We’ve all heard of the Great Barrier Reef. And each year, many of us plan trips to visit it. From the Whitsundays to Far North Queensland, it is a true drawcard.
We jostle for accommodation and places on boats that take us out to view the reef, and sometimes we snorkel with loads of other tourists all wanting to see the same incredible things.
But what if I told you there was a region of Queensland where you could step away from the crowds and discover the reef pretty much on your own? And that inland from this stretch of coastline, you could discover a piece of wilderness that was bigger than the state of Tasmania, has more national parks, and is still relatively untouched?
A piece of Queensland with no crowds? Seems unheard of.
But, as I recently discovered, it exists.
The Southern Great Barrier Reef starts about four hours north of Brisbane and stretches roughly 300km along the coast from Bundaberg to Yeppoon. With incredible islands, tropical regional centres along the coast, and an enormous wilderness region extending through the hinterland, this is one area of the Sunshine State where you can step off the tourist path and enjoy a voyage of discovery with plenty of surprises.
Here are my top five reasons why you should plan your own visit:
1. You can live the ‘good life’ on the coast
My adventure in the Southern Great Barrier Reef kicked off near Yeppoon, where I based myself at NRMA Capricorn Yeppoon Holiday Park. You simply cannot escape the feel of the tropics here: palm trees surrounding the accommodation and the beach just down the road.
Nearby, Yeppoon is a thriving regional town with a revitalised foreshore precinct that invites locals and visitors alike to enjoy the al fresco outdoor entertainment and culture, kids’ water park, barbecue facilities, and boardwalk – all with ocean and island views. Everything you need for a relaxing holiday is right here, including super fresh seafood.
NRMA Capricorn Yeppoon exudes the relaxing vibe, and you’ll never want to leave. With a double-loop waterslide for kids, an open-air cinema complete with obligatory hot popcorn in the evenings, and lots of space for campers and caravanners, it really is a destination unto itself.
2. Tropical islands are just a hop, skip, and short ferry ride away
The beauty of the islands in the Southern Great Barrier Reef region is that they are easy to access from land, making for a great day trip.
A 30-minute ferry trip from a marina near Yeppoon will take you straight to Great Keppel Island, the largest of the 18 Keppel Islands. It’s a gem: white sandy beaches, welcoming locals, fresh seafood on the restaurant tables, and a fringing reef you simply have to explore.
I decided to check it out via sea kayak with Brett from Great Keppel Island Adventures. The protecting reef provided calm waters around the island, and we paddled out to his favourite spots to view the underwater treasures. With schools of coral trout, parrot fish, reef fish, and even a groper, I couldn’t resist and tumbled into the water with my snorkel for the ultimate reward.
3. Discover the meaning of adventure in the Sandstone Wilderness
Inland from the reef, the sprawling Sandstone Wilderness region offers an area bigger than the size of Tasmania to explore for yourself. It features more than 25 national parks and endless adventure options, so I decided to let an expert lead the way. I jumped into a 4WD with Discover the Hinterland Tours and my guide, Harry, show me around.
Kroombit Tops National Park has a huge network of 4WD tracks, and once we left the sealed highway the real adventure began. We traversed water crossings, discovered incredible wildlife, and climbed towards the scenic lookout where the elevation meant that the vegetation gave way to towering blue gums – I truly felt like I was in untouched land. The lookout heightened that perspective, with a view over hundreds of kilometres of rainforest, sandstone gorges, cliffs, peaks and waterfalls stretching into the horizon.
4. Turn back time on an incredible bushwalk
Another of the Sandstone Wilderness’ national parks is Cania Gorge, where a choice of scenic walks allows you to explore towering sandstone cliffs, verdant rainforest, and ancient caves. You can also spot freehand aboriginal art; evidence of 19,000 years of Indigenous occupation.
I took the route to the Overhang, a cave that has been eroded out of the bottom of a cliff, and found myself totally immersed in a natural environment where you can see that literally only wind and water has shaped the landscape.
Passing Dripping Rock, you can see and hear the water slowly eroding the sandstone, as it has done for millions of years to form Cania Gorge. More than 150 different plant varieties live in this region, and we could see and hear the wildlife among them – a lace monitor quickly disappearing into the ferns and frogs chirping all around us.
5. Discover age-old Australian traditions
Further towards Bundaberg in the Gleneden Valley, a farm that has been in the same family for more than 100 years is not only bringing a dying Australian art back to life, but allowing tourists to participate.
Rohan ‘the bullocky’ and his wife Fiona (and their kids) are sustainably regenerating the ‘Gleneden Organic Farm’ using the power of only bullocks. There is no modern machinery found on this land; instead, a team of bullocks do the work of tractors, and Rohan has them all trained like pets.
Visitors are invited to visit the family-friendly farm, watching typical farm life happen around them, enjoy billy tea, participate in jam making and bush skills, and muck in with the farm work: sheep shearing, baby animal feeding, cow milking, etc.
Rohan does his best to make his work around the farm entertaining. With a swag of crafts that complement his work with the bullocks, such as blacksmithing, wheelwrighting and yoke making, his farm and bush skills are on display for all and make a valuable lesson for young and old.
I joined Rohan to test my own skills, and while I was out of breath at the end, under his expert guidance I managed to yoke two bullocks together. I was surprised to hear them respond to Rohan by name… never considering bullocks could be trained like this.
But Rohan certainly has the determination to make his vision a reality, and I found it a pure privilege to be part of it for just one day.
What areas of Australia do you love that are off the beaten tourist path? Share your story in the comments section below.
For more travel information and inspiration visit the Places We Go website.
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