Exploring Magnetic Island and Townsville

Magnetic Island Beach

Magnetic Island Beach

Exploring Magnetic Island starts in the unironically named City of Townsville (Why not call it Cityvillage?), the city that thinks it’s the capital of North Queensland. Situated on the southern shore of Cleveland Bay, with 174,000 people, it's 220kms south of Cairns, 1350kms north of Brisbane, it’s an underrated gem to explore on the East Coast. Its climate is considered tropical savannah, as it gets less rainfall than Cairns, and is almost unique in the world due to huge variations in annual rainfall. These variations are due to the unpredictability of tropical cyclones, which bucket down rain for days. When backpackers hear of Townsville, they often think its a made up name, or just the gateway to Magnetic Island, but there’s much more to it than that.

Table of Contents:

Getting To Townsville

You can get to Townsville any number of ways. If you're driving, Townsville is located the junction of the Bruce and Flinders Highways, where the outback meets the coast. All the East Coast bus companies stop in Townsville, so hop on a Premier bus from Brisbane or Cairns for cheap. You can also take the train, with Queensland Rail offering daily services to Townsville Railway Station from Cairns and Brisbane. If you are thinking of a cruise, the Port of Townsville is a popular stop because of its proximity to Magnetic Island and the Barrier Reef. Finally, Townsville International Airport caters to flights from Darwin, Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, and Melbourne, although it is usually more expensive than flying to Cairns. Regarding the buses- Premier Motor Service and Greyhound have daily buses to Townsville, and both drop off their passengers at the Port of Townsville- Perfect for those planning on heading straight to Magnetic Island. For those travelling with Stray Australia, you normally disembark the train here to visit Maggie, but you can wait in Townsville if you'd like.

Townsville Best Time To Visit/Things to Do

Townsville is known as the Sunshine City (It’s also known as Brownsville, take that as you want), in the Sunshine State- it gets an average of 121 clear days a year, and 8 hours sunshine a day, which means it's perfect to visit year round. If you prefer slightly cooler temperatures, visit in winter- the average temperature in July is 20 degrees, while December is a crisp 28 degrees. Cyclone season is generally between November and April, but can vary. Stinger season is generally between October and April, and you don't want to be caught by an Irukandji jellyfish- they pack a punch, so try not to die if you're planning on snorkelling or free diving off Magnetic Island, as not all beaches have stinger nets.

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For those who are driving between Townsville and Cairns, a must-see is the Wallaman Waterfall, two hours to the north-west, the highest single drop waterfall in Australia. While your up there, consider stopping by Paluma and Crystal Creek Rainforest for a few scenic hikes, including a portion of the Wet Tropics Great Walk. If you have the time, and want to go seriously off the beaten track, seriously consider visiting Hitchinbrook Island, an island halfway between Townsville and Cairns. It's an uninhabited tropical island, that just 40 people are permitted to visit at one time. Here, you can spend a few days doing the Thorsborn trail, internationally rated as one of the top 10 walks on the planet, or kayak along its long sandy beaches from Caldwell and try your luck spotting turtles, dugongs, and other creatures. 

If you're south of Townsville, check out Bowling Green Bay National Park for some quality Queensland swimming holes, the best being the delightfully named Alligator Creek (FYI alligator free, like all of Australia, crocodiles however…) 

For those who want to wait around Townsville a hike to the top of Castle Hill is almost obligatory for visitors who want a panoramic view of Cleveland Bay, while Mount Stuart Lookout offers an even better panoramic view of the countryside, and some of the islands of Cleveland Bay. The Strand is Townsville's natural sandy beach, and is known to the locals as a great spot for viewing sunrises each morning. If your more of a history geek, the Jezzine Barracks showcases Townsville's fascinating military and aboriginal past, including records from World War 2. If world wars are something that interests you, there are also scenic flights over Magnetic Island on the Red Baron Seaplanes, where you can spot the S.S. City of Adelaide, a local wreck that was used for bombing practice in World War 2. If you'd prefer to see water creatures up close and personal, instead of from above, Townsville is also home to the worlds largest living coral aquarium in the Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium. If you want to get even closer, you can learn to catch Barramundi at Crackajacks Sportfishing Adventure in Burdekin (There's also wakeboarding).

