Author Archives: apaddleinmypack

Packrafting the Fitzroy 2

• Fitzroy 1 • Fitzroy 3 • Fitzroy 4 • Fitzroy 5

The video above covers Day 1 (previous post) and Day 2 which is this post.

By 5am the sun had risen somewhere behind the ranges and it was light enough to get stuck into our first full day on the river. I’d slept well enough on the unrolled tent under a thin blanket and all my clothes. Some time around 3.35am a hot, phantom wind had blown through our sandbar camp from the northwest. I’ve experienced these lost night winds elsewhere in the desert and always wondered where they come from and where they went.
Like us, in the cool of the morning both boats were a little flaccid after yesterday’s exertions, but Jeff was relieved to find his Bestway was still holding good air. Even then, after a brief paddle (right) he decided to walk the remaining five kilometres to Dimond Gorge. Me, I was pleased to stay on the water, even if it occasionally meant skating across slime-covered rocks when dragging the boat through shallow rapids (left). Right along the length of Fitzroy, another six inches water and just about all rapids could have been run in our boats, but I don’t suppose it works like that.
Jeff was now out of sight somewhere in the woods and soon enough the flow got shoved off the main channel by a blockage to burrow into the fringe canopy of trees where birds twittered and water monitors glared. This benign riverine underworld was a habitat I’d not anticipated, but was one of the most pleasant environments we found on the Fitzroy. Like a Damascene souk, shaded from the heat and glare of direct sunlight, you felt protected, cool and soothed while cockatoos squawked, rainbow bee eaters darted ahead and lanky-necked egrets stalked the pools. While pushing, pulling or paddling the boat through these cool causeways, I was reminded of that cool picture of Ed Stafford hauling his heavily loaded Alpacka through the Amazonian swamp.
A couple of hours later I was back out in the open and squeezed the Yak between two rocks to slip into the top end of Dimond Gorge (right – downstream, and above, looking upstream). MWC left a few canoes here for day visitors and I pulled over alongside them, stripped off and dived in. Jeff turned up about 15 minutes later but it didn’t look like he’d enjoyed his bush walk and he simply dropped his dinghy in and set off along Dimond, knowing I’d catch him up soon enough. The headwind already funneling through Dimond from the plains didn’t improve his mood.

Presently the gorge turned left to break through the ridge and soon choked on the effort. It was here that the dam proposed over 50 years ago would have been sited, to match the Ord irrigation scheme near Kununurra in the east Kimberley. Although the idea gets revived once in a while, as things stand the Fitzroy is unlikely to get dammed here.
It was already 10am and with 8 or 9 clicks behind is, it was high time for ‘smoko’ as they call it in out here. As always, firewood was within arm’s reach and soon the billy was on the boil. We’d brought a gas stove in case high winds made real fires risky; on the way in from Broome we’d seen several roadside fires. Most were deliberate, late-season burn-offs, but we’d also heard that some ultra-marathon racers had been trapped by a bushfire in a gorge on El Questro near Wyndham a fortnight earlier and had been very badly burned. If nothing else, it would be extremely bad form to start a bushfire on the station land we were about to cross, but we always lit up alongside the river where things remained damp and cool.

From this point (on the aerial image left) it was about 6km to the next landmark – what we called the Gap, an opening in a low ridge like those found in the West Macs out of Alice, and which here marked the southernmost ridge of the King Leopolds. We’d seen it clearly on the flight in (left) and with the headwinds persisting, Jeff decided to head off across the boulders while I paddled on for a couple of minutes, then portaged a very gnarly section. It looks like an easy  5-minute walk on the aerial picture but let me tell you with the head wind and my unstable pack, stepping between fridge-sized rocks with a boat under my arm was not a dance the Royal Ballet will be performing any time soon. At least the Brasher trail boots both Jeff and I had bought cheap in London were earning their keep here. Out of the shade and off the water, the heat bounced off the rocks, sapping the energy expended in carefully negotiating these rocky portages. I’d have to come up with a better system like Jeff, if these rough portages were to continue downstream.
I put back in as soon as I could, noticing we were now on granite, a little less smooth but also less coated in treacherous slime in the shallows, which made wading easier. Up ahead Jeff was putting in too and despite the headwinds held his own – clearly he was refining his Bestway paddling technique (left). As the conclusion of the video below also proves, Jeff was finding his pool toy to be more versatile than he’d initially hoped.
Another sweltering rocky portage led past some sort of sentry box and pipework river left, close to where an outlying airstrip lay on Fossil Downs land. It was a clear run from here against the wind to the Gap and the end of the ranges. We clambered onto a rock for a lunch of double cuppa soup and another hot drink. While the billy boiled Jeff threw out his handline; we’d been assured in Broome that the barramundi (northern Australia’s best know fish), would be huge so Jeff had bought a 30-pound line accordingly. But there was no fish for lunch on that or any other day while we were on the Fitzroy. They must be out there, but the only fish I ever saw where the size of my finger. It’s no wonder the crocs were so stunted.
Beyond the Gap we knew the river would change character as it weaved over the savannah for 60 kilometres towards Geikie Gorge. This would be the crux of the trip. Even though the flight had revealed several long and clear river channels, we’d also spotted masses of thick woodland with no clear path. We looked back at those aerial shots in our cameras to figure out the way ahead. Our goal that afternoon was to try and get west of 126°E and onto the next map sheet, something that in the end we only barely managed.
Soon after leaving the Gap we came to another big rock pile where the river braided out into nothing paddlable. In the mid-afternoon heat, clambering with all my junk was as much fun as roller skating on cobbles while balancing a sofa on your head, and using my packstaff for the first and last time was merely another encumbrance that threatened to impale me should I trip. I desperately floated across the smallest pool, and when it came to the next big portage I simply left the boat and set off with the UDB pack. It took twice as long of course, but being able to see ahead and use my arms to balance, it felt much safer. Perhaps it was hotter than we realised – getting on for 40° maybe? – but even before I turned back for my boat I was parched with thirst and croaked to Jeff, ‘Let’s camp at the end of the next pool!’. Whatever the time was, we were beat.
The GPS was no longer tracking as the batteries lasted less than a day, but turns out we’d put in an 11+ hour day of only 20 kilometres, managing just 5km after lunch. At our poolside camp, I slung the gear into the bank, went for a swim and then drank and drank. Unless I’d some acclimatising to catch up on, this effort in portaging over the big rock bars was not sustainable; fatigue would eventually lead to a mistake and Jeff had already fallen a couple of times. I needed to radically optimise my portaging set up. My yellow Watershed ‘day bag’ was better out of the way inside the UDB which now sat in the boat not perched across the bow. That worked much better for wading and towing while I sat with feet plonked on either side in a suitably reclined paddling posture. Like this I could also access the UDB in the boat if needed, and forward visibility was better too while the Yak’s extended ‘fastback’ tail compensated for the rear-weighted trim. I’d also ditched my cumbersome water bag and now simply drank from the river. We’d brought my Katadyn and used it most evenings. Jeff stuck with it, but I found carrying a full day of water too heavy at the rate I drank it. I took care to drink from less skanky pools and flowing riffles and never got sick.
The water boiled and another two-course freeze dried supper was wolfed down, along with several rounds of tea. Jeff was in bed by 6 – a personal best. It had been a tough first day and now we were heading into the meandering cattle lands we weren’t expecting it to get any easier as the river course lost its definition. Jeff wasn’t convinced yet, but as I saw it the key would be to keep track of the main channel and minimise arduous portaging at all costs by paddling or towing. Even then, we figured that as long as we didn’t get any more tired than we were tonight, and our once-daily bag meals continued to sustained us, we still had five full days of food for the remaining 100 kilometres and could trudge on at whatever daily distance we could manage until it finally ran out. By that time we’d surely be very close to Fitzroy Crossing.
It was a hot evening and out on the pool crocs, lizards or the elusive big fish were splashing about. I pottered around the camp for a while, putting off the unenviable moment when I had to squeeze into my too-short K-Mart tent to grab a mozzie-free night. I was still thirsty as I dozed off. Likely as not, tomorrow was going to be another tough one.

