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 Canoeing in Western Australia

 The Shark Bay Kayak Trip, Easter 2002

by Sue Swain

© 2002, Sue Swain

click here for pics of this trip

How does one decide what is worth pursuing? I get this e-mail, which reads: Carnarvon Kayakers are planning a trip across Shark's Bay, spending the night on an island, and does anyone want to come? Of course I would!!

They promised to have yachts to accompany us, for safety. Only problem is, there was no contact address or name, except "wilt". Unperturbed, I rang Robyn Khorshid, who had a contact for the Cararvon Canoe Club, and "wilt" answered the phone!! He said that they had looked at organising a Club trip across the bay, but it turned out to be so complicated with permits, flares, sea anchors, etc that he had given it away, and was just
getting a few friends together, and if we wanted to come along we could.

Robyn said she would have to get a "proper" boat, as all of her kayaks (of which she has a few!!) were not sea worthy for such a trip, which she borrowed from a friend. We had to be at Gladstone, a mere dot on the map,
on Thursday evening, the night before the Easter weekend.

At 5pm on Tues evening, Jackie (my niece from the USA) and the two lads she'd been travelling with in the southwest, Ian and Matt, appeared back on our doorstep, all excited about the trip, and asked if they could come, too. The boys called around to all the kayak rental shops, and eventually found a double kayak for hire ($200 for the week!!), and went down to pick it up.

Thursday, I got the girls up at 4am, finished loading the car, and set out at 5am, not knowing how long it would take me, but knowing that it would be a long drive, and I wanted it over as soon as possible.

Chris always gets me "cassette stories" to listen to in the car, and I put one on, which was an unabridged 5hr book....the road and the scenery hardly changes, but the story was good. The girls dozed in the backseat.

We got to the Overlander Roadhouse, on the Great Northern Highway, where there is a junction into Shark's Bay, a mere 130km down the road. We purchased tee shirts, showing Shark's Bay on a map, as a momento of our trip, then headed the final 55km North, turned onto a dirt track, and drove towards the bay.

Arriving at the bay, there were several groups of people there, some camping, lots of boats and endless amounts of confusion. And tons of flies! So thick that you almost couldn't swat them away. Ugh!! One party was trying to launch a boat. Robyn had driven in, and had pitched her tent, miles from anyone. We hung around in the middle, didn't know quite what to do, as I was still a bit dazed from the drive up. This older gentleman came over for a chat, and we got to talking. I asked him if he was from Carnarvon, and he said he was, and his name was Bill. I assumed that he was with our party. He invited us over to use his cooking fire, as we didn't bring any wood, and so I went over, pitched the tent, and came back and started cooking. The sun was setting, and I still hadn't met "wilt", but assumed that he'd come around and introduce himself when he got settled in. I cooked the meal, we ate, it was now dark, and still no one, not even Robyn, had shown up. I finally asked these guys who "Wilt" was, and they had no idea...turns out, they were local fishermen, and were just being friendly and knew nothing about the intended paddle across Shark's Bay the following day.

Then out of the dark, this guy came along, and asked me if I was "Sue", and he told me that I had missed the induction, and that they were just starting to explain how to use the flares, and would I please come and join them. They were about 2 campfires away, a huge group of people, all a part of our group. They had finished eating, and were about ready for bed. We took our flares, and went back to our tents. I couldn't sleep, and was far too nervous about the paddle. It was to be a full moon the next night, so the light was bright, shining through the tent fabric. I finally dozed off, to wake up at 6am, and we were to be ready in the water for 6:30am!! I had overslept, but so had Robyn and the lads, so we rushed around, ate, ferried the baggage out to the yachts in what seemed like endless confusion, and then the girls waded out to the yachts, hopped aboard, and we jumped on the kayaks ready to paddle.

There were four kayakers from Perth, Robyn and I on single kayaks, and Ian and Matt sharing a double kayak. It appeared that there were 2 of them from Carnarvon, Andrew and Lee, both on single kayaks. I had assumed that there were lots of paddlers, judging from the number of people at the campfire last night, but not so.

Shark's Bay has been declared a World Heritage Area, and is supposedly in a pristine condition, known to be full of sea life, and over 300 species of sea grasses, one of the greatest concentrations of dirverse seagrasses in
the world. From the shore, we looked out over a large expanse of water, with no island or land mass in sight. As the land around the bay is not very high in altitude, you don't actually see the island until you've paddled about 25km out to sea!! So, you have to take a bearing to ensure that you're moving in the right direction. Andrew had a hand-held GPS, and had plotted out a course for us. Bill, the fisherman, told us to head on a
bearing about 268 degrees, until we cleared the end of the bay, spotted two pole markers, and then headed North. So off we went, the four from Perth, using the buddy system to keep track of each other. And in ten minutes, the guys from Carnarvon were mere specks on the horizon, going off at a completely different compass bearing to us!! Robyn got a bit panicky, and insisted that we follow their bearing, as they were the ones with the GPS, so we started to close the gap, and eventually, all got together, and kept together most of the way over. (In other words, the guys would often wait for me, and let me catch up with them, so we could stay together!!)

As the crow flies, we had 35km to paddle the first day. The island, Faure, is about 10km long, but is very low in height. From where we sat, we couldn't see any island ahead of us!! It was just open water, not a land
mass in sight!! After about 10km, we all agreed that we hoped we'd just paddle off the end of the world, and get it over with sooner rather than later.

The first fish to swim right under my boat was a Shovel-nosed Shark, about 1.5m long. A mere baby!! The water was crystal clear, absolutely dead calm on the surface, and as you paddled, it was like you were snorkelling, only sitting in the kayak at the same time. The floor of the sea bed was fascinating!! We would see absolutely everything under us. Soon, we saw "breaching" in the distance, which turned out to be Dugongs (also know as sea cows), which were fairly big in size, say 7-10m in length!! That's twice the size of our little kayaks. The paddling was slow and steady, the sea ever-changing. We saw a sea snake (deadlier than a land snake, no known anti-venom). We saw a manna ray, dolphins, a turtle about 1m in diameter, and lots of fish.

After about 5 hours of paddling, the leading kayaker, Andrew, appeared to be off his boat, and wading around. We all paddled up, we were now over a shallow sand bar, and we were able to dismount off the kayaks and stretch our legs!! Heavenly, it was. We had a mid-ocean picnic lunch, surrounded by the yachts and the support crew. Tessa and Melissa wanted something to eat, so ate some of my snack food that I had just paddled half-way across the bay with. Why they couldn't eat something on the food box in the yacht was beyond me. All the yachts eventually caught up to us at the picnic spot, and we had a great time, and felt so much better for the break. Then back on the boats. There was a faint outline of land ahead, and so we headed to the southern tip, where the old homestead was. However, as one of the yachts so kindly pointeed out to us, we were actually heading towards the mainland, and the island was still further north, and were were a long way off route!! Ugh!!

North we headed, and as we set out, I went over a deeper section of the water. Just below me, a mother Dugong, with the baby on her back, were floating directly under my kayak!! About 2' under the water. Fantastic!!
Then the male appeared, and he was half again as long as the female---huge. Then two more females came swimming in under me, and I couldn't believe my eyes. They were so gorgeous, and so close, you could almost touch them.!! Ian and Matt came over, and saw them as well. We were so lucky to be on this trip!!

Just then there was a huge splash. I thought the boys had fallen off their kayak. But as it turns out, Ian had thrown in a handline, to fish for his dinner while he paddled over. He had a huge fish on the end of his line.
The fish was so hopping mad that it jumped out of the water, about 2m high, and crash-landed, splashing everywhere. Matt, who was in the front seat of the kayak, just about got whiplash from the jerk on the boat by the fish. He thought that Ian was trying to be funny, and was (again!) paddling backwards, just to get him upset. In the meantime, Ian was trying to land this huge fish, without falling out of the boat. He eventually
reeled it in, and then had a 1m long flopping fish to deal with. So what does one do with a jumping live fish, whilst paddling across Shark's Bay? No, you do not drag it behind the boat, as fishbait for sharks!! Ian
decided the only safe place for the fish was "in" the kayak, between his legs, and held in place with the waterproof cover of the top of the kayak. So, in went the fish, which proceeded to jump around for at least another hour. (That would have felt pretty weird between your legs, and trying to paddle at the same time.)

Faure Island eventually came into view, and all the guys put on a spurt to make landfall and Robyn and I just kept talking away and paddling at the back. However, the tide had now changed, and the paddling was getting
harder and harder. Robyn opted to dash for the beach, while I kept paddling. Only the more I paddled, I seemed to make no progress whatsoever!! Eventually, I felt as if I was going backwards!! I couldn't
figure out what was going on. I thought I must be totally dazed by the sun, or on the verge of delirium. The more I paddled, the further I got away from the island, not towards it!! Eventually, I gave up, signalled one of the passing yachts, who came and picked me up for the last 2km or so into the beach. The tide was running 4 kph against me, plus there was a 2km headwind. So, if I didn't paddle faster than 6kph, I WAS moving
backwards!! Thank heavens for the yacht, and the lift into the bay. I was totally pooped!! We had paddled 41km the first day, what with our nagivational errors earlier on, according to the GPS.

The island had had a homestead on it recently, but was now abandoned. It was all soft sand, and a crappy place to try and pitch and tent, and the flies were horrific!! We ate, and went to bed early, but I couldn't sleep
at all. No matter which way I tried to lie down, my poor body screamed in pain!! I had had really bad leg cramps, and my buttocks hurt from sitting down in one position the whole day. My shoulders were killing me,
and my neck was stiff. My guts ached, from paddling and eating high calorie-type foods. I was sure that I would NOT get back on that kayak the next day.

At 4am, Ian shouted at me to wake up, and so we could get going. The wind was blowing, and it was blowing in the direction we want to travel!! It was a full moon, so by moonlight, we packed up, grabbed a bite to eat, and set out, paddling across the choppy waters, into the moonlight. The early morning stillness, moon trails across the shimmering sea, was only broken by the loud shouts of the Ian, calling "Ow! Ow! Ow!" with each stroke of the paddle. That was exactly how I felt, too. What were we doing? This was pure madness!! The guys headed West, when I thought that we were heading north. I'm an Orienteer, and know what it means to stay on your compass bearing!! We were not heading north and I was not happy. Robyn also agreed that we should be heading north, but thought that we should follow the guys' course. As it turned out, there was a deep channel which ran parallel to the island, and when we hit that, the tide was running with us, plus the wind at our backs, and off we went, paddling in the right direction. I was totally stuffed, my shoulder and back were killing me, and my left elbow (the one I broke many years ago) was screaming in protest. I turned around, hoping to see the yachts, bearing down on us in the wind, but there was no sign of them!! I asked Robyn if she had some anti-inflammatory pills, which she said she did. I took two, and I said that I'd paddle for 20 more minutes, and hopefully the yachts would then be catching us up. No, they weren't.

On and on I paddled, and eventually the pain killers kicked in, and I felt better for about the next 3 hours.
Again, we came to a sandy stretch, and got off to stretch our legs, which really felt good. But, as the time wore on, everyone was just trying to get to the other side, and end the agony of paddling! There weren't any dolphins to cheer us on, nor any dugongs to keep us entertained!! When the final bay came into sight, I almost cried. But paddle, paddle, paddle, was all I could do. Robyn was going strong, Andrew and Lee were way ahead, and going strong. The two lads, Ian and Matt, were nowhere to be seen!! Robyn kept me company, and we kept going. When we hit that shore, I don't think that I've ever been so glad to stand up in my life!! The second day was a mere 25km, but we did it in just over 4.5 hours (for me.) The guys did it in less time, and were a long way ahead of us. The last kilometre, the tide was beginning to change again, and we were so lucky to have had the support of the tidal movement for our paddle that day.

We changed out of our wet clothes, and drove off to soak in an artesian hot spring just down the road a piece. It was so hot, but it felt so good!! It helped to ease the aches and pains. Lee had arranged for drivers for our cars, so that they were waiting for us at the other end of the journey.

We stayed a few more days in the Shark Bay area, and saw as much of the coastline as we could, without 4WD vehicles. The trip was one of the best trips I've ever been on, and thanks goes to Lee and Andrew for organising it, and allowing us to come along.

Jackie, Ian and Matt had to sail back, to pick up their car on the other side of the bay. It took them 10 hours to sail back aboard "Zero", Brian's boat, which had carried Tessa and Melissa over with them. Robyn and I drove
on to Denham, and spent a few days there in the cutest little cottage house a friend of mine, Kelly Chapman. We're sorry we didn't get to see her, and thank her personally for her hospitality...we loved it!!

We arrived home, to find that Andrew had already sent a photo of the mid-ocean picnic lunch!! Marvelous to get it so quickly. The memories are fading, but it has to go down as one of the best trips I've ever done. Thanks, "Wilt" for organising it.

We've since picked up a landsat image of the Shark's Bay, and you can clearly see the sandbar we crossed over on, which is about midway along the length of the bay, which is a known as Faure Sill, which used to be a dry-land link from one side of the bay to the other. We also saw the three distinct channels through the sandbar, which is how the dugongs move along through the bay. The depth of the water is only about 4 km deep, at the deepest, and at this time of the year, the tide is about 1.8 m in depth, so you can see that with that amount of change of levels in the water, the influence of the tide is quite significant, as we found out.

Memories, memories, what a fantastic weekend! We'll do it again, with very little persuasion.

Sue Swain, one of the Perth Kayakers

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