Wombats at Billabong Sanctuary

Wombats at Billabong Sanctuary

For those of you interested in seeing animals and not eating them, check out Hidden Valley Cabins, where you have a near guaranteed chance of spotting the oddest animal in the world- the platypus, or Billabong Sanctuary, where you can cuddle wombats! Coffee lovers have to try out Kopi Luwak coffee from Herveys Range Heritage Tea Rooms. For those of you have never heard of Kopi Luwak coffee, its the most expensive coffee in the world, at $50 per cup. Why? Because it's civet coffee, a coffee made from part-digested coffee cherries eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. Its shit-hot-civet-shit coffee! Finally, if you want the most outback Australian experience ever, plan to be in Townsville in mid to late August (24th August 2019), for the North Queensland Elite Rodeo, one of the top rodeo events in Queensland.  It’s your chance to watch animals throw people around- for pure entertainment.

Where to Stay in Townsville

Rambutan YHA

Rambutan YHA

Townsville doesn't have the widest selection of hostels in Australia- but it does contain one of the best, Rambutan YHA. Rambutan is brand new, and the first ever resort style hostel in Australia, with a huge pool, terrace, and only a five minute walk from the port. And its cheap- $26 a night for a dorm! Its atmosphere is generally relaxed. Other good quality hostels include Civic Guest House, which was recently voted one of the Top 10 hostels in Australia, and its located more in the CBD of Townsville- so it's a lot quieter, and has shuttle services to the bus stop 4 times a day. For those on a budget, Reef Lodge Townsville is 500 metres from the Greyhound/Premier Bus stop, and prices start at $21 a night to stay here. If its party hostels you're looking for, head on over to Magnetic Island- Base Magnetic Island used to host Australia's full moon parties, so there is no shortage of late night fun there. As a rule, all hostels contain kitchens, shower facilities, and have wifi, although wifi isn't always free

Hostel Prices: Dorm Room: $21pn-$35pn, Private rooms: Starting from $59.

Hotel Prices: From $85 for a double.

Contact us for a discount off your hostels stay.

Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island's beaches are world class, and often empty

Magnetic Island's beaches are world class, and often empty

Magnetic Island (Maggie to the locals, not to be confused with Maggie) is the 52km squared mountainous tropical island off the coast of Townsville, and is accessible in only 20 minutes by ferries from Townsville, for between $28 with Fantasea Cruising (leaves 8 times a day, and can carry cars) and $33 with Sealink (Half hour departures).  Magnetic Island is often called the East Coast's best-kept secret, and with half of the island devoted to a national park, sparsely populated bays scattered throughout, a number of hikes and viewpoints to explore, and even some World War Two forts on the hilltops, it might not remain a secret for long. There is no lack of things in the surrounding water too, with numerous shipwrecks located just off-shore, nice marine life and coral that you can snorkel to from the beach, and a number of scuba diving opportunities. Getting around Magnetic island is easy, with SunBus public bus services to each of the villages on the island being relatively cheap ($2-$3 per ride), and frequent.

Where to Stay on Magnetic Island

View from the beach beside Base Magnetic Island

View from the beach beside Base Magnetic Island

As a backpackers, you don't have many options for places to stay on Magnetic Island- there are only two hostels, Base Magnetic Island, and Bungalow Bay YHA. Luckily both hostels are awesome in their own ways. Base Magnetic Island is the party hostel, located 5 minutes from Nelly Bay, and located right on the beach. You can hear the waves crashing against the shore at night, and it's an awesome sight to wake up to in the mornings. As the former spot for Australia's version of the Full Moon Party, you know you'll have a good time here. Another great reason people choose to stay in Base is that they normally have a combined deal on- two nights' accommodation, the return ferries, snorkel hire, a breakfast, a dinner, and a free drink, all for $118 ($109 if booked through Tripfarm!). I remember heading to the toilet at 3 am one night and coming across a group of English guys streaking... When the bar closes here, it's also popular to head straight down to the beach, because why not after all? Its only minute away..

