Leaving Rainbow beach behind, we hopped onto the Greyhound bus for what was to be the first of three lengthy journeys over the next couple of weeks. Fortunately, our spirits were lifted when we met our incredibly entertaining bus driver who, when Dunc said where we were heading, loudly and camply declared "Oooh, you're going all the way with me then are you?" (Agnes water was the last stop on the line). Dunc grinned and responded with "Only if you get us there quickly", which seemed to tickle the driver and slightly relieve the mundanity of checking everyones bags onto the coach before departure. During our trip, this self same bus driver would go onto regale us with such wonderfully pointless pub quiz facts as "A banana is technically actually a herb, not a fruit" and "Kangaroos can delay the viability of a foetus for up to two years if there isn't sufficient food around". You learn something new every day.
Six hours (and one meal break involving a couple of cartons of chips 'n' gravy that were hungrily devoured) later, and we drifted into the miniscule resort town of Agnes Water. This is a particularly remote area on the east coast, as an access road was only sealed over in 2002 and as a result, the town gave off the impression of just coming around from a long sleep, and was all the more appealing because of it. We distinctly felt that we were catching the town just before it started to get really popular and for once, got the feeling that we had strayed just a little from the well trodden backpacker trail. Indeed, there were numerous building projects already starting to spring up around the area, and we figured that in 5-10 years, this little community would have pretty much been swallowed up and turned into another Noosa or Byron Bay, which would be a great shame.
Our residency for our time here was the newly purpose built hostel known as 'Cool Bananas'. First impressions were definitely positive with shiny wooden floors, big tv, friendly staff and the comfortable air of being a guest in someones house. A good start, we both thought, and some consolation being as we were staying in dorms for the first (and last) time on our trip, and were not overly enthused at the prospect. We arrived just in time to see Roger Federer turn over Marcos Baghdatis in the Aussie open tennis final, and sat contentedly taking it all in on huge comfy bean bags, occasionally pausing to say to each other "we've been there, you know".
The relaxed atmosphere in the hostel suddenly took a turn for the adrenal when someone outside hollered "Snake!". We lept from our seats and rushed to see what the furore was all about. Sure enough, calmly slithering up a tree right by the front door, illuminated by several closely clutched torches, was a tree python. The owner made a point of saying that, as it was a python and not fully grown, that it couldn't hurt you. Having clearly noticed some eager faces getting rather close to the beast (Vickie included... Dunc wanted no part of any reptile found in Australia), he swiftly back-tracked and pointed out that no-one should touch it because there is actually a rather dangerous local snake that looks just like this python, and he occasionally gets the two of them muddled up. The assembled throng took a few collective steps backwards in sync.
As the sun was high in the sky and shining brightly the following day, we elected to take a couple of boogie boards down to the local beach and potentially catch some waves. This plan soon became a little less solid when, upon approaching the beach, we noticed a large and brightly written warning sign, extolling the dangers of dipping oneself into the nearby ocean. Apparently "Several Marine Stingers!" inhabit the area in the summer months, including jellyfish and stonefish. We blanched at the sign, and our boogie boards got turned into impromtu sun loungers instead as neither of us was going anywhere near the water now. After limp-wristedly spending the rest of the morning lounging on the beach, we headed back to the hostel for a truly soporific afternoon of sitting, staring off into the distance and reaquainting ourselves with a former friend from Fiji, the hammock.
As we were staying in a dorm, Vickie began to grow increasingly paranoid about people leaving our front door open in the evenings and therefore letting roving mosquitos in to doubtless feast on her flesh whilst she slept. She needn't have been so concerned as a potentially far more irritating problem was sat (or rather crawling) much closer to home. After having a reasonable nights sleep, she woke up to find one forearm pretty much covered in bright red, highly itchy welts stretching in a line from her elbow halfway to her wrist - a total of no fewer than 11 bites. This had to be the work of mosquitos she thought, and as a result spent the rest of the day complaining bitterly and thrusting her arm into a 4kg bag of ice purchased from the nearby supermarket. The following night, she awoke to the apparent sound of a mosquito buzzing nearby, and got up from her bed, poked her head over to the top bunk that Dunc was staying on, and whispered "I've had enough, i want to go home". It was not a restful night. As it turned out, the savage little biters weren't airborne at all, but were hiding ominously in the bed frame. We had bed bugs in our dorm.
