Friday, August 25, 2017

Turtle Dreaming: Mackay to Shute Harbour By Sea Kayak


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
PC, DB. 

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

Cockermouth Island:

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.

Cockermouth Lagoon

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.


Thomas Island:

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.

Sunrise paddling

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.

Turtle dreaming

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.

Pentecost Island

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.    

Monday, August 7, 2017

Whales, Dugongs, Sea Eagles and Caves: Keppel Islands

Rosslyn Bay to North Keppel Island and Conical Island

It is a calm and sunny Saturday and the boat ramps and marina at Rosslyn Bay are very busy. We look around for somewhere else to pack the boats and launch but the tide is low and nearby Kemp Beach, although quiet, requires a long carry of boats and gear so we settle for a gravel spot next to the boat ramp, although it will mean breathing in petrol fumes for the half hour it takes us to pack our kayaks.

Setting up to back into a sea cave

Paddling out around the breakwater, we meet the Capricornia Sea Kayak club coming in for coffee mid-way through their regular Saturday paddle. They tell us that Humpy Island has wonderful camping, Considine Beach on North Keppel Island, is lovely but buggy, while nearby Conical Island also has a good camp site. As their group heads in for morning coffee, we turn our boats to the northeast and start the 14 km crossing to North Keppel Island. From Rosslyn Bay, we can just make out the buildings of the Environmental Education Centre at the south end of the island, and aim squarely for the nearby beach.

Calm water

Sometimes these long crossings seem tediously slow, and sometimes they pass relatively quickly. This was one of the latter. We saw a pod of dolphins just outside the breakwater and a dugong near North Keppel Island as well as passing a few turtles. After a brief stop on the beach near the Environmental Education Centre, we continued north to Considine Bay where a few yachts and power-boats were moored off-shore. The campground is spacious with good shade under she-oaks but behind the campground is Considine Creek and a stretch of wet muddy mangroves - the source of all the mosquitoes we had heard about.

Sea caves North Keppel Island

After lunch, we walked the Ko-no-mie Trail which loops around the island on high ridgelines with wonderful views. We saw humpback whales spouting off the east side of the island. Back at the campground, we were undecided where to camp. Apart from the boats moored off-shore, the campground was empty so we would have a peaceful night, but the stories of blood-thirsty bugs had us worried and small island camps are always somehow nicer. In the end, as the sun set, we paddled a couple of kilometres over to Conical Island to camp under a big spreading she-oak. Ironically, the mosquitoes were pretty ferocious and we ended up in the tent way too early.   

Evening Light over the Keppel Islands

Sea Caves on North Keppel and Humpy Island

In the morning, I walked around tiny Conical Island while Doug paddled then passing the north east side of Corroboree Island we paddled down the east side of North Keppel Island. North Keppel Island might be only 5 km long, but there is a lot to see in that short distance with 3 or 4 very deep sea caves. With calm winds and seas, we were able to paddle right to the back of them all. A couple look almost impassable until you get close and then find you can back a kayak in for at least 50 metres.

Exploring sea caves on North Keppel Island

We sidled by the east sides of Pumpkin and Sloping Islands and pulled up on the small beach at Miall Island for lunch. This close to Great Keppel Island any feeling of solitude is gone, particularly on a weekend when power boats and jet skis are prolific.

On our way to Humpy Island we paddled past the defunct and rusting underwater observatory. A couple of people were snorkelling and we could see some fish swimming around the pylons but it seems dubious that the observatory ever provided great undersea viewing. Monkey Beach at the south end of Keppel Island was busy and it was a relief to paddle the 3.5 kilometres across to peaceful Humpy Island.

Looking down on Humpy Beach 

The camping area is behind a spit of sand with a deep water beach and is set under the shade of gently waving she oaks. It is a beautiful spot and seems far away from the infernal combustion engines around Great Keppel Island. A short track winds up onto the grassy hillside and follows the ridge along before dropping down to the beach near a small creek. The views are glorious and it is interesting to look south to Hummocky Island and Cape Capricorn where we paddled on our last trip.

Hummocky Island from Humpy Island

Barren Island, The Child and Red Beach

About 8 km east of Great Keppel Island lies Barren Island and nearby, The Child. Both are steep and rocky with no beaches and some fringing reef on the north side. Fortified with a solid breakfast of eggs and bacon, we paddled past Halfway Island, Clam Beach and the narrow spit of rocky reef south of Red Beach before paddling east to Barren Island. A gentle westerly blew up and made the crossing a little quicker.

