Wednesday, July 31, 2013

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.

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