Packrafting the Fitzroy 1

• Fitzroy 2 • Fitzroy 3 • Fitzroy 4 • Fitzroy 5

A few minutes after the plane took off from Fitzroy Crossing (see maps or video) Jeff taped me on the shoulder and gave a thumbs up. A thousand feet below, things were looking promising. Sam the pilot had agreed to fly us low for the 25-minute run to Mornington Wilderness Camp (‘MWC’) as the direct route closely followed the river which we planned to follow back over the next week. It was soon clear that thanks to a huge Wet season a few months earlier, there was a lot more water down there than we’d ever hoped for so late in the dry season. It could well be more of a paddle and less of a walk than we expected, and having missed out on kayaking the full Ningaloo a week earlier, I was feeling optimistic.
During the Wet season (Dec-March) when tropical storms converge or a cyclone dumps over it’s huge catchment area, the 700-km long Fitzroy river briefly becomes the largest volume river in Australia. Expanding in width from 15 metres up to 15 kilometres across the flood plain, the 13-metre-high highway bridge at Fitzroy Crossing gets submerged for days while log debris gets rammed in the upstream side of the parapet (left).
That’s the Wet. By the end of a Dry we were expecting the river to be a string of stagnant, fly-ridden pools necessitating tiring portages. Packrafts make great walking boats of course, but September wasn’t a great time for bush walking in the Kimberley as the enervating ‘Build Up’ (pre-monsoonal heatwave) was on its way. Still, this is the Kimberley, Australia’s pre-eminent harsh and remote wilderness just 15° from the equator so it’s hot up here most days. Thirty, 35 or 40°C – we’d just have to keep in the shade. It took a few months to research the Kimberley area, pin down a viable river there, and then narrow it down to a doable section where permission from the various landowners was most likely to be given.
Having got to know the Kimberley’s regular tourist spots as a guidebook writer, I decided our 130-km section of the Fitzroy was a varied but not over-ambitious packboating introduction to the region. Even then, permission from MWC was only finally confirmed the day I flew out of London, and for Leopold station on the day we left Broome.
The way I saw it in a post I wrote earlier, the key to packrafting up here relied on uncomplicated access and exit: fly in from a town or station airstrip and paddle back to it if you can. Rendezvous with helicopters or seaplanes could be left for more ambitious trips later. Since I first started visiting the Kimberley over 20 years ago I’ve been planning some sort of bush walk out here, and now finally I was going to get my chance, thanks partly to the advent of packrafts.
If things went wrong on our river there were station tracks not too far off, from where we could get recovered inexpensively in a ute. And there was no saltwater crocodile menace up here, as there is on some north Kimberley rivers draining into the Timor Sea. Like the dammed Ord to the east, the Fitzroy flows south off the massif flows into the baking savannah plains of what are really the northern reaches of the Great Sandy Desert. It then swings back west and northwest to empty into King Sound at Derby, hundreds of kilometres later. Salties can live in freshwater and can travel far inland during the Wet, but it was very unlikely any would be far upriver at this time of year. Much more timid freshwater crocs are commonly found in the Fitzroy and the nearby Lennard River at Windjana Gorge. We saw plenty on our transit, all bar one diving for cover on detecting our splashes. Although it sounds good for the yarn, freshies are no more dangerous than lizards or snakes, and swimming, wading or paddling among them is quite acceptable.
At MWC we paid through the nose for a gourmet dinner and breakfast, but one last ‘real food’ supper was worth it to save on our supplies of bag food. I’d checked MWC out for the guidebook years ago, but the place was really more of a wildlife sanctuary for studying Kimberley fauna; the upmarket tourism side merely covered its costs. Diane, the manager, was involved in an early morning finch census when we arrived, which meant she was unable to drop us off at the riverside until 10am next day.
We’d originally planned to put in at Sir John Gorge further upstream, but Diane advised that might involve several rocky portages. Dimond Gorge was the other obvious alternative, but that would flush us out of the King Leopold Ranges in an hour or two which might be a shame. So we compromised and got dropped off midway at Cadjeput Pool, all up about 133km from the highway bridge and 20km from Dimond. Cadjeput was at around 180m which only meant an 80-metre drop to Fitzroy Crossing, but as we were soon to find, the river flowed there all the way.
Jeff was in denial over his $30 Bestway Outdoorsman 200 Sport pool toy, and who can blame him. He’d only paddled it briefly in the campsite pool in Broome (right) to see how his load sat. Anything else may have risked a catastrophic rupture of the envelope. But now was the moment of truth and on the river, paddling ‘backwards’, stern first (these boats are meant for rowing and so have the added ‘sitting’ buoyancy in the rounded bow), his dinghy didn’t look like it was going to start a bushfire anytime soon.
We set off downstream along the tree-lined pool (right), but within half an hour came to our first rock bar where the river took a 90° turn to the southeast. It was to be a pattern we’d recognise all along the Fitzroy; any significant change of course usually meant a slowing of the current and the deposition of rock or sand into a blockage which the river either worked around or seeped through. Already mid-morning and hot, unloading the boats and tramping with full packs for the first time (left) underlined how tiring and tedious this was compared to effortless gliding in a raft. Initially Jeff’s view was quite different; walking was preferable to slow paddling, especially as he’d worked out a neat portaging solution. By putting his paddle through the rollocks (picture below) he could position the paddle shaft between his backpack (my old North Face Terra 60) and his back which located the boat securely, made a great sun shade and, with a light headwind, even generated a little lift as he tramped along, carefully avoiding any low branches. My own boat-on-the-head arrangement using my more floppy UDB as a backpack (left) didn’t work half as well in a breeze, especially while staggering over fridge-sized boulders. Over the coming days while Jeff was happy to walk, I took to the water as soon as I could, until I figured loading the UDB with the weight low when backpacking made it much more stable.
Back on the water, before us stretched a 3km-long pool leading to the next right-angle turn to the southwest around Fitzroy Bluff where a much longer 6km pool and a headwind really tested Jeff’s Outdoorsmanship. For at least two hours he span his paddle furiously while I slid along in the Alpacka (left). Just like Steve on the Chassezac in France earlier this year, Jeff tried various ways of paddling: sitting on the bow, in the boat, swimming from behind. Nothing could shift the pool toy at a satisfying speed short of wearing it as a hat. It sat on the water like a jellyfish in a coma, and with the GPS I measured it running at up to 3-3.5kph while I topped out at 4.5-5kph in the Alpacka. And even to achieve 3kph Jeff had to paddle at twice my frequency, while failing to get a good catch due to the BW’s added width.
The Bestway really isn’t the best craft for touring big Kimberley rivers until you appreciate it costs less than a night’s camping in Broome or five overpriced beers at the Potshot Hotel in Exmouth. I was already wondering if Jeff would stick it out as pushing his water sofa into a headwind clearly ate him up. It was a mild reversal of the situation on the Ningaloo a week or two earlier, although being in the slower kayak there didn’t bother me as much as its handling in the high winds; you’re as fast as you are and here on the Fitzroy the reduced pace suited me just fine. I wouldn’t wear myself out and anyway, I was sure it would take us a day or two to establish an equable travelling pace. Could I carry on alone if Jeff bailed at Dimond tomorrow? What if he damaged it beyond repair and walked on while I carried the packs on long pools – would that work? All options were on the cards for the coming days

At the next blocked bend I lifted over some logs and took off down a cool, canopied channel (left) while Jeff loaded up to haul over the sand and rocks. At the start of the next pool there was no sign of him, until backtracking on foot and shouting, I found he’d somehow got around me onto the far side of the channel. In his exhausted haze he’d wandered up a side valley and only realised his mistake on turning on his Garmin Nuvi which had unusually good mapping, even out here (only I carried 100k paper maps). At that moment he looked rather shell shocked – I’d not seen him like that before. Just after the next shallow rapid an inviting sandbar glowed in the late afternoon light. ‘Let’s camp there‘ I pointed, and to my surprise he simply agreed; a mark of how tired he must have been.
We’d covered what I now realise was actually a pretty good 16km over about 7 hours, much of it into a valley-funnelled headwind with little shade and with no food breaks. We’d eaten our fill at Mornington, but that was going to have to change as we got to put in full days on the river.
A fire was easily lit and soon we tucked into the first of our freeze-dried bag meals followed by several cups of tea. By 6.30 it was dark and Jeff had already passed out in his mozzie dome after admitting ‘This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done‘.

The video from this day is on the next post.

Kayaking Ningaloo – Part 2

Part 1 is here. Gallery at the bottom of the page.

After a spell of snorkeling in Coral Bay and reading in Exmouth, I drove round to the ocean  side of the Cape and met up with Jeff and Sharon near Yardie Creek in the Cape Range National Park. Later they told me they’d had their camp swamped early one morning by the tide, but had an exhilarating run around Point Cloates dodging humpback whales and covered up to 55km a day, all under sail.
But all was not well with our ill-defined status in the national park. Most visitors arrive by car or tour bus and book their camp sites well in advance if staying a few days. Wild camping is not on, but as I’d discovered to my surprise in Exmouth, all of Cape Range’s few campsites were booked for days in advance and occupied for weeks, with newcomers queuing from 8am at the park entry gate near Tantabiddi for any vacancies. Rocking up off the sea in kayaks was highly irregular and Jeff and Sharon had been given a bollocking by the head ranger who reluctantly negotiated a fixed itinerary for us to follow through the park and ranging from 4- to 20kms a day, until we left at Tantabiddi.
While waiting for the other two to arrive, I took a quick scoot in my underused boat up Yardie Creek gorge (left), a 2km cleft in the otherwise flat coastline. Official boat cruises run up here to spot bat-eared rock wallabies, a trip that I must have done in my time when updating the travel guide. But even running Yardie in my own boat, I thought by WA standards this was a long drive to a very ordinary gorge. Send them off to Karajini or the Gibb River Road and leave Yardie to the wallabies. While there though, I gave my problematic sail another spin to remind myself it had not become a complete flop. With a more secure fixture of the mast foot straps and the elastic cord positioned right on the boat’s black nose, it worked well enough in the light breeze, but could still do with some sort of bowsprit (sticky-out front pole) to get the elastic clip still further forward – a solution that’s easier than making alternative mounts for the sails masts.
I set off to Pilgramunna Camp where a note from Jeff explained that an extramural pitch had been allocated for us boat people. Months earlier I’d spent ages on the DEC website looking for kayak touring regulations in Cape Range but had found nothing and so concluded it was the same ‘come through but leave no trace’ deal as at Cape Peron down at Shark Bay. Turns out there are no formal regs for kayak tourers visiting the park as it seems only a few kayak parties pass through each year. But as the park is about 60km long along the shore, you’re going to need at least two nights in the half dozen official campsites which mostly probably need to be booked in advance in the more tolerable seasons. That’s something that is difficult to plan for if coming up from Coral Bay, nearly 100km away.
With our pitch allocated, I set off in my kayak to meet up with Jeff and Sharon coming up from the south. We were soon reunited on the water (left) and shared the stories of our separation. They were low on food so back at the camp were pleased to tuck into a cake Sharon had baked for the trip and which I’d managed to resist eating during my days hanging out.
Early next morning we were all set to complete the less demanding two-day run along the reef up to Tantabiddi, but now northeasterlies turned on us as the back end of a high pressure system moved east over the continent. At least these were conditions I knew the K40 and I could handle, right up to the point when our sub-walking pace progress dropped to zero.
The winds scuppered any reef viewing opportunities off the boats and a momentary pause in paddling effort (left) saw the boats stall and drift backwards at least as fast as we could move forwards. But here at least were the fabulous azure lagoons and shell-white sands of Ningaloo.
Just before Turquoise Bay we stopped for a snack at which time Jeff took a quick scoot in my empty Incept (left). He proclaimed my boat was light and fast but my PA sail tension was still too slack or the mast-to-elastic clip distance too short. That was something I’d thought of and re-rigged the front tensioner further forward on the nose of the boat (left), though I may try the bowsprit idea mentioned above. Anyway, that was academic in the current headwinds so Jeff led the boats off on a lead while Sharon and I took advantage of a current the ran along the point leading into Turquoise Bay created by the lagoon filling with overspilled surf which ran out as a riptide through a gap in  the reef (left). Compared to Coral Bay, there were many more soft corals here (below) along with all the usual fishes. CB’s coral gardens got trashed by a cyclone a few years back.
That done we hacked on northwards across Turquoise Bay, busy with Sunday day trippers, and occasionally took to walking out boats in the shallows as we’d done in Shark Bay. As we did so we passed a couple of stocky reef sharks as well as several turtles and rays.
By the late afternoon it was clear that after nearly a week at sea, Jeff and Sharon didn’t have the puff to make it to our pre-ordained camp in the portly tandem, so we pulled in on a beach for a much more satisfying wild camp and a great feed laid on by Sharon from a food cache we’d retrieved earlier in the day. To avert any alarm or searches we left a phone message with the head ranger. As the fire died down we dozed off at 8pm and the wind dropped off, promising a good night’s sleep. Its howling was replaced by the distant roar of surf breaking over the reef.
Early next morning we got the break we were hoping for – near still conditions. After forensically tidying up the camp, we headed out towards the surf line and finally had a chance to enjoy a little of what we’d come here for – gliding serenely over the reef just a few feet below, past fishes, sharks, turtles and rays. No need for a mask or glass-bottomed boat today, it was all laid out below us for an hour and a half until the north winds returned us to business as usual.
Mesa Camp came and went, with a report passed to the head ranger that we were breaking with his proscribed itinerary and making our way out of the park that day. Turtles dashed all about as we nosed into Mangrove Bay, a welcome change from the unending string of scrubby low dunes that lined the shore all the way up from Coral Bay, if not Perth itself.
Another spell of wading brought us finally to Tantabiddi boat ramp by which time I’d divined a new paddling technique probably known to all: pushing off the mushy inflatable’s footrests actually enabled a rigid torso rotation which notably increased speed for little extra effort. With energy to spare after only a day or two’s paddling, at times I was even inching past the tandem until we nudged ashore at the ramp. Jeff and Sharon performed a ‘paddle high five’ after completing their challenging 150-km run up from Coral Bay, most of it alone.
The boats and gear got hosed down at the fish station while I hitched back down to Pilgramunna to retrieve the van. It was nearly dark by the time I arrived and I must have spotted and dodged up to 100 roos on the 40-km drive back. I’ve never seen so many kangaroos. The park was infested with bounding marsupials: ‘Ningaroo’ they should call it.
So, I ran out of easy conditions for a good sea paddle through Ningaloo; something I suspected may happen even before I left the UK. But wasn’t too bothered. I got a couple of days in and that lovely calm morning and knew that a meaty packrafting adventure lay another 1000 clicks up the road in the Kimberley (see map below). I got the impression from Jeff and Sharon that, apart from the humpbacks and not least the satisfaction of having kayaked the entire way from Coral Bay to Tantabiddi, I hadn’t missed that much. Unlike Shark Bay, here it was the reef that was special, best appreciated in calm conditions or on the end of a snorkel. Otherwise, you might as well be battling the winds anywhere along the WA coast.
I can’t be sure I’d reached the limit of the K40 (as described in part 1), but until I get more experience I’d certainly reached my limits in trying to handle the kayak in very windy conditions I’d not normally tackle back in the UK. That still leaves a lot of easy sea kayaking and fun rivers to do yet.

