MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Whitsundays”

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.

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.

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