They arrive before dawn. A solitary car pulls up, then two, then a dozen. With cloth bags tucked under arms and torches clasped in hands, a troupe of eager gourmands makes its way along the edge of a suburban football ground to an unassuming string of tarpaulin-covered stalls – the Noosa Farmers’ Market.
The small coastal district of Noosa, with its golden beaches and laid-back hippy roots, may seem an unlikely candidate as Queensland’s unofficial culinary capital, but its location between the fresh seafood of the coast and the farm goods from the surrounding hills has seen the town gain a reputation that draws visitors from all over the country.
Plump strawberries are neatly piled beside crates of forest-green avocados the size of gourds, perky starfruit, and passionfruits like cricket balls. Beyond the fruit, fresh artisan breads, cheeses and exotic concoctions such as ‘golden kiwi sweet chilli sauce’ or ‘lychee balsamic vinegar’ are in high demand. By the time the sun is out and the main crowds arrive, the early risers are finished, settling down for a flat white coffee and a free-range egg and bacon roll.
It may look like a gentle tropical paradise, but Fraser Island – as wild and unpredictable as it is beautiful – commands respect. At more than 80 miles in length, the island is the world’s largest sandbank, and it teems with life. The skies are filled with birds, from the darting form of the spangled drongo to the white-bellied sea eagle that rides the breeze on wings spanning two metres. The waves conceal whales, dolphins and sea turtles, and the western beaches are covered with armies of blue-backed soldier crabs that rear up on their hind legs and flee in panic at the approach of a human foot. Emerging occasionally from the brush are wallabies, echidnas, possums and palm-sized sugar gliders.
There are also some creatures of the less cuddly variety. ‘We have six of the world’s ten deadliest snakes,’ local photographer Peter Meyer says cheerfully, with a hint of pride that’s common to Australians when talking about things that might kill you. ‘Not to mention the spiders – the Fraser Island funnel-web is the deadliest spider in the world. But they’re unlikely to hurt you if you don’t disturb them, and it’s very rare for people to be bitten.’ He gives a chuckle. ‘The thing I’m most afraid of is the ants,’ he says. ‘We’ve got an inch-long bull ant here that will rip your leg off.’
The Whitsunday archipelago is made up of 74 islands, and several of them are spread out in the sea below like mossy rocks set on an azure blue quilt. Pilot David Macfarlane gently drops one wing of his tiny 12-seater seaplane and wheels around the northernmost point of Whitsunday Island. ‘Here it comes,’ he says through the crackle of the on-board speakers. The island’s soft green hills suddenly part and a broad estuary is revealed, an impossibly scenic tidal river with overlapping swirls of sand and sea meandering off into the distance in shades from glassy green to sky blue and deepest jade.
In the distance, a raucous group of kids is playing beach cricket and others are venturing into the waves, each clearly visible in the astonishingly translucent water. This is Whitehaven, considered one of the greatest beaches in the world. The secret is in the sand. It’s the brightest white – almost blindingly so on a sunny day like this one – and is 98 per cent silica, which makes it talcum-powder fine and so reflective that, no matter how blisteringly hot the sun, it is always cool to the touch.
Port Douglas: best for snorkelling and divingWith a sloshing, spluttering sound, six heads emerge from the water in unison, each adorned with snorkels and masks. ‘Did you see it?’ asks one. ‘I’m sure I did. Look again.’ Then down they go, to peer at the vast, colourful world of coral and sea life just a few feet below them, stretching out as far as the eye can see. This is just a tiny section of the mighty Great Barrier Reef, which covers 135,000 square miles – an area significantly larger than Britain – along the Queensland coast, supporting thousands of species of fish, sea turtles, sharks and whales, with corals in 400 varieties.
On view today are the staghorn coral – its hard, pointed antlers growing thick and knobbly – and the maze-patterned blobs of brain coral, as well as the purple, fan-shaped ‘elephant’s ears’. Then, from the softly grasping, greenish-mauve fingers of a sea anemone, the orange-and-whitestriped clownfish made famous by Pixar and Disney’s Finding Nemo emerges, and a silent ballet of excited slow-motion pointing begins among the snorkellers.
‘It’s an incredibly diverse world,’ says John Scotese, a Chicago-born marine biologist aboard the Wavedancer catamaran floating in the waters nearby. ‘Every day I go down there, I tend to find a new plant or animal I haven’t seen before. And if I don’t, I feel genuinely surprised.’
Some of the bulls are ‘cleanskins’ – wild and wilful unbranded cattle born in the bush – and it’s not unknown for them to lower their horns and charge. The horses are no domesticated nags, either, having been drawn from the ranks of ‘brumbies’, or feral horses, that roam in mobs around the surrounding hills. These dusty cattle yards are set in 70,000 acres of largely untouched bushland, in the shadow of one of Australia’s most remarkable natural structures.
Mount Mulligan is a huge sandstone escarpment around ten times the size of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, that rears out of the landscape and runs for more than 11 miles along the horizon. To the local Djungan people, it is known as Ngarrabullgan, the birthplace of the Rainbow Serpent god, and is one of the most sacred sites in Australia. Fringed with green, the rock looms over the stockmen’s bunkhouse and slowly changes from a fiery orange to a soft mauve as the sunlight begins to fade.