Coral colony and soldier fish on Great Barrier Reef Australia

Eco-touring fun in Far North Queensland

I passed a hitchhiker on the highway once, stars and stripes on his backpack, socks and sandals on his feet and, in his hands, a sign saying “The Reef”. He didn’t need any more explanation as to his destination; he just needed someone with a penchant for his particular company over the next 2000km.

One of our iconic natural wonders, The Reef has always been on my bucket list. However, when I found myself pinned to the wall by a Pommy backpacker tout in Cairns who presented me with a dozen different options of how to be shepherded onto a boat with upwards of 100 others and chugged out to a well-trodden pontoon, I began to wonder whether there was another way.

A week later, I find myself climbing aboard Big Mama, a 60-foot sailing boat, where a shell-beaded Lisa ushers me and 11 other guests below deck into the family kitchen to help ourselves to a cuppa and scones. Taking mine upstairs, I locate a beanbag on the top hull and snuggle in for the 90-minute sail out to the reef.

Chartering from Mission Beach, 140km south of Cairns, this three-person sailing crew of mum Lisa, dad Stu and 10-year-old Fletcher — all equally brown-skinned and blonde-haired — are tour guides about as down to earth (or ocean) as you could find.

The ocean is calm and the sea breeze just cool enough to make the sun into a shawl. Coco, the tiny sea dog, nestles in beside me. I’m almost asleep when the call of “Whale!” jolts me upright in time to see two forked humpback tails splash in unison.

Lisa comes over to chat. Since meeting Stu 20 years ago it’s been life on the open seas, sailing and racing throughout Australia and Asia. Fletcher sits behind me doing his maths homework. Without a land base, Big Mama is Home, school and workplace.

The sail is so enjoyable I almost forget about the destination. Like a migratory bird finding its way back to the same tree, Stu drops anchor at his pick of reef in what appears to be open ocean.

“It’s intuitive,” Lisa says. “He grew up on boats.”

I’m handed snorkel and goggles (fins can damage the coral) and suddenly I’m in there — The Reef — and it’s more spectacular than I’d imagined.

I’m handed a snorkel and goggles (fins can damage the coral) and suddenly I’m in there — The Reef — and it’s more spectacular than I’d imagined, a riot of colours, shapes, textures and sounds. Giant purple clams, schools of fluorescent blue fish at my fingertips, tiny spirals of fringed animals that recoil on touch — it’s as bright and strange as an animation.

Homebound, the wind picks up and the spinnaker is raised. Without an engine, we fall silent and rest in the flap of sail, the swish of water against hull, in the captivating simplicity of life at sea.

“Some nights when whales breach in phosphorescence and you can hear the fizz of shooting stars, it’s just magic,” Stu says.

The fishing line dragging behind us brings in a large Spanish mackerel, lunch for tomorrow’s guests.

I’ve seen the reef, but I’ve also had a peek into a way of life as free as the winds this family travels on.

Nature’s offerings

Far North Queensland is home to two World Heritage hotspots — the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforests — and visitors can find themselves trapped inside a tourist town rather than immersed in the wild nature they came to see.

Scratch a bit beneath the tinsel, though, and the traveller intent on an authentic eco-experience amid the jungles, reefs and white-sand beaches can find an adventure.

coral reef fish blue ocean sea

In & around The Daintree

Our Daintree dreaming list went something like this: immersed in wild nature but with a touch of luxury, no mobile reception, healthy food cooked for us, hammocks, croc-free freshwater swimming holes close by as well as secluded beaches, walking trails enough to satisfy my desire for adventure, massage and yoga classes.

Soon I was no longer a landlubber but out on the deep blue, equidistant between two green spires of land, my arms, like fins, my only means of travel.

The boxes were ticked shortly upon arrival at Prema Shanti Yoga and Meditation Centre in the heart of the Daintree. Two wide hammocks swung invitingly on a large wooden verandah overlooking lush tropical rainforest. The nearby swimming hole was so blue it could have been Photoshopped.

Every morning the 10 or so guests gathered in the yoga hall to meditate before breakfast; we met again in the evening for a yoga class before crossing our legs under the long wooden outdoor table where the hearty vegetarian dinner was served.

Meeting the others became part of the experience. Rather than an anonymous holiday hotel, this felt like a kind of yoga retreat, with all of us, including the owners Janardhan and Mara, stretching, “aumming” and dining together.

While I could have easily spent the week mooching between hammock, library, waterhole and yoga mat, exploration of the Daintree beckoned. Each day I ventured out to find a new walking trail, doubly glad when I returned for the evening stretch and delicious curry and a mobile phone silent and still.

Top eco picks

  • Walkabout Cultural Adventures offers boutique rooms, a yoga temple, a meditation room, library, bikes for hire, a network of rainforest tracks and a long stretch of safe freshwater swimming holes, plus of course a seven-day-a-week program of yoga and meditation classes and vegetarian dinners.
  • Mount Sorrow Walk. Captain Cook didn’t have such a lush time of it up in FNQ. Cape Tribulation was so named when his ship Endeavour ran aground on a reef in 1770; nearby Mount Sorrow was similarly named in a fit of despondency. The walk to the top however is stunning and relatively quiet. The 7km trail climbs from the coastal lowlands of Cape Tribulation up the rainforest-clad ridge to a lookout offering views of the coastline, Snapper Island and beyond. Allow 4–6 hours.
  • Walkabout Cultural Adventures is an Indigenous-owned and -operated cultural tour company in the Daintree. Juan, a Kuku Yalanji guide, offers half-day or full-day adventures along the coastline and rainforest, sharing the knowledge and understanding the Kuku Yalanji people have of the land and sea.
  • The Botanical Ark. The life’s work of Alan and Susan Carle, The Botanical Ark is one of the world’s greatest collections of tropical ethnobotanical plants, boasting more than 3000 tropical species that Indigenous rainforest cultures use including fruit, spices and nuts. The private villa accommodation is limited to eight guests, who also enjoy a private beach and freshwater swimming hole.

