02 December 2009

The Great Kayak Adventure

History is filled with explorers taking big and not so big ships on great voyages of discovery. In the 1500’s, a Portuguese expedition apparently sailed to Australia. In the 1600’s several European ships came upon Australia, and in the late 1700’s, British expeditions stopped and claimed Australia for themselves. This was about the time the Americans were throwing the Brits out of the American colonies, so maybe the English needed a new place to go. The biggest adventurers were probably the early Aboriginals, who showed up about 13,000 BC but neglected to tell anyone.

Last week I had lunch with the Governor General of Australia. She seemed like a very nice lady, but I asked the guy sitting next to me why Australia had a Governor General. The only generals in the U.S., where I come from, wear military fatigues, have crew cuts, and look even tougher than the kids who used to hang out in the alleys of Berwyn, Illinois, when I was a kid. Quentin Bryce looks or acts nothing like any generals I have met. The guy next to me said the Governor General was appointed by the Queen (i.e. The Queen of England – Aussies don’t have their own queen, maybe it’s a money saving idea if you want a Queen just borrow one).

I am digressing a bit from my later day exploration of the seas, which occurred this morning. A friend (to save her embarrassment let’s call her "J") and I decided to explore the wilds of Sydney Harbour. A power boat (sometimes referred to as ‘stinkpots’) or big sail boat (always referred to as ‘financial holes’) would have been too easy. We decided to explore by kayak, perhaps replicating the early travels of natives thousands of years ago.

I have never been in a kayak; J was in one once. There are some differences I was surprised to find between modern kayaks and American canoes, with which I am more familiar. The kayak has cool compartments for towels and stuff. Everything still gets wet, but the idea of compartments and tight fighting tops with straps and bands that make it hard for everything but water to enter (including humans) is neat.

Kayaks have a rudder and pedals. This is especially gratifying when you are in a two person kayak and the other person is sitting in the front thinking she is determining the course. It is like being a back seat driver in a car but steering the car from pedals in the back. It gives one a great sense of power, which can be exercised so subtly that the person in front does not know you are steering, unless of course you hit the rocks, which we almost did once.

The kayak rental office has a very large sign and map on the wall prohibiting renters from going too far out into the Harbour. A big black line on the map extends from a lighthouse across the mouth of the Middle Harbour. It reminded me of military maps showing where the minefields were or early navigation maps depicting where the ship-eating dragons lay in wait. I do not know how we signed all the forms and never noticed the big map with the big black line.

Armed with weird shaped paddles, life jackets, water bottles, and sunscreen, we soon embarked on our journey of exploration after being warned the ship was due back in 2 hours unless we wanted to pay more. I cannot imagine the King of England telling Captain Phillip he needed to return by whenever in 1788 or he would be charged more rent for the boat. Oh for the good old days.

After avoiding being run over by speedy stinkpots and bisected by financial holes, we managed to cross the bay and follow the shoreline of beautiful beaches and friendly natives playing in the waves. Soon we were well past the lighthouse, which seemed vaguely familiar but J did not remember it either when asked.

After missing the rocks by the lighthouse (the ship’s log – if the ship had a log - would have noted we were well clear despite J’s protests otherwise), we followed the coast in search of some beach inhabited by ghosts, according to J. I am unsure why we were looking for ghosts but if I had hit the rocks maybe we would have found a few. There is also an area called Quarantine Beach J wanted to find; I was afraid to ask how the place got its name. Why would you ever want to go to a place called Quarantine?

We took in quite a bit of water from errant waves and the wake of boats (and totally unrelated to the ever capable steering) and decided we needed to beach the ship and bail it out before turning back; otherwise we would be swimming back. A pretty little beach lay directly ahead, but we had a bit of a rough arrival crashing on the beach carried by a larger wave. I managed to gash my arm when the rudder flipped upside down and then managed to cut my leg as the next wave crashed the boat into me as I was scrambling out.

Looking around, it was clear we landed at a nudist beach. The women mostly covered up when we crashed the party; the men, especially the overweight ones, stayed natural. Only in my nightmare would I land safely on a beach island occupied by clothed women and naked men.

So we stood there on Naked Men Island, trying to control a water filled boat too heavy to move and with me bleeding profusely. J rushed to find a bucket and bailed while I held the boat and tried to direct the flow of blood into the water and away from the boat seats. I realized shortly thereafter, I was scenting the water for sharks – just what we needed to add to the adventure.

Soon we were off again, having escaped the possible cannibals, and paddling back to port. Unfortunately, the wind had risen considerably and we were paddling directly into the headwinds. J tired after all the paddling, bailing, and pulling and pushing the boat on the beach and became the official lookout. I paddled furiously now convinced we needed to get back as fast as possible before every shark in Australia learned of a possible meatball sandwich in the yellow kayak in Middle Harbour.

We managed to paddle through two sailing regattas on the return trip and avoided the array of big and bigger boats. We missed the rocks again (yes our esteemed lookout reminded me often when things looked closer that they seemed to be from the rear seat), and we pushed through the determined wind. The sharks stayed away, and I finally stopped bleeding.

So in the chronicles of Australian explorations, let the footnote show Scott and J surveyed the coastline of a part of Sydney Harbour on 29 November 2009 and found it to be ever present.