That afternoon, whilst Dunc pottered on the internet, a local hippy looking chap ambled into the hostel offering free facials. Calling himself rather grandly "The Clay King", he proceeded to cover anyone within reach with an unusual pastey substance known as Crystal clay that was supposed to clean pores, soften skin, make the teas, clean the bathroom and take the kids to school amongst other remarkable properties. It was also supposed to relieve the itching caused by bites so, needless to say, Vickie dashed over and got her arm caked in the stuff. The Clay king helpfully offered in earnest that he thought her bites were from a caterpiller...... Stick to facials, Clay King!
Vickie needed cheering up, so Dunc aquiesed to them heading off to the local supermarket to buy her some chocolate (Purely for medicinal purposes, of course). On the way we stopped by an unusally loud tree. This was odd, we thought, as trees aren't well known for making all that big a racket. Upon closer inspection, we spotted a flock of raucous and brightly coloured little parrots - Vickie then added yet another animal to her list, which was now resembling something akin to the one noah had when it started getting a touch damp underfoot - busying themselves with nothing in particular. As we craned our necks to get a better view, a local drifted past on a bike and asked us if we knew what they were. We responded in the positive, to which he copped a sly grin and told us that they were "A pack of bloody nuisances". Charming. Well we liked them anyway.
Airlie Beach/The Whitsunday islands
After popping back a couple of drowsiness inducing anti-histamenes, we sluggisly boarded our ongoing bus trip, which was a 10 hour overnighter between Agnes Water and Airlie Beach, where we would be sailing in the much hyped Whitsunday Islands. We got a small shuttle bus out to the highway where the greyhound would meet us. Said bus stop basically consisted of a patch of gravel in the middle of a field, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Once on the greyhound, sitting through the Richard Dreyfus movie "Mr Hollands Opus" worked just nicely to send us off to the land of nod for a while. 6 hours into the journey, and we had to leave the coach (it was now 3:30am) due to a drivers rest stop. We yawned our way into the small service station, not really registering the unusally crunchy ground underfoot. A quick toilet trip and conversation with the cashier later, and we suddenly became aware of the net covered windows. They were plastered (and we mean this) with hundreds of beetle-looking insectoids, and we had trodden on many more of the several thousand carpeting the forecourt on our way to the shop. Time to get back on the bus. We tentatively tip toed back to the coach in surprisingly agile fashion before struggling back to sleep for the remainder. We were most definitely in the tropics now!
Arriving in Airlie beach, we were picked up by our hostel bus driver, a chatty Essex lad who promised us breakfast as soon as we got back to the hostel. One impressive breakfast (including home made chocolate muffins no less) and morning recovery nap later, we left to explore the town and check ourselves onto our vessel for the sailing trip out to the islands. Airlie beach itelf was actually a pretty place, with the bright blue water set against the multitude of shiny yachts drifting around in the harbour creating a very pleasant view. It was about this time that we noticed more huge yellow warning signs going into great detail on the many jellyfish species found in these waters, including what they looked like, symptoms they induced, and possible treatments. The typically Aussie nicknames bestowed on these beasts such as "Snotty" and "Blubber" made them no cuter in the slightest. Duncs chances of persuading Vickie to go snorkelling around the islands took yet another dive as she obsessed over the sign for a loooong time, particularly the paragraph on resussitation.
Dunc eventually managed to peel an ashen-faced Vickie away from the warning sign and get her over to the nearby Oz Sail office so we could check onto our boat. We were not overly impressed by the seemingly disinterested check-in staff, but vowed not to let it dent our enthusiasm for the trip ahead. One supermarket trip to stock up on water and more "goon" later, and we were ready to take to the sail.
As we headed to the marina, we met our "host" for the trip, a very cheerful Kiwi called Robyn who would be (and we quote) "Our Galley Wench" for the next three days. Tristian the "skipper" was already aboard (as it turns out, he was frantically trying to fix a broken engine, but more on that later). We also met the remainder of our group, and it was quite an eclectic mix, to be sure. We had an almost entirely non-english speaking Italian family complete with two small children, and a timid and very reserved British couple. Upon initially booking our trip, we had specified that we wanted a smaller boat with fewer people, and it looked like we'd got what we wanted, albeit in a very strange way. The boat was delayed leaving the harbour (as it turned out, due to said engine problems) so we were led to a cafe for a complimentary drink from Robyn before eventually leaving.
Upon boarding, we met Tristian, who looked about 18 and was to be in charge during our trip. We also met "Miss Snorkel" who dished us out our requisite 'Stinger suits' to hopefully protect us from Jellyfish during our snorkels. Vickie reluctantly took one but stressed in no uncertain terms that she probably wasn't getting into the water. Dunc had long since given up trying to presuade her otherwise. The boat itself was, rather dissapointingly, a bit on the shabby side, and we wandered around looking less than impressed at what we'd bought into. Even so, we were pleased to claim one of the slightly larger 'shoeboxes' (Sorry... rooms) at the back of the boat, and resolved not to let it disrupt our trip. However, the engine had other plans. About 500 yards out of the marina, it promptly crapped out (to use a technical term), causing us to limp rather slowly towards our first destination in less grand fashion than we were hoping.
Nontheless, we enventually made it, and disembarked onto a small beach - where Vickie steadfastly refused to move from - and Dunc "suited up" to head into the drink for a bit of a look around. A couple of hours later, we contiuned our journey to our overnight mooring spot. The trip was defintely enlivened by us managing to spot a large pod of enormous dolphins, a Dugong (or Manatee) which are apparently very rare, the odd Turtle (which, whenever anyone said 'ooh look, its a Turtles head', Dunc giggled childishly to himself at the toilet humour connotations straight out of the pages of "Viz"), and rather less pleasingly, large amounts of Jellyfish.
After a spot of dinner, we settled in to watch the sun set with some "goon". We then promptly polished off the bulk of the 4 litre carton between the two of us, and stayed up late after everyone else had gone to bed running up and down the deck shining a torch into the water to see what we could spot. This was not just a drunken exercise in foolishness however, as we actually were treated to quite the wildlife specatcle. As we shone the torch into the water, we observed huge fish with bulging red eyes hunting smaller agile fish that seemed to dart over the surface of the water like a skimming stone. We also managed to see several bright red squid arrowing around in the water underneath us. It was a pretty brutal feeding frenzy, as everything in the water attempted to eat everything else. Completly fascinating and engaging stuff, which kept us amused long into the night. This was probably just as well as the remaining heat and humidity was making it almost impossible to sleep below decks, and we only managed to grab about an hours sleep just as the sun came up.
Lack of sleep and over indulgance on the "goon" meant that the following morning was not the finest of our lives. However, we had the prime reason for our trip to look forward to, Whitehaven Beach. This famous inlet is home to one of the finest beaches on the planet, covered in silica sand that is actually made up of tiny pieces of quartz and is so fine, that a large chunk of it was used to make the glass in the hubble telescope. First up though, was a trek through the forest to the hill inlet viewpoint to cast our eager (if still slightly bleary) eyes out over the area. It was nothing short of magnificant. When the sun peeked out from behind the cloud, the water seemed to light up in bright shades of green and blue wherever it hit, and the sand looked as white as snow. Vickie remarked that it looked like some sort of creamy dessert (Dunc figured this was probably more due to her craving ice cream than anything else). Even the plague of persistant March Flies buzzing around the area didn't dent our enjoyment of this magical spectacle, and we spent many long minutes doing nothing other than simply soaking it all in and wondering if our photos would do it justice. They don't even come close.
Heading down onto the vast and surprisingly empty beach itself, we began childishly scuffing our feet in the sand to hear it squeak, and struggled to find any analogies to compare the texture underfoot to. The water was as bright a blue as anywhere we'd seen before, and it was only the ever present jellyfish that prevented us from dashing out into the shallows and splashing about exuberantly. It all got a bit much for Vickie after walking up and down the shoreline when she ran forwards into an empty unspoilt area of sand and proceeded to launch into a giggling (and surprisingly agile) cartwheel. Dunc figured he'd probably hurt himself in such tomfoolery, so contented himself with catching her antics on camera as he lounged on the sand.
Regretfully, we eventually had to leave. We needn't have been upset though because we actually managed to take a good deal of the beach with us. Dunc in particular was caked in the remarkably stubborn Whitehaven sand, and it was many days and many showers before he could completely rid himself of it and declare himself sand free. Tristian was late picking us up from the beach, and it wasn't until we were back on board that we found out why. The engine was "buggered" and the battery was flat. Fortunately, we were on a sail boat so put the sails up to head out. One problem though, there wasn't any wind. We half sailed, half drifted up towards our next stop, never quite figuring if we were going forwards or backwards. In fact, Dunc could have sworn he noticed a queue of impatient turtles gathered behind our vessel, shaking their fins at us and imploring us to "Get out of the shipping lane slowcoach, we've got places to be, you know!"
