Outback Odyssey: The Great Barrier Reef (2023)

This is the eighth article in Mark Skipworth's 'Outback Odyssey'.

Nose-proud, standing to attention, dazzling against the cloudless blue sky, the seaplane throttles up to carry us to our final top-that-if-you-can destination – the Great Barrier Reef, perhaps the world’s greatest natural wonder. We’re staying on the holiday island of Hamilton, discovered by Captain Cook and reputedly named after Nelson’s Lady Hamilton, in Queensland’s to-sigh-for Whitsundays archipelago. If Hamilton is paradise on earth, then the Great Barrier Reef is beyond paradise – another level altogether. Hamilton is the only one of 74 Whitsunday islands accessible by air.

From there, boats and even helicopters will transport you to the reef, which is no more than about 20 miles away; flying to it by seaplane, however, is by far the best and most eco-friendly way – pure Indiana Jones (hamiltonislandair.com). We take off from the local airport in perfect weather, scarcely a breeze, and soon we’re soaring over a cluster of volcanic islands and some of the world’s best beaches. As we draw away, we enter a strange new world. The coastline no longer visible, mile after mile of reef surfaces at low tide, gigantic ribbons of coral, and the water turns from cold, deep blue to turquoise. Its density increases until suddenly you reach a sea trench – the “Coral River” – that divides these massive outcrops. As we make our descent, a huge shark zigzags along the “river” beside manta rays and tuna. In a few minutes, we’ll be getting into the same waters!

A mirror-flat lagoon looms up and the pilot indicates we’re going to use it as a landing strip. With a juddering splosh, we’re down. The seaplane doors are flung open on the profound stillness of the reef. It’s all so elemental – the pure, yellow Sun, the awesome silence and the reflection of Pacific clouds on the water – and overpowering in its beauty.

My wife and I had never been snorkelling and taking no chances, we’d followed the guides’ advice and decided to wear “stinger suits” for protection against rogue jelly fish. (More people die a year off the Australian coast from “boxies” than any other animal incidents, and there’s no known antidote.) It was then, after nearly three weeks, that Mrs Skip finally had her “moment”. Having seen the shark so close to our landing spot, she wasn’t too enthused about getting immersed after all. It’s a very long way to come to have second thoughts so bravely, she slipped in, looking pained throughout. Perhaps, next time – if there is a next time – she can explore from the glass-bottomed boat that accompanies snorkellers throughout, in case of difficulties.

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Me, I soon lost myself in the (surprisingly) cloudy, coral-rich waters. If a shark was going to strike out, I wouldn’t know much about it, given the lack of visibility, before it was too late. Perhaps there was more of the adventurer in me than I’d thought. By getting close to a section of the reef and keeping perfectly still, it’s not long before inquisitive fish drop by to inspect the visitors. In a matter of moments I was being treated to a piscine version of Disney’s Fantasia as scores of parrot fish bobbed, darted and spun their way around my body, leaving me dizzy and euphoric. I could have stayed there for ever but the reef is not without risks for the novice – though our excellent guides kept keen-eyed vigil over any potential shark activity. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, the tourist blurbs will tell you.

But it’s absolutely true.

A golf-buggy ride from the airport and we’re back at our accommodation, the amazing qualia, often rated the world’s best resort hotel. For all those travellers who’ve done the Australian Big Three – Sydney, Melbourne and Uluru/Ayers Rock – qualia is justification alone for making a return trip.

Forget the exchange rate! Developed by Robert Oatley of Rosemount wine fame, who also bought the entire island of Hamilton, qualia’s sybaritic delights are located on a private peninsular with villas – or “pavilions” – modelled on Papua New Guinea long houses, as are the main reception and dining areas with spectacular views to the main Whitsunday island. The attention to detail is quite remarkable, typified by the wonderful “living” honeycomb in the breakfast area that provides a constant stream of fresh honey. That evening we chill from our own infinity pool, stargazing at the equatorial night sky as parrots and possums pay fleeting visits to our villa. A magical place to explore the islands and the reef (see below).

Outback Odyssey: The Great Barrier Reef (1)

Our last day and we’ve decided to end on a high of unadulterated kitsch, namely “koala-cuddling” at Hamilton’s tiny but charming wildlife park (wildlife.com.au). Koalas – which means “no water” as they gain all their liquids from eucalyptuses – are the world’s cutest animals. No question. In a virtually permanent soporific state, they sleep for 20 hours a day, the remainder eating and scratching. We meet and greet Waldo and Elvis (Are you lonesome tonight?), two of the mini-zoos six koalas. To our surprise, their fur is more like sheep’s wool, spongy and pleasant to touch. Four year-old Elvis can barely sit upright without nodding off. The keeper explains the eucalyptuses are so low in protein they have virtually no energy to stay awake.

