One of the Whitsundays’ most celebrated and long-established businesses is Ocean Rafting. It was the first to operate return day trips cruising the north side of Hook Island and Whitsunday Island respectively.
The advantage to Ocean Rafting, apart from the awesome wind in your hair adrenaline rush that comes from the speed of its twin-motor semi-rigid inflatable, is its ability to visit multiple bays, reefs and private beach locations in a single day.
Today we hit the water heading south from Airlie Beach’s Coral Sea Marina, collecting some soon to be friends at Daydream Island, then continue across the Whitsunday passage, our craft rocking and rolling, splashing and dancing in the action-packed swell.
The Hook Island passage will guide us between the southern end of Hook Island and the northern tip of Whitsunday Island. As we approach, our guide Toby explains the 9000-year-old history of the original Hook Island inhabitants, the Ngaro people. The Ngaro once drank from the island’s freshwater mineral springs and made their cave painting art on the sheltered walls hidden within Nara Inlet. Today, the inlet that makes a wonderfully calm haven for overnight sailing boats to drop their anchor still holds a special spiritual meaning in local aboriginal culture as a place of family gathering.
Exiting the passage and now coasting the eastern side of Whitsunday Island, we’re en route to Tongue Bay. Heading south, we have time to admire the up close and personal sights of sedimentary layered sandstone cliffs. Huge boulders seem to reach out at the boat – it feels like we could lean over and touch them. As we ride the tide, we spot turtles and flying fish in and above the water. Nobody attempts to take photos as a firm grip is required to level oneself; as the raft battles the swells, our smiles intensify. I take a moment to study the water’s colour; it changes from a deep cetacean blue on one side of the boat to navy, Carolina and brighter turquoise tones surrounding the rocky headland named for the Apostle Peter.
Once landed at Tongue Bay’s coral-strewn beach, we begin a slightly strenuous 15 minute bush walk as it climbs towards a lookout viewing platform presenting 180-degree views over Hill Inlet and the 7km stretch of Whitehaven Beach. The beauty and popularity of Hill Inlet lies in the ever-changing tidal movement of shifting sand and water channels that paint a natural abstract-art canvas in front of your eyes. The view from this high and glorious vantage point mesmerises both crew and passengers equally.
Made from 98% pure white silica, the sand at Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach reflects the sunlight and therefore remains magically cool underfoot in the midday sun. It’s low tide, so our trusty skipper James leads us in our descent out of the forest via the raised timber walkways and across the inlet sands to meet our boat.
Today it’s a three or four hundred metre walk across the pure expanse. Clean and squeaky to underfoot, sensory inputs make a strong and enlightening impression. The silky touch of the fine sand under the heels, warm sun on the face, salt air breeze and horizon views of mirror-like aquamarine stretching infinitely beyond – I imprint it in my memory: it feels important to do so.
While most anticipate our next boat landing to be at Whitehaven Beach, James instead instructs us to don our stinger suits and prepare for snorkelling at our next anchor point, a small reef that sits off Teague Island. Here, where a reef edge drops away near the passage between Hazelwood and Whitsunday Islands, we enter the water, bobbing with the swell, sun on our foreheads.
Due to a new moon or spring tide, water currents rushing through the passage make today’s coral viewing a touch cloudy, but we are not disappointed. We power through the water with moderate ease, our cruising the reef drop against the current made possible with flippers on. Now in a swimming rhythm, my attention turns to the abundance of rainbow-coloured reef fish, and in particular, an enormous brain coral I discover while exploring the reef habitat.
Settling into a slower, more detailed exploration of the world below the waterline, I spot a camouflaged Honeycomb Rockcod. The distinctive bronze and white patterns on its back mimic the rippled coral it hides beside. Next, I play with a giant luminous blue-lipped clam, waving my flipper to pass a water current over its pinkish body. It slowly begins to close, perhaps reacting as if a food source was nearby. This trick works repeatedly, but I retreat to leave it be. Then a school of tiny silver fish zip past my eyes – there is so much action in many forms, it’s a delight.
On this day, my four-year-old son joins me in the water, floating in a life vest. While snorkelling proves a little too challenging, he later enjoys a long splash in the ocean with other kids at our third location. Here, at the southern-most end of Whitehaven Beach, our fairly small group of around 20 people, mostly families and couples, are offered a drink and a gourmet salad, disembarking to enjoy this lunch pack beachside.
We exchange approving looks as we sip the beautifully refreshing citrus- and apple-scented Brown Brothers Prosecco conveniently provided in a can. ‘These hosts think of everything’, we marvel. The setting is perfection: clear skies, pure white sand, calm sea and idyllic island views. Our meal is a quality offering comprising succulent slices of roast turkey, leg ham, crusty roll and garden and potato salads. A side of Asian noodles with sweet potato pieces is another taste delight, flavoured with light touches of sweet chilli and soy sauce. After an hour post-lunch beach playtime, it’s time to return to our vessel.
Passing Craig Point (Whitsunday Island) and Perseverance Island, the cruise homewards presents a range of surprise-new visuals. Red and deep-brown rocky outcrops jut out to meet the water. The deep-green foliage of the native Norfolk Island pines showcases their rugged barks and delicate fronds.
As the skipper guns it back to Airlie Beach, the Ocean Rafting Spotify playlist heightens the energy of our return journey. Played from the cabin’s overhead speakers Jet – Are You Gonna Be My Girl, Credence Clearwater Revival –Fortunate Son and Jimmy Hendrix – Little Wing warm us up for the final event.
As the boat’s namesake tune, Thunderstruck by AC/DC, is played, the speed and the intensity of the ride increases further. Riding the swells as we pass Hamilton Island, our skipper performs a series of 360-degree and figure eight turns. Later, he chases and jumps the wake of the second Ocean Rafting boat that shares the homeward stretch with us across the Whitsunday Passage. Intentional sprays of water cover our faces as we tighten our grips. A high stakes game of cat and mouse begins as each boat crosses the wake of the other and zig-zags across the swells. Will our vessel capsize? Will we lose our grip and end up in the drink? – Or will we outperform our nearest competitor?
We race the opposing Ocean Rafting partner boat towards the finish line, marked by the outer buoys of the Coral Sea Marina. Triumphantly winning by a length and a half, we cruise into the harbour with heads held high. The game is up, but our hearts and minds are left fully energised.
Ocean Rafting Tunes Spotify playlist by Cole Claxton:
Coral Sea Marina North, Airlie Beach, QLD
Tel 07 4946 6848