Whenever I’m told stories about the Whitsundaysand Airlie Beach I come away with what can only be described as a traveller’s gag-reflex – the lure of extreme beauty contrasted with extreme nastiness.
The stories always depict this area of Queensland as some sort of Nordic sex camp, where debauchery and drunken soirees run rampant like Viking adventures of yore. And I’d still believe that’s all there is to this place. Until I got to go there myself.
Now granted I’m not a 19 year-old lad on his gap year here to impregnate anything warm and accommodating (or even just warm), but I’m anything but geriatric. Sure, I’ve woken up next to my fair share of bar-wenches and stolen street-signs – but I figured if you’re gonna do this properly you’ve gotta see both sides.
I guess it always helps when things are sprung on you by surprise. Despite my earnest wishes for a quiet weekend in bed the offer of a quick trip through Queensland’s northern islands was too good to pass up. So with a light bag packed I suddenly found myself sitting on a cheap flight from Sydney to Proserpine instead of face down drooling into my pillow.
Plonked down in the seat next to me it appeared a fellow Whitsunday cynic had come along forthe ride. Within minutes of takeoff I’d offended her with my generally obnoxious over-confident demeanour (and horribly inappropriate sense of humour), and she’d informed me we shared similar preconceptions about Airlie Beach and its surrounds. We were both in for a pleasant surprise.
Landing in Proserpine airport is more like pulling into an outback service station than your regular airport terminal. With what can only be described as a large shed with a metal detector,the local check-in involves disembarking the plane onto a field of palms and the smell of warm grass to collect your baggage off the back of a trailer and then we climbed into a van.
As the van pulled onto the main street of Airlie I could put an image to the stories I’d been fed so many times. We cruised past street-side bars where tables get danced on (and gutters regurgitated in) while a steady mix of young boardshorted men weaved in and out of bikini-clad girls, maintaining at least the appearance of sobriety.
The better part of the two days I’d be spending up here was going to be on a boat. A large catamaran capable of carrying 70 people was going to be rolling the 35 of us around theWhitsunday waters in luxury, and I certainly liked the sound of that. Assembling in the front courtyard of a bar at one end of town, our tour group was given a quick heads-up of theweekend’s itinerary. To make this short, she basically said: “Get on the boat, get drunk if you want and enjoy yourself.” Done.
MAIDEN OF THE SEA
A short scenic walk along the shore to the marina took us to our boat. It was a gloriously maintained maiden of the sea – eager to get her young pirates on board for some afternoon sailing and perhaps a mild bout of seasickness. Greeting us on the starboard side was thecaptain, a French-accented fellow who I was later told was a Czech with identity issues, a Yankee lass with no volume knob and an Australian who could obviously put up with the other two. “The Czench” guy then gave us the rules of the boat (something about holding on at all times and not overdoing it on the toilet paper) before taking us out of port.
As the mainland got smaller behind us, the restless patrons of the boat began to mix amongst themselves. It was a scurvy mix of Irish, English, Germans and Canadians slowly getting to know each other, through the universal social lubrication of alcohol and goodwill. One Canuck, who I can only remember as “Scarface”, was particularly friendly to one of my fellow writers, even so much as to divulge the elaborate tale of how he got the beautiful scar across his face – apparently climbing along the rafters of a bar into a ceiling fan can have facially altering effects.
As the water passed under the boat, so too did the stress of work and the usually underlying feeling of having forgotten I should be doing something. It was surprisingly peaceful and incredibly comfortable. It was mildly overcast, but behind those clouds, I could tell there was a postcard-perfect sky trying to win me over.
The leisurely trip over to South Molle Island took what seemed like 20 minutes, but was in reality more like two hours. Two hours of shooting the shit with complete strangers, being heckled for my choice of beverage (future tip: always pretend to like beer) and being mistaken for the boat’s Canadian photographer.
We tied off at the wharf and began to disembark into the resort. That’s right – resort. This place is unreal, three-and-a-half stars of tropical goodness. A palm tree-lined beach hides a full-featured resort on South Molle. There’s a nine hole golf course, swimming pool, spa, bars, and even a gym. There’s two options out here – the $299 three day package of dormitory friendliness, or the $360 live-like-a-pimp version, which upgrades your digs to a private room with ensuite, plus TV and amenities. Whatever your tastes might be – and I’ll assume they involve Swedish sisters (though you’re just watching) – mine says a comfortable night’s sleep in your own room for a small cost-bump is nothing. So after dumping my bags and enjoying theview from my balcony I ducked out for a few laps of the chlorine box. Leaning up against theedge of the pool and glancing around you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Hawaii, or Tahiti. This part of tropical Queensland has all the hallmarks of your movie-scene tropical island, tucked neatly away just a couple of hours north of Brisbane. I could easily get used to it here…
Swinging round to a large open air hut at one end of the resort, our tour group sat down to a fully prepared meal by the water. This seemed like an obligation to some people who looked eager to let the night’s liquid-fuelled festivities begin. The hosts got everyone in the social mood by lining people up along the long bench tables for some classic drinking game carnage. Boat races kicked things off, with Team “Our Side of the Table” taking an early win, before Team “Your Side of the Table are a Bunch of Poxy Wankers” pegged one back with the “scull and swap clothing” round. The other team were a little less imaginative in the “down your drink and make a sexual position with the person next to you” event (too much missionary and not enough wheelbarrows for my liking) so I think they may have come in second overall. Fearing I’d see the contents of my stomach all over the boat the next morning, I retired to my room at a fairly reasonable hour, leaving behind a breakdancing Irishman, a couple still attempting what looked like reverse-cowgirl and “Jump Around” getting a thorough dancing to on thetables.
Returning to the hut for breakfast in the morning there were some plainly obvious victims ofthe previous night. As I polished off my bacon and eggs I overhead one English guy say he remembered going back to his dorm and ploughing some brunette girl, but that’s all he could muster up from his drunken memory, while the girl, no doubt sitting within earshot, proceeded with her cornflakes either oblivious or having no memory of it herself. Then the German girls sitting next to me filled me in on their night’s highlights, including the big Irish guy that was in their dorm stumbling home in a drunken state normally reserved for mine-workers and falling asleep on the top bunk, only to wake up on the floor in his own blood – having opened himself a second smile on his chin.
After breakfast we all loaded back onto the boat and settled in for the trip over to Whitehaven Beach. Some list named it as the third best beach in the world, so it had big sandy shoes to fill – and I don’t take disappointment too well, I blame my parents. As the boat bounced over thelight swell it was easy to see who enjoyed last night the most. One guy sat at the rear of theboat in shades of green and white, while others re-swallowed their breakfast for the third or fourth time. Even the young blonde journalist next to me was praying for a brief calm. I imagine in this section of her story she wrote how she calmly braved the choppy sea – but in reality she was soft and pale as a ghost, and desperately wanted to procreate with the well-toned Aussie dive instructor.
The rise and fall of the swell quickly receded though as we approached Whitehaven – a sweeping arc of gorgeous white sand and turquoise water, dotted with tour boats and a lone seaplane. It’s a popular spot and it’s easy see why. Shipwrecked explorers could not have found more idyllic scenery to end up on. Given a two-hour shore leave I de-shirted and swam in to shore, leaving the less swim-crazy to be ferried in by a small runabout. The Euro-boys got stuck into a game of “keepy-uppy” with a flat basketball, the girls went through each other’s photo collections while I, in the interests of personal fitness, went for a jog on the third greatest beach in the world. Returning in desperate need of a swim, I grabbed a snorkel and mask and headed out to the southern tip of the beach where some lively coral growths spring out fromthe point. Floating lazily along the shallow reef with a school of batfish, while smaller colourful finned-friends dart in and out of the living mass, is a pretty good way to spend a Sunday afternoon – hell – any afternoon.
By the time I pulled the apparatus off my face and headed in, people were making their way back out to the boat. Savouring my time on Whitehaven, I opted for the last runabout back and snapped off a few photos as the sun came bursting through the late August cloud onto theshores below.
Back on board the crew were preparing lunch. A classic serving of Aussie sandwich mastery. Salads and most meats known to man were laid out to recharge the reserves of those on board – and I had no problem creating a sandwich that could’ve offended all social groups at once. If you ever get the chance to make a ham-pastrami-chicken-tuna-beef-salad sandwich let me know. With the sun now shining and the sails up I thought it was about time to get some sun on my glorious moon-tanned torso and I sat back with a bourbon to relax as we made our way back to South Molle Island. Dive instructor Nick gave the afternoon’s divers a quick run-through of the activity. For $65 anyone can get a full-featured guided dive on the reef off the resort, which is pretty awesome considering you can be a complete dive-virgin and be out on the reef that afternoon without even looking at an open-water licence. It probably helps that Nick is one of those guys that dads hope their sons will grow up like and that their daughters won’t bring home – if you catch my drift. A classic Aussie surfer-type with a good sense of humour and a decent pitch.
So the boat powered home, as its passengers prepared for their afternoons under the water or on the turps. I opted for a leisurely afternoon in the pool and spa (and a quick circuit throughthe gym if I could be bothered) before hitting the poolside bar for some cocktails. When theothers returned from their dive they all seemed really impressed with the reef. I must’ve seemed really impressed by the pina coladas and mudslides. They said the reef was breathtaking. I can’t remember what was for dinner that night. But as we finished up our meals, the crew got the drinking games started again – and the thought of chasing beers at this point made me cringe. Sneaking back to the poolside bar for one more mudslide, I couldn’t help but wonder if the previous night’s antics would repeat themselves. Would our forgetful Irishman end up with the same non-descript brunette?
The next morning I went to the bathroom to turn on the light but realised that wasn’t necessary as I was a glowing pink beacon of sunburnt glory. Daaaaaamn. That’s gonna peel something rotten. I spent the last few hours wandering around the island shooting photos. I wanted to keep as many tropical memories of this fantastic weekend. Images of swaying palms and island resorts normally reserved for expensive South Pacific getaways. Images I could remember once I was back in the daily grind of Sydney, and traffic, and work.