Thursday, August 8, 2013

Paddling Through Paradise: Cardwell to Wongaling Beach Through The Family Group Islands

A week after our Hinchinbrook Island trip the weather forecast started looking very stable for an extended sea kayaking trip with light winds and clear skies forecast for the next week. It didn't take us long to settle on a destination for the trip - Cardwell to Wongaling Beach via the Family Group Islands. In truth, we had planned our next sea kayaking trip while paddling back to the mainland from our Hinchinbrook Island trip. Sea kayaking is a lot like mountaineering: each trip while satisfying in itself, leaves you with a dozen more trips you want to do.

Paddling from Cardwell to Wongaling Beach we would have the wind behind us and getting back to Cardwell from Wongaling Beach to retrieve a vehicle is easy as the Greyhound Bus has multiple departures from Wongaling Beach heading south through Cardwell.

Before I launch into the report of our latest sea kayaking adventure, I want to insert a shameless commercial plug for Palm Trees Caravan Park in Ingham. The owners – Craig and xx are about the most helpful people who could meet. The rates to stay at the park are very reasonable, as is the storage rate for a caravan, the park is clean and well run, and, Craig has been putting our caravan into storage for a week and then pulling it back out onto a site when we return without any extra charge. Incredible service.

Cardwell to Gould Island

We left Ingham at 5.20 am to catch slack tide crossing Hinchinbrook Channel from Cardwell. Launching at Cardwell anywhere off the beach north of the jetty is easy, but, best at high tide as the water goes quite a way out at low tide and reveals mud flats which would make packing and launching a kayak difficult. Packing up was relatively quick and easy and we got away about 7.20 am and paddled easily across to the north end of Hinchinbrook Island. We found a little spot on the north end of Hinchinbrook Island where a tiny bit of sand beach allowed us to get out of the kayak for a few minutes before we crossed to Gould Island.

Paddling north to Gould Island the water was almost glassy until we hit a stream of tidal current that ran east to west about a kilometre off Garden Island. Of course, there are no tidal currents marked on the map in this area! This provided a kilometre or so of bumpy but easy paddling and we arrived about an hour after leaving Hinchinbrook Island at a sand spit on Garden Island. A couple of fishermen were off-shore in small boats. We went ashore and found a very nice and unknown to us, Council Campground behind the sand spit. There are four sites spaced apart and each has a picnic bench. There is also a bore water pump (standard admonishment to treat water first) and an outhouse. Apparently, you can book through Cardwell Library.

After looking around we continued onto Gould Island and the most popular west side campground near a spit of sand. This was actually pretty over-run with a school group so we ended camping up the beach a short distance where it was quiet and deserted. There is water, picnic tables and an outhouse at the spit. Before making camp we paddled north to Hayman Point and around to the east side of the island. A reasonable swell 1 to 1.5 metres was running but the winds were fairly light so it wasn't too rough on the east side.

After paddling back to the west side camping area we made camp, had lunch and pottered around on the beach for the rest of the afternoon. Gould Island seems to be fairly popular and is not as nice, probably because of its popularity as the east side of Hinchinbrook Island. The water off the west side beach is pretty shallow when the tide goes out and we didn't see any promising looking areas to snorkle.

Gould Island to Coombe Island

We got a fair bit of rain overnight which somehow leaked up through the floor of the tent. When I awoke at 6.15 am it was still raining and I could barely see across to Coombe Island when I crawled out of tent so we stayed in for another half an hour when Doug crawled out and reported a clearing trend. No sooner had we pulled the wet fly off the tent than a heavy shower came over and soaked everything. But, we could see Coombe Island 15 kilometres away so we packed up and were on the water shortly after 8.15 am.

The crossing to the Family Group is about 15 km (12 km from the Hayman Point on the north end of Gould Island but you would be hard pressed to land a kayak there) and the longest open ocean crossing either of us had done for a long time, if not ever. Accordingly, I had some trepidation about the paddle but mentally settled myself for a three hour paddle to the next land fall. With light winds, we had an easy time of it. There was a small swell (maybe 70 cm) beam on from the east, and some small seas (perhaps 40 to 50 cm) coming from the southwest, but, overall, conditions were very benign. Occasionally, sea and swell would combine and we'd ride quickly up, but the paddling was easy.

As we got within a couple of kilometres of Coombe Island we hit tidal currents (not marked on the map) running east, and ended up having to paddle steadily west for the last half hour so as not to miss the island. Coombe Island, like all of the Family Group is a rocky granite island with a sandspit on the western side. The sand is coarsely ground up, and not so ground up, coral and there is deep water and ocean currents running between Coombe Island and Wheeler Island to the north.

I really liked the Coombe Island campsite on the west side of the island between big granite boulder headlands with a picnic bench and a half dozen pawpaw trees overladen with fruit tucked up in the trees. Doug, however, wanted to see what the Wheeler Island campsite was like, so we paddled over there before stopping. There are about three picnic tables on Wheeler Island and an outhouse, and the campsites are on the north and south sides of a sand spit. I didn't like this one quite as much so we came back over to Coombe Island to camp.

