If you look at a map of Queensland, the stretch of coast from Innisfail to Cairns looks appealingly green – the green of national parks and reserves. With the exception of Bramston Beach, and a few small aboriginal settlements on the Yarrabah Peninsula there is no development, and, about 10 km off-shore, lie the Frankland Islands, a cluster of small continental islands surrounded by fringing reefs. Perfect in fact for a sea kayak trip up the coast with a detour to the Frankland Islands.
On our earlier trip to the Barnard Islands, we were lucky enough to meet up with a couple of sea kayakers from Cairns – Dee and Kev – who happened to know another avid Cairns kayaker – Tim – who had paddled Bramston Beach to Cairns six times. Tim and his wife Mary Francis were incredibly helpful as we pulled this trip together. Tim's intimate knowledge of the coast, plus logistical support in the form of car storage for our vehicle in Cairns, drop-off at the Greyhound bus terminal, and a pick up at the end of the trip, made everything much easier.
The first thing you have to work out on a one way journey like this is how to get back to your vehicle at the end of the trip. Usually we try to start and finish at a location with bus service. At the end of the trip, one person takes public transit back to our vehicle, while one of us waits with the gear. This works well, but inevitably makes for a tiring final day as we are up at first light to paddle in to the mainland, and then spend hours recovering our vehicle.
We elected to start paddling from Flying Fish Point as we could get a Greyhound Bus from Cairns to Innisfail and then take a local bus out to Flying Fish Point from Innisfail. However, to get all the connections to line up, we had to take the 7.30 am Greyhound Bus from Cairns which meant getting on the road from Deeral (where we were storing our caravan) at 4.00 am. Again, without the help of Tim and Mary Francis this would have been impossible.
Day 1: Flying Fish Point to Cooper Point
It was hard to find a good place to launch the kayaks at Flying Fish Point when we drove into town at 5.00 am in the dark, and, after fruitlessly driving around for a while, we returned to the first bit of beach we had arrived at from Innisfail, a small park with picnic tables and toilets opposite a café. The beach was barricaded off with some orange plastic fencing for some minor instability in the bank, but we hefted the sea kayaks over and then hastily threw the rest of the gear out onto the grass and Doug drove off heading for Cairns.
There was a slight wind blowing off the ocean and it felt damp with dew. I was bleary and thick headed with lack of sleep and felt cold, so I threw our wetsuits out onto a picnic bench and crawled into a sleeping bag until the sun came up. The owner of the Flying Fish Cafe, who inexplicably arrived at his café a full 3 hours before it opened for (sluggish) business was eyeing me warily thinking I was some new kind of beach bum who travelled with masses of gear.
Meanwhile, the shortcut that Doug took out of Flying Fish Point turned out to be a windy, dirt road dense with fog. When he arrived at Tim's house in Cairns – to be greeted with a travel mug of coffee! - there was not much time to get down to the Greyhound bus station.
Back at Flying Fish Point, the sun pulled up over the horizon and suddenly it felt warm. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and shuttled all our gear over the plastic fence, pulled the boats down to the water, and packed them both with all our gear. Then I waited a couple of hours for Doug to arrive, trying to avoid the allure of a big breakfast (at I suspect a big price tag) at the café as I was no starving. Instead, I chewed on a tomato.
Doug arrived about 10.45 am with some breakfast eggs which I wolfed down, and we were soon in the kayaks and paddling north. We had perhaps a 30 to 40 cm swell and calm winds, so the paddling was as easy as it gets. There was a small point break at Heath Point and in Ella Bay a pod of dolphins were swimming in the shallows.
Immediately north of Cooper Point, accompanied by another pod of dolphins, we pulled into the beach for a break after three hours of paddling. We had a swim, some lunch and dunked ourselves into a fresh water creek that runs out onto the beach here. The next campsite that Tim had told us about was, we thought, another three hours away, and, after our early morning start and a few busy days in a row, we suddenly started feeling tired enough to make camp.
The moon was becoming full so tides were pretty high and we had to search around a bit to find a camp site that would get us above the high tide expected that evening. We found a good flat spot with the creek to one side and the ocean out front and set up camp. I went for a walk along the beach, while Doug hung out at camp. By the time I got back, the water was almost up to our tent and still rising. We watched it nervously for an hour or two, and, although the water came close, it never flooded up over our piece of real estate.
