Rain. Annoying isn’t it. This is what the Whitsundays, and in particular, Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet, is supposed to look like.
And this is my lasting memory of one of the most beautiful places in the world….
Yes, after weeks of unbroken sunshine, the clouds came and dumped a load of rain on us at precisely the moment we were supposed to be taking in one of the best beaches in the world. It didn’t stop us from having fun and making the most of it though, taking part in a UK and Ireland (wet) beach football match against a mostly German opponent. Sadly, they won.
Thankfully the weather didn’t spoil a brilliant few days, where I took to the seas and sailed around a particularly beautiful area of Australia with some great people. It involved a stop in Airlie Beach, where despite its name, there isn’t actually much sand to go and relax on. Instead, like many places where there’s a risk of crocs and stinger jellyfish on the coast, there’s a huge swimming lagoon where people hang out.
I didn’t have much time for that, arriving the day before I set sail on the New Horizon, a 30-year-old sailing boat that spends its time taking backpackers and tourists around this islands for snorkelling, partying and sightseeing. I was under strict instructions not to take any bags with zips, mainly because its how bedbugs travel around apparently, and so with a beachbag of clothes and a box of wine (more on that later), I made my way to the marina.
I arrived to find a huge group of girls standing around.
“Hurray, another boy,” I overheard one of them say.
I asked if it was the waiting area for the New Horizon. There were nods and smiles.
“There’s only four boys coming,” said a blonde German girl to my right.
Now, you might think this a bit odd, about to spend three days at sea with a boatload of girls, but I was more than a little worried. With 31 people on the trip, that’s a ratio of almost eight girls to each bloke. I began to have visions of dinnertime chats being dominated by lipstick and makeup tips, which boys they fancy, and shoes.
Thankfully, the girl’s sources were wrong, and slowly but surely another few lads turned up, mostly German, but lads all the same. There were still twice as many females as there were males, but we weren’t complaining, and neither was Brett, the slightly cheeky chappy who would be our host onboard and who turned up with a huge smile.
“They sell seasickness tablets in the shop behind you, and it will get a little bit bumpy out there with this wind,” were some of the key words I picked out in his welcome speech. I invested in a pack.
As we all climbed onboard, handing over our footwear for the next couple of days (‘this is a naked from the ankle down boat’) we were welcomed to the New Horizon on the bow, 31 of us from all around Europe. There was a large group from Germany, some from Switzerland, Holland, a good group from Ireland and one other guy from England.
The New Horizon is skippered by Andy, a cheery, smiling bloke who looked every bit the salty seadog when he’d hang out of the wheelhouse, looking out to sea and sailing his vessel with pride.
Alex is the cook/anchor attendant/washer upper, a great guy to have a laugh and a chat with around in the kitchen. He’s originally from back home, but has been living and working on boats for years. He clearly loves life at sea.
Then there was Brett, our host come entertainer come alarm clock, who would be the one telling us what we could do, what we couldn’t do and when we need to do them for the duration of the three day trip.
It was Brett who told us where the goon box was onboard. Now, goon, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a huge thing for backpackers in Australia. With a pint of beer costing anything up to $12.50 (just under £8) it leaves young, skint travellers with a problem when it comes to having a bevvy. Thankfully, a box of wine saves the day – known as cask wine, it comes in either ‘fruity’ or ‘dry’.
Its fairly similar to the boxes of wine you get back home, except probably not as nice. It definitely won’t win any international quality wine awards, but it does get you a little tipsy. And when you can pick up 4.4litres of the stuff for $12, thanks to the proximity of Australia’s wine growing regions, it becomes the drink of choice!
The only problem was, with everyone taking their goon out of the cardboard boxes for the ice box – known as an ‘esky’ down under – it would be a confusing array of silver foil bags without any kind of marking system. Thankfully, it’s a problem the crew of the New Horizon have found a solution to, in the form of multicoloured elastic bands. For the next two nights, my grog was the one with a green and red bands twisted around the nozzle.
With the sun shining, the calm, crystal clear blue water near the marina slowly gave way to the choppy ocean as we made our way over to the anchorage for the night, waving goodbye to Airlie Beach and mainland Australia. We got to know each other a little better when we hit calmer waters, and watched the sun set over the ocean.
The rest of the night was spent playing cards, drinking games, finding out about each others travels and watching sharks circle the boat. Yes, you did read that right. Sharks.
You can imagine the commotion, spotlight shining on the waves in the darkness, when someone shouts ‘shark’ amid a boatload of young people. Suddenly, we were all at the handrails along the side of the boat, watching and waiting.
Sure enough, appearing like a ghost from the deep, an outline appeared, swooping around in a definite shark-like manner. Its long pointy tail, top fin and rounded head confirmed it. I strained my eyes, trying to spot any markings, and could just about see some dark markings on its fin.
“It’s a black tip reef shark,” said Alex, adding that it wasn’t often the trip would be blessed by the appearance of such a fish.
We watched as the shark circled other fish that had made the mistake of being attracted to the light and noise onboard the vessel. A short time late, another shark appeared, and I’d spend much of the night watching the two of them swooping around together, diving beneath the boat and getting dinner for themselves.
The next morning, with a thick head thanks to the goon, there was a rude awakening that, being in the forward-most berth onboard, I’d been warned about. It was just after 5am – the noise was the anchor chain being hauled in and clanging away just centimetres from my head.
Just about the last thing anyone needs after a heavy night of goon, but thankfully it didn’t go on for long and we were told to carry on sleeping to avoid a rough bit of sea before arriving at Whitehaven.
The New Horizon can’t get close to the shore – shes’s a pretty big boat – and with no jetty at the Whitsundays National Park, it was a case of jumping in the small boat we’d been towing along and making a few shuttles to the shore. We headed up to the lookout, passing huge webs full of evil-looking spiders, before there was a clearing and a wooden platform. Stretching out for miles in front was the famous view I had seen on television travel programmes and in almost every Australian tourism brochure I have ever looked in.
There’s no doubt Whitehaven is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on Earth, but I was gutted there was no sunshine. For me, this was one of the places I had come to Australia to see, right up there with Ayers Rock. Without the sun shining, however, the brilliant white sand and turquoise blue waters just didn’t glow.
The sand is famously white because of its high silica content, caused by years of washing by the ocean before being dumped on the sandbanks here. At low tide, you get an amazing view of the sand bars amid the bright blue water, a result of the incredible white sand below. I waited until the sun managed to poke between the clouds for a few seconds before grabbing a photo, but it’s a long way off those picture perfect postcards. Worse still, out to sea, there was a storm brewing.
We made our way down to the soft white sands of the beach, where most people donned stinger suits to protect themselves from jellyfish in the water. Alex told me there was a good chance of seeing some stingrays near the mangroves, so I went with him in search of them. It wasn’t long before a familiar dark outline appeared in front of us, along with a few others. We’d waded out to a family of them, who gradually lifted themselves off from their sandy beds and swam away.
I headed back towards a group from our boat that had set up camp on the beach, and was in the process of setting up some cricket stumps when I heard my name being called. It was Alex and Brandon from my dorm at Gilligans in Cairns!
“How are you buddy,” they said as I threw everything away I was doing to go and meet them.
It turned out they were onboard the Atlantic Clipper, the sister boat to New Horizon, and who were anchored just a short distance from us the previous night. We had just started talking about our respective boats when I caught sight of what was happening a few hundred metres away out on the sandbank.
Dozens of people were running. Fast. And towards us. Behind, a menacing cloud and a sheet of white from the ocean waves to the sky. It was rain – very heavy rain – and it was heading right for us.
Alex and Brandon scarpered for shelter under a tree with the rest of their boat. Someone handed me a giant blue plastic bag. But it was too late. In an instant, the heavens opened with some of the heaviest rain I’ve known, not only on this trip, but ever before. It absolutely threw it down, and everyone, whether they had been in the water or not, was instantly soaked. I made a hole in the bag so I could see through (and breathe!) and braved my camera to get a few shots of the monsoon-like conditions that had suddenly swallowed us.
With everyone soaked to the bone, there was no point in heading back to the New Horizon. Instead, we carried on regardless – the cricket continued in the storm, people swam in the sea, we found a football and had a kickabout. Paradise might have changed to a winter’s day in Skeggy in an instant, but we were making the most of it. We’d only be here once, and if you can’t remember it for all the right reasons, then you may as well remember it for smashing a six into the sea. Or in our case, hitting the tennis ball so hard, it smashed the end off the plastic cricket bat. Whichever way you look at it, we turned a negative into a positive, and we’ll always remember our visit!
