SUCH IS THE challenge of circumnavigating Australia in a kayak that you can count on one hand the number of people who have done it. With obstacles such as serious swells, big stretches of cliffs and curious sharks and crocs, the effort is no mean feat. Not to mention the shear distance of a round-trip of the country.
Until recently, mainland Australia has been circumnavigated only three times – most famously by paddling legend Paul Caffyn in 1982, then by Freya Hoffmeister in 2009 and by Stuart Trueman in 2011. But on 28 June 2014, Jason Beachcroft, 45, cruised into Sydney Harbour’s Rose Bay, a long 17 months and 18,000km after paddling out from the same location.
In doing so, he became the first person to kayak around Australia, incorporating Tasmania into the route. Jason negotiated two crossings of Bass Straight; a huge kayaking achievement in its own right, let alone twice. And unlike the other circumnavigations, his was largely unsupported; bar the occasional food drops, he was mostly fending for himself.
The softly spoken outdoor adventurer is not just a paddler; he skis, climbs and canyoneers, and has previously completed a solo winter trek across the Aussie Alps in 53 days. A man of few words, Jason’s approach to this kayaking expedition can be described as low key. He was in no rush to break records or publicise his feat. He took minimal electronic gear, preferring to rely on a compass and maps, with GPS just for back up.
Focussed on the journey as much as the destination, Jason is humble about the skills he has and matter-of-fact about the challenges he faced (crocs, sharks, big swell, storms), but the completion of his trip is a great achievement. His way of relaxing in the days after completing the epic paddle? Hitting the ski slopes down around Perisher.
AG Outdoor chatted to Jason about the adventure.
AGO: What was your inspiration for the expedition?
JB: I read the book Dreamtime Stories by Paul Caffyn many years ago. That book planted a seed of an idea and years later I decided to give it a shot. At the time I read it, I didn’t even sea kayak, so I needed to up my skills. It wasn’t that I was training for it, but realised I needed the skills. The last couple of years I gave it more serious contemplation. Before this one, my biggest trip was a few two-week-long ones, and I hadn’t crossed any large bodies of water.
AGO: That seems like quite a step up. Did you have much preparation?
JB: A definite whole other level up. I knew I needed to have certain skills – navigation, boating – and to find out what the standard practice was, like re-entries, solo deep water rescues, navigation, learning to read charts. The list is a bit endless.
The preparation had been ongoing over a few years. I also contacted a good friend of mine, Sandy Robson, who’s kayaking from Germany to Australia. She had some info that was helpful. [She had attempted to circumnavigate Australia, but stopped after a run-in with a large saltwater croc].
I think I was ready about a year or so before I started. It was just a matter of timing then – you need to put aside a fairly sizable segment of your life to pursue something like that.
AGO: Eighteen thousand kilometres is a bloody long way – how much did you plan ahead in terms of distances you wanted to cover and stops to make?
JB: A lot of it is the conditions dictating what happens on the day. Your plans have to be reasonably fluid; you have to have contingencies and make appropriate decisions based on daily outcome. It’s a combination of reading the land and waterscape. You need to interpret with what you’re actually seeing and balance your fatigue level and skill. On a certain day I might plan to paddle from one bay to another and then look at the conditions and shelter. But I may change my plans, even from paddling to not paddling.
AGO: Unlike many modern adventures, where every move is tweeted, your online presence was, er, modest. Did you take many gadgets?
JB: Not all the time – it varied. I [borrowed] a satphone from (Great Australia) Bight section – Esperance to Ceduna – and then posted it back. But for the most part, I just had the standard EPIRB and multiband radio to pick up marine transmissions. But I wasn’t carrying satphones or any other gear like that most of the way, and I wasn’t carrying around that stuff for contact. For a trip of this length the more electronic equipment you have the more you need to maintain it in a marine environment.
AGO: Did you have any close calls on the journey?
JB: I’ve never been rescued and hopefully never will. I certainly made some mistakes but no real close calls.
I did have a whale jump out of the water about 15m away that I thought would land on top of me. And paddling into Darwin, I misjudged the distance and got a little close to one of the large cargo ships.
And a croc tried to steal my boat at night when I was in the Buccaneer Archipelago (near the Kimberley in WA). I had to persuade the croc to let go of the boat.
AGO: And how did you persuade it?
JB: I used a stick. I was certainly aware of the danger, but I needed the boat and if I allowed the croc to drag it into the water, then I’d have to get rescued. It was only a bit over two metres – I don’t really worry about crocs until they’re around four metres. I suspect it was after the food bags. It hung around for a while and came back onto the island about 10 minutes later. So I went down and persuaded it again.
I saw quite a few crocs along the way, but also lots of seals, dolphins, whales and birds.
AGO: What were the highlights of the journey?
JB: I quite liked the Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s hard for me to say why it’s beautiful – I think it was the remoteness. The Kimberley’s rock outcrops for its landscape scenery. There was also fluorescence near King Island, which was beautiful. I was leaving a trail through the water and every paddle stroke lit up. But my pick would be the western south-coast of Tassie.
AGO: What were some of the logistics you had to work through for such an epic trip?
JB: I knew I’d have to put a few food drops, which I arranged as I went along. I’d paddle along to a decent town and then shop.
[Where it was remote] I was carrying about 53L of water, and about the same amount of food, which would last two weeks. Once I got past the Bight the most I carried was about 30kg.
AGO: Did you have any significant delays or weather challenges along the way?
JB: There were no storms that caught me off guard. My expectation was that winds could always be stronger than predicted. For the most part, the forecasting was fairly accurate.
I sat out days here and there. My biggest delay was the start of the first set of cliffs, the Zuytdorp Cliffs, which begin at the Murchison River at Kalbarri. I got to where I was planning to be and the wind was fine, but the swell wasn’t. You can’t get into the Murchison River with that kind of swell (about 5m). For six weeks, I made no real progress. I had to keep paddling back to resupply. I didn’t think I’d get stuck for that long – I was there at the right time (for weather) – but the locals said I was just unfortunate. In the end my patience paid off.
I had to balance some sections against others for weather and timing. I had to get the right weather window for getting to Tasmania across Bass Straight, for example. I looked at the weather patterns and this section would be [favourable in] March, but another place would be March also. You can’t be in both places, so I had to make a decision about which was more important.
AGO: Tell us about some of your longest days
JB: The stretch across Bass Straight, I think took 17 hours, about 100km. But it wasn’t as bad as the cliff sections, which took around 35 hours. The Zuytdorp Cliffs are 180km, took 30 hours of paddling. Then there was the Baxter (Bunda) Cliffs (along the Nullarbor coast) – down in the Bight, which are over 100km long.
AGO: Seventeen months is a long time without much human contact. Did you miss it?
JB: You do miss people a bit but I‘m reasonably comfortable with my own company. The longest time without seeing even a fisherman was six days. When I did the solo traverse of the Alps I went 12 days without seeing anyone.
AGO: You’ve done one better than Paul Caffyn – how does that feel?
JB: He’s a living legend. I’m a just a fairly decent paddler who’s determined with things I set my mind to. I succeeded and it’s a great feeling. It also feels strange not to be moving.