Esperance to Perth by Les Allen, Sea Kayak Club, Western Australia
© 2000, Les Allen
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It was 6:00 a.m., and I had just finished packing my sea kayak, as I had done many times before-but this time it was different. We were packing for a trip from Esperance to Perth in Western Australia, covering 1200 kilometres of rough, rocky coastline that is frequently lashed by the Southern Ocean. We would be the first to paddle the southwest corner of Australia unsupported. I was excited, as this moment was the culmination of 12 months of meticulous planning and poring over aerial photos trying to find the often-elusive landing sites. My excitement was tempered by a touch of fear. All of the tourist information about the south coast warns of "dangerous coastline" and contains phrases such as "king waves can kill," and these warnings were playing on my mind. We had just had two weeks of extremely windy conditions, and the four-day forecast was for further extreme conditions.
I looked up to see gear spread everywhere, John running around organising, and Tell deep in conversation with his wife, Wendy. I was very comfortable with these blokes. We had paddled thousands of kilometres together, and I had complete confidence in their skills and courage.
Wendy had driven us down to Esperance the day before, and we had camped overnight at a caravan park near the beach. While we would be paddling back to Perth, Wendy and the kids would be staying in Esperance for a holiday.
We launched our kayaks five kilometres east of the port of Esperance, in a sheltered bay. Tell's family waved and shouted encouragement as we paddled off into light winds. Snug in my kayak, I felt relaxed. I settled into my paddle rhythm, watching islands glide by. Five kilometres west of town, as we approached Observation Point, we picked up the flash of mirrors, and saw Tell's family on top of the cliff, waving. Seeing the mirror flashes reminded me of Paul Caffyn. He was the first person to paddle this section of coastline, and his support crew guided him into safe landings with mirrors and a radio.
The wind and waves were steadily building behind us, and the first white caps appeared. I felt the stern start to rise and, with three strong paddle strokes, I was off and running. The swell was about 2 meters high, and the wind wave was around 1.5 meters-ideal conditions for making good speed down wind. We had planned to stop at Plum Pudding Beach for lunch, but when we got there, we learned that it would, be a three-kilometre paddle into the beach, and we did not like the size of the swells steaming into the bay. The Southern Ocean has a big difference in swell size. Most times you get a 2-meter swell, then every so often a few 3- to 4-meter sets come by. For a safe landing, timing is everything. Paddling back out into the wind would take an extra hour, so we decided to forgo lunch and do the 51 kilometres non-stop.
It was only 1:30 p.m. when we neared the headland where we were going to camp. We had made very good time, and I didn't feel that tired; the training was paying off. As we approached the headland, the seas picked up, and the wind was blowing at least 25 knots. Low cliffs with headlands punctuate this area. Where there are beaches inside the bays, they are typically formed on wave-cut platforms, and have large, dumping waves.
We could see nothing of the bay and beach we were hoping to land on. I had memorised the aerial photo, and could pick out the features of the headland, so I knew we were in the right place. Closer to the headland, where the water was shallower and the swells were reaching the bottom, the waves had a "saw tooth" look. We braced into the whitecapped wind waves. A large wave picked me up as it crested. As I braced into the whitecap, the water washed across my boat and I caught a glimpse of breaking waves in front of me. As I got closer, I could make out a break closing off the mouth of the bay. It wasn't supposed to be there. The photo had deceived us; it must have been taken on a calmer day. It was difficult to see from outside the break what it was like. I signalled for a raft up. Tell and John moved in as close as possible, and shouted across the howling wind. I was the leader, but Tell was the better surfer, and we looked to him for his opinion. He shouted, "It doesn't look too bad-the waves are spilling, not dumping."
Since there were no other landing sites in the area, we didn't have a choice. John and I back paddled, letting the whitecaps wash over on the boats, as Tell disappeared into the white water. From the top of a large wave, I saw him at the rock reef in the middle of the bay. He disappeared behind the waves, and the next time we saw him, he was on the beach calling us in with hand signals.
John went next. He disappeared into the white water while I stayed outside the break waiting for my turn. I was busy looking for John when I heard behind me the "whoosh" of spilling water. A huge wave suddenly lifted my boat and angled it forward, and I started racing down the front of the wave. As I surfed, my panic rose: I was a riding a 180 kg javelin doing 20 kilometres per hour. When I regained my composure, I saw the rock reef straight in front of me. I gave it a hard right rudder, leaning the boat, my heart pounding. As my bow came around, to my horror, there was John in dead water at the end of the rock reef. At the top of my lungs, I screamed a warning. Fortunately, he heard me. Glancing behind him, he put his boat on edge and swept the bow around. I raced through the two-meter gap, my heart still pounding, and paddled straight to the beach, leaving him to take the wave sideways behind me.
I felt invincible. I apologised to John, chatting excitedly. It took a few minutes for the adrenalin to drain from my body as we dragged boats up the beach and looked around for a campsite. Only one day out, and if I had hit John it would have been the end of the trip.
Choosing a campsite was easy. We were on a 200-meter-long by 20-meter-wide beach with a small cliff at the back. We dragged the boats above the high-tide mark and put up the tents in the sand. After the adrenalin rush from moments before, I laid on my air mattress out of the wind and enjoyed the sunshine warming my body. My body and mind sank into a deeply relaxed state. I watched a white-bellied sea eagle glide back and forth on the wind above me. Rolling onto my side, I watched terns squabbling and playing at the water's edge.
On the fifth morning of our trip, my eyes opened at what felt like time to get up. I tried to focus on my watch in the dark. "Tell, what time is it?" I shouted. "Time to get up" was the answer. Four a.m. already! I was warm and snug in my sleeping bag, and did not want to get out. The days were passing very quickly, as they do when you're having fun. It was hard to believe this was day five. We had paddled past rugged, rocky coastline, and bays with white sandy beaches. Munglinup Beach, inside the reef, was one of the only sheltered beaches we had passed. We were now camping in a sheltered bay at Powel Point. The weather had been consistent, with the wind dying down around dawn, then picking up to 25 knots by 8 or 9 in the morning. The wind gusts were a lot stronger than we had expected-up to 45 knots-and I had to be on the alert at all times, as my paddle could be wrenched from my hands. Given the conditions, I was surprised at how relaxed and comfortable we all felt.
This morning, instead of the usual calm wind at this time of day, my tent was being buffeted by strong winds. Not a good sign. I crawled out and stood with the wind buffeting me and sending a chill down my spine. Tell and John were standing around instead of getting organised for the day, so it was obvious they weren't happy, either. Instead of getting breakfast, I took my wind gauge and headed for the point. Twenty-five knots with gusts to 45, and it was only 4:30 am. Across the bay, I could see whitecaps streaking off the waves.
With breakfast over and half packed, we waited for a weather forecast, not knowing whether to launch or lay over. There was a gale warning and the forecast was for strengthening winds. We had only about 40 kilometres to go to Hopetoun, but we weren't sure whether we should risk it. Tell was for going, John had not made his decision, and I was erring on the cautious side.
Tell is a natural athlete: strong, with a lot of confidence in his own ability. John is very fit, with an incredible power-to-weight ratio. The most experienced paddler, he is quiet and shy. He normally goes with the flow, but when he voices his opinion, it's usually worth listening to. I am the analytical type who likes to evaluate all aspects and looks at the worst-case scenario. Our personalities really compliment each other, which is why we have never had a group dynamic problem, even in quite stressful situations.
