Townstown: it was an opportunity missed. Deciding to name their new settlement in northern Queensland after their financial backer, Robert Towns, the developers foolishly overlooked the chance to score a million Buzzfeed hits some 150 years in the future - 22 Silliest Australian Place Names, possibly beaten to the top spot by Burpengary, 1300km further south - and went for Townsville instead.

The name makes it sound now like something from Dr Seuss, and the colours are certainly cartoon-bright, but it's actually an unexpectedly sophisticated place.

Sitting outside one of the many restaurants along The Strand, or across the river on Palmer St, you could easily fool yourself you were down south in Brisbane, or even Sydney. But no, that breeze rustling through the palms and fig trees is scented with frangipani, that clear turquoise water lapping on to the beach can only be the Coral Sea and that bright yellow sign under the red flag stuck in the sand? That's the warning notice forbidding swimming because of stinging jellyfish. Welcome to summer in Tropical North Queensland.

It's entirely my fault for coming in the wrong season: late October is the start of the hot, humid, wet half of the year, when most sensible holiday-makers have been and gone, avoiding the stingers entirely.

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That doesn't mean swimming is out of the question. After all, the locals live here year-round and, for them, there are netted areas off a couple of beaches, as well as a fancy, free water park on the Strand for children to splash in. Even so, call me a coward: I'm checking out the land-based activities, and there are enough of them to keep me happy for the few days that I'm here.

No trip to Australia is complete without some animal contact, though, and at Billabong Sanctuary just outside of town, ranger Jack is persuasive enough at the Reptile Encounter to have me handling a baby saltwater crocodile (jaws taped together) and even a 3m-long olive python called Brutus, which at one point manages to wrap itself right around my neck.

Jack deftly flips it free and a horror headline is avoided.

Stepping around kangaroos reclining aristocatically and through squabbling flocks of pretty ducks, I see massive, brooding, saltwater crocs, bouncy dingoes leaping at their fence, cuddly koalas being remarkably active, a fat, furry wombat dozing in the sunshine. It's not flash, but it's friendly, up-close and fun.

Cuddling the local wildlife at Billabong Sanctuary. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland
Cuddling the local wildlife at Billabong Sanctuary. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland

There is no fun at all on the

I take with Toby Dean; but there is plenty of interest.

A local, Toby is - and he's the first to admit this - on the short side, and under the minimum height for a soldier, but he persuaded them to let him enlist in the Armoured Corps anyway. It's that sort of enthusiasm that makes him the ideal guide around Townsville's military sites and sights. He's full of stories and information as we drive round the town, from the ordinary suburban house that hid the codebreakers who read Japanese radio communications (perhaps inspiring local boy Julian Assange) during World War II, past Laverack Barracks, Australia's largest army base, to the museums of the Army and RAAF, where veterans Blue and Syd add their personal interpretations of the exhibits.

During World War II, Townsville was Australia's frontline with five operational airstrips. Its streets swarmed with soldiers, Australian and American, and the town played an important part in the Battle of the Coral Sea, even suffering three air-raid attacks (fortunately taking out only a fencepost and a palm tree).

There were links, too, with the Kokoda Track in New Guinea: Toby plays a video of reminiscences by Track veterans, from both sides, as we drive.

Though Townsville life has been much quieter since those dramatic days, it hasn't been without danger and, in the excellent Museum of Tropical Queensland, a temporary exhibition focuses on the astonishing damage wrought by a number of cyclones over the years.

Downstairs, past the dinosaurs that constantly roar (a daily penance for the staff of the snack bar nearby) is a comprehensive, absorbing exhibit on the Pandora, which was wrecked nearby in 1791 on her return voyage to England with the Bounty mutineers.

The display is multimedia. The try-on leg irons appeal to children while their fathers come over all faint at the sight of the syringe made of bone used for urethral injections against venereal disease.

Other relics include chamber pots "used by officers during long dinners in the ward room", miraculously undamaged fine wine glasses and bottles of spruce beer for combating scurvy.

Later, sitting on the deck of C Bar, I go instead for the local Diggers' Golden Ale with my crispy duck.

The waves break below in the black tropical night. It doesn't matter one bit that it's the closest I've been to the water.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Cairns up to four times per week, between April and October. A range of inflight products are available including: Seat, Seat + Bag, The Works and Works Deluxe.

For more information: Visit queensland.com; townsvilleholidays.info.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland.