A Sea Kayaking Crossing of Torres Strait
By Jonathan Papalia
The article contains an account of how four sea-kayakers crossed the tropical waterway between Cape York, Australia and New Guinea called Torres Strait. The article chronicles a twelve day, two hundred kilometre trip of open ocean sea kayaking though the beautiful and remote islands. Specific mention is made of the detailed preparations and logistics, as well as how the challenges posed by the environment were overcome. It is hoped that the article will help other adventurers planning a sea-kayak expedition.
It all started one New Year’s Eve in Swan Hill after Judd, Anthony and I had just completed the arduous Murray Marathon (an annual, five day, 400 kilometres flat water kayak race). After 400 kilometres of paddling in the muddy brown creek that is the Murray River, we thought there must be something better to paddle on. Why not try to paddle across to New Guinea from Australia; it could not be more than a couple hundred kilometres?
In the months that followed a team called “The Orbitors” was formed comprising of Judd Boeker, Christian Gallagher, Anthony Buykx and myself. Judd and Christian have been best mates since primary school and Anthony and I are first cousins. All of us have a great passion for the natural environment and endurance sports. Firstly, we looked around for a suitable sea kayak. Anthony already owned a Pittarak sea kayak and encouraged us to get in touch with Bruce Richards and Larry Gray at Pittarak International. Anthony and I first meeting with Bruce Richards was for a leisurely one hour test paddle but we all got on so well it lasted for over five hours and included dinner. Soon three more single Pittarak sea kayaks with carbon-kelvar hulls were ordered and our trip was starting to have some reality.
The next step was to learn how to handle a sea kayak in all conditions. Larry Gray proved to be a great teacher and enormous inspiration. Under Larry’s guidance, we were able to build upon our flat water kayaking skills. We owe Larry a great deal of thanks for his encouragement and infectious enthusiasm for sea kayaking.
In addition to training with Larry, Anthony and I did a coastal navigation course with the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. When the course instructor and other participants found out what we were planning, they viewed us with a mixture of madness and admiration. We also did a senior first aid course to complement the strong first aid skills of Judd and Christian. All of us followed our own individual fitness regimes involving kayaking, running, cycling, swimming and yoga and received vaccinations for a host of tropical diseases. It is important to be vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis and to take anti malaria tablets.
Two of the most difficult aspects of the whole expedition were the logistics and not knowing how long the trip would take. None of the team had ever been North of Cairns and we had heard of mixed reports about the waters of Torres Strait. How were we going to get the four of us and four, five metre sea kayaks to Cape York? How long would it take? When was the best time of the year to go? How tough were the conditions? What route should we take? What approvals did we need? What dates should we book our discounted airfares and how long did we need off work?
After about two months of telephoning, faxing, and emailing various tourist, shipping and air freight organisations we hatched the following plan. Airfreight the kayaks from Sydney to Cairns, and then have the kayaks transferred to the weekly ship that journey’s from Cairns to Thursday Island and then to the north-western Cape York town of Seisa, where they would be held in storage till we arrived. We would subsequently fly to Thursday Island via Cairns from Sydney and then catch the daily ferry services between Thursday Island and Seisa where all being well the kayaks would be held in storage until we arrived. We also planned on a very conservative three week schedule for our return airline connections.
Our plan was to cross the dazzling turquoise waters of the Torres Strait. The Strait is dotted with over 100 islands as well as coral cays, exposed sandbanks and reefs. Torres Strait is a major shipping channel for Australia and was named after the Spanish navigator, Luis Vaez de Torres who sailed through the region in 1606. Linking the Coral Sea in the east with Arafura in the west, the Torres Strait is the only part of Australia sharing a border with an international country and the issues of surveillance and defence are a major consideration.
The Strait has population of 8,000 of which approximately three quarters are Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people who are dispersed throughout 19 small island communities. Torres Strait has produced Eddie Mabo, Christine Arnu and host of rugby union, rugby league, and Australian rules footballers. Each island community is run by its own council .In order to pass through Torres Strait we were required to gain formal approval from the councils that controlled the islands we wished to visit. All approvals were forthcoming but were forwarded in manner consistent with the Torres Strait Islander timeless approach to life.
