Hinchinbrook Island's Zoe Bay

Steve Farmer and his family have visited Zoe Bay only three times, but they still count it as one of their favourite desintations.

It's hard to start an article on Hinchinbrook Island's Zoe Bay without quoting Alan Lucas in Cruising the Coral Coast when he writes “Zoe Bay is perhaps the most beautiful place on the entire east coast of Australia”.

Most visitors would agree, and there's no doubt that the cruising grapevine and Lucas's spot-on description are largely responsible for the popularity of this must-see spot. Whether you're cruising the Queensland coast in a keelboat, or the highways with a trailer yacht in tow, there's a fair chance Zoe will be on your cruising itinerary.

Our favourite

While Zoe has been a favourite destination of my family for decades, during that time we've visited only three times.

We first went to Zoe in 1983 when we joined the Burdekin Trailer Yacht Club on an Easter cruise from Dungeness (near Ingham) at the bottom of the island, to Zoe Bay, then up around the top of Hinchinbrook and on to Goold Island, eventually pulling out at Cardwell four days later.

It was a magic cruise with light winds ideally suited to our small boats (we ran under spinnakers for much of the way), spectacular scenery and excellent company. As we hit the highway for home we were making plans for a return visit, but jobs, family commitments and other trips devoured our spare time. It was almost 15 years to the day before we again pulled up at the launching ramp at Dungeness to begin the return cruise we had been dreaming of for so long.

While Zoe Bay's natural beauty remained the same, the years had produced a few personal changes for my wife and I. On the first cruise we were childless and carefree, but on the second we had the joy and responsibility of three additional crew members. And that swelling of the ranks had necessitated the trading of our pretty little Hartley 18, for a larger, but equally attractive, Bonito 22.

The second cruise turned out to be every bit as good as the first, with the added bonus of spending four days afloat with the kids, showing and sharing all that Zoe, and nearby Mulligans bays, had to offer.

Our most recent return was a day trip on a perfect winter's morning that portrayed Zoe in all her glory. The seas were flat and clear, the craggy peaks stood stark against a blue winter sky and the anchorage was as snug and inviting as ever. My only lament was that the visit was too brief, and we couldn't spend a few days enjoying the simple life in “the most beautiful place on the entire east coast of Australia”.

An impressive approach

At almost 40,000ha, Hinchinbrook is Australia's largest island national park and lies within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. Examples of most inshore marine habitats can be found around Hinchinbrook, ranging from vast mangrove swamps and estuaries to open beach and rocky foreshores, sometimes with fringing reef just offshore.

Sailors can choose between cruising the island's exposed eastern shore, or the protected waters of the renowned Hinchinbrook Channel between the island and the mainland.

Zoe Bay lies on the eastern side of Hinchinbrook, and its approach from the south is nothing short of impressive, especially during the morning hours. Even before you get to Zoe Bay, Hinchinbrook's rainforest-clad mountains will have you spellbound. Their summits are often hidden in cloud and the green blanket of the mountainsides is slashed here and there by the shining slivers of waterfalls, their distant, roaring waters highlighted by the early sun.

Rounding Hillock Point will reveal Zoe in all her glory. The craggy peaks of 1,121m-high Mt Bowen (the island's highest mountain) form a classic South Seas island backdrop to the gentle, 2.5km-long curve of Zoe's sandy shore, while estuaries at each end of the bay separate the beach from the rocky headlands that form Zoe.

South Zoe Creek

After entering the wide bay, you can turn left or right, depending on your vessel.

With its entrance narrow and just ankle-deep at low tide, the smaller South Zoe Creek (also known as Waterfall Creek) is the realm of the trailer yachtie. The channel may change with the prevailing conditions, but usually hugs the mangroves on the eastern side of the creek mouth. Inside the entrance, depth increases to a metre or so on low water, but keep an eye out for rocks in the middle to lefthand side of the channel, which can dry at low tide. Once inside, vessels can anchor stern-on to the steep sandbank at the end of the beach and crews can simply step ashore, almost without getting their feet wet on high tide. Low tide will require a short squelch through sandy mud.

A track from the beach leads to a national parks campsite and toilets and then on to what is probably Zoe's best feature – a large swimming hole fed by a waterfall which, it is claimed, never stops flowing. If you're cruising in the warmer months, this is the spot you'll want to spend most of your time, but in winter the clear water is a little too chilly for a day-long soak.

On both our overnight cruises we spent some wonderful days tucked up in this ideal anchorage, fishing the foreshores, eating oysters from the rocks, walking the beach and cooling off in that magnificent waterhole.

North Zoe Creek

North Zoe is a larger and initially deeper creek, winding its way through mangrove swamps behind the beach to the gullies and valleys in the foothills of Mt Bowen. This is the only option for deep-draught vessels looking for a protected anchorage, but Lucas recommends skippers enter “with care and a certain amount of courage”. The shallow entrance skirts a rocky reef to starboard and Lucas recommends that “a vessel requires her draught in tide height plus a safety margin if a sea is running”.

In Cruising North Queensland Murray Nielsen confirms the need for care, saying “The channel can vary and the only safe method is to go in by dinghy at low tide and survey a path before you do the tidal calculations for your vessel”.

Once inside the creek there is a hole which is large enough for a couple of vessels to swing at anchor. However, upstream the creek quickly shallows but can, with care, I'm told, still be explored to the base of the mountains in the ship's dinghy on a rising tide. From here crews can also access South Zoe Creek and the waterfall by dinghy.

By the way, it may be worthwhile trolling a lure through the channel into this creek when the tide is up a bit. We hooked a queenfish on a spoon trolled behind our Hartley on our first visit.

In the bay

Skippers nervous at the idea of entering North Zoe Creek can try anchoring off the beach for the night. However, while it is good holding in soft sand and mud, this anchorage can be uncomfortable in anything but calm weather.

In the guide book Going Troppo authors David Haynes and Sue Mulvany recommend an alternative anchorage behind Hillock Point as more comfortable in moderate south-east to southerly winds, although a bottom of coarse sand and coral rubble make anchoring more critical.

The only other option for deep-draught vessels (which may still be difficult in brisk south-easterlies) is to make a brief, day visit and move on to a secure anchorage before nightfall, although this hardly does justice to such a delightful spot.

But whether you're visiting for a day or a week, by trailer yacht or keeler, Zoe Bay on Hinchinbrook Island should be a “must-do” on your cruising itinerary. After all it is “perhaps the most beautiful place on the entire east coast of Australia”.

Facts and further info
• Dungeness is the most convenient launching point for trailer yachts headed for Zoe Bay. Facilities here and at nearby Lucinda include a variety of accommodation options, fuel, ice, limited groceries, a hotel and takeaways. Launching facilities include a three-lane ramp, a nearby pontoon, toilets, water, lighting and a wash-down bay complete with high-pressure hose.

• Depending on conditions, the entrance to Dungeness can be shallow, so it is best to avoid leaving or returning on less than half tide. Once clear of Dungeness, the channel is well marked between Hinchinbrook to port and the 5.75km-long sugar-loading jetty to starboard. It is approximately 12nm from Dungeness to Zoe Bay.

• If you plan to camp ashore rather than on board, you will need a national parks camping permit. Go to www.epa.qld.gov.au for more information or ph 1300 130372 for bookings.

• Mosquitoes and sandflies can be savage in Zoe's creeks, especially after dark and especially in summer. Gauze hatch openings and burn mosquito coils in safety holders to keep them at bay.

• Zoe Bay is crocodile country, so take care where you swim. And remember that marine stingers inhabit these waters during the warmer months.

• Ensure you have a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park zoning map of the area. While Zoe Bay is zoned “yellow” (few limitations) much of Hinchinbrook's eastern shoreline from Zoe Bay northwards is zoned “green”, which means many activities (such as fishing) are limited or banned. Maps can be viewed on the web by visiting www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/management/zoning/zoning_maps.html, or you can order hard copies by phoning (07) 4750 0700. Zoning maps are also available at GBRMPA offices and at marine dealers and chandleries.

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