The South Coast Cruisers Go North [32]

By Norm Sanders

I don’t know who had the idea first. Paddling along a pristine tropical rainforest and lounging around on the Barrier Reef has an attraction for everybody. This trip finally boiled down to Tony Petersen, Mark Pearson (AKA Fishkiller) and me.

Tony and I were always definite starters, but Fishkiller needed a pass from his wife. Fortunately, the lovely and sympathetic Kerrie readily agreed. Fishkiller has a young, vigorous family, was moving into a new house, and must make a good impression at work lest he be downsized. All this meant he could only be away for three weeks.

Never mind. Tony and I would drive up to Cairns in Tony’s 4WD Hilux, towing a trailer with the three Inuit Classics on board. Fishkiller would fly up from Canberra to meet us. O.K., so where exactly did we want to paddle?

We have all heard stories about the overcrowded Whitsundays and other tropical tourist destinations. It seemed that the only undeveloped area left would be far to the north, starting where the good roads end: Port Douglas. A paddle from Port Douglas north along the Daintree coast would be scenic and would have good possibilities for obtaining water .

Water availability is a very limiting factor in touring by kayak. We could only carry about 20 litres, enough for some 4 days in the heat. Since we chose August for our trip, there would be little rain and we would have to depend on coastal streams.

How far north should we paddle? Cooktown was the obvious answer. The climate changes abruptly at Cooktown. It is much drier to the north, less scenic and increasingly difficult to get water. Another major factor was road access. Tony could take a bus back to Port Douglas and then return with the Hilux to pick up the kayaks. The road was dirt, but in good condition. Access was far more difficult further north.

Tony got some charts and we found two ii islands off the coast which looked interesting: Snapper Island and Hope Island.

Most of the offshore reefs are submerged 1 at high tide. These two islands offered t the only chance of spending some time away from the mainland. We packed our tents, sleeping bags, a few clothes and 21 days worth of paddling food (mostly noodles) and departed Canberra on the morning of 1 August, 1997. It was -4 degrees at 0700 and we had to scrape ice off the windscreen before we could leave. We were very glad to be heading towards sunny Oueensland.

By 2230, we were setting up our tents in a caravan park at Condamine, Queensland. Unfortunately, the cold hadn’t let us out of its grip. We were north of Brisbane, but well inland. It got down to -1 degree that night, which encouraged us to be on the road at 0630 to get warm. A long day of driving put us in the tropics at last. We camped at a roadside rest at the edge of the ocean near Bowen at 2200.

It was a relatively short drive to Cairns the next day. We camped at Trinity Beach and winced at the Los Angeles type development in the area. The place is a zoo. Tony got very depressed, having lived in the area in the early 1980s.

The next day we got a few items at a huge, urban shopping complex and met Fishkiller at the airport. He stepped off the plane looking crisp and fresh, every inch the prosperous Canberra public servant.

We had no idea of the details of launching at Port Douglas and drove up to investigate. Things looked pretty bleak. The weather had finally turned good and Port Douglas was crammed with tourists heading out to the reef. There was no accommodation available, even for tents, according to the tourist bureau. We had dinner in town and the friendly cook/waitress (a kayaker) told us to try the 4 Mile Beach Caravan Park.

They had one on-site van left, which we snapped up. This was a stroke of luck, because we found that we could load up the kayaks next to the van, put them on the trailer and drive right down on the beach. Then, we could leave Hilux and trailer at the caravan park for $3 per day until we returned. All problems solved!

We were farewelled away from the beach by the crowd which had collected. It was g 1000′ 5 August, 1997. Cooktown was ~ 150 km away. There are a few individuals in the kayaking movement who adhere to a the “No Pain, No Gain” philosophy. They streak from Point A to Point B in the shortest time possible, heads down, revelling in the screams of their joints and muscles. Not for them a serene paddle along a paradise coast. Several of these individuals have pointed out that Paul Caffyn paddled from Port Douglas to Cooktown in two days as he made his epic circumnavigation of Australia. Big deal. Did he savour the aroma of the rainforest in the mornings? The rainbows of colours on the reefs? If speed is the object, it only takes 45 minutes on the plane from Cairns to Cooktown.

