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A chain of 74 islands in the opal-jade waters of the Coral Sea, Australia’s Whitsunday Islands are famous for their sugar-sand beaches, island resorts and sailing holidays. But one of the best ways to explore the natural beauty and cultural history of this tropical paradise is by kayaking and hiking the scenic Ngaro Sea Trail, opened 2011, which follows the ancient pathways of the indigenous Ngaro people.

Blending seaways with a range of hikes on three of the Whitsunday, islands (Hook, Whitsunday and South Molle), the trail has no single defined route, and is accessible at any point by private, charter or commercial boat. However, if you have a hint of Robinson Crusoe in your genes, a weeklong self-guided kayaking trip is a magical way to experience the area (guided tours are also available). Sleeping under the stars in rustic beach campsites and exploring the forested domes of these drowned mountains blends history and nature in an unforgettable sea-to-summit trail.

The seafaring Ngaro people have inhabited the Whitsunday area for the past 9,000 years, making it one of the oldest known Aboriginal sites on Australia’s east coast. Due to a lack of permanent freshwater on most of the islands, it is likely the Ngaro lived in mainland Australia, venturing across the sea on canoes made from three diamond-shaped pieces of bark bound together with fibrous roots. They fished with woven grass nets or hooks made from shells, and used harpoons of wood and bone to hunt dugong and turtles.

Instead of bark canoes, today you can hire sturdy sea kayaks, and in place of fishing nets, pack enough food and water to last a week. An excellent place to start the trip is from Whitehaven Beach on the east coast of Whitsunday Island; to get there, load your gear and kayaks aboard Scamper, the local landing craft that regularly transports kayakers and campers between Shute Harbour on the mainland and the islands.

The initial sight of Whitehaven Beach is breathtaking. Of the numerous pristine beaches and secluded bays on the islands, Whitehaven stands out for its 7km strip of pure white silica sand. It is undoubtedly the finest beach in the archipelago, and possibly one of the finest in the world.

The same powdery sand also lines the northern beaches of the facing island, Haslewood. From Whitehaven these beaches are an enjoyable 6km paddle away, and the blue topaz waters close to shore are ideal for snorkelling.

The Coral Sea teems with marine life: giant clams, sea anemones, schools of rainbow-coloured fish, painted tube and staghorn coral inhabit the underwater garden. Reef sharks, manta rays and loggerhead turtles can also be seen; dolphins play in the water and even dugong live here. Unfortunately, you may also see the infamous crown-of-thorns starfish, a spiky sea creature that is slowly destroying the Great Barrier Reef’s amazing coral gardens.

At the northern end of Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet is a spectacular, swirling melange of clear water and dazzling white sand. Fine sediment suspended in the water scatters sunlight, creating its famous shade of blue, while turtles and stingrays are clearly visible gliding along the sandy floor.

Leaving popular Whitehaven Beach, paddle towards Peter Bay, 19km north on Whitsunday Island, where you may see a sea eagle gracefully plucking dinner from the ocean and perhaps a humpback whale breaching the surface. Plan to arrive at high tide  when Peter Bay’s golden fringe of sand and intimate beachfront campsite is brochure-perfect; arriving at low tide means an unpleasant haulage over 400m of mud flats and small sharp rocks.

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