Whitehaven Beach, the night is dark and full of terrors

I once spent several nights in an old army surplus tent in the Masai Mara. As part of the induction to the campsite, I was told that a few weeks earlier a pack of lionesses had hunted down and killed a zebra not ten feet from my tent. They then spent several hours eating and sleeping off their feast. No one was harmed, but no one could escape their tent until the lionesses departed. Against the odds, I slept like a baby.

I figured a night under canvas on the magical Whitehaven Beach wouldn’t prove to be any different. How wrong I was. There may not be any lions but, as the character, Melisandre, says in Game of Thrones, “the night is dark and full of terrors”. The gusting wind rattled the trees above my tent, leaves tumbled loudly to the ground, birds screeched all night long, on the ground lizards and other creatures scurried around.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Nature is really noisy. In the pitch dark night, all the noises were amplified to become terrifying creatures creeping up on me as I ‘slept’. I know I eventually got some sleep, because I definitely woke up as it started to get light in the morning. It was a relief to discover I was still alive. To celebrate, I went down to the beach and splashed into the water to wake myself up.

The few boats that had moored here overnight were gently bobbing in the turquoise waters. The beach was completely empty and the only sound was of waves rolling onto the sand. It was a beautiful scene to gaze upon, the picture of an idyllic tropical paradise. I wandered back to the tent and made myself some breakfast, the forest seemed empty of any of the previous night’s terrors.

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Near the campsite is the start of a trail that runs over the top of Whitsunday Island to Chance Bay, a sheltered cove on the other side. After breakfast I set off to explore the hinterland. It was humid inside the forest, but I eventually emerged into an open area on top of a hill. The views over the island were fabulous. I plunged back down the track and back into the claustrophobic confines of the trees.

The track brought me to a beautiful small beach in a perfect cove. There was a single boat moored up, which must have spent the night in the bay. After the sticky interior of the forest, I cooled off with a swim in the water, and then just sat down on the beach for a while. It was very peaceful. The people on the boat emerged and were preparing for a day’s sailing. I waved ‘hello’ and set off back to my side of the island.

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

In my absence, Whitehaven Beach had been transformed. It was 10.30am and the first day trippers had arrived, a large boat was disgorging 50 or 60 people, who immediately fanned out to find their own spot of white sand. I made myself a coffee and watched as a few more boats arrived and deposited their passengers. A sea plane landed and came to a halt just in front of me. The tranquility shattered.

My own boat wouldn’t arrive for another three hours, so I took the opportunity to walk the length of the beach again. After all, it may be some time before I get to spend time on a beach as glorious as Whitehaven.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Boat to shore, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Boat to shore, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, scenes from a tropical island

Arrival at Whitehaven Beach is a little surreal. The luminous white sand, blinding sunshine and brilliant blue water all combine to disorient. Sailing boats and sea planes are moored in the sheltered water of the bay, their passengers picnicking on the beach. The most striking thing though, was the sand between my toes. It’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, like walking on satin. It’s so fine it squeaks as you walk.

The pristine white sand is 98 percent silica, the purest silica sand in the world. It’s not just exquisite, it’s unique. Not even elsewhere in the Whitsunday Islands are there beaches of this quality. This is something of a mystery. Nobody can say for certain how the sand got here but, most likely, it drifted here millions of years ago and became trapped on the island.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Campsite, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Campsite, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Wildlife, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Wildlife, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

I found the island campsite, set up my tent in the shade of the forest at the edge of the sand, unpacked my gear and got acquainted with some of the local wildlife. The lizards were doing a passable impersonation of Komodo Dragons, at around a twentieth of the size. There was one other tent, home to a Canadian couple, other than that the island was mine. Or it would be once the day trippers went back to the mainland.

I found my hat and headed to the beach. The campsite is at the most southerly point of Whitehaven Beach, it’s the busiest area, probably because there is an ecological toilet block hidden away in the woods. There weren’t many people, but I felt like solitude and set off on the 7km walk to the far end of the beach. I was soon alone with just the breeze and ocean for company.

I came across a couple who’d flown to the beach in a red helicopter, now ostentatiously parked on the sand. I’ve never seen a helicopter on a beach before, but I imagine it’s quite an exciting thing to do. I stopped for a chat, they didn’t offer me a glass of the fizzy wine that’s part of the heli-picnic package, so I carried on my way towards Hill Inlet at the northern end of the beach.

Here, I found myself utterly alone. I swam in the warm clear water, sat down on the beach and just looked out to sea for what seemed like an eternity. The blues, greens and turquoise of the water merged with the blue of the sky, white sails occasionally crossed the horizon in from of me. Time seemed to stand still. I finally got up and wandered around the headland to reveal the beautiful Hill Inlet.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Helicopter, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Helicopter, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Walking back, I could see boats coming and going, sea planes taking off. It looked like a hive of activity, but by the time I reached the campsite most of the day trippers had left. As the sun began to sink the beach became deserted, I opened the bottle of Granite Belt red wine that I’d brought with me, and I watched the sun set with a couple from one of the boats that were moored off the beach.

Later, I sat on the beach and watched as billions upon billions of stars rolled out across the dark sky. There’s no light pollution on Whitsunday Island, dense galaxies of stars appeared in all their glory, and the cosmos seemed to be laid bare above me. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. I sat and pondered the mysteries of the universe, the main one being the slice of fortune that had deposited me in this place.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, where superlatives fail

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.

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

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.

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

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.

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

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.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

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.