After the first ten kilometres, there was beach almost all the way to Hopetoun, where we knew we would have a safe landing. Providing the wind held for another two hours, we would be OK. If the sea got too rough after that, we could always crash land on the beach. We would live, but the surf could damage the boats. We decided to go. We launched into small waves from our protected beach and started heading out into the wind. Tell and John were in front of me as the waves started to increase in size. As we came even with the base of the rocky headland, the waves were two to three meters high, and the wind was howling. Leaning forward, I swore at the wind. I paddled hard in the lull at the base of the wave, then paddled hard upward, where I punched through the whitecap. Water rushed up the boat and smacked me in the face, stinging my eyes. I crashed down the back of the wave and wiped the water from my eyes, only to do it all over again. At the top of the wave, if the paddle hadn't been feathered, the blast of wind would have snatched the paddle out of my hands. I was not happy with the punishment the boats were taking this early in the trip, and worried about the possibility of stress cracks. After nearly an hour of punishment, we reached the point. Around the point, we turned down wind and averaged ten kilometres per hour. The swell and the wind wave were both from the same direction so, if we timed it right, we sometimes caught a swell. I paddled flat out, picked up a wind wave, then, using the speed, leaned forward and tipped over the front of the swell-and I was on. The kayak planed forward at an incredible speed, with blinding water sheeting off the bow. It bounced and bumped, then planted straight into the back of a wind wave, where I wallowed up to my chest in water before the kayak surfaced like a submarine. It was hard work, but exhilarating.
At 1:00, I could just see the stone jetty in the distance, with Hopetoun behind it. I picked up a little wave just as I rounded the end of jetty, and it petered out into flat water in the lee. Very pumped, we landed on the town beach, feeling invincible. It was the height of the tourist season but, surprisingly, the beach was bare. When we did catch up with tourists when we went into town to resupply, they were very unhappy about the wind spoiling their beach and boating holiday. The locals thought we were crazy, but they were impressed with the seaworthiness our sea kayaks.
As we left Hopetoun the next morning, we were soaring with confidence from the previous day's paddle, and set off without checking the map and compass. We had planned a short day's paddle to Edwards Point. Someone had said Edwards Point was the headland way off on the horizon. It seemed to take forever to get there. After several hours of paddling, I voiced my concern, and we put it down to the Leeuwin current that we had been told moves in and off the coast in this area. When we finally arrived at the point, the wind was howling. As we paddled around the bluff and took in the shoreline, we were not happy with what we saw. The beach we expected to find was there, but the swells coming around the headland were building and heading straight in to the beach. This was not Edwards Point. The options weren't good as we looked along the rough, rugged coastline. We were stalled, trying to decide what to do, when a large, spilling swell came past. It caught John looking at his rudder, and over he went. I could not help thinking, "this is not the place to do an assisted rescue." Fortunately, his roll was good. There was now stress in the air-a lot of stress. I no longer felt invincible. Tell made the decision: we are going in here. He set off to lead the way as John and I drifted closer to the danger zone. From the top of a large swell, I looked in and my heart stopped as I saw the jagged rocks on the beach and Tell's paddle flashing amidst them. That's it, I thought, we will be walking out of this one. On the next wave crest, I was surprised to see Tell's boat on the beach. John started to head in, but his boat turned in the white water, and he was heading for the jagged rocks. He quickly turned upside down to brake, and bailed out on the back of the wave. With Tell's help, they swam and walked the boat to safety. My turn was next. I was on the back of a wave. I missed the first break, then picked up a small wave and surfed it straight to the beach.
We landed on a powdery white sand beach, with the cliff and mountains of Fitzgerald National Park looming behind. After setting up camp, we set to work to fix Tell's boat. He had dodged the rocks in the white water, only to hit a small rock on the beach hard enough to put two holes in the hull. After we got it repaired, bush walking was the order of the day, and we spent the afternoon exploring and getting some exercise. We worked our way upward through dense scrub brush to the base of the cliff, then scrambled to the top to see the view. Surf beaches and rocky spits stretched as far as the eye could see. It was New Year's Eve, 2000.
Early the next morning, we pondered how to get off the beach. We decided to send John out first. I farther up the beach, spotting, and Tell was holding John 's boat in the white water. On the next lull, Tell pushed John off and he lit the after burner. He punched through the first wave, then the second and the third. The fourth wave stopped him dead and surfed him back. He had to paddle hard to make ground before the next wave hit him. The lull was over, and the wind had blown him away from the beach, so he now had rocks behind him. If he were knocked out of his boat, it would be smashed on the rocks. The fifth wave was huge. John paddled up and hit the curl. As the wave crashed, he was sucked backwards again. Still upright and paddling like fury, he hit the sixth wave, punched through the curl, and was out. Tell and I started to breathe again.
