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Off the Queensland Coast – The Great Barrier Reef, Fraser and Whitsunday Islands

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air – Ralph W Emerson

I couldn’t tell you the name of the town we stopped in. Some letters were missing from the fluorescent glow of the roadside café lights. And I was bleary-eyed, it being around 03:30 on the overnight Greyhound bus. I’m travelling the long road up the coastline of Queensland, Australia’s north-eastern state, the closest to the side of the rising sun as I’ve ever been, to Airlie Beach, access point to the southern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the 74 island archipelago of the Whitsunday Islands. A long road is as common in Aus as a cane toad on a Queensland mango farm or a friendly “How ya going?” from a Brissie (Brisbane) bus driver. It’s to be expected in a continental country where a day’s car travel between major cities is the norm. (And that within one state. It’s roughly 1600km from Brisbane in south Queensland to Cairns in the north. And then another 1000 untarred kilometres to the tip of the country from there…). If this sounds little like the path to island paradise, you’d be wrong.

Like most, I’d heard of the GBR – before Nemo arrived on big screen – it being one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the largest living thing on earth, visible from space (Australia is well known for at least a little besides kangaroos, koalas and cricket). However, if you hadn’t heard of the Whitsundays, I’d like to think that you’re in good company: before planning this trip to Aus, they hadn’t existed for me either. Like Fraser Island, (another stop on this journey – see below), they’re a well-kept secret, found only when you start looking in their direction, leaving you amazed that they’ve been there all along, charming those in the know, and waiting to be found by you.

So, I drink a sip of water, reposition myself against the window for the next few hours of road and think back on where I’ve been, while dreaming a little dream of where I’m headed.

The bus had picked me up that evening in Hervey Bay after one incredible whirlwind of a day on the world heritage listed Fraser Island. Fraser Island, situated about 2 hours North of Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, is a pretty special place (it would have to be to make it onto a world heritage list…). I could tell this despite the frenetic pace of my selected day trip and not only because I was told so by most guide books and tourist websites. It is special because of its clear, deep, crystal blue, freshwater lakes – I swam in Lake Mackenzie somewhere in the middle;

Lake MacKenzie 2

the fact that the island is only sand, the largest of its kind in the world – the roads accessible by 4×4 (consider a 4×4 tour bus heading down into the reserve along the single track, but two way, entrance road called ‘The Rollercoaster’, driven by an Aussie tour guide who was presumably raised by an N2 taxi driver);

75 Mile Beach, a recognised Australian Highway, which has a shipwreck (the Maheno) on it and whales breaching as you look out the window to the waves breaking about 5 metres away, as well as  biplanes taking off it, as there’s seemingly room for a “runway” next to the “highway” too;

6 unique dune systems across this largest, but nonetheless small, island;

trees called Strangle Fig and Scribbly Gum, like the names of dwarves in a fairy tale; the source of the satinay tree, the wood used for the Suez Canal and still lasting, due to the “resistance of the wood to marine borer”; and also the place I was shown that bluegum trees are really beautiful – here they are called “ghost trees” because the silky smooth trunks glow a grey-white;

wild dingoes (which I didn’t see) and a few brumbies (wild horses, I also didn’t see);

and despite the crazed, decidedly touristy trip with its buffet lunch mass produced and guzzled down in the allotted time at the original island resort, Eulong Bay Resort, the island calm that says, “Stay a little longer”. If you’re ever headed to Queensland, this island is a must-see. And preferably for more than a day.

Highway 75 plus plane

The bus and I reach Airlie Beach around 10:00 the next morning. I stayed in a backpackers in Airlie, one I’d choose not to visit again (unlike Aussie Woolshed Backpackers in Hervey Bay which comes highly recommended). Thankfully, backpackers are for sleeping in – and I slept well – and all day I was out. The centre of Airlie Beach is small enough for you to feel that you know the town and belong in it after a stroll around the 3 or so blocks and along the Esplanade (I have yet to find fault with any Aussie esplanade. Except that the Esplanade is where you realise that this picture perfect beach – smooth white sands, calm blue waters, palms dipping in a gentle tropical breeze – is eerily empty of people. The people are in the beachside swimming pools along said Esplanade. Turns out, if you choose life, you don’t enter these stunning waters at certain times of the year without your ‘stinger suit’ (beware the Irukandji and Box jellyfish…). Thankfully, I could still visit the Reef and Islands, and be spared my life by joining Cruise Whitsundays (as they provide their guests with the necessary stinger gear) on two of their excellent daytrips. The one was to a pontoon on the outer reef (Great Barrier Reef Adventure) and the other by catamaran to Whitehaven Beach (Camira Sailing Adventure), described on sites as the finest beach in the Whitsundays, if not (why not claim it?) the world – think Pirates of the Caribbean, quintessential island paradise. If I’d chosen the distinctly harried tour version for Fraser Island, these trips were the essence of R&R. Despite being an evidently very well-oiled machine, hugely popular with both local and international visitors, running a range of trips 365 days a year, Cruise Whitsundays somehow managed to avoid the sense of sausage-machine and maintain the sense of special, of significance. Passengers were treated as honoured guests, as if this is the first and only opportunity to experience what you will (which for most, it obviously is…)

