Days 4 to 8
Bowen to Airlie Beach
As day broke we stood shivering atop the sparse peak of Flagstaff Hill. Glowing embers of a new day’s sun emerged from beneath dense clouds nestled on the horizon. We huddled together and watched as the sky oozed the colours of morning and revealed a shadowy mirage of the Whitsunday Islands, our next destination.
With a head start on the day we hit the Bruce Highway once again for the short hop to Airlie Beach. Having time to spare, we decided to follow the road less travelled and detoured away from the highway to check out Cape Gloucester and Hideaway Bay. The highlight of our detour was undoubtedly the fantastic scenery of the Cannon Valley. A spectacular winding road through luscious, green farmland where Sugar Cane fields engulfed the landscape and were neatly interrupted by grand farmhouses who’s sprawling gardens looked almost make believe.
As we emerged from the peaceful back-roads of the Cannon Valley we cruised down the steep hill in to Airlie Beach and were thrust back in to life on the tourist trail. The atmosphere was instantly very different from the quiet country dwellings we had experienced over the past few days. Airlie is a great little town which caters mainly for the tourists leaving for and returning from the Whitsunday Islands. But rather than accept its stop-gap reputation it has evolved in to a funky, vibrant and friendly resort. The streets were teaming with touting travel agents and every other building was an eye-catching cafe or bar. There was an enticing, vibrant energy to the place which I think comes with the constant influx of travellers.
We decided to grab lunch somewhere with a view and so opted for Mr Bones, a small, hip cafe on the edge of Airlie’s central lagoon. We ordered their highly recommended Pizza’s and sat on our high stools overlooking the water, drinking coffee and watching the world go by.
At 2pm the next day we arrived at Shute Harbour with our tiny backpacks containing only board shorts and bikini’s. It was a glorious day with an intense sunshine and a welcome coastal breeze. We revelled in the fact that for this trip we could travel light and release the burden of everything we carted around in the camper.
We were booked on the ‘Ride To Paradise’ Whitsundays Adventure and as we sat at the Marina we subtly played the game of ‘guess who’s on our boat’. The small holding area was quickly filling up with all kinds of characters. Topless, bandana wearing gentlemen carrying enough beer to sink a ship. Quiet couples sitting shyly away from the main hoard, loud English girls who wanted everyone to know how drunk they were last night and even a mother- daughter combination. After a little moving and shouting from the boat skippers we were soon organised in to our respective parties. Relieved to have ditched the beer smuggling pirates and the loudest girl in England, we found ourselves walking towards the ‘Thundercat’ speedboat with a cracking mix companions. The difference between our trip and most of the other Whitsunday boats was that we weren’t actually going to be sleeping on the boat. We would be spending our nights at Paradise Cove Resort, an incredible lodge situated on the beach within the Whitsunday’s national park.
We hopped aboard our nifty little speedboat and the engine purred as our skipper Steve manoeuvred us out of the crowded harbour. The nimble boat reacted instinctively to his touch and as we cruised along the coastline Steve opened up the engines to let us feel the real power and speed of the Thundercat. For thirty minutes we let the wild wind blow back our hair and enjoyed the exhilarating ride. The engines cooled off as Steve led us in to a wide, sheltered bay and we drifted calmly towards a neat shoreline.
We had arrived at Paradise Cove and as the boat eased itself on to the sand we clambered awkwardly down the ladder, trying not to drop our belongings in to the ocean. We followed Steve along the narrow beach until the soft sand was replaced by pristine grass. Ahead was a huge lawn and at the rear, a grand wooden building. We wandered through the lodge in awe, its intricate wood carved furnishings made it look like a formally decorated country house. Out back was a huge pool area and to the sides beautiful dormitory style rooms. We found ourselves cut off from the world, surrounded by nothing but ocean and tropical bush-land in a resort fit for a king. Not bad on a backpacker budget!
