Running for over 2500km from the New South Wales border to Australia’s northernmost tip at Cape York, Coastal Queensland contains almost everything that lures visitors to Australia. Set down in the more developed southeastern corner, the state capital Brisbane is a relaxed city with a lively social scene and good work possibilities. South between here and the border, the Gold Coast is Australia’s prime holiday destination, with a reputation founded on some of the country’s best surf – though this now takes second place to a belt of beachfront high-rises, theme parks, and the host of lively bars and nightclubs surrounding Surfers Paradise. An hour inland, the Gold Coast Hinterland’s green heights offer a chain of national parks packed with wildlife and stunning views.
North of Brisbane, fruit and vegetable plantations behind the gentle Sunshine Coast benefit from rich volcanic soils and a subtropical climate, overlooked by the spiky, isolated peaks of the Glass House Mountains. Down on the coast, Noosa is a fashionable resort town with more famous surf. Beyond looms Fraser Island, whose surrounding waters afford great views of the annual whale migration and where huge wooded dunes, freshwater lakes and sculpted coloured sands form the backdrop for exciting safaris.
North of Fraser the humidity and temperature begin to rise as you head into the tropics. Though there’s still an ever-narrowing farming strip hugging the coast, the Great Dividing Range edges coastwards as it progresses north, dry at first, but gradually acquiring a green sward which culminates in the steamy, rainforest-draped scenery around Cairns. Along the way are scores of beaches, archipelagos of islands and a further wealth of national parks, some – such as Hinchinbrook Island – with superb walking trails. Those with work visas can also recharge their bank balances along the way by fruit and vegetable picking around the towns of Bundaberg, Bowen, Ayr and Innisfail. Moving north of Cairns, rainforested ranges ultimately give way to the savannah of the huge, triangular Cape York Peninsula, a sparsely populated setting for what is widely regarded as the most rugged 4WD adventure in the country.
Offshore, the Tropical Coast is marked by the appearance of the Great Barrier Reef, among the most extensive coral complexes in the world. The southern reaches out from Bundaberg and 1770 are peppered with sand islands or cays, while further north there’s a wealth of beautiful granite islands between the coast and reef, covered in thick pine forests and fringed in white sand – the pick of which are the Whitsundaysnear Airlie Beach and Magnetic Island off Townsville. Many of these islands are accessible on day-trips, though some offer everything from campsites to luxury resorts if you fancy a change of pace from tearing up and down the coast. The reef itself can be explored from boat excursions of between a few hours’ and several days’ duration; scuba-divers are well catered for, though there’s plenty of coral to be seen within easy snorkelling range of the surface.
In a way, Queensland’s popularity as a holiday hotspot is surprising, as this is perhaps Australia’s most conservative state, lampooned in the past for being slow and regressive. Marked physical and social divisions remain between the densely settled, city-orientated southeastern corner and the large rural remainder. These divisions date back to when Brisbane was chosen as capital on Queensland’s separation from New South Wales in 1859; the city proved an unpopular choice with the northern pioneers, who felt that the government was too far away to understand, or even care about, their needs. These needs centred around the north’s sugar plantations and the use of Solomon Islanders for labour, a practice the government equated with slavery and finally banned in 1872. Ensuing demands for further separation, this time between tropical Queensland and the southeast, never bore fruit, but the remoteness of northern settlements from the capital led to local self-sufficiency, making Queensland far less homogeneous than the other eastern states.
The darker side of this conservatism has seen Queensland endure more than its fair share of extreme or simply dirty politics. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the repressive stranglehold of a strongly conservative National Party government, led by the charismatic and slippery Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (better known as “Joh”), did nothing to enhance the state’s image. Despite a predominance of Labor, and now Liberal, governments since his time, state politics still have strong right-wing tendencies.
Change came with the new millennium, however: Labor Premier Peter Beattie served for three successive terms between 2001 and 2007 and was the first state premier to act on the Australia-wide water shortage caused by a decade of poor rainfall, by implementing water-recycling measures for domestic, industrial and agricultural use in 2007. He resigned from politics shortly afterwards, and was succeeded by his deputy, Anna Bligh, who became the State’s first elected female premier in 2009. Although Bligh’s popularity spiked in light of her calm handling of the crises caused by extreme weather events in the summer of 2010–11, it was short-lived. The following year, Bligh’s party lost to the Liberal Party, led by former Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman; losing all but seven of its parliamentary seats, Labor’s defeat was one of the worst electoral failures in Australia’s history. In response, Bligh quickly resigned as party leader and had quit politics altogether by the start of April 2012.
After coming into power on a high, the Newman Government pledged its focus on rebuilding Queensland’s flailing economy and unveiled aggressive cost-cutting proposals in their first budget. Combined with the defections of three MPs and nepotism scandals within the party, Newman’s popularity quickly waned. By the middle of 2013, the Newman Government were in the doldrums again after the contentious announcement of a 42 percent salary increase for all 89 Queensland MPs, to bring their wages in line with members of the federal House of Representatives, embarrassingly unveiled on the same day as a series of living expenses hikes.
