My first encounter with Australia’s spectacular Hinchinbrook Island was in 2009 when I undertook one of the world’s best known and loved wilderness walks – the 32 kilometre Thorsborne Trail. I thought myself pretty adventurous. Then one afternoon while I was pitching my tent by one of the island’s eleven superb beaches, two sea kayakers paddled into view and nonchalantly slid their boats onto the sand. Suddenly walking the island wasn’t enough. I knew had to come back the following year in a kayak.
I challenge anyone with an adventurous spirit not to find the allure of this island irresistible. Hinchinbrook is a series of mist shrouded, rainforest blanketed, volcanic peaks separated from the Australian mainland by a wide crocodile frequented channel. It’s very Peter Pan. As another boy who refuses to grow up, I couldn’t wait to return to my Never Never Land.
I had considered organising the trip myself but after a brief encounter with the logistics decided to enlist the help of local experts Dave & Attie from Coral Sea Kayaking. They have eighteen years experience in nature based adventure tourism in tropical north Queensland and pride themselves on offering sea kayaking trips that are wonderful, adventurous, and bring a greater understanding, awareness, and appreciation of the beauty of nature. Not only that, they supply all the paddling gear and tents, and promise mountains of delicious fresh food. What more could I ask for?
Dave met myself, my lovely partner Janelle, and four other keen paddlers in Mission Beach the night before the trip to run through the schedule for our seven days on the water. We were to cross to the southern tip of Hinchinbrook from Lucinda, paddle up its eastern shore, and then go on to Goold Island and the Family Islands before finally returning to Mission Beach. Queensland’s Department of Enrironment & Research Management (DERM) has a great map of Hinchinbrook Island that you can download by clicking here. Dave also introduced his assistant for the trip, world champion sea kayaker Michelle. I’m not kidding. World champion! We were definitely in good hands.
Day 1 – George Point
The plan for today was to complete the eight kilometre paddle from Lucinda to George Point at the southern end of Hinchinbrook Island. That might not sound like much but first we needed to make the journey down the coast from Mission Beach in Coral Sea Kayaking’s people mover with a heavily loaded kayak trailer in tow. Also, the wind had come up and the rising chop was anticipated to slow our progress on the water.
Lucinda is best known for its remarkable 6 kilometre pier. It has 660 pylons and is so long that it noticeably follows the the curvature of the earth’s surface. Queenland’s sugar producers use the pier to export an estimated half a million tonnes of raw sugar every year. Some joke that the reason for the length was to put workers so far out to sea that they were no longer under Trade Union protection, but it is much more likely that it was done to provide a deep water landing for large cargo boats.
For me, Lucinda will also be memorable for the sign which read “crocodiles inhabit this area – attacks may cause injury or death”. It wasn’t the only time on the trip I would see a sign like this, but it was the first, and I would be a liar if I said I didn’t glance nervously at the water on more than one occasion.
Thankfully we managed to launch without any injuries or deaths. To be fair, the whole trip passed without a single encounter with a crocodile and it wasn’t down to luck. Crocs are usually only active at specific times of the year and can generally be avoided by taking sensible precautions. Our guides were more than happy to run through the dos and don’ts.
Using an unfamiliar boat can be something of a lottery. Will the cockpit fit me comfortably? Will I be able to handle it in the conditions? The strong winds and choppy waters served up to us on our first day were a great test and the fibreglass double sea kayaks we were using came through with flying colours. Sure, waves were washing over the deck and we got pretty wet but no-one looked remotely like capsizing and everyone arrived at George Point with a smile on their face.
The rain soon started to fall, but warm cups of tea and glasses (plastic cups) of red wine kept spirits high. We also got our first taste of the mouth watering food that became an unquestionable highlight of the trip. I have included details of the menu for each day so you can get an idea of why we were so delighted. Camp fires are not allowed so all cooking was done on Coleman Dual Fuel stoves.