Doug at Barren Island

The water is clear and deep off the north side of Barren Island and a colourful coral reef fringes this side of the island. Just east of Barren Island is The Child, a steep rocky islet with a series of caves used by nesting sea birds along the east and south sides. It was fantastic to paddle around both islands, looking up at steep sandstone and granite cliffs, and into the deep clear water. We paddled back around to the west side of Barren Island before heading back to Great Keppel Island. There is a light station on the headland just north of Red Beach and we aimed for this prominent marker.

Doug arriving at Barren Island

Red Beach is gorgeous and deserted with barely even a footprint on the beach. After many hours in the boats, we are happy to get out for lunch, a swim, and a wander along the beach. There is evidence of goats everywhere and the vegetation is pretty denuded. Apparently, the lease holder of Great Keppel Island is supposed to control the feral goats but there is no evidence of any control activities. We are only 5 km from camp and happy to paddle back to Humpy Island for the night.

Barren Island

Great Keppel Island and Mount Windham:

A friend had told us about walking tracks on Great Keppel Island so we decided to have a day out of the kayaks and do some walking on the island. First, however, we had to paddle over to Long Beach. Long Beach was deserted when we arrived, but day trippers do walk over from Fisherman Beach where the tourist accommodation is situated. A couple of old roads lead over the ridge-line from Long Beach but nothing is signed and there is a quite a maze of old vehicle tracks so it is hard to know which one to follow.

Red Beach, Halfway and Humpy Islands

The one we took ended up climbing up over a ridge-line before running downhill to the old tourist resort. The now defunct Keppel resort is just one of many along the islands and coast of northern Queensland. Some resorts get damaged by cyclones and are never rebuilt, and some, like this one, just seem to become unprofitable and get abandoned. Numerous plans have been proposed to rebuild Keppel resort but right now, the entire sprawling resort complex lies behind a wire fence and is simply falling apart.

The other side of Great Keppel Island

We passed a few tourists who had been dropped off by boats for the day wandering around looking lost. Great Keppel Island is not exactly as described in the tourist literature. There is still some accommodation on the island and a couple of shops, open sometimes, closed others, but the whole tourist area is falling into disrepair.

Eventually, we stumbled on an old sealed road leading east into the hills signed "lookout" and followed this. It was hardly salubrious walking, passing by more abandoned buildings and piles of garbage. No trees shadowed the road and we were in the baking sun. After a couple of hours of walking from Long Beach, we came to a sign pointing to Mount Windham and a bush track that offered at least a little shade and semblance of not walking through Thunderdome.

Evening light over Great Keppel Island

Mount Windham is 175 metres high and does offer good views of the islands to the south. We found a couple of short-cuts on the way back to Long Beach and were able to avoid the abandoned resort area, but these tracks also take you past piles of garbage. Great Keppel Island was proving underwhelming.

After lunch and a swim, Doug paddled straight back to Humpy Island but I detoured over to Halfway Island and paddled a lap around Humpy Island. Humpy Island from the water is pretty scenic with lots of little rocky passages to paddle through and high dark cliffs.

Humpy Island sunset

Big Peninsula, Middle and Miall Islands:

Finally some wind. A moderate southeasterly started blowing in the night and we anticipate a day of kayak sailing and quick travel. It is the most interesting paddling conditions we have had yet and we bounce our way out to the east quickly passing the peninsula south of Red Beach. Bald and Sykes Rocks protect south side of Wreck Bay and once we come around the peninsula north of the lightstation the sea is calm. 

Doug sailing along the east coast of Keppel Island

We pull into a small beach and walk up a shale hillside to height of land and out to the light station at the end. Goats have denuded all the vegetation on these eastern hillsides and they scurry away as we walk past. Back at the boats, we continue sailing north around Big Peninsula and pull into the sheltered beach on the north side. There is a lovely but small coral reef on the north side of Big Peninsula and we spend an hour snorkeling over the colorful coral gardens. In addition to lots of reef fish we see a small wobegong shark and two turtles, one quite large.

