Friday…Saturday…Whitsunday!

whitsunday island

I’d heard about The Whitsundays the first time I came to Australia. A collection of 74 islands nestled in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef and named by Captain Cook as he sailed through them on Whitsunday (the Sunday of the feast of Whitsun or Pentecost in the Christian liturgical year, observed 7 weeks after Easter). It was one of those magical places that you figure you’ll only see in photos. I didn’t make it there the last time I was here, but I made sure to see it when I returned. And boy, did I! I took a flight over the famed Whitehaven Beach where blue water and ultimate white sands swirl together like cream being poured into a rich cup of coffee. It’s a place you could never get tired of looking at. Nature, once again, at her best. Let the photos speak for themselves. (None of them have been photoshopped in any way, even though they may look a little better by doing so, I wanted to show exactly what I saw.)

Puddle jumper we flew in
Puddle jumper we flew in
Looking at Airlie Beach
Looking at Airlie Beach

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Whitehaven Beach
Whitehaven Beach off of Whitsunday Island

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whitsunday island

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There are only a few places I’ve seen that moved me emotionally and this is definitely one of them. I just wanted to hang in the air forever, my brain tickling with the images my eyes were feeding it. $99 and 25 minutes well spent.

Knowing I would be wanting more, I pre-booked a boat trip out there including some snorkeling time around the nearby reefs. I had to walk on the “singing sand” which squeaks under your feet due to the high silica content (98%). I walked on some in the Gold Coast and had no idea what was going on with it. It’s quartz sand and each grain is perfectly spherical which causes vibrations when they are moving over top of one another. I met a girl from Estonia and she helped me make a video of the singing sand and we took a walk up to a lookout point.

whitehaven beach lookout

whitehaven beach lookout

Helen and I on the boat (yes, it was cold!)
Helen and I on the boat (yes, it was cold!)

There were a few lace monitors hanging around while we ate lunch, hoping for some cold cuts!

lace monitor whitehaven beach

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For you movie buffs out there, Pirates of the Caribbean was finishing up the last 8 minutes of the film as we passed by them, at the low cost of 35 million dollars.

pirates of the caribbean filming whitsundays
Pirates of the Caribbean movie set on Whitsunday Island

The spot we snorkeled at briefly had this beautiful sailboat passing by. There were way too many jellyfish in the water for my taste even though I had a wetsuit on. Something about feeling a slimy blob brush up against your face and lips didn’t sit well with me. Plus the water was freezing, so I only stayed in a few minutes. We traveled 120 km round trip so it was a great introduction to the Whitsunday islands.

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I’m staying in Airlie Beach which is the gateway to the islands. Sailboats float quietly on the calm waters and further up the road at the marina, the big boys sit waiting for their next adventure (in style).

My "front yard" in Airlie Beach
My “front yard” in Airlie Beach
One section of the main road in Airlie
One section of the main road in Airlie

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More camels on the beach
More camels on the beach
It's tough being a camel in Oz
It’s tough being a camel in Oz
Sunset over Airlie Beach
Sunset over Airlie Beach
Crazy big yachts
Crazy big yachts. You can rent one for about $12,000 a day!

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I’ve spent almost every day at the beach the past 3 months…it’s been really tough. But paybacks are coming my way. I’ll be back in New Zealand in a few days where it’s REALLY winter. Time to pack away the shorts, bikini and sandals and purchase coats, gloves and boots. But I’m looking so forward to returning to my wonderful boyfriend! I’ll be going to Abel Tasman next week, so stay tuned for more photos and yet another adventure.

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Being Drawn to Magnetic Island

Welcome to Magnetic Island!
Welcome to Magnetic Island!

After a short stint in Cairns, I headed a few hours south to Magnetic Island to do a helpx. I met up with a super nice couple who have their own businesses. Joan has a nice boutique shop called Koko Blue near the ferry terminal and Colin has a Hop on Hop off bus tour that takes people around the island and talks about the history and wildlife. He took me out on it my first day here and I really enjoyed it. The island is about 52 square km with 27 square km of that being protected national park land. There are many species of birds here (I often see white cockatoos flying over in many pairs) and allegedly about 800 koalas live here as well (haven’t seen one yet). As for the ocean critters, there are blue marlin, black marlin, sail fish, mackerel, wahoo, tuna and of course sharks. I saw some cute blue spotted stingrays in the shallows at Geoffrey Bay yesterday.

