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.

An easy 9km paddle around the northern tip of Whitsunday Island leads you into Hook Passage, the narrow expanse of water between Whitsunday and Hook Islands. Directly off Hook Island Resort, a run-down affair in a picturesque setting, the snorkelling in the passage is superb. Towering above, the knobby head of Whitsunday Cairn entices hikers with its promise of spectacular views; find the trailhead on Whitsunday’s Cairn Beach directly across the water from the resort and begin the steep 2km hike through rainforest, open woodland and groves of giant grasstrees. The hoop pine’s distinctive radiating branches jut above the treetops and, far below, the sea spreads indigo fingers into rocky bays. A cool dip after the hike followed by a restorative cold beer at Hook Island Resort will fuel you for the 6km paddle around the point to the lovely Curlew Beach campsite on Hook Island. As with most of the beach campsites plan a high tide arrival to glide onto soft sand or face a long haul across sharp coral and mud flats. During the night, the mournful wail of a curlew bird may wake you, its eerie cry seeming to echo voices from the past. In the morning, a 6km paddle around the headland will take you deep inside Nara Inlet (the next bay on Hook Island) to the Ngaro Cultural Site, where archaeologists have dated the cave paintings and middens (discarded shells and bones) found here to 500 BC.

The trail’s most challenging hike is accessed from Sawmill Beach on the western shore of Whitsunday Island, 13km south of Curlew Beach. From coastal vine forest and mangroves, the trail traverses rainforest gullies strung with hanging strangler figs, climbs through windblown heaths and emerges through a cloud forest of palms to Whitsunday Peak. At 437m, it is the highest peak in the Whitsunday archipelago and offers superb 360-degree views over the islands and the mainland. Middens on the shores of Cid Harbour below reveals the prominence of the region for the indigenous people. Undoubtedly, many thousands of years ago, the Ngaro people climbed the peak and stood at the summit. And perhaps, in 1770, British explorer Captain James Cook, the first European to discover, map and name the Whitsunday islands, may have sent one of his party to climb the peak and scope the land. According to local legend, Cid Island (located directly opposite the trail access at Sawmill Beach) was named for Captain Cook’s dog -- supposedly buried at sea by being shot out of a cannon.

Although campsites can be found all along the western shore of Whitsunday Island, Joe’s Beach, 5km south of Sawmill Beach, has a true castaway feel. After days of kayaking, bathing in the ocean and sleeping under the stars, the islands bewitch with their simple yet seductive treasures: waking to the music of waves lapping the shore, palm fronds rustling in the breeze; finding an exquisitely delicate seashell on a deserted beach; and gazing at sunset’s riotous palette of reds and golds or the night sky’s star-studded glory.

From Joe’s Beach, Sandy Bay, the final campsite on the west side of South Molle Island, is a 16km paddle west across the Whitsunday Passage. The relatively exposed waters of the passage can be choppy and dangerous; leave early in the morning before the wind picks up. Of the campsites available on South Molle Island, Sandy Bay is the most popular. The beach is a white expanse of dead coral, sharp underfoot, but its campsites are grassy and lined with coastal she-oak trees .

Although South Molle is smaller than both Hook and Whitsunday, the island offers more than 10km of walking tracks. The 4.2km trail from Sandy Bay to the lookout at Spion Kop passes through thick grassland and rolling hills, and is one of the island’s longest hikes. Close to Spion Kop, a stone quarry spills across the track where you can search through the stones to find the remnants of flint spearheads and knife-blades made by the Ngaro people thousands of years ago. If supplies are running low, Adventure Island Resort, tucked into a bay in the island’s northeast, has cold beers and creamy cocktails.

A final 5km paddle back to Shute Harbour on the mainland brings the journey to an end.

Salty Dog Sea Kayaking
at Shute Harbour offers kayak hire and guided tours. You can begin and end the paddling trip from Shute Harbour, or book transport with Scamper, the landing craft, to or from any island campsite.

Basic campsites, only accessible by boat, are well spaced around the islands. Sandy coves, swaying palms and tropical sunsets welcome paddlers and sailors, though sites are limited and camping permits are required. The Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sports and Racing has information on camping sites and walking tracks in the Whitsunday Islands National Park, as well as maps of the Ngaro Sea Trail.

From July to October, the weather is perfect for kayaking, with calm water, little rain, mild temperatures and no deadly marine stingers (such as the box jellyfish and the irukandji). The turquoise ocean hides a stunning underwater garden, and snorkelling the fringing reef around the islands is on a par with snorkelling the outer reef.

After a week as an island drifter, the Whitsundays mainland hub of Airlie Beach, 10km northwest from Shute Harbour, has all the food, drink and entertainment to satisfy a castaway’s dream.