In search of Australia’s greatest adrenaline rushes, David Whitley goes surf rafting and kayaking on the New South Wales coast.



Aside from the caws of a lone seagull and the ominous rumble of the waves crashing to shore, all is eerily silent. The sense of tension and anticipation in the air is palpable. Everyone waiting, a brooding alertness, as the ocean lumbers beneath us, slowly building itself up for a tumultuous peak. The helmets in front turn round, partly to check the looks of concentration on the faces behind them and partly in solidarity with their comrades. We’re on the front line, you can trust us to do our job.


As the swell mounts, the piercing battle cry comes from the rear. “NO-O-OW!” our commander hollers, and six oars plunge into the water as one. We launch through the water with perfect synchronicity, spurred on by the yells of “HARDER! HARDER!” coming from behind us. Suddenly, the front of the raft lurches upwards as it’s met by the front of the breaking wave. This is what we’ve been waiting for, we’re on, and totally in the hands of mother nature. As the foaming waters disintegrate, the cannon fodder at the front is dumped downwards, consumed in a cloud of raging salty spray. At the back we’re thrown up at what seems to be a ninety degree angle. If it’s all going to go horribly wrong at any moment, it’s probably now, but suddenly we’re speeding along. The ocean has decided to be kind and ease our passage rather than leaving us scrabbling for air underneath an upturned dinghy. Reaching the shore, we all lean left into the wave to prevent a last minute collapse, and get us into position for another assault.


Surf rafting is a curious pastime. I cannot see any conceivable application for it in every day life, aside from maybe making little excursions to land whilst on an exploratory mission on a big ship in the 1770s, but it sure is fun. It’s like whitewater rafting, but dealing with the vagarities of Coffs Harbour’s ocean currents rather than rapids, waterfalls and shallow river beds.


It’s a triumph of teamwork over the elements, but when it goes wrong, it gets very wet and messy indeed. It would be fair to say that trust in Steve, the man nominally in charge of all this, has never been sky high, particularly since his opening comment of: “You know what guys? Half of the fun is falling in.”

And, given that we’ve been through six successful missions so far, our omnipotent leader is being viewed with the sort of looks usually reserved for men in camel-skin coats, attempting to sell ‘genuine’ designer watches. We’re the only people in the bay as we battle back out against the tide. The strokes don’t seem to make much headway as we force our way through the relentless bludgeoning of the waves. Out of the danger zone, we pause for breath. Again, it is all in the anticipation; the calm before the storm. The swells gradually gather momentum, jack-knifed into the narrow gap by the protruding headlands. All quiet, but for the heartbeats.


Truly pumped up by this stage, we release a blood-curdling war cry; our impromptu verbal haka, ready for one last charge over the top. It’s a huge wave, and again the front of the craft rides up. But something is wrong. I feel a thud in my back, almost certainly the rather chunky Englishwoman behind. As I struggle to balance on the side, the raft lurches to the right. Over, over… out.


Following what feels like a full spin cycle, I emerge to see our stricken craft bobbing around in the wash, and oars dotted randomly around the bay. Steve, it seems, has the victims he so craved, with sorry, shaking heads sticking out intermittently to spit out seawater. If surf rafting is all teamwork, brute force and adrenalin, sea kayaking has to be the complete opposite. Sure, it’s hard on the arms, paddling out against the surf, but once into the calmer waters, there is a real chance to take things in. The New South Wales coastline around Coffs Harbour genuinely is a sight to behold. It’s all moody headlands and golden sands, but with the added bonus of the rainforests, hills and banana plantations peeking out above the beach.


We’re in the Solitary Islands’ Marine Park, a fairly unique eco-system where the warm tropical current meets the colder southern waters. Consequently, there is an astonishing diversity in the sea life beneath us. The name is a result of one of Captain Cook’s rare bungles – he briefly skirted past on his famous voyage of discovery, and only spotted the one island. It stuck though, and the others sprinkled around it became not-very-solitary Solitary Islands too.


The unique factor is not just in the water either. “You see that bit sticking out there,” says Steve from the rear. “Macaulay’s Headland, one of only two places in the entire country where the Great Dividing Range meets the sea. We’re in a pretty special place here.”


And it’s not just the humans that think this; apparently dolphins are regularly spotted on these little paddles around, and will come up to play near the kayaks if feeling particularly carefree. It’s best not to assume that all fins belong to Flipper though – Steve also starts to mention the bronze whaler shark that called the area home for a few months last year, before thinking better of it and leaving the detail worryingly scant.


But toothy monsters of the deep aren’t the immediate problem; getting back to shore is, and that means going through the breaks again, without the benefit of a dinghy to bob around in. Slumped forward, legs sprawled over the side, the magnitude of this task becomes quite apparent when watching the advance scouting parties make their fated sorties. It looks like a war movie without the explosions. The girls on the first raid are shot down without a trace. Gerhard and Joe’s fate is more spectacular, the wave seemingly lifting the rear of their kayak straight into the air and flipping them over. The nose plants into the sand, and they’re flung forwards to oblivion.


We’re last, and our chances don’t look too promising. This is a lot harder than the rafting – the craft is narrower, the weight isn’t distributed as well and there are fewer people to do the corrective paddling. Once Gerhard and Joe have surfaced with minimal mental trauma, it’s paddle to water and into the treacherous enemy territory. The wave comes up behind us as we stroke furiously and…


What happens next is something of a blur, the processes of which shall go unrecorded by history. Suffice to say, however, that being slapped round the face with a rogue kayak is a distinctly unpleasant experience. I shake myself to the surface, holding my mouth. All my teeth are intact, although some of them appear to have gone for an unwelcome excursion through my bottom lip. A brief flashback to that meandering bronze whaler is sufficient to stop me from spitting blood, but as soon as I’ve gathered up the kayak and paddles floating aimlessly and hit land, this is no longer a concern. This is what boxers must feel like, and if anyone is prepared to tell me that sea kayaking is a wimpy, genteel pastime, then the scar will tell its own tale.