The Tolopka's Meet the Olympics

Hamilton Island:  20-22 September 2000

Man does not live by Olympics alone.

This morning we headed north to Hamilton Island, part of the Whitsunday Island group off the eastern coast of Australia.  Last night we received the letter from Cartan Tours (our tour group) telling us to meet our airport transfer in front of the hotel at 5AM.  This was a jaw-dropper given that our flight was scheduled for a 10AM departure, it's a domestic flight, and we're only a few miles from the airport.  Once we discovered that they were serious ("we recommend that you allow plenty of time given the uncertainty of traffic") we investigated other options.  We could have taken the train (which began running to the airport in May), but taxis are cheap.  We figured "Okay, one (generous) hour to get there, one hour to check in, one hour for slop factor -- how about 7AM?".  Cartan looked so dubious that we ordered the taxi for 6:30 instead.
The cab arrived promptly, traffic to the airport was light, the fare was even cheaper than we thought (A$16 for the four of us, less than 9 bucks U.S.), there were only three people in front of us for check-in, and by 7:30 we were ready to hop on a plane -- talk about overkill!  So we scrounged breakfast, looked in a few more souvenir shops, and entertained ourselves with the Olympic trappings at our gate. 

The flight finally left, and a couple of hours later we landed at Hamilton Island.

. At the airport, they told us (and every other passenger on the plane) not to bother collecting any luggage -- it would just appear in the room later.  So we bopped off to hotel, only to discover that rooms weren't ready yet because it was only noon.  Lunch was suggested while we waited.  Hmmm, reckon we can tolerate that idea.  We struggled through lunch at the Toucan Tango Cafe at an umbrella-shaded table with these views.  Looks like it's going to be harsh duty!
 Our lodgings proved to be equally onerous.  We had a humongous room, with not only vast storage space but a separate dressing area in a bathroom big enough to party in.  Quite a switch from our room in Sydney where we have our belongings strewn across every horizontal surface.
We headed out for a walk along the beach, then wandered part way up a trail that led cross-island to another beach.  There were birds buzzing back and forth all over the place; the most colorful were these rainbow lorikeets that we found en masse at a small stream.
While the lorikeets were the gaudiest, the yellow-crested cockatoos (left) were by far the noisiest, screeching and swooping as thought they owned the place.  And just to assure us we were still in Australia, we found a kookaburra (right).
But wait!  You get more than just birds!  We found half a dozen wallabies fossicking around the resort, including this one with a joey peeking from its pouch.
Janet and I hiked up One Tree Hill for the view at sunset (left, clearly not at the eponymous hill itself).  A couple more kookaburras refused to divulge precisely what they were laughing maniacally about, but made a lovely silhouette anyway (right).
Night fell, as night is wont to do, and we finished the day with dinner at an Italian restaurant fronting the marina and harbor.  I think we're successfully adjusting to the slower pace here ...

Next morning we headed down to the harbor to catch our Fantasea Cruises catamaran out to the Great Barrier Reef.  The first 40 minutes or so of the trip was a pleasant cruise through the interior waterways of the Whitsundays, strongly reminiscent of traveling in the San Juan islands in Puget Sound.  Once we cleared the islands, the seas became a bit more challenging for the next 40 minutes until we got close enough to the Reef that it started reducing the wave action again.

We finally berthed at Fantasea's private platform out on the edge of the Reef.  Basically, they've built a large floating dock with all the amenities needed for diving and snorkeling -- and have done it in an environmentally responsible way (this portion of the Reef is actually highly protected).  It wasn't long before we were outfitted with fins and snorkels and dropped into the water to see what we could see.

And the view was fantastic.  The most beautiful corals we've ever seen -- elkhorn corals, mushroom corals, plate corals, brain corals in white, blue, purple, gold.  A wide variety of colorful fish, including butterflies, wrasses, rainbow parrotfish, surgeonfish.  Giant clams with "lips" in blue, purple, green, even striped.  We even saw a few person-size groupers trailing after the beginning divers below us.  No pix here since we weren't equipped for underwater photography, but trust us -- this is a trip you want to make if you get the chance!

Besides the snorkeling, we took rides in their semi-submersible submarines (big glass windows looking straight out onto the reef) and hung out for a while in the underwater viewing chamber on the platform.  Altogether a highly satisfactory experience.

The return trip was not the most pleasant for the inner-ear-challenged as the winds had kicked up much higher seas.  We got pounded and rocked by waves throughout the open-water part of the return, strongly enough that we were bouncing around in our seats.  Even strong-stomached Janet found herself a bit queasy by the time we crept through the channel into protected Whitsundays waters again.  Fortunately, Ken and I were suitably drugged and survived the trip with our egos and lunch intact.  As I have said before to the fellows who invented time-release scopalamine patches:  Thank you, thank you, thank you!
 Back at the resort we carefully followed the hotel's directions to "keep balcony doors closed to prevent unwanted bird visitations", then headed out for dinner at the harbor again as evening fell.  Wow, look at the size of the bat that just flew over -- that sucker must have been 25cm long!  And there's another!  And another and another and -- you get the idea.  We ended up watching so many gray foxes stream by that it looked like the Winged Monkeys returning to the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.  Turns out that Hamilton Island is home to the second largest bat colony in Australia and we saw our share.  Very cool.
On our last Hamilton Island morning we returned to Toucan Tango Cafe, where we defended our breakfasts against marauding cockatoos and lorikeets.

The flight back to Sydney was uneventful, and we took advantage of our free time to do enough laundry so that we'll last the rest of the trip.  Dinner was at the revolving restaurant atop the AMP Tower (formerly Sydney Tower); you've seen pictures of it earlier in this journal (looks like a large golden ice bucket with three wireframe Olympic sports figures atop it).  Nice buffet, and we got to sample indigenous meats including kangaroo, emu, and camel.

Tomorrow we get down to serious Olympic viewing -- two sports a day for the rest of the week!