The visit to Magnetic of some old pals escaping a Canberra winter was all the prompting I needed to initiate an expedition I had always intended to undertake but had never quite gotten around to. It was to investigate Magnetic Island's most prominent shipwreck, The City of Adelaide which lies in the mud off Cockle Bay.
The wreck had always struck me as an object of interest, not least for its history, but also as a bird watching and, likely, great photographic location.
So, following a close inspection of the tide chart and some consultation with a few local authorities, I set off with my old chum Warwick for a walk on the muddy side of Magnetic.
With a 0.58m low tide occurring at about lunchtime, nature had provided a convenient opportunity, as the tide drains out across what is left of a once magnificent reef, leaving either bare mud or ankle deep pools to wade through.
Cockle Bay is, for those who haven't visited, a smattering of houses, beneath a grove of coconuts tucked behind Nobby Head - looking somewhat forgotten by the rest of civilisation but not too fussed by it either.
One house, perched on a rock, sits right at the water's edge suggesting owners who may well rig a fishing line around their big toe as they lie asleep in their bedroom at night. A couple of dinghies and one rather strange craft, painted bright blue with an outrigger sit out where the bedroom fisherman's bait might drift at high tide.
A vast horizon opens to the visitor once near the water's edge. Views of Townsville with the bluffs of Castle Hill giving way to the grand amphitheatre of Mt Stuart and Hervey's Range lead the eye further north to the smoke of Yabulu across the vast muddied reef away towards West Point and the mangrove forest which fringes it.
The pleasures of this expanse were still tainted by the knowledge that a once-thriving reef lay beneath our feet within living memory. Early photographs taken from Cockle Bay looking towards West Point show open sandy beaches where mangroves now thrive. Why? Because for many years the dredged spoils from the Platypus shipping channel were deposited here, smothering the reef, to create an extensive, if man-made, mangrove environment.
Footwear is a definite must and there is a trick to avoiding the really deep mud in which one's legs can vanish up to and beyond the knees. The mud nearest the mangroves tends to be the deepest so it is best to wander straight out from the little beach at Cockle Bay until you can notice a slight drainage "creek" which runs parallel to the shore about 100 metres out.
Beside it the mud banks are slightly higher and the surface is reasonably firm. Watching every step you take is important too as life abounds on and in the mud and the shallow pools left by the retreating tide.
Crabs of many shapes, sizes and description scuttle here and there while sea cucumbers and other strange tubular critters with feeding tentacles at one end lie flaccidly amongst recently nibbled seagrass. It was somewhere here that I knew aerial photographs had revealed the evidence of dugong grazing paths.
Hardy coral species are also present, working overtime it seems to cling onto life in the presence of so much mud and nutrient-fed algae.
Closer to the wreck, oyster encrusted outcrops protrude above the pools and mud. They stretch to an indefinite horizon where mirages begin to deceive the eye with tricks of scale and distance. Some of the outcrops eventually took the shape of people also out enjoying the sodden mudscape.
The City of Adelaide was a large vessel, 77 metres long and 842 tons in weight. She was built in Glasgow in 1864 and according to James Porter's Discovering Magnetic Island, "... was used by the Australian Steam Navigation Company in passenger service between Melbourne and later to Honolulu and San Francisco, until 1885".
Later she was converted to a four masted sailing barque, by removing her engines and boilers. Eventually she was bought by the Howard Smith Company in Townsville, who used her as a coal hulk for ten years. In 1912 her cargo caught fire and burned for several days before being extinguished.
According to Porter, George Butler, son of the Island's first white resident, Harry Butler, bought and stripped the hull in 1916 to repeat an ugly if practical Island tradition of using ship hulks to shelter jetties.
George wanted to scuttle the hulk as a breakwater for his Picnic Bay jetty. But these plans were themselves scuttled when, as the ship was being towed across the bay in rough weather, she went aground near Cockle Bay. Apparently George then wanted to deck her out as a weekend resort, right where she was, but the plan was never to eventuate.
The wreck has now become a twisted and broken arrangement of heavily rusted steel and, as if nature wished to make a point, where masts once stood, mangrove trees now grow.
Some of the ship's timber deck planks remain in place artfully sculpted by the harsh tropical elements. The bow has bent right over to the waterline.
The anchor chain and winch mechanism remain, heavily fused by oxidisation while, along the sides, beautiful patinas of mottled rust catch the eye.
Climbing aboard is not easy due to the deep mud and uncertain strength of the ancient iron but the interior reveals some of the structural ribs and two large pipes, possibly the remains of steel masts.
Bird droppings in abundance stain the rusted plates in brilliant white and one of the vessel's mangroves is equally white washed.
We didn't spot the birds responsible, it being likely they used it mostly as a roost or for fishing at high tide. The wreck has clearly yielded many an oyster for the properly equipped and a couple of black-lipped delicacies succumbed to my screwdriver. But the best were, as always, the hardest to reach and where the mud sucked the deepest.
We endeavoured to explore the City of Adelaide as far as we could but this vessel didn't reveal her secrets so easily and our movement around and about her was hampered by deeper mud and precarious manoeuvres within the rusted ribs of unknown strength.
Soon we realised the tide was sneaking back and if our return was not to be a stumble through shin deep water - risking stepping on one of the many stingrays which inhabit the waters - or, worse still, a deadly stonefish whose spike could make it through the worn sole of my old runners, we had better depart.
It took perhaps twenty minutes to slosh our way back to the little beach at Cockle Bay and as we did the wind pushed tide was spreading across the mud banks in the opposite direction at walking speed. Rays and other fish dashed away from our footfalls in clouds of mud and we were happy to return to the beach when we did.
This is a fascinating walk for the curious visitor but care must be taken. The marine environment can be dangerous. Stonefish and rays can cause extremely painful and life threatening injuries.
It is also a fragile environment not helped by the weight of many human feet. Creatures live below the surface as well and walking above will undoubtedly crush some critter's abodes.
To limit the damage take care in choosing where you tread. There are many soft corals trying to survive in difficult circumstances and they are easy to avoid if you pay attention.
As always, even in the winter sun it is important to use sunscreen and preferably a hat. I found my pair of fisherman's Polaroid sunglasses invaluable in enabling me to see through the reflected glare and choose where to tread next.
Story & photo by George Hirst