Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rethinking Decisions: Hinchinbrook Island by Sea Kayak Redux

Today I got an email from a friend in Canada who had followed some of my trip notes on an easy mountaineering outing to the New Denver Glacier in the Valhalla Range (British Columbia, Canada) to climb English and Iron Peaks and Mount Denver. She commented that she “was never doing that trail again.” One of those strangely frequent coincidental comments as, in the hour after we landed at Cardwell from our Hinchinbrook Island kayak trip, I had said to Doug that I would quite happily head off next day and do our entire Hinchinbrook Island kayak trip again as it was so good. We both laughed about how one never says that about mountaineering trips, which typically end with “Thank God that's over, and I don't have to do that again.” There are uncounted mountains that I have climbed where my greatest motivation was not to have to come back there again as the whole endeavour was remarkably painful.

Three days later, our Hinchinbrook Island trip is well and truly over, but not nearly forgotten. I thought some more about the questions I was left with after the trip, and, found that further reflection did not give rise to any answers, but it did leave me with some lessons learnt.

Although it would have been awesome to have light winds for the trip, I am glad I got the opportunity to paddle in strong winds, particularly as we had an easy escape route (Channel #6) available. I've been doing some more reading about typical Queensland weather in winter and southeast winds to 30 knots are more common than not. At some point, I'll just have to learn to paddle in winds that strong so that learning process may as well begin now.

In hindsight, I think I had an inkling that we would get strong winds sometime during the week, but I didn't want to deal with either strong winds or changing plans so I pretty much just ignored the available weather information that forecast increasing winds for about mid-week. Had I given this some thought before hand I could have made different decisions or at least more informed decisions. Ignoring things you don't want to know about doesn't really make them any less real.

A little forethought about where the most difficult sections of the trip would be and how we might handle them would also have given us more options. I am used to making contingency plans for ski trips and climbing trips and should really use the same strategies when planning kayak trips.

I have found it hard in Australia to identify slack tide and so had pretty much given up thinking about hitting difficult sections at slack tide (something we always did when paddling in Canada), but that is just plain silly. Rounding capes, points and promontories, and crossing channels where tidal flows are an issue should all be done at slack tide. With four tides a day there are plenty of opportunities.

With any luck, I'll be more prepared on my next kayak trip, which can't come too soon.

Crocodile Corridor: Hinchinbrook Island by Sea Kayak

At almost 40,000 hectares, Hinchinbrook Island is Australia's largest island national park, and surely one of its most impressive. Near Cape Richards, at the northeast end of the island a vast flat delta of mangrove lined tidal channels reach almost to the easterly beach at Ramsay Bay. West, across Missionary Bay at Hecate Point, the rugged and jagged spine of Hinchinbrook Island begins. Mount Pitt, at 721 metres is the most northerly eminence, and a series of surprisingly jaggy peaks runs south down the island, the highest, Mount Bowen at 1120 metres lies roughly mid island.

Hinchinbrook Channel runs down the west side of the island, just over half a kilometre wide at its narrowest point and lined on both sides with mangroves and pierced with tidal channels. The east coast of the island is simply stunning; a never ending series of steep headlands and rocky capes interspersed with white sand beaches and sheltered coves. Turtles, dugongs and even migrating humpback whales can be seen in the clear turquoise waters. On shore, freshwater streams cascade down granite slabs to form large clear pools, coconut palms and native hibiscus grow along the waters edge.

Prevailing winds blow from the southeast, so the most logical trip is from Lucinda (or Dungeness) in the south to Cardwell in the north. We planned to launch at Lucinda and paddle to Cardwell along the east coast of the island with a side trip to Goold Island (also a national park) which lies four kilometres north from Cape Richards. Transport from Cardwell back to Dungeness was somewhat difficult to arrange as our arrival at Cardwell would not coincide with any regular ferry or shuttle service, but Cardwell Taxi charges $105 between Cardwell and Dungness (or Lucinda) and were able to take us back to Dungeness on short notice.

The total distance is not great, around 100 km total including the side trip to Goold Island. A fast party could do the entire trip in a few days, but, as we are neither fast, nor inclined to hurry, we took nine days of food planning to paddle at a leisurely pace and hike some of the easily accessible walking tracks.

Dungeness to Zoe Bay

The road from Ingham to Lucinda passes through vast sugar cane fields and is criss-crossed by rail tracks for the sugar trains. A thick molasses smell hangs in the air from the processing plant at Halifax. We had intended to launch at Lucinda, but driving into this small seaside community, a boat ramp sign took us to Dungeness instead where there is a couple of hotels and a pub. The boat ramp is just inside Hinchinbrook Channel and the water is muddy brown. There were dozens of power boats coming and going carrying the ubiquitous Australian fishermen and their tinnies.

We unloaded our kayaks on to a sandy bit of beach beside the boat ramp where sandflies swarmed and began to stow our gear away. Ten minutes into this activity, I realised I had left our cooking pots behind in the caravan so leaving Doug to finish packing the boats, I drove all the way back to Ingham to recover the forgotten items.

By the time I got back, Doug had both boats packed and was sporting many raised welts from the sandflies. The repellent had been in the vehicle with me. In our haste to get on the water, I neglected to put sunscreen on and by the end of the day had a rosy sunburn on my shoulders and face.

It is only four kilometres from Dungeness to George Point on the southern end of Hinchinbrook Island but a big sandbar droops out from the coast, and, at lower tides would necessitate paddling further out to avoid running aground. Although the tide was dropping fast, we hoped we would be able to cross the sandbar near George Point and so paddled straight north. It was sunny and calm, perfect conditions for kayaking and we easily crossed over to George Point happy to leave the muddy brown waters behind and paddle into the clear aquamarine waters of the Coral Sea.

Near George Point, a small wave was breaking over the sandbar, but we easily paddled across and continued to the north end of Mulligan Bay. We pulled the kayaks up onto the beach where a freshwater creek was washing glistening pieces of mica out into the sea. Here we met Julian, a solo kayaker from Townsville who had camped the night at George Point and was pottering about before heading back to Lucinda. Julian was looking for the Mulligan Falls trail, rumoured to start from Sunken Reef Bay so we all paddled off north together.

North of Mulligan Bay, a tiny sheltered cove of sand beckoned, and I paddled in near the beach, before rounding another little headland into Sunken Reef Bay. While Doug and Julian went ashore looking for the elusive trail to Mulligan Falls, I paddled around the edge of Sunken Reef Bay looking through the clear water at scattered corals and paddled around a rocky reef exposed by the tide at the north end of the bay.

Still no sign of the Mulligan Falls trail, so, leaving Julian to have lunch on the beach, Doug and I continued north towards Zoe Bay. The water was so calm we could paddle just metres off shore and rounding Hillock Point where 50 metre high granite cliffs plunge vertically into deep water was incredibly scenic. Around Hillock Point, the cliffs gradually get smaller and small bays and coves in the rocky shoreline unfold as we paddled towards Zoe Bay. We saw three or four very large turtles here including one that was feeding on a rocky reef.

