At what other singular spot can you peep at roos that rule the beach, spy nature’s cutest misfit and trek paths in Australia’s largest subtropical rainforest to dip into crystal clear swimming holes? Wild and wonderful Mackay’s under-the-radar status means more room to move and a bucket list full of wildlife-spotting experiences.
Located a quick hour and a half on a direct flight from Brisbane, this enterprising regional town is no longer the sleepy burgh it once was and is shedding its industrial reputation. A new riverfront revitalisation project in the heart of the city showcases the appetite for progress, as well as the peculiar Caribbean blue hue of the Pioneer River. Travellers looking to get off the beaten path will be delighted by this playground. An ever-changing panorama runs from the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef to the primordial rainforest and further afield to halcyon grazing lands upon which the Lords Table Mountain – a flat-topped volcanic plug looms.
I’m travelling from one side of the region to the other, a cosy little road trip, and after landing in Mackay’s tiny airport, I set my GPS southwest to Nebo where the heritage-listed Nebo Hotel serves up good country hospitality. It’s quintessential Australiana in the heart of the Bowen Basin with the usual characters bellying up to the bar for a pint and a righteous chicken schnitty. Kristen Stevenson, the owner, seems right at home with a glowing kindness and smart linen dress, though it’s clear she suffers no fools. It’s easy to linger before getting back on the road, in fact, I’d recommend it. Grab a Redback beer with a lemon wedge, and a “bush-esky” to take with you – a bag of ice with tinnies stuffed into it. That’s how it’s done here.
Next up, I head to Clermont, southwest again, where the land is gorgeous for the sheer nothingness that sits on it except for grazing animals and the occasional rock formation. There is no traffic, but the rails of the cane train accompany me for some of the way. My playlist booms from the speakers, and every passing driver gives me the hand-flip “wave of courtesy”. Here, in a hospital-neat bunker, I meet Mardi Bush, who with her partner, Jamie, has taken their helicopter mustering business, Bush Heli-Services, to new heights (see what I did there?) Bobbing along in the sky, the views are emerald green patchwork and the commentary on the area is fascinating. When viewed from above, the sorghum and sugar cane crops resemble the impossible constructions of an M.C. Escher drawing, and the pinnacle of Table Mountain is as flat as if someone sheared off the top with a saw.
The next day, driving back toward Mackay, I can’t help but stop into the Sarina Sugar Shed for a tasting of the boutique distilled cane spirits brewed here. They’ve won awards, and I leave with my own stash for later; my favourite is the noi (nice over ice) limecello. And it is, in fact, nice over ice. A surprisingly fascinating lesson on the heritage of sugar cane and how the town developed because of its influence is one you’ll be glad you made time for. Mackay also happens to produce the raw ingredient for Chelsea Sugar.
In the Pioneer Valley, a few tiny hamlets are soon to be on everyone’s radar. A world-class mountain biking track will ultimately span 100km over a network of 27 trails connecting the trailhead towns of Eungella (”Young-uh-luh”) and Finch Hatton. The new singletrack will loop through rainforest, open scrub and carmine volcanic soil to become one of the premiere mountain bike tracks in the country. Stage one is slated to be completed in December this year and will welcome bikers of all levels with a pump track and recreation area. The council utilised case studies of similar parks in Queenstown and Rotorua. The pie shop here is cheap and cheerful, but my recommendation is to make a booking at the long table of One Hungry Mumma to dine al fresco on a homecooked meal with friends you haven’t met yet.
Eungella National Park, a shaded, moss-laden, emerald-green wonderland, is where you’re almost guaranteed to spot the elusive, egg-laying weirdo – the platypus. They’re smaller than you’d think, and to see one in the wild is a life goal accomplished. Stand still and look for bubbles in the water. They scuttle soil from the bottom to attract fish (which they gobble down) before rising up to take a breath.
As well as platypus, there are, of course, the passels of wallabies and kangaroos that visit Cape Hillsborough Beach every morning to feed, right as the sun is rising. It’s a reason to be an early bird if ever there were one, and an iconic experience so don’t miss taking your camera. I found Mackay Adventure Tours is the easiest way to get to both of these destinations, with transfer, lunch and tour costing less than hiring a car.
For comfortable accommodation in the centre of Mackay, I stayed at the Rydges Suites. With a kitchenette, separate bedroom and washing machine, I had room to spread out (and enjoy some of that limecello).
For more on Mackay, visit mackayisaac.com