We had fallen in love with Hamilton Island, the facilities, the ambience, the food opportunities and the excellent service. There! All that and we aren’t even sponsored. It really is a great place to be. With great reluctance, we tore ourselves away to sail away for a day, while we waited for our booked helicopter flight out to the outer Great Barrier Reef.
Our sail took us through the Fitzalan Passage along the southern end of Whitsunday Island to Cid Harbour, a safe and calm anchorage in most winds. There are a number of suggested anchorages and shore based camp sites here, some connected by established walk trails. We went ashore to walk the Dugong Beach to Sawmill Beach trail, which snaked up and down the hill side through some really beautiful forest paths.
The march flies saw us coming and prepared themselves. I had doused myself in insect repellant in case of sandflies so avoided most of the attacks. Christine, who is immune to the sandfly bite, hadn’t bothered and was subjected to wave after wave of kamikaze march flies. I had the wonderful experience of slapping Christine on the back with a thing every 30 seconds and killing dozens of the creatures. It was like a really good episode of “Buffey the March Fly Slayer”. The views were worth the effort, at least from my point of view. Christine was a little less impressed.
The most amazing thing was the way Cid Harbour filled with boats. We are now well and truly in the heart of “bareboat charter country” and the number of boats on the water is beyond belief. We shared our anchorage with at least thirty boats. There is no going outside for a pee stark naked in this part of the world.
The next day we sailed back to Hamilton Island and resumed our decadent lifestyle, even taking a bus ride around the island to take in all the amazing apartments and properties.
Then it was off to Hardy Reef via helicopter. We had to go on separate flights because the best we could book at such short notice was the fill-in seats on booked flights. For me, this meant I got the front seat next to the pilot. Christine scored a second row seat but still with an excellent view. The flight proved a highlight of the entire trip. The Whitsundays are beautiful from the sea. From the air they are stunning. We got to fly over many of the places we would visit over the next week and get advance knowledge of the best spots to anchor and explore. It also brought home the sheer number of people and boats in the waters around the islands. Every protected anchorage had clusters of boats at anchor or on moorings and the various beaches had groups of people at play.
The flight over the Barrier Reef was even more impressive, bring in to sharp focus the amazing extent of the coral system. We did a couple of turns around the much publicised “Heart Reef”, more impressive in pictures than in reality. The reef platforms stretched endlessly in all directions, yet the Hardy-Hook system is just one of hundreds that make up the vast Great Barrier Reef. Our destination was Reef World, a floating platform anchored in the narrow channel between Hook Reef and Hardy Reef. It back right up onto the reef wall, rising steeply out of sixty feet to the exposed areas of the reef itself. This is where all the big fish live, with a huge 250kg groper, hump headed maori wrasse and 70kg giant trevally all living under the platform.
We joined the masses, who had arrived by boat, and donned stinger suits to snorkel over the corals. The danger from marine stingers at this time of year is probably low, the menace from sharks almost non-existent, but the danger from fellow snorkellers was extreme. We were kicked, bumped, head butted and ploughed into, all with much apology, but still very off-putting. There were simply too many people in the water, most with minimal swimming skills. The organisation was supberb, with all gear being washed throughly between uses, safety supervisors patrolling, lots of swimming aids and good safety briefings.
There is a semi-submersible coral viewing boat making continual 20 minute circuits of the reef wall, allowing those less confident swimmers a wonderful of the life of the coral community. When we went, the tide was quite high and we were able to get right over the reef top, providing a great view.
Lunch was a sumptuous affair, with a glorious smorgasbord of salads, meats and prawns. We were left with little choice but to do it justice. We even had an ice-cream to celebrate our successful sortie on the lunch.
The trip home was via the ferry, a large and fast catamaran. Once clear of the protection of the reef system, we had 20 nautical miles of open ocean to cross. The crew of the boat prepared themselves by stuffing their pockets full of sick bags and standing watch, trying to catch the suffering before they shared their smorgasbord with other travellers. It was rough, but relatively short lived, given the speed of the boat and soon we were inside the protection of Hook Island and swinging past Cid Harbour, where we had overnighted just a coupe of days before.
We left the joys of Hamilton Island once more and sailed off through the Fitzalan Passage to the famous Whitehaven Beach. This is a spectacular 7km long stretch of pure white silica sand and consistently scores in the top ranks of the “Best Beach in the World” ratings. It certainly was beautiful, with the hundreds of people lounging on the sands paying testimony to its many fine qualities. There were big private boats, small private boats (like us), big charter boats, big tour yachts, huge tour yachts, humungous tour boats, and them some that just defied description. The combined value of the boats anchored off Whitehaven Beach would have exceeded the GDP of some nations. Where the hell does all the money come from? The day trippers swarm like ants over the beach, ferried to and from the various yachts, oversize inflatable craft and luxury cruisers in small rubber ducks, crammed in to a point where a capsize seems inevitable.
The Whitsundays seems to be a bit of a retirement pasture for some of the famous 12 metre racing yachts. We saw Apollo, Southern Cross and Siska, each carrying groups of tourists sitting along the rail as the boats heeled under a full set of sails. They certainly looked good in the water, although the signs of age and wear were obvious.
The next week was spent sailing from one incredible location to another, through numerous islands and bays, snorkelling across glorious corals and taking in the amazing ever changing vistas that the mountainous islands of the Whitsundays group offer. The amazing corals of Cateran Bay on the northern end of Border Island were a snorkelling highlight but then nowhere was a real disappointment. At Cateran Bay, we watched a beautiful big coal trout being picked clean of parasites by a couple of tiny cleaner wrasse and watched a gorgeous hawkesbill turtle swim by us totally unconcerned.
The sailing was generally easy, as long as we paid strict attention to the tides. The seas here can be really quite awful when the the wind is opposed to the tide, creating confused lumpy seas in areas one would otherwise expect to be protected. We sailed through areas of whirlpools and amazing tidal overfalls, all without mishap. Although these phenomena can look frightening and should not be treated lightly, their bark is usually worse than their bite and the experience of sailing through tidal rips is more exhilarating than scary.
When the weather turned a little nasty for three days or so, we holed up in the lovely Nara Inlet, a place that we came to know well. We even met a fellow West Aussie named Stewie and his two parents from Duncraig who were visiting at the time.
It was with great reluctance that we turned for the mainland, after 22 days at sea out of Mackay. The wonderful people at the Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach made us feel most welcome and we certainly enjoyed the wonderful bar and restaurant facilities they offer.
A day’s bus ride down to Mackay to retrieve the car and trailer and return saw our Whitsunday cruise at an end. It is hard to imagine that we had ever considered abandoning our long-held dream of sailing in these waters. I can see us coming back one day, probably renting a bareboat for a couple of weeks. The choice is unlimited, with catamarans seeming to be the most popular. Whether we return or not, this has been one big experience ticked off the long list.