As a prime tourist destination, Queensland’s coast seldom presents accommodation problems, with a good range of everything from budget to upmarket options in most locations. Just be aware that the Easter and Christmas holidays – or even just weekends – can see room shortages and price hikes at popular spots, including at national parks: booking in advance is wise, and may even get you discounted rates.
As for weather, winters are generally dry and pleasant throughout the region, but the summer climate (Dec–April) becomes more oppressive the further north you travel, with the possibility of cyclones bringing torrential rain and devastating storms to the entire Tropical Coast.
Further on up the highway, 115km past Bowen, are the towns of Home Hill and Ayr, separated by a mill, a few kilometres of cane fields and the iron framework of the Burdekin River Bridge. This gaping river, one of the north’s most famous landmarks, is still liable to flood during severe wet seasons, despite having to fight its way across three weirs and a dam.
On the northern side, AYR is a compact farming town that’s fast becoming another popular stop on the farm work trail. The highway – which runs through town as Queen Street – is where you’ll find the bus stop and all essential services.
Ayr’s other attraction is easy access to the wreck of the Yongala, a 109m-long passenger ship that sank with all hands during a cyclone in March 1911. It now lies intact and encrusted in coral in 14–28m of water, and is home to turtles, rays, moray eels and huge schools of barracuda, mackerel and trevally, making for a staggeringly good wreck dive. Yongala Dive run trips for certified divers only.
Be aware that the wreck is in an exposed location, and it’s not much fun diving here if the weather is rough; this is also a demanding site – deep, with strong currents and startlingly big fish – and it’s best not to go unless you’ve dived recently and logged twenty dives or more.
BOWEN, a quiet seafront settlement 60km northwest of Proserpine, was once under consideration as the site of the state capital, but it floundered after Townsville’s foundation. Overlooked and undeveloped, the wide sleepy streets and historic clapboard buildings made Bowen’s town centre the perfect film-set location for the 2008 Baz Luhrmann epic, Australia, standing in as 1930s Darwin. Nothing remains from the mass Hollywood intrusion except for the many tales of almost every resident whose world was briefly turned upside down. Stark first impressions created by the sterile bulk of the saltworks on the highway are offset by a certain small-town charm and some pretty beaches just off to the north. The main attraction for travellers, though, is the prospect of seasonal farm work: Bowen’s mangoes and tomatoes are famous throughout Queensland, and there’s a large floating population of itinerant pickers in town between April and January.
Bowen’s centre overlooks Edgecumbe Bay, with all the shops and services spaced out along broad but empty Herbert Street. The town’s attractive beaches lie a couple of kilometres north of the centre. Queens Beach, which faces north, is sheltered, long and has a stinger net for the jellyfish season, but the best is Horseshoe Bay, small, and hemmed in by some sizeable boulders, with good waters for a swim or snorkel.
CAIRNS was pegged out over the site of a sea-slug fishing camp when gold was found to the north in 1876, though it was the Atherton Tablelands’ tin and timber resources that established the town and kept it ahead of its nearby rival, Port Douglas. The harbour is the focus of the north’s fish and prawn concerns, and tourism began modestly when marlin fishing became popular after World War II. But with the “discovery” of the reef in the 1970s and the appeal of the local climate, tourism snowballed, and high-profile development has now overshadowed the unspoiled, lazy tropical atmosphere that everyone originally came to Cairns to enjoy.
For many visitors primed by hype, this sprawling city falls far short of expectations. However, if you can accept the tourist industry’s shocking intrusiveness and the fact that you’re unlikely to escape the crowds, you’ll find Cairns a convenient base with a great deal on offer, and easy access to the surrounding area – especially the Atherton Tablelands and, naturally, the Great Barrier Reef and islands. Cairns’ strength lies in doing, not seeing: there are few monuments, natural or otherwise.
Aside from visiting the reef, or when you’ve had your fill, there’s a fair amount to see and do within a 30-minute drive of Cairns. Highlights include wallowing in the pristine waters of Crystal Cascades or kitesurfing off Cairns’ quieter northern sandy shores.
Just a couple of hours’ drive north of Cairns on the Cook Highway are the Daintree and Cape Tribulation, the tamed fringes of the Cape York Peninsula. The highway initially runs to Port Douglas and Mossman, a beautiful drive past isolated beaches where hang-gliders patrol the headlands. North of Mossman is the Daintree, Australia’s largest and the world’s oldest surviving stretch of tropical rainforest.
Massive development in recent years has seen the quaint fishing village of PORT DOUGLAS, an hour north of Cairns, turned into an upmarket tourist hub, with a main street full of boutiques, shopping malls and holidaying hordes. However, the town does have the idyllic Four Mile Beach, along with plenty of distractions to keep you busy for a day or two, and it’s getting to be as good a place as Cairns to pick up a regional tour or dive trip to the reef.
The town comprises a small grid of leafy streets centred around Macrossan Street – which runs between Four Mile Beach and Anzac Park – with the marina a couple of blocks back. Between the end of Macrossan Street and the sea, Anzac Park is the scene of an increasingly busy Sunday-morning market, good for fruit, veggies and souvenirs. Near the park’s jetty is the whitewashed timber church of St Mary’s by the Sea, built after the 1911 cyclone carried off the previous structure.
