History, Culture and Background
Early European landings
Until just 250 years ago, the mystique and magnificence of the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef had been known only to a small number of nomadic Aborigines. The first official record of a European landing on the Australian continent came in 1605 when Dutch navigator Willem Janzsoon sailed into what is now the Gulf of Carpentaria, sighted its western coastline, and went ashore to explore an unknown land. However, it is suggested by some historians that in 1522 or thereabouts, Portuguese seafarer Cristόvão de Mendonça sailed through Torres Strait, in the north, and down the entire east coast of Australia. No actual record of the voyage has ever been found, and there is no indication as to the fate of Mendonça, his ship, or the two others that supposedly made up the convoy. However, a very old drawing that has been located in France is believed to recognise the voyage, primarily because the outline can be likened to Australia’s eastern coastline and there are references that relate to the natural features.
Cook’s voyage of discovery
Advance one’s mind 250 years from the days of Mendonça, to a time when the Aborigines of the Ngaro tribe were living off the land and sea while sheltering in caves and bark huts on the islands and mainland of what is now known as the Whitsundays. One day they looked out across the blue-green waters that enveloped their lives and saw an unidentifiable object; something of remarkable proportions that was way beyond their comprehension. Until that day their own mode of water transport was by dugout canoe or raft, but here, before their disbelieving eyes, was something one thousand times larger than what they knew, and it was being propelled by the wind.
They were observing the English bark, HMS Endeavour, and aboard it as master was the legendary explorer and navigator, Captain James Cook, who was in the process of discovering and charting the east coast of Australia. To put this time into perspective in world history, this was some 150 years after the Pilgrims had arrived and settled in America, and only six years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, yet this particular part of planet Earth was not known to exist. The theory that there was a large southern continent in the Pacific had been promoted for centuries but not proven, and in a bid to put an end to the speculation the King of England, George III, commissioned Cook to – among other things – make a thorough search for a possible undiscovered landmass somewhere in the Pacific.
The first Whitsunday cruise
After discovering New Zealand, Cook was sailing to the west aboard Endeavour when, on what he
calculated to be Thursday, 19 April, he sighted land.
He named it Point Hicks, and soon it would be realised that it was the south-eastern corner of the ‘Great Southern Land’. From there he turned his ship to starboard and commenced a passage to the north, first anchoring and landing at Botany Bay, 26 kilometres (16 miles) south of where Sydney is located today. He continued to parallel the coast to the north and by the time he reached what are now the Whitsunday Islands, Endeavour had more than 1,200 nautical miles in her wake since land was first sighted.
Cook’s calendar told him it was Sunday, 3 June, 1770 – the day Whit Sunday is celebrated on the Christian calendar – when his ship entered a broad expanse of water which provided an unimpeded passage to the north, so accordingly he named it ‘Whitsunday Passage’. In reality the date was Monday, 4 June, an understandable error when it is realised that Cook, like so many other navigators of the day, had not made the necessary change to the date when Endeavour had earlier crossed the 180th meridian of longitude.
Cook and his crew were amazed by what they were observing – some 150 tropical islands spanning near one degree of latitude and in close proximity to the coast.
Cook blanketed the group with the name Cumberland Isles, but as time passed those islands adjacent to the Whitsunday Passage became more commonly known as ‘The Whitsundays’.
The Ngaro people
As Endeavour continued on her course through the island-studded Whitsunday Passage at a leisurely four knots, Cook embraced the beauty of the region, noting in his log: ‘Everywhere good anchorages, indeed the whole passage is one continued safe harbour.’ He also recorded the presence of the local Aborigines: ‘On one of the islands we discovered with our glasses two men and a woman, and a canoe with an outrigger, which appeared to be larger and of a construction very different from those of bark tied together at the ends, which we had seen upon other parts of the coast.’