It was noon by then and we had no breakfast so we quickly unpacked and made some bacon, eggs, and most importantly, coffee. It had taken us two hours for the 15 km paddle from Gould Island so we must have had favourable currents for most of that distance. Doug hung our tow-line up as a clothes line and we got all our wet gear dry.

We spent the afternoon snorkelling off-shore and wandering around on the big granite boulders and slabs. Unfortunately, the water was a bit murky for snorkelling, probably from the wave action due to the currents around the islands.

Smith, Budg-Joo, and Hudson Islands

On this trip we had planned two days – one from Coombe Island and one from Dunk Island - when we didn't have to move camp. These “free” days, as I think of them, always remind me of that feeling you have when you wake up on Saturday morning knowing that you have two whole work free days ahead full of endless possibilities. I always drift off to sleep happily planning my “free day,” and, my free day usually starts with a more leisurely morning than the usual race around and pack up to get on the water.

Accordingly, although I was up at my usual 6.15 am, I had time for a couple of cups of coffee before we left for a day trip around “the triplet” as the three islands clustered together about 1.5 kms east of Coombe Island are known.

We paddled over to Smith Island, and circumnavigated it, enjoying the amazingly calm paddling on the east side by big granite boulders that drop steeply into the clear green water. We continued past the east side of Budg-Joo Island and onto Hudson Island where we pulled up on to a steep coral sand beach. We spent a couple of hours snorkelling off the reefs on the western and southern side of Hudson Island. The best snorkelling was off a tiny palm fringed beach on the south side of the island where there were lots of shallow coral bombies with brightly coloured worm tubes, clams and tropical fish.

After lunch on Hudson Island we continued around the south side in somewhat bouncy seas and then cruised by the west side of Budg-Joo Island on our way back to Coombe Island. Doug continued straight back to Coombe Island but I paddled north and circumnavigated tiny Wheeler Island as turtles swam by my boat.

Richards, Thorpe and Dunk Islands

A light southwest wind was blowing in the morning so we paddled to Richards (also known as Bedarra) Island via the east side of Wheeler Island. We pulled into a tiny sheltered cove on the south side of Richards Island and just had time to duck behind a few big boulders and take a leak before a “handler” came down the beach to “advise” us that we were on private property. The island is home to two expensive resorts ($900 to $1,500/night) although only one is currently operating. Happy that we had pissed on a $1,500 beach, we continued on skirting Thorpe Island on the east side. Thorpe Island is also private property but has no development.

From Thorpe Island, it is only 2.5 km north to Kumboola Island on the southwest side of Dunk Island. We had another brief leg stretch on Kumboola before paddling north passing many turtles and rays to the sand spit on the northwest end of Dunk Island. There is a campground on this spit with hot showers(!), picnic tables, and barbeques. The individual sites are lovely and lie on either side of the sand spit with good access to either the south or north beach. We chose a site on the south side so we had a bit of breeze blowing through camp.

Cyclone Yasi in 2011 (responsible for the closure of four resorts in a 50 km stretch of coast-line between Cardwell and Mission Beach) did extensive damage to the resort on Dunk Island and it is still closed. This gives the island a wonderful deserted feel as only day visitors come across and the campground is very quiet. There was only one other camp site occupied during our stay and the day visitors leave early.

The afternoon passed quickly (as usual). I walked along the beach and checked out the cyclone damage to the resort (roofs ripped off, windows smashed, balconies torn apart), then continued on to tiny Muggy Muggy Beach. I also spent an hour or so practising eskimo rolls in my kayak. Some were successful, some less so. Whenever I roll my big wide sea kayak I think about how easy it would feel to roll a small whitewater boat. Doug walked up to the look-out on Mount Kootaloo.

Dunk Island

Another free day! In the morning, I paddled on calm clear waters southeast down Pallon Beach to Coconut Beach. I saw many turtles and a half dozen big black sting rays swimming by in the clear water. From Coconut Beach I paddled out to Kumboola Island and circumnavigated it. Continuing north I rounded the spit and paddled out to and around tiny Purtaboi Island before ambling back to camp. After a cooling swim, I walked up to the look-out on Mount Kootaloo where there are wonderful views west and south, and continued down the trail to Coconut Beach. The tide was out at Coconut Beach and the rocky reef was fully exposed so I wandered around watching the fish trapped in pools by the falling tide before continuing on the trail back to the campground. Doug had spent the morning on the same walk and then gone out and done some eskimo rolls in his boat. I spent a half an hour rolling the kayak before coming in and warming up with a hot shower!

Around Dunk Island to Wongaling Beach

We got up early, packed up the kayaks and paddled around Dunk Island in a counter-clockwise direction. This took us about three hours and was a wonderful paddle. At Poie-Koo-Kee Point we paddled on the west side of rocky Woln-Garin Island. I am pretty sure I saw a whale breach off Woln-Garin Island, the second I saw on this trip. Humpbacks migrate down this coastline in winter. The east side of Dunk Island is all rocky granite headlands and bays. Just before Toogan Toogan Point there are huge granite boulders in the water that you can paddle between.

Back at the spit on Dunk Island we had breakfast and then launched on the final one hour paddle across to Wongaling Beach.

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