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Sunday 27th November 2003 - Some pics by Stuart Hamilton
Certain holidays demand certain forms of transport. Trekking for the Himalayas, gondolas for Venice and sailing for the Whitsundays. If you go to the Whitsundays and stay in a resort then you just won't see the best of it.
But sailing means blowing with the wind. To get an idea of where it might blow us we acquired a copy of 100 Magic Miles, the definitive guide to the Whitsunday Islands, and let circumstances and the prevailing wind dictate where we went and when.
Next we found a boat.
We wanted to pack in eight people so we went for the biggest boat we could hire - a 12m catamaran. It cost about $4500 to hire a Seawind 1200 for a week, or about $90 per person per night. We also had to plan the menu. Feeding 8 people for a week with no shops nearby is a real challenge. After much debate, we had the charter company stock the boat for us with a menu consisting of steaks, seafood and plenty of fresh fruit and veggies. It cost abotu $900.
As Dave Colfelt explains in his book, the Whitsundays is in fact a misnomer. The islands were named called the "Cumberlands" in 1770 by that intrepid explorer of the Antipodes, Jimmy Cook. He discovered a passage up the coast of Queensland and named it "Whitsunday Passage" after the day of its discovery. The islands to the East of it he named the Cumberlands, after the Duke of Cumberland, brother to King George III.
Initial impressions of Hamilton weren't terrific - the airport is set in a flat, parched stretch of bush and the resort is an untidy pile of Lego nearby. The vista from "Lone Tree Hill" however convinced us that there was some spectacular scenery ahead and the sunshine was a welcome change from the drizzle in Sydney.
Soon we were on our boat and preparing for departure. The check out-with the charter company was smooth and speedy thanks to our research and my sailing experience. After a chat we discarded our original plans and headed instead for the famous Whitehaven beach. With the wind blowing 15-20kts from the south east it would be, they said, perfect Whitehaven weather.
Our first sailing experience was not auspicious however. In order to make Whitehaven we had at least a two hour run to the Solway Passage at the east end of Whitsunday Island. This put us "wind against tide" which (as all the books explain) is not how you really want to travel. Beating into a two metre swell is not anyone's idea of fun. It's a bit like having someone empty a bucket over your head every ten seconds while you're bouncing on a trampoline. Luckily this was the worst of the weather we encountered and the other side of the Solway Passage was another story.
Sheltered from the wind by the peaks on Whitsunday and Haslewood Islands the sun shone down on the glittering ribbon of Whitehaven and a lush green line of surf rolled gently into the beach. Even the worst affected of the crew had to admit is was worth the discomfort to see such a beautiful sight.
Since it was late in the day we opted not to set foot on Whitehaven but sought shelter at the nearby "Chalkie's Beach". It was more sheltered and quieter in the morning when the hordes of day-trippers descended upon Whitehaven. After parking at Chalkie's we went ashore in the dinghy to examine the beach.
Past the fringing reef, the beach was firm and white and our footprints left the barest of imprints on the marzipan crust of sand. Wading through the shallows created by the reef break we startled a couple of orange and purple rays lurking in the weeds and they zipped past us to safety. The place was, for want of any better word, idyllic.
We spent the afternoon snorkelling and swimming and then retired to the boat for dinner - fillets of coral trout and butterflied prawns served off the barbecue.
Blowing with the wind, we opted to go north instead of south as we had planned and headed for Cateran Bay on Border Island. Cateran is rated, along with spots like Butterfly Bay on Hook island, as some of the best snorkelling in the area and so it proved to be.
Cateran is nestled into a horseshoe of steep cliffs on the north side of Border Island and is a stark contrast to the wide open spaces of Whitehaven. The sea is just as blue however and the scenery equally spectacular. We arrived late, missing out on a mooring, and spent the night at anchor. The wind was gusty in Cateran and it rocked our little boat as rain pattered down on the roof. We passed the evening in a boisterous game of Perudo, South American liar's dice.
The next morning we rose at a leisurely hour and enjoyed breakfast and waited for the sun to burn off the cloud cover. By about lunchtime the weather was back to perfect and we embarked on another snorkelling trip off the back of the boat. Conditions in Cateran bay were fantastic. We spotted a multitude of fish including a giant Marori Wrasse.
In the afternoon we picked up the anchor an headed round to Nara Inlet on Hook Island. Nara, a well known stopover for sailors in the Whitsundays, is a long fjord in the southwest corner of Hook. The entrance to Nara is narrow and the walls are steep but the inlet opens up into a bigger bay lined with a mixture of palms, pine trees and gums.
Nara was crowded and fin the end we dropped the hook at the far end, away from the other boats.
Above Nara, there is a path laid by park rangers up to a shallow cave overlooking the inlet. Used some 2500 years ago by the the Ngaro people, the cave was decorated with a simple set of hand drawings and some more modern signs explaining how the Ngaro had lived here, what they had eaten and where they had come from.
One of the crew also nearly sat on a green tree snake which was sunning itself on a bench in the cave. The snake gave us an indignant glance and scuttled off into the shrubbery, leaving him shaken but otherwise unharmed.
That evening we dined on sate chicken and salad and observed wistfully the hot tub on the back of the ketch anchored beside us in the inlet.
The morning brought only a whisper of wind and a beautiful sunrise over the inlet. A handful of cockatoos frolicked amongst the trees and signs of life appeared on one or two of the boats anchored nearby.
As we motored gently out of the inlet I spotted a couple darting shapes above the mast and we cut our motors to watch a pair of Brahminy Kites fight over a fish. Circling no more than fifty metres over the mast they tangled in mid air until one of them dropped his breakfast and they both sped off in disgust.
