Kayak Sailing - Coral Sea to Rainforest Lake

The kayaks were packed to the gunnels, we had sourced the sails to catch those sweet south-easterlies, the campsites were paid for, our support team - Trev - was sorted, and the plan was all set to kayak from Cairns to Cooktown in 7 days… but almost half way into the trip we pulled the pin.

We were feeling a little deflated having made that decision, but when the coastguard issues a severe wind warning, it is wise to take heed with discretion certainly being the better part of valour. The Bureau of Meteorology’s wind forecast site Meteye was also forecasting strong winds for the following days, it wasn’t looking good for the balance of our trip.

We had three glorious days under our spray decks and four to go… we had food to spare, the time available, and… well three of the four of us just weren’t quite ready to head for home, so we switched from the Coral Sea to a very large - and recently replenished - rainforest lake, Tinaroo.

Here’s the story of our latest adventure.

Kayak sailing is too much fun!

Stevo, Matt and I hadn’t used sails on a kayak before. Peter, had been converted to kayak-sailing years ago and strongly encouraged us to beg, borrow or steal a sail for the trip. With only 2 days to go, two of our mates, Tim Trehearn - who wrote our bible for the trip ‘Gone for Shore: a sea-kayaking guide to northern queensland ’ - and Pete Dumson - who runs Pedros Fishing Hire - came to the rescue and generously let us borrow their Pacific Action sails.

It only took a short while to get the hang of kayak-sailing and when we did, we were laughing! We had no idea how much of a difference it would make to our kayaking experience - somehow when you have a stiff breeze in the sails it just makes the boat so much lighter in the water. We are all converts now.

Day 1: Ellis Beach to Port Douglas

With the kayak trailer hitched, we were on our way…

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Todays paddle was ~35kms, certainly one of the longest paddles we’ve done. To ease into it - as we had the luxury of having Trev stay with us at Port Douglas - Matt and I opted to only pack half of our gear into our double kayak to give the boat enough weight to keep it low in the water. Peter on the other hand being the purist amongst us packed his single kayak with everything he was going to take for the whole trip.

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We caught glimpses of Trev with Stevo’s green kayak on the trailer at a number of spots as we were kayaking parallel to the Captain Cook Highway including the Rex lookout, then we met him at our first short stop - Oak Beach - for lunch.

We were merrily kayak-sailing along at quite a rapid pace with a 15-20knot tailwind and hadn’t gone terribly far from our lunch spot when we realised too late that the fringing reef we’d seen on the map at lunch was virtually under us. The reef came up faster than expected and we’d be lured into a calm and shallow protected lagoon. Peter and Matt scouted out the options and decided a portage of 500m plus was not the best idea. At low tide, it was interesting to see the ecosystem at that water level - from the micro to the macro of the tide cycle. Impatient for the tide to come in, we gingerly kayak-walked to a point we could paddle again - back the way we came. As we wended through our way back into deeper water, we tried to limit touching the bottom of our boats on corals as best we could then up went the sails and we were off again!

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Even experienced sea-kayakers can get knocked out of their kayaks unexpectedly, the important thing is to know how to get back in! Unbeknownst to us, and we found out later from a friend, we had entered a fringing reef system that is known for it’s unpredictable nature. We were approaching the reef at speed and without warning we found ourselves launched by a powerful wave into the wave in front of us then rolled over. We popped our skirts and righted the kayak. Shaken but not stirred, we got back in, but we were bombarded with more waves filling up the kayak cockpit, we got our skirts on then with Peter’s help we managed to move into calmer waters, pump the water out.

Unfortunately in the roll we had snapped one arm of the sail so with the excitement over, and ~5km to paddle, we took it easy and got into 4 Mile Beach Surf Life Saving Club. Trev was waiting patiently for us on the beach around 4pm to transport us to Tropic Breeze Caravan Park 300m away. Trev, who can fix just about anything, got to work immediately making the sail good as new using tent poles and things gleaned from the campground caretaker… plus good old gaffa tape!

Day 2: to Snapper Island

When we got to the beach and started the packing process for real, the mountain of stuff we had to fit into the kayak was to say the least a little daunting. Matt has to be the best packer I know and if anyone could do it, it’s Matt!

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Our fourth companion Stevo joined us at this point and around 11am we set sail in near perfect wind conditions to take full advantage of our sails and we managed to do the atypically long 25km crossing from Port Douglas to Snapper Island really quite easily in 3 hours (that’s moving at ~8km/hr)… there was no sign of any other humans whatsoever.

Once ashore and with beautiful views to the coast between Port Douglas and Cape Kimberly we enjoyed relaxing over a hearty lunch.

Later in the afternoon we took the short and only official walk through rainforest to the ‘other’ beach we had seen before landing.

It was delightful exploring the nooks and crannies of the beach, marvelling at the giant orchids – and though the best time to see them is during October they were beautiful, large and plentiful.

Peter and Matt saw sharks and turtles from their rocky perches while Stevo was off finding interesting things to photograph.

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We finished the day back at camp appreciating the sunset, eating dinner, having yarns, lamingtons and port… ahhh that’s the life!

