THIS travel tales begins where all good journeys should, back in my hometown of Brisbane at my temple of worship…the Regatta bottle shop. I don’t usually dash to the bottle-o just before I’m about to fly to another destination, but I have just learned that my next stop is BYO, I can’t bring any glass, and red wine is also forbidden. And so I find myself in a peculiar pickle, hunting for the finest chateaux cardboard that can be carried, along with my clothes, in a 20 litre dry pack.
I’m off to the Whitsundays as part of the first media contingent to return to the region after tropical Cyclone Debbie hit on March 28 causing an estimated billion dollars worth of destruction during the 36 hours it raged. The Category 4 cyclone, the worst since Cyclone Ada hit in 1970, destroyed 93 boats in Airlie Beach and took out the town’s electricity and water in some parts for up to 16 days. Both Hayman and Daydream Islands were extensively damaged, and will not reopen until 2018. Hamilton Island also sustained damage, but reopened a week after the cyclone. On the mainland at Airlie Beach, the Airlie Beach Hotel is closed, as are several other businesses.
On this journey I will spend two days and two nights at Paradise Cove Resort with Red Cat Adventures. This particular tour is called the Thrill and Chill package. But there are very strict rules attached to this tour. No glass and no red wine. No nail polish or nail polish remover. And finally, no bags with zippers. While on the island I also learn I am only allowed to have an ice cream if I agree to take a napkin first. I’m intrigued. What the HELL happens on this island? After all these years of travel, am I about to have my first Lord of the Flies encounter?
Paradise Cove, on the Australian mainland about 30 minutes by road, or the same time by boat from Airlie Beach, is owned by millionaire Jodee Rich and leased to Red Cat Adventures. And it appears the millionaire does not like spillages. Legend has it a backpacker once tipped nail polish on the floor there and then attempted to clean it up with nail polish remover, which made the situation worse. As for the bags with zippers, apparently zips carry bed bugs. And here I was blaming the backpackers.
On this particular tour I am surrounded by 17 backpackers who are young enough to be my children. Look, I like backpackers, I was one once, but I don’t like them enough to be stuck in a remote locale with them with only white wine in a pouch to console me. Luckily for me, I am upgraded to the “Dream Villa” in which Mr Rich stays when he’s at his resort. It is part African safari lodge/part Aboriginal art gallery with thousands of dollars of authentic Indigenous bark art on the walls. A wooden hippo is perched on the floor and there’s binoculars in an old-fashioned leather case and an ancient typewriter on a desk, which appeals to this writer. A free-standing bath stands in one corner of the yawning bathroom and in the other, a shower surrounded by glass, so that you can bathe with Mother Nature as your witness. On one morning, I am visited by a wild dingo.
The most comfortable king-sized bed in which I’ve ever slept is the centerpiece of the villa which also houses plush day beds inside and a gorgeous swing chair outside from which you can watch the sun rise over the ocean. And the best bit, I can only hear the sound of screaming curlews late into the night, my backpackers scattered somewhere else around this bush property, which sits in Woodwark
Cove. During the 2 day/2 night tour you’ll board the 12 metre, 600 horse power boat and take snorkelling trips to the likes of Hook and Whitsunday Islands. There’s a three-hour visit to Whitehaven Beach and on your last day, you’ll be taken to Langford Reef where some believe Lara Bingle infamously muttered “Where the bloody hell are you?” for an Australian tourism campaign.
While I silently mutter “What the bloody hell am I doing on this tour with backpackers?” in my head, the thing I love most about returning to Airlie Beach is that this town reignites the dormant backpacker in me as well. There she is, my 20-year-old self, who took off around the world with a 10kg backpack of clothes and a fistful of optimism. And this reminds me of a chat I had with a Balinese local years ago, shortly after the Bali bombings. I am always conscious of the “ugly Australian” who enters Bali, the one who drinks too much or packs their boogie board full of drugs, and so I continually check in with Balinese tourism operators as to how my fellow Australians are treating them. On this particular day, the Balinese man said: “We love Australians, when the Bali bombings happened you were the first tourists to return back.”
And so it is with the backpackers to the Whitsundays. Yes, there is some pain in this region, and there are some things to rebuild, but there’s still plenty of amazing things to do here. These fearless travellers, the backpackers, are the first to return. And for that, I can’t help but love them. Bed bugs and all.
