island-and-beach-camping-in-the-southern-great-barrier-reef

Island and beach camping in the Southern Great Barrier Reef

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The stunning beaches and coral islands of the Southern Great Barrier Reef aren’t just a hot spot for a good tan and snorkel sesh.

Introducing camping #reefstyle – where waking up to your own ocean aquarium or secluded sandy bay is the standard, day in, day out.

So the next time you’re going camping and plan on heading inland to bush country, chuck a 180 and pitch a tent on one of these islands and beach camping spots, stretching from Bundaberg and Gladstone through to the Capricorn Coast.

A few things to keep in mind before taking off:

  • Double, triple, and quadruple check this camping checklist!
  • Do not underestimate the power of mozzies, sand flies and horse flies at killing your vibe. No matter what time of the year, it’s better to be overprepared than under with a sufficient supply of insect repellant (Bushman’s is my go-to) and mosquito coils, plus long-sleeved clothing.

Great Keppel Island

Great Keppel Island

Picture this: snorkelling straight off the sand over fringing reefs, your pick of 17 beaches for a dip, and unspoilt bushlands covering 90 percent of the island waiting to be explored… sounds like paradise?

If you’re going to stay on Great Keppel Island, you’ll want to make it a long one. A 30-minute hop, skip and jump off the ferry from the coast of Yeppoon, campers can call tent-home under the gum trees at the Great Keppel Island Holiday Village, where you’ll have access to a fully equipped kitchen and amenities, plus complimentary snorkel gear and stand-up paddle boards to use whenever you like!

How to get there: Take the ferry over from Yeppoon with Freedom Fast Cats or Keppel Konnections.

What to bring: Tent, a torch to get around at night, and food (though there is an Island Bar and Bistro down the road when you feel like a tipple or are sick of eating packet noodles).

What to do while you’re there:

  • Explore the bushwalking tracks to lookouts and remote beaches. These range in difficulty from a leisurely stroll to a challenging hike, so bring some decent footwear!
  • Get your snorkel on at Shelving Beach, Monkey Point or Clam Bay.
  • Take a SUP out on the water at one of the two main beaches just down the road – Putney or Fisherman’s.
  • Go on a canoe trip to discover hidden coves and secluded snorkel spots.

The other Keppel Islands

Keppel Islands Group

If you’re keen to get back-to-basics, set your sights on these six islands of the Keppel Island Group. From the sheltered Casuarina groves at Humpy Island and the low vine thickets of the remote Pelican Island, to the large coral bommies within easy snorkel access from Conical Island; each one has it’s own unique beauty and vantage point.

While North Keppel and Humpy islands are popular for larger groups, if you want a raw, au naturale experience, set up camp on one of the smaller islands like Miall and Conical, which only allow a max. of six people at any time.

All six islands require camping permits, which can be purchased via the NPRSR website.

How to get there: Access is via private boat or charter hire with Freedom Fast Cats.

What to bring: As there are no facilities on the islands you will have to be self-sufficient. Bring all your gear and make sure you’ve packed enough fresh water, food, and sturdy garbage bags (you’ll be taking your rubbish off the island), plus reliable lighting.

What to do while you’re there:

  • Pack your scuba and snorkel gear as there are some beautiful fringing coral reefs around the islands.
  • Hook, line and sinker your dinner off shingle beach at Pelican Island or Considine Beach at North Keppel Island.
  • Explore the three walking tracks on North Keppel Island or the Ridgetop Trail on Humpy Island.
  • Go reef walking along the fringing reefs at Mazie Bay at North Keppel Island and Olive Point headland at Middle Island.

Curtis Island National Park (Southend)

4WDing on Curtis Island

Photo by @arii_1

Never heard of Curtis Island? Neither had I until we camped there over Easter… and let me tell you, it’s set the bar pretty damn high for future camping escapades.

The adventure kicks off when you hit the 4WD track on the back road of the sleepy beach town at the island’s south end. From here, you’ll wind your way through red dirt and sand as you stalk the rugged coastline and inland tracks – don’t be surprised to see a rogue turtle or kangaroo crossing your path – before reaching the turnoff points to the island’s two national park campsites: Turtle Street and Joey Lees.

If you’ve got kids or you’re keen to break out the rods and reels, Turtle Street is your best bet. Tucked behind sand dunes, the campground offers a soft(er) campsite surface and a sweeping calm beach out the front, with an estuary to your left and rock pool caves to your right.

