Airlie Beach and Australia’s Whitsunday Islands – The gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

We will finally get the trip’s proper time line back on track with this post! We apologise to those of you who were confused by the post from the Outback, we lost a bunch of saved posts for some reason but now we’re back on track and continuing north up Australia’s east coast.

We left Yeppoon and continued up the coast to the small seaside town of Seaforth about 40 km’s north of Mackay. It’s a pretty little town of 600 that like most towns in this part of the country survive on a combination of the sugar cane and tourism industries. We found Seaforth to be very nice and it offered up beachfront camping right in town so we decided to stay the night. $23 will get you a site right on the beach and you’re close to the general store in town if you need extra supplies. There is also a stinger net protected swimming area just up the beach from the campground so you can actually get in the ocean during the summer months.

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We are now far enough north that this time of year you can’t really swim in the ocean outside of netted areas due to the warm summer waters bringing Box and Irukandji jellyfish close to shore. A sting from either of these species can result in hospitalization and in some cases even death. In fact the Box jelly is widely considered the most venomous animal on earth! It’s a cruel time of year in northern Queensland, it’s HOT and humid in the summer but you can’t really get in the ocean due to stingers, and as we progress north you have to really be careful in fresh water rivers and billabongs as we’re entering crocodile country! GOOD TIMES, but in all honesty with some common sense and using the designated swimming areas all along the coast there’s plenty of safe opportunities to go for a dip.

We spent the evening chatting to some of the other people around the campsite, this has been a great way to get tips on places to see and what campsites and caravan parks are the best. We have found that the majority of people we are meeting are retired or semi-retired couples with caravans who are all very well-travelled so its been a great resource for us and you meet some great people! The hospitality you receive in small town Australia is incredible, the people are warm and in most cases genuinely want to chat and share some local knowledge. Canadians have the stereotype of being polite to a fault and travelling all over Canada I have found in a lot of ways there is some truth to it. Now as a Canadian travelling in Australia you can see many of the same characteristics in the people here, I have had many conversations with both friends and Australian tourists about the similarities in our cultures and it’s great to experience first hand what I believe makes both nations great, a wild and beautifully diverse landscape and its people. The rest of our evening was spent relaxing with a few cold beers watch lorikeets, ducks and the ever amusing galahs playing some sort of game on the power lines.

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Rainbow Lorikeets

Rainbow Lorikeets

Kookaburra

Kookaburra

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Beautiful ducks

Beautiful ducks

The next morning, Bob, the campgrounds caretaker, decided instead of simply giving us a tip on a back road shortcut to Airlie Beach he jumped in is car and drove us to the right gravel road so we wouldn’t get lost! This tip saved us almost 2 hours of driving time and when gas is $1.67 a litre anything to save fuel is great.

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It was mid morning when we pulled into Airlie Beach and we were both beyond excited to start exploring the area. The Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef have been bucket list destinations for me my whole life, so to actually be pulling into town with my best friend was an amazing feeling. I have been following @WhitsundaysQLD on twitter for the last year or so and have found it to be a great resource for travel information on the area, I would recommend giving them a follow if you’re planning a trip to the area. With icons like the Great Barrier Reef, Heart Reef and Whitehaven Beach at the top of millions of bucket lists, Airlie Beach is the hub of the Whitsundays region. Airlie is the largest town on the Whitsunday Coast, and is almost entirely focused on tourism. There is a laid back vibe in town and we both really felt at home here, I think that’s because it’s like a tropical version of our home in Banff. Offering accommodation options for every budget and a seemingly endless list of attractions and adventure opportunities this area should be on any adventurers must do list. After exploring town we decided to set up camp at Island Gateway Holiday Park, it’s the closest campground to town and offers everything from unpowered campsites to deluxe spa villas. The grounds are well looked after and the amenities are fantastic, there’s kitchen and laundry facilities (both have power outlets in the kitchen areas to charge phones etc), great showers, free Wifi, BBQ areas, a tour desk and even a pool. We paid $25 per night for an unpowered site.

TRAVEL TIP: If you camp here be sure to avoid setting your tent up directly under the mango trees! There are tons of fruit bats at night which means killer mangos dropping from the sky. Also in the winter summer months bring lots of bug spray there are LOTS of march flies!

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Fruit Bat feasting in the mango trees

Fruit Bat feasting in the mango trees

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After we had set up camp and booked a snorkelling tour for the following day we decided to head out and explore the surrounding area. About half an hour outside of Airlie and 20 minutes past Proserpine lays Cedar Creek Falls also known as simply Cedar Falls. A popular waterfall and swimming hole. When we arrived we were ecstatic, not a single person was there! After the quick walk to the falls we realised why that was. The rainy season hadn’t really started yet so it was more of a dry rock face than a waterfall. Not to be discouraged we went for a swim and had a great time having this beautiful area all to our selves. There is a trail that leads up and around the falls and since it was not running I was able to walk right across the top and explore the rock formations worn over time by the wet seasons waters. Even without the waterfall flowing it is a beautiful area, the swimming hole is very refreshing on a hot day and there is lots of wildlife from the hundreds of tadpoles and the little yabbies (small crayfish) who like to nibble on your feet to turtles, butterflies and lots of birds. After a while we were joined by a couple of locals who were showing their niece around the area, though we no longer had the place to ourselves we are now glad we showed up! Their niece was visiting from Perth and I guess doesn’t get out of the city much, while we were swimming she was up on shore and suddenly let out a blood curdling scream. She barely managed to get the word snake out of her mouth before Carly and I quickly grabbed the camera and raced toward her assuming there was some sort of large of highly venomous snake. It turned out to be a harmless Green Tree Snake, once we were sure it was actually a tree snake that was no threat to us we attempted to catch it but it made a tree before we could, none the less we felt blessed to get some decent shots of him and loved every second we got to spend with this beautiful creature.

Tree snake

Tree snake

he really was being cooperative!

he really was being cooperative!

Green Tree Snake close up

Green Tree Snake close up

If it wasn’t for the young strangers scream we would have never know it was there, funny how it works out. Carly and I have spent most of our free time in the bush on this trip actively looking in hollowed out logs and under rocks for snakes, lizards and spiders with little to no luck, but the girl with a deathly fear of snakes almost steps on one!

Moments later as the family was leaving they called out to us to come quickly. We had explained our love of wildlife and how we were both really into reptiles. They had spotted a lizard near the parking lot! I raced off with the camera and quickly chased after it, I backed off a little when I realised that it was a large Lace Monitor. The monitors sharp claws and poisonous saliva were something I didn’t want to tangle with! I was able to get fairly close once he was up a tree and had calmed down a little which again was an amazing experience. To be so close and to get the opportunity to share some time with animals like this are a huge part of why I have always wanted to visit Australia and a passion Carly and I share both at home and while traveling.

Lace Monitor or Spotted Goanna

Lace Monitor or Spotted Goanna

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love the markings

love the markings

What a beauty!

What a beauty!

What a day this had turned out to be! It goes to show that you never know what you’ll run into on trips like these. We saw a number of people visit Cedar Falls while we were there and immediately leave because the waterfall wasn’t flowing, we are sure glad we stuck around! We had made it back into town when I realised that in the excitement of chasing the goanna I had left my shirt, towel and cigarettes back at Cedar Falls so we had to drive a half hour back to get them, amazingly they were laying right where if had left them.

After dinner we fell asleep to the sounds of the frogmouth owls and the bats, however there were a bunch of bush stone-curlews at the campground and the sound they make freaks Carly out so she had a tough time falling asleep. Their call is more of an eerie walling that I find pretty cool! They call at night which has led to a number of phone calls to police from people mistaking their call for a woman screaming in the woods! Curlews come out to feed at night and are becoming quite rare in a lot of Australia so I’m glad we got to see so many and spend some time with these neat “screaming woman birds”.

The Bush Stone-Curlew

The Bush Stone-Curlew

Notice the huge eyes for nocturnal feeding

Notice the huge eyes for nocturnal feeding

The next morning we were up early with excitement as today we were off to explore the Whitsunday Islands and to snorkel at 2 different reefs on the Great Barrier Reef chain! I love days when we get to tick off bucket list items together. There are many different tour options to get you out on the reef and to explore the Whitsunday’s, again there is something for every budget from half day tours on small watercraft to chartering your own yacht and sailing to one of the luxury resorts on one of the islands. Located in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef in the warm waters of Australia’s Coral Sea the Whitsunday Islands truly are a tropical paradise. Carly and I are usually into laid back sailing on a small catamaran to get us out snorkelling spots but for todays adventure we decided that to see as such of the area as possible we would turn up the adrenaline a little. For this outing we would spend our day with the team at Ocean Rafting aboard one of their 500HP semi rigid inflatable jet boats! Our Eco Host Dylan picked us up at the entrance to the campground at 8:30pm and drove us a short distance to the docked boats where once you’ve signed in you can relax with coffee, tea and biscuits while the staff ready the boats for the days tour. This time of year stinger suits are recommended and can be rented for $7 at the jetty. The “sexy” lycra body suits may not look great but looking like a 7 foot bean-pole of a ballet dancer is better than getting stung by an Irukandji or a Box jelly! The crew likens the suits to seat belts, you may not always “need” them but they will save your life when you do.

Ocean Rafting - 500HP tour boat

Ocean Rafting – 500HP tour boat

Airlie Beach Jetty

Airlie Beach Jetty

Loading the Ocean Rafting Boats

Loading the Ocean Rafting Boats

Ocean Rafting runs small group tours daily with a maximum of 28 passengers per boat, between the small groups and the fact that Ocean Rafting has special permits to visit protected areas of the world heritage listed marine park you really get to experience this paradise away from the crowds. Even though we visited in the quieter off season of the summer this region is still hopping with tourists from around the world. We would highly recommend making reservations for tours and accommodations ahead of time a things fill up quickly even in the off season. Once on board we met our captain Matty and set off to pick up a few more passengers on one of the islands. Ocean Rafting offers two tours daily we chose the Northern Exposure tour that featured more snorkelling time on two different reefs, their other Southern Lights tour offers more beach time. The scenery is amazing as you cruise through the Whitsunday’s, past many islands and different sections of the reef and simply getting from one place to the next on the 500hp boats is a blast. These boats are FAST and they drive them like they stole them! The ride is an experience and Dylan our Eco-Host was a wealth of knowledge making it an educational trip as well. We arrived at our first snorkelling location at Maureens Cove off of Hook Island and after squeezing into our lycra fashion pieces we were in the water. Carly and I have both travelled to many places around the world and neither of us have seen a reef like this! The biodiversity is incredible, with more species of fish than we had ever seen in at one time. The real highlight on this first snorkel was seeing the biggest rainbow parrot fish either of us had ever seen! Even with the suits on Carly on I were both stung by small harmless jelly fish, Carly got one on the top of her foot and I got my forehead, nothing really painful or dangerous though. Our next stop was at Mantaray Bay, as we were pulling up to anchor we saw an absolutely massive sea turtle! It was incredible, unfortunately we didn’t get a picture of him as this was by far the largest turtle I had ever seen in the wild. Mantaray Bay offers up a totally different experience, deep water give you massive coral formations and some HUGE fish. From Giant Trevally to massive Hump Head Wrasse fish along with rays, tuna and huge groups of schooling fish species it made for the best day of snorkelling we’ve ever had. All the fish are so inquisitive, once you’re in the water with them if you just float most will come right up to check you out. Like most of my experiences in nature I find that if you can resist the urge to continually explore and just sit amazing things happen and you get to witness wildlife in its natural habitat acting as they would if you weren’t there. Even after a few hours of snorkelling we didn’t want to get out of the water, there is just so much to see and experience on the reef. We reluctantly climbed back on board and set off towards the world-famous Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. The clouds rolled in and it started to rain but nothing could spoil this day of exploration. With Ocean Rafting you get exclusive access to Hill Inlet where we hiked up a trail to a lookout above Whitehaven Beach, unfortunately the million dollar view wasn’t as good as we were hoping due to the pouring rain and dark clouds but again even the cold rain couldn’t dampen our mood. Whitehaven is breathtakingly beautiful which makes it easy to believe that its one of the most famous beach photos in the world. Composed of pure white silica sand the aboriginal name for it means “whispering sands”. Hill Inlet at the Northern End of Whitehaven Beach is a picture postcard destination.

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The breathtaking Whitehaven Beach – Whitsunday Island, Queensland Australia

Carly on Whitehaven

Carly on Whitehaven

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Soldier Crabs

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Huge groups of soldier crabs

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After the hike we navigated our way through a couple thousand soldier crabs on the beach back to the boat for our buffet lunch and a little more time to explore the beach and go for a swim. We even found “sandmen” instead of snowmen for Christmas!

Sandmen!

Sandmen!

By the end of the day we were exhausted but didn’t want to leave the paradise that is Whitsunday Island but we did look forward to the adrenaline rush of the boat ride back to Airlie. All the staff at Ocean Rafting were fantastic and you can really sense the passion they all have for the environment and the area they get to share with their tour guests everyday. Both Dyls and Matty were amazing guides and passionate educators, we hope to get back to Airlie and see them again in the near future. The tour we chose cost $129 per person plus the $15 dollar optional buffet lunch, tours depart daily from the Airlie Beach Jetty at 10:00am and are worth every penny! Some tours are one-off experiences but I can guarantee we will do this again! Our only disappointment was that our GoPro didn’t record properly, which is to bad because there would have been some great video.

Airlie Beach from the water

Airlie Beach from the water

Not sure who lives here but wow!

Not sure who lives here but wow!

That night we met up with some of the crew from the tour at a pub in town called the Downunder Bar, having gone on a tour with Ocean Rafting you get dinner and a pint for $10 AND for every three tour guests that show up you get a free picture of beer! After a few hours of swapping fish stories we wandered through some of the shops in town, then with the rain settling in we headed back to camp to get some much needed sleep.

Thanks for reading our latest post and we look forward to your comments! We will be adding some underwater shots as soon as they’re all uploaded. We hope you will check back soon as the we continue further north into the wet tropics of Queensland. In our next post there’s giant mangos, the magical “bruffin”, shovel nose rays, sharks, all this and more from the Wandering Winters.

Ew

3 thoughts on “Airlie Beach and Australia’s Whitsunday Islands – The gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

  1. Hi Carly and Ewan,
    I enjoyed reading your post on Airlie. Have a good trip home. We so enjoyed the time we had with you in Australia and will catch up with you again soon.
    love heaps
    Lesley and Geoff xx

    Like

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