Out to sea, the vegetated sand cays known as the Low Isles make a good day-trip, with fine snorkelling, a lighthouse and an interpretive centre.
Vessels to take you to the Reef range from old trawlers to racing yachts and high-speed cruisers; cruises and dive trips last from a day to over a week. All day-trip operators have ticket desks at, and depart from, the Reef Fleet Terminal at the end of Spence Street in Cairns; you can also book through an agent, but either way you should do this at least a day in advance. One way to choose the right boat is simply to check out the price: small, cramped, slow tubs are the cheapest, while roomy, faster catamarans – some venturing to activity-packed pontoons – cost more; to narrow things down further, find out which serves the best food.
The reef cruises and diving listings given here are not mutually exclusive – most outfits offer diving (prices vary wildly – you’ll pay anything from $85–245 for two dives including gear), snorkelling (usually free) or just plain old sailing. Prices can come down by as much as thirty percent during the low seasons (Feb–April & Nov). Dive schools usually run trips in their own boats, primarily to take students on their certification dives – experienced divers may want to avoid these, and should always make their qualifications known to onboard dive staff, who might then be able to arrange something a bit more adventurous. Beware of “expenses only” boat trips – there may be a catch. If in doubt, ask a booking office in town if you’re dealing with an authorized, registered operator.
Day-trips cost around $130–210.
0458 426 005, fallareeftrips.com. Reasonably priced day-cruises aboard a 1950s Aussie timber pearl lugger, which leisurely visits two reef locations, including shallow Upolu Cay.
Ocean Spirit Cruises
1300 858 141, oceanspirit.com.au. Large vessel that holds well over a hundred passengers – it sails out to Michaelmas Cay and motors back, ensuring adequate time on the Reef. Great presentation but one of the more expensive sailing trips.
Passions of Paradise
1800 111 346, passions.com.au. Popular with backpackers, this roomy and very stable sail-catamaran cruises out to Paradise Reef and Michaelmas Cay. Great value.
Prices range from $150–220 (day-trips only). Some companies cruise out to their own pontoon, stable moorings ideal for families with toilet facilities and underwater viewing chambers where you can get as wet or stay as dry as you like; dive, snorkel, jump in a glass-bottom boat or semi-submersible vessel, or walk underwater on a “helmet” dive. You can also take a ten-minute helicopter reef flight from all pontoons, or opt to fly in or out one-way by air.
07 4044 9944, greatadventures.com.au. Trips on a large, fast catamaran to a private reef pontoon, with the option of stopping off at Green Island.
07 4052 8300, downunderdive.com.au. Speedy vessel which runs out to the outer Norman and Hastings reefs; comfortable boat, great crew and fantastic BBQ lunch.
07 4087 2100, quicksilver-cruises.com. High prices, but also one of the largest, comfiest vessels, docking at its own stable pontoon mooring at the outer Agincourt Reef.
07 4031 1588, reefmagiccruises.com. Speedy catamaran, which spends five hours at the Marine World pontoon, on the outer reef, for snorkelling, diving and glass-bottom-boat trips.
07 4050 1333, sunlover.com.au. Fast catamaran to a private pontoon at Moore Reef where you spend four hours exploring the outer reef.
Expect to pay $180–280 for two dives, gear rental, food and drink; a third dive generally costs around $20 extra. If you’re snorkelling, prices range from $130–200.
07 4051 0294, cairnsdive.com.au. Budget dive and snorkel operator visiting Moore and Thetford reefs via Fitzroy Island on a modern 17.5m catamaran.
07 4046 7333, diversden.com.au. Stable, well-equipped catamaran visiting Norma, Saxon and Hastings outer reef sites, with the option of diving three times in the day. Good value.
07 4041 6218, seastarcruises.com.au. Long-established family business with permits for some of the best sections of Hastings Reef and Michaelmas Cay, and a no-crowds policy (max 35 passengers).
07 4044 9944, silverseries.com.au. Large, speedy 29m catamaran visiting Flynn, Pellowe, Milln and/or Thetford outer reef sites with time to get in three dives if you want.
07 4047 9100, tusadive.com. Snazzy new purpose-built vessel holding a maximum of sixty passengers, with sixteen dive sites on its daily itineraries and a chance to visit three of them.
Liveaboard trips last from one night (for snorkelling, cruising or diving) to over a week (for experienced divers), and typically cover the best of the reefs: you’ll get longer in the water, visit a greater variety of sites and also have the opportunity to do night dives. Prices vary seasonally, ranging from $460 for overnight trips, $600 for three days and to up to $3500 for a week, with cheaper rates from February to June. All costs generally include berth and meals, with dives typically included for longer voyages, but not gear rental. For further information and comparisons of various operations, check out Diversion Dive Travel (07 4039 0200, diversiondivetravel.com.au).
Coral Sea Dreaming
07 4041 1600, coralseadreaming.com.au. Sixteen-metre steel ketch sleeping up to eighteen, for two-day snorkelling and diving trips to Flynn, Milin and Thetford reefs.
07 4053 0500, mikeball.com. Luxury diving with one of Queensland’s best-equipped and longest-running operations; venues include the Cod Hole and Coral Sea sites, with most trips including dives with minke whales.
Spirit of Freedom
07 4047 9150, spiritoffreedom.com.au. Huge 37m vessel with superlative facilities, sailing to Cod Hole, the Ribbons and Coral Sea.
07 4041 1054, rumrunnercairns.com.au. Budget motor sailor sleeping sixteen in basic shared cabins, offering 24-hour outer reef trips and affordable three-day Coral Sea expeditions.
Ask around about what each dive school offers, though training standards in Cairns are uniformly sound. You’ll pay around $440–540 for a budget Open-Water Certification course, diving lesser reefs while training and returning to Cairns each night; and $640–800 for a four- or five-day course using better sites and staying on a liveaboard at the reef for a couple of days doing your certification. The following schools are long-established and have solid reputations; certification dives are either made north at Norman, Hastings and Saxon reefs, or south at Flynn, Moore and Tetford. These dive schools also offer one-day as well as longer liveaboard trips.
121 Abbott St 07 4051 0294, cairnsdive.com.au.
Deep Sea Divers Den
319 Draper St 07 4046 7333, diversden.com.au.
Down Under Dive
287 Draper St 07 4052 8300, downunderdive.com.au.
116 Spence St 07 4031 5255, prodivecairns.com.
Cairns’ major draw is the Great Barrier Reef and with so many cruise or dive options available, choosing one can be daunting. There’s often a lot of chat about the inner reef (closer to the coast, and visited by slower boats), the outer reef (closest to the open sea and the target of most speedy operators) and fringing reef (surrounding Fitzroy and Green islands), but the coral and fishlife at any of them can be either excellent or tragic. The state of Cairns’ coral is the subject of much debate: years of agricultural run-off and recent coral-bleaching events – not to mention the sheer number of visitors – have had a visibly detrimental effect in the most visited areas, though remoter sections tend to be in better condition. Having said that, almost everywhere teems with marine life, ranging from tiny gobies to squid, turtles and big pelagic fish – only seasoned divers might come away disappointed.
The Cape York Peninsula points north towards the Torres Strait and New Guinea, and tackling the rugged tracks and hectic river crossings on the “Trip To The Tip” is an adventure in itself – besides being a means to reach Australia’s northernmost point and the communities at Bamaga and Thursday Island, so different from anywhere else in Australia that they could easily be in another country. But it’s not all four-wheel driving across the savannah: during the dry season the historic settlement of Cooktown, the wetlands at Lakefield National Park and Laura’s Aboriginal heritage are only a day’s journey from Cairns in any decent vehicle. Given longer, you might get as far as the mining company town of Weipa, but don’t go further without off-road transport; while some have managed to reach the Tip in family sedans, most who try fail miserably.
With thousands making the overland journey between May and October, a breakdown won’t necessarily leave you stranded, but the cost of repairs will make you regret it. Bikers should travel in groups and have off-roading experience. Mobile signal is almost nonexistent (tree trunks or termite mounds are often graffitied to identify locations with mobile signal), so it’s worth considering renting a satellite phone.
You’ll find a few roadhouses (with rooms) and motels along the way, but north of Weipa accommodation on the Cape is mostly limited to camping, and it’s inevitable if you head right to the Tip that one night at least will be spent in the bush. Settlements also supply meals and provisions, but there won’t be much on offer, so take all you can carry. Don’t turn bush campsites into rubbish dumps: take a pack of bin liners and remove all your garbage. Estuarine crocodiles are present throughout the Cape: read the warning under “Wildlife dangers” in Basics. There are few banks, so take enough cash to carry you between points – most roadhouses accept plastic. The RACQ (racq.com) has up-to-date information regarding current road conditions; for general tips on off-road driving expeditions, see Basics .
Beware that alcohol restrictions are in place in nineteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities in Far North Queensland and Cape York. Depending on where you go, alcohol may be completely banned or limited to an amount or type of alcohol (usually small quantities of wine and mid-strength beer), even if you are just passing through. Limits apply on a per vehicle basis, not per person. If caught, the penalties are huge – up to $42,250 for first-time offenders. For more information, check out qld.gov.au.
While Cape York’s crocodiles make the standard 4WD procedure of walking creek crossings before driving them potentially dangerous, wherever possible you should make some effort to gauge the water’s depth and find the best route. Never blindly follow others across. Make sure all rescue equipment – shovel, winch, rope, etc – is easy to reach, outside the vehicle. Electrics on petrol engines need to be waterproofed. On deep crossings, block off air inlets to prevent water entering the engine, slacken off the fan belt and cover the radiator grille with a tarpaulin; this diverts water around the engine as long as the vehicle is moving. Select an appropriate gear (changing it in midstream will let water into the clutch) and drive through at walking speed; clear the opposite embankment before stopping again. In deep water, there’s a chance the vehicle might float slightly, and so get pushed off-track by the current – though there’s not much you can do about this. If you stall, switch off the ignition immediately, exit through windows, disconnect the battery (a short might restart the engine) and winch out. Don’t restart the vehicle until you’ve made sure that water hasn’t been sucked in through the air filter – which will destroy the engine.
