Location - Hinchinbrook Island National Park, Queensland, Australia
Distance - Approximately 4 - 6 km one way, depending on route (not including the zig zagging through creeks and around vegetation)
Time - A multi-day trip, but it is possible in one day return for the extremists
Grade - Difficult and strenuous
Type - Remote, off-track bushwalking
The Thumb is another great adventure. It "ticks" all the adventure boxes, so to speak, and can be done – return – in one long day from the beach. However, it's more common to take several days to accomplish this feat. Regardless, you'll feel like a pioneer once completing this one!
There many things to cover in this article, so here are some quick links to sections of this article:
History, When To Go, The Routes, The Ridgeline Route, Thumb Creek Route, Anti-Thumb Creek Route, South East Ridge Route, Thumb Saddle, Climbing The Thumb, Essentials, Saftey, Interactive Map.
The Thumb, a granite monolith pinnacle high on a ridge of the Mount Bowen massif, was one of the last sought-after, unclimbed summits in Australia in 1952. Just off the north Queensland coast on Hinchinbrook Island, The Thumb can be seen breaking the horizon, just waiting to be explored.
In August 1952, John Bechervaise led an Australian Geographical Society sponsored trip of schoolboys to the island, and they made it 100 metres shy of the summit along the Southeast Ridge. In January 1953, a team (Jon Stephenson, John Comino, Geoff Broadbent, Dave Stewart, and Ian McLeod) from the University of Queensland's Bushwalking Club (UQBWC) took advantage of the track cut by Bechervaise's expedition. It took the five-person team three days to reach the base of The Thumb. Yet, it is important to note, that it was the middle of summer, and the hikers likely wore and carried gear that was quite bulky and heavy – the technology of the time. However, at this point, they still had to face the last great problem – climbing the cliff leading up to the summit.
John Comino proceeded to ascend via a very open chimney where he stood on Jon Stephenson's shoulders to scrape a bit of muck and vegetation. Once on top of the cliff's edge, John Comino used a rope to help the others ascend. It was a fairly easy climb but required a little bit of gymnastics. They proceeded to build a rock cairn, and there, they placed a tin can (geocache) and an eight centimetre diameter quartz crystal, which they had found earlier, lower down the ridge.
After reaching the summit and building a rock cairn, the team noticed a thunderstorm approaching in the distance; for the following ten days, it rained, on average, 20 centimetres per day. During their descent, the cyclonic weather saw them wading chest deep through flooded creeks to escape the island.
In 1975, many years after that first ascent, the quartz crystal, which was placed on The Thumb in 1953 by UQBWC, was thoughtlessly removed (i.e., stolen). It was later retrieved by John Simmons, looked after by the Townsville Bushwalking Club, and then returned to the summit by UQBWC in July 1978.
A note on the summit now reads:
Curse of The Thumb
May he who remove this rock slip on the granite, fail to find water, get lost in the scunge, carried away by sandflies, and never return.
Indeed, the legacy of the UQBWC began ages ago, mid 20th century. The club was founded in 1950 by Jon Stephenson and John Comino. Stephenson and Comino shared many first ascents of prominent mountains and cliff faces around Queensland, Australia, and overseas, with Stephenson being the first Australian to make it to the South Pole and the first person to traverse Antarctica. Sadly, the UQBWC disbanded in 1997.
Their spiritual sibling club, University of Queensland Rockclimbers Club (UQRC), officially changed its name to the University of Queensland Mountain Club (UQMC) in 2007 to reflect the other outdoor activities in which its members are involved, such as hiking and bushwalking, and to potentially expand to other outdoor sports. In this way, however, the club has also been able to honour the foundations built by Stephenson and Comino and UQBWC's history and traditions.
When to go
Summiting The Thumb depends on the route you take and weather conditions, which can change quite suddenly. The best time of the year to do this hike is after the wet season (i.e., June - September) because it's not too hot, but there's still enough water in the creeks.
Most that do this hike will camp at the Thumb Saddle, which requires a special mountain permit. Permit protocols are in place, not just for human safety, but largely to control/monitor numbers and traffic to protect the fragile, heath vegetation that covers most of the area. This is all the more reason to remember to be low impact and embrace the "Leave No Trace" and "Pack it In, Pack it Out" philosophies. It is important to note that those just doing a day trip also need a mountain permit. Any group wishing to hike in the mountains will need to apply – in writing – to Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) at least a few weeks in advance.
How to get there
The are many ways to reach the summit. Excluding routes via Mount Bowen, The Thumb is best climbed from Thumb Creek. Because of the dense vegetation sometimes encountered and the many cliffs in the area, it is often advisable to follow the creeks for as long as you can. However, The Southeast Ridge offers superb views of both the peaks and the coastline; therefore, it may very well be worthwhile to endure the discomforts to enjoy such glorious views. Consider planning your trip after a controlled burn, as it will make traversing the massif much easier because otherwise, the vegetation can be thick, merciless, and unforgiving.
The Thumb via the Mount Bowen Ridgeline
If you plan on summiting Mount Bowen on your trip, then following the ridgeline to later summit The Thumb may be the route for you. There are several routes up Mount Bowen, and it's just a 'short' walk down to the Thumb Saddle through banksia brush, heath, and fern thickets. Although, upon reaching Mount Bowen, many parties retrace their steps and descend via Warrawilla Creek. Therefore, one might conclude that continuing this track onwards to the Thumb Saddle is quite hard, especially because, with very little traffic, there is no noticeable path to follow, forcing you to face chest-high vegetation at times.
If the Mount Bowen to The Thumb route is your plan, a good base camp can be established at the North Saddle. There are other campsites at the saddle between Mount Bowen and the South Peak. Or, you may consider the somewhat flat rocks of the South Peak area, with grand views toward The Thumb. This was a favourite of the Darveniza family, avid hikers of the area and quite well-known amongst the local bushwalking community. Here, water can been collected from shallow, small rock cavities for several days after it has rained. A length of tubing is useful for syphoning the water. Heavy dew can also be collected in a tarp, which can also serve to catch rain.
If traversing the Mount Bowen massif, continue along the summit ridge southeast toward The Thumb. The route is much less obvious here and the hiking will be subsequently slower. But, keep continuing southeast along the ridge until you reach an open rocky outcrop that overlooks the drop into Thumb Saddle. This point also provides grand views across to The Thumb and down toward Zoe Bay.
Now your only option is to leave the ridge following the steep vegetation downhill. Head down, northeastward until overlooking the saddle from the exposed rocky slab.
Alternatively, leave the ridgeline earlier prior to reaching the open rocky outcrop that overlooks the drop into Thumb Saddle. Then, contour eastward around the cliff.
Regardless, once you are ready to descend into the saddle, locate the first gully adjacent to but north of the exposed rocky slab. It is fairly steep, but well-vegetated and should cause few problems. Once you reach the bottom of the gully, contour the face of that rocky slab, southward into the Thumb Saddle. It is essential to locate the correct gully to descend, as all others end in cliffs that cannot be easily overcome. At this point, you will have arrived at Thumb Saddle and can begin your mission to summit The Thumb.
The Thumb via Thumb Creek
It believed that the most common route taken to and from The Thumb is via Thumb Creek. Thumb Creek descends southward from the Thumb Saddle to North Zoe Creek. This is also the most typical descent from The Thumb as well as from Mount Bowen, for those that have undertaken the full traverse.
To get to Thumb Creek, you have three options:
- If starting at Little Ramsay Bay, it is necessary to first hike over Magic Saddle, which is the saddle between Banksia Bay and Zoe Bay on which the Thorsborne Trail traverses. Then, follow the Thorsborne Trail southwest to North Zoe Creek.
- Ask your ferry transfer operator to drop you off in North Zoe Creek near where the Thorsborne Trail crosses the watercourse, but bear in mind that this can only be achieved at high tide. Then, cross through open marshy plains until you reach a trail.
- Alternately, you can park your private vessel in South Zoe Creek at the sandy bank at the mouth of the estuary and follow the Thorsborne Trail northwest to North Zoe Creek.
Regardless of how you get to the lower reaches of North Zoe Creek, once you arrive, you must then head off track and upstream. Attempt to follow natural pathways between the mangroves, pandanus, and the forest until you reach the creek bed.
Here, the boulders are significantly smaller than they are further upstream. So, as you progress further up North Zoe Creek, rock hopping may become quite a bit slower because of the huge boulders that must be negotiated.
Soon, you will reach Concordia, a large granite slab that makes for an ideal campsite. Bear in mind that smooth ground is limited amongst the river stones and rocky banks. Concordia is also where a major stream enters from the south providing a year round swimming hole and water source. This location also provides interesting views of the Bowen Massif from a perspective not usually seen.
