Kimberley 2002 - ReVisited
After paddling around the Kimberley coast for a year in the 1980s, in 2002 it was time to revisit one of the most special places in the world.
I was accompanied by Pam Riordan, Tel Williams, Gary Nixon, Don Kensit and John Dinucci. It was a long drive to Broome, then up to One Arm Point where we started our journey.
We had just paddled for two weeks, visiting many beautiful places, seeing stunning cliffs, fighting fast tidal waters, and being checked out by sharks and crocodiles.
We were now on our last two days of our journey: Our story starts here at Tree Island.
It was another early 4.00am start. The team was ready early as we were keen to get going. We paddled from our beach at 5.20am and waited beyond the shallows watching the water rip through the islands and across the King Sound with enormous power and speed. It was like watching a grade 4 rapid.
We had banked on leaving by 6.30am, but the current was so fast and the water so turbulent that it was impossible to leave our island making us prisoners for a while. We sat in an eddy and as we were eager to leave I paddled into the fast current to see if we could make headway. It was too wild so I ferried back into the eddy and sat with the others. I waited for a few more minutes and paddled back into the current again but it was still too powerful. If we tried to escape the island at this time we would probably be washed into the islands and rocky reefs, so we waited longer. On the third time out, the current had eased enough and I was happy that it was safe enough to leave. I had to be sure though, because ahead we had 13 kilometres of swift currents, waves, standing waves and overfalls to endure before we reached the safety of East Roe Island.
Going by our tide chart it was only 30 minutes from the change in tide, however the current was still travelling at 10 - 15kms an hour, but we needed to go or we wouldn't make it to the other side of the Sunday Straits before the tide turned. Pam had been concerned about the crossing all night. Understandably really as it was the day of the highest spring tides in the year and the tides in the Kimberley are the second highest in the world attaining more than ten metres in height and current speeds not seen anywhere else in Australia. Crossing the King Sound would be like ferry gliding across a swift river, 13kms wide.
I led the team away from the island ferry gliding against the current as not to lose any ground as we had several small islands and reefs to avoid. A mistake in those first few minutes by any one of us could mean being pushed into the rocks and suffer severe physical injury or even death. We made little headway as our boats moved about like corks being tossed in a tumble dryer.
Gary, Tel, Don and myself took off one after the other but Pam and John were delayed for some reason so we drifted apart. Being an experienced paddler John's job was to bring up the rear so he never took off before every paddler was mobile. Downstream of us the water was pouring over the rocky reefs. It was such a mess and although we were well away from the reefs we were drifting towards them very quickly. Gary, Tel, Don and myself cleared them, but Pam was getting a lot closer than we would have liked. John was even closer but he was positioning himself in a place to help Pam in case she got into trouble. We urged them on.
It was difficult to wait in such a swift current, but after slowing down our ferry glide we eventually managed to group together. When we cleared the 'Tree Island' area the water calmed, but it was still swift with overfalls waiting. The calm didn't last long as we came to another disturbed area. Our boats were again thrown around and our target was slipping away from us as we were being swept out to sea. There were lines of overfalls to our west which looked very threatening, but the current was pushing us north of them.
The wind was getting stronger which didn't help us any. Pam was lagging a little and we seemed to be getting closer to Gregory Island to our north rather than to East Roe Island to our west. That meant that we were really being pushed in the wrong direction. But if the tide goes out its got to come back in, so we had nothing to fear! I have crossed the King Sound five times before and it always put up a great fight. It hadn't disappointed me.
We were now about 4.5kms from East Roe Island and sliding further away despite us paddling hard to reach the island. Pam wasn't quite as fit as the rest of the group, so every time we slowed to wait we slid away a little further. We struggled on getting nowhere and hoping the current would ease. At last we started to make progress, although it was at a snail's pace, but when it seemed that we were going to miss East Roe Island we changed our target and headed towards West Roe Island.
When we managed to claw our way back to within a kilometre of the island we could feel the tide get much stronger and although it had turned it was starting to push us away from the West Roe Island and back towards East Roe Island. In one way this was good, but we had to be careful not to get pushed passed the island and back into the King Sound, so we put on the pace and managed to get close to shore and into an eddy at the north end. Pam had been the most challenged throughout the last half of the paddle, so she was most relieved to be in an eddy.
We moved to a beach in a small bay around the corner. It had no shade from the burning sun, but it was a great beach and we were able to cool off in shallow water. I walked to the north point of the island, passing two eagle nests, to look out across the Sunday Straits and King Sound from where we had come. It was still full of overfalls and waves.
Back at camp we played ball in the water, tried fishing without any luck, relaxed and I wrote in my diary. We finished off the day by drinking a little wine, eating tinned oysters, watching the tide race by and a bush curlew and 2 oyster catchers feeding in the shallows.
It had to be a 4.00am start. We were ready before the sun came up so we waited for the light. The current was already racing, and I mean racing, but at least it was to our advantage. None of the crew had seen the current run as fast as it was running here and the channel between East Roe, our island and Sunday Island was over two kilometres wide. It was hard to believe that it was the ocean. With the rapid current flying like the wind, the crossing to Sunday Island was going to be pretty exciting. It was also going to be difficult and it was most certainly a dangerous place to paddle as one slip and anyone of us could be washed away. We had a last minute briefing so everyone knew what we intended to do and where we were headed, just in case we got separated.
We moved into the big eddy of our bay and lined up close to the eddy line. The water was racing at least 20kms an hour, it could have been more. Don, Tel and Gary weren't experienced white water paddlers and having white water skills would certainly be an advantage in the next few minutes. I led the way by doing a break-in into the fast current. Don, Tel and Pam followed without incident but when it was Gary's turn, he faltered and got swept back into the eddy. Meanwhile we were being swept away at a very fast pace. By the time Gary managed to get out of the eddy and into the current we were probably 500 metres away. When Gary was on the move, John followed him.
Our aim was to ferry glide across to Sunday Island and then use a series of islands to move safely into a channel and paddle to Swan Island, our next camping spot on the outgoing current. Unfortunately Gary and John, who were still well behind, didn't seem to be ferrying across the swift channel on the same path as we were taking. I became quite worried as it looked as if the current was going to sweep them between West and East Roe Islands. If that happened we would be split up.
The cliffs of Sunday Island were quite stunning but it was hard to take in their beauty when we were performing an amazing ferry glide and watching John and Gary trying hard to power their way towards us. At last we could see that they were making headway and began to get close. Don, Tel, Pam and I managed to get out of the current and into slow water near the end of Sunday Island where we waited for John and Gary. It was good to be teamed up again. We were all so excited as we had just been through another unbelievable experience.
We ferry glided from Sunday Island to Pooingin Island and then across to Salural Island. It was good fun and it was a lot easier than our last two big ferry glides but we still had one more big ferry glide to do to ensure we didn't get washed out into the Timor Sea. To ensure our safe passage we needed to be close to the Apex, Talboys and Howard Islands, these were the last ones before leaving the huge currents of the King Sound and only a few kilometres from the safe haven of Swan Island.
At last we paddled between the mainland and Swan Island and found a beach on the Island to camp for our last night of our very enjoyable trip. It had been such a wonderful journey and it was great to share it with others.
It was hot, we relaxed and went swimming in the clear water off our beach. Pam had been afraid of crocs and sharks when we arrived, but now she was snorkelling further from the beach than any of us.
For me the Kimberley and its amazing features wasn't new as I had paddled around it's coastline for over a year, but it is still one of the best places that I have ever kayaked. The Kimberley coast and its environment has lots of extremes and if you are frightened of crocs and sharks or big tides, well it's probably best to paddle south of Cape Leveque. For the rest of the team the country was all new and I can guarantee it will be a trip that they will never forget.