Have a whale of a time beside the Sunshine Coast in the real Australia

 
Melissa York
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Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island

Everyone knows it’s a long way to Australia, but I don’t think people really compute just how claustrophobic a 24 hour flight is until they’ve done it. When I touched down in Brisbane, a small child jubilantly ripped her seatbelt off and cried, “I’m free, Mummy! I’m free!” I was right there with her. If you’re going to put yourself through that flight, you want to make sure you really do Australia in the time that you’ve got.

This is why most British tourists stick to the old formula; Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef and/or Ayers Rock before they’re dragged, kicking and screaming, back to the airport to face that flight again. This means that, unless you’ve got the time to go backpacking for months, you’re unlikely to discover the subtler pleasures of this vast country. But I set out to do exactly that. In a week. Without a car.


One of Fraser Island's many dingoes

After asking friends who’d made the journey and soliciting some advice from Tourism Australia, I chose to tackle the Sunshine Coast at the eastern end of Queensland, not just because the name is delightful, but because I was promised a uniquely Aussie experience packed full of nature. From Brisbane, I caught a flight to Hervey Bay and just managed to catch the last ferry of the day over to Fraser Island. Popular with backpackers, this skinny stretch of land around 120 miles north of Brisbane is actually the largest sand island in the world. Admittedly, these were just words until I arrived and realised this meant no roads. Well, not roads as Pommes know them; there’s no tarmac or cement, just dunes, beaches and a surprising amount of vegetation. This means you have to wade your way around the island in sturdy trainers or hitch a ride on a 4x4, which are so prolific in this part of the world that they’re referred to casually as “4WDs”.


Kayaking through the Noosa Everglades

It’s also dingo town. If you’re not familiar with dingoes, they’re wild dogs that once ate a human baby, which spawned an infamous court case, a film called A Cry in the Dark and the name of Oz’s band in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I’m covering all my generational bases). They’re also found in the scorching desert of the outback, but if you want to have a brush with the beasts in a more hospitable climate, there’s no better place than Brush Box Forest on Fraser Island. Dingoes have no natural predators apart from crocodiles and humans with guns, and my excitement grew with every sign I saw telling me to be “Dingo Safe”; this means making yourself as tall as possible and standing your ground, a bit like you should with grizzly bears. Only I’m 5ft tall so I’m not sure it would work all that well for me.
It’s best to book a tour with a professional so you can spot them sniffing you out through the trees, then dart back to your 4WD for lunch. That way, you’ll also get to tear along the “75 Mile Beach” (or even fly over it in a light aircraft, if the thought of another plane isn’t too traumatising) and go for a freshwater swim among the mountains of Lake McKenzie.


Outrigger apartments in Little Hastings Street

There are plenty of 4WD tour companies on the island, but mine came in a package with my hotel stay at Kingfisher Bay, a four star eco resort that looks like a Scandinavian lodge that’s been dropped in the wilderness. Guests can head down to the Jetty Hut to watch the sun set over mainland Australia with a shrimp platter. Or, even better, head to Seabelle restaurant – good meals aren’t hard to come by in Australia these days, but this was one of the best I’ve ever had. We started with a k’gari bushtucker platter, a selection of fruit and berries native to the island with some rare meats, including akudjura salt and pepperberry crocodile (surprisingly fishy), tea-tree smoked kangeroo fillet (like the leanest steak you’ve ever had) and warm emu pate (distinctly gamey). Traditional dishes of pork belly and lamb saddle were all served with vegetables grown in the resort’s nursery and all were equally delicious, if less adventurous.
When the time comes to return to the mainland, don’t take the ferry because you’ll be missing out on one of the best experiences Australia or, indeed, life has to offer. Hervey Bay is the whale watching capital from August until the end of October, when humpback whales stop off with their calves between the Bay and Fraser Island to luxuriate in the warm water on their migration south. I’d heard of whale watching trips where you’re peering for hours to catch a glimpse of the splash of a fin, but these whales were swimming and leaping alongside the boat (as you can see from my photo, above). The captain told me the whales have grown used to the watchers and realise they mean no harm.


The author's photograph of a humpback whale swimming along the Queensland coast

After all that excitement, I headed for the peace of Noosa, population 60,000. I was told it was “just down the road”, which is Australian for a three hour drive, so I booked a Bay2Dore, one of many air-conditioned airport shuttles heading up the coast before arriving at Outrigger, self-catered apartments overlooking the ocean, although there is an on-site restaurant called View from Little Hastings Street, whose cold, soggy chips had me pining for Seabelle again. Fortunately, there are plenty of other places to eat along Noosa’s main thoroughfare and Eumundi Market, a ramshackle arts and crafts hub, is a short bus ride away.
But primarily, Noosa’s all about enjoying a slower pace of life. Stand-up paddle boarding is a big deal here and it’s easy to pick up. So easy in fact, I made a friend while paddle boarding who booked me in for a spa treatment called Spirit of Wailele, which involved seven water pumps pelting my back for 90 minutes. It left me feeling like I’d been unplugged from the Matrix.
After a short kayak around the Noosa Everglades, it was time for another 24 hours of box-set watching while nibbling biscuits from tiny bags. While I certainly hadn’t “done” Australia, I realised you didn’t have to travel to its extremities to get a taste of its stunning landscapes.
Whale tales
Humpback whales are known for their songs, which can travel vast distances through the oceans to communicate with other pods

NEED TO KNOW

FLIGHTS
Quantas Return Economy flights to Brisbane from London Heathrow via Dubai start from £859, quantas.com.au. Stay two nights at Kingfisher Bay Resort with breakfast, ferry transfers and 4WD tour from AUD$399, kingfisherbay.com. Whale watching from AUD$100, herveybaywhalewatching.com.au. Outrigger villas from AUD $489 per night, outriggeraustralia.com