In and around the laid back, scenic city of Queensland’s Mackay, you’ll find an abundance of wildlife experiences, open-armed locals, and magical places where real downtime still exists.
There’s an Austrian man named Oskar standing before my partner and I in the rainforest of Eungella National Park, with what looks like pink flowers made from sausages sprouting from the top of two burgers. He takes a bow and then breaks into a yodel before ceremoniously placing our lunch before us. A bush turkey eyes us up, no doubt hoping that a hot chip is bumped off a plate, while other diners clap like delighted children.
Oskar, the chef and owner of Platypus Lodge Restaurant (which is actually more like a café in a charming rainforest shack) shoos the hopeful turkey away and explains that yodeling has made his burgers the talk of town. Most weekends he can’t keep up with the demand for his simple (if you don’t count the sausage flowers), delicious meals made from fresh locally sourced ingredients.
“And how lucky are we? Because right there,” he points to the river running by. “You can visit our platypus. I’m confident of telling visitors that there’s a 90 percent chance of seeing them these days, as lately no one has come here without seeing more than one platypus.”
Oskar’s right. After eating our yodel burgers, we take a stroll along the path winding its way alongside the river, and on the first turn, spot a platypus in the clear river’s water, hovering in the bright sunlight before duck-diving into the watery depths to seek out shrimp and insect larvae.
Our love affair with these parts starts with the yodel burger and platypus sightings, but they’re not the only surprises that we come across in and around Mackay. Admittedly, we were drawn to this chilled coastal city for Australia’s only horse races on the beach, but as we have a few days before the jockeys send sand flying, we decide to check out what’s on offer around this city that has its roots planted in sugarcane and coal mining.
Sunrise with kangaroos
Considering that we were lucky enough to marvel at the elusive platypus in its natural habitat, and judging by the photos we’ve seen, we’ve fairly certain that we’ll soon be kangaroo-spotting at Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park.
Ben and Renae run this buzzing, friendly tourist park where people can camp, stay in caravans or check into cabins on Cape Hillsborough Beach, and it’s the only place in the world where you can watch a beach sunrise while wild kangaroos gather on the beach.
Bridget and Emmy-Lou are the two Eastern grey kangaroos who’ve been foraging on this beach for over 20 years, nibbling at seaweed and mangrove seed pods, and they must have had more photos taken of them than Beyonce. They’re always followed by a group of wallabies that also make the morning pilgrimage.
Over the past ten years, the crowds have exponentially grown, as it’s such a photographer’s dream. “We’ve had to put some measures in place, such as witch hats to keep everyone at a respectable distance from the animals,” explains Ben. “We try to help maintain the integrity of this natural spectacle while also offering people an unforgettable experience.”
With the sun rising above some outlying islands, turning the sky into a mottled painting of pinks, purples and golden hues, and the kangaroos play-fighting, relaxing and bounding along the beach, the sight is not simply breathtaking, but really a once in a lifetime encounter with nature.
Teatime at the station
After enjoying a dip in the ocean, we take Renae and Bens’ advice and head down the road to the Old Station Teahouse. Entering this century-old railway station building that was transported on a truck from a nearby town and placed in the middle of a property thick with rainforest is like stepping back in time. The building has been thoughtfully restored without losing an ounce of character. Fox furs hang upon mannequins, doilies decorate tables, railway memorabilia sits alongside crates of retro Coca Cola bottles and other treasured finds such as robed vintage teddy bears preserve snippets of Mackay’s past.
Next to the building, an enormous cedar deck set above flower-filled gardens and rich green lawns sprawls beneath enormous fig trees strung with fairy lights. Sitting in this patch of paradise enjoying a Devonshire tea whipped up with love and served on dainty china while listening to the calls of rainforest birds, we can see why this place is a hotspot for local weddings, parties, morning tea and long lunches. And why Michele Shea and her husband just scooped a gold at the Mackay Region Tourism Awards. Some of her acceptance speech summed up the local spirit: “Tourism is not rocket science, it’s just about being nice to people,” she said.
Horsing around by the beach
Saturday rolls around and after donning our finest beach/horse race gear we head to the famed Mackay Airport Beach Horse races. “Bit overdressed mate, but smart, very smart!” says a bloke dressed in a suit jacket and board shorts. He gives us a thumbs-up and raises a tinnie of XXXX to our health.
It doesn’t take us long to clock that this is the most common attire for men, even on the VIP deck overlooking the beach where men in overalls are shucking oysters straight into open women’s mouths. The atmosphere beautifully sums up Mackay — this place won’t ever try to be the Whitsundays, and nor should it.
Race day Mackay style is all about bringing over 3,000 locals and tourists together and having fun in the sun. Revelers get into the fashions on the sand (the women go all out, as they do anywhere for the sake of horses) dance to live bands and cheer on the spectacle of horses racing along the beach with the Pacific Ocean as an incredible backdrop. “When (the late) Mick Pope came up with the idea four years ago of horse racing on the beach, people called him crazy, but now it’s an event that everyone looks forward to!” says another local.
To be near the races we’ve bunked down at a cosy, modern cabin at the Blue Pacific Resort, and the place has some of the best views in Mackay — rows of palm trees saluting the Pacific Ocean above a rocky wall cascading down to a beautiful beach that completely disappears at high tide. The resort is made up of all sorts of private houses and cabins that the owners rent out, so the world is your oyster when it comes to choosing how you’d like to enjoy this lovely place. Owners Cath and Nick make you feel like family during your stay, the resort being like an extension of their home.
On our last day in the region, we can’t resist fitting in more rainforest time, and so drive for an hour and a half West of Mackay to Finch Hatton Gorge. We’ve packed a blanket and an enormous, delectable gourmet picnic feast created by Plattered Up. It’s a mouth-watering selection of artfully arranged deli-delights including bread and crackers, olives, meats, cheeses, fruit, salad wraps and homemade dips, all fit for a first-class rainforest setting.
Finch Hatton, a beloved local hangout, has two well-marked bush walks – including the hour-round trip Araluen Cascades (recommended for those who aren’t up for anything challenging) and the two-hour round trip more challenging Wheel of Fire Cascades walk.
On the Araluen cascades walk, we find a patch of rainforest for ourselves on a picture perfect avenue of smooth rocky outcrops, with rock pools perfect for wading, and a stunning rock-walled swimming gorge below us.
As lunchtime slides peacefully into afternoon, we take a dip in the gorge and then lie upon smooth-topped boulders beside the cascading waterfall to dry off. We’re alone, and gradually, sounds begin to emerge from the forest.
Bush hens and turkeys scratch around in the rich soil, bumbling through low-lying shrubs while bellbirds, king parrots and other feathery friends sing out to their heart’s content.
I watch a water dragon sunning itself on a mossy log arching above a crystal crystal-clear rock pool. He’s eyeing off the gently undulating patches of sunlight created by some overhanging fern fronds, patiently waiting for an afternoon insect treat. That’s the beauty of Mackay. It’s only a couple of hours drive from the Whitsundays and instead of other humans in your line of vision, it’s usually just you surrounded by an impromptu performance courtesy of Mother Nature.
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