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Cardwell, QLD

Quiet town on Hinchinbrook Channel - access point to Hinchinbrook Island

It is a comment on the difficulty of the terrain (mountains on one side, mangroves on the other side) that Cardwell is the only town on the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Cairns that is located on the coast. It is protected from the Coral Sea by both Hinchinbrook Island and Hinchinbrook Channel and is noted, not for its glorious beaches, but for its muddy foreshore and its crocodiles, sharks and box jellyfish - particularly during the summer months. The appeal of the area lies in part in its history: it was the starting point of Edmund Kennedy's ill-fated journey up the coast and there is a beautiful drive into the hinterland which includes such special sights as the Cardwell Lookout, Attie Creek Falls, Dead Horse Creek and the Spa Pool. As well it is possible to travel across to Hinchinbrook Island - a National Park - and walk the famous Thorsborne Trail.


Cardwell is on the National Highway between Townsville and Cairns 1522 km north of Brisbane.


Origin of Name

The Governor of Queensland, Sir George Bowen (1859-1868) named the coastal town after the prominent British politician Edward Cardwell who, at the time, was Secretary of State for the Colonies.


Things to See and Do

Cardwell Rainforest and Reef Information Centre
The Cardwell Rainforest and Reef Information Centre is open Monday to Friday from 9.00 am - 4.30 pm and from 10.00 am - 1.00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. It is located at 142 Victoria Street and owned by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is an eco tourism and visitor information facility which provides "interpretative information about Cardwell, Hinchinbrook Island and Channel and environs." Apart from information about the region it has a sculpture and mural display depicting the history of the area's landscape, wildlife and human population. Tel: (07) 4066 8601. 

Cardwell Foreshore and the Foreshore Pathway
In 2011 Cyclone Yasi not only destroyed the foreshore but it also destroyed half of the main road (the Bruce Highway) which runs through the town. For dramatic pictures of the damage visit the J C Hubinger Museum and marvel at the damage. The entire foreshore was restored in 2013 with an excellent collection of memorials, sculptures and sand blasted images. The Arts Interpretation Strategy (http://www.cassowarycoast.qld.gov.au/documents/1422210/42186933/Arts%20and%20Interpretation%20Strategy%20A.pdf) suggested a total of 45 sand blasted images on the footpath; 14 sculptured images; 13 bush tucker signs and 28 interpretative signs. The result is spectacular. A genuinely engrossing walk beside the Hinchinbrook Channel. It is a feast of information about the town and the region as well as a delightful walk along the shoreline of Cardwell.

Bagu on the Cardwell Foreshore
Over the road from the Museum and Heritage Precinct are three large bagu which stand like sentinels against the backdrop of Hinchinbrook Island. They are a demonstration of the culture of the Traditional Owners. The sculptures were based on bagu designs by Eileen Tep and Charlotte Beeron who were inspired by the traditional fire-making tools of the rainforest people of North Queensland. Placed so that they look out to sea and back inland they conjure up a different time and way of living. A time when life and the tools of life were inter-dependant with the environment and the resources it provided. There is very detailed information at http://news.aboriginalartdirectory.com/2013/10/bagu-on-the-cardwell-foreshore.php. The Girringun Aboriginal Corporation defines the "bagu" as "The form and imagery of the bagu with jiman artwork has its origins in the sky. A mystical spirit of fire, would throw the jiman (firesticks) across the sky and a trail of fire would follow. Based on the traditional fire making implements of the Girringun rainforest Aboriginal people, the artists have created artworks made from clay, timber and string to evoke the spirit of the old people. Traditionally, the firesticks were made up of two parts, the Bagu (body) and Jiman (sticks). Bagu is normally made from the boogadilla (milky pine tree) and Jiman are made from mudja (wild guava tree) or jiman. The bagu form was founded in the shape of a man, and a spirit design was created with traditional clays and the ochre colours are magera yellow, jillan, black with wallaby blood and garba white."

