The reef – and a night to re­mem­ber

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

Moore Reef, a two-hour boat ride from Cairns, 30 miles away. Dur­ing the day­time on a stan­dard trip you share the pon­toon at which the boat docks – com­plete with wa­ter­slide, sun­deck, kids’ pool, un­der­wa­ter ob­ser­va­tory, glass-bot­tom boat tours and touch-tank pre­sen­ta­tions – with around 200 other reef seek­ers. If you opt to overnight, you will share it with a much smaller party.

That par­tic­u­lar night it was just me, a woman from Ar­gentina called Va­le­ria and two of the Sunlover by Starlight crew mem­bers, there to look af­ter us dur­ing our night off­shore. I swam back to­wards them as they stood wav­ing the boat off. It was only 4pm and while the daytrip­pers had en­joyed their stan­dard four hours to make use of all the ac­tiv­i­ties on of­fer, we now had much longer to en­joy them com­pletely crowd-free.

First, I de­cided to have a whirl on the wa­ter­slide, which had been com­pletely over­run by chil­dren just min­utes be­fore. I screamed like a ban­shee on my way down, plung­ing into the wa­ter with an almighty splash. Next, we were of­fered a trip on the glass-bot­tom boat. We bobbed above the un­der­wa­ter world, get­ting un­ri­valled views of starfish, clams and huge spheres of brain coral.

“There’s time for an­other snorkel, if you like,” said crew hand Jake, “while we start mak­ing din­ner.”

Quicker than you could say dam­selfish, Va­le­ria and I were back in the wa­ter, hap­pily bob­bing around look­ing for the gi­ant Maori wrasse and spy­ing more and more tur­tles, which seemed to emerge now the mass of hu­mans had left their do­main.

Af­ter about an hour (dur­ing which a fully charged GoPro bat­tery was used up) we both de­cided to get out, at which point Jake sur­prised us with an un­ex­pected blast of lux­ury – hot show­ers. Dur­ing vis­i­tor hours, there is only cold fresh wa­ter, but now we could rinse the salt from our bod­ies in heated bliss. Emerg­ing re­freshed, we sat and watched cu­ri­ous white­capped black noddy birds as they perched on the pon­toon rail­ings less than a yard from us, while the sun be­gan to slump on the hori­zon.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get more par­a­disi­a­cal, Jake pre­sented me with a cold beer and an­nounced that din­ner was ready. We feasted on fresh salad and warm bread be­fore tuck­ing into a proper Aussie bar­be­cue of steak, fish and veg­e­tar­ian ke­babs, fol­lowed by cake and cof­fee. While busy with the dessert, Jake was up on the pon­toon roof set­ting up our swags. More like in­di­vid­ual tents than the sacks I’d slept in be­fore, they con­sisted of a com­fort­able mat­tress, real pil­lows and plenty of blan­kets.

“You can stay down­stairs, if you like,” of­fered Jake, as we went to check out the sleep­ing ap­pa­ra­tus. “I think a storm may be headed our way…”

I fol­lowed his eyes to the open wa­ter of the Coral Sea and saw a build-up of dark­en­ing clouds above where the sun­light il­lu­mi­nated the land fur­ther north. A sen­si­ble woman might have gone with his sug­ges­tion but, be­ing a wilder­ness lover, I couldn’t forego the chance to fall asleep with the open sky above me.

As I said good­night to Va­le­ria, I climbed into bed and lay down, pur­posely leav­ing my swag open to the sky. For half an hour I watched the clus­ter of stars vis­i­ble out­side the gath­er­ing cloud as they twin­kled.

I’m not sure at what point I drifted off to sleep, but I was wo­ken a while later with wa­ter drip­ping on my face. At first I strug­gled to re­mem­ber where I was and what I was do­ing – all I could hear was the flap­ping sound of my can­vas door be­ing swayed and swished by the in­creas­ingly strong wind. The pre­dicted storm was be­gin­ning to move over­head.

I reached up to the swag’s zip and pulled the fab­ric over me, zip­ping my­self in against the el­e­ments. I was wor­ried I’d feel as though I were sud­denly co­cooned in a body bag but, hap­pily, both ends of the swag were made of mesh ma­te­rial so I could still see out­side and feel the air rush Sunlover by Starlight can be booked through Sunlover (sunlover.com. au), based in Queens­land. The two-day, one-night stay costs A$499 (about £280) per per­son, in­clud­ing travel be­tween Moore Reef and Cairns, deluxe swag ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals, night-time ma­rine pre­sen­ta­tions, stargaz­ing, a pri­vate snorkel sa­fari (in­clud­ing gear rental for use through­out the stay), a glass-bot­tom boat tour and free use of all fa­cil­i­ties en­joyed by day-trip­pers.

Qan­tas (0845 774 7767; qan­tas.com) of­fers re­turn flights from Lon­don Heathrow from £835 re­turn, with stops in Sin­ga­pore and Mel­bourne.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion: queens­land.com; aus­tralia.com. through, al­low­ing me to re­lax. Any con­cerns I might have had about get­ting wet were no match for the sheer de­light I felt at hear­ing the rhyth­mic pit­ter-pat­ter of rain fall­ing around me while feel­ing cosy and warm in­side my bed. Within min­utes, I was asleep again and awoke just as the sun was start­ing to rise – the si­lence, af­ter that noisy wind, caused me to stir.

“Morn­ing,” whis­pered Va­le­ria as I un­zipped my swag and looked out at the new day break­ing. There was no one else up there to dis­turb, but the muted colours and barely au­di­ble sound of the sea’s waves meet­ing the so­lid­ity of the pon­toon seemed to evoke a sense of quiet in us both.

I’m not sure how long I lay there, but ev­ery minute of it was ut­terly bliss­ful, watch­ing the sun rise higher in the sky, miles from any­where, with birds and fish all around us.

While Jake’s as­sis­tant cooked up break­fast, Jake took us on a guided snorkel tour out­side the con­fines of the sec­tioned-off la­goon within which the day vis­i­tors have to stay. There we swam among gi­ant potato cod, pas­tel-coloured par­rot­fish and blue and red spot­ted coral trout. Jake pointed out nudi­branchs (very brightly coloured tiny sea slugs), sea cu­cum­bers (re­sem­bling large gherkins) and tiny starfish we oth­er­wise would have missed.

Af­ter a leisurely break­fast, we sat in si­lence wait­ing, know­ing that soon the next boat bring­ing ex­cited day pas­sen­gers would ar­rive. We would join them, un­der­tak­ing scuba and hel­met dives and lis­ten­ing to pre­sen­ta­tions by ma­rine bi­ol­o­gists, but we were some­how dif­fer­ent.

As our time on the pon­toon drew to an end, we glanced at one an­other know­ingly. For a night on the reef may only, in real time, take around 38 hours, but the mem­o­ries of be­ing alone on the Coral Sea will last a life­time.

Phoebe Smith in her swag, left; snorkelling with a tur­tle, main

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