Australia: Reef madness

THEY promised me millions of stars, here, on the Great Barrier Reef, many miles and an ecosystem away from the light pollution of land.

They promised me the experience of a lifetime, spending the night on Reef Sleep, a pontoon moored on the edge of Earth’s biggest living organism. And they weren’t lying.

This must be one of the world’s most unusual hotel rooms. It’s comfortable, rather than decadent, but you’re not going to be spending much time indoors. Still, there’s a decent king size bed in my room (just to help rub it in that I’m alone) and a hot shower.

Another room holds four bunk beds, so there’s a maximum of six guests per night. But tonight, there’s only me for my remarkably friendly and efficient steward David to attend to. There’s a quiet generator humming away but it’s turned off early in the evening and utter silence descends, broken only by the occasional slap of a wave.

Alone on the pontoon, after a delicious al fresco meal and a few glasses of chilled, fine Australian chardonnay, with a scuba dive already under my belt, it was time to count those stars.

And time for one of those: ”Why do I live in London?’ moments. Pure, clean air, thousands of miles of ocean and reef, millions of fish, surely this is what life is all about, instead of ‘the foetid air and grit of the dusty, dirty city’ as Australia’s national poet, Banjo Paterson, puts it. The thought passes in the enjoyment of the moment…

Next morning, it’s a 7am breakfast on deck before another dive with divemaster Heather Thatcher, a half-hour that passes in minutes. I’m pretty much a beginner but she’s not, so we follow a turtle through the water and, catching it, gently feel its surprisingly soft shell. A giant Maori wrasse, at 1.5m, a big fish to me, comes over for some food and allows a caress. Sea cucumbers, pale and obscene out of the water, take on an elegance of their own on the coral beds that stretch outwards and downwards from our sight.

Back on the pontoon, a viewing chamber looks out on the reef edge, allowing hours of zen-like meditation on an ever-changing view.

A shoal of tiny fish flash silver and vanish, then reappear. The giant wrasse (pictured) swims into view and I learn that he has made the pontoon his territory and is called Wally. At lunchtime, reality intrudes when the daily Fantasea catamaran brings some 70 day-trippers from the mainland.

They are split into scuba and snorkelling parties, or into subs (boats with underwater windows) for their own education into this underwater paradise. The subs glide along the edge of the reef, bringing ever-changing views of corals and fish, seemingly no two ever the same. Another layer of the reef unfolds during a snorkel swim as we drift with the current and, once again, Wally comes over to be stroked.

Some few hours later, it’s time to leave. This is one park where you don’t leave even footprints, but you certainly take lots of memories. I’ll be back. To double-check that star count.

www.fantasea.com.au

DETAILS:

Hamilton Island: The 74 islands of the Whitsunday group provide a base for the short hop to Reef Sleep. Hamilton Island has regular flights from Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian cities, four hotels and several apartment complexes. It’s the most developed island in the group, with all the usual beach holiday activities, but still has 80 per cent of its area preserved in its natural state. As to its climate, it’s the same latitude as Honolulu and Mauritius and it averages 27.4°C all year round. www.hamiltonisland.com.au

Hamilton Island Aviation: I flew out to the Reef Sleep in a helicopter, one of the most spectacular rides of my life. The scenery, surf, sand, reefs and ocean, is truly beautiful and its scale is best appreciated from the air. www.avta.com.au

Australian Tourist Commission: 0191 501 4646 or visit www.australia.com

I flew to Brisbane with Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) and then on to Hamilton Island with Qantas (www.qantas.com)

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