After a few short days enjoying the balmy weather, palm fringed beaches and rainforests of Mission Beach and Dunk Island, the idea of a tropical island getaway was looking more and more appealing. At least we didn't have far to go!
When I think about fantasy holidays, the idea of cruising through the tropical waters of the Whitsundays on a charter yacht always rates well. Being able to explore the Great Barrier Reef and an island paradise under your own steam definitely appeals. Costing anywhere between $600 and $2000 a day, that fantasy wasn't about to be realised, so it was off to the mainland base of Airlie Beach to look for an alternative.
Airlie Beach is similar to Byron Bay, attracting its fair share of young international tourists keen to experience the best of the area. With that in mind, we propped ourselves at the tropical Island Gateway Holiday Park, just a few minutes out of the hustle and bustle of town. The park is neatly positioned between Shutehaven and the Airlie Beach marina, the key ports servicing the islands.
The tourist operators in the region cater for all budgets: there are day trips, overnight stays and longer visits to many of the 74 islands in the Whitsundays group. We tested the water with a Fantasea day trip to Hamilton Island, where we traded our Patrol for a golf buggy as our means of transportation. The tour started with a slow climb to the lookout to enjoy 360 degree views of the surrounding islands. We liked the look of the impressive yachts at berth in the marina, as well as the luxury pavilions at Qualia, on the northern tip of the island. After all the exploring, we had a swim in the beachside pools before being whisked away to Whitehaven Beach for the afternoon.
It's easy to see why Whitehaven Beach (pictured above) is the most photographed beach in Australia. Its beauty is stunning-clear blue waters gently lap blindingly white silica sand. It's a popular overnight stop for bareback boats, sea planes and ferries, the latter carrying day trippers from the mainland.
Shoulder season brings some affordable deals for island escapes.When we were there an overnight stay at Hamilton or Daydream started from $238 per room, including transfers, breakfast, and the usual non-motorised water sports. We opted for a night at Daydream Island (known properly as West Molle Island), a tiny speck within the Molle Islands National Park and a short, high speed ferry ride from Airlie. The décor and accommodation is a bit dated, but the island setting more than makes up for this. Unlike Hamilton, it's only a 10 minute walk to the other end of the island, so you can hobble around on foot without raising too much of a sweat. But just in case you do, there are pools and bars at both ends of the island. In our two days there, we arrived just before 9am, allowing ourselves plenty of time to relax and take advantage of all the activities. We walked through the rainforest, carved across the Molle Channel in a sail-powered catamaran, swam in the pools, hired a speed boat to circumnavigate the island and enjoyed a number of the eateries (plus the odd cocktail).
EUNGELLA NATIONAL PARK
Trading sea-scape for tree-scape we headed to Eungella NP in the Mackay Highlands, which boasts Australia's longest stretch of sub-tropical rainforest and is home to the 56km Mackay Highlands Great Walk. If your enthusiasm is limited to moderate exercise, the rainforest environment is also home to a number of excellent short walks with nature spotting activities.
The sealed road out of the Eungella Township will see you making regular stops for the walks and views. Not far along, you arrive at Sky Window where a circuit through the rainforest opens up to a viewing platform that looks directly down the valley, with views across the Clarke Range (pictured above). Further on, you can spot a platypus or turtle in Broken River, with your best chance to see one in the early morning or late afternoon. Make sure you stop into the information hut to pick up a visitor guide, which will help you explore the surrounding area on foot or by vehicle.
There are plenty of good bush camping spots in either the national park, Crediton State Forest or at Eungella Dam. The Diggings Campground on Broken River was our favourite for the quiet serenity, with easy access off the main road via a narrow unsealed track. Beyond the campground, a 4WD only track climbs the range joining the Eungella Dam Road.
Denham Range camping area in the Crediton State Forest is further off the beaten track and is accessed via a forest trail that winds its way through rainforest and open bushland. It borders the Homevale Resources Reserve which links to a section of the Mackay Highlands Great Walk.
We propped ourselves on a powered site at Explorer's Haven in Eungella. The camping area is home to only 20 sites plus a few cabins, making it a peaceful stay. During the day, the views rival that of Sky Window and come evening, the area is cloaked in low flying cloud.
Exiting the valley, we stopped in at Finch Hatton Gorge which offers more rainforest walks with the option of a cool dip in the rock pools.
To round out the month, we spent some time exploring the Byfield area on the Capricorn coast, about 70km north east of Rockhampton. It sits below the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area, a strictly off-limits wilderness area managed by the defence forces. The Byfield region is home to the only 4WDing destination on the Capricorn Coast; with massive parabolic sand dunes, rainforests, fresh water lagoons, bays, coastlines and forest tracks making it a cracker.
We camped at Red Rock Campground in Byfield State Forest (pictured above), only a kilometre off the Yeppoon-Byfield Road. The campsite is set under towering pines with flushing toilets, brick fire places, plenty of mature shade and sufficient sunlight for a solar panel or two. There is a swimming hole within easy walk of the camp, and although saltwater crocodile warning signs were on display none of the locals seemed worried.
The national park along the coast offers the most fun you can have on four wheels, exploring sandy tracks inland and along the beach The only obstacle, known as Big Sandy, is the large dune that acts as gatekeeper to the beach. Two cutaways are carved into the dune, each with a number of wombat holes in either wheel track. According to the locals, stick to the right hand cutaway which offers easier passage through the powdery-soft sand. The track weaves its way up the dune with limited visibility, so look out for other vehicles. Fortunately we didn't meet anyone and, with our tyres reduced to super flotation levels, we cruised up the big dune without an issue.
The track leads to a tiny fishing village called Stockyard Point, home to a dozen or so locals. The access track is decorated with fishing nets, buoys, tinnies and other marine paraphernalia. There are no shops, barring the one selling sand worms.
Once past Big Sandy, the tracks in the national park are well maintained with traction mats, planks and wood chips providing traction where needed. The track eventually drops down to Nine Mile Beach where you can camp in one of the four campsites behind the dunes. The Orange Bowl is a large sand blow, accessible on foot from the beach, just past Freshwater Creek, about a kilometre past the beach access. It was formerly open to vehicles but was closed to protect the environment. The floor of the bowl was littered with rubbish and with the steep, bowl-like walls, you can imagine the potential for vehicle carnage and environmental damage. An energetic climb to the top of the bowl rewards you with sea views.
You can cruise down the southern end on Nine Mile Beach and cross over the headland to Corio Bay, a popular boat launching and fishing spot. Keep an eye on the tides if you venture down this far, as the beaches are very soft and difficult to traverse near the high water mark.
The soft sand within the national park including Big Sandy make camper trailer access difficult, with the coastal area best suited for day trips while camping in the state forests.
That brings us to the end of our adventure this month. Next month we explore the last of our Queensland hot spots; the town of 1770, Eurimbula and Deepwater National Parks and the Turtle Rookeryat Mon Repos.
Island Gateway Holiday Park, www.toptouristparks.com.au, 1800 466 528.
Fantasea Cruises, www.fantasea.com.au, 1800 650 851.
Bush camping, www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks, 13 74 68,$5.30/night per person.
Explorer's Haven, www.eungella.com, (07) 4958 4750.
Paveys' blog, www.tracktrailer.com.au/paveys.html.