Frome The Sea Canoeist, Vol 1, 1979

Voyage of the Longboat.
Hunter & Three Hummock Islands.
Aug/Sept 1979.

Scribe Laurie Ford
This trip came about because of me having to take three weeks holidays, and looking around for something to do. Circumnavigation of Bruny Is or Maria Is was considered but the tides of Bass Strait seemed more interesting so the Hunter group was the target. A possible offshoot of this trip was to nip across to King Is with the right sort of weather. This may sound a little foolhardy but it is only 40 miles from Hunter to King and with a fair following wind could be done in about eleven hours. Getting back would only require some sort of westerly weather which is very prevalent in the area.

I left Hobart Wednesday afternoon, 29/8/79, having already missed two days of light SE weather, and the weather chart now showing three cold fronts on the way up from the SW. These charts are issued by the Met Bureau at 1500 the day before they are published in the daily papers, so it is a matter of guess-work as to how far the pattern has moved or changed by lunchtime the next day. Most Tas ABC radio stations broadcast the complete coastal situation three times in the morning and three times in the evening, and these really keep you in the picture, and needless to say I carried a transistor radio for this purpose.

Driving for 5 hours or so I had plenty of time to go over my proposed trip and it seemed a lonely idea now, and I had very serious thoughts about returning to Hobart. However an evening in the Bridge Hotel cheered me up, and I camped in the back of the van on the side of the road just out of Smithton.

THURSDAY - 30th Aug.
Although raining and overcast there was little wind early in the morning, and I talked to people in the Forestry Dept and the Fisheries about Hunter and Three Hummock Islands before trying to get the Police to keep an eye on the vehicle for a week or two. This wasn’t possible and they suggested one of the local garages, and seeming fairly busy I left them without giving any details of the proposed trip. The Fisheries Dept had suggested talking to Tas Seafoods re using their radio scheds if I failed to get through to Hobart. This was an excellent idea and the very pleasant radio operator took my name and call-sign and said she would listen out for me. There were now several people in Smithton that knew I was going to spend a week or two in the Hunter area so that I made ready to leave by 1100, about low tide. My arrangements with Peter Hall in Hobart were that I would send a telegram at least every 48 hours and that if he didn’t hear from me the next move was his. I had already spent some time at Hobart Radio finding out if the radio was likely to work in this area and they thought I wouldn’t have too much trouble. Before leaving the boat ramp I posted off another letter to Peter to give him Tas Seafoods telephone number as another contact point.

The channel out of Smithton was now only about 30 metres wide, with mud banks prominent on each side, and I paddled slowly towards the sea against a light northerly. Three quarters of an hour later I was free of the channel and in Bass Strait, but only for a short while as I scraped over sandbanks on the way up Robbins Passage. The wind in the meantime had gone NW and then W and freshened considerably. Headway was slow against this, even though the tide was in my favour, and the familiar landmark of Stony Point came and went at a snail’s pace. There was no distinguishing feature from here, just low flat land as far as the eye could see, and by 1500 I had only just reached Katie’s Point. This is one of the few places you can get ashore without having to walk hundreds of metres and as the wind was still increasing I made my first stop after paddling 4 hours without a break. The weather chart shows a cold front just passing over the state, followed by 20-30 knot winds.

I made a few trips carrying all the gear up the beach before dragging the boat onto land and erecting my shelter. I was not carrying a tent but had instead a 6 x 8 ft polyweave sheet, and a waterproof bivvy bag. I laid the Longboat across the wind and tied one side of the sheet along the deckline, the other two corners being raised about 2 metres in the air with my two paddles, the two guy ropes being tied down to some convenient bushes. Light intermittent rain during the day increased to frequent heavy showers, interspersed with hail storms, and at one time the ground was covered with hail stones for several minutes before melting. Robbins Island is mainly covered with low shrub and a few patches of small gums, and a large clump of these gave added protection as I changed into dry clothes and got the radio out. There was not a sound from Hobart radio at 1530, and at 1540 although I could hear Tas Seafoods loud and clear they did not hear me calling them. This raised a few doubts in my mind, as the radio hadn’t been used since just after our trip down the West Coast, but it appeared to be functioning correctly so I collected a lot of drift wood for a fire and sipped a beer while watching the weather worsen. The tide had now risen and the Passage looked like a big deep-water bay, a contrast to a few hours ago when there were white-cape breaking over sandbars across the whole area.

FRIDAY - 31st Aug.
Spent a wild night, frequent rain and hail storms, and the polysheet was very noisy flapping in the wind. Strong wind warnings and sheep weather alerts were being frequently broadcast on 7NT, the northern ABC station, but I slept warm and comfortably.

After 12 hours in the sleeping bag I had breakfasted in bed before putting on waterproof clothing to walk over part of the island. Quite a few cattle about and the road showed evidence of regular use, the road to the mainland only being available at low tide when the cattle can be driven through the shallow water. I walked about 5 km in a circular route ending up back at my camp-site where I promptly got back into my sleeping bag, the weather still being extremely wet and windy. Called Hobart Radio at 0930, barely getting through but they persevered and eventually got my call sign and approximate position. The sky was clearing for short periods and the wind easing and then gusting again, and about 1200 I packed and left, getting through to Tas Seafoods about 1035 and telling them I was leaving shortly. The wind was hard SW and after about 1km I was out of water. The channel through here is marked with long sticks but at low water, as it was now, it is only a few cm deep. It was a case of getting out and dragging the fully laden Longboat through shallow pools and over sandbanks for at least 2km, very tiring work. I hoped to get through quickly and use the flood tide and side wind to take me across to Hunters Island, but by 1500 was only level with Kangaroo Island. Hunter was out of the question by this stage so I landed on the sand 400m from Kangaroo Island and began the long unloading process again, after only 5 miles from Katie’s Point. The wind was absolutely screaming by this time, driving the rain horizontally and I wasted no time in putting  my shelter up in the lee of a clump of tea tree and getting into the sleeping bag again by 1630. This island is very low and looks like a good high tide would cover it, but it is covered with tea tree and long grass and is obviously used for cattle grazing. No natural firewood, or driftwood either, and I faced the prospect of 14 hours in the sack. High tide at 0600 tomorrow is a good time to set off on the 10 mile crossing to Hunter Island. The wind was SW today, at least 25 knots, and the radio tonight brought the grim news of loss of life and injury on a Naval vessel off Victoria.

SATURDAY - 1st Sept.
Although a final strong wind warning was still being broadcast it seemed to be easing and I left without breakfast, heading north over very shallow water. Even at high tide there are still many sandbanks above water, and my paddle was continually hitting the bottom for about 3/4 of a mile. The wind eased to a lighter westerly and it took just under 2 hours across the ebbing tide to reach Stack Island. From here  it was a short hop across to Hunter and I followed the shore north to Cave Bay. There are many beaches  along this coastline but Cave Bay seemed the biggest and most sheltered, and had an old jetty and slipway in the northern corner. The jetty is in a state of disrepair but the slipway and associated shed and motor winch still seem to be useable, the cattle yard at the top of the slipway suggests a large flat bottom barge is used for transporting livestock on and off the island.

Made camp at the northern end of the beach, burying two large logs in the sand for my guy ropes. At 1200 Hobart Radio was contacted and a telegram sent off to Peter:-
“Arrived Cave Bay Hunter Island today Kangaroo Island last night Boat dry Gear perfect ALL OK

The day was warm and the sun shining so I washed a few clothes before setting out up the road to the homestead. The road is pretty good and winds up the creek valley to the top of the island, where the house and sheds are. The whole top of Hunter Island is one vast shallow basin, cleared and fenced, and many cattle were grazing upon the lush pastures. The house looks as though it is only used intermittently, and the bulldozer and motorbike in the shed were covered with cobwebs. The Southern Ocean was only just visible between a couple of hills in the distance, so after filling my water container from the tank I returned to the beach and took the radio apart. It had been transmitting intermittently but after cleaning and adjusting the aerial relay I made a test call to Hobart, getting through OK.

After that a climb up the rocky headland seemed in order and I was rewarded with an excellent view back along the beaches to Stack Island. By following a well defined track further over the headland I came across a magnificent view of Three Hummock, the sun glistening on the beaches, and it was a sight well worth seeing. Back on the beach I walked south and found an ideal camp-site for dozens of tents, just below a prominent rocky outcrop about 100 metres past the river.

SUNDAY - 2nd Sept.
Although I was warm, it was a cold night with frequent drizzly showers and even the underside of my shelter was covered with moisture. Arose about 0700, still raining on and off but almost no wind (forecast for light NW). I left at 1015, giving the sun a chance to take the dampness out of everything, and cruised slowly north. A few hundred metres from the beach there looks to be a big cave up the hill, which would be how the bay got its name. I didn’t go up for a look but it would appear easier to land on the rocks and walk up than try to make it round from the beach on foot. Passed two or three good beaches before Shepherd’s Bay where I talked to a couple of the crew off the ‘Cindy Hardy’ (a large fishing boat) who were dropping a net from a dinghy. It was then a short paddle across to Three Hummock, and as I made for Chimney Corner the large object on top of South Hummock became clearer. You can see this hill from Smithton but can’t tell if it has a huge tree, lighthouse, or what on it. It turned out to be a Telecom radio tower, part of the telephone network to King Island. Landed on the beach next to a very substantial stone jetty and wandered up to the nearest house and rang the door bell. Imagine the surprise of finding a dripping wet bearded monster in shorts and sandals standing on your doorstep when you haven’t had a visitor in months. Mrs Alliston was a little amazed but quickly gave permission to look around so I went back to the beach and changed into dry clothes. Walked up the hill to the landing strip, a smooth paddock on top of the hill and from here could see up the NW coast of the island. This was mainly a long beach, with the NW wind driving a big surf ashore, and from another small hill to the west I got a good view of the north end of Hunter. Returned to the house where Mr Alliston had arrived back from a fencing chore and he very kindly showed me over the property. It was fascinating to see their fruit and vegetable gardens, obviously grown under difficult conditions, including strong winds and very sandy soil, and the fact that they had nine different vegetables for tea the night before speaks for itself. They have a small efficient looking diesel generator for power, housed well away from the house, and are generally self sufficient. Three Hummock is now a Nature Reserve and an abundance of bird life is to be seen, the island still being 9/10 natural vegetation. The Allistons have been on the island since 1951, and haven’t been off it in the last couple of years, a very envious life style. Their telephone hooks up with the King Island link on top of South Hummock.

I left about 1500, paddling for about half an hour just past Sandy Spit before setting up camp. The night was beautifully mild and still, and I sat up in front of a fire late into the night, consuming a few tinnies, at peace with the world.

MONDAY - 3rd Sept.
Raining again, with another depression on its way to Tassie, but my target for today is only East Telegraph Bay, from where I hope to locate the track to the top of South Hummock. I may have to call the trip off very shortly as my left wrist is very painful and swollen, the wrist bone almost disappearing in the swelling. It was tender before the trip, and paddling every day has aggravated it to the extent it is almost useless putting on rubber bands when I am packing. Paddling is not too bad with a straight push and pull, and the constant immersion in cold water ease the pain considerably. I have in mind to run straight  down the outside of Walker and Robbins  back to Smithton in one day but will give it another day yet.

An easy 2 hour paddle saw me on the beach at 1130, camped in the elbow of a river that flows across the centre of the beach. Plenty of drift-wood trapped there by successive high tides, but the water looks like treacle and smells even worse. Whizzed off another telegram to Peter:-
 “In East Telegraph Bay Returning next few days Left wrist sore Weather awful

Taking my wet weather gear and a water container I then started to look for the track to the airfield and South Hummock and was floundering around in the long grass and ferns, falling in to small creeks, when a light plane appeared low over Cape Adamson and was obviously going to land. I was hopeful this would give me a lead to the airfield but the plane sank out of sight onto the beach and I struggled back in time to see it taxi to the southern end of the beach, 1km away. Strolling after it, I could make out several figures unloading a lot of gear and on arrival found that four young men had come out for a few days fishing off the rocks and beach. The pilot gave me directions for finding the track and took off again, circling low around the island, fish spotting. I headed up a wide sandy gully at the southern end of the beach and about 30 metres south of the end of this gully found two faint tracks of flattened grass. This became more distinct the further inland I went, and 3/4  hour later arrived at the Govt airfield, two well made runways at right angles to each other, the whole lot being fenced off, with a tin garage at one side obviously containing a 4WD vehicle. These facilities were specially provided for Telecom for maintenance of the relay equipment on South Hummock, and from the airfield to the top is a well made white gravel road that would be a credit to any country shire. Another 3/4 hour brings you to the top, an undertaking well worth carrying out. From here you can see the whole of the island as well as Hunter, Trefoil, Black Pyramid, The Doughboys, Walker and Robbins Islands, and on a clear day you would probably be able to see King Island because the radio carrier system works on line of sight. There is one large tower carrying four dish aerials, and four smaller towers carrying three wind driven generators for running the station. Parts of the fourth one are lying next to one of the sheds, giving some idea of the wind strength in Bass Strait. Just below the summit is a small saddle, where there are two more huts, one for living quarters and one for housing a diesel generator in case of lack of wind. After leaving a note for the lads next time they make a visit I started off for the beach again, seemingly miles away in the distance.

Back on the beach I could see the fishing party well round on the rocks so I made my way to my camp-site and got a fire going and listened to the transistor for a while. Started to walk along the beach after tea to visit the other camp but the high tide had backed  the river up and it was now too wide to jump so I called it a day.

TUESDAY - 4th Sept.
Although the weather forecast did not contain any warnings it did mention a LOW 300 miles west of King Island, and I had a bit of a feeling about this. Having seen all I came to see it was time to get closer to home so I left at 0815, going north around Three Hummock. Off Cape Rochon there was a very fast tide race against the light NW swell and it produced unpleasant conditions, made worse by the swell rebounding off the rocky shore. It was even more fantastic off NW Cape and I negotiated past here with some apprehension, before easing off before the light NNE wind to run across to Shepherd’s Bay. The wind was about 5 - 15 knots all day and barely filled the sail but I kept it up for psychological reasons. Had a brief stop off Shepherd’s Bay for a drink and then continued south down the coast, not making for anywhere in particular, but just going as far as possible without extending myself. By 1415 I was between Hunter and Stack Islands and still feeling good, the weather still holding, so after a pause for some chocolate I kept going, heading for a turbulent patch of water between the islands. This was confined to the shallow sea bed here and once safely through, several more islands came into view to the west, Trefoil looking particularly inviting. I had half a mind to go out there for the night and it would have been a shorter paddle  than to Welcome Inlet which was now my destination, but in anticipation of the blow to come I stuck to my course. The coastline ahead had no distinguishing features and I was on a compass course of 1800 to bring me somewhere near the channel entrance. The tide was against me when I reached the shallow area and it seemed to take ages to close with the shore but I eventually landed at 1530, very close to low tide. This left a 700 metre walk to get ashore and took about an hour and a half to do this and get the shelter up. Despite this drag I was well pleased with the 30 nautical miles in 7 1/2 hours, and contrary to a later newspaper report that claimed a severe storm blew up two hours after leaving Three Hummock, the wind had been very light all day. However this was about to change dramatically, the storm clouds sweeping in from the north looking very ominous. Only minutes after getting the shelter up the wind could be heard shrieking across the water and partly prepared me for the onslaught, but its ferocity had to be seen to be believed. Accompanied by lightning and thunder that made the ground reverberate, the wind drove in through the tea trees and picked up the fire I had just got going and carried it horizontally for about 50 metres, scattering coals as it went. There was no danger of setting fire to anything as it had rained every day for the past week and the ground was sodden. Once again the heavens opened up with a torrential downpour but like all such phenomena was short lived, and within an hour had settled in to the normal gusty wet conditions I was becoming accustomed to. Naturally I had already retired to my sleeping bag for warmth, this being the distinguishing feature of the whole trip ... into the bag before dark and not emerging till after sunrise, spending anything up to 17 hours a night in bed. Despite this it was a thoroughly interesting trip and one I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

WEDNESDAY - 5th Sept.
My 40th birthday, and what a day. The forecast last night at 2100 had been a strong wind warning but by midnight had been upgraded to a full gale warning, my feelings of yesterday now being substantiated, and the long day had put me in an excellent position for the run home despite the conditions. It was screaming in from the SW but as my route back to Smithton was close inshore I did not expect any big seas, and left just before high tide, about 1030. I sailed for about 1km and there was no need to paddle today, the Longboat surged along over the shallows at an exciting speed, till it ran aground and I had to get out and drag it for about 400 metres. Then it was off again, flying past Short Island, dragged over another sandbar into the main
channel, past Robbins Island. It was through here in much deeper water that the wind increased to such an extent the sail just twisted around the mast and threatened to flog it to pieces and I was forced to lower it and paddle for a change. Could just manage to sail along Perkins Island although making a good bit of leeway, before lowering the sail again for the hard slog up the Smithton channel. As I was negotiating quite big surf over the bar a light plane flew almost overhead before turning and flying inland, but apparently did not spot me. The channel was down to its narrowest, the tide pouring out and making it quite a battle up to the boat ramp, where I landed at 1530. Walked into town to pick up the vehicle and after unloading the kayak and tying it on top of the van got into the back to get changed. While in a state of undress a Police car screamed up and the occupant hopped into the front seat of my bus.
“Are you Laurie Ford?”
“Thank heavens for that, we’ve been looking for you everywhere”
“Who has”
“I’ll bet my man in Hobart hasn’t been”

The story then came out that the pilot of the plane I was talking to on East Telegraph Beach had been out the last couple of days and hadn’t seen me so notified the Police. It was him that had flown over me in the surf off the entrance.

With a “Good show” the officer took off again and I completed dressing before dropping into Tas Seafoods to thank them for listening out for me, and I also rang Hobart to let my family and Peter Hall know the trip was over. Then into the pub to warm up in front of their gas heater (I was wearing a jumper under my woollen shirt and didn’t think I’d ever be warm again) and have a couple of toasted sandwiches. It was here that I met the four young men that had been fishing on Three Hummock Island two days ago. In view of the weather the pilot had had to go for them early, couldn’t land on the beach, dropped a note telling them to walk to the airfield which they did (an hour walk). Left all their gear behind to be picked up at a later date. The gale blew for several days.

By 1630 I was on the road to Somerset and the chance of a hot shower at a friends place, and ended up staying the night.

Laurie Ford.

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