We were up again with the light, ready for more ankle-twisting boulder portages like those which had slowed us down yesterday afternoon. Little did we know that the day would turn out to be one of our best on the Fitzroy. Back in our boats, within minutes of leaving the camp, we emerged in an open area of rocky outcrops and knotted rapids, like the lower reaches of a mountain stream. Little crocs basked either side on the sandy banks. As the day developed we ended up towing our loads along shady shallows, as effortless as walking a dog. The occasional quicksands, log jams, jumpy cattle and the Bestway’s first puncture only added to the day’s adventure. We ended up camped on a broad sandbank below granite hills after a great day on the Fitzroy. Let the day’s filming and gallery below tell the full story.
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 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 (above – 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 some ultra-marathon racers had been trapped by a bushfire in a gorge on El Questro near Wyndham 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 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 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. As the conclusion of the video 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 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 it turned 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 revise 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 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 sustain 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.
A few minutes after the plane took off from Fitzroy Crossing (see maps) 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 its 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. Since I first started visiting the Kimberley in the early 1990s 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 would 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 elevation 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 to see how his load sat. Anything else may have risked a catastrophic rupture. 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 additional ‘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 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. 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‘.
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, ranging from 4- to 20kms a day, until we exited the park at Tantabiddi.
While waiting for the other two to arrive, I took a quick scoot in my underused boat up Yardie Creek gorge (above), a 2km cleft in the otherwise flat coastline. Official boat cruises run up here to spot bat-eared rock wombats, a trip that I must have done in my time when updating the guidebook. 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 speckle-chinned wallabies.
I gave my problematic V-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 (above) 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 pace progress dropped to zero.
The winds scuppered any reef viewing opportunities off the boats and a momentary pause in paddling effort 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 . 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, though I may try the bowsprit idea mentioned above.
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. Compared to Coral Bay, there were many more soft corals here along with all the usual fishes. Coral Bay coral gardens got trashed by a cyclone a few years back.
That done we hacked on northwards across Turquoise Bay, busy with weekend 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 might happen even before I left the UK. But I wasn’t too bothered. I got a couple of days in plus 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 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.
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.
The 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 Sunny 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. Pardon me.
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 have 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 site 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 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.
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. I replaced the Chattooga with an Ortlieb Travel Zip.
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 risk, 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 – 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.
Walking with the UDB As a backpack the UDB has been surprisingly 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.
Having 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 and 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.
Watershed 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. (They now claim it to be 65L) 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, but 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 ZipDry seal (as above left) 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 a Lastenkraxe packframe with the packraft rolled up beneath it, or in a harness like the NRS Paragon or Flex PR. The only drawback is the slippery texture and shortness doesn’t sit so well on the bow of a packraft (left) compared to the UDB.
In early 2016, Feathecraft dropped the Java/Gemini and Aironaut to stick with folding kayaks. In 2017 Feathecraft closed for good.
In 2007 I was already looking to move on from my Sunny to something a bit longer and self-bailing (I thought this was a good idea at the time). The two boats that appealed to me 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.
Set up is pretty straightforward: you slot in the alloy keel- and skeg pole and then the side poles, velcro them all in place, attach the seat by 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 cheapinflation valves: basic turn-and-lock elbow valves seemingly off the end of a Thermarest (or indeed an Alpacka packraft where they work fine to 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 it’s an open (not one-way) valve, you have to screw it shut quick. Maddening! 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 Halkey valves and a K-Pump. At 28 inches (71cm) wide, it’s just two inches narrower than the Sunny but feels much morem 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. The thigh straps are a nice touch or an admission that you may need them to keep upright. I took it out for a scoot across the Vallecito reservoir in Colorado one evening with the two inner (floor) bladders 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 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 self-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 – but this 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 force 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 cases 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 in Colorado 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 bladders or sponsons. My lovely new boat, not one day out of the bag was a floppy mess. I yanked out a limp bladders (easily done) and found the rather light, flysheet-like ripstop nylon split, and pinprick holes in the airtight PU coating. 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 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 speedof 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 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 have 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 I added for ballast hadn’t really added an impression of stability (as they can do on other tippy IKs) and overall, with the height/width relationship I didn’t feel confident anticipating the less than flat 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 bladder IKs (like all Aires). 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. [2020: I now think self-baling is not essential for a tour boat; i just used my Sunny beyond its abilities].
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), be prepared to eat your mistake.