Bungalow Bay Koala Village YHA

Bungalow Bay Koala Village YHA

Bungalow Bay Koala Village YHA on the other hand, is much more mellow- perfect for those who want to chill out. Located in the middle of Magnetic Island's National Park, near Horseshoe Bay, it's only a 13 minute bus journey from the ferry terminal to here. But the most interesting thing about Bungalow Bay YHA is that there is a wildlife park onsite, with thrice daily presentations where you can hold pythons, lizards, and even get a koala cuddle photo. They offer a breakfast with koalas option for guests staying there, where you get a bush breakfast, champagne, and entry to the sanctuary for $32.There is normally a charge for the entrance to the sanctuary, although you can book a package similar to Base Magnetic Island here: 2 nights accommodation, your return ferries, entry to the koala sanctuary, and a koala cuddle photo, for $149 ($145 through us)!

Hostel Prices: Dorm Room: $32pn-$40pn, Private rooms: Starting from $66.

Hotel Prices: From $70 for a double.

Contact us for a discount off your hostels stay- and for specials.

Magnetic Island Things to Do

Magnetic Island is famous for its amazing views, quiet beaches, and wildlife- it contains the largest wild koala population in Australia, and is home to Rock Wallabies- tiny little wallabies that are most often seen around Geoffrey Bay at dusk and dawn. Although the bus service covers all the sealed roads of the island, an extremely popular way to get around is to hire an open top Barbie Car. You can hire a Barbie car with Tropical Topless $80 per day ($90 for 24 hours).

Piano on Magnetic Island

Piano on Magnetic Island

No matter which way you’re travelling around, be sure to check out the Horseshoe Bay and Picnic Bay beaches, as they are all accessible by road, Radical Bay and Florence Bay if you fancy short walks, but be careful if your hanging out at Balding Bay Beach- it’s a popular nudist spot, so there might be more than just you hanging out.  If bush walks are your forte, the Fort Walk (1.5-2 hours return) is nearby Horseshoe Bay and only a 10 minute drive from Nelly Bay, and the Hawkings Point Track (1 hour return) is the easiest walk that offers an amazing panorama and can be started from Picnic Bay. Finally, there is a boardwalk from Nelly Bay to Arcadia- if you’re staying in Base Magnetic Island, you could walk to Arcadia for dusk, feed the rock wallabies, and, if you’re lucky, fit in a spot of toad racing before heading back to Base for the night! For the snorkelers out there, Florence Bay is probably the best beach to visit- the marine life there is fantastic.

Rock Wallaby

Rock Wallaby

Wreckage of SS  City of Adelaide . Credit: Reddit

Wreckage of SS City of Adelaide. Credit: Reddit

However, there are plenty of unsealed roads on Magnetic Island, so if you want to really explore the island, consider renting a 4x4 instead. It costs around $90 per day ($95 for 24 hours), but fits 5 comfortably, and allows you access to more of Magnetic Islands beaches- including Esplanade Beach at the end of West Point- the perfect place to watch the sunset over the ocean, and Cockle Beach, where you can go out to the wreckage of the SS City of Adelaide, an old steam vessel that ran aground here in 1916. It rests in shallow water 400 metres off the coast and has become an artificial island full of marine and bird life.

Diving Magnetic Island

For those who prefer to see their wreckages under the water, Magnetic Island and Townsville are amazing places to scuba dive. You can do everything from shore dives, to wreck diving, to outer barrier reef diving from here with Pleasure Divers. The two main wrecks you can find here are the Moltke shipwreck, an iron-hulled german built barque with an incredibly aussie reason for been left here (The explosives expert got drunk and lit the explosives early), and the world famous S.S. Yongala, often considered to be one of the top 5 wreck dives in the world.  Both Pleasure Divers and Prodive Magnetic Island offer dives for all levels, including introductory dives for those who would like to try them, and advanced dives for those with there licence. Magnetic Island is also known as the cheapest place in Australia to get your open water dive licence- it’s only $339 here, plus a $10 levy, compared to often over $800 in Cairns! Divers are advised to check in advance the days of there trips, however, as trips do not depart every day.

Contact us for a discount off your diving on Magnetic Island!

Ayr and the S.S. Yongala

Although you can visit the Yongala directly from Magnetic Island, the best place to visit is from Ayr, a small town 88 kilometers south of Townsville. Ayr is much closer to the wreckage, so you've less time at sea (Where the water can often be very choppy), and has more frequent departures. Ayr is serviced by both Premier and Greyhound buses.

