Taking his luck before border closures and lockdowns, Huw Kingston manages an escape to north Queensland.
I held my phone up high, perched upon a granite boulder on a beach of broken coral, trying to eke out a signal. The first email, from the editor of this esteemed website, read ‘I know your Queensland trip was scheduled for mid-July, but given the current situation, I’m guessing it never happened?’
I typed a quick reply with a smiley face or two ‘Great trip here. Currently kayaking Hinchinbrook Island.’
‘What?! Lucky you! OK, we’re still keen to publish!’ he replied.
I Only Just Made It
I too couldn’t believe my luck to have got to North Queensland. The main reason was a speaking engagement in Townsville, but hey, interstate travel is our international travel these days, so other plans were afoot to enjoy some winter warmth.
Townsville, north Queensland’s largest city, was a very pleasant surprise. Cairns to the north, the Whitsundays to the south, both get loads of attention. But, as I discovered, there’s plenty to do in the town and its surrounds. Townsville. Towns-ville. A mix of English and French? Towntown, so good they named it twice? It was actually from Robert Towns, who visited briefly in 1866 and scattered some money around the joint. Enough to have the place named after him.
Feeling the Pull of Magnetic Island
To wash off the jetlag (OK, I’m getting carried away now) I headed out for a mountain bike spin at Cape Pallarenda on the first day. Under the Radar was an aptly named trail, recently fixed up, that shot me around the cape from where I could look across to Magnetic Island or Maggie as the locals call it. I swooped over there on the ferry for a day trip, hardly long enough to fully explore the island, but enough for a taste.
At Nelly Bay I hired snorkelling gear, before pedalling across to Geoffrey Bay. Here, a self-guided snorkel trail tempted me into the water near a colony of Agile Rock Wallabies looking on disinterestedly. A series of buoys guide the route and a waterproof card explains the corals and fish you might see along the way. Drying off after, I was entertained by another series of boys being berated by the owner of a hire business for treating his scooters as race machines.
I lunched at the Arcadia Hotel, alas too early for the weekly cane toad races, before taking to the hills on a walking track back to Nelly Bay. I knew the 7 kilometre trail was unsuitable for riding and shouldered my bike up and down what seemed like a thousand rocky steps.
Pedal-Pushing At Paluma
The tiny hamlet of Paluma sits in the clouds and the Wet Tropics rainforest, 1000 metres above Townsville. Once a year hundreds of mountain bikers ascend for the Paluma Push, and I was fortunate enough to be hosted at the 20th anniversary event.
I was fiddling with my bike late on the Friday night. Most people had headed to bed or were driving up from Townsville early the next morning for the race.
‘Evening. Have you ridden here before?’ a man strolling past said to me. ‘Not in the race but a long time ago I did…….’ I didn’t have a chance to finish my sentence. ‘I gave you some directions back in 1999. It’s Huw isn’t it?
I couldn’t believe his memory. Indeed 22 years ago, I was walking, riding and kayaking my way from Brisbane to Darwin. On the bike, somewhere in the forest near Paluma, I was challenged by both trails and fading light, trying to reach Jourama Falls. Apparently, so John McEvoy told me, two trail-bikers came by, stopped, and provided some directions. We’d talked for perhaps ten minutes; I could remember neither the incident nor the people, but John recalled everything.
Sunny in the low 20’s was nigh perfect for the event and our journey through to Hidden Valley. There was little chance of geographical embarrassment this time, with 600 other riders and a beautiful course through forest then farm. Whilst tropically attuned locals winced at the occasional deep creek crossings, I welcomed cool water on tired legs.
Now I’ve ridden dozens of mountain bike events in Australia and overseas (ah wistful thinking…). Often a bar at the finish line helped slake hard earned thirsts, offering beer, possibly wine too. A race in Mongolia even enticed with fermented mare’s milk. Here, in North Queensland however, beer was well down the list behind Bundy Rum, Jack Daniels and other concoctions to lift the spirits.
A Hut Deep In The Rainforest
With the Push over, I enjoyed a fine overnight bushwalk with Sam Stedman, the race organiser. Sam was keen to show me a hut on a little block of private land completely encircled by Paluma Range National Park. We followed narrow trails through the rainforest, passing rock gardens where huge, house size boulders dripped in greenery stood above huge waterfalls matching those anywhere in the country.
Every panel, pot, and piece of timber of DCK Hut was carried in by the owner Wilfred Karnoll and friends. A labour of love for over 30 years. A labour of love much like the dozens of walking trails Wilfred has built through the rainforest. Over dinner, around a small fire he’d coaxed into life with the damp timber, Sam told me of the love that began the hut and still nourishes it.
In 1988, not long after they’d bought the land, Wilfred and his wife Diane hiked in to make a start on the hut. Late one day Diane went for a walk. Despite a massive search over many months Diane was never seen again. Nearby mineshafts from tin mining many decades before were checked and checked again. DCK Hut stands as a memorial to Diane Clare Karnoll.
It was a little later than planned when we got back to Paluma, a little later than planned when I arrived at Lucinda, driving an hour or so north through endless cane fields. I hurriedly packed a loaned sea kayak for a four-day trip, keen to paddle across to Hinchinbrook Island before dark.
Hurry to Hinchinbrook
I landed in fading light, stepping onto the sand next to a recent crocodile slide, happy it was a small one. Hinchinbrook is a special and spectacular place: all rocky headlands, waterfalls, beaches and clear water on its eastern coast. The landward, western side is all flat, mangroves lining channels of turbid water and lurking dangers.
The coast rises to sharply impressive mountains, the highest, Mount Bowen (1121 metres) , one of my goals for the coming days. Hinchinbrook is also home to the renowned Thorsborne Trail, a four day walk on the east coast. The trail is limited in capacity and must be booked, often a year or more ahead.
I was paddling the east coast, pulling in on occasions to visit gems like Zoe Falls, a perfectly proportioned plunge pool below and infinity pool above. A full moon sparkled on the ocean for my beach camps.
I was beaten back by trackless Mt Bowen, taking a false lead up the wrong creek-line that wasted too many hours of clambering over fallen trees and slippery boulders. Camp that night was on a boulder in the middle of a creek, the only flattish land I could find. A swim in the rockpool beneath was sublime, although I could have done without the yabbies nibbling at my toes.
Too soon it was time to head back to Townsville, via a quick shower at the Lucinda caravan park. Here a sign informed me that talcum powder was banned as a safety hazard. You just never stop learning.
After dinner on my final night in town, we drove to the top of impressive Castle Hill before promenading, with gelato in hand, along The Strand. It all felt very European and, in some ways, I wish it was. But how lucky are we to have such contrast on our continent? As if to accentuate that feeling, only hours later I drove home from Canberra International Airport in flurries of snow. The Queensland/NSW border was now closed and soon another lockdown would creep to the Snowy Mountains and beyond.