Gloucester Passage - Sept 2009
Both families were keen to have a Great Barrier Reef experience during some reliable warm weather and so we made a booking 12 months in advance at Montes Reef Resort on the Gloucester Passage some 4km from the small and reclusive residential community at Hydeaway Bay. A locality map is provided to assist those not familiar with this neck of the woods.
We decided to book this far in advance to ensure it could be confirmed for the week we had selected which just preceded the Queensland School holidays and coincided with conveniently timed neap tides over the entire week. It would also coincide with comfortable sea temperatures in the mid to high 20s. Unfortunately it was not possible to also lock in balmy tropical breezes as opposed to those villainous south easterly blows.
Lt James Cook discovered and initially named the Cumberland (Whitsunday) Group of islands in 1770. The current name derives from his naming of the Whitsunday Passage between the mainland and Whitsunday Island. He also named Edgecombe Bay the large body of water between the Gloucester Passage and Bowen. Cook also named Cape Gloucester (now Gloucester Head) as he failed to identify either Gloucester Island or the Gloucester Passage. Matthew Flinders also failed to identify the Passage which had to await the endeavours of Phillip Parker King in 1819. The Passage is a little over 1nm in length and perhaps several hundred meters wide. It has depths in excess of 25ft but is surrounded by foul grounds which are well buoyed by channel light markers. My initial attempt to take a shortcut at the easterly end of the Passage resulted in my boat 'kissing' the bottom momentarily.
Montes Reef Resort began life shortly after WWII as a fishing shack belonging to a local fisherman from Bowen (only 12 nm away). However, it was not until 1964 that Monte Gordon, also from Bowen, took over the 22 acre lease, demolished the shack and commenced constructing an initial 4 accommodation units and bar. Montes became well known to visiting yachties and local fishermen as a fine place to rest up. The lease was eventually converted to freehold in 1975 and was sold to the Cotton family in 1981. The Cotton family (who still own the Resort) added a further 4 units to the Resort and in 1989 a private road was constructed giving land-based access to the Resort for the first time. Previously all guests had to make their own way there by boat or utilise Montes and later the Cotton's ferry service from Bowen.
Hydeaway Bay was established only after the Proserpine Shire Council gained access to a small township area from an expiring pastoral lease in 1985 and the first subdivision of 130 residential blocks were released later that same year. The neighbouring town of Dingo Beach is much older having been identified by the residents of Proserpine back in the 1920s as a good place for a fishing shack. However, it was not until the late 1960s that the first freehold blocks were released.
Gil and June Tutty flew up to Rockhampton from Hobart on the afternoon of the 9 September and we organised our provisioning the next day. With food and assorted refreshments stowed in the car freezer and the boat packed for every conceivable eventuality we set off north on Friday 11 September. As we aimed only to drive to Sarina Beach (300kms) that first day it was a pretty leisurely affair. We stopped first at a locally well-known home-made ice-creamery just a few kms south of the township of Carmila, where an aged Danish couple appear to be doing a roaring trade selling both individual and packaged ice cream in a variety of flavours featuring local produce; viz: macadamia, passionfruit, lychees, banana, ginger in addition to vanilla, chocolate, rum & raison etc ...all very nice.
Next lunch and some beers at Carmila to celebrate the fact that we had crossed the demarcation line from cattle to sugar cane country. Some monstrous hamburgers were purchased for lunch. All the country we passed looked quite parched. However, the cane fields were being cut and the sugar mill stacks were belching huge plumes of steam into the hot humid air. We pulled into our picturesque beachside motel at Sarina Beach mid afternoon. Some ventured a walk along the beach to get a better glimpse of the 20 or so empty bulk ore carriers riding at anchor off Hay Point. Here a massive coal loading facility would fill their holds when it was their turn. Our motel's lawns were occupied by a large gaggle of very strikingly marked Whistle Ducks who no doubt loitered about in the hope of being fed some scraps from the guests. We noticed that the motel's substantial plantation of coconut palms were badly in need of harvesting, with many a large cluster of nuts still clinging precariously to their crowns. Gil was prompted to warn June about standing under these palms as a falling nut could make a real mess of one's own nut.
