Just add salt and water for some Whitsundays magic
Kayaking the Ngaro Sea Trail in a stunning tropical paradise
A SAILOR’S extra ration of rum? Surely that’s the only explanation that can trick the mind to transform the curvaceous shape of a 400kg dugong into that of a nubile mermaid. These grey-skinned sea-cows with their short, trunklike snouts are a distant relative to the elephant and as far removed from the sensuous sea sirens of legend as you can get. But when one surfaces only metres from my kayak, I am spellbound.
‘ ‘ I’ve been kayaking these waters for four years,’’ says our guide, Mark, ‘‘and I’ve only seen four dugongs in all that time.’’
We see four within the space of an hour. ‘ ‘ They feed on the seagrass,’’ Mark tells us.
As we paddle out of Shute Harbour in the Queensland Whitsundays, a beaky head periscopes out of the water. As well as dugongs, the large swath of seagrass in the bay attracts green turtles. The sea is smooth. I wonder what else could be swimming in the depths.
Ahead of us, through the pass- age, a cluster of islands spreads in a chain of forested domes across the opalescent waters of the Coral Sea. The Whitsunday islands really are, as the cliche persists, a tropical paradise. The 74 islands of this stunning archipelago are the tips of mountains jutting from the sea, and from their sandy fringes the ocean spreads towards the horizon in shades of pale aquamarine, bright blue and deep indigo.
Sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef, there are no crashing waves or deadly undertows and the waters are perfect for kayaking.
Turning his back on a promising banking career, Neill Kennedy succumbed to the saltwater running through his veins and set up Salty Dog Sea Kayaking at Shute Harbour. He is passionate about the islands’ natural beauty and offers a range of kayaking trips, from half-day to week-long guided tours. He hires out kayaks and offers advice to experienced kayakers who wish to explore the islands independently.
‘‘From July to the end of October the weather is perfect for kayaking, with calm water, little rain, no stingers and mild temperatures. But the optimal time is September,’’ Kennedy advises, ‘‘when the humpback whales are passing through with their calves.’’
Although dugong sightings are rare and dolphins prefer surfing the bow waves of larger and faster boats, the waters teem with schools of rainbow-coloured fish, manta rays, green turtles and loggerhead turtles.
We beach our kayaks on a thin strip of sand at White Rock. Overhead, a sea-eagle scopes the water; recent rain has stirred up the sea, reducing visibility, but our guide tells us that snorkelling the fringing reefs, particularly around the northern tip of Hook Island, is as good as snorkelling the outer reef. Fringing reefs are formations that lie in clear warm water around islands and often have a greater diversity of soft corals.
The half-day kayak tours are popular and are suitable for inexperienced paddlers, but to fully appreciate the beauty of the Whitsundays, Kennedy suggests a multi-day paddle following the Ngaro Sea Trail. Set up by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, the Ngaro Sea Trail connects routes used by the indigenous Ngaro people with walking tracks on the national park islands of the Whitsundays.
Sleeping under the stars at rustic beach camp sites and exploring the forested domes of these drowned mountains blends history and nature in an unforgettable sea-to-summit scenic trail.
The trail can be accessed at any point for any length of time. But the advantage of taking a guided tour is obvious: guides know the route and the camp sites, have local knowledge of the islands’ history, and take care of the prep- arations and safety precautions. But there’s magic in planning your own island castaway adventure.
‘ ‘ You have to be prepared,’’ warns Kennedy. ‘‘Carry four to five litres of water a person per day. And you need some form of communication.’’ Telstra mobile reception is patchy but adequate, although a VHF radio is best. ‘‘Take plenty of food, sensible footwear, a tent and insect repellent,’’ he adds. And don’t forget the national park camping permits.
Kennedy advises starting a week-long paddle with a water taxi from Shute Harbour to Whitehaven Beach. Of the numerous pristine beaches and secluded bays, Whitehaven stands out for its 7km strip of pure white silica sand. It is undoubtedly the finest beach in the Whitsundays.
Once the daytrippers leave and stars cram the night sky, echoes of the Ngaro seafarers seem to whisper in the breeze.
The Ngaro first inhabited the Whitsundays about 9000 years ago but archeological evidence of their presence is fairly scant. Due to lack of permanent water on most of the islands, it is likely they lived on the mainland, venturing across the sea to hunt and explore.
Unlike our stable kayaks, the Ngaro used canoes made from three diamond-shaped pieces of bark bound together with fibrous roots. They fished with woven grass nets or hooks made from shells and used harpoons of wood and bone to hunt dugongs.
From Whitehaven Beach it’s a short paddle to the back of Haslewood Island where a shell midden is all that’s left of many a shellfish feast. At the northern end of Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet is a spectacular, swirling melange of clear aquamarine water and dazzling white sand. Fine sediment suspended in the water scatters sunlight, creating a postcard shade of blue we all try to capture on film.
The sea trail continues hugging the eastern side of Whitsunday Island to a castaway camp site at Peter Bay. At the island’s tip, Whitsunday Cairn towers above the passage to Hook Island, its knobbly head begging to be climbed. The track is steep, passing through rainforest and open forest to a rocky outcrop, but the views are worth the climb.
Another shell midden, dating back about 2500 years, can be found at Nara Inlet on Hook Island. Also at Nara Inlet is a rock shelter decorated with indigenous motifs. After circumnavigating Hook Island, the sea trail leads to Cid Harbour on Whitsunday Island, where a challenging hike through a cloud forest of palms to Whitsunday Peak — the highest in this chain — offers superb views. Surely the bare feet of the Ngaro people once stood on this very spot.
Crossing the Whitsunday Passage can be rough and choppy so it’s best to check tide times before paddling across to the Molle group of islands; the vegetation on South Molle ranges from coastal sheoaks fringing the beaches and vine forests in sheltered gullies to open eucalypt forest and grasslands on the exposed hillsides.
On the trail to Spion Kop, a stone quarry spills across the track. Search through the rocks and you’ll find discarded pieces of flint that didn’t quite make the grade as spearheads. From the lookout, sunset is a riotous palette of reds and golds, silhouetting yachts anchored in the bay. Shute Harbour, only an hour’s paddle away, marks the end of the Ngaro Sea Trail.
Kayaking here makes you feel a part of the liquid landscape; you don’t need to imagine mermaids to feel the magic. saltydog.com.au tourismwhitsundays.com.au
From the pristine beaches of the Whitsundays, the ocean stretches out in varying shades of blue