk of Denham paid a premium for desalinated drinking water. So after breakfast we followed a network of 4×4 tracks to the tip of Cape Peron, our halfway point, and buried a cache of water and snacks. It saved carrying very heavy loads and should take us about two days to paddle here.
Setting Off With our cache stashed under the paprika-red cliffs of Cape Peron, we set off from Denham at dawn the following day. Jeff and Sharon had a Perception Eco tandem kayak the size and weight of a tanker. The waters were soothingly calm and soon a reliable southwesterly saw Jeff hoist his Pacific Action sail on. “Bye,” I said forlornly “see you later.”
These propitious conditions didn’t last long. Soon the wind swung to the northwest, obliging us to dig in for what was to be two-and-a-half days of relentless battling. I actually enjoyed getting my teeth into a headwind, buoyed up by sightings of the extraordinarily rich marine life that give Shark Bay its special UNESCO status.
J and S took pity on my kayak-shaped lilo and hooked me up for a tow to the first of many mostly unnamed capes by which we’d measure our progress across a marine chart.
Sharon had chalked up a checklist of ‘must sees’: turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins and dugongs (sea cows). By our first beach break a green turtle had already passed beneath her bows and later, as we towed our boats through the knee-deep shallows up to half a mile off shore to rest the arms, startled manta rays submerged on the sandy seabed took flight as if shot from a bow.
Our destination that first day was the intriguing Big Lagoon which probed the peninsula’s flank like a tidal glove and promised a sheltered camp site. Twenty kilometres out to sea, Dirk Hartog Island broke the horizon: Australia’s westernmost point. The Dutch seafarer recorded the first European landing there in 1616, nailing an inscribed pewter plate to a pole. What he saw of the newfound Terra Australis was uninspiring: flat, arid and dense with scrub. It was another 150 years before Captain Cook mapped Australia’s less harsh east coast and brought about British colonisation.
A less historic lone pole marked the mouth of Big Lagoon, and as we rounded the entrance a mass of cormorants took flight, the air filling with the whiff of their oily wings. Though we’d snacked on some oysters during our afternoon wade, the day’s hard paddling had given us all an appetite so we pulled over among some mangroves for an overdue feed and a reappraisal. It was already 4pm, and with the tide and the wind now against us we decided to leave the exploration of Big Lagoon for another day and scooted across the channel to the nearest sandy beach to make camp. We hauled out boats the last few hundred metres to the tide line.
Walking with Sharks Though only ranging around a metre, the tides in Shark Bay seem to have a mind of their own. Some days there are two as normal, but the following day there might be only one-and-a-half, or even a single 13-hour high. This had caused Jeff some consternation with the tables, but dawn brought the tide right to our feet and once loaded up, we glided out across the mirrored lagoon. It was to be only a momentary pleasure watching our boats speed silently over the seabed; out in the open the northwesterly was hunched up, fists drawn and waiting. Heads down, we worked our way up the coastline, stopping to investigate an old pearl divers’ camp. Western Australia’s famous pearl industry had begun in Shark Bay in the mid-1800s and the corrugated iron stumps of the shacks around us, now brittle with rust, dated from that period.
Tiny fishes skimming over the surface alerted us to the distinctive tail and dorsal fins chasing them. Soon metre-long sharks began darting between our boats, racing at us then veering off at the last second in a flurry of spray. We assumed the bulky silhouettes of our trailing kayaks kept the young sharks from attacking, a theory that gained credibility when Sharon ended up running towards the beach, screaming as the sharklets circled her menacingly.
Presently the waters cleared and we hopped back into the boats, steering out into the wind around sandbanks as a long line of ochre-red cliffs long passed by. As they ended we hauled the boats ashore to set up another camp and, with daylight to spare, wandered off to explore the beach.
I found a washed-up conch the size of a watermelon while Sharon and Jeff came across a midden of oyster shells left either by 19th-century pearlers or maybe the Yamatji Aboriginal people who’d occupied the Bay prior to colonisation.
To Cape Peron Up with the sun again, but there was no calm put-in this morning. It would be another tough haul to reach Cape Peron and our mouth-watering cache. By 9am Jeff estimated it was blowing at 20 knots. “What’s that in English!?” I yelled, although the answer was immaterial. “About 30 clicks!”
Was it possible to paddle against 30kph winds? My gumboat flexed with the swell as the sea surged over the sides. Now, without the protection of Dirk Hartog Island, the unfettered Indian Ocean swells were crashing against the shore. Still, every vicious headwind had has a silver lining and as we hacked at the water, a pair of dolphins popped up to say hello. Less than 48 hours into our sea safari and only the elusive dugongs remained on Sharon’s checklist.
The seas were getting as big as I’d ever experienced, but I figured as long as the Eco did not disappear behind the swell it wasn’t that bad. I still find the idea of sea kayaking intimidating, but two days of hard paddling had toned me up and I felt confident I could face the day’s toil. Partly this was because my Sunny had the reassuring stability of a raft, even if that included comparable agility and speed! It was something I appreciated when, after breaching a gnarly reef to grab another snack on the south end of Broadhurst Bight, we set off to cross the bay to the northern edge.
That turned into a punishing marathon with the confused seas barging at us from all sides. Tying on to Jeff’s stern I’d worked the bilge pump regularly while the distant shore inched steadily by. All around the once-comforting seabed was now an unfathomable inky blue abyss.
Two hours later we staggered onto the sandy headland, having covered just five kilometres. Our morning’s efforts had put us just a couple of clicks from the tip of Cape Peron for a snack and after another forty minute burst, with my boat swilling again with seawater, we landed on the Cape’s sandy beach and retrieved our cache.
Stuffing our faces with jellies, sausage and now with plenty of water, we were keen to round the Cape because at last the wind would out of our face! We pushed out and once rafted up, Jeff hoisted his sail which filled instantly with a satisfying SLAP! Soon we were skimming along at two or three times our paddling speeds, water lapping over our bows, heading southeast into Herauld Bight.
Sailing with Dugongs We were sitting back, our paddles over our knees and enjoying chatting without yelling when Sharon exclaimed “Dugongs!!” Several huge, dun-coloured profiles emerged against the dark seagrass bank on which they’d been feeding, and before long we were right among a herd of twenty sea cows, caught unawares by our stealthy windborne raft. At times our bows nearly ran over them, the water ahead exploding as their powerful tail flukes blasted them out of range.
By dusk our unexpected run downwind had doubled our day’s mileage. Once ashore I foraged for firewood while Sharon and Jeff got cooking. As we wolfed down our food, wafts of a gorgeous aroma drifted over from the fire. Intrigued, I walked over and realised one especially large chunk or timber was precious sandalwood. A century ago WA had got rich quick supplying this raw material for incense to nearby Asia. Now the last reserves in WA were said to be in Shark Bay. We pulled the log off, finished off the meal and with the wind still blasting down the bight, retreated to our tents.
Across Hopeless Reach By the time I’d dried out my tent after it blew into the sea, the tide had come in to meet us again and under sail we windsurfed round into Hopeless Reach. Here, prophetically, the wind dropped and it was back to good old-fashioned paddling, albeit on much calmer seas. By mid-afternoon we could see Cape Rose a few kilometres from Monkey Mia resort. We didn’t want it to end yet and so strung out the day with fruitless fishing and exploring the scrubby cliff tops on foot.
As we approached Monkey Mia next morning, bottle-nosed dolphins cruised past, soon followed by a tourist catamaran and all the commotion of the resort. We beached the boats one last time and while Jeff hitched back to Denham to get the van another ranger-led dolphin visitation ensued before a line of excited tourists.
Sure it’s fun seeing a dolphin close up, but the three of us couldn’t help feeling rather smug about our thrilling encounters out in the Bay. The tourists were standing ankle deep with half-tame dolphins, but we’d worn the paint off our paddle shafts, sailed with sea cows and walked with sharks!
The calm continued and with it the paddling. Today we tried the Grabner Amigo two-up around Tanera Beg island out of Old Dornie. I’d <a class="wp-gallery mceItem" style="color: #000000;" title="Summer Isles Overnighter camped on the island with Jon one time but have never been right round it. For some reason I assumed better the greater weight of me in the back and half-my-weight Mrs out front. But looking at the seating positions (image below right), back is quite far back and full frontal is only a little more forward than the solo position. So the heavier person out front centres the mass a little better on the boat which must be better for control and response.
We set off me in the back, but suggestions on improving the forward operator’s poor technique and asymmetric delivery led to discord and erratic progress, as the speed recordings below testify. To be fair the g is way out of practice and also hadn’t had two hard days of paddling to tone up. However, claims that her inability to paddle straight was due to my diet and general girthlyness in the stern will have to be settled in due course by BCU lawyers.
Meanwhile, in the narrower back it was a tight squeeze for my (allegedly fat) arse and soon my legs – like my ears – were going numb. I’d initially perched on a spare Gumotex thwart but that felt unstable. It was better sat on the floor, jammed in. In this position my feet were against the back of the gf, so there’s only just enough room for my legs. As we passed between the two Taneras where a fishing boat was checking pots, I spotted an easy portage over Eilean Fada Mor, an island between the two Taneras. It gave a bit of a short-cut, but more usefully a chance to restore circulation in my legs.
We swapped places here too, although one lean back on my new q/d back strap arrangement (left, a replacement for the alloy Grabner bar which bends too easily) broke the black plastic clip. I fed a spare krab through the seat strap and tied off the other end with some cord so that clip wouldn’t break too. I was expecting such issues and anyway, big karabiners are easier to use when swapping seats (see Grabner Mods). With the force on the Grabner rubber mounting lugs now coming from an unintended angle rather than directly back when using the seat bar, I’m trying to spread and articulate the loads with cord. But with only 3 square inches of contact, even if the lugs were factory glued, I feel I ought to glue on some 4.5-inch ø D-rings instead (as on the Solar; over 15 square inches of contact). Whether it’s just my clumsiness or all this weight I hear about, it’s clear that the strain on seat mounts is greater than I thought, especially with footrests to push back off. As it was, with no footrests in the full-forward position I couldn’t rest fully against the prototype back strap, but as I noticed before, proper paddling is much easier out front as the boat narrows towards the bow. That’s another thing with big, single sidetube IKs: they’re over wide for good paddling. As it happens, should I want a footrest tube I do have a D-ring glued on the front floor in about the right place.
Back to the story. We were now back in paddling harmony and heading into mare incognita, the southeast corner of Tanera Beg where I’d heard there was an arch. And there it was – a very nice one too that could be paddled right through (this was 90 mins after spring HW). Its exposed position made the roof deeply scalloped by storms and weathering, reminding me of the similarly carved limestone walls of northwest Australia’s Geikie Gorge which we packrafted a year or two back. Amazingly, out here on the ocean-side of the Summers there was barely a swell or a breeze to disturb our composure. Though an hour’s paddle away, Priest Island looked enticingly near. And from Priest it’s less than 5 miles to Mellon Udrigle beach at the top of Gruinard Bay on the south side of Loch Broom. Or from either Tanera island you can take a 10-mile loop south to Priest and back north via the smaller Eilean Dubh and a few other ‘Outer Summers’. One for the next calm day and a paddling chum for back up.
We felt like we were making good speed across the south side of Tanera Beg, although rarely got over 4mph. At the southeast corner was a huge cave – big enough to break the GPS signal. With a small window at the back this will become another full arch by around AD6565. This whole exposed side of the island has deeply weathered Torridon sandstone cliffs full of interestingly rounded cracks and fissures. Tanera Beg, like the bigger Mor has the same ‘waisted’ kidney shape presumably carved by the icecap along existing fault lines. Like mountain col, the ‘waists’ usually correspond with bays backed with a handy stony beach though flat camping needs a bit more of a walk. Had the Ice Age been a bit longer (or when the polar ice caps are gone) there’ll be a few more Summer Isles to go round.
We then paddled below the 20-m cliffs on the north edge of the island (left). On a stormy day they reflect the brunt of the swells and throw up plumes of white spray over the cliffs themselves which can be visible from the road, miles away. Today, all we had to worry about was the peak of the ebbing spring tide in an hour’s time. Who knows if it mattered, but I’d deliberately circumnavigated Tanera Beg clockwise so as not to be in the inter-island channel where the current ebbing against us might have been more noticeable.
Heading back to Old Dornie the speeds indeed seemed to drop, even though we were going as fast as possible in an effort to catch the weekly fish van down in Achiltibuie. At one point the kayak slowed right down as it passed over some unseen current or eddy thrown out by Isle Ristol. But that soon passed and with a quick turnaround in Old Dornie, it’ll be fresh local halibut for dinner. So, closely analysing the data in the speed graph it seems that two-up doesn’t make the Amigo much faster than solo after all – perhaps it’s the same with tandems? I suppose the additionally weighted hull can only be pushed through the water so fast and then an IK’s unsophisticated hydrodynamics come against a wall. Instead, two-up enables greater potential duration as the paddling load is shared – and let’s not overlook the companionable element of two in a boat, as long as everyone is sitting in the right place and on form.
I got round to trying the Sevy ‘packraft’, a cheapo PVC dinghy with the outer hull cut off to make it less wide and hopefully more functional. Compared to the single-chambered Alpacka, blowing it up takes a while. The floor is made of two interlinked ribbed chambers which require a ‘spike’ beach ball inflation adapter that fits on the end of the K-Pump (right). The main chamber fills quickly enough with the K-Pump – a one-way Boston valve ensures you get a good fill of the elastic material and it’s always a surprise to see it stay that way according to the SevyGauge™.
Even then, on the riverbank alongside the Yak it did look very small and rather low in draught so that even with a dry suit, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to get in off a steep, muddy bank. So I set off upriver to Sluice Weir in the Yak, towing the Sevy and intending to shoot the chute for a bit of fun. On the way I spotted a striking blue bird – never seen one of those before. Do you get bluebirds in Kent in mid-winter?
I got in the boat as gently as I could but it didn’t take long to have an inverted Archimedean revelation: the mass of the paddler was nearly equal to the peak buoyancy at the rear of the craft. That’s partly why Alpacka came up with the fastback tail in 2011. Unlike Archimedes, I didn’t jump out yelling ‘Eureka’. I just sat still thinking ‘is it spilling over behind me and if not, why does my back feel cold?’ I took a couple of pics behind my back (below) to establish plimsoll levels, then set off slowly across the pool, with the trusty Alpacka tender bobbing along behind in case the Sevy sank.
This was not relaxed or efficient paddling like in the Yak. I arched forward trying to offload the stern while pulling gingerly through the water for fear of initiating a possibly catastrophic water-bounce that would fill the boat. The Sevy sagged feebly under the weight of my butt and feet, just as I’d seen Jeff’s do on the Fitzroy. However Alpacka do it, it’s the rigidity in their hulls that makes them as good an airboat can be. The multiple coatings on the non-stretch fabric must have a lot to do with that. As expected the short, round Sevyslackraft yawed quite badly, even with the Alpacka in tow to act as a rudder. But that always happens first time out in one of these boats until you adopt a smoother technique. Either way, I was relieved to be wearing a drysuit.
As I bimbled around trying not to sink, the nearby weir boom opened up without warning and suddenly the Medway was kicking out a current such as it had not seen since the end of the last Ice Age. I could barely make headway in the Sev so allowed myself to be swept back to the canoe portage pier where I hopped back into the Yak. Within just a few minutes the river had risen 6 inches or more. I thought it had appeared rather over-full upstream in Tonbridge where I had driven through earlier. Anyway, the 5-minute Sevy Slackraft trial were complete. To paraphrase Right Said Fred, I’m… Too Hefty for My Boat, although it will make a nice packraft for the Mrs who’s a little over half my weight of 95kg + winter ballast.
So, packboating newsflash: the Sevy blow-up boat is not for bloaters like me. But as it’s so light I could still see a use for it as a tow barge for a bike or an extra huge payload (not that you could realistically walk with such a load). Maybe a really long river stage, or one where you want to be well equipped on arrival with a huge tent or something.
As promised, I’ve invested in a Sevylor Caravelle PVC dinghy. Cost: £34 delivered complete with pump, oars, repair kit, manual in ten languages and a box which is bound to come in useful one day. The heavy-duty Super Caravelle model, as modified by Narwhal, is out of stock in the UK until next summer, although an Intex Sea Hawk is the same thing and can be ‘skinned’ of its outer hull (as in the graphic, right) in the same way to make a lighter, narrower and nippier ‘PVC packraft’ – see bottom of the page. That’s the purpose of what is being done here, in case you’re wondering.
Pre-skinned and rolled up, the Sevy was about the size and weight of a proper Alpacka packraft, but awaft with that dizzying scent of PVC which takes you back to Mallorca in the late 1960s. Fully inflated, it’s too wide to take seriously, but it stayed like that long enough to enable the outer chamber to be surgically removed with a bread knife. Unfortunately, it’s on this outer chamber that the half-decent ‘high volume’ Boston valve is fitted – all the rest (2 floor chambers and the inner hull) get poxy, beach ball-style push-in valves which, in the latter case, take a while to inflate due to the pencil-thin aperture. Perhaps the Boston can be grafted onto the inner hull; what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll find out soon enough as it also took so long to deflate the remaining hull by squishing the push-in valve I decided to cut it out there and then and slap on the Boston valve from the trashed outer hull over the hole (above left). This was the first time I used MEK solvent to clean PVC. This stuff is pretty damn potent and ‘cleans’ the PVC a bit like paint stripper removes paint! Tellingly, it’s also known as polystyrene cement and has uses for welding too, so use it sparingly on PVC pool toys or they’ll dissolve before your eyes.
The squidgey little foot pump (right) is very light, but slow, especially when trying to get enough pressure into the main chamber for the slide-marker to move down and line up with the ‘A’ on the SevyScale™ (below left). This is a pressure guide so you don’t burst your new pool toy – easily done with thin, stretchy PVC and sharp words. But by chance the Sevy valve plug fits neatly onto the end of my K-Pump which is much quicker at inflating. The Alpacka air bag sort of screws into the Boston valve too, but you need a K-Pump to get max pressure.
Testing the newly glued on Boston valve, the boat was losing air, but it didn’t look like the glued-on valve was at fault. As it happens the bath was full so a check revealed a tiny, half mil hole near one of the seams underneath. I’m fairly sure I didn’t jab the boat with the knife while skinning it, so it must have come like that or my carpet is sharper than I think. Lesson: test all chambers in your cheap pool toy before running a coach and horses through the warranty by attacking it with a knife – that’s if you can be bothered to send it back instead of dab some glue on the hole, should it also be faulty. The oars are mere fly swatters as previously noted. It’s possible they could be joined together into a packrafting paddle, but why bother; there are decent Werners and Aqua Bounds under the bed so the oars can join the scrapped outer hull at the local dump.
It has to be said, once skinned it’s 36″ (91cm) wide, 60″(152cm) long, and no more than 12″ high at the bow, so there doesn’t look to be a heap of buoyancy left over for the likes of bloated boaters like me, but the floor also holds air unlike an Alpacka so a spell on a river will reveal all. As mentioned, if it’s enough to stop me sinking, I may invest in gluing a spare sheet of tough nylon onto the base. It may add weight but will make the Caravette unstoppable; that’s unless a sharp-clawed bird lands on the deck or it gets splashed with MEK.
With half a dozen attachment points cannibalised from the outer hull and glued onto the stripped-down packboat with some Bostik 1782 (right), it now weighs 1550 grams; about half the weight of my current Alpacka Yak and about half the volume once rolled up. So compact, it could even make a flat-water towing platform for the Yak – for carrying a bike for example, as I’m not sure it would so easily fit on the bow, especially with camping gear.
River trials will follow shortly, or I may well head straight out to Rannoch Moor for an overnighter with Intex chum Jon who lives up there – see the vid above from last summer. He has also been inspired to skin his SeaHawk 1 bloat into a purposeful packslab. Might be good to take the Yak as a spare up there; if Loch Laidon freezes up round the edges the ice spikes might be too much for our pool toys.
Access One reason I chose the Fitzroy was that it seemed easy and safe by Kimberley river standards. It was easy to get to Mornington; the river covered mostly flat terrain (no abseiling/clambering down waterfalls, etc); and it was easy to get off – either onto station land in an emergency – or at the end where it ran past Fitzroy Crossing.
The Cessna from Broome Air Aviation cost AU$500 (£300), and we were able to leave Jeff’s van at Fitzroy Crossing aerodrome safely. The flight took 25 minutes to Mornington where we were met by a ute and taken to the camp. They charged us around AU$150 each for air strip pick-up and river drop-off, gourmet dinner and breakfast, and camping. Fossil Downs just asked us to call on departure and arrival (as did MWC), Leopold Downs (a small section) were not bothered, and we wangled our way through Geikie Gorge NP, as you read. At the far end it was a 4km walk from the bridge through town to the aerodrome to retrieve the van. All in all, it couldn’t have been easier when you consider what we did, especially at the end of a trip when you can be tired or potentially lame or ailing.
Maps, Navigation and Comms Three 1:100,000 scale maps covered out route and proved to be very accurate, considering the river channels can move around after a Wet. Fitzroy Crossing 4061 Hooper 4062 (left) Lerida 4162
Oddly, 4061 was printed on some kind of blotting paper and fell to pieces under conditions which the other two maps survived with a bit of drying. All maps needed the long-lat grid calibrated by hand along the sides to work with my GPS. They use some other (Australian?) grid which I suppose I could have set the GPS up to read, but I prefer what I’m used to: long-lat.
We both carried a GPS. I had a little Garmin 401 (left) and Jeff a more modern SatNav Nuvi with a good WA map which even depicted the course of the Fitzroy. He could have just about managed without a paper map. My 401 is a splash-proof wrist-mounted GPS, much lighter and less bulky than the 76CSx I normally use. Unfortunately, I suspect the 401 uses old Garmin electronics from the XL12 era that aren’t particularly sophisticated or efficient. The two AAA batteries lasted less than 6 hours (my CSX would have lasted up to 3 days in the heat on its two AAs), so after that I gave up keeping a GPS track and just turned it one to get a location. Because of that, we never really knew exactly how far we travelled. But above all, the 401 is handy and light, so as a quick locator it does the job unobtrusively and while it tracked it managed the splash-prone attachment to my pack without complaint. I sold it later – too basic for my needs.
I had a compass too but didn’t use it much, although my 10-year-old Thuraya sat phone was handy to call Fossil one time, or to liase with Jeff when he was still on the river at the end (his Ozzie PAYG mobile didn’t work up north). Thuraya sat phones just about work everywhere except the Americas and are cheaper than Iridiums.
Food and water We brought a week of freeze-dried, Pack n Go food from the UK (below left) which weighed in at 3.5kg each but didn’t cover lunch – just hot choc, breakfast cereal and a two-course dinner. Pour in boiling water, seal, wait a few minutes and you got meal. Although it became quite boring after a while and some meals are tastier than others, I was amazed at its ability to sustain us considering the energy we were expending for up to 11 hours a day. I probably ate half what I do at home merely bashing at a keyboard; I suppose the heat helped suppress the appetite, but it must have also been due to the food’s calorific and nutritional values.
In the morning we had a hot drink and a hot P&G cereal of some kind. Smoko (morning tea break) was tea and a muesli bar or trail mix while both lasted. For lunch I just ate a double cuppa soup (good for salt) and another hot drink – Jeff got to eating his evening pudding at this time. And in the evening we ate the main bag meal and I had my pudding as well as more tea, coffee and whatever. I can’t say I was ever hungry, but I sure enjoyed some real food when we got back to Broome – including the brilliant seafood curry down at the Wharf – you gotta go there! We took my Pocket Rocket knock-off stove and a gas can but only used it on the last morning where there was no wood nearby on our sandbank. At all other times there was plenty of dry wood and little risk of a bushfire along the river bank. Out in the open during very windy conditions a stove would be less risky.
We planned to filter water daily with my Katadyn Pocket Filter (left), expecting lots of scunge due to low water levels. In fact the river was pretty full and running so after a day I dumped my cumbersome 5-litre water bag and filled a 750-mil bottle straight out of the river, while adding a Zero tablet (right) every time to stave off mineral loss through sweating. Jeff stuck with filtered (as did I on the day bat crap covered the river), and even though I didn’t use it much, I’m glad we brought it along,. There could have been an occasion where it would have meant clean water or no water, and out there you need water. Including drinks I drank up to 4 or 5 litres a day when engaged in hot and arduous portaging. Since sold and got an MSR Waterworks which I’ve not used yet.
Clothes I expected to need to cover right up to reduce sun burn and transpiration: long trousers, long sleeves and a hat. But in the end while the UV was the same, it was not so hot on the river due to splashing and shade, and the trousers were only useful against big flies in the gorges on day one. The problem with long trousers is that when wet they cling to your legs and drag – Jeff eventually ripped his North Face zip-offs above the knee, but both if us turned to shorts and a bit of slip-slap-slop on our legs. Rolling up the trousers didn’t quite work. Knowing they would get a hammering from the UV and all the rest, I invested in some American 5-11 Tactical trousers and jeans. They are basically the same as normal work or hiking trousers and shirts, but as far as I can tell feature a thicker synthetic material, countless pockets and other small details like tabs to hold up sleeves. The shirt was very good: huge pockets to take a map or whatever – both it and the trousers finished up fine after a rough week unwashed. And they both cost half of what Fjallraven and the like might charge. All in all, I am a 5-11 Tactical convert, even though I know it has a naff ‘special forces’ connotation. I didn’t find the synthetic material a problem in the heat with regards to rashes. odour and so on – if anything it dried much quicker and was tougher than cotton.
Footwear We both bought some Brasher Lithium boots which were going half price in London (£65), as we expected a lot of tough walking with full loads. In the end there was very little of that – and just as well in the heat away from the river. The Lithiums were great when portaging/balancing over boulders and wading through slimy, rocky shallows. But in the sands they filled up with grit and were hard to drag out of quicksands where they filled with sand all the more. Jeff who did more walking than me, wore his Lithiums more, or his Tevas, but in the end we both went barefoot in the river: lighter feet, easier quicksands and more hygienic. By the end our feet were a little sore and swollen from rough gravel, very hot sand and twig jabs, but I think Jeff found his Tevas the worst of both worlds for catching gravel on his already sore feet while not giving full boulder support or secure footing. On the last morning he duct-taped his shoes to his feet (left), but that didn’t really work either. Around camp I wore flip-flops. In the end, although lacing the Brashers up was a pain, you do need a pair of tough boots if you plan to be walking in the Kimberley – Tevas or Keen Arroyos will not do when packing a load. I poked drain holes in mine after a couple of days so my feet would not get sodden, but in the end it was better just to put them on when needed, even for a short portage. Teva Omniums much better.
Packs and camping gear Jeff used my old TNF Terra 60 pack with dry bags, which was barely big enough but extremely comfortable. He also had a day pack which he clipped to the front – a neat system (right) for portaging. I used my UDB (90+ litres) and the Watershed Chattooga as a day bag (both left). But the UDB was a floppy sack on my back compared to the TNF and the Chat bag just got in the way for portages, so that went inside the UDB pretty soon and my shirt pockets became my ‘day bag’. I made great improvements to the stability of the UDB but packing the weight low one time. After that walking with it was not so bad, but it’s nowhere near as comfy as a proper backpack. But it can be if you use this.
I didn’t take a sleeping bag, just a thin blanket that was going spare, and wore all my clothes on the one or two cold nights. Most nights I used the $15 K-Mart Tent which Jeff bought me – more as a mozzie dome than against the cold. The K tent was too short for me but for what it cost it was OK. Since then I’ve bought myself an Exped Venus UL which pitches with just inner for hot, insect nights and is longer than I am. Jeff’s mozzie dome is the same sort of thing – just right for the tropical bush. I used my Exped Synmat DL which is excellent and sold,it to Jeff in the end who suffered under his Thermarest UK which I used to use until I woke up (too much). I’ve since replaced my cushy SynMat DL with the UL version which weighs just 500 grams and is half a litre in bulk.
Cameras and recharging We both used Panasonic FT2 waterproof cameras – the ranger we met at Geikie had one too. At the time (before Olympus TG) it was good in that it’s waterproof (great for Ningaloo reefing) but of course the lens is tiny and so the picture quality- is not that hot, especially on zoom. The video quality, it has to be said, is pretty amazing for a £200 camera. We shot in Motion JPG and HD modes (not the AVCHD which doesn’t import so well I find). That gave a 1200 pixel image which is certainly good enough for youtube, even if it takes many many hours to upload a 5GB movie. I would love to have used my old TZ Lumix, or the even better LX5 I now have, but out in the wet and wilds it’s too hard to be careful with fragile gear so the FT2 is good enough until I get a commission from National Geographic. They’ve since brought out an FT3 as they do, with GPS and other gimmickry – there is no substantial improvement as far as I could tell and you’ll never get a decent lens in such a compact, flat, waterproof body. A pair of 16GB cards were more than enough for both of us. We carried 1 spare battery for the Panas and, with the Go Pro below, that just about did us. In the end I didn’t take the Power Monkey solar charging gadget on the Fitzroy, but did use it on the Ningaloo stage. It charges the Pana batteries very quickly and has the capacity to do that about 10 times. I also used my Go Pro which is temperamental and drives me nuts, but can get the hands-free shots other cameras cannot reach – mostly when on your head. The buttons are a pain so you have to check every time to be sure it’s on, but I also got into using it out of the box when the audio is of course much better. Out of bright conditions the exposure is not half as good as the Lumix; in the shade its terrible but maybe I should meddle with exposure settings which are on default. I also took a Gorillapod but that fell apart at the joints. Jeff used his newer one a couple of times; I’ll probably get another, maybe the bigger one for SLRs which may last longer.
Health and Dangers The Kimberley can be a pretty unforgiving environment, hot, harsh and full of nasty or just plain irritating wildlife. I must say I feel I got away from there with barely a scratch; Jeff suffered a bit of crotch rot and cut up feet. I like to think that the Zero tablets I ate religiously kept me in good shape, even with unfiltered river water. I used a bit of 50-factor on my exposed legs and always wore the hat in the sun. In my experience in Australia the UV is much harsher than even the Sahara.
We saw no snakes – maybe one – though there are big olive pythons around (we had gaiters for walking in long grass, as Jeff did on occasion). Big lizards and freshie crocs are also only a danger if you tread on them by mistake. The only cow that got edgy was clearly in a bad way and cornered, and the only time big horse flies were a pain was, funnily enough, in the Leopold Ranges, well away from cattle country. I think the biggest danger was portaging over boulders – a slip there could have ended badly once you crash to the ground under the weight of your gear. The answer is to pack carefully and take your time, or just do two trips as I did on one occasion. I found my packstaff was rather a hindrance with my boat on my head. There were a few mozzies at night, but they were nothing compared to the blood suckers I’ve experienced in the Top End. So all in all, no drama.
Today, our fifth on the river, we expected to break out of the clogged-up side streams of the last two days and get on the deep, open channel which led right through Geikie Gorge national park, not far from Fitzroy Crossing.
After breakfast the log jam which had defeated us last night was easily carried around, and after a couple of hours lifting over and squeezing under other blockages (left), we turned the last Big Bend and spied the northernmost outcrops of the Geikie Ranges in the distance.
This was the last of the few landmarks on the route and though the bridge was still 40km away, it marked the beginning of the final leg, just as the Gap had marked the end of the Leopolds. As if on cue, the rock changed again from the sand-smothered granite we’d been on since leaving the Leopolds three days ago, to limestone which gave Geikie’s flood-scoured gorge walls their distinctive appearance. The river spread out and lost its depth, and as we picked our way over shallow but gnarly limestone rapids not unlike the Ningaloo‘s shores, Jeff’s floor got snagged and went flat. It was smoko time anyway, so while the water boiled he repaired his boat one more time.
As far as we could tell, the park’s northern boundary began at 18°S, and as you’d expect in WA, paddling there was not without its restrictions. The DEC website stated private boats were only allowed on the river before 7.30am and after 4.30pm so that the daily boat cruises wouldn’t be disturbed by people bombing around for free. At our paddle speeds, keeping to these times would be difficult, let alone getting through the 18km-long park before nightfall, because camping wasn’t allowed either.
All visitors to Geikie drive in, almost all to do the one-hour boat cruise. Aside from a couple of short walks, that’s all there is to do, even though it’s clearly a great place for paddling. As with kayaking the Ningaloo Reef, we were again expecting ranger problems due to our unorthodox arrival and mode of travel. If the Ningaloo Reef NP regulations had no category for sea kayak touring, you can be sure Geikie Gorge had no equivalent for packrafts and slackrafts coming down from the King Leopolds. Our transit would require a sympathetic head ranger; something of an endangered species up north, if experience during my guidebook years was anything to go by.
At least we’d seen from the plane that the river cut through Geikie in a deep, wide channel with minimal shallows. For me in the nippy Alpacka that was great news, but hours of unbroken paddling would be a drag for Jeff in his sluggish pool toy. Mid-morning a hot northern wind rose up and Jeff was quick to rig up a sail, but its effect was negligible; the only way forward was to dig or settle back and drift on the quarter-knot current. To our left and right, sun-bleached water marks reached ten metres up the cliff sides, demonstrating how high the Fitzroy rose during the Wet.
It was lunchtime, but with little flat and shaded land between the cliffs and the bank, we rocked up on a slither of an island capped with fresh green grass that no cattle had managed to reach. Later I realised I’d taken a picture of the very spot from the plane (left). While Jeff got the billy on, I emptied the Yak for a rinse and then went for a quick blast across the open river. Without its load the Alpacka skimmed across the water like a pebble. “Have a go in it” I said to Jeff when I got back. He did and of course loved it. “I shouldn’t have done that. I really shouldn’t have done that“, he realised. It made getting back is his squidgy pool toy all the more galling.
Back on the water, up ahead a motorboat was gunning towards us. Here comes the ranger; we’ve been spotted and our trip could end right here. But our paranoia was premature, it was just a bloke heading out to his favourite barra hole by some sunken trees. He explained we were in an unofficial access window tolerated between 11am and 1pm, between the two big daily tour boat cruises. He also warned us that the head ranger was a grumpy sod. No surprise there, so we decided better not to get bogged down in explaining ourselves on the sat phone, while at the same time planning to make the most of the Fossil Downs station land on much of the east bank for which we did have permission. Before we’d flown out of Fitzroy we’d tried to track down the ranger’s office in town to inform someone of our plans. We couldn’t find the place, but heard later there was no one there most of the time anyway.
