Of Paddling and People [53]

From the Diaries of Sharon Betteridge and Rob Mercer

Thursday 08 August

I hit 101 on the mobile as I joined the tail end of the 8:30 am gridlock and opened my one new voice message. It was an elated Rob Richmond calling from a fisho’s cafe in Cooktown. I hit redial and enjoyed a short and colourful rundown on the highlights of Rob’s solo adventure (from Cooktown to TI) as I defended my place in the northbound tunnel underneath the world’s most beautiful harbour. Rob’s narrative skipped from incident to incident, but my questions were all about weather and sea state, and in particular wind. In just over a week I would be standing on the beach at Lucinda facing north Queensland’s famous South Easterly Trade Winds. These winds seldom abate from March through to October. Sometimes it’s a gale, other times a breeze, but it is almost always a sou’-easter. These are the winds which pinned Cook against the Great Barrier Reef. They played their part in the dramatic names which span the stretch of coast we had chosen for our adventure. Cape Tribulation, Weary Bay and Hope Island were but three of the many exotic places we planned to visit. Like Cook, travel writer and Klepper enthusiast Paul Thoreaux was intimidated by the wind in far north Queensland and quotes a local: ‘People up in Cooktown get crazed by the wind… one bloke who couldn’t take any more of it started screaming about the wind — raving actually. Went mad. Climbed onto the roof of his house and started firing his shotgun into the wind.’ (Paul Theroux in The Happy Isles of Oceania). When we cut the bubble wrap and cardboard air freight cocoons from our kayaks at Lucinda would we too be cursing the trades or preparing to harness their power for our 480 kilometre island hop to Cooktown?

Sunday 18 August

It was bitterly cold, dark and sleety when the taxi bipped its horn to take us to the airport. I had cursed the alarm’s piercing ring just thirty minutes earlier. The thermometer hadn’t yet climbed into double figures but four-and-a-half hours later when we disembarked at Townsville the heat rising from the tarmac took my breath away and the sun’s glare made me wish I had had more sleep the previous night. At least we were on time. By 2 pm we were playing phone tag. Sundra, Salo, Andrew and Richard had arrived in Townsville earlier and were anxious to know our whereabouts. Their boats and gear were already packed onto Lyndon’s trailer and 4WD and they wanted to get this trip underway.

Our kayaks had flown ‘standby’ over the course of the previous few weeks and were still in their bubble wrap and corrugated cardboard cocoons. Lyndon, a friend of Sundra, had picked the kayaks up from the airport as they arrived, stored them at his place, offered invaluable advise about the local area, provided accommodation, and drove us and all our gear to the start of our adventure in his troop carrier — complete with trailer. By 5 pm we were unloading all our gear at Lucinda — a small fishing village alongside the Hinchinbrook channel.

Monday 19 August

Wind and rain torments us all night. Richard appears to have spent all night packing his kayak. We wake up to his cheery call of ‘Good morning, campers’. The day is bleak so we adjourn to a large picnic area to pack. Carapark residents and locals stand by bemused. We hit the water at low tide and, to avoid the sand bars, are forced to paddle the full length of the 5.7 kilometre long sugar loading wharf before heading north to Zoe Bay. As we leave the wharf behind the sun comes out for a moment. Salo comments that this is indeed a good omen. Our journey has begun!

Tuesday 20 August

Our first night at Zoe Bay was wet, but magical. Under the rainforest canopy it rained continuously, while on the beach showers came and went. Robert, Richard and Sundra fish in the nearby creek. The barramundi jump around their lures, teasing their efforts. On dark it is the mozzies and sandflies turn to tease us.

Wednesday 21 August

Rain and brisk winds on waking. Wind stops and rain sets in. We paddle on in dream like ethereal greyness. We land at Hinchinbrook Resort for a water refill. Very hospitable people offer us coffee. We sit in luxury, check the weather and talk to guests. They are bored, we add a little colour to their day. Then off to Goolde. Beautiful sunset. Great relief to find a shelter shed and an idyllic sandy beach. 64 km in 3 days. Light tail winds all the way so far…

Thursday 22 August

The day dawned still, hot, humid and cloudless making the paddling to Dunk (Island) long and arduous. The island’s picturesque, the sky and sea turquoise, but the blazing sun did nothing to endear me to the thought of spending the evening at a resort island after four days to ourselves. We stopped at Wheeler for lunch. It was shady and well set up for camping, but the group were keen to push on while the weather was on our side. Arriving at Dunk was a culture shock — noise, ferries, planes, people — but the campsite was clean and well run and the beers from the resort bistro refreshing.

