February 1st 2009
A tour through paradise
As a resident it is easy to sometimes forget how alluring Magnetic Island is to visitors. But an off-season ride aboard Magnetic Island Bus Services' Island Tour helped refresh the familiar landmarks and remind me just how special Magnetic continues to be.
The starting point for this journey is the terminal at Nelly Bay Harbour. Surrounded by construction sites, big blokes with fluro shirts and trucks rumbling back and forth, the Island's doorstep is, at present, a shock to expectations of a tropical island paradise. But once under way the country town speed of Nelly Bay and beyond soon begins to sooth.
The journey starts
It's still off-season and this day's tour consisted of just six curious and cheerful visitors keen to see and learn about the island in what many regard as the quickest way possible. The tour driver was Dave Isley, a very experienced local with an easy-going conversational style of speaking that doubled well as an Island guide's information rap.
Detail from Gavin Ryan's interpretive mural
at the Nelly Bay Habitat Reserve
Driver Dave's first stop was the Nelly Bay Habitat Reserve where Island artist, Gavin Ryan has depicted, in gorgeous detail, the natural history features of the Island across an extensive mural tableaux with very readable signage that introduces the Island's 275 million year history. The reserve itself occupies several hectares around the mouth of a small creek which enters Nelly Bay and is home to many birds and other animals. A wander into the shady thickets can reveal the busy workings of orange footed scrub fowl, mound builders of great skill, who use the composting heat to incubate their eggs. Deeper into the leafy folds it is possible, at this time of year, to see and hear nesting Torresian pigeons with their deep, sonorous "coo-woooo" call. In years to come I feel certain that audio scientists will discover that these sounds carry a powerful relaxant signal.
Dave's little air conditioned coach then took us along beside Nelly Bay beach where locals promenade at dusk and bikini, board-short or sarong-clad backpackers wander - sometimes causing wayward steering by drivers unable to avert their gaze. Dave's gaze was, however, steadily upon the road which, soon enough, climbs steeply up to the Rocky Bay lookout.
Here is a great Island view. It is the stuff of Kodak commercials and the grand vista wasn't lost on the tour group. Granite boulders as big as blimps rise from the water's edge to give way to the eccentric curly branches of wind shaped hoop pines which Dave commented were some of the only timbers ever trusted for use in early aircraft. Way down below is Magnetic's unofficial nude beach - a beach that exposes itself only at low tide - its cloak of foam returning as the moon pulls it.
Next we slow down for a likely koala spotting zone beside the hill road coming into Picnic Bay. With no koala's in sight we wended our way down to Picnic Bay - the Island's former gateway but now a quiet settlement in transition with new developments in various stages of completion. One, the Banyans site, awaits, a new direction following the tragic death of its owners, Bill and Lorraine Carnell, last year.
Lillian and Marian in front of the Picnic Bay pub.
For visitors Lillian Campbell and Marian Stone however, Picnic Bay was rich with nostalgia. The elderly friends wondered where the old Picnic Bay pub had gone - this being their first return since World War II when they were stationed in Townsville and Marian had been sent to stay at the pub and recuperate from a bout of dengue fever. I explained that the old building went the way of 90 % of Picnic Bay when Cyclone Althea struck on Christmas Day 1971.
Nobby Head from the Jetty
The Island's biggest man-made feature is the Picnic bay Jetty and, although no longer the Island's entry point, the jetty walk is well worth it. The picture postcard views across the bay to the little beach and nearby Nobby Head with its wonderful weathered boulders and majestic hoop pines, is a perfect entree to the Magnetic experience.
But soon we were off again. Trundling through the leafy streets of Picnic Bay we passed the the Old School House - now a history and craft centre - where Picnic Bay children were taught before the bays were connected by roads.
The Island's most distinctive and unforgettable bird, the bush stone curlew, which is one of over 180 species recorded here was next to be observed. This long legged creature of the night maintains a permanently astonished expression through large piercing eyes. Absurdly skinny, twig-like legs - which bend the other way to ours - support this bird which is almost extinct in southern Australia. Their shrieking, eerie calls have woken many an astonished and unsuspecting visitor.
Can you spot the curlews
We found a dozen dozing curlews just next door to another Magnetic curiosity: the huge, green-waste dump where all the Island's prunings are brought to be chipped for free then returned to residents as mountains of garden mulch.
Some of the other birds one meets on Magnetic include the dazzling, matchbox-sized, sunbirds with their brilliant yellow and iridescent blue throat patches; the blue-winged kingfisher - a slightly larger and prettier version of a kookaburra. Then there are the majestic raptors including ospreys, brahminy kites, sea and wedge-tailed eagles and even the occasional sighting of the world's fastest bird: the peregrine falcon.
The next sight was the vividly green greens and fairways of the Island's nine-hole golf course where the legendary Greg Norman played his very first game. Just beyond is the new $8 million, tertiary treatment plant which will keep the club's fairways green with clean recycled water and help protect the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Cockle Bay, just around the corner, but on the Island's lee side, is where Magnetic's extraordinary range of land and marine habitats becomes apparent. A semi permanent lagoon often laden with waterbirds hides behind a screen of mangroves which serve as the island's own fish nursery.
Cockle Bay at low tide
A rough track that "goes under" on a king tide leads us to a collection of dwellings recessed among old coconut trees. Cockle, named for its ample shellfish population, is a totally laid-back combination of the Mediterranean and South Pacific. The palm fronds give way to a tidal flat with a brightly painted, beached timber vessel alongside a small fleet of tinnies waiting for the tide to lift them. Out on the point a small private home walls up directly above the water's edge.
This is the Magnetic Island you begin to discover with the Magnetic Island Bus Services' morning tour. It lasted three hours in all and the range of scenery packed into this 10km wide Island's landscape was just breathtaking.
It's a tasty tour too. Dave kept an eye out for an unusual culinary experience. Stopping the little coach beside a tree with a globe of green leaves formed on a branch. It was made by green tree ants. Dave allowed a couple of these no-nonsense creatures to investigate his finger. He then removed one ant from its abdomen which he then tasted and offered to Michael who was visiting from South Australia. Michael seemed pleasantly surprised by the minute morsel loaded with vitamin C.
Michael Clements tastes a green ant.
Magnetic Island is a superb classroom for so many nature-based studies and heading back for Nelly Bay, geologists and geographers would be awe-struck by the dramatic mountain-side scars caused 740mls of rain that fell over a day or two back in January 1998, when ex-Cyclone Sid created a 1 in 200 year event, few who experienced it will ever forget. The rain caused several landslides - the largest of which came down behind the Magnetic International Resort. It carried eight times the amount of debris as the Thredbo landslide but, fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt.
Our group before morning tea at Coffees in Arcadia
But there was a very important stop coming up. Brunch at Coffees Café in Arcadia. Scones and baby pizzas were served with tea and coffee scoring a big hit with the crew who could have stopped the rest of the day there beneath the shady old mango trees with a beautiful glimpse through to the blue waters of Geoffrey Bay
But the wallaby feeding couldn’t wait nor the view of the huge and famous granite tors which tilt together and kiss above the old path to the long gone jetty at Bremner Point.
From here we crossed the big hill over to Horseshoe Bay passing the departure point for Forts walk - the best trek for Koala spotting on Magnetic.
There is much more to tell of this marvellous Island paradise and the little bus tour that makes it all so accessible. But to tell more might spoil the surprises and delights in store once you come to experience Magnetic for yourself.
The full-commentary, three-hour tour departs twice-daily and can be tailored to suit the interests of particular groups.
Passengers can be collected from their Island accommodation or from the ferry terminal. Morning and afternoon tea with scones is also included as part of the package.
Bookings for these tours are essential and Magnetic Island Bus service can be contacted on Ph: 47 785 130 Fax: 47 785 380 or email: