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Pumicestone Passage hides secret treasures

spring 11

WITHIN A SHORT PASSAGE of time, you can be away from Brisbane’s bustle and on the gleaming white beaches of the Sunshine Coast.
 
But in between these two great cities, there is another kind of passage; a portal through which you can embark on a very different journey.
 
Pumicestone Passage – steeped in history, rich in wildlife and natural beauty, and one of the world’s most ecologically important waterways – is the body of water which separates Bribie Island from the mainland.  
 
It stretches for 35 kilometres, from Caloundra in the north to Deception Bay in the south. A marine park with the oldest registered fish habitat in Queensland, it is a narrow, shallow estuary, encompassing a meandering system of channels, sand banks and islands. 
 
My own experience of the Passage is probably similar to many other southeast Queenslanders’ – it is the water you cross when you drive over the bridge to Bribie.
 
It is also the water you fish in, paddle in, and picnic beside. It’s “the calm side” – perennially peaceful, shimmeringly beautiful, and somehow blessedly missed by the main throng of tourists who hurry up and down the coast. It is the playground of the weekend sailor and fisherman, proudly presided over by those famous mountains of glass.
 
It is certainly all of this. But like most familiar things, when I decide to dig a little deeper, I discover plenty more. 
 
From the air, it looks like an ancient giant has snapped off a piece of the mainland and moved it out into the sea just enough to let a little stream of water in.  
 
From the bay, it looks like a river or a creek – in fact, explorer Matthew Flinders mistook it for one. 
 
And from any part of its shore, it looks like the perfect spot to throw in a line or take a dip. 
 
But it is from the water itself, they say, that the Passage takes on a new meaning: stories of shipwrecks and sailors come to life, ‘secret’ places not accessible by car come into view and the promise of glimpsing a dugong or a dolphin is ever-present.
 
So I decide to explore the Passage by boat. 
 
Flinders landed at the southern end of Pumicestone Passage on Bribie Island, not realising he was actually on an island. He called the Passage “Pumicestone River”, because of the abundance of pumice stone lining the shore. He stayed for about two weeks in the area. 
 
For thousands of years, the Gubbi Gubbi people lived on the shores of the Passage, which was a rich source of seafood. Abundant numbers of turtles, dugong, shellfish and fish sustained many generations. 
 
Of course, after Flinders’ “discovery”, everything changed. 
 
On the day of my journey, the weather is postcard perfect. The water seems like a million mirrors reflecting the sun, which beams from a cloudless sky.
 
Leaving from Sylvan Beach on the Bribie Island side, the tour boat glides easily into the glassy waters of the Passage, heading north. It’s perfect weather, I hope, for spotting a dugong, those mysterious underwater mermaids who are, apparently, sighted weekly. 
 
The dugongs in Pumicestone Passage have had a long and varied history, and have been the topic of many scientific studies.
 
An extensive study conducted by marine scientists at the University of Queensland identified the southern part of Pumicestone Passage as home to dugongs all year round because of the presence of the particular species of seagrasses that the dugongs feed on. The study also identified the loss of the limited seagrass habitat through coastal development as a threat to the vulnerable dugongs. 
 
Today, unfortunately, they do not wish to be seen. But as a splendid consolation, not far into our journey, a pod of bottlenose dolphins appears right next to the boat, almost close enough to touch. The boat stops, cameras click, and the dolphins, to our utter delight, bob and weave like circus performers. When they finish their show, we move on.  
 
Gliding past the wreck of the SS Avon, which was scuttled in 1915, on the island side of the Passage we pass White Patch, and on the mainland side, the small towns of Toorbul and Donnybrook. These are the last signs of development as we glide on into the wilderness, past tiny islands, one of them privately owned.
 
Every now and then, a tiny boat comes into view, with a fisherman or two on board, languidly raising their hands in greeting towards us, as is the way of sea-dwellers.  
 
The Glass House Mountains have never looked so grand. I am well acquainted with their ever-changing splendour, depending on which part of dry land you are viewing them from. But I never imagined they could look quite as breathtaking as they do framed by this watery Eden. 
 
Some graceful black swans watch us from the shore. Fat pelicans snooze on the beach, and cormorants hold out their wings to dry atop bobbing buoys. A whistling kite soars overhead. 
 
Pumicestone Passage is, quite simply, a bird-watcher’s paradise. The Passage is recognised as one of the most important bird habitats on the east coast of Australia, and is protected by its inclusion on three international environmental treaties.
 
More than 40 species of shorebirds have been recorded in the region, and thousands of migratory birds visit the area in the summer months from Siberia, Northern China and Mongolia. Twitchers (bird enthusiasts) are rumoured to travel here from almost as far afield as the birds. Jabiru, sea eagles, and royal spoonbills are all seen regularly.
 
Further up, we pass through the area of Tripcony Bight – registered as a fish habitat in 1946. No fishing of any kind has been allowed in this area since then, and it’s a ‘go-slow’ area for boats. Throughout the rest of the Passage, only recreational and amateur fishing is allowed, with strict limits on catches.  
 
It was not always so; oyster farmers and commercial fishermen made lucrative livings here in the days of early white settlement and well into the twentieth century. 
 
Ted Freeman, 83, of Sandstone Point, who has lived his entire life in the area and whose great grandfather, William Freeman, was one of the original European settlers on the Passage, remembers those days well. His father was one of the first commercial fishermen in the area.  Ted remembers the mullet being so plentiful in the Passage “you could nearly walk on them”.
 
“My grandfather used to supply the fish cannery at Bribie,” he says. 
 
“They never had motors in those days; they had to do all the rowing. They had to row up from Donnybrook, get a load of mullet and row it down there. It was quite a hard life back then.”
 
Passing the Glass House Mountains and Roy’s Headland, we pull in at Lighthouse Reach, on the northern end of Bribie. You can see the high rise of Caloundra across the water from here, but it seems otherworldly, so remote is our location. 
 
As the boat meanders back down the Passage, passing remote camping grounds, mud flats and mangroves, and slides back into civilisation, I imagine that next time I drive across the bridge, I’ll be looking a little differently at the water it traverses. I wonder how on earth I have missed so much for so long, and why this place is not positively teeming with tourists. 
 
Then I realise, of course, that that is precisely what makes it so beautiful. 

PUMICESTONE PASSAGE PLAY TIME
  • Go cruising – a guided boat tour is the perfect introduction to exploring the area.  Ferryman Cruises offers 2, 3, 4, and 6 hour eco cruises of Pumicestone Passage Marine Park, leaving from Bribie Island. 3408 7124 ferryman.com.au or  Blue Fleet Cruises and Tours cruise the Passage, leaving from Caloundra. 0434 331 104 bluefleetcruises.com
  • Hire a kayak – cruise or fish to your heart’s content, and maybe get up close and personal with the dugongs.  Aquarius Sea Kayaks, Bribie Island, cater for beginners to advanced kayakers. 5497 6232  aquariusseakayaks.net.au 
  • Go gliding – feeling adventurous? Get a bird’s eye view and experience Pumicestone Passage from the air in a glider.  Gliding Adventure Flights leave from Caboolture air strip. 1300 667 042 comegliding.com.au
  • Hire a boat – fish, explore, find a secluded picnic spot. Spend an afternoon or a couple of hours.  Bribie Island Boat Hire also hires kayaks.  0419 967 994 bribieislandboathire.com
  • Visit the Bribie Island Seaside Museum. Small, but packed with information about the history and ecology of Pumicestone Passage. 1 South Esplanade, Bongaree, Bribie Island. 
words linda read photos Eszter Rule and Kate Johns
 

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