Friday 23 August

We are reluctant to leave the luxury of Dunk Island until the ‘zoo’ (ferry loaded with tourists) arrives from South Mission Beach. First forecast over 15 knots. We leave for the Barnard Islands with a building breeze. Humpback whales, Richard catches a shark, Manta Rays cruising…

Saturday 24 August

Up early we circumnavigated Kent (Island — part of the Barnard Group). From our watery vantage we could see a small beacon obscured by thick trees. Richard had tried to walk to it the previous afternoon, but his efforts had been hampered by thick undergrowth. This lighthouse is now automated, but the original lighthouse keeper and his daughters are enshrined in the names given to these islands.

Sunday 25 August

Arriving at Flying Fish Point we surf across the river bar and venture up the Johnson River famous for fresh and ‘salties’ (crocs). Andrew asks several fishos as to the whereabouts of the local caravan park, but none speak English. Finally we arrive at the park, its banner boasting ‘The Best Fish and Chips in the Southern Hemisphere’, and meet George, the proprietor — has a staccato ocker drawl — talks first, thinks later. Richard aptly nicknames him ‘machine gun mouth’. George threatens in jest that they have something special lined up for the ‘rowers’ at that night’s karaoke. Flying Fish Point specialises in accommodating the retired travellers and we meet Rick and Rita, keen touring kayakers. They drive us to and from Innisfail so we can provision up for the days ahead. We sample George’s entire menu, Sundra repairs Salo’s boat as well as catching up with some friends who live in the area, and Andrew rests his injured shoulder.

Monday 26 August

Up early and we push off to the whirr and click of cameras. Well wishers from the van park line the beach, waving us off as we launch. George’s comments about selling the photos to the newspapers when we get eaten by the crocs was sobering…

The wind was well and truly blowing as we picked our way under the protection of the headland, but all too soon we faced the exposed crossing to the Frankland Islands. The sailing was exhilarating, with waves regularly crashing over the deck. This was our first really windy day. We kept close, but conversation was minimal as we concentrated to keep our tiny craft upright and on course. It was a welcome relief to pull into the lee of the island and begin the twice daily ritual of strap carrying fully loaded kayaks, one at a time, above the high tide line. Our ability to work as a team both on and off the water continued. The campsite, as usual, on the sheltered shore in a grove of tropical scrub. High Island is true to its name. Its elevation coupled with an upper storey of pandanus and palms protecting us from the ever-present wind.

Tuesday 27 August

The wind was up by the time we were ready to launch. Andrew rang the Ranger on Fitzroy Island using his CDMA phone to get a weather check. The wind had been downgraded to 25 knots — so we go. Another great day of sailing. I capsize and roll up without releasing the control lines on my sail. The seas are steep but over deeper ground, so are less confused. Fitzroy is run down. The Resort, Cairns Council and National Parks are all trying not to solve the problem of the camping ground. The ranger moves us from the camping ground to a hard coral clearing in front of the resort’s bunkhouse. We spend the afternoon bushwalking — beautiful views: we see High Island and a streaky wind blown sea. Richard calls Petra. He is homesick, but spirits are high and we have a good meal at the Bistro, but leave before the drunken backpackers start on a night of karaoke.

Wednesday 28 August

We wake unsure of the weather and speak to a yachtie who suggests we call VHF Cairns 81. With 20-25 knots forecast and a long haul across the vast embayment outside Cairns we agree to paddle around Cape Grafton, shelter at False Cape and reassess. We decide to extend our run to Ellis Beach and completely avoid Cairns.

Ellis Beach is a welcome sight but the camping ground, unappealing and buffeted by strong trade winds, means we opt for cabins. It rained all night and by the time we were ready to leave the wind was strong and I had second thoughts about leaving. But leave we did, and although I didn’t have my sail up I was clocking consistently at over 10 km/h as I lent heavily on a stern rudder stroke desperately trying to slow the boat down. Andrew zoomed past, his sail up. However he soon beached with broken rigging that would require some repairs in Port Douglas.

Thursday 29 August

My birthday! Wind forecast 20 to 25 knots. Andrew and I share concern about Alexandra Reef in possible difficult conditions. As we have done so much island hopping we are unsure how the wind will affect conditions nearer to shore. We paddle in strong gusty conditions with sails down, regrouping just before Pebbly Beach.

We surf the wind waves onto shore and have a stretch. Climbing a nearby headland we view the extent of the reefs that we were about to cross and the effect of the wind and tide on them. A group of guests from the beachfront resort approach and tell us to leave their private beach. We launch as the last of the ugly blue-black squalls blows through and continue our day’s paddle, the reefs posing no special difficulties.

We arrive hot and tired at the southern end of Four Mile Beach looking for the camping ground. Puzzled at its non-existence Andrew phones Directory Assistance and discovers the van park has been bulldozed and the only other one is at the northern end of the beach. We land through sluggish surf, Richard negotiates some cabins with the park owner while I speak to the President of the local surf club who also happens to be the Queensland fisheries guy who pulled the hook out of Rob Richmond’s hand when he was up here. Ian (the park owner) arrives with a box trailer and we load some of our gear for him to take the 300 metres or so to the park. He watches while we empty our water containers and then, smirking, informs us the local water supply is contaminated. Upon seeing the motley crew arrive at the park, Ian’s wife gives us a space to camp under the clothes lines, while the cabins remain obviously empty. The day starts to fall into place and we celebrate my birthday with a few beers at the local Thai restaurant.

Friday 30 August

Morning shopping in PD. Visit the very friendly and helpful staff of the Department of Conservation for maps and advice. Long portage with full boats takes 60 minutes. Spirits are up and there is good teamwork. A launching party watch us out through the surf. Arrive at Wonga and the ‘red carpet’ is hanging in the tree just as Celia promised.

Bill and Betty, a retired couple from Melbourne, meet us at the beach. Like a lot of retirees they come north every year to escape the southern winter. Bill has a note book and took our orders for tea and coffee (served on a tray in real china cups) as we portaged our boats to the camping area. They didn’t tire of listening to our kayaking tales and were keen to escort us to Snapper Island in the morning if the weather was favourable. At Bill’s recommendation we ventured along a dirt road dodging the ubiquitous cane toads until out of the darkness we came to a neon sign advertising ‘Daintree Resort’. Here we have dinner at the ‘restaurant in the middle of nowhere’.

Saturday 31 August

As promised Betty provides a hearty breakfast — French toast, cumquat marmalade, fried potatoes and bacon — and we talk fishing, kayaks and boats with Bill (rumour has it he is 83!) over breakfast. We are waved off by a friendly bunch who freely admit that the weather is too rough for their tinnies.

Sunday 01 September

As is the case every day, Richard wakes us early with his cheery ‘Good morning, campers’. At least now the sun is beginning to light up the sky and I am waking before his call. Rob urges us to get going while the weather holds, but before launching I ring first Dad and then Alex (father-in-law) to wish them both a Happy Father’s Day. I have a few pangs of homesickness until Dad informs me that a severe cold front complete with strong winds, hail and single figure temperatures had just passed through Sydney. It is a leisurely day so we have time to explore a few creeks on the way to Noah Beach. However, our apprehension about crocs makes it hard to enjoy the beauty of the rainforest and the variety of the birdlife especially as Rob, Andrew and Richard had already had one too close encounter with a croc whilst exploring Coopers Creek.

Noah Beach is a well set out, but busy campsite. Signs hang over taps warning of contaminated water. During the evening we are brought back to the reality of modern life. A car had rolled on a nearby road and needed an ambulance. Sundra helped with First Aid while Andrew phoned the emergency number and I started to organise flares and strobe lights to illuminate the beach for the rescue helicopter.

Monday 02 September

We leave Noah to the hand painted combi set and backpackers. Soon after I land a one metre long Spanish Mackerel and have to take a rafted tow to the nearest beach so I can fillet the monster and pack it away for dinner. We arrive Cape Trib mid morning. Not too many tourists. It’s pretty, but heavily developed. Here too the water is unfit for drinking. The group splits and Sharon and I walk the 2 kilometres to the general store. The girl behind the counter is very helpful, calling ahead to Weary Bay. We buy a few provisions and return to the beach.

Blinded by the setting sun, we spread out looking for our camp. Thelma’s description is a good one and we find her waiting quietly, as promised, at the water’s edge. She strokes her small fluffy white pooch as she speaks. Thelma is a refined lady. Lady with a capital L — she appears a little incongruous in this wilderness setting. She drives all our gear back to the camping ground and assures us that the kayaks will be safe hidden in the scrub. Our evening’s accommodation is a brisk 10 minutes walk on a narrow winding track which we follow in the failing light. Back at her resort Thelma does justice to my catch, cooking it to her special recipe.

Over dinner we share some enlightened conversation with three Electoral Officers who are also guests at this quaint resort. Although their area covers the vast expanse from Townsville to Cape York, they are currently visiting the local Wudjil Wudjil people. Their perspective on the upcoming ATSIC elections provides a lot of interest and at breakfast we continue the previous evening’s discussions. We bid them goodbye and return to the kayaks.

Tuesday 03 September

We are fresh and cheerful. Although we could easily reach East Hope today I am worried we are rushing the best part of the trip so we take the soft option and head for Cedar Bay.

We carry the kayaks up the beach dodging huge holes dug by wild pigs in their frenzy to find food. Out of nowhere I could hear the strains of a violin. On investigation we meet Mark. He and his mates have been living here for some time and they are fully self sufficient. At sunset they emerge from the bush and spend the last hour of daylight successfully spinning for fish. Tonight we share a communal meal — Mackerel cooked four different ways — complete with pappadums, coconut milk, and green mango chutney. A full belly and the gentle lull of the sea puts me to sleep. Even the snorting pigs couldn’t keep me awake! Tomorrow we will be heading for the Hope Islands.

Wednesday 04 September

East Hope Island is a sand cay fringed by reefs. The tide is ebbing and we manoeuvre our way to shore. This place is truly paradise — sandy beach, turquoise water, reefs, coral, osperys, turtles, fish…

Thursday 05 September

In the morning we wake to the cries of the Torresian Pigeons as they leave their nests to fly to the mainland to gorge on rainforest fruits. At low tide Richard enlightens us with his extensive knowledge and experience in marine biology. At high tide we cook damper, go for walks and snooze. Occasionally a yachtie ventures ashore to share stories with us. A German couple are stranded repairing a broken rudder. This is the last leg of their journey that began in the northern hemisphere and took them through many of the Pacific islands. They work quickly to have it finished before the tide turns. A group of Wudjil locals in a tinnie try to spear some turtles. The transport is not traditional, but their hunting methods are. A sailor warns us of a resident croc on nearby West Hope Island. I think of Cook and how long he was stranded in this tropical paradise.

Saturday 07 September

All too soon it’s time to go. This is our last day of checking the weather and calling the coastguard. It had become a morning ritual as much as breakfasting, detailing our day’s paddle and packing and moving boats. Today we relayed with a yacht as our line of sight to Cooktown was obscured by mountains. Kiwarrick was more than happy to oblige. We had met at East Hope. He had sailed from Port Stephens and was heading further north, his next stop Lizard Island. He wished us well and we did likewise.

Our last day into Cooktown is a good one. It was cloudy and scuddy, much like our first day out from Lucinda. It seemed appropriate — we end as we began. Rain squalls came and went but the winds where favourable and gave us 45 km of brisk sailing. After negotiating the shipping channel safely we head north, stopping briefly at Rocky Island for a quick stretch. The wind here is cruel. It buffets the eastern side before encircling the island and blowing straight into our faces. It would be an uncomfortable camping spot in all but the calmest of weather — rocky and windy, with a narrow stretch of sandy beach supporting a lone palm. Half way up the stony hill an engraved rectangular slab of plain white marble marks the grave of one Edward White. I pondered the questions of ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ as I clamber back down to sea level.

We pull in near Archer Point looking for campsites, but there is nothing suitable. Four wheel drive tracks dot the landscape and every sheltered cove is taken, with striped canvas awnings heralding the claims of their occupants. East Hope Island had spoilt us.

From here the coastal vegetation changes dramatically and Cooktown’s aptly named Grassy Hill on its southern headland bears testimony to this. Lush rainforest quickly gives way to a drier scrubby grassland of the Savannah as if someone has deliberately ruled a line in the earth to separate them.

Out of the protection of Archer Point the sailing was fast. A few near collisions cautioned us to keep our distance, but once inside the Endeavour River we were able to paddle the last few kilometres together.

We pulled in at the boat ramp ahead of a yacht. It turned out the skipper was a one time neighbour of Rob Richmond and had caught up with him on his recent trip north. We spend a few minutes exchanging pleasantries before organising ourselves for the final boat carry and the celebratory photo in front of the monument to Captain Cook before Salo and Sharon negotiate accommodation at a nearby motel.

Epilogue

A few days later we flew back to Cairns. It took only 45 minutes to fly over the last section of coast that we had taken 10 days to paddle. The islands and reefs looked stunning in the clear early morning light. In Cairns we felt unsettled. We knew we would have to return and were already planning our next tropical trip… north of Cooktown… or south of Townsville… certainly somewhere on the sea.

Logistics

  • Salo and Sharon paddled Mirage 530s with Hybrid sails.
  • Rob and Andrew paddled Nadgees, Rob with a Hybrid sail and Andrew with his own original design.
  • Richard paddled a Pittarak with a Hybrid sail.
  • Sundra paddled a Pygmy Kayak Coho (a stitch and glue plywood kayak which he made himself) with a Hybrid sail.
  • The kayaks flew Sydney to Townsville and returned Cairns to Sydney using Australian Air Express (thank you Paul Hewitson for your contacts with the airlines).
  • The kayaks were road freighted from Cooktown to Cairns by Tuxworth & Woods.

Thanks to Lyndon Anderson for organising the pick up of our kayaks from Townsville and transporting us and all our gear to Lucinda.

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