Unassisted Kayak Adventure at Ningaloo

In 2006, my girlfriend (Lauren) and I would begin our mornings kayaking on the Swan River.  It was my favourite activity to do before starting work and always enjoyed being on the water whilst the sun rose and seeing the dolphins playing.   In these mornings, I would also imagine possibilities that kayaking could bring… kayaking in remote areas where you wouldn’t see a single soul except of course the marine animals that may show themselves along the way.

After a couple of trips to Ningaloo reef in my late teens, a love of NW Western Australia was born. Despite trips to some of the most sought after dive areas in the world, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Red Sea, I still craved the unique sea life, corals and desert that define Ningaloo reef. The idea of exploring through an unassisted multiday kayaking expedition from Coral Bay to Exmouth, Australia developed slowly until it dominated my aspiration bucket list.  This unique region of Australia definitely meets the criteria of being remote. Exmouth is located 1260km north of the world’s most isolated city, Perth.  The Region is dry and harsh with temperatures that can exceed 47 C in summer and there is no access to fresh drinking water except in the town of Exmouth. After initial planning I realised that for this trip to be successful, a whole lot more work and planning would be required. The initial investigation also revealed that a trip would need to occur between April to July:

  1. to mitigate the heat and exposure risks, and
  2. to coincide with Whale Shark session.

Sounds easy right?? For years, this limited period presented issues due to conflicting work commitments for both my partner and I. Finally, we decided that this year we would finally do it! Planning the trip was relatively easy compared to finding the time to do adequate training together. Working long hours, renovating our house and attending necessary social commitments made finding a full day to train difficult. Although we hadn’t trained as much as we should have, we decided that our combined experience and knowledge would see us through.

However, some things never travel smoothly and two weeks before we were to leave for our expedition, my husband degloved his finger. The surgeon strongly recommended that we cancel the trip due to the risk of infection and further injury.  Luckily, after negotiations with our respective employers, we were able to reschedule for what was literally the last week of the whale shark session. We ended up re-scheduling, just before the whale session finished.

The final piece de resistance occurred when two weeks prior to departing, when we thought nothing else could possibly complicate this adventure further, we were surprised to find that we were expecting our first child!! After considerable soul searching and Google research combined with an increased emphasis on safety and contingency planning we departed on the adventure.

Swimming with the Whale Sharks

kayak-wThe day before we started our expedition, we went swimming with a whale shark in the waters of the outer reef of Ningaloo. Waiting in the deep blue water, my heart started to race from the moment I saw the murky grey object in the far distance. As the object glided towards us, I noticed the ever bigger object approaching with its distinctive markings and big open mouth. It was a whale shark! The whale shark moved at a constant pace and looked so tranquil and majestic. Once it had passed us, we began swimming slightly behind it. This approach prevents the whale shark from becoming stressed and also allowed me to watch the whale shark move through the water. For me it was a truly memorable day and from the first glimpse I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day!!  If you haven’t had an opportunity to swim with the whale sharks I would highly recommend adding it to your “bucket list”.

www.whalesharkdive.com

Unassisted Multiday Kayaking Expedition

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As we drove from Exmouth to Coral Bay through the Cape Range National Park, I couldn’t help but marvel at the spectacular place we were travelling through with its rugged limestone ranges, breathtaking deep canyons and bouncing rock wallabies and kangaroos. My excitement subdued and was replaced with doubt and worry.  Although this place is spectacular, it was also remote, arid, unforgiving and the vast distance that we had just traveled will soon need to be done via human effort on a kayak. This doubt was negated by the contingency equipment and procedures we had in place.

We finally arrived at our start point, we unpacked our car and waved our support driver goodbye. Other than two locations along the way that were necessary to replenish our water supplies (we dropped them off on the way down), we would not see a single person for the next 6 days.

Kayaking in the inner reef of Ningaloo was like sitting on top of an aquarium. It is a protected sanctuary from the wild Indian Ocean winds and swell.  You could see through the beautiful turquoise waters to the white sands and coral reef formations. Turtle heads began popping their heads up for air occurred every few minutes, after grasping for air they would then swim down and dart away. Ningaloo Reef is an incredible aquatic environment filled with an amazing variety of marine life and we were luckily enough to see several species of dolphins, turtles and sharks as well as humpback whales, manta rays, and lots of tropical fish.

