Shooting the breeze in The Whitsundays
In the Whitsunday Islands, Candida Baker finds even when there's no wind, life is still a breeze.
So there we are, in the middle of the ocean, and not a breath of wind in sight.
We've come to the beautiful Whitsundays for a week's sailing and even I, as a non-sailor, know that wind is kind of essential. Not only that but because the other half has never experienced the Whitsundays without wind, he hasn't bought quite enough petrol with him, so we're not sure if we've got enough to get back to Whitsunday Island, where we're camping for four nights. It's all a little bit hairy, if you get my drift, which is certainly what we were doing - drifting. Not only that, but something's gone wrong with the motor and it's not working.
Surely there must be wind somewhere, we beseech the sky, which taunts us with tiny little gusts from every direction at once.
Finally, the motor decides to splutter into life and, having had to give up on our attempt to get to a snorkelling spot, we opt for lunch in one of the many beautiful coves that dot the edges of these tropical islands. We drop anchor in May Bay among the million-dollar motor-boats and try to look as if, at least because we've got sails, we're superior, which would be all well and good if the sails were actually working. We dive into the clear blue water then eat a delicious picnic lunch on deck. It's enough to restore our optimism entirely, and even better, the wind picks up.
Unfortunately, the only large gust of wind of the day arrives at the very moment we discover the anchor is stuck deep down below - probably snagged on some coral - and we're heading at high speed for one of those expensive motor boats, and I have no idea what I'm doing. Disaster is averted by a millimetre, the anchor finally obliges, and we sail for 500 metres before the wind disappears.
Apparently, this is what sailing is all about - hours of boredom, minutes of adrenalin and moments of panic and pandemonium. We motor slowly back to our temporary home on Dugong Beach with our sails between our legs and wonder exactly how we'll manage to do the snorkelling trip we've planned at Blue Pearl Bay the next day, and get back to Shute Harbour in Airlie Beach the day after if we have no wind and not enough fuel.
But in a way, these adventures are part of what we wanted - a down-to-earth (or sea), real-life holiday as far away from the madding crowds as possible. Dugong Beach on Whitsunday Island has only eight camping spots, metres from the edge of the beach, fringed with shade, and walks to Sawmill Beach, or if you're feeling fit, to the top of Whitsunday Peak. It's picturesque and peaceful. Soon after we arrive, we are the only two people on the island, with only the resident curlews and goannas for company. We take our chairs down to the sand, watch the lazy resident turtle bob across the bay, and feel very privileged indeed.
Now, though, we're lucky in a different way - experiencing the kind of friendly helping hand I've found is often extended on holidays and I hope I've offered in the past.
We meet a couple, Liz and Paul McCarthur, who both work on Hamilton Island, and are taking a few days out camping on Dugong. They offer to take us snorkelling in their motor-powered runabout and we accept their offer gratefully.
If yachts need wind, motorboats most certainly don't and skimming across the flat ocean the next morning is a treat in itself before we even arrive at Blue Pearl Bay. On the way, we pass Hook Island and Hayman Island and, when we arrive at the bay, one of the lovely things about it is there is every kind of boat there - massive old clippers redone as charter boats, private yachts and motorboats and smaller charter boats. There's even a custom-designed boat that ferries holidaymakers from Hayman Island and drops them straight on the beach.
It's a long, thin flat-bottomed affair with three genteel steps forrard (that's a nautical term, just so you know I was paying attention), so people can walk down on to the coral beach and straight into the water.
And what water it is. This is not my first snorkelling experience on the reef, but it is certainly the best so far. As soon as we slide into the water, we are surrounded by fish of all shapes, sizes and colours - angel fish, butterfly fish, the exquisitely coloured parrot fish and the highlight of this particular bay, the incredibly friendly, curious and massive murray wrasse, which follows snorkellers about in an almost dog-like fashion.
Murray wrasse can live to the ripe old age of 30 and can grow up to two metres long, but are still on the endangered list because of their reputation as a fine fish to eat.
One of the most extraordinary things about snorkelling is not only the invisible presence of this brightly coloured underwater world below the surface of the sea but the blissful silence. I drift through the water, schools of fish twisting and turning around me, and feel completely at peace.
Back at Dugong, we watch the sun turn the sea a golden orange; in the morning we wake to the turquoise, still waters of our little beach where I manage to cook some strangely imaginative meals over our one gas burner.
The cheeky bush rat, the shy potoroo and the tiny marsupial mouse are all visitors to our campsite and no night would be complete without the mournful wailing of the curlews. Every morning I wake to the sight of the beautiful hoop pines that cover this and all the 74 islands of the Whitsunday group, and thank god that they have not been completely deforested.
As the days go by, we become increasingly grateful that we have a tiny luxury in the form of the shower tent for our solar powered shower bought just before we left.
I'd had the foresight to make a bargain - five days sailing and island living in return for two nights of luxury. Clever me. By the time we sail, with a little helpful motor power, of course, since there is still hardly any wind, into Shute Harbour, I'm more than ready for a little luxury.
I've chosen Peppers Airlie Beach as our destination and the resort is perfect. A large one-bedroom apartment with a huge spa bath and an even larger deck overlooking the new port harbour complex is exactly what is needed for restoration. The restaurant serves delicious tropical meals and is right next to the wet-edge pool - very easy to go from eating to swimming and back to sleeping.
It's also a perfect antidote to the 75 (I counted) sandfly bites I unfortunately collect. Warning: take the strongest mosquito repellent that exists and wear it permanently. Ah, tropical island holidays!
Airlie Beach is a perfect holiday town. The European-style restaurants and cafes along the tree-lined boulevard next to the park are beach are full, the child-safe lagoon offers relief for families and children on holidays, and there's plenty of shopping in the main street.
What the Whitsundays offer is the best of all worlds - a holiday destination everybody can enjoy on any budget.
For me, the mix of adventure and luxury is perfect.
To get to Airlie Beach fly Virgin or Jetstar to Proserpine. There are regular shuttle buses to Airlie, which is about 40 minutes away, or hire a car from Proserpine.
At Airlie, Shute Harbour has plenty of charter boats on offer. For most of the boats no boat licence is required, and some companies, such as Bare Boat Charters, offer shorter charters of three, four or five nights, see airliebeach.com/bareboatcharters/welcome.html. You can hire anything from a small yacht to a sailing or powered catamaran, a motor-boat, a luxury crewed power cruiser, or a crewed sailing ship. According to charteryachtsaustralia.com.au/, the cheapest charter is around $440 a night for a yacht that will carry a maximum of four up to around $1800 a night for a sailing catamaran which takes up to 10 people; the sky's the limit on the luxury crewed boats. Charter companies offer boat tuition and help is just a radio call away.
Many of the Whitsunday Islands offer camping. See nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/.
MORE INFORMATION tourismwhitsundays.com.au