Australia: The great green world of Queensland's nature coast
It's easy to get your knickers in a twist about the marquee names on the nature tent.
You won't find many people who don't love their elephants and their whales - even long-ossified dinosaurs have their own corner in the cuddly creature stakes. But while giving them their place in the kingdom, I really think it's the little animals - the polyp, the swallow, the moth - that do the heavy lifting and build the foundations.
Respect to the little ones is what I'm saying. And in short, that was what brought me to Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island in Queensland, to get up close and personal with one of my, ahem, childhood favourites. (Drum roll please.)
So with no further ado, ladies and gentle- men, let me introduce you to a right little horror. Always ugly, always angry, always deadly, I give you . . . the funnel-web spider.
Before you get all antsy on me, let me explain that "up close and personal" in this case means standing well behind the park ranger who was the one knocking on the door of the tiny arachnid's funnel.
It was a tense moment. We were on the ranger-guided night walk, learning about the rare and unusual wildlife on Fraser Island. But before I get too carried away, perhaps I should set the scene a bit.
Fraser Island is a wonderful freak of nature. It's the largest sand island in the world, with all the world heritage kudos that a 123km long and 22km wide island could have. It's part of the tribal lands of the Butchulla people, whose name for the island is K'gari - that is, paradise.
It's well-named. Even though it's a sand island (made up of gazillions of tiny bits of Antarctica, washed around the south-eastern coast of Australia then deposited 200km or so north of where Brisbane now lies), the vagaries of hundreds of thousands of years of climatic conjuring and land formation left it capable of sustaining all manner of life.
All manner means all manner. It's a place of exceptional beauty, with an uninterrupted 100km of white beaches flanked by deeply hued sand cliffs on the Pacific side. In the in- terior, ancient rainforests grow along the banks of crystal-clear creeks. And there are more than 100 freshwater lakes, some tea-coloured, more of them clear and blue, but all ringed by white sandy beaches.
And animal-wise? Let's see, in the air there are eagles, falcons, kingfishers, cockatoos, pelicans and kookaburras. On the land you've got dingoes, wallabies, bandicoots, possums, flying foxes, goannas, snakes and geckos. In the water there are dugongs, turtles, stingrays, sharks (lots of sharks, no surfing here, poss-ums). And in between there's the intertidal stuff - mainly inch-tall blue-shelled soldier crabs which, unlike Ireland's sideways crabs, can actually walk forwards (and they will bravely advance almost right up to you, in formations of several hundred at a time).
Kingfisher Bay Resort, where we were staying, knows all too well the brilliance of this jewel. This laid-back resort luxuriates in the wonders of eco-tourism, with nature-themed activities available from the dawn patrol at 6.30 in the am until the ranger-guided night walk to see the funnel-web spider, which I think is where we came in.
The tiny spiders build their burrows under rocks or rotting wood, near paths along which prey might wander. The spider then spins irregular silk trip-lines radiating from the entrance - and from there it's a matter of sitting back and waiting for something to bite.
Any chance we could see this? "No worries, mate," said the ranger, and within minutes he'd spotted a freshly excavated burrow - which couldn't have been more than 6mm wide.
In the torchlight, it looked like nothing at all. Utterly unremarkable. A leaf, a bit of wood, all the usual stuff you'd see by a forest path after the sun has gone down and you're on the other side of the world looking for one of the most venomous creatures known to man.
The ranger snapped a thin twig off a tree. "Now watch closely," he said, as we intuitively herded ourselves behind him (allowing him the privilege of the first bite). He brushed the ground in front of the tiny hole in the ground.
It was all over in a second. But even now, thinking back on it, I can replay it in slow motion in my mind's eye.
He gently tipped the silk trip-wire . . . and a 3mm-wide spider popped its head into the funnel entrance and shot outside into the bright pool of torchlight before realising we were not dinner and shooting back indoors.
As one, we all exhaled. And then started giggling. Dublin gurriers, playing nick-knock on Fraser Island.
Folly that, you might say, and he did - pointing out sugar gliders flitting from tree to tree, and even a specimen of the invasive (but infamous) cane toad. It was a superlative example of the tiny wonders of nature just waiting to fascinate and enthral.
But nature is more than habitats and fruit bats, and every eco army marches on its stomach, so we had to hurry back to the hotel for one of Kingfisher Bay Resort's most popular activities, the bush tucker talk and taste.
