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Stepping Into Postcard Paradise

AUSTRALIA | Wednesday, 3 July 2013 | Views [1577]

Arriving in Airlie Beach after a 14 hour bus trip, I am more than a little grateful to be met by the minibus from Backpackers By the Bay. It’s only a short ride to the hostel, but as anyone travelling with heavy luggage will know, the less it needs carrying, the better.

Airlie Beach is the springboard to the Whitsunday Islands and the range of cruises available is rather overwhelming to the uninitiated. Fortunately hostel owner Peter is very knowledgeable and soon I am left with just 3 brochures and one big decision. The standby prices that the hostel can offer are slightly less daunting and so it really is a question of how many nights/days am I looking for and what sort of boat. Finally I decide on SV Hammer, a 30m sailing yacht who achieved a placement 5 years in a row in the famous Sydney-Hobart boat race.

The following morning I meet Natalie on the complimentary shuttle bus to the port where we join the other 18 expectant passengers for a pre-boarding briefing. The weather is perfect, blue skies, calm seas and just enough wind to warrant hoisting up the sails. Due to the very low tide the tender shuttles us out to the boat and before long, we are underway. Sailing has featured in both sides of my family and I can feel what may be a genetic pull towards becoming an avid sailing fan, although I have to confess, probably only a fair weather one. When the sun is shining and the water is glistening, I find I have an overwhelming desire to board the nearest boat and head out.

There are 74 islands which make up the Whitsunday Islands (so named being discovered on Whitsunday by Captain Cook in 1770). Our first destination is Whitsunday Island, being the largest island and, according to Trip Advisor, home to Australia’s top rated beach. We arrive at Tongue Bay (which gives away nothing of what you will find on the other side of the hill) and head ashore. Our bush walk, to be truthful, is actually a stroll along a very well-worn path up to the viewpoint, and our first glimpse of Whitehaven Beach. Even a complete novice photographer would struggle not to find themself with at least one amazing shot of one of the most stunning views imaginable. It is still low tide and the beautiful blue water of varying shades has shrunk back to reveal the most perfectly white beach I have ever seen, along with several sandbanks, some submerged with others breaking the water’s surface. We descend onto the softest sand and head for the water, but not before donning our practical, if rather less glamorous, stinger suits (a light version wet suit) even though it is not jellyfish season. As we wade back to the sandy shore we stop to allow several sting rays to gracefully float past safely and then allow ourselves to sink into the soft sand and enjoy our incredible surroundings. If this is heaven, then I’m booking my place in advance!

The tide is advancing and our pickup is due. We head back to Tongue Bay and the dingy arrives to take us back on board. Mick, the skipper (also known as Mick-o, much as in the way first mate John is referred to as John-o) takes us into the calm shelter of a small island and we anchor for the night. Niels and Stuart have been busy and the tiny kitchen again produces an excellent meal which we enjoy up on deck as the last light begins to fade. The sunset that follows is another spectacular Queensland special, particularly when the only other sailing boat glides into the frame at just the right moment. Rather large fish appear alongside waiting for tip bits and are later joined by a jaytee (unable to verify spelling) who would happily remove your fingers if you were to dangle them in the water judging by the rate at which it demolishes chicken bones!

There are 15 females of varying ages from several different countries and just 5 guys, friends from Melbourne enjoying some winter sunshine in Queensland and who manage to consume 120 beers between them during the trip today. In spite of this statistic, they appear unscathed and are actually great company. The group has gelled well and laughter fills a night sky lit by thousands of stars. Below deck is functional and, surprisingly, there is sufficient space for all 20 passengers and 4 crew without feeling overly cramped. The gentle lull of lapping water after a day out in the sea air and most of us are gratefully consumed by sleep before it gets too late.

The rising sun signals activity and by 9.30am we are out snorkelling. The visibility is currently at around 2-3 metres, although it can be as much as 10 metres. We float over corals of varying shapes and sizes watching colourful fish dart by, totally mesmerised by this beautiful underwater world. There are areas where the coral is dead or dying and I am saddened to think that one day there will be nothing left for others to see and what we are today able to experience will become a sort of folklore.

At Hayman Island we pass a 6* luxury resort, well known in celebrity circles, where the room rates vary from AU$500 to AU$10,000 per night. From another perspective the cost of a burger and beer there would roughly equate to the price of our overnight cruise!

Lolo describes herself as one of China’s spoilt only children generation and at 25 years of age, is unable to even cook for herself. In order to pay for her travels, she was obliged to work as her parents refused to fund such a trip. This young girl has shown such courage to break out of her sheltered life style and see the world. Although she is unable to swim, she still wants to experience snorkelling. Fitted with a life jacket and visibly summoning up as much courage as she can find to get in the water, she has won admiration and soon has several of us encouraging her, as she holds on with a vice-like grip. Eventually she puts her face into the water and swims a little way with us before her fear overtakes her again. On the road everyone has a story, but hers is one of particular courage that I really wanted to share.

All too soon it is time to head back, so at full sail and at times running almost perpendicular to the water, we race sister boat Eureka II for a while before dropping the sails to enjoy the final stretch at a more leisurely pace. Whale season has just begun, and despite my earnest silent willing, it is only turtles that are visible.

It was an amazing trip, stepping into a picture postcard and enjoying the beautiful winter warmth of the Whitsundays. Recommend it? This is definitely one for the bucket list.


Tags: airlie beach, australia, backpacker by the bay, sailing, stunning whitehaven beach, sv hammer, whitsunday islands

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