The timetable that emerged meant that we would need to pack and send the kayaks two weeks before our planned start. We wrapped the kayaks in a mosaic of bubble wrap and cardboard held together with loads of packing tape and delivered them to the domestic airfreight terminal at Sydney Airport. I felt a mix of satisfaction and trepidation as we handed over fifteen thousand dollars worth of uninsured kayaks containing the bulk of our equipment and supplies to the baggage handlers.
By virtue of Christian’s enviable work schedule with the Australian Antarctic Division, he was able to be our advance party and left Sydney on a Tuesday evening and arrived on Thursday Island midday the next day. In the next day and half Christian was able to liaise with local and federal police, customs, coast guard, Australian navy and confirm approvals with the councils of Yam and Saibai Islands. We owe our thanks to these authorities for their support and encouragement. The authorities were impressed by our preparation and the sophistication of the equipment that we carried. On the Friday, Christian caught the one hour ferry from Thursday Island to Seisa on Cape York and with the help of the local coast guard unpacked our four single Pittarak sea-kayaks.
On Friday, on the third of August 2001, Judd, Anthony and I quickly finished work and rushed to the airport to catch the last flight of the day from Sydney to Cairns. Members of Anthony’s and my family were there to see us off. Our poor mothers expressed their concerns about the high seas, crocodiles and sharks.
On Saturday, on the fourth of August, 2002, Judd, Anthony and I caught the one and three quarter hour morning flight from Cairns to Thursday Island. It was a great flight because we all visited the cockpit and saw our first views of Cape York and Torres Strait. The Thursday Island runway is actually located on neighbouring Horn Island and there is about an hour journey via minibus and ferry to Thursday Island.
Thursday Island is an easy going, low key frontier town with rambling streets and five pubs. Thursday Island was formerly a major pearling centre and during the 2nd World War was at the vanguard of Australia’s defence against the Japanese. One of the main tourist attractions are the large guns placements that tower over the town. The Island is the regional centre of Torres Strait and contains medical, military and law enforcement depots. A melting pot of Asians, European and Pacific Islanders people have shaped the Thursday Island’s history and its enduring charm.
We had little time to take in Thursday Island’s charm but in the hour and half before the ferry departed for Seisa managed to top up our supplies with additional flares and I bought a pair sandshoes (having left mine at home). We also left some of our bags at the local police station and changed into our clothes that we would wear for next three weeks.
It was great sight when we arrived in Seisa about 4 pm to see Christian and the unpacked kayaks ready to go. We were finally here. Following Christian discussions with the local Coast Guard, regarding the tides, we would depart the next morning before dawn at 430 am on our first leg – a 30 kilometre paddle along the north western coast to Cape York. That night we ate at the local caravan park and met an intrepid American mountain bike rider. This guy apparently held a world record for riding around Australia and recent cycled from Cairns to Seisa towing a small trailer in order to write an article about mountain biking in northern Queensland.
The alarm clocks went off and we struggled out of bed at 415 am, packed up our sleeping gear and then four man lifted our fully laden kayaks to the waters edge. Our kayaks weighed in the vicinity of 85 kilograms and each contained 20-30 litres of water and three weeks of food and equipment. We carried a vast array of equipment which included – spare paddles, spare spray skirts, two global positioning systems (GPS), two water-proof two way radios, a satellite phone, four e-perbs, spare hats, knifes, compasses, lifejackets, snorkelling gear, power head rifle, gas stoves, two anchors, nautical charts and topographic maps, first aid kits, pens, suunto compass watches, photographic and video cameras. We also had padded our kayaks cockpits with foam and fitted electronic bilge pumps to complement the manual bilge pumps already fitted to our sea-kayaks.
Nervously, we slinked out of Seisa in the dark. We paddled about 150 metres off the shoreline in an area known for crocodiles but there was a bright night sky and half moon to light our way. Our spirits lifted when the dawn broke about an hour after our departure. The dawn revealed beautiful bright blue water and the weathered ridges that lead north to Cape York. The tide was with us until about 8 am as we approached Peak Point. To the west we could see the islands that punctuated Endeavour Strait and to the east we could see Cape York. Around this time I saw a moving shell and thought it was a crocodile but as I drew closer saw it was only turtle.
