Circumnavigation of Tasmania

By Misha Hoichman


Tasmania? In fact we wanted to make a circumnavigation of Ireland. If anyone would have asked me five years ago: “what do you know about Tasmania?” I would probably put my finger against my forehead in a desperate attempt to increase the circulation of blood to my brain and answer something like: “a country in Africa? In Oceania?” Apparently I wasn't the only ignorant around and many of my friends used to give me a piece of advice: “Misha, be careful not to fall in the hands of the Cannibals!” It seems like we all had the same teacher of geography.


The discovery of the real location of Tasmania I owe to my friend Alon who lived in Australia at that time. “Let’s leave the ides of Ireland for a few years and in the meantime do something not far from Sydney.” We opened the Atlas scanning the area and our eyes met on an island which is only a fraction smaller than Ireland: Tasmania, AKA Tassie.


Kayak trips have their own life cycle: here rules the serenity and challenge, the recurrence and endlessly extended time. All the hustle and bustle vanish. What did politician A or B said? What car is the next door neighbor driving? How was the new best-seller movie? The priorities turn over. New and truly important questions take place of old ones. What is the wind and wave forecast for tomorrow? Do we have enough water for the next few days? Is the sleeping bag dry enough to sleep in? How do the back and shoulders feel? Will our dreams come true and tonight we reach a coast with some first class facilities such as a restaurant and hot showers? The eyes are wide open to grasp the nature surrounds, the ears get used to the silence. You watch the motion and the shape of the clouds, and not just for the sake of relaxation. The birds’ motion, the skies, the vegetation along the coast line, the moon - all those are important land marks that help you to navigate and survive, or rather, to live through the day, because the only time a paddler has is the present.


The preparations took almost a year, during which our enthusiasm had gradually been replaced with great concern: isn’t this mission too big for us? Tasmania is located around latitude 40 – 43 south, known also as the roaring 40's due to the fierce winds blowing there. Those winds come usually from the west and fetch gigantic swells that move with no disturbance for more than 8,000 miles before reaching and smashing against the coasts of Tassie. The most dangerous part is the SW coast that became a memorial park for of hundred of ships in the course of brief modern history of the island. Not just that - this SW coast is a national park with no sign of civilization for over 300km. With no satellite phone we won't have a forecast for a week or even more... However we are equipped with VHF! VHF?


On one of our paddling days all the surrounding were covered with thick fog. We had to rely on our compass and GPS as we could see no land. According to my calculations, we had to take course to the right, Alon thought we should take a little bit more to the left. Of course, I was right, although Alon still mistakenly thinks the same about himself. Anyway this time each of us continued paddling in the direction he chose for himself while yelling at his partner. When the distance between us exceeded the effective shout range of an outraged Mediterranean male, each of us took out his VHF radio and continued shouting. I wonder if anyone has ever used the VHF radio in such a creative way, however unfortunately there was no one around monitoring VHF, to hear us and comment on our creative skills. In fact, that was the only utilization that we found for this valuable piece of equipment. More than once we chased the fishing boats and yachts as if we were two pirates running after boats loaded with gold and jewelries, holding our paddles instead of guns and shouting something like: “Hey, what kind of wind is expected tomorrow?” In the battle of uneven forces - our arms and paddles against the motors and sails of the fishermen, not always we prevailed. We had also those days when there was no one around to ask, when all sea crafts vanished and we were all alone in the big sea. This was during the storms.


South West coast. For the last three days we have not received any weather forecast. No cellular reception in the South West area. The regular radio translated only Chinese classical music in ultra short waves, and the VHF… well we mentioned it before. The barometric pressure dropped 16 millibars in just 6 hours – definite evidence for an approaching storm. Yet the sun is shining, the wind is light and the Southern Ocean is calm and welcoming. We accepted the invitation with slight fear. We have decided to snick from one bay to another and stick to the shore as close as possible. On our way we came across a yacht that that made its way to the sheltered Port Davey – one of the biggest natural harbors of the world. The sailors warned us that a storm was about to hit; north wind was expected to be 30 knots. Well, 30 knots in our backs is bearable. While the yacht made its way into the sheltered waters of Port Dave we decided to cross the port – 7 miles distance. In front of us a school of sea birds was flying. Their sharp movements were like the motions of ultra energetic conductor. Two miles left. We are singing songs each in his language. In the back a black cloud is approaching, dividing the sky into two spheres. With the first gust of the fresh northern wind I stopped singing, we still got two miles to the cliff. The wind quickly picked up and pushed us forward. Five minutes later, the paddle started to whistle, white caps were forming. Alright, the fun starts, we’re surfing forward, making some good 5+ knots. The wind doesn’t stop though, it continues to increase above the promised 30 knots. White foam is everywhere. We are approaching the cliff; we hope to find a shelter behind it. The sea is now like boiling soup, white foam joins into long running trails on the water surface. The wind screams and throws salty water at us. We shout to each other, but cannot hear much. We struggle to stay upright with our backs to the wind, otherwise we will capsize. I look back and see an amazing scene: the wind rips a big patch of from the sea and throws it forward as a semi-transparent wall of water. A moment later a mighty gust hits us. We are holding our paddles as low as possible and freeze with no motion. Our body fights in an attempt to stabilize the kayak. The wind twists the paddle in my hands. When the gust calms down a bit to a “bearable 40 knots” we paddle hard to the shelter.


