Situated halfway down Tasmania’s east coast – enticingly called the Sun Coast for its high doses of sunshine relative to other parts of Tassie – Freycinet National Park is the oldest national park in Tasmania. (Along with Mt Field, Freycinet became a National Park in 1916. Cradle Mountain was declared in 1922). A wild peninsula with a spine of bare pink granite called the Hazards and more than 450 species of native vegetation (almost a third of Tasmania’s entire higher plant species), Freycinet is also famous for a certain beach on its east-facing coast: Wineglass Bay, a crescent of silica caressed by the cleanest water this side of the Pacific.
Freycinet National Park
But there’s more to Freycinet National Park than Wineglass Bay as the Freycinet brothers, for whom the peninsula is named, found on their scientific expedition to the apple isle in 1801. And as we would find in our four days paddling the protected western side of the Freycinet Peninsula and beyond…
Sea kayaking always makes me think of Eskimos (I mean Inuits).
Sure their qayaqs were made of sealskin stretched over a wooden frame and attached using whale whiskers, and made-to-measure (their dimensions based on the paddler’s hip width, height and girth). But the basic idea hasn’t changed in centuries: stuff everything you need for the foreseeable into dry bags, stow it below decks and kiss terra firma goodbye.
At least for as long as your supplies last, which in our case was going to be (we hoped) five days.
Since most of us are beginners at the gentle art of paddling our own kayaks, we’re paying close attention to ex-river guide (on the Franklin, no less) Simon’s instructions. Like the correct way to put on a “skirt” (neoprene bibs also called “spray decks” that fit around your waist and cover your cockpit so water can’t fill up the kayak), how to launch ourselves and come ashore and, most importantly for those of us in two-person kayaks, how to paddle in sync. Simple enough, but it still feels too soon when we’re pointed towards the open ocean and given a shove that sends us wobbling into the bay.
For the first couple of hours we could be anywhere, what with all our concentration focussed on paddles and steering pedals. But gradually our field of vision expands to take in the azure water lapping at our sides, sheer pink granite walls close enough to touch (the base of the 300-metre high Hazards Range) and a white breasted sea eagle soaring overhead.
Simon drifts over – at least it seems that way, so effortlessly does he manoeuvre his single kayak – and we talk about what we see. That’s when I realise the first thing about sea kayaking: it gives you time. Time to wonder about what you’re looking at, to ask questions, to drift past something so close that you can touch it and to take it all in.
The second realisation comes that evening at our campsite on Hazards Beach as I watch the sea smooth itself out and gentle waves lick the heels of our boats (as the guides casually refer to the kayaks). And as my mind wanders over to where the kayaks are all strung together above the high tide mark (to prevent any of them from floating free in the night), it dawns on me that they’re more than our mode of transport for the next few days, more than just a means of getting from one idyllic beach campsite to the next.
The beauty of sea kayaking is that it lets you experience the beauty of your surroundings at close range. In Freycinet that means gliding over Fiji-green water before shushing onto glaringly-white sand, seeing airborne fish and dolphins metres from your bow or marvelling at the reflections of clouds in the water (in my paddle-dreamy state they remind me of a brand of bottled rainwater called Cloud Juice, from King Island in Bass Strait).
The rhythmic dipping of one paddle then the other – like bushwalking’s one foot in front of the other – is almost meditative, allowing you to tune in to your surroundings. And you’ve always got the freedom to get terrestrial any time you feel the urge to go for a walk on an empty beach or pitch your tent in a remote cove next to an Aboriginal midden.
Most importantly in an environment as pristine as Freycinet’s, sea kayaking is the epitome of low impact travel.
So silent are we that paddling within a few metres of Promise Rock, a protected sea bird rookery off Hazards Beach, six lipstick-lipped Pacific Gulls simply return our gaze, seemingly convinced that we’re pieces of brightly coloured driftwood. We’re non-polluting, which is just as well given Tasmania’s reputation for having the cleanest air in the world.
We don’t even leave any footprints: our wake just closes behind us, removing all traces of our passage. It’s almost as if we’ve become part of the seascape and gone is the illusion, at least temporarily, that we’re separate from the natural world.
We’ve had a couple of days of paddling practice when we leave the relative safety of the shore and head for Schouten Island. Like the dot of a natural exclamation mark, Schouten (named after Dutch commander Schouten, the first person to sail round Cape Horn, in 1610) lies at the southern tip of Freycinet Peninsula, 22km from the township of Coles Bay, far from Wineglass Bay and separated from the mainland by the treacherous Schouten Passage.
It’s calm when we start paddling the four-kilometre stretch of open water between us and the island, but as the water blackens and the wind whips the sea into busy crests, a side swell begins to rock us with every stroke.
I think about the real possibility of seeing dolphins, seals or even whales at too-close quarters out here. Then, as we paddle for an hour into the now-howling headwind racing an approaching storm, I think about how vulnerable we are.
When there’s just 3mm between you and the Southern Ocean – and with water temps dawdling around 16ºC even in summer that’s as close as you want to get – you’re at the mercy of whatever nature throws at you. And that night camped on the island’s northern shore at Moreys Bay with the storm in full swing I almost feel shipwrecked.
There’s a saying in Tasmania: if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. So we’re not surprised when the next morning brings clear skies for our anticipated scramble up nearby Bear Hill. And there, standing atop bare granite boulders 299 metres above sea level, we get the big picture again.
A few days ago I could barely paddle in a straight line. Now it feels completely natural to stand on an uninhabited island, our trusty kayaks the only way of leaving. And as we head for home on our last day it seems as if we’ve travelled further than the 60-odd kilometres we’ve paddled, to the very heart of Freycinet National Park.
Freycinet Adventures runs all-inclusive 4-day sea kayaking expeditions between December and April. Everything is provided: kayaks, safety equipment, camping and paddling gear (including lifejackets, spray decks and dry bags), National Park fees, great meals and the company of experienced guides. Freycinet Adventures also runs 3-hour Freycinet Paddle trips and 2-day Ultimate Weekender trips.