Credit: Louise Southerden
- Advertisement -
At first glance, Hinchinbrook Island is a wild and daunting place. Australia's largest island National Park is more than 30 km from end to end, almost 20 km wide, and uninhabited by humans except for a small eco-resort at its northern tip.
Its granite mountains are more than 250 million years old; its interior boasts undisturbed valleys lorded over by 1000-metre peaks that would look more at home in Tasmania than far north Queensland; most of it remains untracked and largely inaccessible.
Even Arthur and Margaret Thorsborne, the conservationist couple after whom the island's main walking track is named, spent more time exploring the island by sea than on foot, sailing their yacht from Mission Beach as often as they could throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
"Viewed from the sea...the coastline is formidable, with rocky cliff faces and headlands softened here and there by long curving beaches of white sand," they wrote in their book Hinchinbrook Island: The land time forgot.
"From sea to mountain top is only a short distance, but in this steep rise are awe-inspiring precipices, some with shining streaks of waterfalls plunging into mysterious, deeply shaded valleys."
In other words, Hinchinbrook is tailor-made for what we were about to do: spend a week sea kayaking along its eastern shore.
Amongst the wilderness
The island's east-facing coast is scalloped with sandy beaches protected from Coral Sea swells by the Barrier Reef, sheltered coves that face different directions mean there's always somewhere calm to land, and the prevailing southerly winds during the May-October kayaking season are a blessing when you're paddling north, as we were.
Each morning we'd wake up on a deserted beach, set off early to make the most of a glassy sea and paddle along at the pace of a stroll, mesmerised by the view that changed with the light and the swiftly moving clouds.
Parts of the island are so tropically mountainous - high peaks wearing lush green skirts of rainforest hemmed by golden beaches - they look more like Tahiti than Australia.
From our vantage point on the water we peered into caves and crevices in the island's rocky headlands and watched the ocean hurl itself against cliffs, sending spray 50 ms into the air. We also had a turtle's eye view of the local wildlife: silent sea eagles and not-so-silent cockatoos; brown boobys that skimmed the crests of waves just metres from the ends of our paddles; and yes, green and loggerhead turtles that would occasionally up-periscope their blunt heads to check us out.
When we came ashore at the end of our paddling day (which was usually the middle of the day), we had the chance to explore the land as well.
Not being limited to the beaches accessible by walking tracks, we'd find ones where ours were the only footprints, set up camp on the thin strip of sand that divides the sea from the rainforest, and spend whole afternoons exploring what seemed like our very own island paradise.
After paddling all morning under a hot sun, it was a relief to wander barefoot along sandy paths through cool, dark forests and to rinse the salt off in waterfall-fed freshwater pools.
Lovely though the rainforest was, the prospect of a sunset always lured us back to camp before dark. We'd have dinner on the beach inside a circle of candles planted in the sand, then retire to our tents just above the high water mark where we'd fall asleep to the shush of waves that sounded like they were about to lick the toes of our sleeping bags.
It was a week of living simply, replacing the daily rituals we take for granted back home with new ones - the ebb and flow of coming ashore, unpacking the boats and setting up camp, then reversing the process the next morning - all undertaken in an unhurried and unworried frame of mind.
We were castaways stripped of our big-city lives. All we had were our kayaks, our camping gear, enough food for seven days, and each other.
Paddling Hinchinbrook is a humbling experience. When they weren't being dwarfed by massive peaks and ridge lines, our kayaks were being swallowed whole by swells that made us lose sight of each other. It made us feel vulnerable to be out in deep water, being rocked by waves that threatened to capsize us, but it also felt like a great adventure.
Sometimes the elements even conspired to help us.
The day we rounded Cape Sandwich, halfway up the island's east coast, we found the wind suddenly behind us, and the call went up for the sails. Sails? Were our guides messing with our salt-addled minds? But within minutes they'd taught us how to bring our kayaks together and rig up a tarp as a spinnaker, with two of our paddles as masts, whilst they broke away to surf the swell like a pair of dolphins.
On the afternoon of day six we dragged our kayaks ashore on Wheeler Island, just off the northern tip of Hinchinbrook, our last stop before returning to the mainland the next morning, and I glanced back at the island that had been our constant companion all week.
After six days and 90 km it was still there, dominating the southern skyline. Like an eerie painting whose eyes follow you around the room, Hinchinbrook Island - and the sense that you've experienced an untouched and supremely special place - stays with you long after you leave.