A Walk On The Wild Side


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Published: December 1st 2013
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Well I hope you’re holding on nice and tight to your seats folks, cause you’re about to read the best post in the history of Travelblog about Hinchinbrook, the largest of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef.

And before you think I’ve gone and got all big-headed, I have to confess it’s also the worst post.

Yes, astonishingly a quick glance at the index reveals that not a single other member has set foot on this little marooned strip of land and thought thereafter to put pen to page.

This is doubly surprising for me, as not only is it one of the closest places to where I actually live, but, as you’ll discover when you finally get here yourself, is also breathtakingly beautiful.

So what is it, do you think, that’s kept everyone away?

Well, firstly, Hinchinbrook is a secret hidden in plain sight; the island is so large and mountainous that many mistake it for part of the mainland. And while its perfectly visible (and only a few kilometres) from the main highway down to Sydney, those few kilometres are through a sandfly-filled mangrove swamp and across a crocodile-infested channel, so just donning your togs and doggy-paddling over is not really an option.

Secondly, when you finally get there, what you’ll find is, well..., not very much at all.

The sole accommodation option closed down years ago. These days you’ll find sweeping sandy bays, windswept mountain ridges, secluded coves, spectacular waterfalls and idyllic swimming-holes, but not an inch of road or pavement and not a single restaurant or shop, or in fact, any permanent dwelling at all.

Doesn’t sound too promising, I have to admit. Well, at least until you remember that when folks go on holiday, they often say they’re going to get away from it all.

Strangely most of them then book into five-star hotels as close as possible to a host of fine-dining experiences, with maybe just a major shopping centre or two thrown-in nearby, which makes me wonder just what it is, exactly, that they’re trying to get away from?

Hinchinbrook is nothing like that at all. And perhaps in part because of this, the joint isn’t exactly jumping. There’s no Bright Lights and Big City round here, no deadlines, no hustle and bustle.

That’s okay, though, as I have to confess that kind of thing’s not really my cup of tea.

My cup of tea is one brewed up on a secluded beach in a billy-can, which fortunately we’d thought to bring along, and shared with your immediate companions but in the company of nobody else at all. Not so good for the people-watchers among you, admittedly, but perfect for those in search of a bit of genuine peace and tranquillity. This is the ultimate get-away-from-it-all holiday: no electricity means no TV, no refrigeration, no internet, no I-Pad and, yes, no mobile-phone (I can almost feel all the under-20s out there quaking in your boots)!

It’s a holiday served up at a snail’s pace, and just like that snail, you’ll have to carry everything you’re going to need for your stay in with you, all around the island, and back out again; clothes, toiletries, food, accommodation, the lot. If you fancy reading a good book along the way, probably best to make it a slim one. You even have to bring your own chocolate to put on your pillow at night, but at least it cuts out the need for a tip.

Even water is not entirely a given: in the Dry many of the smaller streams simply dry up, while in the wet several of the larger ones may well contain a nice salt-water crocodile, who might quite fancy an idiot and his water-bottle for elevenses.

Luckily for me there are still just enough other like-minded fools out there to keep a little ferry-boat running to-and-fro to each end of the Thorsborne Trail, a 32km 4-day hike down the wilder east side of the island facing the Coral Sea, partly along the beaches themselves, and partly up, over and around any other obstacles that happen to get in the way. When you think about it really it’s the perfect 21st century holiday, as I’m sure the obesity epidemic would turn out to be surprisingly short-lived if we all had to always carry everything we were going to eat for the next 4 days on our backs.

While the sandflies and crocodiles may want to eat you, all the other animals on the island are keener on eating all that food you’ve so generously brought along. It must be guarded at all times against raiding birds and goannas, and at night stored in the charmingly-named rat-boxes, which, oddly, turn out not to be for storing rats at all.

No mobile-phone, of course, also means you’re on your own: there’s nobody to call, no access to help should things go awry. Get sick a couple of days in and it’s a two day walk to either end of the trail to catch the ferry back to the nearest medical aid.

‘What happens if you get bitten by a snake?’ asked a concerned friend.

‘Well...’ I put it to him, as succinctly as I could, ’You die.’