We stopped for breakfast on the beach just east of Peak Point and looked at Cape York ten kilometres away. We also noticed a strong wind of probably 10-15 knots strength from the east. After breakfast we attempted to paddle in a straight line to Cape York but after an hour of paddling realised that we were only 150 metres offshore of where we had started from. Obviously, we required a change of plan and headed back to the beach. As we discussed our options on the beach, I started to worry – today was supposed to be an easy paddle; how are we going to cope with what is to come?
We decided upon paddling along the shore line about two metres off the beach. The high sand dunes behind the beach provided some protection from the wind and we slowly made our way along the beach to Cape York. After another couple of hours we stopped for a break at the last beach west of Cape York. During the break we walked up the ridge to the west of the beach and took pictures of the 180 degree views of Cape York.
We were soon back in the kayaks and continued to paddle east into the stiff wind around Cape York. At Cape York we paused long enough to be included in the background of a tour group photographs. After a seven hour day, we landed on the first beach east of Cape York. Anthony and Judd, quickly setup our two tents as Christian and I setoff on foot to find the nearby tourist resort and top up our water supplies. After one hour walking though some thick scrub Christian and I found the resort and called Judd and Anthony on the two way radio asking to bring us more bladders.
As we ate our evening meal, we discussed our route. The strong wind we experienced confirmed the warnings Christian had received from the authorities on Thursday Island. During August a persistent trade wind from the south / south east blows consistently though Torres Strait. The authorities had suggested that we had picked the wrong month and should have come in September or October, which could also mark the start on the raining season.
In the months leading up to our trip after speaking to various people including a guy who did the crossing as part of his role with Australian Army’s Special Air Service, we decided on the following route from Cape York. Firstly, paddle from Cape York north-west to Horn Island and secondly, paddle north-east via Wednesday Island to Twin Island.
Given the prevailing south-east wind this would mean a fairly difficult paddle east from Wednesday Island to Twin Island. Anthony proposed the idea that we should paddle North-east from Cape York to the Adolphus Islands and then south-east using the prevailing wind and swell to Twin Island. After further discussion we decided to adopt Anthony’s suggestion. That night Anthony and I sleep like soundly while Judd got up several times to chase off the wild pigs that we probing our camp site.
Once again, we woke before dawn at 430 am, in an effort to get underway before the wind became too strong. However, it also meant that we would have to cross one of Australia’s busiest shipping channels in the dark. After a survey of the conditions, we estimated that there was about a 5-10 knot wind from the east and a choppy half metre sea. As we debated whether to attempt the 15 kilometre crossing, I was conscious of the importance of this leg as it appeared we would have to adapt to paddling with a strong southeast wind. If we could not paddle from Cape York to a nearby island, how were we going to get across Torres Strait? I was also confident that in the event that the wind over powered us we would be blown back to Cape York or in the worse case Horn Island. We took a vote on whether to paddle and all of us except Christian voted in favour to the crossing.
We were soon on the water, with a bearing set and pushing our way through the wind and choppy seas. We noticed a couple of large container ships but they were far enough way not to pose a problem. I was also doubtful whether the container ships would see our small craft lit only by white strobes. After a couple of hours of paddling Mt Adolphus Island came into a clearer focus. As was to happen repeatedly during our trip, the islands we headed for would appear at first to be fairly close. However, twenty minutes later the islands would seem further away than when first sighted.
A little over four hours after departing Cape York and after some discussion we landed on the Western side of Mt. Adolphus Island. We all were overjoyed to successfully to complete our first ocean crossing and thrilled to land on a coral beach that had no human footprints. Nevertheless human activity had left its marks; fishing nets had washed ashore and were tangled in the scrub at the back of the beach. We ate lunch and then decided to head northwest to Little Adolphus island were we planned to camp for the night.
As we paddled north east and then west along the southern shore of Little Adolphus island, we were keep warm by brilliant sun shine and looked into the beautiful, clear tropical sea. About an hour and half later we landed on a steep face coral beach on the northern side of Little Adolphus Island. After we dragged and four-man carried the kayaks up the beach we noticed a large crocodile track at the eastern end of the beach. Our heart rates rose as we confront the possibilities that crocodiles may be in the vicinity.
