In Costa Rica, I once passed a bizarrely incongruous road sign pointing towards Liverpool, an English city with a famous football team in which I once lived. Thanks to European colonialism this happens quite a lot, but nowhere quite like in Australia. Look at a map and many of the names on it also exist 10,000 miles away in the northern hemisphere. It’s a strangely familiar, yet disconcerting place to travel if you’re British.
For this reason, I visited the Cumberland Islands. In 1770, when Captain Cook passed through here he did what all explorer-cum-empire builders do, he named things. He sailed through the area on what he thought was Whit Sunday. Many of the crew on the HMS Endeavour apparently came from the English port town of Whitehaven, situated in the county of Cumberland. The Duke of Cumberland just happened to be brother to King George III.
It was this improbable set of circumstances that, in a place so remote from the original, seventy-four islands sitting alluringly in azure waters off the coast of eastern Australia became known as the Cumberland Islands. It’s also why the biggest island was named Whitsunday Island, and the 7 km beach of near pure silica that graces it became known as Whitehaven Beach.
At the time of Cook’s voyage, Whitehaven was a major British port, heavily involved in trade with the colonies of North America, including the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Whitehaven’s ships exported coal, but also transported slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and North America. They returned with sugar, tobacco and rum. Today, global trade has passed Whitehaven by, and it’s a forgotten backwater.
It could be worse, the county of Cumberland no longer exists. It merged with its neighbour, Westmoreland, to become Cumbria in 1974. It’s an attractive place with the Lake District National Park at its heart. It even has some pleasant beaches, albeit much colder and with far less appealing water. It’s also where I was born, which is why I felt drawn to these familiar names on the wrong side of the globe.
Amongst the Cumberland Islands you can find the isles of Carlisle, Brampton, St. Bees, Scawfell, Penrith, Derwent, Keswick, Calder, Cockermouth, Workington and Wigton. It’s like a roll call of places from my childhood, familiar yet utterly alien in the waters of the Coral Sea. To be fair, Cook didn’t name all of them. This was left to Captain King when surveying the area in 1820.
I don’t wish to be unkind to the place where I grew up, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, even remotely similar about Cook’s Cumberland Islands and the places after which they are named. In fact, there has rarely been a more blatant misrepresentation. If you’ve visited Whitehaven Beach, a visit to Whitehaven the town is going to be a big surprise … and not only because you’ll need about seven additional layers of clothing.
I arrived late to Airlie Beach, the buzzing resort town that is a tourist hub for the Whitsunday Islands, as they are now known. In the morning I’d be heading over to Shute Harbour, from where SCAMPER Island Camping would take me to Whitsunday Island. I’d booked a camping spot at the National Park campsite on Whitehaven Beach and would have two days as a castaway on the island.
I’m not sure words alone can do Whitehaven Beach justice. It’s an extraordinary and beautiful place that has to be seen to be believed. As we came around a headland the beach revealed itself: a strip of almost luminous white sand wedged between the exquisite blue and turquoise water, and the lush green of the tropical forest. I’d expected it to be beautiful, but this was way beyond expectations.