I have a dream. At some point in the not-too-distant future, when I’ve made my first squillion dollars, my official residence will be an ostentatious and imposing home which dominates an exclusive hillside with a valley of poverty-stricken proletarians languishing beneath it. Aside from frequenting overpriced health retreats and brunching with self-obsessed socialites, who I can’t stand and who don’t really like me either, my daily routine will be restricted to berating my inept nail technician, panicking about which $1000 dress to wear to that charity do, and interfering with my jail-bait gardener.
Then again, maybe not. I could probably do the obligatory Aston Martin and Manolos, but cooing over co-ordinating Chanel handbags containing diminutive dogs in fairy frocks just isn’t me. I’d rather drink my own bile. But there is one thing the solid gold toilet seat clan flaunt that I would gladly sell my own grandmother for: the chance to don my deck shoes and rock open the boathouse for a day’s sailing whenever I wanted.
Not everyone knows someone whose friend’s dad’s cousin has a four-storey mega yacht that he’s happy to lend out. But there’s a reason Airlie Beach is such a mecca for travellers – a sailing trip to the spectacular Whitsunday Islands is a must-do, and it’s amazing how affordable it can be. People certainly don’t flock to Airlie no-Beach for the sausages.
Chugging out from the jetty, the twinkling town lights slowly dwindled into the distance as my boat left the hostel drinking games and jelly wrestling far behind. Except for the low hum of the engine, the only sounds were the light hubbub of conversation and clinking of glasses as crew and passengers popped open some bubbly to break the ice. There was a good mix of people – a few middle-aged and up-for-it Canadian couples, a few dewy-eyed lovers and some backpackers, and we spent a good few hours draining bottles and sussing each other out before turning in for the night.
With the engine cut and no goon-fuelled hi-jinx to interrupt my slumber, the motion of the boat quickly lulled me to sleep. I awoke the next day to a clear head and a cracking breakfast. As a newly initiated member of the diving world, I was really looking forward to getting into the water again, and after gearing up and finding a buddy, we were sinking down through the azure waters to explore the reef. When I did my PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructor) Open Water Certificate, the visibility had been shocking – about half a metre – so it was really my first descent into a world that I’ve only ever encountered in dental surgeries as a prelude to root canal surgery. (Dentists take note – fish really are soothing, but I’d still prefer a general anesthetic every time.)
LARA CROFT SWIMMING
After crashing unceremoniously onto the ocean floor, I inflated my BCD, then deflated it, then inflated again, and after much faffing around and bobbing about I found neutral buoyancy and floated weightless above the reef. The dive master motioned for us to follow him, and expertly finned away over the concoction of colour darting in and around the coral below. I followed dutifully, between narrow rock clefts and through murky twisting tunnels, twice getting my tank jammed and flailing pathetically until my buddy unhooked my gear and shoved me through.
Eventually we emerged into a chamber, where the light from the surface filtered down into the depths, slicing the space into great glimmering shafts. Dubbed the cathedral because of its cavernous size and ethereal glass window effect, it was more than worth the Lara Croft-style swim and is probably one of my favourite dives so far. (So what if I’ve only got eight under my weight belt? That’s not the point.)
The great thing about the reef is often you can see just as much snorkeling as you can diving, and it was after surfacing from a dive and getting back in the water that we spotted three majestic manta rays encircling each other; barely two metres below the surface. I’d seen a few reef sharks before, but watching those mammoth wings gliding gracefully through the water was just amazing.
The night dive was another first for me and was definitely an interesting experience, although the feeling that there could be a three metre tiger shark lurking just beyond the range of my torchlight was a little hard to shake off, and I did feel a little guilty for revelling in a brief spate of blood lust.
It all started so innocently… I was scanning the floor for resting fish, and once I’d picked out some bright colours in the narrow beam I kept the light trained on my new friend as I finned closer for a better look. No sooner had I started forward when a massive groper burst out of the darkness and swallowed poor little Nemo in one massive gulp. At first the sudden disappearance of my specimen was a source of annoyance, but soon I was actively seeking out prey for the hunters lurking just out of sight, quite taken with my new-found god-like power.
