From October to April, extravagantly toxic Chironex box jellyfish drift into Queensland's shallows to breed, rendering vast tracts of shoreline hazardous to uncovered swimmers. So, wearing a protective Lycra catsuit that would make Terry Wogan blush, I perched on the side of the trawler and tumbled backwards into Blue Pearl Bay, beneath the rocky cliffs of Hayman Island in the Whitsundays.
Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef is a revelation: one inch below the surface there swirls another world, one of towering coral castles and forests, gardens of giant clams poised to slam shut as you swim above, and outrageous fish so abundant as to marvel the imagination. Sticky tropics join on to the reef; the islands' emerald peaks meet slithers of pure silica beach before plunging into the teeming turquoise shoals and then off the continental shelf's black edge. Come 1 July, one lucky job applicant will call all this "the office".
An advertisement in the press around the world this week has offered "the best job in the world". Based on Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays, the successful applicant will be paid A$150,000 (£68,000) by Queensland tourism bosses to gallivant about the Great Barrier Reef's little-known islands for six months. The requirements: a thirst for adventure and fortnightly blog updates. One million people clicked to check out the vacant situation in the first four days.
Purely in the interests of research, I jetted to Cairns to begin an island-hopping odyssey along the 1,300 miles of the Reef.
Much of Australia has been genetically honed over hundreds of thousands of years to kill you: the crocs and toothy aquatic types, the funnel-web spiders, various venomous slitherers, Irukandji jellyfish stingers (no known antidote) and the fat heat of the bush. But for a place seemingly geared to exterminating human life, I have rarely felt so alive. Many of the
1.9 million tourists who visit the Reef each year do so on large boats from Cairns, Port Douglas or Airlie Beach, bypassing the 600 islands dotted in between. But from my first daunting scuba dive, right through to hurtling around on a jetski at 45mph, these archipelagos, coral cays, atolls and former mountain tops meant taking a dip into your soul.
My first marooning was on Green Island. Coconut trees were planted here in 1889 to sustain the many shipwrecked sailors who washed up. Holidaymakers have been coming since the late 19th century, when it was inhabited by George "Yorkey" Lawson, a one-armed farmer of the black, slug-like bêche-de-mer, a Chinese delicacy better known as the sea cucumber and notable for breathing through its anus and ejecting its internal organs when threatened.
A postcard from Green Island dating from 120 years ago – and reproduced on a boardwalk noticeboard – reads: "Armed with rifles, fowling pieces, 16 jars of whisky, 20 charges of dynamite and a bottle of brandy for snake bites, we set up camp." The gentlemen then got smashed and set about blowing the fish to smithereens. On my first night, the only difference was that I'd forgotten the explosives and had to settle for jumping clothed in the pool.
As I sat on the beach in the evening, watching the sun slide down the dusky sky, a dorsal fin knifed the surface seven metres out: a reef shark scoping the shallows. It was joined by another, preparing to hunt. We raced shin-high into the surf for a closer glimpse. The water foamed as four sharks climbed over one another, chasing the scraps of an ex-fish.
Green Island, named by Lieutenant James Cook after the Endeavour's astronomer Charles Green, is just 700 yards long and 330 yards wide, and thus sometimes overrun by heaving boatloads of family daytrippers. Come 4.30pm, though, they depart on the last service to Cairns, affording this National Park idyll the tranquillity it deserves. A maximum of 90 guests are permitted to stay the night on the island. Resort staff lead them on ghost crab walks, underwater observatory viewings and star gazing. Residents then reconvene at the pool bar. "What you need, dear, is half a tomato to rub over that sunburn, to draw out the heat," insisted Virginia, a fiery Buddhist pensioner from Sydney on holiday with her son. There followed a perfunctory discussion about the outbreak of Dengue fever up the coast. I awoke at five the next morning with a sense of impending doom. Angst turned to relief when it turned out to be a hangover and not the signature symptom of Irukandji syndrome or Dengue.
Six hours later I found myself atop a bobbing pontoon in the Pacific Ocean at Norman Reef, struggling to stand up for the first time wearing scuba diving kit. "You are about to commit an unnatural act," chuckled instructor Robert Stanley, a sergeant-major character with 20 years' experience, who in just half an hour had (we hoped) taught us the vital skills, such as changing our respirators and masks underwater. I thought of Australia's former prime minister, Harold Holt, who in 1967 walked into the ocean and never came back. Melbourne has a memorial to him: a municipal swimming pool.
Despite being strong in the water, I had three neuroses about diving: agoraphobia about the vast open expanses, claustrophobia about poor visibility, and acrophobia, fear of the drops. Yet when we descended that line down into the Pacific, I was so busy remembering to breathe normally and to equalise the pressure in my ears by pinching my nose and blowing, that the anxieties drifted away. Exhaling sent you sinking, whilea big draw of air lifted you clear of obstacles.