Wreck Beach from Goat Ridge

We still have favorable winds and manage to sail the kayaks, barely paddling a stroke across to Middle Island. On the north side, the two small beaches are being eaten away and trees are falling into the water. A bit more sailing and we are at Miall Island for the night. It's a reasonable campsite, but not near as nice as the others. It feels a little unloved with a fire pit (illegal) - which I disassembled - and long lumpy ground cover to camp on. The mosquitoes are surprisingly bad.

Looking out to Barren Island

Cetacean Encounters and Rosslyn Harbour:

It is about 12 kilometres back to Rosslyn Bay, and we have just the lightest puff of an east wind. Enough to gently fill the sails and lift the boats a little, but not near enough to sail. Not far off-shore of Miall Island we encounter a huge turtle, and, halfway to Rosslyn Bay we come across a group of three whales, we assume, based on size, Mum, Dad and baby. They are undisturbed by our presence and we float along beside them for a long time. Every so often, they gently rise to the surface and blow. As we sit quietly, we can hear their whale song. It is one of those magical sea kayaking moments that make all the long hours spent in the kayak seat worth every second.   

Ridge walking Humpy Island

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Sea Kayaking 1770 to Emu Park

Day 1: 1770 to Bustard Head

The worst part of the day is over early with a long and tedious drive south from Rockhampton to 1770. Doug and I split the driving, N talks. At Agnes Waters we stop at a bakery for N to buy lunch. The town is busy with backpackers lining up to head out for a $17 surf lesson. The Great Barrier Reef extends all the way to Agnes Waters and south of that is the bulk of Fraser Island, which makes you wonder how much surfing you actually get for $17 off this coast line.

The boat ramp at 1770 is overlooked by a cafe and the patrons watch as we shuttle vast loads of gear - food and water for 10 days plus all our camping gear - down to the beach and somehow manage to stuff all of it into our three single sea kayaks. The last thing we do is attach our sails although it is hot and windless in the sheltered waters of Round Hill Creek.

The tide is low and we have to paddle three kilometres out the channel against the tide to Round Hill Head before we can point the boats north to Bustard Head. We plan to stay off-shore of the long curving beach of Bustard Bay and are expecting a long slog north to Bustard Head with heavy boats; but, a gentle south wind has built up and with sails the 20 km passes relatively quickly and we are soon rounding the headland to the west. A beautiful campsite under pandanus trees is tucked into a small cove right under Bustard Head and we pull in to make our first camp of the trip.

Clews Point from Bustard Head

I want to get up to the lighthouse before dark so set off straight uphill through the bush behind camp thrashing up a steep slope festooned with spider webs. I had some idea that I might run into the old track that is shown on the map but the bush just gets thicker and thicker and as day light fades, I bash back downhill to the shoreline arriving slightly west of camp. An easy scramble west around rocks and I am on a gorgeous little crescent shaped beach sheltered from wind and sea.

A ramshackle, and presumably failed, backpacker tent camp is deserted and derelict in the trees behind the beach. As far as I can tell from our map this is National Park land so I am not sure why the owners of all this garbage have not been ordered to clear it up. A short distance beyond the eyesore a National Parks sign marks the walking track to the lighthouse, but, it is dark now so I pick my way back over the rocks stopping for a night time swim in a small cove near camp.

Day 2: Bustard Head to Richards Point

I get up in the dark but do not reach the lighthouse early enough to see the sunrise. The lighthouse and out-buildings have been restored by volunteers after years of vandalism and now the area is all well maintained and tidy. A small cemetery nearby reveals the hardships of the times - the few graves in-situ chronicle whole families of early death.

Today we are paddling to Rodds Peninsula, a wide headland with Pancake Creek to the east and Worthington Creek and Rodds Harbour to the west. We first paddle around Clews Point and into the mouth of Pancake Creek. At least a dozen yachts are moored well into the sheltered waters and I am glad that in kayaks we can land and camp in places larger boats can not go. Into a westerly wind, we paddle across to Rodds Peninsula and slowly head northwest along the shore line. There is no sailing today.

After what feels like a long slog we pull into a small beach for lunch. The wind is stronger after lunch and as we paddle past each small headland traveling west we get into more and more wind. The spray flying off our paddles soaks us through. Richards Point looks like all the other small points except Ethel Rocks lies a few hundred metres off shore and the coastline turns due west. We pull into a tiny low tide beach sheltered between big boulders and Doug goes south while I go west looking for a campsite.