Later in the day, when the outline of Endeavour was a fading image on the northern horizon, the Ngaro people returned to their everyday lifestyle; one that would remain unchanged for almost 100 years. The islands and the waters around them had, from time immemorial, provided a bounty of food and ideal opportunities for shelter for these people. In recent decades archaeologists have found evidence that the Ngaro people settled in the region around 8,000 years ago. They have based their theory on the analysis of middens – large piles of discarded shells, bones, charcoal and rocks that are
the remnants of their cooking and meals – which have been found on the islands and nearby mainland. Middens found in Nara Inlet, on Hook Island in the Whitsundays, confirmed Aborigines were there at least 2,500 years ago and revealed a diet of a wide variety of seafood, including small whales, turtles and shellfish. They also consumed some of the fauna, such as marsupials, snakes and lizards, plus birds.
Flinders maps out Australia
It was more than 15 years after the British established the first European settlement on what was to become known as Australia – the convict settlement of Sydney in 1788 – that the outside world revisited the territory around the Whitsundays. This was when the daring explorer, Matthew Flinders, sailed by while undertaking the incredible task of circumnavigating the entire continent and surveying as much of it as possible. He had been made well aware of the existence of the reef and islands by another of the world’s great seafarers and explorers, Captain William Bligh, having served under him as a lieutenant aboard HMS Providence in 1791 on a voyage from England to Tahiti and return. During his circumnavigation of Australia, Flinders actually walked on the reefs which he referred to as the ‘Extensive Barrier Reefs’ when he was off the coast of Queensland, and this reference is believed to have contributed to the adoption of the name, the Great Barrier Reef. Even more importantly, having completed his remarkable voyage around the continent, Flinders strongly advanced the notion that the entire landmass should be called Australia, and that it was. It was the mid-1800s when the first pioneering European settlers came from the south and settled the coastal region of the Whitsundays. They were mainly timber-getters, graziers and sugarcane farmers, and it wasn’t long before they made their way east to the coast where they discovered for themselves the true beauty of the islands. Some were so impressed by the grasslands and forests on the islands that they applied for grazing leases for them.
Tourism takes off
Tourism arrived in the 1920s when galvanised iron huts appeared on some islands and along parts of the coast to accommodate locals and holidaymakers who came from the inland (the ‘outback’) and the south.The small, charming coastal village of Airlie Beach appeared on the map in 1936, but it was not until the 1970s that the identity of the Whitsundays moved strongly towards tourism. That was when the first significant yacht charter companies began to operate out of nearby Shute Harbour.
The birth of a tropical island resort
The real boom arrived in the early 1980s with the development of the gateway to the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef: Hamilton Island. In the mid-1970s when the high profile Queensland tourism entrepreneur, Keith Williams, was enjoying a cruise through the Whitsundays aboard his large motor yacht, he noticed an island on the port side that he’d not seen before. It was Hamilton Island, and what impressed him most was that it had one of the very few north-facing beaches to be found anywhere on the east coast of Australia. He made some inquiries about the island, and within a very short time he and business associate Bryan Byrt had purchased the grazing lease that gave them ownership of the entire five-square kilometre (two-square mile) island. Sadly, Byrt passed away in 1978, so after that setback Williams abandoned plans for establishing a grazing property on the island, instead deciding to turn it into an exciting tourist destination. He built a commercial airport, harbour and resort from scratch and by the early 1980s he could lay claim to Hamilton Island being Australia’s premier tropical island resort destination.
The Oatley era begins
It was when Keith Williams was in the early stages of the development of his resort that noted Australian winemaker Bob Oatley was cruising through the islands aboard a yacht and just happened to sail past Hamilton Island: ‘I didn’t go ashore, but I could recognise the potential of the island,’ Oatley said. ‘It was the very early days of the development; they were building the airstrip and the harbour at the time, and there was a lot of activity going on. I remember saying “what a great project that is,” never thinking that one day I’d be the owner.’ Bob Oatley and his family purchased Hamilton Island in 2003 and, following an exceptional investment and development programme, they now present a world-class destination that promises leisure, lifestyle, adventure and escape in a region of incredible natural beauty.