Until recently ‘tinny’ was a word I had to look up in a dictionary. Australian slang for a small aluminium boat, the yacht of the working classes, was something that belonged in a Tim Winton novel, together with his celebration of the Australian coastline. Just as I will never love vegemite, the spread that looks and tastes like shoe polish, I never thought I’d completely understand Australia’s almost visceral obsession with the coast.
But then I moved to Far North Queensland, where the tinny is as essential as, say, the sled is in Norway, and now I have a boat licence. I earned it doing a figure eight and a high speed turn in a mangrove-lined narrow creek at the back of Mission Beach. When my instructor casually mentioned the 10 feet crocs that live there, I just wanted to get the hell out of the boat. These days my definition of happiness includes going out in the tinny to explore the many uninhabited islands just offshore from my house in Mission Beach.
Hinchinbrook Island is the grand dame of Coral Sea Islands. On some days, its rugged mountain ranges and 1000m tall peaks, glowing pink in the evening sun, seem almost within touching distance. On others, its wild beauty remains hidden behind a veil of clouds.
The island was formed during the last ice age, when an entire coastal range was swallowed by rising sea levels. What remains, is a World Heritage listed wilderness of craggy granite mountains, boulder strewn coastlines, pristine rainforest and ancient tea tree Melaluca groves. Like a precious jewel, Hinchinbrook Island has been protected from human beings, with only 40 hikers allowed per night on the island. I swore I would come back soon when I completed the 32kms Throsborne Trail from Nina Peak in the North to George Point in the South. But not on foot.
Two years later, I’ve come back as assistant to skipper Nigel. We launch the tinny at Port Hinchinbrook in Cardwell, about half-way between Townsville and Cairns. It’s a glorious morning and the image of cyclone Yasi blowing expensive yachts and big motorboats around the port like toys in a sandpit, is a faint memory. Rebuilt waterfront mansions glitter in the morning sun, powerful outboards and game fishing boats the size of double storey houses dwarf our humble 13.5 foot vessel. But these mammoth do not dwarf our enthusiasm. We have come to circumnavigate Australia’s largest island National Park. It’s about 120 km round trip. In a tinny.
As the game fishing boats disappear towards the open ocean and the reef, we make a right and putter down south, into the Hinchinbrook Channel. It’s late morning and the tide is low. There are thick mangroves and the labyrinth of freshwater creeks is hard to navigate even in a tinny, but tinnys there are a plenty on this fine Saturday morning. Like trolleys in a supermarket aisle, the channel is busy with people netting prawns, luring Barramundi and Choppers, or Fingermark, pulling up crab pots from amongst the mangroves. The Traditional Owners, the local Bandjin, Warragmay and Girramay Aboriginal peoples, have fished in this cornucopia of marine life for many thousands of years and their traditional fishtraps can be seen at low tide.
From the tinny the Hinchinbrook Channel looks much like the coastline of New Zealand or even the fjords of Norway. That is until my travel companion skippers us into a mangrove-lined creek, carefully avoiding sandbars and patches of murky, knee deep water. And suddenly, close-up, this is the landscape of Jurrasic Park, alive with pungent smells and unidentifiable sounds, teeming with pesky mosquitoes and unseen crocodiles. There is a sense of things breeding and growing all around me. It makes me edgy, uncomfortable, like an alien in the wrong habitat.
“That is because mangroves are alive,” explains head skipper Nigel, “crucially alive in fact.” They are nutrition-rich nurseries for many species of fish, like the prized Barra, that raise their young in these calm waters. In fact, most of Australia’s commercially caught fish and prawns spend some of their life cycle living in mangroves. But nobody used to care and for decades mangroves up and down the coast were torn up or filled in to make way for Australia’s other obsession, waterfront living. Today all of Queensland’s mangroves, roots, leaves and all, are protected under the Fisheries Act.
Development is not the only threat to the precious mangrove forests of Hinchinbrook. “This is where we would take the big tourist boats during a cyclone,” explains Nigel, pointing to where cyclone Yasi, the largest cyclone in our lifetime, has wiped out entire stretches of mangroves three years ago. The denuded trees look like skeletons in this verdant landscape .
A green turtle pops its head out of the water right next to the tinny. Maybe that’s why Australians are such happy people. Because there’ll always be a turtle popping its head out of the water, even when the world around you has just been exfoliated by a cyclone.
We continue our journey south, the sun directly overhead. Like a mirage, the Lucinda jetty comes into view in the blinding light reflecting off the water. The world’s largest bulk sugar loading jetty extends all 5.76km into the ocean, following the curvature of the earth. Wow!
We pull up next to a tinny festooned with an armada of fishing rods and ask for directions to Lucinda through an outgoing tide, across a spiderweb of sandbanks. A woman who looks like a man answers, without taking her eyes of her fishing rods, “Follow the green the red and the yellow buoys into the harbour. You’ll be right”.
Walking up the deserted main street of Lucinda, the tinny’s petrol tank in hand, we find a single petrol pump glowing in the midday sun. “Be prepared,” is the head skipper’s motto as he starts up the refueled tinny.
Finding our way out of the maze of sandbanks off the Hinchinbrook Channel at low tide is a challenge. But once we decide to follow the jetty, it’s a short ride around the southern tip of the island to the windward side. The busy fishing paradise quickly disappears as we approach the remote wilderness of Hinchinbrook Island.
Zoe Bay is a large horse shoe shaped beach, framed by jagged mountains, on the eastern side of the island. It’s spectacular, intimidating and brooding. There is nobody here besides us and the invisible wildlife. The warm sand is streaked by the sinuous trails of snakes, a sign warns of crocodiles in the nearby mangroves, another alerts us to the rats that will come out at night and steal our food.
We set up our bushcamp in a grove of native hibiscus near the water’s edge and run up the mountain through burnt eucalypt forest. I stumble over a smouldering tree, it lies on a bed of embers like a wounded soldier on a battlefield. There is no one here to ask whether the fires were deliberately lit by National Park rangers. But it’s obvious that this is one way the bush renews itself. Charcoaled grasstrees sprout fresh green tops like brand new hairdoes. We wash the sweat and salt off our bodies in the crystal clear water of Zoe Falls and fall asleep early to the sounds of the crashing waves.
The next morning the blue has been wiped from the sky. The weather has changed and the head skipper is monosyllabic and tense. The poor tinny is stranded on a massive deserted beach. The tide didn’t behave according to my calculations. “It should have been higher,” I insist, but no amount of pointing at the charts will get her back into the water.
An empty beach comes at a price. There is no one here to help, it’s us versus a stranded tinny. We swivel her around on her axis, again and again, pushing and shoving her forward with much grunting and sweating until finally she is afloat and suddenly we are in a rush to get going.
20 knots, mumbles the head skipper and I know we are in trouble. I clamber on board and he revs up the 25HP motor. But we are not going on a joyride in Sydney harbour. This is remote Zoe Bay, there is no phone reception, and slop rebounding from the headlands higher than the tinny. I hold on tight and focus on anything but the waves and the whipped up ocean. The tinny surfs up and down the waves like a boogie board as we cross open ocean and I hate every minute of it.
After an hour that feels like twelve we reach Goold Island and suddenly we are in paradise. It’s taken a ride in a washing-machine-rough ocean to get here, but we’ve found our very own garden of Eden. A deserted palm fringed beach and a campsite on the spit with tables, a rainwater tank, toilets and a Bbq. It feels almost extravagant to pitch our mosquito dome here.
Following a trail behind the Bbq I find my way into rainforest that looks like it hasn’t been walked in since the local Aboriginal people first came here to harvest oysters. By mid-afternoon the tide has receded, exposing football field sized mudflats and mangroves on the other side of the spit.
Sunsets are brief and intense in the tropics. Blink and you miss it. But the real spectacle begins after dark, when stars bright as LED lights turn the sky into a giant canvas. We sit back in our chairs, the only luxury item on our packing list, and watch for hours. It’s like gazing at Michelangelo’s frescos at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, only better. It makes me feel small. The star-filled sky was here before Captain Cook sailed past in 1770 and named the islands. And it was there before the Bandjin clan began hunting for dugong along the shores of Munamudanamy. I am a blink in the universe.
The next morning I can’t resist a dip in the clear waters of the Coral Sea. “We’ll be right,” I say as we splash next to the tinny in front of the crocodile warning sign. Then it’s time to leave, but neither of us wants to get going, including the tinny. She starts up, then suddenly the motor dies and we have to row back to shore. I quite like the idea of being stranded on a remote island. But not my skipper. Calling the Coast Guard would spell defeat. So he takes the motor apart and puts it together again until unexpectedly the tinny is on again and we are off, with gritted teeth and clenched fists, hoping that the motor will keep going until we reach the shores of Cardwell, 8 nautical miles away.
Windswept and wet we reach port, but unlike everybody else, we’ve come back without the catch of the day. Learning how to fish will have to be next in my quest to finding true Aussie happiness. For now, we pull into the local store and buy fresh mud crabs, giant prawns and ocean trout so fresh you can almost see it flapping.
“My partner sees giant slide marks out there all the time,” says the lady behind the counter bagging up her man’s catch. “Crocs, gotta be careful, shouldn’t be swimming out there, but we still do it sometimes,” she adds with a smirk. The memory of our morning swim makes me feel queasy. Paradise can turn into its opposite at any moment.
Back home my sense of happiness dissolves when my body starts to itch all over. I take off my two-day old clothes and find myself covered in red spots from head to toe. “Sandflies,” smiles the head skipper who has escaped without a bite. I look like I have measles and chickenpox all at once. Why on earth should these little beasts have gone for me and not him?
It’s because he eats vegemite every morning and has done ever since a kid. That’s the difference between us. He is a real Aussie, his body is soaked in vitamin B. That’s when I become a vegemite eater. In the name of happiness.
DISCLAIMER: the author strongly discourages others to follow her examples of carelessness. DO NOT SWIM IN WATERS WHERE CROCODILES ARE PRESENT.
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