There are only two ways to immerse yourself in the pristine nature of Lady Musgrave Island off the coast of Queensland; DIY camping or pontoon luxury - both are unforgettable and worth adding to your future transtasman travel wish list, writes Kate Webster
Travel around 60km off the coast of Queensland and you will find a little slice of paradise that costs less than A$10 (NZ$10.75) a night, has million-dollar views and an abundance of wildlife that comes right up to your door. A jewel of the Southern Great Barrier Reef, Lady Musgrave Island is a part of the Bunker Island Group and lies 96km northeast of Bundaberg and 59km east-north-east of Seventeen Seventy in Queensland.
This uninhabited island is known by the traditional owners of the land as Wallaginji, meaning Beautiful Reef. There are two ways to experience the island, go wild with basic camping on the island itself, or take it all via a luxury stay on a three-level pontoon nestled in the sheltered waters of Lady Musgrave Island Lagoon.
Camping on the island
Accessible only by boat, Lady Musgrave Island is one of the few places in Queensland where you can witness turtle breeding and nesting, uninterrupted. A Queensland National Parks camping permit will set you back A$6.95 per person, per night, but for that price, you are getting waterfront access to one of the most pristine parts of the Great Barrier Reef and one of nature's most spectacular shows – the life of marine turtles.
The island only allows tent camping. There is no running water, no facilities, no electricity and you can definitely forget trying to use your phone, as there is no reception. There are just two composting toilets and an emergency radio in case things go bad. Everything you need on the island must be taken with you and taken off when you leave, rubbish included.
Pulling up on the boat to the island's shore, I was ready to embrace my inner survivor and live the life of a wildling for a bit. I hauled my two large 30kg bags full of camping equipment, a dive bag and 40 litres of water through a winding, bumpy inland track to get to the camping area. It was sweltering hot and although the sign said it was a 450-metre walk to the campsite, it felt like 4.5km. There were a few other campers on the island at the time and it didn't take long to get my camp set up and acquainted with my fellow islanders.
Desperate to cool off, I dived into the ocean with my snorkel gear. Now, you would have to be really unlucky to visit Lady Musgrave Island and not see a turtle. The island and surrounding reef are full of them, especially during nesting season, as it is an important feeding, resting and nesting site. Within moments, I found myself surrounded by seven turtles munching away on the algae coating the coral. It was like turtle soup - everywhere I turned there was a turtle in sight.
My days on the island were spent in and out of the water, snorkelling the fringing coral reef, naps on the beach under the shade of the trees, hours-long chats with fellow campers and exploring the island. Lady Musgrave is identified as a significant seabird breeding island and provides a habitat for thousands of nesting seabirds. After the first day on the island, their constant sound became white noise and I learned how to dodge any birds that lacked personal space awareness.
At night is when the true turtle magic happens. Between October to March, female turtles haul themselves slowly up the beach to dig their nest and lay eggs. It is fascinating and challenging to watch, as you are witnessing the start of life for an endangered species, mentally willing the exhausted females back down the beach to be reunited with the ocean. It soon became my nightly routine to find a front-row seat for this extraordinary show of nature. The mornings brought a true indication of just how many turtles came up at night, with a minefield of dug nests and turtle tracks up and down the beach like a road map of movement.
After spending a week camping on the island and in her surrounding waters, I can certainly say that the Wallaginji people got it right. Lady Musgrave Island is one of the most beautiful reefs I have ever encountered.
Glamping on the reef
If the idea of roughing it camping is beyond your comfort zone, then you can opt to stay on the luxurious Lady Musgrave Experience – a pontoon off Lady Musgrave Island offering unique reef accommodation.
From the moment you step onboard the Reef Empress for the two-hour boat ride to the pontoon, you feel the first-class experience. The luxurious 35-metre catamaran transfer has a superyacht feel to it, which carries on when you arrive on the pontoon.
The lower deck has everything you need for a day on the reef - a fully stocked bar and kitchen area, hot showers and toilets, seating and tables and a dive shop with all the equipment needed to explore the underwater world. It is the launching pad out into the ocean and kaleidoscope of coloured reef below the surface.
Take a staircase down from the lower deck and you find the underwater deck, where you sleep on bunks surrounded by floor to ceiling glass. Here it feels like you are in a fishbowl and the marine life is looking in on you.
The upper deck houses the gorgeous glamping tents, positioned with views out across the reef and to Lady Musgrave Island. They have plenty of storage space, canvas sides that you can keep down for privacy or roll up for the ultimate view, phone charging ports and some fairy lights strung across the roof for night lights.
Divers can relish the uncrowded sites, including the nearby Fairfax Islands. Their remote location ensures a pristine dive experience on a healthy reef full of marine life. You can expect to see shelves of plate coral, massive brain corals and turtles galore.
Both the camping it rough and glamping in style options give an exceptional experience of Lady Musgrave Island. If you can't decide which option suits you best, then you can always do both, as the boat that takes you to the pontoon for the Lady Musgrave Island Experience also transfers the campers to the island.
Top tips for camping on Lady Musgrave
Besides the necessities like water, food, tent and camping gear, here are five items I found useful on the island.
1. Snorkel, mask and fins: You are going to want to explore every inch of the reef and turns out it is your daily bath time anyway.
2. Extra camera batteries: There is no electricity so unless you have a solar charger, you will need spare batteries.
3. Head torch with red light: Nesting turtles are sensitive to light, so it is best to have a red-light head torch for moving around at night so as not to disturb them.
4. Hydrolyte tablets: Pop this in your water bottle every day for better hydration.
5. Mozzie repellent: At night the mosquitos are brutal! This is certainly a must-have.
Checklist: Lady Musgrave Island
For more information, see ladymusgraveexperience.com.au and queensland.com
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