Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Endless Sea: The Palm Islands by Sea Kayak

Behind us, Orpheus Island had receded into the far distance, ahead, I could see nothing but ocean and a thick fog bank rolling north to south along what surely must be the mainland. My compass was laid on my deck as I paddled steadily forward, adjusting course constantly to try to stay on a bearing that would land us at Taylors Beach. Four days before, we had paddled in calm conditions northeast from Taylors Beach to the north end of Pelorus Island, a 20 km journey that had taken four hours. Sixteen kilometres away, Pelorus Island had looked distant, but, at least we had a landmark to aim for. 

Day 1: Taylors Beach to Pelorus Island

At Taylors Beach, extensive sand flats had been exposed by the low tide and the air smelled of decay. We unloaded our boats and gear onto the sand beside the boat ramp and swiftly packed everything away. I inadvertently packed far too much heavy gear into the front of my kayak with the consequence that my bow sank into the water causing me to plough a slow and tedious passage all the way to Pelorus Island. Had the wind or ocean not been dead calm, I would have repacked, as I would have if I had realized how slow the kayak would be with such a poor trim.

In the far distance, we could just make out the north end of Orpheus Island and we aimed for a spot just north that would land us around the middle of the west side of Pelorus Island. Following a boatie, we weaved our way through the channels in the sand flats off Taylors Beach and, after about 3 km emerged at the open ocean. Very soon after this we began to paddle through what we would later discover was an algal bloom. This thick brown sludge lay across the entire 16 km crossing, so thick in places, that we could scoop it up in our hands. The only sea life we saw on the trip over was four or five small sharks cruising along the surface, but they all took fright as we paddled past.

After a long and somewhat boring paddle, we finally paddled past Iris Point on Orpheus Island and approached an attractive deep water beach on the south end of Pelorus Island only to be greeted by three or four large signs announcing that this area is a private lease and landing is prohibiting. Despite these warning signs, Doug got out to stretch his legs, but I continued north looking for the Council camping area. Not far north, I pulled in at a rocky bay hoping this was not the camping area, while Doug continued further north and disappeared from my view. Finding no camping locations where I was, I continued on to a pretty, if rocky beach, with big open trees shading the beach. Doug was already on shore scouting the area.

Unfortunately, the water was brown with algae which coated my legs like mud as I climbed out of the kayak. We found a nice campsite under some trees with bright red leaves and unloaded the boats to have lunch. At the northern end of the beach, a ramshackle make-shift camp had been abandoned. There were at least 12 or 15 small tents, many ripped and with poles sticking through the fabric roofs, as well as two large covered areas strewn with filthy pots and stoves. I wandered along the beach and scrambled up onto some large granite boulders at the north end of the beach following goat tracks and looked out towards Hinchinbrook Island.

There may have been some good snorkelling off this beach but we could not see into the water to tell. Our usual daily swims were somewhat interrupted as it was difficult to find any clean water to swim in. Despite this, we had a pleasant camp with the usual sunset glowing over the ocean.

Hinchinbrook Island From Pelorus Island

Day 2, Pelorus Island to Yanks Jetty, Orpheus Island

The northeasterly wind died with sunset and the wind was calm the next morning. We paddled north around the east side of Pelorus Island where the water was much clearer, but there did not seem to be much off-shore fringing reef. After crossing from Pelorus to Orpheus we stopped on a rocky little beach just south of Iris Point. The algae was beginning to disperse and paddling south along the coastline to Pioneer Bay we drifted over rich coral gardens.

In Pioneer Bay, a couple of yachts and a power boat were moored. Pioneer Bay is quite deep and dries at tides of under 1.0 metres, but we were able to paddle all the way into the small sandy beach and National Park campsite. A yachtie told us about a trail that led up to the top of the island passing an old shepherds cottage so we meandered up this. The old shepherds cottage has some stone walls still standing. Up on top of the island we had a wonderful view west to the mainland, north to Pelorus and south down the remainder of the Palm Islands. These islands are rocky, brown and dry with very few beaches or landing spots for kayakers.

Back at the campsite we had lunch before continuing on. This would be a nice camp, but the algae had blown into the bay and was thick as mud on the water so we decided to carry on to Yanks Jetty in the hopes of finding clearer water. We paddled past James Cook University research station in the other (south) arm of Pioneer Bay but skipped across the entrance to Hazard Bay where the resort is located to the far south point, and, slightly around the corner to Yanks Jetty.

There is a lovely camp area here with picnic tables, a gas barbeque and two burners and an outhouse, although with the full contingent of 30 people (allowable number to camp here) it would be very crowded. As it was, we had it to ourselves. The water off the beach while not as clear or clean as we are used to, was better for swimming. Before unpacking, Doug wanted to try a fully loaded eskimo roll which he pulled off first go reporting that it was easier when the boat was full than when empty! The afternoon wind shifted to the north and unfortunately blew in another thick blanket of algae.

