Trekking tropical Hinchbrook Island’s Thorsborne Trail

By Joanna Egan 4 August 2015
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Just a short boat trip from Queensland’s east coast is Hinchinbrook Island, where solitude is welcome and the natural beauty changes with every step

THE SUN HAD already dipped behind Mount Bowen on Hinchinbrook Island by the time photographer Drew Hopper and I headed off along the beach in search of Werrawilla Creek. We’d just pitched our tents at Little Ramsay Bay and needed to fetch drinking water for the night. We spotted a piece of driftwood marking the trailhead on the sand, and veered off into the scrub. Under the paperbark canopy, the air was still, and without the coastal breeze, the humidity was stifling. Sweat rolled down my face as we strode over rocks and exposed tree roots along the uneven track. We’d hoped to reach the creek, refill our water bladders, and get back to camp before nightfall, but our optimism was fading with the afternoon light. After a few hundred metres, the track opened up on to Werrawilla, but to our disappointment, there wasn’t a drop of water in the creek. Instead, fallen trees and granite boulders covered the sandy bed. We climbed down the steep, dusty bank and started picking a course upstream.

“When I was there last, there was a little rock hole in the creek that you could fill up at and have a wash or a dip in,” marine parks ranger Emma Schmidt had told us yesterday, before we headed to Hinchinbrook to walk the Thorsborne Trail. “But that was in October,” she’d added. Now, in late November, the tail end of the dry season, the landscape was parched. “Wherever you find water, make sure you fill up,” head ranger Evan Ivey had warned us. “Even if you only need half a litre.” Drew and I scampered up the creek bed a few hundred metres until the rocks became slippery and small algae-covered pools appeared.

As dusk approached and the colour drained from the landscape, the hum of insects filled our ears. We clicked on our head torches and continued on. We could hear frogs among the leaf litter on the banks and watched as small birds darted through the woodland, feasting on insects. At last we spotted a steady trickle of clear water dribbling over the rocks ahead.

WATER IS A DEFINING feature of the landscape on Hinchinbrook Island. Located about 6km off the coast at Cardwell, a small town halfway between Townsville and Cairns in north Queensland, the island falls within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Protected since 1932, it is one of Australia’s largest island national parks. Hinchinbrook’s rugged landmass has been shaped by the seasonal rains and tidal swells of the Wet Tropics. An intricate network of creeks and waterways threads across the island; swollen with monsoon rainwater during the humid summer months, they give birth to falls that thunder through the island’s rock country.

During the winter months, the waterways gradually drain and evaporate, leaving many creeks dry. On Hinchinbrook’s coastline, sweeping beaches, mangrove-fringed forests and rocky headlands meet the Coral Sea. Twice a day, its tides fill and drain the island’s inlets and tidal channels. Known for its varied ecosystems, Hinchinbrook is home to heath-covered mountains, melaleuca and palm wetlands, eucalypt and casuarina woodlands, and lush, tropical rainforests Its mangrove forests, fringing reefs and seagrass beds are important habitats for fish and marine species, such as snubfin dolphins, dugongs and green turtles, as well as saltwater crocodiles.

The island’s pristine wilderness attracts thousands of visitors each year; many explore it via a series of walking tracks. The longest and most iconic of these is the Thorsborne Trail, which stretches 32km along the east coast from Ramsay Bay in the north to George Point, on the south-eastern tip. The track skirts many of Hinchinbrook’s beaches and headlands, veering inland through dune forests, scrubland, and dense rainforest to vantage points. It covers some challenging terrain and includes a number of difficult water crossings.

Most walkers spend anywhere from three days to a week on the Thorsborne Trail, staying at any of the seven campsites dotted along the track. Some are equipped with composting toilets and picnic tables, and most provide access to freshwater creeks. The track was named to honour Arthur Thorsborne, who, together with his wife Margaret, championed conservation on Hinchinbrook from the mid-1960s until his death in 1991. The Thorsbornes are best known for protecting the pied imperial-pigeon, a migrant that flocks to Hinchinbrook and surrounding islands each spring. Now in her 80s, Margaret still actively promotes conservation in the Wet Tropics.

“THE THORSBORNE TRAIL is world renowned,” Evan Ivey had said as we stood at the Hinchinbrook Lookout, just off the Bruce Highway, about 35km south of Cardwell a few days earlier. Drew and I were set to start walking the trail the next morning. We’d planned to spend four days on the track, walking north–south, and camping at Little Ramsay Bay, Zoe Bay and Mulligan Falls, the most popular itinerary for walkers. “People come from all over the world to walk this track,” Evan said. “You can walk out of the rainforest and straight onto the beach, or through a mangrove swamp, into an open woodland, and then through a montane heath community. The vegetation changes from minute to minute.” From the lookout, we could see the wide, glassy creeks that snake through the Hinchinbrook Channel, separating island from mainland.

