Back on the water, having exchanged bike for boat, the 62-foot, gaff-rigged schooner Providence V wallows under motor, sails flapping lazily in the wind as she hauls us out on a day-trip to the Whitsunday Islands. We’ve been on many boat trips and usually relish such excursions, but at the moment this one is not quite living up to expectations as scrub-cloaked shorelines drift past to the putt-putt soundtrack of our boat crabbing across the sea. Our co-passengers seem mostly content to sit and simply soak up the rays as we plod on to reach our anchorage. A rubber inflatable drops us on the beach on Hill Inlet from where we trek up through a scrubby scraggly wood to reach an over view of the other side of the island and then… Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!
The outline of the Australian coast stretches for more than 30,000 km (18,500 miles) and that makes for a fair number of beaches. In fact the ‘Coastal Studies Unit’ at the University of Sydney has counted 10,685 beaches in Australia, based on the definition of a beach as a stretch of sand longer than 20 metres that remains dry at high tide, which means that Australia has more beaches than any other country on the planet. To put this in perspective, if you were to visit just one beach every day, it would take over 29 years to visit every single beach in Oz and that’s just on the mainland. Given the harsh climate and environments of the interior it is estimated that around 85% of Australia’s population live no more than 50km (30-miles) from the sea and the next leg of our trip would expose us to a number of these superb locations as we ran along the East Coast. Often the access to the beach was via some great hikes through spectacular rain forest.
We dragged ourselves away from the lovely folk at Townsville with a somewhat heavy heart but were soon soothed by spectacular coast roads as we headed north through Cardwell and on to Mission Beach, each mile candidating for the perfect paradise postcard view of palm-lined beach. After a few laid-back days relaxing at Mission Beach we were pondered the point of riding any further as the place was simply divine and one of the most stunning strands we ever set foot on. Deserted palm-fronded golden sands stretching as far as the eye could see, lapped by lush blue oceans, the horizon dotted with pleasant little islands and all of it so very easy on the eye.
Making headway north, chasing these wondrous beaches all the way, we rode on to Daintree Village and from there explored the road up to Cape Tribulation before making our way to the end of the paved road up the East Coast at Cooktown. At Cape Tribulation, early in the evening of 10 June 1770, Cook ran the good ship Endeavour onto a reef and holed the side of it so badly that it was thought they might founder. A technique called ‘fothering’, whereby a sail was prepared with caulking material and hauled under the ship with ropes, effected a temporary repair. It was a grim time for the crew who, had they had they been shipwrecked, would have been marooned on these distant shores with no hope of rescue. Having covering the hole, they furiously manned the pumps and cast heavy items like cannons overboard to keep the ship afloat. The mood is captured in the place names noted in Cook’s logbook as they sailed on looking for a site to make a permanent repair. The cape he could see was named Cape Tribulation, the logbook noting “this is where our troubles began”. The reef the ship had struck was aptly named Endeavour Reef and a bay to the north where the crew rested from towing the ship up the coast with rowing boats was named Weary Bay. Luckily the repair lasted sufficiently to allow the ship to make way on up the coast to the site of modern Cooktown where Cook was able to beach the ship in a river estuary to effect a full repair.
During the repair work Cook and his crew met local Aborigines, who assisted with the repairs. In his observations on the Aborigines he noted ”From what I have said of the natives of New Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility, which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition: The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life.” They tried to give the Aborigines clothes and material but observed that these items were soon discarded along the beach and in the bush, as they had no use for such things. Shortly after this the Endeavour headed further north where the Union Jack was planted to officially take possession of Australia in the name of the British Crown.
It was at Cooktown that Cook’s men also sighted their first kangaroo, which was duly hunted down and eaten. What’s not to love about a country that has lots of cutesy animals with ‘oo’ in their name? Kangaroo, Cockatoo, Kookaburra to name but a few… The coast in these parts of North Queensland is also the abode of the Cassowary a huge, flightless, emu-like bird and road-signs warn of the danger of hitting one as they seem to be as clueless as ‘roos when it comes to roads safety. But for all that these coasts sport such magnificent sandy coves they are mostly deemed too dangerous for swimming. This was brought home on the road to Cape Tribulation when we stopped for lunch at the beautiful sandy bay at Thornton Beach. We left our jackets and helmets on a conveniently placed aluminium bench while we took a short walk. It was only when we were recovering our gear that we noticed a memorial plaque on the bench noting that a Cindy Waldron had been killed near this spot in 2016. It was a heartbreaking story. Cindy, a New Zealander in her mid-forties, was holidaying here with a friend who had just concluded a successful cancer treatment when they decided to go for a late evening swim. They made their way out into the water around 10:30pm when Cindy felt something brush against her leg, her preliminary contact with the crocodile who then dragged her off into the dark. A few days later rangers ‘euthanised’ a 4.5m croc and found the poor lady’s remains inside.
