Explore Coastal Queensland
Sand carried north up the coast by ocean currents is swept out to sea by Fraser Island’s massive outwards-leaning edge, eventually being deposited 80km offshore as a cluster of tiny, coral-fringed sand islands – cays – that mark the southernmost tip of Queensland’s mighty Great Barrier Reef. The coastal settlements of Bundaberg, 1770 and Gladstone each offer access to a cay, either on day-trips or for an overnight stay in a resort; either way, there’s the chance to do some excellent scuba diving. Bundaberg – along with the nearby hamlet of Childers – also lies at the heart of a rich sugar-cane, fruit and vegetable farming area, and both are popular places to find short-term crop-picking work. Though badly affected by the severe floods of the summer of 2010–11, the region recovered reasonably quickly.Read More
Lady Elliot Island
Lady Elliot Island
The Great Barrier Reef ’s southernmost outpost, Lady Elliot Island, is a 2km-square patch of casuarina and pandanus trees stabilizing a bed of coral rubble, sand and – in common with all the southern cays – plenty of overpoweringly pungent guano, courtesy of the generations of birds to have roosted here. The elegant lighthouse on Lady Elliot’s west side was built in 1866 after an extraordinary number of wrecks on the reef; on average, one vessel a year still manages to come to grief here. Wailing shearwaters and the occasional suicide of lighthouse staff didn’t endear Lady Elliot to early visitors, but a low-key resort and excellent reef have now turned the island into a popular escape.
Shearwaters aside, there’s a good deal of birdlife on the island; residents include thousands of black noddies and bridled terns, along with much larger frigate birds and a few rare red-tailed tropicbirds – a white, gull-like bird with a red beak and wire-like tail – which nest under bushes on the foreshore. Both loggerhead and green turtles nest on the beaches too, and in a good summer there are scores laying their eggs here each night. The main reason to come to Lady Elliot, however, is to go snorkelling or scuba diving: the best spots for diving are out from the lighthouse, but check on daily currents with the dive staff at the resort. The Blowhole is a favourite site, with a descent into a cavern (keep an eye out for the “gnomefish” here), and there’s also the 1999 wreck of the yacht Severence to explore. You’ve a good chance of encountering harmless leopard sharks, sea snakes, barracuda, turtles and gigantic manta rays wherever you go.
The main downside is that the only way to get to the cay is to fly – the Lady Elliot Island Resort’s own airline has daily departures from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay and the Gold Coast – but the flight is a treat, with great views en route.
Lady Musgrave Island
Lady Musgrave Island
Lady Musgrave Island, the southernmost island of the eight tiny coral cays constituting Capricornia Cays National Park, is covered in soft-leaved pisonia trees that host the usual throng of roosting birdlife, ringed by a coral wall that forms a large turquoise lagoon. Diving inside the lagoon here is safe but pretty tame (though snorkelling is good); outside the wall is more exciting. Inexpensive boat trips from the village of 1770 mean that Lady Musgrave is the best of the southern cays on which to camp (April–Jan). There are no facilities at all on the island, so make sure you bring absolutely everything you need with you.
Famous for its diving, Heron Island is small enough to walk around in an hour, with half the cay occupied by a comfortable resort and research station, and the rest covered in groves of pandanus, coconuts and shady pisonias. You can literally walk off the beach and into the Reef’s maze of coral, or swim along the shallow walls looking for action. The eastern edges of the lagoon are good for snorkelling at any time, although some of the best coral is on the outer reefs, accessible only by boat. A drift along the wall facing Wistari reef to Heron Bommie covers about everything you’re likely to encounter. The coral isn’t that good but the amount of life is astonishing: tiny boxfish hide under ledges; turtles, cowries, wobbegong, reef sharks, moray eels, butterfly cod and octopuses secrete themselves among the coral; manta rays soar majestically; and larger reef fish gape vacantly as you drift past. The bommie itself makes first-rate snorkelling, with an interesting swim-through if your lungs are up to it, while the Tenements along the reef ’s northern edge are good for bigger game – including sharks.
All this natural wonder is the exclusive preserve of well-heeled ecotourists – the island is not open for day-trips or camping. Access to the island is by ferry or helicopter from Gladstone.