The balmy weather called for an early pre-dinner drinks session out on the motels lawns albeit with the ducks. At dusk we wandered up to the local Surf Life Saving Club for a most enjoyable albeit simple meal. We breakfasted next morning at a cafe in Sarina known for its range of home-style fare and it was good although it gave new meaning to the concept of slow food. The place was stuffed with rural memorabilia and bric-a-brac (including one of those 'Where the hell is Noonamah' signs) and was quite busy for a Saturday morning.
Mack'ay or Mack'i:
We then set off for the city of Mackay some 35kms north where some strategic purchases needed to be made from Dan Murphys. Although Montes Resort specifically prohibits guests from consuming alcohol purchased outside of the resort in their units, we decided that it would be fair to purchase our own supplies to be consumed outside of the resort either on daytrips or whilst on the boat. Mackay is a sprawling city of about 80 000 persons built on the extensive mud flats of the tidal Pioneer River. Its development and wealth was initially owed to the surrounding cane farms and sugar mills but nowadays the booming coal mines of the Bowen Basin is the catalyst for its booming growth.
Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour:
Given that we could not check into Montes Resort before 1400hrs we had plenty of time en route to drop into Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour and have a look at how the resident population of mostly Generation Ys were handling the 'Global financial crisis'. Put simply I don't think many of them really noticed it or cared. This is one big party town, over-populated with bars, fast food outlets, trendy beachwear boutiques, Barrier Reef travel agents and condos. Not a good place for a cool Gray Nomad to loiter too long. To be honest, it was fun to stroll along the boulevard, gaze at the newish Airlie Lagoon and seething mass of scantily-clad youth single-mindedly engaged in their hedonistic pursuits.
Airlie Beach looking towards Sailing Club
Our arrival also coincided with the weekly Whitsunday Markets which resembled those you see all over the country selling craft ware, clothing, jewellery and objet d'art etc. However, we also had a serious reason to visit and that was to check out arrangements for our pre-booked tickets for a one day excursion to the outer reef courtesy of Fantasea Cruises (www.fantasea.com.au) the following Thursday. As luck would have it we were advised that the seas were quite blowy at present (25+ knots) and for the next couple of days conditions were not expected to improve much. We left with all fingers crossed......this was to be one of the highlights of our holiday and the one over which we had least control.
Hydeaway Bay and Montes Reef Resort:
After a forgettable lunch, we drove on through a maze of cane fields and small farms to Hydeaway Bay some 60 odd kms away and then an extra 4kms of corrugated gravel road to Montes Resort. One could not but notice the tidy smugness of Hydeaway Bay with its expensive and oft individualistically designed homes - such a difference from your average down-at-heel seaside town. The town is also unique for its total lack of amenities ie no retail outlet of any description has been welcomed or permitted in this enclave of affluence. The presence of European makes of vehicles and expensive boats parked in most driveways also supported this overriding impression. Nevertheless, there was also a conundrum in that there were an inordinate number of properties for sale in the town - were these the result of a sudden boom in property prices or simply the financial crisis biting deep amongst these residents? A cursory look at the local real estate flyers revealed the blocks of land were selling for between $200 000-500 000 with established houses going for well beyond that. None of these properties has access to reticulated water or sewerage.
Montes Resort on the other hand was a different kettle of fish and certainly looked its age and had few pretensions. Its location only metres from edge of the warm waters of the Gloucester Passage could not be bettered. We did notice a little smartening up of the general bar and restaurant facility but the units themselves looked pretty much as we remembered them back in 2007. To our delight we had been allocated the unit (No 7) furtherest away from Resort's hub enabling us a chance to do our own thing without being under the constant eye of the staff or inadvertently caught up in their evening entertainment program. Right out in front of our cabin across the Passage was Gloucester Island which runs north - south with a length of perhaps 5mile with a towering mountain range down its spine, the highest peak being Mt Bertha at 895m above sea level. Like many Whitsunday Islands, Gloucester is a national park. One can camp on it and utilise its walking trails......we passed.