Now Tell and I had the problem of getting off. One could hold the boat and spot for the paddler, but then the last one would have no one to help him. Tell suggested we try to swim one boat at a time out. It had worked for him on a previous trip when he could not get passed a big beach break. We rigged his boat and, with flippers on the two of us, we used the boat a bit like a surfboard. We were hanging on to the boat one either side using the flippers to try to duck through the waves. We got to the third break and were stopped dead. Back to the drawing board. Holding Tell in the white water, it was difficult to pick the lull, but I managed to pick it perfectly, and he punched through all four waves without a problem.
Now it was my turn. I stood, straddling the boat, so that I could see out to the back of the surf, to try to pick the lull. The cockpit was filling up, my electric bilge pump was on, and I was scared. After what seemed like an eternity, I took the plunge, dropped on my seat, popped on my spray deck and headed out. The first two waves were no problem, then the third dumped right in front of me. The uplift picked up the front of my boat and threw me over sideways. Before going in, I caught a glimpse of the rocks. My body coursed with fear and adrenalin. I had to roll. I hip flicked so hard I pulled a muscle in my side. Sweeping the bow around, I surfed back to the beach, regained my composure, and then headed out again. Still under the effect of adrenalin, I was able to punch out without a problem. It took an hour and a half to get off the beach and another fifteen minutes to get my heart rate down. We still had 63 kilometres to go, so I settled down and worked the waves. We arrived at Corner Cove very tired.
Albany was the psychological half way point and after 11 exciting days in rough seas, we nosed into the Kalgan River and landed at Emu Point. We had decided to stay in Albany for a rest day to mark the half-way point of the journey as well as resupply and do repairs. The Albany Canoe Club came to meet us and we were to stay at Terry Engledowls house. The local paddlers were incredibly hospitable. John's rudder peddle had a cracked hinge and it was whisked away only to be fixed and returned looking brand new and at no charge. We enquired about shops, so Tony Smith bundled us in his car and took us all around town. That night there was a BBQ in our honour at Terry's place where we met some more of the local paddlers. The next day we needed to do fibreglass repairs on Tell's and my boat. At Cheyne Beach I managed to hit some rocks landing in surf and the repairs we did to Tells boat earlier, needed to be redone properly.
Our run of tail winds had come to an end. The forecast was for a series of small fronts to come past, giving us head winds. The next day the forecast was for 15 kn head winds so we organised to leave at our usual 4.00am. Much to our surprise Tony and Murray volunteered to drive us to the old whaling station so we would not have to paddle the 10km from the river mouth. We woke up at 3.30am to a surprisingly chirpy Tony and Murray who proceeded to load al our gear into the vehicles. The launch was easy and we paddled off in the lee of the headland into a chilly morning. We rounded Bald Head which is a huge rounded granite headland and headed out along 43km of spectacular granite cliff into a 15kn head wind. After only another 30 minuets the wind picked up to 20kn, the wind wave was rushing up the boat and the rebound wave was hitting us sideways making it a very wet paddle. There was an ominous band of black clouds on the horizon so we decided not to risk it, as if the wind picked up we could be forced onto the cliff at the mercy of the crashing waves. After five hrs of paddling we arrived back at Terry's place. They actually seemed happy to see the strange freeloaders back and extended their hospitality again. That afternoon we taught rolling to some of the local paddlers and then that evening were invited out to dinner at a restaurant. That night at 9.00pm we were nodding off at the table dead tired. So much for our rest day, come weekend.
