Magnetic Island was named for the way it pulled on Captain Cook’s compass as he sailed past it, the needle twisting mysteriously.
Some people say this island has a powerful “energy” that radiates from it. While I’m not sure about that, there was certainly some force drawing us here as we travelled down Australia’s East Coast – even if it was only the magnetic pull of curiosity.
We had originally booked two nights on the island, but not long after we arrived we were extending it to four. The island’s slow pace of life made us so happy that we realised it would be a shame to leave too quickly.
Dining in the Rainforest
The first night we arrived we were hungry but didn’t feel like cooking, so we headed to Man Friday which is a BYO Mexican restaurant surrounded by lush rainforest.
As we waited for our meal on the outdoor patio and discussed the meaning of the latest episode of WestWorld, we saw pale cream-coloured geckos slinking up the walls, long legged birds skulking around, enormous bats swooping overhead and a possum shimmying up a nearby tree trunk.
It’s not often you get to enjoy so much wildlife with your evening meal.
Koalas in the Treetops
On our second day we set off late morning smelling of sunscreen and equipped with a backpack filled with sandwiches and water. We took the bus from Picnic Bay to Nelly Bay and then picked up the walking trail through the forest to Arcadia Bay, a 2-3 hour trek. I would recommend doing the hike earlier in the morning than we did, by mid afternoon the sun was hot and we were red-faced and sweating as we climbed up the steep, rocky track.
However, our efforts were rewarded. We had kept an eye out for koalas the entire way – trying to find a balance between watching our footing and scanning the treetops. We were starting to wonder if we would ever see one, when we came across a German girl who said she saw some in the trees up ahead. We marched forth with invigorated curiosity.
A few minutes later, my eyes were drawn to a furry grey bundle wedged into the crook of a branch. “Lee!” I whisper-shouted, pointing frantically. As Lee pointed his camera, the koala lifted its head and looked directly at us. With its button nose and tufted ears, it looked more like a plush toy than a real animal – too cartoonishly cute to be real.
As Lee snapped photo after photo and I gazed on mesmerised, the koala shimmied up the tree trunk gripping the bark with its tiny claws. On a branch above it met with another larger koala, perhaps its mother? We tried to get a closer look but we realised we were making them nervous, so we backed away and made the most of the zoom lens on Lee’s camera.
Along the way we would see two more koalas, curled up sleepily in the tree branches. Koalas sleep for 16 to 18 hours per day. They need the rest because the energy value of their diet is very low. Eucalyptus leaves are low in nutrition, high in fibrous matter and contain toxins so they take a very long time to digest.
(I asked myself why the koalas would eat something that is low in nutrition and made them sleepy and sluggish as they tried to digest it, but then I realise that I should be asking myself the same question the next time I eat fast food.)
Wallabies on the Rocks
As we started galumphing downhill towards Arcadia Bay, the trail left the bush and became a quiet rural subdivision with a maze of streets. We found our way to the Arcadia Village and bought a couple of much needed cold drinks, then we went around to the rocky point where we were told we could find wallabies.
It was around 3pm and still quite hot, so the wallabies were hiding within the cool shadows of the rocks – hesitant to come out of the shade. Another visitor shared his apple slices with us and I was able to coax one of them to eat out of my hand. It’s an amazing feeling when you have an encounter like that with wildlife (even if they are pretty used to humans like the wallabies are). You feel grateful that the animal has deemed you safe enough to trust.
We decided to come back later and see if the wallabies would be more active when it was cooler. Our plan was to head to Horseshoe Bay on the bus, but we missed a bus by five minutes and the next wasn’t for another hour and 20 minutes. So, we decided to stay in Arcadia and have a beer at the hotel – and I’m glad we did because we got to have a second wallaby encounter later.
Every day at around 5pm a one-legged local man in a motorised wheelchair pulls up at the wallaby point and flings handfuls of seeds and grains on the ground.
Making a loud clicking sound and calling out, he tempts these furry, hopping creatures out of their rocky hiding places and out onto the pavement. He gave gruff but helpful instructions to us and the other tourists. “Sit on the ground with your legs crossed. Hold your hand out in front of you. Come closer to them, they won’t come to you.”
I asked him how long he had been feeding them for and he simply sighed and said, “Years.”
Responding to the sound of his familiar voice, the wallabies poked their furry heads out of the crevices in the rocks and hopped towards the centre of the parking lot. After a few minutes there was a crowd of at least a dozen wallabies, all crunching on seeds and nuts. I sat cross-legged on the warm pavement, letting one nibble the sunflower seeds and grains out of my hand.
I was surprised at how so many other tourists who arrived during this feeding time seemed to not know how to act around animals. Perhaps it was because when they arrived they saw the wallabies out, so they assumed they were pretty tame. When many people arrived they simply barged into the area, talking loudly, causing the skittish creatures to nervously hop away. When I was feeding one, another girl abruptly stuck her camera in its face and it turned around and bounced off.
However, the most frustrating part was when we started to hear a high pitched yipping from a nearby parked car. The wallabies tensed their posture and perked up their ears.
“Oh no… who brought a bloody dog?” grumbled the one-legged wallaby whisperer.
A young woman in a sundress and flip flops sheepishly confessed to owning the dog and the wallaby man told her she better get it out of there quick or the wallabies would all leave. She got in the car and drove it further away, but it was too late. The barking had spooked all of the wallabies and they had scattered back into the rocks.
“They won’t come back for another ten minutes now. Because of that bloody dog.”