Zoe Bay is magical. A deep curve of white sand with clear creeks at either end over which the brooding peaks of Hinchinbrook, shrouded in mist, hang sombrely. We pulled into the south end where there is an outhouse, some scattered tent sites in the shade of hibiscus trees, a few picnic tables and metal food boxes to prevent the native rats from chewing into packs and food bags. A few hikers on their third day of the Thorsborne Trail were already at camp.

We found a very private and sheltered campsite with (luxury) a picnic bench and unloaded all our gear and brought the kayaks up the beach. Before a late lunch, we swam in the clear, warm green water off the beach. Later, Doug walked up to Zoe Falls for another swim in the pool below the falls and I wandered up the beach, coming back laden with beautiful sea shells that Doug said I could not carry home. A large full moon came out to hang over the still waters of the bay, and the tide came right up to the hibiscus trees on the beach bringing the sound of waves on the beach into camp.

Zoe Bay

Zoe Bay was too beautiful to leave, so, on a whim next morning, we decided to stay for another day. We had coffee in our deck chairs sitting under the hibiscus trees and watching a pod of dolphins rollicking in the bay. It was a little windy and a little showery with enough darkening clouds floating about to inspire us to string a tarp over our picnic bench before we went out paddling. Mid-morning, however, brought sunny weather and a slowly rising southeast wind.

We paddled north up the bay to a large tidal creek and meandered about three kilometres up this clear winding channel. Dozens of fish swam by our boats and mangroves hung over the twisting corridor, their intricate roots making labyrinthine baskets in the shoreline. Paddling back out, we caught the outgoing tide and ran through some small rapids in the ocean at the mouth of the creek before paddling to the south end of the bay and exploring by kayak the much smaller creek that leads to Zoe Falls.

The rising winds generated a small but consistent surf on the beach and I spent an hour or so after lunch playing in this. Sea kayaks, like long boards, can ride even small waves easily, and I had no trouble riding wave after wave into the beach. The practice came in handy later on. Doug, meanwhile walked up the beach but managed to come back without any shells (!).

I walked up to Zoe Falls, a beautiful spot where the creek cascades over granite bluffs into a deep green pool. I swam across the pool and under the falls. The track continues up to the top of the falls where the creek dances through small pools and whirls over the cliff. Zoe Bay is a moon-like sliver of white between the green of the forest and the ocean. I swam across another deep pool above the falls to a smaller version of Zoe Falls where I climbed out onto the rocks and padded up the granite boulders bare-footed. I just had time for another walk up the beach before night fell and the brilliant moon rose over the bay.

Zoe Bay to South Ramsay Bay

The rising trend in the southeast winds continued, and, even at 6.15 am, when it was barely dawn, the wind was blowing into Zoe Bay. In a small swell, we paddled out of Zoe Bay and around rocky headlands towards Agnes Island. I could vaguely recognise that this section of coast line provided more stunning scenery with the green mist clad mountains rising above granite cliffs, but my concentration was almost wholly focused on controlling my kayak as it bounced and surfed on the rising swell. Current combined with wind made for confused conditions for about an hour until we until we were able to paddle inside Agnes Island (west) into calmer waters.

Just north of Agnes Island there are a series of small sheltered sandy coves tucked between rocky headlands and it was nice to relax our concentration for a while and just paddle easily past white sandy beaches and smooth granite boulders. One more short headland where the swell and current picked up brought us sharply back into alert mode, before we tucked around a small rocky promontory into Black Sand Bay. This tiny little bay is delightful, with a flat sand beach, and big eucalpyts growing to the shore. A buggy lagoon lays directly behind the bay, and the instant we alighted from the boats we were swarmed with sand flies.

We wanted to camp somewhere in the vicinity as Ramsay Bay has an eight kilometre long beach made for rambling and nearby, a branch of the Thorsborne Trail leads up to Nina Peak. Delightful as Black Sand Bay was, the sand flies were too thick for comfort so we retreated to the boats and paddled around one final bouldery promontory to the south end of Ramsay Bay. The sand flies chased us far out onto the water.

A small surf was running on Ramsay Bay but we landed easily enough and looked about for a campsite. While there is plenty of sandy beach to camp on, most of it seemed a bit too exposed to the increasing southeast winds so I walked up the beach a distance until I found a flattish spot set back from the steeper beach that offered some minimal shelter. I stuck a big log of driftwood upright into the sand to mark the spot and we relaunched the boats, paddled north, and rode in through slightly bigger surf to our campsite.

We had not had breakfast yet, but starting the stove required fashioning some kind of wind break. We used our two kayaks, a few dry bags, and dug a hole in the sand for the stove – that's how windy it was. After breakfast, we packed up a few water containers and our water filter, and walked down the beach to where the Thorsborne Trail runs inland and over a small saddle on the way to Little Ramsay Bay. The trail crosses a creek which was running with fresh water and we stashed our water supplies here before continuing on.

The trail to Nina Peak is obvious and marked by a large cairn at the high point of the Thorsborne Trail before it descends again to Little Ramsay Bay. We expected a fairly rough trail but found a good, if steep track. As you climb, views begin to open up, both of the coastline of Hinchinbrook and inland to the rugged peaks of the interior range. Near the top of Nina Peak, a few large granite boulders provide a fantastic viewing platform. To the north is the vast delta of tidal creeks draining the low-lands behind Cape Richards and Cape Sandwich which reach almost from one coast to the other. Behind is Goold Island and further north the Family Islands. Cape Richards reaches an arm out towards Goold Island, and Shepherd Bay is just visible curving towards Cape Sandwich which protrudes far into the tidal stream. To the south are the small coves and bays near Agnes Island, and far south, the Palm Islands. A short distance further on, the top of Nina Peak reveals more startling views inland to the rugged faces of Mount Bowen and The Thumb. The whole inland area has a strangely alpine look with wind stunted vegetation, deep valleys and rocky crags.

Although we were carrying a marine radio, we had no luck getting any marine forecasts, but, there was mobile telephone reception on Nina Peak, so I left Doug getting marine forecasts while I walked back down the trail and filled our water jugs with filtered water from the creek. Back at camp, it was time for lunch, and then we walked the trail and boardwalk that leads over to the northwest side of the island and Channel #6 where the water taxi drops off hikers starting the Thorsborne Trail. We arrived at a lowish tide and found the channel disconcertingly narrow and muddy. The jetty is mounted on huge pilings so it can rise up and down with the tide. Crabs with one huge orange pincer scuttled about in the mud under the interlacing roots of the mangrove trees.

