Exploring the Whitsundays
It had been difficult to get comfortable enough to get much sleep on the 12hr bus ride north from Hervey Bay. I had planned a lot for my 5.5 week Australian adventure with the location for each night planned in advance. Originally I was supposed to be breaking up the journey with a day in Mackay to catch up with someone I knew, however when that fell through, I was left with a day to spare and a conundrum: go to Mackay anyway, or find a new destination. In the end, I cut my losses and opted to have an extra day in Airlie Beach by the Whitsundays. As the bus neared its destination, I knew I’d made the right choice. Airlie Beach was stunning and with the sun shining in a near-cloudless sky, it was the perfect weather too.
I was finally on a high after a fantastic day at sea the day before, and despite the lack of sleep, I took no time in checking in, freshening up and getting straight out again. I booked a day trip for the next day and bought myself a return ticket to Hamilton Island, one of the main islands in the Whitsundays archipelago. Sailing amongst the islands of the group was stunning and we passed two humpback whales. I was being spoilt with all the cetacean sightings I’d had by this point and there would be more to come. It turned out I’d arrived during the Audi Hamilton Race Week, a sailing event that drew crowds of sailors, their support crews and the corporate sponsors that came with them. There were are a lot of well dressed people milling around. But despite the heat, I was here to hike and explore the island. The main resorts are linked by a free shuttle bus and most people get themselves around on golfing buggies: they were everywhere. In fact the only cars appeared to be Audi vehicles, all plastered with advertisement for the race week.
Nipping first to the resort for a trail map, I then sweated my way up through the bush to Passage Point, passing some skinks and a legless lizard on route. Up on the ridge, the views to the neighbouring islands and over the coastline below were beautiful. Parts of the trail and bush were under maintenance and I wondered how the workmen could cope with the heat which was exceptionally hot that day. Ever aware of being in Australia, I kept a close eye out for snakes as I trudged through the bush to the lookout at the far end of Hamilton Island, but saw none. I had the place to myself for the most part and from here I could see over several of the nearby islands, and aside from the buzzing insects and the occasional sound of a nearby workman clearing away vegetation, it was still and peaceful. It was the perfect spot for some lunch and I was in no hurry to leave.
I took a detour on the way back to go to another lookout that overlooked the resort. It really was too hot to hike, and I’ve suffered mild heatstroke in the past from overexerting myself in a tropical climate, so I really shouldn’t have been out there, exposed on the ridge under the relentless sun. But I was intent on making the most of my time there and it was nice to look down on those below me, knowing that I was one of a mere handful of people that wasn’t in the resort right then. The thought of an iced coffee drew me back to society though and I headed first back to the resort, finding it crammed with socialites at a Heineken-sponsored pool party. Catching the bus back over the hill, I meandered around the waterfront, admiring the boats in the marina, sipping on a much anticipated cold drink.
The crowd for the return ferry was like a mob and it became obvious that there wasn’t space for everybody on board. We were divided between two different boats, but the one that I ended up on was too big to berth at Airlie Beach now that the tide was low. Halfway back to the mainland we had to do a boat to boat transfer whilst bobbing on the ocean. For me this was all part of the adventure, but I could see some others were a little less pleased about it. But as we got on our way in the second boat, the sun was setting and I indulged in what was becoming a regular occurrence, watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I had little energy left by the end of the day, and settled on convenience food for dinner and flaking out at the hostel.
Thankfully I slept very well but had an early rise for that day’s excursion. My last day in the Whitsundays was to be spent on Whitehaven Beach, a much-photographed part of the region. This was supposed to include snorkelling but the tour company had emailed me a week prior to inform of a change to inclusion and this would no longer be part of the trip. With a spare day following Mackay not coming to fruition, and with a snorkelling deficit on my agenda, I had decided to take a day trip out to a floating pontoon that sits over a coral reef. The reef here belongs to the southern aspect of the Great Barrier Reef and this would be my first experience of the World’s most famous reef. I’d heard a lot about coral bleaching and ecosystem disruption so was intrigued to see what I’d find there.