Important footnote: Should you find yourself in a similarly dire wine predicament to that I have described above, I have just discovered there’s an excellent new alternative on the market. Tote Wines has launched premium wine pouches in an easy to chill, easy to carry, 1.5 litres. The launch range includes a 2014 Barossa Valley Shiraz and a 2016 Eden Valley Sauvignon Blanc with a Barossa Valley Rose set to launch in the coming months. http://www.totewines.com.au
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays http://www.tourismwhitsundays.com.au and Tigerair Australia. Tiger has released $33 fares each way between Brisbane and Whitsunday Coast Airport and $66 each way between Sydney and Whitsunday Coast Airport, until sold out. http://www.tigerair.com.au Whitsunday Transit offers transfers to and from the airport http://www.whitsundaytransit.com.au
A CHINESE family, whose Hello Kitty fashion sense loudly suggests they got dressed in the dark on this particular morning, are on my flight over the Great Barrier Reef. But I have bigger concerns today than fellow tourists who combine stripes with flowers and chuck in a Mickey Mouse or two for good measure. I hate small planes and spend most of my time in them imagining plunging to a fiery death while clasping at my notebook just hoping, when the time arrives, that I can pen the perfect farewell sentence. The fact I am placed in the front seat next to the pilot, and warned to touch NOTHING, does little to erase my fear as we soar over the Whitsunday Islands. It is only when we drop to 150 metres above Heart Reef that I unclench my fists long enough to snap a photo or two. Even a scaredy cat like me can appreciate this natural wonder and I’m pretty sure when I’m back on terra firma I’ll love it even more.
I’m in the Whitsundays writing a story on the Great Barrier Reef from every angle and for the next five days I am the equivalent of Action Barbie, constantly stepping out of my comfort zone in the name of research. Later that morning I find myself zipping out to Whitehaven Beach on an ocean raft which reaches speeds of up to 30 knots. The colourful Chinese family are on this trip too and plonk down right beside me, one of them clutching a sick bag she’s snatched from this morning’s light plane flight. Soon enough, Hello Kitty is using the bag, just metres from my face, and as the wind whips up and we hit bumps, I live in mortal fear she’s going to spray her vomit all over my face. Even more fascinating is the fact that after each time she yaks, she quickly composes herself, with nary a snotty nose, flushed cheeks or bloodshot eyes in sight. I’m almost as enthralled by this spectacle as the breaching whales which stalk our boat.
We arrive safely at Whitehaven Beach where we are explicitly warned, in several languages, not to feed the sea gulls. The Chinese family alight, give their child a giant bread roll, and proceed to watch her feed the sea gulls, the hungry gulls angrily swarming Hello Kitty and her clan on the beach. It’s like something out of a Hitchcock movie and it is only when the chain-smoking Germans, who smile maniacally like they’ve stepped straight off the set of Die Hard, and who are polluting the pure silica sands with their toxic fumes, complain that the birds are “annoying” that the child stops.
I half expect to find the Chinese family the next day when I arrive at Daydream Island, their Hello Kitty fashion shredded to bits by the birds, but there’s just a couple of topless mermaids sunbaking on the rocks when I arrive. I’m half tempted to join them on this perfect winter day, but I have bigger fish to fry. I am on a Stingray Splash Tour which involves me stepping into thigh deep water and having baby stingrays suck on my toes like a member of the British Royal family. One ray even tries to mount my leg and I’m pretty sure he wants to have sex with my shorts, just like a British Royal. But they are like a group of baby puppies and it is one of the most delightful moments of my travel writing career. I eschew Lovers Cove and its snorkelling as there’s only so much a single woman can bear, and spend the afternoon in the day spa.
It’s a bit of a bumpy two-hour boat ride out to Reef World on the outer Great Barrier Reef the next day and I suck on four cups of ice to stave off seasickness. I stare feverishly at the horizon and think fondly of Hello Kitty and her sick bag. She would have adored this journey. And just as I’m about to vomit, we arrive in the calm lagoon of Hardy’s Reef where I have booked a learn-to-dive session. As fate would have it, it’s just me and a handsome Spaniard who holds my hand tight for the 30 minutes he’s showing me the Great Barrier Reef from below. I really should be looking at the coral and the fish, but it’s not every day a handsome Spaniard holds my hand and I’m mesmerised by his brown hair which floats in the water like sea weed. He has come-to-reef-bed-with-me-eyes. And yes, as one mate suggests, there may have been a giant grouper down there and I’m not talking about the fish. I fantasise about us having to share the same oxygen hose.
I sleep the night in a swag on the reef pontoon under the big moon and stars with a small group of fellow travellers including a happy Hong Konger called Mabo. Mabo is prone to laughing hysterically at absolutely everything, followed by loud exclamations of “very good, very good”. Mabo’s wife apparently works hard in a seafood company in Hong Kong while Mabo himself spends his days wandering around the world, becoming particularly excited when he poses for photos with nubile Netherlanders. At one point when snorkelling, I find Mabo sitting, stranded on a floating device out on the reef, unable to swim back to the pontoon against the turning tide. When we’re both rescued, I tell him he could have drowned. “Yes, very good, very good,” he replies. His enthusiasm is infectious. There was plenty of colour above, on and below the Great Barrier Reef on this trip and I got to hold the hand of a handsome Spaniard. I didn’t find Nemo, but I met a man named Mabo. And life is very good indeed.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays – http://www.tourismwhitsundays.com.au