Suddenly, the cumulus clouds that have obliterated the view of the coastline since Noosa divide, as if hit by the mallet of some furious god of tourism. Bang, the puffy white sacks clear out of the way for the last 20 minutes of the flight to Lady Elliot Island. Revealed are the calm, deep blue waters surrounding the southernmost part of the Great Barrier Reef, interrupted only by a bare-poled yacht drifting on the tide.
Our 13-seat Cessna Caravan is packed with Japanese tourists who boarded at the Gold Coast, plus a trio of Poms and me, who opted to pick up the flight at Redcliffe. They took off at 6.30am, we left at 7.30 and by nine, all are craning their necks to watch the coral cay emerge from the sea. White water beats over the reef that forms the lagoon out front of the island's resort, and the deep blue gives way to a multitude of lighter blues and greens.
It's that off-white stripe traversing the island that the pilot is interested in as he lines up the 600-metre airstrip of crushed coral and grass. Other islands in the Great Barrier Reef have airstrips but this is the only one built on a cay, the whole thing bulldozed into existence within 24 hours in 1969. The bulldozing was simple compared with getting the heavy machinery to the Island, 80km off Bundaberg: one of the monsters fell off the barge during its rough crossing.
The plane descends and before long we're bumping over land and heading towards water again, bringing most of us as close as we'll ever come to landing on an aircraft carrier. With just five hours to explore the island, our tour guide Allan Jones has us out of the aircraft, across the strip, into the resort grounds and trying on flippers and snorkels within minutes.
It's a low-key resort set on one side of the 42ha island, with lime-green cottages lining the beach, a store and a dining room boasting a verandah overlooking the lagoon. We've arrived at low tide, so the wonders of the shallow lagoon will have to wait - our posse is bound for the other side of the island and deeper water. The short walk brings us up close to the 100,000 noddies and terns that call the island home in summer.
A glass-bottomed boat awaits us beyond the fringing reef and we pick our way over the coral in the reef shoes provided. Anchor up, and below us the myriad delights of the reef are performing on cue: here a school of big-eye trevally, there a giant plate coral being attacked by a parrot fish.
It's even better in the water, with the variety of coral and fish rivalling what's on offer off the continental islands of the Whitsundays. The English mother and son decide to take the plunge, leaving Dad on board, and they frolic like old hands, the 13-year-old even popping down to give a green turtle a soft pat. After 30 minutes, we're back on deck and Mum is thrilled. "Amazing," she says, "amazing and terrifying."
Back to the resort, where the water is still too low for a swim but perfect for feeding fish. Jones has a soft spot for a trio of tiny black-and-white clownfish, which dart in and out of their sea anemone for tiny food pellets. The humans are a bit peckish, too, so we head to the dining room where a buffet of prawns, cold cuts, salads and a few hot dishes are displayed. The portly English child is confused by a place where hot, stodgy tucker is not the norm, but the rest of us dig in.
By 2pm we're boarding the plane for home and as we reach our cruising height of about 9000ft, it's clear the long day of activity has taken its toll. Most of my fellow passengers nod off but I'm transfixed by the majestic coastline hidden by clouds. For me it's the highlight as the sands of Fraser Island appear, then the great sweep of water that is Wide Bay, followed by a dozen or more yachts beating their way around Mudjimba Island off Mooloolaba before the plane banks over Deception Bay, looks straight towards Moreton Island, and lands back in sunny Redcliffe.
THE DEAL Fly with Seair from the Gold Coast and Redcllffe for $599 an adult or $330 a child, or from the Sunshine Coast for $454 or $251 Includes transfers to and from accommodation, snorkel gear, reef shoes, glass-bottom boat ride and buffet lunch.
PACK your bird book and see how many species you can find.
LEARN about the island's history in its information room, including the story of Suzannah McKee, a lighthouse keeper's wife who, lonely and depressed, put on her Sunday best and walked into the water to drown in April 1907.