The afternoon sun dances off the water and plays upon the paperbark trees lining the river’s edge. The tannin from the leaves of the surrounding tea trees stains the water a deep brown, making it a perfect mirror, reflecting the clouds and the spiky grass, the dead tree trunks with peeling barks, and the swamp banksias with multi-hued flowers. There is a point where I don’t know if I am looking at the sky or the water. There’s just the sound of water and the reflections—a magical moment. An iridescent dragonfly flits above me as I aim my camera to get a close-up of its wings.

I am in the mystical Noosa Everglades, one of the most magnificent wilderness areas of Australia, filled with unique ecosystems that make their way into the Pacific Ocean. It’s part of the Noosa Biosphere Reserve which encompasses 150,000 hectares of land and sea. These Everglades are one of only two on the planet (the other is in Florida) and are, essentially, tropical wetlands made up of large tracts of mangroves and marshes with tall grass, freshwater and saline lakes, and estuarine wetlands of the Noosa river. With its branching waterways, it is an ecological treasure trove. It’s also a nature lover’s paradise, with almost half of the Australian bird-life.

Paddling the Everglades
Paddling the Everglades

“The Everglades is a refuge for plants, animals and birds which has evolved over many years, as well as nine of the deadliest snakes. Luckily, the waters are too cold for crocodiles or alligators," says our guide, much to our relief.

The Everglades can be explored by kayaks, canoes or a guided boat cruise, which is what we opt for. We start the cruise at Gympie Terrace on the Noosa with a Discovery Group Tour on which a group of local Rotarians keep me company, cruising past the posh homes of Noosaville, where the rich and wealthy have million-dollar homes with manicured gardens. We gawk at maverick-millionaire Richard Branson’s own island, “Makepeace", which has a Balinese-style retreat for Virgin employees. In its previous avatar, it was the residence of the housekeeper-turned-proprietor of the island, Hannah Makepeace, who would row down the river to pick up her mail and groceries, and later, a pig quarantine station.

We skim past lush vegetation—cypress pines called Kululu in the Aboriginal language, wallum heath, mangroves and seagrass. The dark waters of the Noosa are home to a number of rare species, including sea turtles, and pods of inland dolphins. Our guide tells us about the dugong, which is a shy and gentle creature and avoids contact with humans, but if you are lucky enough, you may get a glimpse of this endangered species of aquatic mammal. As we row further inwards, there is an overpowering silence, broken only by the occasional splash that a cormorant makes as it leaves its branch to dive for fish.

Our guide tells us that the muddy waters of the tidal Cooroibah lake were used by the indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people, who originally inhabited the region, and provided water-lily bulbs, fish and waterfowl for them to subsist on. Its shallow waters are filled with luxury catamarans and houseboats. “Here is the tricky part where the boat could get grounded," he warns us with a laugh. But although we do bump across the sandy bottom several times, we manage to stay dry.

Pelicans at the boat jetty
Pelicans at the boat jetty

The Cootharaba lake, which is connected to Cooroibah by a long, narrow channel, is the largest natural lake in the state and the gateway to the Everglades. It’s hardly more than 2m at its deepest point, and it’s possible at many places to walk in it without going more than waist-deep. We shimmy past the Lake Kinaba Information Centre, which is built on stilts at the shallow edge of the lake. It serves as the base for park rangers and houses a small display on the wetland environment. Fig Tree lake is my favourite—it’s a wide expanse where brackish and fresh waters mix, carpeted with lotus and vivid purple lilies forming a layer on the surface with azure dragonflies buzzing above the flowers. A flock of stocky pelicans sit on a sandbank as if in a conference. A lazy turtle pops its head up from beneath the shallows, takes one look at us, and retreats to the depths of the river. A snowy egret stretches as if doing a yoga pose.

Fig Tree Point, the northern end of the lake, hides some dramatic history. This was where shipwrecked survivor Eliza Fraser, wife of a Scottish sailing captain whose ship hit a reef off Fraser Island in 1836 and who was captured by the Aborigines, was rescued from her captors. The story became famous around the world, quickly retold many times in newspapers, magazines and books.

We soon drift into the upper reaches of the Noosa, called the Narrows. The river narrows suddenly as we pass through a brackish stretch lined with spiky grass and tea trees, a melaleuca species that is responsible for tainting the water a deep brown. This is the place for perfect reflections of the bloodwood, scribbly gum and cotton trees—the River of Mirrors.

Long ago, this was a logging area with kauri, cypress and beech trees transported down the river. Then it returned to being a pristine wilderness. As we pass fallen branches and vines overhanging into the water, we are reminded that nature is ever-changing—creating and destroying and maintaining a certain order. Our eagle-eyed guide points out an osprey high up on the branches of a tree and a snake-necked darter. I spot a white-bellied sea eagle’s nest that dangles precariously on outstretched branches above the river. We pass keen-eyed cormorants, brahminy kites that wheel and soar and swooping eagles looking for a meal. Kayaks nose in under overhanging trees; schoolchildren pass us on a flotilla of red canoes.

Our boat halts at Harry’s Hut, which used to be the retreat of timber cutters long ago. Today, it’s a spot for tea and a bit of “Aussie tucker" with scones and muffins. Goannas, the mean-looking Australian monitor lizards, scuttle past us as we listen to the story of how a local pharmacist bought the retreat and used it as a weekend fishing home. After it became a national park, he moved the local court to enforce his rights over the property. He won and was allowed to use it. After he died at the age of 94, Harry’s little piece of history became a protected heritage site.

Revived by our short tea break, we board the boat for our return journey as voracious catfish dart under the jetty, looking for leftovers. I sit with my feet dangling over the front of our boat as we move at a snail’s pace, scanning the trees for snakes and lizards, revelling in the dramatic scenery and the smell of leaf litter in the air. As the afternoon light changes, the stretches of dark, still water cast the most incredible reflections. The tour is careful to leave no tracks: Styrofoam cups and rubbish are packed with us—little things that go a long way in ensuring that the Noosa Everglades remain as pristine as they are.

TRIP PLANNER

Go

There are no direct flights to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. It’s easiest to fly to Singapore and connect to Brisbane. Noosa is about 140km from Brisbane.

Stay

Sheraton Noosa on the water has one of the best locations, with large rooms and balconies with river views (www.sheratonnoosaresort.com).

Eat

Seafood such as barramundi, Moreton Bay bugs, crabs, prawns and oysters.

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