Standing 1,121 metres tall, Hinchinbrook’s Mount Bowen is the third highest mountain in Queensland. It towers over the George Point campground. Low clouds meant that we hadn’t seen it in its full glory on the way in, but they also added to the mystery of the island. After dinner talk soon turned to what might be hiding in the mist. Red deer was one of the more plausible suggestions, and I have heard that floods soccasionally wash cows over from the mainland, but the ideas became a little more bent as the tide went out in the cask. Drop deer (kind of like drop bears but more… deery)? An undiscovered tribe of pygmies? As if the crocodiles weren’t enough.
Day 1 Menu
Afternoon snack – Crackers, cheese, pesto, dips, with a mug of tea and a glass of red wine.
Dinner – Main: Teriyaki chicken, teriyaki tofu, salad, rice, with a glas of red wine. Dessert: Meringue cups with cream, fruit, & berries.
Day 2 – Zoe Bay
We woke to find that the weather hadn’t improved. It was still grey, drizzly, and windy, and the Coral Sea was looking lively. Dave didn’t seem concerned and, given the impressive performance of our kayak the previous day, I wasn’t either. It would have been nice to have glorious sunshine but we had been given an iron clad guarantee that we would get at least three days of that on the trip and I didn’t mind waiting for a little while longer.
Our destination for the day was Zoe Bay, 13 kilometres away up the east coast of the island. It has special significance for me because it was where the idea for this kayaking trip was born. Who knows? Maybe I would inspire some walkers the same way those two sea kayakers had inspired me the year before.
The ocean was definitely rougher today. We were tossed around like cherry tomatoes in a garden salad. Rounding Hillock Point was particularly unnerving as waves bounced back off the rocks resulting in confused seas and what I fondly call “The Washing Machine Effect”. Once out of that, it was plain sailing as the trailing waves gave us a nice push into Zoe Bay.
We arrived just before lunch to find a couple of Thorsborne Trail walkers already in the campsite. However, they didn’t appear to be too inspired by the arrival of our team of eight. There was much harrumphing and rolling of eyes. I could sort of understand where they were coming from. With only 40 walkers allowed on the island at any one time, and most leaving each camp in the morning to arrive in the next late in the day they probably expected to have this beautiful place to themselves for a little while longer.
Zoe Falls are a favourite of most people that visit Hinchinbrook Island. Fantastically fresh water cascades into a crystal clear pool filled with inquisitive jungle perch. Its a perfect place to have an invigorating swim and wash off the crusty salt that inevitably accumlates on the body of any sea kayaker. Position yourself under the waterfall and you’ll receive a lovely therapeutic massage.
A couple of native rats live here. There’s no doubt that rats have an image problem, and the mere mention of them is likely to make you slightly squeamish, but the fawn-footed melomys and giant white-tailed rat are actually very cute. The only problem is they love eating the food that people bring in. For that reason, all of the formal campsites on Hinchinbrook have rat-proof boxes and it’s a good idea to use them if you don’t feel like sharing your spaghetti carbonara.
Day 2 Menu
Breakfast – Muesli, cereal, fruit, yoghurt, toast, with a mug of tea & a cup of fruit juice.
Morning tea – Home made muesli bars.
Lunch – Main: Bread rolls, ham, salad, cream cheese, with a cup of fruit juice. Dessert: Fresh pineapple and other fruit.
Afternoon snack – Crackers, cheese, pesto, dips, with a mug of tea & a glass of red wine.
Dinner – Main: Spaghetti carbonara, spaghetti funghi, with a glass of red wine. Dessert: Ginger snaps, yoghurt, & fruit.
Day 3 – Blacksand Beach
Seeing an endangered creature in its natural habitat is a special treat so I was excited to see a thick knee, also known as a stone curlew, wander out onto the beach this morning. The experience was made even more remarkable by the fact that this extremely rare 60 centimetre tall ground dwelling bird usually only appears at night.
