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Wildlife Camera » Still looking good, out on the Reef

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« Strange and tame, wildlife of Galapagos -
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The shortest safari – Nairobi Park »

Still looking good, out on the Reef

10 April 2007


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divers and sharks 

VFR is the travel-trade code for “Visiting Friends and Relatives”, which is what most British people do when they go to Australia. And if you are lucky enough to have friends Down Under, be sure to take a safari beyond the cities. Built-up Australia is great, unbuilt-up Australia is fantastic.

Maybe you could get as far as Heron Island, on the Queensland coast. Under the deals offered by some agents, a trip to this sunny coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef is one of the add-ons available at a discount if you buy a full-price airline ticket. It’s a mix of de-luxe and simple, plus birds and fish (millions of them).

This charming islet wears its World Heritage  and National Park status lightly. The resort is one of the few places where you can genuinely paddle out from the white beach below your room into the lagoon and on to the coral reef. The buildings are all low-rise and there are no day-trippers. If you are scoring resorts on the away-from-it-all check list, Heron Island gets lots of points.

The resort used to be part of the P & O empire, but recently joined the Voyages Resorts group, along with several other hideaway islands on the reef.

I made my first visit to Heron Island years ago by Catalina flying boat. Banking over the island, we could see the turtles in the lagoon. It was obviously a great place to see marine life – and so it proved, one of the best anywhere. And all right there on the doorstep. Today you make the trip from Gladstone by helicopter (less than half an hour) or by catamaran (two hours). Take the pills, because these waters can be surprisingly choppy.

Giant rays, the size of dinner tables, will be jumping playfully out of the turquoise waves as you come in to land and the tropic breeze is sighing in the casuarina trees. When the film director says: “Get me the perfect dream island paradise setting,” this is the place that comes to mind. On closer acquaintance, it has several of the drawbacks of very small islets, but it is undoubtedly pretty from the helicopter or the boat.

The emphasis today is on the high standard of the suites and the diving experience. The food is good and the service is willing if erratic (which is a common failing in the tropics, even the Australian tropics). And if you don’t fancy your skills as a scuba diver, you can see almost everything the reef has to offer by taking some trips in the glass-bottom boats. The Great Barrier Reef has, according to the doomsayers, been at death’s door several times in recent decades. However, all 1200 miles of it are still looking good, one of the natural wonders of the world.

Heron Island has more than 20 guidebook-listed dive sites and is one of the places where you can see sharks, turtles, rays, coral and big shoals of reef fish all within a few minutes. Above water, there are the birds.

There are hundreds of thousands of terns – the Black noddies. They are everywhere in the daytime, along with Silver gulls and Buff-banded rails. The noddies are completely unafraid of people and go about their mating, nesting and quarreling right outside your bedroom window. They are delicate creatures: slender terns, garbed in funereal black, but with slashes of white make-up around their eyes which give them a theatrical look. Their homes are untidy handfuls of leaves and seaweed in the forks of trees, and they refuse to leave them even when a curious holidaymaker comes up to meet them, eyeball to painted eyeball. Wildlife photography here is a breeze.

Their chattering and chuckling by day is turned into something much more dramatic at night, when the other quarter million come in from the sea. They are the muttonbirds.

The tastily named muttonbird stays far out on the ocean all day, returning at night to feed its fat youngster, which has been left alone in a deep hole in the ground. Unfortunately, it does not do this quietly. It seeks out its home by flying around uttering unnerving shrieks and wails.

The sooty-black birds – technically, they are Wedgetailed shearwaters – flutter around in the dark, crashing into wires, poles and windows.

Between them, the noddies and the muttons make life exciting on Heron Island, which sounds very, very quiet in the brochure.

One of the island’s four common birds even managed to make it into the dining room during my stay. It is a curious bird, the Buff-banded rail — a boring name for a creature with considerable personality. It looks like a moorhen in striped pyjamas. It creeps everywhere on the island and calls attention to the need for a snack by tapping its beak on your shoes.

Heron Island is definitely not a place for anyone who has a Hitchcock-like fear of our feathered friends. – Willy Newlands (Copyright)


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