Lady Elliot Island – Day 1
At 8:30am, my Jetstar flight took off, leaving the eminent 90-degree Sydney weather behind for the glorious Fraser coast. I snagged a window seat on the right side, aiming for coastal views on the northbound flight to Hervey Bay. I ended up situated amongst a bunch of Italians, which excited me because in all of my travels this year, I have yet to encounter anyone from Italy! Strange, isn’t it? And I could pick up on some of what they were saying, which I am now going to use to justify my missing Italian class the week after break.
The flight was so short – 1.5 hours total – but quite scenic! At takeoff, you could see lots of Sydney homes and the beaches… then the green forests and endless beaches of northern NSW. I didn’t see Brisbane or the Gold Coast because I think we were flying over the ocean. But the descent was absolutely incredible as we went down over and across Fraser Island, just off the coast of Hervey Bay. We dropped through clouds and crossed the coastline with an enormous stretch of beach next to an interior filled with lush green rainforest. So you essentially had the green forested island on the left, a ribbon of golden beaches and sand dunes to the right, deep blue sea on the far right, and a clear blue sky with scattered puffy clouds above that seemed almost connected to the ground. I had no idea how big Fraser Island was until I flew over it! Now I’m even more excited to tackle this sandy jungle next week!
We arrived at 10:10 and I had to connect to the 10:40 flight to Lady Elliot Island. This would probably seem like a problem that I only checked in 10 minutes prior to departure, but Hervey Bay is a tiny airport. You have to walk outside to board your plane and there’s only one terminal. It may even be smaller than Kununurra’s airport! Everyone waits in one area, no announcements are made. Someone actually came inside to escort us to our mini-plane, and we didn’t depart til 11am. Our plane carried 9 passengers plus 3 crew members. I sat in the back with a fabulous view out the window. The takeoff provided excellent views of Fraser Island, the beautiful blue water, and the coastline. Patches of cumulus clouds over blue water provided more aesthetic views. We even saw a few whales in the water below. Most of the flight was over plain water and I felt a tad queasy from the small plane shakiness. But soon we descended over the island, which looked exactly as it does in all the pictures: a tiny island, surrounded by the beige/pink/bright blue-colored reef just offshore. Gorgeous.
We arrived at noon or so and were immediately greeted and given a brief island tour. LEI is a simple resort, divided into two halves: one has the landing strip and all the bird nesting areas, the other is the resort area. The resort itself is equipped with a dive shop, gift shop, various accommodation buildings, a restaurant and bar, an info center, lounge, and reception. Only 100 visitors or so are allowed here at a time so that this island stays pristine and private. Plus, it’s only accessible by plane, which is how food is imported and how laundry is shipped back and forth for cleaning. It’s no wonder the price of staying here is so high!
All these buildings are scattered about a woodsy area with a winding pathway of coral. I was shown to my tent cabin, a 4-bunk hut all to myself! My luggage had already been dropped off – with so few people to keep track of coming and going, it’s easy for the staff to provide a more personalized experience for guests. Before I presented my flight document at the airport, the lady at the desk knew me by name. And they knew which bag was mine and where to put it without me having to say or label anything. So nice!
Directly outside my hut is the beach lagoon. I have a little table and chairs outside my door too. Apparently no doors are lockable here, which makes sense because there’s nowhere for thieves to go. Plus, who wants to lug around room keys while snorkelling?
My first objective, obviouslty, was to snorkel. Therefore, I went to the dive shop to get my gear, picked up some old shoes to wear for reef walking, and headed to the other side of the island around low tide. A few people were just leaving as I entered the beach. I had it all to myself for a few hours. The sun against the sand was so bright I could barely keep my eyes open!
I walked out a bit and plunged in once it got deeper. Soon I was surrounded by coral – lots and lots of it! I had no concept of how it was all laid out or how much area it covered, but I suspect I only experienced a small part of it. Despite having waterlogged goggles, I was able to see all the fish around me, many just like the ones I saw at Ningaloo. I even saw a sea turtle just gliding through the water, near the ground. Some fish were swimming around it and under it and it didn’t seem to mind.
I wanted to find the dive sites, suspecting that they were more spectacular, so I swam out a ways. Soon I found myself too far out, no reef in sight, and few fish around. I contemplated continuing out but figured I should head back in since the current was picking up. Then, literally out of nowhere, I see something move near the surface maybe 7-8 feet away. MANTA RAY!!! I couldn’t believe it! Literally nothing else was around – it was just me and this majestic manta ray, flipping gracefully along the water surface with something that looked like a tiny dolphin directly underneath it (a baby?). It just swam around slowly, turning every which way so I could get a good look at it. Honestly, it looks just like all the pictures. I could have swam with him much longer than I did, but I stopped to check my camera and then lost him.
So at this point, I swam back. Only, the current was producing choppy waves, which not only made it harder but also got me dizzy. Plus, I was operating on 5 hours of sleep and was probably tired from paddling all the way out there. Consequently, I had a rough time getting back to shore. It took forever and no one else was around! I kept getting pulled to one side by the current, which ended up ok because I got swept to the inner reef edge where it was much easier to swim back to my starting point. I then discovered the rest of this reef area and realized it was probably enough to keep most people occupied without having to swim out to nowhereville like I did. Oops.
When I finally made my way out of the water, I was not in the most pleasant of states. My left leg and arm had taken some serious reef abuse and were covered in small red scrapes. Plus, I was on the way to nausea. So I just layed on the beach for an hour or two and recovered. Except all I had with me was a towel so I really couldn’t stay out too long with too much skin exposed. I ended up with a bit of sunburn on my back, which could have been much worse had I stayed out there longer.
A bit later, I was feeling better, so I went for a reef walk in the lagoon area. Again, not a soul was around. So strange, yet so peaceful. The lagoon is quite shallow and easy to walk through. What I saw at low tide was incredible! So many bright blue sea stars entwined and wrapped around rocks and coral. So many clams of different colors and patterns – gorgeous! And there were black sea cucumbers all over the ground. It all made for an interesting maze to walk through, and it’s hard to choose the right way to walk without stepping on coral and sealife. I backtracked several times for this reason. And the coral was amazing too! Mostly dull pink/red/brown but also some bright green or purple coral too.
After the walk, I walked through the bird rookery, which sounds and smells just like a pet store, with all the chirping birds and bird poop all over. There are thousands of them here, and apparently it’s now nesting season so they are especially prevalent. But it’s actually not that annoying – in fact, it adds to the island’s appeal as a pristine slice of nature.
Sunset on the beach was nice but quick. Very light rainbow colors and orange directly where the sun set. There were actually 5-6 other people there – amazing! Sunsets are on the other side of the island where the better snorkelling is, while the lagoon is on the resort side. We saw some whales jumping around beyond the reef at sunset as well – so awesome! Dinner was a buffet served in the dining room, adjacent to the bar and patio. Decent food, but nothing amazing. I had some chicken and lots of salad, followed by some chocolate cake with custard… all of which I enjoyed out on the deck, listening to the tide coming in though it was too dark to see, and finishing Bill Bryson’s “Down Under”. Man, what an awesome day.