TRAVEL: Broughton Island

Broughton Island is a place you will want to return to again and again, writes HELEN GREGORY.

Clad in a wetsuit, donning a snorkel and my hands shaking with fear, I wade into crystal-clear waters in Esmerelda Cove on Broughton Island, about to take up an offer I can’t refuse.

When I see the blue spotted stingray with a diameter of at least one metre, however, I realise that enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate to bravery.

I have a moment of fight or flight and turn back to shore, only to stop, swim back towards my guide Richie McCormack and then towards shore again.

Eventually he takes my hand  and we swim closer to the magnificent creature, which is oblivious to its observer and still for a few minutes, before it is startled and darts away.

Returning to our campsite I’m almost delirious from the adrenalin rush and can’t stop talking about the underwater encounter.

It’s been only 24 hours since I arrived on this majestic island and every single one of them has been anything but ordinary.

We had left D’Albora Marina at Nelson Bay on a catamaran operated by Imagine Cruises,  with skipper Frank Future promising the two-hour, eight-nautical-mile north-easterly journey would be one to remember. He didn’t disappoint.

A few minutes into the trip we pass Cabbage Tree Island, also known as John Gould Reserve, home to the rarest seabird in the world, the Gould’s petrel.

A little closer to our destination there is a cry from the rear of the boat and Future slows our speed until we are idling, hands shielding eyes from the sun as we look out to sea.

There are two pairs of mother and calf humpback whales to our left and a group of six to the right.

‘‘The humpbacks love to get up and dance,’’ says deckhand McCormack, cradling his own camera.

‘‘They actually have two blowholes and so when they blow it creates a v-shape of spray.’’

The Broughton Island group can be seen about three miles to the west, a T-shaped cluster of islands that includes Looking Glass Isle, Little Broughton Island Nature Reserve, North Rock and Inner Rock and our home for the next two days, Broughton Island.

It  is  the largest offshore island in NSW and the only one on which visitors can camp.

Greek and Italian fishermen established the original settlement on north beach at the end of the 1880s as a commercial fishing operation supplying ships going to Sydney.

They soon moved to  more-protected Esmerelda Cove, with their seven huts now used by recreational fishermen.

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service gazetted the 114-hectare island into Myall Lakes National Park in 1972, with The Broughton Island Conservation Society paying a licence to continue to use the huts.

We board an inflatable dinghy for the short trip from the catamaran to Little Poverty Beach.

There is no water, electricity, showers or flushable toilets on the island and we have come prepared with tents, tarps, ropes, water and eskies.

We are joined on the island by Imagine’s Kiwi-born McCormack and conservation biologist Terry Domico, who answers our questions about the island’s unique marine life.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife ranger Suse Callaghan is a regular visitor to Broughton Island and monitors the seabird population, green and gold bellfrogs, infrastructure maintenance and weed control.

We pitch our tents on the three large 

timber camping platforms.

All sites offer a stunning view of our own little bay and are far enough removed from the changing tide.

Our group gathers under the large tarp that has been set up as a makeshift kitchen and dining area, and the meal that follows leaves no doubt in my mind that dinner is a meal best enjoyed outdoors.

En route to the only pit toilet at 11pm  I feel something cold and wet jump on to my foot.

Looking down,  my headlamp illuminates one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen.

Callaghan is close behind and bends down to scoop up the tiny green and gold bellfrog. ‘‘There’s about 800 to 1000 of these frogs on the island,’’ Callaghan says.

Its clammy and luminescent skin is a stark contrast against my pale hands and black sleeved jacket.

Almost on cue there is a round of warbling coo-ing, the kind of sound cheeky youngsters would make on Halloween.

Callaghan reaches into one of the many burrows that pock the island’s surface and pulls out one of the culprits, a black wedgetail shearwater, also known as a muttonbird.

This is the only site in NSW where one can camp among an active seabird colony.

We rise early the next day before starting a three-hour walk with Callaghan around the island. We make our way up narrow paths that carve through waist-high vegetation, treading carefully to avoid the muttonbird burrows. 

The birds lay their eggs in November, with the chicks to hatch next year.

There are about 50,000 pairs on the island and another 50,000 pairs on Little Broughton Island, making the Broughton Island group the most significant shearwater population in NSW.

Callaghan says rabbits had plagued the island and competed for burrows for about 100 years to 2009, when baits were dropped from helicopters to kill rabbits,  mice and black rats.

Since their eradication the NPWS has noticed a dramatic change in vegetation, with more rainforest plants.

 ‘‘Species are popping up that were previously unrecorded on the island,’’ Callaghan said.

We amble onwards to Providence Beach, where the alabaster sand and turquoise water could pass for The Whitsundays, minus the tourists.

We return with Domico later that night to watch the sunset and wait for the little penguins that waddle ashore at about 8pm.

It’s been just over one day and a  welcome escape from computers, phones and the rush of modern life.

Reluctant to leave this oasis, I am determined to return again soon.

■ Several operators provide ferry transfers to Broughton Island. 

■ Campsites are available for $30 per night, for two people only. Additional campers can stay at a cost of $10 per adult per night or $5 per child per night. To book, visit www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

The writer was a guest of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Imagine Cruises.

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