Cardwell's Jetties
Cardwell's first jetty was built in 1872. The site of that first jetty is where the pylons have been turned into a sculpture (ie over the road from the J C Hubinger Museum). The jetty was initially 800 feet (244 m) but that was not long enough to get into water deep enough for deep draught steamers so another 900 feet was added. The jetty was destroyed by a cyclone in 1890 and when Cyclone Yasi hit in 2011 piles from the old jetty were exposed. Some of these newly exposed pylons were used in the sculpture. The current jetty was built in 1969 and is over 600 feet (183 m) long. It was damaged by Cyclone Yasi in 2011 but was quickly repaired.

Cardwell Heritage Precinct
The Cardwell Heritage Precinct comprises:
* Telegraph and Post Office
There was a post office in Cardwell as early as 1864 and when the government approved a telegraph line from Townsville to the Gulf of Carpentaria a proper post office/telegraph station was built. It was opened in 1870. In 1871 the jetty was completed and, in quick succession, the town got a pilot service office, a boat shed, a Lands office and a Court and Customs building. The boat shed was destroyed in the 1882 cyclone and the Court House was destroyed in the 1890 cyclone.

* Cardwell's Hall
The Cardwell Hall, now the museum, was built in 1892. By 1929, when local government was moved to Tully, the Hall became the local library. It was destroyed by Cyclone Yasi in 2011 but has been totally rebuilt.

* Courthouse and Lock-Up
The town's original Court House was damaged by the 1890 cyclone. It was rebuilt but was smaller than the original and became known as "the matchbox". In 2001 it became part of the town's Heritage Precinct. Behind the Court House is the Lock-Up which dates from 1907.

* School of Arts
The School of Arts building was constructed in the early 1920s and served as a library and night school until it was moved in 1988.

* Edmund Kennedy Memorial Cairn
Located beside the Heritage precinct the cairn has a simple plaque which states that it was erected "To commemorate the centenary of the landing of the explorer Edmund B. C. Kennedy and his party who passed within two miles north of this cairn on June 26, 1848 whilst on their fateful journey of exploration to Cape York."
There was a generation of Australian school students who all knew the story of Kennedy and Jackey Jackey and recalled, vividly, the image of Kennedy being speared by local Aborigines when he was in sight of the rescue vessels.
Less well known today, it is still an amazing story - a lesson in the foolishness and tenacity of early European explorers.
Kennedy was landed about 35 km north of the present site of Cardwell but the mangrove swamps which edged the beaches were so dense (see Edward Kennedy National Park just north of 'Cardwell) that constant attempts to cross from the beaches to the edge of the mountains were thwarted. As a result Kennedy was forced south, and eventually found a path to the mountain foothills in what is now Edmund Kennedy National Park, 4 km north of Cardwell. His attempt to move west along Meunga Creek at the southern end of the present-day park was successful and allowed the party to proceed north. Consequently, some weeks after they had landed on the coast, they reached the place where they had started - only they were about 20 km inland, not on the coast. 
It was not an auspicious beginning to an expedition which was to prove disastrous. At one point Kennedy left eight members of the expedition and he tried to push on to the supply ship but one member of his advance party shot himself and he left two of the advance party to look after the injured man. They all died. Kennedy was killed by unfriendly Aborigines when he was only 20 miles (32 km) the rescue vessel, the Ariel. Only his Aboriginal assistant, Jackey Jackey survived. It took Kennedy 66 days to cover the distance from Cardwell to Ravenshoe - now a two hour journey by road. For the full story of Kennedy's life - check out http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kennedy-edmund-besley-2297.

First Landing at Cardwell
There is an impressive cairn, near the Rainforest and Reef Centre, which records "Near to this cairn landed in January 1864 the first settlers of Cardwell - the oldest town in Queensland north of Bowen. This party of settlers which travelled from Bowen in the schooner Policeman was led by the noted pastoralist explorer George Elphinstone Dalrymple". It then list all the people in the expedition. The signage at the cairn notes: "They were 20 in number ... the new settlers brought with them: 10 horses, 12 sheep, 2 goats, dogs, fowls, building materials, equipment and other supplies ... the port served the pastoral area, the early Herbert River settlers and also the many hopeful gold seekers ... the pioneers established small cropping, citrus and cattle grazing, while timber felling and logging was also significant. Shipping through the port of Cardwell provided the life blood for the pioneers, with coastal steamers calling regularly at the port."

Cardwell's Copper Flame Tree
Near the First Landing at Cardwell cairn is an unusual copper flame tree. The signage points out that the flame tree (brachychiton acerifolius) "is significant locally and was adopted as Cardwell Shire Council's logo in the 1960s ... a symbol of reconciliation, this flame tree sculpture was designed to stand over 8 m high, with water flowing from points along the branches during the day and gas fuelled flames that lit up the tree at night ... The tree was built for the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, representing traditional owners from nine tribal groups: Bindjin, Djiru, Girramay, Gugu Badhun, Gulnay, Jirrbal, Nywaigi, Warrgamay and Warungnu, and was a gift to the Cardwell community as part of the Indigenous Land and Sea Conference held in Cardwell in October 2007. Under the guidance of artists Karen Cusolito and Dan Das Mann of San Francisco, Danya Parkinson of Sebastopol (USA) and Sari Bennett of Melbourne, many people volunteered time, expertise, resources, and financial assistance to make the flame tree come to life." It was bent, but not destroyed, by Cyclone Yasi.

Edmund Kennedy, Girrimay National Park
Located 4 km to the north of the town on the eastern side of the road is the entrance to a small area of virgin mangrove swamps through which Edmund Kennedy passed on his attempt to explore from Rockingham Bay to Cape York.
The park's dense mangroves, which reach down to the edge of the beach, give a frightening and daunting picture of the hardships that faced Kennedy. The two walking tracks - the Mangrove Boardwalk (3 km return) and the Wreck Creek Walk (2.5 km one way) -  pass through tropical rainforest, open forests and woodland and, by a system of boardwalks and bridges they pass over the mangrove swamps which were so difficult and challenging for Kennedy and his party. It is possible to see crabs emerging from their holes in the mangroves and, along the way, look for orioles, sunbirds, snakes and lace monitors. Be warned: this is an area for estuarine crocodiles. There is a small arboretum - the Arthur Thorsborne Aboretum - at the entrance to the park. Check out https://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/girramay-edmund-kennedy for details and maps.

The Scott Gravestone
There is a large headstone in front of the Anglican Church on the Bruce Highway. This monument is a reminder that Cardwell's early history was intricately linked with attempts to get cattle from the rich and fertile Valley of Lagoons down to the coast. The complex route to Cardwell was eventually replaced by an easier route to Townsville. The headstone reads: "In memory of Walter Jervoise Scott one of the pioneers of the stations known as the Valley of Lagoons." The headstone is not where Scott is buried. It was sent out from England after his death in 1890 but the road into the mountains to the Valley of Lagoons was too hazardous and difficult to transport the monument. The family and the teamsters decided that while Scott was buried at the Valley of Lagoons the headstone would remain on the coast.


Other Attractions in the Area

Driving Tour - Cardwell Forest Drive
There is a pleasant and memorable drive - the Cardwell Forest Drive - which heads west along Brasenose Street from the Bruce Highway. It climbs into the mountainous hinterland behind Cardwell and includes the Cardwell Lookout which offers excellent views of both Cardwell and Hinchinbrook Island; the Attie Creek Falls; and a number of freshwater swimming spots including the Spa Pool and Dead Horse Creek. Check out http://www.cardwelltourism.com/to-see-do/waterfalls-swimming/ for more details.

