Go gaga for this Fair Lady: Lady Musgrave Island

Hands on buzzers. Family Feud-style.

It's a question that doubles as the top conversation starter at end-of-year office parties; in supermarket check-out lanes; at the hairdresser's mid-coif or even on a dash to Bunnings for the summer season gas cylinder swap. Pretty much anywhere festooned with tinsel, flashing lights and strains of Bublé crooning carols.

“Where are you going for the Christmas holidays?”

For Jim Buck and family, the answer is simple. “That's easy,” he says without a second thought.

Over the past 30 years, without fail, the public servant and one-time road designer, who is a Technical Services Manager in Bundaberg for the Queensland Government Department of Transport and Main Roads, has set up camp on Lady Musgrave Island. A destination that's as blissfully 'back to nature' as you can get (save being shipwrecked).

For Jim, it's Paradise. Capital P. The best address on earth, where 'simple luxuries' extend to composting toilets. That said, not even a Lotto win would halt his annual pilgrimage to this coral cay in the southern end of Queensland's World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.

Postcard perfect in every way, the 19.47ha island, easily circumnavigated by foot in around 30 minutes (if you're blinkered, that is, or immune to endless wildlife encounters, from marine turtles to spotted rays), levitates in its own wrap-around reef. Lady Musgrave Reef.

A reef 150 times the size of the island, at 2930ha, famous for the Great Barrier Reef's only navigable, protected lagoon akin to the world's largest swimming pool. Ideal for snorkelling with Nemo and friends or taking the first step in learning to scuba dive.

From the air, Lady Musgrave Island looks like a kidney-shaped dot in the largest coral reef system on the planet. The Great Barrier Reef; almost too big to fathom. Bigger than 70 million football fields!

Thanks to the tireless work of billions of tiny organisms known as coral polyps, the Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure visible from outer space. Stretching 2,300km along Queensland's coast, it's not one continuous barrier, but a vast mosaic of 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays and about 150 inshore mangrove islands.

And while it's nigh impossible to pick a favourite in a Wonderland described by Sir David Attenborough as 'the most magical place on earth', Lady Musgrave Island – as those already charmed by this grand old dame can readily attest – arguably stakes its claim as the No. 1 camping spot.

Forming a part of the Capricornia Cays National Park and accessible by charter boat [see Fact File], the coral cay lies 96km north-east of Bundaberg or 59km east of the Town of 1770 (where Captain Cook came ashore). Not so much, 'as the crow flies', but a myriad of seabirds.

Indeed, more than 50 varieties visit Lady Musgrave Island, including sooty and pied oyster catchers, frigate birds, wandering tattlers, brown boobies and thousands of roosting black and white-capped noddy terns… to name just a few.

Jim Buck, however, is more interested in another group of visitors he revels in sharing the island with year after year. Despite witnessing their arrival countless thousand times, his heart still skips a beat as the ocean's grandest of old dames – green and loggerhead turtles – haul their way on to the beach for nesting/hatchling season (November to March).

“For me, it's like coming home,” says Jim, 63, who, with wife, Annie, has spent every Christmas on the island since 1987, starting when their two daughters, Penny and Cathy, were just nine and seven. “I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.”

And therein lies the unique beauty of camping on Lady Musgrave Island.

Aside from leading a group of volunteers who monitor and collect data on nesting populations of marine turtles as part of the Queensland Turtle Conservation (QTC) project operated by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP), Jim also steps up as National Parks' Campground Host for holidaymakers on Lady Musgrave Island over the Christmas/New Year period.

Here, anyone lucky enough to bag a camping permit over the holidays (up to 40 people can camp on the island for a maximum of 21 nights at any one time) is in for one helluva life-changing experience.

Put simply, Jim's knowledge and passion for turtles and conservation almost outshines the surrounding Coral Sea's hypnotic kaleidoscope of colours, ranging from opal-tinged turquoise, to glimpses of emerald green and the full range of Pantone blues.

Nothing, however, comes close to sitting near his beloved turtles – true dinosaurs of the sea – lit by the stars as they carefully lay each precious clutch of eggs. A miracle in itself that any one of them made it this far. Especially considering a green turtle's adolescence spans some 35 years, with perhaps one in 1,000 hatchlings reaching sexual maturity.

“One of the best parts for me is watching people's faces the first time they see a turtle nesting,” says Jim, who offers an insightful and intriguing (#moneycan'tbuy) interpretive service to campers, invited to observe nesting turtles while his volunteer group go quietly about their work each night, even on New Year's Eve.

“It's a special moment when people see a turtle actually digging an egg chamber, using her hind flippers. If I can get folk in to watch that process, they are absolutely amazed.

“Most visitors are prepared to stay out with us for two or three hours of a night.”

As Jim explains, that's roughly the time it takes a green turtle to nest 'if all goes well' and she isn't hindered by a piece of coral, tree root or some other immoveable object, causing her to stop, shift and start over. While the Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the world's seven species of marine turtles, Lady Musgrave Island is a significant nesting ground for greens and a smaller group of loggerheads.

The experience of watching a turtle nest is humbling and empowering at the same time. A moment when time truly stops in one of the greatest cycles of life.

One that Jim, himself, first experienced as a tourist back in 1984, when he joined a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger-guided turtle encounter at Mon Repos Turtle Centre on a family holiday to Bundaberg. Instantly smitten, he returned as a volunteer on the turtle conservation project headed by Dr Col Limpus, Chief Scientist with EHP's Threatened Species Unit. The rest is history.

Nothing short of a legend in the turtle world, Col knows all too well the life-changing impact turtles have on visitors, inspiring many to become citizen scientists, as mirrored in an estimated 10,000 who have undergone training as volunteers (around 200 each year for close to 50 years).

“That's a feature of a program like this,” says Col who started the project in 1968. “Not everyone gets caught up in it, but there's a lot who do. We see visitors who come back year after year explicitly, in the extreme, to see particular turtles at Mon Repos.

“And we get children who visit, grow up and join us as volunteers, with a number going into careers in conservation.”

On Lady Musgrave Island, Jim Buck looks forward to greeting each new clutch of wide-eyed campers (from all corners of the globe), making lifelong friends in the process.

“We always spend as much time as we can with campers and visitors, educating and inspiring older and younger generations alike… at some stage I'll be too old to keep doing this and we need people to carry on the work.”

It's precisely why summertime, for Jim, is always the best of what might be…

FACT FILE
Camping 101 on Lady Musgrave Island: 
located on the western side of the island, the campsite is sheltered by pisonia trees with views to the reef (and mere steps from tent to idyllic snorkelling, without stinger suits). Here, Jim Buck may share with you another of his favourite activities, on the reef crest in front of the campsite: photographing the trickiest of subjects… squid. Campers must be self-sufficient and carry in all food and drinking water. For full details and to book a site (costing just $5.75 per person per night): www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/capricornia-cays/camping
*First-timer's tip: avoid pitching your tent directly under the pisonia trees where terns roost and poop (pack a tarp!); pack sturdy garbage bags as you must take all rubbish with you when you leave; and if you want to fish, be sure to check zoning restrictions. Read up on responsible practices on visiting the Great Barrier Reef's islands and cays: www.gbrmpa.gov.au/visit-the-reef/responsible-reef-practices

Getting there: via private boat or camping transfers with tour operators out of Bundaberg or the Town of 1770 & Agnes Waters.

To plan your perfect escape, visit: www.queensland.com

Missed out on securing a camping spot this Christmas? No fear! While the campsite on Lady Musgrave Island is capped at 40 people – and closed from Australia Day weekend through to Easter to protect turtle hatchlings, nesting seabirds and island vegetation – the island is open all year to day-trippers. What's more, Bundaberg's Lady Musgrave Experience has launched a 'Sleep on The Reef' expedition involving two luxury catamarans, the Main Event (for the journey) and Big Cat Reality (a custom-built floating hotel). Once the sun goes down, guests are invited to experience the magnificent natural phenomenon of turtles nesting and hatching on Lady Musgrave Island guided by marine biologists and island rangers.

 Handy links
Lady Musgrave Experience (tours and camping transfers): www.ladymusgraveexperience.com.au
1770reef, Great Barrier Reef Eco Tours (currently tours only): www.1770reef.com.au

 Land ahoy! If you love camping and an old-fashioned seaside holiday, with the option to visit Lady Musgrave Island, head to the Town of 1770 – the so-called birthplace of Queensland, where Captain Cook landed, six hours' drive north of Brisbane – and sister village, Agnes Waters, Australia's northern-most surf beach. If you have a 4WD, cruise down to Deepwater National Park, south of Agnes Waters, where Sunshine Coast couple, Nev and Bev McLachlan, have spent more than 40 years camping and monitoring nesting loggerhead turtles on a 22km stretch of beach near Wreck Rock. Like Jim Buck, dedicated volunteers also recruited by the famous Dr Col Limpus.

In Bundaberg, don't miss a visit to Mon Repos Beach, which supports the most significant population of endangered loggerhead turtles in the South Pacific. November to March is the perfect time to join a ranger-led turtle encounter at Mon Repos Turtle Centre.

 Handy links
1770 Camping Ground: www.1770campingground.com.au
Agnes Water Beach Holidays: www.agneswaterbeach.com.au
Deepwater National Park: www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/deepwater
Mon Repos Turtle Centre: www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/mon-repos/turtle-centre


Did you know? The Great Barrier Reef is recognised as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and, in 1981, was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List for its outstanding universal value (topping all four natural criteria). Covering less than one per cent of the ocean floor, reefs support an estimated 25 per cent of all marine life – the ultimate beneficiary of sustainable management practices. In a big tick for Australia, the World Wildlife Fund earmarked its highest global conservation accolade – a Gift to the Earth award – to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park's 2004 rezoning plan, aimed at improving biodiversity conservation. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service shares responsibility for managing the reef and island national parks.

 Handy links
www.ehp.qld.gov.au/coastal/ecology/great-barrier-reef/
www.gbrmpa.gov.au/managing-the-reef/how-the-reefs-managed
www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/watching/turtles/
www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/animals/marine-turtles

 Ends.

 Name: Shelley Thomas

Word Count: 1930

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