It was Roman Emperor syndrome: the “I choose you to be eaten, but I will let you live,” kind of thing. I probably got through five before I actually realised what I was doing, and that “cooo-el!” wasn’t the right response to subjecting animals to violent annihilation.
I was lucky I had hit the Whitsundays when I did – July wasn’t yet stinger season, so although the crew offered us the opportunity to hire a stinger suit, it wasn’t really necessary. They didn’t look particularly enticing – kind of like a svelte black baby gro for the discerning businessman’s weekend suburban shenanigans, but the definite no-no was watching the 70 year-old on our boat pulling one on. On his gangly and liver-spotted frame it looked less SAS frogman and more long-suffering gimp suit, abused for years and now sagging in all the well-worn places. Taking my chances with the jellyfish would be far less painful than that image, so I snorkelled au naturel and thankfully had no problems.
NAUTICAL BT NICE
There were so many amazing spots to visit around the islands that you couldn’t possibly see them all on one trip, but amongst others, our skipper dropped us at the famous Whitehaven Beach, with its 98 per cent pure silica sand. The weather was amazing, and in-between exploring the waves and some backyard cricket along the shore, the time passed far too quickly for my liking.
We did put the sails up once, but there was less than a gnat’s fart of wind and we did it more for the look of the thing than for any practical purpose. It would have been cool to wrestle with billowing sails and plough through foamy wave crests, but the calm meant the conditions were perfect for diving and I’d take good visibility over seasickness any day. And the boys did get to pull on ropes and look all manly and nautical while the ladies sunned themselves on deck, and that’s close enough to the OC for me.
Before being whisked off to the Whitsundays, you should get well-oiled in Airlie, writes Rosalind Scutt.
On the doorstep of the magnificent Whitsunday Islands lies the legendary Airlie Beach. Air-lie. The name struck me as unearthly, provoking notions of a fabled paradise. What would I find there? Immaculate beaches and infinite secluded lagoons? Lapping waters of azure blue and billowing shores of platinum sand? Waves breaking rhythmically around Brooke Shields’ naked thighs like in The Blue Lagoon?
My flight in was rough and after making the short trip from rural Proserpine airport to downtown Airlie Beach, I was relieved to see a good selection of pubs and cafes. I ordered a beer. I’d be on land for just one night and I was determined to experience Airlie Beach before rushing off to explore the Whitsundays.
”Which way to the beach?” I asked the barman at the pub with the blackboard advertising a weekly Wednesday night wet t-shirt competition. ‘Over there,’ said the Irishman pointing to what looked like brown mudflats. I surveyed the apparent beach from over the top of my glass. I’d seek it out later. For the moment I wanted to soak up the ambience.
It was one in the afternoon and about 32 degrees. The sky was an uninterrupted expanse of perfect blue and I was surrounded by a relaxed-looking group in sarongs and boardshorts. Groups of travellers sauntered past with beach bags and guitars and I counted three combies parked along the kerb of the main street. Finishing up, I followed the direction of the Irishman’s casual wave.
I walked the coast for a good half hour but found no beach. As if the gods had noted my disappointment, I walked straight into a lagoon. It wasn’t the kind of lagoon I’d expect to see Brooke spear-hunting supper in (this was man-made for a start). Nevertheless, it was a lagoon and I whipped off my bits and lay roasting in the tropical Queensland sun.
At the hostel that evening I sat poolside with a group of Americans drinking XXXX and discussing their recent seafaring expedition. They had been here a week and could confirm the following: sailing the Whitsundays was one of their best-ever life experiences; there is no beach at Airlie Beach and (most importantly to them) Bud is a better beer than XXXX.
Keen for some beer action, I grabbed a Brit and suggested we head back down to the main drag. We arrived in a heaving Irish pub on the night of the annual Halloween party. The rest of the evening was a surreal montage of Swedish girls in bikinis with witch’s hats and a lot of pushing in order to stand close to them.