Marooned in Queensland

BREATHTAKING BEAUTY: A spectacular sunset on the reef.
BREATHTAKING BEAUTY: A spectacular sunset on the reef.

Seahorse's departure heralds beer o'clock, announces Chammy, one of the "reef rats" aboard Reefworld, a pontoon anchored in the Great Barrier Reef about three hours' boat ride from Airlie Beach.

Our convivial host also offers wine, softies and sparklers to wash down the enormous platter of tropical fruit she has conjured up from thin air.

Chammy's culinary prowess is impressive, but the real pleasure of staying overnight at Reefworld is not sharing it with a crowd. Up to 12 people can sleep under the stars on the sundeck or in a room on any given night.

BIRDS-EYE VIEW: Reefworld pontoon.
BIRDS-EYE VIEW: Reefworld pontoon.

But there are just five other Reefsleep guests during my visit in addition to the reef rats, the dive instructors, maintenance crew and other staff.

On a lazily hot afternoon, it's enough to drink in the view of cloudless sky, sea and reef joining forces to produce endless shades of blue.

The marine life of Hardy Reef is similarly languid. George seems content to let clown fish play hide-and-seek around him while turtles drift over to nibble the seaweed on the pontoon's undercarriage before idly paddling away.

A more extravagant adventure is a chopper flight over this stretch of the Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is stunning from any angle, but an aerial view provides an idea of its vast size and vivid colours.

A highlight of the helicopter ride is circling the famed heart-shaped reef so beloved of tourism marketers and spotting some sun-loving dolphins.

Relief from the tropical heat is only a bellyflop away although wading into tropical waters during the wet season runs the risk of painful encounters with nasties like the Irukandji jellyfish. That is why donning a head-to-toe stinger suit that droops in all the wrong places is a must. (It also provides excellent sun protection.)

The dark stinger suits are in marked contrast to the vibrant coloured corals and extravagant stripes, spots and shades worn by the bewildering variety of tropical fish that call this part of the Great Barrier Reef home. And there's no shame wearing leopard print during the daytime in this part of the world.

But the fashion award at Reefworld undoubtedly belongs to the decorator crab, which chips off pieces of coral to stick on its back as a way to hide from predators and sticky-beach snorkellers. Friendlier are the giant wrasse and the odd reef shark that swim past to scare the budgie smugglers off unsuspecting swimmers.

Many fish undergo sex changes during their lives and in the underwater viewing chamber I learn that Wally, one of Reefworld's resident wrasses, used to be Wanda. Far North Queensland redneck reputation is clearly undeserved.

A tropical sunset over the water, washed down with Chammy's ample drinks menu, is a foretaste to a three-course dinner of seafood chowder and a feast of barbecued meat.

Formal dinners often pause at this stage for speeches, but dive instructor Mick, an amiable Kiwi, beckons us to the other end of the pontoon to prepare for a night dive. Descending into the great blue with no illumination other than waterproof torch is not everyone's idea of fun, but some of the Great Barrier Reef's inhabitants only show their best colours at night.

My previously snug diving suit is now like a sausage casing that makes my body resemble an unappetising Koch wurst. Regulators, air tanks and flippers complete the outfit and we're quickly in the water and ready to dive.

The first few minutes of a night dive can be eerie as you adjust to the gloom beyond the small beam of light produced by the torch. Dark thoughts enter the mind - like where is the water's surface? What happens if I lose track of my fellow divers and will George be angry if I bump into him?

Of course, diving night or day requires the same calm, commonsense and eye for the wonders of aquatic life. At night, less can be seen but the crabs, soldier fish, pipefish, trevally and epaulette shark we see are luminous, ghostly and startlingly beautiful.

At the end of the dive, we switch off our torches and wave our hands to produce showers of luminescence like stars shooting across the sky. Back on deck, Chammy dishes up sticky date pudding, which is eaten between yawns before we're stumbling upstairs to our swags.

There's a telescope available for avid stargazers but a hazy sky and sheer tiredness leave me gazing at the inside of eyelids instead. At sea, there are no mosquitoes or other biters to worry about, and the night in the swag is surprisingly restful.

Of course, sleeping outside in daylight saving-starved Queensland means an early wake-up. But with the next boatload of day-trippers not due until 11 o'clock, there is plenty of time to snorkel, swim and sunbathe without having to share.

Mick is testing our air tanks and explaining our next descent, a long drift dive that takes us into new territory along the coral wall, as the hordes descend on Reefworld. Squeezing into wetsuits and hoofing air tanks around can be strenuous, but a massage on the sundeck irons out any diving knots and kinks, leaving me blissfully relaxed for the cruise back to the coast.

Robinson Crusoe would be green with envy.

Sydney Morning Herald