Sunset near Point Richards

We settle on a campsite under pandanus trees on a dune above the beach on the southeast side of Richards Point, Doug and I follow a beaten in vehicle track to Richards Point and then walk along the beach to the rocks near Flora Point. I am trying to catch a glimpse of Seal Rocks which we had hoped to use as a waypoint for the next days paddle, but the 20 knot wind has blown up big whitecaps and only a low non-descript landmass is visible to the west. There are a series of small creeks running out onto the beach between Flora and Richards Point which might provide fresh water if you went far enough upstream.

Flora Point

Day 3: Richards Point to Wild Cattle Island

The greatest danger on this section of coast is crossing the shipping channel that leads into the Port of Gladstone. The Port services almost 3,000 ships per year, most of them large tankers carrying LPG and coal. While waiting to enter the Port, the ships moor off-shore. There are so many (17 at one count) that at night their lights resemble an off-shore city. The recommended crossing for small craft is between channel markers G1 and G2 where the dredged channel is just under a kilometre wide.

Our plan is to head directly west from Richards Point to the north end of Wild Cattle Island, passing Seal Rocks along the way. If we are tired, we can camp on Wild Cattle Island, otherwise, we plan to continue north to Canoe Point and cross the shipping channel over to Facing Island to camp. It is 24 kilometres across Rodds Bay where the current ebbs east and floods west at up to 1.5 knots.

Rounding Richards Point we are dismayed to find the westerly wind blowing, although not nearly as strongly as the previous day. It is difficult to get our bearings as we cannot see Seal Rocks and are getting blown eastwards at a steady place.

Doug sailing past Hummocky Island

We paddle into a small beach near Flora Point and walk back into the trees to get out of the strong wind. A few compass bearings help us get navigationally sorted and we decide the best course of action is to wait an hour and see what happens with the wind. Currently, both wind and tide are against us making a crossing to Wild Cattle Island at least a 5 to 6 hour endeavor. By the time we have had a cup of tea in a sheltered location, the wind has begun to subside and it is time to leave.

As the wind abates, the tidal current also becomes more favorable and we are soon paddling across a very calm ocean heading roughly west. Hummock Hill on Hummock Hill Island provides a convenient landmark to keep on our right and soon I can see the white navigation marker situated roughly midpoint of Wild Cattle Island. This becomes our bearing point as we paddle steadily west.

By the time we reach Wild Cattle Island we are all feeling a bit tired and ready to camp. Doug finds a good campsite under casuarinas above the beach where deeper water comes close inshore. The island is being eaten away by the ocean and fallen trees line the beach in both directions.

The sea to the north and east is lit up overnight by flashing green and red channel markers, the light station on Facing Island and the yellow glow of the tankers off-shore.

LNG tanker in the shipping channel

Day 4: Wild Cattle Island to Facing Island

We get away early next morning hoping to catch the current north to Canoe Point and maybe even cross the shipping channel near slack tide. It takes an hour to each Canoe Point where there is water and garbage facilities available. Picking out G1 and G2 from Canoe Point is impossible as, although lit at night, they are 5.5 km north of Canoe Point. However, by lining up the yellow marker north of Canoe Point with Rocky Point on Facing Island, we know the approximate location of G1 and G2 and have something to aim for.

A brisk southerly has blown up and we make fast progress away from Canoe Point towards Facing Island. We would have completed the 6 km crossing in under an hour had Doug not noticed one of the tankers off-shore was heading south down the shipping channel towards Gladstone Port. Long conversations are difficult in kayaks bobbing in wind and waves, but Doug and I had no doubts that our safest option was to sail parallel to the channel until the tanker had passed by; a course of action recommended by the Port Authority.

Inexplicably, N, who is much more conservative than Doug and I seemed to want to go on, based on observations he had made the previous evening. The decision, of course, is a classic low probability/high consequence event. Tankers travel at up to 20 knots, take 2 knots to stop moving forward and have a blind spot that extends several hundred metres in front of the bow. Only a fool in a kayak would attempt to race one across a channel.

Curtis Island

In any event, we were now at near full ebb stream and sailing northwest in a brisk wind parallel to the shipping channel we were only just holding our position (the tidal current reaches 3 knots). It was not long before the tanker, the initials LPG writ large on the side, approached. The way behind the tanker was clear and we could resume paddling north to Facing Island. There was a tidal race near Oyster Rock which required some extra paddling effort but once we pulled into the bay we were out of the main current and we came ashore for lunch.

It is a pleasant paddle north up Facing Island and at low tide, all the rocky reefs provide interesting paddling over colourful coral gardens. We found a campsite just north of Pearl Ledge up in the dunes above the beach. I wandered along the tops of the sand dunes at sunset watched by kangaroos standing on the highest points. There are a couple of small wetlands behind the beach and plenty of birds.

North along Facing Island

Day 5: Facing Island to Curtis Island

In the morning, we continued following the coast of Facing Island to North Point where there are a scattering of houses. Just inside North Entrance, there is a council campsite with tank water and garbage, although all the boat campers were actually camped in the bush outside the campground. The tide runs at a couple of knots out of North Entrance but with a tail wind we sailed easily across not even noticing any drift.

Near Black Head on Curtis Island

Curtis Island, which looks uninspiring on the map, is actually delightful on the east coast. We had a good wind to help us along the beach leading to Connor Bluff and then along rocky cliffs to Black Head. In the bay west of Black Head is a QPWS 4WD campground and as we paddled into the bay we could hear loud music blaring out. Pulling in for a break as far from the campground as possible we had lunch while the bogans at the campground spun donuts on the sand beach.

I had picked out a couple of small bays away from the 4WD campsites and inaccessible by road. We chose the middle one to make camp and had yet another gorgeous campsite under tea-trees in a tiny sand bay enclosed by steep cliffs. That afternoon, I just had time to wander up the rocks at the north side of the bay where I found an old horse track that led through a lovely forest of gnarled old gum trees with an under-storey of black boys.

Camp on Curtis Island

Day 6: Curtis Island to Cape Capricorn

It is a gorgeous morning with a pink tinged sky at sunrise and before we leave I walk up the high point north of camp where there is a fabulous view up a coastline of rocky headlands and tiny sand coves culminating in the longer sand beach before Cape Capricorn.

Looking north to Cape Capricorn

We have a very light tail wind, just enough to puff out the sails, and it is a lovely paddle north along the rocky coast. After about an hour, we reach a tiny sheltered bay, the perfect spot for a short stop, and we pull in and wander along the beach. It is only about 13 km along to Cape Capricorn where we hope to camp, but now mostly sand beach.

A brisk wind has blown up from the southeast and is dumping wind waves onto the last beach before Cape Capricorn. Doug and I would rather keep paddling to camp rather than going through the hassle of landing our heavy boats, dragging them up the beach out of reach of the tide, and then man-handling them back down again, but N wants to land so we pull in beside some rocks. It is cold in the wind and hard to find any shelter so it is a quick stop and not really worth the effort.

Paddling around Cape Capricorn

Cape Capricorn is wonderful. Big shale cliffs with deep water running right up to the cliffs. An eagle has a nest on a rock platform on the east side and the north side has crenelated rock formations like tiny alpine ridges running into the sea. Doug and I paddle close in enjoying every moment, but N is out wide, perhaps worried about getting washed onto the rocks.

I had heard of a campsite at Jetty Beach below the lighthouse but when we get there, we find nothing suitable. The ground is steep and rocky, and the tiny beach will be gone at high tide. Paddling a little south, we meet a yachtie who recommends we paddle down to Yellow Patch, a few kilometres south in the mouth of a bug ridden estuary. We poke around for a while looking for a campsite that does not involve a kilometre long carry across grey mud to reach or sleeping on rocky steep ground but find nothing. N votes to paddle down to Yellow Patch but Doug and I win the vote, two to one, and we paddle back around the Cape to a good camp under tea trees tucked in the north corner of the last sand beach before the cape. The ground is soft for sleeping and there is even a picnic table. The only problem is the hordes of mosquitoes that descend as soon was we set up the tents.

The beach near Cape Capricorn

Doug and I walk up to the lighthouse and admire the expansive view of Keppel Bay and the islands. The north end of Curtis Island is all coastal sand and mudflats and the source of all the mosquitoes. Even in the wind at the lighthouse the mosquitoes are voracious. From the lighthouse, we follow an open grassy ridge back down to camp and move the table out onto the beach where the mosquitoes are much reduced. Strangely, once night falls they disappear and it is lovely walking along the firm sand beach under bright stars.