We had a quick stop at the shallow rocky bay often mistaken for the entrance to Nara - False Nara. It is a rocky inhospitable beach but we did spot what we think was a couple of Hawksbill Turtles fishing in the shallows. The only way to get close to them was to stand stock still in the shallows and let them drift by.
From False Nara we made a short run down to Cid Harbour, a large bay on the west side of Whitsunday island, just north of Hamilton. We had booked a seaplane flight on the radio and needed to park somewhere they could reach us and Cid Harbour fitted the bill.
The next morning at 8.30am sharp, Duncan from Air Whitsunday picked us up off the back of 'Duet' and flew us out to Bait reef for a 'reef experience'. It'd been unclear from our discussions with the charter company exactly what we had booked but a 'reef experience' sounded pretty good. It turned out to be another superb moment in a memorable holiday.
Once we were aboard Duncan's 1957 De Havilland Beaver he executed a quick turn and throttled down a long, gently curving take off into the wind. Airborne, he headed east around Whitsunday island and down towards Whitehaven. As we traversed Hook Passage again, this time from the air, he pointed out huge puffs of coral spawn visible on the water. Looking like a faint rusty stain, the spawn represents a potential new generation of coral for the islands. It occurs once a year, three to five days after the full moon in November.
Rounding the top of Whitsunday Island, we flew south to Whitehaven, past Tongue Bay and the magnificent emerald estuary at Hill Inlet. From Whitehaven we turned east over Haslewood Island and Waite Bay and headed out to Bait Reef. Bait Reef is about 65km NE of Hamilton and situated (naturally) in the crook of the larger Hook Reef.
Flying over the reef gives you some sense of the enormous scale of the Great Barrier Reef and its awesome beauty. Bait Reef is a tiny corner of the greater reef but it overpowers your senses with its size and the life teeming in every square foot of its intricate structure.
To our delight, the 'reef experience' included touching down in the lagoon in Bait reef and snorkelling off the back of a glass-bottomed boat. As we came in, Duncan spotted a fishing trawler parked outside the reef but well within the protected marine park. I snapped a few shots of the boat for him and another plane behind us overflew it to pick out its name to report to Fisheries and Wildlife. Poaching on the reef is common and tour operators like to give the authorities a helping hand to catch the culprits.
Snorkelling on the reef was an experience unlike any other. The fish are fearless and surround you as soon as you slip off the back of the boat into the warm, green water. We did our best to identify every fish we saw but there were too many for us to remember. Our 'definites' included a giant Maori Wrasse, triangular brown Batfish, hosts of Six-Banded Angelfish, a Golden Striped Sweetlips and the superb rainbow coloured Harlequin Tuskfish.
The density of life in the reef, its enormous size and obvious fragility marks it as one of the natural wonders of the world. Having seen the spectacular and beautiful diversity of life it supports only reinforces my belief that we should protect it at all costs.
From Bait Reef, Duncan flew us back south past the resort on Hayman Island, south around Hook Island and back to Duet in Cid Harbor. After a quick stop to replenish water and provisions (more beer) we headed out again. By now we were mellowing in our expectations and swapped a long run down to Lindeman island for a shorter jaunt to Turtle Bay on Whitsunday Island.
Ashore in Turtle Bay we discovered a National Park campsite and a tiny mangrove swamp behind the beach. The swamp was an atmospheric contrast to the white sands on the beach and tiny crabs scuttled around in the murky puddles under the barrel-vaulted roots of the mangroves. We found the tracks of a sizable lizard crossing a stream bed and later I disturbed a large monitor fossicking amongst the rubbish at the campsite. He must have been just short of 1.5m from tip to tail.
The next morning saw a return to Whitehaven, on which we hadn't set foot. The breeze picked up but Duet wasn't the best at sailing close to the wind and we made a series of long tacks up and round to Whitehaven. The day-trippers had descended and we had to pick our way through a dozen boats to reach the beach. But Whitehaven is 6km long so we finally found a quiet spot to go ashore. Using a couple of bits of driftwood and old tennis ball we started up a game of beach cricket and managed half-a-dozen innings before drinks. The sand on Whitehaven is so smooth and firmly packed that the better bowlers were able to deliver bouncers.
We dallied at Whitehaven long enough for lunch and then hoisted sail for a run back through Solway pass to Chance Bay, just around the corner. Sailing through Solway at the change of the tide proved interesting and we were pushed sideways and almost backwards by the maelstrom there, but a good 15+ kts of breeze carried us through.
Chance Bay is a curious double bay with two attractive anchorages. We nearly mistook the first bay for the whole anchorage but upon consulting our charter guide, correctly identified the second anchorage and motored round to drop our hook there.
Chance Bay features a tiny island behind which snorkelling was reported to be good. The crew divided into those keen on snorkelling and those that wanted to explore. We managed to find a good landing place and, raced each other to the top of the island.
Ashore in Chance Bay I discovered the perils of razor sharp oyster shells. Without noticing, I managed to lay open a two inch gash in my foot piece of shell. I had paid the price for lending my shoes to someone else and was walking on the reef in my thongs.
The evening was punctuated by a spectacular thunderstorm which blew in from the north. At one point I was explaining what happens to a boat that is struck by lightning and an atomic thunderclap went off over our heads. But the storm passed and we spent the evening quietly enough.
The next morning we got up early to make it back to Hamilton and drop the boat off.
I was sad to see the end of our Duet :-) but content that we had packed all we could into seven days in the Whitsundays. There are a few places in the world where you can experience an area like these islands. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.