Not that I was planning on dying. After 40-odd fang-free years it would have been pretty unlucky to have been bitten on one of only 4 days when there wasn’t any help immediately at hand. If I met any snakes I’d be courteous and friendly, make sure not to spill their pint or look at them in a funny way, and generally do anything I could to avoid getting into any fights.

Besides it’s always been a principle of mine that anything that’s worth doing involves at least some element of risk. This, of course, is why Facebook doesn’t qualify as something worth doing, other than the risk of exposing yourself to the idiotic rantings of a bunch of people you suddenly realise you wish you’d never met. Oddly they all seemed quite pleasant, sane and rational back in the days before the internet allowed you to make an ass of yourself on a daily basis.

At least I could console myself that, statistically speaking, you’re more likely to die in a car crash on the way there than from a snake-bite on the island itself, particularly if you’ve driven most of the way staring merrily at Facebook on your phone.

Strangely, judging from the appalled look on his face when I broke the news, this didn’t hold much sway with my friend at all, and I think it’s fair to say he may not hold much faith in statistics.

Admittedly Debbie and I had skewed the odds a little further in our favour by choosing as our travel companions a couple of doctors, one of whom is actually a Consultant in Emergency Medicine. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a little thing called forward planning, not a bad idea as it has to be said, Hinchinbrook does have some past form when it comes to medical emergencies.

Back in ’97, shortly after I first arrived in Australia and just around the time I hooked up with Debbie, a previous Hinchinbrook trekker had a freak accident, becoming trapped late one afternoon when a one-tonne boulder was dislodged from a river bank as he tried to clamber up it. He became pinned in the water by his legs unable to free himself, and he did indeed spend 2 nights in the chilly stream while his friend ran back for help. The good news was that on the third day the medivac helicopter was despatched and they finally managed to extricate him to safety. The bad news was that in order to do so they had to cut off both his legs above the knee. With a saw. Not exactly the sort of holiday snaps most of us would have in mind.

Luckily for us Day One passed without so much as a graze, and after a morning spent climbing peaks and circling bays, before we knew it we were striking up camp at Little Ramsay Bay as the sun dipped behind the central mountain ridge late afternoon.

Fortunately camping gear has come on a fair bit since I was a kid, when hours were spent grumpily spreading out yards of musty canvas, wrestling with poles and tripping over guy-ropes. These days your feather-weight hi-tech abode almost erects itself, and in seconds flat you’ve built yourself a cosy alcove. Not the most spacious home I’ve ever had admittedly; our two-man tent would, I suspect be uncomfortably cosy if I did indeed have to share it with another man rather than Debbie, with whom I’m more accustomed to sharing some direct body heat. Come to think of it, the world might be a much more peaceful and harmonious place if our world leaders really did have to camp together whenever they visited Camp David, though possibly our friend Putin might raise an eyebrow on hearing he was sharing with ‘Camp David’ Cameron.

And it’s not just the tents that have gone all futuristic: there are a million-and-one other miniature must-have gadgets too. Our brand new stove goes by the name of a Moonraker, presumably because it resembles nothing more than a mini-lunar lander. It’s appropriate that they’ve started naming camping gear after spacecraft, as frankly some of the prices are astronomical.

You get to eat like an astronaut too. Long gone are the days of jacket spuds in the campfire. These days everyone brings along freeze-dried desiccated ready meals to boil up on the billy, culinary delicacies such as Beef Bourguignon or Lamb Fettuccine or even Venison Casarecce in White Wine Sauce. And once that lot’s polished off, well, how about dessert? Apple Pie, perhaps, or Chocolate Fudge Mousse, or, would you believe, Ice-cream!

I have to say most of these meals, and especially the desserts, struggle to live up to the enticing photos and drooling promises of the packet. The crumble in your Apple Crumble, for instance, turns out to be a couple of biscuits which you crush and sprinkle on the top, and by the look of the ice-cream I suspect it was more-likely made by Tom & Jerry than Ben & Jerry, with extra taste from a few authentic cat & mouse hairs thrown in free. The after dinner drinks weren’t exactly from the finest of wine-lists either, a toss of the coin between straight whiskey or cheap cask port. These unsurprisingly were consumed mostly by the males of the party, not entirely unfairly as they were the ones who’d carried them all the way in.

Not long after dinner the remaining food is carefully stored back in the aforementioned rat-boxes (which are actually not to protect from rats at all, but from the cuter mouse-like melomys which dart here, there and everywhere after nightfall) and its time to hit the hay.

And that routine’s pretty much repeated for the next three days: a bit of hiking, a bite to eat, a bit of climbing, a spot of swimming, wee bit more hiking, set up camp and pull out your next vacuum-sealed pouch and become your own al fresco Masterchef. What keeps the interest up throughout is that Hinchinbrook is not only a bona-fide little tropical oasis, but also a surprisingly varied one, habitats changing like clockwork every half an hour as you wander through. As well as crocodiles, jellyfish and our friends the snakes to keep you on your toes, there’s a whole host of other flora and fauna to take in, some of which is entirely endemic to this one little patch of green. It’s the kind of place a scurrying lizard or passing moth may yet to have been described by science. One weird bug we came upon shedding his skin at the path-side was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard of before. On closer inspection it looked like a cross between an earwig and a saw-fish, as if freshly escaped from the genetic laboratories of Shelley, Frankenstein & Co hidden out of sight on the other side of the hill.

I think maybe we should call it an earfish, as it’s much easier to pronounce than the possibly more descriptive sawwig. Either name would probably come as a considerable surprise to the bug himself, who’d always been known by his friends simply as Kevin. Poor Kevin’s kids would now be forever socially stigmatised, their father never having been the same since that one fateful day back as a teenager when he was kidnapped by those giant alien snails, one of whom then tried to anally probe him. And I’d like to put it down for the record right here in black & white that it wasn’t me.

Almost before we knew it four days of self-sufficiency had managed to drag us right down the whole east side of the island, and after one last dip in our rainforest plunge-pool we donned our backpacks for the final time and trudged the last five kilometres down a sweeping white beach facing the Pacific to our return ferry rendezvous.

Reaching our final destination was a bitter-sweet moment; sure we’d conquered the Thorsbourne Trail and survived Hinchinbrook Island, but in doing so there was no escaping the fact that we could now officially be referred to as Ramblers. It’s not the first time in my life I’ve been accused of rambling, admittedly, but still, it’s not the sort of thing you want to go shouting from the rooftops. Just one more nail in the coffin to any aspirations I’d ever indulged that I might once upon a time have been something of a cool-dude.

Or maybe rambling is what middle-aged cool-dudes do these days, in order to show off all their snazzy hi-tech camping gear. Just one more little sign I’m not getting any younger, I suppose.

Not that I’ll actually mind getting old if it all turns out to be this much fun. It’s not like you’ve got much choice, so why not learn to accept it instead of making an idiot of yourself desperately clinging to your youth.

Back in the Eighties we were told to Choose Life, but nowadays I think you might be better to stop pretending, do the opposite and Embrace Death. Well, okay, maybe not embrace it exactly, but at the very least blow the odd kiss to the other side; show the Reaper you’re keeping him in mind by taking A Walk On The Wild Side every now and again while you’re still in the here and now.

After all, you never really know from day to day just what life’s going to bring next.

Just ask Kevin.

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1st December 2013

Very nice indeed!
A Nice write-up that I enjoyed thoroughly! I hope to experience similar feelings when I go to Cape Verde next year. There are an uninhabited island there that I'm looking forward to visiting!
1st December 2013

Enjoyed your belated ramblings...
and look forward to hearing what other adventures you've been up to since Sept 2012.
2nd December 2013

Why I can never keep a diary...
Hmmm, yes, I try not to get more than a year behind but somehow time just slips away... 4 more blogs in the pipeline to look forward to, out sometime 2014 (hopefully)!
2nd December 2013

Nice Article
Informative post and nice captures!!
4th December 2013

Snakes and crocs
Hi Did you actually see any?!!!
4th December 2013

Snakes, yes, crocs, no... but it's the ones you don't see you've got to worry about!!!
6th December 2013

A great story.

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