Tuesday, 5 October 2010
Made in Heaven - The Whitsundays
Greetings from Airlie Beach, QLD. As it is my last day in jolly old Airlie I thought I would take this opportunity to kill some time telling you about the latest adventures of yours truly! :) I left Cairns on Friday last week on an all day Greyhound - a staggering 12 hours of coach hell. Not only was there a baby that screamed on 20 minute rotations, some chav in front of me reclined her seat so far back that my personal breathing space was restricted to about 3 cubic centimetres. I also endured an hour sitting in the middle of nowhere while the headlight was fixed and was alternatively frozen and boiled by the faulty air con. AND the DVD player didn't work so I couldn't even arrive in Airlie bitching about the Matthew McConaughey film I would have been 'forced' to watch. After an hour I would have traded one of my kidneys for an hour and a half of McConaughey madcap. But I digress.
Airlie Beach is a small town on the Queensland coast - maybe two thirds of the way to Cairns from Brisbane. It is popular with backpackers as it is the main jumping off point for the Whitsunday Islands, a group of 74 islands set in and around the Great Barrier Reef, which are famous for their pure white sand (which is 97% pure silica) and their stunning snorkelling spots. I spent one night in a 17 bed dorm (!) then headed out on Saturday morning to find my boat. I was a little dubious about my selection of boat as the travel agent had enthusiastically told me it was a 'party boat' - her expression died on her face as I reacted in stony silence and informed her I didn't want to spend three days on a boat full of 18 year old boys who would take any and every opportunity to get naked. I wanted a nice, relaxed but fun tour of paradise minus the hangover and the lingering smell of vomit, thank you very much. I added an aloof, "I am in my twenties now after all," which prompted the inevitable age question which in turn led to me mumbling, "21... an old 21." Cringe. Alas, the next brochure she produced had a price that could have been a phone number, so I was forced to back track a little and accept that maybe a party boat really wouldn't be all that bad.
The Tongarra is a catamaran sailing boat which sleeps between 20 and 25 people, and goes out for three days, two nights on the fabulous Whitsundays. I arrived at the Marina with my 'small back pack with only essentials' (my huge day bag stuffed with 5 books, three bottles of sun cream, 2 phone chargers, 13 muesli bars, 4 bananas, 4 different outfits and 3 bikinis) and sat on the bench with my book, surreptitiously checking out the people nearby in case they were the feared party people I would be imprisoned with in an hour or two. When we finally boarded the boat, I had met and befriended two Dutch girls and found myself sprinting to the bottle-o (the holy place where they sell the booze) to stock up on goon (wine in a box - totally disgusting but cheap and practical). And before I knew it we were herded down to a little red boat and had our shoes confiscated.
To cut all the preamble, it was the best trip I have done so far. Despite the weather being a little bit shitty (rain, wind, rain, wind, clouds, rain), it was genuinely one of my favourite experiences on this whole travelling malark. Our boat had 14 people aboard, with three crew members. Between us we had 5 Austrians and an American who were all ski instructors, 3 Brits including me (though since discovering I am also a Canadian citizen I have been smugly introducing myself as half British, half Canadian - something I haven't done since I was about 9), and 4 Dutch girls and a French guy. With these trips, just like with Kakadu, Litchfield, Uluru, Diving, and Cape Trib, it is often the people that make or break a trip. You can get a hit, or a miss. And sometimes you get a really awesome, star crossed piece of luck that lands you with the most dynamic and interesting group of people, and even in the pissing rain you can have a bloody fantastic time.
Our trip started in the afternoon and we sailed around for a few hours before anchoring in the Nara Inlet for the night. Dinner that night was one of the best meals I have had since leaving my godfamily in Adelaide - an amazing herby white fish with mashed potatoes (clearly the food of the gods) and veggies. Yum! When you are backpacking there is little opportunity to cook sumptuous feasts due to both money and the sheer scariness of the hostel kitchens (for instance my friend in Darwin sent me a distressed text a few weeks ago declaring there was a rat (!!) and several cockroaches in the kitchen) so a real meal with fish and mash and veggies is pure heaven for someone who largely lives on muesli bars and bananas. We then starting drinking our goon and playing amusing drinking games and listening to music - we tortured the boys with Britney and the Spice Girls and were rewarded with unintelligible beats and house music. And as the night drew to a close, we pulled our mattresses up out of the hold and fell asleep on the deck under the stars.
The next morning began at half 5 in the morning with the noise of the anchor being pulled up and we set sail for Whitehaven beach and the viewing point at the Hill Inlet, which overlooks the most gorgeous bay of whites and turquoises. It is the fourth most photographed place in all Australia, and on a beautiful day it is breathtaking. On a not so beautiful day, when you are forced to wear a stinger suit (like a thin wetsuit that protects you from the delightful Box Jellyfish and Irujkandi Jellyfish), it is still amazing. The weather cannot take away the beauty, even if it can dull it slightly. It was still paradise. We then trekked down to the beach and played in sand as white and as soft as flour. We swam in the sea and frolicked, not caring or not noticing the whipping rains that were hitting us at sideways angles. It was just awesome.
After Whitehaven we went snorkelling nearby on the Reef, and saw one of the famous big blue fishies that lives in the area. I would give you a more technical name if I had one, but they are basically huge blue fish with a big snout, and they are so friendly they let you pat them! I was pushed in, snorkel and all, and came face to face with the fellow within seconds, which is a formidble experience to say the least! We saw hundreds of gorgeous fish - stripy black and white fish, blue fish with yellow fins, nemos, giant clams, loads of pretty corals and batfish. It was really beautiful. After that we peeled off the undoubtedly sexy stinger suits (see the sexy hero pose of the model above!) and had lunch. We sailed around the islands taking in the beautiful views of the forests, beaches and rock faces that the islands are known for, before heading in for the night at another nice spot. We ate spag bol and watched a beautiful sunset, before chilling with our goon and playing for a while. As a non smoker on a boat where all but two of us smoked, I decided to get some air at the front of the boat, and spent the next couple of hours stargazing and reading my book, which was lovely. Party boat or not, I still read most of my book and had lots of chill out time when I wanted it. I pulled up my mattress a little early and went to sleep with the sounds of the ocean, the laughter around me and the blare of Rihanna under the moonlit sky.
Our last morning had a lie in till 8am (woop!) and we headed off to our final snorkel spot for the trip. We also went to a tiny beach which was just a sandbar in the ocean - it was a gorgeous spot for finding shells and corals (though of course Australian law prevents you from taking any shells or sand from these protected areas home - if you get caught at the airport smuggling Whitehaven sand you face a $3000 fine!). The weather had finally cheered up, so we were treated to the beautiful blue skies one associates with the Whitsundays before we cruised on back to the harbour after lunch. I was really sad to be leaving my party boat, but our group has hung out every day since in Airlie Beach, so I have had the chance to make some really good friends. Three of the Dutch girls are also heading south, so Dominique and I are going to Agnes Water on the Greyhound tonight, and Shirby and Caroline will catch us up after visiting Mackay on their way south. A day or two in Agnes Water, then we will hit Rainbow Beach so we can do Fraser Island - the world's largest sand island and another must do on the list of Australian adventures.
I also wanted to recommend a book I am just about to finish - one that was given to me by a friend in Cairns. It was the first book I was recommended to read when I arrived in Alice Springs, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week, thanks to my friend Sam thrusting the book into my hands and telling me I absolutely had to read it. Shantaram is a book written by an Australian - it is an account of his life once he escaped from prison in Melbourne and it is set in Bombay and near Kandahar. It is one of the best books I have read in a really long time, so I recommend it to you all! In Australia books are insanely expensive (a new one will set you back $25-30 which is about 13-18 pounds for a simple paper back) so I have been getting all my books from book exchanges and swap shops. It has led to some really interesting and funny reads, such as Just Don't Call Me Ma'am (which is about surviving your 20s as a Texan girl in NY) and the whole Hannibal series, which I really enjoyed. But if you are looking for a beast of a book to get your teeth into, go out and read Shantaram. It is incredibly funny, incredibly moving and heart breakingly sad in some points (which has led to many embarrassing episodes of casually weeping into my iced coffee). The copy Sam gave me (found in the swap shop of her hostel) is so tatty that the last 15 pages have fallen off, so I have them folded up and I am using them as a book mark. I loathe to throw it away though, so I will try and give it to a new person when I am done! Anyway, go forth and read it if you fancy it. It will remain one of my favourite books for a long time to come.
I will love you and leave you now as I am due to meet my friends at the lagoon! I need to do some more sunbathing under the palm trees before I spent another 10 hours on the Greyhound overnight. I plan to take a Nytol and spend the entire trip unconscious so wish me luck! :)
Miss you all - I am stalking most of you on Facebook from time to time and I am always sad to see the birthdays and parties I am missing. Sorry I cannot be there to celebrate with you all!! But please know that my heart finds you every single day and you are never far from my thoughts!! God that is positively vomit worthy. I best go before I embarrass myself further. Love you all. Toodle pip xx