"Australia 1999" story # 34


Whitsunday Islands, Queensland
June 11, 1999

The harbour of the tiny town in northern Queensland, Airlie Beach, was a bit magical. White sailboats lazed and bobbed in a peaceful ocean whose turquoise shallows and sky-dark-blue deeps had been painted by a painter who'd used up all his paint on their thick colors. I rode on a speedboat, that served as a ferry for four to six people, away from the mainland's modest, rainforest summits that stood on tippy-toes so as to see out to sea.
     Airlie Beach's harbour was magical because you could depart from it - and you knew this - and soon arrive at the Whitsunday island chain. Spray jumped on me. Our boat coasted through channels whose bottoms could never be seen. We passed by islands short but tall, covered in forest and rarely any civilization, so that their apex rocks seemed untouchable. The large islands appeared between shining sky and equally brilliant water, and sat pretty lucky.
     My boat stopped at Hook Island. Here was one of the biggest Whitsunday islands, but it was uncivilized except for five buildings made of wood and sheet metal on a hillside, and even this hillside was overcome with tall pines, palms, and deciduous trees. I stayed on that hillside, in cheap hostel-style accomodation, looking down on a narrow channel and the opposing Whitsunday Island.
     No one else was residing in my personal wooden cabin when I arrived. There were a dozen people at our spot, mostly workers, and I felt the ecstasy of my surroundings in me. Frequent clouds flew low, trying to be near the islands, and rain sporadically tickled the warm weather. But, a few clouds couldn't stop my lofty goals for the next six days; well, one goal, really ... to snorkel.
     I could achieve my lofty goals at either Front Beach or Pebble Beach (but not Bam-Bam Beach). Both had good water visibility covered in a light-purplish mist, and abundant coral with many ledges to look under. Pebble Beach sat on a wide, long bay that featured brain coral and never ran out of places to swim to and explore.
     There were tangs (queenly-shaped fish), harlequin tuskfish (black-striped warriors), (bottom-dwelling, chubby-cheeked) toadfish, and blue-spotted fish. There were big, spiky-headed surgeonfish and orange tangs and black, spiked-backed fish. There were bigger fish with silver scales and dark eyes.
     One night, I walked in front of those five buildings - the Hook Island "resort," so to speak - and brought my flashlight down to Front Beach and plunged in for a night snorkel. While I snorkeled, I mostly saw fish with big eyes, like squirrelfish. But, after five minutes, some guy puttered up and made me get in his boat because, he said, it was unsafe. Hey, man, I had goals to achieve!
     By day, there were some nice orange fish; there were spotted toadfish, two turtles, and my first long and sinister, moray eel.
     I abandoned the Hook Island resort on my third night, partly to save money, partly to explore, took my $5 sleeping bag with me, and began heading for the other side of the island: for Manta Ray Bay, which sounded like a tremendous and deep, scary but wondrous place to snorkel.
     But, I didn't nearly make it to Manta Ray Bay. Boulders by the water led me to the next beach down from Pebble Beach. I decided to camp there, but unfortunately, there was no sand, only golfball-sized rocks.
     The night was pure hell. It rained a bit, getting me wet through my sleeping bag. The hard rocks never once got comfortable, they just hurt. Mites showed up and were atrocious, biting me the whole night through. I'd get a pain on my face, then on my back, then three more on my face. I think I paid for all my past sins while I lied awake for seven hours as a human feast for the mites. Every time I heard a noise, I feared it might be the wild goats coming to trample me.
     But, in the glorious underwater, there were the antennae of a shrimp, and a one-foot (raindrop-shaped, purple-gray) wobbegong (shark). Later, there was a two-foot tasselled wobbegong (he had whiskers that splayed off his fat head) with spiky fins lying on the sea floor.
     I had to send one last project to Southern Cross University, an assigment for Outdoor Ed. class. My one night sleeping on the beach had counted as a camping trip. (Actually, I lied and said it had lasted the requisite three days.) For the creative part of my project, I wrote (happily back in the hostel) 51 Reasons Why Leeches Are Preferable to Mites. They included: "Leeches Get Full", "Leeches Can't Jump", and "Leeches, in Comparison, Have Pleasant Personalities." I also preferred leeches because they "Scare the Hell out of (former class-mate) Kristi."
     Underwater, there was sea-grass that could be looked in for seahorses. There were tiny, harmless jellyfish.
     On my fourth night in the hostel, I got a buddy. Damon from Syndey moved into my cabin. He was in his twenties, thin, tan-skinned, with bronze-black hair, innocent and innocently opinionated like most Australians. He didn't seem a big drinker, and we hung out a bit. Damon said he'd come here for a career move, to switch from internet publishing to sailing. We came to talk about Vic Hislop, an Australian tv personality who hunts dangerous animals; we agreed he's pretty disgusting, killing sharks to "save baby whales." Yeah, right.
     Just off Hook Island, there was a (my first ever!) two-foot lobster under a ledge; he was red, with white spots and big antennae; I tried grabbing him, but he was too far back. There was a strong turtle, surprisingly asleep on a big coral head of lettuce, and unaware when I saw him, and I grabbed him deftly and held him out of the water for a second, doing me and the (non-murderous) Crocodile Hunter proud (perhaps). There was also an oyster, who got revenge on me and cut my foot, keeping me out of the water for the rest of the day.
     I stayed out for the rest of the day, yes (with reluctance), but the night was a different thing. The owner of the buildings tried convincing me against a night-snorkel. "The sharks will get you for sure. I own this place, and I wouldn't even swim in off the boat." This pissed me off. I went anyway, but the warnings sounded in my head and timid heart, so I didn't stay long in the water. Damon said, "I reckon you're pretty keen for going out there at all."
     Australian-rules football, or "footy", showed on television, and so, many sailing vessels docked at our place for the game. We mingled and met travelers. Damon told me about a conversation he'd had with a former shark-fisher who thew a 3.5 mile net on the ocean floor. We found that disgusting; all the poor creatures it must bring in.
     Damon, who'd been as far away as Italy, was snorkeling now for the first time on a coral reef. And there was a four-and-a-half foot white-tipped reef shark coasting beneath a coral toadstool. It swam away, obviously scared of humans. I swam after, trying to get pictures; its white tip was so bright and its flat head so mean-looking. Wow ... beautiful.
     Afterwards, Damon described the fish he'd seen. He reckoned he'd enjoy his time on the Whitsunday Islands. I took off from Hook Island. Damon had also told me he didn't agree with stripping. He was a pretty good fellow.
     The ferry took me back to Airlie Beach, a town full of backpackers. Most of those backpackers would take paid sailing excursions to and around the Whitsundays. I stayed in a hostel here, befriended some friendly travelers, and briefly visited a nightspot.
     For the next day, I was very excited. A one-day boat excursion (not a sailboat) would take me to Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island, reputed to be the world's second-best beach - based on the fineness of its sand, I guess. To visit this was my other goal. I buzzed anxiously, as the long and empty beach beneath rainforested rock rolled beside our boat. We anchored and went ashore.
     It was white as snow, which is what the powdery sand felt like. I rolled around and celebrated and swam in the turquoise-midnight-blue-aqua water. The colors were fantastic. I walked a long way on the beach to where the water mixed with sand to resemble the top of a capuccino. The beach also penetrated deep into the forest there, looking like a large, white desert. Where the water dipped into the beach, an enormous brown stingray ran past. Aaah, there's nothing like stunning nature to make you feel free.

peace and smiles,

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