When darkness fell, the usual “night shift” of Australian bird and wild-life emerged to start foraging. At Yanks Jetty campsite, this included a cute little brown northern bandicoot. This little furred marsupial, about the size of a small cat, has some attenuated kangaroo like features – small front legs and larger back legs – a long nose, and stubby rat like tail. He snuffled around camp the two nights we were there, and, would undoubtedly cause trouble were campers to leave food or garbage out. 

Bandicoot Snuffing Around Camp

Day 3, Curacoa and Fantome Islands

After waffling about moving camp, we decided to stay at Yanks Jetty and go out for a day paddle. We idled south over coral gardens watching fish swimming about, passed Harrier Point and paddled east to the northern tip of Fantome Island which is a big peninsula. There is a good landing point and possible camp location on the very northern tip of Fantome Island on the south side which is accessible at any tide as deep water comes in to the broken coral beach. We got out and wandered around finding many goats, and a couple of wooden platforms – perhaps an aboriginal camp?

Paddling around to the north side, we had just enough water to get the kayaks into a lagoon behind a broken coral retaining wall. The water was crimson with algae and smelly. This is the site of the old leprosarium from the fairly black days of the Palm Islands when lepers were housed here and “troublesome” indigenous people were shipped over to the islands. The area lies in ruins now, but the foundations of buildings can still be seen among the grass and a plaque offers tribute to the nursing sisters and inmates of the island. Feral goats were roaming about the ruins.

From Fantome Island we crossed Curacoa Channel to the northwest end of Curacoa Channel where there is a big broken coral beach. We went snorkelling over gardens of soft and hard corals but the visibility was impaired by the algal bloom. After lunch on the beach, we crossed back to Fantome Island and pulled in at a small beach on the east side about one third of the way south down the island. A drainage, dry at this time, runs out to the sea, while mangroves behind the beach indicate the area floods at high tide.

We paddled slowly back north up Fantome Island fighting a headwind and a current and with the aid of the incoming tide crossed over to the south end of Orpheus Island. There is another National Park campsite on a nice and long (for the Palm Islands) sandy beach, but a shallow rocky reef lies off-shore and the campsite would only be easily accessible at tides of 1.5 metres or more. We walked down the beach to the end, and, finally, got back in our boats for the final one hour paddle back to Yanks Jetty.

Doug Leaving Curacoa Island For Fantome Island

Day 4, Adrift

Calm winds were forecast for the morning, while the next day had winds to 15 knots forecast, so we decided to paddle back when conditions were easy. There was nothing visible on the mainland, in fact, I could not see the mainland, so we took a bearing from the map, and I mounted the compass on my spray deck and we began the long paddle back by compass.

An hour into the journey, Orpheus Island had faded dimly behind us, and we stopped to check our position with the GPS in our mapping program. We were somewhat discouraged to find we had paddled only 4 of the 14 km straight line distance to Taylors Beach, and, had sagged far to the south. The current does flood south here but we had been paddling while the tide was still falling so were surprised by our position. We got another bearing from our mapping package and readjusted our course. Thereafter, we checked our position each half hour and found that we were continuing to sag south at a greater rate than we thought, although the tide was now rising. Our bearings shifted gradually from 288 degrees to 323 degrees!

After about 2.5 hours paddle, I could dimly make out some buildings at the Lucinda sugar jetty, and, half an hour later, I could even see the shoreline. This whole stretch of coastline is made up of low-lying land and mangrove forests so we had to use a bearing for almost the entire crossing. Finally, however, we could pick out the channel buoys marking the approach to Taylors Beach.

We got out to stretch our legs and have a swim and a snack on the big sandbar in front of Taylors Beach. The final 3 to 4 km paddle back upstream to Taylors Beach involved weaving around in great circles to finally reach the boat ramp via a narrow, shallow channel of water. The stench at Taylors Beach from the decaying algal bloom was almost nauseating.

Sea kayaking is a bit like mountaineering. No sooner is one trip completed than another is being planned. While we were out on the Palm Islands it occurred to us that the best trip to do would be to paddle to Lucinda from Townsville via the small clusters of islands between Magnetic Island and Great Palm Island. This journey would take you from Toolakea on the mainland to Rattlesnake Island, north to Archeron Island and then Havannah Island and finally into the main cluster of the Palm Islands at Brisk Island. Easy island hopping would then lead to Orpheus and Pelorus Islands and the long crossing back to the mainland at Lucinda.

Somewhere The Mainland Lies

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