An adventure in Australia’s Wild West

Daintree forest, Queensland © Getty images
Daintree: the world’s oldest forest

“Since [Captain] Cook’s first foray into the Waalumbaal [in 1770], Queensland’s far north continued to be a meeting point of cultures, from indigenous tribes to Chinese gold prospectors, European missionaries and farmers,” says Christa Larwood in Lonely Planet magazine.

The region has long been Australia’s answer to the Wild West, “where the dangers of nature are ever present and independence is prized”. If you were running from the law, this is where you would come; “or a woman”, a man jokes while queueing for beef pies at Cooktown’s habourside bakery.

Further south, Daintree is the world’s oldest forest. “Endemic plants, such as the pink-budding ribbonwoods peaking through the chaos of foliage, have lineages dating back 180 million years,” while “creatures that pass in peripheral snatches of colour resemble something prehistoric themselves.” Take the cassowary, for example – a huge bird “with its predator’s gait and bony, shark-fin crest”. At the forest edge lies a “golden ribbon of sand, then a plunge into [the] clear blue” water of the Pacific.

Surfing is obligatory

Down the bottom of the state, but still a two-hour drive up from Brisbane, is Noosa – a much overlooked alternative to Sydney’s thrumming Bondi beach. You won’t have the white sands all to yourself, says Helen Ochyra in The Sunday Times, but there’s nowhere near the crush there is at Bondi, and you will find “authentic Aussie beach culture in spades”.

The water is warm, the sand pristine and the boardwalk “lined with cafés serving a mean flat white”. Surfing lessons are, of course, obligatory. Head out with Noosa Surf Lessons and “see whether you can continue to look cool when you’ve got a face full of salt water”.

Off the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef stretches out for 1,400 miles in the Coral Sea. Cod Hole is one of the reef’s most famous dive sites, says William Gray in Wanderlust magazine. “Kneeling in a semi-circle on the sandy seabed… we watched half a dozen sofa-sized groupers converge on us… [following] us around like obedient fat Labradors. It was almost as if they wanted to remind us that, despite the hawksbill turtles, moray eels, cuttlefish and clouds of reef fish… they were still the stars.”

Yet the seabed hasn’t always been so cosy. One of the worst “bleaching events” – when rising sea temperatures cause corals to expel their life-giving symbiotic algae – occurred last year, followed by another in early 2017.

Then there were cyclones and an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish, creatures which feed on certain corals. Luckily the reef is nothing if not resilient. If sea temperatures fall within a few months of the bleaching event, the algae can be reabsorbed, says Gray. “Corals have evolved to endure a lot.” But only through better awareness of climate change can the reef be protected in the long term. “Its future is in our hands.”

Humpback highway

Humpback whales follow a migratory route between May and November that passes down this coastline, known locally as the “humpback highway”, says the Daily Mail’s Naomi Leach. “After feeding in the krill-rich waters of Antarctica, adults travel to warmer breeding grounds around Cairns, while mothers and their calves loiter in Hervey Bay, which offers a natural nursery for the youngsters as they learn important survival skills.”

The area is applying for Whale Heritage Site status, and “they certainly deserve it”, adds Leach after spotting “an intimate audience with pairings of curious whales and lively pods of dolphins” (HerveyBayWhaleWatch.com.au).

The Island Boutique Hotel in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast used to be renowned for wildlife of quite another sort, says Emily McAuliffe in The Daily Telegraph. As it is, following an interior overhaul, The Island has become one of the area’s “trendiest hotels”. (From £87 a night, TheIslandGoldCoast.com.au).