Hiking and biking in Cape Tribulation

Dallas Hewett and Derek Morrison weren’t sure what the mysterious draw was to Cedar Bay, but they left with a deeper understanding of why so many before had also felt a similar intrigue and connection
By Derek Morrison February 18, 2015 Reading Time: 10 Minutes

A MAN STROLLS toward me, a black dog bounds along an otherwise empty beach swinging a coconut husk side-to-side. The man lets out a hearty laugh, “Hello family. Welcome,” he says.

The moment is surreal. We have just emerged from the mottled understory onto the bright expanse of a palm fringed beach. The eight-hour walk will go down as one of the most memorable single-day walks I have endured – and the most leech infested!

High ridgetops create a vast natural amphitheatre; the sun illuminates the escarpments that drop like fingers to the glowing beach. The ocean shimmers under the ruffle of a light afternoon breeze. We haven’t passed another soul all day, and now I stand opposite a man wearing a tie-dyed singlet and cargo pants.

His beard is tied in three small plats and around his neck hangs an assortment of shells, stones, colourful knick-knacks and a pair of reading glasses. His eyes are bright and engaging, his hands are large and strong, and his laugh is drawn from deep within. “Ha, great to see you family.”

Strong environments shape strong characters and indeed this man oozes character. He introduces himself simply as Pa. We soon find that Pa spent a period of his youth in Cedar Bay. Today Pa is a master mariner by trade, sailing a variety of craft on the oceans of the world.

Between ocean voyages he shares a simple life with his dog Mister Blackbird. Together they visit friends and family, move between gatherings and spend time on ‘good country’. Pa hasn’t returned to Cedar Bay for 15 years, but he felt a pull this year. “Good for your soul, my brothers, this is good country.”

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North Queensland: good country

As a young man in the early 70s Pa tells us he found himself living a self-sufficient lifestyle in this most idyllic of locations. “Out of the view of the world, and that’s how we liked it… I would bring water for Old Bill, it’s been a while between visits, time to water the old man’s grave… Look at those fruit trees, I planted them, still giving fruit to us, ha ha.”

We sit by Pa’s fire, Mister Blackbird growls at feral pigs digging and grunting in the distance. Before us sits a real-life connection to the colourful history that has inspired our visit – it feels too good to be true.

Pa has been tending the grave of William Evans, aka Cedar Bay Bill. A small memorial sits not far from where Bill spent most of his life living as a reclusive tin miner – ‘Strange to the world, he wore a bashful look – the sea and shore his study, nature his book’ reads the memorial shrouded in a variety of nautilus shells.

Cedar Bay Bill held the last tin mining lease in the area. A hermit and recluse, Bill had allowed the ‘hippies’ to set camp on his lease.

The new-age folk would bring an aging Bill supplies; they planted a vegie garden and fruit trees. “I was a young man, I would bring Bill fresh water,” Pa tells us. “I was his water boy.”

“Country needs people, people need good country, the Yalanji taught me much about this land, they give me permission to spend time, in fact they initiated me, I tell you, that’s the highest honour bestowed upon me in all my years,”
Pa smiles. “It’s an honour, it’s also a responsibility.”

Pa stares into the fire. “That walk you did today, that follows very close to an Aboriginal songline,” Pa’s tone is commanding. “When the elders speak of spirit country, they mean it, this country has a power, an energy force. You can feel it, but you have to listen, really listen.

The power of that walk is in its length and the concentration required, it forces you to feel the country, to walk and just to be, that’s the flow, the flow that connects you to country. The elders they understand this, they walk that area often, for thousands of years.”

The husky voice of traditional owner Bobby Ball reverberates in my consciousness as I listen to Pa and gaze at the hot coals. We had requested an audience with Bobby at the Wajul Wajul Aboriginal community to seek permission to visit. “Strong spirit country eh, you be okay though, you be looked after,” Bobby had told us.

As I watch the animated Pa in the firelight opposite, I can’t help but think that he is our guide in someway, as if Bobby knew.

Cape Tribulation

Our journey begins at Cape Tribulation where the sealed road ends and the Bloomfield Track begins. However this trip really began many years earlier for me after reading a story in this very publication by Catherine Lawson. I felt that I had to visit someday myself; the place seemed to hold an almost mythical pull.

The Bloomfield is reasonably well graded, but the steep gradient has us pushing our fully laden mountain bikes. The climb over the Donovan Range is long and hot.

Our first night is spent in the sports centre of the Wajul Wajul Aboriginal community. We spend the afternoon under the meeting tree, a huge spreading mango tree that shades a long timber seat.

“Mangkalba is spirit country,” Jacky Ball, traditional owner, elder and senior member of the Yalanji people tells us.

We had come to request the permission of the traditional landowners. Six TOs greet us under the mango tree slightly unsure as to why two guys on pushbikes had asked to meet. In 2007, 230,000ha of Far North Queensland land was handed over to traditional owners.

Under the agreement, 64,000ha of land between Mossman and Cooktown, including Mangkal-Mangkalba (Cedar Bay) is protected under conservation agreements with the traditional owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. We respectfully request permission, slightly unsure of the response or protocol, but it feels like right thing to do.

“Yeah, you boys go, eh,” says Bobby Ball. “Good country, spirit country, good for you.” Bobby is barely audible over the scrapping dogs and giggling children, his smile gentle and reassuring. “Plenty good spirit, plenty bad too eh, you be okay.” Bobby stands slowly, his old bowed legs barely holding him upright, lights a cigarette and wanders off.

The evening twilight is spent kicking a footy with half a dozen young boys. The banter is classic, the skills outstanding and the smiles wide.

The ever-present Queensland police LandCruiser drives slowly around town, pausing to watch us. Although the community is considered closed and currently dry, the issues that dog some parts of contemporary Aboriginal society are evident.

Clash of ideologies at Cedar Bay

The modern day story of Cedar Bay is a classic tale of idealism, of rebellion, of heavy-handed conservative governments and of legal wrangles.

The search for a lifestyle off the modern radar strikes deep at the heart of conservative values, and leaves many suspicious, inevitably lending to accusations of drugs and uncivilised conduct.

Which is exactly what happened when in August 1976 Joh Bjelke-Petersen sent in armed troops and police in a dramatic air, sea and land assault. News reports from the day tell of a military-style operation expected to land a huge drug haul. Instead they found about 30 scantly clad hippies, established gardens and fruit trees, humpies and a small stash of marijuana.

All was burnt to the ground, 12 residents were arrested for minor offences – hardly the result the government of the day had hoped for.

The area is still shrouded in relative mystery with no permanent walking trails and access is only on foot or boat. A rudimentary track known as the Home Rule Track follows the trails taken by the few hardy tin miners who toiled the steep slopes in the early 1900s.

Mount Finlayson range

We leave the barking dogs of Wajul Wajul at first light to begin the ride to Rossville and onto the trailhead. The ride skirts Cedar Bay National Park, offering our first tantalising glimpse of the rugged Mount Finlayson range.

The track consists of 16km of overgrown logging roads and donkey trails that wind over the range through old tin mining camps and finally descend into Cedar Bay. Almost immediately after crossing Wallaby Creek we descend into a tropical wonderland.

The track narrows and trees felled by cyclones make route finding difficult. We search for the strands of tattered flagging tape that pepper the path through the rainforest. Shielded from the day in the deep forest canopy, the walking is arduous and every step considered.

The walk feels different to any full-day walk I have experienced. I am not sure why. Maybe because the thick canopy shrouds virtually the entire walk, so no views are on offer and the light is soft, almost dreamlike. It feels surreal. You walk in the moment, because you are forced to. I’m left feeling a little Zen after a few hours… maybe I need to drink more water.

We walk through the remnants of tin mines dug in the 1870s. Near the top of the range, water-diverting channels crisscross a clearing where abandoned campsites are gradually being reclaimed by the forest.

“Dal, stop,” Derek speaks assertively, “Snake.” Just ahead on the trail fringe is curled a very black and very large snake. This is the third we have spotted already, but this guy looks particularly large and particularly at ease considering our close proximity. The impressive creature lifts its head and looks in our direction, poking its tongue for further information – but simply stays put. We take a wide berth through the forest. “Red-belly?” Derek queries, “Yep,” I answer fully aware of my kiwi friend’s aversion to deadly snakes – Derek is noticeably unnerved.

The descent to Cedar Bay follows an impossibly steep spur that slips precariously over mossy tree roots. The route is somewhat moderated by a series of switchbacks, carved by the old tin miners and navigated by the packhorse teams that carried supplies in and out of the camps.

Eventually, the track levels out and crosses Ashwell Creek to reach the long-deserted camp of Cedar Bay Bill, aka William Yale Evans.

Some eight hours earlier we entered the canopy and finally, exhausted and covered in leeches, we now emerge onto the beach, back into daylight, where Pa and Mister Blackbird warmly greet us.

Spirituality

We sit at Pa’s fire listening to stories when suddenly a man steps out of the darkness and into the firelight. Pa stands and embracers the newcomer.

“Fish Pa, I bring fish,” the man hands Pa an impressive looking red and green fish. Pa laughs, “I have guests,” Pa gestures towards Derek and I. “Your firelight saved me Pa,” the man responds.

Sage has been spear fishing on an offshore island. He wears a wet singlet and old canvas shorts, his hair is tied in a ponytail, he rolls a cigarette and explains how he had paddled his catamaran back on this windless evening, without lights across what is marked as a major shipping channel, following only the distant glow of our beachside fire.

Sage has camped at Cedar Bay for a month; he is readying his gear and rudimentary sailing craft for a self-supported trip to the Torres Strait Islands and beyond.

Pa and Sage speak of old friends, old camps, full-moon parties, hunting pigs, sailing and fishing, and the repairs his cat needs, all punctuated by laughter and animated banter.

Sage is impressed we had walked in the Home Rule way. “Not many walk that way, most walk the south side, around the rocks at low tide, that walk is pretty special eh. You see any snakes?” Sage asks. “Yeah,” Derek quickly responds.

Pa takes up the conversation. “They don’t move around here, they stand their ground, they are the spirit holders, doesn’t matter how much noise you make.” Pa’s story eerily matches our experience with one very impressive red-belly. Derek smiles at me, “Great, now the snakes have a spiritual significance as well.”

“Anyway, I’m heading north in the next few days, got a few months, see where the winds take me,” Sage tells us before giving Pa a hearty embrace and disappearing into the darkness.  

Cedar Bay Coconut Breakfast

I wake and lay listening to the morning cacophony of bird song. My legs are still itchy from the many leeches that had tagged a ride the day before. The beach is littered with the tracks of feral pigs.

I walk over the pile of ocean-flung debris to view the bay’s expanse. I walk up the beach past Sage’s tiny catamaran that sits at the high-tide mark. Sage’s catamaran consists a waterproof plastic drum and milk crates lashed onboard, each full of hand reels, flippers, snorkels and spearfishing gear. He carries a small tarp, some bags of rice and a sleeping mat. You can’t help but admire his adventurous spirit.  

“Coconut breakfast,” a woman’s voice breaks my drifting thoughts. Halfway up a coconut tree is a tanned, lean woman, wearing a hitched-up sarong and singlet. She climbs from the tree with much skill and dexterity. “Start the day the Cedar Bay way,” she smiles. We sit and share coconut milk and flesh.

A filmmaker and student, Anna speaks again of the solitude, spending time in such an environment and the spirit of Cedar Bay. She collects more coconuts; we drink as the sun rises.

“You can feel the power, that’s what must have drawn the original new agers, they knew the ancient stories, the healing power.” Further south along the beach I see the silhouette of naked women, walking from an ocean dip, stopping to stretch high toward the sky, before disappearing over the edge of the palm-fringed beach.

“Women’s camp,” Anna informs. “We’re hanging out for a couple of weeks recharging, sharing stories, weaving, living simple – it’s very nourishing.”

It seems we are far from the only ones drawn to Cedar Bay. The rest of the day is spent exploring. We share lunch with Pa and watch Sage tinker with his fishing gear. Anna and friends entertain us with stories of her latest project – filming traditional practices for Central Australian indigenous elders wanting to engage the young women of the mob.

We search for a croc that frequents one of the lagoons without luck. We share more fresh fish and fruit. The afternoon winds cool the day, the tide rises and falls, the sun sets, the moon begins its journey across the starlit sky.

I can see how one could easily lose touch with reality in this place – but then what’s reality anyway? Cedar Bay is making its mark on me.

Tourism on the way to Cedar Bay

We walk out of Cedar Bay early on day five under an eerie cloud-covered sky. Derek and I walk in silence for much of the return, both lost in our own reflective thoughts. A new awareness of the spiritual significance of the walk has us feeling and observing on a deeper level – our own attempt to connect with the country.

I wasn’t entirely sure what drew me to Cedar Bay, but as I walk I begin to understand. I have learnt much. At last the canopy opens ahead, the shafts of afternoon light increase, the trail morphs from rock and dirt to the soft, green grass of the horse paddock at Home Rule camp.

It feels as if we are spat out of a portal from another world. I remember the book I read as a child, The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. I feel as if I have just climbed from the clouds, down the ladder at the top of the Faraway Tree after another adventure in a land full of wondrous characters and wild landscapes.

Without vehicle access or defined trails visitors are culled to the most self-sufficient. Talk is of the Queensland Government planning to seal much of the Bloomfield Track, extending the inevitable push of development and tourism.

I only hope that Mangkal-Mangkalba is spared the intrusion.
And so we emerge from the forest, a little wilder than when we went in and with a heap more understanding about what it means to be connected to the land.  

“You may be a white fella, but you’ve got a black heart now,” Pa told us as we bid farewell to our unexpected guide and initiated elder before the long walk out.

I was filled with pride.

The essentials:

Access: Mangkalba (Cedar Bay) is 40km south of Cooktown. The park lies between Cape Tribulation and Cooktown and is accessible by boat or on foot via two tracks – The Home Rule Track (North) and the Gap Creek Track (South).

Getting there: Head north on the Bloomfield Track (4WD only) from Cape Tribulation. The Home Rule track begins at Home Rule Rainforest Lodge,
a private property 3km off the Cooktown-Bloomfield Road from Rossville.

Accommodation: The Home Rule Rainforest Lodge provides accommodation and camping on the banks of Wallaby Creek. www.home-rule.com.au

Camping: Camping is available in the coastal vegetation adjacent to the beach – permits are essential www.nprsr.qld.gov.au

Further Information: www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/cedar-bay/about.html

Wajul Wajul Aboriginal Community: It is recommended that prior notice be sought to enter Wajul-Wajul. The community request no alcohol is permitted.

The Walker family operates cultural tours from Wajul Wajul-The Bama Way (www.bamaway.com.au).

An opportunity to walk on country with the traditional owners is one not to be missed. Be aware that entry to Rattlesnake Point (within Mangkalba) is restricted to protect significant cultural resources.

A person, other than an acknowledged member of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, must not enter or remain in this area without a permit or written approval from the Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing (NPRSR).

This is a joint initiative between the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people and NPRSR.