After checking in we had to undertake our unpacking which, because we intended to be pretty much self-sufficient, meant that we had more gear than the average guest who may have intended to utilise the Resort's restaurant and bar more than us eg we had bought some cooking gear and lots of condiments on top of food items. However, we had rung through a request for two cartons of beer stubbies to be placed in our fridge prior to arrival - the buggers had overlooked this! Each cabin has two bedrooms with ceiling fans, bathroom, kitchen, lounge and large front verandah. We also had a wood fired Bar B Cue at the side. There is a communal laundry and rain water tanks for drinking water. The reticulated water to the unit comes from a bore which is very salty and mineralised to the point that we had to resort to dishwashing liquid to shower with (soap would not lather in it). A couple of times we forgot to use the right water for drinking and cooking and were roundly abused for our mistake. All furnishings and linen in the unit were quite clean and serviceable. It was lucky that we had access to our Waeco car fridge/freezer to take care of our overflow of food, drink and ice supplies. The electric cook top and oven was pretty basic but we managed to cook a roast meal in it. During the week we cooked up steaks, corned beef, stir fry, spag bolognaise, mud crabs - but sadly, the feed of freshly caught reef fish eluded us. Dining al fresco was facilitated by an old picnic setting conveniently parked at the front of our unit. However, meal times could be a little hazardous by the constant attention of Rainbow Lorikeets which wanted to share our our meals.
Unit 7 at Montes Reef Resort
Apart from ourselves, there were a number of families with quite small children in residence. There were also some teenagers. Most residents utilised the beach, trampoline and bar. They also brought sea canoes and 12-16ft boats, some went off spear fishing while others tried their hand fishing and crabbing. The resident boat ramp is a shocker which has been badly eroded and was used only by the hardiest of 4x4 boating enthusiasts.
Boat Ramp at Montes
The weekend of our arrival coincided with the annual yacht race "Cock of the (Gloucester) Passage" and that Saturday night witnessed quite a party complete with live band. I did venture up to the bar to view at close hand the antics of these yachties who all partied till quite late into the night. I assume Montes plays host to many similar parties during the year.
Yachts visiting for 'Cock of the Passage'
The Resort and neighbouring Cape Gloucester Eco Resort both offer protected moorings for all sized craft. The ones at Montes are ingeniously designed around a couple of pulley blocks fixed 25m apart which enable medium sized craft (up to 6m) to be safely moored in all tidal and wind conditions.
With the high tides all occurring in the early mornings during our stay, I decided to take the boat around to another concrete boat ramp at the neighbouring town of Dingo Beach some 10 kms away. I was familiar with the ramp but also the fact that it was only usable for the top half of the tide. Sunday mornings high tide of 1.93m occurred at 0540h and therefore I knew at 0700h that I had only a small window of opportunity to put it in if we wanted to use the boat that day. So Maria and I sped off on a mission and we only just made it - the next boat to launch got stuck. The body of water in front of Hydeaway Bay and Dingo Beach is very appropriately named Shoal Bay.
A nice mooring in Shoal Bay in front of Hydeaway Bay
The arrangement was for me to drive the boat back around to Montes via the Passage while Maria drove the vehicle and empty trailer back to the Resort. As previously mentioned, being unfamiliar with the passage and its channel markers I decided to cut a corner to the Passage channel in order to get out of a particularly nasty NW chop only to find myself in 2ft of water....I eventually wiggled out of that predicament and got the boat safely back to Montes, this time using the channel markers.
Maria meanwhile had had a terrible trip back to the Resort with the empty boat trailer dancing all over the corrugated section of the road. It wasn't until I went to inspect the trailer later that morning that we discovered that one of the wheels used for the Tri-hull boat to rest on had fallen off complete with its stub axle. Gil and I then searched the roadside twice for the missing culprit, to no avail. I decided there and then that I would have to try and source replacements at Airlie Beach asap.
Our mooring looking across to Gloucester Island
Sun setting over Bowen or thereabouts with Passage Island in the foreground
Calm over The Passage - early morning
Later that day, Gil and I took the boat for an initial spin down to Sinclair Bay some 3.8 nm south of the Resort in order to find a suitable crabbing creek for our pots. Alas the said Bay at low tide was not a pretty sight and certainly not a navigable one. After much searching, we got the general gist of the area and where to go later that day, with better tides, to utilise one of the two creeks there. We subsequently despatched the 7 set crab pots I had bought into a most impressive looking mangrove-lined (Dingo) Creek. The next day, Maria and I returned to Sinclair Bay and the Creek to check the pots. To our joy the pots were catching lots of mud crabs as well as blue swimmer crabs but all were under sized. Not so the sand flies which inhabited the creek. We very quickly reset the pots and scooted home. On our return we decided to go strait to Airlie Beach and source the necessary replacement parts for the boat trailer. This involved visiting a number of places and eventually we were on a promise to have all the replacement gear in our hands by the following Thursday morning - a lot of weight off the mind.
