Day 1: 1770 to Bustard Head
The worst part of the day is over early with a long and tedious drive south from Rockhampton to 1770. Doug and I split the driving, N talks. At Agnes Waters we stop at a bakery for N to buy lunch. The town is busy with backpackers lining up to head out for a $17 surf lesson. The Great Barrier Reef extends all the way to Agnes Waters and south of that is the bulk of Fraser Island, which makes you wonder how much surfing you actually get for $17 off this coast line.
The boat ramp at 1770 is overlooked by a cafe and the patrons watch as we shuttle vast loads of gear - food and water for 10 days plus all our camping gear - down to the beach and somehow manage to stuff all of it into our three single sea kayaks. The last thing we do is attach our sails although it is hot and windless in the sheltered waters of Round Hill Creek.
The tide is low and we have to paddle three kilometres out the channel against the tide to Round Hill Head before we can point the boats north to Bustard Head. We plan to stay off-shore of the long curving beach of Bustard Bay and are expecting a long slog north to Bustard Head with heavy boats; but, a gentle south wind has built up and with sails the 20 km passes relatively quickly and we are soon rounding the headland to the west. A beautiful campsite under pandanus trees is tucked into a small cove right under Bustard Head and we pull in to make our first camp of the trip.
Clews Point from Bustard Head
I want to get up to the lighthouse before dark so set off straight uphill through the bush behind camp thrashing up a steep slope festooned with spider webs. I had some idea that I might run into the old track that is shown on the map but the bush just gets thicker and thicker and as day light fades, I bash back downhill to the shoreline arriving slightly west of camp. An easy scramble west around rocks and I am on a gorgeous little crescent shaped beach sheltered from wind and sea.
A ramshackle, and presumably failed, backpacker tent camp is deserted and derelict in the trees behind the beach. As far as I can tell from our map this is National Park land so I am not sure why the owners of all this garbage have not been ordered to clear it up. A short distance beyond the eyesore a National Parks sign marks the walking track to the lighthouse, but, it is dark now so I pick my way back over the rocks stopping for a night time swim in a small cove near camp.
Day 2: Bustard Head to Richards Point
I get up in the dark but do not reach the lighthouse early enough to see the sunrise. The lighthouse and out-buildings have been restored by volunteers after years of vandalism and now the area is all well maintained and tidy. A small cemetery nearby reveals the hardships of the times - the few graves in-situ chronicle whole families of early death.
Today we are paddling to Rodds Peninsula, a wide headland with Pancake Creek to the east and Worthington Creek and Rodds Harbour to the west. We first paddle around Clews Point and into the mouth of Pancake Creek. At least a dozen yachts are moored well into the sheltered waters and I am glad that in kayaks we can land and camp in places larger boats can not go. Into a westerly wind, we paddle across to Rodds Peninsula and slowly head northwest along the shore line. There is no sailing today.
After what feels like a long slog we pull into a small beach for lunch. The wind is stronger after lunch and as we paddle past each small headland traveling west we get into more and more wind. The spray flying off our paddles soaks us through. Richards Point looks like all the other small points except Ethel Rocks lies a few hundred metres off shore and the coastline turns due west. We pull into a tiny low tide beach sheltered between big boulders and Doug goes south while I go west looking for a campsite.
Sunset near Point Richards
We settle on a campsite under pandanus trees on a dune above the beach on the southeast side of Richards Point, Doug and I follow a beaten in vehicle track to Richards Point and then walk along the beach to the rocks near Flora Point. I am trying to catch a glimpse of Seal Rocks which we had hoped to use as a waypoint for the next days paddle, but the 20 knot wind has blown up big whitecaps and only a low non-descript landmass is visible to the west. There are a series of small creeks running out onto the beach between Flora and Richards Point which might provide fresh water if you went far enough upstream.
Day 3: Richards Point to Wild Cattle Island
The greatest danger on this section of coast is crossing the shipping channel that leads into the Port of Gladstone. The Port services almost 3,000 ships per year, most of them large tankers carrying LPG and coal. While waiting to enter the Port, the ships moor off-shore. There are so many (17 at one count) that at night their lights resemble an off-shore city. The recommended crossing for small craft is between channel markers G1 and G2 where the dredged channel is just under a kilometre wide.
