Into the Tropics
It was by now a familiar route as the ferry left Airlie Beach behind and headed towards Hamilton Island, the main island in the Whitsundays archipelago. The sun was shining, the sky and sea were both a brilliant blue, and as with previous days, the humpback whales were around with two spotted on route. The Audi Hamilton Race Week was still in full swing so the marina was once again abuzz and full of racing yachts, as well as an inflatable Super Mario Bros icon and some people in fancy dress. My destination for the day was Whitehaven Beach, one of the regions most-photographed locations, a white sandy shore on the eastern side of Whitsunday Island. After picking up more passengers, we set off again to sail through the passage between the two islands, passing one of the humpback whales again that appeared to be dozing on the surface.
The biggest of the island chain, Whitsunday Island is covered in a lot of bush, and it was a beautiful sail through the channel and round the headland. After a while, the distinctive white sandy stretch came into view and everyone on board started to pile up to take photos on approach. There was a mix of half-day trippers and full-day trippers on board, identified by a wristband and we were ferried on shore according to our groups. I was there for a full day and this included a couple of walks on the island, so we were divided up further to allow us to be ferried around the coastline as required. After being transferred to the beach and taking in the vista, I was in the first group to go to Hill Inlet, along the coast and around the headland.
Despite the clear skies over Whitehaven Beach, the clouds were more built up over the far end of Whitsunday Island so it was overcast when we went ashore. A walk through the bush brought us to a series of lookouts over the tidal sandbar that marks the northern end of Whitehaven beach. This was the much publicised view and even with the cloud cover it was beautiful. The sun broke through for brief moments though giving a mere hint of the brilliant blue water that the view is famous for. Unfortunately the lookouts were quite crowded as most people reached it as part of a group, and everyone was jostling to get the perfect photo. It is the one bugbear of modern travel, as it is often very difficult to escape the crowds these days.
We took the path down the opposite side of the headland to the sandbar where juvenile stingrays ploughed through the shallow water. Several people paddled around trying to follow them and a few of the fish were spotted going up a little river. It had completely clouded over by this point, and we only had a little bit of time to kill before we would be picked up and returned to the main beach. A large piece of driftwood was a good prop for photographs, but before long we were boarded back on a small transport boat. The sea was a little rougher under the cloud, and I had an awkward seat on the edge of the RIB meaning I had to hold on for dear life as we sped along the coast, lest I fall in. But the sun was still out at the other end of Whitehaven Beach where I had some free time to explore before the next scheduled walk.
Most of the visitors remained around the boat drop-off point, so after exploring around here and taking some photographs, I took myself away from the crowd and headed north. I’m a lover of peace and quiet so prefer to explore on my own and get away from the noise of other people. A recent cyclone had damaged the bush at the back of the beach and a tidal causeway had been created forming a sandbar within the stretch of beach. It was an easy paddle across to follow the sandbar to its end where I plonked myself down on the sand to eat my lunch. It was lovely and hot but the wind meant my lunch ended up being a little sandy. By the time I was ready to head back up the beach, I discovered that the tide had come in and the water that I had paddled across was now thigh-high and had to be waded through. As I was now wet anyway, I figured I might as well go for a swim, and spent half an hour swimming along the coastline before it was time for the next hike.
Hardly any of the people I had arrived with were interested in the hike, most people choosing to sunbathe on the beach, so there were just 6 of us that boarded the RIB boat to head round to Camp Beach. The route involved going through a tidal whirlpool zone and there was a good bit of waves to negotiate in such a little boat making for a very bouncy ride. The direction of the wind meant we were surged onto the beach at the end of it and got splashed. I loved this place, and probably preferred it to Whitehaven Beach simply because we were the only ones there. It was secluded, private and all ours. Walking along the beach gave us a good prospect across to Pentecost Island which was the inspiration for Kong Island in King Kong. Just back from the beach was a campsite hidden amongst the trees, and amusingly the camp toilet had no door meaning an alfresco toileting experience looking out onto the bush.
