Island Camping in the Whitsunday Islands

Whitsunday Island with Dinghy

Getting ashore on an Island requires a dinghy…

To camp in the Whitsundays is to indulge in what many believe to be the ultimate camping experience – sleeping under the stars on a ‘desert isle’. There are many islands to choose from, and the final choice of site may depend on whether you wish to get away from it all, or to be more gregarious. The choice may also depend on a willingness to ‘rough it’ (with no facilities) or to have creature comforts such as picnic tables, a shelter, bush toilets, and possibly, in season, water at the site. Transport to the islands is another key factor.

Once you have selected a suitable campsite and arranged transport, a camping permit can be purchased several ways: first, by visiting the Queensland Government’s website (; by ringing the QPWS camping permits information line on 13 74 68; or call in at the QPWS headquarters (during normal office hours), corner Mandalay and Shute Harbour roads, Airlie Beach (about three kilometres out of Airlie Beach towards Shute Harbour). Once you have booked and paid for your permit, you will be given a booking number and issued a camping tent tag.

Getting to an island campsite
Ferry services that specialise in camper and kayaker drop-offs are the easiest option. They are used to dealing with the needs of campers and kayakers, and they usually have all the necessary equipment available for hire.

Get this information and more, such as campsite locations, getting to the islands and tropical tips in the latest edition of , 100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef – The Whitsunday Islands.

Camping Services

An Introduction to Walking in the Whitsundays

The islands of the Whitsundays have a significant number of tracks that reward walkers with spectacular views of this magic island group. Tracks range from gentle graded climbs through diverse bushland and across grasslands to scrambles up some of the highest promontories in the Whitsundays.

The Whitsunday Ngaro Sea Trail provides the ultimate experience for trekkers, yachtsmen, kayakers and campers to stretch their legs and appreciate some of the finest seascapes in the world and visit some of the oldest sites of human habitation on earth. The walking tracks within the Trail range in level of difficulty and length providing something for everyone.

Other walks can be found on Long Island, Brampton Island, Hamilton Island and Lindeman Island.

Boating in the Whitsundays

For complete information about boating in the Whitsundays, refer to the essential sailing guide for the area, 100 Magic Miles of the Great Barrier Reef – The Whitsunday Islands.

windybayAustralia’s finest cruising grounds, the Whitsundays, offer scores of protected anchorages each within easy reach of the next. The area has the largest bareboat charter fleet (power and sail) in the South Pacific. For those trailing runabouts or trailer sailers, there are a number of launching ramps along the coast from Mackay in the southern Whitsundays to Bowen at the extreme northern end of the area, with several located conveniently in the heart of the area at Shute Harbour, Airlie Beach, Abel Point and Shingley Beach.

Sailing conditions

South-east trade winds fan the Queensland coast from March-April to September-October providing exhilarating sailing conditions, frequently 15-20 knots in strength. From October onwards milder easterlies and north-easterlies are more common. The islands themselves and the Great Barrier Reef to the east create a relatively protected stretch of water (European discoverer James Cook referred to the Whitsunday Passage as “one continued safe harbour”). But when the winds are piping in, the phenomenon of ‘bullets’ (sharp gusts) may be experienced in some anchorages, and good anchoring technique is essential.


The Whitsundays are subject to 3–4 metre tides which, during times of maximum flood and ebb, create currents that accelerate through the narrow passages between the islands, and when the direction of the wind and tidal currents oppose each other, Whitsunday waters can sometimes be turbulent. Yachts plan their movements to take advantage of currents and to avoid bumpy passage making. The large rise and fall of the water level needs to be considered when anchoring a yacht.

Boating facilities

The area has four marinas, with others under construction.

Entrance lat./Long.
Mackay 21° 063’S, 149° 14.0’E 479 berths; full marine services; launching ramp
Laguna Whitsundays 20° 35’S, 148° 41.5’E Current Status Unknown
Hamilton Island 20° 20.8’S, 148° 56.8’E 230 berths; full marine services
Abell Point 20° 15.6’S, 148° 42.6’E 507 berths; full marine services; launching ramp

Hayman Island has a private marina available to those who are also staying at the resort.

trailer_sailorLaunching ramps are available at: the Mackay marina; at Victor Creek (just north-west of Seaforth, for access to the Newry Group and southern Whitsunday islands); at Laguna Whitsundays marina (access to the south-central islands); Shute Harbour (access to the central and northern islands); Airlie Beach/Abell Point/Port of Airlie (3 ramps, for access to the northern and central islands) and at Dingo Beach (access to the northern islands).

Water is generally available only at marina facilities in the Whitsundays.

Skippering a boat in the Whitsundays

Navigation is quite simple among the islands because there are so many prominent landmarks. The ability to interpret a nautical chart is really all that’s required. Anchoring is the most demanding task, and someone in the crew needs to how to set an anchor properly. Good anchoring technique is the key to peaceful, worry-free nights, particularly if fresh trade winds are causing sharp gusts (locally referred to as ‘bullets) to rush over island peaks and down into the anchorages. Those bringing their own boat to the Whitsundays, who may be familiar only with estuary cruising, should be sure that their anchor tackle is suitable for coral cruising, with an adequate length of chain and an anchor rope sufficiently thick to be comfortable to pull on. A lot of scope is sometimes necessary in the Whitsundays, and retrieving the anchor can be hard on the hands.

Introduction to Diving and Snorkelling in the Whitsundays

The many islands of the Cumberland Group with their fringing coral reefs offer a wide range of easily accessible sites for diving and snorkelling. It is possible to find somewhere that is protected in almost any weather, so that snorkelling and diving can be enjoyed virtually 365 days a year, even when Reef excursions elsewhere along the coast are being cancelled because of wind. For this reason the area has become a popular destination for both the novice and experienced diver. It is also a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, which lies about 34 nautical miles to the north-east of the Whitsunday mainland, about two hours or so by fast dive boat (or slightly longer in a motorised catamaran, which makes a few stops at island resorts on the way to and from the Reef). The fleet of charter boats that depart daily for the islands and the Reef offer a number of ways for snorkelling enthusiasts and divers to explore the underwater world. These include:

  • general day trips to the Great Barrier Reef aboard fast catamarans each capable of carrying over a hundred tourists and sightseers. These vessels tie up at a large pontoon permanently moored at the Reef, and guests are free to go snorkelling on their own or on guided tours; dive instructors on board organise scuba diving for both beginners and certified divers;
  • day trips to the islands aboard charter sailboats catering for general sightseers, with a bit of swimming, sunbaking, island exploring, snorkelling and, if arrangements are made in advance, diving for certified divers;
  • day trips to the islands aboard boats catering exclusively for divers and snorkellers, both experienced and inexperienced – a leisurely day with up to two dives at a fringing reef and plenty of snorkelling time;
  • day dive trips to the Great Barrier Reef aboard purpose-oriented dive boats; the program includes two dives – an ideal trip for the diver or keen snorkeller who wants top diving but has limited time;
  • dive trips of 1-5 nights duration to the Great Barrier Reef, with virtually unlimited diving, including night diving; these trips offer the best value for keen divers;
  • overnight trips to the islands for both diving and snorkelling as well as island exploration.

Certified divers should remember that it’s essential to carry your certification card with you or you will not be able to dive (other than as a beginner, with an instructor). It’s necessary to carry your log book as well.

How to Rent a Yacht in the Whitsundays

Bareboat yacht charter

bareboat_interiorBareboat means ‘You are the skipper, your friends the crew’, but these boats are anything but ‘bare’, usually being very well equipped. Both power boats and sail boats with auxiliary engines are available, ranging in length from about 7 metres (containing 4 berths) up to 15 metres (10 berths). As a rule of thumb, for maximum comfort, the crew should number two fewer than the maximum number of berths on the yacht.

How to go about a bareboat charter

Bareboat charter bookings are best made directly with the charter company but in some cases may be made through a travel agent. A deposit is required at the time of booking, which is held until the completion of the charter. The balance of the charter fee is usually payable 60 days before the charter begins. Travel insurance is recommended in case it is necessary to cancel.

