In 2003, my two friends and I came to Australia on tickets purchased with frequent flyer miles by our gainfully employed generous sisters. Over the last 13 years much has changed in my life, but my time spent here had always remained some of my most cherished memories. Memories I am sure my friends and family have tired of hearing. It was a turning point in my life and one of the first long term travel adventures I had planned and executed on my own. It defined much of my character and taught me many lessons. In keeping with the trend, many of the most vivid memories were born out of either ignorance, mishap or sheer dumb luck, but they have truly defined me as an adult and I wanted to take my new wife to see these places.
In a separate coincidence, my sister Alex also was touched by the land down under. After working on a Vineyard in South Australia and then subsequently taking a Master’s degree she also fell in love with this country and has called it home for 10 years. She became an Australian and has called Sydney home for many years working for a few vineyards in the marketing and sales side of the fine wine industry. She and her husband Peter, have recently moved to another beachy neighborhood outside of Sydney, Coogee Beach, into a bigger apartment to make room for their growing family. Another reason for our visit is the expansion of our family. Alex and Peter will soon welcome their first child and my parents first grandchild.
As I was mostly focused on the boat for the past few months, Jessie took on the task of organizing and planning our Australia/New Zealand adventure. I would pepper in suggestions and recommendations a little, but really, she did all the work. One of the highlights from my previous travels was a group of islands off the North-East Coast very near the Great Barrier Reef, called the Whitsundays. They are famous for a few high-end resorts on Hayman and Hamilton Islands, but the vast majority of them are not developed at all. The tales I have worn out telling the most are about the adventures on two of the islands, Hook and Great Whitsunday, they are the largest but least developed in the chain. Hook was the scene of a bankrupt backpacker and Whitsunday the marooned camping expedition where we ran out of wine, and almost food and water. Both experiences will have been heard many times by any who know me and one of my only inputs into the planning of this trip was that we had to get back to these islands.
13 years ago, I first saw the Whitsundays from the window of a small prop plan that landed on Hamilton Island. My lifelong adventure partners and best friends Jared and Joe Fuscaldo were along with me. Though the view out of the small window was incredible…it was nothing compared to what we would see over the next 10 days. For all we knew, which was very little, Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter would greet us at the terminal with a Kangaroo whose pouch would be overflowing with Fosters yelling Crickey! We were fresh out of college with empty pockets, but full of dreams. We had booked ourselves, sight unseen to the Hook Island Backpacker. The pictures looked amazing, but the cost was even more so. We felt proud to have found an affordable paradise away from the congested mainland hostels. We walked past the high-rise hotels and epicurious offerings along the esplanade to a small protected harbor and scouted for the boat that would take us to Hook Island. During a rough, wet ride, on a rough wet boat with a rough wet man we prattled on endlessly about all the activities we wanted to do at the resort. Swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and hiking. The skipper sat with a smug smile offering a word now and then that indicated he knew something we did not and he relished that knowledge. His few cryptic comments lead us to the ultimate conclusion that things might not in fact be as we saw them.
What we learned when we arrived was that the backpacker had gone bankrupt and the bank now owned and ran the place. Here it is referred to as receivership, a much less serious sounding situation to our ears. We spent the next 4-5 days in a bizarre resort with a few staff, some food, and a few other guests that were equally as confused. There were no real activities on offer. Gone were the canoes and kayaks, even the resort boat had been auctioned as part of the bankruptcy. It truly was a Do It Yourself resort, we manned the bar, and used the big kitchen for meals, mostly of whatever was still around. It was bizarre, but fun, we had the run of the place and explored all over the island. Though it took some work to organize a boat that could take us back to the mainland. We made some lasting friendships with other guests similarly stuck in paradise.
As Jessie and I arrived in Airlie Beach (the hub for Island and reef adventures) I was flooded with memories from my previous time here. Wild nights with fellow travelers from Yorkshire, too much goon (cheap wine from silver bags) and a poor decision to visit a local shark hunter’s ode to himself (Vic Hyslop). We stayed at a local air B&B, though we had to pretend we were friends visiting as a nosey neighbor had ‘dobbed’ on them for not having a special permit. The place was incredible with views of the harbor, ocean and islands from our room and the kitchen. We met our hosts, Bridgette and Chris and they could not have been more helpful or gracious. Although the place is no longer listed on Air B&B we feel good they will get it all sorted out soon.
After a day of hiking to Cedar Creek Falls, where there was neither a waterfall, nor a creek. What we did find was a controlled burned landscape and some fairly putrid looking stagnant water that was full of what we assumed to be Cain toad tadpoles. The look on each tourist’s face upon hiking down to what they expected would be a beautiful flowing waterfall into an emerald lagoon was priceless. Each with towels and swimsuits took a short look, shook their heads and hiked back up to the car park, feeling woefully mislead by the postcards in town. After heeding Jessie’s motherly advice not to swim in the dried-up pool we headed home.
After a long night’s sleep, we woke for what was to be our most anticipated adventure of the trip so far. We had booked a 3 day two-night trip on a retired 75 ft racing sailboat called Broomstick. We, along with 23 other backpackers, from at least 7 other countries, and 4 crew would sail, snorkel and hike our way around the Whitsundays.
Our first activity was diving on the reef and this was actually Jessies first time snorkeling. We had to wear sexy stinger suits as the box and Irukandji jellyfish are in season. That night we anchored between the two island that had made the most impression my first time here, Hook and Great Whitsunday Islands. We were just off the beach of the Hook Island resort, which sadly had been abandoned a few years after I was last there. The underwater observatory was still there and the accommodations, but gone were the backpackers making their own adventures with the limited supplies available.
A late night was spent with newly made friends from the UK, Holland, Sweden and Germany. We drank the cordial of penniless travels the world over…the Goon Bag. I first encounter this cultural staple years ago, in this very same place. You removed the cardboard from the box of wine so it takes up less space and you drink the tepid, sweet or dry, vile contents. It does not taste good, mixing it with OJ, or lemon soda, or anything else does little to mask its odious taste, but nothing can truly make it palatable. It is a rite of passage for most backpacker in Australia. A 5-liter Goon can be had for as cheap as 15 dollars; or a ratio of $3 per goon liter. That price point is too enticing for most. Drinking the goon is pretty bad, but the hangover is a multiplier of exponential proportions. Perhaps it is the sugar, perhaps it is whatever they cut it with to keep the price down, or it might even be the quantity of goon consumed, but 0500 came mighty early the next day.
We headed around to Great Whitsunday Island and were the first boat in the small cove by the Hill Inlet hike to the overlook. The tide was low and incoming so we could be watching the water come up and the colors change every few moments. It could not have been more perfect timing for our trip.
My first trip here in May of 2003 could not have been more different. Jared, Joe and I couldn’t afford a charter boat or a guided tour, so we found a guy with a boat and paid him 20 bucks each to drop us off at the island. We had our own food, water, goon and camping supplies. As it would turn out what we didn’t have was a good weather forecast or way home.
The first two days were spent in our tent as it down poured outside. All of our gear would get wet and the winds were strong enough that no one else came to the island. As the storm broke during morning on our third day, we had the island truly to ourselves. We spent the day making a couch and chairs out of the drying sand. We played coconut soccer, and hiked along the most beautiful 98% pure silica white sand beach in the world. So pure in fact NASA used it to make the lens for the Hubble space telescope (or so I was told in a bar). We didn’t really realize how lucky we were. As we would find out this beach is normally visited by thousands daily on tour boats and charters. But with the weather most had cancelled for a few days. On the 4th day we hiked the length of the beach (perhaps a couple miles) and swam across Hill Inlet and went to the overlook. The only camera capable of making the trip with us was a disposable camera I had purchased for precisely this purpose, this being many years before water proof Go Pro Cameras and selfie stick were standard issue for all travelers. We were all overwhelmed with the incredible majesty of the view. The inlet is pure white sand and the water is every shade of blue and green imaginable. We sat up there taking pictures and watching the tide come in. We didn’t really realize how fast it changed. Back in the Chesapeake at most there might be a 2-4-foot difference. Here the normal swing is closer to 12-14 feet. As the colors changed so did the distance we would have to swim home, and the dark shapes in the water didn’t make us feel any better. During our swim the camera somehow came out of my pocket. To this day, I cannot believe we found it. With almost a panicked frenzy to retain the photographic proof of the most beautiful place I had visited…I swam around as Joe spotted from the beach. After almost an hour we managed to find it floating in the water. Over the next 2 days we ran out of water, the crows poked holes in our goon bags and we were able to essentially bribe a visiting tour boat to take us back to the mainland. But what was so incredible was that we had the whole island to ourselves for what seemed like an eternity.
These were the memories in my mind as I walked up the path to the Hill inlet overlook 13 years later with my wife and 25 others. As I watched lines of people wait their turn to take a selfie with the spectacular view behind them. Many only gazed briefly, just long enough to make sure it would impress their friends. Most stayed buried in their phones. It is still bizarre to me to spend more time admiring the picture of the beautiful place than the place itself, while still in the moment. Though we were there early enough the crowds had not yet arrived, it wasn’t long before they did. Sharing the place didn’t take away from the unique and singular beauty, but things had certainly changed. The memories I had and so greatly wanted to experience again with Jessie would be different this time. Perhaps it is that I have changed, or just grown older and more curmudgeonly, but I had the inescapable feeling the world has changed…we all have changed. Nothing could diminish this place, and Australia has done an incredible job of keeping the island free from development but accessible non-the less. It is a view all should be able to see, and one I was happy to see again.
Seeing it again with Jessie was emotional, in one flood of innumerable feelings I felt so happy to share the moment with her, so excited that she too had now been to this amazing place. I also felt a sense that a lot had changed, both in the world and within me. In one instant of reflection more than a decade of experiences passed, it was great to be back in a place that was so memorable and it felt great to share it with my special lady!