It’s vast, colourful, home to thousands of species, one of the things everyone learns about in school and quite rightly, a World Heritage Site. The largest living organism in the world sits on our doorstep here in Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef.
If you want to completely understand the reef you’ve got to experience it in a number of different ways. Above, on, and below the water, both in the tropical north and the breath taking south.
The question is, can you do it all in three days?
Always keen to give it a go I jumped on-board the Queensland Rail Sunlander train. Travelling from Cairns to Gladstone it covers half of the reef’s length, with enough variety to experience it from every angle.
From the air
Starting up in Cairns, I take to the air. Leaving from Green Island, a tiny coral cay situated 25 kilometres off the coast, in our GBR helicopter, we gain altitude quickly and circle the island twice taking in the sheer size of the coral flats that surround it. As we lift higher, the beauty and magnificence of the Great Barrier Reef extends in front of my eyes.
The range of greens and blues below form an artist’s palette with the occasional sand-coloured patch thrown in for good measure. Our pilot picks one out and we descend to sea-level for a brief chance to run about on our own island like Robinson Crusoe! If you’ve never flown in a chopper before this is a ‘must-do’.
That afternoon I jump back onboard for the 600 kilometre trip south to The Whitsundays. I’ve always loved train journeys. Driving in a car doesn’t give you the chance to soak up the changing landscapes you pass through. From the rainforest and mountain ranges of the north through the dry tropics to the cane fields and valleys of Central Queensland. The setting sun through the window is magical. Day passes to night and before I know it we’re arriving at Proserpine, our stop for an overnight stay in Airlie Beach.
On the water
It’s an early start for a day on the water with Camira, an 85ft bright lilac sailing catamaran. Leaving the marina everyday, it whisks passengers around the Whitsundays in a see-everything-thrill-ride!
A morning snorkel on the fringing reefs of Hook Island, a lunchtime stop off at the world-famous Whitehaven Beach, and a high-speed sail home past migrating humpback whales, just in time for sundown. Simply sensational.
There’s another 600 kilometres to go until Gladstone, the final stop on my railway adventure. As I climb into my cabin’s bed, the sound of the rails sends me to sleep. To a world of dreams filled with Nemo, whales and tomorrow’s dive at Heron Island.
Our arrival in Gladstone is announced loud and clear through the cabin’s speaker… really loud! Grabbing my overnight bag I hop off at this, my final destination.
Under the water
The Heron Islander ferry whisks me out to the glorious coral cay in a little under two hours. I’ve been here before and know there’s a treat in store under the water. Heron Island is part of the Capricornia and Bunker Group, which offer some of the clearest and most abundant diving waters on the entire reef.
An hour after arriving I’m making my way back down the jetty armed with my wetsuit, dive kit and an insatiable appetite to blow some bubbles with the reef’s locals. The team takes us to one of their favourite dive sites, Heron Bommie (an indigenous term meaning bombora or underwater mountain).
An hour underwater is never enough but in that time we’re treated to schools of damsel fish, a beautiful Lion Fish, a hungry-looking moray eel, numerous turtles and the underwater sound of whales song, even though they never get quite close enough to see.
As the sun goes down on my final reef experience I watch the great orange fiery ball drop into the ocean. Black Noddy Terns swoop past me on their way to roost, Lemon Sharks hunt an evening meal in the shallow foreshore and I sip a cold beer feeling very content with my achievement.
Three different reef experiences, from three different locations in three days? Easily done.