Summary: Nina Bay, Little Ramsay Bay, Zoe Bay, Mulligan Falls
by Holger Knublauch
I very much enjoy hiking and have been walking in many national parks around the world. For example I have covered about half of the walks in Chapman's Bushwalking in Australia guidebook. I did all of those before having kids, over ten years ago. I have mostly limited myself to day hikes since then. However, sometimes I feel the passion flowing back and want to get out into the bush again with a backpack. Like in 2011 (Cycling from Cairns to Cooktown) I was able to take a week off in 2012 to do something that would be too difficult with two children. This year it was the Thorsborne Trail, a magnificent overnight walk along the east coast of Hinchinbrook Island in tropical North Queensland, Australia. Here is my report of this unforgettable trip. Please excuse that the photographs don't give justice to the beauty of this island, and obviously they cannot transport the experience of open space, the world's freshest air and the sound of leaves waving in the wind.
Hinchinbrook Island is a truly unique place in the world. Over 50 kilometres long and 10 km wide, the whole island has been a National Park since 1930. There are basically no facilities on the island, and the main feature of the few designated bush camping areas are metal boxes that can protect your food supplies from the native rat population. The trail, spanning 32 kilometres along the east coast of Hinchinbrook Island, is rough with lots of rocky sections, stumbling over roots and many creek crossings. The island provides a rich variety of vegetation zones, including dry scrubs, mangroves and extensive lush tropical rainforests. The backdrop of the walk is a chain of steep mountains, rising to over 1100 metres. No official trails lead up to those peaks.
The feeling of isolation on this island is enhanced by the fact that access is limited to 40 people per day, regulated by a permit system. I made the decision to attempt this walk rather spontaneously and was pleasantly surprised that camping permits were still available. This period of the year - at the end of the dry season - appears really perfect for the walk and this north Queensland "winter" was blessed with plenty of blue skies. I had perfect weather or the whole duration of the walk.
On Monday I took the Greyhound bus from Cairns to Port Hinchinbrook, a small coastal development close to Cardwell. This place was heavily hit by the massive cyclone Yasi two years before, and some may remember the images of yachts piling like toys in the harbor. I do remember driving through this area a couple of days after the cyclone turned it into ground zero. All trees were bare or flattened, houses ruined. Yet it was amazing to see how quickly nature had recovered - there were few traces of the devastation left to see. The resort where I spent the night was nice and relaxing, yet the place still feels a bit artificial and devoid of life - no people on the streets, many vacant lots etc.
I had booked four nights on the island, which is one day more than really needed. I wanted to completely wind down for a couple of days before getting to the more strenuous parts. So the first day was simply from the ferry landing in the northern mangroves to the next camping area at Nina Bay.
The ferry crossing departed at 10:30 and took about 1:15 hours. While the distance from the mainland is quite short, the boat had to circumnavigate shallow areas of seagrass inhabited by protected dugongs. The ferry trip was very beautiful, with full sight of the steep mountains of the island, seamed with a lush green carpet of mangroves and the occasional sandy beach. The last section of this trip is through a system of channels through the mangroves, as shown in the following picture.
Once on the island, a short board walk provided a glimpse of the scenery ahead. (The hill in the middle of the image is Nina Peak.)
Thorsborne Trail is equally a beach walk and a forest walk, and after a few hundred metres through bushland I reached the white sand of Ramsay Bay at noon. A surreal place in the shimmering heat.
Once back into the bushland and past another smaller beach, a side trail leads to Nina Peak. The side trail is not officially maintained and rough and steep in places, and one exposed section may probably be a bit scary when wet. But the views are absolutely worth the 360 metre climb. Looking north from the top I could see the extent of the channel system that the ferry navigated through.
Looking south I could see Nina Bay where I would spend the first night, and Little Ramsay Bay where I would spend the second night.
In the afternoon I set up my tent directly on the warm sand of the beach underneath some palm trees. I shared the first camp site with a group of teenagers from a local high school, and they were well behaved and lead by good teachers. The group departed in the early next morning and then always was a day ahead of me. I basically had the next three camp sites for myself.
It was excellent to be able to get into the warm ocean water to wash before getting ready for "dinner". In the interest of minimizing weight, my main source of energy was a kilogram of oats, paired with "milk" created by mixing creek water with those infamous Nestle Sweetened Condensed Milk tubes. And tons of Muesli Bars. But I didn't come here for the good food. This was an all-exclusive holiday.
I was a peaceful night sleeping on the beach, and I could see the sun rise right from my tent when I woke up. There was not much time to linger though, because the tropical sun rises quickly and by 8 am it became unbearably hot in the tent so that I had to get out. I took a leisure stroll along the length of the beach, and then set out to climb Nina Peak (again) to fill the spare time before noon. This was very beautiful again, yet I quickly noticed how much fluid I had to drink and half way up the hill I decided it was wisest to return to the camp site because I had already used up all my water. In a situation where there are very few (if any) fellow walkers on the trail, and any emergency help far away, you think twice about taking any risk. Over the next days I easily drank 4 litres of water per day and still felt dehydrated.
