We’ve had a driving day today, and from about 4pm we’ve kept passing places that would be fine to stop for the night, but by unspoken agreement we pushed on and made it to Banana, just for the pure pleasure of staying somewhere with such a silly name! Sadly, and surprisingly given the Australian love of such things, there’s no giant banana to be found anywhere along the road – but we’re enjoying being able to title a blog post from here, anyway!
The Whitsundays trip was absolutely, incredibly brilliant – we had SUCH a good time. The weather was wonderful for the whole three days, and the wind stayed low enough for the boat to make it out to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, which was amazing – the boat was great, the crew were really good fun, the diving was excellent, and the rest of the group were a nice crowd. We got up early on the first morning, and finished packing our few things into our tiny blue bags, and then drove round to the camp office and parked our van in a corner – the guys at the office offered to keep all our food in their fridge, as the van battery wouldn’t have kept the fridge running for three days with no power. Once that was all sorted, they gave us a lift down to the marina. We wandered down to the covered walkway where we’d been told to wait, and there were already quite a few people there, and more arrived over the next ten minutes or so, until there were 14 of us there – so the boat was full, despite having had lots of spaces when we booked, they obviously managed to fill the spaces last-minute. We were glad of that, actually, as it was much more sociable with a full group – and 14 people isn’t many, anyway, it’s a small enough group that you get to know everyone. The rest of the group was an Irish couple who live in Perth, a girl from Argentina who was travelling on her own, two English guys, a Finnish guy, a French couple, and a family from Melbourne – mum, step-dad, son and daughter-in-law, and it turned out that the diving instructor on the boat was their son/brother, so they were on holiday to visit him. The crew were an English guy called Stu who was the skipper, Ryan the diving instructor, and Ellis the chef/hostess. Everyone was very nice, and it was a really sociable few days – the boat was big enough for everyone to have plenty of space, but small enough that we were all spending quite a lot of time chatting, so it was really good.
Once we’d met everyone, and Ryan had got us all to fill in our diving paperwork, we went down to the boat and all sat around on the covered deck at the back of the boat, where we were each given a mug and a marker pen to write our names on it – great idea, as it meant they weren’t constantly washing up mugs, and we could all make a cup of tea whenever we felt like it. Then we had a safety briefing from Stu, and then a quick welcome from the owners of the boat, who apparently come down to the marina to greet every group, which we thought was very nice. We each got called down to the cabins one at a time and shown where we’d be sleeping – Chris and I had paid $50 each extra for a private double cabin, rather than a shared one, and we were glad we had in the end! We had a cabin with a door that shut, and a double bunk below with a single one above, that we used to put all our stuff on – everyone who was in shared bunks had beds all over the place, in the corridor on the way to the loo, six beds in a shared cabin in the front, even one bed in the middle of the saloon which was made up at night! So we thought it was money well spent.
The loos were perfectly pleasant, and the saloon downstairs was a nice big space, although we didn’t spend much time there as it was even nicer out on deck. There was a fridge of soft drinks, chocolates, wine and beer which was run on an honesty system, you just had to mark down what you took and they totted it up at the end – so we had a few Mars Bars between dives, and the odd glass of red wine in the evenings! Ryan had a camera and took photos right through the trip, which you could then buy for $35 at the end, so we did that and didn’t worry about taking too many of our own photos. The deck at the back had lockers for the dive gear that doubled as seats, and a table in the middle that was used for serving meals on, which we’d then perch on the lockers or the front deck to eat. The front deck had lots of sunbathing space, and seats along the front rails that you could sit on and dangle your feet over the sea while we were motoring along. We motored most of the time, and just did some sailing on the last day, as the wind wasn’t in the right direction for where we were headed most of the time (and it was much more comfortable, and faster, to motor!) Ellis produced amazing meals from a tiny little galley – we had lamb, potatoes and vegetables one night, cooked to perfection in a steamer made from a beer keg, and spaghetti Bolognese the other night, with pancakes for dessert, chicken curry and rice one lunchtime, and salads, rolls and cooked meats the other, and morning snack of cakes, cookies and fruit, then afternoon snack of nuts, olives, crisps, dips, cheese and pickles. The food was great, and we were all ready for it each time it appeared – being out on a boat in the fresh air is really hungry work, it turns out!
The first day, after we’d all settled in, we headed out to the islands and to Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island. While we were en route, Ryan did separate briefings with each group – the certified divers, the people who were interested in doing introductory dives, and those who were just planning to snorkel. We were all given fins and masks, and lycra 1mm wetsuits and hoods – ‘stinger suits’, to protect us from the jellyfish that can occasionally be found in the water. We got to Whitsunday Island mid-morning, and Stu took us into the island on the little tender, and dropped us on the beach. Ryan came with us for the walk through the trees to the viewpoint over Whitehaven Beach, which is just the most stunningly beautiful beach I’ve ever seen – turquoise water and white sand, and when we walked down onto the beach we found that the sand is incredibly fine, it feels like icing sugar between your toes! We walked along the beach to a corner they call ‘Secret Beach’, where it was just the 15 of us, and we spent the next 2 hours there sunbathing and swimming (in our very glamorous stinger suits!) It was lovely, so relaxed, and the most beautiful beach – it really felt like we had as much time as we wanted, and there was no sense of rushing to get on to the next thing, which I think was really the benefit of being on a 3-day trip.
We eventually got picked up and taken back to the boat, and then went round to a quiet little bay called Stingray Bay, where we moored up for the night and watched the stunning sunset, before tucking into dinner and a glass of wine. We stayed up quite late that evening chatting and getting to know everyone, and when we finally did go off to bed, we both struggled to sleep, as it was really hot in the cabin and the boat was rolling in the swell – after a while we discovered the fan and the porthole, both of which helped enormously with a more comfortable night’s sleep! We were woken up in the morning by the noise of the generator starting up just before six, and we all sleepily made our way on deck for breakfast – cereal, toast and platters of fruit, which was all already laid out when we got up there – Ellis must have had to be up at 5! After breakfast, we kitted up for our first dive, and the five of us who were certified divers went in for a dive with Ryan. It was nice diving, with beautiful coral and lots of fish, but that first dive was definitely the least impressive of the dives we did – so it really was important that we went out to the Outer Reef, and Kiana is one of the few boats that does that, so I think that was part of what made it a really good choice.
After our dive we relaxed on deck, and a few of the less lazy types went snorkelling – the non-divers had all gone in snorkelling, and a couple of the divers joined them, but I was quite glad to be out of my wetsuit and warming myself in the sun! So we stayed on board and watched the intro divers going in for short dives in groups of three – Ryan was really kept busy! Once we’d all had our dive or snorkel, we set off for the outer reef – it was only 9 a.m. when we left, but we all felt we’d been having fun for hours already! It was a three-hour motor out to the reef, which we mostly spent snoozing and sunbathing on the front deck. When we got there, the certified divers kitted up and went in for a dive before lunch – an absolutely brilliant dive, we saw a huge turtle, and loads of stunning coral and fish, with very little current and great vis – really easy, pleasant diving. It was a great group to dive with, as well – usually you get at least a couple of recently qualified divers and the group has to dive to their level, but all five of us were quite experienced, capable divers with reasonable buoyancy control and air consumption, and the diving was much more fun because of that. Stu picked us up in the tender, dropped us back at the boat, and went off to check out another site for the afternoon – when he got back, he told us he’d seen some huge turtles and what he thought was a bull shark, on a site on the outer wall of the reef that they hadn’t dived before. Ryan said as we were a decent group, it might be fun to go and have a go at that, so we agreed on that as our afternoon dive! After lunch, Chris and I, and Casey and Dani (the couple from Melbourne) went for a quick snorkel, and while we were hovering over a deep patch between two coral heads, we spotted a shark on the sandy bottom below. Chris and Casey were both ducking down to have a look at it, when Dani and I noticed another shark circling us – they were actually only reef sharks, probably less than 2m long, but we both got a bit nervous and decided we’d cut short the snorkelling and head back to the boat! We stayed in our wetsuits until the intro divers got back, and we could kit up and head off on the tender to the outer wall. I was a bit apprehensive about the bull shark by then, but decided I should be brave and enjoy the dive!
