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raf with kangaroo

All images © Aleney de Winter

Big Mac

Mackay, Queensland

From its extraordinary beaches and all-year-round beautiful weather to its fish-filled reefs and wildlife-crammed rainforests, Aleney de Winter discovers Mackay is a sure-fire holiday hit for active families.

“Mama, I just saw Godzilla,” yells my daughter, who is prone to exaggeration. But sure enough, a big lizard rocking a steely prehistoric gaze saunters out of the lush and lovely rainforest. Before she insists on speed dialling King Kong to sort it out, we explain that the contentedly plump lace monitor is just a Eungella National Park local.

 

Walks, wilderness and waterfalls

While it may not be inhabited by a host of fictional Japanese monsters, Eungella National Park is widely regarded as one of the best places in the world to spot the elusive, semi-aquatic and famously bizarre-looking platypus. We head to Broken River, where there’s said to be a 95 per cent chance of spotting one of the quirky critters during the day, and an even higher chance at dawn or dusk. Following the bubble trails on the water surface, we manage to spot two of these Australian-native mammals, much to the excitement of Raff (10) and Marlo (7).

There’s so much more Mackay wilderness to explore, so we take the 1.6-kilometre trek through lovely Finch Hatton Gorge to the mystically pretty Araluen Waterfalls. The kids paddle happily in the cool rock pools at its boulder-strewn base, while my husband and I take turns blowing up the giant inflatable pineapple they’ve insisted join us.

When the kids decide on a break from the bush, we head back to town to hit the Bluewater Trail and take in some of the city sights. This easy trail offers a walking or cycling tour of the city, though we only explore a section, diving in to the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens and cooling off from the tropical temps in the free, three-tiered Bluewater Lagoon swimming pool.

Fierce creatures

About 45 minutes north of Mackay is Cape Hillsborough, an untamed beauty liberally dotted with creeks, waterfalls and cave-strewn outcrops. It’s also home to a startlingly beautiful beach, Wedge Island, which can be easily reached on foot at low tide, and a series of incredible bushwalks showcasing unique ecosystems and the area’s rich Indigenous heritage.

It’s also a haven for some of Queensland’s most incredible wildlife spotting. Crab trails form an intricate tapestry on the beach and we spot an octopus sheltering in tidal rock pools. Depending on the season, you might sight passing whales, encounter rare turtle breeds laying their eggs on Casuarina Beach or watch the magical moment their tiny hatchlings first head out into the surf. There are more than 150 species of native birds, a swag of reptiles that languidly loiter both in and out of the water and box jelly fish and estuarine crocodiles to keep you on your tippy toes.

Cape Hillsborough is, quite frankly, the living embodiment of a David Attenborough doco, something dramatically demonstrated to my wide-eyed kids when a white-bellied sea eagle swoops down 50 metres in front of them to scoop up a rather miffed snake, flying off with it dangling from its sizeable talons. “Was that a pterodactyl?” asks my everdramatic daughter.

 

Of course, Cape Hillsborough has furrier and far more friendly critters along with its fierce, and visitors are far more likely to stumble across wallabies and a couple of headline-hogging kangaroos. Megastar marsupials Emmy-Lou and Bridget arrive at Casuarina Beach at sunrise every morning to graze on seaweed and seed pods. While the girls and their entourage (a mob of local agile wallabies) are used to the paparazzi pack of humans lining the beach, they’re still wild animals and, under advisement of the resident ranger on-hand to discourage the over-eager selfie brigade, we avoid interaction. But Emmy-Lou and Bridget have other plans, waltzing straight into the crowd to strike red-carpet poses, so blasé I expect them to start signing autographs.

To make the most of our visit, we add a stay at the Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park right on Casuarina Beach. The park is a haven for families with mini-golf, movies and a shady swimming pool, but my kids are all about exploring the surrounding wilderness, so instead we spend the day hiking the trails, returning in time to enjoy a stroll along the beach in the golden afternoon light, the kids gathering shells, clambering over rocks and chasing waves.

From wilderness to water sports

With dazzling beaches, dozens of freshwater swimming holes and a whole world of coral and marine life thanks to its location at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, there’s no shortage of fun to be found both in and on the water around Mackay.

The region is Australia’s premier recreational fishing destination, with experiences catering to all ages. If your kid’s dreaming of battling their first barramundi, Kinchant Dam, around 30 minutes from the city centre, is one of the best places to start. Or head to Sandy Creek, 20 minutes south of Mackay, where, alongside big barra, you might lure yourself a salmon as well as a couple of monster muddies for dinner.

When they aren’t getting wet on the splash pad and water slide at BIG4 Mackay Marine Tourist Park, the kids paddle about in sea kayaks and snorkel the fish-filled coral gardens off nearby Keswick Island, eyes peeled for turtles and rays along the way.

But it is from the sky that the water dazzles the most, as we embark on a joy flight over a retina-searingly blue patch of reef and ocean. When we spot a happy dugong splashing about below, Marlo announces she’s spotted Moby Dick. Only this time we don’t correct her, instead allowing her to unleash her imagination, because Mackay is nothing if not a fantasy land for a nature-loving kid.

 

This article originally appeared in volume 57 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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Mackay Region

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Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park

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