In 2011 I gave my sun-faded Sunny away and got myself an Incept K40 Tasman. 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.
London made worldwide headlines this week for rioting, arson and looting. Along with scores of others, our own high street got done Monday night, and next afternoon all the shops were closed, braced for a re-run that instead moved to other English cities. The map on the right only shows the bigger events in London up to Tuesday; many more passed unreported.
But Wednesday the tides were favourable and the weather were fair for a 17-mile cruise down the River Thames from Richmond to Tower Bridge. We’d planned the run before all this aggro kicked off as I’d not paddled through London for years and fancied doing it in the Incept. In fact we ended up paddling all the way to Greenwich, about 21 fast and briefly hairy miles.
Richmond is a prosperous suburb stuck under the Heathrow airport flight path; no rampaging here, thank you very much. Steve and I set off just below the town bridge at 1pm, right at the turn of the tide, even though 20 minutes earlier the water was still clearly charging upstream. In fact I read that in the upper tidal reaches, the Thames floods quickly and ebbs slowly. Again, the K-Pump was used to inflate the Solar which Steve was using as his Feathercraft was in detention. I’ve found the K is much more effective at getting a firm fill than the squidgy Bravo footpump. Maybe it’s a river and gravity thing, but when the tide ebbs with the mild Thames current, it’s on the move almost straight away. With the help of a strong southwesterly that day, very soon we were cruising along at an easy 5 or 6 mph, and that speed barely relented until the very end when we took out just before low tide at Greenwich.
The 15-mile run-up to Westminster initially feels quite rural in places. Riverside willows swung their tresses in the 15mph breeze as we passed the handsome riverside dwellings of affluent west London with barely a high-rise in sight. By Putney, home of the famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race, we were halfway to Tower Bridge and the greenery give way to urban development and the odd industrial site. Around here you get a few people rowing those slim Oxbridge rowboats, and it occurred to me later that for some reason they’re excused from wearing life jackets. A boy drowned near here in one of these rowboats, a week or two ago. Near Battersea heliport the wobbling wind sock stuck out sideways like a road sign, pointing downriver towards banks of million-pound apartments built in the last boom-but-one to accommodate London’s growing class of needy oligarchs. There were more barges and pontoons moored mid-river now. All easily avoided of course and just as well as the way the current was ripping along, their flat prows made a nasty hazard; like an an upside-down weir, that might easily pull a kayak down and drag it along under the entire length of the barge.
At Vauxhall Bridge, by the snazzy MI5 secret service HQ, we saw one of the London Duck amphibious tourist barge-buses drive down the bank. It submerged itself into the river and chugged past (left), managing to look as ungainly on the water as it does on land. The Ducks do a token 10-minute sweep of the river past Parliament, but having gone on one years ago, I can tell you it’s a hot, noisy ride. I reckon they are more fun to watch than to be in.
We grabbed a few shots as we passed the Houses of Parliament (that how HP Sauce gets its name), and I thought it was going to be a smooth, quiet passage through the busy two-mile section of the river from Westminster to Tower Bridge, as it had been last time.
But as soon as we passed under Westminster Bridge alongside Big Ben, the character of the river changed and waves were standing up to 5 feet high. The flow gets constricted and backs up by the pier supporting the London Eye which, along with the masses of tourist boats, effectively halves the width of the river, while the current and tide pushed through, exacerbated by the wind. I’d heard of these waves below London Bridge but had never seen them this big. We’d come down so fast from Richmond that we’d hit the busiest section of the Thames, packed with manoeuvring tour boats and jetties, at the peak of the tidal flow. Suddenly the river was rather lively.
Rush hour on the river As always the best kayaking shots are the one you’ll never see: of Steve in the 10-foot long Solar teetering over wave crests and my long bow rising and then slapping down into the troughs. What pics I grabbed were pretty mild. Holy moly, you don’t see all this looking down from Waterloo Bridge with a flat white and a Telegraph in hand, but it may only last a short time or be limited to certain conditions. It’s worrying too, how you’re quickly transfixed with dealing with your own predicament; if one of us had tipped in here, the other would have had real trouble turning back in the current and traffic. But we got through (I’ve probably exaggerated it all) and even got used to the more manageable standing waves, if not always the cross swell flung out by the wake of passing tour barges. These wide, twin-hull Thames Clippers can really shift, accelerating up to 15-20 knots, although it’s actually the older, mono-hull tour boats that punch out a wake you want to watch out for, and is probably why their speed is limited. As it is, I read there’s no speed limit on the tidal Thames below Wandsworth, merely common sense is required, plus a risk of a big fine from the PLA. I was momentarily freaked out by all this, but although I didn’t dare glance back or try and take photos, Steve seemed to be keeping pretty cool in the tiny Solar. I’d not applied any of the mods I’d lavished on my old Sunny, and with its crap seat and soggy footrest offering little support, paddling the Solar in heavy conditions was a bit like balancing on a midstream log. This was all at times more intimidating than anything we’d done on the Class II Ardeche a couple of weeks ago, and I was thinking it really was high time I slipped on my Incept’s thigh braces. We stopped off for a breather at the South Bank and enjoyed a coffee and lemonade for only £5 each while tourists wrote messages in the sand of the now exposed river bed.