As we entered the main part of the gorge, up ahead we heard the blaring of a guide giving his tour schpiel from the cruise boat. People looked to be taking pictures of us which meant we’d be seen for sure. They’d be waiting for us downriver, hands on their hips, drumming their fingers, but we decided we’d deal with that when it came. We’d talked our way out of it on the Ningaloo; we could do the same here. It’s not like we were drunk and churning the place up in jet skis.
Without any overhead canopy to shade us, the full heat of the afternoon pressed down and Jeff was feeling it. After some 20kms we came to a big sandbank where crocs buried their eggs. Seeing a curve in the cliff line, Jeff could bear the paddling no more and set off on foot (left) to cut the corner. At the far end I came ashore to look for him but he was still way back. The day’s heat bounced off the glaring sand.; great for incubating croc eggs, but it reminded me that had we actually done much open country walking (as we’d expected) we’d have had a tough time of it. Wading or paddling, the surface of the river felt a good 5-10°C cooler, even out of the shade. The combination of the cool water surface as well as constant splashing kept us swathed in a temperate micro-climate which made the whole experience infinitely more tolerable. The few portages we’d taken over boulders or sand banks over the last few days had been brief reminders of how hot it actually was out there, and later that day we were told the temperature had topped out at nearly 39°C (102°F).
Unless he was training to be an Indian fakir, it didn’t look like walking across the scorched sand bank had been any kind of respite for Jeff, and he flopped back into his boat. As on the first day, I suggested I tow him for a bit and this time he was too weary to resist. He reposed on his water sofa as we set off to explore the main east wall of Geikie, where eons of seasonal flooding had carved the former subsea reef into scalloped and fluted Gaudi-esque forms.
We glided under overhangs and nosed into caves and web-drapped fissures which bigger boats couldn’t reach. As we bounced along the eroded undercliff, enjoying a break in the pace, up ahead a babe in a red kayak came into view. And as we got close she started chuckling.
“I hope you’re not laughing at us” I said with a stern grin. It was Ingrid, the Cool Ranger, probably the only person north of the 26th parallel who was remotely impressed by our achievement. “Good ON-ya guys!”,
she said as we filled her in on our adventure, and she meant it too. We gloated modestly at this unexpected attention as she fired off questions about our boats and a trip she’d often thought of doing herself. On the way out we’d actually spotted her red kayak from the plane, beached on a bank somewhere upriver. Turns out she was one of the dreaded park rangers, but despite six months on the job was still keen enough to use her days off to see how far she could get upriver in her SoT. And this wasn’t just any old SoT, but an Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro – a boat I’d considered buying myself for our stay in far northwest Scotland earlier in the year. Compared to most SoT tubs, the SP is a long, slim and sleek-looking boat, much admired by spray skirt-dodging hardshell connoisseurs as being the most sea kayak-like of SoTs. No stranger to her own outback adventures, she quizzed us about our run down, while a fellow ranger glided over to deliver her fishing rod in a dumpier OK Frenzy, the more usual door-wide slab of SoT plastic. Ingrid had caught a two-foot barra hereabouts just a few days ago, so there were fish to be had here after all.
After a long chat it was time to move on; the sun had just about set. She explained that up ahead was a big sandbank on the left where another river joined the Fitzroy. That was out of the park so we could camp there as long as we liked. Buoyed on by the hope of a fresh fish supper, Jeff trailed his lure until half an hour later we bounced into the sankbank at twilight, barefoot and fishless as usual.
To the Bridge Jeff had well and truly had it with his Bestway, and the previous evening had talked about walking the last 15kms back to the van at the aerodrome and putting back in at the bridge. By dawn he’d come to his senses. After all he’d nursed his malformed lilo over a hundred kilometres, past sleeping crocs and charging bulls, over boulder fields and under fallen trees, patching it as he went. For whatever reason, yesterday had been a hot slog and the novelty of his achievement had long gone stale, but he knew he had to see it through to the end – or at least give it a go. If nothing else, he had a film to finish!
He suggested I go on ahead to the bridge, walk to the aerodrome and come back with the van, by which time he’d be arriving himself. And so at 6am we set off for the final 20-kilometre leg which I figured I’d complete by noon. Although there was no let up in obstacles – more log jams, frequent sand shallows with quicksands, as well as headwinds – by 9.30 I’d reached the original ford which at the end 19th century had given Fitzroy Crossing its name. My watch had packed up days ago and for some reason the last topo map was printed on toilet paper and had quickly disintegrated. An old guy was walking his dog over the ford and as I lifted my Alpacka over the concrete rim I asked the time and how far to the bridge – groaning when he said about 4 or 5 kilometres. Oh well, about another hour then.
I attacked this final stage non-stop in one last burn up, but after 16kms I was fading. It was hot and I only had a 750-mil bottle of water. Having passed a dead animal and other rubbish, I didn’t fancy the river water down this end, and now the river was no longer wild, I was keen to get the job over with.
Another sandy, shallow bend. I hop out to wade, sink over my knees in quicksand, crawl out, stagger on, get back in to paddle a bit, ground out and go through the whole cycle again. Jabiru storks carved the airwaves overhead and Brolga cranes danced about on the sandbanks. There were a lot more roos bouncing up and down the banks here, too. But never mind the wildlife, where was that bridge? Surely around this bend… that one… or the next, until finally there it was, less than a mile away (below). Road trains sped across, oblivious to the tiny raft below with its paddler, up to his hips again in quicksand.
Presently a shadow passed overhead, but it wasn’t a flood-battered river gum or a rustling cadjeput; it was the bridge on Highway 1 which ringed the entire continent of Australia. Worn out and parched, I filmed a final, slurred p2c and headed for the steep bank to pull the cork out of the Alpacka one last time.
Soon after dawn we stood on a small hill overlooking our camp down on the sandbank (middle point map left or picture right). For the last couple of days we’d spent most of our time in the tree-lined river channels, seemingly separated from the outside world. Here was a chance to see what lay on the outside, beyond the river.
