A turtle pops its head up as I glance across the water. As quickly, it is gone again…but I know there’ll be another along sometime, for I am learning that life afloat is full of such encounters.
Sailing opens up a new world where everything is about the elements, where dolphin escorts, cruising manta rays, circling sea birds, sunsets and rainbows, and the power of the wind become part of a languid daily routine.
People often ask me how professional travel writers have a “real holiday”. After all, aren’t we always “working”, taking notes and photographs? How do we “turn off”? I used to say that I simply didn’t…every trip, even with my family, had the potential for a story.
But then friends invited me to spend two weeks sailing down the Queensland coast with them, and I remembered there are few better ways to travel well than to do it slowly and few pleasures greater than the simple ones.
I wasn’t necessarily convinced at the start. Two weeks to sail from Cairns to Townsville sounds like a long time; you can drive it in about five hours. Twitchiness preceded the departure date, as I wondered how I would fill (or kill) the days. How quickly would boredom set in?
I need not have worried. For a landlubber like me, life on the ocean wave became a gentle learning curve, as I attuned to a less frantic pace, replacing the “sights” – and sounds – of a grounded holiday with not-quite-nothing-to-do.
First stop, after a longer-than-expected rock-n-roll few hours over 15 nautical miles (about 30km) through big swell and squalls, was Fitzroy Island where we anchored for the night to wait out the bad weather. An inauspicious start but a good introduction to getting in tune with the elements; what nature brings is what we’ll have to go with.
Fitzroy’s resident sulphur-crested cockatoos provide my first wake-up call of the trip. Day two dawns grey and rainy but there are compensations: turtles come up for air as we breakfast on the deck, and a vivid rainbow arches across the sky.
Under sail, we head for the Frankland Island Group. Dolphins leap beside the bow as we reach the conical High Island. This is the closest of the group to the mainland, and soon we are sailing past Normanby Island, which is surrounded by a reef. We drop anchor off Russell Island.
More turtle sightings begin the next day, then we sail east into the sun before tacking back towards the coast. A large catamaran comes alongside – yachties are friendly bunch – and share the news that they are headed for Mourilyan Harbour . “Mangroves, mosquitoes, midges and mud…” mutter my companions.
We pass the harbour entrance and continue to the group of four North Barnard Islands to anchor off Kent Island, next to the smaller Jessie Island. I swim ashore, scramble up the coral beach and go for a walk. A sea eagle perches above the point while its mate goes fishing.
Part of the “sea country” of the Mamu people, Kent Island is a Commonwealth Lighthouse Reserve. The lighthouse was established in 1897 and the island named for the keeper and his daughter. In 1918, the light was automated after a cyclone forced the island’s evacuation.
An iridescent orange sunset behind Jessie Island throws pandanus trees and casuarina into relief. In the morning, black naped terns circle above us and small grey herons fish for crabs along the rocky shoreline.
From Kent, we sail for Dunk Island. I’m learning that some of these islands, familiar from shore-based holidays take on a different perspective from the water and by now – despite my status as galley wench – I’m affecting a swagger befitting one who’s learning the ropes (literally) and has steered our course for a couple of hours.
Dunk is the northernmost of the Family Group, named by the British explorer Captain James Cook, who called Bedarra (our next port of call) ‘the mother isle’ and the 12 other in the group ‘the children’. Some of the islands are part of the Family Islands National Park, others – including Bedarra – are privately owned.
Bedarra is best known as the location of one of Australia’s most luxurious, exclusive and expensive resorts. But from our anchorage off island’s northwest corner, the only signs of civilisation are a disintegrating jetty and a few derelict buildings among the trees. This, I discover, is all that is left of a former resort, closed for nearly 20 years and now being reclaimed by nature.
We kayak past mangroves and large rock formations in the shallows; the island’s reputation for its natural beauty is not understated. A perfect morning sees us sail around Bedarra, past its granite cliffs, luxury homes and resort. As we head out, marvelling at the sight of Battleship Rock (no prizes for guessing its shape), six double kayakers – bright yellow against the sea – are heading from Wheeler Island towards Bedarra.
Midway through our journey, travelling along the Hinchinbrook Channel, a protected waterway between the World Heritage-listed Hinchinbrook Island and the mainland, provides one of the highlights of the journey. It is raining, a fine misty haze hanging over the primordial-looking landscape of this huge island of rainforest and granite escarpments. Hinchinbrook covers 39,000 hectares, and the four hours it takes us to glide past it through the channel is stunning, with the mountains above us, seagrass meadows below. My eyes are peeled for a glimpse of a dugong but only one of us is lucky – and then it is only the disappearing grey back as it slips beneath the still water.
The channel ends near the town of Lucinda, where sugar sheds line the shore and a bulk sugar conveyor wharf juts 5km out into the sea. We motor parallel to the wharf in shallow water before setting the sails, heading to the Palm Islands.
Passing Pelorus and Orpheus, we anchor in the sheltered Juno Bay, off the north-west tip of Fantome Island, a place with a rich history. A fringing reef runs length of Juno Bay, and the island is part of the traditional lands and sea country of the Manbarra people.
In the 1930s, Fantome (Eumilli) Island was a medical clearing station where Aboriginal people were examined and treated before being sent to Great Palm Island under a government resettlement program. About 1630 people were removed from their homes and sent to Great Palm over 20 years, under the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1897. A leprosarium was established on the island in 1939 and was run by Catholic nuns until 1973, when everyone was moved to Great Palm Island and the buildings were razed.
A memorial to those who died on Fantome, consecrated in May 2010, stands in the graveyard. Other relics – old bathtubs and the building foundations – litter the road that runs from one side of the island to the beach on the other side, a few minutes’ walk.
Later from the boat, I spot a black fin cruising through the grey water. A dolphin or shark? No, a large manta ray, cruising the edge of the fringing reef. The “fin” is the black tip of its “wings” – and proof (if I still needed it) that just sitting and waiting and watching will bring unexpected rewards.
As we sail further south, the islands change from lush and green to drier and browner. We pass Rattlesnake Island and Herald Island, which warning signs proclaim as part of a Federal Department of Defence bombing range.
Our final stop before Townsville is Horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island. In the evening, we go ashore for a walk, fish and chips on the beach at sunset, and a drink at the Marlin Bar. After so long in relative solitude, the noise, cars, people, and music from the pub are a shock.
I go to sleep to the cry of curlews, and wake at dawn to see a row of tiny birds perched on the rope above my hatch. Above them, sunrise is turning the clouds a gentle pink.
I reflect on the past two weeks. What did I do? I read, ate, slept, talked, laughed, played some fiercely competitive games of Scrabble, and spent a lot of time just watching this little piece of the world go by. I took photographs, but no notes. It has been a true holiday; the kind I resolve to have more of.
As we sail towards civilisation again, a pod of dolphins passes us – going the other way- and that seems a fitting finale to discovering the joy of a slower pace.