As you progress further upstream, you'll see a large boulder that is as big as a double-decker bus. This may also be a sufficient place to camp.
If ascending Thumb Creek, it may be difficult to discriminate between Thumb Creek and other streams flowing down from the peaks. What is noticeable about Thumb Creek is that it provides a sizeable flow into North Zoe Creek from the north because of its large catchment area.
At the fork of North Zoe Creek and Thumb Creek you will leave the relatively flat gradient for steeper traversing. Especially in its upper reaches, the creek bed becomes quite steep with many small waterfalls, but all are quite negotiable. Take note of the 30 metre waterfall approximately 100 metres above the fork, as this is not only the biggest waterfall in the creek, but it also indicates that the major clifflines will commence.
This waterfall can be easily negotiated on its eastern (right) side where it's less steep and more featured.
Above the falls, you will encounter long, open slabs, and the creek will rise ever more steeply. Ascend the creek, but stick to the eastern (right) side, and avoid any left forks – as, otherwise, you may find yourself 'cliffed out' and having to free climb "Finding your roots", which is a grade 18 (AU), or having to turn back to retrace your steps. However, the left fork has a trickle of water as the small saddle is higher than Thumb Saddle as well as have thick ferns covering and trapping the water.
Then, continue to ascend through the thorny ferns and scrub until you reach Thumb Saddle.
Anti-Thumb Creek Route
As we are unsure of the true name, we are calling this Anti-Thumb Creek. It's a fork off of Warrawilla Creek.
If choosing this route up The Thumb, you'll first start at Little Ramsay Bay. From there, you will need to find your way, rock hopping up Warrawilla Creek. Navigation may be a problem where the creek branches into two near-parallel streams after about one kilometre. You'll recognise this junction because of has a large rock in the mouth of the small creek, but it's not particularly obvious. Choose the left-hand branch. Note that those summiting Mount Bowen need to choose the right-hand branch. After this, avoid all of the northern branches, as you may become "cliffed out". After about another kilometre, you'll arrive at another fork where you'll see a pool of water useful for a quick dip during hotter months. Take the left branch. Then, continue taking left branches of the following forks as you climb up along the creek bed.
Keep an eye out for one of the major highlights of this trip, Ball Rock, a perfectly spherical boulder, just larger than a grown man's head; it is located midway up Anti-Thumb Creek. Certainly, there are plenty of ball-shaped rocks around, but this one is really quite stunning. It is at the base of a steep section of the creek – some might call it a waterfall. There, you will see this single spherical boulder that is loose, but seemingly held captive between other rocks. When the creek floods, the spherical boulder gets rolled around by the water, which, over the years, has worn it into an unnaturally accurate sphere. The spherical boulder is lighter in colour that the surrounding rocks. Definitely check it out on your way.
In the upper reaches of Anti-Thumb Creek, the terrain becomes quite steep. Soon after, you will have to negotiate a large boulder known as Crawl Rock, which is near Thumb Saddle. When you approach this rock, it seems impassable at first in that there is no easy way over it. It may be possible to ascend the right side along a fallen tree, but dead trees rot away, making this an unreliable option. The best way through is to go under the rock. There, you'll find a path through which you can crawl through the rocks heading toward the back of the cavern. You may have to haul your packs over the front of the rock using a rope rather than attempting to carry them through the crawl space. But, this is one of the fun parts of the hike. Just note that if you are descending via this route as well, there is a funnel-shaped gap near the bottom that may result in some getting stuck at their hips.
The Anti-Thumb route finally ends in open scrubby forest near the Thumb Saddle. Some leeches may be present here. Then, proceed ascending The Thumb via Thumb Saddle as described below.
Southeast Ridge Route
The Southeast Ridge Route to and from The Thumb is one of the most difficult routes on the Bowen Massif to ascend or descend; however, it may well be worth it, as it provides outstanding coastal views as well as glimpses of the near-vertical main face of The Thumb. To ascend, a couple short, 10-15 metre climbs are involved, which require a rope and associated climbing gear. The descent also requires a rope, as there is a 10-15 metre abseil. Note that there is no water is available along the Southeast Ridge.
