Freya Hoffmeister has been working her way west across the top of Australia. Broome, in Western Australia, was also roughly the halfway mark of her 9,400 mile (15,000 kilometer) circumnavigation of Australia. There Freya took delivery of a new kayak. The original plan she had made with her kayak sponsor was to get a boat custom-built to her specifications, most notably a heavier, well-reinforced layup. The manufacturer had a dispute with a factory in China and their molds were “held hostage,” leaving them unable to build Freya’s kayak. The kayak with which she had done the first half of the circumnavigation was a stock model with some minor reinforce-ments added.
The longest of Freya’s crossings, the Gulf of Carpentaria, is behind her but she has continued her practice of open-water crossings between major points of land to avoid the bays and the saltwater crocodiles that inhabit them. Joseph Bonaparte Gulf was a 65-mile (105 kilometer) crossing that required her to paddle through the night and on into a second day.
On the 170th day of her expedition, near Cape Boileau, Freya was fighting wind and tide and came ashore for a break. She was within cell-phone coverage and we had a chance to catch up with her.
How was your crossing of Joseph Bonaparte Gulf?
It was very slow going and tides going in and out and headwinds. Nothing was helping. Not much fun.
Were you able to get some sleep?
I got my sleep. I was not in a hurry. I just wanted to reach the next island, Pelican Island, in daylight. I was napping quite frequently. Not with a proper sleep set up. I was just crunching forward. At one point I pulled out the outrigger for a half an hour but I got so much water in my face and got sick of that so I kept on paddling. Leaning forward and power napping was enough.
During one of our previous conversations you said one stretch of the coast made you feel like you were in a prison. What was that like?
Yes, it was just boredom. Since I’ve decided to travel fast it means I just paddle or sit in my tent. Nothing else. No exploring, no walking the beach. I’m not seeing much. There is a lot of interesting landscape and lots of beaches, but there’s no chance of walking around a bit with the schedule I’ve made for myself. Ten or twelve hours of paddling each day and then camping at night leaves no time for walking around, even just a bit up and down the beach. That went on for most of the Kimberley Islands. I’d paddle all day, from dawn to dusk. I rarely even took a half day off. I took a half day off at a pearl farm, and one other half day, but I never took a full day off. Even coming ashore an hour early before dusk was a treasured thing. I felt this not only on this stretch of coast but all along. I may be taking it slower now from Broome to Perth.
Was it lonely?
No. What’s lonely about it? I had lots of phone calls to lots of people. It’s a job. It’s a simple job. It’s not a pleasure expedition. Exploring is different. You want to explore the coastline and hug the shore, look at the beaches and see what’s behind the next rock. I took very little time for that. I’ve got a task to do and that’s to get around this island [Australia] as fast as possible. For sure I could do it slow. No problem, but that’s not what this is. Even at night when you might be hiking there are a lot of bugs and you don’t want to be out in the last light. Even when I’m cooking I’m hiding in the tent because the bugs are biting. It’s not much fun.
I wanted to get through the Kimberleys as fast as possible to get to Broome. I had a new kayak there and nice company as well. [In Broome, Freya’s partner, Greg Bethune, a fishing charter captain she met at Cape York, would meet her to make the switch to the new kayak.]
You’ve been moving into higher latitudes and cooler climates. Have you reached the end of crocodile and sea snake country?
Well, the crocodiles are gone now. There may be some deep in indented bays, but basically I’m done with them. I’m not going into the bays and there are not many mangroves any more. I’m very happy, I can now go for a swim at night. There are some lovely beaches and the water is crystal clear. It’s beautiful.
The crocs were only scary when I was afloat and they were afloat. On the land I wasn’t that scared by them. They don’t chase you. They’re too lazy. They can run very fast, but why should they? They’re just lazy. They’d rather hide and go into the water and swim away.
There was one fat one, but he was walking on land on the other side of a river. It was the biggest I’d ever seen. I don’t think there could be a croc any bigger. He was definitely giving me goose bumps. I really thought I should leave soon, but that one was not stalking me. He was just there. It was amazing to see such a huge one in the wilderness.
Are the sea snakes gone too?
The sea snakes were always there but I hadn’t seen any in the last days in the Kimberleys. I’m not worried about sea snakes. They’re nice to look at and they don’t jump in your boat. The water is getting cooler and the nights are pretty chilly already. It was freezing this morning at around four o’clock. It’s hot again now and I’ll be sleeping in the dunes.
It’s windy and I’ve had to hug the coast. It calms down when the tide turns. I had to turn into a bay today to hide a bit from the wind. I can’t paddle against wind and tide. I make progress but it’s quite tiring and a bit boring. The tides are running about one and a half kilometers per hour. It’s enough to annoy you. Today I was paddling around a headland. So far there have been steep beaches with dumping waves. It wouldn’t have been much fun to land on the point. But I got around the corner and the beaches are flat so the landing was easy and the dumpers are gone.
In Broome the beach is flat as well. The more south I go the flatter the beaches get. That means I’ll have to wheel the boat. I’m not sure I can wheel the boat over the tidal ground. Everyone has said I’d have to paddle with the tides., landing and launching with the high tide, whenever that is, day or night. We’ll see. I have my trolley with me now. I won’t know if’ I’ll be able to us it until I know what the ground is like. IF it’s muddy I can’t use it. If it’s sandy I can. I’d rather go from dawn to dusk rather than from tide to tide. That’s what my body tells me. So I may wheel the boat a bit. We’ll see. Eighty Mile Beach farther south it may be necessary to travel with the tide because I’ve heard you can’t wheel across the beach.
