The Great Barrier Reef is so high on tourist traffic, it’s even more important to tread lightly there. But do sustainable tours truly exist? AT sent Kathryn Heyman to blow the lid on a few so-called eco pretenders . . . only to discover that a lot of them are doing it spectacularly right.

It’s the powerboating that gets me. A sign on the Port Douglas tourist strip in Tropical North Queensland advertising a ride on a huge motorboat with the tagline: the thrill of a lifetime – wild eco-adventure. Eco? Did I fall asleep and miss the moment the entire human race lost its common sense? I’d been desperate to see the Great Barrier Reef while it’s still thriving, but I’d wanted to do it in as sustainable a manner as possible. Many airlines now offer carbon offset packages, which at least helps to plant trees, but what about when you get there? How do you tread lightly in such a delicate area?

My first glimpse of the private beach at Thala Beach Lodge makes me laugh out loud, standing on the line of rocks, looking along the jewel-bright coastline, head thrown back chuckling. Every icon of Idyllic Tropical Paradise has been found and hauled along here for my viewing pleasure: blue-green glinting sea (tick); purple shaded reefs (tick); rainforest hinterland spreading down to beach (tick); coconut palms swaying in the breeze (tick); green turtles poking heads out of water (tick); oh, and there are zebra fish and coral in the rock pools. Who wouldn’t laugh? Thala is a unique resort. Just outside Port Douglas, it’s on 59 hectares of natural growth and rainforest: a luxury resort that minimises its environmental impact – in actions, not merely words. Here, where there could be a 700-bed resort plonked onto ancient land, instead rests a scattering of raised solar-powered bungalows of heart-stopping beauty. Each has a deck, a view of either the sea or the forest, and is built with the idea of minimal impact on the Earth in mind. Instead of powerboating, they offer nature tours, bird watching, kayaking and yoga. We opt for stargazing at Thala’s own observatory.

The light pointer is a giant beam, stretching up to the stars. The young woman leading the stargazing “tour” curves the sabre back and forth. I tip back on a deep deckchair, my head cushioned. The wine I had with dinner swills slightly, so that I’m not entirely sure which is Capricorn and which is, um, the other one. The Milky Way is clear, though, and I’ve never before so thoroughly understood its name. Orion is carved out with the sabre, and I swear I will now always be able to pinpoint the Southern Cross. Three telescopes of varying power are wheeled out and we huddle around, taking turns ogling the moons of Jupiter, the craters on our own moon, and miraculous star clusters. The glory is in the overall experience, though – tilting back, marvelling at the stars, wondering.

Next morning, with sails curving above us, we’re gliding out of Port Douglas on a stunning catamaran, the Sailaway. With only 20 or 30 on board, it’s a long, long way from the mammoth outer reef boats that seem more cruise ship than exploratory vessel. One shoots past, something loud and shouty blaring from its decks. We wave lazily. The hordes wave back. On deck, Steve, our skipper, full of cheerful bonhomie, introduces us to the reef. Feet, he says threateningly, must not be put down anywhere in the water. Nothing is to be broken. He hands out flotation devices and, when I explain I’m a very strong swimmer, he laughs. “It’s not for you. It’s for the reef. I want to make sure your feet stay up near the surface.”

The Low Isles are our destination. I love that we’ve used no fuel to get here, but I’ve been warned I shouldn’t expect too much underwater glory from the inner reef. I tell my daughter this and point out that we’re just off an island, so it’ll be the shallows. Yes, she says, then dives straight in to follow a train of vivid and stunningly beautiful parrot fish. The richness of the underwater life here is extraordinary, and I’m bobbing along feeling so removed from my daily life that I briefly believe myself to be a mermaid. Then I see it: a giant green sea turtle flipping its way alongside me. It turns its face back to me, flippers flicking slowly, then tilts gently on its side. Everything slows down and I fin along behind this amazing creature, completely smitten. We weave in and out of low coral beds, the turtle flipping sideways and frontways, me shrieking underwater, my own voice popping in my ears. Later we lunch on the deck of the Sailaway and swim in the cool depths. It really does feel very close to a state of bliss.

We decide to head further up the coast to Cape Tribulation, where there’s no mains power – it’s all off the grid. Because there are four of us we hire a car rather than take the bus, and since our Getz uses less petrol to get up to Cape Trib and back than my regular car would on a run to the local shops, I feel slightly justified.