Day 2: Cooper Point to Russel Island
I fell asleep at 8.30 pm and slept soundly until 6.00 am when we got up and packed up the kayaks. The swell had dropped over night and the tide was much lower so the breaking shore dump of the night before had all but disappeared and launching the kayaks was easy. An hour or so of easy paddling brought us in to Bramston Beach and we pulled in for breakfast. The only development we could see at Bramston Beach, apart from a boat ramp, was a small caravan park at the far south end of the beach.
The water was almost glassy calm after breakfast, so, on a whim, we decided to paddle straight out to Russel Island, a crossing of 16 km, instead of paddling north to Bramston Point and a 12 km crossing. It took us 2.5 hours to paddle out to Russel Island where a cluster of boats were hanging off the beach. At low tide, especially the big tides we were having, a rocky reef is exposed all the way around Russel Island, and we were only just able to paddle cautiously into the beach before the tide made landing impossible.
Russel Island is another idyllic Queensland tropical island with a rough coral beach and thick vegetation. At low tide, the small island to the northeast is accessible over a sandspit which floods at high tide. An unusual lagoon filled with sea cucumbers lies along the east side of the island and floods at high tide. We unpacked the boats and secured a campsite (with picnic table!) and then went out snorkelling on the reef surrounding the island.
There are some nice coral bombies and fringing coral reef off the north end of the island. We saw a number of turtles, a banded sea snake, some huge clams, and, of course, a wonderful collection of spectacularly coloured fish and corals. After snorkelling, we tried to find the trail that is rumoured to exist to the light station (automatic) on the island, but, in the dense tropical vegetation we could find no trace of any trail. We did find a huge fig tree spreading out over a 10 metre arc.
By 6.00 pm, all the boats (with the exception of one yacht) had left and the island became peaceful and tranquil. Except, of course, for the crash of waves against the shore as the tide crept higher.
Day 3: Normandy and High Islands
It would have been nice to spend a day on Russel Island but we had both favourable weather and a long way yet to travel so in the morning we continued on. Leaving Russel Island, we surprised a dugong, who quickly disappeared into the green water. We paddled past Round Island and Grange Rock, and along the east side of Normandy Island to pull up on a small coral beach on the north side. The yatchies from Russel Island were now anchored off Normandy Island and were walking on the beach so we chatted with them for a while. We walked the short beach and along a trail over to the south side of the island. There is no camping on Normandy Island but there is a large picnic area with many tables as cruise ship travels out daily from Deeral Landing. They have a coral viewing boat anchored off shore.
From Normandy Island it is another 8 km crossing to the wonderful High Island. Paddling along the west side of the island to the camping area on the northern tip, we glided over a wonderful coral reef that dropped away into deep water. Tim had told us there was good snorkelling on High Island and there is, in fact, wonderful snorkelling on High Island. At the north end of the island is a wonderful coral sand spit with deep water for swimming just off-shore. Paddling the final 200 metres to the campsite, I saw at least a half dozen turtles cruising off the beach.
We unpacked the boats and then kitted up for a 2.5 hour snorkelling session along the fringing western reef. At High Island, the fringing reef drops away quite suddenly into deeper water and the snorkelling along this drop-off was simply amazing. We passed rays, turtles, a small black tip reef shark, countless schools of fish, and coral of every shape, size and colour. In one section, we encountered a school of fish so large that I could not see Doug who was only a couple of metres distant from me. Swimming back through this school of fish later I surprised a big pelagic fish cruising by.
Most of the boats around High Island come out of Deeral Landing which is only accessible at higher tides, so the island was quiet all day, and, of course, by evening the surrounding waters were deserted and we spent yet another night on a private tropical island.
Day 4: Oombunghi Beach
We regretfully left High Island and paddled back to the mainland and continued north. This section of the trip follows the Malbon Thompson Range along a series of long beaches separated by infrequent small rocky headlands. Tim had told us of a campsite by a creek identified by locating some large paper bark trees and we had a brief stop here. A delightful place with coconut trees, large paperbarks, a creek, but, sadly also a mound of garbage. We passed by as it was too early to yet to make camp.
