Ewan McDonald 'snorkels' through the Reef's coral and marine life without getting his feet wet.

You can't really say Mission Beach is off the beaten track because thousands of surfers, kayakers, divers and skydivers — and people who just want to chill — find the place every weekend. Okay, every year.

But it is 10km off the main drag, the Bruce Highway. To get there, I drive 10km inland through a stretch of forest. Rounding a bend in early morning mist, a breathtaking sight: a cassowary picks its way along the grass verge.

The first of many unique Australians I'll meet today, it's a 190cm, 85kg, black-bodied, bright-blue necked, flightless prehistoric chicken with 12cm dagger-like claws, and it can run 50km/h.

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Cassowaries are very shy, though it's hard to see what a 190cm, 85kg prehistoric chicken could be afraid of. People building farms, building roads, driving cars, that's what. Less than 2500 cassowaries survive in northern Queensland, and those numbers are declining.
I park to take a photo, keeping the car between me and the bird (it's said they can kill a human with those claws, though there's only one recorded case, in 1926, and any lawyer would have got the cassowary off with a self-defence plea).

The cassowary looks at me. I look at it. It glides into the glade. Sometimes a memory is better than a photo.

Three hours south to Townsville and a deadline to get there means no side-trips to Ingham and the Wallaman Falls, Tully Gorge and its Ulysses butterflies, or Hinchinbrook Island. Take a day or three: all are, as the Guide Michelin used to say, worth the detour.

Townsville is the city of the reef, if not the city on the reef. Because the central section of the 2600km chain is a little further offshore here than in other parts of Queensland, it has some of the best sites for snorkelling, diving, and looking at the coral and marine life. Visitors can jump aboard a boat, helicopter or plane year-round.

Or not get their feet wet. Reef HQ — aka the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, on the banks of the saltwater Ross Creek — has the largest living coral reef in captivity, thousands of its residents — animal, vegetable and mineral — and cheery staff who are only too happy to tell you about them.

They stream underwater classroom sessions around the world, their online education programme probably reaching more people than visit the aquarium each year, according to reef education officer Craig McGrogan, a Kiwi who shows me around. For they, with many other experts and concerned citizens, recognise that the reef is in trouble, and education is the best — perhaps the only — answer.

The best way to describe the voyage through Reef HQ is like snorkelling without flippers or face mask. You begin with a series of small tanks that display smaller sealife up close — there's always a crowd in front of the poisonous stonefish, lionfish and sea snakes — including a seagrass aquarium with mangrove roots, and another showing how the crown-of-thorns starfish kills corals.

You walk through a viewing tunnel, similar but far larger than the one at Kelly Tarlton's in Auckland, with a predator tank on one side and the coral reef aquarium on the other.

With its reconstruction of the Yongala shipwreck, an intact shipwreck on the reef (a bucket-list dive for scuba fiends), the 750,000-litre predator tank draws oohs and aahs as sharks and some of those marvellously named large fish, such as the humphead wrasse, batfishes, groupers and napoleon fish, swim by.

The coral aquarium is clearly the highlight. Its 2.5 million litres of water are pumped from the Ross Creek and purified in a system on the aquarium roof so the pernickety coral can survive. Technicians create currents and alter the water level in the aquarium, vital for the animals.

Brightly coloured fish, brightly coloured coral, it's a sensory and a sensational, experience.

Last port of call: the turtle hospital, where vets and volunteers rehabilitate animals found in distress, too often the victims of unthinking or uncaring humans.

For the second time today, I make eye contact with a creature that has lived on this planet far longer than humans, and must be wondering what's going on.

There's little doubt Australia struggles to live in and with its beautiful, harsh, fragile environment; few have written so eloquently about this than the novelist and activist Tim Winton. Sometimes it's tempting to think that one civilisation has co-existed with this world for 40,000 years and another may still be trying to tame it after only 280.

Perhaps the cassowary knew that, and that's why it hid in the forest.

WHERE I'D STAY

Sunny (300 days a year), drier than other Queensland cities, nestled around Cleveland Bay and a jumping-off point for tourists, you won't find it hard to find a bed in Townsville. The Ville Resort-Casino is about to open a $42 million-plus rebuild. With less than 200 rooms, it maintains the feel of a mid-size hotel rather than a sprawling resort.
Bonus: views over the Coral Sea to Magnetic Island from many rooms.

WHERE I'D EAT

Townsville has had a foodie revolution in recent years. Whatever your poison — modern Italian (Donna Bionda), Asian fusion (Jam), Tex-Mex (Longboard), wholefoods (Beet Bar), seafood (Pier), fine dining (Michel's), you'll be well catered for. The newest kid in town, Miss Song's at The Ville, is classic Chinese meets Aussie informality: dumplings, char siu pork, crisp, whole baby barramundi, mud crab, lobster steamed with ginger and shallots.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Qantas

flies from Auckland to Townsville, via Brisbane, with return Economy Class fares from $776.

ONLINE
queensland.com
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