It’s the last weekend of the school holidays and Australia’s beaches are at peak capacity. Getting away from the crowds will be tricky. So we do the only sensible thing. We take the yacht of the working classes to an uninhabited tropical island. A phone call later and we’ve booked out the entire island. For two nights, we are the only group allowed to sleep on this pristine coral island. Coombe Island, all of its one diameter of boulder strewn beaches and cyclone ruffled vegetation is ours. For $5.75 per person per night, this is true luxury.
When Kay and Kerry from the Tablelands show up in a kayak at lunchtime looking for a spot to pitch their tent, we tell them politely to bugger off and find their own private island. And off they paddle to the deserted shores of our island’s twin, Wheeler Island, right opposite. There are enough islands in the Family Islands Group National Park to keep everybody happy.
Dunk (Coonanglebah), Bedarra, Wheeler (Toolgbar), Coombe, Smith (Kurrumbah), Bowden (Budg-Joo), Hudson (Coolah) were put on the map by Captain James Cook when he explored Rockingham Bay, half way between Townsville and Cairns in June 1770. He likened the jungle-clad granite islands that lie scattered just offshore between Mission Beach and Tully Heads to a Family of Isles. Legend has it that the sight of 30 aboriginals, men, women and children, all standing on the sandy spit of Bowden Island gazing at the Endeavour sailing by, gave Captain Cook the idea of a family group.
My mate Leonard Andy has never heard of that story. His people, the local Djiru Traditional Owners of the Mission Beach area, have gone across to the islands for tens of thousands of years in collapsible canoes. They didn’t need maps he tells me. They knew the islands even before the last Ice Age, when the islands were mountainous peaks on the mainland.
We’ve also come without maps. We launch the tinny on the biscuit coloured sands of South Mission Beach and simply follow the family hierarchy of the islands. 4 km across from Mission Beach sits the largest and northernmost, The Father Isle. Dunk Island is named after the First Lord of the Admiralty, Montagu the Earl of Sandwich. Being the closest to the mainland, it is also the busiest member of the family. On this spectacular morning, the spit is besieged by yachts, tinnies, kayaks and campers and we make a beeline for Bedarra Island.
“The Mother Isle,” as Cook referred to the island now known as Bedarra, is privately owned and sells total seclusion and ‘barefoot luxury’ to the rich and famous. Captain Nigel skippers the tinny into Doorila Bay where the artist Noel Woods and his wife made their home in 1936 behind a coconut grove.
On Bedarra Island the artist found the paradise he had been searching for. A place “with a warm climate, where one could live for approximately nothing, and solve one’s own problems in paint and colour.”
He lived here for an entire lifetime until 1993 when his land was subdivided into a cluster of 8 privately owned beach houses discreetly hidden behind coconut palms and rainforest.
On the other end of the beach sits Australia’s most exclusive resort. The eco-friendly, refurbished Bedarra Island Resort is the only Australian resort to have made it into American Travel and Leisure magazine’s ‘It List’ of the top 70 resorts in the world in 2014. Royalty and rockstars have stayed here.
We are nosy sightseers and skipper the tinny up and down the beach a couple of times, trying to get a glimpse of how the rich and famous do holidays on a remote island. Empty wooden deck chairs are scattered amongst palm trees and granite boulders on a deserted paper-white beach. The 8 villas, each with its own infinity pool, are barely visible behind rainforest in every shade of green. Everything here is very discreet and very exclusive.
It may be an easy swim across from Noel Wood’s original residence, but Bedarra Island Resort is a world away from the painter’s quest to find an authentic 20th century Robinson Crusoe Survivor Island. A night here starts at $1000 a villa for all-inclusive luxury for two.
We continue our journey through sloppy seas and across rough swells to the uninhabited wilderness of “The Children,” of the Family Isles to the East, a short 15 min ride away. Camping is only allowed on the southern side of “The Twins,” Wheeler and Coombe Islands. We’ve booked the least fancy of the two.
The only luxury on Coombe Island is a picnic table underneath windblown, cyclone damaged trees that provide unreliable shade. The nearest decomposting toilet is on Wheeler Island across a bay of shimmering water. And that’s how we like it. Once you book the one and only campsite on Coombe Island, whether it’s for one, two or eight campers, you’ve booked the entire island. It does not get any better than this.
It doesn’t take long to fall into the island’s rhythm of sunrise, two hours of morning shade on our south facing beach, followed by many hours of blinding light, when the strip of coral beach gets bleached by the merciless sun burning like a fluro light. Morning swells are followed by calm afternoons and soft evening lights. At night a not-quite-full moon illuminates the beach like floodlights on a soccer field. It’s the kind of paradise Noel Woods found when he first came to Bedarra 80 years ago. A pristine wilderness where personal problems fade as nature’s natural rhythm takes over.
With no one around I shed all inhibitions and sing and play the ukulele like a reborn rockstar. I also try my hand at fishing, trolling a line around “The Triplets” just behind Coombe Island. The picture perfect palm-fringed beaches of Bowden, Hudson and Smith are popular with day trippers, there are people snorkelling, rock-hoping and fishing. I soon realise that fishing will not become one of my favourite past times. I lack patience and skill and end up doing yoga poses holding a fishing line. It goes without saying, I do not bag the catch of the day.
On our last morning we finally find out how the rich and famous do tropical paradise. The Bedarra Resort dinghy drops off a couple who have come to claim their ‘lunch on a remote island experience.’ It’s included in their accommodation package. They stagger along the beach disoriented under the blinding light. “I could get to that secluded beach on my own, but not with this,” the man says pointing an esky towards a cliff face of vertical layers of rock.
“You can have our spot” shouts Captain Nigel as if we owned the island. For two days it really felt like we did. But it’s time to leave. The horizon has become lumpy and the Captain orders an early departure. We pack up quickly and cede our spot in paradise to a couple who’ve paid an astronomical sum for the privilege of spreading their picnic blanket in our patch of shade. “Are there any toilets here?” the wife asks. The closest one is over there. I point to Wheeler Island across the water. She smiles. As we pull away from the island, leaving the couple without an escape vessel, I know that they too will have an unforgettable time on their very own private island for the day.
Skippering past Bedarra Island on our way home, I kick myself for not insisting we swap our patch of shade for theirs. How nice it would be now to spread our picnic blanket by the couple’s private infinity pool.
How would you prefer to experience paradise? In a mozzie dome under the stars or in a $1000 a night private villa?
- Australia is famous for its well kept, plentiful National Park campsites. You can pre-book a campsite online or over the phone following this link: http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/index.php
- Read the website carefully and make sure you bring the recommended essentials, including water. Some of these campsites are pretty remote, which makes them so special.
- And please remember: Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints!
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