I should mention here that the boat performed well for the entire week and proved a valuable asset for such a holiday. However, I had spent a goodly number of maintenance hours on our 4.7m Stessel Tri-Hull to ensure this level of trouble-free boating. Boats are unpredictable companions and because of where they get used, can cause unreasonable levels of stress, if things go arse up. Nevertheless, it coped well with the SE chop, the 4 passengers were comfortably and safely accommodated and we were able to readily get in and out of it for the odd excursion ashore etc. One would have been severely limited by only coming with a small 12ft tinny unless you were able to fluke exceptionally smooth seas.
We ended up with only a couple of keeper crabs during our stay and one of which Gil caught in a pot he found in the small creek running behind our unit. Most of the crabs caught were undersized - plenty of em but all too small. A number of blue Swimmer crabs were also caught. We did catch a couple of small fish in the pots which were released also.
Drinks at Montes Bar
Apart from tending to the crab pots, we tried flicking for Barra up the creeks, trolling around sandy spits and rocky reef for pelagic fish and all four of us spent a day out bottom bouncing for reef fish but only on the lee side of Gloucester Island the other side being too rough on account of the prevailing SE winds. Before leaving home, I had plotted, with the assistance of the relevant Chart, a number of likely fishing reefs into my GPS but all were on the seaward or easterly side of Gloucester Island. We also tried a little snorkelling on a shallow reef on the inside of Gloucester Island. However, the reef in question appeared to lack a lot of life.
Mucking about on Gloucester Island
Gil managed to boat some 'monster' Hussar fish a couple of juvenile flowery clod and he almost landed a small Mackerel as we trolled through some yacht moorings. We put the poor fishing result down to the restrictions imposed by the weather and lack of local knowledge. It was satisfying to note that no one else at the Resort was doing any better save for a couple of kids with spear guns. Mind you Gil and June did get into conversation with one old salt who advised them that the muddies were only just coming back into season - whatever that means!......at least they couldn't use the other Qld excuse about the water being too cold for crabs. The ambient sea water temperature during our stay was 27C. We would have welcomed more advice from the staff at the Resort but, despite numerous attempts by myself to extract some local pointers as to where we might try, it was not forthcoming. Most of the chatter amongst the bar flies seemed to concentrate mainly on yachtie rather than fishing matters. We may have been able to glean more useful information if we had been prepared to mix more freely with the other guests at the bar; but, at what price.
Fishing in and around Gloucester Island
One evening we strolled up the beach to the more ritzy establishment next door, the Cape Gloucester Eco-Resort (www.capegloucester.com) which is much newer with flasher air-conditioned cabins and a bistro-styled bar deck and pool complex. Their cabins only come with a gas Bar B Cue and microwave and guests are encouraged to dine at their extensive restaurant. This resort is in fact going to close at the end of the year for extensive renovations. They are going to install another 40 cabins along the waters edge - eco indeed! Out the front of this resort is about 20 deep water moorings for use by large yachts and motor cruisers who know doubt find this establishment more to their liking than Montes. We had a couple of drinks there including a rather special cocktail which June ordered.
We managed to upset a particularly nasty neighbour who owned a foreshore property a couple of hundred metres along the beach from Montes. This women, it turned out, was well known in the community as one who was overly obsessed with her status and reclusive property rights and who would 'have no truck' with visiting tourists.....did we not understand the meaning of the words 'private property and keep out' she demanded of us. It was during the afternoon of that altercation that we came across this art deco folly.....which reminded us of a mutual friend.