How much experience is necessary?

Prospective charterers need no formal qualifications. For your own peace of mind someone in the crew should have some experience handling a boat. The crew is given a briefing and checkout aboard the yacht before setting off, at which time the skipper will need to demonstrate that he or she can handle the vessel. The charter company may request that a professional skipper go along for a day or two (at the charterer’s expense) if there is doubt about the competence of the skipper and crew.

How long to charter?

Charters are measured in nights aboard the vessel. They usually begin at midday, and the first afternoon is largely taken up with briefing and being checked out aboard the yacht. The first night will therefore be spent at, or close to, the port of departure (most companies insist that yachts are anchored by 4.00 pm due to the difficulty of seeing fringing reefs when the sun is at a low angle). Charters end on the morning of the final day, so the last night out needs to be spent at an anchorage not too far from home base. So, out of a week’s charter, this leaves five nights of real freedom of choice of anchorages, making a seven-night charter the practical minimum if one is to have enough time to see something of the area without imitating a road-runner.

What type of boats are available?

Charter vessels come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Monohulls (one hull) and Catamarans (two hulls) are available as either sailboats or motorboats. Sailboats are a fun way to experience the peace and tranquility of the area – though not as fast as motor boats, they can’t always cover as much distance in a day. Catamarans offer more space than monohulls, though some people prefer the motion of a monohull in a seaway. Ultimately the choice comes down to personal preference and budget. Most charter companies can provide detailed specifications of their available choices.


A typical sailing monohull charter yacht


A typical sailing catamaran charter yacht


A typical charter motor cruiser


A typical charter motor catamaran


A cruising itinerary

The central group of islands are within easy reach of the mainland and island charter bases, and these islands offer many choices of anchorages which have appeal for different reasons; for example, some offer excellent snorkelling, some offer fishing, some have good beaches for swimming, some have resorts. Beware of being too ambitious in drawing up an itinerary. Everyone always wants to see as much of the islands as possible, but just as spending only one night in each city on a world trip can prove exhausting, going to a different anchorage every night may defeat the purpose of a truly relaxing holiday. In practice it’s nice to stay a few nights at some destinations to get into the relaxed rhythm of life aboard, doing only what’s necessary to survive and not thinking about moving on to the next port straight away.

The central islands are the most popular, having the pick of the all-weather anchorages. The southern islands are less frequently visited and may appeal to those seeking greater solitude.

Several of the islands have resorts, some of which welcome visitors in boats provided they register prior to arrival and pay a mooring fee. In most cases this fee gives you the keys to the resort facilities. A stopover at a resort can be a pleasant break in a cruise, making a land-fall and having a night out.

Charter costs

The costs of a bareboat charter include the hire of the yacht, food, marine park fee, and perhaps a few extras, such as mooring fees when visiting an island resort. Charter companies offer a complete provisioning service which takes all the work and worry out of procuring food and planning meals. Several standards of provisioning, from ‘basic’ to ‘gourmet’, are available. Alternatively, charterers can do all the shopping and loading the food aboard themselves, which takes time out of the holiday, or they can provide a shopping list in advance and have the company buy to order (for which a service fee is charged). The cost of a bareboat holiday can become relatively inexpensive if the cost of hiring the boat is divided among a number of crew.

Crewed charters

ragamuffinFor anyone who doesn’t want the responsibility of skippering a yacht on their own, crewed charter vessels operate in the Whitsundays. These vessels come with a licensed skipper and assistant, who run the boat and pamper their guests. Sometimes the guests wish to take over the sailing and decision making, in which case the professional skipper and assistant are usually quite willing to simply become part of the crew. For some charterers this situation offers the best of both worlds being able to skipper the boat themselves while being free of some of the restrictions (and responsibilities) under which bareboat charterers operate, such as the limited charter area (which does not include the Barrier Reef), the need to be anchored by 4.00 pm, and so on.

Another variation on the theme is hiring a bareboat and arranging to have a professional skipper as well, in which case the charterer pays the normal costs of the bareboat plus the additional fee for the skipper and his/her food.