It was the same old gum-tree spotted Australia bush which covered most of the country, but up ahead a particularly thick mass of gums obscured the course of the Fitzroy. It did not bode well for an easy day.
We set off a little later than usual, wading and paddling the shallows, but mostly walking with our boats. We passed Munsters Pool as marked on many maps, but it’s just another part of the river with a few cattle milling around. The flow braided and at one point I idly took a left stream while Jeff just ahead went right. I assumed they’d join up which they did, but not for 20 minutes or so by which time we’d lost touch with each other. I’ll let the video above show how events unfolded, but I knew soon enough was my mistake for not following the one in the lead, even if that path might end up a dead-end. I’ve experienced this kind of unintentional separation several times in the desert on motorbikes: everyone knows best so you diverge round an obstacle as you think your way is better/easier and will soon join up anyway. Your path goes astray and round the other side you don’t meet up. The one ahead goes back looking for the one missing, the one behind thinks he’s way behind and rushes on ahead. Cue wasted time and frayed nerves. On this occasion, once I stopped I was pretty sure Jeff was behind me, and sure enough, 40 minutes later he walked in from upriver after backtracking all the way looking for me, giving up and carrying on. Although we were both self-sufficient, from then we vowed to stick together – it was better for the film!
Soon after that we has smoko and tensions eased over a cup of tea. As we gathered wood I found a plastic bin lid which made a great over-sized frisbee and which Jeff later adapted into a seat to keep his butt out of the swill. Very soon that bin lid became handy as I came across a rich deposit of alluvial gold, sparkling in the shallows. Jeff swilled the sediment around while I filmed, and very soon we had some colour. There certainly is gold in the Kimberley; WA’s wealth was founded on it in 1885 with the original gold rush at Halls Creek, the next town down the road from Fitzroy Crossing. And since pre-industrial times the low-energy method of surface mining has been to divert rivers into torrential ‘hushes’ which scoured away the topsoil to reveal precious mineral veins or ore. The 2011 flood on the Fitzroy had clearly exposed riches beyond our wildest dreams and I’d have to beat Jeff to death with the bin lid to get my hands on the treasure. In the end we came to our senses and recalled that the lady’s assertion in opening line of Stairway to Heaven was most probably deluded.
The day proceeded to warm up with a series of short pools, very often preceded by tiring quicksands where the shallows became waterlogged. Elsewhere progress was slowed by log jams where the flow was forced into the trees lining the main channel which has become choked with sandy sediment dropped by the river after the flood. But along the entire route the Kimberley soundtrack of birdsong kept us company with its squawks, whistles, warbles and chirps. Today we saw a few blue-winged kookaburras and a couple of rainbow bee eaters along with the usual procession of egrets and cockatoos. In my guidebook-researching days I knew them all by heart and it was fun to jog my memory or be able to name what I saw.
Up ahead a welcome pool promised some steady progress – even Jeff was getting to like to the effortless paddling now. But very soon a strong reek of guano or urea choked the air, with the below water covered in a skanky film. A huge colony of bats where clinging to the river gums along the left bank, and with a shriek took to the wing as we slowly paddled by. Jeff explained the reason for the stench was that bats pee on themselves in an effort to keep cool.
At lunch I called Fossil Downs station to notify them a little late that we were on their land, (as they’d asked us to do). The old lady there seemed quite inspired by our mini adventure along the river which she’d never really seen but which watered most of their land. Still in the hands of the same family, Fossil Downs was established in 1885, making it the oldest cattle station in the west Kimberley. Although I’d never been there I’d always been in intrigued by tales of the comparatively palatial homestead and its marble flooring (or some such). In the Kimberley most station homesteads were functional affairs.
Just as yesterday, within a few steps of lunch Jeff got another flat, but fixed it in a jiffy by rolling the hole up with superglue and applying a duct tape bandage for good measure. We pressed into the afternoon, squeezing under trees or lifting the boats over or around fallen logs. At one point a rather mangy bull stood in our channel, sick and clearly agitated. Normally the cattle ran away; this one tried but got stuck in quicksand and didn’t have the strength to gallop up the steep bank. It turned round and came back to stand its ground. Filming all the way, Jeff got a little too close and the thing lowered its horns and ran at him. Eventually I crawled up the steep bank, and from point downstream but safely out of reach, coaxed the ailing steer upstream past Jeff and our boats by throwing sticks.
Since the bat colony the surface of the river had been pretty rank which didn’t add to the ambience. More bat colonies followed, and about 4.30 we came across another piled-up sandbank which filled the whole channel while the flow took off left into the side trees. A knot of fallen trees required lifting round to continue so we called it a day just as a helicopter flew overhead. With cow crap and bat shit all around, it wasn’t a great spot, but would have to do as we were just about finished for the day. In fact we’d done better than we thought: 10 hours to cover 26 clicks according to the map, and not far from the second Big Bend which led down to Geikie, possible ranger issues and the final big run on wide open channels.
That night Jeff prepared a brilliant garlic damper which we cooked on the coals. Real food – you just can’t beat it! It had been a hard day to end at a grubby camp, but we felt we’d finally broken the back of the Fitzroy.
We were up again with the light, ready for more ankle-twisting boulder portages like those which had slowed us down yesterday afternoon. Little did we know that the day would turn out to be one of our best on the Fitzroy. Back in our boats, within minutes of leaving the camp, we emerged in an open area of rocky outcrops and knotted rapids, like the lower reaches of a mountain stream. Little crocs basked either side on the sandy banks. As the day developed we ended up towing our loads along shady shallows, as effortless as walking a dog. The occasional quicksands, log jams, jumpy cattle and the Bestway’s first puncture only added to the day’s adventure. We ended up camped on a broad sandbank below granite hills after a great day on the Fitzroy. Let the day’s filming and gallery below tell the full story.