Great Barrier Reef Camping

Photo by Fiona Harper

The best northern islands for camping near Cairns

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Toss away your watch, unroll your sleeping bag and prepare to become fully immersed in the Great Barrier Reef, up close and personal. Camping out on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef is something rather special. With none of those pesky conveniences such as power (the ipad won’t need to be charged), internet connection (ditch the iphone) or running water (um, ok maybe that’s not such a good idea), unleash your inner Robinson Crusoe by camping on the Great Barrier Reef. Life on an island revolves around the rising sun and the falling tide. The Great Barrier Reef provides the entertainment by day and with the Milky Way being the star attraction (pardon the pun) each night.

Check out of civilisation at one of these gorgeous island campsites in the Northern region of the Great Barrier Reef (accessible from Cairns) and unleash your inner Robinson Crusoe.

Barnard Island Group

Traditional sea country of the Mamu Aboriginal people, the Barnards are about 10 km offshore from Mourilyan Harbour. Continental islands which have been dated back 420 million years, they rise dramatically from the sea bed with rocky slopes clad in rainforest. Campers can bed down on Stephens or Kent Islands.

Seabirds (mostly terns) nest on Stephens Island and access is restricted to the western sand spit and camping area between September and March. The lighthouse on Kent Island was manned until a cyclone forced the evacuation of the lighthouse keeper and his family in the early 1900s.

Castaway Checklist
• Two campsites on Stephens (max 12 campers), three sites on Kent (max 15 campers)
• Bring everything! (including a shovel for toilet use) & be prepared to remove your own rubbish
• Picnic tables on Stephens Island
• Poles for erecting shade tarpaulins
• Getting there: Find a mate with a boat or take a sea kayak

Coombe Island

If you’re looking for the ultimate island castaway experience, ala Tom Hanks in Castaway, Coombe Island is it. Only one group of campers are permitted at any one time so you’re assured of having the entire island to yourself. Like many of these remote islands you’ll need to be totally self-sufficient.

Castaway checklist
• One campsite (max 8 campers)
• Bring everything! (including a shovel for toilet use) & be prepared to remove your own rubbish
• Picnic table
• Getting there: find a mate with a boat

Explore more local itineraries via the RELATED links below.

Dunk Island

One of 12 continental islands in the Family Group, Dunk Island lies 4 km from Mission Beach. First populated by Europeans in the late 1800s, author E.J. Banfield wrote Confessions of a Beachcomber in 1907, based on 26 years living on Dunk. The island has been traditional sea country Bandjin and Djiru Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years.

Dunk Island Resort was severely damaged by Cyclone Yasi and is closed at the time of writing which means that campers get the entire island to themselves, apart from the odd day tripper. Hike to the summit of Mt
Kootaloo for Coral Sea views, wander through rainforest, beachcomb on the sand spit at low tide. Keep an eye out for cobalt blue Ulysses butterflies as well as vulnerable seabirds on the islet of Purtaboi Island

Castaway checklist
• 8 campsites
• Jetty Café (open limited hours & is weather & seasonally dependent)
• Flushing toilets & hot showers
• Free gas BBQ’s
• Picnic tables
• Walking tracks
• Getting there: water taxi Mission Beach
• Book a campsite through Dunk Island

Fitzroy Island

A rugged, thickly wooded, continental island southeast of Cairns, most of Fitzroy Island is National Park, with the exception of the Fitzroy Island Resort at Welcome Bay. Craggy boulders and coral sand beaches line the shore. Nudey Beach is north Queensland’s answer to Whitehaven Beach as ‘most photographed beach’. Snorkelers will love the inshore fringing reef near the jetty.

Campers share the island with day-trippers and overnight guests at the resort. All resort activities (kayaks, glass bottom boat, snorkelling tour etc) are able to be booked by campers. Foxy’s bar on the beach is open every day for meals and drinks so you won’t starve. Pay a visit to the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre to see turtles on the mend prior to being released back into the wild. Walking
tracks cross the island: pack your hiking boots for a strenuous hike on the Lighthouse Circuit.

