A Reef encounter: Falling in love with Australia's natural heritage

 

We left the ancient rainforest of north Queensland's coast behind us, a ribbon of white sand all that separates those mountain-jungles from the turquoise depths of the Coral Sea. Our 10-seater Cessna spluttered over saltwater crocs basking on the Cairns mudflats, and, as the pilot headed north towards the tip of the Great Barrier Reef, we danced about in the hot currents.

That flight low over the water – 170 miles of dips and thrills – was the start of an adventure that would take us back to the 1700s, when Europeans first explored these shoals. Over the following fortnight I hopped from atoll to cay down the length of the Barrier Reef. It was an immersion in the pristine savagery that is Australia's natural heritage – with some good company, and tasty food and wine, thrown in. I also fell in love with diving and the world it unlocks a few feet beneath the ocean surface.

Our first destination was Lizard Island, an imposing rock rising 360 metres straight out of the water – a mountain cut off from the mainland by rising waters during the last Ice Age.

Lizard is seclusion: its population consists of four marine biologists, a few dozen hotel guests and some maids. There's no phone signal, the doors don't have locks and the evening entertainment is stargazing.

Our plane bumped to a halt on the tiny runway and we raced to our cabins to change for snorkelling. The descent over the Blue Lagoon had been exhilarating, but nothing could prepare you for the aquatic carnival up close: hundreds of fish in every direction you turned, clashing colours and patterns jostling for space in the water. The orange flash of an invasion of anthias, regiments of blue fusiliers with their brilliant yellow tails, the loud crunch of parrotfish grazing the coral shallows – this was a revelation. And then there was the terror, which still lives with me now, of paddling out across the deep lagoon, searching anxiously beneath for long shadows.

The jagged coral here trapped Lieutenant James Cook in August 1770, during his first voyage to the Pacific (shortly after he 'discovered' Australia's east coast). The labyrinth of reefs threatened to tear apart HMS Endeavour, leaving the vessel's despairing captain "altogether at a loss which way to steer". So Cook set ashore, rechristening the land Lizard Island because of the thousands of large goannas that roam the beaches and slopes, their forked tongues darting for prey. Uninventive, perhaps, but then he was having a bad day.

Cook and his botanist, Joseph Banks, hit upon the idea of climbing Lizard's summit to spot their escape route through the reef. Retracing their steps, even without wearing 18th-century naval dress, is a cracker of a bush walk, through mangrove swamp and up stone slabs in flattening humidity. But the panorama at the top is worth every metre of climbing. Lizard's peak, now known as Cook's Look, offers 360 degrees of Pacific wilderness, hinting at the peerless grandeur of the Great Barrier Reef.

That fortnight was a blur, of swimming with turtles and jetskiing in the cooler waters of the Whitsundays; anchoring off islands called Black and Hayman and Hook before plunging into their shallows to drift with Technicolor schools. On cosmopolitan Hamilton we dined well and hit the bars. Green Island, a speck of sand you can circuit in 15 minutes running, offered eco-lodge luxury and a feral charm that has drawn picnickers since the 1880s, when a party of men would typically arrive armed with "rifles, 16 jars of whisky, 20 charges of dynamite and a bottle of brandy for snakebites".

The highlight? You don't forget your first sharks. It was my debut dive, off a bobbing pontoon on the very outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The bucking catamaran and four-metre swell had separated the seaworthy from their bilious fellow passengers. After a brief tutorial we were sinking into the world of formless shadows and fractured sunbeams that I now find so intoxicating. Inquisitive residents of Norman Reef gathered to inspect us.

Out of the blue, 15 metres away, the gloom consolidated and assumed a familiar silhouette. Shark. Looks large. We huddled together, hearts drumming, taking sanctuary near the bottom as she turned on a pin and headed slowly for us. Sliding into visibility behind her, another grey reef shark – a curious predator, but pretty harmless during daytime. Time froze as they circled back and forth. And as suddenly as they appeared, they slipped back into the Pacific's unseen expanse.

If you must leave paradise, you may as well leave it in style. The flight off the Reef was our pilot's last before he left the bush airline for a life in the cockpit of long-haul jumbos. After a steep take-off, he turned to look at us with a big grin on his face. He dropped his left wing and flew sideways round the island. Then, whooping, he flew round it again.

Island hopping

* Visitors to the Channel Islands tend to stick to one destination but it's perfectly possible to hop across the archipelago's five main isles. The Channel Islands Way is a guide detailing a 110-mile walking route along the dramatic coastlines and distinct cultures of these islands. perrysci.com

* Being touted as Thailand 50 years ago, the 60-odd islands of Cambodia's south coast are near-pristine. Accommodation is of the stilted-hut kind and travel is by tiny boats from the coastal towns of Kep, Koh Kong and Sihanoukville, but with new flights linking the latter to the Angkor temple hub town of Siem Reap, this is a destination on the up. aboutasiatravel.com

* Closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, the Okinawa islands in Japan's far south are one of the country's last frontiers, a bastion of rural Ryukyu culture. This chain of some 160 islands is a subtropical paradise for sea kayakers, trekkers, snorkellers and lovers of hot springs. insidejapantours.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam