Among the many pleasures of travelling, enjoying a wonderful destination all to yourself is right up there. My prior visits to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef had all been in the company of a hundred-odd other tourists on a big boat, so when an opportunity came up to spend a night camping on the reef in a small group after all the day-trippers had left, I jumped at it.
Rising to the sound of a pair of cockatoos cackling on my balcony at the Reef View Hotel on Hamilton Island, I shimmied into my swimmers, scoffed a quick breakfast, and hurried down to the marina to board a Cruise Whitsundays catamaran bound for Reefworld. A giant pontoon moored alongside Hardy Reef, 40 nautical miles from the Queensland mainland, this giant floating playground was to be my home for the next 28 hours.
As soon as we docked, it was time to go diving. Stinger season was essentially over, but I threw on a ‘ninja suit’ for a bit of protection rather than opt for a wetsuit, which seemed a bit woosy in 25 degree ‘winter’ water. My young dive guide gave me a pitying look as if I was about to go ice swimming.
Divers are limited to exploring a very small area along the side of the reef at Reefworld, which serious divers will find frustrating – even after covering the designated area very slowly, I still surfaced with half a tank of air. While I was down there, however, I had plenty of time to observe that the coral was in pretty decent health considering this site is visited by up to 300 tourists each day. Fortunately, the current bleaching event is minimal on this area of the reef, where only three per cent of corals are affected – I counted around a dozen incidents of bleaching, but this was a minor distraction from the kaleidoscope of healthy, Tecnicolor corals providing the backdrop to an impressive array of fish, from giant Queensland groupers to paint box-coloured parrotfish. Our group also spotted an enormous common stingray resting under a coral shelf. No turtles, but I did spot one gnawing at the side of the pontoon later that afternoon.
But Reefworld isn’t just for people who want to get wet. Free semi-submarine (read: pimped up glass-bottom boat) tours leave the pontoon every half hour, or you can stump for a heli tour of iconic Heart Reef. Discovered in 1975, the heart-shaped reef (which is much smaller than it looks in holiday brochures) is not easily accessible to snorkellers and divers, so it’s best seen from above. My ten-minute flight felt like it lasted just seconds, but the views of the reef ribboning towards the horizon in a palette of dreamy turquoise hues were out-of-this-world beautiful.
Gleefully waving off the hundred-odd day trippers at 3pm, my companions and I cracked open the sparkling wine and toasted to our blissful solitude. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. One by one, a steady stream of terns had begun to arrive in the wake of the catamaran’s departure. The first few were great photo fodder. But by the time several hundred of their friends had arrived, the pontoon began to feel very crowded. As the blue sky morphed into a patchwork of reds, pinks and oranges that danced across the deepening blue ocean, even more terns arrived in a squawking, pooing, baitfish-regurgitating frenzy. Dinner – a simple, three-course meal whipped up by our lovely host Jen – swiftly escalated to an exercise in self-preservation as the birds, tired and disorientated by the pontoon lights, collided with various sections of the pontoon as they tried to find a suitable perch, emptying their bowels (and their gullets) with reckless abandon as they went. References to a certain Hitchcock film were made.
Cloudy skies had scratched stargazing from the agenda, so we retreated to the underwater viewing chamber to watch giant trevally patrol the depths below the pontoon. I eventually psyched myself up to run the gauntlet to our surprisingly comfortable swags, which had been set up by the staff on the top deck. A steady wind had picked up by then, however, and at several points during the night I was worried my swag might actually take off.
Between the pontoon clanking about in the wind and the squawking birds (who fortunately took off in the morning), it was not a restful night. A morning swim is my answer to most of life’s problems, so after a brekkie fry-up, I set off for a snorkel before the day trippers turned up. Aside from the scenic heli flight, this was my favourite part of the Reefsleep experience – the tide was high, allowing me to swim out over the reef in search of one of my all-time favourite marine animals – giant clams – without having to worry about being flippered in the face. Ranging from a chasm of brilliant greens to an entire spectrum of purples, the clams’ brilliant coloured mantles are just exquisite to observe. Thought to be extinct in parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific (where they are a delicacy), it’s great to see them thriving on the Great Barrier Reef.
It felt a bit Groundhog Day-ish when the Cruise Whitsundays catamaran arrived at 11am. Spoiled by the (relative) solitude of Reefsleep, I retired on the top deck with a book in favour of sharing the reef with the hordes. On two occasions I peered over the edge of my lounger in horror as the Reefworld lifeguard hollered at tourists standing on the reef. Another guy from a country I will not name was caught trying to bring a starfish back onto the pontoon. Given all guests are directed to watch a video about reef conservation screened on the catamaran trip out here, it was disappointing to see several tourists blatantly ignoring the rules. It’s incidents like these that raise questions about the impact of reef tourism. A few pieces of broken coral in the minuscule areas of the reef visited by tourists seems a small price to pay for the millions of dollars generated for reef protection via the environmental management charge (AU$6.50 per person) levied on almost all commercial reef activities, but it still doesn’t make it OK.
By 3pm, I was somewhat relieved to hear the catamaran firing up its engines for the journey back to Hamilton Island. “Good luck!” We yelled to that night’s batch of Reefsleepers, who looked at us with puzzled expressions as the catamaran zoomed away.
The verdict: Unwanted guests aside, Reefsleep was a fantastic experience. Had our feathered companions camped elsewhere (staff stressed that the seabirds do not regularly visit the pontoon in such numbers) and the wind not howled all night, I imagine it would have been a more fun and relaxing – maybe even romantic – affair. First-time visitors to the Whitsundays looking for an immersive experience, or families keen to try something a bit different, I imagine, would love it. Especially the kids. Along with divers, however, foodies may be a little disappointed. I’m no Nigella, but I’ve cooked more inspired budget meals on a camping stove – the mere option of freshly filtered coffee rather than instant would have gone a long way on my visit.
Keep in mind that it is considerably more expensive to take a scenic flight from the Whitsundays out to Heart Reef, so if you’re keen to do it, it makes sense to head out to Reefworld for the day – and maybe also the night – to get the best value for money.
The two-day, one-night Reefsleep experience starts at AU$440 per person. Thanks to Tourism Whitsundays for making this trip possible.