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One day, we decided to venture into the outer reef in the hope to see more humpback whales and to do some ocean kayaking.  This journey is definitely not for the faint hearted or non-prepared kayaker.  It is essential to understand the winds, tides, currents and also have a GPS as there are only a few access points along the reef and you kayak out some 10 nautical miles from the shoreline. Our trip was worth it as we saw humpback whales emerge on their migration north and also heard their “songs” throughout the day. We also saw the research vessel which was studying orcas attacks on humpback whale calves.

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/science-wins-as-orcas-opt-to-linger/story-e6frg6nf-1226713588633

After a fabulous day of offshore kayaking, we had arrived at our planned entry location (break in the reef where you can re-enter). Unfortunately the winds had changed from the original weather forecast. We had to make the decision to head back to where we had started the day or brave the barrelling waves that were crushing over the reef. As the first option meant kayaking for at least another 8 hours, we decided on watching the waves for sets then to perfectly time our dash to correlate with a break.  Within moments, we both started kayaking at considerable pace and determination.  We both caught a large wave which took my husband to safety but I was still above the reef system, some 50cm beneath me. He turned around to find me, only to see me in my kayak parallel to the next set of imminent barrelling waves. I heard him loud encouragements at me to paddle hard. I promptly rotated my kayak and paddled with every bit of energy I had left in my body and mentally prepared to be crushed under the waves. Fortunately, I ended up getting passed the reef and caught the white wash to the sanctuary of the inner reef area. It was an exhilarating experience.

Eating and Sleeping

One of my favourite foods is fresh fish and nothing beats fish that you personally catch and eat within minutes. We took a fishing hand reel each and in the recreational fishing zones, we would throw out of line and lure. If we caught a fish we would kayak back to shore and then cook and eat it on the beach.  Even the best seafood restaurants wouldn’t be able to compare with views, freshness or value for money ; )

Other than fish, we survived on dehydrated meals, fresh fruit, tinned fruit, fruit and nuts and juice.  By this stage I was six weeks pregnant and was experiencing nausea and exhaustion (something I never considered that I would get… mainly as I never imagined getting pregnant). I was very thankful that my husband had not listened to me, I had tried to convince him that all we needed was coffee/tea/nuts/fruit and condiments for my fresh fish – tamari sauce/salt& pepper/coconut oil/pickled ginger.  Having biscuits, vegemite and lollies greatly reduced the impact of morning sickness that was becoming my constant daily companion.  The other pregnancy observation was that I could no longer defeat exhaustion… at lunch times I would arrive on shore and after eating I would need a 30 minute sleep and on the last days of the expedition I found myself closing my eyes and having to ask my husband for assistance (towing me along). This concept of not being able to work through exhaustion is still abnormal to me, I have previously done 24 hour adventure races, endurance swimming and half iron man competitions. I was forced from a person who hated bed and stopping to a person who would and could sleep at any given moment, whether I liked it or not!

That brings me to one of my favourite things to do… getting ready for bed.  Everyday we would plan our journey and then closer to the each days destination, we would start scouting the coastline for protected areas from wind and places we could safely dismount from our kayaks. Then we would cook our dinner (with any luck a fresh reef fish!). Then we would pack everything away and savour the speculator sun set whilst sipping a mug of tea. It really was an experience that I can never see myself boring of.

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We slept in a bivvy bag with our sleeping bag inside on the beach sand. Just in case you are wondering, a bivvy bag is a waterproof fabric shell that is designed to slip over a sleeping bag and provides a barrier against wind and rain. The bivvy bag was vital for us as the winds would become very strong each morning from 2:30am. We used our buoyancy vest as a pillow (though not very comfortable). So far I am probably not selling our sleeping conditions, but there is something that makes up for it a thousand times over. After dark the night sky was simply spectacular, and with no roof to hinder the view we would find ourselves waking each other up to share the spectacle above. There have only been a handful of locations that I have been where the Milky Way is revealed as an amazing band of light across the sky through the brightest constellations.

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