Views from the volcanic outcrops overlooking the Capricorn Coast, some 40km east of Rockhampton, stretch across graziers’ estates and pineapple plantations to exposed headlands, estuarine mud flats and the Keppel Islands. The coastal townships of Yeppoon and Emu Park, 20km apart and settled by cattle barons in the 1860s, were later adopted by Rockhampton’s elite as places to beat the summer temperatures. Today, they retain a pleasantly dated holiday atmosphere and are relaxing for a few days – besides being much nicer places to stay than Rockhampton. Great Keppel Island is the coast’s main draw, however, accessed from Rosslyn Bay, just south of Yeppoon.
Beneath a jagged skyline shaped by dozens of high-rise beachfront apartment blocks, the Gold Coast is Australia’s Miami Beach or Costa del Sol, a striking contrast to Brisbane, only an hour to the north. The coast forms a virtually unbroken beach 40km long, from South Stradbroke Island past Surfers Paradise and Burleigh Heads to the New South Wales border at Coolangatta. The beaches swarm with bathers and board-riders all year round: surfing blossomed here in the 1930s and the key surf beaches at Coolangatta, Burleigh Heads and South Stradbroke still pull daily crowds of veterans and novices.
In recent years, other attractions have sprung up, notably the club and party scene centred on Surfers Paradise and Broadbeach, and several action-packed theme parks, domestic holiday blackspots mostly based about 15km northwest of the town. Aggressively superficial, Surfers is not the place for peace and quiet, but its sheer brashness can be fun for a couple of days. There’s little variation on the beach and nightclub scene, however, and if you’re concerned this will leave you jaded, bored or broke, you’re better off avoiding this corner of the state altogether.
With around three hundred days of sunshine each year there’s little “off-season” on the Gold Coast. Rain can, however, fall at any time during the year, including midwinter – when it’s usually dry in the rest of the state – but even if the crowds do thin out a little, they reappear in time for the Gold Coast Indy car race in October and then continue to swell, peaking over Christmas and New Year. The end of the school year in mid-November also heralds the phenomenon that is Schoolies Week, when thousands of high-school leavers from across the country ditch exam rooms and flock to Surfers for a few days of hard partying, a rite of passage that causes an annual budget-accommodation crisis.
As locals will tell you, the Gold Coast has some of the best surfing beaches in the world. In terms of consistency this might be true – on any given day there will be good surf somewhere along the coast – with 200m-long sand-bottom point breaks and rideable waves peaking at about 4m in prime conditions.
The coast is known for its barrels, particularly during the summer storm season when the winds shift around to the north; in winter the swell is smaller but more reliable, making it easier to learn to surf. A rule of thumb for finding the best surf is to follow the wind: head to the north end of the coast when the wind blows from the north and the south when it comes from the south. Generally, you’ll find the best swell along the southern beaches, and on South Stradbroke Island. Sea temperatures range between 26°C in December and 17°C in June, so a 2–3mm wet suit is adequate. Hard-core surfies come for Christmas and the cyclone season, though spring is usually the busiest time. On the subject of general safety, all beaches as far north as Surfers are patrolled – look for the signs – and while sharks might worry you, more commonplace hostility is likely to come from the local surfies, who form tight-knit cliques with very protective attitudes towards their patches.
Competitions or events are held somewhere along the coast on most weekends, advertised through local surf shops.
Beginning around 30km inland from the coast’s jangling excesses, the Gold Coast Hinterland is a mountainous, rainforested plateau encompassing a series of beautifully wild national parks, all packed with scenery, animals and birds. The pick of the bunch is Green Mountain at Lamington National Park, with atmospheric hiking trails through beech forest and a stunning density of birdlife. Tamborine Mountain’s less rugged walking tracks and country “villages” also provide a relaxing weekend escape, while waterfalls in Springbrook National Park make for an easy day-trip. Access is by tour bus from Brisbane and the Gold Coast but to explore to any degree you’ll need your own vehicle, which will also work out the cheapest option for a group. If you’re driving, carry a good road map, as signposts are few and far between – all places are reached off the Pacific Highway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Weather ranges from very wet in summer (when there are leeches in abundance and some hiking trails are closed) to fairly cool and dry in winter, though rain is a year-round possibility. If you’re planning to hike, you’ll need good footwear for the slippery paths, although trails are well marked. Accommodation, which is best booked in advance, is in resorts, motels and campsites; if you’re on a tight budget bring a tent. You’ll need a fuel stove if you’re camping, as collecting firewood in national parks is forbidden; barbecues and wood are often supplied on sites, however.
