Stretching along the east coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is a glorious chain of coral, rainforest and lush islands. TV presenter Monty Halls explains how to explore it all...
The Great Barrier Reef ecosystem lends itself naturally to superlatives, although perhaps the best way to describe it is to simply let the data do the talking. It extends for 2,300km north to south, made-up of at least 2,900 individual coral reefs. It is peppered with 600 or so islands, as well as 300 cays. It is estimated that 10% of all the world's coral is here.
But the real joy of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park - all 350,000 sq km of it, the largest on earth - is that most of it isn't reef at all. Only 7% of the park and protected area is coral. The bigger picture sees the oldest rainforest on earth lead to mangrove swamps and beaches, before a truly immense lagoon dotted with islands, and then that final, triumphant, symphonic note that is the reef itself. It's this variety of environments that makes visits here entirely different every time, offering a vast range of activities, from diving to sailing, from island resorts to forest camps, from secluded research stations to bustling coastal resorts.
Here's how to make the most of it on your honeymoon... starting with the on-land attractions
Explore an ancient abundance of tropical trees that seeps straight into the sea
Covering an area of 9,000 sq km, the Queensland rainforest is the oldest continually surviving rainforest on earth. It's home to thousands of plant species, and large percentages of endemic Australian birds, mammals, reptiles, freshwater fish and amphibians. Ferns feather the undergrowth, vines and creepers festoon mighty trunks, frogs and butterflies linger on gigantic leaves, the canopy is raucous.
At 1,200 sq km, Daintree National Park is the
largest unbroken block of rainforest in Australia. Start at Mossman
Gorge, a rocky valley with relatively easy walking tracks and cool
pools to dip in; learn more on a guided walk with an indigenous
guide. At Cape Tribulation, further north, the forest falls right
into the sea; this is the spot to kayak the headland, take bush
walks and snorkel the Mackay and Undine Reefs, just
Get there: Mossman is 20km north of glitzy Port Douglas.
For more accessible rainforest, park yourself on Mission
Beach, a laidback village where reef meets ocean, and make
forays into the lush hinterland. This is where you'll have the best
chance of meeting cassowary, enormous flightless birds that patrol
Get there: Mission Beach is around 2hrs south of Cairns and 3.5hrs north of Townsville; buses stop at the village.
From brash and high-rise to wild and remote, East Coast Australia has onshore style for all tastes
As the launching point for the Great Barrier Reef, the Queensland coast offers genuine variety - in both experiences and tastefulness.
Brisbane is the state's southern hub. Although the reef begins 360km further north, off Bundaberg, it's worth lingering on the shoreline between the two.
The Sunshine Coast to the north of the city is a laidback
stretch of golden sands and small towns. Here you'll find
Noosa National Park, which occupies a beautiful
headland; the town of Noosa is full of cool cafés and cooler
surfers. Further north, Great Sandy National Park (Cooloola
section) has - as you'd expect - great sandy beaches, mangroves and
abundant birds. Hervey Bay - jumping-off point for Fraser Island -
is where migrating humpbacks rest with their calves from August to
Get there: Noosa is 140km north of Brisbane - around 3hrs by bus.
Bundaberg is the 'Gateway to the Reef' - the
southern extent of its 2,300km length. Just east is Mon Repos, a
vital turtle rookery; watch loggerheads laying and hatching on
night tours, November-February. Further north, the
Capricorn Coast has white-sand beaches, and
unspoilt islands just offshore. Hub-town Rockhampton is the place
for steak and rodeos. The Whitsunday Coast is
known for its islands (the backpacker town of Airlie Beach is the
gateway) but mainland attractions include rugged Cape Hillsborough
NP, where you can see kangaroos on the beach. Authentically
charming Townsville has lively bars, sunny climes
and the interesting Museum of Tropical Queensland. It's also the
jumping-off point for lazy stays on laidback Magnetic
Get there: The Bruce Highway traces the coast from Brisbane to Cairns (1,700km); buses ply the route. The Sunlander train connects the cities three times a week (www.qr.com.au).
Perhaps the best gateway to the reef is Cairns,
where day-boats leave the harbour filled to the gunwales with
snorkellers, divers and the curious, all after a glimpse of the
ecosystem just offshore. It's not all about the reef, though:
open-plan Cairns also has an outdoor theatre, a sandy swimming
lagoon, picnic areas galore and well-marked and imaginative walking
trails. North of Cairns, Port Douglas is another
key departure point for the reef, and a good base for exploring the
mangrove forests that abut the shore - these trees are crucial to
the health of the reef, acting as breeding area, nursery or hunting
grounds for up to 70% of its fish species. Further north lays
wilder territory. Expeditions up the sparsely inhabited
Cape York Peninsula to the Tip of Australia - some
1,050km from Cairns - require a lot of planning but are epic
Get there: Cairns Airport is 7km north of the city; flights land here from all over Australia.
...Watch out for part 2 of our guide to the Great Barrier Reef - coming Weds 16th April
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