Top things to do in Mackay, Eungella National Park and Cape Hillsborough Beach
This laid-back, scenic region in the middle of the Queensland coast offers an abundance of wildlife experiences, open-armed locals and real downtime. Here are the top things to do in Mackay and its stunning surrounds.
- June 2019
There’s an Austrian man named Oskar standing before us in Eungella National Park, with what looks like pink flowers made from sausages sprouting from the top of two burgers. He takes a bow then breaks into a yodel, before ceremoniously placing our lunch before us. A bush turkey eyes us up, no doubt hoping that a hot chip is bumped off a plate, while other diners clap like delighted children.
Oskar, chef and owner of Platypus Lodge Restaurant and Café opens in new window (housed in a charming rainforest shack), shoos the hopeful turkey away and explains that the yodelling on delivery has made his burgers the talk of town. Most weekends he can’t keep up with the demand for his simple (if you don’t count the sausage garnish), yet delicious meals made with local ingredients.
“And how lucky are we? Because right there, you can visit our platypus” he says, pointing to the river running by. “I’m confident of telling visitors there’s a 90 per cent chance of seeing them these days, as lately no one has come here without seeing more than one platypus.”
Oskar’s right. After eating our Yodel Burgers, we take a stroll along a path winding alongside the river and, on the first turn, spot a platypus in the clear water. It hovers in the bright sunlight before duck-diving into the depths to seek out shrimp and insect larvae.
Our love affair with these parts starts with the yodelling and platypus, but they’re not Mackay's sole surprises. We were drawn to this coastal city for the only horse races in Australia to take place on a beach, but as we have a few days before the jockeys send sand flying, we decide to check out other things to do in Mackay and its surrounds, that has its roots in sugarcane and coal mining.
Roos by morning
Considering we were lucky enough to sight the elusive platypus in its natural habitat (and judging by photos we’ve seen) we’re fairly confident of spotting roos at Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park opens in new window.
Ben and Renae Atherton run this buzzing, friendly tourist park, offering camp or caravan sites and cabins on Cape Hillsborough Beach. This stretch of sand is widely known as a mecca for wild kangaroos, which gather at sunrise.
Eastern grey kangaroos Bridget and Emmy-Lou, always followed by a group of wallabies, have been foraging on this beach for more than 20 years, nibbling at seaweed and mangrove seed pods. They must have had more photos taken of them than Beyoncé.
Enjoying sunrise on the beach with the wallabies has become synonymous with this region. Led by Ranger Sam, Mackay Tourism runs the Sunrise Wallaby Tours opens in new window in a sustainable way to protect the wallabies and ensure this experience with these national icons is enjoyed long into the future.
With the rising sun turning the sky into a mottled painting of pink, purple and gold above outlying islands, and the kangaroos play-fighting, relaxing and bounding along the beach, the sight is more than breathtaking – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime natural encounter.
Teatime at the station
After enjoying a dip in the ocean, we take Renae and Ben's advice and head down the road to the Old Station Teahouse opens in new window. Entering this century-old railway station, which was transported by truck from a nearby town and placed in the middle of thick rainforest, is like stepping back in time. The building has been thoughtfully restored without losing an ounce of character, preserving snippets of Mackay’s past. Fox furs hang on mannequins, doilies decorate tables, and railway memorabilia sits alongside crates of retro Coca-Cola bottles and other treasured finds.
An enormous cedar deck looks out over flower-filled gardens, and lush green lawns sprawl beneath enormous fig trees strung with fairy lights. Sitting in this patch of paradise enjoying a Devonshire tea on dainty china while listening to the calls of rainforest birds, we can see why this place is a hotspot for weddings, events and long lunches. Owner Michele Shea scooped a gold medal at last year's Mackay Region Tourism Awards. Her acceptance speech sums up the local spirit well: “Tourism is not rocket science, it’s just about being nice to people”.
Saturday rolls around and after donning our finest beach/race wear we head to the famed Mackay Airport Beach Horse Races opens in new window, held each August. “Bit over-dressed mate, but very smart!” says a bloke in a suit jacket and board shorts, giving us a thumbs-up and raising a tinnie of XXXX (a Queensland brand of beer) to our health.
This appears to be the most common attire for men, even on the VIP deck overlooking the beach where men in overalls shuck oysters straight into open mouths. The atmosphere sums up Mackay – this place won’t ever try to be the Whitsundays, and nor should it.
Race day in Mackay brings more than 3,000 locals and tourists together. Revellers dance to live bands and cheer on the spectacle of horses racing along the beach with the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop. Another local informs us that when the late Mick Pope dreamed up the event four years ago everyone thought him crazy. "But now it’s an event everyone looks forward to!" While the beach race will not be running in 2019, the organisers are working on bringing it back in 2020.
Our home for the trip, a cosy, modern studio at the Comfort Resort Blue Pacific opens in new window, has some of the best views in Mackay. Rows of palm trees salute the ocean above a beautiful beach that completely disappears at high tide. The resort is made up of beach houses and self-contained studios, and owners Cath and Nick uit den Bogaard make you feel like family during your stay.
On our last day, we can’t resist fitting in more rainforest time, so we drive 90 minutes west of Mackay to beloved local hangout Finch Hatton Gorge opens in new window. We’ve packed a blanket and a gourmet picnic feast of bread, crackers, olives, meats, cheeses, homemade dips and fruit from local outfit Plattered Up.
Finch Hatton has two well-marked bushwalks: the easy hour round trip to Araluen Cascades and the more challenging two-hour round trip Wheel of Fire walk.
On the Araluen Cascades walk, we find a patch of rainforest for ourselves on a rocky outcrop, with rockpools perfect for wading and a swimming gorge below.
As lunchtime slides peacefully into afternoon, we take a dip then lie on smooth boulders beside the waterfall to dry off. Sounds emerge from the forest as bush hens and turkeys bumble through shrubs scratching around in the rich soil, while bell birds, king parrots and other feathery friends sing out.
I watch a water dragon sun itself on a mossy log above a pool. He’s eyeing off the gently undulating patches of sunlight created by some overhanging fern fronds, in patient wait for an afternoon insect treat.
That’s the beauty of Mackay. It’s less than a two-hour flight from Brisbane to Mackay, but instead of other humans in your line of vision, it’s more often an impromptu performance courtesy of Mother Nature.