Queensland coast: Where the everyday and the strange come together
Experience the beauty and ugliness of nature, a rich indigenous culture and adventure
Teatree Bay, Noosa national park
I’m standing ankle-deep in warm waters, just off Lady Elliot Island at the southern-most tip of the Great Barrier Reef, gingerly holding a sea cucumber. Earlier, we had snorkelled the reef, marvelling at the coloured corals, and the rainbow and sunset-shaded fish darting about. This part of the Great Barrier Reef has escaped most of the coral bleaching that caused whole swathes of the northern reef to die off. I feel hugely privileged, as if I’m somewhere precious, beautiful and fragile.
The same couldn’t quite be said for the sea cucumber. They’re not the most attractive creatures, and they’re tricky to describe without sounding like you’re getting involved with some weird fetish. This feeling gets stronger as Jessica, our guide, imparts some fascinating information: pearlfish, she tells us, like to make their homes in the backsides of sea cucumbers. Many simply shelter in the sea cucumber’s rear end, but other species also use them as food. Some sea cucumber species have retaliated by growing teeth. Yes, teeth, right where you were thinking.
Nature is absolutely extraordinary. Lady Elliot Island, made entirely of coral held together with centuries of bird guano, is quite aromatic but, like the reef itself, endlessly fascinating and other-worldly. White deckchairs on the beach look as if they’re ranged across the surface of the moon. But what else might you expect from the other side of the world?
We’re spending 10 days exploring Australia’s coastline from Brisbane, north via Noosa to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. On the way we will ride horses on a 50km golden sandy beach, cuddle koalas, feed dolphins, visit microbreweries, dip in a helicopter over wrecks sunk in turquoise seas, kayak through everglades, walk in rainforests and explore the rich, but brutally damaged indigenous culture.
Noosa itself makes a great base. It’s a little like Dalkey, in that it’s well-to-do and extremely pretty, but with an incredible beach as a bonus. It’s also the spot where two biospheres meet, so those with a fascination for nature can revel in the confluence of tropical rainforest and beaches. In fact there are 60 different ecosystems in the region, and the eco and conservation ethic is very strong. Noosa has been plastic-free for the past three years – Irish towns and villages take note.
Party with Putin
On the surface, things in Queensland feel familiar – apart from the endless sunshine, obviously. After all, the overlay of cultural legacies are from the era of transportation, and many of the transportees were Irish. But underneath that, there’s a rich and deep indigenous culture, where glorious stories tell of the origins of mountains, rivers and rainbows. In the Plaza Gallery at the Brisbane Convention Centre, you can see a phenomenal collection of Aboriginal art, in which patterns, dots and lines hide secret truths reserved from everyday eyes.
Tear yourself away from these to find a circular table. This was where the G20 leaders met in 2014. Plaques on the chair-backs appear to outline the seating plan for the worst dinner party ever. Angela Merkel is there, then, opposite her, the trio of Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin and David Cameron. I risked a sneaky sit on Putin.
The odd, everyday-strange tension continues. The buildings are familiar, and everyone is speaking English, but the flora and fauna are brilliantly exotic. I had been told that, in Australia, all nature is out to get you, from the undergrowth up. This may be true in some parts, but this area of Queensland is pretty benign, which is a huge relief. One evening, I walk along the Noosa boardwalk, as sun set over the sea, to the National Park, and then into the rainforest. The transition from the sounds of traffic to the calls of wild and unfamiliar birds, settling to roost in strangler fig trees, is profound. On the way back, I sit on the deserted beach, drinking in the sky. The moon hangs at an unfamiliar angle, and the constellations are all new to my eyes.
Go up the coast to discover beaches that seem to go on for ever, picturesque surfing spots and a laid-back lifestyle that is very contagious. Historically many were sent to Australia in unfortunate circumstances, and even more damage was done to those living there already, but surely they must all, at some point, have paused to look around them and think: this really does have all the ingredients for paradise on earth.
You’re spoiled for choice for things to do. Here are 10 to get you going, without even starting on the local obsession: surfing.
