Townsville: a love story on the Great Barrier Reef


Townsville and I have been having a love affair since the early ‘80s. And it’s a relationship that has stood the test of time.


  The first time Townsville and I met, I was a naïve teenager on my first solo travel adventure. Months earlier, I’d caught a Greyhound bus from Perth to Broome. I was carrying little more than a sleeping bag and a backpack stuffed with sarongs, bikinis and thongs. With a head full of dreams, I had no job, little cash and no real plan beyond ‘travelling around Australia’. Along the way, I’d secured a ride on a yacht sailing through the Kimberley. I earned some dollars pulling beers in a Darwin pub. Then, hitching a lift with a truckie heading south through the Northern Territory and across Queensland, I landed in Townsville.  

Opening image: Saunders Beach, Townsville. Image: Tracey Harrison-Hill.


© Young Adventuress


Sunbaked streets lined with dusty four-wheel drives, classic Australian pubs with shady verandahs and pool tables – Townsville wrapped me in her warm, welcoming, sweaty arms. We loved one another immediately.

Back then, the ‘Sugar Shaker’ (the tallest building in Townsville) dominated the city. Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo’s historic native title speech had just been delivered,. This momentous act famously led to the 1993 Native Title Act. Reef HQ was underway and Jonathan Thurston would soon learn to walk, long before he would go on to co-captain the North Queensland Cowboys to an historic 2015 NRL Premiership and be unofficially anointed a Townsville legend.

Townsville and I have remained firm friends ever since, reuniting regularly. Each time I return, the city seems to have settled into her bones ever more gracefully. As my own well-travelled body bears the scars of adventures and mishaps further afield, I wish I could say the same…  

Townsville: the research hub of the Great barrier Reef

On the shores of the Coral Sea, Townsville is highly regarded as the research hub of the Great Barrier Reef. Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium is the world’s largest living coral reef exhibit, showcasing 150 species of underwater inhabitants. The aquarium offers a mesmerising window into the underwater world. Discover soft corals sashaying and swirling in the current or bell-shaped jellyfish propelling themselves like free-falling skydivers in slow motion.

Standing in the tunnel that bisects the main aquarium, you’ll see tropical fish, sharks and stingrays glide overhead. At the Turtle Hospital, sick reptiles receive rehabilitation care before being their release back to the wild. Elsewhere in Townsville, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science contribute to management of the reef, too.  

Shipwrecks and scuba diving near Townsville

Just off the coast, the SS Yongala wreck is one of the best scuba-dive sites in the world. In 1911, steamship Yongala encountered cyclonic weather on a voyage from Melbourne to Cairns. She went down near Cape Bowling Green with the loss of 122 lives. The wreckage lay undiscovered until almost 50 years later. Laying in 28 metres of water, Yongala is now home to immense marine fish and coral species. The 109-metre hull is the largest, most intact shipwreck in Australia, attracting divers from all over the world.  



Magentic Island: Townsville’s most idyllic suburb

I missed visiting Magnetic Island on my first visit to Townsville but made up for this omission many years later. Following a similar route to the SS Yongala, carefully avoiding the rocks where she came unstuck, I sailed into Horseshoe Bay on the island’s north coast and fell hopelessly in love. An official suburb of Townsville, Maggie successfully balances a residential community skirting the boundary of a national park. When I came back, I was as a residential landowner with big plans to build a beautiful island home. I lived there for four years.  


© Young Adventuress


With its sweeping crescent-shaped beach, shaded by palm trees and bookended by granite boulders sprouting towering hoop pines, Horseshoe Bay is the poster child for an island blessed with abundant treasures. The intimate cove of Alma Bay is a serious contender for most-photographed beach. It’s also one of the top ten Queensland beaches according to Surf Life Saving Queensland. Hiking trails, passing through koala habitats and historic forts, lure thousands of travellers to relax on Maggie each year.

The island’s hilly terrain is popular with adventure sports enthusiasts, too. Events such as Magnetic Island Race Week, Magnetic Island Swim and the multisport Adventurethon races attract athletes of every calibre.    

Visitors can reach Magnetic Island by ferry from the mainland. You can find more information about transfers here.  



Local heroes and national treasures

Back on the mainland, Townsville is no stranger to hosting big events either. Emerging from the banks of Ross Creek, North Queensland Stadium is receiving it’s finishing touches. Local hero Johnathan Thurston (JT to his mates) is credited with giving the campaign for a new stadium some momentum. Sharing the stage with Prime Minister Turnbull after winning the 2015 NRL premiership, JT expressed his belief that Townsville deserved a new stadium in his victory speech. Within months, the multi-million project hit its funding goal. The football hero was virtually given the keys to the city.  


© Megan MacKinnon


Blessed with 13 hours of daylight and daytime temperatures that rarely drop below mid-20s, it’s no surprise Townsville is a little sports-obsessed. I recently laced up my joggers pre-dawn alongside 2400 runners in the 47th Townsville Running Festival. As the sun’s rays tinted Castle Hill burnt orange, another annual festival tradition was getting underway. The air was heavy with the aroma of bacon, sausages and eggs, mingling with runners’ sweat. The Hash House Harriers popped the champagne and cranked up the music.

For 16 years, the “party house” has hosted the Marathon Breakfast Party, supporting runners with beer and champagne-laced encouragement. Spectators in fancy dress onesies dance along the final 1km stretch to the finish line. For those who run purely for fun, the enthusiasm and laughter radiating from the house is an absolute highlight. This unabandoned joie de vivre is just the sort of carefree cheekiness that underpins my 30-year-plus love affair with Townsville.   For more to do in Townsville, check out our guide on exploring the city and neighbouring Magnetic Island.  

And make sure to check out our guide to the best nature and wildlife experiences in the country!


Travel to Townsville

 You can travel to Townsville with Rex Airlines. Book your flight here.

Scroll to Top


For travel inspo and recommendations, flight deals, and awesome giveaways straight to your inbox!

TrulyAus for Rex Subscriber Form