Castaway Checklist
• 28 campsites
• Toilets & (cold) showers
• Free Gas BBQ’s
• Picnic tables
• Cost $32 per nt max 4 pax
• Getting there: from Cairns by boat with Fitzroy Island Resort, Raging Thunder or • Sunlover Cruises
• Book your campsite through Fitzroy Island Resort

High Island

Popular with recreational fishers, High Island offers raw island camping with few trimmings. Part of the Frankland Group National Park, you’ll need to bring everything and be totally self-sufficient. You’ll need to take all your rubbish with you when you go as well as be prepared to dig your own bush toilet. Beachcombers should bring sturdy reef shoes.

Castaway Checklist
• One large campsite – max 11 campers at one time
• Bring everything! (including a shovel for toilet use) & be prepared to remove your own rubbish
• Picnic tables
• Poles for erecting shade tarpaulins
• Getting there: find a friend with a boat to drop you off and pick you up

Lizard Island

240 km north of Cairns, Lizard Island is the largest in a cluster of six in the Lizard Island National Park. Poking out of the sea 358 metres above sea level, Lizard is about east on the outer Great Barrier Reef as you get, on the edge of the Continental Shelf. If you want to be really remote, Lizard is your place! But you won’t have the island to yourself: you’ll be sharing with guests staying at luxurious Lizard Island Resort and boaties who anchor here for weeks at a time.

Named after the hefty but harmless Gould sand monitor inhabitants (reptiles), Lizard Island is rich in cultural significance for traditional owners and their sacred ceremonial sites and middens. The white fella has also left his mark, with the ruins of Watson’s cottage still visible at Watsons Bay. Snorkel the Blue Lagoon as well as the Giant Clam Garden for some of the best snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Follow in Captain James Cook’s footsteps on the hike to the summit of Cook’s Look for an extraordinary view of Endeavour Passage.

Castaway Checklist
• Five campsites
• Bring everything & be prepared to remove your own rubbish
• Composting toilet
• Free gas BBQ
• Picnic tables
• Poles for erecting shade tarpaulins
• Water may be available from Lizard Island Resort
• Walking tracks
• Getting there: find a mate with a big boat or contact Lizard Island Resort to book flight transfer

Russell Island

Like High Island, Russell is popular with fishermen and castaway campers who are totally self-sufficient. Nesting seabirds also like to pop into Russell Island so the sand spit may be fenced off from humans between September and March.

Castaway Checklist
• Two campsites – max 9 campers at one time
• Bring everything & prepare to remove your own rubbish
• Composting toilet (bring your own paper)
• Picnic tables
• Poles for erecting shade tarpaulins
• Getting there: find a friend with a boat to drop you off and pick you up

Snapper Island

Snapper Island is a significant place within traditional the sea country of the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people who hunt and fish around the island. Please respect their culture. Part of Hope Islands National Park about 20 km north of Port Douglas, the island’s peak is clad in lush forest while mangroves the coastal strip between beaches. The island is popular with sea kayakers.

Twitchers (bird watchers)contain yourself please – land and sea birds love this place! Prepare to tick off honeyeaters, fantails, sunbirds, figbirds and the mistletoe bird. Keep your eyes peeled seawards for tattlers, egrets and ospreys.

Castaway Checklist
• Four campsites
• Bring everything & be prepared to remove your own rubbish
• Pit toilet
• Picnic tables
• Getting there: book a sea kayak trip with Back Country Bliss Port Douglas

Wheeler Island

Another one of the Family Islands, Wheeler offers raw, remote island camping and is popular with small boat owners and sea kayakers. Stunted woodland forest and eucalypt trees survive amongst the granite on the southern side. Protected from south easterly trade winds, the northern side has more lush forest.

Castaway checklist
• One campsite (max ten campers)
• Bring everything & be prepared to remove your own rubbish
• Composting toilet
• Picnic tables
• Getting there: find a mate with a boat

The fine print

Camping is only permitted in designated camping areas and permits must be booked in advance. Fires are not permitted in National Parks. Fees start from $5.95 per person per night. Book online at the Dept of National Parks, Recreations, Sport andRacing. Island campsites can be remote with little mobile phone coverage. Adopt the Scouts motto and be prepared!

Islands in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are protected and restrictions apply to fishing and collecting shells. Check with GBRMPA

About the author: Fiona Harper is a Queensland-based travel writer – follow Fiona at Travel Boating Lifestyle

Are you planning a camping trip to a Great Barrier Reef island? Please share your favourite reasons for camping in the comments below!

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