It was noon and the tide was falling, leaving behind a series of muddy flats. Dusky honeyeaters and rainbow lorikeets were feeding in the trees around us, and overhead a flock of cockatoos flew by. In the distance, a rugged granite backbone rose from the ancient folds of the landscape. Clouds shrouded Mount Bowen’s 1121m peak, but the rest of the island basked in the midday sun. Although the island’s diverse ecosystems are a drawcard for walkers, it’s the seasonal rains and tidal swells that determine the rhythm of the Thorsborne Trail.

“It’s beautiful in the Wet,” Aboriginal ranger Chris Muriata said. Chris is one of 11 Girringun rangers assisting the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to care for the land and sea in this area. “During the Wet, everything is lush and green, the waterfalls are flowing, the animals sing out and the frogs croak. It’s amazing,” Chris said. “During the Dry you can still hear them…but you have to look a bit harder to find them.”

SALT SPRAY WHIPPED around us as our Zodiac bounced over the milky aquamarine water of the channel, the mangrove- fringed coast of Hinchinbrook dead ahead. Beyond the mangroves, densely vegetated hills rose to craggy peaks. It was only 8.30am, but already the temperature was pushing 30ºC. We powered past Hecate Point, on the island’s north-west, and circled into Missionary Bay. Ahead, a green turtle surfaced and a large darter dived into the glistening water. The trip from Port Hinchinbrook to the head of the Thorsborne Trail took about an hour. As we skirted the island’s north, I was surprised by Hinchinbrook’s size. At the island is about seven times the size of Sydney Harbour, and we were about to traverse almost its entire east coast.

Although 32km doesn’t sound like a lot of ground to cover in four days, the track is graded ‘difficult’ because of the rough terrain, and some of the days were destined to be long. The sea spray eased as the Zodiac slowed, approaching a series of nine creeks in the mangroves, which looked very much like croc country. Our skipper, Gordon Tuffley, confirmed my suspicions as he steered into creek seven. “There’s a 4m croc that lives in the next creek along,” he said. Gordon has been boating in these waters for almost 20 years and ferrying walkers to the Thorsborne Trail for the past two. His respect for the landscape was obvious.

“It’s an iconic trail a lot of people come to Cardwell just to walk it,” he said. “I’ve done it myself a couple of times and it really is very good.” Insects hummed in the mangroves as Gordon secured the boat to the pontoon. I brushed a March fly off my pack and rolled down my sleeves to deter the mosquitoes from attacking my forearms. “I like this island because it is unspoilt and spectacular,” Gordon added. “I’ve been to almost every part of Queensland’s east coast and I reckon Zoe Bay, where you’ll camp tomorrow, is the prettiest place I’ve seen.” Eager to get started, Drew and I hoisted up our packs and tramped over the dune to Ramsay Bay. Here, we caught our first glimpse of the azure Coral Sea and instantly I understood why Gordon likes this coastline so much. The sun blazed down and small waves frothed on the water’s edge. At the southern end of the beach, lichen-covered boulders clustered on the headland. Our adventure had begun.

THE THORSBORNE TRAIL provides walkers with a real wilderness experience. Only 40 people are permitted on the track at a time, so even in peak periods (May until September), you can enjoy the solitude of a relatively untouched landscape. There are few traces of human interference here. Apart from track markers, fixed to trees at eye height in the scrubland and rainforest sections, there is very little signage. “The vegetation grows over the track in places and you brush up against grass trees and shrubs,” marine ranger Emma Schmidt had told us a few days before. “It’s beautiful and very wild.”

As Drew and I approached the southern end of Ramsay Bay and considered whether we should climb the rocky headland or veer into the scrub, I wondered if anyone else was on the trail that day. We looked for footprints on the beach, but found none. A small track led inland. We didn’t see any trail markers, so checked the map, then followed it into a thick dune forest. Crunching along the path, hearing lizards and skinks scurry through the leaf litter, we arrived at Blacksand Beach. Here, a small tannin-stained lake gently rippled in the sea breeze. We headed inland again and climbed the saddle between Blacksand Beach and palm-fringed Nina Bay.

