Fraser Island is only the beginning of Australia’s tropics. My next stop was at the Whitsundays national park: a collection of islands known as the Heart of the Reef.
The islands, in the middle of the Barrier Reef, enjoy (fairly) calm seas all year. In a massive contrast to whale watching in Sydney, we only hit bad weather once; and, being warm(ish) tropical rain, I used it as the precursor to a shower.
Airlie Beach, where most Whitsunday cruises begin, is a small town, but much livelier than Hervey Bay: boat tours come and go every day, so there are always parties on (although the clubs in town aren’t great – stick to the bars).
The boat that you travel on will determine the type of trip that you have. Some, like the Tongarra (mine) and Avatar, are aimed at the younger crowd. Others, like the Apollo, are used by those wanting a relaxed time. Do your research and choose the right vessel!
Even on the party boats, you need to follow the rules for drinking on board, These are mostly variants on the theme of, “Don’t fall over the side because we won’t rescue you.” Drinking games (the Tongarra Circle of Love; Paranoia; and the ever-popular I’ve Never) are common, but really, really don’t piss off the skipper: they can and will lock you in the engine room for disturbing other passengers.
Only a few of us stayed up past midnight on the first night, and we were woken at 5am when the sun rose over the ocean.
Like most of the Whitsundays boats, the Tongarra has limited cabin space; we all slept out on deck. It’s not entirely open to the elements; a tent can be unfurled from the sail and stretched out to keep the rain off. The sides were left up, though, and strong sunlight woke us up just hours after we all dropped off. And then our decky JJ turned on the radio. He didn’t win any friends that morning.
After a breakfast of fruit, cereal and bread, we disembarked onto Shit Beach (that wonderful Aussie literalism again). Although “the shittest beach in the Whitsundays” lived up to its name, it was worth it: it’s the only route to Whitehaven Beach, the islands’ most famous stretch of sand.
Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island has incredibly pure white sand, but Whitehaven even beats that: here it is 98% pure silica, although because of driftwood and other debris carried in by the ocean, it’s not as soft as the sand at McKenzie. However, it reflects so much heat that it’s cool underfoot, even at midday under the tropical sun. It made a nice change from having to run across the beach in Byron Bay!
We spent a few hours on Whitehaven, then boarded the Tongarra and headed to Manta Ray Bay. If you don’t like fish, stay out of the water here! Coral trout, batfish and parrot fish are common, and a massive Maori Wrasse called George makes his home in the Bay. Manta rays (of course) can be seen from May to September.
We anchored in Caves Cove that night and began our last day with a snorkel. The Cove was the sight of a massacre when the first European settlers arrived – although unlike Fraser’s Indian Head, it was done by the indigenous people, not to them. They widely made themselves scarce before any possible repercussions. Having a spiritual attachment to your land is all very well, but a magic death stick is a magic death stick.
We sunbathed on the long sail back to Airlie, and a few of us attempted Tongarra’s infamous one-minute showers (only a limited amount of water can be carried onboard, and once it’s out the boats have to return to land by law). That rainstorm came in handy!
The night was taken up with afterparties. David, from Fraser Island, had been on the Avatar while I was on the Tongarra and both boats came back in on the same day, so I crashed his party before mine began. I could only stay at the Tongarra party for a short time, though, as I was boarding another 12-hour bus to the north. Next stop: Magnetic Island!