The paddle from Zoe Bay to Blacksand Beach is 13 kilometres, the same distance as the previous day. Once we left the protection of Zoe Bay, the conditions were much the same too. The guarantee of three sunny days was starting to look more paper thin than iron clad, but Hinchinbrook always has a way of making you feel glad to be here and glad to be alive. As we rode the waves through the channel inside Agnes Island, a small head popped up out of the water. I thought I was seeing things, but sure enough, there it was again. It turns out that this area is popular with adult green turtles. I loved being able to pull into nearby Agnes Beach for morning tea and a quick round of turtle spotting.
The kayaking was a little easier after morning tea. We had sections of smooth glassy water for the first time on the trip and in the areas that weren’t quite so protected we had what Janelle calls “helper waves” pushing us along. Dave put up his sail and got even more help from the prevailing south east trade winds. We finished the day on a great note by surfing our boats right up onto the beach.
Nina Peak is not the highest point on the island. That honour belongs to Mount Bowen. It does however have great views of the northern end of Hinchinbrook Island and the 50 square kilometres of mangrove forests that fill Missionary Bay. There’s also a track from Blacksands Beach that goes all the way to the top. It was a no-brainer that we should make our way up there that afternoon.
Our walk in the forest also gave us a chance to see some of the vibrant native vegetation. The DERM website says “To date, about 30 plant communities have been identified, with around 700 species recorded.” Memorable moments for us were golden orchids behind the beach, resurrection grass on the slopes, and blue banksia at the top. Resurrection grass is particularly cool. It starts out green, turns brown as if it is dying, then magically becomes green again.
The weather improved as the day progressed as some of our clothes finally began to dry. Our picturesque lagoon-side digs were transformed into a chinese laundry for the afternoon. Luckily, the campsite is designated “sea kayakers only”. We were pretty sure that if anyone else arrived via the water they would sympathise with our situation.
Day 3 Menu
Breakfast – Scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, & yoghurt, with a mug of tea and cup of fruit juice.
Morning tea – Home made muesli bars.
Lunch – Main: Bread rolls, ham, salad, cream cheese, with a cup of fruit juice. Dessert: Fresh pineapple and other fruit.
Afternoon snack – Flat bread & home made hummus, with a mug of tea & a glass of red wine.
Dinner – Main: Moroccan lamb, falafel, tabouli with mint and parsley, couscous with pine nuts & tomatoes, with a glass of red wine. Dessert: Turkish delight.
Day 4 – Sunset Beach
I bounced out of bed to find that the grey quilt over our heads had been decorated with vibrantly optimistic patches of blue. These determined little messengers of hope grew in stature with the dawning of the day and before too long presented us with a true hallelujah moment. Sunshine!
Today’s 13 kilometre paddle to Sunset Beach was a real pleasure. The sun lit up the spectacular scenery, warmed our bodies, and gave us a much needed injection of Vitamin D. Even the sea seemed to be on our side. Expected rough waters at Cape Sandwich never eventuated, and we glided smoothly on to our next tropical home.
Dave put the sail up again and made the most of his free hands to throw out a fishing line. Some areas near Hinchinbrook Island have been classified as green zones where no fishing is allowed but this is not one of those. He managed to snare something big, but his dreams of Spanish mackerel for dinner were dashed when it dragged him out to sea before escaping. He also wound up with a deep cut in his finger from the fishing line.
The weather was absolutely brilliant and Sunset beach became a place of relaxation, refreshment, and renewal. Some swam, some bathed in the sun, and others lay in hammocks reading their favourite books. I prepared the solar shower for what I hoped would be our first hot wash of the trip and went for a wander with my new Digital SLR.
In the forest behind the beach I found a wonderland filled with thousands of butterflies. Every small sound or touch of a branch would send thousands of them flying into the air. It was a privilege to be among them. I stayed in there for hours watching them flutter through the filtered sunlight.
