Motion on the ocean: Kayaking in Tasmania

Mark Eveleigh gets a new perspective kayaking off the Freycinet Peninsula

7 mins

I told you,”shouted Simon above the whistle of the wind and the slapping of the waves,“in Tasmania we embrace the elements!”

I gritted my teeth into what seemed to be a driving gale – actually nothing more than a baby’s mewling sigh compared with the real power of the roaring forties – and put renewed effort into the paddling. It crossed my mind that perhaps the elements were about to embrace us. But even with the white-caps breaking over our spraydecks, the ocean going two-man kayak was amazingly stable. Around me the four canary-yellow spears of the rest of our little fleet sliced through the icy water.

This was just another taste of Tasmania’s wildness, its unpredictability. Simon Stubbs has been leading kayaking tours around the Freycinet Peninsula for 13 years; he welcomes the weather as just another part of the adventure of life in the land ‘under Down Under’.

As we set out earlier that morning, lathered in sunscreen to protect us from a glaring Southern Ocean sun, the dramatic granite peaks of the Hazards were still throwing unblemished reflections into the mirror-like face of Great Oyster Bay. Only the gentlest of wavelets rippled across the rock-pools to feed the bright orange lichen so iconic of the area.

Even while we were still trying to find a comfortable paddling rhythm a sea eagle soared over, bound for some craggy nest high in the Hazards. Then a V-shaped wedge of black swans flew overhead, en route to the shallows of Moulting Lagoon.

Part of the lagoon is still open to hunting; frustrated sportsmen point out that most of the wildlife always seems to be smart enough to stay just the right side of the ‘no hunting’ sign. This has always been big hunting country; at the turn of the last century, a large proportion of the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) killed for the government bounty (£1 a head) were slaughtered here.

In 1916 the Freycinet Peninsula became one of Tasmania’s first two national parks. It’s now home to a spectacular variety of wildlife, including healthy populations of Bennet’s wallaby, the smaller Tasmanian pademelon (another deliciously named wallaby) and Tasmanian devil.

Coles Bay

Keeping an eye out for hopping shapes onshore,we paddled onward around the gentle curve of Coles Bay; our shadows rippled across the shallow sands of Richardsons Beach, herding a couple of large rays ahead of us. There’s a tale of adventure behind the name of every Tasmanian landmark. Silas Coles was an early settler who made a living burning oyster shells to make lime,while Ron Richardson was a Second World War fighter pilot who, locals say,was in the habit of setting land speed records or the dirt track linking the little village of Coles Bay with the peninsula – in his Rolls Royce.

The names Freycinet and Shouten Island pay homage to early French and Dutch explorers but later settlers came up with some of the more memorable names. A drunken Irish adventurer, John ‘Paddy’ Harte, is credited with outbursts leading to monikers for Break-Me-Neck Gorge and Bust-Me-Gall Hill. The Hazards themselves were named after the remarkable Captain Hazard, a liberated African slave who had risen to the level of a skipper and, legend has it, climbed over these mountains to save his shipwrecked crew.

The peaceful morning made me think that Sleepy Bay and Promise Bay were named specifically to compliment the glowing autumn light and tranquil waters of a perfect kayaking day. But by the time we paused for a high-tea of Milo and muffins on the squeaky sand of Honeymoon Bay, the wind was whipping up.

Just a mile or so over the isthmus (though a hefty paddle away), on the ocean-ward side of the peninsula, lay the famous Wineglass Bay. With its magnificent snow-white scimitar of sand bracketed between an emerald forest and a turquoise sea, Wineglass is surely one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. But it wasn’t named for its elegant, bowl-shaped curve. The real origin of its name is far more disturbing: so many whales were butchered at the three whaling factories here in the 1820s that, for decades, the whole bay was stained the colour of claret.

Hunted species

This is still the most likely place in the world to see southern right whales, but they were hunted so ruthlessly that the worldwide population is now thought to be less than a thousand.

I thought back to the previous afternoon, when I had spent a happy hour on the clifftops watching a pod of seven humpbacks breaching and tail slapping with their calves. There might have been many more humpbacks in the 2,000-odd kilometres of ocean between me and the icy wastes of Antarctica; I asked Simon whether we’d spot any. “Sadly,no,”he replied. “Over the past decade I’ve only seen whales actually enter the bay a handful of times. Dolphins are more common and the large seal colonies and penguins on the outlying islands attract sharks.” I was happy to hear that sharks also maintain a low profile, almost never seen in the coastal waters.

By the time we turned the noses of our kayaks homewards, the gnarled faces of the Hazards were already beginning to glow gold in the setting sun. We paused to take in the light show played out on the towering screen across the water from Coles Bay – another unforgettable Freycinet scene, the mountains glowing peach, gold, then scarlet and finally purple.

Perhaps we watched the show for too long; we were just rounding the point by the town esplanade, in rapidly fading light, when the squall hit us. We fought against it for ten minutes, feeling pleasantly exhilarated and revelling in the feeling of mild adventure that comes from being in a small boat on the edge of an immense and mysterious ocean.

We rounded another point and, just as suddenly, the wind whipped around behind us. Suddenly we were surfing on a wave that seemed sent by some divine spirit to carry us to shore. We rested our oars on the deck and ‘embraced the elements’ as the little wave carried us towards Muir’s Beach and the refuge of the warm pub beyond.

Tassie's top kayaking spots

Freycinet Peninsula, east coast

From short two- to three hour paddles up to week-long trips. Fantastic coastal scenery, beautiful beaches, sea cliffs and crystal clear waters. Lots of birdlife and occasional marine life.

Tasman Peninsula & Port Arthur, south-east coast

Great for modest half-days or week-long tours. Paddle around the historic convict settlement of Port Arthur and explore the rugged sea cliffs – the highest in the southern hemisphere.

Bathurst Harbour & Port Davey, south-west coast

Several days minimum are required to explore here. There are no roads – access is by light plane. The isolated bays, inlets and rivers are great for group tours or experienced kayakers.

Bruny Island & D’Entrecasteau Channel, south coast

Half-day to multi-day adventures. Easy access to sheltered bays, islands and coastal cliffs. A good range of accommodation and a warm pub are always within easy reach.

Gordon River, west coast

A wilderness trip up the Gordon River to the Franklin River is a true adventure for experienced paddlers or on a guided trip. Explore the ancient Huon pine forests of Tasmania’s southwest World Heritage Area.

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