A little bit about the Yongala, and why its considered one of the greatest dives in the world: Originally a passenger steamer, it set sail on its ill-fated voyage from Cairns to Melbourne in 1911, where it got caught in a cyclone just outside Ayr, sinking and tragically causing the deaths of 122 people on board. When the 109 metre wreck was found in 1958, it made country-wide news, becoming Australia's largest and best-preserved shipwreck. Nowadays it attracts divers from all over the world, with over 10,000 visitors annually.

Hawksbill Turtle at Yongala Wreck- www.yongaladive.com

Hawksbill Turtle at Yongala Wreck- www.yongaladive.com

Its location 89 kilometres offshore, within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, means that it has become a protected heritage site for a vast array of sea life, and has a high density of species for a relatively small location. Divers are attracted to this wreck as its marine life is almost unparalleled, with the wreck having become an amazing artificial reef for species, ranging from abnormally large Queensland gropers, to giant rays and turtles, to schools of trevally and mangrove jacks, to the rarer olive sea snakes

This is a bucket list wreck dive for most divers, however, it's definitely not for the faint-hearted. Strong surface currents, 14-28 metre depth, and a close proximity to the wreck mean you must have dive licence that qualifies you to dive to 30 metres or more (Adventure/Advanced Padi Licence, Deep Diver SSI) before you'll be allowed dive. More than 15 dives are also recommended, although some dive companies will allow a quick training dive (As one of your two dives) for divers who are not experienced at these depths.

Yongala Hull www.yongaladive.com

Yongala Hull www.yongaladive.com

Divers describe descending down the mooring line along the barren end of the wreck, been buffeted by currents, and been underwhelmed by what they see.... Until they cross over the stern and come across the dazzling living ecosystem that lies protected from the currents. The Yongala's grim history and foreboding silhouette make it as impressive as it is ghostly when you're down there.

For those of you coming to Ayr to dive the Yongala, Yongala Dive offer the best trip: $242 for two dives if you bring your own gear, or $272 if you need to hire your equipment. Yongala Dive also offers hostel accommodation for $26 a night when booked with your dive, and will even pick you up from the bus stop if told in advance.

Contact us for a discount off your SS Yongala Dive!

Farmwork Townsville and Magnetic Island

Townsville and Magnetic Island are not the most popular places to do your farmwork, although it is possible. The majority of work near Townsville is station work, although in Giru, Ayr, and Bowen (All south of Townsville) fruit picking is more popular. I can't recommend Ayr in good conscience without saying that in November, tragically, a Belgian backpacker died there from overheating on a melon farm.

You can pick vegetables, tomatoes, melons, and sugar cane there from May to November, while Bowen is known for tomato picking May to November, and melons September to November. Barnacles Backpackers, Aussie Nomads, and Bowen Backpackers are all working hostels in Bowen, with varying degrees of quality. If you’re really struggling to find work in Bowen, consider getting in contact with  http://www.jobfindcentre.com.au, who have an office there.

Giru is known for sugar cane picking in Winter and Spring, and mangos in the summer. From May to November capsicums and zucchinis can be picked here.

Want to do your farm work, but have no idea where to start? Check out our Farm Work Australia Guide.

For a guide on how not to do your farmwork, you can read my story here.

Magnetic Island Hints and Tips

  • Hostels include snorkel hire- Grab your snorkel gear before you drive anywhere.

  • There's a piano on a beach in Magnetic Island- but which one?

  • Stock up on the mainland- There's an IGA in Nelly Bay, but if you’re on a budget, food is cheaper in the Townsville supermarkets.

  • Want to see the rock wallabies? Check out Alma Bay too- there's a man who feeds the rock wallabies every evening here, and bring some carrots or feed.

  • Sunday markets- Horseshoe Bay has weekend markets for local arts and crafts.

  • Seriously consider the 4x4- Sunsets at Westpoint are spectacular.

  • Look up! There are no dropbears, just koalas everywhere.

  • Driving but want to do a day trip? Fantasea Cruising has free parking.

Did we miss anything? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Looking for other exploring guides around Australia? 

Check out:

  1. Exploring Cairns

  2. Exploring Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays

  3. Exploring Fraser Island

  4. Exploring Brisbane

  5. Exploring Byron Bay

Planning an East Coast Roadtrip? Check out our Ultimate East Coast Guide.