The club trip (Derwent Canoe Club) to Flinders Island having been cancelled, a few of us die-hards decided to do it anyhow. We had a series of meetings at which we sorted out details of dates, gear, interests, etc. We handed out charts of the relevant areas and details from the Aust. Pilot and the tide tables for the period. Each of us searched out and questioned anyone we knew who would be familiar with the seas in that area, particularly fisherman, and other canoeists. I haunted the Weather Bureau, but found little practical help in the realms of highly technical data. A phone conversation with the Swan Island lightkeeper was much more rewarding and encouraging. An application to land and camp on Swan Island was lodged with the Dept of Transport in Hobart, at the instruction of the lightkeeper. Arrangements were made with my brother to cast an eye on us from his plane on our way across Banks Strait, and to act as coordinator for the trip in case of anxious families making enquires. We each carried several flares, a survival bag, marine matches and food for more than the planned two weeks.
We drove to Cape Portland on Saturday, 21 January and after the boats were packed the cars were left as pre-arranged at the Cape Portland homestead. Some of us found it necessary to leave behind a few items - one of which provided a nice celebration on our return! The boats were heavy and sat low in the water.
We set out for Swan Island in a calm sea with a slight haze, which made the island seem rather a long way away. We instinctively kept in a fairly close group, not only because we seemed to have a common preferred paddling rate, but I think we all felt we were embarking on a major adventure and the moral support was comfortable. After an hour and a half paddling we reached the most western tip of Swan Island and decided to go round the south-east side of the island to reach the lighthouse on the north-east tip. An interesting taste of the infamous Banks Strait currents was found at the next point, where a narrow but very swift current swept us momentarily off course.
On reaching the lighthouse area we found heavy northerly swells making landing on the rocky shore impossible, so we retreated back a little way to the jetty cove and came ashore on the beach. We put on shoes and slacks and two of us wandered about in deep tussocks and bushes looking for the track to the lighthouse, not realising that the island is very heavily infested with snakes!
We were given a warm welcome by Harry and Audrey Judd, the lightkeepers. Several cups of tea and sandwiches and cake later, we went with Harry in the Landrover back to the canoes and collected gear for the night. The men were given the use of the old store building, but I was accommodated in unexpected comfort in a spare bed and given a crayfish supper as well! The view from the kitchen window is memorable - a wide panorama of rocky coastline dominated by the stark white light-tower. The kikuyu grass round the station is kept short to make the snake population obvious when they come to visit. A couple of dozen who’d crossed the path of the lightkeeper were festooned over a nearby bush. We trod most carefully after seeing that.
Up at 6am on Sunday to the perfect day! So this was it, the big test was about to begin. Although it is only 81/2 miles as the crow flies from Swan Island to Clarke Island, we were all aware that this can be one of the most dangerous stretches of water, with strong currents, sudden high winds, and areas of breaking seas such as the Moriarty Banks, not to mention overfalls and rips. We loaded the canoes again (this daily chore proved to be the least enjoyable part of the trip), made grateful farewells to the Judds and headed north to those distant islands. We had carefully calculated the tidal flows and knew we should have a rising tide flowing to the west, towards Bass Strait for almost two hours before the ebb tide would tend to draw us back to the east.
It was a beautiful trip, with light swells and slightly rippled surface. We took a couple of rest stops on the way to discuss our direction and relax for a few minutes. We found no trouble keeping together as our preferred speeds were so similar. We kept watch for my brother to appear in his plane, but saw instead several other light aircraft. Gradually Clarke Island loomed larger, and with the southern tip well off to our right, we knew we were safe from being swept east to the dreaded Moriarty Banks. We paddled steadily up the west coast of Clarke Island towards the big lumpy Lookout Rocks, where we met a patch of turbulent tidal water just to make things interesting. At last we heard the drone of Alf’s plane and he flew towards us over to the land side, turned and came back from behind us lower down. We were disappointed he didn’t wave a wing at us, we all waved paddles furiously. So now we hoped the word would spread down the line that we’d made the big crossing of Banks Strait.
