Dabbling in another chapter of the sailing journey series. This episode takes you on an adventure of fabulous coastal sailing from Townsville to gorgeous Lizard Island in far north Queensland. Lizard is one of my favourite spots.
Setting sail again
Following a working spell in Townsville, it’s time to set sail again.
With Lizard Island in Australia’s far north on the must-see list and diving the famous Cod Hole – around 12NM on a reef near Lizard – we leave without a timeframe.
Time is on our side.
Naiad (our boat and home) meanders up the extensive coastline once more, exploring new memorable cruising grounds.
Private bays offer exclusive anchorages.
Stopping off at pretty Magnetic and Orpheus Islands only a stone’s throw from Townsville and popular weekend spots, we continue north to Hinchinbrook Channel.
Never in my life have I experienced so many midges, March flies (horseflies), and sandflies – covered with a zillion bites. The very fine mesh cloth covering Naiad’s companionway, every hatch and opening windows, is not fine enough to keep these hungry relentless vultures out. Burning mosquito coils help but not entirely.
Screens stop any breeze from flowing into Naiad. Not great in this very hot area of far north Queensland where a breeze is crucial.
Want to spend more time in this channel as the natural beauty of Hinchinbrook Island provides seclusion and is uninhabited. Instead, decided to keep moving north as I needed to travel the 29NM (50-kilometre) channel to escape being eaten alive.
For decades, the bustling metropolis of Cairns has been a magnet for national and international tourists.
Chinaman’s Creek offers yachties piles to sling ropes between as the tidal current is quite strong for anchoring and boats are prone to dragging anchor.
Cairns is also a great spot to provision the boat once more before heading north along the sparse coastline.
The next alluring spot Port Douglas is fast becoming a rich man’s playground and is now dotted with expensive homes.
Several relaxing days later, head out from Port Douglas. It’s not long before we stumble on an enchanting playground of natural reefs and coral cays, which captivate and beckon Naiad to wait-a-while.
Only 8NM (15 kilometres) north-east of Port Douglas, the Low Isles is within easy reach, so becomes crowded on weekends.
The Isles is home to a lighthouse but also a weather station, which has been operating since 1887.
During this week, Naiad and a trawler are the only boats anchored behind this gorgeous island. The crew from the trawler ran out of beer so swap a bucket of delicious massive prawns (shrimps) for some of our beer and it’s not long before there’s a BBQ on the beach.
As the wind is missing in action, the trawler’s crew takes us out one night trawling until the early morning hours. I learn how to cook fish the fisherman’s way.
After working the nets all night, only a full bucket of king prawns is collected. But at AUD$25 per prawn – sold to Japan’s markets in 1996 – skipper and crew think this isn’t a bad haul.
Time for another sail and to keep heading north once more.
Sneaking into the wonderful Daintree River, we motor up dodging massive crocodiles – slight exaggeration – to travel as far as the boat can go before anchoring in the Lower Daintree River.
Although very protected, Naiad still needs some water under the keel so she’s not high and dry during low tide.
Seriously though, the natural lush green rainforest canopy shades part of the river’s muddy banks and is a breeding ground for massive crocodiles. Discovering this small but slightly dangerous detail after launching the inflatable to explore the banks, we follow a small tourist boat up the river and notice it stops.
We also stop.
The tourists are watching and photographing something on the bank.
Our eyes follow their gaze to massive crocodiles half-sleeping with mouths wide open whilst sunning themselves on the riverbank.
Hightailing it back to the safety of Naiad’s steel hull, decide that hauling the inflatable out of the river is a sensible precaution against a crocodile’s razor-sharp teeth, should one decide to snap the dinghy in half.
Rest for a few more days before continuing the sail further north to Cape Tribulation.
Just north of the Daintree River lies the untouched scenic world heritage rainforest, Cape Tribulation, which provides another stopover in calm weather as this spot isn’t well-protected.
Fringing reef shelters remote long white sandy beaches. Visitors come to this area for its natural beauty.
Without too much around in this region apart from a camping spot, walking trails, snorkelling, diving, and relaxing, the isolation sets in – although it’s not worrying. This is a peaceful part of the coast. Fewer people means better cruising grounds.
