A visit to Airlie Beach, Australia.

I didn’t have high hopes for a visit to Airlie Beach, Australia. I wasn’t expecting to hate it; by all reports, this town on the Queensland coast was a beautiful spot. But most of the guidebooks describe it as a party town, a “drinking village with a sailing problem.” Alas, I feel I’m getting too old for that sort of thing. When did that happen?

Sailing, drinking. No problem.
Sailing, drinking. No problem.

We made our way ashore on a comfy shuttle provided by the town. Our plan was to grab a latte, see the sights, and perhaps do a bit of birding along the way. But as the tender pulled up to dock, I looked up at the lush green hillsides surrounding this pretty seaside town (population 3000) and realized there might just be more here than just bars and boardwalks.

Bird song surrounded us. Strange and new bird song: we’re in the north country now, Australia’s tropics, on the edge of Queensland’s rainforest country. We recognized the croaking squawks of sulphur-crested cockatoos and not much else.

Nearby, a melodic cooing announced a tiny silver-blue dove in a palm tree. Several visitors stopped and looked at me expectantly: what was it? “Heh, no idea” is generally an unsatisfactory response, I’ve come to learn. Fortunately I had my trusty field guide in hand and discovered it was a peaceful dove. What a great name for a sweet little bird! I wish we had these tiny pigeons at home; it’s not much bigger than a house sparrow.

Peaceful Dove
Peaceful Dove

We found a cafe on the edge of town and downed our coffee (the Aussies always make good stuff) while kookaburras scouted above us in the tall gum trees. We walked through a vacant field in hopes of turning up a scorpion or two, and then to our surprise found ourselves at a trailhead. An interpretive sign described the dry forested hillside that awaited us, and the small creek that ran through it. We were glad to get a bit of shade in the trees; it was now 28 degrees out and climbing.

butterfly and lantana
Butterfly and lantana (photo Tom Ediger)

Turns out the birds were happy to get some shade too, along with a sip of fresh water from the almost-dry stream. Rainbow lorikeets screeched in and out of the woods, their newly-fledged babies in tow. Somewhere nearby, a resonant “echo-echo-echo” worked its way closer and closer to us. At last, an unkempt, skinny, ungainly thing fluttered into view. This may just be the ugliest bird in the world: the helmeted friarbird. It’s a honey eater, one of a huge group of nectar-eating songbirds that seem to cover this country. And really, I shouldn’t call it ugly. It has a certain, um, primitive beauty, let’s say, and the cassowary-like lump (casque? crest?) on its beak makes it look exotically Australian.

Helmeted friarbird
Beautiful, in its own way.

We stayed there by the creek bed as the birds paraded by. A miniature black and red shape buzzed through, and it took us a long time to figure out that it was in fact a mistletoe bird, a wee spit of a thing that makes its living exclusively on the berries of that parasitic flower. Its specialized lifestyle keeps it on the move, migrating to wherever the berries are in the perfect phase of ripeness.

green ant nest
Home sweet home, if you’re a green ant.

After a bit, we made our way upstream, through a forest of bottle trees, strangler figs and climbing ferns. We stopped to puzzle at a strange balloon-shaped ball of leaves. It hung there in the trees, hollow, like a Chinese lantern. I wondered if it might be a wasp’s nest, but Tom spotted tiny green ants all over it. This is their home; the leaves are held together by silk spun by their larvae. Apparently if you get them riled up they bite you, bite you again, and spray acid into the wound. Welcome to Australia, where everything that moves is dangerous.

green ant
Photo Tom Ediger

At the end of the trail was a tiny cave, just big enough to crawl into. Until, of course, you notice the dozens of strange large spiders hanging there, each by its own thread, waiting for some small creature foolish enough to venture in. We opted to sit outside.

Yeah, those fangs. (Photo Tom Ediger)

Making our way downward again, I remarked to Tom that it sure would be nice to see a goanna, one of Australia’s famous monitor lizards. And not two minutes later, the goanna-gods heard my plea and delivered: a beautiful yellow and black goanna sat calmly at the trailside awaiting us. “You should have asked for a koala,” said Tom.

Sand goanna
Totally not a koala.

I glance at my watch: it had taken us over two hours to walk a kilometre and a half. At this point, we were hot, dehydrated and blissfully satisfied. We headed back toward the beach and the crowds of young people gathering for their first cocktail of the day. We stopped for a bottle of cold pop, watched beautiful wood swallows on the wires overhead, then continued walking. We had photos to edit and notes to make and a shuttle to catch back to the ship.

Airlie Beach may just be my new favourite place on earth.

wood swallow
Wood swallow. (Photo Tom Ediger)

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