There is nothing in this country cuter than a baby koala sitting on a branch, grabbing at eucalyptus leaves, munching away on them as it stares at you with its little brown eyes. At least, this is what I decide as I stand there on the hiking path staring back at it. The baby's mother is just a couple of metres further down the branch, also busy eating, and I decide she is the second cutest thing in the country.
I had been told I would probably see koalas along this track on Magnetic Island, just off the coast of Townsville in North Queensland. Known as the Forts Walk because it leads to historic fortifications from the Second World War, this four-kilometre hike is the most popular on the island. That there are koalas so close to the path just cements its position at the top of the to-do list.
But for keen walkers, there are lots of options. The next morning, while on a boat going along the coast, local resident Adam Hinks points to a jumble of granite boulders at the top of a hill. That, he tells me, is Sphinx Lookout, one of his favourite walks on Magnetic Island and, although probably not technically a local secret, certainly a path that many visitors would skip in favour of the more famous ones.
Adam loves showing visitors his island and, for the past 17 years, he's been doing it with his Aquascene tours. On the day I head out on one, we go to a couple of secluded bays to snorkel amongst the coral, take paddleboards off the beach, and even go fishing (catch and release) a bit further out. These are the places you need a boat - and a local - to take you.
"We're lucky with this island because there are 23 bays and 28 beaches, so we've got a few to choose from," Adam tells me. "And there are no roads and no walking tracks to quite a few of the locations around the island so we've got these remote areas to explore."
The tour takes us past a little outcrop of granite rocks just off the coast that seem to defy the laws of physics in the way they sit on top of each other. When Captain Cook sailed past here in 1770, he was having trouble with his navigation instruments and thought these boulders were proof of strange magnetic fields, hence the name he gave to the island. (They're not magnetic, for the record). But it's not the only quirk here.
Magnetic Island is the only island on the Great Barrier Reef with its own postcode - 4819 - and there's a strong sense of community here. I even spot a couple of younger guys with tattoos of the postcode and map of the island. Adam Hinks shares this culture and history with his guests.
"We never used to have street numbers," he says. "We used to have house names and this is how it was on the island - the mail would come and it would go to the house names."
It's easy to spend a couple of days on Magnetic Island - walking the different trails that cross the stunning landscape, swimming in the clear water off the beaches, hiring a car to drive to the various townships (I get a MINI Convertible for my stay), and seeing the adorable rock wallabies that congregate at the northern end of Geoffrey Bay (probably because people feed them there).
And, when you're here, it's easy to forget that you are just eight kilometres from Townsville, connected by the Sealink ferries that leave about 10 times a day and take only 20 minutes. There are accommodation options right at the ferry terminal, like the excellent Peppers Blue on Blue, or you'll find the whole range from backpacker to boutique across the island.
When I head back on the mainland, I check in to my Townsville accommodation, The Ville Hotel-Casino, to find that my room has a view of Magnetic Island. It also looks out across the brilliant blue pool at the centre of a recent redevelopment that blends tropical vibes with Californian cool. The entertainment complex has become a Townsville hotspot and the Asian-fusion restaurant, Miss Songs, is a highlight.
Townsville sits in that odd position between a big city (it has 180,000 residents and a distinct CBD) and a small town. There's hardly any traffic as I drive around to explore, starting at the waterfront promenade known as The Strand, before having a look at some of the street art in the centre, and then heading up Castle Hill for spectacular views across the city and out across the water.
And of course, from this viewpoint, taking up much of the horizon, is Magnetic Island. It really is, for all intents and purposes, just another suburb of Townsville - the local kids even catch the ferry over to the mainland every day for high school. Yet it's also much more, a special paradise, a tropical Arcadia, where you'll find koalas in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, proud locals who wear their postcode as a badge of honour, and a magnetism that attracts so many repeat visitors.
Michael Turtle was supported by Tourism and Events Queensland.
You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do on Magnetic Island.
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