Five Mile Creek Swimming Hole
The Five Mile Creek Swimming Hole is located 7 km south of Cardwell and is a popular place where locals go swimming. Always remember that crocodiles and box jellyfish make swimming in the waters of the Hinchinbrook Channel hazardous and life threatening. This is a safe alternative. Check http://www.cardwelltourism.com/to-see-do/waterfalls-swimming/ for more information.

There are a number of waterfalls in the area, of which the most impressive are the Blencoe Falls and the Murray Falls - both to the north of the town. The Blencoe Falls, 90 km north west of Cardwell, are particularly impressive falling 90 metres and then cascading a further 230 metres to the bottom of the valley. For more information check out https://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/blencoe-falls.
The Murray Falls, located 22 km from the Bruce Highway and 41 km north-west of Cardwell, have a 30 metre drop and are noted for their smooth rocks. They are ideal for swimming. Check out https://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/murray-falls for more information.

Dalrymple Gap Walking Track
Located 13 km south of Cardwell this historic road, built in the 1860s, follows the original route from the coast through Dalrymple Gap to the Valley of Lagoons. It is 10 km one way. It was originally used by the local Aboriginal people and then by Europeans trying to access the cattle country of the Valley of Lagoons. The National Park website explains: "The track meanders through open eucalypt forest and rainforest, and has numerous creek crossings. The cool, fresh rainforest air is a welcome relief after the steep climb up the Cardwell Range where huge strangler figs reach well above the forest. Near the top of Dalrymple Gap, on the coastal side, is an historic brick-lined bridge. The bricks were brought from Scotland and the bridge has an interesting stone-pitched face. Drill holes and grooves in rocks along the edge of the track show where they were split to widen the track. This track can be walked in either direction, and is best done as a one-way walk to allow time to enjoy the beauty of Dalrymple Creek and the historic features of the track." Check out https://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/dalrymple-gap/about.html for more details.

Hinchinbrook Island
Hinchinbrook Island  is a 39,900 ha national park characterised by rainforest and mangroves. Promoted as the largest island National Park in Australia it is 35 km long, and 16-24 km wide. Hinchinbrook has been protected since 1932. It is primarily for walkers and for people who enjoy the quietness of virgin rainforest and pristine beaches. The channel which lies between the island and the mainland is a flooded river valley and is notable for its extensive areas of mangroves and its seagrass beds which are home to dugongs. It is also home to estaurine crocodiles, box jellyfish and green turtles. Off the coast it is possible to sight humpback whales between May and September.  The National Parks website describes the island as "renowned for its range of habitats including misty, heath-covered mountains sandy beaches, paperbark and palm wetlands, and extensive woodlands. Patches of lush rainforest and eucalypt forest descend to a mangrove-fringed channel in the west, with sweeping bays and rocky headlands along the east coast. The island’s mangrove forests are some of the richest and most varied in Australia and are an important breeding ground for many marine animals." Campsites, toilets and boardwalks have been placed strategically along the trails to make the journeys easier. For details about the island, and for maps, check out https://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/hinchinbrook/about.html.
Access to the island is by ferry. Check out http://www.hinchinbrookislandcruises.com.au for details of times and prices. There is a detailed and downloadable brochure at http://www.cardwelltourism.com/wordpress/HLMAC-Marine-Wonders-Booklet_2014.pdf. The Hinchinbrook Resort, a delightful timber eco-friendly resort at the northern end of the island, was severely damaged by Cyclone Yasi and has not been reopened.

Thorsborne Trail on Hinchinbrook Island
There are four tracks on Hinchinbrook Island - The Haven Track (a short 1 km track from the Haven campground); the Macushia to Cape Richards Track (4.9 km one way which starts at the North Shepherd Bay beach); South Shepherd Bay Track (5 km return which passes through forests and along the beach) and, most importantly, the internationally known Thorsborne Trail which is difficult, 32 km one way, and usually takes around four days. The trail passes through rainforest, open eucalypt forest, banksia forest, and mangrove and paperbark country as it traverses the east coast of the island. Check out https://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/hinchinbrook-thorsborne for details. 



