Queensland: Captivated by the Coral Cay

By Paul Rush

Untouched and untainted islands can offer curious creatures as well as creature comforts, writes Paul Rush.

Heron Island is bursting with curious birdlife, crawls with nesting turtles in season, abounds in aquatic mammals and is full of fish that instantly indulge in feeding frenzies.
Heron Island is bursting with curious birdlife, crawls with nesting turtles in season, abounds in aquatic mammals and is full of fish that instantly indulge in feeding frenzies.

The city of Gladstone is a unique place in sunny Queensland. It's built on hills overlooking a natural deepwater harbour and has grown from a 'sleepy hollow' to a major industrial base in two decades.

Remarkably, as Queensland's largest multi-commodity port, Gladstone retains the charm of a coastal resort with direct access to the Southern Great Barrier Reef coral cays known as Heron and Wilson islands. This progressive city lies close to idyllic beaches on the south coast and proudly boasts a succession of 'Queensland Tidy Towns' awards.

As an adventure holiday enthusiast I love to visit sub-tropical islands that teem with wildlife. Heron Island, a fast ferry ride offshore from Gladstone, is a shining example of such places. It's bursting with curious birdlife, crawls with nesting turtles in season, abounds in aquatic mammals and is full of fish that instantly indulge in feeding frenzies.

Heron Island is a large family-oriented resort with its clocks permanently set to daylight saving time due to its warm winter temperatures. As the ferry glides in, I'm agog at the sparkling white sands, crystal-clear waters and fringing coral reefs alive with colourful marine life.

Stepping ashore I'm soon captivated by legions of swift, swerving black noddy terns that greet me on the sandy track to the resort. They dart and dive at breakneck speed, their wings a charcoal blur of rapid motion like a speeded-up cinematic image. There are 100,000 terns on this island during the nesting season and they all seem delighted to welcome eco-sensitive visitors to their place.

My initial walk with the birds feels like a re-enactment of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. However, the beachside villa that is my home is a blissfully calm haven of peace. There is a comfortable queen-size bed, ample en suite and fully stocked minibar. My room provides refined relaxation to balance the raw nature outside. From my window I watch the delicate ecology of life as it ebbs and flows.

Along with my newfound friends, the 'noddies', there are quaint buff-banded rails that love sneaking into the bar area for a surreptitious snack. When dust falls, thousands of mutton birds (sooty shearwaters) return from their fishing forays and head for their underground burrows.

They are curious critters and distinguish themselves by being decidedly awkward and poorsighted on land and often blundering into walls and trees. They also set up a mournful moaning chorus throughout the night. Early seafarers hearing the eerie lament were convinced that the island was haunted by ghosts.

However, I'm here to witness nature in its rawest guise, so following best practices in turtle watching I creep along the shoreline at dusk, gazing intently into the murk for large round rocks on the beach. Soon I spot one and stand transfixed some distance away from the 80-year-old mum.

After five minutes the black silhouette has not moved. Maybe the old dear is finding the physical effort too great. I advance carefully towards her and determine that it's actually a rock. Turtle Watching 101; be sure your object is actually a turtle.

Armed with knowledge gained from practical experience, I soon find a turtle burying itself in a big hole. All four flippers are sweeping in unison, sending showers of sand backwards, filling up another crater in this moonscape beach. After 20 minutes the turtle cups a rear flipper into the shape of a hand and excavates 50cm deep chamber into which she will drop her 120 leathery white eggs and then fill in the hole.

I learn another valuable lesson by inadvertently walking in front of a turtle, who cleverly cups her rear flipper and sends a large handful of sand into my face as if to say, 'Clear off cobber, we've been nesting here for 1000 years and don't like interlopers'. I turn in for the night, buzzing. It's enough to be living in the midst of a crowded aviary without having to withstand D-day landings and the invasion of the body sprayers.

All this nesting action takes place in November-March. The tiny turtle hatchlings start to emerge in January, taking five days to scrabble to the surface. When dusk falls they sense the cooling of the sand and break out en masse to race to the sea. Unfortunately, silver gulls usually wait in line abreast at the water's edge and sea eagles and ospreys soar overhead anticipating a feast.

The game little survivors that win the 100m dash down the beach invariably meet a reception of reef sharks and stingrays. Only one turtle in a thousand will reach maturity at 40 years of age, when it will mate and return to Heron Island all the way from Fiji or New Caledonia.

After a fine breakfast prepared by talented chefs, I take the 30-minute powerboat crossing to Wilson Island for an even more intimate look at the reef's wonders. The amiable hosts show genuine hospitality, ensuring that I completely lose track of time. The facilities are simple but comfortable. Six well-designed secluded tents with ocean views are nestling in a forest of pisonia trees and pandanus palms.

The nesting noddy couples directly above my outside hammock display all manner of human traits and proclivities, snuggling up in an affectionate embrace at times and then scrapping over minor household matters. I'm impressed by the perseverance of the males who repeatedly deliver carefully chosen nesting materials only to have them instantly rejected by the females. Naturalists have seen up to 90 consecutive leaf presentations declined.

Walking around such a deserted island is pure joy. I wade in the clear water, mesmerised by the swarming baitfish that give off sudden flashes of reflected sunlight. My bare feet squelch in smooth white sand. The shallow waters on the reef shimmer in the purest aquamarine, merging with a clear blue sky on the horizon.

My evening meal is beautifully presented in the open-ended longhouse restaurant, with an entree of smoked salmon, mains of fillet steak and mushrooms and a cream passionfruit desert. As I talk with the other guests, a pair of nosy rails and a bar-shouldered dove trot under the table.

Then a bewildered mutton bird careers into the restaurant and collides with the shelf of wine glasses with shattering results. That's the thing with Wilson Island, you don't have to go looking for the wildlife, it comes looking for you.

The island's hostess has the last word. "I ask departing guests to mention Wilson Island to their friends, but the tongue-in-cheek response is often: 'No way, we don't want to share it with anyone else'."

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Fly from Auckland via Brisbane to either Rockhampton, Gladstone or Bundaberg or take the train from Brisbane. Approx four hours drive north from Brisbane to Bundaberg.

Fact file: Heron and Wilson Islands straddle the Tropic of Capricorn, two hours by ferry from Gladstone. They are perfect for relaxing and observing wildlife. Time is measured solely by the passage of the sun and the daily nesting rituals of giant green turtles and black noddy terns. It pays to book well in advance for Wilson Island as it is subject to seasonal demand.

Discover more at escapewinter.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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