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Published: July 20th 2021
The Ultimate Swimming Hole
Plunge pool at the base of Zoe Falls
Ask any serious Australian bushwalker which hikes are on their 'bucket list' and there's a pretty good chance the Thorsborne Trail will get a mention. Stretching down the eastern edge of Hinchinbrook Island (known as 'Pouandai' by the local Biyaygiri indigenous people) in Tropical North Queensland, the trail has a legendary reputation among those in the know for it's rugged beauty and splendid isolation. The biggest problem with the trail is that it's almost impossible to get permits, as Queensland's Parks & Wildlife Service only allow up to forty people to stay overnight on the island at any time. The obvious flipside to this is that for those lucky enough to secure permits, they can be assured a true wilderness experience free from the crowds that flock to other destinations on this stretch of coast (ie the Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef etc).
For months I had been checking the availability of permits for the Thorsborne Trail, but without any luck. Then all of a sudden one day I opened the availability calender on the QPWS booking page to find there were five permits available for three consecutive nights during the height of the dry season - presumably due to
The Journey Begins...
Heading out of the Port of Hinchinbrook marina in Cardwell
a group of five having cancelled their booking - and within minutes I had secured my opportunity. And as it just so happened I had speculatively secured a permit for the following night a couple of weeks earlier, meaning that I had the option of spending four nights on the island rather than being tied to the standard four-day, three-night itinerary that most Thorsborne Trail walkers stick to. All I had to do then was book my transfers to and from the start and finish points - which it is possible to take from either Lucinda or Cardwell on the mainland - and hope for some decent weather in mid-July!
With Lucinda (which sits just across from the southern tip of Hinchinbrook Island) not being served by any public transport routes, that left Cardwell as the obvious location from which to access the island, and so immediately after finishing my five-day, two-part walk through the wet but wonderful Wooroonooran NP, I took a coach two hours south from Babinda to Cardwell, roughly halfway between the two main urban centres of Cairns and Townsville. And after a week in which overcast skies and rampant humidity had been my constant companions,
Mangroves and Mountains
The peak of Mount Bowen rising more than a kilometre above sea level
I could scarcely believe my good fortune to have arrived in Cardwell under a beautiful blue sky, which allowed me to finally dry out my sodden camping gear and wash my sweat-soaked clothing. Meanwhile the views of Hinchinbrook Island from Cardwell's foreshore were simply sublime, with a row of jagged mountains (rising up to 1121m at the summit of Mount Bowen) running down the spine of this wild, uninhabited island.
Before setting out on my walk though there was still one more matter to attend to: the final of the Euro 2020 football championships was due to kick off at 5am my time (Monday 12th July), and with my pick-up arranged for 6:45am this would just about allow me to watch the whole game - provided it didn't go to extra-time or penalties! So with my alarm going off at 4:30am (not for the first time in the past week) I managed to be packed up and ready to go just in time for the opening whistle... and lo and behold only two minutes into the game England would take the lead against Italy, thanks to a stunning Luke Shaw half-volley. A tense hour then passed as Italy slowly
Time to strike out on foot...
Pontoon behind Ramsay Bay that marks the start of the Thorsborne Trail
fought their way back into the game while England hung on doggedly in front of a raucous home crowd, only for Italy to secure the equaliser in the 67th minute. From that point on it seemed inevitable that the game would go into extra-time, but there would be one less fan watching by the time it did...
One major difference between the Thorsborne Trail and just about every other multi-day hiking trail in Australia is the presence of saltwater crocodiles - apex predators that can grow up to six metres in length - and if I had any doubts about the likelihood of encountering one, these were soon put to rest by the 2-metre-long specimen that could be seen chomping away on a fish only thirty metres or so from the boat as myself and my two fellow passengers (a couple from Melbourne named Myles and Laura) received our safety briefing onboard! But soon enough we were motoring out into the Hinchinbrook Channel, where the throttle was released and our rigid inflatable rocket-ship sped across the limpid waters in an exhilarating burst of speed!
As we rounded the northern tip of the island we were greeted by the
Nina Peak rising up beyond the southern end of Ramsay Bay
awesome sight of Mount Bowen and it's outliers thrusting skyward, and there was no question that we were visiting somewhere pretty special. That feeling only grew as we then entered the maze of mangroves that separates the main body of the island from it's northern end - where once upon a time there was a low-key resort, the remains of which have since been removed - and there was a touch of Apocalypse Now as we followed a winding, mangrove-lined channel ever deeper into the island, until eventually we arrived at a pontoon only 300 metres west of the beach at Ramsay Bay, which runs down the eastern side of the island. And no sooner had I hoisted my backpack and disembarked the boat, than I was being set upon by a horde of voracious sandflies! So I did the only sensible thing - ditched my backpack and jumped straight back onboard the boat to douse myself with the spray-on insect repellent that the skipper had brought along!
Eventually plucking up enough courage to face the ravenous sandflies, I followed a short boardwalk through the mangroves and was soon deposited onto the long, sandy beach of Ramsay Bay -
Looking out over Blacksand Beach towards Ramsay Bay
where the unmistakable shark fin-like profile of Nina Peak could be seen rising up directly beyond the southern end of the beach, positively begging to be climbed! After a glorious stroll along the southern end of Ramsay Bay - with the sun shining down from an almost cloudless sky - the first section of actual trail led up and over a low ridge before returning to the shoreline at the lovely (if strangely named) Blacksand Beach, where a tranquil creek looped around behind the beach, looking for all the world like it had been placed there by the local tourism department.
From Blacksand Beach another climb through eucalypt woodland led to a saddle between Ramsay Bay and Nina Bay, and it was here that Myles, Laura and I all dropped our backpacks and set out on the short but steep climb up Nina Peak. A series of rocky outcrops served as natural viewpoints along the way, and those views were nothing short of breathtaking! From the highest mountains wearing their halo of cloud, to the network of channels weaving through the mangroves, the gorgeous crescent of Ramsay Bay's golden sand beach arcing it's way off into the distance, and
View of Ramsay Bay from Nina Peak
the only slightly-less beautiful Nina Bay at the base of the peak, it was hard to know which direction to look in.
But in addition to soaking up the superlative views, I also had the small matter of watching the remainder of the Euro 2020 final to attend to - a fact made possible by the presence of a reliable phone signal on top of the peak! So as a small number of fellow hikers came, saw and conquered Nina Peak, I sat transfixed watching England and Italy battling it out at Wembley Stadium on my phone, and wasn't the slightest bit surprised when the final whistle went thirty minutes later to signal the end of extra-time with the scores still locked at 1-1. I also wasn't the slightest bit surprised when no less than three England players in a row (including two who had been brought into the game in the dying moments specifically to participate in the shootout) missed their penalties, sealing a nail-biting win for Italy and, much to my amusement, a shattering loss for England! Some things just never change.
After my extended break atop Nina Peak, it didn't take long to reach sea
Boulder Bay from above
level again at the campsite beside Nina Bay, where I enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the shade just behind the beach. From there the Thorsborne Trail continued along the shoreline, climbing up and over rocky headlands where markers led the way in the absence of an actual trail, before dropping back down onto the next beach. Unlike Blacksand Beach, Boulder Bay was very aptly-named, with rocks of every size occupying the entire beach, from waterline to treeline. It was during the climb up from Boulder Bay that I realized I had left my sunglasses behind somewhere, and not wanting to face another three days of hiking without any eyewear I had no choice but to double back, eventually locating my sunglasses all the way back at Nina Bay where I had stopped for lunch!
But with the first day's walk only measuring 6.5km (not including side-trips) it wasn't long before I dropped down onto the sand of Little Ramsay Bay and located the campsite just a few hundred metres on, directly behind the beach. Soon enough my tent was up and I was in the water, enjoying a cooling post-hike swim - whilst keeping a keen eye out for
Hinchinbrook Island's mountainous heart reflected in the lagoon behind Little Ramsay Bay
saltwater crocodiles, of course! But none were spotted in the vicinity of our campsite - either in the sea or in the little brackish lagoon that lay directly behind the beach, adjacent to our campsite - so I had to content myself with a sighting of a small stingray in the lagoon, as I passed by on my way upstream to collect water for the evening (all drinking water on the island being drawn from the plethora of freshwater creeks flowing down from the mountains). If ever a multi-day hike has gotten off to a better start than this one, then I can't remember it; and falling asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the beach, I could only hope the next three days would hit the same heights.
If day one on the Thorsborne Trail had provided the beauty, then day two would prove to be a beast. It started with a return to the steely grey skies that I had recently become accustomed to, and the sense that this may be a sign of things to come was soon confirmed when a couple who had also camped at Little Ramsay Bay (but were walking the track
Beautiful views at Little Ramsay Bay on day 2
in the opposite direction, from South to North) mentioned to me that the trail from North Zoe Creek through to Zoe Bay (ie the second half of the section that I was about to tackle) was 'pretty wet and muddy'. I can only assume they were from Tasmania, given that they somewhat undersold the scale of the quagmire up ahead! Thankfully I had my trusty shandals at the ready, and as soon as I encountered my first section of mud I threw them on and strode confidently forth - and in no time at all I was through the worst of it (or so I thought) and back on dry ground. Then I rounded a corner, passed a 'crocodile recently seen here' warning sign, and plunged shin-deep into the mire!
