You can snorkel amongst scores of fish but it’s not on the Great Barrier Reef. Hand-feed the dolphins, but it’s not at Monkey Mia. Drive along the sandy beach but you’re not on Fraser Island. Treacherous surf to the east, tranquil waters to the west, but no stingers, no dingoes and no sign of sharks. Miles of empty beaches – with no sealed roads on the island at all – and a vast expanse of scorched, lifeless desert. Welcome to Queensland’s giant sand-pit, Moreton Island.
It’s a tough climb to the top, but skimming down the sand dunes at 65km an hour is so exhilarating it makes each gruelling ascent worthwhile.
There’s no fancy equipment needed – just a piece of hardboard and a stub of wax. Holding the front end up is all there is to it. Waxing the shiny side makes you go that little bit faster, and by picking a smooth track of sand you get a speedy ride all the way to the bottom of the dune and beyond. But, yes, that crunchy aftertaste is worth trying to avoiding.
There is, of course, one more drawback. Sand slips beneath clothes and seems to sneak into every orifice including those vulnerable bits down under. Nothing a dip in the calm waters of Moreton Bay can’t wash off though.
The sea here is far safer for swimming than the pounding eastern surf and is also teeming with dolphins, dugongs and turtles.
Having counted eight dolphins during the ferry crossing from Brisbane, and five from the panoramic view at the Cape headland, it’s no surprise when we see another two swimming close to shore.
You can pay a premium to stay at the Tangalooma Wild Dolphin resort and take part in the nightly feeding session at the jetty. Biologists have named each of the resident bottlenose dolphins and keep tabs on their behaviour. But you’re also likely to see and even swim with the dolphins while snorkelling around the shipwrecks lying a few hundred metres from the beach.
These rusting heaps are the remnants of Tangalooma’s controversial past as a whaling station. In 10 years the whalers killed 6,000 humpbacks, making this year’s Japanese expedition to southern waters look trivial.
At the island’s northern-most tip you can still watch the mammoth migrating mammals (April-November) from the old stone lighthouse.
More than a dozen ships, including one of the old whaling vessels, now form an artificial reef that is a haven for fish and snorkellers alike.
Up close the twisted, coral-encrusted wrecks bear jagged edges sharp enough to slice through flesh like butter.
Each metal carcass has become home to myriad sea creatures. Damselfish and bream find shelter amongst a chain of dredge buckets, while the tails of wobbegong sharks – patterned with brown and orange splodges like a bad sixties-style carpet – poke out from beneath the hull.
As with the dolphins, the fish are hand-fed. So I’m followed through the wrecks by a cavalcade of pesky little fish nipping at my toes in anticipation of a meal.
There are no organised DIY trips to explore Moreton Island, as there are for Fraser. We forgo a little adventure for the comfort of prepared meals and guided drives. A permanent camp at Ben Ewa beach serves as home for the night. Huddled around the camp fire roasting marshmallows, we’re entertained by an unlikely trio of musicians.
Carlos from Argentina strums passionately on the guitar, while Japanese student Sho accompanies on the didgeridoo. Saudi traveller Omar taps along a beat with the drum and we’re even treated to a flamenco dance from German backpacker Fabienne complete with camping spoon castanets. With 11 nations represented around the fire, it makes for a lively evening.
“Fraser is all about the lakes but Moreton has the beaches” says Anna, our guide, as we cross the island heading for the Blue Lagoon. This large freshwater lake is infused with skin-softening tea tree oils and the shallow, clear waters are just the place to relax with a cold beer.
As on Fraser Island, it’s best to get about by jeep. Without 4WD control, negotiating the soft sand and undulating tracks through the rainforest is nigh impossible, as we find out on our last afternoon. “I have no front wheel control,” shouts Matt as we hurtle around a corner, wheels skidding across the loose sand like skating on ice. “I’ll use my skills as a Canadian driving in snow,” he adds in a reassuringly confident manner.
We’re thrown around inside the car like seeds in a rattle as he speeds over the bumpy patches trying to reach camp without stalling. I almost believe he’ll make it, but inevitably we grind to a halt at the base of a hill, wheels spraying sand into the surrounding bush. We return to camp at the end of a tow rope.
Not the most thrilling ending for an action weekend, but what’s an adventure without the odd mishap?
Brissie’s best breakaways
How on Earth did the Brits manage to turn North Stradbroke Island, with all its natural beauty, into a convict settlement, a nuthouse and a leper colony?!
Seems to us, the colonialists were the crazy ones. It’s a fabulous chunk of sand, seemingly purpose-built for natural hedonism.
Get to ‘Straddie’ from Cleveland, a bayside suburb, accessible by train from Brisbane. Or stay overnight in a Manly hostel and cut the trip time down. All transport arrives in Dunwich, then a 20-minute bus ride takes you to Point Lookout, where you can stay within spitting distance of the beach.
Although not the most imaginatively named place, it’s a stunning spot. You can hike around the foreshore, crossing beautiful beaches, bays and rocky outcrops and maybe even spot a migrating whale, dolphin, turtle or shark.
Crocodile Hunter fans may feel no trip to Australia is complete without a visit to Australia Zoo. One of the country’s biggest wildlife centres, it’s home to everything from Tasmanian devils to Bengal tigers… And a lot of crocs.
Expect endless tributes to Steve Irwin and plenty of “crikeys!” Adult entry is $53 and the cheapest transport is a return trainfare to Beerwah – then a free bus.
If you’re in the mood for hiking, rock climbing or gawping at dramatic scenery have a think about the Glass House Mountains. Trains go from Brisbane. Visit www.glasshousemountains.com.au.