Whitsunday Wonders

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Saturday, February 25, 2012

Our old friend Captain Cook sailed through the waters of a cluster of stunning islands off the East coast of Australia on June 3rd 1770. It was Whitsunday, a religious festival celebrated seven weeks after Easter Sunday and so the islands acquired their collective name. Cook could be fairly straightforward when he wanted to be.

The gateway to the Whitsunday's is Airlie Beach. Airlie Beach is essentially a strip of hostels, fast food chains, bars and tour operators - giving the feeling that they all sprung up hastily and simultaneously when someone cottoned onto how much money could be made from its scenic neighbours. Consequently, the place has an artificial, shallow feel. You know it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for commercial interference. A more highbrow version of Malia , with an attached paddling pool (or as the guidebook misleadingly calls it 'a gorgeous lagoon.’

We had booked to sail the islands on a 2 day 1 night trip, run by Explore Whitsundays.  The yacht, named ‘Hammer ‘ carried 21 passengers and 3 crew members. As we piled onto the harbour in the early morning sun, full of beans, our faces sank in Mexican wave fashion as we caught first sight of Hammer. Even I, with quite a bit of experience of boats and their Mary Poppins Baglike nature, was concerned. It just seemed so small. Thoughts of being squashed in next to a randomers sweaty flesh quickly turned the mood grim.

We all squeezed into the boat regardless and were allocated beds. Luckily, as a six we took up a whole dormlike section to ourselves. This relief eased the mood again somewhat (despite the dorm resembling a dominoes box).

We were warmly welcomed aboard by the skipper Mick, who requested that everybody must speak English  as ‘we all know how much Germans like to speak their own language.’ In another swipe of casual racism he told two wide eyed Austrians that Austria and Germany were ‘the same place really’ and labelled those who spoke in their mother tongue as plain rude. Our lives were in the hands of a little mini Mussolini.

As the voyage got underway we made the top end of the ship, as far away from Mickolini as possible, our own, stretched out in the sun and watched the turquoise water lick at the side of the boat.

The first stop was Hayman Island, the most northern of the Whitsunday Islands, and a sheltered colourful cove named Blue Pearl Bay. Here, we became reacquainted with our old foes the stinger suits. We pulled on our snorkel masks and plopped into the water. Immediately we were struck by the sheer concentration of fish surrounding us. Unlike the open waters of Agincourt Reef, Blue Pearl bay’s reef is much more contained and compact. Consequently, everywhere you turn you have to fight your way through shoals of fish, wrestling amongst themselves to grab a good patch of reef – much like the Boxing Day Sales.

While we were delighted by the volume of fish, they did seem to all belong to one of three varieties and as a result Blue Pearl lacked the diversity and surprise factor of Agincourt Reef. Also, more alarming was the number of jellyfish polluting the water. Their practically transparent bodies cloaking them in invisibility until they were about 10cm from your face. At this point you had to frantically try and reverse making sure no bit of exposed flesh made contact. Their presence made the whole thing a bit like an underwater video game where the baddies are always one step ahead.  After we’d flopped back onto the boat, Dale a member of crew very helpfully informed us that these particular jellyfish are completely harmless. Cheers Dale.

Mick was due next to take us onto another cove for a bit more snorkelling.  I asked him if the trip planned to visit Langford Island at all and at that he decided we'd take a detour and head there straight away. At high tide the beach on Langford Island shrinks to a thin strip completely surrounded by sea. It is one of the poster images for the Whitsundays and really doesn't disappoint. We were dropped off in the dinghy and left to while away a few hours there at our leisure. The ruler-like strip of sand is flecked with hundreds of shells and pieces of coral making for an an absorbing stroll. The surrounding islands complete the picture perfect view from the beach, making the island an ideal vantage point to sit and admire the beauty of the Whitsundays.

When we were collected a few hours later the tide had retreated rapidly, exposing rocks and soggy sand and destroying the islands idiosyncratic beauty. I was glad we had reached the island within its secret time window and enjoyed it in its prime.

We anchored for the night in Hook Passage - a sheltered gap in between the bottom of Hook Island and the top of Whitsunday Island. Here we tucked into a delicious meal and larked about on deck playing games. As the sun set it painted the sky a brilliant, twisted red.

We were the only people on board who had not thought to bring alcohol. So while the rest of the passengers bonded, slapped their goon and defied Mick's rules by listening to German hip-hop, we skulked down at the bottom of the boat with the fish. Down here, about a hundred tiny silver fish danced around in the dark water. Two large squid hunted amongst them and when the squid went in for a decisive attack the tiny silver fish would jump out of the water, filling the air with silver, fish sized snow. Some landed on the boat and we had to quickly push their twitching bodies back into the water to save their lives. They left behind little silver scales that glittered on deck and stuck to our feet.

Mick, his wedding ring and two brassy cockney girls disappeared down to the dark end of the ship, where they erected some sheets to segregate themselves from everyone else. Much of the rest of our evening was spent in outraged speculation and shining a torch down to the other end of the ship to try and provoke a reaction.

Mick had the whole ship up at the crack of dawn to set sail for Whitsunday Island and miss the crowds. We sat casting him knowing looks as we ate our breakfast. We anchored in Tongue Bay off Whitsunday Island at around 7am. We then had to walk across the world heritage listed island to the opposite side where Whitehaven Beach rested. To Mick's credit the early start was well worthwhile. It was like our own private beach. Whitehaven is simply stunning. The way the ocean falls aroud the sand turns the beach into a cluster of little sandy islands that you can hop between. The water was warm and crystal clear. When you sat down in the water, bubbles would escape from the sand where crabs had made little roads. The island reminded me of a pure, perfect Garden of Eden. Something almost too good for this earth. Dale had told us that aboriginals had been forced off the island many years previously. When they left they placed a curse on the island and all who visited it. I couldn't help but think we were playing with fire by being there.

We stayed at Whitehaven for a couple of hours. When we came to leave, the crowds had already started their domination. They stained the unspoiled view and destoyed the early morning tranquility. Once again I was glad of our timing.

When we arrived back on the boat the heat had intensified. Any shade that was there previously had disappeared. We spent an uncomfortable, hot and bothersome four hours sailing aimlessly around the sea. Mick clearly had an allocated time to deliver us back and had run out of energy to do anything productive with us. Despite a beautiful trip we were all relieved to arrive sticky and lightheaded back on solid ground. 
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