Saturday, April 5, 2014

Caught in the Crosshairs on Rattlesnake Island

Doug and I were crouched on the beach on the western side of Rattlesnake Island afraid to raise our heads as a volley of gunshots cracked in the still air. For the second time in three days, I was talking to the Townsville Harbour Master: “Are there any military exercises ongoing on either Rattlesnake or Herald Islands?” I asked, “I'll just check for you,” the same woman I had spoken to two days ago said. “No, nothing today, tomorrow or the next day she said.” Strange I thought as another rapid fire burst of shooting cracked over our heads. 

We had left Toomulla Beach at 7.30 am, and, with light southeasterly winds we had made the 14 km crossing to Rattlesnake Island in about 2.5 hours. Paddling in to the enclosed bay on the western side, we thought how beautiful this isolated island was. A large fig tree – the only one on the beach – offered shade and a good camping spot and we made straight for it. Dragging our kayaks up the beach, we unloaded some gear, and then wandered out to the end of a prominent sand spit. Overhead, a large military helicopter flew loops around the western side of the island. We thought it a bit strange that a war ship appeared to be anchored off the southern side of Herald Island – the next island to the east – and that a military helicopter was in the area, seemingly dropping troops on the island, but, the Harbour Master in Townsville had assured me that there were no military exercises currently running on the islands. 

Sandspit on Rattlesnake Island

Back at the fig tree, we began to think about breakfast, but, got no further than contemplation as a burst of gun fire rent the morning air. “Must be just a little target practice” we thought, but, soon a veritable fusillade of shots followed and we were hunkered down on the beach afraid of being shot. After calling the Harbour Master, and, not feeling very reassured, Doug suggested we try contacting the war ship. In the stress of the moment, all the radio jargon we had learnt with Nelson Search and Rescue was lost, and calling ourselves “Kayak One” we managed to make contact with Warship Chules. The radio operator on Warship Chules seemed as confounded as we were to find a couple of civilians on the beach, and, after asking us to switch to channel 69 and “maintain our current position” he called a halt to all the shooting. Apparently, it was live ammunition. 

Shortly, two large men, decked out in traditional army camoflauge gear (which must have been awfully hot under the tropical sun) appeared on the beach, followed soon after by two more army personnel in a small zodiac, and, standing off-shore was a large yellow Army speedboat with yet more army personnel. We conversed with everyone, making sure that they all knew that we had contacted the Townsville Harbour Master before proceeding to the islands. After hastily reloading our kayaks, we launched into the stiffening wind and, with two army boats as escort, and a large helicopter flying over head, we paddled east to Herald Island. A third boat met us at Herald Island, and, again the details of who we had contacted were taken and we were given permission to camp on Herald Island and informed that the operation, which would last a total of three weeks, would be suspended on the following day for the weekend and we would be free to visit all the islands. 

 Magnetic Island from Herald Island

Herald Island is just as beautiful as Rattlesnake Island. Another large sand spit was occupied by the army on the southwestern end, but we found a large fig tree on the beach to the north that offered shade, large flat plates of dead coral for a kitchen and flat ground for camping. We unpacked the kayaks for the second time and made lunch.

After lunch, we wandered north up the beach and rock-hopped past boulders and rock pools until we were high on the eastern side of the island and could look south to Magnetic Island. That evening, the military pulled out, the sun set in a blaze of colour over Rattlesnake Island, a cooling wind blew, and we slept soundly in our mesh tent with a view to the stars. 

 Sunset from Herald Island

Next morning, I rock-hopped east to the eastern tip of Herald Island and then came back to camp for breakfast. We lazily repacked the kayaks and circumnavigated Herald Island. There was confused water off the eastern point of Herald Island but, our fully laden kayaks felt very stable. We sailed between Herald and Rattlesnake Island and along the southern side of Rattlesnake Island and back to the fig tree we had hunkered under the day before. The afternoon passed as it usually does on kayak trips, practicing eskimo rolls, snorkelling – Doug saw a huge turtle near the rocky reef on the northen end of the beach - and beach walking. It rained in the night and we had to jump out of bed and throw the fly on the tent. 

Next morning, the winds were light from the southeast and the mainland was shrouded in cloud. We could not see the houses of Toomulla Beach so spent the first half hour paddling west on a compass bearing. Gradually, we began to see the large white houses on the hill side above the small coves of Toomulla Beach. After an hour, when we were about half way across, a large shower, that had been creeping up behind us, enveloped us and we could not see land in any direction. We paddled on blindly for a while, but, it was hard to keep track of our direction simply by judging the angle of the waves and the gradually decreasing wind. I had no confidence in my old compass bearing, so we used the mobile phone to get another bearing. By the time we had done this, the clouds cleared enough for us to see Toomulla Beach and the remainder of the paddle was uneventful. 

 Doug paddling around the northern end of Herald Island

The premier trip in this area is to island hop from Townsville up through the off-shore islands of the Palm Group to Lucinda, or, if time permits to continue north along the east side of Hinchinbrook Island.

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