An amicable orange-and-blue Maori wrasse, a big old boy with velvet skin, pursued me for 30 minutes, observing. The hazy shadow of a black-tip reef shark slunk frighteningly below as a blizzard of angelfish, seabats, spangled emperors and pink anemone fish dined on coral morsels. A pointy-toothed neon coral trout mouthed obscenities when we disturbed him by sitting on the bottom, eight metres down, to watch rays skulk and reef life pass overhead. A bobbly pineapple sea cucumber tried to cling on to me when the divemaster handed it over.
And then it was finished. The air pressure gauge neared red, we began ascending slowly. Five metres beneath the surface, Robert applauded me. Absolute exhilaration. The ship's horn let rip three long screams to hurry remaining snorkellers out of the water (the Reef was, after all, the location where two divers were inadvertently left to die in 1998, and used as the basis for the film Open Water). With one final peep, I headed for the next, and undoubtedly most spectacular, leg of our voyage: Lizard Island.
Situated at the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, 28km from Cape Flattery, this pristine wilderness is interrupted only by the all-inclusive five-star Lizard Island Resort, an extraordinary outpost of high civilisation which, for around £800 per couple per night, offers a lodge bar, hilltop restaurant, subtle luxury villa, beach club and even a pillow menu for the discerning sleeper. Celebrities are common; Kate Hudson has named it her most romantic place in the world.
Secluded from the rest of humanity – there's no mobile phone signal and no locks on the doors – Lizard is 22km away from the Reef proper. There's world-renowned diving at the Cod Hole and Pixie Pinnacle, and Lizard has sublime coral snorkelling just by wading directly off any of its 24 secluded beaches. Marine scientists flock there to watch the one crazy night every year when all the coral polyps spawn together in a dazzling collective gushing of sperm and egg.
I went to snorkel in the Blue Lagoon off deserted Loomis Beach. "You can expect to see two four-metre nurse sharks," said accommodation manager Simon Della-Santa. "They're just like big pigs." There were also two curious 300kg groupers: "All you will see of them is an enormous black shadow and the flap of a huge tail. It will scare the life out of you but they won't hurt you." We swam with dozens of gorgeous, iridescent parrotfish who flapped their fins like wings, white beaks loudly crunching into hard coral like someone eating cereal with their mouth open. Turtles poked their necks above the surface to gulp air before retreating to the seabed.
There are so few guests on Lizard – never more than 80, and there are 80 staff, including 10 chefs – that you have the freedom, weather permitting, to charter an array of watercraft and take yourself off for the day to a private cove. Jiigurru, as Lizard was known by its aboriginal former occupants, was renamed by Cook for the thousands of metre-long Gould's monitors that claw up the island. The British naval officer landed there on 12 August 1770 – the first non-indigenous man to set foot – and immediately climbed its highest point with his wealthy botanist, Joseph Banks, in search of a route out of the treacherous coral maze upon which they had foundered.
I retraced those steps up to Cook's Look, a truly great bushwalk. Having abandoned my first attempt in battering afternoon humidity – heeding the warning about an Italian girl who got stuck up there one night and came down the next morning wild-eyed and shrieking – I woke at 5.20am for the gruelling trek to 359 metres above sea level. On the way, I passed the only cheap way to stay on Lizard, the campsite at Watson's Bay – named after the bêche-de-mer farmer whose wife, baby son and Chinese manservant died in 1881 after fleeing aboriginal attackers in a bathtub.
The real climb soon began, scaling vast 10-metre stretches of granite set at 60 degrees. The shirt came off. A thick day in the tropics was on its way. I notched up a semi-respectable one hour and five minutes to the top, glugging litres of water. Just when I was 30 seconds from reaching the vantage point, the aboriginal gods sent a thick fog to sit on the peak. Visibility dropped to near-nil. Gutted, I sat in the eerie swirling mists. After 45 minutes the clouds set off west to punish the mainland, and in every direction below there lay a confusion of coral. How Cook successfully plotted his escape remains remarkable.
The rain started – plump, tropical drops that quickly became heavy sheets. I gave the aboriginal rock art a miss on the way down because it's not very good, apparently, and is fiercely guarded by green ants. The granite became treacherously slippy, almost aquaplaning me off an edge, and on reaching the bottom I found the deluge had caused me to make that classic amateur coast-walker's mistake: getting cut off by the tide. This time it was a freak "king tide", the highest since 1997. It necessitated wading through waist-high surf from the rocks to the beach, then dipping through the edge of a bubbling primordial mangrove swamp – unwise, given the sometime residents.
All too soon, a 10-seat Cessna awaited us. We took off and ouru o pilot dipped one wing, doing three triumphant loops of Lizard. "It's my last flight for this company," he grinned. "What are they going to do? Sack me?"
We flew south to Hamilton Island, home to the "best job in the world". Hamilton is a shock to many visitors, albeit a welcome one. It boasts a large airstrip, a 21-storey hotel nestled in a bay, shops, a conference centre, wedding planner, six-star resort, bustling marina and, later this year, a new yacht club and links golf course. Cars are banned; all transport is by golf buggy.
Hamilton is less exclusive and tranquil than other Reef islands, but there are many more activities, all for a price: catamaran sailing, dinghy hire, jetski tours, a "Jetryder" powerboat trip (30 minutes of delirious, soaking fun as the pilot pulls 270-degree turns and 50mph emergency stops), parasailing, quad biking, wind surfing, go-karting, a gun range, wirefly, snorkel safari, sea kayaking and kitsch breakfast with koalas. The petrol watersports haven't caught up with carbon offsetting yet. The island's eastern side offers unscathed bushland for walking. Humpback whales migrate through the Whitsundays between July and September, using its warm waters for calving and nursing. You can watch from a hammock on Catseye Beach.
Culture on the Reef's islands means an outdoors way of life, sleeping in open buildings and dining on fresh food beneath the sky; travelling to work by boat or sandal; a low-crime society; and a climate that promises physical vigour and good looks. The islanders' cheerful, welcoming demeanour is hardly surprising.
Queensland has recovered from two centuries of English cooking, and the food is consistently decent. At Romano's trattoria on Hamilton, a baby possum played beneath our table, tickling diners' feet. The one culinary disappointment was a mains dish of emu, in Cairns. "It's a bit like beef but much richer," promised the waitress. All I can say is that the uniquely bland fritter tasted like both Rod Hull and Emu had been fed through the mincer, fighting, then mixed with a packet of pub nuts.
One of the last things we did on Hamilton was take a seaplane flight over the Whitsundays and out around Heart Reef. That hour was profoundly moving: the dazzling, ancient coral expanses promising so much life beneath the ocean surface; the humans on their tiny boats, battling the elements.
All of this and more awaits the successful job applicant, "but it's me who has the best job in the world!" laughed John Canterbury, a goateed jetski instructor in his 40s who lives in a one-bed container on Hamilton. "Basically I'm a nomad, I travel around Australia... I pay A$107 (£50) a week to live on Hamilton Island. I've seen a whale in the bay, a pod of dolphins."
The hidden side of such dreamy existence, though, can be the isolation some islanders feel. "I'll be 40 in three years, I probably won't get married," said one island employee, explaining that his girlfriend had moved there with him but turned to wild partying after struggling to adapt.
"There are social challenges in a community as small as this," conceded a bartender on Hamilton. "Everyone else is either someone you work with, or for, or someone who pays you – the tourists." The staff bar and the one nightclub, Bohemes, did not really allow much steam to be let off, he added. Even grotty small apartments can cost half a million bucks, so many workers live in "donga" accommodation units, better known here as "Guantanamo Bay". Retaining staff is the islands' greatest challenge.
Which is where the A$5m (£2.5m) slate-and-glass villa Blue Pearl, awaiting the incumbent of the best job in the world, comes in. Tucked away on forested slopes, its enormous open-plan reception, master bedroom, two sun decks, spa and guest facilities – spread over three levels – offer a spacious sanctuary overlooking the Whitsundays.
"It's no coincidence that we are advertising this position during the northern hemisphere winter," says Anthony Hayes, the chief executive of Tourism Queensland, adding that shortlisted candidates will be psychometrically tested. "This job is all about living and finding out about the Barrier Reef islands and about yourself. The main problem we will have, I suspect, is getting rid of them at the end of it."
Sydney is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) and Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk) from Heathrow. Hamilton Island can be reached from Sydney by air with Jetstar (00 61 3 9092 6500; jetstar.com.au) and Virgin Blue (00 61 7 3295 2296; virginblue.com.au), and by ferry from Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach (00 61 7 4946 5111; fantasea.com.au).
Fantasea trips from Hamilton Island to the Great Barrier Reef cost A$209 (£95) for adults and $95 (£43) for children, with the option of an overnight sleep on the Reefworld pontoon on Hardy Reef.
Lizard Island is served from Cairns by Hinterland Aviation (00 61 7 4035 9323; hinterlandaviation.com.au). Green Island can be reached from Cairns by catamaran with Great Adventures (00 61 7 4044 9944; greatadventures. com.au), which also offers snorkelling and diving trips; A$120 (£54) adults and A$65 (£29) children, with introductory dive and tuition an extra A$132 (£60).
Seaplane scenic flights from Hamilton Island over the Great Barrier Reef, including a 90-minute beach stop, are offered by Hamilton Island Aviation for A$379 (£172).
Hamilton Island Resort (00 61 2 9433 0444; hamiltonisland.com.au) offers three-star bungalows, the low-four-star Reef View Hotel and the luxury Qualia clifftop estate (00 61 2 9433 3349; qualia.com.au). Doubles from A$324 (£147) to A$1,450 (£656), room only.
Half a dozen Whitsunday islands (not Hamilton) offer self-sufficient camping: contact Queensland Parks & Wildlife (epa.qld.gov.au).
Lizard Island Resort (00 61 2 8296 8010; lizardisland.com.au). Doubles start at A$1,650 (£747), all in.
To apply for "the best job in the world": islandreefjob.com
Tourism Queensland: 00 61 7 3535 3535; tq.com.au