Busing the East Coast Part 1 – from the Great Barrier Reef to turtle nesting

The youthful idealism that comes with travelling Australia has never been lost on me or Stephen. It’s usually an 18-23 year old pursuit, the search for hedonism and general beach living without consequence.

And yet the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, as David Attenborough details so brilliantly on his second documentary about this vast natural area, it’s the biggest living structure on Earth – so how could we come to Australia and simply skip it?

The cheapest way to see the coast was by bus. A hop-on, hop-off Premier bus that runs through the night at the absolute worst possible times. But you get what you pay for, and at just $320 each from Cairns to Sydney, we had transportation sorted.

Cairns is the first access point to the reef. But the city didn’t appeal to us much. In fact, it felt like the Magaluf of the East Coast. Its strips of bars and restaurants offering cheap meals and bottomless drinks wasn’t exactly what we had in mind when it came to the reef. And after our night out in Darwin with our tour buddies, we were off the wagon.

Just outside of Cairns was, however, beautiful. And my lovely work friend from Sydney took us to a beautiful beach shack bar one Sunday for cocktails.

Our first trip out on the reef was incredible. It was the first time we’d seen coral reef like that, and being able to get so close to the brightly-coloured fish and their living home was immense.

The waters of the GBR are filled with lots of deadly creatures, but the most likely killer is in fact the smallest – the Irukandji jellyfish. Smaller than a centimetre, these little critters are one of the venomous creatures on Earth. Which is why we had to don the attractive stinger suit for our snorkelling excursion – which, with holes throughout didn’t really feel like it was doing much. Still, we had two long snorkelling sessions on the outer reef and saw a big barracuda and thousands of fish, and didn’t die from a single sting!

Our second snorkel trip was at the Whitsundays, after a brief visit to the aptly-named and tired town/village of Townsville. We stayed at a campsite at Airlie Beach that we thought was a hostel and it was a steaming hot day. The boat took us first to Chalkies Beach – a beautiful white sandy beach completely empty. The coral here was even better than the first trip from Cairns – with so many colours and a wide variety of fish, including a stripy-patterned fish that came up super close and appeared to be threatening to have a staring contest with us.

The tour also took us to the most photographed beach in Australia, Whitehaven. It’s the iconic picture-perfect spot of the Australian reef, with a bright white sand that squeaks under your toes and stays cool. We had a barbecue lunch and enjoyed this postcard-like scene with a good book and other tourists.

As we continued to work our way down the coast we stopped at Agnes Water/1770, where Captain Cook came ashore back in 1770. The area was extremely isolated and the weather a little dismal so we hired bikes to explore. Rainforest walks and beach life is the thing here, but decidedly you need good weather…

As expected, we struggled to settle into the hostel life – with the monotony of cheap food, laundry and organised games always ahead of us.

After our Great Barrier Reef tours we were offered more beautiful beach and snorkelling tours to places like Fraser Island. These high-ticket tours looked amazing, but we decided to take our experience into our own hands this time when we heard about the nesting wild turtles at Mon Repos beach, an hour or so from Hervey Bay. With little money left, we hired a car and did it ourselves.

The centre at Mon Repos focuses on research and conservation, and offer visitors a look at the wild turtles that nest here for just $12. Beginning at 7pm we were put into small groups and when a turtle was spotted we trekked down to the beach.

We were lucky enough to see our lady turtle heave her way up the beach (faster than we had imagined it from watching David’s footage). She found a spot in the dunes and started to dig an egg chamber, or nest. Incredibly she uses her flippers as hands to dredge out the sand and ensure it is as deep as it needs to be for the eggs to incubate and later hatch.

It was completely fascinating, an incredible experience, particularly when she began to lay. The experienced guide placed a low-light torch behind her so we could see the eggs dropping. Sometimes two or three at a time would pop out and land in the chamber, like it was no effort at all.

The turtles use natural light to navigate the beach and the ocean when they have finished nesting, and so photography is only permitted for a very limited time. We managed to get some dismal snaps that partially capture what we saw. But really, I don’t think it’s an experience that is easily put into words or images.

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We were both overcome with emotion when she pulled herself back down the beach to the ocean when had finished meticulously polishing off her hardwork. It must be bloody exhausting.

I’m starting to think that our journey down the coast isn’t really that arduous… Thanks Murtle the Turtle for some perspective.

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