Even with grey clouds and high winds, the Whitsundays are one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, with a thousand different shades of green and blue, and pure white sand beaches. I flew into Hamilton Island, a bit of a mistake really, firstly because the runway is pretty much a strip of asphalt built out into the sea and secondly because I hadn’t checked out the price of accommodation before I booked my non-refundable or in any way changeable flight.
The biggest event of the year, Race Week, was happening on ‘Hammo’. This meant that the island was packed with posh yachties – those awful orange tanned people with pastel-coloured polo shirts and jumpers knotted around their shoulders – zipping around in golf carts and pushing up the prices of everything. It soon became clear that my only option would be to actually get off the island if I was to going to be able to keep my bank account intact.
So I opted to stay in Airlie Beach, which I soon discovered doesn’t actually have much beach to speak of. No matter, there was a large swimming lagoon instead
and, even better, my little non-bank-account-emptying apartment, ‘Whitsunday on the Beach‘ (highly recommended by moi), was right on its edge. I didn’t actually swim there though. For the entire time I was in Airlie, there was a very strong wind and it was pretty chilly. As I’m now acclimatised to Aussie temperatures, the northern european tolerance for enjoying swimming in freezing water has left me…for a while.
Airlie Beach is somewhat of a backpackers’ mecca, with several huge, shiny hostels, campsites and budget motels. The streets were thronged with sunburnt, private school-accented ‘Gappies’ – high school-leaving Brits having ‘an enlightening experience’ a.k.a getting wasted and into trouble on daddy’s bank account before going to university, crusty Germans with dreadlocks, bewildered looking young French couples and groups of cranky middle-aged Italians.
That said, It was a relaxed place with an airy, hippy-chic atmosphere and there was little to do except eat (although who ever heard of a chippy that shuts at 20:00? Or a cafe that stops serving breakfast at 10:00?), drink, shop in the bazillion surf-wear shops dotted along the street, get the bus to the local shopping centre (’44 shops’ … of crap) or book yourself onto a boat trip. So that’s exactly what I did.
As the weather wasn’t the best, many of the boats were not leaving the harbour because of the rough conditions. There are literally hundreds of trips and cruises to choose from so I chose the least touristic looking of them all, a locally owned and operated company.
With a tendency to get exceedingly seasick and the weather brewing up to what was beginning to look like the closing scene in the film, ‘The Perfect Storm‘,
I avoided breakfast, wolfed down some motion sickness pills and prayed to any God that would still listen to me after my many anti-religion outbursts that they’d do the trick.
Down at the harbour, I had a moment of panic when I saw the guy in charge of navigating us around the islands. Captain Dan had an insane glint in his eyes, the kind that men who have spent their entire lives being whipped in the face by salt water seem to have.
My co-trippers included honeymooning/anniversary-celebrating Australians, several Austrian and German families, some German teenagers, Americans, Canadians, two rotund English girls, one of whom was extremely top heavy and wearing a bikini top at least six sizes too small, prompting two of the crew to exclaim that she wouldn’t need a floatation device if we sank, and a cranky-looking pack of midldle-aged Italians who couldn’t understand a word of English. God knows how they managed to get as far as the Whitsundays.
The welcoming speech went like this:
“It’s really, really, really rough out there, some of the roughest conditions we’ve ever been out in on this boat and you will get sick. Very sick.”
Then the crew handed out ginger tablets which are, apparently, a natural remedy for seasickness. We puttered out of the harbour and then Crazy Captain Dan hit the accelerator or whatever it is that makes boats go faster. Oh. My. God. That boat rolled around on top of the waves like a tiny rubber dinghy. Within minutes everyone who’d had ginger tables was looking extremely green. Nothing funnier than the sight of a 50 year old German in tight speedo trunks, sandals and socks trying not to huff up this morning’s saurkraut.
I sat waiting for the nausea to kick in but it didn’t. Pretty soon I was relaxing and feeling very smug that I’d opted for chemicals rather than ginger. After almost an hour of unbelievable waves, much vomit and whining, and a quick lesson about the hand signals we’d need to use if we spotted a shark while in the water, we arrived at Hook Island to snorkel on the reef.
I thought I’d seen coral before over in the caribbean, but now I realise that that was like looking at a couple of grains of rice on a football pitch. I saw a single piece of coral that was – no exaggeration – bigger than a car. I saw forests of coral stretching for miles and miles, blue fish, green fish, large scary looking fish with big lumps on their heads and back and sharp teeth. Then the crew started feeding fish with raw sausages. The fish couldn’t get enough. They were leaping out of the water to get their chops around our lunch.
“If you dive down as far as you can and pop your ears, you’ll be able to hear the whales calling to each other,” said Crazy Captain Dan, who’d come down from the bridge to perve – by his own admission – at the English girl’s ‘floatation devices’. So off I went and, sure enough, I could hear the ‘click, click, click’ and whale calls. Unbelievable.
Then we bounced off to Whitehaven Beach for lunch. Whitehaven Beach has pure white silica sand and a turquoise blue bay.
As it’s a national park and a designated heritage site, you’re only allowed to stay on the island for a maximum of two hours, which is kind of enough when there’s no shade from the relentless sun and it’s a bit too chilly to go swimming.
The next stop was Whitsunday Beach, the iconic Whitsundays’ postcard shot.
As we headed back home, I popped a second pill. Although the box stated ‘non drowsy’, I had started to feel a bit spaced out. Then I saw something on the horizon.
‘Whale!’ I screamed. ‘Whaaaaaaaaaaaaale!’
This prompted a stampede from one side of the boat to the other.
‘Er, that’s just a black buoy…’
Location update: I’m now in Sydney. It’s just like a mini version of London with the added bonus of lots of palm trees.