Back on the beach, a couple of migrating humpback whales had been spotted. They were a fair distance from shore but the spouts were unmistakable. It was an incredible sight and a sign that we would probably see more before the trip was over.
The solar shower worked perfectly. The black bag with a hose and small spray head attached looks rudimentary and primitive but this is an inexpensive item that I highly recommend having in your kit. A hot shower in the middle of nowhere can become a highly prized luxury. Janelle even managed to wash her hair, and celebrated the occasion by appearing for dinner in a glamorous black ensemble.
We were inspired by Dave’s now familiar confident air to set our tents up on the beach just above the high water mark. While I was pretty sure that everything would be ok, there were a few anxious moments when the high tide arrived at 10:30pm. I am happy to report that nothing floated away.
Day 4 Menu
Breakfast – Bacon, toast, fruit, & yoghurt, with a mug of tea & a cup of fruit juice.
Morning tea – Home made muesli bars.
Lunch – Main: Thai salad with mint, chilli, red onion, green pepper, tuna, crunchy noodles, fish sauce, cucumber, & tomato, vita wheats, with a cup of fruit juice. Dessert: Fresh pineapple and other fruit.
Afternoon snack – Dolmades, sundried tomatoes, olives, eggplant, with a mug of tea & a glass of red wine.
Dinner – Main: Fettucine puttanesca with olives, bacon, & tomatoes, with a glass of red wine. Dessert: Tim Tams.
Day 5 – Goold Island
Hinchinbrook Island has an array of freshwater creeks from which you can draw water, including one right next to where we were staying at Sunset Beach. Goold and Wheeler Islands where we were to be staying for the next two nights do not, so before setting off we ventured into the butterfly forest one last time to top up all our bottles.
Before finally leaving the shores of Hinchinbrook behind, we made one last comfort stop at Orchid Beach. A green turtle popped his head up as if to say goodbye. Another much larger friend also popped up. I almost choked on my trail mix when the head of a huge humpback whale emerged from the sea and flopped back down with an enormous splash. Then it did it again! It was like it was posing for photographs. I was kicking myself that I didn’t have my camera on hand.
On the open water crossing to Goold Island, we were lucky enough to be visited by two brown boobies. No, no-one got their gear off and we didn’t see a mermaid. A booby is a seabird that is inquisitive by nature. Some say that their name is derived from the Spanish “bubie” which is slang for “dunce”. They apparently used to land on ships at sea where they were easily caught and eaten. They didn’t land on our ships, but they did fly in for a closer look.
On the final stretch into our campsite we passed through a bay full of massive green turtles. The tide was out so the water level was low and we could see them clearly on the bottom. Occasionally one would be startled by our appearance, and go shooting under the boat. It felt like yet another once in a lifetime experience.
Goold Island is easily accessible from the coast and a popular weekend getaway for the boating community. Facilities like a drop toilet, water tank, landscaped picnic/camping areas and tables have been set up to cater for them. There’s also a walking track into the forest. We were the only ones here on this occasion and we made good use of the facilities.
After setting the tent up under one of the biggest elkhorns I have ever seen and filling the solar shower from the tank, we took a stroll into the forest where we saw silver bush, swamp pandan, cottonwood, mangroves, and sea hibiscus. Janelle came up with the idea of using the leaves of the latter to create a unique Australian made and fully biodegradable range of swimwear (see photo in Global Paddler Online Gallery). There were lots of birds too – black cockatoos, mangrove kingfishers, pelicans, terns, bar shouldered doves and emerald doves.
At the end of a great dinner under a magical pink sunset, clear skies provided the perfect opportunity for a spontaneous astronomy/astrology lesson. We all saw Venus, Mars, and Saturn and learned how to identify several well known constellations. Science class was never this good.
Day 5 Menu
Breakfast – Eggy bread, toast, fruit, & yoghurt, with a mug of tea & a cup of fruit juice.
Morning tea – Trail mix.