Some 360km north of Rockhampton along a famously unexciting stretch of Highway 1, the fertile Pioneer Valley makes the MACKAY area a welcome break from the otherwise dry country between Bundaberg and Townsville. Despite encounters with aggressive Juipera Aborigines, John Mackay was impressed enough to settle the valley in 1861, and within four years the city was founded and the first sugar-cane plantations were established. Sugar remains the main industry today, though the coal mines out west in the Bowen Basin have forced Mackay to become a service centre, and its dreary parade of motel accommodation is usually full with casual workers and travelling business people.
Sugar cane, grown in an almost continuous belt between Bundaberg and Mossman, north of Cairns, is the Tropical Coast’s economic pillar of strength. Introduced in the 1860s, the crop subtly undermined the racial ideals of British colonialists when farmers, planning a system along the lines of the southern United States, employed Kanakas – Solomon Islanders – to work the plantations. Though only indentured for a few years, and theoretically given wages and passage home when their term expired, Kanakas on plantations suffered greatly from unfamiliar diseases, while the recruiting methods used by “Blackbirder” traders were at best dubious and often slipped into wholesale kidnapping. Growing white unemployment and nationalism through the 1880s eventually forced the government to ban blackbirding and repatriate the islanders. Those allowed to stay were joined over the next fifty years by immigrants from Italy and Malta, who mostly settled in the far north and today form large communities scattered between Mackay and Cairns.
After cane has been planted in November, the land is quickly covered by a blanket of dusky green. Before cutting, seven months later, the fields are traditionally fired to burn off leaves and maximize sugar content – though the practice is dying out. Cane fires often take place at dusk and are as photogenic as they are brief; the best way to be at the right place at the right time is to ask at a mill. Cut cane is then transported to the mills along a rambling rail network. The mills themselves are incredible buildings, with machinery looming out of makeshift walls and giant pipes that belch out steam around the clock when the mill is in operation. Cane is juiced for raw sugar or molasses, as the market dictates; crushed fibre becomes fuel for the boilers that sustain the process; and ash is returned to the fields as fertilizer.
Another island named by Captain Cook in 1770 – after his compass played up as he sailed past – Magnetic Island is a beautiful, triangular granite core 12km from Townsville. There’s a lot to be said for a trip here: lounging on a beach, swimming over coral, bouncing around in a moke from one roadside lookout to another, and enjoying the sea breeze and the island’s vivid colours. Small enough to drive around in half a day, but large enough to harbour several small settlements, Magnetic Island’s accommodation and transfer costs are considerably lower than on many of Queensland’s other islands, and if you’ve ever wanted to spot a koala in the wild, this could be your chance – they’re often seen wedged into gum trees up in the northeast corner of the island.
Seen from the sea, the island’s apex, Mount Cook, hovers above eucalypt woods variegated with patches of darker green vine forest. The north and east coasts are pinched into shallow sandy bays punctuated by granite headlands and coral reefs, while the western part of the island is flatter and edged with mangroves. A little less than half of the island is national park, with the settlements of Picnic Bay, Nelly Bay, Arcadia and Horseshoe Bay dotted along the east coast. Shops and supplies are available on the island, so there’s no need to bring anything with you.
Offshore from Brisbane are the shallow waters of Moreton Bay, famous throughout Australia as the home of the unfortunately named Moreton Bay Bug, which is actually a small, delicious lobster-like crustacean. The largest of the bay’s islands, Moreton and North Stradbroke, are generously endowed with sand dunes and beaches, and are just the right distance from the city to make their beaches accessible but seldom crowded. The island of St Helena is not somewhere you’d visit for sun and surf, but its prison ruins recall the convict era and make for an interesting day-trip. In the bay itself, look for dolphins, dugong (sea cows) and humpback whales, which pass by in winter en route to their calving grounds up north.
National parks are run by Queensland’s Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing (NPRSR). Their excellent website (nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks) has up-to-date information on walking trails, camping, vehicle access, seasonal closures and other topics of interest to hikers, drivers and bushcampers. Unlike other states, all of Queensland’s parks are free to enter, but in a few cases hiking or vehicle permits must be obtained in advance, either online, over the phone or from a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) office (locations, opening times and current fees are listed on the website). Hiking permits are required for trails on which numbers are restricted, notably Hinchinbrook Island’s Thorsborne Trail. You’ll need a vehicle permit to take a car across to Bribie Island, Cooloola, Moreton Island or Fraser Island.
It’s possible to camp in most national parks. Facilities vary a great deal – some campsites have cooking and washing facilities, while others require you to be totally self-sufficient. Campsite fees are fixed at $5.45 per person per night and usually payable in advance by phone, online or at a nearby QPWS office or ranger station. You’ll receive a booking number and a printable camping tag (if purchased online). When paying camping fees in advance, you can choose between specific slots – required if you’re tackling any of Queensland’s Great Walks – or general-purpose credits that allow you to fine-tune your itinerary later.
Straddling the Tropic of Capricorn, ROCKHAMPTON was founded after a false goldrush in 1858 left hundreds of miners stranded at a depot 40km inland on the banks of the sluggish Fitzroy River, and their rough camp was adopted by local stockmen as a convenient port. The iron trelliswork and sandstone buildings fronting the river recall the balmy 1890s, when money was pouring into the city from a prosperous cattle industry and nearby gold and copper mines; today Rockhampton feels a bit despondent – the mines have closed, the beef industry is down in the dumps and the summers, unrelieved by coastal breezes, are appallingly humid. Bearing this in mind, the city is best seen as a springboard for the adjacent Capricorn Coast.
