Just a hop, skip, and jump from Brisbane, tourists are spoilt for choice on sandy Moreton Island, writes Elizabeth Binning
Seventy years ago visitors to Moreton Island would have landed in a sea of red. There's a good chance a humpback whale, often with a hungry shark still tearing at its carcass, was being dragged on to the flensing deck.
Over 10 years, more than 6200 whales were taken from the waters of Moreton Bay, just 25km off Brisbane, their blubber boiled down into valuable oil, their meat used largely for pet food, their bones and offal turned into livestock food or fertiliser.
Today the remains of the flensing deck are still there but the blood-red waters are long gone. The island is instead celebrated for its wildlife. There's an abundance, especially around the artificially created shipwreck reef, and visitors arriving between June and October can watch thousands of whales migrate north.
On the day we visit the sun is shining and tourists are spoilt for choice. The island is little more than a 37km-long sandbar where clear water laps on to golden sand. The inner island boasts plenty of vegetation, 4WD tracks and a few homes where locals and holidaymakers live. There's also "the desert" — a 40ha sandpit. Depending who you believe, it was cleared by a cyclone or a meteorite.
On-water options are endless: snorkelling, parasailing, paddleboarding and numerous cruises/boating adventures. On land there are Segway safaris, quad bike trails and sand tobogganing, bodies reaching up to 50km/h as they tear down 90m dunes.
As fun as they sounded, I was nearly five months pregnant, still suffering from morning sickness and looking for something a little less adventurous.
We briefly considered an encounter with the dolphins but the brochure discouraged pregnant women. Friends on our P&O four-day cruise said it was because dolphins react in an overly familiar way with pregnant women. I'm not sure if it's true but decided to stay out of the water anyway. We opted for the gentler 4WD bus tour.
As we headed along the beach with waves lapping at the wheels, I could see why we needed 4WD — and seatbelts — and realised it wasn't really a gentler option. It doesn't matter what you are in: when you're bouncing over soft sand and crossing little estuaries, it can get pretty rough.
About 20 minutes into the tour we were inland and even more grateful for the seatbelts as our driver Dougie negotiated sandy roads. Moments later, a massive "pop" was followed by, "That's not good". It's not the kind of thing you want to hear your driver say on a tour.
A quick inspection revealed a flat tyre. We were going nowhere fast. It didn't help that the tyre was directly underneath the pregnant woman — much to the amusement of the others on board.
With a bladder already on edge from all the bouncing around, I pondered how long we'd be stranded for.
Fortunately, we were soon back on the bus, although poor old Dougie was clearly feeling the effects of changing a tyre in the hot sun.
"Now I've got wet sand down my back and down my jocks," he informed us as we took off again.
Our first stop — first scheduled stop, anyway — was at the Champagne Pools. Dougie told us they are like a spa bath but with deceptively dangerous rogue waves.
When we got there it wasn't hard to see how they got their name. It looked as if someone had shaken up a large bottle of bubbles and popped the cork. With each wave that hits the rocks, a tide of frothy water spills over them and into a small pool where parents play with their children. Moments later, the toddler who had been giggling was in tears. The powerful waves had knocked him out of his mother's arms.
Further down the beach, surfers made the most of the waves. It was a quiet day: only 24 4WDs were lined up along the sand. On a busy day in summer there are hundreds.
We took a quick walk up a small hill covered in pink and yellow flowers — with plenty of butterflies — to look at Honeymoon Bay. The spectacular views were well worth a picture stop before we headed to the island's lighthouse.
The 23m-tall beacon was built in 1857 to cope with increased shipping along the northern coast — and stem the increasing number of wrecks gathering around the nearby entrance to Moreton Bay and the port of Brisbane.
The original oil wick is long gone; ships are now guided by an automated laser beam that stretches 30km out to sea. A great little centre just down the hill is full of information about the island's marine life and the lighthouse.
Signs on a small trail around the lighthouse tell the story of Thomas Griffin, the keeper from 1869 to 1883, who lost his wife, Mary, and three of their children during his time there. Mary died giving birth and her body and those of her children remain on the island. Her memorial is photographed by almost everyone on our tour.
It was hot outside and Dougie told us we were heading back, this time along the eastern beach, which is notorious for sharks. The waters were rougher and there were few people on this side of the island as we bounced along the sandy beach. It was a rhythmic bounce though, and I wondered if I'd succumb to that end-of-tour weariness that always creeps in. But just as I felt my head about to drop, we turned off the beach and on to the "road" that took us back across the island.
An hour and a half later, our tour ended at the remains of the flensing deck.
It's a shame we weren't there a few weeks later; we might have been lucky enough to see the descendants of those whales that were once dragged on to the concrete terrace swimming past the island on their way to warmer, safer waters.
Getting there: P&O's Pacific Explorer 7-night cruise from Sydney, calling at Sunshine Coast, Gladstone and Moreton Island, departs August 19, priced from $959pp twin share. See helloworld for further details.