The dictionary defines adventure as a “risky undertaking of unknown outcome; unusual, exciting and possibly dangerous”. When it comes to outdoor forays, they should involve a bit of hardship too (they make the blissful bits more rewarding) and a few challenges so you can see what you’re made of. Venturing into the unknown, success not guaranteed – these are the things that maketh a real adventure, right? I don’t fully appreciate it when a friend and I push off from Wattle Point for a six-day, 80km paddle around the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria’s southeast, but that’s exactly what we are embarking on.
Most of my outdoor forays have been well road-tested and documented by others, but a multi-day kayak around the Gippsland Lakes is not such a trip. For starters, the area is huge. Australia’s largest inland waterways system is fed by four rivers and sprawls across more than 400 square kilometres in a tempting maze of wiggly lines, long slender arms, islands and ocean-like expanses up to 18km across. There are countless possible routes that could keep a paddler busy for weeks, 360 degrees of variable wind directions to accommodate for, and the question of what speed can be achieved in such conditions. I’m not sure whether to be excited or intimidated by it. I’ve nutted out a route that ticks off some of the highlights but whether we’ll achieve it or not is another matter.
Gippsland Recreation Outdoor (usually busy with school groups) was willing to rent us a couple of boats, share some local knowledge and transport us to and from our start and end points. “Are you experienced?” director Matt Renshaw had asked during our lengthy pre-paddle chats. “Oh…yeah? Reasonably competent,” I’d replied with what was a totally subjective quantification. I’d tackled 4-day paddles around Lake Jindabyne before (sticking to its perimeter), a jaunt up the Noosa River (mostly sheltered) and four days of white-water kayaking (grade 1 and 2 rapids). My buddy Carola had done several guided, multi-day sea kayaking trips. We had some idea.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard once said, “When everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts”. Our adventure starts on day one.
A furry welcome
After driving the three hours from Melbourne, we set out after lunch with a three-hour paddle to Raymond Island. A bit of surface chop and a modest headwind keeps us busy, but we’re pumped to be out, excitedly pointing at little silver fish flitting across the surface and black swans flying in formation overhead.
Connected to Paynesville on the mainland by a five-minute ferry, Raymond Island is koala Heaven. In the face of declining populations, 32 were brought here in 1953 and now the population has risen to around 280 (roughly one for every two humans living here). Looping 1.7km through the manna gums, The Koala Walk virtually guarantees a showing and we’re not 50 metres along it when I spot our first fluffball, high up in a tree. “Ooh, look!” Then another. And another. In twenty minutes we see seven koalas, draped asleep over branches or lazily gazing down at us. One baby looks like a stuffed toy.
Camping is not officially allowed on Raymond Island, so we’ve booked waterfront accommodation at its northern end, but with daylight dwindling and the headwind persisting, reaching it safely before sunset is now questionable. Reluctantly – and with our safety foremost in mind – I make the phone call to cancel our one night of comfort and develop a new plan – stealth camping at Paddlers Cove.
We wait until darkness to set up which is when I discover the batteries in my head torch have gone completely flat. And I’ve neglected to pack my sleeping bag liner and inflatable pillow. By the time I’ve gone ten rounds with the wind, yanking at my tent while I struggle to get the pegs in, I’m drained.
But a new day is a new day, right? I knew it was going to be a big one when I planned it, but it was kind of unavoidable, involving a 5km crossing of Lake King to reach the mouth of the Silt Jetties, from where we’d paddle up the Mitchell River to camp.
From water level, five kilometres is about the limit of sight but I figure if we head roughly north we’ll eventually get a visual on our target. “Just follow the needle,” I say flippantly, patting the compass strapped to Carola’s deck.
I paddle solidly for an hour into a light crosswind before pausing to check our direction on the mapping app on my phone, hung around my neck in a plastic pocket. The first realisation is that we should be veering further left, but Carola has been gradually drifting right to the point where my arm-waving and yells can’t reach her. She is, it seems, committed to following the needle. Secondly, why am I only a quarter of the way across? I expected to be over halfway, but the wind (and perhaps a surface current) is putting the brakes on. A quick glance behind shows the yachts of Paynesville, disturbingly close. Argh!
Carola has GPS too. She’ll work it out, I reason. I dig in and paddle hard for another hour, eventually pulling up at a tiny beach for a breather before tackling the final two kilometres to the mouth of the Silt Jetties. I expected an easy ride with the wind finally behind me, but a stretch of side-on waves gives me hip wobbles worthy of a hula dancer, prompting a completely pointless barrage of abuse at the water.
Finally, I’m inside. Calm.
The Mitchell River delta and silt jetties are one of the world’s most significant ‘finger’ deltas. The 121km river slows as it loses itself to Lake King and any sediment carried to its mouth has settled, creating two 8km-long fingers of land on either side estimated to be between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. When they were first mapped in the 1840s they were twice the size but changes in water salinity (the lakes suffered significant flora and fauna changes when the entrance to the ocean was made permanent in the 1880s for boat access) and subsequent reed dieback and wind erosion have made them a shadow of their former selves. The winding corridor between the reeds still makes for an impressive paddle and a paradise for birds.
I get a text from Carola to say she’s on a distant shore, far away, with no hope of catching up. It calls for a little more of the problem-solving hallmarks of a ‘real’ adventure. “Okay, paddle back to Raymond Island and I’ll collect you tomorrow morning on the way through,” I suggest. How I’ll manage the 50-metre portage across the silt jetty alone, to return to Lake King and on to camp, is the next challenge.
On reaching the crossover point, I flag down the first car that passes and enlist the help of a nice man to help me carry my fully laden kayak across, then launch it in onshore waves (more cursing) and paddle onward to Eagle Point camp. Miraculously, Carola arrives about an hour later, having been blown off-course yet again.
We’re back on track!
Birds of the Bunga
One of the joys of sleeping outdoors is the far greater likelihood of seeing sunrise and the next morning’s is a doozy. Black swans greet us, gliding gracefully across a golden sky reflected in the silky calm water. Paddling the millpond is even better. The water ‘dimples’ in places, belying frenzied fish hunting taking place below; occasionally a silver body torpedoes across the surface.
Beyond the McMillan Strait we head south on a 4km crossing of Lake Victoria and despite the easy paddling, Carola gets a crippling cramp in her right shoulder – not that I know because I’m merrily charging ahead in the prime conditions. By the time she ‘limps’ onto the beach at Tatungalung Bay, tensions are high, but it’s nothing that a nudie swim certainly can’t fix.
We’re getting into the more remote parts of the lake system now. The narrow Bunga Arm stretches 14km, sandwiched between dunes running parallel to Ninety Mile Beach and the Boole Poole Peninsula. Paddling into it is like gliding into a David Attenborough doco. One sandy beach is thick with hundreds of pelicans, grunting and clapping bills. Another is full of cormorants. Sea eagles, swans, herons, ducks – it’s like an avian depot where everyone hangs out when they’re not posing for photos in Paynesville or waiting for fish scraps at boat jetties.
Weirdly, my right shoulder starts hurting too (is it contagious?) but I let the wind carry me with minimal paddle strokes to Gannet camp, our home for two nights. You need a boat to reach the seven Parks Victoria campsites sprinkled within the space of a few kilometres, all ideal for soaking up the remote sheltered waters and adjacent ocean beach.
Our plan for day four was to explore the Bunga Arm but with both of us having bung arms we give paddling a break and take a hike instead, wading up the inland waterway before crossing the dunes to the wild and windswept Ninety Mile Beach and then walking back to camp.
Battle of the wind
Strong winds are forecast so we set out early the next morning, driving into a headwind for an hour before rounding the Boole Poole Peninsula. At 8.30am it’s already blowing 30kph and Carola’s arm is playing up. “Don’t worry, once we round this bend we’ll just be able to drift with the wind,” I confidently reassure her. “No paddling required!”
Then the waves come, and it doesn’t take long until the surface buckles into steeply rolling waves. I watch the nose of my kayak pierce the water while my rudder presumably hovers uselessly in the air; despite pushing the pedals with all my might, all steering has gone. I drift perpendicular to the wind as the water rises beneath me, launching me sideways down the wave’s face and within nanoseconds of tipping.
I drag my paddle on one side to bring the nose around, a la white-water kayaking. Troughs suck me backwards then I surf the next wave. And the next. “Mofos!” I yell.
Meanwhile, Carola is bargaining with the universe, “If I can just survive this, I won’t go out again” (promptly forgotten once back on dry land, naturally). She even goes so far as to plan a quick demise should she flip over, plotting to remove her PFD and drown as quickly and painlessly as possible rather than an extended spluttering fight.
For about an hour the battle is fought until we’re eventually blown onto dry land. It’s enough excitement for one day. In unanimous agreement, tents are pitched alongside the swamp and salt lakes of Gippsland Lakes Coastal Park.
The wind has tested our resolve but on our final day it rewards us with a gentle guiding hand at our backs, sweeping us past the cute village of Metung and up the sheltered waters between Flannagan Island and the mainland. Bottle green forest falls steeply to the water. Yachts anchor peacefully. I feel a little older and wiser than I did six days ago, though the elements have clearly put us in our place.
We paddle towards the narrow channel that drains the entire Gippsland Lakes into Bass Strait and, with an outgoing tide, the current is ripping but we avoid getting sucked out to sea and duck up North Arm instead, delivering us to the backstreets of the holiday town of Lakes Entrance. Our mission is complete.
“I guess you won’t want to come on another trip with me,” I say.
“When can we go?”