As my shandals filled with mud and other debris, it soon became apparent that wet, muddy feet weren't my only concern - simply locating the trail (which for large parts was buried underneath water, mud, or both) was also becoming problematic. In one particularly sketchy section I passed an orange arrow nailed to a tree pointing to the right; but not seeing any way through the bush in that
direction I continued on straight ahead. So imagine my surprise when, after looking everywhere for the next orange arrow to lead me onwards, I found one about fifteen metres away TO MY LEFT. Naturally I found it somewhat troubling that in the one place where those directional arrows were the only way of identifying the correct route ahead - due to the disappearance of the track beneath the water and mud - an arrow had been placed that pointed in exactly the wrong direction... and in bloody crocodile country no less!
Taking a deep breath or two, I thanked my lucky stars for having located the trail, and pressed on... only to almost immediately plunge over knee deep into a muddy hole! Unable to extricate myself, I was on the verge of abandoning my right shandal in order to free my foot, when I somehow managed to pull myself free. To say my nerves were a little frazzled by this point would be an understatement! I couldn't help thinking that if things kept going like this, by the time Myles and Laura caught up to me (they had stopped for a quick dip at a little waterfall further back
Sometimes you've just got to laugh!
Suffering the inevitable sinking feeling in the Zoe Bay swamp
along the trail, long before reaching the swamp) I would already have been buried alive in the mud; my corpse slowly sinking into unseen depths with only the occasional bubble to betray the location of my demise! Oh, the joys of backcountry hiking!
But of course I didn't perish in the accumulated mud and awfulness of the Zoe Bay Swamp (not it's official designation, but certainly accurate) or else you wouldn't be reading this account. In actual fact I gathered what nerves I had left, washed all of the gunk out of my shandals, had a generous swig of water and an energy bar, and soldiered on. Of course it helped that I was able to pinpoint my location on the offline map on my phone, so as to reassure myself that I was in fact making progress - however slow it may have been. And eventually I did emerge from the shadowy world of that flooded forest onto the wide expanse of Zoe Bay's beach, to be greeted by the rather incongruous sight of a sailing boat and a catamaran at anchor just offshore. Of course within five minutes of dumping my pack and getting started on lunch
Wide open spaces... at last!
Emerging from the swamplands onto the beach at Zoe Bay
at the Zoe Bay campground I was being harassed by a squadron of interminable midges (sandflies), but hey - you can't win them all, right?!?
But any notion that the first day had set a standard that the rest of the trail couldn't possibly live up to was soon dispelled, as I took the recommended side-trip (though it actually follows the main trail) from the campground to the nearby Zoe Falls. You know how every so often you'll come across a picture of a place that seems too beautiful to be real, and you immediately ask "where the hell is that place? I have to go there!" Well, Zoe Falls is one of those places. A classic bridal veil-shaped waterfall flowing down a smooth, tilted rock slab into a plunge pool whose depth of colour is truly astonishing, it is the sort of place that leaves you hypnotised. And somehow I had it all to myself, for the first twenty minutes at least. Thank you, inaccessibility! From the base of the waterfall a rugged trail leads steeply uphill - with the aid of a sturdy, knotted rope to scale a particularly difficult section - to the top of the
Reward for Effort
First glimpse of Zoe Falls - well and truly worth trudging through mud to get to!
falls, where not only are there plenty of miniature pools fed by cascades to relax in, but the view stretches out over the forest to take in the whole sweep of Zoe Bay. If anything could be worth trudging through a swamp for, this would have to be it.
Back at the campsite that evening I decided to conduct a little spotlighting foray along the beach, to see if I could locate any wildlife. As I headed back towards the mouth of South Zoe Creek, something caught my eye. A glint of light from my head torch was being reflected back to me from the far side of the creek, but try as I might I couldn't see what it was. Given that it was coming from just above water level - and in prime crocodile habitat - I naturally wondered, if only for a second, whether it could possibly be the telltale reflection of my torchlight in the eyes of a saltwater crocodile. 'No way', I told myself, 'if it was a crocodile then surely I would see two lights shining back at me' (unless it was facing sideways, or only had one eye). 'It must be a
Muddy No Longer
Enjoying the view from the top of Zoe Falls
piece of metal or some other shiny substance'. Then whatever it was blinked. And I was awfully glad I wasn't the one camped closest to the creek that night!
I was however camped closest to the sea - a fact that had seemed irrelevant when I set my tent up that afternoon, about ten metres back from the beach in a designated camping spot, with at least fifty metres of sand separating the treeline from the waterline. Indeed, when I had conducted my little spotlighting session in the evening I noticed that the water had retreated even further, so that the beach was closer to 70-80 metres wide. So imagine my surprise when I emerged from my tent later in the night to relieve myself on a tree, only to find the water lapping below the overhanging branches at the back of the beach, no more than ten metres from where I stood!
A quick check of the tide times told me that high tide was still one hour away, and suddenly I was wondering whether I might have to relocate my tent or risk being inundated! But some quick arithmetic assured me that the tide had already
Some Kind of Paradise
Soaking up the sunshine on Zoe Bay Beach, on the morning of day 3
risen by six feet, and should only rise by another thirty centimetres before reaching it's peak. By my best estimate my tent was at least sixty centimetres higher than the water's edge. I also remembered that around high tide and low tide the speed of the incoming/outgoing tide slows down, so that if anything it wouldn't rise much at all in the intervening hour. Still, the sound of those gentle waves lapping against the shore was nowhere near as relaxing as it had been the previous night! I must admit I did briefly consider building a levee out of coconuts.
After enjoying a leisurely sleep-in the next morning, I eventually got underway just after ten o'clock - which worked out perfectly, since it meant that by the time I reached the plunge pool at the base of Zoe Falls there wasn't another soul around. And with the sun having made a triumphant return, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to bask in the glory of such a spectacular setting - particularly given that I only had around 7km to walk for the day. The hour or so that followed was about as blissful
Communing with the fish at Zoe Falls
and carefree as anything I have experienced. Playing around with the self-timer on my camera (using my backpack as a makeshift tripod) provided the perfect excuse to keep diving back into those translucent waters, and the softness of the water almost defied belief.
But perhaps my favourite moment came when I had finally finished frolicking and simply sat quietly at the edge of the plunge pool with only my legs in the water, as a family of speckled jungle perch let their curiosity get the better of them, and proceeded to crowd around me to check me out. With bodies about 15cm long coloured golden with black spots, the fish seemed to have adopted me as their mascot, and before long there were around forty of them swimming laps around my legs! To have such a stunning place all to myself with only those enchanting fish for company was a moment that will live long in my memory, and it took a long time before I was able to finally tear myself away.
But even when I did eventually hit the trail again - wearing only a towel and my trusty shandals - I wasn't done with Zoe
The Ultimate Infinity Pool
Kicking back at the top of Zoe Falls, while enjoying the view over Zoe Bay
Falls yet, and no sooner had I completed the gruelling climb up to the top of the waterfall than I was back in the water... this time finding the perfect little infinity pool from which to lie back and admire the views out over Zoe Bay. I also met up with Myles and Laura again, who as it turned out had gotten up while it was still dark and hit the trail by 7am - a full hour before I had woken up - only to arrive at Zoe Falls fifteen minutes later and find it impossible to leave; by the time they bid me farewell it had already gone midday! And so another hour of enforced relaxation followed, during which I unfortunately managed to drop a camera battery over the falls (luckily I have another five to spare!) whilst being nipped in the butt by what I can only guess was a freshwater yabby! Neither of which even came close to wiping the smile off my face.
Sometime around 1pm I roused myself and hit the trail once more (having barely covered a kilometre to this point of the day) at which point the fun and games soon
The End in Sight
View of Mulligan Bay from the trail on day 3
came to a stop, as the serious business of climbing up to a saddle between mountains began in earnest. But though it was hot and sweaty work at least the trail was dry, and the climb proved to be mercifully short, as I topped out only half-an-hour after leaving the waterfall. After guzzling down as much water as my stomach could handle, I was soon weaving my way down the other side of the saddle before the trees gave way and views opened out to the south and east - with the shallow waters of Sunken Reef Bay down below to the left, Lucinda and it's extraordinary 6km-long jetty sitting just across from the southern tip of Hinchinbrook Island directly ahead, and both Pelorus Island and Orpheus Island clearly visible off in the distance.
After making use of the fleeting phone signal to confirm that I would be spending an extra night on the island and would therefore rendezvous with the boat at George Point (the southern trailhead for the Thorsborne Trail) on Friday morning, I plunged headlong down through the forest towards the crossing of Diamantina Creek, and twenty minutes later reached the campsite nestled into the rainforest
beside Mulligan Falls. And though it was 3pm and I'd still not yet had lunch (meaning I was ravenously hungry) I decided to deal with the heat before I dealt with my hunger, and so I dropped my pack, donned my boardshorts, and headed straight for the plunge pool at the base of Mulligan Falls, where once again I cooled off in the island's abundant freshwater whilst marvelling at the beauty of my surroundings.
While everyone else at the campsite had to get going early in order to make their boat pick ups on Thursday morning, I was free to laze around at my leisure with the campsite at Mulligan Falls all to myself. With another day to fill and only about two hours worth of walking separating me from the finish line at George Point, I decided to backtrack a couple of kilometres along the main trail to take the side-trip to Sunken Reef Bay that I had bypassed the day before. Unfortunately the light rain that had been falling overnight had returned by this point, so the beach wasn't exactly looking it's best - though the accumulated detritus left behind by (presumably boat-based) campers didn't exactly help
Short-beaked echidna on the beach at Sunken Reef Bay
But this mattered little once I came across an enchanting echidna foraging for ants amongst the driftwood at the back of the beach, and with their notoriously poor eyesight I was able to get quite close to my spiny little friend and watch as he did his rounds. Curiously this echidna had a much narrower body shape than every other example of it's species that I have seen, though I can't recall ever having seen an echidna anywhere near this far north, so maybe it was a different species to the short-beaked echidna that proliferate further south.
Eventually I took my leave of the beach, and as I came to yet another smooth, tilted slab of rock on the trail I had just enough time to think 'hmmm, that rock looks fairly dry' before I set my left foot down... and instantly it slid out from under me, sending my full weight crashing down onto the rock. The pain was immediate, and when I looked down the blood that was oozing from my wound was that deep, dark red colour that signifies more than just a shallow graze or cut. As it turned out I had gouged
The price you pay for a lapse in concentration
Nursing a bloody leg at Mulligan Falls, after slipping on a rock on my way back from Sunken Reef Bay
a groove about half-a-centimetre deep and five centimetres long in the flesh of my left shin. Have I mentioned that I get light-headed from only a small amount of blood loss?!?
Thankfully I was able to keep my head clear, and as the pain subsided and the blood slowed to a trickle it became obvious that I hadn't sustained any structural damage to my leg; it was merely a flesh wound. I thanked my lucky stars, while cursing myself for being so careless. The skipper of the boat who had brought me over to the island had warned "it's not the crocs you've got to worry about, it's the rocks". And as careful as I had been to heed his advice I had already had at least three close shaves over the previous three days when I had slipped but managed to catch myself before I lost my balance. But then I had dropped my guard for just one second and paid the price. Which just goes to show that accidents and injuries can happen to the best of us... and they can just as easily happen to the rest of us!
Back at the campsite I went
How I feel about Hinchinbrook Island
Patched up and back on the trail for the final section of forest to Mulligan Bay
for a soothing swim at the base of Mulligan Falls to wash my leg clean (the swim wasn't really necessary, but who was I to resist?) and cooked up a hearty lunch on a boulder in mid-stream, before belatedly packing away the tent and heading off for the final 7km of the Thorsborne Trail. The first two kilometres brought a final lovely stroll through the forest punctuated by the odd creek crossing and, just for old time's sake, a few more stretches of ankle deep mud! But then I emerged for the final time onto the sands of Mulligan Bay's beach, and with views of mountains behind me and the silhouettes of Pelorus and Orpheus Islands off to my left, I set off down the beach towards the trail's finish line.
Arriving at the campsite at George Point an hour later, the resident sandflies - vile little creatures that they are - immediately set about making my visit a living hell. So I hastily dumped my backpack, threw my tent up and retreated to a fallen tree on the beach a few hundred metres away where it seemed the sea breeze was enough to keep the pesky little blighters at
The Home Straight
Looking back up Mulligan Bay's beach towards the mountains
bay. And there, gazing out across the narrow Hinchinbrook Channel towards the almost-unbelievably long Lucinda jetty, my experience on the legendary Thorsborne Trail came to an end. Needless to say, it was an experience I won't soon forget.
Hinchinbrook Island is a true gem; a lost world hidden in plain sight between it's more illustrious neighbours to the north and south. A place where nature at it's most wild and beautiful is still allowed to exist with almost no interference from mankind.
Long may it remain that way.
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