I have my rain jacket pulled up tight around my neck and my hat tipped forward to protect my face from the spitting rain and cold wind whipping over the bow of our boat as she speeds along the glassy waters of Hinchinbrook Channel. To our left is the mainland where trees are scattered like toothpicks through the mangrove swamps, stripped bare by a massive cyclone a couple of seasons before. On the right the island looms large, dwarfing a solitary yacht bobbing in the bay at the base of steeply rising hills that are covered in a thick carpet of seemingly impenetrable jungle, a mass of green and black shadows crawling up towards the menacing clouds.
The skipper with his woolly hat and squinty eyes leans down next to me and points to a mud map on his phone.
‘Where are ya gonna camp the first night?’ he yells. I shrug and he gives me a piece of advice that you probably wouldn’t find on the Internet.
‘When you get here, to Little Ramsey Bay, go past the designated camp sites and keep walking to the end of the beach. There you’ll find a little freshwater stream that runs into the ocean and a natural little pool you can sit in. That’s where I always camp.’
Then he hands me a piece of rope and says use this string up your pack because there’s only a select number of boxes to cache your food provided by the National Parks. If your pack or food is on the ground (even in your tent) the melomys- local rodents will chew right through your tent, then your pack and eventually a hard plastic box to get to what’s inside.
Most people take about four days to hike the 34 km trail down the east coast of Australia’s largest Island National Park but if you are of reasonable fitness and like to work up a sweat it can be done in two days. As the island is uninhabited you must bring all of your own food and equipment, which requires a little bit of forward planning. You must secure your permit for each night on the island through the National Parks Website.
There is limited availability and it seems as though some people book and pay for the permit and then never use it. If you manage to obtain a permit for a few consecutive days during the cooler months of May to October you will have the privilege of walking through one of the Australia’s most beautiful and diverse tropical landscapes with barely a soul to interrupt the isolated tranquillity.
The skipper points to some dolphins breaking the flat white reflection of water as we turn left to head towards the beach in Cardwell to pick up three more passengers. The couple who boarded the vessel with me in Lucinda this morning are doctors and the three young ladies we pick up turn out to be nurses.
‘Well if you fall over and break something you’ll be in good hands’ the skipper says to me with a mischievous wink.
He goes on to tell us we won’t have much phone reception in certain sections but you can always get coverage on any network at Mulligan falls. The boat winds its way along a mangrove-fringed waterway that snakes its way from the channel through to a beach on the north-eastern tip of the island. From here we alight and turn right onto the beach and follow the orange arrow markers that are placed intermittently along the trail. Its possible to follow a different set of coloured markers and walk the trail in the opposite direction from south to north but by walking top to bottom I’m very grateful to have the prevailing South Easterly sea breeze cooling me from the front. Even in winter in Far North Queensland the weather is always temperate.
At the base of Nina Peak I gladly drop my pack and take just water, a snack and my camera up the large steep boulders to the top of the side trek. From here I can see our entry point through the mangroves and onwards down the coastline, the vast expanse of ocean dotted with other islands giving way to sparkling blue waters sitting peacefully in little bays one after another along the edge of Hinchinbrook.
By now the mornings grey clouds are beginning to disperse and the towering escarpments that make up the centre of the island look almost Celtic-esque, all green moss and jagged rocky peaks poking through shrouds of white mist.
By mid afternoon I’ve reached Little Ramsey Bay in warm afternoon sunlight where I meet up with the three nurses again. There is a large swamp behind the beach where they are considering taking water. Apparently the last place for them to fill up their water bottles was a couple of hours back at Nina Bay. I’ve carried 4 litres in my MSR dromedary bag from the start but it must be getting low. I can’t believe they don’t have more water storage. But it’s not necessary for them to be too worried. At the end of the beach we find a crystal clear fresh little creek winding its way back up into the forest and from this point on I cross at least a half-dozen such streams, none more than a couple of kilometres apart, most I imagine running year round.
The second day of hiking Hinchinbrook starts out crossing a couple of little beaches then veers inland and up through some steep country. I read on some other hikers article that they have completed this walk in crocs. To me this seems fairly audacious. I hike in well-worn trail runners with exceptional grip and even then I have some difficulty negotiating the rocky descents that basically take you back down toward the coast via a large dry riverbed. For the peace of mind of sturdy footwear I certainly didn’t mind taking my shoes off and on while traversing the numerous creeks along this section. After a few hours and a variety of landscapes from dense rainforest, spooky swamplands and open eucalypt heath, the trail pops out onto the southern end of the impressive Zoe Bay.
The bay curves around to the left for a couple of kilometres towards a rocky headland. If you turn right the beach passes a couple of lovely secluded campsites before the main campsite that is situated right next to what appears to be a very crocodile friendly inlet. But it’s not the lizards that should concern you here but the mosquitoes. Tiny clouds of sand flies will find you and destroy your sanity if you don’t take precautions. Rather than camp in the designated areas close to the mangroves I decide to camp further up the beach, about 100 metres north of where the trail emerges. I surround my camp with multiple Earth Tiger mosquito coils and lather any bare patches of skin with deet infused Bushmans repellent and I still manage to get bitten.
If I was to extend my time on the island though, this is where I would do it. The palm-fringed beach is wide and long with imposing peaks bordering it at the rear. I set up my tent and then walk through the main camping area at the southern end of the beach and follow the trail about 15 mins into the forest. After crossing a large dry creek bed I walk a little more until I hear the tranquil sounds of falling water and just as suddenly through the canopy, I see it. Zoe Falls – a cascade of cool fresh water tumbling into a large round, clear pool. The rainforest towers up on all sides as if cradling a secret sanctuary and to bathe in this exquisite creation gives me the impression that I have been cleansed of more than just the sweat and grime of a hard days walk.
Day Three starts out with a fairly strenuous section up to the top of Zoe Falls. A great side trek for sunset or sunrise or to just have breakfast. Fantastic views back over the bay, across the top of the falls and then a nice couple of hours walk toward the turn off for Sunken Reef Bay. The higher clear sections of trail here offer views down to the sugar milling town of Lucinda and its 5km long jetty stretching away from its settlement. Mulligan falls makes for a refreshing pit stop before I tackle the last hour into the beach where I’ve arranged to be picked up. A wallaby watches me warily as I arrive slightly leg sore, a couple of bites and blisters but tired and happy. Also slightly despondent to be leaving my little piece of island paradise and heading back to civilisation. For a couple of days there I felt like I was completely disconnected from the rules and rigors of regular society and actually in touch with the real world. Guess I’ll have to try and get a permit for a bit longer next time.
Hinchinbrook Island in Queensland, Australia can be accessed by pre-arranged boat charters (approx. $140.00 AUD) from the towns of Cardwell – 182km south of Cairns- or – Lucinda – 138kms north of Townsville.