On our eastern beach, we looked around for some where to put the tent out of the now blasting southeast wind and found a little hollow by some tumbled down trees which, with a little work made a level and relatively sheltered tent site. The southeast winds that had started two days ago were continuing to increase and were now blowing at around 20 to 25 knots. The marine forecast was not encouraging, strong wind warnings every day with southeast winds of 25 to 30 knots and seas at 2.2 to 2.7 metres. To reach more sheltered waters on the north end of the island we needed to round Cape Sandwich. Even without binoculars we could see the surf pounding onto the rocks at the Cape and we expected rough and confused seas as the headland sticks far out into the tidal stream. Adding to our anxiety was a painful injury that Doug had sustained to his forearm sometime in the last couple of days. He was finding paddling mildly to moderately painful so our decisions were all tinged with doing the least amount of further damage to his injury.

Even in our sheltered hollow the wind crept in and I woke with sand blowing in my face through the mesh screen of the tent. Reminiscent of similar Canadian experiences except in Canada, snow blows in the tent. I tolerated it for a long time, too lazy to do anything about it, but, eventually when I found myself almost mummified by sand, I closed the tent door. The pounding of the surf was so loud that I had to wear ear plugs to sleep, which helped also reduce the noise of nylon flapping in the wind.

South Ramsay Bay

In the morning, we walked up the beach to the far north end accompanied by the buffeting wind and the roar of surf on the beach. Our water containers, with the exception of one, were all leaking so Doug walked the beach picking up discarded water bottles, and tethering them together in bundles with a piece of cord also found on the beach. At the far north end of the beach we could see haystacks and surf off Cape Sandwich. Initially, we had discussed being back at camp at noon so that should the winds calm down, we could pack up and leave for the journey around Cape Sandwich. At 11.30 am, when I was at the northern end of the beach, it seemed ludicrous to expect any change in half an hour, so I didn't hurry on the almost two hour walk back down to our camp. Along the way I collected a bunch of Doug's water bottles.

When Doug got back, we had lunch, and set about fortifying our camp for the strong winds. Doug piled up logs of driftwood and then piled sand into the cracks making a relatively wind proof screen around our tent. Around 3.00 pm, the winds did seem to abate a little, but we thought it now too late to leave camp. It takes us about an hour to pack up camp, carry our gear and kayaks down the beach to the waters edge, stow everything away and launch. With a two hour journey north up Ramsay Bay, that would put us rounding the Cape at 5.00 pm with just an hour of daylight to paddle the roughest and most exposed section of the trip and find a campsite.

Hopeful that tomorrow we might round the Cape, we walked down the beach with a selection of the best water bottles we had accumulated and filled them in the creek. In just 24 hours, the creek had retracted and now no longer crossed the trail. There was, however, a pool of clear water above the trail.

All night, the wind roared ceaselessly, but, with Doug's well constructed sand and log wall, we were reasonably well sheltered.

Blacksand Beach

Today, we went south instead of north. I woke up early, well before dawn, hoping for calm winds in the morning. But, of course, the wind which had blown steadily all night, was still coming in strongly from the southeast. One wind/weather day is tolerable, even enjoyable when you have a nice beach to walk, but two, with the prospect of many more to follow is not so pleasing.

We packed up and carried all our gear down to the beach. There didn't really seem any where more sheltered from the surf nearby, so after loading up we each, with different difficulties launched through the surf and out into the swell behind the breakers. I managed to get out between big sets, but did not have time to get my spray deck on so the waves that broke as I paddled through flooded my cockpit with sea water. Doug got his spray deck on but launched in a bigger set of waves and got a thorough dousing as the waves broke over his head.

We paddled far off shore to avoid the steepest of the swell and then set about paddling north along the bay. This was the roughest water I have ever paddled in and I found myself tensed and leaning forward with concentration as the boat rode up and down over the two metre plus swells. Every so often, a big wave would crest and threaten to break and we would fight to turn our laden boats, heavily inclined to weathercock so the bows rode over the foaming cresting instead of broadsiding. We stayed as close together as felt safe, but we would each still disappear from view in the trough of the waves. Swell alone would have been manageable, although this swell, generated over a relatively short distance was sharp, steep and close together. Overlaying the swell however, was increasing seas from the following southeast wind. I found travel slow and tense.

Travel was very slow as we yawed up and down. Occasionally, when I felt I could spare the concentration, I would pick out a conspicuous feature on the beach and watch it ever so slowly crawl by, but,most of the time my concentration was wholly focused on staying upright. It was rough enough that I thought we had no chance of rounding Cape Sandwich, but presumed that, with difficulty, I could manage a surf landing at the northern end of the bay where we would at least be close to the Cape when/if the winds decreased. Doug, however, was having different thoughts and, when he indicated that he thought we should turn around as the winds were becoming ever stronger, I rapidly concurred. Normally, we discuss such decisions, but, in the midst of what felt like a maelstrom, a long discussion seemed not only foolhardy but impossible.

Paddling back south, was, of course, even slower than heading north, but, with our bows into the wind we had more control over the boats. I still had a couple of waves break over my deck, and one big wave came right down on my head, but, gradually, the beach at Blacksand Bay grew larger and larger, and, finally, we pulled into the sheltered cove with a great deal of relief. I had been so tense in the boat, leaning forward with concentration and pushing so hard on the foot peddles that I had to sit for a moment to let the blood flow back down my torso before I could get out. Even then, my first few steps on land felt unsteady.

We hauled the boats up and had a well earned breakfast of bacon and eggs. While I cleaned up, Doug hiked back up towards Nina Peak until he could get mobile telephone reception and picked up the latest marine forecast. Unfortunately, no change in the winds was expected and the forecast was for unremitting strong winds right through the forecast period.

After a long discussion, we decided to camp where we were, the bugs having been blown away by the strong winds, and try one more time in the morning to paddle north past Cape Sandwich. If, however, it was too windy for that, we would portage our boats out to Channel #6 and paddle into Missionary Bay and north in the sheltered waters of Missionary Bay to Macushla campsite.

The day passed rapidly. We walked up to the creek and found that it had now completely disappeared. Continuing on to Ramsay Bay, we found a quick track through the dunes that would put us right at the boardwalk near Channel #6. We erected a series of logs to mark the spot so we could spot it as we paddled up the beach next day.

North Macushla Campsite

Unabated winds greeted us in the morning. We could see the swell crashing onto the rocks at Cape Sandwich and the spray blowing far up into the air. It was, actually, the windiest morning we had experienced so our decision to paddle Channel #6 was easily made. We launched easily enough and, with the wind behind us pushing made our way rapidly north up Ramsay Bay. I managed to land through the surf with relative ease by back paddling all the way to shore instead of surfing in, thus avoiding getting broadside to the waves. Doug got picked up by the swell and rode the last section in broadside but right side up.

We unpacked our boats and carted all our gear and both boats over the dunes to the relative shelter behind. It was windy enough even here that we still needed a big wind break to make breakfast. Carrying the gear along the board walk to the jetty, and even, carrying the boats, was pretty easy. We arrived just as the first ferry load of Thorsburne Trail walkers were getting dropped off. We packed one boat at a time on the jetty and then tipped them stern first into the water. Fortuitously, the tide was high so this was relatively easy.

The wind blew us out the channel in just over an hour, and a further hour with the wind blowing us north got us to Macushla Point where there are small campsites on both the north and south sides of a small rocky headland. A group of typically Australian yobbos were set up at the south, and quite exposed, campsite, a small run-about bobbing in the wind waves off-shore. Tarps were strung all over the picnic tables, and full and empty tinnies were prominent. A radio was blasting and beer was getting poured down fat gullets. The whole scene was very unappealing.

We filled water bottles and then doddled around the corner behind some giant granite boulders to the sheltered north Macushla campsite. We toyed with paddling across to Goold Island – the tail wind would have made travel fast – or continuing to find a camp in the sheltered north facing cove at Cape Richards. However, Doug's forearm injury had worsened in the last couple of days and he had some minor swelling of the forearm. We were loathe to paddle further from our take-out point at Cardwell if his injury was going to worsen.

In the end, we decided to remain where we were for the night and see how Doug's injury was next day. We just had time to walk the 12 km return trip out to Cape Richards via North Shepherd Bay. The trail starts just east along the beach from the outhouse and crosses over the peninsula that separates Shepherd and Missionary Bays and arrives at the south end of North Shepherd Bay. With the tide out, it was easy walking north along this beautiful but wind battered beach. The tide comes right up to the forest edge so the only possible campsite in North Shepherd Bay would be at the southern end, where, coincidentally, the most sheltered landing site is.

At the northern end of the bay, a sign indicates the trail is closed due to flood and wind damage, but, apart from a couple of minor trees down at the beginning of the trail it is in relatively good shape. The walk to Cape Richards is actually quite interesting through a pleasant green haze of rainforest. At the north end, we came out onto old overgrown roads of the “Eco Resort”. The resort is scattered over a few acres of land and comprises some circa 1980's basic cabins and a communal area. In 2011, Cyclone Yasi inflicted a fair amount of damage, vandals and yobbos have since continued to inflict more with windows smashed, fire extinguishers discharged and hurled into swimming pools and sundry other wanton acts of destruction evident. Nature, in the form of rapidly regrowing vegetation, is gradually reclaiming all else. It was somewhat eerie to wander through the communal area and see bottles of softdrink still on the shelves, and, poking our heads into one of the cabins we saw pillows and mattresses untouched on the beds.

We quickly walked back to our kayaks and, as darkness closed in, unpacked and set up the camp for the night. Before crawling into the tent, we tossed around plans to continue to Goold Island the next day and return to Caldwell on Monday as we still had two days food remaining but Doug was worried that his injury, which was slowly getting sorer and stiffer, would need rest, so we opted to make our final decision in the morning.

Back To Cardwell

Doug's wrist was sore and inflamed in the morning so we opted to paddle back to Cardwell. The winds were again blowing at around 20 knots, but slightly more from the southeast than the south. It is nine kilometres straight west across Missionary Bay and it took us about 1.45 to land on a rocky beach on the far western side. With a relatively short fetch, the waves couldn't build to any great height so the travel conditions were comparatively easy. We had not been sure there would be anywhere to land on the way back to Cardwell as our chart indicates either mud or mangroves on the entire shoreline so we were happy to find this small rocky beach to at least stand up (and release the morning's coffee).

Paddling east to Hecate Point we were initially pushed along rapidly by the wind, then followed a section where there was no wind and we slowed down, and finally, as we neared Hecate Point we got back into the wind funnelling up Hinchinbrook Passage now as a headwind. East of Hecate Point the trees along the shoreline are all dead, presumably killed by wind or tidal surge in cyclone Yasi. At Hecate Point, there is a small but good beach to land on before the final paddle to Caldwell, and we got out here to stretch and eat an orange.

The current runs at three knots past Hecate Point but we were at slack tide (as best we could determine) and although there were many white caps present in Hinchinbrook Channel, the sea state did not look too bad. I thought we would be across in an hour, Doug thought longer, in the end, it took us just about one hour. Initially, we aimed well off to the south, but we found we were not getting blown as far north as we expected and were able to aim fairly due west for the jetty at Caldwell. As we pulled along side the jetty some last strong gusts threatened to push us up to Mission Beach, but, finally we pulled ashore by the cyclone battered jetty.

Rethinking Decisions: Hinchinbrook Island by Sea Kayak

Doug called our recent Hinchinbrook Island sea kayak trip, the “trip of decisions,” as we seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time discussing options and making decisions. Neither of us are impulsive decision makers. If we err at all, as I am sure we do, it is in our tendency to over think every decision, no matter how minor. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I shouldn't spend more time and effort making a decision than a wrong decision would cost me.

In truth, not every decision on the trip required great amounts of brain work or time. Some choices, like continuing to paddle on to Zoe Bay instead of camping at Sunken Reef as originally planned, were easily made and, afterwards, we were content with the decision. Others, like whether or not to attempt to paddle around Cape Sandwich required much deliberation and discussion and, once made brought no sense that the right choice had been made. Even now, with some time and perspective available, I am not sure what the “right choice” was.

Overall, on any trip like the one we just did, whether it is a ski traverse, a mountaineering traverse or a sea kayak trip, the decision as to how far to push in a day, when to dally and enjoy side trips and when to make solid forward progress seems only easily and clearly decided in hindsight when the prevailing weather and conditions declare themselves – the key deciding factors on any trip in the outdoors. I have done kayak trips where I wished we had spent an extra day at various places, but, equally, I've done ski traverses where I know we should have pushed on instead of lingering.

On the Hinchinbrook trip, we knew we did not want to rush. There are so many side trips to do along the way – beach walks to enjoy, hiking trails to summits, snorkelling on off-shore reefs, even surfing the kayak in small swells – and we wanted to be able to stop and do all these things without having to “make ground” each day. Our tactic to accomplish this relaxed pace was to take nine days of food for the 100 kilometre trip.

We started out with calm winds and ideal kayaking conditions, so, dawdling at first was easy. We spent an extra day at Zoe Bay which gave us time to hike above the falls, to paddle up both tidal creeks, to ride the small swell on the beach, and to walk the length of the bay. Had we moved on the morning after we arrived, we would have had time for only one of those activities, yet all of them were wonderful and I would have been sorry to miss any.

From Zoe Bay, conditions for kayaking got more challenging. Each day the wind was stronger than the day before and the seas bigger. On the open east coast of Hinchinbrook Island, it took only one 24 hour period of continuous wind for the seas to build to over 2.5 metres. The strong southeast winds blew continuously day and night, only occasionally dropping to 15 knots, and, the drop in winds was always between 5.00 pm and 8.00 pm when it was too dark to paddle a kayak safely.

