Sailing/Camping – Gippsland Lakes

February 5th, 2014 | Camping, Family holidays, Photos, Sailing

Last night I returned from a fabulous holiday sailing and camping in the Gippsland Lakes with my son, Thomas, and two of his mates, Alex and Daniel.

We established a base camp at Emu Bight in The Lakes National Park, east of Lochsport, on Sperm Whale Head.

Emu Bight Camp 03.02.2014 copy

The plan was to head off to the Mitchell River silt jetties. These are an amazing geographical phenomenon, whereby the Mitchell River, over countless years, has carried silt into deep out into Lake King, creating so-called ‘jetties’ that create the effect of river banks in the middle of the lank. (If you go to Google Images and search for “Mitchell River silt jetties” you will see some great aerial views.) I had visited them very briefly many years ago, and thought they would be a great place to camp. (Little did I know…)

The day got off to a wonderful start. It was hot and still, and a pod – perhaps eight – of the local dolphins swam past the calm waters of Emu Bight. They were a fair way off – perhaps a couple of hundred yards – yet because of the quietness of the bay, and no doubt due in some way to how sound travels over water – we could hear their blows as they surfaced. Then they put on a stunning aerial display for us, leaping repeatedly out of the water. It was utter magic.

Eventually they moved on, and we got down to the serious business of rigging and packing the boat, and setting sail. We set off with a light breeze, which soon dropped, leaving us becalmed in the middle of Lake Victoria. It didn’t take long for the gang to realise this was a golden opportunity for a swim. Eventually Thomas returned to the boat, and I decided to have a dip myself. There is nothing like having a whole lake to yourself – especially when it is about 10km long!

Eventually the wind picked up a little, and we continued on our travels. The only real navigational decision to make was whether to go the long way around Raymond Island, or take the short cut through the very narrow McMillan Strait that separates the island from Paynesville. There was no particularly strong argument one way or another, so I made the executive the decision that we would take the long way round. I think I just liked the idea of sailing in open water.

It was indeed a long way, but eventually we rounded Point King, at the north of Raymond Island, and could just sight the silt jetties on the horizon. As we approached them, we heard thunder and saw rain clouds behind them. It was a little unnerving, and we briefly toyed with the idea of heading west to the mainland. The situation seemed to improve a little, though, so we plugged on when, suddenly (“out of the blue”, so to speak), we were hit by a massive northwester that we really didn’t see coming.

It was one of the strongest winds I have ever sailed in. There was no way we could beat into it. The best I could manage was a broad reach, with all four of us hiking out hard. We were literally being driven before the gale! I quickly realised we had no hope of making the silt jetties, and would eventually have to make a landfall in Tambo Bay, to the east. Unfortunately, this was not close, which meant a long and nail-biting ride trying to make sure the mast kept pointing towards the sky as we rode the tempest.

The next cheerful little discovery was that most of the coast seemed to be lined with rocks, but eventually I spotted a small stretch of sand, and made for that. Finally, with a huge sense of relief, we made landfall.

Landing at Tambo Bay copy

Tambo Bay, just to the south of the mouth of the Tambo River, is a particularly cheerless stretch of coastline. It has a very wild, abandoned, unloved feel to it. It looks like a dumping ground of sorts, as though we are by no means the first to have been washed up on its shores. It also looks very flood prone, and as though it might have once been cleared for farming, but ultimately abandoned.

We couldn’t resist this opportunity for a shot of the boys watching ‘local tele’ (Thomas left, Alex middle, Daniel right).

Everybody watching local tele 1 copy

We had a bite to eat while the wind died down, and then decided to make the final push for the silt jetties. We reached them without great difficulty, but they turned out to be a huge disappointment. The main problem was that rocks had been placed all around their shores to stabilise them. This made it very difficult to find a place to launch our boat. Eventually I found a muddy bank inside the mouth of the Mitchell River itself, but by this time the boys had decided the whole area looked thoroughly uninviting. We eventually resolved, therefore, to try to make a dash for Duck Arm before daylight failed us. We had spent a lovely day beside this beautiful patch of water at the end of the Banksia Peninsula in Lake Victoria the previous year, and it seemed to make perfect sense to spend the night there again. But did we have time?

Duck Arm is south west of Paynesville and Raymond Island, so the island needed to be negotiated once more. This time, however, there was no real option other than facing the shorter route through McMillan Strait.

Unfortunately, we reached it to find the wind was pretty much on the nose, so we would have to tack all the way up it. It was hard work in a brisk breeze and narrow water, but we very nearly made it. Alas, however, another huge gust of wind towards the end forced us to make for shore once more. This time, the shore was very close but again, it was mostly rocks. Once more, I spotted a patch of sand, and we made another safe landfall.

Raymond Island landfall copy

As you can see, the environment was essentially suburban, with no obvious camping options on offer.
Fortunately, a very kind local gentleman gave us permission to camp on the nature strip beside his back gate. Here we are, tucked in cosily out of the wind.

Raymond Island camp-site copy

The wind continued to rage throughout the night, and we wondered if we would have to spend the next day holed up on Raymond Island. Fortunately the next morning, though cold and grey, brought a much more gentle breeze, and we woke early, packed and headed off as soon as possible, before the wind had a chance to build once more.

Here we are packing once more.

Packing once more to leave Raymond Island copy

We passed through the remainder of McMillan Strait without incident, then struck out across Lake Victoria to the passage of water that runs between Banksia Peninsula and Sperm Whale Head. Once through here we were becalmed once more for an hour or so – which allowed for another swim in the lake – before at last returning to Emu Bight at about midday.

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It had been a fabulous twenty four hours – dolphins, swimming in calm waters, running before gales, and simply enjoying sailing the lovely waterways of the Gippsland Lakes. Next year, though, we might make life a bit easier, and simply head for Duck Arm in the first place!

4 responses to “Sailing/Camping – Gippsland Lakes”

  1. Sounds excellent, Stephen. I remember a sailing/camping trip on the Gippsland Lakes with my father, notable for the day the wind died completely and left us to wade back to the tent towing the Mirror dinghy.

    • Stephen says:

      Yes, one of the things you notice when you are pretty much sailing the full 24 hour cycle, unlike racing when you might just be out on the water for a couple of hours in the afternoon, is how much the wind changes. We went from being becalmed, to facing a full on gale, to being becalmed again, with all grades of breezes in-between, in the single 24 hour period.

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks Stephen, loved reading about your adventure.
    About 3 years ago I took my Mirror from Duck Arm to Bunga Arm camping ground.
    Had to look for wind. The sail over took over 4 hours. Lovely day though. Fun navigating the sticks into the camping ground.
    Next day a bit of rowing, and sailing around Bunga Arm. That night brought quite a downpour; always rains when I go camping.
    Set sail for home next day; standing up in the boat trying to get as much of the hull out of the water as I could.
    I loved it. Chris

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