Kayaking Ningaloo – Part 2

Part 1 is here. Gallery at the bottom of the page.

After a spell of snorkeling in Coral Bay and reading in Exmouth, I drove round to the ocean  side of the Cape and met up with Jeff and Sharon near Yardie Creek in the Cape Range National Park. Later they told me they’d had their camp swamped early one morning by the tide, but had an exhilarating run around Point Cloates dodging humpback whales and covered up to 55km a day, all under sail.
But all was not well with our ill-defined status in the national park. Most visitors arrive by car or tour bus and book their camp sites well in advance if staying a few days. Wild camping is not on, but as I’d discovered to my surprise in Exmouth, all of Cape Range’s few campsites were booked for days in advance and occupied for weeks, with newcomers queuing from 8am at the park entry gate near Tantabiddi for any vacancies. Rocking up off the sea in kayaks was highly irregular and Jeff and Sharon had been given a bollocking by the head ranger who reluctantly negotiated a fixed itinerary for us to follow through the park and ranging from 4- to 20kms a day, until we left at Tantabiddi.
While waiting for the other two to arrive, I took a quick scoot in my underused boat up Yardie Creek gorge (left), a 2km cleft in the otherwise flat coastline. Official boat cruises run up here to spot bat-eared rock wallabies, a trip that I must have done in my time when updating the travel guide. But even running Yardie in my own boat, I thought by WA standards this was a long drive to a very ordinary gorge. Send them off to Karajini or the Gibb River Road and leave Yardie to the wallabies. While there though, I gave my problematic sail another spin to remind myself it had not become a complete flop. With a more secure fixture of the mast foot straps and the elastic cord positioned right on the boat’s black nose, it worked well enough in the light breeze, but could still do with some sort of bowsprit (sticky-out front pole) to get the elastic clip still further forward – a solution that’s easier than making alternative mounts for the sails masts.
I set off to Pilgramunna Camp where a note from Jeff explained that an extramural pitch had been allocated for us boat people. Months earlier I’d spent ages on the DEC website looking for kayak touring regulations in Cape Range but had found nothing and so concluded it was the same ‘come through but leave no trace’ deal as at Cape Peron down at Shark Bay. Turns out there are no formal regs for kayak tourers visiting the park as it seems only a few kayak parties pass through each year. But as the park is about 60km long along the shore, you’re going to need at least two nights in the half dozen official campsites which mostly probably need to be booked in advance in the more tolerable seasons. That’s something that is difficult to plan for if coming up from Coral Bay, nearly 100km away.
With our pitch allocated, I set off in my kayak to meet up with Jeff and Sharon coming up from the south. We were soon reunited on the water (left) and shared the stories of our separation. They were low on food so back at the camp were pleased to tuck into a cake Sharon had baked for the trip and which I’d managed to resist eating during my days hanging out.
Early next morning we were all set to complete the less demanding two-day run along the reef up to Tantabiddi, but now northeasterlies turned on us as the back end of a high pressure system moved east over the continent. At least these were conditions I knew the K40 and I could handle, right up to the point when our sub-walking pace progress dropped to zero.
The winds scuppered any reef viewing opportunities off the boats and a momentary pause in paddling effort (left) saw the boats stall and drift backwards at least as fast as we could move forwards. But here at least were the fabulous azure lagoons and shell-white sands of Ningaloo.
Just before Turquoise Bay we stopped for a snack at which time Jeff took a quick scoot in my empty Incept (left). He proclaimed my boat was light and fast but my PA sail tension was still too slack or the mast-to-elastic clip distance too short. That was something I’d thought of and re-rigged the front tensioner further forward on the nose of the boat (left), though I may try the bowsprit idea mentioned above. Anyway, that was academic in the current headwinds so Jeff led the boats off on a lead while Sharon and I took advantage of a current the ran along the point leading into Turquoise Bay created by the lagoon filling with overspilled surf which ran out as a riptide through a gap in  the reef (left). Compared to Coral Bay, there were many more soft corals here (below) along with all the usual fishes. CB’s coral gardens got trashed by a cyclone a few years back.
That done we hacked on northwards across Turquoise Bay, busy with Sunday day trippers, and occasionally took to walking out boats in the shallows as we’d done in Shark Bay. As we did so we passed a couple of stocky reef sharks as well as several turtles and rays.
By the late afternoon it was clear that after nearly a week at sea, Jeff and Sharon didn’t have the puff to make it to our pre-ordained camp in the portly tandem, so we pulled in on a beach for a much more satisfying wild camp and a great feed laid on by Sharon from a food cache we’d retrieved earlier in the day. To avert any alarm or searches we left a phone message with the head ranger. As the fire died down we dozed off at 8pm and the wind dropped off, promising a good night’s sleep. Its howling was replaced by the distant roar of surf breaking over the reef.
Early next morning we got the break we were hoping for – near still conditions. After forensically tidying up the camp, we headed out towards the surf line and finally had a chance to enjoy a little of what we’d come here for – gliding serenely over the reef just a few feet below, past fishes, sharks, turtles and rays. No need for a mask or glass-bottomed boat today, it was all laid out below us for an hour and a half until the north winds returned us to business as usual.
Mesa Camp came and went, with a report passed to the head ranger that we were breaking with his proscribed itinerary and making our way out of the park that day. Turtles dashed all about as we nosed into Mangrove Bay, a welcome change from the unending string of scrubby low dunes that lined the shore all the way up from Coral Bay, if not Perth itself.
Another spell of wading brought us finally to Tantabiddi boat ramp by which time I’d divined a new paddling technique probably known to all: pushing off the mushy inflatable’s footrests actually enabled a rigid torso rotation which notably increased speed for little extra effort. With energy to spare after only a day or two’s paddling, at times I was even inching past the tandem until we nudged ashore at the ramp. Jeff and Sharon performed a ‘paddle high five’ after completing their challenging 150-km run up from Coral Bay, most of it alone.
The boats and gear got hosed down at the fish station while I hitched back down to Pilgramunna to retrieve the van. It was nearly dark by the time I arrived and I must have spotted and dodged up to 100 roos on the 40-km drive back. I’ve never seen so many kangaroos. The park was infested with bounding marsupials: ‘Ningaroo’ they should call it.
So, I ran out of easy conditions for a good sea paddle through Ningaloo; something I suspected may happen even before I left the UK. But wasn’t too bothered. I got a couple of days in and that lovely calm morning and knew that a meaty packrafting adventure lay another 1000 clicks up the road in the Kimberley (see map below). I got the impression from Jeff and Sharon that, apart from the humpbacks and not least the satisfaction of having kayaked the entire way from Coral Bay to Tantabiddi, I hadn’t missed that much. Unlike Shark Bay, here it was the reef that was special, best appreciated in calm conditions or on the end of a snorkel. Otherwise, you might as well be battling the winds anywhere along the WA coast.
I can’t be sure I’d reached the limit of the K40 (as described in part 1), but until I get more experience I’d certainly reached my limits in trying to handle the kayak in very windy conditions I’d not normally tackle back in the UK. That still leaves a lot of easy sea kayaking and fun rivers to do yet.

 

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