Our plan is to head directly west from Richards Point to the north end of Wild Cattle Island, passing Seal Rocks along the way. If we are tired, we can camp on Wild Cattle Island, otherwise, we plan to continue north to Canoe Point and cross the shipping channel over to Facing Island to camp. It is 24 kilometres across Rodds Bay where the current ebbs east and floods west at up to 1.5 knots.
Rounding Richards Point we are dismayed to find the westerly wind blowing, although not nearly as strongly as the previous day. It is difficult to get our bearings as we cannot see Seal Rocks and are getting blown eastwards at a steady place.
Doug sailing past Hummocky Island
We paddle into a small beach near Flora Point and walk back into the trees to get out of the strong wind. A few compass bearings help us get navigationally sorted and we decide the best course of action is to wait an hour and see what happens with the wind. Currently, both wind and tide are against us making a crossing to Wild Cattle Island at least a 5 to 6 hour endeavor. By the time we have had a cup of tea in a sheltered location, the wind has begun to subside and it is time to leave.
As the wind abates, the tidal current also becomes more favorable and we are soon paddling across a very calm ocean heading roughly west. Hummock Hill on Hummock Hill Island provides a convenient landmark to keep on our right and soon I can see the white navigation marker situated roughly midpoint of Wild Cattle Island. This becomes our bearing point as we paddle steadily west.
By the time we reach Wild Cattle Island we are all feeling a bit tired and ready to camp. Doug finds a good campsite under casuarinas above the beach where deeper water comes close inshore. The island is being eaten away by the ocean and fallen trees line the beach in both directions.
The sea to the north and east is lit up overnight by flashing green and red channel markers, the light station on Facing Island and the yellow glow of the tankers off-shore.
LNG tanker in the shipping channel
Day 4: Wild Cattle Island to Facing Island
We get away early next morning hoping to catch the current north to Canoe Point and maybe even cross the shipping channel near slack tide. It takes an hour to each Canoe Point where there is water and garbage facilities available. Picking out G1 and G2 from Canoe Point is impossible as, although lit at night, they are 5.5 km north of Canoe Point. However, by lining up the yellow marker north of Canoe Point with Rocky Point on Facing Island, we know the approximate location of G1 and G2 and have something to aim for.
A brisk southerly has blown up and we make fast progress away from Canoe Point towards Facing Island. We would have completed the 6 km crossing in under an hour had Doug not noticed one of the tankers off-shore was heading south down the shipping channel towards Gladstone Port. Long conversations are difficult in kayaks bobbing in wind and waves, but Doug and I had no doubts that our safest option was to sail parallel to the channel until the tanker had passed by; a course of action recommended by the Port Authority.
Inexplicably, N, who is much more conservative than Doug and I seemed to want to go on, based on observations he had made the previous evening. The decision, of course, is a classic low probability/high consequence event. Tankers travel at up to 20 knots, take 2 knots to stop moving forward and have a blind spot that extends several hundred metres in front of the bow. Only a fool in a kayak would attempt to race one across a channel.
In any event, we were now at near full ebb stream and sailing northwest in a brisk wind parallel to the shipping channel we were only just holding our position (the tidal current reaches 3 knots). It was not long before the tanker, the initials LPG writ large on the side, approached. The way behind the tanker was clear and we could resume paddling north to Facing Island. There was a tidal race near Oyster Rock which required some extra paddling effort but once we pulled into the bay we were out of the main current and we came ashore for lunch.
It is a pleasant paddle north up Facing Island and at low tide, all the rocky reefs provide interesting paddling over colourful coral gardens. We found a campsite just north of Pearl Ledge up in the dunes above the beach. I wandered along the tops of the sand dunes at sunset watched by kangaroos standing on the highest points. There are a couple of small wetlands behind the beach and plenty of birds.
North along Facing Island
Day 5: Facing Island to Curtis Island
In the morning, we continued following the coast of Facing Island to North Point where there are a scattering of houses. Just inside North Entrance, there is a council campsite with tank water and garbage, although all the boat campers were actually camped in the bush outside the campground. The tide runs at a couple of knots out of North Entrance but with a tail wind we sailed easily across not even noticing any drift.
Near Black Head on Curtis Island
Curtis Island, which looks uninspiring on the map, is actually delightful on the east coast. We had a good wind to help us along the beach leading to Connor Bluff and then along rocky cliffs to Black Head. In the bay west of Black Head is a QPWS 4WD campground and as we paddled into the bay we could hear loud music blaring out. Pulling in for a break as far from the campground as possible we had lunch while the bogans at the campground spun donuts on the sand beach.
I had picked out a couple of small bays away from the 4WD campsites and inaccessible by road. We chose the middle one to make camp and had yet another gorgeous campsite under tea-trees in a tiny sand bay enclosed by steep cliffs. That afternoon, I just had time to wander up the rocks at the north side of the bay where I found an old horse track that led through a lovely forest of gnarled old gum trees with an under-storey of black boys.
Camp on Curtis Island
Day 6: Curtis Island to Cape Capricorn
It is a gorgeous morning with a pink tinged sky at sunrise and before we leave I walk up the high point north of camp where there is a fabulous view up a coastline of rocky headlands and tiny sand coves culminating in the longer sand beach before Cape Capricorn.
Looking north to Cape Capricorn
We have a very light tail wind, just enough to puff out the sails, and it is a lovely paddle north along the rocky coast. After about an hour, we reach a tiny sheltered bay, the perfect spot for a short stop, and we pull in and wander along the beach. It is only about 13 km along to Cape Capricorn where we hope to camp, but now mostly sand beach.
A brisk wind has blown up from the southeast and is dumping wind waves onto the last beach before Cape Capricorn. Doug and I would rather keep paddling to camp rather than going through the hassle of landing our heavy boats, dragging them up the beach out of reach of the tide, and then man-handling them back down again, but N wants to land so we pull in beside some rocks. It is cold in the wind and hard to find any shelter so it is a quick stop and not really worth the effort.
Paddling around Cape Capricorn
Cape Capricorn is wonderful. Big shale cliffs with deep water running right up to the cliffs. An eagle has a nest on a rock platform on the east side and the north side has crenelated rock formations like tiny alpine ridges running into the sea. Doug and I paddle close in enjoying every moment, but N is out wide, perhaps worried about getting washed onto the rocks.
I had heard of a campsite at Jetty Beach below the lighthouse but when we get there, we find nothing suitable. The ground is steep and rocky, and the tiny beach will be gone at high tide. Paddling a little south, we meet a yachtie who recommends we paddle down to Yellow Patch, a few kilometres south in the mouth of a bug ridden estuary. We poke around for a while looking for a campsite that does not involve a kilometre long carry across grey mud to reach or sleeping on rocky steep ground but find nothing. N votes to paddle down to Yellow Patch but Doug and I win the vote, two to one, and we paddle back around the Cape to a good camp under tea trees tucked in the north corner of the last sand beach before the cape. The ground is soft for sleeping and there is even a picnic table. The only problem is the hordes of mosquitoes that descend as soon was we set up the tents.
The beach near Cape Capricorn
Doug and I walk up to the lighthouse and admire the expansive view of Keppel Bay and the islands. The north end of Curtis Island is all coastal sand and mudflats and the source of all the mosquitoes. Even in the wind at the lighthouse the mosquitoes are voracious. From the lighthouse, we follow an open grassy ridge back down to camp and move the table out onto the beach where the mosquitoes are much reduced. Strangely, once night falls they disappear and it is lovely walking along the firm sand beach under bright stars.
Cape Capricorn Lighthouse
Day 7: Cape Capricorn to Hummocky Island
We have a short day planned to Hummocky Island where we want to explore the sea caves. It is 10 kilometres northeast to Fairway Rock and another 2 kilometres on to Hummocky Island. We reach the island at a semi-enclosed bay with a jagged rock wall providing shelter from the southeast winds. Heading east, we pass a low narrow sea cave that rumbles like a dragon as the sea goes in and then puffs out gentle plumes of sea spray.
