Bronwyn Sell gets inspired amid the island beauties off the coast of Queensland.
It's disconcerting to paddleboard for the first time off a boat in a breezy bay in tropical North Queensland that's frequented by sharks and rays. A few weeks ago, a 2.5m bronze whaler circled a board paddling out from this sailing cat, and the crew have also seen tiger sharks and reef sharks.
"You're all bloody cack-handed," the skipper, Dave, calls out as I push off and float away to sea clutching the paddle, wobbling even on my knees. "Turn ya hand around."
Rather than sharks, it's Stonehaven Bay's resident green turtles we're hoping to meet, after a fruitless search by snorkel that morning, and time is running out — it's sails-up in an hour.
As I sort out my grip and figure out how to manoeuvre, Dave yells again: "Make sure ya save ya cap and sunglasses first if you fall off. The paddle and board will float — they won't."
I'm less worried about losing the hat and sunglasses than about losing a limb or four. I have skin that spontaneously combusts when touched by direct sunlight, so I've brought spares on this two-day sail around the Whitsunday Islands — hats and sunglasses, that is. Limbs and skin, not so much.
Seesawing, I push to my feet. The board sways, my stomach lurches and a paddleboarder a couple of metres away yells, "Whoa, check out that stingray! It's huge!"
Someone speculates that it's a manta ray. I'm in no position, physically or emotionally, to give my opinion because I've spotted a bullet wind headed my way — aptly named gusts that whoosh off the islands and skid across the water, darkening and rippling the surface. I adjust my leg muscles for, well, dear life. It occurs to me that though I took out travel insurance, I failed to inform the husband that the repatriation of my remains is fully covered.
As well as the whole paddleboarding in shark-infested waters thing, it's also disconcerting to be travelling solo on a shared charter trip. Granted, ISail Whitsunday's On Ice is a 14m cat with plenty of cabins and three bathrooms, but it could disintegrate into Dead Calm pretty fast if you don't get the right kind of people.
I'm in the tropics for work but it's work of the "work" variety. I'm researching a novel that I had the brilliant idea of setting on a tropical resort in this glorious 74-island group, part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. My resort is fictional, so I can create a world that suits my story, but I needed to refresh my memory of the environment (at least, that's what I told the husband to secure the leave pass), which is something like the Abel Tasman meets the Bay of Islands but in the tropics.
Fortunately, the company is excellent — a laidback young English couple, the hilariously irreverent Dave, two deckhands, and "four poofs from Sydney" (self-described).
It's also fortunate that I have quads like tree trunks, feet like flippers, and years of experience of the wobbles in yoga, so the bullet whistles by without claiming a victim.
By the time we paddle into the shallows of the bay — part of Hook Island in the north of the Whitsundays — I've pretty much got this. When someone spots a turtle — finally — I manage to manoeuvre up beside it as it scoots through the clear-to-the-sand water. We soon spot several more. Dave reckons they're constantly stoned because they eat toxic jellyfish, with which Queensland is well supplied.
We paddle up to a tiny beach shaped like a boat ramp, guarded by charcoal-coloured boulders. With native forest carpeting steep cliffs, it feels like the disembarkation point for Jurassic Island. (In fact, part of the Planet of the Apes remake was filmed here.) Dave points out the stony remains of a fish trap in the shallows that was created by the local Ngaro people, possibly thousands of years ago.
We fit a surprising amount into a two-night trip out of Airlie Beach. We moor off bushclad islands, retire early and drift to sleep with water sloshing against the hull and rain brushing the roof. We snorkel with "George" — a massive brilliant-blue Māori wrasse — and his harem of lady fish at Manta Ray Bay. We sip tea as dawn breaks in pastel pink and amber. We play cards, we eat and drink well. We swim in a bay that could be straight out of From Here to Eternity. We watch cockatoos swoop from a rocky peak that resembles the ruins of an ancient castle, their wings flashing in the morning sun, to land, screeching, in the tallest branches of a hoop pine. We sail, of course, flying along in the trade winds. There's a moment of drama when we hit a heaving squall with the sails up, so I curl into a ball while the real sailors sort it out.
But mostly, I'm here for the snorkelling — with clear waters and abundant coral and fish, it's among the best in the world. With sun on the backs of our wetsuits, we tootle around for an hour or more at a time, tropical fish scattering in their dozens. The English woman makes it her mission to find a potato cod. "Fish 'n' chips in one go!" She doesn't, but we do see a massive elderly clam, and a fish-cleaning station just like in Shark Tale — a little gully in the coral. When a bigger fish cruises in, a cluster of little fish dart out to nibble around its gulls and other difficult-to-reach places.
Perhaps most memorably, one morning we moor off Whitsunday Island and climb over a hill to admire the white silica sand of photogenic Whitehaven Beach. This place also has a Hollywood claim to fame — a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here.
While we wade through the shifting shallows, with stingrays pulsing past our legs, a laden charcoal-blue cloud builds along the horizon, contrasting dramatically with the sunlit turquoise water and dazzling sand.
We're warned not to take souvenirs — no sand, no shells, no coral. With thousands of tourists disembarking daily, it wouldn't take long for the entire beach to be shipped jar-by-jar on to mantelpieces throughout the world.
Like the sign says, we leave only footprints and take home only photos — and, in my case, plenty of novel inspiration, three hats, two pairs of sunglasses, and all my limbs.
Bronwyn Sell visited the Whitsundays with the help of Tourism Whitsundays.
Checklist: The Whitsundays
Getting there: There are daily flights to Proserpine and Hamilton Island from Australia's main cities.
Details: Family-owned ISail Whitsundays offers two-night crewed sailing charters (shared or private) around the islands from $570 per person, out of Airlie Beach.