The Southeast Ridge can be approached from Little Ramsay Bay via a creek at the southern end of the beach. Walk up put the estuary through the natural pathway between the forest and the mangroves. Where the main creek veers southeast, leave the main creek, and ascend toward the saddle to the southwest. Alternatively, climb the main ridge to the west.
Whichever route is taken, there is a lot of steep ground to navigate until you reach the top of the main ridge above the shoulder. Since you'll have a rope with you anyway, consider using it, especially if taking alternative routes. Once on the main ridge, the gradient lessens but there is still a lot of dense scrub to overcome.
Finally, you will reach the rocky buttress of The Thumb's eastern shoulder. Definitely consider using ropes here for fall protection. Climb the southwest corner via two fairly easy pitches. Once on the shoulder, contour around to the Thumb Saddle rather than attempting to stay on top of the ridge. Then, climb The Thumb from Thumb Saddle as described below.
An excerpt from Climb to the Clouds by Robert Rankin
To descend the Southeast Ridge, it is necessary to abseil down the rock steps using a rope, as mentioned above.
The Thumb Saddle is comprised of rainforest vegetation and provides a flat and semi-protected place to camp. There is room for one or two tents and a few hammocks. Water seeps and drips from a large rock wall that is northeast of the saddle that can provide a slow, but reliable water supply. Otherwise, you will have to go down Thumb Creek for 100 metres over the ridge on your right to another stream parallel to collect water; it is also possible to abseil the landslip to collect water where it pools. Do not stay in Thumb Creek as walk is only available about two hours downstream from Thumb Saddle. Water collected near Thumb Saddle should be treated, as there is a bat cave above it.
Climbing The Thumb From the Thumb Saddle
The Thumb can be easily climbed directly from the Thumb Saddle, and this is the best approach. From the saddle, head east up the ridge for 20m before trending northeast (left) and up another 20 metres until you reach the major cliff line. Here, in the vertical crack, is a bat cave. You should be able to hear and smell them. You can climb though the other non-bat inhabited cavern on your right that takes you through to the southern side. It's a great view but doesn't help get to the peak. From the bat-cave, continue around left and upwards until the vegetation changes to heath and the blue and pink tape stops. Here, you are presented with three options:
- Option 1: Continue up and left (north) to reach a vertical chimney section on your right (southeast). Follow the crack up to easier ground, and you will gently gain altitude to the summit. This may have been the first ascentist's chosen route.
- Option 2: This is, by far, the easiest and safest approach. Continue up and southeast (right). You may see a bit of disturbance in the vegetation from previous adventures. Up steeply on heath vegetation to exposed rock. Traverse north (left) across a small ledge, and then step up and over a mid-sized boulder. Hug the cliff on your right (east) for a few more metres, and then continue up to easier ground. At this point, you will join option 1 (southeast direction) to reach the summit.
- Option 3: Continue as per option 2 to exposed rock. Instead of traversing left, take an easy scramble up to the right (east) on granite. Then, ascend a steep, vegetated ramp before following up an exposed, thick and vegetated gully to reach the true summit.
You will know when you're at the summit as you will see a rock cairn. Once you reach the summit, you will be rewarded with superior 360-degree views!
- A topographical map and compass (and/or a GPS unit)
- PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) or an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)
- A method for water treatment
Note that in some areas, no water is available (e.g., ridgelines). If it has rained recently or there has been heavy dew, there may be small, very shallow rock pools which can be drained using a plastic tube (e.g. hydration bladder tubing). Heavy dew can also be collected in a tarp, which can also serve to catch rain.
Safety is paramount in these rugged, remote wilderness areas. It's important that those who are considering hiking up The Thumb are aware of the risks. Here are some things to consider:
- Loose, chossy landscape and rock fall, especially on creek edges. Warren MacDonald lost his legs whilst traversing over large creek boulders that shifted underfoot; the shift caused the boulders to roll and therefore physically crush his legs.
- Cloud covering – it is easy to navigate the last hour or two to the summit on a clear day, but when clouded in, it is easy to become disorientated. The terrain is rugged, and it only takes one wrong turn to become 'cliffed out'.
- Navigational error – this is common, particularly when ascending via creek routes.
- Flash flooding – creeks and streams can suddenly and become impassable during and after heavy rain and will take at least twice as long to traverse.
- Planned burns – it's important to contact QPWS before attempting remote trips, as they may be fire bombing.
Here's an interactive map of the Bowen Massif with the routes and POI.Photo cover credit Keith Dyson