The shore looked even more attractive with each stroke of our paddles and we headed with unspoken mutual consent to a deep small cove and spread ourselves on the sand. “I’m buggered”, gasped Tony. After a good rest, a snack and a walk along the shore to admire the natural sculpture in granite, we left Deadman’s Cove and came round the western point of Clarke Island. At the jetty cove we again all headed for shore and a likely campsite. The solitary inhabitant of Clarke Island, Kevin, was unwilling to let us camp because of fire danger, and insisted we use the house and facilities. After numerous cups of tea with Kevin and visiting Jenny, and a meal, we were entertained by that master yarn-spinner, Kevin, and listened to him in action on his CB radio.
Next morning it was windy, but we packed up anyhow, then it rained so we had another cup of tea. Finally we set out against Kevin’s better judgement for Preservation Island. The paddle over was not hard even with the wind and tide against us. Preservation Island is delightful with a beautifully indented coast, offshore rocks, fascinating granite boulders featuring on little hills, mutton bird rookeries and a wide sweep of grazing land for the cattle. We all loved it on sight (except for the little flies) and decided to paddle up the southern side exploring every little cove, as that was the sheltered side in the northerly wind. We eventually camped at a very deep cove with a rocky entrance, because of a plentiful supply of firewood on the shore. We didn’t allow for the wind to change from N to SW which it did overnight, trapping us in our cove. We had a snug camp up in the bushes, sheltered from most of the wind from any direction.
Next day we were quite happy to just explore and gather some fresh food. We found there was an abundant supply of fresh food for the gathering, and our feast included such items as fish, abalone and a big cray. Conversations over meals turn up some interesting bits of information - eg. Paul just loves the spicy zip of flavour when little black ants spread themselves at about 4 to the inch on his slice of bread and honey! After tea we all went over to a rookery and sat and watched the mutton birds flying in from the sea. The air was thick with wheeling birds, just an occasional cry, but mostly silent. They seem to wheel and soar about above the rookery and then fly straight into their burrows and are gone. Occasionally one sends up a burst of sand as he cleans out the burrow. The last birds were in darkness, as the sun was well set, and the full moon still very low behind some rocks. Yet there were no collisions either with bushes or rocks or with other birds. It was a most memorable evening.
On Wednesday we packed up and paddled through the passage between Rum Island and Preservation Island, where the wreck of the “Sydney Cove” has lain since 1797. We headed north-east up the coast of Preservation, then made a diagonal crossing to Cape Barren Island. This involved a pretty strenuous paddle going the wrong way on a roller-coaster of really huge tidal swells, and against a NE wind. David struck out at a very vigorous pace, and I found some trouble keeping up. It wasn’t the situation to find yourself all alone, so I put the pressure on too. We reached Key Island for lunch and it wasn’t far from there to Thunder & Lightning Bay, which was the nearest point of access to David's friend, Knud Anderson. We camped well along the beach, to avoid a dead calf. The men visited Knud, and met some of the locals, but I chose an early night.
Thursday was quite perfect, flat calm and sunny. We set out for Badger Island, where my brother runs sheep and cattle. Still quite near Cape Barren Island we came across a huge seal dozing in the sun, with his flippers idly stuck in the air like huge fins. He woke with a start and dived as we came up to him. When we were about half an hour’s paddle away from Badger Island we saw Alf fly off away to the north without seeing us. No amount of telepathy would turn him. We visited the old house at Badger for lunch, noticing some newspaper “wall paper” which clearly bore the date 1918. Since the day was still so perfect, we decided to go on to Goose Island.
Goose Island was a revelation, so lovely in colour with small dense pig-face, tinted a rich pink by the salt spray, growing in profusion and scattered with mauve flowers. The magnificent granite boulders daubed with coloured lichens stood out in the brilliant sunshine. The stark white lighthouse was the dominating feature of the skyline. Mutton birds were in residence, amongst the pig-face and they surely must have been the very elite of all mutton birds to reside in such a garden suburb. Snorkelling was another joy, as the fish were so plentiful and the seabed so beautiful. I could hear crays crackling away, but did not find any, nor any abalone. The fish were large and curious and as I swam along they followed in an increasing flock, scattering only when I dived to the bottom. Tony went in with a spear and quickly took four large ones for tea. Paul also provided some fresh fodder for tea.
There is a tiny stone shelter near the lighthouse, containing tinned food and water for “persons in distress”, which certainly reinforced the feeling of remote isolation. In the late afternoon we headed back to the north side of Badger Island and had difficulty finding a landing site because of the jagged black rock forming the shore. Eventually we saw a tiny beach at the head of a deep bay and made camp there. Large water-worn rocks were lying piled up at the top of the beach and back in the tussocky grassland. At night there were numbers of crabs scuttling about in these rocks, although so far from the water.
