A longboarder in Queensland along Australia's Gold Coast; Photograph by Ben Moon/Aurora Photos. See more Australia photos
By Tetsuhiko Endo
When Australia appears in the news, chances are you are seeing Queensland. Cyclones, crocodiles, floods, and an encyclopedic list of venomous creatures make it an easy place to deride. But a place with this many hazards is also a place that remains fundamentally untamed and the rewards it holds for the savvy adventure traveler are second to none.
I’ve come to the Gold Coast, the Southeast corner of Queensland, to try to pack as much excitement into one week as I can, and have not been disappointed. I begin my stay at the Swell Resort in Burleigh Heads —a complex of holiday apartments that come with all the comforts of hotel rooms (towels linens, soap), but also include full kitchens, living areas, and central air conditioners that can conquer even the balmiest sub-tropical days.
From this base, I spend a few days surfing from Burleigh’s eponymous headland, the cradle of modern Australian professional surfing, to Snapper Rocks, one of the world’s most prized high performance waves, to Byron Bay, the hippy enclave that thumbs its nose at any hint of commercialism. Though not as teeming with venomous beasties as the coast farther north, certain winds and currents will sweep pseudo jelly-fish called Blue Bottles into the waters of the Gold Coast. Their stings aren’t dangerous, but they are painful enough that I complain to a fellow surfer.
“Awe, they’re not that bad, mate.” He responds. “Just make sure you avoid the Purple People Eaters. Those fellas really hurt.”
When I’m surfed out, I call perennial Adventure favorite, big wave surfer and paddle racer extraordinaire Jamie Mitchell. He and his equally athletic brother, Justin, run a stand-up paddle school out of Palm Beach Parklands (http://www.jmsurf.com/main/). With Jamie busy running the water safety team for a professional surfing competition, Justin agrees to take me out. After a quick session on the lagoon he leads me out to a gentle right-hand point break that hosts every type of surf craft from boards to SUPs to surf kayaks that Australians affectionately call “goat-boats.” I haven’t always been the biggest fan of SUPing, but now that I’m on a board watching stingrays and schools of fish pass underneath me, it’s hard to maintain old prejudices.
When the swell drops the next day I drive 20 minutes West to one of the Gold Coast’s hidden natural jewels, the Gondwana forests of Springbrook and Lamington National Parks. Just a 30 kilometer drive from beachside high-rises, these subtropical-rain forests formed when Australia was still a part of the super continent, Gondwana, roughly 225 million years go. Today, the area (including parks on the New South Wales side of the border) contains more bird, frog, snake, and marsupial species than anywhere else in Australia and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I stay at Rosellas Bed and Breakfast, a mom and pop business with tropical bird-themed rooms that each come with a complementary decanter of port. It’s tucked onto the very edge of a high, rain forest-covered plateau that, some 20 million years ago, formed the edge of the caldera of the gigantic Tweed Volcano whose eruptions shaped much of the surrounding landscape, including the headlands that I surfed just a few days before. As the sun sets, I stand on the Canyon Lookout and watch glossy black cockatoos erupt from the trees far below me and soar into the gloaming.
The next day I strap on my hiking boots and descend to the canyon floor past misty waterfalls, giant, dinosaur-like lizards called goanas, and the unmistakably heavy sound of wallabies thumping through the undergrowth. The well-cut paths zig-zag down steep cliffs that stymied one of Australia’s original surveyors, Francis Roberts, for two years as he and his aboriginal guide Bilin Bilin trekked through the area in 1859 while tracing the dividing line between Queensland and New South Wales. The forests are packed with the gnarled trunks of strangler figs—trees that literally consume others then grow over them—towering hoop pines, and some of the last groves of Antarctic beech trees in the world. Both Springbrook and Lamington are hiker’s paradises, but it’s important to remember that walking trails range in difficulty from very easy, to full on bush expeditions. After a wrong turn, I find myself wading through creeks, scrambling over boulders, and fighting off leeches. The wonder and beauty of a UNESCO World Heritage Site disappear very quickly, when World Heritage leeches enter the scene.
I emerge from the forest five hours later, tired and with blood soaked ankles (from the leeches) but otherwise none the worse for ware. Stopping at the Springbrook general store for a drink and some consolation, I mention my ordeal to the friendly shopkeeper. He nods with a bemused grin, then reaches below the counter and produces a picture.
“Have a look at this fella that crawled out from under the diner the other day,” he says. The picture shows another man holding an eight-foot python in front of the very place I am now standing.
I have already seen enough unique flora and fauna to last a lifetime, but the day holds one more creature encounter. As darkness descends, I meet Garry Maguire in his house on a hill overlooking a private tract of rainforest. Maguire is a retired engineer and amateur mycologist who has quietly become one of the foremost experts on terrestrial bioluminescence in the world. In layman’s terms, he knows a lot about things that live on land and glow. Researchers come from the United States, Europe, and Asia to work with him in and add to the still very thin catalogue of knowledge regarding terrestrial bioluminescence. In his garage, which doubles as a research station and visitors’ center, he show’s me preserved funnel web spiders (the most poisonous in the world) and giant crickets that are roughly the size of chipmunks.
“This mushroom,” he says, producing a picture of what looks like a large, glowing shitake, “lets off enough light that you can read a newspaper with it.”
“And this is the only place in the world where it exists?”
“That we know of.”
Maguire takes me down into a grotto that is suffused with the ghostly green glow of a colony of Springbrook’s most famous animals—glow worms. Each hangs in a dimple of exposed rock where the light at the end of its tail attracts insects to hanging strands of web. Maguire turns off his flashlight and the grotto becomes a giant constellation of pale green light. Each point is a creature that, as far as fossil records can tell, evolved around 360 million years ago. Even some of the leaves beneath our feet luminesce due to a fungus that grows on them.
“If you use your imagination, you can see all of the constellations in the sky,” Maguire says.
It doesn’t take much imagination.
Maguire shines his flashlight into one of the dimples to show me the tiny worm inside. I lean in closer before he stops me.
“I wouldn’t get too close if I were you.”
“Look hard into the back of the hole.”
I do, while simultaneously backing away.
“See that fella in the back?”
“It’s a funnel web spider. Depending on what type it is, if it bites you around the face, I’ll have 15 minutes to get you to a hospital before you die.”
The next day I’m sitting in the airport scratching blue bottle stings and rubbing disinfectant on the small purple leech bites that dot my ankles. My shoulders feel like spent rubber bands from too much paddling and my calves sing a sore song with every step I take. Needless to say, I’m coming back to Queensland as soon as I can, and next time, I’m going to take more care to avoid all the “fellas.”