Anyway, back to Nina Bay and with by backpack on, I continued the trail to the next camp site at Little Ramsay Bay. The walk was short - simply over a hill, past a rocky little bay and over another saddle. But taking it easy and slowly was part of the plan, so I took my time to look around, sitting under a large overhanging rock at Boulder Bay for an hour was a moment of blissful relaxation.
Arriving at Little Ramsay in the early afternoon, I had another couple of beach walks and took a dip into the freshwater lagoon right behind the camp area. The water there was too warm for my taste, and I didn't fully trust the deep water as crocs may theoretically visit those lagoons from time to time. With my tent under the palm trees of the sand dune I had another peaceful night, looking at an amazing starry sky at night. In general, the sun goes down quickly in the tropics, so by 7 pm it's pitch dark, so nothing really left to do when you are far off civilization than going to bed. Another reason for heading into the tent early were the hordes of mozzies, sandflies and march flies. Insect repellant spray was always the first thing I put on after getting up or out of the water.
This day was the longest and hardest section of the trail, so I started relatively early at 8 am. There were two rather rough climbs up over two rocky headlands after Little Ramsay Bay, followed by the ascent of a low saddle through dry forest. I did not take the side trip to Banksia Bay (which could have been an alternative camp site) but continued for a couple of hours through bush land, with several stops to catch my breath in the hot and rocky terrain. Once over the main saddle, the vegetation suddenly changed into very green tropical rainforest. These forests create walls of green around you, and it's hard to imagine how anyone can penetrate them without paths. It was very beautiful with birds singing and the sunbeams reflecting on the shiny leaves of evergreen trees. I did not see a single snake during the walk but countless lizards including maybe half a dozen of large monitor lizards.
I used many creek crossings as excuses to simply sit down on a rock to take a break, especially to relieve myself from the extra weight of the backpack. Overall I probably stopped for as long as I actually walked, i.e. 15 minute breaks after 15 minutes of walking. I prefer walking reasonably fast as my shoulders are not good at carrying backpacks for long periods of time. After a few hours in the rainforest I reached North Zoe creek which is a fairly broad river bed filled with rocks and deep pools on both sides. The seaward facing lagoon area is inhabited by crocs, but the crossing easily avoids them from a safe distance, at least during the drier months. As it was quite a hot day (30 degress Celsius) I was pleased to find a cool creek shortly afterwards and had a hop into the water for a swim. Whatever clothing you wear doesn't matter as it will dry within minutes.
Shortly afterwards the vegetation changed again into mangroves, with paperbark trees and open areas of high grass. Finally, about 20 minutes after passing some very large boulders, I reached the sands of Zoe Bay - a very broad and shallow beach that forms an extensive curve to the north. Lined with palm trees and enclosed by forested hills as well as the high peaks of Mount Bowen in the background this is arguably the most beautiful beach on the trail. It also has the best developed camping area including several shaded areas directly at the beach.
After having been walking for about seven hours it was rewarding to simply lay down on the camping mattress for an hour and enjoy the sensation of energy streaming back through the body. Around 4:30 I walked ten minutes further south to Zoe Falls - a splendid waterfall pluging into a wide rock basin filled with clear water teeming with friendly fishes. The rock basin is probably 30 metres across and a few metres deep, making it a really perfect place for a swim, to look at the tall trees surrounding the water and high up on the cliffs. The water was quite warm and I spent a long time in the water.
Growing up in a densely populated country such as Germany, is probably hard to imagine that I collected water from the very same creek a few meters downstream on my way back to the tent for drinking. I did use water purification tablets just in case, but fellow walkers that I met along the track told me they didn't even care to treat the water and didn't feel stomach issues or anything. On this island, without large animals or any sort of agricultural development this sounds indeed like a fairly safe thing to do. Yet when you are so far off medical help I didn't want to take any risk at all.
In the late evening I simply sat on the beach for an hour to watch the sun go down. It is amazing just how long such a hour of your life can suddenly last if you only pay attention and cherish every moment. I observed the shadows getting longer, the tide receding, waited for the first star to appear, a boat passing by on the horizon, and so on. It is a rewarding experience to simply be allowed to take the time, without deadlines of work or kids to take to bed and other routine tasks. An hour spent on the island like that will probably appear like a life time of memory compared to any single hour at routine work or on days where you don't remember what you did at all even on the next day. These are priceless memories that stay with you.
