It's a scene that could not be happening in any other country. As the sun rises over the ocean, slowly turning the sky purple then orange, kangaroos and wallabies hop around on the sand while I stand there in board shorts and thongs watching them. It's one of many moments I've been having recently that make me question why I haven't done more travel in Australia.
I'm at Cape Hillsborough near Mackay in Queensland, where a small crowd gathering to watch the animals has become a bit of a morning ritual. Local ranger Abe Weiba is here to make sure nobody gets too close (or tries to pat them) and to feed the animals a nutritional supplement which helps them digest any food they may have picked up from humans.
"Even if we weren't here, the wallabies and kangaroos would still come down for the minerals washed up from the high tide like the mangrove pods, the seaweed, and the mangrove leaves," Abe tells me.
Most of the people here this morning are staying at the fantastic Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park, which comes right up to the sand and has a mix of cabins and campervan sites. It's run by Renae and Ben Atherton who also care for injured or orphaned joeys before releasing them to the wild.
"It's the perfect location for them to be released," says Renae, "because it's a safer environment rather than just releasing them further out, because they have grown that attachment to the humans."
The humans that stay here tend to arrive in campervans or cars full of families and all the things families need for a road trip. Which is not too much of a surprise. The Mackay region is not really considered a destination in itself like Cairns or the Sunshine Coast - it's somewhere people stop on a drive along the coast. But I think that's a perception that may change in the future.
There's a fair amount to do around Mackay including an art deco walk in the city, 100 kilometres of mountain bike trails, well-stocked dams for fishing, more than 30 unspoiled beaches, and Eungella National Park, which is considered to be the best place in Australia to see a platypus in the wild. There are also the little quirks you expect from North Queensland like the Old Station Tea House, a delightful restaurant in a 120-year-old train station set in the lush garden surrounding it.
For this trip, though, I am doing like so many others and driving up the coast. After Mackay, I head to the Whitsundays, which I have written about recently and probably needs no further introduction. But continuing north of Airlie Beach, you'll find areas that are less famous and one of them - a real gem of North Queensland - is Bowen.
Just after you pass the Big Mango, you need to make a small two-kilometre detour off the Bruce Highway to get to the centre of Bowen. The first thing that strikes you are the wide streets, a legacy of the failed plan to make it the capital city of North Queensland. Twenty-seven murals painted on walls around town tell its history but you can also see it in the character of the heritage buildings, including the famous Grand View Hotel, which was used as a set in Baz Luhrmann's Australia and is the best pub food in town.
But it's really worth making a slightly longer detour to the beaches of Bowen where you'll find striking landscapes of granite boulders rolling up hills, bright blue waters in clean sandy bays, and stunning sunsets over the water.
The five-kilometre Cape Edgecumbe walking track takes you between the beaches and through the best of the scenery. The Horseshoe Bay Cafe is the perfect spot for a meal by the water and the nearby Coral Cove Apartments offer private luxury accommodation with beautiful views. It really is surprising that this gorgeous part of North Queensland is not better known but, with the easygoing environment part of its charm, the locals probably appreciate that Bowen isn't too crowded.
I could stay in Bowen for days and, looking at the setups at the caravan park, it seems many people do. But instead I continue the drive north, through the dense fields of sugarcane to Townsville, where I stop to spend a night on Magnetic Island and a couple of days exploring the city that took Bowen's place as the economic centre of North Queensland, with its street art, World War II history, and beachfront promenade known as The Strand.
In the surrounding area, I explore the waterfalls and rainforest of Paluma Range National Park at the southern end of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Site. The site stretches for more than 400 kilometres up the coast ... but that'll have to be a journey for another time.
I look forward to doing it one day soon because what I've realised on my drive from Mackay to Townsville is that some of the most picturesque spots are just a short detour off the highway, that the special experiences are not always the most famous, and that a kangaroo on a beach reminds you that we live in an extraordinary country.
WHAT TO DO:
- See the kangaroos and wallabies at sunrise at Cape Hillsborough (and do some of the hikes in the area.
- Spot a platypus at Eungella National Park near Mackay.
- Discover the murals in the historic centre of Bowen (and don't miss the Big Mango on the way in).
- Hike the five kilometres of the Cape Edgecumbe walking track to see Bowen's beaches.
- Stroll along The Strand in Townsville to explore the city's waterfront.
- Visit the rainforests of Paluma Range National Park with North Queensland Tours.
WHERE TO EAT:
- The woodfired pizza is excellent in the charming garden of The Old Station Teahouse at Cape Hillsborough.
- If it's good enough for Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, then the Grand View Hotel at Bowen should be good enough for you!
- After a walk around the beaches, the Horseshoe Bay Cafe in Bowen is perfect for breakfast or lunch.
WHERE TO STAY:
Michael Turtle was supported by Tourism and Events Queensland.
You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in Townsville.