Cape Capricorn Lighthouse

Day 7:  Cape Capricorn to Hummocky Island

We have a short day planned to Hummocky Island where we want to explore the sea caves. It is 10 kilometres northeast to Fairway Rock and another 2 kilometres on to Hummocky Island. We reach the island at a semi-enclosed bay with a jagged rock wall providing shelter from the southeast winds. Heading east, we pass a low narrow sea cave that rumbles like a dragon as the sea goes in and then puffs out gentle plumes of sea spray.

At the northeast tip of the island there are two big caves which Doug and I paddle into. It is unusual to find sea caves like these in Queensland; they are more commonly a feature of the south coast of NSW or the east coast of Tasmania. N goes on ahead to the beach on the north side of the island, while Doug and I paddle into both big caves. The more westerly cave is larger and has swallows darting around under the roof and extends a very long way back. The small waves running in make a surprisingly loud boom as they wash up the rocks at the back of the cave.

Hummocky Island is a popular anchorage and five boats are anchored off the north side when sun sets but no-one comes ashore and we have the island to ourselves.

Ship Rock

Day 8: Hummocky Island to Divided Island

It is our longest day and longest crossing of the trip but our boats are lighter now. The tide floods west into Keppel Bay so we leave early to get some push from the current. We plan to camp at Divided Island but it is small and not visible from Hummocky Island. Peak Island, however, about 4 kilometes south of Divided Island is obvious and we want to visit it on the way past so we head off on a northwesterly course aiming straight towards the middle of Peak Island.
About 2.5 hours into the 23 km crossing we are perhaps 4 kilometres east of Peak Island and Divided Island is now clearly visible. I suggest that we could alter course and paddle more northerly to Divided Island but Doug is keen to visit Peak Island so we agree to carry on as per our original plan.

No sooner have we resumed paddling than N splits off and starts striking out to the south. We watch incredulously as N, who prefers paddling very close together, rapidly moves further and further south. We shout, wave our paddles, blow whistles, but, N never looks round and is soon a distant speck on the horizon. At this distance, it is hard to tell where N is going but he appears to be heading south to Arch Rock. I am gobsmacked and worried. Chasing him down is not an option, nor is calling him on the 'phone (his mobile is turned off and packed away), and the nearest land is 14 km to the west.

We discuss our (limited) options as we continue paddling west and finally decide that if we do not see him returning to Peak Island by the time we arrive there we will call Marine Rescue. I have an unwritten rule that you should never get into a situation that you cannot explain to rescue services, and am wondering how this situation can possibly be resolved under this assumption.

Paddling into Peak Island, we keep a watch on the tiny yellow speck that is N in case we have to communicate his "last known point." Gradually, he seems to be coming closer and finally we can see that he is now paddling north and he arrives at the south end of Peak Island a few minutes before us. He is tired out from some frantic paddling and imparts some garbled and rather inexplicable story about rogue currents from the Fitzroy River some 20 km to the south. In the ultimate irony, N explains that he thought he might have to call Marine Rescue to save us!

Peak Island from Divided Island

There is a beach on the NW side of Peak Island where we have a short rest and then paddle north past Split Rock to Divided Island where a tidal race runs off the south end of the island. The campsite at Divided Island is non-existent and we have to scratch a level area out of the dirt above the beach.

N rests in the shade while D and I wander around the island. At low tide the island is split in two and the north half is easy to walk around on rock platforms. Heading around the south half, I find a steep valley that I can scramble up through prickly pear to reach the 36 metre high point. It might not be a very tall island, but the view from the top is wonderful, and an eagle flies over head with a fish caught in its talons.

The lights of Emu Park are bright at night and a sad reminder that tomorrow is our last day on the water.

Doug on Divided Island

Day 9:  Divided Island to Emu Park

We have only 11 kms left to paddle and while N is ready to get back home, Doug and I would rather stay out, meandering north, camping on islands, and ignoring the "real" world. A whale broaches over and over to the west of the island while we have breakfast but is gone by the time we launch. We get away at 8 am and with a light beam wind soon arrive at Wedge Island where we go ashore for a few minutes.

Wedge Island from Divided Island

A bearing off the map lines up exactly with a curving white shape on shore that we presume is the "singing ship," located on Emu Point, adjacent to the boat ramp, and, as we paddle in, the white curve resolves itself into a sculpture, there is the jetty, behind that the boat ramp, and, after 9 days and over 200 kilometres the end of the trip.