Hiking trails through the rainforest lead up to the top of surrounding hills. Mt Sorrow is at an 850-metre-height and not an easy trek although provides captivating vistas over the Great Barrier Reef’s crystal-blue water. If you’re thinking of heading out on these trails, take loads of mosquito repellent as they’re fierce.
As this anchorage isn’t the best, we don’t venture too far from Naiad although campers share their hiking experiences.
Roaming slowly north along the coastline in this comfortable nomadic gipsy-like existence, I sometimes need to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t a dream.
Several amazing weeks later with southerly breezes pushing Naiad along, flicking out to nearby reefs for a spot of reef-hopping, snorkelling, spear-fishing, or diving, the inevitable finally happens…
The pain, oh the pain
After some amazing snorkelling out on a reef, we ready Naiad to set sail again.
Securing the dingy on the cabin, somehow, I twist around too quickly sending unbearable shooting pains down my spine. An old back injury during travel in Egypt from my 1985 trip, rears its ugly head. Gingerly making my way below deck with the skipper’s help, lay flat on my back unable to move.
The skipper needs to solo-sail Naiad into Cooktown, which is the closest town as there’s nothing else around – only a few ‘large’ towns this far north in the Cape York Peninsula.
Sailing into the Endeavour River in Cooktown and finding a safe anchoring spot, I’m resigned to lay flat on my back for 5 days. At least it’s calm on the river. Not much rock and roll from Naiad, which is gentle for the pain. I manage to pass out from the pain when making my way only a metre away from the bed to Naiad’s head (loo).
A little history
Cooktown is named after Captain James Cook whose damaged ship The Endeavour, beached at the mouth of this river after sustaining damage further south on Endeavour Reef.
In 1996, the town of Cooktown was like the last frontier, although, I’m sure whether it’s changed over the decades. Especially for its isolated location and as it’s really the last town before heading to the small mining town of Weipa, some 650 kilometres away crossing across to the western side of the tip of Australia. Never made it to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait Islands archipelago. Maybe one day as hear it’s an impressive area providing great sailing and anchoring at small islands.
The roads south, north, and beyond of Cooktown are not sealed and during the wet season, you can only traverse roads using a 4×4 or not at all. Australia’s wet season during the summer months brings monsoonal rains, similar to SE Asia and cyclones.
Raring to go again after 5 boring days on my back unable to move, start venturing out on short walks to explore sleepy Cooktown.
Love the matured Bowen Mango trees lining the main street. Picking several from the trees to enjoy on the boat so hope picking is allowed.
Decide it’s time to leave the safety of the Endeavour River for a while to continue the sail north as we haven’t reached our destination of Lizard Island yet…
Stopping off at Cape Bedford for a couple of nights, the blazing white sand against luminous turquoise waters creates an ethereal panorama.
Anxious to explore beneath the blue so indulge in a spot of snorkelling.
It’s hard to believe this glorious spot witnessed the dreadful massacre of over 40 indigenous peoples in 1879.
Decide on some reef hopping whilst the weather is kind.
Wild lush coastline sweeps down to a cosy calm bay awaiting Naiad at Cape Flattery.
A comfortable overnight anchorage during a southerly blow, it’s time to check out the reef again.
An abundance of fish and corals leave you speechless and wanting to linger longer – love this area.
Only a short sail to Lizard Island from this natural untouched marine playground enjoyed all to ourselves. The wind is still manageable.
A pleasant southerly breeze pushes Naiad north. It’s not long before we finally reach Lizard Island and anchor in picturesque Watson’s Bay to wait for a calm window to dive the Cod Hole.
Check out my separate post on Lizard Island.
What’s it like cruising this far north?
Pristine crystal-clear waters. Impossibly blinding-white sandy deserted beaches. Remote stunning islands. Sublime diving and snorkelling. Boats are scarce. Serenity.
You can anchor safely along this coastline in pockets, bays, reefs, or behind islands. It’s not necessary to sail overnight and the best part is that this is all free.
The further north you sail, the reef narrows and hugs the mainland closer.
Cooktown is only around 12 NM (22 kilometres) from the immaculate and expansive Great Barrier Reef, so the reef is easily accessible even in a small boat in calm weather.
Check out the beauty of Lizard Island in the next sailing chapter.