Great Barrier Reef: top 10 secrets

Former ‘Reef Caretaker’ Ben Southall – winner of Queensland’s ‘best job in the world’ – knows this coast better than most. So who better to reveal its hidden gems

5 mins

1. The place to paddle: Whitsunday Islands

To really appreciate the Whitsundays, hire a kayak from Salty Dog Sea Kayaking  at Airlie Beach.

A water taxi  service of Scamper aluminium barges delivers supplies everyday while you explore the inlets, beaches and trails of the 74 islands. Paddle past turtles, dolphins, coral reefs and even the occasional dugong.

2. The secret surf:  Agnes Water

There’s one little surf spot on the Queensland coast that the Great Barrier Reef forgot to protect.

Far from the crowded breaks of the Gold and Sunshine coasts, Agnes Water has a clear view of the Coral Sea and the resulting ocean swells. I remember waking up before the sun, clambering through the gum trees, pounding waves beckoning me to the shore, to arrive on a deserted beach: just me, my board and the ocean. Bliss.

3. The bevy of beaches: Great Keppel Island

Surrounded by crystal-clear waters and pristine snorkelling sites, the Keppel Islands have almost been forgotten – which I’m slightly happy about! Spend lazy days in a hammock at Great Keppel Holiday Park, listening to the birds, reading a book. Or jump on a quadbike to see if you can visit all 17 of the island’s beaches  in a single day.

4. The yachties’ haunt: Middle Percy Island

South of the Whitsundays lies an archipelago called the Percy Group. You’ll need to find a bed on a passing boat to get there but it’s worth the effort: there’s a natural harbour, a long sandy beach, pine-clad hills and an A-frame building that’s gone down in seafaring legend – home to hundreds of old boat signs, tributes to friends, swings, hammocks and coconuts galore. This is where Robinson Crusoe should have been shipwrecked.

5. The Barrier Reef bargain: Lady Musgrave Island

Day trips to the reef can be expensive and far too quick – one day to find Nemo and all his friends? Not here. Pack your tent and supplies (including all drinking water), jump aboard the Spirit of 1770 and arrive at this coral cay just over an hour later. After the daytripping crowds leave it’s just you and the island’s residents: black noddy terns, boobies, the occasional turtle. Stay as long as you like, to snorkel to your heart’s content and watch the sun rise and set.

6. The reef roadtrip: Deepwater National Park

If you’re heading up the Queensland coast in a 4WD then turn right just after Bundaberg to picturesque Deepwater National Park. Once you clear the cover of the gum trees, the sandy track opens out onto a campground nestled behind the dunes, and the tranquillity and beauty of the park surround you.

7. The eco-stylish stay: Wilson Island

With safari-style tents, eco-sensitive living and fully hosted accommodation, Wilson Island is somewhere to get away from the world while still being able to enjoy the finer things in life. I struggled to get out of the water here – there’s too much to do: kayaking, swimming or simply floating in mask and snorkel above the coral. I came back a prune every afternoon in time for sunset drinks!

8. The sky safari: Cow Bay

The rugged wilderness of tropical North Queensland requires a little more effort to get around than the south. When the roads run out and the coast becomes less populated, take to the air. Hopping between locations onboard a private chopper is the ultimate way to do it all in a day: the Daintree Rainforest in the morning; the reef for lunch; sunset at an Outback cattle ranch.

9. The island hike: Thorsborne Trail

Hinchinbrook Island juts out of the ocean like a splinter of rock, different in geography from everything around; its highest point, 1,121m Mt Bowen, is often lost to the clouds. Along its eastern foreshore runs a 32km trail for the avid trekker. The basic campsites dotted along its length mean self-sufficiency is vital but the rewards are many, especially the view from Zoe Falls. This is a place to strip naked, jump in the waters and feel like you’re the only person on earth. And yes, I have done it!

10. The wild west: Fraser Island

Fraser Island is hugely popular – but there’s a hidden side that only the locals visit, the calmer west. Take your 4WD along the sandy tracks, past freshwater lakes, through rainforest and out onto the endless sandy beaches. Find a sheltered cove, back into the dunes, erect the tent, crack open a tinny and sit back to watch the sunset. Very Aussie indeed.

Adventure advocate and travel writer Ben Southall became Reef Caretaker in 2009, after beating thousands of applicants for Tourism Queensland’s ‘best job in the world’. He now blogs at

This article has been taken from the current issue of Wanderlust travel magazine (September 2012). To find out more about the Great Barrier Reef, order your print copy in the Wanderlust shop or download a digital copy in the Appstore or with Zinio.

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