Vern: Our next stop down the east coast was Airlie Beach - the "gateway to the Whitsunday Islands". Our hostel was one of many on the little town's only commercial street. Once again, there is a risk of getting stung by box jellyfish in the sea here so they've built a Lagoon and recreational area with barbecues and play-gyms as a less deadly alternative. We explored the little town to work up an appetite then tucked into a steak dinner at the hostel bar (included in our accommodation and cruise package). Soon after we got back to our room, a self-contained hotel room converted into a 5-bed dorm, our dorm-mate (a Kiwi girl) got home and politely asked a British forty-something also staying in the room what he did that day.
"I did some laundry, you never get your whites as white as your mum gets 'em, do you?"
"Err no, do you live with your folks back in England?"
For the next forty-five minutes he described how he'd left his partner of 17 years, found someone else, got engaged, then his fiancé left him 10 weeks before their wedding for her best friend.. "..but how did I get started on all that, where was I?"
"You did laundry..." she replied exasperated, gritting her teeth and unable to believe that her sweet attempt at small talk had trapped her into listening to an epic sob story robbing her of her evening.
"Sucker!" I thought as I lay on my bunk quietly reading my book and making a mental note not to ask that guy any questions.
The following day we boarded a bright purple catamaran called 'Camira' (probably bringing down the neighbourhood in an all-white yacht club) and set sail for the Whitsunday Islands. Seventy-four islands bob around in the topaz sea and feature some of Australia's best views, best beaches and best homes and hotels. The wind caught the sails and as we surged out of the harbour a mansion built into terraced cliffside was hard to miss. It used to be owned by Crocodile Dundee, Paul Hogan, before he ran into tax troubles:
"You call that a house? This is a house!"
Our first port of call was Daydream Island, a large resort island owned by a cosmetics millionaire, where we picked up additional passengers then continued out into the archipelago. Next up we cruised by the heavily built up Hamilton Island where George Harrison had a spot and where the lucky winner of the international recruitment drive slash marketing campaign, "The best job in the world" (a $100 000-a-year island caretaker, free board and lodging) is now based.
Cookies, cake and fruit were served with morning tea, following which the bar opened. We don't do many all-inclusive things, but this was the only way to see the islands, so it felt a little like Christmas. The catamaran curled around the edges of Whitsunday Island and soon the much hyped Whitehaven Beach came into view. Backed by tropical forest, small turquoise swells lap up a bright white sandy arc. The yacht anchored and a dinghy took us ashore.
We went for a long walk along the water line, sifting the icing-sugar fine sand through our toes. So fine that it is supposed to be great for polishing jewellery and exfoliating, but problematic for cameras. And shaking off of my towel. Also, it retains no heat because it's made up 94% of silica. "This is way above the 75% minimum required to make glass," a helpful young deckhand informed us. I'd left my glassblowing equipment back at base, so we settled instead for a swim, a lie-down and a game of frisbee (after dragging Andrea away from rubbing the fine sand on her legs to 'exfoliate').
After our beach excursion was over, we were motored back to the yacht where the crew had been barbecuing up a feast on a big gas BBQ on the rear deck. We ate like royalty. (Not that, like the Queen, I had faxed ahead a list of spluttery foods which must not be served lest I make a fool of myself on state visits. I just mean we ate a lot). As a crew-member cleaned up, although we couldn't eat a dollop more, we stared in wide-mouthed disbelief when she tipped a tray stacked with uneaten steaks and sausages into the trash.
"Why did you do that?"
"Sorry, did you need some more?"
"No but, why don't the staff take it home? Or the company give it to someone?"
"Well we have this same food every day at work so no-one wants it, and food safety laws prevent us from giving it to anyone else."
By the time we'd dried our tears over this terrible shame, it was time to kit up for snorkelling in the Hook Passage. A turtle popped its head above the water as we anchored, which bode well for sea-life on the reef. "Don't point at it, it'll think you have a spear gun!" yelled a crew-member when I pointed it out to another passenger. I dropped my hand fast but I think she may have been having me on.
Apparently some months ago a woman was looking very apprehensive when she kitted up, she nervously climbed aboard the dinghy and when it stopped above the reef, she followed the other snorkelers over the side and into the water. Then she sunk like a stone! After the dinghy's skipper rescued her he asked what on earth she was thinking. "Someone has tell me," she replied, "everyone can swim in Australia." She figured it was like the dead sea or something.
The snorkel trip was very good. The reef was colourful and full of life. Striped humbugs dominated, Andrea found two 40cm-long yellow masked angel fish and another snorkeler pointed out a very small shark hiding in a coral cave. The water was however quite cold and it was fantastic to be greeted with hot coffee and chocolate cake when we re-boarded the yacht. Our catamaran skimmed the ocean's surface and raced us back to Airlie Beach, docking in the early evening.
The following night we watched the France vs England Rugby World Cup match in the hostel bar. A couple who we'd met on Magnetic Island, Bob and Karina, had us chuckling with a tale of an 81-year old backpacker who'd checked in to the hostel where we'd met them on Magnetic Island and soon after moving in dragged a young man to reception demanding to know what he was doing in her room - her six bed dorm. He of course had just as much right to be there as she did, but the hostel kindly upgraded her to avoid further upsets. Grandma's probably pulling this scam all the way down the coast!
I stopped chuckling when my food arrived, the calamari and chips I'd been fantasising about all day, was a little smaller than anticipated: four miserable rings. Four! In South Africa, if you order calamari you get a shovel full. The boat loads of South Africans who've ended up here certainly didn't come for the portion sizes.
The following evening, we watched South Africa get beaten by Australia in the same bar. We were watching the game with two guys we'd met on the yacht, one of whom was a risk consultant. A few years ago he'd been asked by the local government of Airlie Beach to perform a terrorism risk assessment of the Lagoon. "You really don't need it," he'd protested. "Save your money." But they insisted that he do it because they already had budget for the assessment signed off. So he spent a week at the beach, twenty minutes of which was spent writing a report outlining why its unlikely that terrorists will fly planes into the little town's public swimming pool.
A few pints of beer helped drown the misery of the Springboks exiting the World Cup and helped us sleep on the overnight bus headed down to Hervey Bay.