Secret Island

AT Reader Stephan Orth returns from Hinchinbrook a changed man.

The scenery is gorgeous. Jagged Mount Bowen, covered in white clouds that look like candy floss, rises majestically some 1121m above sea level. Crystal clear water reflects the warm sunlight and azure blue sky in the calm creek. The fresh air is imbued with the humid smell of banksias, sedge grass and smooth-barked water gums, still wet from rain. Occasionally, the happy singing of a multi-coloured noisy pitta or yellow robin interrupts the tranquillity.

If he were looking, he’d probably see a few black-spotted rainforest perch under the surface of the water he sits in. But Warren MacDonald does not look. He’s been sitting in the same position for two days, and he’s not interested in scenery. His inability to move is not caused by his enthusiasm for the panorama. On his legs sits a one-tonne boulder.

It’s my second day on Hinchinbrook’s famous Thorsborne Trail in North Queensland. I leave the caramel sand of Little Ramsay Bay with its holiday brochure coconut palms and mangroves to climb a boulder-strewn gully with my companion, Miriam.

With 18kg of high-tech outdoor equipment and food in my polyurethane-coated backpack, I need both arms and legs to ascend. Suddenly, my feet slide on the slick, wet moss covering a particularly loose rock, and several pineapple-sized boulders rattle down the slope behind us. Fortunately, nobody is underneath, and we do not become part of another news story about the island.
Anything new about Hinchinbrook is rarely good. What’s good is old – very old. A pristine natural beauty that has developed over eons, plus the last 70 years of protection from human intervention as a national park and World Heritage-Listed area.

I sit down for a few minutes, draw a deep breath, and the bizarre MacDonald accident comes to mind. Falling rocks from the highest mountain on the island cost him both legs in April 1997 and he was lucky to survive – the tidal change threatened to drown him in his unfortunate position, waiting 52 hours until his companion returned with a helicopter.

There is often news about incidents around Hinchinbrook. There was the sailing accident of the Evening Star that capsized in strong winds in the channel, killing two of her seven crew. Just a week before our trip, nine bushwalkers returned two days late due to unpredictably harsh weather conditions. Day-long tropical squalls rendered any passage over flooded Diamantina Creek on the southern part of the island impossible, and they were forced to wait two days in their rain-drenched clothing, with the food running out. They couldn’t communicate with anybody on the mainland – mobiles don’t work on most of Hinchinbrook, even though it’s just six kilometres off the Queensland coast.

I look at my own phone. Rather than a reassuring provider’s name it displays the words “Network Search.” Tri-Band technology, GPRS, 80MB built-in memory and high-speed connectivity – my Siemens, made of zillions of tiny metal and plastic parts, seems strangely misplaced in an area like this.

We find ourselves in what would be the perfect setting for a Lord of the Rings Mordor scene. Swamps, blackish like burned wood in the twilight. The stilted roots of mangroves look like huge, shadowy spiders. Occasionally we hear the scream of a sooty owl, the distinctive coo-hoo of a pied imperial pigeon or the shrieking of birds we don’t recognise. Our hiking boots and pants are muddy and we’re hurrying to escape the nighttime gloom.

The hideously placed meter-long tendril of lawyer vine, nicknamed “wait-a-while” due to its ultra-thin clingy spikes, leaves four tiny bleeding cuts on my left shin. Finally, we see the brighter light of the sea shimmering through the woodwork, and after one kilometre on darkening Zoe Bay Beach we arrive at camp. Warren Macdonald spent one of his last days on two legs here.

In front of my electric blue polyester tent, it smells like damp clothes, methylated spirits and insect repellent. The buzzing mosquitoes are repelled not at all. They circle my head. I counted 27 bites two hours ago, now it might be twice that. I try to stop caring.

The tent is about 40m from a creek with a yellow sign: “Warning: Estuarine Crocodiles inhabit this area.” Our food is in a coffin-sized olive-green tin, our backpacks hang on a fishing line between two trees to save them from 15cm-long white-tailed rats, a species with jaws robust enough to shear through coconut shells and high-tech fabrics.

My left hand fights mozzies while my right holds a plastic spoon to eat my more economic than tasty Cous Cous, almost invisible in the milky light of a single small torch. James Bucknell, a 62-year-old bushwalker from Brisbane with a full beard, lively glittering eyes and a smell of red wine, sits down next to me. He calls the island “one of the biggest secrets of Australia – we don’t know what we have in Hinchinbrook, and we don’t sell it as one of the great attractions of the country.”

Hinchinbrook attracts nature lovers because of its variety. Swamps, beaches, hills, tropical rainforest, mangroves and waterfalls make you forget mosquito bites and scratches. The distinctly Australian tendency to brag about the dangers of nature might play a role as well. It’s a first-hand experience of nature’s beauty and ferocity. Even tragic Warren Macdonald didn’t remain indoors for long. He became the first over-knee amputee to climb Cradle Mountain and Kilimanjaro. Nobody leaves Hinchinbrook unchanged by the experience.