Australia – a vast, diverse and beautiful country, currently in the news for the terrifying and extensive wildfires which have raged across its south east coast. My heart, prayers and love go out to the families, communities and wildlife affected by these savage infernos. In these dark times, I think it’s important to remember the light and in particular the magnificence of this unique island country.
In two months’ time, it’ll be a year since we dipped our toes into the breathtakingly beautiful azure waters of the Whitsunday Islands (which have fortunately escaped the ravages of the fires burning in the south). And boy do I miss them! When I started writing this post, it was one of the greyest days of the year, barely seeming to get light, so when I happened upon some of our photos from last year, I thought it would give me (and hopefully you) a lift to remember our time amongst this heavenly island range. Just looking at the pictures brings a smile to my face. I’ll pick up where I left off in my last Australia post (Australia Part 2 – The Beauty of Far North Queensland) at the end of our time in the idyllic town of Port Douglas.
Port Douglas – Townsville
From Port Douglas we were to drive five hours south to a spend a couple of nights in the midway point of Townsville to break up our journey. To set off on a five hour car journey in the UK would seem like a mammoth undertaking, but for some reason on the open roads of Australia and with the penultimate book in the How to Train Your Dragon series playing through the radio, the time simply flew by. Outside the window, stunning view followed stunning view, whilst inside our little metal transporter, we were all four completely transfixed (although hopefully to a lesser extent the driver!) by the adventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third and his sidekick Toothless! After a four-hour stint however, the need to stretch our legs was overwhelming so we took a side turning off the main highway to Big Crystal Creek in Paluma Range National Park.
To say it was marginally more exciting than a toilet break at the Watford Gap would have to be the understatement of the year. We pulled on our swimmers and after a short wander through the lush rainforest teeming with gaudy coloured birds and insects who all seemed to be trying to outdo their neighbour with their booming concert of buzzing, humming and thrumming noises, we encountered a beautiful creek. Across giant smooth boulders making the perfect natural slides, ran a crystal-clear green stream with little waterfalls and pools of calmer water. Trees hung over the sides providing shade against the powerful sun and after a short trek in the blistering heat, the feel of the cool water flowing over our skin was purely divine.
Shouting with glee, the children ran up the rocks time and again to find the fastest flowing routes to slide back down (on their bums, backs or head-first) into the deeper water below. As soon as the daddies got involved though, the adrenaline rating of the activities notched up a level and soon all of us were jumping off higher and higher rocks into the pools below and wetting our hair by swimming through the nearby waterfall. It was the quite literally the perfect break after our long drive, and with minds and bodies revitalised, we wandered back through the lush vegetation to the car park for our final stretch to Townsville.
On arrival, we settled into our neighbouring apartments and the daddies took the kids to check out the free water park down the road. Later, we all set off into town to find an eating/drinking option that would suit both child and adult alike. A brewery and restaurant combo, creatively called simply ‘Brewery’, fit the bill, with tasty food and more importantly delicious and varied beer options for the adults. They even had a pool table surrounded by comfy sofas, so we were set for the evening!
We only had one day in this, North Queensland’s biggest cities. I was sorely tempted to return to Magnetic Island again. MrJ and I had visited this paradise island pre-kids and in a rare moment of feeling the burning desire to do some serious exercise, I had persuaded him to hire bikes rather than the more sedate but very cool mini-moke option (think golf cart but with more power). As we sweated our way up the steep mountain sides as the cute little convertibles whizzed past us, MrJ looked back at me in absolute disdain… I’m not sure he’s ever forgiven me! I’d promised him if we were ever to return to this picture postcard island, we’d hire a mini-moke. But after our long journey the day before and the prospect of another long drive to the Whitsundays ahead, we opted for a more local option: The Reef HQ Aquarium (sadly I don’t have many photos from this day as my camera battery died that morning…).
Leaving the menfolk behind for some relaxation by the pool, Kelly, the kids and me walked over to the aquarium in the glorious sunshine of the Australian summer.
It turned out to be an excellent aquarium, probably the best I’ve visited, and all the educational talks/shows were included in the entry price. We took advantage of them all! First up was the predator dive show where we watched a diver swimming with the sharks and other reef predators in the reef wreck tank, and at the same time talking to us through the audio system, sharing more information about these most feared fish of the ocean. The kids were transfixed. His co-presenter in the auditorium provided us with more facts about these threatened animals and showed us the skeleton jaws of different species of shark. Via her, the children were given the opportunity to ask the diver an array of (random in our case) questions to glean yet further information for their growing brains.
After this informative session, we were invited to visit the Turtle Hospital, to see how they cared for sick and injured turtles (some had been struck by boats, others sadly entangled in fishing nets or lines), before releasing these beauties back onto the Great Barrier Reef once fully recovered.
Then, it was onto a discovery lagoon session to learn more about creatures you often find in rock pools. In the shallow pool (with transparent sides to allow maximum viewing opportunity), the presenter waded around teaching the children how to walk safely in the sea and demonstrating (to my relief, with a plastic replica) the dangers of stepping on a stingray camouflaged amongst the sand. Along with the opportunity to find out more about stingrays (Bean10’s favourite animal) and starfish, there was also a hands-on tank, where the kids were able to touch species such as the unusual, and let’s face it unreal looking, rhinoceros starfish.
After these three sessions, we spent some time wandering through the coral reef exhibits; the fish and coral displays; and the viewing tunnel, relaxing and digesting all the information we’d been told, whilst marvelling at the colourful array of animals on show. In the viewing tunnel, the kids attempted to identify all the shark and other fish species using the information boards along its side.
Next up was a talk about corals around the aquarium with our own personal tour guide, as we were the only people to attend this talk. One of the major advantages of home education is the opportunity to peruse museums and places of interest with very few other people around, often making the experience more intimate and individual. As an introvert, this is a huge bonus for me. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable, imparting copious information about these marine invertebrates and fielding the multitude of questions from the Beans.
The final stop in the aquarium was an animal feeding tour to watch some of the fastest fish we’d ever seen fight their way for the tastiest morsels. As with all the other talks, the presenters were experienced and engaging, passing on their love of the ocean to the children and imparting a wealth of information about the animals in their care.
It had been a fun day out and we’d all learned a huge amount. Meandering back home, we stopped at the ice cream shop for a refreshing treat, followed by a play in the pool before making a BBQ supper for us all to share. These were hard days for us all!!
Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays
The next morning, we packed up and set off for the three-hour drive (and more of the addictive How to Train Your Dragon series) down to Airlie Beach to settle into our new shared villa. It was a quiet afternoon spent food and beer shopping at the remarkable Denman’s Cellar Beer Café (with its 300 different options of beer and cider from around the world) for the adults and playing around the pool for the kids.
At some point during that evening, Jon had managed to persuade me to go for a run in the morning. I distinctly remember arguing that I wasn’t a runner; just hadn’t been built the right shape; had never been able to run more than a few minutes etc. All the arguments against such a crazy plan had been placed before him. But, patiently and tenaciously, he counter argued every rebuff, claiming that everyone can run; you just have to start really slowly and work up. Not one to back down from a challenge, I found myself pulling on some appropriate clothing the next morning ready for my first ever proper run in 30+ degree heat and 90% humidity (seriously you pour with sweat just walking slowly around this place; I was going to look like someone had tipped a bucket of water over me by the end of a run). Cunningly, I had persuaded the children to join us for said crazy venture, which helpfully meant we couldn’t go too far and there may well be cause for me to stop and help them when they run out of puff (thank you children!).
My face turned bright red after only a few minutes and sweat stung my eyes as we pushed through the wall of heat at a rate not much faster than a fast walk. As we ran, my mind played an internal monologue about what the locals must be chuckling to themselves as they drove past our motley crew of three adults, one of whom was on the point of collapse, and four young children struggling alongside us. ‘Bloody crazy poms’ might well be one of the terms! But, we did it, with just a little moaning from the children, and as soon as we arrived home, we ditched the trainers and jumped straight into the pool fully clothed! And oh, did it feel good.
Given that it had been such an exhausting morning, we decided the only other activity we’d plan for the day was lunch out at a nearby beachside restaurant which had been recommended to us by the owners of the villa: Northerlies Beach Bar and Grill. It was a stunning setting; the food was delicious (although it took a long time to arrive as it was heaving); and the kids played happily on the beach and with the garden games while we waited. Then, it was another afternoon spent relaxing at the villa and preparing for our big trip the next morning. Another tough day in paradise!
Whitehaven beach on Whitsunday Island, the largest of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays, consistently ranks as one of the best beaches in the world. At over 7km long, it boasts the whitest, purest sand you will find anywhere on earth. Composed of 98% silica, it has a powder-like consistency which doesn’t retain heat, so you can walk along it without burning your feet even in the hottest part of the day. Washing up against this snow-like beach are exquisite turquoise, green and blue swirls of water. We couldn’t be in the Whitsundays and not visit this iconic beauty.
Prior to our trip, I spent time researching the best ways to visit this famous coastline and time and again, Ocean Rafting came up as the number one option. With a high-speed jet boat experience and special permits allowing access to all areas of the stunning Hill Inlet part of the beach, it felt like the perfect trip. So, despite the expense, we booked ourselves up for the Southern Lights Tour with this multi award-winning company. I’m so glad we did.
And so, we found ourselves on another beautiful day loading into one of Ocean Rafting’s famed bright yellow semi-rigid inflatables. With a 300-horsepower engine and a playful driver keen to get the most out of this agile, manoeuvrable vehicle, the boat trip out to Hill Inlet at Whitehaven’s northern end was an exhilarating ride. The boat, designed to enter the shallow waters where no other sailing vessels have permission to go, landed us right on the shores of this picturesque coastline.
We jumped out into the crystalline waters and followed our guide for the short walk through the tropical rainforest, past giant orb weaving spiders hanging in their webs, to the spectacular Hill Inlet lookout point. As our guide offered a profusion of facts about the beach and the inlet, we stared out in awe at the dazzling scene before us. It was breathtakingly beautiful. At this point, the tide shifts the sand and water to create the most striking fusion of colours, as the white sands swirl together with the varying hues of blues and greens creating a magnificent giant mosaic picture. The waters were so clear that even from this height, you could easily spot the blacktip reef sharks which use its calm shallow waters as a nursery. It’s probably best to let the pictures do the talking, but even these don’t really do justice to the splendour of this location.
We ambled slowly back to the boat, relishing the feeling of the sand between our toes in this pristine environment, and bobbed about in the clear aquamarine sea cooling off whilst we waited for everyone to return.
Next on our agenda was some snorkel time – our second opportunity to swim amongst the teeming life on the Great Barrier Reef. Taking a child each, we spent as long as we possibly could in the warm water spotting the coral types, fish species and other aquatic animals we’d learned so much about in our marine biology course. We were the very last back to the boat as they called us in for the final part of our excursion – two hours relaxing on the southern end of Whitehaven beach’s 7km stretch of unspoiled sand.
After a delicious and plentiful lunch on the boat, we hopped ashore to wander along this perfect beach. Giant monitor lizards basked across the rocks on the shore and in the sea, schools of fish swam round and around the children as they offered up some food. It was a heavenly afternoon.
We were very reluctant to return to the boat at the end of our allotted time here. But at least we had the prospect of a fun ride home. Sitting perched up on the side of the boat with the wind whipping through my hair and views to die for in every direction, I couldn’t help but smile all the way home. For a parting gift, the two boats had a race back to the port, twisting and turning, weaving in and out of each other sending sprays of water over the sides and eliciting squeals of delight from its passengers. The perfect end to a memorable day.
Cedar Creek Falls
For our final day in paradise, we decided to head inland to the scenic Cedar Creek Falls. Set in a natural rock amphitheatre, with a waterfall at its centre, it made the ideal place to cool off from the hot Australian sun. The kids climbed the trees overhanging the water; jumped off rocks (and in MrJ’s case from a rather precarious position behind the waterfall…); played catch; and swam around to explore the hidden nooks and crannies of its extremities. Still in our swimmers, we climbed up a rather vertiginous footpath up the side of the rocks to the top of the waterfall. The Beans had a wonderful time scrambling over the rocks, showering in the mini waterfalls, watching the wildlife and admiring the incredible views over the forest.
For our last evening, we walked down to the harbour in Airlie Beach to the Boathouse Fish Bar for a tasty, fresh fish dinner, passing on our way a tree full of noisy cockatoos! On our return stroll through these suburbs with its abundant and vibrant wildlife at every turn, we were in for a real treat. Half hidden in the fading light, Bean9 just managed to make out the shapes of two Australian bustards, which he pointed out to us in great excitement. These giant, 1m high birds are extremely rare, a twitcher’s dream sighting, and they were just hanging around by the roadside. We arrived home that evening feeling very privileged to have witnessed these nomadic titans of the bird world.
The Most Beautiful Airport Transfer in the World
Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to our friends as we parted ways after our treasured three weeks together, with them flying home to Melbourne and us on to Sydney. But first, we had one final delight – the journey to the airport. Located on Hamilton Island, the airport is only accessible by boat from Airlie Beach. So, on we hopped for what surely has to be the most stunning airport transfer in the world, past sun drenched, palm fringed islands scattered throughout the turquoise still waters. Heaven on earth.