Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: October 1, 2001
Hitch-hiking north along the Queensland coast recently, with so many islands on the way, the Great Barrier Reef and all, I couldn’t help but face yet again the question of aquatic transport. Ardent hitch-hiker I, always keen to explore new and interesting social, adventurous, and cheap forms of transport, every new waterway posed a thumbing challenge. Some of the surprises on the way are well worth the sharing. Anyone following the same coast might be glad to learn of some of the hitching options Queensland presents along its coast.
Fraser Island, allegedly the world’s largest sand island, lies just off the coast, is for all intents and purposes a peninsula of the mainland separated by a narrow channel. It and the area on the mainland south of it form the Great Sandy National Park. The long unbroken stretches of sandy beach running all the way from Noosa to the tip of Fraser Island, form a kind of sand superhighway stretching some 200 km! Yes indeed, this stretch of beach is sign posted with speed limits and has road rules. More to the point it’s friendly traffic and the hitching is fine. Traffic though is concentrated around the low tides, when hard sand is available for driving and goes up and down with the holiday period. But it’s best when it’s not too busy anyhow and the experience of riding in the back of small utilities (pick-up trucks) in the free air along long stretches of beach is worth the hitch alone.
The ‘road’ is punctuated by the Great Sandy Straight at its narrowest point (Inskip Point to Hook Point barely 1 km). There’s a ferry, and it too is perfectly hitchable, though the return fare of $5 leaves the merits rather moot. The longer (11 km) ferry back from Kingfisher Bay to River Heads (Hervey Bay) is just as hitchable and just as cheap. For the record the four wheel drive tracks around Fraser Island, where trafficked, proved most affably thumbable as well.
The Whitsunday group of islands was our next aquatic encounter. Airlie Beach is a fine place to find crewing spots around the Whitsundays. Several notice boards around this small tourist village are full of ads for crew, most demanding no prior experience. The Bowen Yacht Club not far north is a smaller more personable environment to poke around for rides, north or south as the winds are blowing … We happened upon an opportunity to sail the tall ship South Passage through the Whitsundays for a weekend.
This 100 ft. gaff-rigged schooner, usually chartered for about $120 per head per day, was between charters, under-crewed and in need of relocation from Airlie Beach to the Laguna Keys. It sleeps about 30 and is fitted for sail training. We were just six to sail it south - a beautiful experience, fully catered and free. Many similar crewing opportunities abound, often against shared expenses (food). A much more attractive way of seeing the Whitsunday Islands for those not in a crazed rush.
Our next stop was Cairns. Here we hoped to find a ride north to Thursday Island – as the predominant winds were still south-easterly, the traffic northerly, and Thursday Island the end of the line as far as Queensland goes. Alas, intimate exploration of the Cairns Yacht Club, the Cruising Yacht Squadron and the Trinity Wharf revealed a mirror of Airlie Beach! - Notice boards full of ads from crew looking for placements and none from boats. Discussions with staff quickly revealed that though they clear these notice boards weekly, they are always full, with 3 or 4 in-person requests daily to boot. They can’t fathom why so many people think they can get free rides here! Perhaps the would-be crew were spoiled at Airlie Beach? What became clear in any case, was that cruising yachts did not lay over in Cairns for any length of time. The guest register, of visiting yachts, was Spartan to say the least.
All the same, two options surfaced: a delivery (again) of a yacht from Cairns to Cooktown, and a 4-day reef trip with an aquarium fish collector who appreciates the company and someone to cook for him. So even in Cairns … options can surface.
The trip up to Cooktown took three days. For one of those days we anchored at the Low Islets, scraping the hull, snorkelling the reef and exploring the islet. The reef trip involved 4 days of UBA diving (Underwater Breathing Apparatus) with 150 m hoses attached to a compressor, in the company of Ray, perhaps the only nudist aquarium stocker in the country – we dove the Arlington and Flynn reefs as often as we liked, as long as we liked, dressed in fins, face mask, weight belt and regulator in mouth, nothing more! A most eccentric, unique and beautiful experience.
In between we doubled back to do the famed Thorsborne Trail on Hinchinbrook Island. This national park is subject to one of the most extortionary ferry monopolies I’ve seen, costing some $60 to cross about 2 km of water at the southern end and as much again at the northern end (admittedly more like 20 km of water but still something shy of the comparable $5 crossing at Fraser Island!).
It proved simple and convenient though, to hitch onto the island from the southern end - simple, because from the port of Lucinda many hobby fishermen set out of an early morning. Simply asking around will secure the very short (almost swimmable) ride across the channel. The northern end proved more complicate. An occasional yacht pulls in to the resort or Macushla but the wait may be protracted (days/weeks) and not coordinate well with supplies (food). Accordingly we took the ferry back – though they are so disorganised as to provide free rides back to the mainland! We literally had to insist on paying at the mainland office when we got there!
The final marine hitches we’d try in Queensland were at the very tip of Cape York. Having hitched up the old Telegraph Track we tried to secure a ride over to Thursday Island from Bamaga (Seisia) and from either spot perhaps down to Cairns.
The hitch across to Thursday Island is clearly possible though might cost a few days waiting. The port is very rudimentary, basically a boat ramp, and many small boats lying on the beach. Islanders move back and forth occasionally. We decided to give it a day and while we didn’t find anyone going over the response was friendly and supportive. Having reached the tip of Australia we cut a compromise, and keen to head home we aimed south again.
No yachts were heading south as the winds hadn’t turned yet (still the predominant southeasters – in another month they would turn to the north) but even so the lack of a yacht club or marina facilities meant the skippers were hard to find and approach. The yachts are anchored off the beach, so unless you catch someone coming in on a dinghy and approach them, or have a dinghy to go out to solicit the yachts directly, it’s hard to make contact.
We explored commercial options instead, but all came up empty. One freight line runs to Cairns but wouldn’t/couldn’t consider crewing passage options for industrial/insurance reasons; another passenger/freight service presented the same reason; and a cruise ship that was conveniently heading back, was simply staffed up and just keen to sell $2500 tickets!
So we took the road back … and that’s a story for next month.
In summary, where there’s water and the will cum patience, you can probably hitch a ride across it, and Queensland abounds with options to explore, as indeed would any island-ridden coastline. Never succumb without a thought to adventure on the high (and low) seas, to the commercial, tourist catering options – unless of course you prefer things that way!