Two chefs from the resort's Seabelle restaurant took up the theme. The pair venture out every day to do their foraging, and bring the results back to the kitchen to blend locally-sourced produce with traditional Australian bush tucker.
We learned new words (anyone for quandong, kakadu or lillypilly?) and experienced new tastes, and later that evening in the Seabelle we sampled akudjura and pepperberry calamari and crocodile with watermelon, warrigal greens with lemon aspen butter, barramundi and macadamia nuts cooked in paperbark and tea tree-smoked kangaroo with a quandong jus. Delicious and daring.
Early to bed - after a warm evening walk, gazing at the upside down constellations, the Southern Cross and the incredibly bright Milky Way - and early to rise. Up before dawn for a segway jaunt down the beach, spotting dingo paw prints in the sand and repelling countless divisions of soldier crabs.
Then into a 4x4 truck for a trip to the ancient forests at the heart of Fraser, and an- other learning curve. Apparently, the competition for light is very intense in rainforest areas, resulting in very tall and straight-stemmed trees that have few branches until they reach the upper canopy. That brief sentence underlies the how and the why of the island's massive satinay trees, which were used in the construction of the Suez Canal and in rebuilding London's docks after they were blitzed by the Nazis.
Walking through the planned trails can bring out your inner Bear Grylls - in fact, this is where Australia's elite commandos trained during the Second World War.
But that's a tale for another day, and all too soon we had to say goodbye to Fraser/K'gari and watch the dolphins escort us on the ferry to Hervey Bay. We had a lunch date at Enzo's on the Beach, and after that a swim - just to prep us for a drive down to Rainbow Beach from where the final leg of our trip would start - driving down the coast towards Brisbane.
I had one particular pilgrimage to make: Double Island Point, a famous surfing wave 10km south of Rainbow Beach. On a good swell and a full tide, a right-hander wraps around the point and breaks over sand for a reputed 300 metres. Alas, it wasn't working when we were there. Such is a pilgrim's lot, and I've learned to be okay with that, so instead we climbed the headland to the lighthouse and looked out on the sea where Cook and Banks and later Flinders did their exploring.
We had signed up for the 75km Great Beach Drive with Surf and Sand Safaris and we piled into one of their customised 4WDs to discover our driver, Glenn, was a mine of information. With the Great Sandy national park on our right and the bright blue Pacific on our left we took the most direct route - over the beach. Although we were on sand, normal road rules apply, so no donuts allowed.
We motored down the beach, windows down, enjoying the ocean's spray and the sun on our skin. Beach fishermen cast long lines into the surf; they smiled and waved at us. Farther along, kids threw themselves into waist-high breakers, shrieked with joy and waved at us. We waved back. After all, this is a friendly country. This is Queensland.
Australia is a sunburnt country with a great big toothy grin and you can't help but love it. You'll take home great memories from a trip to Queensland, but maybe the most memorable thing of all will be the go-ahead attitude of everyone you meet - guides, drivers, waiters, fellow travellers. The can-do attitude of Queenslanders shines out alongside the land's magnificent natural beauty. A couple of years ago a competition was set up in Queensland, offering 'the best job in the world' to one winner. After only a week on what they call Australia's Nature Coast, I reckon that the entire population thinks they won that top prize.
It's metropolitan, massive, stylish and chic and the hometown of heart-swollen indie crooners The Go-Betweens, so I knew I would like Brisbane. But wow, I never knew it was so big. Best to stay central, then, so we checked-in to TRYP Fortitude Valley - a great little hotel, very modern, near James Street market and Chinatown and a short walk from the Story Bridge. You can climb it if you like. Me? I pleaded vertigo and went to the shops.
The rainbow comes from the minerals which colour the sand in deep reds, mustard yellows, charcoal blacks and gleaming whites. The town is laid-back, perfect for beach-orientated holidaymakers and those who want to ride a horse though the surf (no, really). We took apartments at the Ocean Palms Resort - great size for families, a nice pool and near Carlo Sandblow, a great sunset-watching spot (and the pizza's good at Arcobaleno).
K'gari from above
Not a lot of people know this, but there are only two places in the world where a beach is used for scheduled flights - Barra in the Outer Hebrides and Fraser Island in Queensland. And it's a real 'chocks away' buzz as you bundle into the eight-seater Airvan and trundle down the beach, taking off over the crashing surf. Perfect for whale-watching, taking day trips from Hervey Bay or just getting a sense of the diversity of Fraser/K'gari.
Sunday Indo Living