South of Oombunghi Beach near Gunjarra Island there is a small aboriginal settlement and we stopped for lunch at the mouth of a Buddabadoo Creek. After lunch, we paddled on until we were about 2 km south of Deception Point where we wearily pulled into camp. We had covered about 30 km, much of it against the prevailing current. We arrived at low tide and had a long carry up the flat beach to higher ground, as, another high tide was expected. Fitzroy Island now seemed very close, while Russel Island was far in the distance and barely visible even with binoculars. It is amazing how much distance you can travel just by paddling steadily forward.
I was really tired and crawled into bed early and was again asleep before 9 pm.
Day 5: Fitzroy Island
Another calm sunny morning dawned and two hours after leaving camp we arrived at the campsite on Fitzroy Island. This campsite is in a lovely location set among giant trees on smooth green grass, but, the camp management (Fitzroy Island Resort, I presume) is very poor. The amenities block verges on disgusting. It is poorly cleaned and serviced and smells of effluent, which is quite an achievement considering there are flush toilets. There are cold showers, not hot as advertised, and, at $32 for a campsite, we felt a bit ripped off. Doug walked down to reception at the nearby resort to pay for our overpriced site, and I set up camp.
There are four national park trails on Fitzroy Island. One goes up to a disused lighthouse with a fabulous view, and an optional return track continues over a rocky summit back to the campground. This trail passes through some interestingly dry and open vegetation much different to what we are used to seeing on these small tropical islands. The old lightstation has been replaced by an automated station on Little Fitzroy Island off the northeast tip of the island, but there is a fine view out to the reef and south to the far away Frankland Islands from the old lightstation. We hiked both these trails before returning to the campground and spending a couple of hours snorkelling off the beach.
There are lots of turtles feeding on the colourful reef off Welcome Bay on the west side of the island and, in addition to the usual, but still amazing corals and reef fish, are beds of soft corals of all colours spreading out over the reef.
Day 6: Turtle Bay
In the morning, we walked out to Nudey's Beach and along the interpretive trail to Secret Gardens. Pigeons that migrate from Papua New Guinea were cooing in the forest along the Secret Garden track. After breakfast, we lazily packed up our boats and paddled them down the beach to deeper water as the reef dries at low tide and we risked getting stuck inshore near the campground.
Before leaving Fitzroy Island, we spent another couple of hours snorkelling off the south end of Welcome Beach accompanied by the incredible sound of whale song! We had an easy paddle in calm winds back to the mainland and passed the pretty Little Turtle Bay before rounding a small headland and paddling into Turtle Bay. This is a delightful little bay with a couple of fresh water creeks that make swimming pools behind the beach, and, at low tide a good expanse of beach backed by huge granite boulders. We found a grassy campsite under she-oak trees and unloaded the boats.
As we sat having some afternoon tea, a pod of humpback whales swam down the beach and came close inshore, diving and splashing. It was a magnificent sight and an amazing end to this wonderful trip.
Day 7: Holloways Beach
We had a bit of rain in the night, but, luckily, everything was dry in the morning. We had a very quick breakfast and then got on the water at 7.10 am as we had about 25 km to cover. The weather was changing and big grey clouds were hanging over the peaks and rain squalls were off-shore. We started with a light tail wind as we NW along the rocky coast line to Cape Grafton, and then crossed the 7 km due west to False Cape with an increasing side wind. At Sunny Bay, there is a small pretty beach and we pulled in and cooked the last of our eggs for breakfast, as the wind steadily increased.
From Sunny Bay, we paddled WNW across to Machans Beach. This was a bit of a bumpy crossing with a brisk (15 knot) tail wind kicking the water up. About half way across, a narrow shipping channel runs out from Cairns Harbour and we had the poor luck to encounter three large cruise ships one after another as we approached the channel. I was fairly convinced I was going to become a hood ornament on the “Raging Thunder” Fitzroy Island ferry at one point. Two of these fast and massive ferries came out one after another, and, defying all logic, left the shipping channel and headed straight for us. Only some aggressive paddle waving by both Doug and myself alerted them to our presence and they altered course, missing us, by what seemed to us, too narrow a margin.
After that encounter, we sprinted across the shipping channel and didn't relax until it was a kilometre or so behind us. We landed at Machans Beach, not exactly sure where we were, and called Tim who had stored our car outside his house for the week and had kindly offered to drive down and meet us when we got to Cairns. Tim works near Holloways Beach so we paddled north to this small beach, surfed into land, and met our new friend on the beach. The 140 km long paddle from Flying Fish Point to Cairns was over.