Average Joes (and Josephines) do Daintree [69]

By Terence Uren

Far North Queensland has a tough country reputation — big distances, big winds, big crocodiles. What do you do if you’re just a bunch of ageing paddlers of average ability who’d like to have a look but your only claim to toughness is that you work out on Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin in mid-winter? Same as every other trip — read what you can, talk to others who’ve been there and bite off something you can chew. Our bite was the stretch from Cape Kimberley to Cooktown.

Day 1 — The car shuffle

After driving 3000km plus over four days, the last thing we need is another day on the road but, if we want our cars waiting for us in Cooktown at the end of the trip, there’s not much choice. The round trip from Cape Kimberley to Cooktown is more than 600km and the Cooktown-Port Douglas/Port Douglas-Cape Kimberley bus connections just don’t work if you want to do the shuffle in a day. We get around this problem by hiring a car for the return from Cooktown.

Day 2 — Cape Kimberley to Snapper Island (~10km)

The forecast is awful — 25-30knots SE winds and rain. If we were back home, we’d roll over and go back to sleep but we’ve driven so far to get here that we should at least get up and have a look. Local advice is that the 0700 wind readings at Low Islets give a reasonable indication of what to expect close to the coast for the next few hours and this morning’s observations are not too bad (SE winds averaging 13knots, gusting to 16knots) and it doesn’t look too intimidating out there. We decide to head off. The straight-line distance to Snapper Island is only 3km but, once on the water and feeling comfortable, we decide to circumnavigate the island to test our fully laden kayaks in head, tail and cross winds. It’s been a long time between expeditions for most and some have newish kayaks that they’ve not tripped in before. Wind picks up a bit during the couple of hours we’re on the water but nothing we can’t handle with a bit of concentration. We find some sheltered campsites on the north western tip of the island, glad to be underway.

Day 3 — Snapper Island to Noah Beach (~20km)

Strong wind warning again this morning, SE winds averaging 15knots at the campsite at 0700 and gusting to over 20knots at Low Islets. Occasional showers forecast. We feel a little uneasy about setting off with winds stronger than they were at this time yesterday. However, around here the Great Barrier Reef is as close to the mainland as it gets, keeping the wave height to something we feel we can manage. The first part of the morning is in the lee of Snapper Island, which makes for enjoyable paddling. By the time we reach the southern end of Cow Bay, we’re feeling at ease enough to raise sails and scream across Alexandra Bay to land in the lee of Struck Island. There is a small kiosk here that services tourists travelling the road to Cape Tribulation. It offers the last chance for a cappuccino for those for whom such things are important. Those who linger a little too long over coffee are punished with a long portage to catch an ebbing tide. It’s only a short run from here to the public campground at Noah Beach, pleasantly tucked in the rainforest but shared with lots of others and their vehicles.

Day 4 — Noah Beach to Cowie Beach (~20km)

Forecast is for SE winds easing to 20-25knots but this isn’t reflected in the 0700 Low Islets observations, which are of winds that are stronger than yesterday. The beach faces into the prevailing wind and its action over the shallow bay generates a choppy surf with some 25-30 sets to negotiate before reaching deep water. For the first time on the trip, the clouds lift briefly for us to admire the rainforested ridges of the Cape Tribulation National Park as they plunge to meet the reef. We take a leg stretch after rounding the cape, where the sealed road from the Daintree River gives way to the unsealed 4WD Bloomfield Track. It’s a popular spot and we could easily spend several ego-boosting hours chatting with visitors attracted by our lined-up kayaks but the wind is strengthening and we are keen to get to Cowie Beach for lunch. With sails up, we fly across Weary Bay at 12km/h without dipping paddles in the water. Group spread is becoming a problem though and we have less boat control than we would like. After a couple of near capsizes, the sails come down and we retreat to the broken water zone along the foreshore for the final run into Cowie Beach. The campsite here is a beauty, tucked in the rainforest at the southern end of the beach. A bit close to a mangrove-lined creek for our liking but strategically placed kayaks keep the crocodiles at bay.

Day 5 — Cowie Beach to Cedar Bay (~25km)

Forecast is for SE winds 20-25 knots with rain squalls. The 0700 observations are 22knots gusting to 29knots, our strongest winds so far. We are all just a tad anxious about setting off, as once we leave Cowie Beach there are no realistic pull out options until just before Cooktown. Between us and Cedar Bay are non-landable coast and a crossing of the mouth of the crocodile-infested Bloomfield River. We finally agree to give it a go, but not before plenty of quiet reflection and some earnest words about capsize protocols and the need to minimise group spread. On the water, the sky and sea are a dirty grey and rain squalls roll through every few minutes. The only pleasure we take from the morning is arriving safely at Cedar Bay. The surf is bigger and trickier than we’d like and we have one capsize on the approach to the beach.

Cedar Bay is the site of well reported confrontations in the 1980s between Queensland Police and alternative lifestylers who had established a thriving community. Although the community is long gone, the bay still receives regular visits from sentimental hippies who spend a couple of months at a time here, living on rice and coconuts. Insensitive land clearing and piles of rotting garbage diminish somewhat the beauty of the place but provide evidence of occupation that may one day prove attractive to archaeologists.

Day 6 — Cedar Bay to Whalebone Beach (~5km)

At 0700, the wind at Low Islets is averaging over 25knots and we agree that setting off on the ~10km open water crossing to East Hope Island might be pushing our luck. We are sick of the wind that screams across the beach at Cedar Bay though and decide on a short paddle to the more protected Whalebone Beach, in the lee of Obree Point. Conditions are a little trickier than yesterday but we’re on the water for less than an hour. There’s a fringing reef immediately in front of the beach at Whalebone, which can be skirted to the north if necessary. This morning there’s enough water running over the reef to allow us to surf across it in spectacular fashion, with ‘wave-of-the-day’ awarded to the paddler who turns a near-endo into a polished recovery with a series of intuitive slap braces.

Day 7 — Whalebone Beach to East Hope Island (~10km)

Day 8 — East Hope Island (rest day)

The 10km crossing from Whalebone to East Hope is a dream. The wind has finally dropped (to less than 10 knots) and is light in our faces; the sky is bright; and the sea is a rich tropical blue once we clear the sediment-laden coastal strip.

The island is a small sand cay with grand views back to the mainland’s cloud-capped ranges. A couple of kilometres away is West Hope Island, a coral cay that’s home to thousands of nesting Torres Strait pigeons and off limits at this time of year.

There’s not a lot to do, which makes it just perfect at this stage of the trip. You can walk around the island in about 10 minutes (a bit longer at low tide), otherwise it’s reading, sleeping, eating, fishing or chatting with (and scrounging from) the yachties who occupy the island’s western mooring buoys from time to time. If you judge the risk of crocodile attack to be acceptably low, the island’s fringing reefs offer what is possibly the best inshore snorkelling on the east coast. The reef is clean and healthy, the fish are plentiful and the giant clams as large as you’ll find anywhere.

Day 9 — East Hope Island to Walker Point (~25km)

The day starts with a fast and satisfying 20km crossing from East Hope to Rocky Island. We manage it in a bit over two hours without drama, with a tail wind and with sails up. From here it is a short paddle to a pretty ordinary campsite just to the north of Walker Point. The land is brown and arid with short stubbly grass and stunted trees, in marked contrast to the lushness of the wet tropics to the south. Much of the shore is mangrove lined. This is the final night of the trip and, although we are looking forward to cold beers and hot showers, there is some sadness at the thought that it will soon all be over.

Day 10 — Walker Point to Cooktown (~15km)

A near perfect day to finish the trip, with a moderate tail wind to see us home. No-one much interested in sailing though as this will bring the trip to an even earlier end. We contemplate making a grand entrance into Cooktown along the Endeavour River but tales of careless fish cleaning at the local boat ramp and statistics of the weekly crocodile take of town dogs convince us this may not be sensible. We opt instead to land at Finch Bay, on the town’s eastern edge. Two hours after leaving Walker Point, we are all ashore, surprisingly emotional but with a great sense of satisfaction at what we’ve achieved. Sure, it’s a modest achievement but we’ve challenged and extended ourselves, come through unscathed and enjoyed ourselves along the way. What more could we ask!

What you need to know

Trip length

Our trip was along mostly undeveloped coastline of outstanding natural beauty, taking in part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Snapper Island, Daintree, Cedar Bay, Hope Islands and Mount Cook National Parks. The total distance paddled was ~130km, which we spread over eight short paddling days. We generally arrived at our campsites by late morning and spent afternoons exploring the hinterland. Relatively short days also gave us the ability to get back on schedule if we had had any weather-enforced lay days.

Weather and tides

The moderate to strong south easterly winds we experienced are typical in late August/early September, the time of year we paddled. Rain is common in the wet tropics, even in the dry season. Daytime temperatures were typically 25-30oC.

Tidal range was generally around two metres. Most beaches have a very gentle gradient and long portages are difficult to avoid at times. We carried kayak trolleys and used them on most days. Some of the beaches are fronted by fringing reefs which are exposed at low tide, making landing difficult at other than mid-high tide.

Camping

The low key backpacker resort at Cape Kimberley made a good starting point for the trip.

Camping at Snapper Island, Noah Beach, Cedar Bay and East Hope Island is only allowed within designated camp sites, for which permits should be obtained in advance from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

Permission to camp at Cowie Beach should be negotiated with the QPWS Ranger at Mossman.

Camping is not permitted within 15km of Cooktown.

Water

Fresh water is generally available from Cape Kimberley resort, Noah Beach campsite and from the creek at the northern end of Cedar Bay. QPWS recommends a minimum of 5litres/person/day be carried. We found that about 3litres/person/day was adequate for our needs under the prevailing conditions.

Crocodiles

There are crocodiles along this stretch of coast and every kayaker we spoke with who has paddled here has spotted them. We had one sighting on our final day and, a few weeks after we finished our trip, a swimmer at Cow Bay was attacked by a crocodile. We sought to minimise the risk of attack by starting north of Daintree River, finishing south of Endeavour River and paddling well out to sea when passing areas of known crocodile habitat (Cooper Creek, Bloomfield River, Annan River). We paddled outside the crocodile breeding season, did not swim (except at East Hope Island) and did not collect water after dark. Rainforest density made it impossible to observe the QPWS recommendation that campsites be a minimum of 50metres from the high water mark.

Marine Chart

Aus831 Low Islets to Cape Flattery 1:150 000

Suggested Reading

  • Gerard Effeney. An Introduction to Sea Kayaking in Queensland
  • Peter Lik. Daintree — Cape Tribulation
  • Alan Lucas. Cruising the Coral Coast
  • Andrew Short. Beaches of the Queensland Coast: Cooktown to Coolangatta

Thanks to Judd Hill for convincing us that we could do it.

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