Top 5 ways to unwind with a reef tour from Cardwell
By Jocelyn Watts
If you’re looking a top spot to relax, far away from city crowds and office desks, the Hinchinbrook Channel near Cardwell is one of the best in Queensland.
Port of Call skipper Annette Swaine lives and breathes a boatie’s life, taking reef tours through the channel and helping people with their boating and fishing supplies.
“I’ve found my happy place,” she beamed.
I met Annette, affectionately known as ‘Swainie’, while recently visiting one of my sons, Steve, and his family in Tully where they now live and work, in paradise. And I thought I was lucky just to visit!
When Steve suggested taking a reef tour through the Hinchinbrook Channel with Swainie, he didn’t have to twist my arm. The tour is listed on TripAdvisor as one of the best in the region. I quickly agreed.
Swainie was a terrific host, sharing lots of information throughout the four-hour trip on board Osprey, Port of Call’s Sailfish Cat.
Here are the top 5 things I learnt about the area that day:
1. Crab fossils wash ashore at Ramsay Bay
Taking us ashore at Ramsay Bay, Swainie showed us crab fossils that had washed onto the beach. The species was unknown. Could they be rare Fiddler Crabs?
The Discover Port Hinchinbrook website reads:
“Fossilised crabs, including a species of Fiddler Crab (6000 years old) are found in the creeks of the Island and on the shore of Ramsay Bay.
“There are only two other places (Southern California and the Panama Canal) in the world where fossilised Fiddler Crabs have been found.”
Alas, Dr Marissa McNamara, Queensland Museum Collection Manager Crustacea, said this fossil was not a Fiddler Crab.
“It is a crab, but unfortunately the species cannot be determined from the photograph,” Dr McNamara said.
“This crab specimen is termed a subfossil. It is probably 5000 to 8000 years old, and as such represents one of the same species that we see living in the area today.
“Subfossils are often casts of crabs that have been in their burrows and gotten smothered with a heavy load of siltation from a flood.
“Generally soft-muddy bottom inshore or mangrove species are found, like mud crabs or sentinel crabs.
“Fiddler Crabs are not typically represented.
“Often fossils like this are deposited during times when the sea level was somewhat higher, and that is why they can get washed out of river banks or mangroves during cyclones or any change to the path of creek channels.
“They often turn up around the mouth of the Brisbane River, and Magnetic is another hot spot, but they can be found in many places, including Hinchinbrook Island.”
2. Hinchinbrook Channel is a nature photographer’s paradise
Heavy fog blanketed Cardwell as we set off about 8 am but soon we were beyond the fog and cruising across the tranquil waterway towards Hinchinbrook Island.
A few nautical miles out, eagle-eyed Swainie spotted a saltwater crocodile in an area they liked to frequent. She said crocs were regularly sighted there.
Saltwater crocodiles can be found from the tip of Cape York to as far south as Gladstone, and sometimes even further.
Queensland Department of Environment and Science records show crocodile sightings were reported at Burrum Heads and Toogoom as recently as April 2020.
Swainie said Hinchinbrook Channel was a major feeding ground for dugongs.
“Dolphins, green turtles and a wide variety of fish and crustaceans also live in the waterway,” she said.
Fishing wasn’t on our agenda but I was able to photograph garfish as they skimmed across the water’s surface. It was a photo opportunity too good to miss.
The area also supports a rich diversity of birdlife, including Torresian Imperial Pigeons, Torres Strait Pigeons (Ducula spilorrhoa) or nutmeg pigeons.
While ashore at Ramsay Bay, we were on the lookout for the vulnerable beach thick-knees (Burhinus neglectus), but we weren’t that lucky.
On Hinchinbrook Island, the tropical habitat also provides refuge for many endangered species including the giant tree frog.
3. You can get closer to nature on the Thorsborne Trail
A few days earlier, Swainie had dropped off some backpackers at Ramsay Bay as they set off to hike the Thorsborne Trail (commonly known as the East Coast Trail).
The Discover Port Hinchinbrook website lists the Thorsborne Trail as one of the world’s best backpacking adventures.
“This 32km trail winds its way along the eastern edge of the magnificent island in the shadow of the rugged Mt Bowen,” it reads.
“It snakes its way through a tropical wilderness, along spectacular ocean beaches and crosses numerous crystal clear mountain streams.
“Campsites are on beautiful beaches, beside freshwater streams or near magnificent mountain stream waterfalls.”
As part of our reef tour, Swainie picked up the backpackers from George Point on the island’s southern end and ferried them back to Cardwell, all with cameras holding hundreds of photos of their adventure.
4. Charter a boat and go fishing
Throwing a line in the water might have provided us with a dinner of fish that night, except this was an impromptu trip.
With some forward planning, things might have been different.
Swainie said North Queensland was internationally renowned as one of Australia’s tourism destinations.
“The Hinchinbrook Channel with its tranquil waters is an angler’s paradise,” she said.
“On the reef, you can fish for coral trout, mackerel, giant trevally or nannygai. Barramundi and mangrove jack can be found in the estuaries and rivers.”
5. Research history
If you’re into researching history, there’s no shortage of topics with which to while away the hours in the Hinchinbrook Island and Cardwell areas.
After picking up the backpackers from George Point, we headed back to Cardwell. On the way, Swainie pointed to where the wreckage of a World War II plane still lies.
A Queensland Government website that’s dedicated to World War II history reports (in part) that on 18 December 1941, a USAAF Liberator bomber known as ‘Texas Terror’ lifted off from Garbutt airbase, Townsville, for Iron Range on Cape York Peninsula but soon disappeared.
Searches were made but no trace of the plane was found until two Aborigines searching the gullies on Hinchinbrook Island for alluvial tin reported finding some burned US currency in the creeks at the base of Mount Straloch.
In early 1944, searchers found the wreckage on the southern flank of Mount Straloch. The aircraft had struck the face of the mountain some 150 to 180 metres below the summit, killing all 12 people on board.
The wreckage remains scattered over the area.
For more information on the wreckage, visit https://wanderstories.space/mt-straloch/
A return trip is on our bucket list
Our impromptu reef tour with Port of Call skipper Swainie gave us a preview of what we could see and do, in and around the Hinchinbrook Channel. A return trip is definitely on our bucket list.
Port of Call Boating and Fishing is located at Port Hinchinbrook, Cardwell. For more information visit https://portofcallshop.com.au/about-us/%20