I could sense the wallaby man’s frustration. He had taken the time to carefully and patiently coax these creatures out of their hiding places so we could interact with them and all of his efforts had been reversed with one bark. Honestly, who brings a dog when going to see wildlife?
With no more wallabies to feed, I thanked the wallaby man and then we walked back to the Arcadia Hotel. After all of the hiking and sunshine, a cold beer was just what we needed. We had seen that there was a trivia night on at the hotel and being absolute pub trivia addicts we decided to give it a go.
At the end of the night we placed third, which is not bad for a team of two against several other teams with 5-6 members. Our prize was a free jug of beer, which we made a valiant effort to chug before we had to catch the bus back to Picnic Bay.
A day that included spotting koalas, feeding wallabies and winning free beer ranks up there with one of the best travel days ever.
Sunset Over the Ocean
Our third day was a little more work heavy – as is the life of a digital nomad. However, there was still time for an afternoon plunge in the pool and a hike up to the lookout point to watch the sunset. The lookout was incredibly easy to reach from the hotel and it only took about 25 minutes to get to the top.
Scrambling up onto the rocks was a little nerve wracking- my stomach dropped when I looked down at the drop below. We perched on the top of the sun-warmed boulders and watched as the sun sank slowly into the ocean, the sky changing from blue to lavender to purplish-grey.
Forts on the Hill
On our fourth day I was making coffee in the morning when I noticed a cockatoo sitting on the wall outside the kitchen, watching me intently. I stared at him and he stared right back. As I settled on an outdoor table to have my breakfast, he flew over to sit next to me. I was happy for the company, even though his stare was a little bit intense!
We headed out again in the early afternoon, map in hand. We jumped on the bus (what a great convenient system for getting around the island!) and got off at the beginning of the Forts Walk.
This short trail takes about 45 minutes and leads you up the hill to some ruins of WWII forts. The Australian Coast Artillery Units operated the Forts complex from 1943 until the end of the Pacific War in 1945.
There’s not much left of most of the buildings but the concrete foundations, but there is a look-out tower that you can climb. Slowly, hand over hand, I ascended the steep metal ladder and was rewarded with a breathtaking 360 degree view. It’s not often a trail offers a view this spectacular in exchange for less than an hour of gentle climbing.
After this hike Horseshoe Bay was only a short bus ride away and we rewarded ourselves with scoops of silky, flavourful gelato from Adele’s. Lee went with his old standard of vanilla but I mixed the chocolate and peanut butter fudge together and achieved gelato nirvana.
One of the things I love about this island is how friendly everyone is. It’s hard to walk in a shop, cafe or pub without the proprietor asking how your day has gone, where you are from and whether or not you have seen any koalas today. Extended chats would happen anywhere, with strangers on the bus or in the shop.
I watched the convenience store owner in Horseshoe Bay spend a good 10 minutes explaining to a lady how best to heat up the loaf of bread she was buying so that it became perfectly warm and crusty. “Come back and let me know how you get on,” he said. “If it goes wrong I’ll give you another loaf tomorrow for free.”
The grumpiest island residents seemed to be the bus drivers – mostly white-haired men who seemed like they had dealt with a few too many clueless backpackers. While they weren’t chirpy and keen, they weren’t unpleasant either – just gruff and pragmatic.
When the bus would pull up outside of BASE (the main party hostel), the driver would jump off to address the horde of 20-somethings with bulging backpacks. The goal was simply to get their suitcases under the bus and their bodies in seats, without a lot of faffing about. You can tell that these bus drivers have spent years shuttling around hapless travellers and have become adept at the art of herding them, like distracted school children, onto the bus as efficiently as possible.
When it finally came time to leave Magnetic Island, I felt like our four days there had flown by. There was something about the island that just clicked for us – it was a perfect match for our travel styles, personality and pace of life. We even talked about how we could see ourselves living there – hosting visitors in an airy house with a hammock and spending our days showing them the island’s most beautiful spots.
Just like Captain Cook’s compass, we felt the pull of Magnetic Island and we diverted our course towards it – and I’m so glad we did.
Tips for Visiting Magnetic Island
- Listen carefully to the warnings about where you can and cannot swim, especially during stinger season. There are a few stinger nets around the island where you will be able to swim safely.
- If you plan on taking more than one bus journey in a day, it is worth it to buy the day pass.
- Plan at least three full days, as you don’t want to rush yourself while enjoying this gorgeous and laid back place.
- If you are spending anytime in Townsville before heading over to the island, have some gelato at Juliette’s. It’s so creamy and sweet and the perfect treat on a hot Queensland day.
- If you want to rent a car while you are on the island, you can rent one of these ridiculous life-sized Barbie cars.
- For more info, check out the Magnetic Island Tourism website.
How to Get There
Magnetic Island can be easily reached via ferry service from Townsville, Queensland. It is only around 8 km offshore and the journey takes about 20 minutes. There is a passenger ferry that makes up to 19 return trips per day and a car and passenger ferry that makes up to 7 return trips per day.
The passenger ferry is operated by Sealink QLD and the car ferry is operated by Fantasea Cruising Magnetic. The ferries can be a little bit bouncy so I would recommend taking tablets if you are susceptible to seasickness like I am – although you won’t suffer for long as it is a short journey.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at CStay Guest House in Picnic Bay. Most backpackers stay at the BASE Hostel, but we were looking for a chilled out vibe rather than a party. We found CStay just the right pace for us. It offered a fully equipped kitchen and barbeque so we cooked a few meals for ourselves. Anton, the manager, is incredibly helpful and takes the time to explain the local map of the area and share recommendations for the surrounding area.
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