We managed to pack next morning (Friday) before rain and wind arrived. However, our start was long delayed in a fruitless search for Paul’s neoprene spraydeck which must have been dropped when we landed and taken by the tide. It was fortunate indeed that he carried a spare canvass one! By the time we gave up the search it was cold, wet and windy. We headed for Mt Chappell Island with a strong following swell and wind. The rain came with bands of cloud, which would pass overhead then leave a clear patch of sun for a while.
Landing in a very sheltered cove on the SE corner of Mt Chappell Island, we set out to climb the peak. Mutton bird burrows were numerous around the low parts of the island, but these must have been the lower class birds, lacking any garden surrounds, just bare dirt - unlike the Goose Island birds. We climbed very carefully, being acutely aware of the reputed high-density population of snakes on the island. In the scrubby higher slopes we saw a large tiger snake, the first of several. Tony suggested that it would be easy to find yourself eyeball to eyeball with a snake on such steep slopes!
The view from the top was well worth the effort and we could see so well where we’d paddled and where we were heading. On the way back to the canoes, we looked at a birding hut. The rooms were tiny and dark with dirt floors strewn with straw. A meat safe contained two huge rats, which leapt out when Paul opened the door.
We all agreed it would have to be the last place on earth we would ever want to spend a night. The processing hut was concrete floored and much cleaner and lighter, although you could imagine the atmosphere when birding was in full swing with feathers, down, oil, steam and smell. Back into the canoes and we headed for Strzelecki Peaks on the SW corner of Flinders Island. A following west wind, following seas and following tidal current fairly lifted us along. We found a delightful campsite south of Trousers Point towards Lady Barron. Thick she-oaks and tea-tree provided good shelter from the wind, and a nearby soak-type creek provided washing water. Once again our menu was supplemented with fresh food. It was too windy next day to paddle eastwards into Franklin Sound, so we set out to walk up Strzelecki Peaks, 2,500 ft straight up from sea level. It was sunny with high clouds. A phone call to one of my brothers from a nearby farmhouse told us that one of my sisters-in-law would be at Trousers Point that day for a C.W.A. picnic, so we resolved to drop in there on the way back.
The track up the mountain is easy to follow, but steep, winding under a canopy of low trees and scrub. A beautiful mountain stream appears several times banked with moss and ferns and tree-ferns. Unlike Paul and Tony who bounded up the track at high speed, I had to climb very slowly, stopping for a good puff often. David graciously kept me company or I probably would have given up. It was quite a sentimental journey for me, as I last climbed that mountain at 10 years of age! The reward at the top was a really magnificent view in every direction. We rested there with a couple of cyclists and another lass, who had a car, which was fortunate for us as she agreed to drive us from the foot of the mountain to the C.W.A. picnic. We just made it in time before those marvellous C.W.A. ladies left. They unpacked all their goodies and made us hot coffee and we really did justice to their superb cooking skills.
When it blows on Flinders, it keeps on blowing, and it was still too rough next day, so my brother Brian and his family collected us and our canoes with a large but rather ancient truck and we jolted along the dirt road to the northern part of the island - Palana. No chance of paddling in that wild sea, so back down the road a bit and turned west to Killiecrankie Bay, where Alf lives. This is my favourite corner of Flinders Island, having spent holidays there as a little child. There is a long wide sweep of white beach with Mt Killiecrankie at the far end, under which lies Stackys Bight, where our tiny beach shack used to be, and the little creek where the Killiecrankie diamonds are found. The near end of the beach ends in a rocky outcrop which shelters fishing boats.
After a warm welcome, we took our empty boats for a quick paddle round the bay, in the shelter of the high dunes to Stackys Bight. However, the wind was a big problem and one boat was blown over, but ‘rolled’ up (with a little help from a push off the bottom!). Stackys Bight has a natural sandstone archway dividing little twin beaches of yellow sand, and a huge granite monolith, known as the Old Man’s Head because of the face like markings on the southern side.