For protection, we decided to place our tents inside a rough rectangle formed by the four kayaks. We also gathered wood and dug a pit in the sand for a fire. One of the advantages of having such an early start was that it was only midday and there was time to swim in the crystal clear waters above the island’s coral reef. Anthony despite the crocodile tracks could not help himself and quickly put on his on snorkelling gear and with hand spear and headed off in the hope of spearing some fish. The temperature was above thirty degree celsius and I soon found relief from the sun in a cave at the western end of beach. We finished the day with a meal of instant pasta around an open beach fire all feeling very satisfied.
Once again we rose at 430 am, packed up camp, and loaded our kayaks. The day’s paddle involved a 25 kilometre paddle northwest to Twin Island. The distance of the leg meant we would not be able to see where we were heading and would be out of sight of land for the majority of the leg. It was thus critical that we stayed on our bearing and were not blown off course by the strong southeast wind and swell.
We headed off under the night sky and into a choppy one and half metre sea and were propelled along by the now familiar southeast wind. Just as the dawn was coming up, we could see the faint hue of the lighthouse on East Strait Island. Having the wind and swell behind us provided us with some great rides as we surfed down the face of the swell. A pod of dolphins also crossed our bows. It was great fun until Christian came out of his kayak. To help Christian, we quickly doubled back to him and braced his boat as he climbed back in. After about three hours of paddling we could see East Strait Island and Twin Island in the distance. By about 10 am, after crossing the fringing reef, we landed on a lovely sandy beach on the north side of Twin Island. The remainder of the day was spent snorkelling and enjoying the brilliant sun.
The day’s paddle involved a 20 kilometre paddle north to Mt Earnest Island. The 230 metre peak of Mt Earnest could be seen from our camp site on Twin Island. We looked forward to arriving on Mt Earnest Island where we were told there was water tank from an abandoned settlement. The paddle took around four hours and was marked by our sighting of giant turtles. The turtles floated on the surface until they saw us, when they quickly dived in the depths of sparkling blue waters. As we approached the southern edge of Mt Earnest Island, we paddled across a brilliantly coloured fringing reef. I quickly put on my scuba mask and rolled my kayak upside down to take a closer look.
We landed on an expansive beach on the northwest edge of the Island. We soon found the remains of the human settlement that lay below the imposing peak of Mt Earnest. Judd was first to find the two metre high circular water tank, which was filled by rainwater that ran off a corrugated iron roof of a disused shelter. Judd looked inside the three quarter full tank and reported that a metre long dead goanna was floating on the top of the water. The water supply was contaminated.
Judd and Christian then came up with the idea that we could use a sand filter and then boil the water to make it potable. Judd also managed to find a ten litre plastic bucket and soon had one of his socks filled with sand. Water from the tank was poured into the top of the sock and collected at the bottom in the bucket. There was only one problem with this ready made filter; it made the tank water salty. We then decided to split into pairs and walked around the island looking for a natural spring. Our two hour search was fruitless. Maybe this was why the settlement was now abandoned?
We then further considered our options as we had little over a day’s water remaining. In total the four of us were using about 15-20 litres a day. We could make a detour to the settlement on Moa Island that lay 20 kilometres to our west to pickup water. This would mean a difficult eastward return paddle and extending our trip by a couple of days. Eventually, we decided on boiling the tank water and then putting purifying tablets into the water. We established a system, of filling one of our 30 litre dry bags full of water from the tank and then transferring it into our two litre billy. After the billy boiled we poured the water into the ten litre plastic bucket, where it cooled and then added purifying tablets. The water was then transferred to our collection of camelbak drink systems, four, six and ten litre bladders. It took us twelve hours to boil the 60 litres of water we required.
The next morning was spent purifying water and preparing for the short 10 kilometre paddle to Gettulai Island. Later that morning we slipped away from Mt Earnest Island unsure whether our water purifying efforts would be satisfactory. It did not help that the purified water tasted full of chlorine and a little gritty. The paddle across the sun bathed turquoise sea was great and was punctuated by several turtle sighting. We approached the southern shore of Gettulai Island and decided to make our way around the eastern edge of the Island and camp on the north-eastern side of the island. This position was to provide some protection from the wind and position us for the next day’s easterly paddle to Saddle or as the locals call it “Ulu” Island. There were however, a couple of challenges to overcome. The wind had strengthened to 15 knots and the seas where a choppy three quarter of a metre. The northern side of Gettulai Island also has a substantial reef onto which the swell was breaking.
