Queenslander Simon Thornalley has found connection and purpose in sharing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural experiences aboard a century-old timber boat. For travellers looking to explore the Mooloolah River while supporting local communities, that’s a very good thing indeed.
“Sometimes I think I’ve inherited an old timber boat curse. I just can’t get away from them. It’s an obsession,” says Simon Thornalley, founder of Saltwater Eco Tours, a Mooloolaba-based business that runs Indigenous cultural tours aboard Spray of the Coral Coast, a beautifully restored sailing boat.
A Torres Strait Islander man who calls the Sunshine Coast home, Simon spent his formative years on a sailboat with his parents, an experience that sowed the seeds of a lifelong fascination with old timber boats.
Spending your days cruising along the Mooloolah River sounds like a dream job for an experienced sailor, diver, and self-confessed boat tragic like Simon, yet he sailed straight into headwinds when the global pandemic hit just as his dream was coming to life.
“The timing really couldn’t have been worse. We’d just taken out a business loan and paid the big overheads like insurance and permits,” Simon explains.
So he returned to work as a commercial diver to pay the bills while spending his weekends on the business—a period of hard yakka that paid off once lockdown restrictions eased.
“We’ve had an overwhelming response from the local community, and we’ve managed to keep busy since restrictions lifted,” says Simon, who attributes his passion for sharing local Indigenous culture with keeping his business dream alive—along with his lifelong “obsession” with timber boats.
At the heart of Saltwater Eco Tours is ‘Spray of the Coral Coast’, a century-old, 58-foot Huon pine ketch Simon lovingly restored to a pristine state after years of neglect.
When people step aboard, they know they’re experiencing something special. Grazing on a bush tucker-inspired spread including first-rate local prawns and oysters (best enjoyed with a signature lemon myrtle cocktail) while cruising aboard a classic sailboat is a next-level way to spend a sunny afternoon in Mooloolaba.
He believes that it’s this authentic feel and money-can’t-buy heritage that makes Spray of the Coral Coast more desirable than a new model boat.
“I’m privileged to be able to collaborate with the Traditional Owners of this area.”
- Simon Thornalley
“Most people nowadays steer clear of timber boats because of the amount of work involved in them, but it’s a labour of love for me. It would have been ten times easier to buy a modern boat—and cheaper too. But it didn’t fit my vision. So many people told me it was a silly idea. But now that my vision has come to life, it’s nice to see people appreciate it,” says Simon.
Simon considers the Sunshine Coast home but knows that the stories of this land belong to (and can only be shared by) the Gubbi Gubbi (Kabi Kabi) people.
“I’m privileged to be able to collaborate with the Traditional Owners of this area. We’ve got an amazing woman called Aunty Bridgette who shares her family stories. She belongs to one of the oldest surviving families of this area, so she’s got a wealth of knowledge,” says Simon.
Apart from sharing Indigenous culture with visitors, creating employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is also a priority.
“We always have a Traditional Owner on our cultural tours and one of our talented Indigenous deckhands, Jaden, shares his didgeridoo skills and passion for bush tucker foods with guests,” says Simon.
Saltwater Eco Tours also collaborates with other Indigenous-owned enterprises such as My Dilly Bag, a local business that supplies native bushfoods for guests to enjoy while on the tour.
In the past, tourists wouldn’t necessarily have visited Mooloolaba for its Aboriginal culture, but Saltwater Eco Tours is changing that. Simon notes that many of his travellers have lived in the area their whole lives, but had no idea about its Indigenous history and culture until they came aboard.
Simon’s business journey has also had a ripple effect on his family. “Our family is now revisiting our connection to culture. We’re going back to our saltwater roots,” says Simon, whose grandmother was born on Horn Island, a part of the Torres Strait Islands.
“In a way, I’ve always had this connection to the ocean … Starting this business has been a positive way for me to express that connection and share it with others.”
- Simon Thornalley
“She’s an elder of the Kaurareg people. During World War Two, my nanna was evacuated from Horn Island,” he explains. “A lot of my family were lost and disconnected from our Country. When the Japanese invaded, many Torres Strait Islanders evacuated and could not return or didn’t have a home to return to.”
As a father, he’s keen to keep that connection to his Country and people alive by speaking as much language as he can and travelling up north with his daughter Malu, which means ‘the sea’ in Torres Strait Island language.
“In a way, I’ve always had this connection to the ocean, without realising why it runs so deep. Starting this business has been a positive way for me to express that connection and share it with others,” he says.
Simon’s current life in laidback Mooloolaba is a world away from his previous vocation as a fly-in, fly-out commercial diver, a profession he describes as “super-challenging and dangerous.”
Working in the offshore commercial diving industry for 12 years, Simon did everything from underwater welding to salvaging operations.
“It’s like being a labourer underwater. Every job is different,” says Simon, who also did a stint sailing a commercial yacht in Antarctica—an experience he says he’ll never forget.
He’s now enjoying charting a new course running Saltwater Eco Tours in the beachside holiday haven he’s fortunate enough to call home.
“Running a business isn’t easy,” he says. “I’ve never worked so hard. But I’ve always chosen the difficult path in life. I need to have challenges to keep things interesting.”
Simon believes Mooloolaba’s relaxed pace, balmy climate (it’s called the ‘Sunshine Coast’ for a reason) and all-important proximity to the sea makes it the perfect place to call home.
“I’ve worked all over the world and those experiences allow me to appreciate how beautiful the Sunshine Coast is and how lucky I am to live here. I feel like I’m on the right path, and that’s a great feeling.”
Jo Stewart is an Australian travel writer who lives in Melbourne, but spends an inordinate amount of time at airports. She has visited all seven continents and is comfortable mixing it up at both ends—and everywhere in between—of the travel spectrum.