The boat was packed and with the pontoon being far out past the outer reaches of the Whitsunday island chain, it was another beautiful sail through the archipelago on route. Unbelievably after such incredible sightings in Queensland so far, we saw 13 humpback whales on route to the pontoon. This was truly turning out to be the most successful cetacean spotting holiday I’d ever had. Not only that, but one of the whales breached repeatedly for us, giving us a display and then without warning it appeared right beside the boat and launched itself out of the water, breaching right next to us. The boat was so packed that everyone was jostling for a viewing point, and I nearly missed it, turning round just as it was halfway out of the water and catching the splash and the excitement from those that had witnessed it. It was shaping up to be another incredible day.
Eventually though, with the islands disappearing behind us, and with the sea being calm ahead of us, the pontoon became visible and the reef was evident below the surface as we pulled up and berthed next to it. Although it wasn’t the season for them, we were advised to don stinger suits before getting in the water. Snorkelling for me is a mental challenge. I have a fear of drowning and whilst I’m more than happy swimming in a pool, my fear is at its height in the open water. A couple of years ago I had a panic attack snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean whilst in the Galapagos Islands, and although I’m always eager to snorkel to see the wildlife, there is always a varying degree of trepidation when I get into the ocean. But not only was the sea exceptionally calm, the reef was not far from the entry point and I never really felt threatened in the water or uneasy. In fact I was so comfortable, I had a boat chase after me to tell me I’d swum too far away and had to turn back.
Surprisingly, the water out here was relatively cold and after an hour of snorkelling I was feeling it. There were plenty of fish around with a steep drop-off at the edge of the reef drawing large and small fish alike. A giant wrasse was hanging around and inquisitive, a trait that is common in this species, and the in-water photographer was giving me commands that I couldn’t understand when one came near, resulting in me looking a little idiotic. But I didn’t care because it was the closest I’d ever been to such a big fish. What was extensively apparent however, was the widespread coral bleaching. I had heard it was bad, but this was a reef that seemed in a poor state of health. The seabed was littered with white and decapitated coral and it was evident throughout the full length of the reef as far as I could see.
Following a much-needed lunch enjoyed basking in the sunshine on deck, I headed back into the water for another hour long snorkel. There was plenty of fish activity no matter where I looked and I was even able to find some ‘Nemos’ or clown fish which I hovered above and watched for a while. Again I grew cold, and although it had been the easiest and most relaxed snorkelling trip I’d ever experienced, the temperature and the expansive bleaching made me feel a tinge of disappointment. But after coming out the water, the most incredible thing occurred. I remember watching the movie The Life of Pi in which there is a scene when the main character is floating on the ocean and the sea is so calm it’s like glass. I’ve always believed such a thing impossible, but after drying off and changing out of my clothes, I looked out at the ocean and was astounded to see the sea was so incredibly calm as to look like a glass surface, and with an unusual haze on the horizon it was almost impossible to tell where the sea stopped and the sky began, the two appearing as one. I have never before seen such a phenomenon and I couldn’t stop looking at it. Unfortunately the effect was such that my camera wouldn’t focus properly to take a photo of it, and even when it did, it didn’t represent the effect that the my eyes saw. The vision more than made up for any disappointment I might have felt about the coral.
After many hours bobbing around on the ocean, it was time to head back to the mainland. The glass-like surface made for as beautiful a return sailing as the outward trip had been. The whole Whitsundays experience was turning out to be one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. It is a part of the world that I never really thought much about visiting, and here I was feeling like it was the most beautiful place in the world. We even came across another humpback whale on the way back as we negotiated the passages between the various islands. Stopping first at Hamilton Island to drop people off, we continued on to Airlie Beach, where once again the sun was dipping towards the horizon as we sailed. I couldn’t get enough of the sunsets in Queensland and was happy to watch them day after day after day. The fresh air was certainly helping me sleep too, which was just as well with another day in the islands ahead of me.