WITH deserted beaches, ancient forests and magical wildlife, Southern Queensland’s Nature Coast is an escapist’s dream, finds Neil Geraghty
At first, all I could see was a shadow moving beneath me. I was snorkelling off Lady Elliot Island on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, and my thoughts instantly turned to those lurid Australian shark attack stories you so often hear about. As the dark form ascended out of the blue depths, a feeling of panic swept over me – but when the familiar oval shape of a turtle came into view, I let out a sigh of relief. To my amazement he swam straight towards me, and before I knew it he was a mere two feet away from my face. Tentatively, I reached out to touch his shell and was astonished when he angled his back in my direction. “He can’t possibly want me to scratch his back?” I thought. He did indeed, and for the next 15 minutes he swam alongside me, gently rocking his back from side to side as I scratched his shell. When he finally left, he turned his head, and as the flickering sunbeams illuminated his speckled face, I could swear he wore an expression of bliss. It was a magical experience and in itself worth journeying halfway around the world for.
Lady Elliot Island’s friendly green turtles are a highlight of Queensland’s Nature Coast, a magnificent region of 47 National and State Parks, two UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserves and a World Heritage Site that stretches from Brisbane to the Great Barrier Reef. More than 200km of golden sandy beaches fringe the coastline, where a string of low-key seaside resorts make perfect bases to recover from the gruelling flight over. At Mooloolaba, I checked into Oceans, a sleek, contemporary apartment complex with cavernous rooms and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A friend had said the best cure for jet lag was to go straight for a swim in the sea and so, heeding her advice, I dumped my bags and headed out. It was the beginning of the Australian winter, which in sub-tropical southern Queensland means wall-to-wall sunshine and sublime temperatures that hover around 22C. For Queenslanders this is jumper weather and only a handful of surfers and hardy European tourists were braving the waves. Steeling myself for an icy blast, I ran into the surf and was pleasantly surprised to find that the water was only a few degrees cooler than the air temperature. Pounded by the refreshing surf, the stiffness of the long flight quickly melted away, and as a jet lag remedy, it certainly did the trick. I woke up the next morning feeling totally rested, and as I sat sipping a coffee on my balcony, I was joined by a pair of rainbow-coloured lorikeets who garrulously welcomed me to Australia.
After breakfast, I joined a trip run by Mystic Mountain Tours into the Nature Coast’s majestic hinterland. When Captain Cook first sailed along this coast in 1770, he noticed strange beehive-shaped mountains rising up from the coastal plains. They reminded him of the conical shaped glass furnaces (glass houses) back home in his native Yorkshire, and he duly named them The Glass House Mountains. They are the remains of prehistoric volcanic plugs and provide a suitably Jurassic World backdrop to some of the planet’s most ancient forests.
At Mapleton Falls National Park, we stopped for a hike along a beautifully maintained trail through groves of towering bunya pines, a tree that would have been familiar to dinosaurs as they roamed through the forests of Gondwanaland.
Nearby, at Maleny Botanic Gardens, I was greeted by Lucy, a sulphur-crested cockatoo who was sitting by the ticket office.
“She prefers men to women,” explained Regine, our guide. “She finds it much easier to bond with them.” As if on cue, Lucy hopped onto my shoulder and began affectionately nibbling my ear. Her antics were nothing compared to those we saw inside the aviary, which is home to parrots and macaws from all over the world. Within minutes, a giant scarlet macaw landed on my head and busily began unpicking thread from my baseball cap, while on my shoulders, a pair of green parakeets danced up and down, digging their claws into my skin – an enjoyable, if not squirmingly ticklish, experience.
From Maleny I drove to Noosa, a chic coastal resort and stepping-off point for the spectacular Great Sandy National Park. There, I set out for a drive with Surf and Sand Safaris along Teewah beach, a 70km stretch of golden sand that is one of the most famous beach drives in Australia.
“It’s the best road in Queensland,” shouted our driver, Glen, as we sped along the water’s edge, sending up plumes of spray. “It repairs itself twice day,” he added, referring to the tides. Halfway along the beach, we stopped at Coloured Sands, where mineral rich particles leach out of the dunes and stain the sand in dazzling shades of pink and ochre. At the end of the beach at Double Island Point, a whimsical lighthouse with a red pepperpot roof stands on a rocky promontory. The lighthouse dates back to 1885 and if you visit in June, you can catch the wonderful spectacle of hundreds of humpback whales swimming by during their annual winter migration.
Just north of Double Island Point lies Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island and a unique UNESCO World Heritage Site. There I checked into the Kingfisher Bay Resort, an upscale eco resort where you can enjoy all the thrills of staying in a rainforest at a safe distance from the I’m a Celebrity… creepy crawlies. High clearance four-wheel drives are the only vehicles suitable for exploring the island’s sandy tracks and in the morning I joined Scott, one of Kingfisher’s affable eco guides, on a bone-rattling tour of the island. A 75-mile long beach hugs the west coast of Fraser which is the only place in the world besides Barra where a beach is used as an official runway.
There, I jumped into a tiny twin prop Airvan for a thrilling 15-minute flight over the island, swooping low over the beautiful lakes that dot the island’s interior. The sand on Fraser Island acts as a giant filtration system and the water in these lakes is legendary for its clarity. I was keen to take a dip and later that afternoon we drew up at Lake Mackenzie, which Australians modestly describe as the most beautiful swimming pool in the world. I was surprised when Scott took out a thermos flask of coffee.
“Aren’t you joining us for a swim?” I asked. “You must be joking mate, it’s bloody freezing,” he replied. Surrounded by dazzling white sands, the pale aquamarine lake was virtually deserted. The indigenous Butchulla people once believed that Fraser Island was K’gari, a handmaiden of the Gods. She was transformed into a paradise island and the jewel-like lakes were her eyes staring up to heaven.
Floating on my back in the translucent water, I felt that this was as close to heaven as I was ever likely to get.
Two-bedroom suites at Oceans Mooloolabla start at Aus $446/£211 per night, www.oceansmooloolaba.com.au
Double rooms at Kingfisher Bay Resort start from Aus $148/£70 per night, www.kingfisherbay.com
Cabins at Lady Elliot Eco Resort start at Aus $150pp/£71 per night, www.ladyelliot.com.au