Horse Riding at Rainbow Beach: Pristine white sands, turquoise seas, and beautiful Australian quarter horses. What could be better? Rainbow Beach Horse Rides can also take you trekking through the mountains, spotting koalas as you go, or more experienced riders can swim with the horses. From $150 Australian dollars. rbhr.com.au
Explore the indigenous culture: Fascinating but also traumatic and heart-breaking, the stories of Australia’s Aboriginal people are told, and experienced as living culture by BlackCard Cultural Tours in Brisbane. It’s all painfully recent, and you’ll find yourself, by turns, intrigued, furious and moved. Walking tours from $55. theblackcard.com.au
Go kayaking in the Everglades: Just one of two Everglades in the world, kayak through kilometres of peaceful creeks in the Noosa Everglades, spotting birds, animals and extraordinary plants as you go. From $99, kanukapersaustralia.com
Picnic like a local: Queenslanders love their picnics, and what could be nicer after a long kayak than to find one laid out for you on the riverbank? Try Deep Love Picnics, or The Vintage Picnic for a deliciously retro occasion under the jacaranda trees. From $60 per person. deeplovepicnics.com, vintagepicnics.com.au
Go whale watching and dolphin spotting: The best whale-watching months are June to October, but the experience of being out at sea is glorious year-round. Whalesong Cruises can also include a swimming stop off and barbecue at Fraser Island, where you’ll feel like Robinson Crusoe (but in a good way). From $100. whalesong.com.au
Have a pot of beer, or even a schooner: Microbreweries are big news in Queensland, once known for nothing but Castlemaine XXXX. Felons at the new Howard Smith Wharves is a good people-watching spot in Brisbane. The four huge beer tanks behind the bar are named for the four original freed convicts to come to Brisbane: Pamphlet, Parsons, Thompson and Finnegan. Or take a Sunshine Coast Craft Beer Tour with Creative Tours from $150. Delicious. felonsbrewingco.com.au, creativetours.com.au
Cuddle a koala: Get to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary early to avoid the queues, and leave your cynicism behind as you melt into a (very) brief clinch with a koala. You can also hand-feed kangaroos and discover a hitherto unrealised love of wombats. Great for kids, and grown-ups, it all feels very special. Adult Day Pass, $34.20. koala.net
Take a 4x4 beach drive: Vince, our beach safari driver, was so all-Australian, I felt that we had wandered on to the set of Crocodile Dundee. He also made everything brilliant fun, as we sped along miles of perfect beach, part of the Great Sandy National Park, before picnicking and sea kayaking at the heavenly Double Island Point. It’s an amazing way to get around. Do it as a day trip from $120 with epicoceanadventures.com.au, or see also greatbeachdrive4wdtours.com
Feed the dolphins: There’s a lot to see and do at Tangalooma, including snorkelling wrecks specially sunk for the purpose, taking a beach safari, quad biking and soaking up more glorious beaches, but the highlight comes as dusk settles and a pod of dolphins come in for their fish supper. Weather permitting, stand in the water and hand-feed the dolphins. Available as part of a day trip or selected overnight stays. Day trips from $89. tangalooma.com
Get stuffed: Queensland abounds with amazing fresh local ingredients, including ginger, limes and macadamia nuts. An exciting generation of chefs are doing the necessary: such as Zeb Gilbert at Noosa’s Wasabi, where you can also join the Cooking School for a tasty session (wasabisb.com); and Matt Golinski at View, in the Peppers Resort, who made us the most amazing feast (peppers.com.au/noosa). In Brisbane, head to Eat Street. Housed in multicoloured shipping containers, it’s a whole world of incredible street food, to the accompaniment of live bands. eatstreetmarkets.com
We flew to Brisbane with Singapore Airlines, transiting at Changi in Singapore. Departures with partner Aer Lingus are via Shannon, Cork and Dublin, with connections at London Heathrow, Manchester, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Munich, Paris CDG, Zurich or Dusseldorf. Fares from €990pp round trip, including taxes. singaporeair.com
You’ll need a visa for Australia. Apply online, free of charge, at australia.gov.au. There are no mandatory vaccinations for travel. Biosecurity is taken very seriously, and you can’t bring food (even snacks), or seeds and plant material with you. This includes any herbal remedies containing the above.
WHEN TO GO
With the catchphrase “Beautiful one day, perfect the next”, average temperatures in winter (June to August) are in the low 20s, climbing to 28-30 in summer (December to March). The Sunshine and Fraser coasts are subtropical, so humidity is also high in summer. Sun protection is a must, and a sun hat and sunglasses are essential. Accumulated sunscreen itself is becoming a biohazard, so you’ll need reef-friendly sunscreen for snorkelling, available in Australia if you can’t get it here.
There are some super places to explore, and rest your head, up and down the Queensland coast. We stayed at Spicers Tamarind Retreat, a beautiful spot just inland in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, from $399, spicersretreats.com/retreats/spicers-tamarind-retreat; Peppers Noosa Resort, perched above Noosa Main Beach, from $250, peppers.com.au/noosa; Rainbow Ocean Palms in laid back Rainbow Beach, from $275, rainbowoceanpalms.com/au; Ramada Hervey Bay, a great jumping off point for Fraser Island and the Fraser Coast from $140, ramadaherveybay.com.au; the family-friendly Tangalooma Island Resort from $210, tangalooma.com; the ultra-glamorous Emporium on Brisbane’s South Bank (think rooftop infinity pool and bar), suites from $300, emporiumhotels.com.au; and the incredibly chic Calile Hotel in the hip Valley district of Brisbane from $250, thecalilehotel.com.