FORGET private-island pampering and expensive exclusivity. For travellers who take holidays tinged with adventure, what could be more challenging than a tropical island jaunt without the hangers-on (and that means spa therapists and personal butlers).
Dotting the coastline from Cairns to Cardwell lie more than a dozen reef-fringed, rainforested islands where campers come first. These secluded, national park islands offer adventurous holiday-makers the chance to snorkel, hike and live out that Robinson Crusoe fantasy for just a few dollars a night.
Think sheltered white-sand beaches, hot and steamy rainforests, rugged peaks, skin-tingling waterfalls and granite headlands that slide into deep blue seas where coral gardens and seagrass beds flourish. Just pack your camping gear, a well-stocked esky, snorkels and masks, and head out on the water in your dinghy or aboard a local ferry or water taxi. You can camp in company at Dunk Island, just off Mission Beach, or head further afield to remote Coombe Island where your campsite booking reserves the entire island.
Dunk Island: Located just 4km off Mission Beach and 135km south of Cairns, Dunk Island offers the easiest access for those who like to keep camping civilised, complete with hot showers and shaded beachfront campsites. Known to Aborigines as Coonanglebah or “Island of Peace and Plenty”, national-park zoned Dunk also houses large holiday resort that was devastated by Cyclone Yasi in 2011 and is yet to reopen.
That may happen sometime in 2016, but for now, campers and daytrippers have Dunk Island entirely to themselves. Three quarters of Dunk Island’s mountains, palm-fringed beaches and clear, coral reefs are protected as national and marine parks, which provide a haven for sea turtles, reef fish, dugongs and birdlife.
There’s a good fringing reef at Muggy Muggy Beach for straight-off-the-sand snorkelling, so bring your own gear or hire some in Mission Beach. If you can tear yourself away from the water, the walk to the summit of Mt Kootaloo (7km/3hrs return) is well worth the effort. Or you could just stretch out on the sand with a copy of The Beachcomber and daydream about the envious life of Dunk’s most famous resident, E.J. Banfield.
Dunk’s national park campground provides toilets, hot showers, drinking water and a picnic shelter with gas barbecues, sink and lighting. You’ll need to bring all food and camping equipment, and book your campsite and island transfers in advance.
Wheeler & Coombe Islands: Ever wanted your own tropical island? Well, for just $5.95 a night, Coombe Island can be exclusively yours because only one party gets to stay at a time. A quiet paradise for self-sufficient campers, Coombe is part of the Family Group of islands that includes nearby Dunk, but the difference at Coombe is that facilities are limited to a single picnic table.
BYO the lot, including water, a fuel stove and rubbish bags, or arrange a trip to nearby Wheeler (Toolgbar) Island, 1km north, where the beach campsites come with picnic tables and pit toilets. Wheeler and Coombe are found 12km off the coast, accessible from the Tully Heads boat ramp or via water taxi from South Mission Beach.
Goold Island: A fabulous spot frequented by sea kayakers and boaties, Goold provides a pristine sanctuary for magnificent green sea turtles and dugongs. Located 17km northeast of Cardwell at the northern tip of Hinchinbrook Island, this rainforested continental island has a comfortable, beachfront campground shaded by casuarinas.
On Goold’s eastern beaches, snorkellers can step right off the sand and float over staghorn and plate coral gardens that nurture bright-lipped clams. Dramatic granite sea cliffs and robust vegetation prohibit a circumnavigation of the island on foot, but with a small dinghy or sea kayak, you could explore the island’s ever-changing scenery.
Hinchinbrook Island Cruises can get you from Cardwell to Goold where facilities include gas barbecues, toilets, a rainwater tank and picnic tables on the sand – a great spot to watch the island’s raucous flocks of sulphur-crested white cockatoos. At low tide, walk the beach to the Aboriginal fish trap to spot the juvenile fish and small stingrays that gather in the shallows.
Hinchinbrook Island: Australia’s largest island national park, Hinchinbrook Island harbours some of the last wild lands of the tropical far north. From rugged granite ranges, dense jungles of lush rainforest spill out onto arcs of brilliant white sand, bordered by sapphire-hued streams.
This pristine wilderness seduces adventurers and solitude-seekers, many of whom strap on hiking boots and set out to escape their realities on the world-famous Thorsborne Trail. To get there, hitch a ferry ride with Hinchinbrook Island Cruises across the seagrass beds of Missionary Bay, spotting dugongs and dolphins, and sometimes a saltwater croc in the early morning.
Choose to spend time at one of the basic hikers’ camps along the island’s far eastern edge or arrange a drop-off on beautiful Macushla Beach where there are tranquil beachfront campsites, walking trails and a water tank, gas barbecues, shelters and toilets. Nestled beneath the Kirkville Hills between Cape Richards to the north and 89 Metre Rock to the south, Macushla’s west-facing beaches offer the rare chance to watch the sun set over the sea (not an easy thing to experience on Australia’s east coast).
If you have your own watercraft, you could also access and explore The Haven, a perfectly named camping spot in Hinchinbrook Channel. This spacious spot has gas barbecues, pit toilets and water can be gathered from the gorgeous waterholes upstream of the campground. At the turn of the 20th century, there were a handful of small-scale settlements operating on Hinchinbrook Island, including a guesthouse at The Haven that in 1929 charged guests just one English pound per week, but everyone had to bring their own food. You may have trouble spotting remnants of this period, but a fantastic Indigenous fish trap is clearly visible at low tide.
Frankland Islands: Close to the coast about an hour’s drive south of Cairns, a small cluster of five rainforested, reef-fringed islands provide a pristine sanctuary for green sea turtles and solitude seekers. Frankland Islands Cruises runs snorkelling daytrips to Normanby Island, then transfers campers onto remote Russell Island when the coral reefs are entirely your own.
Picnic tables, a pit toilet and tarpaulin poles are the only creature comforts, but there is great snorkelling to enjoy off the island’s northern and western fringes. Russell Island has room for just two groups of campers and charges no fees, but you must secure a permit in advance (www.nprsr.qld.gov.au). Also part of the Frankland Islands group, High Island offers a similarly remote and peaceful experience with just one campsite available, but you’ll need your own boat to get there (camping fees payable).
To book national park campsites on Hinchinbrook, Goold, Wheeler, Coombe and Russell Islands, head to www.nprsr.qld.gov.au or phone 13 74 68. Nightly fees (except at Russell) are $5.95/person or $23.80/famly (1-2 adults plus children, 8 people max). Campers should BYO food, drinking water, camping gear, a fuel stove, tarpaulins, and take away all rubbish (no campfires or pets allowed). Until Dunk Island’s online booking regains functionality, email [email protected] or phone 0417 873 390 to secure a campsite.
Ferry Transfers: Water taxi transfers from Wongaling Beach to Dunk Island cost from $50/person, return (www.missionbeachwatertaxi.com, phone (07) 4068 8310). The water taxi can also get you to Wheeler and Coombe Islands. Contact Hinchinbrook Island Cruises (www.hinchinbrookislandcruises.com.au, phone 0499 335 383) for transfers from Cardwell to Hinchinbrook’s Ramsey Bay ($160/adult return, $140 for kids) and Goold Island (POA). Frankland Island Cruises charges $219/adult, $110/child, or $338/family for return transfers from Cairns to Russell Island (www.franklandislands.com.au, phone (07) 4031 6300).