The roar of the outboard motor recedes, leaving only the tinkle of waves lapping against a coral shore. We’re left with crates of gear in the sand at our feet, a wheelbarrow for transportation, and a week to explore an island that you can circumnavigate in 20 minutes. Paradise found.
Lady Musgrave Island is a tiny jot of white sand and a tangled grove of Pisonia trees in the outer Great Barrier Reef. The island, about 14ha in total, is dwarfed by the 1200ha of closed-ring platform reef which encircles an opalescent lagoon. Coral cays, unlike rocky continental islands, are completely built by crushed coral and are home to internationally-significant endangered plants and animals. It’s one of a handful of islands scattered throughout the Capricornia Cays which have a few soft camping pads tucked away in the verdant undergrowth, without any other resorts or development. And if you time it right, you can have it all to yourself – 360 degrees of over-saturated, postcard beauty. For a week we saw no-one else other than the odd yachtie who, having taken safe mooring in the lagoon for the night, came ashore to stretch their legs.
All that serenity was a side note for us – we had come for what lay beneath. When we planned the trip we had hoped to swim with a turtle – it turns out we couldn’t avoid them. Breakfast was shared with a parade of Green Turtles which bobbed along in the shallows, briefly lifting their heads out of the aquamarine water to gulp a breath and check out the new bipedal wildlife. Under the water, Moorish Idols, Humbugs, Butterflyfish, Wrasse and Blue Groper shimmer like a crazed paint-palette of colour amongst the hard corals, while schools of Giant Trevally hang in silvery curtains and long Barracuda stalk the edges. Giant Clams pout in all their technicolour, psychedelic glory on the bottom, and morays and sea snakes peak out of crevices in the coral. Where the coral shelf gave away to the open expanse of the inner lagoon, you could swim out to a coral head which rose off the sandy floor like a donut, and dive down to peek over the rim into the inner depression which housed a cleaning station, where there were never less than four turtles patiently waiting their turn for a scrub. One late afternoon, we even came across a huge Loggerhead Turtle which looked so much like a chunk of the reef that we didn’t see it until it detached itself and glided underneath us and out into deeper water. At over a metre long, it was almost the length of certain members of our party! And off at the limits of visibility, black-tip reef sharks ranged the edges of our perception, timid and shy like shadows slipping between the shafts of sunlight.
During the heat of the afternoon, we would stretch out in the hammocks or explore the interior of the island, which was shielded on all sides by the outer wall of elephantine leaves but opened up like an arboreal cathedral once you pushed your way through, a hushed hall with twisted trunks in place of colonnades. A place of dark fantasy where the lush foliage which enclosed you in its protective embrace also hid a crown of thorns, sticky barbed seeds designed to ensnare young birds which roosted there and devour them for nutrients, like the tales of carnivorous islands from the Life of Pi. Here we would wile away the time until the tide dropped away, exposing the reef around the island and allowing us to walk out away from our little island to the reef edge and cast off into deep water, or watch the whales as they cruised past.
They say time slows down on a tropical island. In reality, it evaporates. It flows away from you like the tide, and disappears completely. Days blend into each other and fade into the sunset. When you sign the paperwork with the boat charter, it asks you to fill out your work and emergency contact details ‘in case you are marooned for an extended period of time’… What we wouldn’t have given to be marooned a little longer.
- There are a number of islands in the Great Barrier Reef which have camping areas maintained by the Queensland Department of National Parks. These include Lady Musgrave, North West, Masthead, and Orpheus Islands. North West Island is the largest island at 100ha with a large reef area, but is also one of the more popular, accommodating up to 150 people including school groups at certain times. Masthead is approximately 45ha with a smaller reef area, and can take up to 50 campers. Campsites on all islands must be booked and paid for in advance (approx. $6 per person per night) – visit here for more details.
- Lady Musgrave is the most easily accessible of these islands, as you can catch a ride out there on the charter boat which takes tourists to a pontoon moored in the lagoon, running most days each week. The boat leaves from the Town of 1770, between Gladstone and Bundaberg. See Lady Musgrave Cruises for more details. Curtis Ferry Services, operating out of Gladstone, operate the occasional barge service to some of the other islands.
- You must be completely self-sufficient when camping on the islands for the entirety of your stay. This includes carrying all the fresh water you’ll need. No campfires are allowed. The risk of being marooned is real – we were faced with the prospect of being caught by bad weather which would prevent the boat from getting out to pick us up for an additional 3-4 days. Always plan to bring extra food and water.
- The island hosts large colonies of birds at certain times of the year, which can be charming or deafeningly annoying, depending on your ornithological persuasion. Black Noddy Terns and Wedge-tail Shearwaters nest and raise young on the island from September right through to May, along with silver gulls, oystercatchers, frigates and other migratory shorebirds. At all times of the year, it’s a good idea to bring a tarp to protect your tents from friendly fire. Humpback whales pass the islands between June and September. Green turtles lay their eggs throughout the summer and many hatch during autumn. Seasonal closures are enforced on all islands – check with NPSR before planning your trip.
- Please respect your role as an observer of a unique ecosystem. Particularly with turtles, either in the water or on the beach, only approach as far as they are comfortable with – if they move away, don’t pursue or harass them. There is very little here that you need to touch in order to appreciate, and doing so could be a danger to both it and yourself. At certain times of the year, shorebird lay their eggs on the beach – at these times, please watch your step!