Day 3: to Cape Tribulation

We surprised ourselves this morning – we had planned to be on the water by 8:30-9am at the latest but were on the water just after 8am. We had a great kayak sailing start to the day. A secluded shack on the foreshore of one of the beaches drew our interest, so our first stop was at a no-named beach where we had a leg stretch. There was sign of dog and pigs and vehicle tracks on the beach but no humans around.

After this stop, conditions got more exciting as the swells were building, we were experiencing rain squalls with bigger wind gusts - meaning kayak sailing wasn’t an option at times! Landmarks were obliterated in frequent squalls allowing us only short glimpses of the beautiful Cape Tribulation rainforest between them. At times our paddling partners were obscured by intervening swells, we had to be on our toes and we stuck close to one another as was safe to do so in those conditions.

I was desperately busting and the fellas wanted to take a look at the map, the group attempted to land on Noah Beach, the waves were dumping - Peter just managed to navigate through, but Stevo got rolled on his attempt and Matt decided it was too precarious for us to try to land… I was just going to have to cross my legs. We maintained our position until we regrouped With more squalls, strong winds (possibly up to 25knots) the vision of the beach at Cape Tribulation was pretty limited when we first approached and the outgoing tide made it particularly tricky to land and determine the best way to do it.

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Peter decided to try to locate the hidden campsite and made a run to the beach only to be thwarted by an obscured fringing reef which beached him for a short while. Eventually finding the gap in the reef, he signalled to the group to show us where the safe passage to enter the lagoon was. As it was low tide, we were obliged to drag the kayaks a very long way through shallow water up to the campsite. But we were relieved to have arrived.

At the end of a challenging 25km paddle it was an absolute treat to walk through the dark green walkway of the rainforest and to emerge onto the beautifully managed campsite scene run by the lovely Debbie around 1pm in the afternoon and ahhh those hot showers, we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon.

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A strong wind warning and wind forecast for the following few days forced us to reconsider the remaining part of the trip to Cooktown and we collectively decided to pull the pin but we’re all keen to pick up where we left off when the opportunity arises again.

Day 4 – Cape Tribulation to Atherton via Kuranda

We had a leisurely start to the day and Trev came to the rescue mid-morning – on the way back we discussed our options. Stevo had plenty of work to do but as Peter, Matt and I weren’t done with adventures yet and being footloose and fancy free, we hatched a plan to do a 3 day paddle on Lake Tinaroo starting the following day…

Day 5 – Tinaburra to School Point

We didn’t unpack, we just threw in some more fresh vegetables, warm clothes, an extra sleeping bag and some wood for a fire, then we hit the water! With Tinaroo at near 97% it was exciting to see places we’d last seen at 40% completely transformed. It had been 6 years since the dam levels were this high.

It was a SPLENDID day, blue skies and we kayak sailed at a thrilling rate of knots for the first half hour – we had the wind without the swell and big waves.

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We explored Skull Pocket and a neighbouring arm of the Lake where an unexpected wind gust took us by surprise… showing us that we even need to be on the ball in flat water.

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We sailed to colloquially known “Snake Island” and saw an impressive snake skin of the local python that must live on that tiny island. It was very windy and we found a sunny spot to have lunch and tried unsuccessfully to avoid the wind. Before March, this ‘island’ was joined to the mainland.

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We went until we had to drop our sails and fight against the wind to head up towards School Point campground passing Fongon Bay water skier’s to arrive mid-afternoon.

We had a relaxed afternoon after our ~22km jaunt, cracked a coconut gleaned from Cape Tribulation and lit a fire to keep warm.

Day 6 – School Point to Curri Curri Pocket

After breakfast, I hopped in the back and had a go of steering. We explored Robson’s Creek which was teeming with amazing bird life.

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Our next exploration was to go up Kauri Creek as far as we could and have smoko. This was quite fun as we navigated through rocks, shallow spots in the small rainforest creek.

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There really wasn’t a lot of wind around so kayak sailing was very limited… we had lunch in a lovely warm spot with a distant view of the dam wall before heading to Curri Curri Pocket campsite 6.

None of us had camped at this site and we were pleasantly surprised, it was a lovely little secluded spot, we enjoyed a crossword and another fire as it was a very cool night!

Day 7 – Curri Curri Pocked to Tinaburra

We awoke to a surreal smoky mist over the lake and took our time over a slow breakfast and packing in between some rewarding bird spotting including - 4 White Bellied Sea Eagles, Little Kingfisher and Pied Monarch.

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We had one more creek explore to do before heading back and that was up Cullamungie Pocket. Another beaut area to explore.

The upwind paddle back to Tinaburra was a mission as we were facing moderate south easterly winds en-route. However after 7 days of paddling from sea to lake - interspersed with some unintentional 'close calls', we felt fit and ready for anything nature could throw at us. Once on terra firma we considered how fortunate we were to live in a part of the world where nature reveals secrets every time we immerse ourselves in her bounty. In all we had paddled close to 150km in somewhat arduous conditions - are we looking forward to completing the journey from Cape Trib to Cooktown - YABETYA!!

Words by Liliana Williamson (June 2018)

BOM's wind forecasts - Meteye: http://www.bom.gov.au/australia/meteye

Gone for Shore: a sea kayak guide to north queensland: https://www.goneforshore.com

Pedro’s Fishing Hire: https://pedrosfishinghire.com.au