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