by Steve Posselt from Kayak 4 Earth
It was 5.20am when we left Ballina. The sun was still preparing to rise as we crossed the bar but with a 95% moon we could see the waves. The crossing was therefore exhilarating but uneventful. Heading south and with a significant swell coming over our left shoulders, we managed to catch many small runners barrelling along past the familiar beach.
Denise thought it was a good idea when I suggested it a few weeks beforehand. The rest of the club thought we were both stark raving mad. Although there have probably been people who have done the circumnavigation, we doubted anyone would have done it in one day. The plan was to head south to Evans Head, up the Evans River, through the Tuckombil Canal, portage over the barrage at the Pacific Highway, connect to the Richmond River and then paddle down the Richmond to Ballina. The distance is 91km.
The craft was to be an OC2 which is a two seat outrigger canoe. Canoe means paddling with a one blade paddle and after every 19 strokes we change sides. That means as the counter, I have to be able to count to 18. As an IQ test this does not seem too difficult but you would be surprised how hard it can be to get it right 2000 times in a row.
After less than an hour of making good time the sun was threatening to break over the top of the clouds and an ominous south westerly started blowing the tops off the waves. This was not fun, but Denise started to laugh and said, “I think we are in for a shit of a day Sharnie”. It was still early so I preferred to think of it as a temporary issue.
The runs disappeared, we paddled a bit closer to the coast and stayed about one to one and a half kilometres off the beach. The landmarks that I picked out were all wrong. What I thought was the Broadwater Beach hill was actually the quarry hill at Broadwater. I had been over optimistic yet again. It took half an hour of paddling to figure that out, but the familiar sugar mill stacks stood in stark relief to back ground hills so there could be no doubt.
It seemed to take ages to get past two prominent pine trees and once that was done there was the quarry hill. Every time we looked, it seemed to be in the same place. The moon that had been prominent since setting out, would hang there for about an hour before slipping behind the hills, so I suggested that we should race it. Get to the Broadwater Beach hill before it goes down.
We may have achieved that, we may not have. The moon became harder to see and gradually merged with the smoke haze about fifteen minutes before setting. That blasted quarry hill was still there though, looking exactly the same. We could not shake it. I focussed on a sand hill down the beach, and as we progressed more details came into view: trees, a couple of houses, shrubs on the sand. That’s slow going but better than a bloody hill that seems to follow you. How is it possible to hate a hill? I joked that the wind would change to the other direction in the afternoon but I didn’t believe it. That would be too unlucky. The wind was strong so surely it would stay south west.
Every few waves we were lifted high enough to see the light reflecting off the Evans Head water tower. Eventually it was joined by the surf club, then the houses on the southern hill and finally the houses along Air Force Beach. Dolphins appeared briefly and flying fish, about 70cm long flew above the small crests of the wind waves.
The entrance to the Evans River is narrow and we could see the waves breaking right across. Denise is good, very good at water skills and I consider myself no slouch, so we were cautious but unconcerned. We seemed to time our entrance perfectly. Surfers appeared on our right and rapidly slipped behind us. There was a roar over our left shoulders but we were flying. The incoming tide had grabbed us and we were paddling as if our lives depended on it. The roar stopped and a big greenie rolled under us as the wave dissipated in deeper water. It had taken four hours to do 35km and smoko was looking good – peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Denise had insisted on crunchy peanut butter, which was just as well because that’s what she would have got anyway.
We stopped longer than planned, over half an hour, Leah had brought food and drink replacements from Ballina and were interviewed by the Northern Star. The tide still had over an hour to fill as we set off up the river. The water was clear. Pelicans, shags, holiday makers on stand up paddle boards, ever hopeful souls with fishing lines over the side of their boats, kayakers and general water frolickers; all were enjoying themselves. Denise will talk to anyone so there was lots of banter as we headed up river. The wind was quite gentle and mostly coming at us from the front so it was a welcome relief from the heat.
An enormous sea eagle gazed at us from high in a tree. The number of people gradually reduced, another sea eagle swooped down the river searching for prey and a school of huge whiting gathered at the entrance to what we thought might be a shortcut but made the correct decision not to take it.
About 10km up the river it all changed. Almost instantly the river became muddy. It was hot in areas where there was no wind and it was a great relief to get to the sections where the SW breeze could cool us. The sound of the paddles in the water was perfect. Sound, as well as feel, is important to how the boat is running. The water has to be still and the wind light to pick the sound but when you get it, you know you are on the money. Wayne and Jen arrived on the bank and Denise found a fisherman about to launch his tinnie. She had chatted to him the day before and he had taken her for a spin to point out where to go. We were still in high spirits and feeling good so there was plenty of joking and exchange of information.
Heading towards Woodburn water quality continued to deteriorate, coral trees started to appear and thoughts of a beautiful estuary were just that. It had gone. Two brolgas briefly appeared in the cow paddock on the left bank, but unfortunately they were camera shy and headed away within a few seconds. A levee bank appeared on the right as we entered the Tuckombil Canal, along with the houses of Woodburn, the McDonalds sign on the Pacific Highway and then Vince’s van. We spotted Vince himself just as Wayne and Jen pulled up in their car.
It was hot, the edge of the canal was muddy and steep, but Wayne and Vince portaged the canoe around the barrage while Jen made us eat some fruit and drink cool liquids while we sheltered under the bridge. To have arrived at Woodburn but still had a couple of kilometres to go to get to the park back around the corner and down the Richmond It felt a bit strange.
The creek that the Tuckombil Canal connects to reminded us of the Bremer River, a tributary of the Brisbane River . Trees hang over the dirty brown water and the back yards have rope swings, gazebos and small wharves for the people who live there to enjoy their river.
Entering the Richmond River the tide was racing over the shallows towards us but the landing beach was only a few hundred metres away. The beach was crowded with water ski boats but there was enough space for us. The bottom was sandy to about half a metre deep which I guess would be at about the half tide mark. Our familiar team was there with the goods. I had planned chicken and mayo sandwiches but they had been in the esky and the new container leaked, so they were cold and sodden. I chucked them out and settled for an apple and a pear. These were cold, as I had intended, but I won’t do that again. I had trouble eating them and could not help thinking about the rest of the trip. The wind was from the south west so would be behind us for a change. Looking about two kilometres down the river the water was glassy. I hoped I was wrong, but that indicated a nor’easter pushing hard against it so it would just be a matter of time before we were back into a head wind.
Jen had placed a chair behind me so I enjoyed that, refreshed my sunscreen and tried not to think of what lay ahead. We had travelled 52km so had less than a marathon to go. Eventually we made our way back down the bank, climbed aboard and set off against the current. The information I had was that the tide would be against us for maybe an hour and then it would push us all the way to Ballina. Wrong again! It did not turn until after Wardell some 24km later.
The water was choppy from the speed boats. Being the Richmond River it was also muddy. Coral trees abound along both banks. It was hot. The river should not be like this. The coral trees should not be there, but it all seemed to fit with the boating activities. This is mankind’s triumph over nature. Or is it?
We hugged the bank to keep out of the current and stopped every half an hour to guzzle our liquid of choice. As expected the headwind reached us. It was cooler but battling wind and tide was not much fun. Denise talks more when she is tired. I clam up. It seems to work just fine. The town of Broadwater eventually became a reality and it was interesting to note the sugar mill with its smoke stacks that we had seen from out at sea early that morning.
Wayne held the canoe while we climbed out and walked up the boat ramp which is actually the old ferry ramp used before the bridge was built. Actually “walked” is not the right term. Hobbled or ground our way might be better. It seemed like everything had gone rusty and certainly none of my joints worked in the way that they were instructed. Everything hurt. There was nothing left that did not have pain receptors screaming at me. I ate a banana and tried lying on my back but that hurt too so I went back to the canoe and waited for Denise. The gloss of outrigger canoeing had disappeared and I wanted this over and done with. At 68km though, there was still a long way to go.
The nor’easter was a bitch. We just flogged our way down to Wardell. There was some shelter between Goat Island and Cabbage Tree Island so the boat ran a bit better through that stretch. Then it was back to bouncing all the way to Wardell which we could see in the distance. Rounding the corner to go under the highway bridge I lost my timing. This was where I needed to be careful. Because I had been pulling hard’ one of the tendons in my left hand protested sharply. Having experienced a blown Achilles tendon 200km into an 800km section of dragging my kayak in 2007, I did not want a repeat of that sort of thing. It was just good fortune that we were near the last scheduled stop. I staggered up the beach. Denise held the concrete boat ramp down with her back while Jen force fed me. Denise had yelled to “Get some food into him.” The sodden sandwich problem was catching up on me. The bananas had gone but Jen found some dates. These were a godsend. They fixed me. The timing, the snatch on the tendons, the just flog on at all costs mentality, had all been due to lack of fuel.
I was still hot so I lay down in the warm, murky water. To my surprise I started to feel cold. It was a pathetic cold though, like my body was protesting the punishment. I felt weak and when we started again the first few paddle strokes were not anything like I had made earlier. The wind was blowing about 18knots straight at us. Waves washed over our seats and I think between us we decided to conserve a bit of energy. Luckily the tide had changed so our progress along the bank kept our spirits up.
With food inside me I was thinking clearly and experimenting with grips on my left hand. Squeeze with the palm, straighten the index finger, relax the ring finger, and all the time count to 18.
About 8km from the finish, the reception committee arrived. It was one OC6 and an OC1, ie six person and one person outrigger canoes. OC: outrigger canoe, clever eh? They paddled beside us and Denise talked. She talked all the way to the ferry. I kept my mouth shut and concentrated on my paddling. I think I even managed to get the count spot on. With other boats around we didn’t want to look slow.
Just after the ferry Mike nosed his OC1 in front of us. “Uh oh, said Denise, now it’s on, Sharnie doesn’t like that.” Now I’m no psychologist, but I don’t think it was me that she meant. I pulled the paddle with all my remaining strength and Denise lifted as well. It was a 4km sprint to the Ramada to finish. Maybe it wasn’t a clever thing to do but we have never told anyone that we are smart.
The finish? It just felt good, a quiet achievement, something to cherish forever. The bar is set, eleven hours and forty minutes. That’s for someone else to beat now. Denise is 53 and I am 61. Without a headwind we could probably take an hour off our time. What time would a young, fit team do under the right conditions?
Denise and Steve paddle with and were supported by the Kawaihae Outrigger Canoe Club Ballina.