For a few moments, it seems perfectly normal that I’d be woken by the sound of a bottle bin being emptied. So annoying.
Only – and it takes me a few sleepy beats to remember – I’m on a tiny island. There are no busy urban garbos here. Stepping out of my tent, I realise the racket is in fact coming from a rather large green turtle hauling its shell over chunks of coral and down towards the water.
She’s not my usual class of campsite neighbour but I’m on Wilson Island, a picturesque coral cay in Queensland’s Capricornia Cays National Park. Part of the southern Great Barrier Reef, the island had been closed for five years before its reopening in November 2019. Now, with its pale sand, thatch of trees and surrounding reef, it looks straight out of Central Casting. About 8000 green turtles (and, less frequently, loggerhead turtles) nest on the islands around here between October and early April, laying their eggs and covering them with sand before lurching back down to the sea. They can do this up to eight times in one nesting season and at the time I visit, Wilson hosts as many as 40 turtles every night; the sand is streaked with what I’d thought were ATV tracks. City brain again.
Turtles have a perpetually unimpressed expression but to me, everything about this one’s face and body language is saying, “Oh, for goodness sake.” She’s taken a wrong turn somewhere. Her tracks show how far she’s travelled after laying and she now looks much like I would if I’d crawled up a beach, squeezed out 100-odd eggs and dragged myself on my elbows the wrong way across a two-hectare island. Now she’s emerged here, only to be faced with sharp rocks. After many exhausted pauses and silent urging from me (“You’re doing great, girl! Twelve out of 10!”), she reaches the water and does a turtle version of collapse before finally swimming off to freedom.
Off the grid
Like my commando-crawling new friend, I’m immersing myself in the full beauty of Wilson, experiencing an enforced switch-off courtesy of the lack of phone coverage and very limited wi-fi. I’ll want to revisit this feeling back home so one of the very few digital things I bother with is taking snaps of my feet in a perfectly placed hammock against the bluewater backdrop of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a treat to discover the pleasures of focusing only on the sound of waves, the waft of a cool breeze and the sight of seabirds wheeling and plunging into a ball of baitfish.
The seabirds here are impossible to ignore. Between September and May, every fork of pisonia, pandanus and octopus bush seems to contain a black noddy tern perched on a tiny nest of dried leaves gummed together with its own guano. Wouldn’t seem like a great option if you were a bird yet they disagree in staggering numbers. “There can be up to 70,000 noddies on Wilson and 120,000 on Heron Island,” co-host Bec Sheridan told me just after I’d stepped off the boat from Heron, 40 minutes away and 80 kilometres offshore from Gladstone, marvelling at their prevalence.
These noddies, along with the multitude of slow-moving turtles clearly visible on the beach in the moonlight, start to feel like reassuring companions. After all, I have precious few of the human type here. The island hosts a maximum of 18 guests in nine tents that are far too glamorous to be considered camping. Each has a glorious king-size bed with cool linen, a freestanding hammock and comfy chairs set on an elevated deck for spotting rays and turtles cruising the fringing reef. Shoes are optional here (though you might want flip-flops to head to the communal loos with your torch at night).
Dinner and a show
Over dinner in the open-air long house – scallops with chorizo and black-garlic purée, rump steak with roast veg and pepper jus, homemade churros; all produced from the giant Ziegler & Brown barbecue by capable chef Andrew, Bec’s husband – I learn those viewing decks can sometimes harbour surprise visitors. “About 5am we were woken up by sand and rocks flicking everywhere,” recounts fellow guest Mataya Muchow. She and husband Craig run a mechanic business in Maryborough and left their three kids with Grandma for the child-free peace on this paradise – peace disrupted by, naturally, a turtle. “She was just right there, laying her eggs! It was amazing.”
Every so often our convivial chat, aided by a chilled rosé, is punctuated by a wedgetailed shearwater waddling under our feet. These seafarers journey from the northern hemisphere to nest here in their thousands and Wilson is closed in February and March during hatching season. While adept in the air, on land they look as clumsy as drunken ducks and the keen vision that lets them pinpoint fish from above doesn’t seem to allow them to distinguish between, say, a sandal-clad foot and the entrance to their burrow.
Then there’s their nocturnal noise. The only other electronic effort I make is to record their unearthly calls when I briefly wake at 2am. Like an orchestra of mournful vuvuzelas, it’s a weirdly soothing soundtrack that lulls me back to sleep.
Obviously – purported bottle bins or an espresso from the long house’s Jura machine aside – the best way to wake yourself up here is to hit the water. If you’re not strapping on a snorkel and mask within steps of your deck, you risk missing the Great Barrier Reef in extreme close-up. The vibrant colours and life of the reef are so near here, it’s mere seconds before you’ll find a lively, bustling landscape of staghorn and plate coral, striking butterfly fish and busy schools of iridescent-blue damselfish that appear to turn yellow when they all change direction. A large turtle passes just metres in front of me, followed by a juvenile. I’m relieved not to meet the regular blacktips and lemon sharks but am charmed by a bossy little parrot fish who chases all fishy comers away from its patch in the bowl of a huge boulder-coral bommie. Then it swims towards me with what looks like a benign, quokka-like smile. Is that even possible? A fish that smiles?
In this place, sure. Twelve out of 10.