Andrew Bain explores the long beaches and palm-fringed coastline of Hinchinbrook Island from the seat of a kayak.
On Lucinda beach in northern Queensland, signs warn of estuarine crocodiles and deadly marine stingers. As we pack our kayaks at the water's edge, preparing to paddle out into the Coral Sea and along the coast of Hinchinbrook Island, a man describes the sharks he's seen in these waters. You expect wild things on Australia's largest island national park but this is ridiculous.
The most naturally perfect of Queensland's islands, Hinchinbrook rises spectacularly like a floating mountain range just offshore from the town of Lucinda. But its fame is largely limited to bushwalkers, with the 32-kilometre Thorsborne Trail along its east coast considered among the finest hikes in the country. Kayakers, too, are becoming aware of the island's pleasures, beach-hopping around rose-coloured headlands, beneath peaks and along palm-fringed coasts.
“Hinchinbrook Island must rank as one of Queensland's best sea kayaking destinations,” Gerard Effeney writes in his book, An Introduction to Sea Kayaking in Queensland.
Fittingly, as we paddle out from Lucinda beneath Australia's longest jetty – a 5.76-kilometre wonder of wood – it's difficult to determine whether we are kayaking or bushwalking. Low tide has drained the Hinchinbrook Channel to a barcode of sandbars and we are forced to walk towards the island through ankle-deep water, towing our kayaks behind.
Across the channel near George Point, the southern end of the Thorsborne Trail, the water deepens and we finally begin paddling along Hinchinbrook's east coast. For the next five days, we will creep north along these shores, kayaking just a couple of hours each day, making camp by lunch and wandering the island's trails in the afternoons, washing off the sea and sweat beneath waterfalls.
At times as we paddle, there seems nothing else to life but rhythm: the strokes of the paddles, the waves, the wind gusts, the beat of a brahminy kite's wings as it passes above and the heads of green sea turtles that so regularly break the ocean's surface. Even the island's geography seems to have a tempo – beach, headland, beach, headland – as it slides slowly past, guiding us from our first-night's camp on Sunken Reef Bay to our second stop, in Zoe Bay.
Here, rough seas around Hillock Point – Hinchinbrook's eastern-most point – yield to even more dramatic scenes, with kilometre-high mountains drawing clouds from an otherwise empty sky. From ocean level, it might easily be a view from the Norwegian fjords or the Scottish Highlands, were it not for the dense fringe of rainforest along the coast and the crocodile known to inhabit the bay. As the new-moon tide creeps high on this particular night, swallowing the beach and rising to within a few metres of our tents, we are left to wonder just how close a neighbour the croc might become.
Next morning, we wake to seas about as rhythmic as a jackhammer. Waves rebound from the headlands, hitting us first on one side then on the other, slapping us from seemingly every direction. But just when I think I've had enough of the rough ride, a dugong rises beside my kayak, first 20 metres away then just five metres. It's like an audience with Coral Sea royalty and I paddle on, riding a wave of pleasure as much as the sea – at least until Mark breaks my reverie.
“Bit of excitement for you, boys,” he calls to Pete and me, his two least-experienced paddlers, pointing to a queue of breakers curling ashore on the beach at Nina Bay, tonight's campsite. “Are your glasses tied on, Pete?”
Ten years ago, when I first visited Hinchinbrook Island, I wrote of this beach: “Make me a god for a day and place me in charge of beaches and I would create Nina Bay.” A decade on, there seems little reason to revise that thought. Coconut palms line the sand like floral fireworks and Mount Bowen, the island's highest peak, rises behind us at the top of a long and jagged ridge. Even nearer to our view is Nina Peak, Hinchinbrook Island's most famous viewpoint.
We have again made camp by lunchtime, freeing the afternoon for the hour-long climb to Nina Peak. Here we are treated to views into blonde bays and across one of Australia's largest stands of mangroves.
In the morning, we are welcomed back into the sea by a small pod of dolphins. Around a series of headlands to Ramsay Bay, we quickly assume our natural comfort zones – Pete and I are 10 metres or so offshore while Mark and Rod all but skim along the cliffs.