We were led on a guided bush walk which was to take us across the island back to Whitehaven Beach. We spotted some skinks and our guide described the many uses that the Aboriginal people have for the local flora and fauna. It amazes me the ingenuity and expanse of knowledge that the Indigenous people have for the land and its creatures. Their culture understands the ecology in a unique way that most Westerners can’t even comprehend. We came across a green ant nest and in a rather surreal experience, were encouraged to pick them up and lick their butts. It was a sentence I never imagined I would ever say or write but by letting the ants bite me and latch on (which was barely a prick in sensation), it was possible to hold the ants still and lick their green abdomens. Aside from the sharp tingle on the tongue, the taste was like limoncello, a zesty citrus taste that the Aboriginals make use of in their food.
By the time we made it back to Whitehaven Beach, the various set-ups were being packed up ready to return to the boat. Once more we were all ferried back on to the main boat to head back to Hamilton Island. There was just enough time to take in the white sandy beach before it disappeared around the headland as we headed back to Hamilton Island. Another humpback whale was spotted, this one slapping its pectoral fin on the surface as if waving at us. The sunset that accompanied our return to Airlie Beach was especially yellow, a beautiful end to my Whitsundays experience. Back at the hostel, dinner was accompanied by the tiniest little gecko about the size of my pinkie that sat on the underside of the bench as I ate. A couple of the guys from my K’Gari tour turned up in my hostel dorm and we had a catch up on each other’s respective trips since we’d last seen each other. As most backpackers were plying the same tourist route, it was not unsurprising to see some of the same faces at varying places.
I had an early rise to catch the bus north in the morning. I wasn’t feeling on top form when I awoke so was worried about the ride making me worse. I’ve suffered some horrendous food poisonings whilst abroad, including one which resulted in hospitalisation and several months of recovery, and can have a sensitive stomach at the best of times, so I’m wary of a repeat incident whilst travelling. Thankfully the feeling dissipated as time went on and I arrived in Townsville feeling better and ready to go. With the distinctive mound of Castle Hill behind it, I had a good feeling about the place as I got off the bus, but it was exceptionally hot. I was really getting into the tropics now and the temperature was reflecting it. My plan had been to hike up Castle Hill on arrival, when the sun would be above me, reducing shadows for taking photos at the summit, but the temperature gave me second thoughts and when the host at the hostel advised against it, I decided to explore the city at sea level first and leave the hike till the evening when the temperature would have dropped.
Townsville’s other great feature is the Strand, a long walkway along the coast with a vista towards Magnetic Island which sits off shore. There was plenty to look at with the marina, sculptures and a collection of beaches as I followed the esplanade towards Kissing Point, and the views inland to Castle Hill and outwards to the island were a constant companion. I had naively thought I could walk to the Conservation Park past Palleranda on the headland, but it turned out to be far too far away and I tend to limit myself to places I can walk to rather than having to get a lot of public transport. In the heat, Kissing Point was effort enough.
Being a Saturday, there were as many locals out as there were tourists, and an open-air swimming pool at Kissing Point was being well used. Up the hill here onto the mound was an old battery with the remains of war outposts and a cracking view inland and out to sea. Past the outline of the fort, the path headed back down the hill at the other side from where a boardwalk hugged the coastline round to the coastal entrance to the Aboriginal Botanical Trail, a sculpture trail that circled around a small hill. In the baking sun I admired both the sculptures and the view, whilst being conscious of the time, ever aware of the early Queensland sunset and my want to get up Castle Hill.
It felt like a long, although scenic, trudge back to my hostel to change into my hiking clothes. It is possible to drive up to the summit of Castle Hill, but with no transport I set off to the back of the city where the Goat Track picks its way up the slope. Although a little cooler, it was still fully exposed and it was an exhausting hike up in the heat. The trail had more locals on it than tourists, many of whom were jogging up it and putting my fitness to shame. As expected in the lowering sunlight, the long shadows that had formed meant the lighting for photography was not that great, and whilst the view was most definitely worth the effort, I would have preferred to have been up earlier in the day.
There were a variety of lookouts to choose from and between those that had walked or jogged up and those that had driven up, there were plenty of people around. From one aspect to the other, I meandered around to the western end where I sat down to watch the sunset. The early timing of the Queensland sunsets meant it was easy to be outdoors to watch it day after day. As daylight turned to dusk, I peeled myself away from the summit and headed back to the city. Round the corner from my hostel there was a neat little fish bar where I had some dinner accompanied by a busker who was pleasant to listen to. Once I was satiated, it was time to retire for the night as I had a long day of walking ahead of me the next day, with one of the area’s biggest draws calling my name.