After another relaxing night to the sound of the tides, I first walked the length of Zoe Bay to the very remote northern tip. This was a very long and meditative stroll, and I took a good look at the driftwood, shells and the odd pieces of plastic washed ashore. This forth day of my hike was another relatively hard section where I took many breaks especially during the steep climbs. The trail went past Zoe Falls again, where I sat on the rocks for a while before a really hard climb started in the late morning heat. The climb up to the tip of the falls is quite rough and they have attached a rope at one section where I pulled myself up. Nothing technically difficult though, and also possible to do with kids, so no drama here. The plateau on top of the falls provided great views back to the bay and beyond, and even had some private bathtub like pools.
After the falls area, the scenery became quite barren and exposed while climbing up to the highest point of the trail. The scenary reminded me of the Stirling Ranges in Western Australia, with grass trees and dry scrub that provides no shade in the high noon sun. I found it quite strenuous and was happy to reach the cairns piled up at the pass, with magnificent views back north to the steep mountains inland.
On the other side of the pass, the vegetation changed back to beautiful mixed rainforest again and I spent quite some time simply sitting on the trail and looking at flowers and lizards.
The benefit of climbing to higher grounds is that you get nice views like the following.
The trail dragged on in the heat for a couple of hours with some steep sections and one major creek to cross, until it descended into the lowland rainforests of the southern part of Hinchinbrook Island. After a series of steps I reached Mulligan Falls, with a very tranquil camping area underneath tropical trees. This is the only inland camp site without a beach, so I planned my trip to not arrive too early as there is not much to do beside enjoying the waterfall.
Similar to Zoe Falls but with much more water tumbling down the cliffs along a rocky slide this was yet another great place to swim. I really enjoyed that and - once more - had the whole place for myself. In fact the only people I met that day were two hikers coming the opposite way. The night under the trees was a bit less relaxing than the other nights because the native rats (or whatever other animals) were noisily scurrying through the undergrowth all night in search of food. I am sure the previous camp areas had the same number of busy animals but their sound was overlayed by the constant noise of the ocean waves. As it gets dark even quicker under the trees, I went into the tent very early and listened to one of my all-time favorite records. I will probably forever associate Steve Roach's Looking for Safety with this section of the walk. Locking in such memories with music always works well for me, and returning to these haunting sounds is a time capsule to restore the neural connections and mental images of the wind, sound and sight of this place and celebrate a return to those happy days in darker times.
The last day saw me leaving camp at 8 am to comfortably reaching the final stretch of beach half an hour or so later. This last section was yet another endless palm-lined beach of maybe 6 kilometres length. I took a stop at the place where Mulligan Creek flows over the beach, and as it was still relatively high tide I was hesitant to cross. It definitely looked like crocodile country and if in doubt you rather take it easy on such a remote island. After having monitored the water for a few minutes I deemed it safe to cross, and equiped with a walking stick I got across the waist-deep water without problems. Shortly afterwards I met four young walkers who just landed and had a good chat with them.
By that time of the journey my mind was yearning for the benefits of civilization again, especially some greasy unheathly pile of fish and chips or a coke - after four days on nothing but oatmeal this becomes unbelievably rewarding. So by the time I arrived at the end of the walk at 10 am, I still had two hours to fill before the "ferry" would pick me up on the sandy beach, and I basically just sat there looking over across the channel to the long jetty of Lucinda and dreaming of what I'll order for lunch at the Cardwell cafe place. To pass the time in this relatively barren and exposed place I took another slow stroll along the remaining section of the beach and collected many nice seashells that you don't seem to find in more populated areas any more.
After a good wash down in the ocean water to ready myself to join the company of other people again, I listened to a song on Steve Roach's Dreamtime Return, featuring tribal aboriginal music. These tunes really seem to carry along a different meaning when you feel the heat of the sand of an undeveloped island under your feet in the shimmering heat of the midday sun. The drums make your feet move and I couldn't help but think about how former generations survived in place like that, without the luxuries of insect repellants, air mattresses, sleeping bags and packaged food rations. Hinchinbrook Island has been inhabited for thousands of years before white sailors arrived, yet people have left very little traces beside shell middens and fish traps along the west coast. I am thankful for the foresight of previous generations who decided to turn this whole island into a national park in the early 1900's and appreciate the quota system that limits the possibilities of commercial developments that may eventually ruin the wilderness experience and the sense of incredible isolation that is hard to find anywhere else in the world. Hinchinbrook will probably forever remain a relatively unknown jewel among the great walks on this planet simply because only a couple of thousands of people are allowed to walk it every year.
Finally, the ferry appeared at the horizon and it was time to say good bye to this beautiful place. Stepping on the boat I felt both relaxed, relieved and thankful for the opportunity to experience this wilderness free of worries. Out of this world yet so close to the mainland and only a couple of hours drive south of where I live.