We dropped off the tender onto the outer wall of the reef and had an excellent dive – no bull shark to be found, but we did see a couple more reef sharks, and a couple of the huge turtles, and a huge ray – also lots of interesting small fish, pipefish, clownfish, boxfish, all the things we love to see. The 20-minute ride back on the tender in wet wetsuits in the wind was less fun, so we were all glad to get back for a quick hot shower and supper! We stayed moored on the reef that night, and we were the only boat there – all you could see was the sea on every horizon, with the Whitsundays in the far distance, and it was an absolutely beautiful sunset again, really special. The stars were amazing, as well.
In the morning we got up at six again, and went for a dive at a site called the Stepping Stones, a series of coral heads with some great swim-throughs and tunnels – we followed in single file through a couple of tunnels too tight to turn around it, and were rewarded with some amazing moments where the sun shone down through the coral overhead – really beautiful underwater scenery. And again, we saw reef sharks, and lots of fish, and a turtle that was so engrossed in chewing on the coral that it let us all swim right over it – Ryan and the two other guys with cameras got some great photos!
Stu had told us we’d need to get going quickly after the dive if we were going to have a chance to get the sails up, so we all kitted down quickly and got ready to go – just before Stu was about to get the sails up, though, Chris was out on deck and I was down in the cabin packing our things, when someone shouted ‘whale!!!’ We’d had a false alarm on the way out with a rock-that-looked-like-a-whale, so everyone was watching out for them – and this was the real thing, two humpback whales only a hundred metres or so from the boat, spouting and breaching and flipping their tails up as they dived! Chris ran downstairs to tell me, and we rushed up to the deck again, assuming we only had a minute or two to see them. But in fact, they came closer to the boat, and spent about 20 minutes around us – it was absolutely incredible, at some points you could see the whole length of each whale under the water, and then their backs as they came out of the water, and their heads as they spouted water up, and then their tails as they flipped and dived – it was the most amazing experience. We were all bouncing from one side of the boat to the other, squeaking with excitement! Even Stu raced off to get his camera and said this was worth being late back for!
When the whales eventually left us, the crew put up the sails and we sailed most of the way back. I can’t say it was the most fun bit of the trip – the boat was pitched right over, with people on one side able to dangle their toes in the water, and the people on the other side hanging onto the rails to stop themselves sliding down the deck! Three or four people got seasick, which obviously wasn’t great for them, but wasn’t much fun for anyone else either – I think everyone was a bit relieved when we got back into the islands and put the sails down, and motored back the rest of the way. We got back to the marina around 4pm and, after buying our Kiana t-shirts, settling our bar bills and swapping Facebook and email addresses, we left the boat and wandered back up the dock to where the guys from the van park had come to pick us up.
Stu had told us as we got back that they’d booked a table at a pub in town for all of us that night, and we’d get a free jug of beer per three people, plus 25% off food, so Chris and I decided that would be the easiest thing to do for dinner – we also realised it was our 2 month anniversary the next day, so a good reason for a night out! We went back to the van park and got showered and changed, then caught the last bus into town (from a very dark bus stop, down a very dark pavement-less highway!) and walked down to the pub. In the end, it was only us, Casey and Dani, Rod and Barb (the family from Melbourne) and Pilar, the Argentinian girl, who came to the pub, but we had a nice evening and made the most of the free beer while watching Queensland vs. New South Wales rugby on the big screen. Rod and Barb have really kindly invited us to stay with them when we get to Melbourne, which we’re definitely planning to do.
We wandered up the road for a coffee and then went to find a taxi home – there was a big queue at the taxi rank, so when we got to the front of the queue, we shouted down the queue to ask if anyone was going the same way and wanted to share ours – a couple came up from the middle of the queue and said they’d pay the fare as far as they were going, so we all jumped in together. We got chatting and told them we were on honeymoon – they were locals who lived halfway down the road to our van park. When the driver pulled over at their stop, the guy handed over some cash and said ‘As it’s their honeymoon, we’ll pay their fare too,’ and jumped out before we could say anything. I love it when people do such nice things – it gives you a real warm fuzzy feeling! We both said that it’s karma coming back to us for the girl we helped out with departure tax in Bali!
The next morning we were heading off, with a general destination of Hervey Bay, to go to Fraser Island. We knew it was more than a day’s driving, and we had to stock up with groceries, cash and petrol, so we thought we’d just tootle along and see how far we got. While we had an Internet connection, I’d been doing some Googling for the best way to see Fraser Island, and we’d decided it would be more fun to hire a 4WD and go off on our own, rather than do an organised tour. I found a deal online for a 4WD Toyota Landcruiser with a double bed in the back and a full set of cooking gear, which we thought sounded brilliant – we won’t even need to set up a tent! So we phoned and chatted to the guy, and booked it for Monday to Wednesday, and he’ll organise our ferry bookings, vehicle and camping permits as part of the package. So that meant we had four days to get to Hervey Bay – we need to be there at 3 p.m. on Sunday for a safety briefing, which is mandatory for anyone hiring a 4WD for Fraser Island – I think they brought it in when one too many tourists overturned their vehicle driving down the beach, and it’s probably a good idea to give people a few 4WD tips! I think Chris is quite looking forward to the driving – I might even have a go!
While we were wandering round the supermarket, Chris was trying to decide whether the cut on his foot was bad enough to do anything about – he’d cut it on a winch on the boat on the first day, and it was looking a bit infected after three days of wandering around barefoot in salt water. He decided to keep an eye on it for another day, but as we drove out of Proserpine, we drove past a hospital, so we decided it was worth popping in to get it looked at. It was such a pleasant experience, particularly compared to our various NHS A&E experiences – Chris was treated for free, as he’s a Commonwealth citizen, and we were ushered straight in to see a nurse, who passed us on to a doctor 10 minutes later, who gave Chris a prescription for antibiotics and got a nurse to put a dressing on his foot – we were out in under an hour. Chris has now got two different antibiotics to take, to make sure nothing unpleasant from the water has caused any infection, so hopefully his foot will clear up quickly!
We looked at the map and decided that rather than following the coastal road, which had a big empty stretch between Mackay and Rockhampton, we would take the opportunity of an extra couple of days and go on a circuit inland, to see a bit of the Outback. Within an hour or so of turning inland, we were in the middle of mining country, with huge road trains (massive trucks with two or three trailers attached) passing us on the roads. We got as far as Moranbah, and pulled in at a rest stop just before dark – there were no loos or anything else, but there were three or four other vans and caravans there already, so we felt pretty safe. We were knackered, and not very hungry as we’d only stopped for lunch at 4pm! So we made the bed, watched a couple of episodes of 24, had a picnic in bed of crisps and chocolate and apples, and went to sleep.
Today has been more driving – we’re glad we took this inland route, it’s been full of long, straight, empty roads, a couple of them narrow enough that you pull off to the side of the road when you see a particularly scary road train coming! We’ve stopped in small towns which obviously cater to rural Australia, not to tourists, and there’s something quite refreshing in that. We got coffee and cookies at a cafe in Clermont, then went to the supermarket in Emerald (and checked our emails, as we had a rare moment of internet reception – annoyingly, not fast enough to download photos, as Holls has emailed us some photos of Moor Street – we’ll have to get them in the next big town!) We turned off the road and followed signs to Lake Maraboon for a lunch stop at a pretty grassy site full of picnic tables by the Fairbairn Dam – I made BLTs and we carried our plates over to a picnic table, and were suddenly ambushed by a group of wildly colourful and totally fearless parakeets, who were after our lunch – I shooed them away, but Chris was happy to share!
We carried on down the road and came across Mount Zamia and the Virgin Rock, which is apparently quite a famous landmark – there were quite a few caravans parked in a rest stop beneath it, and we stopped for a photo, but I couldn’t spot the Virgin and Child that are meant to appear in the rock – Chris could, but however much he pointed it out I just wasn’t seeing it! We started looking out for somewhere to stay and both spotted Banana on the map – so here we are! We’ve got no internet reception, so we’ll probably post this tomorrow if we stop somewhere with reception – we might be in Hervey Bay tomorrow, but we might stop somewhere else along the way, so we’ll see what happens!