Australia: Life on the reef in Queensland
Slipping into the clear blue waters of a lagoon just off tiny Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef you take a deep breath and enter another world. It's nice there. Take a deep, deep breath - you might want to stay a while.
The Great Barrier Reef is an utterly awesome natural wonder. You've no doubt heard the superlatives - it's the world's biggest single structure made from living organisms. It's visible from outer space, it's 2,600km long and supports about 10pc of the world's fish species.
All of this is true and you'll hear it repeated and repeated on natural history shows on TV - but it doesn't prepare you for the sense of childish wonder you experience when you swim through a school of tiny blue and silver striped fish, or snorkel over the intricate exoskeleton of a trillion coral polyps, or sit on the edge of the Coral Sea gazing over the same waters that Cook sailed almost 250 years ago.
There are many places from where you can access the Great Barrier Reef, but I want to tell you about Lady Elliot Island - a tiny island that lies at the southern tip of the reef, 80km or so off the coast of Queensland.
First the history lesson: the island popped onto maps in the early 1800s - it's "culturally significant" to three aboriginal peoples, but the island's distance from the shore left it largely untouched by human hand for most of time. That spendid isolation was rudely interupted in the late 1800s, when it was heavily mined for guano by Chinese and Malay migrant labour - but the world turns, and growing ecological awareness alerted some visionaries to the island's true significance.
Today, the island is run as an eco resort - and as we flew in on a 10-seater airplane and bumped down the grass runway that bisects the 110-acre island we could see all the technology that the 'eco' tag entails. Solar panels and turbines for power, a deep well tapping an aquifier for water, a waste water plant for... well, I never knew self-sufficiency could be so fascinating.
But flush toilets are not the reason why people love to stay in the quaint standalone wooden bungalows dotted about resort. Lady Elliot Island's big draw is under the sea.
Just below the surface there are shy corals of incredible beauty and diversity. Hundreds of loggerhead and green turtles breed and hatch their young on the island beaches. Humpback whales migrate up the shore, singing whalesongs that delight and confuse swimmers. There are fish of every kind darting among the rocks of the lagoon. Not all at the same time, mind. For every animal there is a season.
However it's not the fish, but the tiny plankton that attracts Lady Elliot Island's star turn - the manta rays.
These gentle giants measure up to 5m wide, and they glide and swoop around the reef like underwater kites. As the majestic and elegant creatures cleave effortlessly through the crystal clear waters (almost 30 metre visibility!), I felt like a slack-jawed yokel, clumsy and gasping for air in a mask and snorkel.
We weren't the only ones watching in awe. David Attenborough's team were filming a BBC documentary to be screened next February (the great man himself arrived two days after we left). Set your video recorders now.
But despite all this aquatic richness, the island life isn't all undersea. A leisurely 40 minute walk around the island (technically a coral cay) gives you a sense of time's deep work: there's geological time, slow and awesome; human time, brief and fleeting - and of course there's my favourite: dinner time.
Food on Lady Elliot Island's only restaurant is served as a buffet (which means that going back for seconds is almost mandatory). But the highlight of dinner is the conversation around the tables, as surf-scrubbed faces eagerly discuss what they're seen (and learned) that day.
Early to bed and sleep comes gently while listening to the waves crashing onto the coral reef. Up early too, with the waves still crashing. I could live like this - but the airplane to take us back to the mainland was taxi-ing over the grass and so we took off, climbed into the sky and circled the island a couple of times.
Funny how you can find yourself getting emotional over a lump of coral in the middle of the sea. But humans are funny creatures, and Lady Elliot Island is a magical place - a place where the connection with nature amplifies an odd sense of being right there at the centre of creation. I used to say that it's only an island from the sea, and that's true, but it's also true from the skies - and with that the airplane banks south and sets course for Hervey Bay.
Now I've got to backtrack somewhat...
We'd arrived in Australia a few days earlier, landing in metropolitan Brisbane on a mission to explore Queensland's Nature Coast.
Our first destination was Mooloolaba - a warm and friendly seaside town, an hour or two north of Brisbane. We were booked into Oceans Mooloolaba - stylish two- and three-bed aparments, perfect for family size groups - all with fantastic views over the ocean, and a great pushing-off point for exploring the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
Of course, after parking our bags, the first thing that sun-starved Northern Europeans are going to do in these circumstances is hit the beach. Swimmers to the town beach on the right; surfers up the shore to the left - and there's a handy board hire shop just across from the beach. No need for wetsuits as the water is 22C and you could spend all day in it. It's also the best way to get over any jet lag.
There's something about salt water that ramps up the appetite. After a few hours I could eat for Ireland. And there's something about eating for Ireland that makes me able to sleep for Ireland. So I do both.
The next morning we turn away from the shore and head up into the foothills of the Glass House Mountains. It's proof that Queensland has more than great beaches going for it. The mountains are actually massive volcanic plugs of hardened lava, around which the softer stone has eroded over the millennia, and they rise abruptly out of the plains like something from a Middle Earth fantasy.
Shying away from the more arduous mountain trails, we stopped into Maleny Botanic Gardens and we were greeted by owner Frank Shipp, who has carved out of the mountainside a nature lover's dream garden. Acres upon acres of paths meandering through thousands of different plants - from azaleas to zinnias - it's a feast for the eyes and the botanist's heart.
Just beyond the must-see Australia Zoo (owned and made famous by the Crocodile Hunter, the late Steve Irwin) lie many mountain towns, each one prettier than the last.
We sped along mountain roads fringed with tea trees and red gums, past wineries and chocolatiers, pottery studios and gourmet coffeehouses. If only there was the time! All we wanted was to grab a bit of lunch but we were spoiled for choice. We could have stopped in any one of the small arts and crafts towns - but we chose Montville, and we descended on the Edge restaurant. As the name suggests, it's perched high over the cliffs and we watched eagles swoop over the Glass House Mountains as we tried some excellent Barramundi.
After lunch we were bound for another of those extravangantly named Aussie towns - Noosa Heads - a very chic and stylish beach town, set against the backdrop of an utterly stunning national park with tropical rainforests leading down to pristine white sand beaches. There's an easy trail running around by the shore, and high above us sleeping on a eucalyptus we even saw a koala bear.
Noosa is one of the more elegant towns of the Sunshine Coast - it's got designer boutiques, smart restaurants, art galleries, the full metropolitan vibe - but it's also got the traditional Aussie staples, like the beachfront surf club cafe selling pitchers of beer and Kahuna burgers. That sort of something-for-everyone mix that Australia excels in.
With such effortless beach chic on view around every corner, we had no choice but to pick a hotel with a poolside swim-up bar. De rigeur, don't you know? We checked in at the Sheraton Resort & Spa and found it to be the perfect spot. Near the beach? Check. Cocktail bar? Check. Spa and gym? Check. Big friendly welcoming smile? Check. Throw down your towel and enjoy the sunshine.
Queensland is big. Very big. About the size of Ireland, Britain, France and much of Luxembourg put together. So if you want to get your money’s worth you might be better off not keeping your eyes on the road in a hire car, but looking out the window for kangaroos, and using one of the excellent local coach services to get around.
That’s what we did — and it’s worth considering. I admit rear-window tourism is a niche market, but it’s growing...
Anyhow, from Brisbane Airport heading north we used Con-X-ion Coach (con-x-ion.com); our guided tour around the Glass House Mountains was with the superbly well-informed and highly recommended Lynn Fallon of Mystic Mountain Tours (mysticmountaintours.com.au); and around Hervey Bay, from where flights depart for Lady Elliot Island, we used Bay2Dore (bay2dore.com.au). All highly recommended.
But the best website you’ll use before and during your visit is queensland.com — it’s got all the inside information, suggested itineraries and local tips. Nature lovers looking for more on Queenland’s flora and fauna should visit australiasnaturecoast.com/ and also take a look through visitsunshinecoast.com.au
I quite fancy your bird
Many couples tie the knot in the Maleny Botantic Gardens, but we had our eyes skinned for birds of the feathered kind at the gardens’ walk-in aviary. You can wander through the absolutely massive enclosed space as cheeky macaws, lovebirds and parrots of all colours perch on your head or shoulders and mooch for sesame seeds. Full of mischief, and guaranteed to get even the grumpiest grinch grinning like a child. I did, anyway.
People in Glass Houses
The region around the Glass House Mountains is loaded with significance for many of the Aboriginal peoples, who use the area for ceremonies and trading. Even today, there are many ceremonial sites still protected - but there's plenty of room for hikers to explore trails and waterfalls in the forests. The best resource here is the Queensland Department of Parks website (nprsr.qld.gov.au), or talk to Lynn of Mystic Mountain Tours.
Somewhere up the lazy river
Noosa Heads is built on an interlinked network of canals, calm rivers and verdant headlands - in fact, it's so much on the water you have to work hard to stop calling it the Venice of Oz. If you're feeling energetic, it's a great idea to hire a kayak and paddle past the houses of the tanned Aussie aristocracy. Or if you're not feeling the love, hop onboard one of the river cruises and take it easy as it meanders up the lazy river.
Sunday Indo Living