 

Kayaking Ningaloo – Part 1

After a great paddle in Shark Bay with Jeff and Sharon a few years ago, we’d vowed to try the more exposed transit of the Ningaloo Reef, from the small resort of Coral Bay, north along the west side of the Northwest Cape through Cape Range NP as far as Tantabiddi boat ramp. All up about 150 kilometres or a week’s paddling.
The entire coast of WA is bare, windy and exposed to swells raised by storms in the restless Southern Ocean, with few settlements and little shelter or natural sources of freshwater to speak of. Only the extensive lagoon of Shark Bay and the reef-protected shoreline of the Northwest Cape provide potentially interesting sea kayaking, sheltered from the daily sea breeze, even if access to fresh water is still a problem.
What makes Ningaloo special is that the continental shelf is relatively close to the shore compared to the northwest coast up towards the Timor Sea. This fact, as much as the presence of the reef, explains the unusual diversity of marine life which led to the marine park’s UNESCO status. Small fish, turtles, rays, small sharks and dolphins live or visit the lagoons between the main reef’ and the shore, while bigger creatures right up to humpback whales, tiger sharks and not least the whale sharks for which Ningaloo has become famous, usually feed along the outside edge.

After a 1200-km overnight drive from Perth, we arrived at the Coral Bay (CB) where Jeff’s first comment on easing himself out of the driving seat was ‘Jee-zus, look at the swell out there!’. The reef lies just below the surface a kilometre offshore here, and the Indian Ocean breaks on it unceasingly, forming a glaring band if ice-white surf, at times thrown 2-3 metres into the air. That wasn’t an undue worry for us as we were planning on staying well inside the near-continuous Reef, but the winds were another matter
Following weather reports over the preceding weeks I was beginning to wonder if September (early spring) such a good time after all. Asking around, many said a month earlier (as we’d been at Shark Bay) would have been fine – or May, or in high summer between cyclones. Everyone had their own suggestions, but the fact was right now the forecast for the next week (left) was 20 to 30-knot winds from the east or southeast, with gusts half as much again. As a result all fishing and tourist boat charters were cancelled out of Coral Bay.
Sounds grim unless you’re into tough conditions, but the good thing about following the Ningaloo is that it’s easy to bail out and cross the low coastal dunes to a rough 4×4 track that runs just inshore. A few cars ought to pass along it each day, so I figured even though I’d never go out in an F5 or 6 in the UK (where the seas are bigger, the skies greyer and the water much colder), here with reliably sunny 30°C days I’d give it a go as we’d never be far from the shore. We’d considered starting halfway up the coast at Ningaloo Homestead and just doing the less exposed northern stage, but the other two were keen to do the full run from Coral Bay (left). And anyway, getting Jeff’s van in and out along the Homestead’s corrugated access track with his 55-kg Perception kayak on the roof was not ideal.
Sunday Jeff and Sharon drove out to leave caches of food and water at the Homestead and another point up in the Cape Range park, while I investigated logging our route plan and details with anyone who was interested. Turns out that was a short list as most marine activity in Coral Bay was concerned with nipping out through the reef in motor boats for the day of fishing. Kayaking beyond the Bay itself was unknown and I was told within a day we’d be out of range from the local volunteer rescue services anyway. But we had my sat phone, Jeff had a VHF, plus a chart and we had a GPS each. The weather wouldn’t suddenly get much worse; it would be challenging from the start, so we knew what we were taking on.
Monday 6am and Jeff was raring to go; no time for breakfast – straight to the beach from where our mission that day was to cover 40 clicks, even although we had 9 days to cover the other 110 kms to Tantabiddi during which time we planned to linger and enjoy some reef exploring.
We loaded the boats on the shore, set off and flicked up our Pacific Action V-sails. Behind us, a curious crowd of early morning dog walkers had gathered while I struggled to follow a straight line across windy Batemans Bay (‘Coral Bay’). The sea was flat enough but the Incept seemed hard to control as the sail flapped or swayed violently from side to side. I tried to imitate the sail position Jeff was running on his big tandem, but soon even he reckoned it was already too windy to use the sails, so we pulled them in and paddled around Point Maud into the big scoop of coastline that leads north some 60km to Point Cloates below the Ningaloo sheep station.
n-sailageThe wind still blew offshore at this time which helped flatten the seas just as Jeff predicted, but soon a mile-long gap in the reef let the ocean swell through from the left. It rolled beneath us harmlessly and crashed with occasional fury on the sandy beach far to our right. As the morning progressed we tried sailing again. With years of experience and a well set-up boat, Jeff was much more proficient at this, but during the stronger gusts I was again struggling to get to grips with the K40. Where was the 10kph+ rush the PA sail had promised? Testing it in Scotland had hinted at this potential, but now the winds were an order of magnitude greater. One problem was the force of the wind had loosened and pushed my mast feet forward, so lessening the all-important elastic tension which keeps the sail pulled upright, especially at lower angles. At one point Jeff leaned over and tightened the straps (and later I revised the straps to link directly to a couple of lugs) but as the hours passed I could feel myself losing confidence in my boat, too busy trying to control it or keeping up to even grab a drink, take photos or just look around.
At the sandy Bruboodjoo Point we pulled in for a snack after five hours paddling. Unknown to us, there was a camp here called Nine Mile, occupied by self-sufficient recreational fishermen. Having already covered 20kms, I wasn’t feeling reassured about what lay ahead, when a woman bathing nearby confirmed that the winds were set to get stronger through the week.
We set off again into what was now a strong southwesterly – the daily ‘sea breeze’ which rolls in in late morning along the entire west Australian coast and is known as the soothing ‘Fremantle Doctor’ down in Perth. In this stronger wind I was even less able to sail as steadily as the tandem. We had tried long and short line towing (rather than rafting up alongside) but under sail or not, the bobbing Incept was all over the place, fouling the Perception’s rudder and at times pulling me over or burying the bow. After a bit of that I decided to revert to paddling, but by now even doing that in a straight line was a struggle.
At the time I couldn’t pin down the source of the difficulty, but I’d probably never been out in such winds. Jeff thought my rudder was ineffective or not articulating fully, but it was doing as well as normal for a mushy foot linkage system with a bit of rudder cord drag due to the packed payload. Could the rudder be too small or short to operate with the sail? Unlikely. Later I wondered if I may have reached the operational limits of the wind-prone K40 – at least when combined with my rudimentary skills. My boat was about as high above the water as Jeff’s, but with much less weight below, and at 17kg, was less than a third of the tandem’s weight. And even with a rudder, it still lacked the sharply defined stern and bow ‘keel-edges’ of a hardshell to enable it to cut and hold a line in the water against back- or sidewinds. As it was, it was a bit like trying to ice skate in slippers; you can work up some speed sure, but directional control is minimal.
This blobby shape is an inevitable consequence of inflatable kayak design that’s difficult to get around until full dropstich came on the scene. The result – with sail or just paddling – was that the light kayak’s hull itself was as prone to back/side winds as the sail, and so weathercocked (back end coming round) as I zig-zagged inefficiently to try and counteract it. Weathercocking is not unique to IKs of course. and I don’t think the boat’s trim (load level – about 30kg) was off – there was 10kg of water right at the stern. It’s just that in the current conditions the K40’s light weight, buoyancy, rounded hull and high sides conspired to push it about on the water, even if those high sides and the boat’s innate rigidity greatly helped limit swamping compared to the bendy Gumotex Sunny in Shark Bay a few years ago. The sail needed more tension to stay up when pulled down low, but that was easy to remedy and I noticed also occurred on the Perception where Sharon had to hold up the upper mast at times.
I can’t be certain those observations about the boat’s handling are correct, and perseverance may have overcome them, but even when the K40 had sailed steadily in less strong winds earlier that day, it was still much slower than Jeff’s 20-foot-long tandem whalesharkboat with its bigger 2.2m PA sail. I assumed weights and hull profiles of the two boats would have matched up, but as well as being a hardshell, length has a lot to do with it, so instead of keeping pace with J&S in my new, faster, sail-equipped boat, even when I sailed well I was left just as far behind as I’d been a few years ago paddling the deeptrSunny in Shark Bay. It was all going Pete Tong and I foresaw this was how those stories in Sea Kayaker ~ Deep Trouble begin: “Jeff, Sharon and Chris left Coral Bay in clear conditions but with strong offshore winds forecast. They were equipped with blah blah but had no blah…
As the tandem surged on I sponged out the swill taken on by the towing and a bloke in an alloy dinghy or ‘tinny’ came over to ask if I was OK. It was an encounter that was to pay off soon. I set off again, paddling with the odd small wave breaking from behind. The tandem was fast becoming a speck up ahead. It was decision time because at that moment, without a chance to talk over options with the other two, getting widely separated like this didn’t seem like a good idea. After the unexpected Nine Mile Camp, there was nothing till the Homestead from where it would be more awkward to bail out if I’d had my fill by then. I looked back at the Camp, now a couple of clicks behind. Up ahead the tandem’s sail was nearly as far off with no sign of them slowing down. I decided I’d pull in. Hopefully, the other two would notice that, stop so I could catch up and get the van keys and rejoin them on the less exposed waters north of Yardie Creek in a few days time.
‘Thank God that’s over’ I remarked with relief as I landed and lifted the boat over the exposed coral slabs marking the tide line along the beach. It was about 2pm. I grabbed a bottle of water and set off north along the coast to meet up with the J&S who I was sure would do likewise soon. An hour later I reached a very conspicuous zone boundary post just before a small headland – an obvious place to wait, I thought. I climbed onto the structure and scanned the beach about a kilometre ahead. Was that a boat or just a rock? There was no sign of the distinctive PA sail and after 15 minutes nothing had moved so I decided that they had shot on ahead. Short of something holing my boat, there was no reason for them to think I couldn’t paddle ashore and they knew I had water, food and comms and so could work it all out.
I returned to the boat, finding a handy half-full water bottle on the way, and paddled slowly south into the wind for an hour and a half back to the scattered collection of caravans at Nine Mile. Over the dune I walked to the nearest van where an Australian flag curled and slapped in the wind.
Hello, is this immigration?” I said with a grin to the old guy, mimicking one of the Asian boat people who frequently beach themselves on WA’s shore.
What?”
I saw the flag and thought this was immigration

Clearly my joke was going down like a lead lure.
Oh that, I just use it to see where the wind’s blowin’ from.”
I see.

Jim was one of the many retired Australians who now far outnumber backpackers up north, as they seek to escape WA’s southern winter. Coral Bay’s caravan parks were full of them and, as I was to find out soon, every site in Cape Range NP up ahead was full of ‘grey nomads’ too. Hardier and better-equipped types based themselves for longer periods at zero-facility sheep station sites like Nine Mile, where rents were cheaper and stays unlimited. Even then, Jim (the guy in the tinny who’d asked if I was OK, earlier) told me that normally Nine Mile would have had 60 vans parked up. The unseasonably strong winds over the past couple of weeks had driven off most of them, leaving just a dozen diehards. With summer on the way and fishing in such conditions difficult in a tinny, Jim was about to head south himself.
I explained my situation and asked whether he had a radio to call Ningaloo Homestead. Many vehicles run these in the north. Jeff had made an arrangement to check in with the Homestead on his untried VHF that evening, so could get my message and leave the van keys there. Jim only had a CB, but he did have Ningaloo’s phone number. He expressed repeated surprise that the other two hadn’t waited once I was so far behind, but I figured they’d recognised I’d had my fill and bailed.
I tramped back to the boat as the sun sank and on the satphone explained the situation to Jane at the Homestead who thankfully got it all in one take. They’d experienced worse kayak dramas before. She’d pass on my request for keys when Jeff turned up there next day to retrieve a cache of food and water he’d left with them just before we’d set off.

Long story short
Jeff and Sharon had stopped just a few kilometres ahead of the point I’d walked to and waited for me till next morning to turn up. When I hadn’t, Jeff walked back to Nine Mile, found out what happened, walked back and continued on towards the Homestead, arriving the next day. Separated by 10-15kms that night, we both had rough nights of tent-flattening winds after which the host at Nine Mile offered to drive me back to Coral Bay where he was heading anyway with his laundry. At the caravan park the host and I set to the van doors with coathangers and zip ties until they yielded. Though we couldn’t get past the immobiliser to hotwire it, the van became a handy base while I worked on a new plan.
By now on the notice boards in town there were Strong Wind Warnings for entire northwest coast of WA. I updated our status with the DEC (parks authority) and, not a little anxious myself now after more calls to the Homestead, a day later finally spoke with Jeff. He apologised for not stopping earlier – I suspect the sailing was just too good and I too had been looking forward to the rush of being batted up the coast under sail with my feet up. His VHF didn’t get through and his walk to Nine Mile explained the day’s delay in getting to the Homestead.
With that sorted out, all that remained for me was to wander around the Coral Bay campground eyeing up likely candidates until I succeeded in persuading a young Brit backpacker that for fuel and 50 bucks, it would be an awesome adventure to drive me 120kms to the Homestead and back in his clapped-out Suzuki banger.
If Jeff’s $1500 van was rough, Rory’s 20-year-old Suzuki Swift truly had three wheels in the scrapheap. Even he admitted it would probably not make it to Darwin as he and his mates had planned. The CV joints clattered like a football rattle and I’m sure the 60 clicks of corrugations along the homestead access track brought the Suzuki’s imminent Big Bang forward a few weeks.
At the Homestead Jane confided that the southern bay up to Point Cloates was indeed the more exposed ‘open water’ stage of the Ningaloo passage and the wind had certainly come up on Monday afternoon. When it blew like that for ten days at a time, she admitted it drove her nuts. But all this as least boded well for the more sheltered northern section of the paddle in a few days time. The car got us back to Coral Bay where I started the van up and headed north to Exmouth, planning to meet J&S at Yardie Creek in three days time.

Part II and a short video

Packrafting in NW Australia [video]

Our 2011 Fitzroy River packrafting trip

2626I used to visit northern and western Australia regularly to update a guide book (right) and years ago, before I knew about packrafts, I had an idea to float down part of the Lennard River in the western Kimberley (see map below). At that time I figured the easiest way would be to use a truck inner tube, a lilo or just a pfd. My IK would have been too heavy to lug in from the Gibb River Road.
Now I’ve discovered packrafting and northwestern Australia – particularly the Kimberley – has taken on a whole new potential as a venue for possible packrafting adventures. As I got to know the area fairly well, here’s my take on packrafting possibilities in the Australian northwest, even though I’ve only packrafted on the Fitzroy in the Kimberley. If this page gives you any ideas, it would be great to hear how you get on.
One thing that soon crops up is access and permission, the same story as in England, but possibly worse, with no ‘Right to Roam’ as we have here on uncultivated land. Western Australia (WA) is made up of crown land of which a third is vacant or unallocated (‘UCL’; mostly the arid deserts of the interior). Another third is leased to pastoralists, 10% is Aboriginal land (including remote, ‘closed’ communities) and a bit less is put aside as conservation areas.
The first thing you want to do is work out whose land your river crosses and if it matters. This online resource leads to maps including pastoral boundaries, like the Kimberley map below.

Kimberley_PastoralMap_0716_Index

After that you need to track down contact details for the property owners or managers, unless it’s a national park or conservation area. The White Pages online ‘telephone book’ will be handy. In that case in WA it’s the DEC (formerly CALM). They ought to be the least difficult to cough up a response from, because civilian access to wholesome outdoor recreation is partly their job. It has to be said too, that last time I asked, the few paddlers who’ve done the far northern rivers weren’t so forthcoming with information.
One kayaker expressed his surprise at how suspicious and hostile Kimberley station managers were to initial requests to paddle across their land. Knowing what little I do of the area, that response doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s a hard-won life up there, far from the southern, latte-swilling masses. These are tough, independent people who may have little interest in enabling your hare-brained caper across their land. In my limited experience you’ll have a particularly hard time with those stations off the Gibb River Road that have resisted ‘selling out’ by offering a few basic tourist facilities. Take it as a sign; if they aren’t trying to supplement their income by playing the tourist card, they’re unlike to go for your plan.
Though they may be less suspicious and more worldly, managers of former stations that are now conservation parks may in turn be concerned that you’ll inadvertently trample over the nest of a rare finch. So if you do make contact with a property manager (who may be the owner too), do so tactfully, have a bomb-proof plan that puts little or no obligation on them (unless they invite it), expect to pay a little and follow their advice about the country they know well – even if it’s just to piss off! They have little to gain from your antics, but all the hassle when something goes wrong and you get head-butted by a feral bull, not least due to the liability insurance issue which these days seems to cripple any initiative in Australia (photo, left). On the positive side they might be interested to hear about what you find on your travels, as it’s unlikely they’ll get to the places you can visit that often.

Kalbarri NP, midwest coast, WA

Murchison River
A day’s drive north of Perth, the long pools strung out along the Murchison River gorge inland from Kalbarri on the Indian Ocean might be a good place to start. The paddling will be broken up because, like all rivers mentioned here, they only actually flow once in a blue moon or in the Wet
.
One problem: following the Murchison from the western boundary of the national park (see map, left) back to the sea (a distance of about 65km from the Loop) involves crossing Murchison House station land, but contact the guy there (see below) with your plans and you should be OK.
Kalbarri itself is a small resort town and most of the canoeing tours out of there take place either up the estuary close to town, or in the Kalbarri national park (NP), between Z Bend (80km upriver) and the Loop, 65km upriver from Kalbarri. You’ll need to be prepared to hike with your packraft up to half that distance back to town. Otherwise, I imagine you can day paddle in the national park the 15km from Z Bend to the start of the Loop (see map above) without any permission hassles.
Beyond the Loop, if you have the permission to paddle/walk to the sea, you’re on your own and depending on recent rains it could be a long walk before you get to any paddleworthy pools. About 18km upstream from Kalbarri you’ll pass Murchison House station homestead (they do accommodation). From here you’re close to the tidal reach of the river and once in town can even enjoy a little surfing off the beach. followed by a nice seafood platter at Finlays.
All in all I reckon you’d want to allocate about four days to do the full 80kms from Z Bend to the sea. You’ll spend a night in the park starting at Z, so you’ll need a permit from the DEC office in town where they may ask other questions. Otherwise start for the sea on the downstream side of the Loop and you’ll be out of the park in a few hours – no NP overnight permit needed.

‘For pity’s sake, give us packrafts!’

Hamersley Ranges
One of my favourite areas in WA are the gorges of the Hamersley Ranges, the best being in Karijini NP
. In the early 90s Dave Doust introduced me to the area including  Miracle Mile canyoneering adventure here – described by FHM as one of the ‘100 things a Man Must Do before he Dies‘.
In 2005 I finally got round to filming the Mile with a couple of mates; a version ended up of Nat Geo Channel; not sure what the park authorities would make of that. As a packrafting adventure, Karijini without a vehicle gets a little complicated, but as a place to explore it’s very much worth the detour from the main highways. You really have to walk right into the amazing banded chasms of Hamersley, Hancock or Weano gorges to appreciate the park’s amazing geology, while a visit to Fortesque or Dales gorges are a great place for a splash about. Despite what the maps might show, the rivers and not continuous and lead nowhere useful, even in flood.
Down in the main Four Gorges area (where my film was shot) is where few venture, but where you want to get to. The rangers discourage this and it’s important to know that once down at Junction Pool having come down Hancock Gorge, the only easy way out is back the way you came (not so easy at one point), or paddling and walking 20km onwards down Red and Wittenoom gorges to Wittenoom townsite itself, or perhaps clambering out of Joffre. Going right through to Wittenoom passes right through the remains of the old asbestos mine with its tailings which made Wittenoom so notorious (it’s all quite a saga; ask Google).
As you can see from the still above, all a packraft will do is stop you getting too chilled on the long pool sections, but I still think it’s well worth the trek from the main car park down amazing Hancock (tricky moves or small jumps required), into Junction Pool and along Red and Wittenoom Gorges all the way to Wittenoom townsite.
With a bit of exploring from Junction Pool up Joffre as far as you can get, it will be an easy and fun two days, on top of another day or two checking out the usual park sites including the look-outs, Fortesque as well as Knox Gorge (left and above) past warning signs as far as the irreversible Knox Slide and Jump (see the vid below). Weano you can descend all the way past more warning signs to the dry waterfall looking out onto on the main gorge and even find a way down from there, but the rangers will take a dim view of this, even though as you can see in my vid it’s actually quite straightforward if you know the moves. The important thing is I was shown the way many years ago. There may still be faint yellow marker dots, but stray from the route and you may attempt something you oughtn’t and fail. Most years tourists die by falling or drowning in Karijini NP, though of course these are usually ill-prepared or unlucky people, not hardcore packrafting adventurers who know what they are taking on!

