The sea kayak trip north from Mackay through the Cumberland, Smith and Lindeman groups of islands to the heavily trafficked Whitsunday Islands had been on our tick list for a few years. The initial crossing from the mainland to the Cumberland Group, however, is long, and a bit daunting and the last time we were in Queensland, the 28 km journey out to either Keswick or Carlisle Island just seemed a bit too much. A year paddling the south coast of NSW with some of Australia's most experienced sea kayakers had done wonders for our skill and confidence, and in 2017 we were excited to get out to these less frequently visited islands.
Pentecost Island sunset
Blacks Beach to Keswick Island:
The tide was out at Blacks Beach when we arrived in the morning and the 200 metre gear and boat carry was only the first of many. Despite the 20 knot wind, there were a row of fishermen standing along the waters edge, all of whom ignored us completely. Just as we were putting the last few things away into our boats, a final fisherman approached and cast his line out mere metres from where we were packing. Now we had to somehow maneuver our heavily laden boats off the beach in a howling wind while somehow avoiding getting entangled in his fishing line!
Kayak sailing to Keswick Island
It was an exciting and very wet paddle to Keswick Island with the wind and waves off our beam. We had our trimmed Pacific Action sails up, and fairly flew along, although intense concentration was required to brace when required and avoid a capsize. At one point, a couple of whales surfaced very close to us and in the rough water the sight of a huge tail fin slapping the water was a bit surprising.
Having fun in a 20 knot wind
There was a tidal race near Singapore Rock which was easily avoided and, just under four hours after leaving, we happily pulled into a small south facing beach. A grassy campsite has shade from Casaurina trees, but is exposed in southerly winds. We had lunch while watching whales breaching off-shore and then walked around into the deep mangrove and reef filled bay to the north. Luckily, the wind eased enough as sun set to make the camp comfortable.
Keswick Island camp
Egremont Passage and St Bees Island:
Next morning, the wind had dropped to about 15 knots from the east, and, as the day progressed it gradually eased even more. We paddled around the rocky north end of Keswick Island fighting a strong westerly flood tide to a deep bay just before the northern tip of the island where we had a break. This little bit of the island is private and there is a small somewhat dilapidated picnic bench and some mown walking tracks. One track leads up to the ridge to the east (National Park land), and one goes to a cleared lookout area to the west (abuts National Park land).
Entrance to Egremont Passage
The tide was flooding down Egremont Passage and we were sheltered from the easterly wind so paddling between the two islands was easy. There are a few houses up on the ridge on Keswick Island and a small "glamping" and "camping" resort along the shore line that looked deserted.
Paddling around St Bees Island
Paddling around the south end of St Bees Island we had to work hard into the wind and against the tide until we got a little shelter from Aspatria Island. This side of the island feels as far away from people as you can get and the rocky beaches feel very remote. We passed at least a dozen turtles.
Tide race between St Bees and Aspatria Island
We ran into a strong tidal race at the north end of Aspatria Island and shot forward into metre high standing waves. It was great fun getting carried along quickly after some hard paddling. We had lunch in a deep bay west of Cramer Point on St Bees Island before continuing back around Keswick Island to camp a second night. By evening, the wind had died completely and it was hot and still.
Keswick Island sunset
It is another 15 km crossing north to Cockermouth Island and we felt every kilometre as there was no wind and we were paddling against the flood tide. We circumnavigated the small island before pulling into a small beach with just enough room above the sand to pitch one tent. The tide goes out a long way from this beach and leaves behind a rocky beach. We found a palm tree with green coconuts and managed to knock down one green and one brown coconut which Doug arduously shelled by bashing them with rocks.
High on Cockermouth Island
After lunch, we walked south past a shallow lagoon fringed with tiny islands and then hiked up to the 204 metre high summit. A recent fire had burned back much of the grassy vegetation and made walking much easier. Hoop pines run all along the ridge of the island, and we had great views across to Brampton and Carlisle and further east to Scawfell Island.
Sunset at Cockermouth Island
Carlisle Island to Goldsmith Island:
We got up at 5.30 am the next morning and packed quickly just managing to launch the boats before the beach became inaccessible due to dry reef. The 10 kms due west to Carlisle Island felt like a long slog as there was a 10 knot southwesterly blowing and once again we were being dragged off course by the tide.
We finally picked up a favorable current at the north end of Carlisle Island and paddled around under Skiddaw Peak to land at Maryport Bay. The old camping area is completely gone and the beach has been destroyed by cyclone Debbie. We made breakfast and coffee on the rocks uncovered by the cyclone and contemplated our next move.
Morning on the water
Without any following wind, paddling north into the flood tide was slow and arduous so we decided to continue onto Goldstream Island hoping to catch the ebb tide north. Tiny Coffin Island provided a rest stop on a steep coral beach on the north side before we continued on, finally paddling with the tide to Tinsmith and Linne Islands. There are a number of small beaches on the west side of Linne Island that would provide rest spots but we continued onto the official campsite on Goldsmith Island where we were surprised to find about 15 other campers, all of whom had arrived by power boat.
Heading north towards Goldsmith Island
It is always amazing to us how much stuff people who come by motor seem to need and how much they also need to drive around. The other campers had masses and masses of gear and buzzed between the beach and their boats (all of 50 metres) constantly. After three days of quiet, it was really very striking. You've got to think that it wouldn't kill any of them - although maybe it would - to row the 50 metres into the beach instead of using a motor.
Goldsmith Island was far too busy for our liking, so next morning we were away early heading almost due north to Thomas Island. There were lots of whales swimming around. We had been seeing whales and turtles every day in large numbers and the whales often put on quite a show. Sometimes, the turtles would be resting on the surface and we would paddle right up beside them before they noticed us.
Thomas Island camp
The yachties all anchor on the sheltered north side of Thomas Island, but the south side bays are wonderful for kayakers. The deep bay near Dead Dog Island has good snorkelling off the beach, and just enough grass under shady trees for a lovely camp. We arrived early in the day and had the whole day to snorkel around the reef and wander along the large smooth rocks along the shore. More whales were swimming off the beach and we found some more coconuts for afternoon tea. I saw a couple of large turtles while snorkelling and a very large humphead Maori wrasse. A huge school of small bait fish, numbering in the hundreds, darkened the inshore waters all day.
Reef off Thomas Island
Shaw Island, Seaforth Island the Lindeman Group:
An interesting days paddle with lots of islands to pass by. There is a small tidal race between Dead Dog Island and Thomas Island and then some steep bluffs as you paddle around to the protected north side where a few yachts were moored. Then, we had the tide with us as we cruised north past Keyser and Volskow Islands following the east side of Shaw Island. There are many small beaches in the deeply incised bays of Shaw Island.
We paddled into the deep bay near Gaibirra Island (joined to Shaw Island by a spit of sand) but it was too shallow on the eastern side to get into the beach over the reef so we stood in the water by the boats for our break. Small fish, rays, sharks and turtles were darting around in the clear shallow water spooked by our boats.
The passage between Maher and Shaw Islands was calm, we were around slack tide, and there is a sea arch on the south side of Maher Island which is worth a visit. We had set off early again without breakfast in order to catch the ebb tide, so we pulled into a small beach at the north end of Shaw Island to cook up the last of our eggs. With no wind to speak of, it was hot in the sun and good to have a morning swim in the deep water off the beach.
Maher Island arch
Continuing south down the west side of Shaw Island we paddled into Neck Bay where the water was very shallow and murky and it was hot and windless. There are a few campsites in the trees but none have much in the way of shade. We did however, find 30 litres of drinking water on the beach left behind by some motor boat user and we decanted 20 litres into our own containers. The drinking water was appreciated, but leaving plastic drums behind on the beach was not. Unfortunately, they were way too big for us to carry out. Camping at Neck Bay was pretty much unthinkable, it would be too hot and buggy so we made camp elsewhere.
Just another deserted island sunset
Lindeman Island, Pentecost Island and Cole Island:
Officially, the track to Mount Oldfield on Lindeman Island is closed after Cyclone Debbie, but we thought we could walk it anyway, and the map we had indicated that the shortest track left from Gap Beach on the north side of Lindeman Island. We paddled around the west side of Lindeman Island passing Boat Port (known to be a buggy campsite inaccessible at low to mid tide) and had just enough tide height to paddle across the reef between Little Lindeman and Lindeman Island. There were many large turtles in the bay off Gap Beach and they all seemed to be dozing drowsily on the surface.
Near Gap Beach, Lindeman Island
Gap Beach is no longer a beach, just a long expanse of rocks up to the trees, and the shoreline has been devastated by cyclone Debbie. The trees are all stripped of branches and leaves or blown completely over. There was again no wind and it was incredibly hot as we tramped along the "beach" from one end to the other looking for the track before we finally collapsed in a small bit of shade. The forest behind the beach is tangled, dense, virtually impenetrable, and, if the track is somewhere back there, we could not find it.
We paddled north and did a loop around Pentecost Island which is one of the most spectacular small islands in the area with dramatic cliffs on the north side. The water was wonderfully clear and there were more whales and turtles.
