The raw, chewy taste of paradise

Simon Felton found out why it cost pounds 3.75 to stay on an Australian island. But the beach was great
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The Independent Travel
"That's not a knife, mate. Now, that's a knife." Big K pulled out a weapon that a Samurai warrior would be proud to own, and sliced an oyster off the rock. Big K, or Mr Knowledge, a burly, resourceful Aussie, and his petite partner Miss K, were my neighbours and the only other people on Whitsunday Island.

The travel agent had persuaded me that three nights of beach-camping on an uninhabited Australian tropical island was a bargain at $7.50 (pounds 3.75). "We'll have to drag you off, for sure." I didn't need much persuasion; he was talking my price range.

At 42 square miles, Whitsunday is the largest island of 74 in the Whitsunday Group. They lie within a 30-mile radius of Shute Harbour on the Queensland coast, half-way between Mackay and Townsville. On Whitsunday, fine-grain white sands surround a dense, green interior of eucalyptus and vine forests, rising to a 1,430ft central peak.

I clambered off the boat, fell into the clear, warm water and thrashed frantically away from a shoal of manta rays. Dragging my gear up Whitehaven Beach, I ducked beneath an electric-blue swarm of Ulysses butterflies to reach the "camp site", or rather, spaces between trees lining the beach. These hectic impressions were dispelled by a four-mile golden arc - one of Australia's finest beaches.

I had brought supplies - cheap-brand tinned spaghetti shapes, 20 litres of water, a camp stove and a toilet roll. Island amenities are kept at a minimum (lavatories and picnic tables) as, like many in the group, Whitsunday is a National Park.

Big K had his tent pitched, and was cooking breakfast before I could find my sunglasses and lotion. "Real beaut, mate, this is what it's all about, enjoying nature's own." That was partly true. More realistically neither his resources nor mine stretched to an exclusive resort island. Nearby, the islands of Hayman and Hamilton offer luxury at a cost.

After breakfast I explored the beach - the first of many such ventures. I took plenty of stops to cool off in the water, taking care to avoid shoals of manta rays hidden under the sand. They have poisonous tail spikes and treading on one would have necessitated hitching a boat to the mainland for treatment. Turtles basked in the sunlight which penetrated the shallow depths.

On my return I found the lavatories, and soon wished that I hadn't - a couple of unlit wooden huts with holes in the floor, sensitively hidden in the forest. They could be found by following your nose. Orb spiders had built formidable webs across the cubicle doorways. I preferred a quiet spot next to a eucalyptus instead, where at least I could identify what had bitten my rear.

The neighbours decided we should sample the local delicacy: black-lipped oysters. We tracked down a colony to a corner of the rocky shore. My flimsy camping knife, however, was not up to prising molluscs off the rocks. So Big K, in Crocodile Dundee mode, severed enough to woo the entire population of Queensland. As the live raw creatures trailed sluggishly down my throat I cursed Paul Hogan, wishing that the plastic crocodile he wrestled had been real.

Dinner was taken each evening in the company of the neighbours - a picnic table for three please, waiter. It wasn't necessary to book to guarantee the best seat in the house, where one could pay homage to the departing sun. When I had finished, and was still hungry enough to have eaten fried turtle, I was graciously allowed to tuck into their turkey schnitzel leftovers.

Each night the disappearance of a wide expanse of red fire and the appearance of a silver orb signalled reveille for the local fruit bats to come out and play.

We would retire after dinner and play cards. The loser had to collect sea water and scrub the dishes. When the temperature dropped I would head for my canvas, to read by candlelight and swat swarms of mosquitoes.

I had a sketch map of the island which indicated a bush track leading up to Whitsunday Peak. I found the spot where it was supposed to begin, only to come across an impenetrable wall of bush. As for surfing, there were no waves, so I played in the sand instead. Huge, sloping dunes provided platforms for sand body-surfing - good fun, except for the hazard of swallowing too much sand.

Back at camp, Big K had a better idea. "Coconuts are sweet, mate," he shouted down, as he shimmied up the tree to collect his milky prize. I threw sticks up to claim mine. We lopped off the tops of the husks and bored into the meaty, milk centre. Miss K tucked into her refreshing drink while I found my coconut to be unripe. The milk, far from a tropical sensation, curdled in the stomach and the white meat tasted like damp, chewy rubber. So much for the taste of paradise.

Big K didn't need nature's bounty. He had enough goodies to open a beach- side cafe . Meanwhile I had to impose stiff rationing measures, scrounging off the neighbours and instituting Operation Goanna Watch. A family of Gould's goanna (cheeky, 2-3ft-long reptiles) took up residence in the camp kitchen. Given the opportunity, they would even have eaten the soles off my sandals.

On the morning of departure I swapped my beach towel for plush white leather seats, sipped a diet Coke, and bored the crew of the boat that picked us up with "yeah it was really cool" stories that they had probably heard before. After a reptile-free fruit breakfast we were to have a snorkelling trip.

Hook Reef in Manta Ray Bay is part of the Great Barrier Reef, and the only Special Management Area in the Whitsundays. Coral and algae formed the reef by settling upon the rocks. Fast currents and high salt concentrations have nourished a rich and colourful diversity of corals.

For the benefit of beginners, myself included, there was a snorkelling lesson off Whitehaven. Whilst I sucked in the Coral Sea through my snorkel, Big K was half way to Cairns. At the reef, the crew threw bread overboard to entice parrot and butterfly fish - with a subsequent eruption of electric blues, striking reds and black-and-white stripes. Fat Albert, a 100kg Maori wrasse, emerged from the depths to steal the show. I bolted to the surface. "Anyone got any bait?" - a 10lb worm, perhaps?

Back on the mainland and the camp site at Airlie Beach, the receptionist diplomatically informed me that "the showers are over there, mate". I took the hint and had my first wash with soap and fresh water in four days. Then I lay back on the caravan sofa, switched on the TV and cracked open a chilled beer. Fortunately there was a rugby league game on, natural entertainment for most blokes, though not for Big K - who was probably skinning a wallaby for supper.

Getting there

The nearest international airport to Whitsunday Island is Cairns. There are no direct flights from Britain, but plenty of connections are possible. Austravel (0171-734 7755) currently has a fare of pounds 644 return (including tax) on Singapore Airlines from Heathrow. From Cairns, you travel to Proserpine by rail or bus in 12 hours, or by air in two. Buses run from here to Shute Harbour and Airlie Beach, both access points for the Whitsundays.

More information

Australian Tourist Commission, 10-18 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA (0181- 780 2227).

Information and good advice on all the islands, and camping permits, can be obtained from the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service. Contact the Ranger, Whitsunday District Office, corner of Shute Harbour and Mandaly Roads, PO Box 332, Airlie Beach, Queensland (00 61 79 467022).