Just add salt and wa­ter for some Whit­sun­days magic

Kayak­ing the Ngaro Sea Trail in a stun­ning trop­i­cal par­adise

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - OLIVIA POZZAN

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

MARK PEAR­SON

From the pris­tine beaches of the Whit­sun­days, the ocean stretches out in vary­ing shades of blue

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