“Mate, how was the trip? “Looked unreal!” “Make sure you get me on the next one!”
This was the response to our recent trip to North West Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef. And to be honest, I’m still pinching myself at such a memorable time, camping out on one of the Australian East Coast’s best kept secrets. This is seriously a must do for anyone who loves an outdoor adventure in the purest form.
Our time there was planned around two weeks in October, when the last of the Humpback whales migrate South, the water is just warming up and the turtles are going wild; mating and laying their eggs all along the coral cays. Truly the best chance of feeling like we’re in the middle of a wildlife doco!
After months of biting at the bit to make it back to paradise, we all met early at the Gladstone harbour to load the ferry. Ten blokes all coming together from different towns and cities, with that anticipation and excitement of not really knowing what’s to come… but the feeling it’s going to be epic! Morale was sky high as the final pack was done. The barge sounded the horn and so was away with thoughts of emails we hadn’t sent, leaving the car unlocked or the likely chance of anything else important we had forgot. It was time to get back to basics.
Sitting on the top deck, looking out to the endless blue of the ocean we opened up about what we wanted to get out of our experience there; everyone completely different. “Catch a big GT on the flats”, “Spear a green job fish”, “Kayak and snorkel with turtles”, “Drink beers as the sunsets.” “Don’t care as long as I’m not at work!” The beauty of it was, it was all achievable and waiting just around the corner.
A smooth six hours ride from Gladstone and we arrived at North West Island, greeted by a high tide, sunset, fringing reef, white sandy beaches and crystal clear water. We couldn’t wait another second to get our camping gear off! Teamwork got the two boats, food, gas freezers, solar panels, enough fishing and spearing gear to open a shop, and of course a few cases of problem solvers to the shoreline. Before long we picked a campsite, set up tarps, tables, tents, rolled the swags out, turned all the phones off (one of the best and crucial parts) then settled into home for our first night, buzzing with the excitement of what was to come.
Getting dropped on an island, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with nothing there but whatever you take, a couple of drop toilets, and endless selection of wildlife as neighbours is a wholesome feeling. There are a line of camps along the west side and with the native forest of the island, no matter how many people are camping there, you always feel like you have your own private piece of beachfront.
A storm rolled through the first night to welcome us… which tried to dampen the spirits but that wasn’t an option! It was worth it for the one night downpour to wake up to the breathtaking vista of this paradise in full form. Glass out conditions, blue skies and vibrant sunsets… every day, the dream had become reality! We didn’t know it yet, but this would be the norm for the next two weeks, talk about lucking out. With no alarms set, we all woke with the sun, biting at the bit to run down to the beach, get our feet and faces in the salt, sand and soak it all up.
Days on the island revolve around the tide, which make for the perfect balance of adventure, exploration and taking the pace off. With high tide in the morning we did what we knew best, jumped in the tinnies ‘Albert’ and the ‘Salty Dingo’ turned em’ over, and away we went.
‘Albert’ would take the fellas keen on having a fish. Everyday a new hotspot, finding where the birds and bait was working, what looked good on the charts or just exploring new grounds. Whether it was throwing soft plastics over the reef, jigging metal slugs through bait or having a troll. The rod was never too far away from being buckled over.
The reefs, bombies, cays, undercuts, shoals and drop offs seemed endless, how was two weeks going to be enough?!
The ‘Salty Dingo’ would take the guys wanting to wet the gills and hunt underwater; selectively spearing fish or spending time free-diving together in vis which often exceeded 20metres. We either looked for bait and structure on the sounder, or most of the time sight spotting was enough, the main targets were Coral Trout, Red Emperor and Green Jobfish. It was amazing to see how healthy the ecosystem was, abundant with life and colour.
When the tide dropped, we’d race back over the reef as the tide rushed out, and with it the rays, turtles and fish life, before it became a dry lagoon.
Then the most important time of the day, getting some fresh tucker into the crew. “We don’t eat this good back at home!” Was a phrase commonly used and having a couple of master chefs in amongst the guys we found ourselves breaking stereotypes and giving it a go in the sandy feet kitchen. The gas stove would get fired up, and soon we’d have crumbed coral trout fillets, salad and homemade chilli chutney, rewards from our very own seafood market. We had a gas freezer that could hold a few fillets for home but with such a smorgasbord on offer it was a pleasure getting to make the call of what was going to feed ten blokes for the day; Red emperor Thai curry, Spanish mackerel wraps with salad, salt and pepper calamari, coral trout fish soup, spangled emperor and sweet spud chips. One that was hard to find on the reef was banana and Nutella pancakes, but luckily prior planning prevented such a crisis. I know… making my mouth water as well!
After lunch, a few favoured options were to take a walk around the island which takes about two hours, explore the rock pools of the low tide, snap some scenic shots, and most popularly hang in hammocks under the shade of the Casuarina trees, solving all life’s problems. There is something truly magic about being so remote, on a coral sand cay, no phone reception, fifty miles from the nearest ‘anything’, disconnected from the mainland with no attachment to what’s back there.
Over the two weeks we set out to make the most of our time on North West Island, appreciating that such a strong sense of freedom and time getting back to basics in nature didn’t happen every day. A couple of golden moments was definitely one of the boys getting a monster 20kg Cobia which dragged him around like a ski boat and the fishing crew hooking and landing a 50kg Sailfish on a four inch plastic and small bait-caster (captured all on footage!), the boys came back end of the day and a line that will stay with me forever, ‘That, was the best day of my life’.
Watching from the camp we’d get a free show every afternoon; whales breaching in the distance, eagles soaring high over the darting garfish, frisky turtles trying their luck in the shallows, sharks and Giant Trevally boofing up bait as the tide rolled in. At night having absolutely no light pollution above us we could watch clearly the full moon rise behind the island, bright enough to see the residents of the reef graze and hunt along the waters edge.
The days flowed into each other but some things wouldn’t change… beers on the beach for sunset, a tradition and a chance for sitting down all together to take it all in. Sitting there with mates new and old, enjoying life for what it is and all its beauty, really is something that you can’t forget. If anyone knows a better way to recharge the batteries and unwind from the never-ending rush that we seem to call life these days, let me know!
As I write this, sitting on the beach, reflecting on a time well spent on North West Island, I can’t help but think how fortunate we are to have easy access to such unspoilt, untouched natural paradise here in Australia. It makes me ask the question… why don’t more people make the most of the accessible adventures that are here to be had right on their doorstep? Such a place is not only great for mates, but families, children and even the young at heart oldies!
It’s all there waiting for us. Maybe now, we’ll start to see more people recharging the batteries out there, more people getting back to basics, more people saying yes to it.
Hope to see you out there!
Words by Az Gallagher (Better looking half of Back to Basics)
Photos and video by Tobias Visuals