From Cooktown the road took us south to the delightful resort town of Port Douglas and then on to Airlie Beach via Cairns. Our couple of days at Cairns were notable for (1) failing to get an extension to our Australian visa and (2) the first heavy rain we have experienced for a long time. The standard entry visa for Australia is now 12 months with a proviso that you must leave every three months and it is free. You can apply for a 6 or 12-month visitor visa but there is a requirement that you have not visited any high risk TB areas in the last few years made this untenable for us as it now requires an extensive medical which is both expensive and can take up to 12-weeks to process. We were well into our first three months and had hoped to be able to talk to someone at immigration to see if there was any way to extend our current visa but it seems everything is handled electronically so this was not possible. Having clarified this point we settled into our tent that evening to the soporific pitter-patter of a light shower on canvas. A few hours later and the light shower was now persistent rain and the flysheet on our little tent began to sag miserably. We met this threat by ignoring it and snuggling down deeper into our sleeping bags, which enabled said flysheet to contact the mesh inner and seep into all our belongings, which duly got soaked necessitating a few hours the next day utilizing the dryers in the laundry room.
We have been camping all the way since leaving Darwin, which in Australia is generally a rather pleasant experience, with the exception of that one day of rain, given that most campgrounds have camp kitchens (complete with fridges, kettles, toasters and microwaves) and laundry facilities so I am pleased to report that we are travelling well fed and with the cleanest of socks and undies. Camping has been made even more delightful by the contact with other campers who are keen to offer advice on everything from where to go next to an invite to drop by for a home-cooked meal. The first of these invites came from the Cole family, Steve and Rebecca with their three charming kids, Hudson, Olivia and Ben. The Coles have been travelling around Eastern Australia for the past few months and we first met at Port Douglas where were invited over for a roast pork dinner (with all the trappings) and again at Airlie Beach for home-made hamburgers, the best we’ve had in a long time. The dinners are spontaneous episodes of kindness and have been happy exchanges and insights into our different ways of life that last long into the evening. They are simply one of the spices that make us relish our travels so dearly.
Airlie Beach was notable for a not so pleasant encounter with another of Australia’s voracious predators. The climate is superb so on setting up camp the first night, we frolicked around in shorts and flip-flops preparing dinner. The location came with a picnic table, soon laden with a tasty repast and a cask of fine wine all of this quaffed to a backdrop of a glorious sunset. Going to bed that night I began scratching at my legs; this beautiful location was also home to midges or sand flies and I’d been eaten alive. Locals will tell you that they don’t actually bite but urinate on you causing a skin irritation that gets worse with scratching but this seems to be an urban legend and they actually are bites. The problem is that the little flies are so small (another name for them is no-see-ums) that their presence goes unnoticed until it is too late.
And so to that island cruise to the Whitsundays and the drop off at Hill Inlet. Then that climb, wondering what all the fuss was about, until we spilled out onto the overview of Whitehaven Sands and what has got to be the most beautiful beach on the world. Stark white sands spiraled around and into an inlet with waters a swirl of blues of every shade from deep ultramarines and indigos through lighter teals and turquoise like a vast cappuccino in blue. Down on the sand the super fine grains squeaked as we walked barefoot. The sands also felt cool to the touch as they are almost unique on the planet possessing a silica content of 98%. The guides claimed it to be of such high purity that it was used as the base material to make the mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope, a fact I have been unable to confirm. So I will leave you for now holding that vision of a world in ethereal blue and a recommendation to go see it for yourself. It is surely a worthy inclusion on anyone’s bucket list. Or for a sneaky peak, just click on the link below to visit our photogallery for this post.
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Life’s a Beach