Anthony and I were able to successfully surf the half metre waves that broke over the reef and waited in the shallows behind the reef for Christian and Judd. Unfortunately, Christian and Judd were not so lucky and both got thrown out of their kayaks by the waves as they crossed the reef. In process, Judd lost his hat and leg knife. After regrouping, as the depth permitted, we paddled and walked our kayaks over the reef to the beach some 100 metres away. That afternoon we climbed the ridge that overlooked our camp site and struggled to see our next destination Ulu Island about 20 kilometres away.
We rose at dawn, ate breakfast and packed up camping gear into our kayaks. By this time, I had settled into a familiar packing pattern. Food and one water bladder into the front hatch, paddling jacket, spare camelbak, large water bladders , scuba mask, and spare spray skirt into the day hatch behind my seat; and water bladders, burner fuel, clothing, tent and sleeping gear in the rear compartment.
The next morning, the tide was low and meant we took an hour to drag, carry and float our 85 kilogram kayaks across the reef. As we approached the outer edge of the reef, we could sea that the swell and wind had not abated and were possibly larger and stronger than the previous day. Our first challenge was to punch through the metre high waves that broke onto the island’s reef. Like the day before, Anthony and I managed to paddle through the surf but Christian and Judd got thrown out of their kayaks by the waves.
Anthony and I rafted up and debated our options. I suggested that one of us should swim ashore and paddle Judd or Christian kayaks through the break whilst the other one stayed off shore with one kayak in tow. Judd and Christian could easily swim out through the break and then climb back into their kayaks. After an hour of trying and before any drastic action was required by Anthony or I, Judd lead Christian through a part of the reef that appeared to have smaller waves. We regrouped and started the day’s 18 kilometre paddle
We headed east directly into the wind and now two to two half metre swell. The paddling was hard and slow going and with the rise in swell we found it hard to see one another and to stay together. We also quickly, lost sight of all land. I hoped that we could stay on course. About two hours into the paddle Christian came out of his kayak. I turned my kayak around, and then braced his kayaks as he climbed back in. Soon after climbing back into his kayak Christian saw a large shark. Christian believes that the shark was longer than his five metre kayak. This was not going to be an easy day.
We kept paddling and about four hours after leaving Gettulai Island, through the swell and now 20-25 knot wind, we caught our first glimpses of Ulu Island. Around that time, the tide must have changed, because despite our increased efforts all we seemed to do was to maintain our distance from the island. Our research suggested that the tides would increase the currents moving from east to west. The tide, wind, and swell were all running against us. I considered the possibility that we might have to keep paddling for several more hours until the tide changed. After another hour of flat out paddling we landed exhausted on the north-western side of Ulu Island. An eighteen kilometre paddle had taken us over five hours, under more favourable conditions it would have taken a little over three hours.
That afternoon, we ate and rested then Judd used the satellite phone to check on the weather. The weather report he received revealed that we had been paddling in 25 knot winds and a small boat warning was current. We were thankful that we were in robust sea-kayaks and not in the flat bottom runabout boats that the locals like to use and readily agreed to rest the following day.
The day was spent resting and relaxing in our own way. It also gave us an opportunity to fix some deep scrapes that the coral had inflicted to the hulls of our kayaks. Judd and Anthony went off exploring and fishing and managed to rescue a turtle caught in another stray fishing net. Once again human waste including plastics and building materials littered this remote and uninhabited island. I was also concerned about our water supplies. At the most we could survive another three or four days without fresh water. That afternoon uncertain of the conditions we would face, we plotted our next day’s paddle to Sassie Island or possibly the inhabited Yam Island.
We rose at dawn and loaded up the kayaks for our planned north east 25 kilometre paddle to Sassie Island. All of us where concerned that the conditions would make heading north east difficult. However, the wind was more from the south and the swell had dropped to one metre. After about three hours of paddling Sassie island came into view. Christian pulled out his GPS and confirmed that we were ten kilometres away. About half an hour later a rain storm came over and we lost sight of Sassie Island. Another thirty minutes later as the storm pasted, what appeared to be Yam Island came into view. We rafted up and checked our charts and then decided to head for Yam Island. Yam Island is home to a strong community of 400. Importantly, it had fresh water and the possibility of fresh food and maybe even a beer. The decision was unanimous and we quickly changed course north to Yam Island. About six and half hours after we headed off we landed at the Yam Island Settlement, which is located on the southwest tip of the island.