Camira

The GBR, that massive stretch of coral, is described as teeming with marine life. It was far from as colourful or teeming with life as I’d imagined it would be – the effect of bleaching?– and I didn’t see much by way of turtles, rays, whales and dolphins either, yet in no way did that detract from the fact that these were simply wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime days out. I stood outside at the front of the cruise vessels more often than not, queen of all I surveyed, and remember shaking my head, thinking “I’m really HERE!” The sea was so still most of the time, it was like you were floating in a small round cup filled to the brim. You could easily imagine dropping off the edge of the world (maybe Capt. Cook felt the same when he passed through these waters). I joined a semi-submersible vessel on its journey along the edge of the reef, peering through the glass sides at the coral and fish, learning from the resident marine biologist. I found Nemo and his mom and dad while snorkelling over a secured section of Reef in my stinger suit. And Dory’s cousin. And huge lipped clams. I felt my heart drop away with the Reef as I headed over its edge and into the deep. Awesome. I chased the bubbles of the guys scuba-diving below me. I hung out with the highlighter-coloured parrot fish as they nibbled on whatever they nibble on. I then nibbled on the all-you-can-eat buffet plenty provided up on the pontoon, sitting out in the sun on the deck, being joined by some Italians, sharing the unique view of reef and blue. No wonder I slept well that night, Airlie party life ‘of te nie’.

The second daytrip, Camira Sailing Adventure, was a gem – cruising through the emerald islands of the Whitsundays, of which all but 5 are uninhabited, stopping off here or there to snorkel (in stinger suit) along a bit of reef by a sandy shore, aiming for a decadent lunch stopover and beach time (activities provided) at Whitehaven Beach before sailing back to port with the sunset. A catamaran, big white sails above, cutting through the lake-like waters, was our home for the day. Young, old, friends (like the four from Melbourne, road tripping during their vac), families (like the parents taking their 10 year old son on his first snorkelling trip), couples, singles (like the girl celebrating the gift of life after she survived a motorbike accident the year before), all lounging on the deck, slathered in sunscreen (following warnings given during the entertaining safety brief), watching the islands pass while the hum of conversation and the rhythmic lap of the water lull us into island dreaming.

I’m at the Proserpine airport. There are queues and impersonal announcements and baggage checks. Sadly, no leisurely bus, or even train, back for me. Even more sadly, just that – heading back. 90 minutes later, I’m disembarking in Brisbane – the long road north swallowed up by jet fuel heading south. Reality. But I’ve been there now, to the islands, to the Reef. That’s reality too. An island dreaming dream come true.

going snorkelling

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Accommodation:
Fraser Island: Plenty of places in Hervey Bay. I recommend Aussie Woolshed Backpackers. About $30/night for a 4 bed dorm. https://www.woolshedbackpackers.com.au/
Airlie Beach: choose wisely. It is a party town.
How to get there and away:
  • Fraser Island: You need to catch the ferry from Hervey Bay. There are other towns from which to access Fraser. If I did it again, I’d hire a 4×4, take a tent and stay longer.
  • Airlie Beach/the GBR/Whitsundays: Flights from Brisbane to Proserpine (which is a town only a 15 min drive from Airlie Beach) are 90 mins. Costs about $200 one way – and you’d better not have baggage, else you can add to that.
Bus trip with Greyhound is about the same price or more if you head up from Brisbane and a decided number of hours more… but then you’re travelling… https://www.greyhound.com.au/
Train: You could also catch a train from Brisbane to Proserpine for much the same price as the bus or plane
Take a look at www.rome2rio.com for options.
What else to do in Airlie:
A fantastic – and free – experience is to get to Airlie on a Wednesday later afternoon and join the Twilight Sailing Race as a deckhand. Novices welcome… meet at the Airlie Beach Sailing Club marina.
For more information:
http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/  (Great Barrier Reef marine park authority)
Whitsundays 2

Amy de Villiers

Amy is a Speech-Language Therapist by day and travelling adventurer in her spare time – whether it’s the daily N2 commute to work by bus, Euro-railing the Continent solo or road-tripping Namibia in a VW Chico with friends, she loves the winding road and the people she gets to meet along it. Her travel experiences are diverse but rarely dangerous (except for that one time…). She’s had opportunities to visit Southern India, parts of the States and lived in the UK for 2 years. She worked a 2-month stint on an Israeli moshav and most recently, took on the great Down Under and New Zealand for 3 months, with a journal, pen, and camera in hand.

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