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If there’s one thing worse than being looked at by a crocodile who appears to be memorising your DNA details for later use (i.e. “I’ll remember you, I’ll find you, I’ll eat you”), it’s being openly mocked by one.
Like the vast majority of people, I’ve lived a pretty croc-free life up until this point. But I’m in Far North Queensland now and, on this afternoon, literally surrounded by them. I’m at Billabong Sanctuary, a wildlife park 10 minutes out of the centre of Townsville, on 11 hectares of tropical bushland setting. It’s hot as hell, but masses of towering gums create shade and fringe the turtle-filled lagoons, while various birds and kangaroos wander free range.
The crocodiles, you might be pleased to know, are not similarly roaming the grounds – however you can get up close to them, as interactive experiences are what they do here. Shows run back to back throughout the day. We’d already seen the koala one, and been offered the opportunity to touch lizards, snakes and even hold a three-year-old crocodile in the following presentation and we head next to ‘The Swamp’ enclosures to see some big crocs in action.
Snappy Tom, an enormous estuarine crocodile, has emerged from his murky pond to park himself on the bank, barely centimetres from what suddenly feels like the structurally-dubious fence that separates us.
This beast, so clearly intelligent, so adaptable, comes from a species that has outsmarted and outlived pretty much the rest of their prehistoric counterparts. With 120 million years of evolution behind him – which allows him to be able to live in both salt and fresh water, to survive underwater or on land, to swim and to run – he sits there now, watching us intently, like the bad-ass boss that he is. Soon, we will see how they jump when they are fed, a vertical leap, like a basketball player, so I’m glad in our close encounter he simply slipped back into the shallows, demonstrating how truly menacing a creature of that size is when it moves almost imperceptibly through water and then submerges just far enough so a few of his exposed scutes take on the appearance of a harmless, drifting branch.
There’s also the smaller freshwater crocodiles here and unlike the “salties”, which are fed by the rangers, we can do this ourselves. We’re instructed to make the crocs work for their meal, by dangling the chicken neck – attached by string on the end of a long stick – in front of them, but reeling it back, getting them to stretch or jump a little before letting them take it. My croc has taken one look at me and decided I can go to hell. He’s going to sit back and let me dangle and jiggle as much as I like and refuse to move, that is, until I’m momentarily distracted by asking the ranger a question (oh, I don't know, I think I might have been asking, “Why is my one just staring at me like that?”) and bam! Chomp! He takes the lot in one swift, defiant bite. And then, he smirks at me. A big, smug crocodile grin: “Gotcha, lady. One to me. Again . . .”
As well as Townsville, a popular destination for backpackers transiting up the east coast to Cairns, or down the other way to the Whitsundays, I also spend time on Magnetic Island, which is 8km offshore. Townsville is an emerging destination, so it still has a sleepy seaside feel to it (although locals will tell you that come weekends, Flinders St – the main drag for bars and clubs – comes alive with a party atmosphere). It’s impossible not to feel relaxed here, given everyone else is – especially the backpackers using it to rest and recharge after their farm stints – but “Maggie”, as locals call it, takes the concept of laid back to an almost horizontal level.
The island, more than half of it national park, boasts 320 days of sunshine a year and more than 20 bays and beaches, some accessible only via hiking or by boat. The mountainous scenery is a mix of tropical palms, classic Aussie gumtrees and hoop pines, which proliferate around the granite boulders that form the island’s ruggedly beautiful coastline. And with all this comes the wildlife. If you’re wanting a fix of Australian fauna and marine life for your Instagram feed, then you’re in the right place. On the Forts Walk, I spot a mother and baby koala napping in the trees. At Geoffrey Bay, a Marine National Park Zone prohibiting fishing, the fish are visible through the crystal waters and if you sit on the old Arcadia ferry landing, you can feed them. It’s also here that the rock wallabies live, wild but tame enough to eat from your hand, and it was thrilling to see a mother with a baby poking its tiny face out of her pouch.
Of course, there’s reefs and plenty more marine life around here, so snorkelling and diving are popular pastimes. I take a half-day cruise with Aquascene, which circumnavigates the island. “Visually, Magnetic Island has got it all,” says our captain Adam, and he’s not kidding, as we stay close to the shore to make the most of all the stunning landscapes. We stop to snorkel in a sheltered bay, and I see my first cowtail stingrays in their natural habitat, plus schools of brightly coloured fish zipping over the coral below. Adam has some pilchards on board for the birds of prey who nest along here, and he gives one to a man on board and within seconds a kite has swooped past the boat and taken it from his hand.
There’s more bird feeding every day at Bungalow Bay Koala Village YHA in Horseshoe Bay at 4pm, where hundreds of lorikeets come screeching over, happy to use your head as a helipad and wander along your limbs to eat from your hands. Here at the wildlife park next to the hostel, you can also have plenty of interactive animal experiences as part of their wildlife presentations, which happen three times a day. You can hold lizards and crocodiles, have pythons draped over you, have a cockatoo ‘kiss’ you as it takes a seed from your lip, or you can pat and hold koalas. There’s currently a baby koala there, Claudia, and you’d need the cold, hard heart of a crocodile to not think she’s one of the most adorable things you'll ever see.
There’s plenty of ways to explore the natural beauty of Magnetic Island . . .
Horseshoe Ranch take guided tours through the bush (bonus: plenty of wallabies to see) and then along the beach at the appropriately named Horseshoe Bay, culminating in a bareback ride in the Coral Sea.
Maggie is so small there’s pretty much only one main road which curves along the coast in parts, offering great views of the bays. With a bike path running alongside it, you can feel the sun and sea breeze on your skin and if cycling gets too much, flick the switch to power assistance to cruise along.
The island boasts many walking tracks. Forts Walk, for instance, is dotted with wartime relics and takes you up to the Command Post, which gives panoramic 360 degree views. Also popular is hiking from Picnic Bay to West Point, where scenery is quite different to the rest of the island and you can catch the sunset.
You'll see them buzzing all over the island: tiny convertible cars called ‘mokes’, with some even referring to them as ‘Barbie’ cars due to their bright, candy-pink colours. You can hire these fun cars to get around but if you’re wanting to access some of the more remote beaches, you’ll need to hire a 4WD instead.
While the beaches here are undeniably beautiful, and inviting as a result, this is a tropical part of the world so the sea is shared by magnificent marine life and a few nasties, mainly jellyfish. Also known as ‘stingers’, swimmers and snorkellers need to take them seriously, as a sting will require a hospital visit and, in some cases, can be fatal. December to March is ‘Stinger Season’ so several beaches have stinger nets in place, creating safe places to swim, and lifeguards on duty. Tour operators will also provide you with ‘stinger suits’ if you’re getting in the water with them and plenty of outlets offer stinger suit hire as well.
Take a stroll along The Strand. This stretch of the foreshore has a long walking path, taking you through the shade of curtain fig trees (which look like something straight from the imagination of Salvador Dali), manicured parkland, the waterpark and up to the retail strip, where you can shop, drink and dine, looking across the glittering sea and golden sand to Magnetic Island. Along the 2.5km thoroughfare – popular with runners and cyclists alike – you can also check out the rock pool or try stand-up paddle boarding.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef. At 2,300 kilometres long, it is visible from space and ranks as one of the seven wonders of the natural world. If you’re not able to get out to the reef itself, Reef HQ gives you an up-close idea of what’s out there without having to put a stinger suit on. This is the Australian Government’s national education centre for the Great Barrier Reef and the living coral reef there is housed in a 2.5 million litre tank, with an underwater viewing tunnel, so you can watch all kinds of marine life swim about above and beside you.
For backpackers looking for a little bit of luxe, Rambutan is the place to stay. Offering a mix of dorms, private rooms and villas, you don’t need to be staying there, however, to enjoy the stylish rooftop entertainment area. Opening last year – and channelling a coastal Hamptons meets Palm Springs laid back chic vibe – the pool, cabanas, bar and restaurant provide the perfect place to spend an afternoon or kick off an evening on Flinders St.