Kimberley
About the size of Poland, the Kimberley is a barely tamed region of tablelands, tropical woodland and savannah, and big seasonal rivers with gorges and lovely waterfalls. Marginal million-acre cattle stations (ranches) have increasingly become tracts of Aboriginal land or remote wildlife conservation ventures, and on some sheltered cliff faces you’ may find ancient rock art, including the enigmatic Windjana and Bradshaw figures, evidence of the world’s longest surviving culture dating back here at least 40,000 years. The Kimberley is such a relentlessly tough environment that unlike in the rest of WA, they haven’t managed to dig up all the resources and sell them to China yet. Some hope that will never happen and the natural environment of this wildest corner of Australia will be conserved.
Packrafting out here is a step up from goofing about in Karijini or Kalbarri. On top of the enervating climate, the usual access issues are more complicated as outlined above. Due to the wet season the Gibb River Road (GRR, mostly dirt) is closed at least from December to April or so. Apart from remote offshore pearling operations, one Aboriginal community and a couple of isolated, fly-in luxury getaways, the ragged northern coastline is populated chiefly by man-eating saltwater crocs and swept by ten-metre tides.
Horizontal Falls (pictured left) is a phenomenon created by these big tides and looks just as amazing on Google with the tide coming in. A few years ago one boat tipped over while going through the torrent and a woman drowned. Now that’s not allowed on tours. Other professional thrill seekers aren’t deterred.
So, much as you might like the idea of a ‘source-to-sea’ expedition in the Kimberley, the Timor Sea is not a place to arrive at without a good plan unless you want to end up like the character in Tim Winton’s great book, Dirt Music or even these guys. Apart from the one settlement of Kalumburu (accessible by dirt road off the GRR), there’s no easy way out short of calling in a seaplane or helicopter.
The Kimberley is like Alaska or northern Canada in this regard; bush planes are the best way to get in and out using station air strips. Even in the Dry the time saved not driving in is worthwhile, as we found on the Fitzroy. Choppers are also used to muster cattle and for scenic flights, so collections can be arranged at a price. As with a light plane, it all depends where the chopper is based. In Fitzroy Crossing a Cessna flight covering 100km/25-minutes cost us $500, a chopper was quoted at $900.

Climate
The Kimberley is always hot and humid towards the coast and inland, very hot and quite humid. Depending on where you are the ‘least hot’ time is July at around 30°C (86°F) by day, but as that’s only a few degrees cooler and maybe half as humid as the height of Wet, it’s not something to get excited about. All it means is in the Dry land access is less waterlogged, the wildlife is dispersed and the insects are less of a torment.

As the climate data on the right suggests, the northwest corner experiences intense rains from January to March at which times you’d think the rivers in this sector would be hard to handle, but even in Kalumburu, the only settlement on the north coast and very close to the wettest area on that map, it only rains on average every other day during the Wet (Jan–March).
Far inland,
Fitzroy Crossing gets half the volume of rain and only 10 rain days a month during the height of the Wet, so in fact the Wet here is nowhere near as monsoonal as it can be in Darwin, which means there’s no dependable daily respite of an afternoon storm. Cyclones or just a ‘tropical low’ can change all that of course, and tend to occur at the start and end of the Wet. Even Kununurra can get cut off by a cyclone as late as May, as this informative page on east Kimberley climate reveals. Wild fires are common at the end of the Dry when everything’s parched (they’re often localised and are visible on Google sat map imagery). This would be the lest good time to try packrafting in the Kimberley, unless you’re on a fat river which probably means it’s near the coast which brings up other issues.

Some Kimberley Rivers
With a packraft’s lack of speed, limited payload and fragility when harnessed to a pack and thrown off a waterfall, I imagine your range will be limited unless you can hunt and fish. In my opinion the crux of planning a multi-day packrafting adventure in the Kimberley is to
 plan for an accessible put-in and take-out, unless you’re going to arrange for an expensive chopper or seaplane. At the very least that means starting or ending within walking distance of the Gibb River Road (GRR) or the Kalumburu Road branching off the GRR to the north coast (or at a pinch the Mitchell Plateau Road where in the high tourist season a passing tourist might pick you up).
Unless you’ve done it all, plan small for your first packrafting trip to the Kimberley as we did. Choose a river that’s easy to get to and get off before it gets to the coast. Once you have a feel for the experience you can then send a press release to all sponsors informing them you’re planning an unsupported 1000-km packrafting epic from Fitzroy to Kalumburu. (Interestingly the Fitzroy, Durack, Ord and Chamberlain rivers all show their sources to be close to the 1000-metere peak of Mt Wells (983m, 3225′) in the southeastern Kimberley.)

Crocodiles in the Kimberley
You’ll find plenty on the web about crocs in northern Australia: the short version is there are two types easily found in the Kimberley: one is pretty harmless, the other is not.
Johnston or freshwater crocodiles (‘freshies’ – left in the Fitzroy river) grow up to 3m (10’), have narrow snouts with neat rows of spiky teeth and are considered harmless to man. We once came across some kids in Arnhemland who’d caught a freshie bigger than they were with just a bit of string! The guide finished it off with his big-ass knife (picture below).
Estuarine, or saltwater crocodiles (‘salties’) can inhabit both salt- and fresh water, and at up to 6m and 1000kg, are the world’s biggest reptiles, little changed from their dinosaur ancestors. Aggressive and territorial, unlike freshies they have broad, powerful snouts and a gnarled jawline with short, fat teeth. That’s the easiest way to spot the difference and it’s something you want to be able to do in the northern Kimberley. Spotting a freshie is fun. Spotting a saltie, or even just fresh claw prints on a muddy river bank is chilling.
The big problem is that some Kimberley trip reports (including the Fitzroy video below) talk up the saltie menace, or film close encounters with harmless freshies to help spice up their yarn while hoping you won’t know the difference.
In any Kimberley river as far south as the Fitzroy, you can expect to encounter freshies, but you shouldn’t be unduly terrified. We packrafted past them and elsewhere I’ve swum in rivers and waterholes where they’re found. Very rarely they might take a bite if they feel threatened, but leave them well alone and they won’t drag you into the water and spin you in a ‘death roll’ like a saltie.
In the Kimberley most consider the last big waterfall before the tidal reach (such as King Edward Falls, Solea Falls or the Pentacost causeway on the GRR) to be the upstream saltwater croc boundary, although it’s said they can walk cross-country for over 20kms and certainly the Wet season extends their reach inland. The closer you get to the Kimberley coast’s tidal waters the more likely you’ll encounter salties. Don’t packraft in tidal waters if you can help it and think twice about paddling in rivers which are known to harbour saltwater crocs. A light nip out of a regular plastic canoe or kayak may not be a drama, but the same in a loaded inflatable might quite rightly induce panic. Unless you know better, it’s better to play it safe and not packraft along rivers where salties are known to exist. The small ‘footprint’ of a packraft won’t intimidate them and anyway, they’ve been known to jump out of the water and grab people from bigger boats. If you need to get to the coast for a pick up, take to the hills; that’s what a packraft is for! In the Kimberley there are croc farms in Broome and Wyndham where you can have a closer look, and even eat one in the form of a burger.

Easy Kimberley rivers
Easier rivers in the Kimberley are few and include the Ord river from below the Argyle Lake dam to what they call the Diversion dam on Highway 1, just out of Kununurra. It’s about 60km or a three-day trip. Access at the big dam is easy – a road goes up from town so you can get a lift from one of the self-guiding canoe outfitters in Kununurra. I’ve canoed it once or twice – no waterfalls, no portaging and possibly no freshies too. As you draw into Kununurra at dusk on the last day, thousands of bats take to the wing; it’s quite a site.
Here’s a good link showing where the river goes. Problem is, at packraft speeds this part of the Ord would be a bit tame; an IK would be more fun.
Below the Diversion dam close to town you’re in the Ord River Irrigation Scheme where access may be restricted (I say this because if it was OK, they’d be running tourist canoes here too). Then, once you’re get much past Ivanhoe Crossing, a ford over the Ord 10km north of Kununurra, there’s technically a chance of a saltie swimming upriver from Cambridge Gulf, close to Wyndham. I’ve done barra fishing tours down here, and where there are barramundi there may be salties.
The far upper Ord beyond Lake Argyle would be a very remote run. It starts at the turn off on Highway 1 to the Bungles (as packrafting guru Roman Dial describes) and circles right under the NP through the baking desert to feed Lake Argyle, but only during a good Wet. Rocking up at the remote south end of Lake Argyle after a few parched days without a motor boat to meet you (easily arranged) is not so ideal. Not least because access back to Highway 1, 40km to the west along tracks, passes through the Argyle Diamond Mine from whom you’d want permission for sure. So all in all, the wild part of the upper Ord is a long shot in a packraft.

Lennard River
I have to say that since I’ve researched Kimberley rivers for this page, the Lennard River (Google map link) looks less exciting than it did. There are many wilder and probably more scenic rivers, but this 70-km stage from Lennard River Gorge (top red cross on the map and a few kms from the GRR) to the touristy Windjana Gorge NP had easy access at both ends from the Gibb River Road and so is good for starters. All you need is the station’s permission which may be hard coming and not be worth the effort.
The start at the gorge waterfall is pretty impressive (bottom of this page). Last time I explored the gorge in the 1990s we walked along the top cliffs downstream for a couple of miles to a point where we jumped off and swam back up. It was the biggest jump I’ve ever done, probably 50 or 60 feet and the guy with me landed badly and did his knee in. I also recall some kind of a sump (a ‘u-bend’, common in caving) heading back via the very narrow main gorge, and which would be tricky with an inflatable. Downstream from our jump, who knows, but the gorge soon opens out into Napier Downs station land. The station homestead is miles away on the north side of the GRR, and it’s highly doubtful anyone would see you passing, it’s all just Kimberley savannah with clear evidence of cattle, but trespassing is bad form. As you can see from Google Maps, the river won’t flow all the way to Windjana Gorge anyway in the Dry, but you can also see the obvious short cut to take around a big bend.
Windjana Gorge is a national park based around an impressive gorge that’s inhabited by freshies – you’re bound to see them upstream too. Paddling down into the Gorge from the back end would displease the park rangers, so you’d need to be discreet and also be sure you don’t disturb any crocs’ nests if it’s that time of year. Getting permission from the park is a much better way of going about it. From the gorge campsite you could continue down the Lennard another 20km until it reaches the GRR and from there hitch down to Derby for a pie and a pint.
Lennard could be a good little adventure if you can get round the permissions. Otherwise, just take a short paddle from Lennard Gorge up to 8km downstream just before Napier Downs lands, then walk or paddle back. That would be a fun packboating day or overnight that needs no signed affidavits from the Pope.

The Chamberlain River looks like it runs along a fault line or boundary between two rock types, from the watershed near Mount Wells (the source of many east Kimberley rivers) straight NNE to El Questro (ELQ, an upmarket dude station) before going on to join the Pentacost which the GRR soon crosses via a causeway. This often-pictured 4WD crossing with the Cockburn ranges in the background (right) is regarded as the crocodile boundary. Downstream of here there will be salties; a few years ago a couple camped by the Pentacost north of the causeway (a place I’ve checked out myself on occasion) had a croc take a bite out of their tent early one morning. Heed the advice: don’t camp near the water’s edge in saltie areas, even though now I think about it, I’ve done so myself with tours out at Shady Camp on the Mary River in the Territory where the crocs are as thick as log jams.
A good stage might be for little-known Kachana station (horse or plane access only) 90kms down to ELQ or another 20 on to the Gibb. Knowing what I do of the place, somehow I feel ELQ might not go for it and alas the guy at Kachana tells me there are saltwater crocs right up his gorge, which would a worry. Short version: Chamberlain too risky in a packraft.

King Edward River
Soon after the turn-off from Kalumburu Road up the Mitchell Falls track there’s easy access onto the King Edward which runs for a couple of hundred kilometres all the way to Kalumburu, the only settlement on the Kimberley coast; an aboriginal community with restricted access. The only packraft trip I know of in the Kimberley was in 2010 by the self-styled remoteriverman who knew the region well on foot and took out before King Edward Falls (the ‘croc barrier’) to walk east to Theda station back on the Kalumburu Road. He may have got his idea from some guys who in 2007 went all the way to Kalumburu in kayaks and some came back with rafts in 2009.

Fitzroy River
At 800-odd kilometres, the Fitzroy is the longest river in the Kimberley, reaching the sea at King Sound in Derby, the shire town of the west Kimberley. With a catchment area adding up to a quarter of the Kimberley, after a good set of storms it can become the largest volume river in the country, running at over 30,000 cfs at Fitzroy Crossing.
South of Fitzroy Crossing town on Highway 1 the river braids out onto a baking hot flood plane (a bit like the Ord after the Bungles). T
en miles wide in flood (check out this NASA photo and compare it to Google maps), it would be pretty dull in a packboat and involve travelling past possibly ‘closed’ Aboriginal communities. Upstream from Fitzroy Crossing is much more like it.

In early 2010 the central part of the Fitzroy was run by a rafting and kayaking expedition, some of who’d done the King Edward a year earlier (see above). They flew into Mt Barnett airstrip on the GRR then paddled down the Hann to meet the Fitzroy near Sir John Gorge and on down to Fitzroy Crossing in just over three weeks.
That was an epic achievement by hardcore paddlers looking for (but not finding) big water and actually conducted in a disappointingly dry Wet. Several members have published blogs and photos (see below), giving a vivid idea of what paddling in a Kimberley river in a Wet could be like. Having now been there, I see from the photos and film that the Fitzroy was barely 3 metres higher than levels we found it at the end of the 2011 dry season. Even then, it’s clear they found some thought-provoking white water in the Leopold Ranges – none of which I could recognise.
Once you cut away the bull citing ‘million cfs flows’ and the threat of salties, many reports here and on the King Edward a year earlier talk of being tired after just a 20-km day in a raft, as well as losing 10% of their body weight: that’s what the Wet season climate does to you. As mentioned, they also complained about a lack of rain and the river dropping before their eyes in February – proving the Kimberley Wet is no guarantee of big water, although the following season (2010-11) was the biggest Wet ever. When the river is big and tearing through half-drowned woodland, it might well get too much for a little packraft, but at least you can walk out and you certainly ought not die of thirst. Their pictures also reveal the beautiful Wet season landscapes and galleries of ancient rock art sites few have ever seen.

Mornington Wilderness Camp is a former station turned wildlife sanctuary, about 90kms south of the GRR and close to Sir John Gorge and Dimond Gorge on the upper reaches of the Fitzroy.
 You can fly in from Fitzroy Crossing by plane or helicopter, get to the river nearby and follow it south to Fitzroy Crossing. That’s what we did in 2011. Permission to do this is required from Mornington as well as Leopold- and Fossil Downs stations on the way to Fitzroy Crossing which passes through Geicke Gorge National Park where more paddling restrictions must be navigated.
In September 2011 we packrafted the 130 kilometres of the Fitzroy over 6 days from Mornington to Fitzroy Crossing. Pictures above and right.
The Drysdale is another obvious Kimberley river with easy access off the Kalumburu Road or a flight into Drysdale River station. Here’s an account of a guy who canoed down as far as Carson River Station, just after Solea Falls (picture) which can be considered the croc boundary. Like others, he found paddling through the high water among the serrated pandanus palms quite nasty. You’ll need permission to get out via the Carson River station track that runs the 10km between the Drysdale and Carson rivers just east of the station homestead.
Don’t get too excited about the designation of ‘Drysdale River National Park‘ and other similar conservation areas in the Kimberley or WA in general. As a place it’s no more special than anywhere else and is merely a way of excluding pastoral and mining activity or slowing down Aboriginal land claims, while showing that the state has set aside the requisite acreage of pristine bush for conservation. Ring-fenced and with no vehicular access, there are no ranger stations, picnic sites or any visitor facilities whatsoever, though permission from the DEC ought to be a formality once they’re certain you have arrangements to get off the river.

Although it’s only a pdf now, Kimberley Coast (left) by Len Zeil is pretty good.
Dirt Music, fiction by acclaimed WA writer Tim Winton. A great read with a climax in the Kimberley. There’s a CD and there ought to be a film.
Last Horse Standing by Mike Keenan. Epic survival yarn set around the croc-infested Walcott Inlet in the early 70s when an ambitious cleanskin mustering venture goes wrong. He has another book about the Fitzroy River called Wild Horses Don’t Swim which came across as comparatively indulgent and lacking direction, though it proved Fitzroy had been rafted back in the late 90s.
Around that time there were plans to dam the Fitzroy like the Ord to make an intensive irrigation area to match Kununurra. Most hope that’ll not happen and part of the 2010 rafting/kayak expedition mentioned above was given over to highlighting these issues – and it wasn’t necessarily a token ‘seen-to-be-green’ gesture either.
Came across this book on the left while in a Broome bookshop recentlySwimming with Crocodiles, set partly on the Prince Regent river. Have to say quick flick through didn’t convince me it was worth buying. Read some amazon reviews here, including one by the author’s mate featured in the book.

Important note: For a huge and barely occupied country, Australia is pretty locked up and regulated; not least WA where business interests come firstSo if you get up there, do the right thing.

Watershed Bags: Chattooga, Mk1 Ultimate Ditch Bag, Westwater

‘One Dry Bag to rule them all’

Roll-top dry bags (right) – even the best ones –  aren’t really submersion proof, are they. That’s fine for a SinK with hatches (unless they get flooded), but no so good for an IK, packraft or any open boat on rough water or in crap weather. When I pack for either packrafting or IK I find myself putting roll bags within roll bags to make sure important things stay dry while hoping I don’t flip as I know they’ll not resist a couple of minutes submersion.
A year or two ago I came across Watershed Dry Bags from the US which seal with a big rubber Zip-Lok like seal (see image below) – ZipDry they call it. They’re expensive, but were available in the UK.
In an effort to get one dry bag to you-know-what, I’ve got myself a 30-litre Chattooga ‘day bag’ duffel (below left) and by chance on eBay an ex-demo Watershed Ultimate Ditch Bag turned up at 20% off (still £130). So that’s actually two bags.
The Chattooga is not quite the rich yellow of the brochures, but a bit translucent which actually makes seeing inside easier when the foam and fleece liner  is not used. That’s another £18, but it may absorb ‘high point’ knocks to the outer skin as well as protect what’s within, though I’ve never used it as it takes up space. The shell plastic is a hard, slippery polyurethane rather than the soft rubbery vinyl of something like a SealLine Baja bag. It’s all RF welded and very solidly built. With the bag top rolled down as it is with a roll bag (not actually necessary) I’ve found this is submersion-proof.  Once in a while a spray of 303 as a moisturiser along the seal grooves helps it seal readily. The bag sits fixed to the mid-floor lashing point in my packraft between my legs for easy on-the-water access, and it fits neatly in the front of my IK and on the back of my bike. I’ve also divined that if things get desperate the Chattooga can work as a paddle float (left). My Chattooga got nicked in 2012 and I’ve since replaced it with another which seems a little thinner and shinier material, but otherwise seals the same. 

Ultimate Ditch Bag (more here)

The since superseded Mk 1 Ultimate Ditch Bag (UDB; left) was unique to Watershed; a plain, big 96-litre duffel with basic detachable backpack straps, handy grab handles on each end and accessed by a single tough, dry suit-style waterproof zip, rather than the press-together ZipDry closure as with the rest of the ‘civilian’ Watershed range. My experience with dry suits is that amazingly, these zips actually work long after the material delaminates. Ortlieb have lately brought out similar bags in their usual soft fabric, but using what they call a TIZIP which looks like an ordinary YKK wetsuit zip to me and is only rated to the IPx7 standard (explained in the image right). I spent a couple of hours floating about in my Crewsaver drysuit the other weekend and nothing leaked; the UDB would manage the same while keeping the contents dry, and the fabric is much tougher than Ortlieb’s PVC. You could classify a UDB as ‘IPx∞’.
The UDB also has a complex, chunky inflation/purge valve for compression packing once the zip is done up or even to inflate the bag as a buoyancy aid if you’re in really dire straights and your boat loses air. This is reassuring when paddling a relatively flimsy packraft through a school of agitated swordfish or sea porcupines. If the boat goes flat you have a huge buoyancy aid to keep you out of the water and slow down hypothermia. And it can be used empty as an effective float bag inside a hardshell, folder or decked IK hull to limit the bailing required after capsizing or swamping.

Apart from my down sleeping bag which might be too much of a udbbrisk, I’m now able to simply pack and access things normally in the yellow Chattooga and the UD Bag and so can downsize my collection of dry bags which were gradually taking over the room.
The UDB has proved itself as a functional packrafting backpack for the walking stages – more below, sea kayaking in Australia and remote river packrafting out there too. The good thing is the detachable straps can be modified or replaced with something better, although the UDB lacks any rigidity to carry its weight on a hip belt and as I say below, the shoulder straps’ position is too central. Plus you don’t want to strain those ‘probably-not-for-hiking’ harness fittings and risk tearing them off the bag (although they’re sewn to a patch as left, which is glued to the body, so not much chance of that rupturing the bag fgw-udb-4– unlike a Gumotex IK bag).

2013: Watershed redesigned the UDB as a smaller, 78-litre duffel now made from their tough, glossy PU-coated fabric, but still with the dry suit zip and purge valve. Or check out their pricier military range of packs, below. IMO while not perfect, harness wise, the original UDB was a better bag. The canvas textured fabric gripped better, didn’t wet out, and the size and shape were just right to slip into a slim kayak or across a packraft’s bow.
Watershed UDB

The 96-litre UDB is big enough to take the raft, a dry suit, paddle blades, tent, sleeping bag and 2 days food

Walking with the UDB
Watershed UDBAs a backpack the UDB has been suprisingly good at carrying a load in Scotland for up to 3 days (40 miles). Part of the reason for the tolerable comfort was that the UDB’s relatively rough fabric and frameless ‘coal sack’ form grips right across the entire back like weak velcro and so helps spread the load. The chest strap helps greatly too, though I’ve half a mind to try the chunky, wide clip-on thigh straps from my kayak as shoulder straps to get two uses from one thing. It does lack exterior pockets like a conventional rucsac, but that can be got around by having pockets in your jacket or a using a waist bag.
Watershed UDBHaving used the UDB again in Utah and overnight in Scotland, I’ve reconcluded that the shoulder straps are located too much towards the centre of the pack which means that the pack sits too high on your back (see walking pic, top right), making you unstable at times. Loosening the straps to make the pack sit lower but isn’t the same thing as it’ll just be loose. Up to a point you could pack heavy stuff low laxpackframeand anyway, it’s clearly not designed as a full-time pack, but I must say that’s how I’ve used it when packrafting. It’s so convenient to just use it as a waterproof/submersible holdall: chuck stuff in, zip it up and get on the water. Occasionally I run beeswax along the zipper; a bar of soap will do the same and smells nicer. I’ve since got myself a packframe (left) but decided an NRS Paragon pack harness was the best solution to portaging. I used the UDB like this in Turkey.

watershedwestwaterWatershed Westwater
Recently I walked and cycled the Coast to Coast with an 80-litre Westwater pack featuring a regular ZipDry seal, thin shoulder straps with chest and an added hip strap. The load was only about 12kg but I found myself unstable in the hills as, with no proper hip belt, the weight was hanging high from the shoulders. On the Lakes stage it was very hot and the back was very sweaty, watershedwestbut it carried OK. Once I got on a bike and the weather broke, the pressure on my butt became exceedingly painful (no surprise there).
The pack is handy in that in dry weather you can simply roll the top over and clip it down, not using the seal (as above right) and so easy day access. While sealed up in the wet you know the insides will keep dry. Again, I can see the Westwater working well lashed to my more comfortable Lastenkraxe packframe with the packraft rolled up beneath it, or in the NRS Paragon. Only drawback is the slippery texture and shortness doesn’t sit so well on the bow of a packraft  (left) compared to the UDB.

stennOther Watersheds
Watershed make a backpack called the Stennis (left) using a YKK zip. Being ‘tactical’ it costs nearly double, runs at a capacious 121 litres. In fact, as shown on the right, their packs can reach the size of letterboxes. They seem designed to contain regular packs for wet environments, rather than for all-day hauling. Shame, but as with the UDB it wouldn’t be too hard to fit some better padded straps and save the poor guy’s shoulders. Here’s a review and closer look. Warning: it’s tactical. 

Kayak and packraft sails

Updated summer 2019

You may have read in the Shark Bay story what a relief it was to turn into the wind at Cape Peron, get Jeff to flick up his Pacific Action sail (below left) and shoot down across the Reach, with me clinging to Jeff’s hefty sea kayak. There’s a bit more Pacific Action sailing action attached to an Incept K40 in this video.
To me, sailing a kayak or packraft is a smart idea in the right conditions and with kayaks, some people think so too. The now moribund US-dominated packraft forum didn’t get so excited when a bloke demo’d his WindPaddle (see below); perhaps in the US most packrafters do rivers, not lakes or certainly not sea. In Scotland where the lochs can be long wind-channels and the boggy ground alongside horrible to walk over with a full pack, sailing a packraft down a 20-km valley full of water in half the time it would take to paddle makes sense.

V-sails and Umbrella sailing
I never got round to fitting a Pacific Action sail [video and left] onto the Sunny IK. In the UK they cost around £250 but it’s more or less two sticks and a sheet and some string. Here is a great thread on SotP about making your own V-sail, although now I notice the original model of the PA sails going for as little as £160 in the UK to make way for the new, mostly clear models.
I read about a guy who mentioned he umbrella-sailed his packraft back across an Arizona lake on an afternoon breeze. So with an old brolly I’ve barely used in 20 years, I gave it a go.
First time was in the Sunny kayak on a very windy day – too windy in fact. I found an out-of-the-way loch on the north side of Stac Polly mountain, hacked into the 20 mph headwind, turned round and opened up the umbrella expecting to catch the wind and rip back to the shore like an ekranoplan. No such luck. In a way the good thing with a brolly is that it inverts long before it drags you out of the boat and across the lake like a character from a cartoon. But because of that in-built safety overload I couldn’t get going. Oddly, all that happened was instead of the bow coming round down wind, the boat kept getting side-on until the brolly inverting on a gust. Why side on? Was it the fact that the sail’s pivot point was effectively my shoulder in the middle of the boat, and not a point fixed on the front end? Could be.
A few days later I tried with my much lighter Llama packraft, but this rare day there was not enough wind to prove anything. As you can see left, I tried to use the paddle as a rudder, but on that day it would have been better used in its traditional role.

Flip-out disc sails
Since thenflip-out’ disc sails came to my attention: lighter, simpler and more compact than a PA. They work like those clever flip-out tents (see below): release a sling and it springs into shape on an unfurling hoop or batten. I made myself one from a spare tent.
Here is a great IK page by a French gonflard, Andypink picturing all sorts of kayak sails and having assessed all out there, he designed a 1.2m2 ‘spoon sail‘ which is now being sold by Bic (right) for about £50 – just under half the price of a smaller US-made WindPaddle (good canoer’s review here). As you’d expect, the places selling the Bic in the UK merely parrot the blurb from Bic  with no detailed analysis or photos of it in use. To do that you have to dig into Andy P’s blog; there are photos of an actual Bic-in-action here and here and especially here (also left, his picture cropped for clarity). You can see there are no less than three attachment points on each side of the sail.
Having used my similar but ultra-basic home-made version, I’d say the properly designed Bic differs in the following ways:

  • It has a window – always nice to see what’s ahead.
  • I assumed the inverted teardrop shape would make it unstable, but I suspect the close base-mount points make it easier to pull the sail hard down to one side for angling off the wind at up to 45°. And like a PA, it’s bigger up top where there’s significantly more wind.
  • The ‘control string’ attaches to the side of the sail at three points and then is attached to the hull (not one point and held in the hand like my MYO disc). I presume they are all chosen in position and length to maintain a certain optimal form. 
  • It appears the dishing as featured on a WindPaddle and its knock-offs is not necessary.

Here’s a good intro to kayak sailing on Douglas Wilcox’s inspiring Scottish sea kayaking blog. DW paddles hardshells mostly, has actual sail boat experience and these days uses a fixed Flat Earth sail (a jib?) which I don’t think would work on an IK.
Douglas told me that on the faster boats they all use (proper sea kayaks with bows sharp enough to cut week-old brie) the WindPaddle proved to have a fairly narrow range of operational effectiveness (same with the Bic I imagine). In a strong wind the flexible hoop distorts and loses effectiveness; and in a light wind they find it’s barely worth the bother. But don’t forget this is in a slick kayak that can easily be paddled at 5mph while slicing through the swell. A packraft manages about half that and fast IK like a Seawave or Incept maybe 70-80% of that speed. So at the lower wind speeds I can paddle, a sail may be worthwhile – and in sail-distorting high winds; well, it didn’t happen with mine in 20mph winds (F4-5). I didn’t go that fast, but I can’t see me voluntarily being out at sea at wind speeds of 30mph, which is F6. It’s F7 out the window right now, pelting down and the sea looks utterly grim.
A ‘0.9m2’ WindPaddle is the same size as my disc sail, left (ie: 1m diametre which = a radius of 0.5m x 0.5m x π actually = 0.785 m2, but perhaps the dishing makes a bigger area?). As this guy suggests, this may not represent great value for money for a nylon sheet in a hoop plus some string. My own disc sail seems to work OK, but I may end up trying a Pacific Action – see below. My only reservations might be that it’s yet more stuff and a Bic or PA may be a little more complicated to rig and operate than a plain old disc sail.

More kayak and packraft sailing thoughts
I forget of course that my disc sail was primarily made as a portable sail for my packraft; I never really expected it to work on what was my Incept IK, but having done so anyway, I think at 0.78m2 it’s too small and too low. I block much of the backwind and I’ve been told the higher a sail the better it works; it’s just that too much height can affect stability in a gust. We don’t want that.
We were out yesterday on Loch Broom with Steve and Micheal in the Feathercrafts and me in the K40. By the time we finally put in at the back of the loch near the river, it had gotten windy and the fetch up the valley was pushing up a short chop which mid-loch, made forward progress slow. But now I have a nifty way of carrying my disc sail securely and out of the way on the Incept (right), I went right ahead and deployed it for the return. As before, I found that a stiff headwind paddled into at 2-3mph (see graph, left), didn’t correspond into a scintillating downwind glide under sail. Top speed was just over 4mph at which point things begin to get interesting and you want more. But most of the time Steve was able to keep up and even take pictures between paddling his Kahuna, so all I was gaining was some rest rather than extra speed.
Nothing wrong with resting on the move, but compact and handy though it is, I think my home-made disc sail is too small to get the K40 moving with my weight in it, let alone adding a camping payload. Researching more about V-sails, including the SotP thread mentioned above, I see that here and there PA sails are getting discounted to nearly the same price as a WindPaddle.
Having thought it over and actually seen one in use, a PA is more like the real thing compared to any disc sail, whose USP is that they’re compact and deploy in a flash. What a WindPaddle, Bic or my home-sai-sailormade disc sail can’t do so easily on the water in anything longer than a packraft is fold up easily. On an Alpacka you just reach forward and twist the disc sail down out of the way and clamp it, but alone on a choppy sea in a long kayak, it’s far out of reach on the bow of my Incept, unless I just pull it back and lash it down over my knees. A headwind would hold it in place like that, but one may have other things on one’s mind in heavy conditions and a side- or backwind gust could catch it where it might dig into the water and act as an unwanted sea anchor, upsetting the boat. We don’t want that either.
Update – a cheap Windpaddle knock-off (above left).
So, having experimented with the concept of kayak sailing for little outlay, I can now see the value in actually buying something like a PA that’s made for the job, partly because we’re intending to paddle the Ningaloo this September where a sail will be useful, and sail-savvy Jeff (left) will be there to give me some tuition in the art. Short version: it didn’t go so well for me.
Where’s a windy day when you want one? Not today, but the next time I must take the Alpacka Yak out with the disc sail and see if the new shape and a bit more experience makes any difference. As you can see here, it wasn’t so conclusive with the old shape Llama on a reservoir in Surrey, but the pointier Yak, a bit of paddle rudder finesse and a stiff Hebridean breeze may make a difference.