As soon as we landed on the beach some of the local kids greeted us and soon an islander on a four-wheeled motor bike arrived. He said he was from customs and wanted to know where we had come from. We explained where we paddle from and that we had previously contacted the island’s council about our visit. Within half hour we were checking into the island’s guest house and loading our kayaks two at a time on to the back of an old five ton flat bead truck for transport to the guest house
That afternoon, at the guest house we were surrounded by the local kids who were full of curiosity and had an amazing ability to get into every imaginable part of our equipment. Much to our amazement, one child even climbed into the rear compartment of my kayak and closed the hatch on himself.
Days 9 and 10
During the next two days we rested and enjoyed Yam Island. We all revelled in the laid back Island timetable. During this time, we played touch football with the local boys – who play every evening on the island’s airstrip come football ground and got to meet several of the island’s elders including the chairman of the council. Judd and Anthony also received some fishing lessons from the local kids. We were impressed by the local’s intimate knowledge of their island environment and also met a couple of teachers from the local primary school who proved to be great company. On our second night we moved and stayed in the teacher accommodation with one of our new teacher friends.
Our approval to visit Gabba Island was confirmed and at the end of the second day we started planning for our next paddle leg to Gabba Island. Gabba Island was previously inhabited by the indigenous people who inhabit Yam Island. According to the Australian navy personal Christian spoke to on Thursday Island, Gabba Island is haunted. Following several training mishaps on and around the island, the Australian Navy no longer uses the island. In the course of our discussion with the elders on Yam Island, the elders mentioned specifically not to disturb or take anything from the island. They also mentioned that we might see sacred human remains. One story we heard was that the island was no longer inhabited because they buried their dead too close to the island water supply.
After two days of rest and relaxation we reluctantly got back into our kayaks and headed northwest to Gabba Island via Cape Islet. The sun was shining and seas and wind conditions favourable. After a couple of hours of paddling we stopped at Cap Islet and had a quick break. We were soon back on the water and heading northwest to Gabba Island. About two hours later, we approached the eastern edge of the island when Judd saw what he first thought was a shark but after a second look decided it was a dugong. We rounded the northeast edge of island and with the benefit a hide tide, landed on the north side of the island. As we made our way across the reef we noticed a couple of feral pigs feeding on the reef. Gabba Island is a hilly island and is dominated by lush tropical vegetation and steep granite outcrops that surround an imposing 169 metre peak at the island centre. The island reminded me of pictures I had seen of the south western Pacific Ocean’s Easter Island.
That night we realised that the tide be low in the morning and it would be a good idea to move the kayaks closer to the reefs edge to avoid dragging them over the reef at low tide. We had dinner and discussed moving the kayaks over the reef before the tide receded. However, laziness took over and we all went to bed. Maybe it was the trance of the haunted island.
The next morning we paid for our laziness, because it took us an hour to four-man carry the fully loaded kayaks across the reef to the open sea. The day’s paddle was to be our last and longest, and consisted of paddling 50 kilometres north to Saibai Island. Once again we were soon out of site of all land and hoped we could keep on course in a choppy one metre sea. After a couple hours of paddling, Mt Cornwallis came onto the horizon. Mt Cornwallis located on Dauan Island, is the north most tip of the Great Dividing Range that runs the length of Australia’s east coast. Dauan Island is situated ten kilometres west of Saibai Island and was a reassuring reference point on our journey north to Saibai.
As the day unfolded, the ocean changed colour from the now familiar dazzling turquoise blue to a muddy brown colour reflecting the impact of significant flows of sediment and fresh water from Papua New Guinea. We also paddled over the rough water associated with Adrian’s reef. Around this time, while I was have a break and bracing my kayak, Christian attempted to raft up along side me and in the process, with the help of the swell managed to land his kayak on my outstretched paddle. This impact snapped the shaft of my paddle. We both laughed in disbelief and I proceeded to swap the broken paddle with my spare break down paddle, which was attached to the outside of my kayak.
