We launched Sandpiper in Mackay Harbour, an excellent facility. Arrangements had been made with the Mackay Marine Tourist Park to take care of the car and trailer and a simple taxi ride brought me back to the marina to get us on our way. The first stop was the joint St Bees/Keswick Islands, a trip of some 17 nautical miles. The seas proved easy to handle, the trip totally enjoyable and the destination wonderful. We anchored in a gorgeous bay, with butterflies all around, a cacophony of bird calls coming from a heavily forested tropical beach. What more could anyone ask for.
The next few days followed the same pattern, sailing from island to island in calm seas with spectacular vistas all around.
A favourite was Brampton Island, once a glorious holiday resort, but now a sorry and abandoned shell of its former glory. A devastating cyclone in 2010 had wreaked damage on the jetty and adjoining light rail system, leaving the resort itself with a hefty repair bill. The high Aussie dollar and lure of cheap overseas holidays has obviously made investment in repairs too much. The resort sits waiting, with jet skis, surf cats, pool tables, made up rooms and all. All it needs is power, water and people.
Later, we visited Lindeman Island and found it to be in much the same state, a piece of paradise awaiting a clientele. Apparently, there are more in the same situation, South Mole, Daydream etc. Perhaps the now falling Australian Dollar will help.
The islands themselves are very scenic, most with mountain peaks 3-400 metres high. Ancient volcanic cores rise up out of some islands or sometimes straight from the sea, creating some stunning vista. Early morning often saw a cloud hanging off an island peak, creating a real South Seas effect. The vegetation ranges from tropical rainforest to dry scrub on some of the rockier islets. The hoop pine is common, a glorious tree reminiscent of a Norfolk Island pine but with fewer branches. The timber was prized as a boat building material and logging around 1900 saw the loss of much forest but after years of National Parks, many forests have come back well. Butterflies are everywhere, beautiful blue triangles, common swallowtails and monarchs. They are even common at sea.
The weather has been kind to us so far, with only one patch of rather blowy weather lasting three days out of our thirteen at sea and a couple of days of rain. During that time, we lay up in a lovely bay on Goldsmith Island, enjoying the company of Zane and Julie in their big catamaran. Their life was interesting, cruising with three dogs and two cats, which, unlike our cat Simon, were all well and truly alive.
The temperature has been beautiful and even the water is warm enough to swim in comfortably. We have bought ourselves some all over stinger suits to guard against the nasty jellyfish present in these waters. The real stinger season starts in November but stings have been recorded at other times. The pair of us encased in figure hugging body suits is not something that anyone else wants to share so we are fairly discreet.
Sailing through the southern islands was pretty quiet. Usually, we would share an anchorage with only one or two other boats, except at Brampton Island where we had a night with seven others. However, with school holidays on in Queensland, the northern islands around Whitsunday Island itself are very crowded, with more than thirty boats in Cid Harbour one night. Once north of Shaw Island, there was usually a sail or powerboat visible in every quarter of the horizon.
It is sad to say that large power boats have become the enemy. Even though we are power boat owners ourselves, it does seem that something happens to the psych of skippers. The more power they have, the less thoughtful they become. Some of the boats up here are more like small ships and they create really horrendous bow waves and wakes. In a narrow channel with limited manoeuvring space, a big vessel creating a series of breaking waves can wreak havoc with the small yachts like ours. Commercial operators too, seem to regard private vessels as fair game and that all channels belong exclusively to them.
Many of the boats we come across are bareboat charters, meaning that you hire the boat and skipper yourself. Amazingly, no qualifications are needed, other than to say that you have steered a boat before. We enjoy listening to the bareboat charter companies talk to their clients on the VHF. It goes something like this:“Razzle Dazzle this is Fun Charters. What is your position? Over” “Gday mate. We are out at Border Island. It’s beautiful.” “Razzle Dazzle It might be nice now but there is no protection there. We have 15 to 20 knot south easterlies forecast.” “OK. We’ll think about it and see what happens this afternoon.” “Razzle Dazzle. I need you to move.” “Yes, we’ll discuss it. Where should we go?” “Razzle Dazzle, you might try Chalkies or anywhere that get protection from the south east. You can’t stay there.” “OK then and while we’ve got you, the fridge door catch is broken.”
The radio operators for the charter companies have incredible patience.
The fishing has been ordinary. Despite the tropical climate and the abundance of coral, fish life seems scarce. The real fishing is much further out on the outer Barrier Reef but even that is only a shadow of its former glory days. I have managed to catch enough small reef fish to get us a feed when needed but as a sport is leaves a lot to be desired. According to locals, there are a lot of hours of input required to get much reward.
Navigating is all about the tides. The tidal range here is around 6 metres so the currents can run pretty quickly through the narrow channels between islands and reefs. If the wind is against the current, the waves build up rapidly so planning the trip accordingly is very important. So far, we haven’t had anything that has worried us so we must be doing something right.
As always, Christine has revelled in her cooking. She has a new addition to the arsenal in the form of a thermal cooker. It is like a large thermos flask that surrounds a couple of inner pots. She prepares the ingredients in the pots, fills the thermos with boiling water and lower the pots inside. Over the next six hours or so, the meal cooks itself. The system works very well and is ideal for sailing and camping. She also uses the thermal cooker as proving environment for bread making and the dough rises magnificently. There has been no shortage of great meals.
Sandflies have been a bit friendly in places and I always seem to be nursing a few bites. I use Vicks Vapour rub to sooth the itching and it works well but after applying insect repellent, sun screen and Vicks Vapour Rub, the pores of my skin take a hammering.
A two day stay in the Marina at Hamilton Island was wonderful. After twelve days on the boat, a bit of luxury was most welcome and there is plenty of that available on Hamilton. A berth in the marina buys access to the whole island, including the facilities at the resort. The shops are varied, the bakery first rate and the prices quite acceptable. Regular free shuttle buses run around the island, making al parts easily accessible or electric golf carts can be hired by the day. Everyone was so helpful and friendly. There is no comparison with Rottnest. Hamilton rules.
We were very taken with an advertised helicopter flight and snorkelling trip out to Hardy Reef, one of the outer reefs. We organised a trip and booked a berth to return after a cays exploring Cid Harbour. More about that next time.
So far, the trip has been everything that we had dreamed of and has made the whole big trip over here so worthwhile. It is going to be very hard to tear ourselves away and leave. Fortunately, we still have time and there are lots more islands to visit.