Right off the tourist map, in fact hard to see on any map, Cairn Beach campground is the perfect base for watery Whitsundays adventures. There’s even a bunch of paddle-in campsites nearby so you can get further into it. If the weather doesn’t co-operate, try snorkelling or spearfishing — it’s wet underwater anyway!
- Secluded beach camping
- Sleeping under the stars
- Breathtaking views at the top of Whitsunday Cairn
- Stunning coral and marine life at your doorstep
- Kayaking, SUPing, hiking, snorkelling, fishing
Playing In The Whitsundays
The Whitsundays has got to be the ultimate adventure playground. With stunning coral and marine life at your doorstep and hikes galore always around the corner, there’s actually no need to choose your own adventure on Whitsunday Island. Here, you can do them all.
That’s why this island paradise was an obvious choice for a getaway when a group of us planned a kayak and camping trip through the Whitsunday Islands to escape the 9-to-5 for six glorious days. (Some of those days ended up not-so-glorious.)
Here’s what you have to look forward to if you’re willing to pass on the typical sailing tour, and dive right into the experience instead.
Basecamp: Cairn Beach Campground, Whitsunday Island
Located on the top end of Whitsunday Island, Cairn Beach campground is a stunning little campsite on the water that sleeps only 12 people (make sure you book ahead online or by phone with Queensland National Parks).
There are a handful of sites with tables along the path to the outhouse (with only 3 walls and no roof, this one is an outdoor experience in itself). But if you’re lucky, you can snag a spot right on the beach in a more secluded clearing.
Cairn Beach really does have it all; snorkelling, fishing, spearfishing, hiking, paddle-boarding — you name it. Plus, it’s located smack bang between our other desired paddling destinations on Hook and Whitsunday Islands. This is the ultimate basecamp.
Ok, in all honesty – our kayaking itinerary was derailed last minute by an incoming cyclone but this was the original plan:
Choosing Cairn Beach campground as a central spot to leave our more bulky items, we would start off with the approximately 3 hour paddle to Crayfish Beach on Hook Island for what’s supposed to be some of the best snorkelling in the Whitsundays.
From Crayfish we would glide through the stunning Nari’s Inlet on the way back to Cairn Beach campground. Another day we would paddle around the eastern coastline of Whitsunday Island to the starting point of the Whitsunday Peak hike at Sawmill Beach, then paddle for roughly 1 hour more to spend the night at Nari’s Beach, which looked a bit more picturesque than neighbouring Dugong camp spot.
But if you get screwed over with the winds like we did, still try and take a kayak and SUP along for some more relaxed paddles around the bay. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see straight down from your kayak to the colourful coral beneath — parrot fish and ‘Nemos’ swimming to and fro.
Snorkelling, Fishing & Spearfishing
Cairn Beach itself is a beautiful snorkel spot and is also one of the few areas where fishing and spearfishing are allowed.
The good thing about snorkelling and spearfishing is that it’s a rain or shine activity — fish actually like the water, funnily enough. But depending on the direction of the wind and the currents, try exploring further down the coastline off of Cairn Beach. You might find some more sheltered parts of the coastline and hidden coral bommies, making for some great spearfishing.
After all, camping is made that much more enjoyable when you have freshly caught fish to cook up for dinner on the beach.
Pro Tip: Never forget your snorkel and your fishing spear when you go for a kayak! You might not be able to resist jumping off the boat to get a little closer. In our case, we were rewarded with spotting a couple of turtles and even a harmless reef shark right in front of Cairn Beach.
Hiking Whitsunday Cairn
Whitsunday Cairn has got to be one of the most underrated hikes in the Whitsundays, and good news for you, the trail begins just 100m down the beach from Cairn Beach campground (a sign clearly points the way).
It’s 2km each way and well marked. The National Parks website recommends you allow 4 hours for it, but even with a long stop at the top it only took us about 2.5 hours return.
Prepare for a hot and sweaty ascent through lush green forest and a view from the top that’s something else. 360° views of the surrounding islands, hidden beaches and stunning turquoise water stretch ahead for miles. The imposing Cairn towers beside you — a magnificent rock framing the masterpiece below.
With only a handful of other people at this campsite, chances are you’ll have it all to yourself.
While Cairn Beach campground doesn’t often make top 10 lists for the Whitsundays, this hidden gem lying at the cusp of a stunning adventure playground is definitely one not to miss.
- Water to last the whole trip (if you travel to the island with Scamper boat transfers, you won’t go thirsty. They’ll provide you with 5L of water per person per day)
- Camping gear and camping permit
- Fishing and spearfishing gear
- Snorkel gear
- Kayaks — keep in mind you’ll want a closed sea kayak for some of those open water stretches. Don’t have these? Salty Dogs can hook you up.
- Lots of very strong insect repellent (Nature’s Botanical is a great natural version)
- Dry bags to keep your gear nice and dry
- Stinger suit to protect from the, uh, stingers
- Good walking shoes
- A cell phone with service so you can keep in touch with Scamper about your drop-off and pick-up time (Telstra is the best in this area)
- Note: you can rent most of your camping and snorkeling gear from Scamper if in need. Check out their prices here.
Extra Tip: If the cyclone holds off long enough, it’s likely Scamper will be coming back and forth over the next few days to transfer other adventure seekers to this island paradise. Take this opportunity and pre-arrange with them to drop you off some fresh bags of ice on their way to keep your storm-watching beverages nice and cool to the lips.
How To Get There
From Near: Pack all your gear into a spacious vehicle and drive for as many hours as you need to get to Shute Harbour (marina), which is just another 10 minutes drive south of Airlie Beach, Queensland.
If you’re camping (and/or kayaking), the best way to get directly to Cairn Beach campground on Whitsunday Island is by booking a round trip boat transfer with Scamper. They’ll take you, your gear, your kayaks and paddleboards to Cairn Beach and back for $155/person.
Cairn Beach campground is a bit more remote than some of the more accessible islands like South Molle Island and this bumps up the cost of the transfer a bit. But when you’re paying just $6.35 a night to camp in a secluded island paradise surrounded by coral reef, you can bet your next paycheck it’ll be worth it.
From Far: The closest airport to Shute Harbour (and Airlie Beach) is Proserpine Airport. From there you can book a cheap shuttle to take you straight to the marina for about $20/per person. Instead of booking a taxi, save those extra dollars for a big feed and cold drink when you make it back to Airlie Beach feeling damp, dirty, and hankering for some good old greasy grub. (Camping meals are great and all, but…)
You will struggle to get much bulky camping gear to the islands without teaming up with mates travelling by car but it’s possible if you forego chairs and beach shades, do your grocery shopping before your flight, and pack really lightweight, compact meals that will fit nicely into your checked bag.