The plan was to attend the Keppel Bay Kayak Symposium and then sneak an extra week out of our busy schedules to enjoy some paddling on the Capricorn coast. I would paddle with Gary and Matt with the stretch objective of reaching Mackay via some of the more remote Islands beyond Shoalwater Bay.
Meanwhile Sharon would explore the Keppels with Anne and Alan and maybe even get down to beautiful Hummocky Island in the south.
With such a tight time frame we had little slack for weather days and as the symposium drew to a close it became apparent that strong cross winds and heavy rain from an approaching complex weather system would likely require us to modify our plans as we paddled in opposite directions out of Keppel Bay.
Matt, Gary and I launched from Yeppoon the next day into a strong and building SE wind. As we portaged over the foredune I saw the air was heavy with salt haze and I cheered at the densely packed whitecaps that filled the horizon. I have enjoyed many thousands of tropical sea miles surfing or sailing these short steep waves in my kayak and this was shaping up to be a lively start to our adventure.
Matt had previously avoided paddling in the tropics on the basis that he would save the easy paddling for his retirement and as he punched out to set sail I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what he expected when I invited him along for a cruise.
Paralleling the coast and heading north toward Corio Bay we became more exposed to the longer swells that sometimes sneak through the Great Barrier Reef. Locals explained to us at the Symposium that around a hundred miles east of Yeppoon there is a break in the reef between North Reef Lighthouse and a reef complex listed on the maritime charts as The Swains. With the right swell period and direction locals take their chances with crocs and sharks to surf the Corio Bar and The Big Dune Surf Reserve just beyond. Officially Agnes Waters well to the south of here is the end of any real surf on the North East Coast of Australia but the wave action on the outer bar at Corio Bay was way too fast and heavy to be local wind waves and we found ourselves beating out to sea to avoid some seriously high walls of water.
Beyond Corio Bay we were surprised to find ourselves being sidesurfed by a couple of big swells breaking heavily in the shallow water; camouflaged by the mess of whitecaps, these breakers seemed to be hiding in amongst the chop. According to my GPS we were sustaining speeds in the high teens for most of our second hour and hitting peaks in the high twenties (kmh)!
As five rocks emerged out of the afternoon glare we moved in closer to shore picking our way through the breaks and eventually surfing into the sheltered southern corner of the beach to investigate a leak in Gary’s boat. He had finished the day with his boat low in the water and his stern awash. In true Gary style he took this serious problem in his stride but we knew we would have to investigate this before heading out again.
The Worst Campsite Ever!
Camping at Five Rocks was a tricky business; the only spot sheltered from the driving wind was tucked under the dunes in the southern corner but on spring tides with a surf running this would be underwater. Fortunately we were a couple of days after springs and the water mark from the previous nights high gave us hope that we could camp on piles of pumice, driftwood and plastic flotsam without being swamped. The moon rose large over the tiny stand of twisted trees perched on five rocks bathing us in light.
There were a few anxious moments with the occasional bigger set sending waves within a metre of our tents but we all slept well as the water receded through to sunrise. Despite the shelter and the view both Gary and Matt rated this campsite amongst their worst ever!
By morning my tent fly was flogging in the wind so I knew our SE was now a fully-fledged Easterly and had ramped up another notch. The new day greeted me with a sand blasting as I exited my tent.
With Gary’s boat to fix and spindrift dancing up the beach I moved my camp deeper into the driftwood and pumice pile and settled in for a leisurely breakfast.
The morning forecast was not too promising with a couple of days of heavy rain ahead and more strong easterlies (crosswinds) slowly moving to Northeast (headwinds).
By middle of the day Gary had isolated the leak to a wear point caused by a custom rudder he had retrofitted a couple of years previous. This was hard to find but easily fixed with epoxy putty and sail tape. The previous day he had taken about 30 litres on board through this fracture but with the repair set, Gary went for a surf and much to our relief the repair was watertight.
Walking, reading and staying out of the wind were order of the day with dinner under Gary’s tarp as the drizzle set in and the tide trapped us again on our little patch of higher ground against the dunes.
