Isolation, education on Lady Elliot Island

Kathryn Bermingham

The lives of Prince Charles and Queensland businessman Peter Gash don't have much in common - at least on the surface.

One was born into a life of privilege, the other is self-made.

Peter is the leasee and managing director of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, located at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

The pair spent time together on the island during Charles' visit to Australia for the Commonwealth Games, and it was clear they shared at least one thing: a passion for conservation and a mission to protect the reef.

After pictures with a baby turtle and a chat with the khaki-clad Irwin family - close friends and comrades of the Gash family - Charles attended a round table discussion where he questioned why banned farm chemicals continue to contaminate run-off and pollute the reef.

Stressing the problem was also happening in the UK, he called for the reef to form part of a "blue economy", which would use the world's oceans as a tool for economic growth.

The prince, flying solo without Camilla by that point, had left the island just days before I arrived, but Peter was clearly impressed with his guest and his knowledge of conservation issues.

He says he'd like to meet him again, but was more passionate when talking about the island's solar energy set-up than his brief brush with royalty.

Peter and his wife, Julie, split their time between the Gold Coast and their house on the island, 80 kilometres northeast of Bundaberg. It's a tiny speck, at just 45 hectares in size.

Lady Elliot Island is riding the momentum of the booming eco-tourism trend, though Peter first fell in love with the place in the 1970s.

The couple signed a lease in 2005, and have spent the years since working towards self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Their selling point? An up-close experience with the Great Barrier Reef, of course, but also a chance to learn about the importance of protecting it.

All overnight guests - and day guests on request - are offered a behind the scenes tour of the site, including its solar panel and battery operation, desalination plant and wastewater management facility.

On the morning of our day trip, we are greeted at the airport by Eddie - a Chinese-speaking banker who takes leave from his job to work as a tour guide.

He beams with excitement as he shepherds passengers onto a small plane for the 100-minute flight from the Gold Coast and has packed his own GoPro to photograph the mind boggling array of marine life.

Peter and Julie own Seair Pacific, a charter service that runs several flights to and from the island each day from the Gold Coast as well as Hervey Bay, Bundaberg and Redcliffe (Brisbane).

As chief pilot, Peter was also responsible for flying Prince Charles to the island in one of the company's own planes. Our pilot, Chris, flies low over the Queensland coastline, eventually leaving it behind for open waters until Lady Elliot appears on the horizon and staff wave as the plane touches down.

From there, guests can join a number of organised activities or roam the island as they please. The average length of stay is three nights, though there's plenty to keep kids entertained and you could easily fill in four or five days.

As well as the tour, guests may join guided reef walks, fish feeding sessions, children's activities, bird watch tours and historical tours.

The island's abuzz after dark too, when staff host torchlight tours, games nights, star gazing sessions and night-time turtle and boat tours.

On our daytime glass bottom boat tour, Eddie points out fish and turtles before we cruise over one of several shipwrecks in the region and finally step off the side of the boat to explore the crystal clear waters of the reef.

The island is renowned for its prime snorkelling and diving conditions, and offers lessons and gear hire in both.

At different times of year, guests may spot migrating humpback whales, manta rays or turtle hatchlings.

While the scenery is idyllic, accommodation for the maximum of 150 overnight guests on the island is nothing flash. The most basic option is a small cabin with two sets of bunk beds and shared toilet facilities.

But the showers are hot, the food is fresh and, as resort manager Andreas tells us on our tour of the site, the luxury is in the natural beauty and isolation.

While cheap Bali or Thailand holidays may lure some potential tourists away from Queensland, Lady Elliot offers a uniquely Australian getaway - though the $730 return flight from the Gold Coast will still put many off.

With that in mind, sunseekers wanting to relax by the pool should probably look elsewhere - Lady Elliot's accommodation and food offerings are no match for the state's high-end resorts.

But for the growing group of travellers in search of an up-close look at Australia's most spectacular natural wonder, Lady Elliot will leave you wishing you could stay.


GETTING THERE: Seair Pacific offers daily flights to and from Lady Elliot Island from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The cost of an adult return fare ranges from $329 to $730 depending on where you fly from. Children's fares start at $199. There are multiple flights daily between Gold Coast and all state capitals.

STAYING THERE: Accommodation is charged per person per night and starts at $170 a night for those staying in the basic Eco Cabins, where bathroom facilities are shared and beds are bunked. The resort has recently added two new beachfront glamping tents, available for $325 per person per night.

PLAYING THERE: Don't miss the glass bottom boat tour, which comes included in the overnight or day trip rate. The tour begins with expert commentary on the coral and marine life below, before guests step off the boat and snorkel for 30 minutes to discover the underwater world up close. Night tours are also available.

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