Before 'green' was good, Noosa was on nature's side, finds Heather Ramsay.

With their bald, dimply red heads, wrinkly yellow wattles and big beady eyes, Australian brush turkeys aren't the kind of birds you'd immediately associate with the stylish main street of Noosa. Flashy parrots or sleek honeyeaters seem more in keeping with its smart restaurants and chic boutiques, but obviously no one told the turkeys.

As we sat at an al-fresco restaurant in the heart of town, one of these scraggly birds scouted around us for food, then stalked away to scratch in a beautifully kept planter box. The mound-building turkeys must be the bane of Noosa council gardeners' lives, but tolerance of their messy habits correlates with the Noosa ethos.

Long before sustainable development became a catchphrase, the Noosa community had been proactively protecting its environment. In 2007, decades of environmentalism were recognised when 150,000ha around Noosa were designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, meaning that development will continue to be closely monitored and Noosa will retain its low-rise, eco-friendly vibe.

The wilderness marches right up to the town's doorstep, making it easy for turkeys and other wildlife to visit. Conversely, it's just as easy for humans to go bush. At the southern end of Main Beach, the bush-clad headland of Noosa National Park is a popular escape, but we opt for a trip on the waterways behind the town - the so-called Noosa Everglades.


Our Everglades Discovery cruise eases away from the pier, idling past multi-million-dollar riverside mansions, many of which - according to skipper and guide Trevor Sinclair - belong to foreign owners and are used only for a few weeks a year. It seems a shame, but then again, maybe they can stand only so much of curious tourists gawping at their not-so-private homes. Upstream, the river widens to encircle Makepeace Island - owned by Richard Branson and developed into a luxurious resort for Virgin employees - then opens out first into shallow Lake Cooroibah, then into vast Lake Cootharaba.

The lakes and channels reveal plenty of human and animal activity. Fishermen in small boats dangle lines near the mangroves, and quaint, home-built houseboats bob gently on the ruffle of ripples created by our wake. Kayakers nose in under the shade of overhanging trees for a well-earned rest, just downstream from kangaroos resting in a shady campsite.

A darter on a dead tree drapes its wings out to dry, crakes are frightened into flight and turtles plop into the water from their sunbathing spot on a low-hanging trunk. Overhead, sea eagles wheel and soar, while the distinctive calls of unseen whip-birds slice through the surrounding trees.

The brackish, tannin-stained waters of Lake Cootharaba are separated from the Pacific Ocean only by a narrow, scrub-covered strip of land streaked by yellow sand. The lake's northernmost point marks the beginning of the true everglades, where Trevor eases back the throttle and guides the boat into a barely visible opening in the bush.

It's still the Noosa River, but in these skinny upper reaches scribbly gums, pandanus, banksias and tea-trees crowd in close, casting mirror images in the dark, still waters. We nose into the jetty at Harry's Hut, a logging shack built in 1957 to service the region's burgeoning timber industry. Like the bush around it, the hut is now protected.

A metre-long goanna gets cameras clicking, but we're soon enticed away by afternoon tea. Lamingtons and muffins are washed down with champagne and juice, tea and coffee, with leftovers tossed to huge, voracious catfish that lurk near the jetty.

Our return passage is so gentle that the remarkable reflections merely shimmy briefly as we glide by, reforming into a perfect picture moments after we pass. It's as if we've never been there - exactly what the architects of Noosa's environmental policy envisaged all those years ago.

Getting there: Noosa is on the Sunshine Coast, 160km north of Brisbane. Air New Zealand, Qantas and Pacific Blue fly daily direct to Brisbane. SunAir offers hourly airport transfers, as well as day tours.


Where to stay: The Sebel Resort Noosa offers serviced, self-contained apartments in a resort setting in Noosa's main street.

Tours: Noosa Everglades Discovery offers cruises, 4WD beach and bush experiences, plus day tours to the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

More information: On Noosa and Queensland.

Heather Ramsay and Dennis Richardson were guests of Tourism Queensland and Tourism Australia.