We went for a sail down under

Julie Elliott

You can travel to the other end of the earth but it still looks like Scotland in the rain! This was the verdict on our first day sailing in the Whitsundays in Australia. We’d flown to Hamiliton Island from Sidney after 5 days of sightseeing, eating, drinking and me sneezing. I’d brought a cold with me and the 23 hour journey has horrendous. By the time we got to Hamilton I was well again and the island was beautiful. We joined our Sunsail boat, an Oceanis 321, in the Marina and had an entertaining briefing from Pete in blazing sunshine. Once he realised we’d sailed a bit and chartered before everything was `too easy’ and we had `no worries’!

Hamilton

Hamilton

We’d ordered provisioning for the boat as the islands are largely inhabited and once you leave Hamiliton there’s no chance to pick up any food, drink or water. Boxes and boxes of stuff arrived the next morning. It was incredible, more food than we’d normally get through in a month. To my horror it was all ingredients rather than ready meals- I have no cookery skills and ended up rushing round the few nearby shops to find a recipe book. Even then it couldn’t tell me what to do with a barramundi.

We set off the next day but sadly the weather wasn’t good. When I booked this I thought we were going off season (late September). However, here in the tropics, this was actually peak time when the weather is usually hot, sunny and dry with good winds. Wind- we certainly had plenty of that. Each day a strong wind warning was issued SE 25-30 knots. This also meant that a lot of attractive anchorages were too exposed to visit.

We left the Marina at 11.00am making a very smooth exit- laid back Aussies already. With the jib half unfurled in a confused sea, we passed between Dent Island and the lovely little Plum Pudding Island. Even with overcast skies the colour of the sea was a superb shade of tourqouise, it’s something to do with sediments in the water. As we headed out into more open water the sea was building and soon we were surfing down the waves with the dinghy attempting to mount the back of the boat. As we rounded Reef Point the sea flattened and 2 hours after setting off, we motored up to the anchorage to pick a spot in Cid Harbour amongst the many boats already there. As Alan dropped the anchor the heavens opened and he was as wet as if he’d stood under a shower. Meanwhile I sheltered under the bimini imagining I was back in the Clyde at Easter!

Every evening and morning the Sunsail boats call in their positions and plans on the `skeds’ or schedules. This means they can keep tabs on the whereabouts of their boats and we get useful information on conditions in different anchorages. This one was pretty bumpy as the `bullets’ rolled down the steep hill side.

We had a great dinner of corn on the cob and the barramundi cooked on the stern mounted gas barbecue by Alan in the dark- daylight disappears rapidly around 6.30pm. The heavens opened again just as a tall ship entered the anchorage, very atmospheric all lit up in the dark downpour.

Next morning I blew it on the skeds- couldn’t remember where we were going. It was Nara and our boat was called Elara, just couldn’t get my tongue round it. The wind was gusty from the South East but at least the sun was shining. Alan got the anchor up using the windlass- very welcome if a bit temperamental- in a squall at 10.30am. Soon we were surfing again with the motor running and a scrap of headsail out. Wearing our indestructible, unsinkable, un-blow-off-able Tilley hats (bought in Sidney) for the first time to protect us from the sun, this was more like it.

We entered Nara inlet and spotted a turtle in the water as we headed up towards the head of the mile long narrow inlet. We anchored a couple of hours after setting off and after lunch Alan went off to play in the dinghy. The pilot book `100 Magic Miles’ recommended landing at a little beach in the Inlet to walk up to see some aboriginal cave paintings. Having sussed it out Alan came back for me and we motored over in the dinghy to where some others were tied up. Unfortunately the tide was still quite high and we couldn’t get in. The waves were pushing us onto some rocks when without warning Alan leapt overboard to push us off, disappearing up to his waist. Not a thought for the sharks or crocodiles which could be lurking- what a hero! I was pathetic, shouting `don’t leave me, don’t leave me’ which Alan found highly amusing. We went back to the boat and tried again later at low water just before sunset. It’s got to be said that these Aborigines were not the greatest artists but still it was a chance to stretch our legs and take a `bush walk’. At evening skeds I corpsed again- couldn’t believe it and only just avoided swearing in exasperation on the radio!

Woke at the crack of dawn again and watched the sea eagles circling. The forecast was a bit better so we set off for Butterfly Bay where the snorkelling was supposed to be good and then Stonehaven for the night. When we got out there it was blowing harder than the day before. We got to Stonehaven but decided the shelter was poor so turned around and enjoyed a very exhilarating beat back down to Nara. At last we were having a cracking sail. We anchored higher up the inlet and that evening enjoyed some great barbecued prawns and a bottle or two of excellent Aussie white. We ended up singing and dancing to Dean Martin on the boat’s CD player and discovered we were entertaining the entire anchorage as the cockpit speakers were still on.

