Distant Horizon Expedition:

Sea Kayak across the Torres Strait


by Andrew Linton, Swan Canoe Club, Western Australia   back to Paddlers' Stories Index

"Steady, steady, I think we've got visitors!" The voice from the rear seat breaks into my paddling daydream. Visitors? We're half way into a forty kilometre crossing and the only visitors we are likely to see have big teeth! I nervously scan the surrounding ocean while maintaining a steady paddling rhythm.

My thoughts slide from a pleasant analysis of the last book I'd read to, "What the hell am I doing here?"

It had all started over a meal in Freo with my mate, Robbo, and his wife. "Do you want to paddle the Torres Strait?" he had asked. I looked over at my wife.

"In a Klepper?" "You're on."

Kleppers are collapsible canvas, rubber and timber framed kayaks, very stable and easy to transport in their collapsed and packed state.

The plan was simple: borrow the Klepper (that's the bit I liked), fly up to Thursday Island, just off the tip of Cape York, assemble and paddle the canoe across the Strait, down the coast of Papua New Guinea to Daru and fly or paddle back, depending on time constraints. Sounds easy. Of course a paddler musn't forget tiger sharks, sea snakes, crocodiles or currents that flow up to seven knots!

The next ten months were spent training in the Klepper: numerous Rottnest crossings and a side trip on the coast, Bremer Bay to Hopetoun plus writing to the various island communities for permission to land. Apart from two or three islands around Thursday Island (the administration centre for the area) the other islands we were to visit are closed communities requiring permission from their elected councils to land.

Finally by mid October we were off! For someone who hates flying I had a lot in front of me &endash; Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, then on to Bamaga and Horn Island, adjacent to Thursday Island.

On Horn Island we had arranged to stay with a friend who worked at the airport. This was convenient as some of our equipment had to come up from Cairns on standby the following day. We took the ten minute ferry ride to Thursday Island which has no airport, and arranged customs clearance to leave Australian waters. There are 138 islands scattered around the Strait, of which only seventeen are occupied. This is mainly due to chronic water shortages. We planned to leap frog through seven or eight islands to the last Australian one, Saibai. Saibai Island is only three kilometres from mainland Papua New Guinea.

We would then enter Papua New Guinean territorial waters and paddle east down the coast to Daru Island, which is their administrative centre for the area.

We spent a pleasant three days on Thursday Island waiting for strong, thirty knot, south easterly winds to abate. The people of the straits are a mixture of Papua New Guinean, Samoan, Aboriginal, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Indian, Philippino, Okinawan, Maori, Fijian and white Australian. The local cemetary was fascinating!

Finally, on the fourth day we made a break for the Tuesday Islets. With strong tidal flows and wind of 25 knots against us, we covered ten kilometres in three hours! We rested up the next day and waited for the wind to drop.

Our next crossing was 38 kilometres across the notorious "Paddock" on a north east bearing to Nagir Island. The "Paddock" is the shipping channel for cargo vessels coming up to the east coast of Cape York heading for the Gulf of Carpentaria and points north.

We left at 11 am on a full tide, the tide charts indicating the ebbing tide in our favour for up to eight hours.

The next eight hours were hard yakka! Confused seas, occasionally breaking over the boat and a 15-20 knot wind on our starboard side. The shark we thought we saw turned out to be a trick of the light, or was it? We did come across a giant turtle which dived as soon as it saw us.

We arrived just on dark with the tide out and had to stagger ashore over the reef for 100m with our gear and then the boat. No moon. A quick brew and we were asleep under fly tarps, in half an hour.

Nagir Island was the traditional home of the Mills family and used to support up to 65 people. In the sixties, as the water supply on the island dried up, the people moved to Thursday Island. There are over one hundred graves on the island, dating from the 1890s, with quite a few from the 1940s. I tried to imagine spending the war years on these islands, nervously scanning the northern horizon every morning.

All that remains of the community buildings are concrete pads. Luckily for us, someone had built a fishing shack with an adjacent rainwater tank. We were carrying a month's supply of food, medical equipment and emergency gear, including a satellite positioning beacon (EPIRB) and a VHF marine radio, but only fifty litres of water between the two of us. With care, that could last ten days, but a hard day's paddling in the tropics sees consumption rise.

