The journey to Airlie Beach was a really long one. It was a night bus situation with a few hours waiting around at Hervey Bay. Of course, you can choose to stop off at other places along the way, but when you’re on a budget and a time limit, you tend to get a lovely travel agent to sort your itinerary out for you. It’s a good thing that we did too, because that’s how we came across Ella and Flo, Tim and Tess and so many others, that if I list them all, 1) I might forget someone important, 2) I’d be here all day and 3) I haven’t actually asked these people if I can use their names yet!
The best part about that journey was that the wifi on the bus was really very good, so I could upload a whole bunch of photos with Thierry in them. This means that I can then write at my own pace and as soon as I have another decent wifi connection, I can just format a page and post it. Genius! The only flaw here? It’s so difficult to find the time to write properly! I can’t type on a bus. It makes me feel queasy.
Okay, so we checked in at the hostel in Airlie Beach super-early because we arrived before breakfast! Even better than that? We managed to all get a room together. There were another couple of girls who were booked on a later bus, but their room was just down the hall. We spent the day by the lagoon. Anywhere north of Brisbane has such a large population of stingers in the sea that it is inadvisable to swim. This is why there are so many man-made swimming pool areas, most of which have a pretty name like a lagoon. In the evening, we had enough people to make a half decent dinner and pick up enough stuff for breakfast too. When we did all the calculations, we ended up spending $3 each for two meals. A nice rotisserie chicken and veggies, tomato-based pasta and salad, plus breakfast cereals, milk and OJ. Not bad, if I may say so myself.
Our Whitsundays sailing trip was due to start on Australia Day, which is 26th January. For this reason, we were slightly concerned that the bottleshop wouldn’t be open in the morning for us to pick up some booze before we got on the boat. Rest assured, this is Australia we’re talking about. Of course the bottle’o was open! What wasn’t quite so forthcoming were the taxis that apparently turn up all the time. There is only one taxi service in Airlie. Can you believe that? They’ve got a proper monopoly on the town. Like, Uber doesn’t even get a look in! Eventually, after re-calling the taxi service and then flat out hailing taxis from the taxi rank, we eventually managed to pick one up. The lady was so lovely! She radioed immediately to send more cars to where we’d been waiting, because there was quite a queue of people by this point. Panic over, we got to the designated meeting place with time to spare.
Next up, this little lady turned up out of nowhere and started fitting us for our stinger suits. She disappeared just as quickly as she appeared. Then our skipper arrived to take us to our home for the next 2 nights. The skipper was a character. I was playing music from my phone for a while and he just took a selfie: brilliant dude. In fact, the whole crew was just great. The host was a tiny little chick. She was only 20. To be fair, the deckhand was only 20 as well, but he’d been doing the job a few years and did not come across as a 20 year-old at all! We had a bit of a safety briefing as soon as we got on to the boat, but it was such a jam-packed trip, that the adventures started straight away.
It started with a group effort to put the sail up so we could actually travel with speed. Then we had a bit of a light lunch, just sandwiches to get us a little bit of energy for our first snorkel of the trip. Now, I’m perfectly capable of swimming. I just don’t like water getting in my eyes. Or up my nose. Or on my face in general, really. I’ve been snorkelling before, in Cambodia and Phuket, but I couldn’t get the hang of breathing through my mouth at the time. This time we were told to make sure the snorkel mask wasn’t on too tight, because the pressure of the water would stick it to your face in any case. Unfortunately, mine was definitely too loose. If I didn’t have water in the mask, then it was in the snorkel mouthpiece. Flo tried to help me out, but I was panicking like crazy. To be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure how I didn’t end up cutting myself up on the coral in the way the Flo did. Bless her, she was in pain for days after.
The fish were incredible though; so bright and colourful, and the coral was pretty awesome too. Helen and Flo went swimming off into the distance and I just bobbed about with my noodle (or woggle for the Brits – you know, that long, thin flotation device you used to have at swimming lessons when you were a kid?). We had anchored the boat a little way out, and then the deckhand took us out group by group in the little inflatable motorboat.
Back on the boat, we got a platter of cheese and crackers. Snorkelling makes you hungry! Then we had a bit of a sail to get to Whitsunday Island. The highlight of anyone’s Whitsunday trip. This is a world-famous beach and it’s so easy to understand why. The sand is made of pure silica. Something funky and geography-related happened hundreds of millions of years ago and silica has been pumping out of the earth’s crust and washing over to Whitehaven Beach. On that first evening, we just did the boardwalk to the viewpoint and watched the sun set over the softly swirled silica. Depending on the exact position of the sun, and the way in which the sand is moved by the gently currents, it is said that you never get the same image twice of Whitehaven Beach.
The true magic was for the following morning when we got up early and were the first people down to the beach. We had a bit of a talk about the wildlife in the area and the uses for the silica – which included tooth-brushing and hair-washing, general exfoliation and I tried nail-buffing! Oh my goodness, my nails were in such good condition the following morning! Turns out, NASA uses the silica from Whitehaven Beach for the lenses in their telescopes because it makes the clearest glass on earth. I was sitting in that sand you know… so one day, there might be a single grain that could make up parts of a space camera that touched my butt! How cool is that?! Actually, in all seriousness, I don’t know if that’s strictly true. All the National Parks in Australia have a rule that you don’t add or subtract anything from them. That means you cannot take away a piece of coral that has swept up onto the shore, any more than you can leave a plastic bottle lying on the beach. Either NASA has a unique arrangement with UNESCO, or they’ve taken all the silica they’re allowed to and once their space reserves are up, tough luck. I would find out and let you know, but all my research efforts haven’t enlightened me so far. All I know for sure is that part of the Hubble Telescope is made from Whitehaven’s silica.
Once we had our fill of the white sands of Whitehaven that evening, we headed back for our first night on the boat. Our host had made us up a great dinner of Spaghetti Bolognese, we had a drink each and settled down out on the deck to watch the stars as we fell asleep, ready for a bright and early start in the morning. Australia is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky. We saw the Milky Way from Fraser Island; the first star you tend to see as the sun goes down this time of year is actually Venus, it’s just beautiful. It really is a shame that you can’t capture the magic with an iPhone camera. Instead, the images are seared onto my brain forevermore.
After our morning dip at the most beautiful beach in the world, we set sail for another couple of snorkel spots. My snorkelling skills were now becoming a little better. I was definitely much more confident and happy to go my own way. The coral was great, but the fish were the incredible part. We met an Australian Groper called George. He’s about three metres in length, but calm and docile, wouldn’t hurt a fly… or plankton. He apparently started out as Georgina, but the way that Australian Gropers live is that they are all born female and then the most “manly” fish changes its biology to become the alpha male of the group. Then He-She has a family of wives waiting for him to spread his seed, so to speak. Weird, but if that’s what floats your boat… (sorry!! I couldn’t resisit!).
Our final night on the boat was a much more entertaining one. We had enough drinks to go around, played some games and talked for hours. I wanted to sleep in the cabin because although the stars were amazing, I found it really cold and not all that comfortable out on deck. I had totally lucked out too, because Helen wanted to stay out, and I think we managed to get the biggest bed! The following morning we got up at a leisurely pace and arrived back to Airlie Beach around 9am. We shared a taxi back to the hostel with some new friends of ours and checked back into the hostel, reuniting with our big luggage, looking forward to another night in Airlie. We had the boat’s after-party at the bar downstairs from our room, so it wasn’t like we had to go far. Plus we got discounted food and drinks, so all in all it was a great night out to end a great sailing experience with our little East Coast family. And the fun wasn’t over yet, because we were on the same Greyhound bus off to Magnetic Island the following day, and the adventure continues.