Our next stop was Dumbell point, and it allowed Tristian to scoot over to a nearby ship and get some help fixing the engine whilst we busied ourselves with some more snorkelling. If the snorkelling at our first spot was ok, then this was in a different league. As Dunc drifted through the sea, he was mobbed by shoals of Zebra fish and Fusiliers, all around his mask and peering curiously at him. The coral was bright and widly varied, and the area was simply teeming with colourful and exotic marine life. He climbed back on board grinning and loudly exlaiming just how fantastic it was down there. After 10 minutes or so, he noticed Vickie slowly and deliberately putting her stinger suit on. Incredibly enough, she'd decided to take the plunge. However, this was only on two conditions. One, she took a float with her (To potentially batter any shark or Jellyfish with apparently), and two, Dunc was absolutely NOT allowed to swim off on his own.... he had to stay with her at all times. This seemed fair enough and we both decended once more into the ocean. Vickie was not dissapointed, and after spending a good 20 minutes interacting with the wonderful creatures in the coral, she returned beaming to the boat exclaiming it to have been "Ace!". Can't argue with that.
We moored up in the same spot as the previous night and after a much more comfortable nights sleep, were awoken to the boat chugging along, pitching and rocking violently. Dunc staggered into the main cabin to get stuck into some breakfast, and ended up with Vegemite all over him when a particularly large swell knocked the contents of the table all over his lap. Food was defintely not on the agenda for Vickie though, as motion sickness rapidly began to get the better of her, and she rapidly headed up onto deck to take some deep breaths and get her stomach under control. Fortunately it wasn't long before we rounded an island and pulled up in the relative calm of Manta Ray bay - one of the reputedly finest snorkelling spots in the whole island group. Again, Dunc eagerly suited up and launched right in, but not before we had been greeted by a gang of substantial 2 foot and circular shaped Batfish who had popped up to say hello and hopefully get a feed. Sure enough, Tristian dropped some bread in for them, as well as the contents of our small dinghy which amounted to a small fish and rather larger squid that had thrown themselves into it in the middle of the night before becoming marooned.
Once in the water Dunc was treated to another simply incredible display. The Batfish drifted around close enough to touch, and further inland towards the coral, there were large numbers of brightly coloured and hulking parrot fish as well as innumerable shoals of other reef creatures. However, he did also notice a preponderance of Jellyfish in the area, including a Box Jellyfish - needless to say, he steered well clear. He neglected to mention this to Vickie when he returned to the boat for fear of her refusing to get into the water and thus miss out on all the sights below. The subterfuge was successfull, and she once more put her trepidation to one side and joined Dunc as we swam arm in arm over the otherworldly spectacle below. As we drifted in towards the shore, we noticed a trio of multi coloured squid shimmering in the sunlight just ahead of us. These intelligent (and very rare during daylight hours apparently) creatures appeared to be watching us rather intently, trying to figure out just what these large clumsy beasts were doing on their patch. We stared in awe at these surprisingly beguiling and beautiful animals for quite some time before returning to the boat.
As we slowly climbed back onto the boat, Robyn pointed out that there was a rather large "Snotty" Jellyfish just by the steps. Almost simultaneously, Dunc felt a sharp sensation across his mouth, and mentioned that he thought he'd copped a bit of a sting. Vickie shot up the steps and onto the deck incredibly swiftly (especially as she still had her flippers on), leaving Dunc to climb the steps afterwards and douse his mouth in Vinegar to calm everything down. Luckily enough, it wasn't a serious sting, and it wasn't from a particularly nasty jellyfish, so all was well within a few minutes, despite Vickie staring intently at him looking for any signs of deterioration and asking how long a helicoptor would take if we needed to call one out. She was, it seemed, all done with snorkelling.
A brief lunch stop and one more snorkel site later, and it was time to put the sails up and grab hold of the now much more prevalent wind to head back to port. The gusty ferocity of the wind seemed to catch our skipper by surprise a touch though, when the boat leaned to almost a 90 degree angle, leaving Dunc clinging onto the railings on the high side, and a panic stricken Vickie lying vertically on the low side with her legs submerged in the water. It was all very adrenalin packed for a couple of minutes until the main sail was swiftly rolled in to lessen the chances of us capsizing completely. As we clung to the railings on the way back, we spotted yet more of the incredible wealth of wildlife in the area including a huge leaping Tuna, more turtles and a large leopard shark casually drifting past. Despite the shabby boat and dodgy engine, we agreed that we'd had a fantastic experience sailing around a magical part of the world.
Back on the mainland, Dunc struck upon a plan. We headed into town and - very politely - registered a complaint with Oz Sails parent company regarding the state of the boat. A couple of phone calls later (including some slightly comical moments when Dunc was debating the validity of his complaint with the Oz sail rep), and we were awarded a $100 refund. That'll do nicely. Dunc remained slightly smug for the rest of the afternoon as we lounged in the man made lagoon and awaited our next bus to Cairns and one of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef.