It was business as usual for travel journalist Craig Tansley, when an invitation to Magnetic Island arrived in his inbox. Next thing he knew, he was moving there. This is his attempt to explain why… (Photography Andrew Rankin).

Daniel Daniel drove the backpacker bus back then; in the short shorts he wore unwashed every day (they barely covered him up, if you know what I mean).

You’d swear his skin was part saddlebag leather; I reckon I’ve seen handbags with more moisture. “Nah, you got it the wrong way round again, mate,” he’d say any time I’d greet him by name; the joke soon got old, but Daniel Daniel surely never got tired of telling it.

And there was Kenny, the boat mechanic, the ferry master, and eventually… the chef. Maybe it was the grease I could see beneath his fingernails, but something about eating his fried eggs always made me think of sump oil. He reckoned Magnetic Island was the only place he could live. “Tried everywhere else, nowhere else will have me,” he used to tell people. He probably wasn’t kidding.

There was Bob the Ambo, but don’t go confusing him with the other Bob; Crazy Bob they called him. He’d taken up residence on Magnetic Island’s busiest beach, Horseshoe Bay, in his decrepit boat in front of multi-million-dollar holiday homes and refused to budge. Told the council he was anchored, and had every right to be there – took them 23 years to shift the bugger. He said he was married to a turtle and I’ll be darned if one night I didn’t see one drag itself right up to where he sat with a glass of potent homemade liqueur; I swear it sat there waiting for me to leave. “Only creature that can kill you in the sea around Maggie is a jet ski,” he was fond of saying.

All of this was years ago. I heard Daniel Daniel made it to the mines in Kalgoorlie; and when they pushed Crazy Bob back out to sea he bought a motorbike, went up to the Gulf Country and hasn’t been seen since. No-one can say where Kenny’s gone, but it sure wasn’t to any fancy restaurant in Paris. There’s a new brigade of locals now – just as loopy, and lovable, if you’ve got a heart big enough. Nowhere on earth but a tiny island – and one in Far North Queensland at that – could ever offer up these kinds of characters; the type you couldn’t imagine surviving the mainland. Their ghosts linger long – I can’t seem to exorcise the buggers, as strange as that might sound.

Maybe it’ll make you smirk, too, to hear that I shed tears when I first returned to Magnetic Island after living there. But then this place got under my skin like nothing ever has before, and probably won’t again.

I first visited Maggie (that’s how the locals know her) on a press trip back in late 2001. I visit a lot of places – but Maggie was different; I felt it in my bones. Six months later I came up with an excuse for another visit. Something about Maggie resonated deep inside me. When an offer came to live there the following year, I abandoned my easy life in the city, packed a suitcase and flew north for the winter.

My world shrunk to a mountainous piece of Barrier Reef coral barely 50 square kilometres. It was a dry and dusty place – she’s in a rain shadow of the Great Dividing Range and gets upwards of 320 days of sunshine in a typical year; and with all the rock wallabies hopping about in rugged eucalypt woodlands of bloodwoods and stringybarks, Maggie felt more Aussie outback than tropical island to me. There’s just one paved road that follows her eastern coast ’round – the rest of Maggie’s just one almighty national park, full of 180 species of birdlife and the largest colony of koalas in northern Australia.

At first I felt trapped by the sparkling blue sea all around me; then within weeks nothing on the mainland seemed to matter much anymore. I forgot birthdays… deadlines; I shunned newspapers and TV; and for the first time I knew the moon cycle and precisely what time the sun rose each morning. “Maggie does that to you,” Kenny warned. “She becomes your world, even if you’re only here a few days, she’s a bloody magician like that. She’s the only thing that ends up mattering.”

Just like the folk who live on her, Maggie’s a bit rough ‘round the edges now, I’ll warn you. You’re as likely to find mid-week cane toad races and cheap-as-chips ‘chicken schnitty’ nights at the pub as you are anything that comes with jus on it. In the past five or so years some fancy resorts and hip new cafés and restaurants have sprung up, but still the biggest news of 2013 so far is Chook-Chook the rooster who’s taken over Maggie’s golf course.

You certainly shouldn’t come to Maggie looking for a Hayman Island holiday but then she’s not entirely hick either; the island’s got more art galleries than all of Townsville combined (try the Peter Lawson Fine Art Gallery, Barefoot Art Food Wine, Vonnie van Bemmel Fine Art Studio, and Kysley Gallery for starters).Maggie’s always attracted her fair share of creative refugees seeking a better life, bless them.

There’s a subtle sort of classiness at Maggie’s most tourist-savvy area, Horseshoe Bay, home to an eclectic gathering of cafés, restaurants and art galleries. Sure, the pub is still a tribute to all things Far North Queensland, but the locals sipping XXXX Golds and staring out at the horizon are full of stories that get better the more they feel comfortable telling them to you. It’s a shame Crazy Bob isn’t still there, he sure was fond of conversation. If you bought him a six-pack you could wander down to his ‘boat’ and marvel at the Doolittle-like bond he had with Maggie’s creatures. It was always the characters who lived here that made Maggie for me; they’re a motley crew, only a mother could love some of them, but they all have a story to tell if you’ve got the ears for it.

There are some pretty cool water sports to try on Maggie too, most of them running out of Horseshoe Bay. Pete’s been running jet-ski circumnavigations twice a day for 17 years straight through his Adrenalin Jet Ski Tours. He’s probably part jet-ski himself these days. Personally I prefer something with less noise, like the Blue Parrot sunset cruise out of Horseshoe Bay, or watching the sails fill on the 62-foot gaff-rigged schooner, Providence V, or a spot of sightseeing around the island on a yacht called Jazza. There’s also a sea-kayaking trip that’ll take you to parts of Maggie you wouldn’t otherwise see, or you can take off for a scenic flight on the world’s only open cockpit bi-plane on floats – the Red Baron.

