A flash of movement catches my eye. I turn, just in time, to see a pair of handsome wallabies bounce into the gum tree forest, where, under the shadows of the silvery branches, they stop to peer back at me with dark, curious eyes.
After three weeks in Australia, I’ve already seen my share of these marsupials and their muscley cousins, the kangaroo – not least on Kangaroo Island, where they outnumber people by about 17 to one. But a surprise glimpse from a passing train still brings a frisson of excitement.
I’m on the Spirit of Queensland, the coastal train connecting Cairns and Brisbane that forms the backbone of the Sunshine State’s rail network. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest ways for tourists to get around. You can do it all in one go in 25 hours, or pick up a Queensland Coastal Pass for A$209 (£117) – about the same as a one-way flight – and enjoy unlimited journeys one-way for a month. Think of it as interrailing, but with one of the world’s most spectacular world heritage sites – the Great Barrier Reef – at every stop.
I had a taste of its abundant beauty while snorkelling at Milln and Flynn, two of the outer reefs only 75 minutes by boat from Cairns. Enormous red bass hovered in the deep waters, their vibrant colour only visible in the sun, while apple-sized blue damselfish and butterflyfish clung close to bubbles of coral in muted shades of mustard and mauve. At the tail end of the day, a small ray made an appearance, too, disappearing the second I positioned my GoPro.
With the back of my legs are still smarting from snorkeller’s sunburn, the 10-hour journey from Cairns to Airlie Beach isn’t exactly comfortable. So I tune into the on-board commentary for distraction.
Innisfail, I learn, is the Art Deco capital of Queensland, while Cardwell is the place to go for white-water rafting – although it’s best to avoid the mangroves, where saltwater crocodiles lurk. There are some duds, too. Gordonvale has the dubious claim to fame as the place where cane toads – now a pest – were first introduced to Australia, while Tully is said to be the country’s wettest town. Satisfied I’ve made the right choice with Airlie Beach, I settle in for the ride.
Gateway to the dreamy Whitsunday Islands, backpackers’ haven Airlie Beach is one of the few stops that requires a bus transfer, but the 20-minute ride from Proserpine station is included in the rail fare.
The vibe here is still flip-flop casual, but prices are quite a bit higher than I’d anticipated. Not that anyone has noticed – restaurants like Fish D’Vine and Sorrento are packed with happy diners when I roll into town.
For those with big budgets, extraordinary experiences await. At ReefWorld, for example, tented double beds arranged on the deck of a pontoon docked by Hardy Reef allows visitors to sleep under the stars from £370pp per night including meals and drinks.
It costs half that for day-trippers, but the beauty of staying overnight is that once they leave after lunch, overnighters have the entire reef to themselves
The reef is in rude health here, much better than further north where signs of coral bleaching are visible to the naked eye. I’m treated to a kaleidoscopic display of staghorn and plate corals. But it’s not perfect: Cyclone Debbie whipped through in 2017, leaving a rubble of destruction, while some parts have collapsed under the sheer weight of faster-growing corals.
After dinner, Andy, pontoon manager, beckons me to a dark corner of the vessel. “You come out here and you expect to see some coral, some turtles and some fish, right?” he asks. “But I bet you didn’t pay any attention to the side of the boat.”
Taking my tentativeness as his cue, Andy shines a UV light into the water. A “wow” escapes my lips – the barnacle brown coral is now glowing aubergine and green. A sign, says Andy, that the reef is alive – but we don’t always see it.
My most exciting stop on the Spirit of Queensland is Lady Elliot Island, the Great Barrier Reef’s southernmost coral cay. It’s 50 miles northeast of Bundaberg, accessible via a scenic flight.
Lady Elliot Island’s remote location, and the fact that it’s in a designated Green Zone, where fishing is banned, means conditions are perfect for the manta rays that call it home. Visitors can see them on dive or snorkelling trips – such is the clarity of the water that even from the surface, it’s possible to spot them gliding between the bommies (a coral column).
The pristine coral garden and shallow lagoon on either side of the island are also great for spotting sea turtles, who use the island as a nesting ground.
I’ve already been spoiled by the number of turtle sightings, but the reef has one more surprise for me. While I’m swimming alongside a loggerhead turtle, a second appears out of nowhere and joins us. For a brief moment, the three of us sway gently back and forth in the waves, and it feels like time has stopped. This, I suddenly realise, really is once in a lifetime.
The writer travelled with Singapore Airlines, which flies from Heathrow to Cairns via Singapore, singaporeair.com
The Queensland Coastal Pass offering unlimited travel one-way in economy on the Spirit of Queensland, costs A$209pp (£120), queenslandrailtravel.com.au
Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel offers day trips to the outer reefs from Cairns from A$229, dreamtimedive.com
The Reef Sleep experience starts from A$650pp, cruisewhitsundays.com
Day trips to Lady Elliot Island start from A$500pp, ladyelliot.com.au