Sunday, November 29, 2009

Whitsundays + Townsville

Since Marybeth didn't have any tips from her trip for us further north, we were on our own to figure out what we wanted to do next. We had decided to visit the group of islands off Airlie Beach called the Whitsundays, which are 74 different islands, most being national park. Unfortunately, we still had over an hour and half to drive north from our campsite at the beach, so by the time we arrived in Airlie it was almost 8:30, and most boats leave around 8am.

We visited the i-site center in town in a panic and they informed us of one boat that leaves at 10:30 that still had a few spaces open. We figured if we didn't go on this trip, BIG FURY, we wouldn't get to see the islands at all. A bit skeptical having done little research and knowing nothing about the company, we booked the beach and snorkel trip for the day.

It actually turned out to be a great day out cruising the islands and snorkeling. The boat was small and only held 35 people, which was ideal since it's no fun snorkeling with tons of people. It was more like a raft, with a quad engine on the back, and supposedly gets out to the islands faster than any other boat out there. Which was good due to the later start.

We got to see many of the islands as we went past and then arrived at the largest, called Whitsunday Island, around noon. The beach was a blinding white with bright turquoise waters. The sand is 98% silica which creates the dazzling white effect on the island. The guide went up to the picnic area in the shade of the trees to prep lunch while we found a nice spot on the beach.

The very bizarre thing about this part of Australia is the "stinger suits." Once you get north of Agnes Water, you are in box jellyfish country from October thru April. Now box jellyfish are not your average jelly or your average sting. They are the most venomous creature alive in the world today. One little sting and you are in agony, dying within 2-3 minutes. These guys are so incredibly lethal that the people here have gone to great lengths to figure out how to avoid them. One option is the "stinger nets" on many beaches up this way which enclose an entire section of water at the beach in netting to keep the stingers out. The other way to avoid certain death is by wearing a (very dorky) stinger suit, which is essentially just a lycra jumpsuit. Pantyhose are another effective option, but since the development of the suits, most people opt for those.

So the scene at the beach was quite odd with people zipping up into their suits just to cool off in the warm tropical waters. It looked like something out of an old sci-fi movie where no one could touch the ocean waters anymore. The good part is that they keep you from getting sunburnt too. Erich refused to wear one as he did have a longsleve wet-suit too and long boardshorts on as well and thought they were ridiculous. Of course I wore one, but still got stung by something on my upper lip, but luckily nothing dangerous.

The lunch was great, all sorts of sandwiches, salads, prawns etc. and we enjoyed all the food the owner makes everyday for the boat. After that, Erich and I walked to the very end of the beach to check out a coral reef there that we had read about. It was unreal. This area is by far the most amazing snorkeling either of us have ever done. There is just so much life and color and variety out on the reef, with giant clams, cleaning wrasse, schools of fish, fluorescent coral heads... it was unbelievable to just float and watch the intricate world below. We only had about a half hour before we had to get back down the beach to board the boat with the rest of the group to head out to our intended snorkeling spot.

We cruised out to Border Island, on the leeward side, so it was nice and calm and glassy. Everyone jumped in and swam 5 or 10 minutes over to the shallower reef and again, it was stunning. The forty minutes flew by and we saw such a huge array of fish and coral. On the way back, they served "afternoon tea" which was basically doughnuts, and passed through some narrow channels of islands different from the way out.

We had great weather the whole day and were happy we had made it in time to get out in the water on the Great Barrier Reef. We got some dinner at the marina area and watched the sunset, then it was back on the road. We needed to get a couple hours of driving in, up to the Townsville area, so we would not have such a long trek the following day. Luckily we didn't hit any Kangaroos which were along the roadways throughout the drive, and made it to Bowling Green Bay National Park to spend the night.

The area was on Alligator Creek, which was not encouraging, but we didn't see anything too deadly when we pulled into a picnic spot, so we popped the top, threw the surfboards out the side and got ready for bed. In the morning, wild brush turkeys picked at the front bumper for dead bugs, and a few kangaroos chewed on grass next to the van. The night before we had seen a lemur up in the trees, but it was dark so we didn't get a good look. Tonight we actually saw the biggest bat I have ever seen (or even heard of) in my life. It was easily 4 feet across and when it was hanging upside down, it nearly pulled the whole branch off the tree.

But nothing was more startling than the trip to the bathroom that morning in the park. I was just using the toilet for a minute, and all was clear when I walked into the stall. However, when I turned to get some toilet paper, a HUGE brown and hairy spider was sitting ON the back of the toilet seat with me! It looked like he was getting ready to take a big bite and of course I freaked and ran right out of there. I'm normally not all that squeamish about spiders but this one was easily 5 inches across and looked like a flattened tarantula. I knew this would happen eventually, practically expecting it, since everyone has a spider in the bathroom story from these parts of the world. Erich didn't even bat an eye when I ran out completely frantic. He just gave me the car keys, said it was fine, and went in to his side of the bathrooms. (I did some research later, and this spider is actually one of the few things in the country that is not incredibly lethal, in fact it is non-toxic but does hurt when they bite if annoyed.)

We cruised into Townsville for the morning before we had to drive the rest of the way up to Cairns. It was before 8am, so the temperatures had not reached their usual scorching highs for the day, so we decided to hike up Castle Hill, a landmark near town. It was all stairs, but a good workout, just incredibly hot even that early in the day. The top had some fabulous lookouts over the city and up and down the coastline. It was a nice spot to get oriented with the town.

Following the hike we were drenched in sweat (as we are most of the time here) with faces flushed bright red, and needed to get into the water to cool off. We headed to the northern tip of town to the beach and rock pool. This little beach section has a stinger net so we could safely jump in the water and cool down which felt great. The rock pool was right next to that and is an artificial pool with saltwater that is filtered and stinger proofed for people to swim. We felt much better and were ready for the rest of the day.

The next stop was the massive aquarium in town called Reef HQ. This may seem very counterintuitive to go to an aquarium when you are on the brink of the Great Barrier Reef and are a certified diver. However, we did not have enough time to actually go out and dive all day, and we wanted to learn more about the reef and fish before the next couple days of diving from Cairns. The aquarium was huge and featured a massive coral reef tank, probably 18 feet high, and a large predator tank with sharks and rays. We got a tour from one of the volunteer guides that happened to be starting shortly after we arrived. Maybe not the best topic before going diving, it was titled DEADLY CREATURES OF THE REEF. I realized that I had so much more to worry about than just sharks on dive trips! There are deadly sea-snakes, lion fish, stone fish, conch that stab you with a poisonous dart, and of course the infamous box jelly. Basically I learned, wear a wet-suit or stinger suit and do not touch anything, ever.

We really did learn a lot about the coral and kinds of fish on the reef and enjoyed our time there. We saw a short movie about the reef and checked out the interactive zone. It was nearing 1:30 and we had to get moving to be in Cairns by tomorrow morning.

The drive was long (about 4.5 hours) and uneventful, the major highway is inland about 10-20km so there aren't too many ocean views. We arrived at the holiday park in Cairns for the night and it has a friendly relaxed feel and seems like everyone is pretty quiet. We leave early in the morning to head out to the reef for an overnight dive trip which hopefully will be as good as the snorkeling!

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