Lunch – Main: Tortilla wraps with salad, chilli beans, onion, jalapenos, tomato, avocado, & cheese, with a cup of fruit juice. Dessert: Fresh fruit.
Afternoon snack – Bhuja mix, with a mug of tea & a glass of red wine.
Dinner – Main: Vege curry with tofu, chickpeas, beans, potatoes, & rice, with a glass of port. Dessert: Mango & banana with hot rum & chocolate sauce.
Day 6 – Wheeler Island
When you are standing in the rain, it is easy to be sceptical when someone guarantees that three of the next seven days will be bathed in glorious sunshine. Professional meteorologists have been trying to make such predictions for years and to be fair, have had only mixed success. Put it down to experience. Put it down to luck. Put it down to contacts in high places. Put it down to whatever you want. This was our third day in a row and Dave had managed to deliver on the promise he made at George Point on Day 1.
19 kilometres of open water separate Goold and Wheeler Islands. This raised an age old question. What happens if you need to go to the loo? The answer was easy. You have two choices. You can either hang over the side of the boat, or you can be more discreet and go for a swim. As it turned out, Janelle did require a comfort stop and she chose the second of the two options. I thought this was particularly brave of her as Dave had reeled in a small shark just moments before, but she still rates swimming in the open water of the Coral Sea as a highlight of her trip.
Another humpback whale appeared in front of us. We were hoping it might be curious about us and come in for a look but it maintained its southward course. It wasn’t as dramatic as the previous day’s whale sighting but it was still an amazing experience.
This was the last afternoon of the trip and the atmosphere was appropriately relaxed. If you look up ‘relaxing’ in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a picture of us playing on Wheeler Island. Snorkelling, kite flying, shell collecting, and photography were the order of the day. After harvesting the fruit of the coconut palms for a tasty pre dinner beverage, we gathered under yet another dramatic sunset for our last evening meal together.
Day 6 Menu
Breakfast – Pancakes with maple syrup & blueberries, toast, fruit, & yoghurt, with a mug of tea & a cup of fruit juice.
Lunch – Main: German black bread, potato salad with green beans, peppers, & balsamic dressing, with a cup of fruit juice. Dessert: Fresh fruit.
Afternoon snack – Fried haloumi, tortilla bread, with a mug of tea & a glass of red wine.
Dinner – Main: Seafood laksa with mackerel, coconut cream, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, with a glass of red wine. Dessert: Fruit salad.
Day 7 – South Mission Beach
Our final day on the water started a little earlier than usual so we could make it back to Mission Beach with enough time to unpack and get spruced up for a posh lunch at Castaways Resort. To be honest, earlier than usual wasn’t exactly early. We started paddling at the less than ungodly time of 8:30am.
We paddled past the eastern side of Bedarra Island and the western side of Timanal Island. Bedarra has a five star luxury resort that is reportedly a favourite of the rich and famous. I wouldn’t know because I couldn’t see any from where I was and a combination of conspicuous security guards and the words PRIVATE PROPERTY painted on the rocks in large white lettering meant I dared not get any closer.
Both islands are privately owned and you aren’t allowed to land so there is a 16 kilometre non-stop paddle between Wheeler Island and South Mission Beach. This raised the same question as yesterday. What happens if you need to go to the loo? This time I was the person asking it. I wasn’t happy with either of the two options so I added a third. Paddle like hell to the destination and run into the public toilet. Three majestic sea eagles soared above us on the way, but I barely saw them as I was on a mission to get to Mission.
The hot shower at Coral Sea Kayaking‘s base was superb, lunch at Castaways was delicious, and the beers? To quote our fearless leader Dave, the beers were “like angel’s tears on my tongue”. I proudly donned my new Coral Sea Kayaking t-shirt and dreamt of doing it all again.
Day 6 Menu
Breakfast – Baked beans, toast, fruit, & yoghurt, with a mug of tea & a cup of fruit juice.