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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Days 23-24: The Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia

 If I could only have visited one place on this trip so far (please note place, not people) I would choose the Whitsunday Islands. Which should be the Whitmondays, as on the Whitsunday after which the islands were named, it was actually Monday already on this side of the international date line. Yep, another ignorant explorer. The traditional people of Whitsunday Island are the Ngaro and their name is on the forest trail up to the lookout over peerless Hill Inlet. Oh, and they aren’t really islands, but wooded mountaintops, cut off from the rest of the range when sea levels rose after the last ice age.

T. says “Most people leave their heart in the Whitsundays; I left a bit of my finger and most of my shins!” We found out later that it takes four pages of paperwork to report an injury on one of these tours—“worse than America”—but it didn’t seem like that at first. We all piled into a small boat, a couple people sitting on the pontoons, and took off, before the captain even remembered to warn us to hold onto the boat. I think in the States we would have been told to wear lifejackets, but who knows? It’s been a long time.

Thanks to the rare northeasterly winds that made it impossible for the big catamaran to take us over to Esk Island, this was the bounciest boat ride I can remember. Fortunately, I’ve learned through experience I am not prone to seasickness. Otherwise the weather was great. The boat took us into the rocky beach at Esk, and the only reason I can think of we didn’t just go over the side of the boat was it was too small for us to put snorkeling gear on without disembarking first. This was when all the falling and sharp objects happened (see injury report above). Once first aid had been given, we snorkeled around the coral and beautiful tropical fish of the Coral Sea. It is not the outer glory of the Great Barrier Reef, but the barrier thereof is what makes the Whitsundays so sailable (or so I hear).

And the Coral Sea is a lot warmer than the Tasman Sea, but there’s a price to be paid for this. During the Wet season, we are told, the tropical sea is full of tiny box jellyfish or “stingers.” We were warned not to go in the water without a stinger suit to protect us. I suspect this is just the residents’ way of having a laugh by getting us all into full-body Lycra, but never mind. It is just as well we had these and not actual wetsuits, as for sure we would have been too warm to swim in those. Not the ocean swimming experience I am used to!

Whitehaven Beach is the 7-kilometer glory of Whitsunday Island. At one end, Hill Inlet has impossible swirls of turquoise in the water and pure sand where you can swim with little fish; at the other the beach goes on, pure white, some kind of unique silica (most tropical beaches, as we have learned, are sharp rocks). The sand is so special Americans came and took a lot of it to use in the Hubble space telescope and warfare.

The soundtrack up from Mackay was Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, appropriate given some of our detours through the sugar cane fields. Somewhere on the road to Habana (rum country) the thermometer said 38 degrees C. In Airlie Beach, the town where we stayed, life was simple enough. A self-catering apartment where we could make ourselves omelets and salads and not pay a hundred dollars for supper; then you walk out the back gate and there’s the lagoon, a safe artificial inlet for swimming in. It just goes on and on, and I only regret not having more afternoons to spend in it. The sea itself is full of sailboats as well as jellyfish; on the other side of the street are the backpacker bars, cheap drinks and music all night. Our hosts (Whitsunday on the Beach—book it) were excited because Lleyton Hewitt was beating Roger Federer in the final of a run-up to the Australian Open.

And so to our full day, boarding the catamaran before 7:00 in the morning for Whitsunday Island, which is 100% national park. The Wet season in the Tropic of Capricorn—not very wet so far. But I wouldn’t want to live in Queensland; it’s either flooding or bushfires, there never seems to be a dull season. Think of it as vacationing in Armageddon.

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