We decided the next morning to paddle off from the river as we felt the hospitality was more than what we deserved. It was 2:00 p.m. I was tired-very tired. Dunskey Beach, our destination for the night, did not appear to be getting any closer. The sky was streaked with cirrus clouds and the sun was warm. My eyes kept blinking shut. The coastline was granite cliff and rough, scraggly bush, indented by occasional small bays with brilliantly white sandy beaches. We had just finished paddling 43 kilometres alongside cliffs that started at Bald Head near Albany, and that went to Port Harding. Instead of going into Port Harding, we were cutting across the bay, planning to camp at Dunsky Beach at Torbay Head-a total of 63 kilometres from where we started at Albany, into a light head wind.
Finally, Dunsky was just in front of me. I climbed out of the boat, stretched, and looked around: another perfect campsite on a beach that was 60 meters long and 20 meters wide, with the usual small cliff at the back and granite cliffs on each side. Exhausted, I slowly unpacked. I pack my kayak so the tent goes in last and out first. I pull things out of the boat and pack the tent in exactly the same manner every time. Tell always gives me a hard time about my compulsion for organisation, but I can find anything in total darkness, at any time. I sorted out what we were having for dinner before a well-earned rest.
Although we had already had pasta or rice every day, we were so hungry that we didn't get sick of it. I really enjoyed creating different meals like Pasta Carbonara mixed with spicy Thai curried tuna. I would have liked to have spent more time on culinary delights, as I was always just a little hungry, regardless of the huge amount of food we ate. I lay back on the beach with my eyes closed, the swish of the water reverberating around my head. Relaxed, I drifted off to sleep.
Day 17 and it was back to the light head winds and hard paddling. It was a long day's slog, but the scenery made up for it. Because of the cliffs alongside us, there was a lot of rebound as we paddled up to Chatham Island. As we entered a small, rocky bay, seals splashed and played at the far end. We paddled over and watched their antics as they darted and turned under our boats. Leaving the seals behind, we paddled over to Cliffy Head, two kilometres away, and set up camp at the back of a gorge in the cliff line. We wished we could spend more time here, but the weather forecast told us we could only expect a few days of tail winds, and we were coming up to the dreaded 102-kilometer section from Windy Harbour to Augusta. This section is mostly cliff, and any beaches are inundated with heavy surf, and are inaccessible. The charts show very deep water right up to a 10-metre shelf where the swells break along the coast line. It had been very difficult to get accurate information on this section, as there are no roads, only 4-wheel-drive tracks.
We broke camp at Cliffy Head at 4:30 a.m. and headed out of the gorge into rough conditions. However, our old tail winds were back, so we were happy. At Windy, while we enjoyed the same hospitality from the locals, we worried about the 102-kilometre section we would soon have to face. Black Point, at half way, was the only place to try to land, and the locals did not think we would get in safely on a southern swell. The four-day forecast predicted unseasonable weather, with the wind turning to strong head winds-not an ideal situation. We had to go the next morning, while we had the tail winds.
We got up at 3:30 a.m. so we could hit the water at 4:15. It was pitch dark, with rough seas. None of us had paddled 102 kilometres non-stop before, and the conditions were not inviting. We carried our gear down to the water's edge without talking. My torch batteries died, and I cursed. I found the spare batteries and finished packing my boat. Pushing off into white water, I felt nervous. It was still only half-light as we paddled off. When the sun rose to an overcast sky and good paddling conditions, my tensions dissipated. As the day wore on, I could see storm clouds building behind us, and I again began to feel nervous. At about midday, the storm hit. Strong, gusty winds whipped up the sea. The swells stayed the same, but the wind wave was steep and fast. Whitecaps constantly washed over the boats, and all we could do was hunker down and plod on. I started to get vertigo, and could not tell how high the waves were until I surfed down them. I had never before experienced this strange feeling; it was very disorienting. It eased after a while, as the hours and kilometres slowly passed. When a rainsquall came blustering through, keeping us on our toes, the feeling returned.