Matt even tried his hand at carving some pumice.
Although it seemed our weather window would not open in time for us to finish the trip I still wanted to push North so that at least we could find a better camp for the heavy rain ahead and see a little of the beautiful coastline within the boundaries of the Shoalwater Bay Military Zone.
Matt and Gary are two of the hardiest sea paddlers I know but neither were impressed with my idea to head out to Freshwater Bay, especially as it seemed likely that we would not make Mackay in the allocated time. When we finally hit the beach I had a few doubts myself as I rolled up after being surfed backwards during a badly timed breakout. The next 4 hours provided some of the most engaging, technical paddling I have done in North Queensland with real clapotis and a few overfalls around the Island off Cape Manifold. I had timed our launch to hit the Cape at slack water but arrived a little early only to find a fast ebb current working against the swell and across the wind.
As we paddled through the gap between the rocky spire and the islet that guards the southern corner of Freshwater Bay I looked up to check if the Sea Eagle nest we had seen in 2007 was still there, sure enough the big birds hovered aloft guarding the nest as we ran a couple of not so small waves into the relative calm of the bay.
Setting up camp we disturbed a death adder. Drawn by its beautiful markings but repelled by its potentially deadly bite we were glad when it decided to hunt elsewhere. During the rest of the afternoon and evening the rain was relentless with the only other noise being the occasional screeching and snorting of a big “razorback” boar rooting around in the undergrowth.
As we looked out to sea from our forested refuge, Quoin Island and the hills behind Port Clinton disappeared in sheets of driving rain and the readings on Matts barometer continued to plummet. We retreated to our camp to listen to the forecast on Matts SSB radio and make some tough decisions.
It was day four. We were camping where I had hoped to be at the end of day one. Without even listening to the forecast, we could all see from conditions beyond the bay that we would not be able to head north until the next day so we would not reach Cape Townsend until day five or six. It is at times like this that valuable lessons in humility are learnt or re learnt; the bravado of the fast short adventure that has minimal impact on life back home was clearly not going to work this time. I must admit I even wished we were trapped out on one of the islands with no choice but to wait for the weather to clear. Beyond Cape Townsend the only viable option would have been to sit tight and then keep heading for Mackay, but here so close to Keppel Bay with so few days left, Matt and I really couldn’t justify pushing on.
As we paddled back around Cape Manifold I reflected on the trip so far. We had paddled 3 of our first 4 days in strong conditions and although we hadn’t gone far we had experienced so many challenges on the water. We had managed wind, waves and tidal flows on all quarters and could still crack a joke or two at the prospect of surfing through the fog for yet another night at “that campsite”
After another rainy night the next day dawned clear and cool with an offshore crosswind for a change. As the sun rose and clouds lifted I felt a little melancholy for the trip that might have been, but the positive energy of Matt and Gary soon had us sharing stories over breakfast out on the beach.
From here the trip took a very different tack. Gary, who had plenty of time, headed back to Yeppoon to pick up the rest of his journey out of Mackay, paddling solo through the islands further north. Matt finally found his tropical paradise and camped on Conical Island enjoying the solitude and beauty of a starlit sky on his own whilst I had a rendezvous with the lovely Sharon and her group over on nearby North Keppel.
Matt joined us the next day for a circumnavigation and cave exploration to round out a very diverse week on his first tropical paddle.
On returning to Yeppoon I felt satisfied that we had done our best with the constraints of time and conditions, we discovered later that other groups had travelled all the way up to Keppel Bay and not even launched. I was grateful to have the team and the techniques to paddle despite the weather and still not exceed our limits.
Back home, looking at the charts as I pack my gear away my eye is drawn once again to the remote, seldom visited islands north of Cape Townsend: The Dukes, The Percys and The Guardfish Cluster. Next time I will go back armed with more days to spare and a fresh determination to reach them and experience their solitude.
For now I have pictures to remind me of the beautiful places we visited and good times we shared, especially some of the views when the sun finally shone on the “worst campsite ever”: