While sailing north after a pleasant stop at Cape Bowling Green, Magnetic Island’s rugged natural beauty revealed itself in all its splendour on a sunny summer morning. Huge and smooth granite boulders perfect for free climbing, tall hoop pines dominating the unspoilt cliffs.
Probably, for the first time since we started living aboard, coming to what would be our chosen haven for a few months felt pleasant and exciting from that first view.
Of course I left a piece of my heart in all the other places, due to stories, characters and lessons learnt, but 'Maggie' (even its nickname evokes friendliness) differed from these experiences; she introduced herself in a different way. Even the little marina, where we stayed the first night to refill water and gas, is a peaceful hidden enclosure bordered by stunning green hills.
I shook my head in amazement: Maggie had already cast her spell on me. I was hooked and that was just the beginning of our love story.
Meeting the yachting and local community
Just a week after arriving in the famous and well‐sheltered Horseshoe Bay, half the yachties had introduced themselves. The other half knew who we were anyway: “oh you are the guys who paddle around and row the tender every day. I recognise your big dog…”
As usual, our mastiff Mannie gets noticed beforehand. This placid quiet colossus that never barks can become a sort of crying and shaking lap dog once separation anxiety takes over. Therefore, for the benefit of our harbour neighbours, we take her with us everywhere. This means that she patiently waits in front of shops, supermarkets, work places, beaches, restaurants, libraries and so on. Once there, she gets to meet everyone and she manages to get a pat off most people, due to her apparently sad eyes and irresistible charm.
So, partially due to her, Preston and I received a prompt and warm welcome from numerous islanders, dogs and yachties who merrily shared their boating and island stories and experiences, as well as their time, with us.
We soon found out that many travellers come back to Maggie every year to enjoy the warm sunny days, 320 on average each year, plus the relaxed vibes of this little corner of paradise. Which makes me jokingly suspect that the name 'Magnetic' given by Captain Cook who believed that the minerals on the island affected his compass, hides a more mysterious sort of magnetism: the magic where nature still reigns undisturbed with more than half of the island a national park and the friendly wildlife is easily spotted and used to human presence. You can easily spot wallabies, lorikeets, cockatoos, possums and even sea eagles.
What the island has to offer
This atmosphere reminds me of some small villages in the Med. where people do not need to count the hours, nor lock their cars or front doors.
Many Europeans come to visit this easily accessible island, just a twenty minute ferry ride from Townsville. Among the many Australians: Victorians and Tasmanians find a getaway from their winter months.
You can choose to do as little or as much you like here as the island caters for all interests and lifestyles. We snorkelled on the coral reefs fringing several bays: Florence, Arthur, Radical, Geoffrey, etc. Paddled in front of the Surf Lifesaving Club at Alma Bay and even surfed, yes you heard right: 30 knot SE winds building up decent waves for a couple of days at Florence Bay! Who would have thought?
Also being into bushwalking and birdwatching, we explored each and every one of the magnificent walking tracks that cross the numerous hills, being rewarded by some marvellous views over its numerous coves.
The island also hosts a good range of events all year round: from a jazz festival to its Bay Days Festival which promotes local arts and creativity, to the famous Magnetic Island Race Week, which attracts many yachting enthusiasts who can enjoy the views of the numerous colourful spinnakers drawing patterns across the blue August sky.
Digging into the local oral history, you get to know about all sorts of little gossips and yarns about Magnetic Island: the history of secluded huts and cottages spread across the island and creatively built and populated by young families a decade or two ago; old men once keeping nosey visitors away from their beach sheds by means of a shotgun; even older stories referring to Horseshoe Bay used as a possible pirate’s hideout in the past. Myth and reality cross paths and truth is not as important as the magic that keeps these stories alive.
More documented happenings can instead be witnessed along the Forts walk, it leads up a central hill which once hosted gun emplacements, an observation tower, a command post, a signal station and other buildings used during World War II when Townsville became a major military base. Today the Forts ruins are protected under the Queensland Heritage Act 1992, but several smaller and less-known military ruins can still be found around the coastline, half hidden among the eucalyptuses and pines.
If you are fit and adventurous enough, you can follow some steep paths leading to some enchanting, off the beaten track lookouts. Nature always claims back what was once taken from her, you would never expect to discover that a pineapple plantation once thrived where nowadays there is only a sandy lagoon and wetlands in Horseshoe Bay, or that a club and several buildings faced the sea on what is today a secluded, wilderness‐surrounded, privately owned beach: Radical Bay.
This lovely landscape of reefs, granite boulders and thick forests that today attracts tourists was indeed viewed differently during the late 1800s, when coral, stone and timber hoop pine were collected as a source of building materials for Townsville. Even substantial quantities of gold were mined here and, in 1875, Magnetic Island was also set aside as a quarantine station.
A much older history is reflected in the numerous Aboriginal midden sites that can still be found around the island; a reminder of the ancient times when this island was known as Yunbenun and inhabited by the Wulgarukaba people. Some of Magnetic Island’s less known caves also house indigenous rock art, mainly drawings made using local red ochre.
A perfect mix
After such a many-fold history, Magnetic Island seems to hold today the right balance of charm, facilities and natural resources that form a perfect mix appreciated by a wide array of people.
Horseshoe Bay is a good example of this eclecticism: “my husband is out fishing”, a chatty, middle-aged lady from countryside Victoria told me one afternoon. “I don’t like fishing”, she continued, licking the creamy homemade Italian gelato she had just bought, “but I enjoy sitting here watching life go by, observing the bay and its beautiful sunsets”.
Horseshoe Bay is indeed a very popular spot to watch the sunset; one of the few places on the east coast where you can be spoilt with daily shows of both spectacular sunrises and sunsets!
Many locals and yachties cannot resist the fascination, they meet on the beachfront every afternoon to enjoy their sundowners in front of a stunning red sky. Their phones’ photo galleries host a wide collection of red nuances framed by the iconic beach palms and casuarina trees; despite this, every afternoon they celebrate the sunset as if it was their first.
I worked in a beachfront restaurant in Horseshoe Bay during our permanence on the island and even there everyone, from the owner to the chefs, would pop at the front around six o’clock to catch a breathtaking glimpse of those sky shades: “go and check out the sunset today”, they used to tell each other, “look at that red!”
How could it not be like this? One of the best dry season anchorages along the east coast, with plenty of facilities and options to satisfy every taste: freshwater taps, showers, a warm welcome, perfect weather … what else could one dream of?
You can either join the jolly partying crews of yachties or backpackers gathering on the beaches and parks, or just enjoy the peace and quiet of some secluded hideaways: either way: Maggie will not disappoint.