At the northeast tip of the island there are two big caves which Doug and I paddle into. It is unusual to find sea caves like these in Queensland; they are more commonly a feature of the south coast of NSW or the east coast of Tasmania. N goes on ahead to the beach on the north side of the island, while Doug and I paddle into both big caves. The more westerly cave is larger and has swallows darting around under the roof and extends a very long way back. The small waves running in make a surprisingly loud boom as they wash up the rocks at the back of the cave.
Hummocky Island is a popular anchorage and five boats are anchored off the north side when sun sets but no-one comes ashore and we have the island to ourselves.
Day 8: Hummocky Island to Divided Island
It is our longest day and longest crossing of the trip but our boats are lighter now. The tide floods west into Keppel Bay so we leave early to get some push from the current. We plan to camp at Divided Island but it is small and not visible from Hummocky Island. Peak Island, however, about 4 kilometes south of Divided Island is obvious and we want to visit it on the way past so we head off on a northwesterly course aiming straight towards the middle of Peak Island.
About 2.5 hours into the 23 km crossing we are perhaps 4 kilometres east of Peak Island and Divided Island is now clearly visible. I suggest that we could alter course and paddle more northerly to Divided Island but Doug is keen to visit Peak Island so we agree to carry on as per our original plan.
No sooner have we resumed paddling than N splits off and starts striking out to the south. We watch incredulously as N, who prefers paddling very close together, rapidly moves further and further south. We shout, wave our paddles, blow whistles, but, N never looks round and is soon a distant speck on the horizon. At this distance, it is hard to tell where N is going but he appears to be heading south to Arch Rock. I am gobsmacked and worried. Chasing him down is not an option, nor is calling him on the 'phone (his mobile is turned off and packed away), and the nearest land is 14 km to the west.
We discuss our (limited) options as we continue paddling west and finally decide that if we do not see him returning to Peak Island by the time we arrive there we will call Marine Rescue. I have an unwritten rule that you should never get into a situation that you cannot explain to rescue services, and am wondering how this situation can possibly be resolved under this assumption.
Paddling into Peak Island, we keep a watch on the tiny yellow speck that is N in case we have to communicate his "last known point." Gradually, he seems to be coming closer and finally we can see that he is now paddling north and he arrives at the south end of Peak Island a few minutes before us. He is tired out from some frantic paddling and imparts some garbled and rather inexplicable story about rogue currents from the Fitzroy River some 20 km to the south. In the ultimate irony, N explains that he thought he might have to call Marine Rescue to save us!
Peak Island from Divided Island
There is a beach on the NW side of Peak Island where we have a short rest and then paddle north past Split Rock to Divided Island where a tidal race runs off the south end of the island. The campsite at Divided Island is non-existent and we have to scratch a level area out of the dirt above the beach.
N rests in the shade while D and I wander around the island. At low tide the island is split in two and the north half is easy to walk around on rock platforms. Heading around the south half, I find a steep valley that I can scramble up through prickly pear to reach the 36 metre high point. It might not be a very tall island, but the view from the top is wonderful, and an eagle flies over head with a fish caught in its talons.
The lights of Emu Park are bright at night and a sad reminder that tomorrow is our last day on the water.
Doug on Divided Island
Day 9: Divided Island to Emu Park
We have only 11 kms left to paddle and while N is ready to get back home, Doug and I would rather stay out, meandering north, camping on islands, and ignoring the "real" world. A whale broaches over and over to the west of the island while we have breakfast but is gone by the time we launch. We get away at 8 am and with a light beam wind soon arrive at Wedge Island where we go ashore for a few minutes.
Wedge Island from Divided Island
A bearing off the map lines up exactly with a curving white shape on shore that we presume is the "singing ship," located on Emu Point, adjacent to the boat ramp, and, as we paddle in, the white curve resolves itself into a sculpture, there is the jetty, behind that the boat ramp, and, after 9 days and over 200 kilometres the end of the trip.