It is only afterwards, back home with a map before me, that I fully appreciate how good sea kayaking 200km along Ningaloo Reef has been.
The contrasting deep blue and luminescent turquoise of the Indian Ocean still mesmerises me. Its constant reefy rumble echoes in my head. Its tempo surges in me and part of me is still running before waves or paddling into swell; sliding down the backs. Part of me is still camping in the dunes; swirling in salt and sand.
I feel saturated by it, and I am greedily searching the map of WA for the next trip - for more time on the water; more time in the boat. I'm looking for the next expedition on the shimmering silver surface between sea and sky. But there is nothing quite like it - leaving Coral Bay, running north in a swell, threading through the reefs of Point Cloates, camping near the remnants of the whaling station in Norwegian Bay, kayaking on up inside Ningaloo Reef past Yardie Creek, over coral gardens to the quiet fish nursery of Mangrove Bay, rounding North West Cape and Point Murat, and finishing at Exmouth's Bundegi boat ramp.
It's been an odyssey, shared with a couple of friends, Roy Lewisson and Patrick Tremlett, who I've kayaked with regularly for more than two decades.
I have been expedition kayaking for 35 years, and I had rather expected a bit of a slog up an uninteresting sandy coast in water that felt too protected (though the point was to offer in these pages a sensible suggestion for moving into multi-day kayaking).
But the water itself made more interesting paddling than I thought it would, and heading north, with the reef on my left side, Cape Range on the right, I felt the full impact of this edge between land and water.
And, indeed, it was this juxtaposition of Cape Range and Ningaloo Reef that was critical to its World Heritage listing in 2011.
Flashing past my left shoulder: 300 species of coral, 500 of fish and 600 of molluscs; whale sharks that come each year, and three species of turtles that make up to 10,000 nests annually along this coast.
Flashing past my right: a long, low range with 500 caves holding species that are relics from when, more than 150 million years ago, Australia, Antarctica, India, Arabia, Africa, South America and North America were joined in the supercontinent Pangaea.
And us, meandering between the coastal water and sandy dunes. On the edge.
ON THE ROAD, ON THE WATER
On the first day we drive, with our three kayaks and gear, to Carnarvon and stop there. The second day we drive on in the morning, pack the boats on the beach at Coral Bay and paddle off in the early afternoon. It's a shakedown, and after about 15km we pull in near Bruboodjoo Point at 4.30pm to camp.
In the swale behind the first dune, there's dinner - bolognaise which Roy and wife Joanne Chadwick had dried and vacuum- packed and angel hair pasta, which is quick to cook on the Trangia meths stove (no sand in jets).
We dip into the four-litres-a-day of water that we all carry - me in 4-litre Sea to Summit bags in front of my feet in the kayak's cockpit. (At a kilo a litre, there's friendly competition to get your water used first.)
After chocolate, we retire to our tents, thankful for sand pegs, and I lie salty, sandy, and blissfully under the stars (most of my Marmot Twilight tent is just mesh, but with high ripstop nylon sides for protection), on a thin Thermarest mattress and Black Wolf deluxe inflatable pillow. It feels luxurious. The night passes blissfully slowly, to the percussion of swell on the reef, as the Southern Cross wheels around my feet.
After muesli (Sunshine milk powder pre-mixed, ready for water), Monday turns out to be our Big Day.
We have based the trip on 35-40km a day, but with the wind and swell from the south, and a good swell driving us forward, we get offshore and make a run for it, knocking off 50km - surfing the swells, with their lacy white necklaces; I'm having a ball.
The Norwegian Bay whaling station licence ran for seven years from 1912, in a spot where, the whaling company (the Western Australian Company) originally said, the "landscape was inhospitable and bleak, with sand dunes as white as snow". The harbour was considered "a pretty dangerous place to operate from". Nine hundred whales were caught and processed here in 1913; 2000 in 1914, yielding 54,000 casks of oil . . . and so it went.
I wander through the remnants; the great, rusted, brutalist art of industry; thick metal plate being nibbled to doilies by the caustic environment.
After a 5.30am whispered wake-up and more muesli (there's a single theme to our breakfasts), we are on the water by 7.30am and paddling across a bay in a 25km/h breeze and rising swell towards Point Cloates itself. The reefs and Ningaloo Current have claimed their victims here. Among them, the Caledonia ran onto the reef in 1815; in 1875 the Stefano, an 858-ton barque on a voyage to Hong Kong from Wales hit a reef south of the point. With 10 survivors it headed south but was trapped in a cyclone, many died and the last two were taken by Aboriginals to Exmouth. The wheat ship Shunsei Maru ran onto the reef just north of here in 1931 and, while trying to assist, the Chofuko Maru also ran aground.
It's kinder today on the sea kayaks and we pick our way through the breaking white water, working across diagonally without drama, and then running down into instantly and oddly still turquoise water.
We pull in to the beach. Lunch on Point Cloates is wraps (they pack and travel well), with tuna from a packet, cheese wrapped in muslin, anchovy paste from a tube and capsicum, which stays fresh.
And tea. We boil the water, make tea, and enjoy the moment.
With a 45km wind and building swell sort-of to our backs, it's an easy, rolling, 35km day and we arrive at Yardie Creek at 3.30pm. Soon after, Roy's wife Jo and family are there with dinner - they were to camp over with us at this half-way mark, but because of the recent rains, the park is officially closed and they've only been let in to resupply us.
Days sea kayaking are so much dependent on conditions, and we wake to a promised easterly wind, which keeps us inshore for the day - which turns into a different sort of treat. For we are now following the horizontal curves of the shore, and not the vertical curves of the sea. We paddle sandy edges with bare dunes; rocky ledges with alcoves into which the wavelets slap and spray. A big fish jumps and hits the side of my boat. I startle a 3m wobbegong in shallow water. She startles me. Rays glide like shadows. Turtles stick up heads like rubber balls, then fly away underneath us like dark frisbees. Tiny silver fish jump, by their hundreds, in arcs, catching the sun like sparks.
We pass Sandy Point and Turquoise Bay then camp near a saltbush plain in the Cape Range National Park, with Cape Range behind us, after paddling perhaps 35km of ocean.
And the next day, we paddle on about another 35km, moseying through the intriguing, fish- nursery waters of Mangrove Bay and past Jurabi Point, and camp somewhere near Babjarrimannos.
Roy has long held the idea of rounding North West Cape in a sea kayak (goodness, we have been talking about this trip for seven years) - and today is the day.
I like being in a simple craft. I like being self-contained and self-reliant . . . the simplicity of being human, travelling in a simple craft, propelled by a paddle, with a gentle, lilting rhythm.
I like paddling into swell. I like technique. I like sliding down the backs of the swells coming towards me. If each stroke wasn't for joy, it'd just be work . . . and we paddle into the swell, with the breeze in our face, past Vlamingh Head lighthouse and North West Cape, where the iron screw steamer SS Mildura was wrecked. The ship foundered on March 12, 1907. On March 27 _The West Australian _reported an inquiry into the incident and two days later it reported the ship's Master, Charles Albert Thorpe, had been found guilty of negligence by not being on the bridge while approaching land, and had his certificate suspended for three months.
Things moved fast in those days.
Roy himself is a Master of large ships (the sail training ship Leeuwin II was the original conduit through which I met Roy and PT), and there is no negligence today; just a smooth paddle around the point. Our little piece of history is made.
And the North West Cape is, of course, already a place of kayak history.
For the wartime Z Special Unit paddled their folding kayaks here and, in 1943 left Exmouth Gulf in the boat Krait, heading for Singapore, where six of them kayaked into the harbour to place limpet mines on Japanese ships, returning successful to Exmouth . . . with their kayaks.
Today, this Friday morning, we paddle peacefully on up to Point Murat and round the corner to Bundegi.
It's done. It's over.
But I'd be happy paddling on; more time in the boat.
We clean up and head home, but not before, on a scrap of paper, writing lists . . .
The Department of Parks and Wildlife has been developing sea- kayaking facilities along the coast, with kayak moorings at good snorkel spots at Bundegi, Tantabiddi, Osprey and Coral Bay (dec.wa.gov.au and search "Kayak Ningaloo").
Kayak touring companies Rivergods (rivergods.com.au) and Capricorn Sea Kayaking (capricornseakayaking.com.au) both have turn-up multi-day paddling trips at Ningaloo.
Education, training and safety are crucial. Some useful websites: wa.canoe.org.au (see the list of clubs, for camaderie and training), canoeingdownunder.com.au (for courses and equipment), members.iinet.net.au/~rokhor/ canoe/aoa.asn.au/. Check weather conditions at Bureau of Meteorology: bom.gov.au.
For coastal trips 400m to 2 nautical miles offshore, sea kayaks must carry a bilge pump or bailer, lifejacket and red and orange flares. For 2-5 nautical miles, they must additionally have an EPIRB.
More on the region: australiascoralcoast.com.au
ROY'S GOOD STUFF TOP THREE
Completing it, because I wasn't sure that I could make it.
The beauty of the coast itself. I didn't think it was going to be so scenically beautiful.
The variation in the paddling - the first big day and the rocky ledges.
PT's GOOD STUFF TOP THREE
Surfing on our 50km day, with long runs.
Stopping each day.
SCOURFIELD's GOOD STUFF TOP THREE
Ikea $1 bags -the star by far. We have two each, emptying our kayaks' front watertight compartment into one, and rear into the other, then carrying them up the beach to our camp.
Pelagic brand sun shield to protect face and neck against the sun. Worked brilliantly. pelagicgear.net.
Sweetened condensed milk in a tube -a treat in coffee and tea. (PS: Rubbish stuff; Kathmandu "water resistant dry sacs", which aren't.)