High above the rolling valleys of sugar cane I awake to a chilly mist and the smell of smouldering log fires. Here just 80 km west of Mackay I have left behind the tropical coastal climate to wind through the Pioneer Valley climbing upwards into the Highlands and Eungella National Park.
The moments before sunrise are crisp, quiet and still but then the birds break into full throat, high pitched calls echoing through the river beds as the sky bursts into a full colour palette rich in purple pastels and pinks. From my warm bed at Broken River Mountain Resort it is only a few minutes' walk to the river heralded as being one of the most reliable places on the planet for spotting platypus in the wild.
Twisted rainforest and towering trees overhang the gentle flow of water filtering through rocks and waterholes known to be platypus habitat. Instantly the silky surface is broken by rapid ripples spiralling out in circles around a duck-like bill and streamlined body.
Mesmerised at first I strain to watch this strange looking mammal as it ducks, dives and resurfaces, acutely aware of surface noise and any signs of danger. Wandering further downstream to sit at the water's edge I blend as one with nature as kingfishers flit in and out, platypus feed close by and the smell of rainforest bubbles before me.
It's a chance to breathe deeply and enjoy a wide range of walks and trails leading around jagged mountain cliffs with sweeping valley views or dense rainforest tracks amid luscious palms and streams. Within an hour's drive of Mackay, Eungella National Park sprawls over 54,000ha through the Clarke Range and also encompasses nearby Finch Hatton Gorge overflowing with weather-smoothed boulders, tumbling cascades and swimming holes.
The return drive back to the coastline winds through swaying sugar cane flowers and rolling hills of green. I break for lunch at the Pinnacle Pub, a lone country watering hole with huge fresh meat pies baked and pulled from the oven daily.
Of course Mackay isn't just the nucleus for National Parks clad in trees and streams, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is also outside the door. Located just 12mintues flight north east of town, Keswick Island is a little known oasis within the Whitsunday group, surrounded by beautiful coves, fringing reef and tropical fish. With a total permanent population of around 20 folks, don't expect lavish resorts and consumer chaos. This is a true self-explore island getaway with no cars (just golf buggies) and the only prominent noise I remember is the rise and fall of a six metre tide washing over the chiselled landscape.
Amid a range of private houses to rent, all with dramatic views of the ocean, there's a new space for Glamping to go with the camping at Keswick Island's Basil Bay. My flight lands on a tiny air strip overhung with palm trees, set beside the sea. It feels like a Fantasy-Island-styled entry where I half expect some strange little man to run around shouting 'the plane, the plane' to alert the arrival of new guests.
The following day with what feels like access to my own private island, I set out to explore the many walks to deserted nooks of purest sand, and grassy trails to the tips of headlands, to sit and drink in the sweeping views of this untouched island made up of 80% National Park. On sunset I saunter through a thousand grass trees covered in Tiger Blue butterflies to the edge of Langton Point where views of Keswick and nearby St Bees Island are silhouetted by a fiery twilight.
Void of hotels, camping grounds, backpackers, restaurants or shops, this is the ultimate getaway for anyone who just wants to get away.
But then there are many such opportunities to take advantage of with Mackay as your base. Having covered both reef and rainforest it's time to head for the wilds. Just 30minutes drive south-west of Mackay I find myself on a horseback adventure entirely cocooned by vegetation that only can be described as the heart of the Australian bush.
I have done quite a few horse trail rides in my time but here at Stoney Creek Farmstay, Steve and Deb Fry run extremely unique rides winding up and down rocky creek beds, along bushland escarpments and through iconic scenes of windmills and open plains. Having built a quirky accommodation cottage complete with bush shower and toilet inside a gumtree, Steve has added some new rooms inside the stable for a rustic stay in the Aussie Bush.
My time in Mackay however is drawing to a close. I have enjoyed such a diverse range of exploration and sightseeing options that next time I will have to extend my tropical sojourn.
- Broken River Mountain Resort www.brokenrivermr.com.au Ph 07 4958 4000
- Stoney Creek Farmstay www.stoneycreekfarmstay.com Ph 07 4954 1177
Word Count: 815
Author: Cathy Finch
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