John's old Nordkapp sea kayak was a lot slower than the Mirage boats Tell and I were paddling, so he had to work harder than Tell and I throughout the trip. After ten hours of non-stop paddling, this was starting to have an effect. After another two hours of paddling, it was sheer willpower that kept John going. Tell and I were faring better, but we would have been hard pressed to help John in the big seas if he were not able to go on. Our biggest fear was hypothermia. The rain, wind, cold water and fatigue were sapping our energy, and stopping to let more cold seep in or, worse, capsizing were not pleasant options. Fortunately, John is a very tough bloke and, after 14 1/2 hours of continual paddling in rough seas with loaded boats, we made Augusta, on the eastern side of Cape Leeuwin.
We were very relieved to have finally made it. To paddle 102 kilometres non-stop in those conditions, to us, was a huge feat. It's hard to describe the feeling of satisfaction, elation and pure exhaustion we felt as we congratulated ourselves. We had pushed the safety margin to the limit, and would not recommend this as a smart thing to do. Then we had to climb back into our boats to paddle another 100 metres to the caravan park where we would be camping. The caravan park owner shook her head in disbelief when we told her that we had just paddled the 102-kilometre section. She told us that the people at Windy Harbour who had put us up the night before were surprised to find us gone in the morning. They had called a relative in Augusta, who told them that the sea was so rough that anyone would be mad to go out in it today. The concerned hosts then rang the caravan park to see if we had arrived, as they were very worried about our safety.
From Augusta, we turned the corner at Cape Leeuwin, and started heading north for the first time. Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturist is an area that is renowned for its surfing, with cliffs and surf beaches. International surf competitions are held in this area. On three previous trips we had tried to paddle the cape-to-cape, only to be stopped by huge seas and howling winds. This trip was different. We had unseasonable offshore winds, so the ocean was smooth with a low swell. We did the cape-to-cape in three days of easy paddling, and were able to get in close to the coastal rocks and reef, enjoying a rare opportunity to see the coast close up.
With the west coast ahead of us, we mentally relaxed. There were plenty of safe, sandy beaches stretching ahead, and an afternoon sea breeze would help to push us along. We looked forward to getting up late and cruising along all day, stopping when we felt like it, and enjoying the last leg of our trip.
We rounded Cape Naturaliste and camped at Busselton with 4 days to go. Next morning the 4 day weather forecast was for strong off shore headwinds and rain squalls. We were devastated. We headed out into strong head winds and hard paddling. We had to stay right on the shore line to get some lee from the sand hills and struggle on all day to get the distance done. Our tempers were close to the surface and we felt cheated. We had done the hard legs, taken the risks and this was supposed to be easy. After 3 days we were very frustrated. It was just before lunch, my back ached as we pushed hard into the persistent wind, passing a sandy beach I had no interest in. Then we were hit by a huge rain squall. My head was bowed and I was cursing. The rain was so strong it was stinging me through my clothes. We had to land and take shelter on the veranda of a toilet block. I was ready to quit the trip. Mentally we were all very low. Sitting watching the poring rain I got mad. Very mad, with the weather and myself. How dare it make such a good trip so miserable. My anger turned into defiance. We were going to finish the trip regardless of what the weather did. We only had a day and a half to go so as the rain eased we headed back out to more hard slog. We learned later that this was the wettest day in Perth's history, and it was the middle of summer!
The last day, the weather eased, as if to mock us. We had fine conditions to paddle the last 30 kilometres. As we approached South Beach at Fremantle, we could see what appeared to be tiny people gathering on the rock brake-water to greet us. We paused for a moment to reflect and get our thanks and congratulations to ourselves out of the way in private, as we all suddenly felt a little emotional. This trip had pushed me harder both mentally and physically than any other sea trip I have done, and to say that I had mixed feelings was an understatement. I really did not want the trip to end-after the excitement and challenge, I was not looking forward to work and the normal routine-but I was looking forward to seeing my wife and kids. Twenty-eight days after we started, it was the end. We had covered over 1200 kilometres, had a lot of excitement, and had tested ourselves. To do a trip at that pace pushes interpersonal relationships to the limit, but we had had no problems, and had worked as a team. We paddled into the beach to cheers from the group of well wishers. My wife and three daughters were there to meet me, and life seemed great.
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