On to Blackfriars, Southwark and London Bridge, where mid-stream there were ranks of frothing, churning whitecaps. We didn’t want to go there, and kept to the right, looking for less speed and flatter water behind the HMS Belfast tourist warship and on to Tower Bridge where all was calm and it was no drama to pass under the middle, as more tourists above waved.
It may sound like a scene from a James Bond movie, but in 1952 a #78 double-decker bus successfully jumped a three-foot gap when one of the ‘bascules’ lifted unexpectedly. The postcard (left) dramatises the event. Having got to this point so fast, we decided we may as well carry on the hour or so to Greenwich, as we knew down here the river opened out, tourist boat traffic dropped off and there were no more bridges or other fluvial furniture to cause weird wave formations.
Out past Wapping and Rotherhithe, the Thames is lined with converted warehouses or new apartments, shielding the less glamorous council estates of the East End. Soon we’re passing Canary Wharf, once the Port of London, now a mini-Manhattan of office blocks built in the 1980s when the financial boom kicked off in London. Those guys weren’t having such a good week either – one trader on the TV news was filmed swatting his Perrier off his desk in frustration at that day’s collapse, but at least they weren’t running amok and setting fire to their ties.
The river meandered south putting us into the wind, but it was good to crank up some solid effort. Even here the odd Greenwich-bound tour boat still threw out their mini tsunamis which crashed with a roar along the banks behind us and were fun to negotiate up to the point where you thought, ‘ooo-er, hold on a minute, am I’m surfing here!?’ Otherwise, the broad river gets a bit dull along this section and soon enough the wooded hill of Greenwich Observatory and the prime meridian peeped out from behind a bend. Steve was a bit pooped for spinning the ill-fitting Solar along at Incept speeds. And having used my huge Werner Corry paddle, I too was suffering from some elbowitis. We came ashore by the Cutty Sark tea clipper, lifted the boats carefully over the broken glass and gravel, up over a fence, aired down and headed for the station. We did this 21-mile run on a neapish tide of just 3.8m – they drop to 3.5m and rise to 5m this time of year at Richmond (it’s about a metre more at London Bridge). That took us only 4 hours actual paddling which must be the fastest 20 miles I’ve ever done in a paddle boat. Slowed down by locks, inland of Richmond the freshwater Thames can be a bit boring, but I wouldn’t fancy coming through Westminster at the height of an ebbing spring tide on a busy summer’s day with a backwind. At such times it’s probably not a place for total beginners in tippy hardshells, but as long as you’re ready to get stuck in, it is of course good fun and you can be sure of a big audience. Just make sure you clip on a Go Pro to catch the action! The tidal Thames starts at Teddington Lock, about three miles upriver from Richmond. You need to time Richmond Lock just downstream of the Twickenham Bridge (A316) correctly, 10 minutes downstream from our put-in at Water Lane. I did not notice it as it’s flooded at HW when it’s just another bridge. It’s actually a barrage to hold water upriver around Richmond once the tide turns. There’s a roller pass for kayaks on the left, if you find it closed.
You don’t need any sort of permit or BCU membership to kayak the tidal Thames, as you technically do upstream of Teddington. As long as you’re wearing a pfd, keep right and stay out of the way, the police patrolling the river will probably ignore you.
A fun shorter packboating section would be the 8 miles from Putney to Tower Bridge, both with good transport links and passing all the classic London icons which people of my age will recognise from the idealised Thames TV logo (left) from the 1970s. Once the tide drops enough, exposing the sandy riverbed, taking out is easy enough with a packboat, even if it means climbing up a vertical ladder as we did last time (above). Elsewhere there are several steps or jetties.