A reader’s story about their trip to Lady Elliot, just south of the Great Barrier Reef

AT Reader Michael “Blake” Roet takes time out from his Melbourne office to rough it on the tiny island paradise of Lady Elliot in the southern Great Barrier Reef.

 

My visit to Lady Elliot Island started with a sprint from my office to catch a flight from Melbourne to Sydney, where I was joining a connecting flight to Hervey Bay. After running to the check-in counter, I just managed to make the flight and slumped into my seat, exhausted but eager to totally escape the rat race, if only for a week.

When I finally emerged at Hervey Bay airport the sun was out and, with a couple of cooling beverages under my belt, things were definitely looking up. After a few hours relaxing in the sun I boarded the light plane for the flight to Lady Elliot. We’d flown for about 40 minutes when, not having sighted land since we left the coast, I started to get the feeling the pilot may have become suicidal and was just flying out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean to permanently avoid a bad marriage or excessive mortgage payments. Then suddenly a tiny speck of land appeared on the horizon and my excitement started to build.

As the island came into view I was amazed at how small it was, with the airstrip carving this little isolated atoll in two. On one side were the bungalows, permanent tented accommodation, the dining area and the lagoon; on the other a lighthouse, boat ramp and staff quarters. Scattered among these dwellings were low-lying scrub and a sparse coverage of trees, where terns and other birds seek refuge on their long travels across the Pacific.

I disembarked, thanked the clearly non-suicidal pilot, and was given a quick tour of the facilities before being led to my tent, which faced the lagoon and an amazing view. Now, Lady Elliot is by no means a five star, spa-oriented, luxury resort for investment bankers and the beautiful people with facials at four, cocktails at six and a selection of fine dining. The bungalows are basic motel-style rooms, the tents aren’t what you’d find on an Abercrombie & Kent African safari, and the dining room would definitely not be considered for a Michelin award. Ask the barman for Krug and he’ll think you’re referring to one of the many Europeans attracted to the island. But, given the location, activities, fresh local seafood and the price, it is an oasis for those seeking a unique, affordable and adventurous experience on top of one of the great wonders of the world. I’d definitely come to the right place.

Excited by what the week ahead held, I retired to a chair at the front of my tent to catch my breath and relax. I immediately noticed the silence and the cool sea breeze. In the space of six hours I’d bolted from my office in Melbourne and was now in one of the most isolated spots in Australia.

As I crave such isolation to compensate for the daily pressures of modern urban living, a huge smile soon spread across my face and I reached for a good book and switched to Lady Elliot time.

For the next seven days I scuba dived twice a day, both off the beach and from one of the dive boats that ferry you to the outlying reefs and various shipwrecks nearby. For scuba divers, the experiences are unparalleled, with the surrounding reefs teeming with Manta rays, sharks, turtles, large pelagic fish, shipwrecks and stunning coral formations. You can either scuba or snorkel out through the fringe reefs and be virtually guaranteed to see one of the resident Manta rays circling the island at great speed – as though there’s an underwater race track – with the green turtles coming into shore creating the only traffic hazards. During these expeditions I usually also encountered numerous reef sharks, cruising contented among the rich sea life inhabiting the bommies and reefs; they’re so well fed they paid me no attention (although I later discovered there are also numerous large and presumably well fed Tiger Sharks around, as the pilot pointed out to me when we flew off the island).

After diving each day I enjoyed siestas, walked around the island at dusk and caught up on all those books I’d purchased during the last six months that had collected dust next to my bed. During one of my late afternoon strolls I spied a small group of people huddled together looking excitedly towards the crashing surf. There, emerging from the sea, was a female green turtle labouring up the beach to dig a nest and lay her eggs. On another of my wanderings before dusk I noticed splashing near the shore ahead of me, by what appeared to be a school of fish. There were fish there, but I soon realised they were being consumed by a school of juvenile reef sharks thrashing in the water less than one metre from the sand on which I stood. There are few places either in Australia – or anywhere else in the world – where you can sit back, relax and watch such a spectacle take place right in front of you.

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