We cruised along in the sunshine, soaking up the white clouds in the blue sky, the sparkling, clear water and the dark green of the shoreline. One of the reasons we had picked August was to take advantage of the southeasterly winds which prevail at that time of year. Now we hoisted our sails and devoted ourselves to sheer pleasure.

We were crossing a wide bay at the mouth of the Daintree River, which, with its legendary crocodiles, we wished to avoid. Our course to Snapper Island took us about 10 km offshore from the river mouth, a very safe distance. We reached the island at 1430 after covering 28 km without any suffering at all.

The island is a National Park and has camping sites which require the permits which we had obtained in Cairns (although nobody ever checked.) After we set up camp, Tony and Fishkiller went off to catch supper. We had planned to eat a lot of fish, to go with the noodles. Tony had regaled us with tales of monster fish, easily capable of capsizing a kayak. That night, I had noodles and peas.

Next day we paddled off on a voyage of exploration around the island. On the north side, we encountered a commercial kayak outfit named Crocodylus Tours. They had paddled 3 double Roscos from Cowie Bay, about 8 km. away. We were greeted by these friendly natives, who were mostly bikini clad backpackers. Eat your heart out, Paul Caffyn. Tony scored in a cup of coffee and a cigarette. I won a pancake and Fishkiller went fishing. He lost two lures after catching a number of small, ugly fish. I had a packet of Fettuccine Carbonara for dinner.

On 7 Aug., day three, we were up at 0645 after listening to the ABC weather on the transistor radio. Emanating from Cairns, it was the best broadcast weather: a briefing I have ever encountered. The announcer talked directly with the weather bureau and covered the synoptic situation, present conditions, short and long range forecasts and coastal weather. It was good, solid information, without the distracting attempts at humour which pollute so many weather bulletins.

We left at 0945. Fishkiller had succumbed to the flu overnight, a relic of his parental duties. He was pretty miserable and was not able to enjoy what Tony and I called a magic morning. There was a light, warm sailing breeze ruffling the water. We ghosted along past the dense, green wilderness. We finally landed at a little beach just south of Cow Bay so that Fishkiller could lay down. There was water, but no place to camp, so we eventually paddled on to Alexandra Bay near the mouth of the Bailey River, 15 km north of Snapper Island. We found good camping on a beach ridge, but no water. Tony went trolling and hooked a 60 cm mackerel which escaped. Dinner was instant potato and canned “steak and onions” (I was trying to avoid the noodles as much as possible).

The next day, the fourth of the trip, we were on the water at 1000. Fishkiller had recovered somewhat. It was calm at first, then a light southeasterly came up which was enough to fill the sails.

Another perfect day. We had planned to stop at Cape Tribulation to visit the store.

We paddled around the Cape and encountered hundreds of tourists wandering around on the beach. Buses disgorged more even as we watched. Tony and Fishkiller went looking for the store while I minded the kayaks. They returned an hour and a half later with an ice cream and a Snickers bar for me and a tale of woe. They couldn’t find the store and had to settle for a resort kiosk where they had chicken and chips. We departed Cape Tribulation at 1500, paddling on to Emmagen Creek to camp. We had covered 21 easy kilometres from Alexandra Bay. My dinner was rice and canned tuna. Fish at last!

We got up to watch the dawn on Day 5 and then went for water up the creek beyond the 4WD track. I had a Sweetwater Guardian filter along, but we decided to take a chance on unfiltered water. We had no problem but I later heard of people who had caught giardia from Emmagen Creek.

We were on the water at 1030, paddling in a sunny calm. Fishkiller finally managed to catch an edible fish when we stopped at Cowie Point Beach to clean. We were soon buzzed by an ultralight which then came in to land. The pilot had flown up from Cairns that day, landed at Cedar Bay, been chased off the beach by Park Rangers and was now on his way back. The Rangers had also torn down some humpies belonging to the ferals before departing the area. The pilot assured us that they wouldn’t be back for another two weeks.

We paddled on to Weary Bay, at the mouth of the Bloomfield River. Captain Cook named the bay after days of struggling to keep the Endeavor afloat following the collision with a reef. We had now done 18 kilometres from Emmag en and located a good campsite among the casuarinas. There was no water, but we still had a goodly supply. Noodles and surprise peas for dinner .

Day 6 was calm and oppressively hot at first. Then a good sailing breeze came up and we cruised the 24 kms to Cedar Bay. We disturbed a nude female feral on the south end of the beach and politely paddled on with eyes averted. We camped in the northern comer of Cedar Bay to be near running water. Two ferals bearing gift coconuts wandered by. In return we gave them some fish hooks but couldn’t help out with cigarette papers, which we had none of. Noodles and dried beans for dinner.

Day 7 was spent lazing around Cedar Bay. We visited Cedar Bay Bill’s tomb, went to get water and talked to a bunch of kayakers on a commercial trip from Cape Tribulation to Cooktown. They were using gigantic New Zealand doubles called Sissons –the widest kayaks I have ever seen. It was fortunate for them that the wind was from the Southeast. Deb instant potatoes with onion and surprise peas for dinner.

We were up at 5 AM on Day 8, packed up in the dark and were on the water just after dawn. Our destination was East Hope Island, about 14 kms. offshore. Hope Island was named by Captain Cook because it offered a haven for the sinking Endeavor. The sky was clear, the wind a light south westerly and the paddling was marvellous. Later we hoisted sails in a 10 knot southerly. West Hope Island lay across our course. We tried to cross the long reef to the north of the island but the tide was too low and we were forced to back-track to the southern end.

Then began a glorious paddle down the passage to East Hope. This is a treasure island, excruciatingly beautiful. It is a complete, discrete island about the size of a city block, with white sand beaches, a fringing reef, palm trees and a luxurious campsite well back in the trees. We set up camp and then ventured forth to explore the island. We found two osprey nests, one with a chick, reef herons, terns and a host of other birds.

Later in the afternoon, three yachts anchored just offshore. One was a 46′ cat from Miami which was sailing around the world in a race which had started in Lisbon, Portugal. The skipper and I had mutual multihulling friends back in California. I asked nervously if they could spare some water. Not a problem. They could desalinate 10 gph. I not only filled all our available water containers, but enjoyed a gin arid tonic (with ice) as the sun went down. We scrounged water from other boats as days went by, which meant that we could lengthen our time on the island. Fish and pasta for dinner.

We stayed on the island for five days, lounging, snorkelling, hiking, paddling and generally enjoying life in the tropics. Fishkiller and Tony caught many huge fish, including Giant Trevally, most of which they released. They kept enough for dinner each night, to make amends for their previous failures.

Towards the end of our stay on the island, the wind came up from the Southeast and rain squalls periodically swept by. When we finally left on Day 13, the wind was a steady 25 knot southeasterly. We were on the water at 0845 with reefed sails. The seas were 1.5 meters and steep. We made good time, but it was hard work. At one stage, a ship came straight towards us, but finally turned away. On shore, the rainforest had given way to grasslands interspersed with trees. Our goal was Rocky Island, which we reached at 1145 after sailing 22 kms from Hope Island.

Rocky Island was just that, a little rock outcrop just offshore from a 4WD infested beach. We set up camp on the leeward side of the island, but willy willies kept swirling around and hammering the tents. Tony’s fly split and Fishkiller broke a tent pole. It was a windy night, and the tents kept flapping, like sleeping in a shooting gallery, I noted in my diary .The locals say the stretch from Hope Island to Cooktown is the windiest part of the coast.

On August 18, Day 14, at 0745, we eagerly left Rocky Island for Cooktown. The trip was now an anticlimax after the joys of Hope Island. The wind was still howling and we made good time. The sky was overcast, but the air was warm. Fishkiller didn’t believe the charts, so I had to get out the GPS to convince him where Cooktown was located. I had been entering positions religiously in the GPS, but found the gadget absolutely useless (except for settling arguments)!

Just around the point from Cooktown, I ran over a lazing dugong. It exploded r under my bow, scaring us both, with no damage to either. We arrived at Cooktown and landed almost on the exact spot where the Endeavor was careened. We too found succour, in the form of Magnums from the kiosk. We also found a motel just across the road. We checked in to a ground floor unit and carried the kayaks to our front door.

Next day, Fishkiller and Tony took the bus south. Fishkiller to Cairns and Tony to pick up the Hilux and trailer at Port Douglas. Tony returned to Cooktown that night at 11 PM and we left the next morning for home. It was a painless ending to an absolutely enjoyable trip.