New Zealanders Anna Willison and husband Angus embark on what her workmates call an OPOE (Old Person’s Overseas Adventure), a circumnavigation

The quarantine officer wished us a hearty, ‘Welcome to ‘Straya!’ Clearance into Mackay on Australia’s Queensland Coast was straightforward except for the fiscal shock we received when he informed us that we owed the Aussie government $550 for the privilege of a biosecurity clearance. Let’s just say that it was a bit more expensive than what we had been expecting!

We departed Aotearoa in May 2023, setting off on a circumnavigation. The first stop was Noumea, then a very pleasant and uneventful six-day passage to Mackay.

Mackay is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, the sparkling gems set inside the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a spectacular cruising ground, with strong, constant south- easterly trade winds and smooth seas in the lee of the Great Barrier Reef. We ate up the miles, sailing under just a headsail all the way to Cape York.

Brampton Island was our first stop, just 18 miles from Mackay to the white sand and shelter of Mary Port Bay, looking over at the abandoned Brampton Island Resort. It’s a very eerie, slightly apocalyptic feeling being at a resort that has been closed since 2006.

The Whitsundays offer splendid sailing in turquoise waters. Photo: Anna Willison

The golden days of a family resort holiday in the Whitsundays are long gone now that it’s cheaper to go to Fiji or Bali. A couple of cyclones and of course that small issue of a pandemic that you might remember from a couple of years ago, have also contributed to the demise of resorts in this part of the world.

Every island that we visited in the Whitsundays had the skeletons and rubble of once very busy and well-loved resorts. I was saddened to see decaying buildings left to be looted and destroyed by visitors – a pile of garbage and a blot on an otherwise pristine beach.

Brampton, Hayman, South Molle, Long Island, Lindeman and Dunk Island arejust a few of the defunct resorts that we saw as we made our way north to Townsville and then on to Cairns.

Airlie Beach is a vibrant gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Anna Willison

Magnetic Island (fondly known as Maggie to the locals) gives a hint of what resort life used to be like, with holiday apartments and a shopping strip with a fabulous gelato shop, but even here there are cafes and shops for lease and a distinct lack of yachtie visitors.

As we island-hopped through the Whitsundays, enjoying the sheltered bays with crystal clear water and sandy beaches, we were slightly edgy about the isolation, as though we shouldn’t really be there. There were a few coastal cruisers in their enormous catamarans all set up with Starlink.

Thanks to Elon Musk, a new era of live-aboard boaties seem to be working eight hours a day from their cockpits, and then streaming Netflix after work. There was nobody with whom to have sundowners, or go snorkelling or exploring with.

The Willisons’ 42ft New Zealand Kauri yacht Innocenti. Photo: Anna Willison

A lot of the time there was very little cell phone coverage. We were in some spectacular places, anchored in glorious isolation.

Airlie Beach is a happening place, full of young backpackers and holidaymakers and people heading out to enjoy diving on the Great Barrier Reef. This seemed a stark contrast to the Whitsunday Islands, where we felt like the only people in the world.

Hook Island (Northern Whitsundays) was a highlight. We enjoyed two days of snorkelling over beautiful reefs that are rich with sea life. We swam with turtles and batfish, stingrays and reef sharks.

Once a bustling tourist spot, today Brampton Island is a lovely but lonely location. Photo: Anna Willison

We’ve noticed that the few Australian yachties that we spoke to in the Whitsundays, don’t swim off their boats like us Kiwis do. A few of the locals like to spin some hair-raising yarns about the bitey things in Queensland waters.

But in these politically correct times, what we used to call a shark or crocodile attack is now known as a ‘negative shark or crocodile interaction’.

We sailed up this coast some 26 years ago and what seems different this time is the lack of other offshore yachts for company, and the eeriness of the abandoned resorts.

After the weirdness of the pandemic, people vowed that they were going to follow their dreams and spend less time at work. We were not going to take things like the freedom to travel or holiday for granted again. Fast forward two years, and the pandemic life is but a bad dream. What has happened to those boats that were purchased and the plans that were made during that extraordinary time? Hello out there… Where are you all?

I can’t help feeling the world is missing out on the Whitsundays. Come on Australia, it’s time to clean up the rubbish and rubble on these beautiful islands, many of which
are National Parks. The Whitsundays are a national treasure and an idyllic place to experience some extraordinary sailing and to enjoy picture-perfect anchorages.

Enjoyed reading this?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.