As sunset approached, we grabbed some paddle boards from the beach and headed out in to the bay. The water was calm and allowed us to drift effortlessly over its surface. It felt as though we could have paddled out to the horizon, but the warm embrace of the hammocks on the shoreline was far to enticing.
Our bliss was interrupted by the headbanging clang of the old dinner bell which echoed across the resort. Our group gathered together to enjoy a delicious meal of fish, potatoes and vegetables, cooked by our skippers Steve and Chris. We spent the rest of the evening socialising up at the hot tub, getting better acquainted with our companions over a few beers and great conversation.
Not for a moment had it occurred to us that the weather might turn. Not for a fleeting second! We had enjoyed nearly a full week of delightful tropical warmness and for this reason we’d packed nothing but board shorts, bikini’s and vests. In hindsight it might have served us well to check the forecast before we left the mainland. I also suppose that, as backpackers, we really should really be prepared for any eventuality. But we hadn’t, and thus we weren’t! So you can imagine our sense of ‘miffdness’ when we awoke to watch the sunrise, only to find that it was hidden behind a grey, drizzly shroud of misery. A feint rain tip tapped on the cabins wooden exterior and as spine shivering breeze sauntered through our open window we headed down to breakfast looking for warmth in a cup of coffee.
Lesson Number 6 – Always pack for every eventuality. Australian weather is wildly unpredictable. Although most of the travel brochures will assure you of perfect weather, Australia is a place of extremes. It won’t just rain, it will monsoon! It’s always carrying that extra sweater or stuffing a raincoat in to the bottom of your bag.
We were some what pleased to see that we weren’t the only ones who had packed solely for tropical paradise. Over heartwarming coffee and muesli we discussed the merits of skipping the Whitsundays and rather staying in the hot-tub for the day. But begrudgingly, sense prevailed. We packed a bag with nothing remotely useful for the conditions and headed down to the beach to board the Thundercat.
To give them their due, or skippers Steve and Chris did a great job of making depressing conditions in to a insanely fun ride. As the boat left the safe confines of our bay we discovered that conditions back on the island were somewhat tranquil compared to what awaited us in the open waters of Whitsundays National Park. Steve lifted our spirits by simultaneously lifting the boat out of the water and ploughing through oncoming waves. The wind howled, the boat rocked violently side to side and every so often a well timed wave give us all a good drenching. It was cold, it was wet but it was a hell of a lot of fun!
We emerged from the driving rain in to Tongue Bay where thankfully the rain had subsided. The Thundercat dropped anchor a little off the shore and we all hopped in to a little dingy to get us to the shore. Once assembled on the thin stretch of sand and stone we headed inland along a winding path through the bush towards the famous Whitehaven Beach lookout point.
At the lookout it was incredibly windy and the views of the swirling sands below where not postcard perfect. However, the dramatic sky and contrast of colours across the landscape still made for a spectacular scene.
The beauty of the Thundercat was that because of its dainty size, we could approach the beach during a much lower tide. Which meant that when we arrived on those famous sands white sands of Whitehaven Beach, we had the every precious grain to ourselves. We hopped from the boat straight in to the shallow water, which in comparison to the air around us was surprisingly tepid.
With a howling frosty wind still racing through the islands our group wasn’t particularly inclined to take the traditional human pyramid / beach star jump pictures. Somehow it just wasn’t the same. Instead we spent our time strolled along the beach (mainly to keep warm) and marvelling in the dramatic beauty of our location. It’s interesting to note that the sand on Whitehaven beach is made up of 98% pure silica, which gives the sand its bright white colour. They actually use the sand from this beach in NASA’s telescopes. It’s a nightmare if it gets inside any electrical equipment but ideal for polishing up old jewellery.
Lesson Number 7 – Take any or all (if you can carry it) of your silver jewellery to Whitehaven Beach. The sand is so fine that it will clean up your silver to the point that it looks brand new!