Yet another day dawned too rough for canoes, but I enjoyed watching the fishermen loading cray from the big wooden slatted crates called caufs which are anchored in the water to keep the crays alive. The crays are packed tightly into sacks and air-freighted to Melbourne. Crays have been taken from this area for more than half a century by the one family, the Wheatleys, and they are still getting plenty of big ones. The men took a couple of horses for some exercise round the beach (or was it the other way round?) and Paul and Tony scratched for some diamonds whilst David climbed Mt Killiecrankie - on his own two feet - the horse having made it clear he wouldn’t be in it!
Tuesday morning was less windy, and time was now getting short, so we perhaps inadvisedly decided to try to make our way south. Quite a little crowd of Stackhouses and Wheatleys and holiday makers sent us on our way. Cape Frankland is notorious for rough seas and tide rips and we certainly got a good sample. It is not obvious, even from the shore, what sort of passage it may be in such areas, until you’re actually into it, and then there’s only one way to go - onwards! The pity of it is that you can’t stop to take photos in decent rough weather, so all the photos of the trip show calm seas. I admit that at Cape Frankland I didn’t even think of photos, only of getting through the rough stuff intact. My knees seemed to turn into two giant soft jelly beans. Once round the Cape we had strong following seas to Royden Island, where we had a beaut rest in a glorious sheltered bay. A few miles more found us at Tanners Bay where we camped in a little land-locked cove.
More wind on Wednesday, but away we went eight miles across Marshall Bay, past my old homeland, to Settlement Point, the area once occupied by the last of the Tasmanian aborigines in a forced camp. After lunch we decided to go the extra 12 miles to camp at Whitemark. Being weary, three of us wandered up to the pub for a counter tea and again met the cycling couple we’d found on Strzelecki. The sea in the Whitemark area is very shallow and on Thursday it was still blowing from the east, so we tried to use the shelter from the shore as much as possible, but the tide was out! Awkward. We were told that a school of 40 White Pointer Sharks were in Fotheringate Bay, but they didn’t bother us, and we didn’t hang around too long. From near our earlier campsite south of Trousers Point, we decided to keep on going south to Cape Barren Island. A windy crossing took us to near the Corner and a good camp.
We were now very near the end of our planned two weeks so on Friday we pressed on, wind and all. It probably was a mistake to set out from Cape Sir John straight across to Preservation Island into a head wind. Following the shore may have been longer, but probably would have been quicker and less energy consuming. From Preservation Island we had another hard crossing to Clarke Island, and slogged on down the coast, trying to find a good landing and campsite as far south as possible. Eventually we found a good beach round past Lookout Head, and dead weary we pitched camp in some good thick tea-tree scrub.
Thank heaven for that thick scrub, for we spent the next five nights there, whilst weathering out thunderstorms, gales and pouring rain. We really had to supplement our food supplies now, so fishing was in deadly earnest. Tony took a truly magnificent cray, which probably weighed about 8 pounds - it fed five of us well. (The fifth was Kevin who visited us by tractor and trail bike a couple of times). We spent all Tuesday line fishing, and made a good haul. Some we ate on the spot after cooking them whole in the coals at the fishing place, and the rest we cooked in camp and feasted well. There was a favourable weather report on Tuesday night, so we resolved to be up and away early.
Somehow Tony or David woke and got us up at 3am to breakfast and pack in the dark. By first light we were about ready to leave, and after checking from a high point we set out, feeling determined but hardly confident. It was certainly not like our earlier crossing of Banks Strait, and worse was yet to come. We were well into the flood tide, which means a three knot current was pushing us NW towards Bass Strait, whilst we wanted to go SSE to Swan Island. Because of a slight haze we had to paddle on a compass bearing for a while, until Swan Island lighthouse was visible. The current took us 300 off course, and somewhere out there we ran into a nasty turbulent rip. Very disturbing so far from land. Later on nearer to Swan Island we heard and then saw another rip, but at least we could see across this one, so we knew we only had a limited distance to cross it, and it wasn’t quite as vigorous as the big one.
Swan Island loomed closer and we were dead tired when we reached the western end of it for a well earned rest after four hours non-stop hard paddling. The last hop back to Cape Portland was also against a cross tide, and the last half an hour against a 30 knot head wind. Nature’s last violent gesture! One had to admit to a feeling of relief as well as vast elation that we’d completed such an adventure safely.
Total days on trip ........ 19 days
Days lost thru’ weather .. 8 days
Total miles paddled ..... 160 miles
Longest day’s paddle ... 25 miles
Usual day’s paddle ... 15 -20 miles
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