Marsupial-petting is a controversial issue across Australia and some states no longer allow it. Queensland, fortunately, is one that does. Koala-cuddling is a useful exercise to remind people how vulnerable these docile creatures have become. As more and more of Australia is eaten up by mining, so their numbers have dwindled. With increasing urbanisation, koalas have declined from 2m 50 years ago to just 80,000 in the wild today. Sadly, they are on the brink of becoming an endangered species.

Outback Odyssey: The Great Barrier Reef (2) No longer wildlife averse? Our writer and a local marsupial

The koalas’ keeper is a fearless young woman called Rebecca, just returned from venomous snake training and about to start conservation work for a mining project. “The eastern brown snake and death adder were pretty scary but at least these venomous snakes seem to move slowly!” She explained how the world’s longest fence – the famous rabbit-proof fence – was erected in South Australia originally to stop dingoes from wandering into populated areas.

To gasps of horror from a small group of Australian visitors, she went to bring out two fully-grown dingoes that had previously been abandoned by their mother. She then told us it was OK to stroke them. The dingo-baby scandal has clearly dug deep into the Australian psyche as my wife and I were the only ones to come forward to do it.

Don’t be taken in by their pet-like qualities, Rebecca warned; dingoes are akin to wolves and she had once seen a pack of them bring down a horse. Now you tell us.

Read all Mark Skipworth's Outback Odyssey articles

1. The Outback Odyssey begins
2. Outback Odyssey: Welcome to Darwin
3. Outback Odyssey: Bush tucker in Litchfield National Park
4. Outback Odyssey: Into Kakadu
5. Outback Odyssey: Arnhem Land
6. Outback Odyssey: Going south on the Ghan Train
7. Outback Odyssey: The Barossa and Eden Valley
8. Outback Odyssey: The Great Barrier Reef
9. The end of an Outback Odyssey

Travel essentials


Located on the northernmost tip of Hamilton Island, one of 74 Whitsunday islands situated off the Queensland coast, qualia is a world-class hotel resort deserving all its recent accolades. Sixty private villas – or “pavilions” – have been modelled on Papua New Guinea long houses. All have sundecks, many with their own private pools, and unforgettable views of the tropical archipelago.

Breakfasts and gourmet dinners are, as you’d expect, presented to the highest standard while resort facilities include a main swimming pool, spa treatments, kayaks and golf (on the neighbouring Dent Island 18-hole course). Excursions to the Great Barrier Reef or Whitehaven Beach – voted one of the world’s most beautiful – can be included in two, three- or seven-night packages. There’s also a 45ft cruiser to explore nearby private beaches. Mrs Skip’s favourite accommodation (qualia.com.au).

Outback Odyssey: The Great Barrier Reef (3)


The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s finest natural wonders and one of Australia’s defining features. It stretches more than 2,500km, covers an area of nearly 350,000km, and contains thousands of individual islands and reefs that can even be seen from space. The reef is composed of four hundred species of coral 'polyps’ which create a haven for thousands of other species of marine life.

The reef’s unique environment has led to tourism in the form of scuba diving and trips in glass-bottomed boats. With climate change and threats from water pollution, management of the reef is now heavily controlled and ecotourism is fast developing.

One study has suggested that the reef has lost more than half of its corals since 1985, mostly in the last 15 years. Recent outbreaks of the massive Crown of Thorns starfish, which preys upon coral and has lost many of its natural predators from pollution, have raised further worries about the future of the reef and the potential effects on the mainland should it continue to diminish. If exploring from Hamilton Island, don’t miss the heart-shaped coral cluster on nearby Hardy Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef system – perfect for romantics!

Plan your trip of a lifetime to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

More of the world's natural wonders


This four-mile stretch of 99 per cent silica, pure-white sand on Whitsunday Island is Australia’s most photographed beach and has been named “No. 1 beach in Australia,” “No. 3 beach in the world,” and “the world’s top eco-friendly beach”.

Outback Odyssey: The Great Barrier Reef (4)

Day trips are available from Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour on the mainland as well as Hamilton Island. Helicopter and seaplane flights over the beach and Hill Inlet are also available for spectacular aerial viewing.

Best beaches in the world, according to Tripadvisor

TRAILFINDERS (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com) can put together a 17-night Ultimate Australia itinerary from £4,642 per person.

This price includes: Return international flights with Singapore Airlines (London to Darwin, Sydney to London); internal flights (Adelaide to Hamilton Island, Hamilton Island to Sydney). Three nights in each of the following locations: Darwin, Wildman Wilderness Lodge (inclusive of Darwin transfers), Adelaide, Barossa (inclusive of 4 days car hire) and qualia (inclusive of transfers). The Ghan – 3 days/2nights, Darwin to Adelaide. All prices are per person based on twin share and subject to availability. Price valid until November 15, 2013.

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