The city is fairly small and easy to navigate. Divided by the Fitzroy River, services are clustered directly south of the Fitzroy Bridge along Quay and East streets, and the Bruce Highway runs right through town past two pairs of fibreglass bulls (repeatedly “de-balled” by pranksters).
The Tropic Marker, 3km from the river at Rockhampton’s southern entrance, is just a spire informing you of your position at 23˚ 26’ 30” S, backed by a small visitor centre.
The Sunshine Coast, stretching north of Brisbane to Noosa, is a mild-mannered counterpart to the Gold Coast. The larger towns are rather bland, but there’s striking scenery at the Glass House Mountains, good beaches and surf at Maloolaba and Maroochydore, and upmarket beach life at Noosa. Though you’ll find the hinterland far tamer than that behind the Gold Coast, it still has some pleasant landscapes and scattered hamlets rife with Devonshire cream teas and weekend markets.
To the Kabi Aborigines, these 11 dramatic, isolated pinnacles jutting out of a flat plain, visible as far away as Brisbane, are the petrified forms of a family fleeing the incoming tide, though their current name was bestowed by Captain Cook because of their “shape and elevation” – a resemblance that’s obscure today. The peaks themselves vary enormously: some are rounded and fairly easy to scale, while a couple have vertical faces and sharp spires requiring competent climbing skills. It’s worth conquering at least one of the easier peaks, as the views are superb: Beerburrum, overlooking the township of the same name, and Ngungun, near the Glass House Mountains township, are fairly easy to climb, with well-used tracks that shouldn’t take more than two hours return; the latter’s views and scenery outclass some of the tougher peaks, though the lower parts of the track are steep and slippery. Tibberoowuccum, a small peak at 220m just outside the national-park boundary, must be climbed from the northwest, with access from the car park off Marsh’s Road. The taller mountains – Tibrogargan and Coonowrin – are at best tricky, and should be attempted only by experienced climbers.
The exclusive end of the Sunshine Coast and an established celebrity “des-res” area, NOOSA is dominated by an enviably beautiful headland, defined by the mouth of the placid Noosa River and a strip of beach to the southeast. Popular since surfers first came in the 1960s to ride the fierce waves around the headland, the setting is also a haven for gourmets, boating types and conservationists. Beach aside, there’s also a tiny national park with beautiful coastal walks where you’ll almost certainly see koalas, a couple of shallow lakes just north of town and beyond, the biodiverse Noosa River Wetlands, offering good paddling potential.
Regional capital TOWNSVILLE sprawls around a broad spit of land between the isolated hump of Castle Hill and swampy Ross Creek. Industrial in make-up, the town has a rough edge and an air of racial tension. While most travellers skip town altogether and head straight out to the beaches of laidback Magnetic Island, just offshore, the city does have its moments: there’s a visible maritime history; long sea views from the Strand promenade; and the muggy, salty evening air and old pile houses on the surrounding hills, which mark out Townsville as the coast’s first real tropical city.
Townsville was founded in 1864 by John Melton Black and Robert Towns, entrepreneurs who felt that a settlement was needed for northern stockmen who couldn’t reach Bowen when the Burdekin River was in flood. Despite an inferior harbour, the town soon outstripped Bowen in terms of both size and prosperity, its growth accelerated by gold finds inland at Ravenswood and Charters Towers. Today, it’s the gateway to the far north and transit point for routes west to Mount Isa and the Northern Territory; it’s also an important military centre, seat of a university and home to substantial Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal communities.
The city itself is quite easy to navigate. The centre is roughly triangular and hemmed in by Cleveland Bay to the north, Ross Creek to the south and Castle Hill to the west. Following the north bank of Ross Creek, Flinders Street is the main drag, sectioned into a downtown pedestrian mall before running its last 500m as Flinders Street East.
The Whitsunday Islands look just like the granite mountain peaks they once were before rising sea levels cut them off from the mainland six thousand years ago. They were seasonally inhabited by the Ngaro Aborigines when Captain Cook sailed through in 1770; he proceeded to name the area after the day he arrived, and various locations after his expedition’s sponsors. Today, dense green pine forests, vivid blue water and roughly contoured coastlines give the 74 islands instant appeal, and the surrounding seas bustle with yachts and cruisers.
Airlie Beach, around 149km north of Mackay via the workaday sugar town of Proserpine, is the gateway to the islands. Despite an attractive setting, nobody comes here to spend time in town – it’s just a place to be while deciding which island to visit. Island ferries generally leave from Shutehaven (aka Shute Harbour), 10km on from Airlie past Cape Conway National Park. Other cruises leave from Abel Point Marina in Cannonvale, a sprawling community lying in the wooded shadows of the Conway Range, just around the headland from Airlie Beach.
Buzzing with backpackers, AIRLIE BEACH is nestled between the sea and a hillside covered in apartment blocks, with all services crammed into one short stretch of Shute Harbour Road and the 100m-long Esplanade. Despite the name, Airlie Beach has only a couple of gritty stretches of sand, which get covered at high tide – though the view of the deep turquoise bay, dotted with yachts and cruisers, is gorgeous. To make up the shortfall, there’s a free, open-air landscaped pool between Shute Harbour Road and the sea, complete with showers, changing rooms, picnic hotplates, benches, emerald lawns and even a little sand. From here, a boardwalk skirts around the headland to Abel Point Marina.
Resorts first opened here in the 1930s and now number eight, but the majority of islands are still undeveloped national parks, with campsites on seventeen of them. Resorts aside, the few islands left in private hands are mainly uninhabited and largely the domain of local yachties. Those covered here all have regular connections to the mainland. Don’t miss the chance to whale watch if you’re here between June and September, when humpbacks arrive from their Antarctic wintering grounds to give birth and raise their calves before heading south again.
The largest island in the group, National Parks-run Whitsunday Island, is also one of the most enjoyable. Its east coast is home to the 5km-long Whitehaven Beach, easily the finest in all the islands, and on the agenda of just about every cruise boat in the region. Blindingly white, and still clean despite the numbers of day-trippers and campers, it’s a beautiful spot with blissfully little to do. The headland off the southern end of the beach facing Haslewood Island is the best place for snorkelling. On the beach’s northern end, a short track winds up to popular Hill Inlet Lookout for keenly photographed views of the sand-ridden bay.
Over on Whitsunday’s west side, Cid Harbour is a quieter hideaway that lacks a great beach but instead enjoys a backdrop of giant granite boulders and tropical forests, with several more campsites above coral and pebble shingle. Dugong Beach is the nicest, sheltered under the protective arms and buttressed roots of giant trees; from here you can walk along the narrow hill paths to another campsite at Sawmill Beach.
Directly north of Whitsunday, and pretty similar in appearance, Hook Island is the second largest in the group. Cruises sometimes pull into southern Nara Inlet for a look at the Aboriginal paintings on the roof of a small cave above a tiny shingle beach. Though not dramatic in scale or design, the art is significant for its net patterns, which are otherwise found only at central highland sites such as Carnarvon Gorge. On the rocks below the cave is more recent graffiti, left by boat crews over the last thirty years.
Snorkelling on the reef directly in front of Long Island’s resort is a must; snorkelling gear and surf skis are free (with deposit) to guests. The water is cloudy on large tides, but the coral outcrops are all in fairly good condition and there’s plenty of life around, from flatworms to morays and parrotfish. Day-cruises run from Airlie to the snorkelling spots and visit the top-rate fringing coral at Manta Ray Bay, Langford Reef and Butterfly Bay, on the northern and northeastern tips of the island – visibility can be poor here, but on a good day these sites offer some of the best diving in the Whitsundays.
The extremely high price of accommodation at Hayman pales into insignificance when compared with the resort’s building costs, which topped $300 million. Guests indulge in lush rooms, the best of which have extravagant antique furnishings, and staff move about through underground tunnels so that they don’t get in the way. Public access is restricted to just a couple of luxury tour operators although cruises and some dive-trips stop off for a look at the coral off Blue Pearl Bay – which isn’t actually that exciting – on the island’s west coast.
South Molle Island was a source of fine-grained stone for Ngaro Aborigines, a unique material for the tools that have been found on other islands and may help in mapping trade routes. A series of fabulous coastal walking tracks crisscross the island, including one that leads off from behind the nine-hole golf course through gum trees and light forest, encompassing vistas of the islands from the top of Spion Kop and Mount Jeffreys, and on to some quiet beaches at the south end.
Daydream Island is little more than a tiny wooded rise between South Molle and the mainland, with a narrow coarse-sand beach running the length of the east side, and coral to snorkel over at the north end.
Tiny Planton, Tancred and Denman islands are just offshore from South Molle – with no facilities and limited camping at the National Parks sites here, they’re about as isolated as you’ll get in the Whitsundays. All three are surrounded by reef, but be careful of strong currents.
Long Island is exactly that, being not much more than a narrow, 10km ribbon almost separated from the mainland forests by a 500m-wide channel. It has some fabulous beaches however, and there are a few looping hikes through the rainforest to Sandy Bay and up Humpy Point.
With a large marina, an airstrip, tons of motorized sports and several high-rise apartment towers, Hamilton Island is the only brazenly commercial spot on the islands. Privately owned, its businesses operate under a lease: development includes a quaint colonial waterfront with bank, post office, bakery, nightclub, a handful of overpriced restaurants and four hotels that fall under the umbrella of Hamilton Island Resort, plus many holiday homes. The twin towers of Reef View Hotel loom over the east beach complex, and the best view of the whole area is from one of its external glass lifts, which run up to penthouse level. To explore the island, you can rent a motorized dinghy or a golf buggy to ride around the residential roads twisting along the northern peninsula. The best option, though, is the well-used walking track to the 239m-high Passage Peak, which offers the finest 360-degree panorama in the Whitsundays.