At about midday, we reached a small clearing and veered off the main trail to climb 312m Nina Peak by a well-trodden but unmarked track up the steep slope. Sweat rolled down my face as we climbed above the canopy, brushing grass trees and scrub along the way. From a vantage point at the top, I rested on a large boulder and let the breeze wash over me. The view was breathtaking. To the north, the long, white strip of Ramsay Bay stretched for kilometres; the sea glistened to its east and to its west, the creek we’d cruised along that morning snaked through the mangroves. I saw fringing reefs in the bay and watched a sailing boat float over the turquoise sea. Directly south, a steep granite cliff towered over the rolling hills and a series of white beaches peppered the coastline.

THE 10.5KM TREK between our first campsite at Little Ramsay Bay and our second at Zoe Bay is the longest and most arduous section of the Thorsborne Trail. It is also the most diverse. The track traverses a beach, crosses an inlet, skirts a headland, veers through tea tree and mangrove swamps and winds through large patches of grassland. Then it drops into dense rainforest gullies, and follows steep, boulder- strewn creek beds south to the beach at Zoe Bay.

For most of the morning, Drew and I walked with a group of four who’d camped alongside us the night before. They were the only people we’d encountered on the track so far. Tomáš Hyka and his wife, Jindra Hyková, from the Czech Republic, were walking the trail for the second time. They’d visited Hinchinbrook 21 years earlier and were captivated by its striking natural beauty. This time, they’d brought their daughter, 27-year-old Bětka Hyková, and her fiancé, Láďa Beránek, along, so the young couple could experience north Queensland’s tropical climate before settling down to start a family. Tomáš and Jindra are avid trekkers; they’ve travelled to many of the world’s iconic tracks, but the Thorsborne Trail remains one of their favourites.

“It is one of the nicest trips in the world,” Tomáš said as we sat on the rocks in a dry creek bed. “The scenery is beautiful, of course, because of the mountains, the rainforests, the eucalyptus forests, and beautiful beaches.” The last time they were here, they swam at Nina and Ramsay bays; this time, because the marine stinger season had started, they didn’t venture out of the shallows.

We were exhausted by late afternoon when we arrived at Zoe Bay. The campsite is nestled at the southern end of the beach, beside an estuary. A sign warned us about crocodiles and we scanned the distant mangrove-lined bank, hoping to spot one, but, although they inhabit the island, crocs are rarely sighted. We pitched our tents, and then followed the main track through an adjoining forest. Once again, we needed to fetch water and the light was fading.

We headed inland for about a kilometre, before we reached an access point to South Zoe Creek. There was water, but it wasn’t flowing, so we continued further along. We came to a clearing and I understood why Gordon, our skipper on day one, rated this as one of the prettiest places on the Queensland coastline. Large granite walls formed an amphitheatre around a pool at the base of Zoe Falls, and water trickled over the rocks. A large Ulysses butterfly flitted through the golden penda, a yellow flowering tree endemic to north-eastern Queensland. In the glassy pool, we spotted schools of jungle perch.

THE OCEAN BREEZE provided relief from the humidity as we camped at Zoe Bay. Overnight, the waves gently pulsed against the shore, and the sound of the water was interrupted occasionally by the rustling of melomys (native bush rats) seeking food in the leaf litter. All along the trail, walkers are encouraged to store food overnight in the rat-proof boxes found at most campsites. The little melomys don’t pose much of a problem, but large white-tailed rats have been known to eat through walkers’ packs and tents to get at food. On day three, we hiked along a ridgeline before trekking down a long, steep gully to get to our campsite at Mulligan Falls, where we pitched our tents in the rainforest. As the sun sailed lower in the sky, rays of golden light shone through the canopy.

Honeyeaters, finches, robins and a bright blue kingfisher darted through the forest, and 50m away, down a well-trodden track, clear water crashed over Mulligan Falls into a pristine pool. The next morning, I was startled to see two figures walking through the bush. “You can’t get a more gorgeous spot than this,” said Michael Sefton. He and his son Cameron had parked their boat on the beach and walked along a dense rainforest track to snorkel in the pool. They live nearby and regularly visit for day trips.

“What more could you ask for? You’ve got the rainforest and the waterfalls and the beach,” he said. “It’s just so incredibly unspoilt and it’s an attraction for people from all around the world, but we’re lucky, because we’ve got it in our backyard.” We were only 7km from George Point, a campsite located right at the end of the trail. From there walkers can see the busy jetty at Lucinda, one of Australia’s largest bulk sugar-loading facilities. At Mulligan Falls, however, we felt as though we were in a land that time had forgotten, where monarch and glass-wing butterflies floated on the breeze as the water followed its ancient path through the landscape