Moreton Island, Sand Break

Despite being just off the coast of Brisbane, Moreton Island is an often overlooked paradise that seems a world away, says Matt Kirkegaard.

Despite being just 25 kilometres from the mainland and visible from the city on a clear day, this unspoilt island seems to be Queensland’s forgotten treasure.

The Sunshine State boasts innumerable beachside destinations for those wanting to escape the city but, for reasons unknown, Moreton Island is largely ignored by both Brisbanites and interstate visitors in favour of more distant or exotic places. There are, however, those lucky few who are in on the secret.

You may not be far from the city, but it doesn’t take long after you leave the Port of Brisbane (30 minutes’ drive from Brisbane airport) to start feeling like you’re a million miles away. The brown silty waters of the mainland coast deepen and clear as you cross Moreton Bay, and by the time you reach the island the water’s murky colour has transformed into a tropical turquoise.

The crossing takes just 90 minutes on the Micat car ferry. It seems there’s barely time to decrease the pressure of your four-wheel drive’s tyres to prepare for the beach driving ahead before the ramp lowers and you’re driving onto the world’s second largest sand island (after Queensland’s Fraser Island).

Dune Surfing

If you don’t have your own four-wheel drive, join one of the guided tours available through Micat. I join the Xtreme Adventure Guided Day Tour and head straight for The Desert sand dunes, not far inland, to have a go at sandboarding.

I’d seen photographs of these towering dunes but, as I quickly discover, the images hadn’t done justice to the dunes’ size and incline. Standing at the bottom of the sand massif and steeling myself for the ascent to the top, I can’t help but voice the thought that installing a ski lift here would be a great idea.

“We hear that a lot,” my guide, Kim Rosenthal, tells me. “The problem is, if we built it today, the dune would have shifted within three months and the ski lift would be standing in the middle of nowhere.”

On a sand island, Rosenthal explains, where plants and their roots aren’t holding the sand in place, it shifts with the wind. Therefore, to protect the island, sandboarding is restricted to approved areas such as The Desert.

I tuck my toboggan under my arm and start to climb. And climb. And climb. It’s tough-going, but once I reach the top I find myself standing on the crest of a 50-metre-high sand wave, looking over an expanse of blinding white silica and the blue of Moreton Bay beyond. The view is amazing and for a moment I’m distracted from what is coming next.

“Keep your feet together, point your toes and tense up,” Rosenthal advises.

A moment later I’m lying on my toboggan, shooting down the 30-degree slope at 45 kilometres an hour with just a thin polished strip of wood between my body and the hot sand. It’s exhilarating, though maybe not for those with an aversion to sand.

Even though I hang onto my toboggan with as much style as I can muster, the island’s fine sand manages to acquaint itself with all the pockets and folds of my clothing and many other places besides.

Shifting Sands

Still, it’s fun enough to tempt me back to the top for another couple of runs. Then it’s time for me to work my way down the three kilometres of winding track that was used to establish coastal gun emplacements to guard against invasion during World War II. The tracks have now become the island’s thoroughfares and little remains of the emplacements apart from a few concrete outcrops visible from the island’s 38 kilometres of surf beach.

As I descend I pass centuries-old grass trees, and despite the dense vegetation of banksias and bracken ferns, patches of clean white sand poke through everywhere; the flora’s grip on the island’s shifting base seems to be tenuous at best.

Rosenthal tells me that anyone who is planning to camp on Moreton Island is required to bring their own firewood because collecting timber, even dead timber from the ground, is a no-no. Most of Moreton Island’s 19,000 hectares is protected national park and, as Rosenthal explains, it’s only through the decomposition of fallen leaves and timber that the sand maintains enough nutrients for the plants to survive.

Underwater World

With class dismissed, I remove any left-over sand from my body with a snorkelling trip to Tangalooma Wrecks, a chain of 15 steam-driven dredges and barges that were sunk offshore in the 1960s to form a dummy harbour. The wrecks provide a wave break, which offers some protection for moored boats, and an artificial reef that is swarming with marine life.

All manner of soft corals and reef fish are on show and I see several wobbegongs – also known as carpet sharks – casually cruising below me. They have distinct markings that serve as camouflage and, fortunately, are harmless creatures.

Andrew Longworth, a snorkelling guide and long-time Moreton Island resident, offers to take me fishing tonight. We’re too early for the tailor run – the annual spawning run of these hard-fighting fish – which takes place from August to December, but Longworth assures me that you can still catch them throughout the year and, if not, there is no shortage of other species to target.

Alas, even with local knowledge, our dusk fishing expedition at Tailor Bight is uninterrupted by fish. So I head back to my beachside camp site and find myself standing next to a wood fire (the firewood is BYO, of course), enjoying an ice-cold beer and the aroma of steak and onions on the barbecue.

An enormous silver moon casts a diamond-like shimmer on the water and chases away the last vestiges of the burnt-orange sunset. My fishing rod sits, still unbending, in its holder by the water’s edge.

“Fish or no fish,” I declare, “the day really couldn’t have been much better.”

“Yes,” Rosenthal chimes in. “People are very easy to please on Moreton Island. The island does all the work.”

Take a Break

Getting there The Moreton Island Micat ferry enables you to take your four-wheel drive onto the island. If you don’t have a vehicle, Micat offers day and overnight packages that include tours, tobogganing and snorkelling.

Camping Camping near the beach is permitted in designated areas. For permits, contact the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management.

Where to stay Cabins and houses can be rented in the townships of Bulwer and Cowan Cowan on the west coast of the island.

Treat yourself  Check out a helicopter tour of the island, which is a great way to spot dugongs on the west coast, sharks and dolphins on the east coast, and turtles and stingrays all around.

Words by Matt Kirkegaard - Published in Voyeur July 2010
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 1.9 million
Area 1326.8 km2
Time Zone GMT +10
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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