After the paddle change, we continued our paddle north and rounded the south western edge of Saibai Island. Seven and half hours after leaving Gabba Island we landed at the settlement on Saibai Island. We had made it across Torres Strait! On the access ramp, we were greeted by several locals including a few people who told us they lived in New Guinea and were just visiting for the day.
Saibai Island is a low lying flat swampy island 5 kilometres south of the coast of Papua New Guinea. Its highest point is only five metres above sea level. The island becomes a mud bath in the wet season and legend has it that on rare occasions when the sea retreats, the reindeer run across the narrow strait from New Guinea to the island. Saibai Island is Australian territory and by virtue of a strange treaty between Australia and New Guinea non indigenous people are not able to use Saibai Island as an entry / exit point between Australia and New Guinea.
Ten minutes after we arrived, a white fellow wearing a customs cap joined us the beach. Apart from his customs duties, Dave’s main role on Saibai Island was to build houses for the local indigenous population under a federal government initiative. We quickly discovered that Dave was a man after our own hearts and was a keen tri-athlete. As part of our preparation, we had mailed six large roles of bubble wrap and packing tape to the Saibai Island council for our collection. Dave soon pulled these materials out of storage for us and we set about the task of packing our sea kayaks for their return to Sydney. About two hours later, the four kayaks were once again wrapped in a mosaic of bubble wrap, cardboard and packing tape and safely stored in a large lockup garage, which was the settlements freight facility. We had previously arranged that the kayaks would be picked up from Saibai Island and then shipped south to Cairns and then transferred to the airfreight depot at Cairns airport where they would be air freighted back to Sydney. The return of the kayaks would take about three weeks but it sure beat having to paddle them back to Thursday Island.
Once the kayaks were packed, we began to celebrate what we had accomplished. The next morning with hangovers, we got ready for the forty five minute small plane flight back to Thursday Island. On Gabba Island, we had used the satellite phone to contact the airline involved and had rescheduled our flight. The flight flew over Torres Strait and gave us the opportunity to catch another view of the islands we had visited. Once back on Thursday Island, we contacted the regulatory authorities and let them know we completed our journey and also contacted Qantas to reschedule our flights back to Cairns and Sydney. The local rag on Thursday Island interviewed us for a story about the trip.
Having had time to reflect on our journey across Torres Strait it has certainly taught me many things. On a practical level, the most difficult aspects of the trip were the remoteness, logistics and lack of freshwater. Apart from the paddle leg on day five from Gettulai Island to Ulu Island, the paddling was not as taxing or as intense as what I had experienced during flat water marathon kayak racing. However, this was just as well because you have a lot of additional items to consider. I attribute our success to several factors including our fitness base from endurance racing, mindset and expert training from Larry Gray.
Another key element to the trip’s success was the early commitment and teamwork of all members of the team. The coordination of a group of determined, strong willed individuals was not always easy but relations between team members were robust enough to withstand the pressures imposed by the trip. In conclusion, Torres Strait is a fantastic tropical waterway for sea kayaking. I would encourage any adventurous sole to sea kayak in Torres Strait but only after thorough preparation.
The members of “The Orbitors” in the twelve months since the trip have continued their outdoor activities. Christian has completed another successful tour with the Australian Antarctic Division; Judd has continued to run marathons and completed his ten successive Brindabella classic; Anthony successfully completed his fourth consecutive individual Hawkesbuy Classic kayak marathon; I have continued to participate in a range of multi-sport endurance events and was overjoyed with my 12th place finish in the 2001 Jones Lang La Salle Mt Buller to Melbourne two day multi-sport race. Anthony and I also participated in the inaugural Bondi Beach to Watson Bay Ocean Swim. The swim required us to have a support boat but the day before the race, the power boat we were going to borrow broke down, so we decided on using our Pittarak sea kayaks instead. We used a rotating system of swimming and paddling to complete the ten kilometre open ocean swim and managed to be the 5th team home. Another notable event was the Geo Quest a 48 hour, four person team adventure race held on the New South Wales, south coast. “The Orbitors” reunited and importantly paddled double pittarak sea kayaks during the event.