On another occasion, we drove over to Dingo Beach (10km away). As a much older township than Hydeaway Bay it more closely resembles an old seaside holiday destination. The township would be lucky to have more than a couple of hundred permanent residents, but their are ominous signs on its outskirts of new money coming to town and building more substantial homes. The local pub which doubles as motel, general store, servo and post office was very casual and we were particularly taken by its signature neon lit Palm Tree. The town is also home to the boat ramp we used as well as to a stinger proof swimming area.
Cruise to Hook and Hardy Reefs:
As mentioned earlier we had pre-booked this day long cruise a month earlier after I had chanced upon an advertisement in the Weekend Australian offering a two for one special deal providing it was taken prior to the school holidays. So we each paid half the going rate of $195 for a day-long cruise to the outer reef (50nm offshore) with Bar B Cue lunch and 'gourmet' morning and afternoon teas supplied. Fantasea Cruises also offer all snorkelling gear and if you pre-book it, an introductory certified scuba-diving course during the day. Our main concern all week was whether the seas would calm down sufficiently to enable us to enjoy this special day out.
Chart of route from Shute Harbour to Hook and Hardy Reefs via Hamilton Island
We left Montes at 0600 h in order to ensure we were on board at 0730h at Shute Harbour. En route we had a rendezvous in Cannonvale with a tyre dealer who had promised to have our boat trailer tyre and wheel ready by this time and he had. Once aboard the high speed catamaran we were advised that the wind had abated to about 15 knots but that in the open water we could still expect seas to 1.5m - no worries we thought. The cruise initially went straight to Hamilton Island to pick up more passengers, including about 20 Chinese students who had booked out the scuba -diving course for the day. Hamilton Island is way 'over the top' and caters strictly for the very well shod. It was absolutely staggering to see the level of development that has gone on in this millionaires playground since its first establishment in 1975 by that Gold Coast developer, Keith Williams. Its a self-contained community with its own shops, airstrip, professional services and of course its marina which is jammed full with very very large ocean going pleasure craft. The numbers on our cruise doubled after this stop-over to nearly 200 (the boat's maximum capacity was 250).
Marina at Hamilton Island......ugh!
The boat then returned to the Whitsunday Passage and then steered NE through the narrow strait between Hook and Whitsunday Island and then and only then encountered a bit of weather. Well you should have seen the transformation in the faces of the paying passengers then. First the young Asians then the elderly Europeans started calling for pare-medics for assistance who in turn started distributing sick bags and packets of Quells - all to no avail. For the next hour as we churned out towards the outer reef at 24 knots there was an unholy cacophony of biliousness. In front of us a middle-aged European chap had been holding his feverishly ill wife until he too succumbed by being very loudly sick all over her head. Things did not get better soon. We were in fits and had to retire to another area of the boat; while still trying to be attentive to the lectures being given by a marine biologist and later by a snorkelling instructor.
As we approached the reef the weather calmed dramatically enabling most punters to resume some degree of composure and for the Chinese contingent to resume their scuba lesson with their interpreter. On arrival at Fantasea's huge (86m long) floating pontoon Reef World we were advised to go and select our gear and begin snorkelling asap while there was still water over the reef. We quickly obliged and decided to don safety jackets rather than stinger suits for our attack on the reef. Those choosing to wear the head to toe stinger suits unfortunately resembled pastel body-suited aliens. Initially there was a little chaos as 150 odd persons including many young children all headed to the snorkelling platform to launch themselves into the crystal clear waters - lots of bulkily buoyed bodies with unfamiliar fins flapping madly in all directions trying to be the first to find Nemo.
Approaching Reef World pontoon
Ready, Set, Go
Despite the early chaos it all sorted itself out and with the multitude of ropes and resting rings their is little chance of getting into trouble. In addition they have life savers scattered about watching all the churning bodies. We learnt that the colour of the corals does not really appear in the daylight as it needs artificial lighting to be advantageously seen....something to do with the light spectrum passing through the water. I took a digital underwater camera with me which proved pretty useless as I had not opted for an optical diving mask and therefore could barely identify the camera's buttons underwater ..must remember in the future. However, while the coral colours may have disappointed, the colour and variety of the fish did not....I think I glimpsed Nemo in amongst some face smashing fins. I am quite disappointed with the poor results of the following snaps taken with our underwater camera.
While at Reef World one can take a free trip on the reef submarine, have a massage, lie on their sundeck with a beer, use their waterslide and if you wish pay for a helicopter ride around the reef. They also have a pet giant Queensland Groper called George who resides under the pontoon and who frequently rises to have a look at the gawking punters. We had a few drinks up on the sundeck but the ladies shied off having a massage.
George the pet Queensland Groper
The cruise boat leaves Reef World after a very serious head count in mid afternoon. By this time the weather was much better and we were able to pause and view some Humpback Whales cavorting en route. Our return journey retraced our route back to Hamilton and then Daydream Island before setting us back at Shute Harbour at about 1730hours. This highly commercialised tourist experience was expertly run and one never felt left out of the day's activities. It was an excellent day, made even better by our discount rate.
The following day (Friday) I decided that we should get the boat out of the water first thing in the morning so as to take advantage of any calm weather and high tide. First though we had to assemble and install the new wheel on the boat trailer. This we did and Gil and I set off in the boat around to Dingo Beach, while the ladies were to carefully bring the boat trailer around by road keeping a very close eye on all of its six wheels. Going through the Gloucester Passage at about 10knots we struck some nasty chop being pushed by SE winds and at times the boat reared up quite scarily. However, once through the passage I was able to head south and cop the weather on the port bow which was a great improvement. We even tried a little trolling with a spoon once closer to the ramp but caught nothing. The ladies eventually arrived and I saw to my horror that Maria was holding up one of the trailer wheels in her hand. We immediately headed for shore where I heard how this other one had come off on the gravel road but that they had fortunately seen it and better still, found it. I set about re-attaching the wheel and tightening all other thumb screws holding the rest. That finished, the boat was quickly retrieved and secured to the trailer for its trip home. If I could have welded those wheels to the trailer, I would have done so!
On returning to Montes, I suggested we go for a drive around the district. However, Gil and June preferred to remain at Montes for their last day and enjoy the ambiance of the place. Maria and I then drove out to Proserpine and to the large freshwater impoundment of Lake Proserpine (www.peterfaustdam.com) to investigate the fishing there. We met a Victorian couple at the ramp who advised that the Barra were biting well, plenty of Red Claw and that the camping ground 5kms away was pretty good.
It costs approximately $30 a year for a licence to fish such stocked impoundments. En route home we had a counter lunch at the Metro Hotel in Proserpine where it was 'Fresh Fish Friday' - we had Barra for $13. We joined Gil and June up at Montes bar for a farewell drink.
Return Home via Mackay:
We completed packing up and cleaning the unit by 0900h and set out on our journey back to Mackay but en route we wanted to do a little exploring. First we visited the Cedar Creek Falls which the current drought prevented from falling and then on to Conway Beach near the mouth of the Proserpine River, which was a little like Dingo Beach. However, because of its proximity to the mouth of the muddy Proserpine River, its beach was not at all attractive at low tide. The town lacked an adequate boat ramp and hence the number of small tractors parked beside local cottages; no doubt used for launching their boats off the shallow beach.
Cedar Creek Falls
We then drove on down to Seaforth where we had lunch. We were agreed that this place had charm and was definite possibility for a return visit. Gil could not resist a stop at an old trash and treasure sale manned by an elderly resident who had lived in the district since the 1950s. We then peeked into Cape Hillsborough whose private camping resort was seething with holiday makers with a queue of caravans at the gate waiting to get in. Then it was straight into Mackay to Brian Mile's house behind the Shamrock Hotel. After dropping off the boat, we went for a quick drive out to the harbour and Marina where we came across a number of bridal parties having their pictures taken against the backdrop of the setting sun. Returning home, I was stopped by a Random Breath Test station and had to submit to a breath test which, despite a couple of midstrength beers earlier, failed to register a reading.
After that excitement, we had a celebratory dinner at the Austral Hotel in Victoria St which turned out to be owned by the same people who run the Breakfast Creek Hotel in Brisbane. We had a marvellous meal and some excellent wine that night.
Next morning we dropped Gil and June at the airport and we continued on home to Yeppoon arriving home at around midday. We were delighted to find our home and garden in excellent shape (thanks to Des and Dianne) and were even more delighted to find that our nesting pair of Sunbirds on a mobile under our back verandah had at last produced a family of two squawking chicks.
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