Strangely, just as we were leaving Whitehaven, the clouds broke and the sun came out. We finished off the day with some snorkelling around the coast, diving off the boat and entertaining some batfish that had come to us for a feed. We sailed past the world-famous celebrity hangout Hayman Island, anchoring not far from its shores, and the goon was out again in the evening, along with yet more drinking games.
There was also an outing for my iPhone, after the German contingent alienated most music lovers by hijacking the sound system onboard at about 7pm in the evening to engulf us with a selection of weird European hardcore trance that absolutely nobody out of Germany had any interest in. I, along with a few of the others with better taste in music, agreed something had to be done. My family and friends back home will no doubt have a facepalm moment when
I say it was my iPhone selected to make a playlist for the night, and after a few minutes selecting classics such as Scatman John, the Grease megamix and a bit of Aqua (there was a fair share of Oasis, Muse and Florence too!) the boat was rocking along to my DJ’ing for the rest of the night. Thankfully, the German contingent was dancing along too – its fair to say my music taste appeals to all!
Despite being away for a few days, the trip was over quicker than you could say ‘landlubber’. After an early morning snorkel and breakfast, we headed back to the mainland with full sail, bouncing our way across the waves. Andy, the skipper, smiled at me when he saw how many people were on the bow as we made our way to the open water.
“They probably think this is as bad as its going to get…they’re going to get soaked in a few minutes,” he laughed, with a knowing wink.
Sure enough, as we hit the swell, the New Horizon lurched from one side to the other, throwing water up over the sides and drenching everyone in the process.
Even sheltering in the doorways you weren’t safe, with water gushing up over the top of the boat, landing on the roof and cascading down on anyone in the vicinity. Most people found a spot and stayed in it, hanging onto anything they could. Some where just trying to hold onto their stomachs. Thankfully, I found my spot – it was in the sun, on the deck, and horizontal – catching 40 winks!
A couple of hours later, we were sailing into the calmer waters near the harbour, posing for group photos and looking forward to losing our sea legs. I was working out what to do for the afternoon, with another overnight Greyhound booked for the evening. I decided to head back to the hostel where I had stayed before the trip, knock on a few doors and blag a shower in someone’s room before collecting my bags and heading to a café somewhere.
We gave all the crew members a round of applause and a few cheers as we got back to the mainland. They had done a brilliant job – Brett had kept us all safe and entertained, Andy had steered us on the trip of a lifetime, and Alex had kept us fed with some great meals considering the tiny amount of space he has to work in. The spaghetti bolognaise on the last night was one of the best I’ve had.
I said goodbye to the crew and headed off up the pontoon, where I could see Alex and Brandon who had just left their boat.
“Phil! Where are you heading?” they asked.
I told them I was off to blag a shower in a hostel. They told me they were heading to a luxury apartment in the mountains overlooking the bay.
“How in the world did you manage to afford that?” I asked, slightly envious.
They told me a friend that Brandon had worked with had managed to get them a good deal for a few nights, and said I should go with them for the afternoon. It was an offer I would have been stupid to turn down, and walked with them up some of the steepest hills Airlie Beach has to offer until we reached a fantastic set of apartments. These were the best of the best in the area – $300 a night jobs, complete with a pool high in the mountains overlooking the stunning scenery.
The boys had landed on their feet. They knew it, I knew it, and in return, I too had shared in their luck. I spent the afternoon chilling by a pool in a setting that millionaires would be happy with, dumped some washing in their utility room, had an amazing shower in one of the best bathrooms I have ever seen and caught up with two good mates on a balcony with one of the most brilliant views in the area.
Yet again, it was another example of the beauty of travelling. Within the space of an hour, I had gone from trying to scout out a shower in a grotty dorm, to spending an afternoon at one of the most luxurious apartment complexes I have ever seen. It was all thanks to two guys, who a week before I had never met. Now, after meeting in our dorm in Cairns, they had invited me to share the afternoon with them, and dropped me off back at my hostel late in the afternoon to collect my bags. They are both heading south towards Sydney, the same as me, and we hope to meet up again further along the way. But whether we manage that or not, they are already two more people to add to my ever growing friend list from this trip.
Strangers to mates in an instant – and photographs and memories that will last a lifetime.