The following day the wind had increased to 25 knots due east, with gusts as high as 44 knots. With no land mass around this wind was constant day and night. Our next island was Ulu, a short hop of twenty kilometres due east! We ended up waiting seven days on Nagir for a break in the weather; seven days on an island two kilometres long and half a kilometre wide. We decided to watch our food consumption and I ate coconuts till I was sick of them! For three days we explored the island and communed with our resident pair of five foot thresher sharks in the lagoon. Then? We mostly slept or thought of unobtainable recipes to while away the hours.

Finally, on the eigth day we sensed a break in the weather and pushed off for Ulu. The seas were still disturbed but we covered the twenty kilometres in three and a half hours. Ulu is small, half a kilometre by half a kilometre, and very barren. Dry grasses, rock, some trees and grasshoppers. We climbed a small hill and oriented ourselves with the map. We could see the next island faintly through the haze and a barge on its way north.

We left the following morning for Sassie Island, 20 km away, and reached the edge of the flat fringeing reef in three and a half hours. We stood on the reef in twelve inches of water with white tip reef sharks flitting around our legs. Twenty minutes and a chocolate bar later, we pushed off for Yam Island, about ten kilometres distant. It was very hot and I hadn't been drinking enough. The wind had died and my paddling was lethargic. The crossing took two and a half hours. Due to currents and winds our paddling times were variable and I had given up trying to compare our paddle times to West Australian conditions.

Yam was our first community island since leaving Thursday Island and we immediately introduced ourselves to the chairman. We were offered accomodation by a local of Papuan descent. We spent the following day sightseeing and talking to the islanders. My cameras worked overtime! The barge we had seen from Ulu Island had been taking water to Yam from Thursday Island. The local population of approximately two hundred were playing host to guests from surrounding islands for a two day religious meeting and the local water supply couldn't cope.

Canoeing is a lost art to the island people. They all have fourteen foot aluminium dinghies with 40 hp motors (the Holden Commodore of the straits) so the local primary school children were very interested in the talk we gave them.

Yam has a small airstrip and after talking to a couple of charter pilots we decided to finish our trip in Saibai Island as Daru Island in Papua New Guinea had no regular flights and we were running out of paddling time. We would have had to charter a flight from Daru to Thursday Island, a distance of around three hundred kilometres, at a cost of $930 Australian.

We left Yam, having obtained permission from the Council to land on Gabba Island, which is a traditional home to the people on Yam, but now deserted due to malevolent "spirits". People from Yam will visit the island but will not stay there overnight.

The sea was calm, there was no wind and it was very hot. The 22 kilometre crossing took four hours; hey, we weren't in any hurry. Having planned our departure around the tides we arrived nearly on dark and unloaded on the edge of the reef platform. After four trips ashore with equipment, the tide started flowing in and we were able to float the boat the two hundred metres to shore. This exercise, in near dark, was made more interesting by the dozens of small sharks that were flooding in with the tide.

We spent the following day on Gabba, which, "spirits" aside, we found to be one of our most idyllic campsites. We had three foot monitor lizards and the odd rat investigating our food containers. That night we observed strange lightning on the horizon which was somewhere in the highlands of New Guinea.

Our next crossing was forty kilometres to Duaun, in mostly shallow water (1-6 metres) with some shoals. If the wind picked up it couldget interesting. We made good time: five and a half hours. The sea was a bit sloppy with a slight wind from the north east. The last forty minutes we worked hard in the channel between Duaun and Saibai, five kilometres to the north east, as the tide had changed.

We reported to the chairman of Duaun (population: 65) and stayed overnight in the village guest house. On the beach I met a local who had lived in South Fremantle and we ended up on a mental pub crawl of Freo. We could see the coast of Papua New Guinea from our guest house.

We crossed the channel to Saibai in 11/2 hours, with the tide working beam on, and landed in front of the council offices. We arranged to stay in the school guest house and while waiting for a tractor to carry our gear, we yarned with an old fella on the waterfront.

Old George told us how lucky we were to have been held up on Nagir Island during the "big winds". Last week the beach front we had just landed on had been littered with dugong bodies and offal. Schools of tiger and hammerhead sharks had been snapping at anything floating on the water. Apparently it had been a good hunt for both man and beast.

I stared across the three kilometre channel to the Papuan mainland and reflected on the characters and places of the past weeks. Weeks where I had experienced the full spectrum of human emotions from adrenalin pumping fear to the soul destroying lows of frustration and boredom. I immediately began plans for a return visit. 

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