Woke at 6am and literally leapt out of bed as I was buzzed by a mossie- the only one of the holiday amazingly. Set off at 9.00 and had a cracking sail across the Whitsunday Passage to Long Island. It was amazing to think that Captain Cook passed by this way and the view has hardly changed. Sailing on a summer breeze at last doing 6 knots close hauled. By 11.30 we were off the tip of Long Island expecting shelter as we tucked in behind the island. Instead we got a strong wind funnelling through and we were tanking along at 7 knots on a beat- time to get some sail down as we were almost at our destination- Palm Bay.

Palm Beach

Palm Beach

Billed as a tropical hideaway resort, Palm Bay has only a dozen small and basic burres or cabins and will take up to 8 boats each evening. Access is through a narrow channel cut through the coral and the resort’s skipper guides you in and ties the boat to a palm tree on the shore. We went ashore and were amazed to see a huge lizard half way up the first palm tree we passed. Having a beer at the bar in jungle surroundings we saw our first wallaby and some great turkeys which are unique to this island. After a pleasant bushwalk, spotting another lizard and more wallabies, we relaxed in hammocks by the beach watching a wallaby play close by and taking photos of the idyllic setting. It just doesn’t get any better than this!

That evening kicked off with a gorgeous cocktail, a `Tropical Fling’, and then an excellent and inexpensive barbecue. Everyone disappeared quite early and we discovered why when we got back to the beach to find our dinghy high and dry. After much heaving and scraping on the coral we got it into the water, waking everyone up.

The jungle sounds at night were incredible. I was pleased to be sleeping in the boat rather than in a little hut. This was a fantastic place and it was a shame we had to leave to take the boat back. Having watched an over confident French skipper get his prop tangled on the way out we got the resort skipper cast us off – it was `too easy’. As we rounded the tip of Long Island the wind was on the nose so we tacked off and had a decent sail across towards Reef Point. Then, with the wind dying we motored down to Hamilton retracing the route of our first day, blue skies increasing all the way. Outside the Marina I called up Sunsail and they met us inside the Marina with one of the staff climbing aboard to take over and berth the boat- very helpful and impressive as he reversed effortlessly into a `pen’.

It had been a great week if not as hot and sunny as we’d hoped. But now we were ready for a bit of luxury- and did we get it! The next morning the Beach Club resort on the other side of Hamilton Island came to pick us up, in one of the golf buggies everyone drives around in instead of cars. As we got to the hotel the manager was waiting for us bearing cocktails on a tray- just like Blind Date I squealed to Alan. This, of course, was lost on him. If Cilla is looking for a great place to send her winning couples this is it. Our room was fantastic, more than living up to the brochure’s promise unusually, and had a superb view out over Catseye Bay. This was the best of a number of places to stay on the island and we could ask the hotel’s driver to take us anywhere on the island. All bars shops and restaurants ran a charging system so there was no need to carry money. The restaurants were superb and not especially expensive. At the Beach House restaurant we ate on the balcony watching manta rays swimming by in the shallows at the water’s edge below lit by the restaurant.

Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

But of everything we did and saw in Australia, the best was an hour’s flight in a tiny plane over the Great Barrier Reef at low water. The view of the islands from the air, picking out the places we’d sailed to and those we couldn’t make in the strong winds, was beautiful. Then out across the open sea to the Reef. It was stunning, almost unreal. We flew low over the Reef, Alan in the co-pilot seat getting a commentary from the pilot and me behind gasping and taking photos. We spotted sharks and rays swimming and saw waterfalls over the edge of the Reef which is built up in a series of shelves. This was about the best thing I’ve ever done and there was more to come. As we returned to the islands we passed Whitehaven Beach a 7 mile stretch of pure white silica sand with a shallow inlet at one end. Dried out at low water this was an incredible sight- even better that the postcards I’d seen, and that’s unusual. We were buzzing, this had been an amazing experience and now we finally knew it had been worth the long, long trek down under.

Would we recommend it? We’d seen some unforgettable things we’d never have otherwise seen- the Barrier Reef, Whitehaven Bay and Palm Bay. The wildlife had been great, a safari of wallabies, huge lizards, giant fruit bats, pretty parakeets and cockatoos, manta rays, turtles and sharks and we’d snorkelled amongst some beautiful fish. Nights out in The Rocks in Sidney were fun, lots of live music and Aussies `dancing like there’s no-one watching’. They are very friendly relaxed people. But there’s no denying it’s a `helluver’ long way. After an electric storm and a dramatic drop by the plane in turbulence over Kuala Lumpur I vowed never to fly again if I survived. No doubt the travel bug will return, but I don’t think I’ll venture so far next time. Perhaps George Jenkins is right- I’ll try Scotland next year.

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