Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, probably Australia’s best sailing destination thanks to the Great Barrier Reef, beautiful beaches and lush resorts. It was in the crossfires of Cyclone Debbie however, so I wanted to give them some custom even though we weren’t heading out on a boat.

It was a wee bit bedraggled. Like the morning after a house party you’ve thrown when mum and dad were away for a weekend. Surface damage, and a few broken tables that you’ll fix before they return. But nothing dreadful.

It was a few days of admin for us. We went to the same shopping centre four days in a row. The bank. The post office. The laundrette. The supermarket. All of life’s necessities, sorted.

Airlie Beach is also very close to the Proserpine River, which I was astounded to find out has more saltwater crocodiles than anywhere else in the whole of Australia! With all these tourists and backpackers lounging around enjoying themselves – shit! I’ve been on a sailing holiday here before and I never knew that.

Croc Country

So we’re north of Rockhapmton now. Which means we’re in Croc Country. Saltwater crocodiles can grow up to eight metres long, have been known to appear in freshwater, and have also been found hundreds of kilometres out to sea. So basically, any piece of water could have a croc in it from here on up.

Flyers in the Rockhampton tourist office said to be Croc Wise. Amongst the guidelines were the following instructions:

– Obey Crocodile warning signs, they are there for your protection
– Crocodiles are ambush predators, and most attacks are made by crocodiles that were not reported or seen in an area until the moment of attack.
– Camp at least 2m above the high water mark and at least 50m from the water’s edge.

Hmmm… so watch out for crocodiles where there are signs, and, watch out for crocodiles where there are not signs. Sounds like a great place to go camping…

They’re trick, apparently, is to lurk in the shallows of muddy water, waiting for three year old children to walk by before launching out of the gloom. Quick as a flash they grab your child, and drag them down into the depths to decompose, to be digested later on when the flesh has loosened off the bones a little.

Katie, needless to say, cannot wait to see one in the wild.

I’m quite excited myself I must admit, although mightily terrified at the same time.
Airlie done. Onwards.

SS Yongala

Our next port of call was going to be Townsville, but a friend had mentioned a great wee stop off on the way, so we programmed Alva into Google Maps, and off we went.

Alva is tiny. Two or three roads, one caravan park and a huge beach that’s great for fishing and getting your car stuck on. It also happens to be the closest mainland spot to what is consistently recognised as the best dive in the world. Oh yeah.

The SS Yongala is a 109 metre steam ship that sank off the Australian coast on 23rd March 1911. It was on its way to Townsville with 122 people, a racehorse called Moonshine, and a Red Lincoln bull on board when it steamed straight into an enormous cyclone, and disappeared.

The first hint of its resting place was in 1943, when a navy minesweeper caught what they thought was a shoal, made a note, then moved on. Three years later another navy vessel took a look with anti-submarine equipment, and determined it was a wreck. There it was left until 1958, when a local fisherman caught his nets on ‘something’, became intrigued by the story and with the help of a diver, eventually secured proof of the ship’s identity thanks to the safe registration number.

The discovery also provided some clues as to how the ship sank. The SS Yongala was heading north, straight into a cyclone that was heading south. The sea was very shallow, only 20 – 30 metres, and the ‘reach’ was about 25 kilometres. So the winds had a long uninterrupted stretch of ocean to build up into a massive sea, which would have hit the shallows and strong currents, been pushed up into waves of a terrifying size, breaking continuously over the bow of the steamer. Game over.

Funnily enough the reason for its sinking, is also the reason the wreck is such an incredible dive now. Basically it sits in the middle of a long stretch of underwater desert, about 20kms offshore and 30kms before the Great Barrier Reef. So there’s nothing going on for miles around, there are strong currents to carry the larger animals along, and there’s a lot of marine life only 30kms away.

Drop an artificial reef into that location, leave it untouched for 50 years and you’re going to end up with an underwater oasis.

An enormous amount of coral has attached to the wreck. Attracting a staggering amount of marine life including bull sharks, manta rays, sea snakes, conger eels, parrot fish, turtles, trevallys the size of me, bat fish, hundreds of barracuda, whale sharks, eagle rays, bat rays, giant marble rays, small eyed rays and a grouper the size of a Mini Cooper.

I could go on, but you get the picture. This is a very special place.

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I was partnered up with a 6’4” German fellow who looked like Kurgen from Highlander, but was thankfully a helluva lot nicer. As soon as we dropped down, Jurgen and I saw a Leopard shark, about two metres long just cruising under the bow of the ship. We sank down further to get a good look. Wow, beautiful.

The bottom is about 29 metres, so we increased buoyancy and floated back up to the centre of the wreck, around 22 metres, and slowed finned towards the stern.

Over time sections of the hull have been eaten away by rust, so you can see inside and catch glimpses of unidentifiable sharks, ghosting between the metal structure that fades into the darkness. You’re not allowed to pursue these beasts into the wreck, it’s a protected site with a $20,000 fine for breaking the rules, but you don’t need to anyway. There’s so much to see outside. I’ve never seen so many fish on one dive before.

Four of us floated around a few groupers that were all trying to feed in the one spot. There was also a conger eel in there, snapping away to keep them at bay, and as we drifted back a sea snake serpentined up towards me.

It was an olive sea snake, which is one of the most venomous animals on the planet but thankfully, not an aggressive species. Nevertheless I was a little disconcerted with its attentions, so I finned backwards, and round to the side as the other three divers watched with mild amusement as it pursued me.

Little fucker. Go away! And eventually it did. Heading up to gasp some air, before diving back down to protect the Yongala, and the poor souls resting within it, for another couple of hours. I always find it a wee bit eerie diving where I know people have died, no matter how beautiful.

The Yongala had one more close encounter for me before I was finished. A massive Bat Ray appeared out of nowhere, and cruised right in front of my face. My bubbles floating up and touching its pointy nose. It must have been about 2 metres across, and it was amazing. I’ve never been that close to an animal like that before.

Yes yes Yongala.
Thank you very much.

When I finally got back to the camp site, the girls were all at the pool and Katie insisted I jump in immediately, to help her practice snorkelling. Although the pool seemed to be colder than the fucking sea, I happily obliged.

She’s picking it up really well, and is starting to get excited about our trip out to the Great Barrier Reef – as have I!