Our first series of agonising decisions was at South Ramsay Bay. We arrived relatively early in the morning – around 10 am. After years of outdoor adventuring, getting up at first light and rapidly getting moving is second nature and we are on the water most days at 7.30 am; getting from Zoe Bay to Ramsay Bay early was simple. At this point, with no mobile telephone coverage and no reception on the weather channels on our marine radio we had no weather forecast to help us make decisions. It was easy to assume that the favourable conditions we had thus far would continue. Accordingly, we decided to stick to our pre-planned schedule which had us camping at Ramsay Bay. There is lots to do at Ramsay Bay. You can walk the boardwalk out to Channel #6 on the west side of the island, a good trail leads to a fabulous viewpoint on Nina Peak, the beach is 9 kilometres long and perfect for a long rambling walk, and there is surf on the beach to ride. We did most of these things, and they were all wonderful. Again, missing any, particularly the hike to the summit of Nina Peak would have been terribly disappointing.

On the summit of Nina Peak, we got mobile telephone reception and a marine weather report – a somewhat disconcerting weather report of continuous 20 to 30 knot southeast winds for the next few days. On the Beaufort Wind Scale, this is a Force 6 wind and cause for a strong wind and/or small craft warning. Paddling a small kayak on a remote and open ocean in these conditions requires a good level of expertise and well practised safety systems. We are moderately experienced kayakers, but not highly experienced on the open ocean, there is only two of us, and no-one would miss us if we set out to sea and did not return.

Ahead of us, Cape Sandwich was the big obstacle where the winds would cause trouble. Cape Sandwich protrudes out into the prevailing tidal stream and is fully exposed to the long fetch of the uninterrupted southeast wind flow. Conditions in strong winds would be challenging at best, dangerous at worst. By the time we got the marine weather, it was too late in the day to continue. We were two hours paddle from Cape Sandwich, and could not be on the water before 4.00 pm which would have us rounding the point in darkness. All I could think to do was hope that the forecast winds either didn't appear or were late arriving. This seemed, even at the time, and certainly in hindsight, futile as the winds had clearly been gradually increasing over the last 24 hour period and never showed any sign of diminishing.

No surprise that the following day was windy, in the 20 to 30 knot range with waves crashing on the beach. Initially, we decided to be at camp at noon, so that, should the winds abate in the afternoon (there was some forecast easing), we would be in a position to take that opportunity to paddle north and round Cape Sandwich. At 11.30 am, the winds were still blowing at 20 to 30 knots and we could not foresee any diminution, so we ignored our noon deadline and were not both back in camp until after 2.00 pm. The wind was still howling and we stayed put. The decision seemed easy to make at the time, as it would have been 3.00 pm by the time we launched, giving us a scant three hours to round Cape Sandwich, two of which would be consumed reaching the Cape, leaving only one hour of daylight to navigate the turbulent waters of the Cape and find a landing site. What made us rethink the decision was the guided kayak group, camped a short distance south of us, who set off some time during the early afternoon and made it past Cape Sandwich.

We spent many hours that evening discussing what we should do next. The best thing to do seemed difficult to determine. We were two hours of hard paddling (in the conditions) from the Cape. Coming ashore before the Cape would require a surf landing in a swell exceeding two metres. I thought I could land safely in that swell, but I wasn't certain. There is no sheltered camping at the north end of Ramsay Bay, and relaunching would require a difficult surf launch into the same two metre plus swell.

In the end, we decided to try the next morning, and we did, battling our way through big swells north up the coast line. The swell was steep and cresting, the seas confused, and paddling north was very slow. My paddle strokes, no matter how I tried to make them count, felt ineffective as I was never certain whether my paddle blade would encounter water or air as I rode up and over the crests of the big swells. We seemed to be getting pushed by wind and swell inshore and making forward progress was slow and arduous. The wind was increasing, we were moving slowly, and, although I felt relatively stable I was not at all sure how I would handle the confused seas off Cape Sandwich. In the end, Doug called it and we turned around and fought our way back. We both took a few breaking waves broadside, but were able to brace and lean and stayed upright with no real trouble, but, we had no idea how we would handle the conditions if they got any rougher.

Our contingency plan was to portage over to Channel #6 and paddle on the protected west side, and we decided to do that next morning if conditions had not improved. Next morning was windier than ever, so we did not waste any time rethinking things and went for the portage route. We had landed the day before in the protected waters of Black Sand Bay so launching was easy, and, the wind seemed more behind us than broadside on this final morning, and, possibly, the swell was smaller (although how that can be after so many days of continuous wind I'm not sure), so making ground north up Ramsay Bay to our portage site seemed comparatively quick and easy. In hindsight, this is the time where I wondered if we would have made it around Cape Sandwich, as we seemed to be making far better time heading north than we had previously and the swell seemed smaller.

Our contingency plan worked well, and, within five hours of leaving camp, we were safely ashore at Macushla camp site with the big difficulties behind us. Next day, we paddled back to Cardwell in another 20 knot wind, crossing Hinchinbrook Channel at, what we assume, was slack current (according to our chart the current runs at 3 knots in Hinchinbrook Channel). I was happy to find that paddling even across Hinchinbrook Channel with the funnelling wind and the tidal current was comparatively easy.

In the end, I am left with a series of questions for which I really have no answers:
  • Should we have skipped all the enjoyable side trips and paddled north as fast as we could? Our paddle days were neither long nor hard and we could have easily rounded Cape Sandwich in two days from our launch site at Dungeness. We would have paddled the length of Hinchinbrook Island on the east side and thus met that goal, but, we would have missed the wonderful side trips we did up the mangrove channels, on to Nina Peak, and up to Zoe Falls. Should the one goal, to cover ground, overshadow all the other equally enjoyable parts of a trip?
  • Could I have safely navigated Cape Sandwich in a 20 to 30 knot wind? I felt comparatively safe where there were no overt current effects in winds of 20 knots, and felt very safe in protected waters in winds of that strength, but, how safe would I have felt when exposed to the full fetch of the southeast wind in waters made turbulent by ocean currents? I simply don't know.
  • Would timing – that is, aiming to round the Cape at slack low or high tide have made any difference in the difficulty? In some locations, sand bars off shore made the swell smaller and more manageable at low tide as the swell tended to lose some energy on the off-shore sandbars. But, in other locations, the conditions seemed to get more difficult as the swell rose up on the same sandbars as the tide dropped. Certainly, one would assume slack tide would bring some relief from the overall ocean current, but slack tide is difficult to predict from tide charts alone. Possibly, we could aim to get within an hour of slack tide, but, would that have made a significant difference given the overall wind speed?
  • If we could have paddled to the immediate south side of the Cape with relative ease and been able to land and make a reasonable camp, would our chance of rounding the Cape have been higher? The hard (and possibly somewhat dangerous) two hour paddle just to reach Cape Sandwich certainly influenced my decision making.
  • On the final morning when we gave up on rounding the Cape and took the portage option, could we have made it around the Cape given that paddling to the Cape seemed (at least at first) easier and quicker? Or, would we simply have reached the Cape quicker, but with conditions which were still too overwhelming?
  • Would access to marine forecasts have made a difference? Although we have a VHF radio and can receive the channels on which the marine forecasts are relayed we frequently find we have no reception in Australia. The transmitting stations seem far apart, and, we can only rarely reliably get forecasts.

Frequently, paddling in Australia, I feel out of my depth (no pun intended) when it comes to understanding the prevailing weather and sea conditions. In Canada, I had a fairly good grip on the expected weather conditions, in Australia, I have none. Clearly, I need to understand the weather better. I also need to continue improving my paddling skills so that paddling in a 20 to 30 knot wind becomes possible. I think I have progressed towards being able to paddle protected waters in that kind of wind, but, there is still much to learn before I feel really confident on the open ocean in those winds. Getting the experience one needs without being injured or killed in the process, is the difficulty.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

If You Don't Want To Do Something .... You Probably Should

After we had been on the road for eight weeks, I wrote about how hard I was finding it to maintain healthy habits (regular weight training and yoga) while travelling. Since then, I have made an effort to train and do yoga somewhat regularly. The change came after working out one evening when we got to camp. It was moderately tough to do as it was dark, I was tired, and I didn't feel like getting sweaty again after I had managed to get a swim in that day (we've had less than 10 showers in the over 11 weeks we have spent on the road so personal hygiene becomes an issue). Nevertheless, I dredged out some old Alpine Centre (Boulder, Colorado) work-outs and went outside and swung the gas tank around, did pull-ups, and push-ups and squatted and swung until I was tired and sweaty. And, I felt better, way, way better.

Since then, I've managed to do some kind of work-out and stretching routine almost everyday, even while we were doing the Carnarvon Great! Walk. Some days are more abbreviated than others due to lack of time (or sore feet while on the Carnarvon Walk), but, I've been pulling, pushing, carrying and swinging pretty regularly since.

There is a lesson in everything. The lesson for me is that the things that are really worth doing are generally not that much fun to do at the time. 

 Rock Ring training

Monday, July 15, 2013

He/She Sat ..... A Lot

An entrepreneur in Australia could make amass significant amounts of money selling tombstones with the epitaph “He/She Sat ... A Lot” carved on it. This simple statement, would, I am sure, cover 99% of Australians and could be produced in bulk for a small cost then sold to the consumer at much higher cost. The market is virtually limitless.

It's hard to over-state the amount Australians sit. Traveling around the country camping (although strictly, sleeping in a caravan is not camping) it is striking how much Australians sit. They will sit all day in their cars driving to a camping area, then, get out and sit down by their caravans. Entire days, weeks, even, will be spent sitting at camp sites. In Paleo World, people believe “sitting is death.” In Australia, it is a way of life.

More Travels in Sandstone Country

After walking Across the Roof of Queensland, we had a few more places to visit in Central Queensland. First was Isla Gorge National Park, a small national park protecting gorge country off the Leichardt Highway south of Theodore. There is a small campground about 2 km off the highway and a short walk to a look-out over the Park, but no other trails. Our initial plan had been to descend into the gorge for some walking, but, after looking over the gorge, we decided to walk ridge-lines along the top of the gorge. This is easily accomplished as the bush is not thick and only a minor amount of scrambling is required. The cliffs are much smaller here – 10 metres versus 100 metres in Carnarvon Gorge and very broken so access to the gorge floor would be easy.

From Isla Gorge we continued south to Lake Murphy Conservation Area. Lake Murphy is ephemeral. Nearby Robinson Creek must flood to fill the lake, which, had obviously occurred in the not too distant past as there was plenty of water in the lake. The lake is too shallow for kayaking, but it is easy to walk around the lake on the shore-line. The primary attraction is the bird-life, not as abundant as at Lake Nuga Nuga, but sizeable numbers of water birds are present. The camping area at Lake Murphy is lovely. Nice open grassy sites with picnic tables and, best of all, very few other campers. We stayed two nights. I circumnavigated the lake twice and we also did the short 3 to 4 km walking trail that follows Robinson Creek. As to birds, we saw many of the same birds we saw at Lake Nuga Nuga – ducks, apostle birds, black swans, pelicans, plovers as well as some other wading birds I cannot identify and three Jabiru.

From Lake Murphy we day-tripped out to Robinson Gorge in Expedition National Park. First stop here is the unfortunately named “Cattle Dip” which, in reality, rather than being a shallow mucky trough, is a narrow gorge through sandstone with a permanent waterhole. Viewing is from above via a short walk. Next we walked up to Shepherds Peak which gives a good view of the surrounding park. Robinson Gorge is visible as a slash through the plateau and in the distance are other sandstone bluffs. Finally, Robinson Gorge look-out, which offers a superb vista over the gorge. A cacophony of bird song drifts up to the look-out from the base of the gorge. A good access track leads to the bottom of the gorge where you can wander either up or down stream. We went upstream. Expect slow walking down here as the grass grows neck high in places making it hard to see that your next foot step is about to plunge into a deep hole. Progress tends to be lurching. Upstream, past the look-out, however, the river is dry and the walking is easy on soft sand on the gorge floor. Apparently, people do walk downstream to the Cattle Dip but it would be wise to have a full day, if not two for that. We had a swim – or rather a dip – in the river before climbing back up.

After a last night at Lake Murphy, we drove north to Theodore where we got some weather reports. The weather on the coast was still sounding mixed so we decided to take our time driving up to the Townsville area – our next destination – and visited yet another National Park in the central Queensland sandstone belt – Blackdown Tableland National Park.

A sign at the start of the access road warns that the road is not suitable for caravans, but we had no problem towing our little 13 foot van up to the lovely campground. The road is mostly tarmac, although narrow and winding, and only the last 7 to 9 km is gravel, and in good shape.

There are a few short walks you can do in the Park, handily, two leave from the campground so you don't need to drive. One leads to a view point where you can see Mimosa Creek gorge leading southeast into the lower country, the other is an interpretive loop that passes some interesting rock formations and Aboriginal stencil art. We also drove to Gudda Gumoo where a two kilometre trail leads to a view point over another gorge leading out to the plains and a series of quite stunning waterfalls on south Mimosa Creek.

One of the best things about Blackdown Tableland National Park is that there are a bunch of big sandstone boulders near the which provided good bouldering!

Aliens Among Us

The first thing you notice about them is the smell. A sweet, cloying mixture of hair shampoo, body wash, and perfume. Then, it is the extraordinarily clean – and frequently unsuitable – clothes. After that, the vacant almost catatonic look on their faces, eyes blind to the supremacy of nature around them as they push past you on the trail, unaware or uncaring that you have a large backpack on your back, have clearly been walking all day, and, the polite thing to do would be to stand aside so that the backpack doesn't jostle both of you off the narrow trail. The final, and most striking attribute is their apparent lack of coordination and proprioception. No matter how easy and level the trail, they struggle to negotiate it with any kind of grace. They wobble from side to side, stumble, stagger and generally lurch along like a dog who has suddenly lost three of four limbs. Walrus on land have more grace than the average Australian tourist.

A rather condemnatory description, but, on every walk I go on in Australia, these are the thoughts that run through my head as we get within 500 metres of the car park and begin to encounter the average Australian tourist. Strangely, they never seem to see any of the beauty of nature – which presumably they have come to see – around them. Their faces have either a stunning vacuity or, more commonly, a look of stoic endurance as if they just cannot wait for this torture to be over.

I have come to see them as separate species from mine. They smell, look and act different – surely enough of a taxonomic deviation to make us from at least another species if not another genus. They smell of products not made in nature, they are slightly, moderately, or grossly overweight, their bodies lack any form of musculature and bipedal transport is clearly not their native mode of movement. It simply is not possible that we both represent homo sapiens. One of us is an imposter.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Walking The Roof Of Queensland: Carnarvon Gorge Great! Walk

In 2009, the Queensland Government unveiled a series of long distance bushwalks they called “Great! Walks”. These walks are scattered up and down the coast and as far inland as Carnarvon Gorge and travel through some of Queensland's best protected natural areas. We had done sections of several Great! Walks earlier on our trip (Lamington, Fraser, Sunshine Coast), but Carnarvon Great! Walk was our first complete Great! Walk.

One of the nice things about the Carnarvon Great! Walk is that it is a circle route that starts and ends at the spectacular Carnarvon Gorge. The driving isn't too onerous, only 16 km of dirt in the 45 km that you travel from the main Carnarvon Developmental Road, and, a circle route obviates the need for any tedious car shuttles.

The walk is designed to take six days, although experienced walkers will find most of the days a little too short, and one day much too short. Combining days, however, would make most of the days a little too long. We toyed with combining the last two days, but, in the end decided to take the full six days as it worked out better for our overall schedule.

For some reason, I'm not sure why (maybe because the big descent is at the end of the trip instead of a big climb at the beginning), the standard recommendation is to walk in a clockwise direction. This means your first day is along the “tourist trail” to Big Bend camp site in Carnarvon Gorge. On your second day, you climb out of the Gorge via the stunning Boowinda Gorge up onto the basalt table lands. The next four days are spent walking on the basalt tablelands (the roof of Queensland) in a roughly circular route around the Carnarvon River, before descending on the last day back to Carnarvon Gorge via Wagooroo Creek.

The route is impeccably signed (we calculated that there could be as many as 900 trail markers along the route), all the camp sites have water (most from buried water tanks) and most have toilets. Carnarvon Gorge is, of course, stunning, featuring white sandstone cliffs, sparkling clear water, amazing bird-life, aboriginal art sites, and unusual vegetation, while the forests of the upper tablelands are also quite beautiful with open forests of cycads, spotted gums and iron barks amid flowering grasses.

Carnarvon Gorge to Big Bend Camp Site

By the time we drove from Nuga Nuga National Park to Carnarvon National Park, bought our camping permits and map, talked with the ranger and cooked up a last breakfast of bacon and eggs, it was noon before we started walking. The trail to Big Bend camp site gains only 100 metres over 10 km so it is very easy walking, even the dozen or so river crossings are easily negotiated on rocks. The forest, river and gorge are all extraordinarily beautiful and walking up the river under cabbage palms and cycads with dozens of birds warbling and chattering overhead is delightful. There are five short side trips off the main trail along the way to the camp site, all well worth the five or so extra kilometres these entail.

The first side trip travels up Violet Gorge to a small waterfall that drops into a clear pool ringed with ferns and tree ferns. The really interesting feature here, however, is the water that drips out of the rock. Rainfall seeps down through the soil then down through the sandstone before eventually hitting an impermeable layer of shale where it seeps right out of the cliff face.

Next up is the Amphitheatre which should really be called the Atrium. The trail climbs up another side creek to an elevated slot canyon. A metal staircase/ladder takes you up to the floor of the slot canyon (perhaps a metre wide and 40 metres high) where you walk through the canyon for twenty metres to emerge into a natural atrium of smooth steep sandstone. A little grassy meadow lies in the atrium where the sun penetrates and 40 metre high overhanging sandstone walls circle the entire enclosure.

Wards Canyon is the next side trip to a cave, canyon and stream where the Ward brothers stored kangaroo and possum skins in the early part of the century. I thought these guys would be real “Deliverance” type characters but there is a picture of them in the Information Centre and they actually look as straight laced as an early Methodist preacher. King Ferns – giant sized ferns with ultra-green fronds – live in this canyon, a relic of some earlier age.

The next two side trips are to Aboriginal art sites, the first called “The Art Gallery” and the second “Cathedral Cave.” The walls are covered with stencilled hands, arms, boomerangs, tomahawks, and also line drawings of nets, vulvas (yes vulvas) and emu eggs. I always find these sites strangely evocative with all the hands stencilled on the walls as if the hunters have only just left a moment ago and will return at any time to tell stories of the dreaming.

Soon after Cathedral Cave, the trail crosses the mouth of Boowinda Gorge, crosses the river to the north, then back to the south again, and, the Big Bend camp site is reached. The camp site is relatively small, at least to anti-social types like ourselves hoping to camp a long way away from anyone else, but in a beautiful location under big curving white cliffs over a clear pool on the Carnarvon River

It was close to 5.00 pm when we arrived so we wasted no time in setting up camp and brewing up some tea, quickly followed by dinner. Darkness falls quickly at this time of year and the nights are long (5.30 pm to 6.30 am). It was damp and cold sitting outside so we retired to the tent at about 7.00 pm for the long night ahead. I had brought only an overbag while Doug had brought his full sleeping bag, but, at only 500 metres I was – mostly – warm enough.

Big Bend Camp Site to Gadds Camp Site

There seemed no point waiting for the sun to arrive at our campsite before getting out of the tent. Not only was it cloudy, but given the depth of the gorge, the sun would be a long time coming. In any case, after 12 hours lying on hard ground on a too thin thermarest in a too thin overbag, I didn't really feel like lying in.

We had a paleo-breakfast of flaxseed (paleo porridge) and cheese with a huge mug of coffee and then packed our gear up and left camp around 8.30 am. We had to walk back down the trail for 500 metres to Boowinda Gorge. The trail travels up Boowinda Gorge for about a kilometre before climbing out via a steep side drainage. The gorge is quite amazing – a true slot canyon with steep walls on either side and snaking sinuously southwest. It was disappointing to see graffiti on the canyon walls – something I confess to not expecting so far from the trail-head. Distance usually weans out the butt-heads, but in this case had not.

Where the cliff walls of the gorge begin to recede in height, a rough trail climbs up a side drainage to gain Battleship Ridge. Battleship Ridge leads to Battleship Spur atop the basalt plateau. At one point, a ladder provides access to the basalt cap. Big cycads and eucalpyts grow in an open forest. At about 1050 metres (ASL) a side trail leads out to a look-out on the northeast end of Battleship Spur. We had light misty rain on the way up and were thinking that our view would be obscured, but the cloud lifted by the time we reached the look-out and we had a great view to the east over Carnarvon Gorge. The white cliffs of the gorge can be clearly seen winding out to the east. The look-out was a good spot for an early lunch and we even got some splashes of sunshine.

The rest of the days walk was downhill following a tributary drainage of the Maranoa River. There must be a spring as here and there clear pools of water appeared. Mount Percy is visible easily from the trail, and the open forest and green grassland provides pleasant walking. At Gadds Camp we found a deluxe outhouse with high quality toilet paper, a big shelter with a sloping roof that collects rainwater for the underground tanks, but, sadly, a side trip to the Maranoa River for a swim was a dead loss as the river was as dry as an AA meeting.

We lounged around camp for the afternoon, drank tea, and, crawled into the tent at around 7.00 pm for the long dark night. I managed again to stay, relatively warm overnight, although we had a heavy dew.

Gadds Camp Site to West Branch Camp Site

From Gadds Camp, the trail heads north and crosses the Maranoa River then climbs gradually back up to the Great Divide following Angelina Creek. I found a leech infested pool of clear water where the trail crosses Angelina Creek and cautiously dunked myself in for a wash. Doug found the leeches repellent enough that, despite feeling grimy and sweaty, he forwent the dip.

On the Divide, you get a distant view down Carnarvon Gorge to the east, the white sinuous cliffs still visible below the timbered Divide, and Battleship Spur is visible on the horizon. It is pleasant walking west along the Divide through open eucalpyt forest until a descent down a north facing spur ridge leads to Boot Creek (dry) and into the West Branch camp site.

The walkers camp is immediately across the large swinging suspension bridge over the west branch of the Maranoa River. I wondered how often the large and high bridge was needed as the river was, once again, completely dry. Beyond the walkers camp is the drive in camp as you are now in the Mount Moffat section of Carnarvon Gorge National Park. There were four groups of campers, all engaged in the usual Australian pass-time of sitting around a smoky fire. Occasionally, one or two of them would break from the herd and walk up to the suspension bridge, staring curiously at the “walkers” on the way by as if we were some unusual species. Come to think of it, walkers in Australia are an unusual species. We were running a little low on food at this point and hoped that they might think we were cute like wallabies and offer us some goodies, but we must have been too smelly and dirty.

Wandering around camp, I found a small muddy puddle upstream from the suspension bridge, but even I had no desire to dunk myself in to wash off the days dirt and sweat. It was a bit of a chilly night. We retired to the tent at about 7.00 pm as usual as sitting about on the damp ground in the increasingly cold air does nothing for my 50 year old body. I was huddled in my overbag in all my clothes by morning and wondering how I would fare at the next two camps which are at over 1,000 metres (ASL).

West Branch Camp Site to Conseulo Camp Site

It was down right cold when I crawled out of the tent at 6.30 am, and, after feeling slightly chilled all night, I had no desire to shiver through breakfast so I crawled back into the tent and we read our Kobos until the sun to eased it's way up over the horizon and into camp. Almost immediately the air began to warm, although it was pretty gradual at first.

This fourth day on the trail is the longest, but the distance is still easily covered in a half a day (I've already forgotten how long we walked each day). There is another gradual climb, this one feels even more gradual than the day before, and then you are up on the Conseulo Tablelands. The forest up here (called the Mahogany Forest) is beautiful. Yellow and green grasses under a canopy of cycads and silver leaved iron barks. The soil is apparently much richer, and the area must get a bit more rainfall as it is very green. There are even trailing vines growing all over the trees and delicate purple flowers trace over the bushes.

About six kilometres from the camp site, a 4WD road leads out to the edge of Peawaddy Gorge. This side trip adds four kilometres, but they are easy kilometres. We both walked out, but, the view was actually a little disappointing as the gorge is not very steep or deep and hard to see through the trees. The last six kilometres through the Mahogany Forest to Conseulo Camp is easy and we arrived in the early afternoon. There is no outhouse at Conseulo camp site but there is the standard water collection system with underground tanks and hand pumps.

Conseulo Camp Site to Cabbage Tree Camp Site

The night was not as cold as I thought it would be although I was pretty well head down in my bag by morning. We waited for the sun again. I'm not sure which is more painful, staying in the tent even longer, or getting out and feeling cold all through breakfast. In any case, we opted for option B, which also gave us time to dry the dew and condensation off the tent.

The walk to Cabbage Tree camp site is very easy and actually way too short. We arrived about 1.00 pm, even though I dawdled most of the way. We considered combining the last two days into one day and continuing on to Carnarvon Gorge, but decided that would get us out to the Gorge too late and we'd be struggling to find somewhere to camp and something to eat that night.

Someone had left two very low, but relatively comfortable (compared to sitting on the ground) chairs at camp - I do wonder who carries such things in - so we had seats for the afternoon. I also did my usual quasi-WOD to try and maintain some core and upper body strength. Sadly, we had found no suitable trees for pull-ups on the whole walk. We stayed out of the tent until 8.00 pm as it was relatively warm and the chairs kept us off the ground. I found the night even longer than normal as I was not tired enough to sleep and lay awake until 2.30 am.

Cabbage Tree Camp Site to Carnarvon Gorge

We got up as soon as we woke up, which was a little bleary for me at 6.45 am, and had breakfast and packed up. It was comfortably warm and had been a warm night – I didn't even need to put all my spare clothes on in my overbag.

The last day has some interesting walking as you follow a ridge east down to Jimmy's shelf. There are views north to Black Alley Peak and south to the white cliffs that span north and south Archer Creek. You also pass a basalt rock formation on the ridge called the Ogre's Thumb and further along a free-standing sandstone tooth called the Devil's Signpost. The forest is full of big widely spaced spotted gums. Descending into North Archer Creek I found Doug stripped off after he had bathed in the clear cold waters of the creek. I soon joined him lowering myself gingerly into the cool water. Although we had another couple of climbs ahead and would soon be sweaty again, the dunking felt good.

Near the end of the walk, a 750 metre side trip leads out to Boolimba Bluff where there is a good look-out over Carnarvon Gorge, the Arcadia Valley and the Expedition Range. The sound of chattering birds floats up from the Gorge and you realise how silent it has been for the last few days. A woman was sitting on a bench eating an apple and Doug and I both had visions of cuffing her about the head and stealing the apple as we had been going just a little hungry the last few days. Instead, we split the last of our cheese and Doug made the ultimate sacrifice by sharing his last four squares of chocolate with me.

It seemed fitting that the last section of the trail down to the Gorge is down Wagooroo Creek, a small cliff lined and verdant gorge. Soon enough, we were walking back across the big stepping stones over the Carnarvon River and the walk was over.