The odd thing though is you’ll barely spot the operators, they don’t like to spruik around these parts – you’ll hear more noise from local kids playing in the shade of Horseshoe Bay’s giant fig trees, or the yachties who anchor off-shore each winter and bring their tenders in for sun-downers most evenings.

While I love Horseshoe Bay, I liked to avoid the rat race altogether and hire a runabout to take to Five Beach Bay. You can’t get there any other way, so there was never a soul there, ever; nothing I ever saw in Far North Queensland since has compared. The water is so clear I’d spot parrot fish sprinting about the fringing coral reef below me. In winter, passing humpbacks and dolphins leapt about just a couple hundred metres from the bow of my boat. It was no fluke either, when I went back last year a family of humpback whales were so close to Horseshoe Bay, every beachgoer sat together and ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ each time one of them breached.

But then nothing much ever did surprise me on Maggie. I read Alex Garland’s The Beach on Maggie – a book about finding utopia on a fictitious Thai island – but Garland couldn’t make paradise sound any better than normal life on Maggie, even when he made it all up.

There are 23 bays and beaches on Maggie and all but a handful are as empty as the day Cook first sailed past in 1770. They’re all majestic, sweeping affairs fringed by rugged mountains, granite headlands and gigantic hoop pines. The water is warm, but not tepidly so as it can be further north of Cairns, and the sand is of the orangey-yellow variety, the kind that makes great sandcastles. Some beaches you can drive to but most require a bit of effort like my favourite, Balding Bay. It takes an hour to hike there from Horseshoe Bay – which always keeps the families away and attracts only the genuinely inquisitive. Once you clear the headland and first see that secret piece of hidden bay, I never could stop myself sprinting the final 200 metres to the sea.

But then I had a soft spot for Radical Bay too; hidden down the end of a bumpy dirt track that kept the moke rental folk busier than they ever intended (many a 2WD car met its match on the beach tracks of Magnetic Island). I preferred to walk in anyway. Each clearing in the trees revealed a stunning view, but then most of Maggie is like that; a criss-cross of walking trails that take forever to traverse with all that gawking along the way. There are over 25 kilometres of walking trails on the island, some that even take you past old World War II bunkers and guns, or through prime koala habitat. At the end of most tracks is a bay so private you’ll likely want to shed your togs and swim naked.

For an island so small, there sure seemed a lot to see. When I’d splurge and rent a 4WD I’d lie awake at night wondering where to go. Sunsets at West Point – an eclectic, self-sufficient settlement of artists, hermits and retirees that faces west to the mainland – and Radical Bay were the only dead certainties. I’d take a bottle of wine and a blanket and watch the sun sink behind the Great Dividing Range. But mostly I just liked to drive, stopping to swim when the urge overtook me – anyone who builds a road that close to the Coral Sea never expected people to make the end in one go anyway.

I left at the end of winter, aboard a ferry to the mainland… I tried not to look back or I knew I’d choke up. My time was up, I figured. Maggie’s no place to be in the heart of summer. But in the gentler months – April to November – when North Queensland loses its sting, there’s nowhere on earth I’d sooner be.


The Details

Getting there
Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly to Townsville from major cities daily. From here, take the 25-minute ferry to Magnetic Island with SeaLink.

Affordable: Stay in a cheap, cheerful house right on the beach with views over beautiful Geoffrey Bay.
Comfortable: Look out across Maggie’s marina at Nelly Bay in comfortable two-bedroom apartments at Peppers Blue on Blue Resort.
Deluxe: Sleep right beside the beach at Horseshoe Bay in a private Balinese-style house.

Eating there
For the healthiest fare on Maggie, try Café Nourish Heart & Soul Food at Horseshoe Bay. 3/6 Pacific Drive, Horseshoe Bay; 07 4758 1885. Check out the art gallery upstairs then eat alfresco overlooking Horseshoe Bay at Barefoot Art Food Wine. 5 Pacific Drive, Horseshoe Bay; 07 4758 1170
The island’s fanciest cuisine – award-winning French Mediterranean fare – is served up at Le Paradis, 98/100 Sooning St, Nelly Bay;; 07 4778 5044
For wholesome Italian food with a stunning view, try Caffé Dell’ Isola. 7 Marine Parade, Arcadia; 07 4778 5540

Drinking there
Sit out on the sun-drenched deck overlooking the marina at the Boardwalk Restaurant & Bar. 123 Sooning St, Nelly Bay.; 07 47582400
The R&R Bar has recently been refurbished and offers stunning views of Picnic Bay. 1-3 The Esplanade, Picnic Bay; 07 47785166
The best cocktails on Maggie are served at the Horseshoe Bay Beach Bar & Grill, overlooking the beach. 7 Pacific Drive, Horseshoe Bay; 07 47785090

Things to do
• Be sure to hire a classic moke and traverse the island.
• For horse riding with a difference – swim with your horse in Horseshoe Bay.
• Sea kayaking tours leave from Horseshoe Bay at 4:00pm for sunsets at sea.
• For the best sunset and yacht cruises that circumnavigate Maggie visit and
• You can add more adrenalin and circumnavigate Maggie on a jet ski in three hours, call Adrenaline Jet Ski Tours on 07 47785533
• See Maggie from the air on the Red Baron – 45-minute scenic flights take off from the waters of Horseshoe Bay.

Need to know
• Marine stingers make swimming dangerous in summer and it’s also cyclone season – avoid November to March.
• Leave your glad rags at home, Maggie is a casual island, although remember walking shoes for hiking trails.

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