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was inhabited by the Girramay Aboriginal people..

* The explorer Edmund Kennedy passed two miles north of the present townsite on 26 June, 1848 during his tragic attempt to travel from Rockingham Bay to Cape York. 

* In 1862 the HMS Pioneer sailed into the Hinchinbrook Channel looking for a suitable port to service the Valley of Lagoon pastoral holdings on the upper Burdekin River.

* In 1863 the explorer George Dalrymple unsuccessfully attempted to hack a trail from the Valley of Lagoons station. 

* Cardwell was proclaimed a town in 1864 and originally named Port Hinchinbrook. During that year the Old Royal Hotel was opened for business.

* In 1864 Dalrymple did manage to find a track from the coast to the highlands and Cardwell became the first port north of Bowen. 

* In 1870 a local primary school was opened.

* In 1872 work started on Cardwell's first jetty.

* By the 1870s the Kirrima Track, connecting Cardwell to the tablelands, was being used to shift cattle and people.

* By the mid-1870s gold from the Palmer River goldfields was being shipped out of Cardwell.

* The Cardwell jetty was completed in 1875.

* Cardwell became a local government district in 1879.

* In 1882 the town was partially destroyed by a cyclone.

* By 1884 there were 25 houses and 50 people living in Cardwell.

* By 1886 Cardwell boasted the largest sawmill in North Queensland.

* By 1889 the Kirrima Track was being used regularly to shift cattle. 

* The town was hit by another cyclone in March, 1890. The Cardwell jetty was damaged by the cyclone. 

* A new jetty was built in 1892.

* A meat works was constructed in the town in 1895.

* By 1921 there were only 70 people living in Cardwell Shire.

* By 1924 there was a railway station at Cardwell and it became a stopover point between Townsville and Cairns.

* In 1932 Hinchinbrook Island became a national park.

* In 2008 the Cardwell Council became part of the Cassowary Coast Regional Council.

* In 2009 the Federal Court recognised the Girramay as the rightful native title holders of the area around Cardwell.

* In 2011 Cyclone Yasi, with winds of over 290 km/hr destroyed over one quarter of the houses in Cardwell and wrecked 70 vessels in the waters off the coast.

* By 2013 a 5 km foreshore redevelopment had been completed with new jetties and facilities.


Visitor Information

Cardwell Rainforest and Reef Visitor Information Centre, 142 Victoria Street, Cardwell, tel: (07) 4066 8601. Open 9.00 am - 4.30 pm Monday to Friday and 10.00 am - 1.00 pm Saturday and Sunday.


Useful Websites

There is a useful local website. Check out http://www.cardwelltourism.com.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

5 suggestions
  • How many places of worship in Cardwell, churches, mosque and temple

  • Thank you Bruce. I am planning a trip for my wife and self thru NSW and QLD. Your site/shave been invaluable in laying out the skeleton of the trip.

    David Hall
  • A really great write up…it would be great if you could mention that all of the sand blasted artworks were created by local Cardwell Artists and that all the signage along the pathways and throughout the town and surrounds have been compiled and created by the community… and that the Cardwell Gallery can be found in the historic school of arts building…. many of the artists involved in the signage and footpaths designs are part of the gallery which is a volunteer run community enterprise…
    Thanks for all the great info about our town.

    Daryl Dickson
  • A great little town, held fondly by me when the Local constabulary billeted my self in one of the empty cells and my two horses in the police station yard in late 1962 as I attempted to ride around Australia by horseback The hospitality of the generous police allowed me a dry and comfortable nights sleep with breakfast, while my two horses, one saddle and one packhorse couldn’t wander off in the middle of the night. Unlike poor Kennedy I did make it to Cape York, but by four wheel drive after agisting my horses in Cairns. I’m finally getting around to writing about the trip. My thanks again

    Sean Hampsey
  • Hi ,
    Would you have any information on the original bakery that was built on Victoria Street next to the Catholic Church?

    Diane Crawford