Pic below:  not given up on WindPaddle sailing yet.

coi - 8

Feathercraft Java kayak review

In early 2016, Feathecraft dropped the Java/Gemini and Aironaut to stick with folding kayaks.
In 2017 Feathecraft closed for good.

javasectionIn 2007 I was looking to move on from my Sunny to something a bit longer and self-bailing. The two boats that appealed to me at the time were Aire’s hefty and wide Super Lynx and a Feathercraft Java (since then many new contenders have come on the scene). I decided to treat myself to the more expensive but lighter Java and picked one up from the clued-up FC dealer in Durango a few weeks after originally ordering it from a less reliable counterpart in NYC.
Set up is pretty straightforward: you slot in the keel- and skeg pole and then the side poles, velcro it all in place, attach the seat by seemingly too many straps, pump up the four sponsons and off you go. Realistically, 20 minutes is a good assembly time.
It’s a sleek-looking boat for an IK; still today nothing else comes close, but one of the biggest hassles are the inflation valves: basic turn-and-lock elbow valves seemingly off the end of a cheap Thermarest (or indeed an Alpacka where they work fine javahullto top up, not inflate). The thin plastic hose on the hand pump supplied pushes on, but when it’s hot or wet it twists off, or if you pump too hard it blows off and the air leaks out. As there’s no one-way valve, you have to screw it shut quick.
I thought for a while there was some component missing from the pump but no, this was it. I found holding the hose onto the valve with one hand while pumping the two-way pump with the other was an awkward but more effective way of inflating. Even if it’s bigger, give me a foot pump any day. Or regular one-way valves and a K-Pump.
At 28 inches (71cm) wide, it’s just 2 inches narrower than the Sunny but feels much narrower – chiefly because you sit high ON it, rather than in it. FC are right in describing the Java as an inflatable sit-on-top. As you can see in the pics, under my 95kg weight, the poles are more there to aid the hull profile than enable longitudinal rigidity. It’s 15 feet 4 inches (4.65m) long but you can’t get much into the last foot-and-a-half at each end; the usual problem with IKs.
I took it out for a scoot across the Vallecito reservoir in Colorado one evening with the two inner (floor) sponsons not too firm and was relieved to find it not too tippy. On the way back I struggled with the pump some more to firm up the inner sponsons and found it a bit less stable but still OK, and probably faster. And before I got caught out, I practiced getting back in off the water; as long as I crawled aboard without any sudden movements it could be done in calm flat water. But who ever falls out in calm water?

The retractable skeg is a great idea that’s only really possible on a bailer, but with the middle sponsons firmly pumped up the actuating string which comes up between them gets jammed. It’s best to manually make sure the skeg is fully down before setting off which partly negates the retractable feature. At least you know that if it snags on the river bed it will just pivot up (but then won’t come down again). A good fix to help the skeg pivot with the string lever would be to have the string passing through a short section of thick garden hose or plastic tube jammed between the sponsons so enabling it to slide freely. The slot through which the skeg passes is also the bailing hole, designed I am told, to suck water out of the boat with a venturi effect as it moves over still water (less effective in a current going with the boat). Can’t say I noticed water rising as I stopped, but it sounds plausible.

Paddling without the skeg was OK on flat water but with it deployed you can power on. The solid footrests, thigh straps and comfy seat (also inflatable) all help here. One problem with the footrests is the angle they sit on the poles forces your knees outwards into the paddle arc. I also wondered how secure they were, screwed down to merely butt against a protruding rivet in the pole. A flat rather than pointy end to the securing screw pin sitting against the 2mm-high rivet might be better and could easily be done. Anyway they never shifted during the easy paddling I did.
The Java has neat cargo nets: easy to use and secure. I’ve since bought a pair for my Sunny. Inflation valve design apart, workmanship is what you’d expect for over $2000 with good attention to detail. The ‘envelope’ or hull doesn’t really need to be sealed in any way as the four sponsons or bladders slot into their respective hull envelopes and, with the poles, make this pile of nylon and rubber into the only IK I know that looks close to a proper sea kayak.
Next day disaster struck. I left the boat drying on the roof of the car in the forest camp – black hull side up…  and went out very early to Silverton on the steam train. It had been a week of huge storms in the Rockies and camped in the forest I figured it would be OK in the shade and probable afternoon storm. But on the way back, when the bus driver mentioned it was a hot afternoon in Durango I thought “oh dear, I hope it hasn’t…”
It had. The thick black hull rubber had caught the sun nicely as it passed over the clearing and ruptured three of the sponsons. My lovely new boat, not one day out of the bag was a floppy mess. I yanked out a limp sponson (easily done) and found the rather light, flysheet-like ripstop nylon cover material split, and pinprick holes in the airtight polyurethane that the nylon was bonded to. That was the end of my Java paddling in CO. (A happy ending. I ordered a full set of sponsons from FC in Vancouver and when they discovered the boat was nearly new they generously offered to supply them free of charge. Good on you FC.)
Back home with new bladders, we went to Scotland and I tried out the re-bladdered Java alongside my old Gumotex Sunny. G-friend’s first impression was that I was too big for it – probably due to its SoT stance she had a point – and that also it was too fiddly to set-up for my keep-it-simple prefs. She had a point again, and although it’s amazingly light for what it was, it’s still pretty bulky. In Denver I’d spend hours packing it carefully for the flight back for fear of having the near yard-long hull poles damaged in transit. On my bathroom scales in the blue holdall ready to paddle it weighs 17kg (37.5lbs). The boat’s envelope alone (no seat or tubes) weighs 9kg (19.8lbs). In other words, about the same as my Sunny but two and a half feet longer.


On the lochs the long, thin Java slipped along, with a speed of 10kph (6.2 mph) flashing on the GPS for a second, though 4mph was a more sustainable speed (video above). Let me tell you that is a very good speed for an IK, comparable with the Incept K40 I bought a few years later. There are more useful speed stats on inlotusland’s blog about a lake near Vancouver in a blue Java. The initial high speeds were with a backwind but seem only a little better than my Grabner. Coming back next day he was down to 2.5mph so that must have been a stiff headwind.
The Java kayak didn’t really feel right to me: the old problem of too narrow and me sitting too high for my weight. An experienced hardsheller would probably not javabailerhave any issues. We went on to a freshwater loch, a little windier by now. I tried to visualise myself in a fairly normal one-metre swell out at sea. The rocks hadn’t really added an impression of stability (as they can do on other tippy IKs) and overall, with the height/width relationship (left) I didn’t feel confident anticipating less than calm conditions I wanted to be able to face.
Back at the chalet the biggest hassle of all: the Java takes hours to dry – maybe even days. But dry well it surely must, especially when rinsed after a sea paddle. Sure, I’d read about this in some reviews, but it now dawned on me that the problem was common to all sponson/bladder IKs (like all Aires). Some water will always get in the hull sleeves/envelopes holding the bladders as well as other crannies, and once there will always take a while to evaporate.
A spin in my basic Gumotex Sunny reminded me what a great boat it was – quick to set up, fast drying and good enough performance. If only it bailed. The Java got itself sold on ebay. Lesson: try before you buy and if it’s not possible (as it wasn’t for me in the UK, short of flying to Vancouver), be prepared to make a mistake.
Another Java review by a Brit sea angler here. That must have been two Javas in the UK! And there’s some Java chat on FoldingKayak.org. This guy in BC also had a Java then got a Gumo 410C. Looking at his pictures, I’m struck how ‘perched’ he looks while still being high in the water.
In 2011 I gave my sun-faded Sunny away and got myself an Incept K40 Tasman (see stats at the top of the page). The K40 was less fiddly than the Java to set up, though the time taken is about the same, but I still miss the ‘pump and go’ simplicity of the Sunny. That is why I then got myself a Grabner Amigo. But I sold that and got a Seawave, my best IK yet. I’ve had it 4 years. 

50,000 hits and no shark attacks

Over fifty thousand hits in the eleven months since this blog started. And in the year up to August 2012 that more than doubled to 110,000 a year and now in 2016 it’s over 800,000. Sounds impressive. Some days I get more hits here than on my well-established book sites which have been around for years. The world must be going IK-ing crazy for Inflatable Kayaks and Packrafts.
I don’t think so. I’ll let you into a secret, it’s all [back then] down to ‘shark attacks‘. Even writing those two words along with the cheeky exploi-tagging below ought to make this trivial post go ballistic (actually it didn’t). In fact I hereby christen the practice of tagging websites and blogs with ‘shark attack’ refs in an effort to artificially rack up hits.
At the time of this post, most days my most hit upon page by far is Walking with Sharks, the story of a kayaking trip we did a few years ago in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Versions of that yarn have appeared on a couple of websites and magazines, and I once gave a slide talk on it to six people at a kayaking show. At one point recently Walking accounted for a third of my all-time hits (left); now it’s slipped down to 25% as newer posts pile up. It’s a good yarn, but I don’t believe that’s why it’s so popular.
The secret seems to be that it innocently mentions the word ‘shark’ and even combines ‘shark’ with ‘attack’. That phrase has been top of the search terms which direct people to this blog (right), twenty times more than the next term. And look, the other day the top five searches all had pointy teeth and fins (left)! How disappointed they must all be to find a load of crap about inflatable boats! The odd thing is, Googling ‘shark attack’ today returned 46 million results in 0.18 seconds – and my Shark Bay story must be way down in the lower 46th million on the Google results page. Perhaps people accidentally land here via the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ option. 

So my tip for your hit-seeking missives. Want more visitors on your WordPress blog? Slip in a few ‘shark attacks’, help yourself to some of my suggested tags below and check your oxygen because you’re going viral.
Here’s an appropriately exploitational image to satiate the seekers of shark gore who’ve bothered reading this far. One that ever since the original Jaws movie, must sum up the fascination among a certain segment of the largely teenage male population with The Beast – ideally ravaging The Maiden, in a Bikini, why not. Nice lilo, but – is that Nitrilon, Hypalon or a PVC cheapie?