I had my trolley sent to Darwin but then sent it ahead again to Broome.
I got the latest issue of Sea Kayaker with the write-up of the [Gulf of Carpentaria] crossing. There was that letter to the editor with the question about my wearing a PFD. I noticed you wrote a long response. I don’t paddle with a PFD unless it gets rough. Then I put it on. With the heat and the chafing there’s no way I can always keep a PFD on.
And what for? It’s flat water. Th
e chances of capsizing are less than one percent and even if there is a capsize, it’s warm water and you go for a swim and get in [the kayak] again. I sometimes put the PFD on when I was landing and launching just in case I encountered a crocodile which might just jump on my back deck and might just bite my backside or something. It would be nice to have some padding on then. You never know. This was where the crocodiles had attacked some people so I thought I’d put the PFD on, even if it was easy water. Otherwise I slide it onto my back deck so it’s there when the water gets big. But when was the last time? I don’t remember. Only one section of the Kimberleys was big water.
I’m still making the same speed as Paul [Caffyn] with my full loaded boat at 80 to 100 kilos [176 to 220 pounds]. I estimate he took a maximum of 50 kilos [110 pounds] when he was self supported. He didn’t have any electronics and he was getting water in the creeks [at a time when the croc population was much smaller because of hunting] and he had all the food dumps in the Kimberleys. He’s a minimalist anyway, not taking any cosmetics I assume.
I’m carrying up to 100 kilos when my kayak is fully loaded. And I’m a tiny, small little 45-year-old lady and he was a strong, young 36-year-old man. And I’m paddling just as fast.
There was an incident when the Australian rescue service was looking for you on this leg of the trip.
No, they weren’t looking for me! This is what happened: There was a charter skipper in Darwin who was looking over the charts of the Kimberleys and telling me lots of interesting things and pointing out where I could pick up fresh water, including a fishing lodge.
He marked the lodge with a cross on my map but he made the cross on the wrong bay, the bay beyond the lodge. The night I was looking for the fishing lodge it was not there. Eventually it started to get dark and I gave him a call. I got him on the phone and asked him, “Where’s that fishing lodge?” It turned out that he’d made the mark on the wrong bay. He called the fishing lodge and asked if they could come out with a little motor boat the next morning to a point near the bay where I was camping out to give me water. It would be easy for them, but he couldn’t reach them.
He just got their answering machine. So put off the water delivery until the next morning when he could talk to someone at the lodge. So I was just waiting for him to make the call the following morning. I could have gone for other options. I still had four liters [one gallon] of water left. I could go two more days, even four more days if I had to. There was the option of meeting other boats. I knew of a pearl farm ship that would be anchoring ahead of me in two days time. I had lots of chances to refill water.
The skipper felt guilty that he’d marked the wrong bay. He got the idea on his own to call the AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority] and get a call out, nothing serious, but if someone was around they might be able to help. But it seems the operator at AMSA took the call as a serious thing and put it out as a distress call. That wasn’t the skipper’s idea and certainly not mine to put out a distress call.
The guy who came eventually didn’t have any problems [coming to help me]. My contact in Melbourne also got involved, but it was never my idea, nor the skipper’s to make a distress call. The commercial boat that found me didn’t have a problem and thought it was funny. They were happy to help. I didn’t know what was going on at the time. There was just this boat pulling up at night. I didn’t know until late how it had all worked out.
When I press the button on my EPIRB, that’s when I want a rescue. That’s the only thing to do. Twice during the first weeks of the circumnavigation my support team was on the verge of calling for a rescue because of a lack of communication.
But some of my satellite messages come in quite delayed. Sometimes delayed by a day. I keep my EPIRB handy on my PFD or on my spray deck. When it’s on my spray deck I’m always wearing it. I’m very happy just with that. I don’t want anyone looking for me when I don’t need help. I feel very safe and it is very easy to press a button when I need a rescue. If I’m not able to press the button any more, I’m dead.
Your skin has healed up, how’s your weight? Have you lost all of the weight that you put on for the trip?
Yeah, I was pretty fat at the beginning I must admit, but right now I’m at 73 kilos [160 pounds] or something. It’s nothing special but I feel I could have more in the front. The back is fine. That’s just how it is, that’s where women lose weight first. But I’ve definitely gained some muscles.
You’re not concerned about getting worn out? Your body can hold up for the second half?
Oh yeah, the body is no problem. My mind needs to hold up as well, but that’s not a problem either, because I want to do this. It’s quite tough right now because I had to leave Greg behind. On the one hand it’s really great that I met him, but on the other hand it’s harder.
If I hadn’t met him I would be by myself, supported only by the whole kayaking community on the internet. You can imagine how it feels since I met him at Cape York and want to be with him. It’s tough. We spent nine days together on his boat when I was having my break in Darwin, and another nine days in Broome where he helped me to get my new kayak ready. But we are in phone contact every day, sometimes three or four times. My sat-phone and cell-phone bill is quite high, but there’s a good chance he may be supporting me toward the end of the trip. Chances are good he may be supporting me toward the end of the trip.
You’re past the halfway point. Does that have any special significance to you?
No. Just keep on going until it’s done. I would love to be done I must admit, and doing something different. I will definitely finish.
OK, it was a long break on the beach. It was nice, but now I’ll keep on paddling.