Joey Lees Curtis Island

Photo by @arii_1

For those that relish minimal crowds and a more laid-back take on nature, head to Joey Lees. While you can’t go wrong with any spot atop the grassy headlands here, I reckon we nabbed the best one: front and centre facing one of the two main beaches. Spend your days swimming, fishing and exploring the rock formations at low tide, then at night, strap on a headlamp and wander down to the beach in search of crabs.

Both campsites require permits, which can be purchased from the NPRSR website.

How to get there: Take the Curtis Ferry over from Gladstone Harbour. Access to campsites is by 4WD only and can be reached via the track off Refuse Tip.

What to bring: As there are no facilities at both campsites, you will have to be self-sufficient. Bring all your gear and make sure you’ve packed enough fresh water, food, and sturdy garbage bags (which you can dump once you return to the town), plus reliable lighting.

What to do while you’re there:

  • While you can catch some fishies pretty much anywhere along the island’s coast, there are a few spots worth highlighting: the Turtle Street estuary, the concrete caisson near the ferry pier, and the bays to the left when you hop off the ferry (double check marine park zones beforehand). Oystering is also popular at these spots.
  • Grab your pots and go crabbing at First and Second Creek. To get there, follow the tracks before you hit the bins off Refuse Tip.
  • Head to North Turtle to explore the caves and rock pools (access during low tide only).
  • It’s no Heron Island, but you can still see some pretty coral and colourful fish snorkelling up at Connors Bluff, 5km up from Front Beach (the main beach in front of the Capricorn Lodge and Breezeway).
  • Being the third largest turtle rookery in Queensland, you can watch turtles nest and hatch at Front Beach during turtle season (October to March) each year.

Tannum Sands

Tannum Sands Esplanade

Photo by @arii_1

With its seemingly endless esplanade, golden beaches, and palm tree parklands dotted with blue and white gazebos and kids playgrounds, Tannum Sands is a holiday haven for families looking for a camping destination that’s low-key but still has plenty on offer to fill up the #throwback memory bank.

Tannum Sands Discovery Holiday Park

Photo by @arii_1

The Discovery Holiday Park couldn’t be in a more prime position – nestled in the quiet bushlands facing the estuary where the salty seas of the main beach combine with the freshwater of Wild Cattle Creek, your alarm clock is a glorious mix of kookaburras and lapping waves on the shore.

Planning on heading there during school holidays? You’ll be stoked to find the lovely folk running a heap of in-park activities from treasure hunts and pedal carts to family discos and craft mornings.

How to get there: Tannum Sands is a six-hour drive from Brisbane.

What to bring: Being a well established coastal town, you don’t need to worry too much about forgetting food and supplies, just make sure you’ve got your campsite set-up gear sorted.

What to do while you’re there:

  • Water activities are endless with Wild Cattle Creek across the road: go fishing and crabbing; or canoe, kayak or SUP your way across the calm and protected waters.
  • Bring your tinny and day trip over to Wild Cattle Island, an untouched national park separated from the mainland by Wild Cattle Creek.
  • Bike or walk the TurtleWay track – starting at the holiday park, it winds its way up the coastline and around the headlands before crossing over to Boyne Island.
  • Pack a picnic and head to the Canoe Point Parklands, where you can explore the beachside boardwalks and windswept dunes before cooking up a feast on the outdoor BBQs that come with free firewood (gracias, Tannum Sands).
  • Go for a dip at the patrolled beach, a five-minute walk down the road, before wetting your whistle at the surf club.

Lady Musgrave Island

Lady Musgrave Island Camping

Pitch a tent on Lady Musgrave Island and get your own ocean aquarium at your doorstep to boot. Yep, this coral cay beauty off the coast of The Town of 1770 is famous for its massive lagoon protected by an eight-nautical-mile long, naturally-formed coral wall. Basically, it’s like a massive Great Barrier Reef swimming pool, making it perfect for water lovers of all abilities to snorkel, dive and explore!

Be prepared for some bare-bones camping here, with no facilities other than composting toilets. But with a max. of 40 people on the island at any one time, at least the crowds will be kept at bay.

Camping on Lady Musgrave is available from Easter to Australia Day each year, and you’ll need to purchase a camping permit from the NPRSR website.

How to get there: Via private boat or hitch a ride over with Lady Musgrave Cruises from the Town of 1770 or with Lady Musgrave Experience from Bundaberg.

What to bring: You will need to be completely self-sufficient, bringing all your gear and making sure you’ve packed enough fresh water, food, and sturdy garbage bags (you’ll be taking your rubbish off the island), plus reliable lighting.

What to do while you’re there:

  • #snorkelfordays over the coral gardens in the lagoon.
  • If you haven’t got your own gear to explore the island’s world-class dive sites, you can organise a scuba of the outer reef wall with Lady Musgrave Cruises and get up close and personal with the locals (aka resident manta rays and turtles).
  • Got your own boat? Head out for a spot of reef fishing – you can grab a free marine park zoning map from NPRSR offices, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), and many bait and tackle outlets.
  • Give the fins a rest and wander the island by foot, keeping an eye out for seabirds and hatching and nesting green and loggerhead turtles (turtle season is from November to March).

Agnes Water

Agnes Water Beach Holidays

Proving that you don’t have to get down and dirty to go camping is the Agnes Water Beach Holidays Park, whose best assets include hot showers, an absolute beachfront location, and an on-site cafe serving up home-made cakes and a quality brew (of coffee, that is) on their alfresco deck.

Just 150 metres from the crystal clear waters of the main beach, you can set up camp on both powered and unpowered sites under rainforest trees and tropical shrubs. But if you want to take your camping vacay to the next level, opt for a few nights in one of their wicked safari-style tents on stilts!

How to get there: Agnes Water is a six-hour drive from Brisbane.

What to bring: With their own cafe and an IGA five minutes down the road, all you’ll need to pack is your campsite set-up and you’re good to go.

What to do while you’re there:

  • Agnes Waters is the home of Queensland’s most northerly surf beaches, so bring your board as the swell is usually crankin’.
  • Don’t know how to surf? Hang ten with Lazy Lizard Surf School, just two minutes down the road from the holiday park, who’ll show you the ropes waves.
  • Pack your rod and hand lines and get reeling at these top spots.
  • Hop aboard the pink amphibious LARC! (land and sea vessel) for a paradise tour up to Bustard Head and Lighthouse, before sand-boarding down the towering 35m sand dunes of Middle Island.
  • If the remote camping of Lady Musgrave Island didn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can still head out on a day trip to get in some snorkel/dive time on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Woodgate

For those of you thinking “Where the heck is Woodgate?!”, this unknown slice of paradise can be found just 40 minutes shy of Bundaberg, hiding between the coastal plains of the Burrum Coast National Park and a secluded 16km-stretch of white sandy beach.

Once you arrive at Woodgate Beach Tourist Park, you’ll immediately want to stay for weeks: the park is a beautiful nine acres of leafy landscaped gardens with spotless facilities (and hello free freakin’ WiFi), and directly across the road you’ll find the main beach, which is protected by Fraser Island, meaning calm ocean waters all year round!

Don’t forget to pop into the cafe out the front for a delish brekkie while you’re there.

How to get there: Woodgate is a four-hour drive from Brisbane.

What to bring: With a pub, cafe and IGA just minutes away, you’ll just need to make sure you’ve brought all your gear to set up your campsite.

What to do while you’re there: 

  • Bordered by national park, there are a heap of walking tracks in the area to explore! But if you don’t want to venture too far, there’s the melaleuca wetlands of the Banksia Boardwalk directly behind the tourist park. Allow for approx. two hours return.
  • Got a 4WD? Hit the tracks in the national park (some even have beach access).
  • Take your rods down to Theodolite Park for a spot of fishing.
  • With the smooth conditions of the main beach, you’d be kicking yourself if you forgot your kayak or SUP.

Bargara

Sitting in your camp chair at the Bargara Beach Caravan Park, with your eyes set on the stars and ears pinned to the sound of the ocean, it’s hard to believe you’re only 15 minutes from the largest city in the region.

But this funky little beach town near Bundaberg is a holiday hot spot in its own right, with a cute strip of shops with everything from a butcher and barber to an op shop and homewares store, and the world-famous Mon Repos (the largest Loggerhead Turtle nesting site on Australia’s eastern mainland) only five minutes up the road. 

How to get there: Bargara is a 4.5-hour drive from Brisbane.

What to bring: Food and extra supplies can be found in the town centre of Bargara, so just make sure you’ve brought all your gear to set up your campsite.

What to do while you’re there:

  • If you’re there during turtle season (November to March), you’ll definitely want to pop into Mon Repos to catch some loggerhead turtles nesting and hatching.
  • Hire a vintage cruiser and explore the foreshore.
  • When you get sick of pedalling, hop on a segway tour through the Mon Repos Conservation Park with SegueBundy.
  • Om nom nom your way through the RiverFeast night markets in Bundaberg, held every Friday from 4pm – 10pm.
  • Grab the kids and head down to Turtle Park for a picnic and play.
  • Bring your scuba and snorkel gear, as Hoffman’s Rocks and Barolin Rocks are some of Queensland’s most accessible shore dive sites.

What’s your favourite camping spot on the Southern Great Barrier Reef?