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Flying from Cairns to Townsville with islands off the coast
Townsville with Magnetic Island to the west
Townsville (or “Brownsville” as they call it) with Magnetic Island to the west

I’m living in Joan and Col’s nice Queenslander home on a quiet street, just a 7 minute walk to the beach at Nelly Bay. These homes are built up high to catch the breeze and usually have a wrap around verandah and is a fully open house with super high ceilings. It’s never been hot in here, although we are heading into winter. The nights can get a bit chilly but refreshing…perfect weather to sleep in. The curlews often wake me up during the night with their blood curdling screams. Cute guys with big eyes! Ever so slightly annoying when you’re sleeping though.

Curlews
Curlews

Maggie Island, as I had mentioned before, was named by Captain cook 200 years ago and 1 day before my birthday, “Magnetical Isle” due to the compass on his ship doing strange things as he passed by the island. Nothing has been proven to suggest the cause of his failure came from the island, but nevertheless, the name stuck. It’s a beautiful place, with only about 2000 permanent residents. It’s big enough to not feel trapped and has 2 grocery stores (both a bit over priced as one would imagine). The beaches are clean, hardly anyone on them and lined with trees for shade if you want it.

Nelly Bay
Nelly Bay

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There are quite a few bays here, one of the busier is Horseshoe Bay where they have a stinger net out during the season. They drag a net through the water (outside of the net, of course) and when none show up for 5 days they say the season has ended. I’ve gotten stung by something each time I go in, but I don’t think they were jellies. The pain subsided quickly.

Horseshoe Bay with stinger net set up
Horseshoe Bay with stinger net set up

There are rock wallabies here and at one spot near Geoffrey Bay you can feed them, then head over to the wall and look down on the colorful fish that are in a protected area. You can snorkel here and there are buoys that show you where things of interest are. God forbid you go further out to the orange buoys…those have shark bait on them. Don’t ask me why they do that…seems strange to have them so close to the snorkelers.

Rock Wallaby on Geoffrey Bay, Magnetic Island
Rock Wallaby on Geoffrey Bay, Magnetic Island
Fish on Geoffrey Bay, Magnetic Island
Fish on Geoffrey Bay, Magnetic Island

During the bus tour we went to this magnificent little patch of forest and was surprised to see thousands of blue tiger butterflies doing their thing. I don’t think I’ve seen this many in the wild at once…EVER. It must have been breeding season. I couldn’t stop long enough to check for eggs on leaves/vines, but I’m sure they were there.

Blue Tiger butterflies
Blue Tiger butterflies

On the same path were these tiny lizards who would flick the end of their tails at you.

We drove around a neighborhood and saw a couple of neat houses. This one, a grand Queenslander style newly built.

Beautiful new Queenslander style home
Beautiful new Queenslander style home
Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef

The highlight of my day was going out to the reef again. This time with Adrenalin out of Townsville, on a smaller boat with a fraction of the people on it and to a reef were you couldn’t see any other boats in sight! It was so beautiful out there and we spent a good 5 hours in this one spot. The time flew by. After lunch, I went back in and to my surprise was surrounded by about 50 small black cuttlefish! They were very sweet and didn’t float away from me. We got comfortable enough with each other that the group turned into 100 and we all kept our eyes on one another. Some were within arms length from me and others below me, some to the side…they were EVERYWHERE! It was such a thrill to see these little families. The smallest was 2 inches and the mom and pop were about 5 1/2 inches. Their chromatophores were doing their thing, changing color from dark to light as they would sometimes speed off. Often, it reminded me of the pattern on the back of a hummingbird.  I’m so happy I got to see them, after so many cuttlebones on the beaches 😦  Unfortunately there were no cameras to rent on board and I really could’ve used one today.

There were nurseries of tiny fish hovering by their parents; the coral was healthy and colorful; there were midnight blue starfish scattered around and electric blue fish that looked like they had just been painted. It was a fantastic day, the weather was perfect and the sea was calm. It’s amazing to be swimming in mother nature’s aquarium, one simply has to come and do it in person instead of opting for a TV show about it. My suggestion would be to get away from the crowds, no matter the cost!

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Cairns: Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

I arrived in Cairns last week FINALLY…I’ve only been waiting about 25 years for this. However, I didn’t get out there straight away. I first took a rainforest tour and got to see a very special place. A spot where two World Heritage sites meet…the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the Daintree Rainforest. The rainforest is one of THE oldest ones in the world so it felt pretty cool to be there. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as much rainforest time as I had hoped for and the spot we went to at Mossman Gorge wasn’t anywhere near spectacular. A crowded, touristy and sort of dead feeling place to me. Of course I’m biased after visiting places like Guyana, Belize and Costa Rica. I’m sure I missed out on the best it had to offer and I also wasn’t crazy about being with a tour group. Unfortunately it seems that’s what you kind of have to do here unless you’re ‘in the know’….which I’m not.

