IF YOU’RE cruising the seemingly endless stretch of the Bruce Highway between Rockhampton and Mackay and the boredom’s setting in, take a break and visit the isolated and windswept Cape Palmerston National Park. It’s a great place to escape the modern world with a wild, remote atmosphere that lifts your spirits just by being there. Because road access can be a little difficult, it’s never crowded.
The rocky coastline is broken by sandy and coarse gravel beaches while the sparkling offshore waters are dotted with continental islands including the nearby Northumberland Group. Pandanus palms and she-oaks fringe the flotsam-strewn beaches and dense mangroves line the many fingers of Cape Creek, a dugong sanctuary and saltwater crocodile habitat.
Cape Palmerston’s pristine coastal environment is practically unchanged since James Cook sailed past on the Endeavour on June 1, 1770 naming the Cape in honour of the Second Viscount of Palmerston, Lord of the Admiralty. Today, the picturesque 7160-hectare park makes a terrific place to spend a weekend or longer soaking up the ‘splendid isolation’. Adventurous visitors can explore the park on foot while land or tinnie-based anglers will enjoy the variety of fishing and crabbing on offer in the rich surrounding waters.
Driving in the park ranges from easy to difficult depending on tides and prior rainfall, and is recommended for totally self-sufficient 4WD’ers. Take care on the narrow inland tracks, some of which have low hanging limbs, and check the tide times and heights before attempting the beach runs; soft sand and extreme tides of up to 6m can make the beach a hazardous place for the inexperienced driver. You’ll encounter sand, gravel, dirt, clay, rocky rubble and mudflats on the drive through the park and it’s a good idea to travel in company in case you get into trouble.
Winter is the best time to camp at the Cape with clear skies, moderate winds and a mild temperature range between 10 and 25°C. Summer temperatures can reach 35°C with high humidity, and heavy rainfall between December and March can make the inland tracks impassable. There are three designated camping areas in the park at Windmill Bay, Cape Creek and Clarke Bay. The first two have pit toilets and all three have picnic tables and self-registration stations for obtaining camping permits. Windmill Bay is very exposed to the southeasterly winds but has great views towards Temple Island. The Cape Creek campsite overlooking Ince Bay is the most popular spot with anglers while the Clarke Bay camping area, sheltered from the breeze by the Cape Palmerston headland, faces the Coral Sea.
Cape Palmerston lies east of Ilbilbie, 115km south of Mackay. The roadhouse on the Bruce Highway (between Carmilla and Koumala) marks the turn-off to the park with the entrance a further 13.5km along a good road. Once inside the park the track deteriorates noticeably and at times is barely more than two wheel tracks through the grass. The Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service’s Mackay office (ph. 07 4944 7800) can provide camping permits, a park information sheet and mud-map as well as up-to-date access conditions. As there are only basic facilities you will need to be totally self-sufficient when visiting. Bring enough drinking water to last the duration of your stay and a fuel stove for cooking. It is an offence to collect and burn timber from the national park, so bring firewood if you intend to have a campfire.
Estuarine crocodiles may be present in the sheltered bays and creeks so swimming in these areas is not recommended; observe all warning signs. Marine stingers (box jellyfish) may also be present in these inshore coastal waters from October to April so wear protective clothing if you enter the water during those months and make sure you have ample quantities of vinegar included amongst your provisions. Mozzies and sandflies can be a considerable source of discomfort, so pack plenty of insect repellent as well.
Add Cape Palmerston to your itinerary next time you’re heading north and believe me – you won’t be disappointed. Our Central Queensland guide contains detailed planning info and trip directions to get out there.
1) The spectacular 360-degree view from atop the cliffs at Cape Palmerston makes the rugged journey worthwhile.
2) Heading down the bumpy track towards picturesque Clarke Bay.
3) Windmill Bay is named for the windmill hidden in the bush nearby, not the relentless south-easterlies.
4) Cape Creek is a favourite with anglers due to its boat ramp and sheltered location.
5) Driving along the beach at Clarke Bay. With 6m tides a possibility, it’s not the place to get bogged!Reads: 7188