Tiny Cole Island to the south had also been hit by cyclone Debbie, but there is grass for camping in the middle of the low lying island and as such our camp caught the little bit of breeze there was. Whales were swimming off shore all afternoon and evening sometimes very close in.
We were now near the Hamilton Island noise pollution zone and saw many small and large planes flying in and out of the airstrip. Almost everything on Hamilton Island involves burning fossil fuels which is pretty confronting not only from an environmental perspective but also a health perspective.
Island camp life
Dent and Henning Islands:
The end of our trip was near but we still had a couple of days food and water left so felt no reason to hurry back to the mainland. We wanted to give Hamilton Island as wide a berth as possible so after crossing over to Dent Passage we paddled up the west side of Dent Island. The humpback whales were very active this morning, a big pod were launching out of the air again and again in Whitsunday Passage.
North to Dent Island
The west side of Dent Island is very quiet, especially so considering Hamilton's golf course is on the east side. There is a light-station about a third of the way up the island and a lovely sandy beach in a wide bay near the north end.
The passage between Henning and Dent Islands is fraught with hazards for a sea kayaker as boat traffic - ferries, barges, private boats - is almost non-stop. We paddled up the quieter west side of Henning and arrived at the campground - very nice with picnic tables, grass, and incredibly smelly toilets - to find QPWS involved in noisy restoration work. Not wanting to have lunch while listening to gas powered machines, we paddled back around to the west side of Henning and pulled into a shady beach for lunch.
Looking across to Hamilton, Dent, Henning Islands
Out in Whitsunday Passage, a pod of whales was moving around but obviously under severe stress - no wonder with all the motorized boat traffic - as one whale tail slapped at least 50 times. After lunch we went back to the campsite and unpacked the boats but waited until QPWS had left to set up the tent. Doug went snorkeling and I walked down to the south end of Henning Island.
This guy is trouble
That night, when the light easterly wind that we had dropped, we discovered that the toilet reeked. After lying in the tent for a half hour trying to sleep, we got up and moved the whole tent further away, which helped for about half an hour, but the smell soon returned. Every time I woke in the night I smelt the outhouse. The smell, however, did not deter, a small possum which came rattling around camp as soon as night fell.
South Molle Island and Mount Jeffries:
We decided to spend our last night on South Molle Island as there are some walking tracks around the island. We had previously stayed on the north end of South Molle at Paddle Bay but this time chose the south end. If I were to do it again, I would go back to the north end as Sandy Bay, at the south end, dries to exposed rock reef and there is very little shade in the campground (mostly due to cyclone Debbie).
Near South Molle Island
We crossed Whitsunday Passage early in the morning when the water was glassy smooth and before all the ferries and barges had started their incessant passage. There were some whales in Molle Channel which seems a hectic spot to hang out. A strong tidal race runs off Roma Point; we had got caught in this on a previous trip, but this time, we paddled easily around close to shore and pulled into the rapidly drying beach.
Hot but scenic walking on South Molle Island
It was quite a carry up to camp where there was very little shade, and we waffled about camping here or at the north end, but eventually settled where we were. We don't do well with an excess of choices and there are five QPWS campgrounds between the Molle Islands and Shute Harbour.
We spent the afternoon walking up to Mount Jeffries which was desperately hot in the sun with no wind at all. There is, however, a wonderful view, whales in Whitsunday Passage and it is always rewarding to look back and see how far you have traveled without using a motor.
Long Island from South Molle Island
The campsite was surprisingly busy that night with two women in a rental kayak out for one night, and three or four young fellows who had arrived by severely overloaded tinny in preparation for a weekend birthday party.
Shute Harbour and Blacks Beach:
After paddling more than 200 kilometres, the final five kilometres into Shute Harbour is anti-climatic. We found the small picnic area mentioned in Tim Trehearn's excellent book "Gone For Shore" and unloaded all our gear onto the grass. I had breakfast and packed some gear to take with me on the three bus rides that would get me back to our car.
Shute Harbour is pretty empty now that a fancy new marina and travel centre has been built at Boat Haven near Airly Beach, but a bus still shuttles backwards and forwards continuously during daylight hours. I asked the driver to let me off at the stop closest to the Greyhound terminal. After pondering this for some time he said he would do his best to remember, which seemed more than a little odd as I was the only passenger on the bus.
Airly Beach is, well, Airly Beach, an over-built, over-populated tourist trap that is inexplicably popular. I had an hour to kill before the Greyhound bus arrived so wandered downtown and bought some fresh food from an overpriced grocery store.
It is only a couple of hours to Mackay which is a somewhat gritty town without the upmarket glitter of Airly Beach. The local bus to Blacks Beach was running about 20 minutes late and it was closer to 3.00 pm than 2.00 pm when I finally walked the last half kilometre to where we had left our car parked.
I should have had some inkling that something was wrong when the key fob did not work at all, but, I could get the drivers side door open with the key. Nothing else worked, however, not the doors, not the windows, nor, more importantly, the engine. The battery was dead flat. I had jumper cables, but, they were in the back of the car, behind a bolted in cargo barrier and seemingly inaccessible to me.
No-one who drove into the parking lot would admit to a somewhat smelly, wild-haired woman that they had jumper cables, and I was unable to squirm - while sweating profusely - through the small gap between cargo barrier and car door to retrieve our jumper cables. Eventually, a helpful couple offered to drive down to a friend's place, just a few minutes away to look for jumper cables in the garage. While they were gone, another fellow arrived in his work truck and suggested I take the middle seat of the car out to get the jumper cables. Turns out, I did not have to go to those lengths as by folding the middle seat down I was able to reach enough of the bolts to detach the cargo barrier and squirm through to retrieve the jumper cables. It took a full 20 minutes to get enough charge in the car battery to turn the engine over, and I am indebted to the three people who stayed around until I got the car started.
It was after 6.00 pm and full dark by the time I had driven back to Shute Harbour to pick up Doug and, as we have only one mobile phone - which I had - he was beginning to wonder if he would be spending the night on a park bench in Shute Harbour.
All The Things:
...that it would have been helpful to know before leaving.
- Blacks Beach is the standard kayak launch site. The further north you go up the beach, the shorter the carry at low tide. There is a small public park with toilets and stairs to the beach just north of the caravan park.
- Generally, the tide floods south and ebbs north, at around 1 to 2 knots. Paddling against the tide without a tail wind is slow, heavy work.
- Around islands, the tide generally floods west and the current can be strong, but this is by no means a fixed rule.
- The campsite on Keswick Island is at GR491861, is exposed to southerly winds but has all tide access. Shelter is possible by camping behind the beach in a dip if you don't like the wind. There is a tidal race near Singapore Rock.
- The north bay on Keswick Island is private property. There is a picnic table and walking tracks.
- The campsite on St Bees Island is at GR533862 and is sheltered from southerly winds with all tide access.
- There is a tidal race with standing waves in the passage between St Bees and Aspatria Islands and also on the east side of Aspatria. These races get pretty lively even in calm conditions.
- The campsite on Cockermouth Island is at GR489013 and is mid to high tide access only.
- The old camping area on Carlisle Island is gone, along with about 50 metres of beach. It is possible to pull in at mid to higher tides, but you'll have to scratch a campsite out at the top of the beach. The resort at Brampton Island is currently closed so it is nice and quiet.
- There are a couple of sandy beaches on the west side of Linne Island that would be possible for camping if it is the weekend and the QPWS campsite at Roylen Bay on Goldsmith Island is busy. Time your arrival to catch the ebb tide through the Goldsmith-Linne passage. Roylen Bay is a deep water anchorage and is popular.
- There is a small beach on the north side of Silversmith Island where you can pull in for a break on the way to Thomas Island.
- Naked Lady Beach on the north side of Thomas Island is pretty and protected but also a popular anchorage. Dead Dog Bay at GR210269 is a great kayakers camp with all tide access and a few shady tent sites at the top of the beach and snorkelling on reefs on either side of the beach. It is exposed to SE winds.
- There is a small tidal race between Dead Dog and Thomas Islands.
- Neck Bay is sheltered, sheltered, sheltered, hot and buggy with mid to high tide access. The track from east to west beaches has been obliterated by cyclone Debbie. A better camp is on the spit at Gaibirra Island (GR169380). All tide access is available from the west.
- There is a sea arch at the south end of Maher Island.
- The resort at Lindeman Island is closed but there are ambitious plans for a massive redevelopment so paddle through the area before it turns into another Hamilton Island. Gap Beach has been obliterated and the track to Mount Oldfield is inaccessible from the north.
- Cole Island is small but delightful with all tide access on the north side and a small grassy area for camping.
- Henning Island is very popular with campers and day trippers. The moorages, although less than ideal, are inexplicably attractive to yachties. Don't expect any solitude.
- Both campsites on South Molle Island are popular as the island is within the reach of small tinnies. Since cyclone Debbie, there is very little shade. The walking tracks are great and well maintained but hot.
- There is a strong tidal race off Roma Point. It is possible to avoid it by paddling way to the south and west, or sneak through right along the shore-line.
- The bus service to return to Blacks Beach is pretty good. Local bus between Airly Beach and Shute Harbour, Greyhound or Premier south to Mackay and then local bus (some limitations in service) to Blacks Beach.