From Whitehaven Beach we braved the ferocious maritime conditions once again and headed towards Mantaray Bay for a snorkel stop. As with our resort, Mantaray Bay was completely sheltered from the wild conditions. Once we entered the cover of the bay the wind died down to a whisper and the swell of the waves dissapeared. This however didn’t make the air around us any warmer and so putting on soggy rash vests before getting in to the water was less than pleasant.
Having snorkelled and diving in some pretty incredible locations I have admit that I am a bit spoiled when it comes to dive experiences. Which is why for me the snorkel at Mantaray was a bit disappointing. The water was teaming with fish but this was because boats had attracted them here through feeding them. The snorkelling area was relatively small as so as we tried to check out the different fish we ended up kicking the life out of each other. One highlight was George, the giant grouper fish who sullenly swims around the bay, he seems to tolerate the tourists and was quite happy to accommodate some up close photography.
Back aboard the Thundercat we began the treacherous trip back to the resort. Outside the shelter of the bay, the wind, rain and ferocious swell picked up again. Steve turned up the music, playing rock classics to match the adrenaline pumping across the deck. Each time our boat crashed through a wave I questioned how the hell the hull was holding up against the strength of the water. we jolted forwards and backwards with alarming force, but Steve never seemed phased which ultimately put me at ease. At one point we heard a mayday call come over the radio from another vessel out exploring the islands. We were to far away to help but it was a reminder of how serious the conditions had been.
After thawing out warm showers and warming up in dry clothes we gathered together on a heap of beanbags to debrief. Chris took us through the day’s journey on a map. Showing us our route and explaining in a bit more detail about where we had been and what we had seen. He was surprisingly knowledgeable about the area and was able to answer a lot of our questions about the history and geography of the islands.
Waking up on our final morning, the view from our sunset suite wasn’t quite as stunning as we’d hoped for. A feint veil of light rain hung in the damp air and the sun, it seemed, hadn’t bothered to show up. I walked down to the common room shivering in my board shorts and cursing once again my wardrobe malfunction. We sat huddled around warm cups of coffee waiting to here news of the conditions outside the bay. We were due to head out to the Langford Sandbar for another snorkel but this required good, calm conditions. I am usually all for any water based activities but after yesterdays snorkel experience I really wasn’t fussed if we missed out.
Our skippers assessed the conditions and broke the news to us that it wasn’t a good idea to head out to the Sandbar. From the lack of protest from our group, I surmised that most people were feeling the same as me. Instead of braving the weather, we hung out at the resort and enjoyed a lazy morning on bean bags talking travel and watching the storm clouds crowd the bay.
By lunchtime we were trudging down the beach with our belongings stuffed haphazardly in to dry bags. Back aboard the Thundercat we headed out in to the bay for a brief trip through the wild conditions back to the safety of Shute Harbour. Although the harbour was slightly more sheltered than out at sea, the rain still drove on hard. Our group goodbyes were rushed and soggy as the rain intensified and left us without a dry patch to grasp.
Back at the van we began the difficult and laborious task of drying (and keeping dry) all of our belongings. Which is quite difficult when you consider that every time you open a door the water steams in. Or if you remember that we have to walk all of our washed and dried clothes from the laundry to the van, in the rain.
Sat in the van we turned the heat up and listened to the incessant rain beat down on the windows. We had a decision to make. We could push south tonight through the rain. Or wait until the morning in the hope that it cleared up. The afternoon was miserable and we really didn’t feel like driving, so we did what every good traveller would do and hit the bar. An afternoon beer and burger soon escalated in to numerous beers and then cocktails and then a disturbingly luminous Gin. Before we knew it the afternoon had disappeared and the bar was now a nightclub. A couple of guys from our trip turned up and we spent the evening with them playing bar games and enjoying, at least for a while, not being wet!
Day 4-7 – 133km
Highlights – Whitehaven Beach / Ride To Paradise Resort / Airlie Beach Lagoon
Where to Eat – Mr Bones Cafe
Where to stay – Base Hostel ($25 p/n for a camping pitch)