On Ramsay Bay, the island's longest beach, we pass the northern end of the Thorsborne Trail where a group of bushwalkers is setting out as we stroke by. It suddenly feels like the island north from here is ours alone, with few people venturing to these parts except to the resort at the far-northern tip. It is our windiest day, with 15 knots of assistance at our backs. We flip up the sails bolted to the fronts of our kayaks, rest our paddles on the decks and blow north alongside Ramsay Bay's long line of ocean-chewed dunes.
We cover 12 kilometres in 90 minutes, rounding ferocious Cape Sandwich into a castaway camp on Banshee Beach, a crescent of sand framed by rocks eroded into egg-cup shapes reminiscent of the famous Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island. Banshee Beach will be our final night on Hinchinbrook and we wake to a dawn of tropical perfection: cloud free with a mere hint of a breeze. Along Shepherds Bay, the wind is again at our backs but none of us seems to be in any hurry to leave the island. No sails are raised and we are content to potter about the coast, with green sea turtles popping up beside the kayaks.
We lunch at Cape Richards, a peaches-and-cream beach at Hinchinbrook's northern tip, in sight of the resort that is one of the few human marks on the island.
From here – Hinchinbrook's end – there are two kayaking options. We can slingshot around the tip of the island and back into the mainland at Cardwell or island-hop north to Dunk Island and Mission Beach. We have chosen the latter course, leaving Hinchinbrook to cross three kilometres of open sea to Goold Island.
There is a smaller swell than on previous days but it is somehow more unsettling in open water. Fall out of a kayak along a coast and it's like a dip at the beach; fall out in open sea and it seems more like man overboard.
We arrive at national park-listed Goold Island on low tide with hectares of reef exposed around its rim, stranding our kayaks several hundred metres short of the beach and campsite. We wade ashore through shin-high mud. Hinchinbrook is now just an imposing silhouette.
The open crossing to Goold Island has been an appetiser ahead of the waters beyond. North of Goold we face 12 kilometres of open water to reach the Family Group of islands, a prospect made more cheery by the conditions – what few wrinkles there had been in the water yesterday have been ironed out today.
From camp, we paddle for two hours. The islands ahead seem somehow never to come closer, almost right up to the moment that we coast up on to a coral beach on Hudson Island. Later, we drift on the current to neighbouring Smith Island, paddling a lap around the small, empty island for no reason other than its beauty and the air-like transparency of the water. Tonight we camp on Coombe Island, almost directly across the sea from Tully, Australia's wettest town, the mushrooming smoke of a mainland cane fire like a precursor to the clouds that will soon come marching through. By morning, rain squalls are scudding on 25-knot winds and the sea is splashed with white caps. Suddenly, the Family Group of islands feels like the Addams Family Group of islands. The remaining few islands – Wheeler, Bedarra and Thorpe – dull some of the sea's force as we paddle towards Dunk Island.
Nearing it, we glance behind to see a massive black wall of cloud rolling across the ocean, outpacing us and bringing with it a rodeo of waves and lashing us with near-blinding rain. We have been promised a wild time and here it comes.
Andrew Bain flew courtesy of Tourism Queensland.
Lucinda is about 140 kilometres north of Townsville. Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Qantas fly to Townsville from Sydney and Melbourne. Virgin Blue flies non-stop from Sydney for $179, while Melbourne passengers pay $269 and change aircraft in Sydney. Jetstar flies non-stop from Sydney for $109 and $229 from Melbourne. (Fares are one way including tax.) Virgin Blue has a daily happy hour from noon-1pm.
The only accommodation option on most of Hinchinbrook Island is camping. Sites can be booked through Queensland's Environmental Protection Agency on 131 304 or epa.qld.gov.au. If you fancy an island-end treat, there's the Hinchinbrook Island Wilderness Lodge and Resort, see hinchinbrookresort.com.au.
Week-long paddling trips along Hinchinbrook Island are operated by World Expeditions (see worldexpeditions.com), Southern Sea Ventures (see southernseaventures.com) and Coral Sea Kayaking (see coralseakayaking.com).