Let me digress slightly here. When I first got into town, I went into Cairns CBD to have a look around, as I do. When I got off the bus I heard a lot of squawking in a tree behind the stop. I took a glance back but couldn’t make out anything and just chalked it up to a bunch of tropical birds. Later, when I went back there and was sitting across the street from the tree, I saw what appeared to be bats in it! OF COURSE!!! I should have known better. With only minutes before the bus was about to show, and after sitting there for 40 minutes, there was no way I was going to miss it. I would come back to take photos on another day.

Bats in tree behind Cairns bus stop
Bats in tree behind Cairns bus stop

There were tons of them!! Cute little bat bundles of joy! Still chattering away to each other, jockeying for position on the tree and sometimes fighting with each other. A lot of them seemed uncomfortable…moving around and fidgeting. Others slept with their furry heads tucked in between their wings and some peered down at me while I took their picture. Often they would groom themselves and stretch their leathery wings out. Being that it was in the middle of the day, others fanned themselves to keep cool. The tree was huge and it seemed almost every branch had many occupants hanging from them.

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I stayed so long that my neck hurt from looking up at them. I can never get bored watching these guys. It’s cool to look up in the sky at twilight and see them flying over. I’d estimate their wingspan to be at least 3 1/2 feet.

The Esplanade lagoon pool
The Esplanade lagoon pool

One neat feature in Cairns CBD is this salt water lagoon pool in the Esplanade that’s free to go to and there are lots of areas to lie in the grass and get some sun or shade. It looks out over the ocean and can get quite busy. You can enjoy being in the water without worry of crocs or stingers!

The first place that I stayed when I arrived had a bush walk near the beach where I was lucky enough to spot a jabiru stork! Last time I saw one of these was in Guyana and I thought I was really fortunate then! At least this one hung around for a while until he spotted me then flew into a tree. These are the biggest birds in the world, getting as tall as me! Their wingspan is 7 1/2 feet! Beautiful and amazing birds.

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I booked the tour to the rainforest which included a small indoor wildlife park where there were birds, kangas, wallabies, crocs and tree kangas.

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The location at Cape Tribulation and Daintree was beautiful with very few people around, so I got in the water briefly then took some photos of the beach. This area is one of the very few where you could spot cassowary’s in the wild. There were a lot of road signs warning you of their crossing. You may recall my photos of them from Brisbane…the guys you don’t want to mess with:

Cassowary
Cassowary
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Cape Tribulation

 

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We then took a river cruise to look for crocs and birds and luckily we did see a few crocs. Two small ones and a fairly large female basking on the bank. She was probably about 6 1/2 feet long.

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Cairns CBD
Cairns CBD
The boat out to the reef before it got super crowded up front
The boat out to the reef before it got super crowded up front

And without further adieu, the GBR! Have I mentioned how much I hate being around a ton of people on boats? I wasn’t thrilled to be sharing a ride or the water with 94 other people yesterday, but whatcha gonna do? I kept to myself in the water and avoided people as much as possible. I can’t say I saw any super fantastic animals like I had hoped for, but it was just my first time out. I did see two giant clams which were about 3 1/2 feet long. Some divers saw a reef shark but I missed that one. The coral was spectacular…looked very healthy to me and so many different kinds! The fish were super colorful although I really thought I’d see more of them. I saw a school of very large needle fish hanging out in one area. These were bigger and probably a different species than what I’m used to seeing in Central America. They were about 2 feet long.

An underwater photographer, I am not. Thankfully they rented cameras for $45. I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t get one, so I did. Here’s a taste of what was out there:

Safe haven along with a nursery with baby fish
Safe haven along with a nursery with baby fish

Giant clam
Giant clam

Sea cucumber
Sea cucumber

Giant clam
Giant clam

I head out to Magnetic island in a couple of days to do some helpx work which I’m really looking forward to. I’ll take some more trips out to the reef and I’ll be able to snorkel off the shore there. Maggie island is off the coast of Townsville which is about a 5 hour drive south of here. It was named that by Captain Cook, who claimed that his ship instrumentation went crazy when passing by the island. It’s never been confirmed that there is anything amiss about the area. So stay tuned for more exciting stuff to come!