When we hit the Cape, the sense of isolation is a blessing. With far fewer backpackers than expected, we head up the hill to the Exotic Fruit Farm. Built on eight acres, nestled into untouched Daintree rainforest and developed on permaculture principles, the fruit farm hosts busy tours most days, with travellers keen to taste gourmet delights and wander through the mixed orchards. Digby and Alison Gotts have built the farm up over 14 careful years and the result is a lush environment.

We take a relaxed kayaking tour with Paddletrek, who, like most of these experiences, have eco-certification from Ecotourism Australia, and bob gently about watching the sun begin to set off the coast. To crown it all, when we beach the kayaks, a cassowary – my son’s favourite animal in the known universe – wanders casually down the sand towards us. These enormous birds, with their startling blue hood, can be dangerous, so we scurry out of the way and watch it, mesmerised, from behind a tree. In the morning, back at the Fruit Farm, our verandah breakfast includes an exotic fruit platter with soursop, mangosteen, malay roseapple and a few I’ve never heard of. We stock up on jams and head back down to Port Douglas.

We’re keen to get closer to Mossman gorge and there are loads of 4WD tours offered, but we opt for a horse tour instead. A minibus picks us up at some ungodly hour and we head back towards the Daintree and Wonga Beach. There are about 15 of us, ranging from the woman in frighteningly professional-looking jodhpurs, headscarf and riding gloves, to my husband Richard, who’s never been on a horse in his life and has never really seen the point of them. The enthusiastic guides – horsey girls with infectious smiles – spend a good chunk of time showing everyone the basics. We head through the coastal rainforest, even clambering through a creek. When we get down to the beach, those who can ride canter off and the rest of us trot happily – even my son has a go – along this wild stretch of beach, with the rainforest behind the waves. Richard finally realises what the point of horse riding is: it’s glorious, you cover a lot of territory and no fossil fuels are burnt.

The day before we leave we take a visit to the outer reef, which means travelling, guiltily, on a larger, fuel-using boat. We take the reputable Poseidon because it’s smaller than some of the others and helps out with important research projects like Reef Check and Bleach-Watch. It’s choppy, takes an hour to get out to the reef, and we plop into the water a little unwillingly. Once in, though, the coral woos each of us. Purples, pinks, reds, all mixing with the blue edges of giant clams and the darting of wildly coloured fish. My daughter shouts, “I’ve found Nemo!” Her head disappears again, feet flipping on the surface of the water before she dives down to the vivid anemone, her hand reaching out to the orange and white clownfish poking out from the spikes. Nearby, in this stunning underwater universe, a line of cuttlefish stretches from one reef to the next, an upright, floating guard. Richard pokes me to come closer, but I’m distracted by the enormous groper idling its way along the ocean floor.

The truth is, the holiday with the least impact is to go camping in your own backyard. But it’s still possible to find experiences and places to stay that are careful about their environmental footprint – even in a place as radically geared towards tourism as Queensland’s Tropical North. Sure, we had to fly to get there, but we didn’t go near a powerboat once we arrived and, in spite of that, it really was the thrill of a lifetime.

 

DETAILS //
Footprints on the Reef
Thala Beach Resort // Private Beach Rd, Port Douglas. Bungalows from $440 per night. Phone // (07) 4098 5700 Web // www.thalabeach.com.au
Sailaway Port Douglas // Cnr Grant and Macrossan St, Port Douglas. All day tour inc lunch $150 adult, $90 child. Phone // 1800 0865 674 Web // www.sailawayportdouglas.com
Wonga Beach Equestrian Centre // Mossman-Daintree Rd, Wonga Beach. Australia Afternoon or morning three-hour ride $109 per person. Phone // (07) 4098 8491
Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm // Lot 5, Nicole Dr Cape Tribulation. Cabins $160 per night. Fruit tours daily $20 per person. Phone // (07) 4098 0067 Web //
Cape Trib Paddle Trek //
2.5hr Sunset Trek $59 per person. Phone // (07) 4098 0131 Web // www.capetribpaddletrek.com.au
Poseidon Cruises // PO Box 431, Port Douglas. Day cruise to three dive sites, inc lunch $165 adult, $125 child. Phone // (07) 4099 4772 Web // www.poseidon-cruises.com.au
Ecotourism Australia // (07) 3229 5550, www.ecotourism.org.au

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