Cane-toad racing anyone? It's fun, finds Cherie Howie.

Just after we rolled back the clocks and settled again into the dark evenings and, in my opinion, the depressing half of the year, I amused myself with one of those silly online quizzes.

It was called Top 250 Global Attractions and written by "travelpictureguy".

I went a bit nutty on travel between my first and second newspaper jobs (took me years to recover financially) and my score of 105 put me in the top 4 per cent of survey-takers.

It was mostly a list of buildings. Some were beautiful and grand, some not, but either way I didn't learn much from them.


What I did learn in a series of random experiences over years of travelling could never be found on a list. In life - at home and on the road - the best things never are.

On Magnetic Island, the 52sq km parcel of granite, bush and beaches a 20-minute ferry ride from the Queensland city of Townsville, the best experience wasn't on the itinerary put together by Tourism and Events Queensland, although it did have a part to play.

 Barramundi with harissa dressing, spinach and feta, served up at Barefoot Art Food Wine in Horseshoe Bay, Magnetic Island.
Barramundi with harissa dressing, spinach and feta, served up at Barefoot Art Food Wine in Horseshoe Bay, Magnetic Island.

During Tropicana Tours' open-top stretch Hummer tour of the island, my ears pricked up when guide Carla pointed to the Arcadia Hotel and said it hosted cane toad races every Wednesday night. It was Wednesday morning.

"It's a fundraiser for the local surf lifesavers. You must go," Carla said excitedly.

"I couldn't agree more," I thought.

Races start at 8pm and a white line marks the circle around which gregarious pub patrons sit on plastic chairs and bid as much as $75 for what they hope will be the bounciest blob of warty green flesh and cartilage.

The auctioneer, with 40 years of cane toad race-calling under his belt, has a long list of nicknames and descriptions for each competi-toad and it's very funny. "This one's in black, he's a silver fern, he's the Kiwi. He's been winning a lot lately," he yelled to the cheering crowd.

Races were over in a flash but the crowd whooped in delight anyway.


John Bennett, the island's plumber, gives the toads a feed and a wash before the races. He has also been involved for 40 years and is expected to continue for many more.

"It's the best fundraiser we've got. We can get $500 a night. We get some pretty big crowds. They love the toads."

Good on Carla. She knows where the good times are. It might seem strange to catch a tour on an island with roughly 20km of road, but I would never have found edible flora and wild baby koalas without her.

The western end of Horseshoe Bay, on Magnetic Island.
The western end of Horseshoe Bay, on Magnetic Island.

Best of all, she showed me an unmarked road to the western end of the long, sweeping stretch of coastline known as Horseshoe Bay.

Carla suggested returning later in my hire car, a brightly-coloured Daihatsu Charade with the roof lopped off. It was a good spot for watching the sunset and for skinny dipping, she added.

That sounded like a damn good idea, so I went back.

Unfortunately, a determined young couple had covered several kilometres of beach to make their way from the populated eastern end to where I wanted to take my birthday suit swim.

I thought "go away", or perhaps something less charitable, and they disappeared behind a rock at the end of the beach and I tried not to think about what they were doing. A short time later they trudged back east along the beach.

The delay gave me time to think about the risk of stingers - jellyfish that plague the Queensland coast, especially between November and May. But then I thought, what the hell, and went in anyway. And it was very nice and no one saw anything they shouldn't have. Thanks, Carla.

I also did things that were on the itinerary. Most involved pouring tasty brews down my throat and/or devouring delicious meals, such as the barramundi with harissa dressing at laidback beachside eatery Barefoot, in Horseshoe Bay, where shoes are optional
and the artist co-owner has decorated the restaurant with an eclectic mix of local work.

My final morning involved a bush-tucker-with-the-animals experience at Bungalow Bay Koala Village. I touched a lizard, chatted with a cockatoo, held a snake and cuddled a koala all before 10am. Not bad.

I'm not sure a visit to Townsville should take place without nipping over to the island. But you can certainly fill a few days in Queensland's fourth-most populated settlement. The Reef HQ Aquarium, which is also home to a turtle hospital, is lovely, and features a shark-feeding show and hands-on interaction that includes seeing the seriously jagged edge of a stingray barb under a microscope.

I also went on the Military History Tour and had my embarrassing lack of knowledge of Townsville's significant role in the defence of Australia during World War II righted.

Evenings are welcome in the Tropics and Townsville certainly takes advantage of its year-round warm temperatures. I ate at the new City Lane arcade and across the Ross River at restaurant-laden Palmer St.

Townsville and, in the distance, Magnetic Island from the summit of Castle Hill.
Townsville and, in the distance, Magnetic Island from the summit of Castle Hill.

And through it all, I was welcome. The people of Townsville want to see us. In two days, every tourism worker I spoke to shared a desire for direct flights between Auckland and Townsville.

I hope they get their wish.

Fact file:

There are no direct flights between New Zealand cities and Townsville. Travellers must fly to one of the major Australian cities then catch a connecting flight to Townsville. Virgin Australia, Qantas, and Jetstar all fly to the city from Brisbane, Sydney and several other Australian cities several times a week.