A slice of Australia
Last October, sitting next to a roaring woodstove on the other side of the world, we booked a backpacking trip on Australia’s Hinchinbrook Island, the largest island national park in the world. It was the only thing we planned in advance for our trip to this enormous country, purchasing our permits to camp there before our flights.
So it was a bit surreal when we finally boarded the boat on a sunny morning, headed for the uninhabited, mountainous outcropping of land in the Coral Sea.
We had booked five nights and six days to walk and enjoy the 32-kilometer Thorsborne Trail, but opted to walk the trail both ways. Not only did it save us nearly $200 on transport to and from the island, we would have been so bored with all the downtime.
Hinchinbrook is like a mini Australia. We saw just about every type of landscape we had driven or hiked through (aside from the massive expanses of nothing, thankfully).
The trail passed through jungles similar to the ones we just left in Daintree, through the arid desert-like forests of the Flinders Ranges, the swampy grasslands and beautiful swimming holes of Litchfield and Kakadu, and the mountains, rolling hills, and stunning beaches of Victoria and New South Wales. It was amazing, and we were glad we got the chance to see each place twice.
The fact that we were able to hike at all is a small miracle. In February, Cyclone Yasi slammed directly into the island and nearby coasts, uprooting plants, toppling enormous trees, and ripping the roofs from homes. We watched nervously as week after week the trail remained closed. Finally, just days before we were set to embark, it fully reopened.
On the trail, evidence of the devastation was everywhere. Often we were not so much walking through forest as a narrow passageway through hacked limbs and sawed off tree trunks. Tangles of vines and fallen branches choked the forest in every direction, and we were often staggered by the sheer amount of effort it must have taken to even find the trail again, let alone make it passable.
The island’s mountains are some of the most mysterious and interesting peaks we’ve seen. Tall and jagged Mount Bowen dominates them all, rising 4,000 feet straight out of the sea, covered in rocky cliff faces and sharp pinnacles, and usually cloaked in fog. Though we were tempted to climb, venturing off the trail was out of the question due to the damage— we weren’t too heartbroken, since we were already walking 60 kilometers with heavy backpacks.
The trail held some amazing waterfalls and swimming holes, full of spotted jungle perch and the occasional turtle. The top of Zoe Falls, which cascades over hundreds of feet and overlooks Zoe Bay was especially gorgeous. Our first time through, it was getting close to sunset, and a slight pink blush tinted the bay and illuminated the peaks behind the bay.
That first night at Zoe Bay was our favorite of the hike. After a tiring 15 kilometers carrying packs laden down with food, we emerged onto the sandy beach—a wide, flat crescent with Mount Bowen looking almost mystical in the background. Just one other couple was there, and we settled into a secluded campsite carved into the thick beachside jungle. After darkness fell, the moon, getting close to full, lit the pale sands and waves gently bringing in the tide. Falling asleep to the sound of the ocean and a crackling fire just outside our tent far surpassed the roadside rest areas we’d been sleeping at.
Though we saw other people on the trail—and once unfortunately had to camp in much too close quarters with 12 people, whom we labeled The Clump—we often had massive expanses of beach or coastline to ourselves.
Once, we saw a mottled green and brown snake as thick as my calves slowly sliding into the tangled underbrush, away from where it had likely been sunning in the trail. By the time our camera was out, it was gone.
On the far northern end of the trail, we clambered over the multi-colored granite stones of Boulder Bay, navigated countless creek crossings, and found our way through narrow passageways and over chasms across a rocky headland when we couldn’t find the trail. We were utterly alone on Ramsay Bay, an impressively long beach on the northern tip of the island, the fine white sand vanishing as the island curves out of sight.
Evidence of the cyclone was visible here, too. Assorted refuse had washed up on shore; innumerable rubber shoes, bits of Styrofoam, even a TV.
Nate unwittingly brought along Frances Mayes’ “Under The Tuscan Sun” to read—possibly the all-time worst book for a backpacking trip. We read about delectable Italian feasts and the joys of a owning a country villa in our tent as we waited for an acceptable hour to make our white rice for dinner.
By our final night, threatening clouds had finally unleashed intermittent downpours, and we were ready to be back to our car and all its promises of varied food choices and entertainment options. Can you tell?
All in all, Hinchinbrook was a fitting goodbye to this country that far exceeded our expectations. We came to Australia mainly because we were so close we thought we might as well make a stop. But it turned out to be so much more diverse, interesting, dynamic, and frankly cool, than we ever envisioned. We’re flying out to New Zealand tomorrow, and have the familiar feelings of excitement and reflection as we leave one place behind for another.
But while we get organized across the Tasman Sea, we have a couple more posts to wrap up our 84-day, 16,000-kilometer Australian adventure.