Shh! Don’t Tell Anyone About Magnetic Island

When we arrived at Magnetic Island, a stone’s throw off the city of Townsville, Eric and I weren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. We had spent the past ten days sailing north from the commercial port of Mackay, dropping our hook at a half dozen anchorages along the way. The islands in this section of the Great Barrier Reef are mostly small, forested and uninhabited, and though Covid-19 restrictions are easing, even in super popular places like the Whitsunday Islands there were few other boats and virtually no tourists to be seen. From there, sailing close to shore along the Queensland coast, we passed long stretches of empty, scrub-covered terrain with only occasional small settlements. We overnighted in protected bays, usually alone.

Now, many people dream of having a tropical island or secluded bay all to themselves, and yes, it was nice not having to jockey with a fleet of other boats for anchor space or step over sunbathers on a crowded beach. But for the first four days, we had rain and fog, and since many of the islands have no hiking trails, when we did get ashore the only place to walk was on the beach. In some areas, swimming was discouraged due to sharks, and we saw little in the way of sea life or birds. When the sun did arrive, the wind checked out, and for the next five days we motorsailed more often than not. It didn’t take long for that scrubby coast to become monotonous.

Approaching a foggy anchorage
Beware of sharks

So when we reached Magnetic Island, we were ready for a bit of civilization. We don’t ask for much—a marina with hot showers, a laundromat and grocery store—all of which Magnetic Island promised. It delivered much more.

For a start, the marina is part of a modest resort, and we have access to two lounge/bathroom suites that include a washer and dryer, TV, a cruisers’ library and workspace. We can also avail ourselves of the two swimming pools. The grocery store is right across the street, and other nearby stores include a bottle-o, a fair-sized hardware store, and enough restaurants to keep us happy. The settlement in which the marina is located, called Nelly Bay, is the main one on the island, and several others are within walking distance. If we want to venture further, we can borrow the marina’s courtesy car.

Magnetic Island Marina. Can you spot Corroboree, far right and just to the left of the blue-hulled motor yacht?
Sunset at the marina

It gets better. Just 20 square miles in size, Magnetic Island has scenery you wouldn’t believe. Its formation began 275 million years ago, when volcanic forces pushed molten granite to the surface. The granite weathered into gigantic boulders that now combine with pine trees in a rugged landscape that reminds us of northern Michigan. Some 20 bays and beaches ring the island, and half the territory is undeveloped national park. Hiking paths lead to spectacular lookouts, and several marked snorkeling trails are on offer. I love the Moreton Bay fig trees—it’s hard to tell where one stops and another starts—and the paperbark trees with their clusters of white flowers. They fill the air with a scent I can only describe as warm coconut/honey bread fresh from the oven.

Big rocks
Beautiful beaches
Even on a cloudy day, stunning views
Moreton Bay fig trees. To get an idea of their size, see the picnic shelters in the lower righthand corner.
The aromatic flowers of the aptly named paperbark tree perfume the air

Then there’s the wildlife. Koalas, rock wallabies, and an array of birds delight us, and though we haven’t seen one here yet, migrating humpback whales transit offshore. Fish large and small swim in the marina, and one morning we had a special visitor, a spotted eagle ray. We’ve seen mantas before, but this spotted eagle ray was a first. We estimate it measured 3 feet across the wingtips with a 5-foot tail. It swam languidly from one piling to another, nibbling on the oysters encrusted thereon. What a beauty!

Hanging out with Mom
Rock wallabies. Where Mom goes, I go.
Spotted eagle ray–wow!
Screechy sulphur-crested cockatoos and galahs

Aussies, naturally, have shortened the name of the island to Maggie, but for once I’m not going along. That’s because the name originated with Captain James Cook in 1770, who wrote that the island interfered with his compass, a bit of history too interesting to forego. At the time, Magnetic Island was home to Aboriginal people, then European settlers, and by the 1800s its proximity to the mainland made it a popular picnic spot for day trippers and campers. Along with rustic tourism, the industries included gold mining and collecting coral, stone and timber as construction materials for Townsville. During World War II, a signal station and other fortifications were built to defend shipping and the harbor.

World War II fortifications
WWII gun emplacement. No one knows what happened to the guns after the war.

Today, car and passenger ferries provide a link to Townsville, along with air service via a helicopter pad. The island has a medical clinic, a lowkey country club with golf course, and a host of small businesses offering water sports and nature adventures. The population is 2,300, and though Covid-19 has impacted tourism, we were told by several locals that even under normal conditions, the island doesn’t feel crowded. Laidback and unpretentious, Magnetic Island carries on just being itself.

I wouldn’t want you to think it’s perfect. Especially when hiking, be on the lookout for death adders; the name is no joke. Between November and April, wear a protective suit in the water in case you encounter a box jellyfish, aka stinger; contact with them likewise can be fatal. The green ants, which build leaf nests in the trees, have a nasty bite. Because alcohol and grocery items must be brought over by ferry, the prices are higher than on the mainland. However, the marina here is the least expensive we’ve visited in Oz thus far, so it more than balances out.  

In the event of a stinger attack, clean the wound with vinegar (a bottle is provided in the blue tube) and perform CPR if necessary
Green ants weave nests of leaves

When we arrived at Magnetic Island on 29 May, we planned to stay a week. A month later, having enjoyed every single day here, we’re finally ready to go. We’ll be moving Corroboree to Townsville, which we’ve visited twice by ferry, to seek out volunteer opportunities for the coming months. Since we’re going to be in Australia a while yet, we like to make ourselves useful.  

Meanwhile, don’t tell anyone about this gem of a place. Just picture Magnetic Island beckoning on the horizon, like a vision of magic in a sailor’s tale.

As seen from Townsville, magical Magnetic Island