In & around Mission Beach

Two hours’ drive south of Cairns, we found a little piece of paradise at Mission Beach. The gateway to a string of tropical islands along the Cassowary Coast, Mission also backs onto the pristine World Heritage rainforest at the Clump Mountain National Park. While well equipped for tourists, the town maintains a low-key village feel — Byron Bay 20 years ago — with plenty of opportunities to explore the natural Beauty.

Paradise was even sweeter a few beaches north of the main Mission Beach, when we discovered Bingil Bay campsite. This is what we’d travelled 2000km for, tumbling out of bed and straight onto a quintessential tropical beach to watch the hibiscus-red sunrise while resting against a coconut tree.

When the opportunity came to swap my land legs for a sea kayak and paddle out to Dunk Island, I didn’t hesitate.

The day dawned so still I could see my reflection in the water. Soon I was no longer a landlubber but out on the deep blue, equidistant between two green spires of land, my arms, like fins, my only means of Travel. David, our guide from Coral Sea Kayaks, directed us first to a mangrove sandbank between two islands, inaccessible to even the smallest of dinghies. A turtle darted mere metres in front and a pair of pied oystercatchers raised the alarm over our heads, close as we must have been to their nest.

“It’s a booby,” called David, seeing me crane my neck to glimpse an unfamiliar sea bird.

We rounded the white-sand coast to Dunk Island — named, David informed us, after the second Earl of Halifax, George Montague Dunk, when Cook sailed past the island on June 9, 1770. David turned out to be a wealth of both naturalist and historical knowledge of the area and a passionate advocate for conservation of his local patch of paradise.

Rather than an anonymous holiday hotel, this felt like a kind of yoga retreat, with all of us, including the owners, stretching, “aumming” and dining together.

I was amazed to hear that the canopy of green that covers the island was stripped bare by cyclone Yasi only five years ago. The damaged rooftops from the abandoned resort could still be seen from the water.

We landed on a small bay for lunch and a snorkel. Like the tourist industry, the coral suffered badly from the cyclone but I was still enthralled by the variety of fish finding life among the ruins.

An onshore wind whipped up on the way back. The great wilderness of Hinchinbrook Island lay long and shadowy as a sleeping whale to the south.

“We’re heading out there for a seven-day paddle on Sunday,” David said. “Wanna come?”

“I’d love to,” I said wistfully. “Next time.”

coral reef boat fish blue ocean sea

Top eco picks

  • Coral Sea Kayaking offers ecologically sound paddling trips ranging from short half-day sea-kayaking tours to week-long wilderness expeditions, group charters and private sea kayak hire.
  • Big Mama is a family-operated sailing business operating out of Mission Beach offering a range of sailing expeditions from day-long reef snorkels to overnights private groups of up to six. Big Mama operates between April and January.
  • Sanctuary Retreat is an affordable and unique rainforest eco-lodge and yoga retreat set on 50 acres of natural tropical rainforest near Mission Beach. Less than 2.5 per cent of the land area is actually used for the hotel, the rest set aside under a perpetual Conservation Agreement for wildlife preservation. As such, it is one of the most likely places to see a cassowary, for which I can vouch. The 15-minute rainforest walk from the carpark to the retreat centre delivered my first up-close encounter with the rare bird. As well as a wilderness experience, Sanctuary is also Australia’s biggest yoga retreat centre with yoga schools from all over Australia running retreats year round. Accommodation is rainforest huts or deluxe canopy cabins. As well as being spacious and quiet, Sanctuary has a homely feel, with a communal kitchen, library and outdoor dining area offering a view of the ocean.
  • Bingil Beach Cafe. A visit to Mission Beach isn’t complete without a visit to the locals’ favourite, Bingil Beach cafe. Decked out like a hippy beach shack from the 70s, the Bingil Bay Cafe is a place to spend hours writing postcards, reading a book, checking out the local art, chatting to the family owners and indulging in the delicious home-cooked delights, great coffee, fresh juices and beer from around the globe. The kitchen is open from 7am to 8.30pm every day.

In & around Cairns

A trip to Cairns isn’t complete without a visit to the iconic Rusty’s fresh food market. You’ll think you’re in Asia with the hullaballoo of fruit sellers and coconut vendors. Open Friday to Sunday, if you plan your visit in time for the Sunday closing, you’ll soon find yourself loaded up with boxes of avocados, custard apples, black sapotes and dragonfruit.

In the mountains above Cairns lies the popular tourist destination of Kuranda. For a true retreat, consider a week at the raw vegan sanctuary that is Fairyland House. Owner and fruitarian Zalan offers a range of escapes including yoga, massage, meditation and, of course, as much tropical fruit as you can eat. Check out Airbnb for details.

Venture a bit further inland and explore the beautiful (and infinitely cooler) Atherton Tablelands. Visit the biodynamic Mungali Farm, home to one of the best yoghurts in the country. For a true wildlife experience, consider staying at The Canopy Treehouses near Tarzali. With six treehouses set in 100 acres of rainforest located on the Cairns Highlands, this eco-rainforest resort blends award-winning luxury accommodation with a passionate regard for environmental and wildlife principles.

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.

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