Although the kayak looks small and vulnerable it has a remarkable ability to survive in stormy seas. The West coast of Tasmania introduces us to high seas right away. When Alon first opened the spray-deck in 4 meters waves, it looked like a dangerous exercise. “I have no intention of peeing in the cockpit” he said and took out an empty coca kola bottle cut into half. I had no choice but to join him in his decision.

Imagine yourself sitting in a kayak with an open spraydeck, the most intimate piece of your body exposed to the forces of the Southern Ocean. Every 10 second there is a 3-5 meter wave, a wall of water as high as a modest building. While balancing the kayak you continue the activity that forced you to open the deck in the first place. If you are not relaxed - you failed! This self control exercise is known to the best of Buddhist's monks. And we wonder how this viable technique is not yet part of the 5 star BCU assessment?


In the first days of the journey I was wandering: why do I need it all? The back is aching after 12 hours of paddling, the palms are one big callus, my entire body is tired, and all it is dreaming about is a moment of rest. Not only I suffer, but I also pay for this kind of vocation. However, after three or four days of paddling the body acquires the paddle’s pace, the head cleans up and the soul stars smiling.   


One stroke after another, step by step; how many dozens of thousands of recurring motions do you do in every day? Paddling becomes a pulse of the body, like breathing. The thoughts are entirely disconnected from what the body is doing. What do you think about during those 12 hours? Lets’ see:   


Most of the time the head is tabula rasa. Simple as that: empty space, like our world before creation, but without the chaos. If the brain was to be connected to a monitor at that moment, it would only show white noise in low volume, with minor spikes - the result of the self question “when is a break?” However, you also have moments when the mind is actively busy. Since the archive of interesting subjects is finite, you first put them in accurate order like precious stones. The least interesting topics you put at the top of the pyramid - to be thought through first. The most interesting subject and the longest one is always kept for the middle or to the end of the paddle, or maybe even for another day. This is the sweet and delicate desert which you do not want to swallow in the beginning of the meal. You are not hurrying anywhere. There are also daily meals that you eat no matter what – like Nepali “Dal-bat” or British porridge, or Russian vodka.  Those are the songs you repeat every morning, noon and evening, trying to carry on with it as long as possible. Alon sings in Hebrew, I sing in Russian. The two languages mixed in an funny way breaking the silence of the surroundings. The last two hours of paddling were entirely devoted to thoughts about the dinner! Alon preferred to concentrate on earthy steaks, but my dreams were rather flying amongst fish, salads and mashed potatoes. At the end of the day we were landing on a deserted beach with no civilization, and, guess what, instead of the steak and mashed potatoes we swallow 2 packages of disgusting dehydrated food with a promising print “pack of six” on each.        


Sometimes we were luckier. Cockle Creek is a tiny deserted town in the south part of Tassie. It was the first settlement that we came across after six days of paddling along the South West Nature Reserve. We dreamed of hot showers, laundry, restaurants – we fantasized of all the luxuries of paddler’s life – but the reality was cruel and bitter. There was nothing except a few empty houses and a beautiful view. From the distance we saw a lone man innocently walking along the beach. His name was Michael. Alon checked the distance and targeted the victim. Poor man had no chance! Alon describes in hurry all we have been through, all the glorious and horror stories, shows his palm black from calluses (an old trick but works perfectly every time). I am sitting in my kayak smiling as nicely as I can, trying to give my burnt, unshaved and salty face a little bit friendlier look. “But there is no public showers here”, - Michael is desperately trying to protect the last lines of Mazino. “And where do you have your own shower then?” responses Alon instantly. My smile extends even wider. After the shower Michael joins us for tea and brings one kilo of tasty Wallaby burgers.


The Tasmanians are warm and good people. They invite us to their homes, give us food, give us lifts to the shops. Yet they are weird. After three weeks into the expedition the first question they ask when they meet us is “Are you alright?” That was odd. I felt perfectly fine as long as I don’t see the wild frightening beast staring beast looking at me from the mirror. Alon? I got used to him.


The East and North coast went by well, although paddling in against strong head winds was extremely frustrating. Sometimes it was me who suffered after the day's paddle, on other days it was Alon. A strong tendon’s inflammation developed in my wrist, Alon suffered from numbness in his right leg due to strong back pains. We both got bitten by March flies, who were pretty much responsible for our quick progress. The South West coast was the frightening and stunning pearl of our trip.


We are one hundred km after Strahan, which was the last point of civilization on the West coast. The sky is dark, the clouds are looming, it is getting late. We have a 3 more km to Nye Bay, the final destination of the day. Suddenly we spot a fishing boat. The fishermen give us some drinking water and instruct us the safe root into the bay. The root goes suspiciously close to the underwater reefs which are scattered all around and can be identified by huge swells that crash on them. We decide to trust the local knowledge and follow the proposed route. Our paddling is intense and we are very focused on what lies ahead of us. The mind maps each breaker of the last fifteen minutes. The problem is that the sea is getting bigger minute by minute, and the new reefs in deeper places are exposed all of the sudden when a new big swell arrives. 50 meters from us a huge swell breaks, like a locomotive running at full speed straight into the cliffs on the shore, leaving behind the trail of clean blue color lighting the gray ocean around us. It was close enough. We push harder to pass this stretch quickly as possible. The blood is pumping faster to the head, the adrenalin takes out any trace of tiredness developed in last ten hours of paddling. The vision is clear, we are fully focused. When we think the danger is behind us, all over sudden we see a wall of water rising right to us, at least six meters high. I hear Alon screaming, and decide to capsize before the wave hits me to minimize its breaking force. While being upside down a stupid thought of satisfaction comes into my mind – this wave is a real monster, a valuable addition to our surf collection and life experiences in general. Both me and Alon are strong and experienced wave surfers.


My paddle is in setup, ready for roll. I feel that I am climbing up, higher and higher, stay still for a moment and then drop, crash and get buried under wave giant that constantly rolls the kayak and me in a way that resembles a horrible washing machine. After three rolls my paddle is ripped out of one hand, a second later my other hand loses it either. I have no choice but to bail out of the kayak, and loose it the same moment in the power of the water. In the complete mess, I continue being rolled, without any idea where is “up” or “down”.  I try to swim towards what seems to be the surface making strong movements with my hands, the air in my lungs is about to end. I feel no fear, I just want to breath. I can see where the light comes from and fight, with the rest of my forces to reach it. Among the white foam of tumbling water I manage to take a gulp of air and then again get buried by the wave. A few seconds later the mess calms down. I’m swimming in the waters of the Southern Ocean, 120 km away from the closest civilization. I prefer not to think what will happen if another wave hits me now.


Lucky us it was a single freak wave that broke this far from the shore. This fact eventually saved our lives. The wave dragged us to the distance of only 100 meters away from the cliffs, and the next one – should it come then – would smash us and our kayaks on the rocks. Yet we are lucky again. Here is a gloomy summary of one of out most striking experiences in Tasmania: my reentry and roll, Alon’s almost dislocated shoulder, paddle leash ripped off, a security bungee rope of the spare paddle ripped off, front hatch partially opened, sea charts washed from the deck, foam of the helmet washed off, one of the waterproof GPS died. Nevertheless the biggest loss was one of the “toilet bottles”, from now on the act is no more spontaneous and needs to get coordinated with the partner upon demand.  That’s when the true friendship is developed.


Friendship is probably the most valuable outcome of the voyage. Together we laughed and argued about washing the dishes; together cooked pasta and ate in restaurants; together pitched the tent and together slept under open sky after the tent with the sleeping bags and mattresses inside was blown away with the wind to the ocean; surrounded by the mountains of water next to the South West Cape and in 45 knots winds in Port Davey - all this we went through together. Even in the hardest moments of the trip, when each of us could rely only on himself, the fact of being next to a friend was helpful. We reached all we aimed for, we even completed the circumnavigation in a record time, but this is not the chief thing. The friendship built worth much more than the self achievement.


So where exactly is Ireland located?..