Queensland: Emerald lady back to her beautiful best

Standing in the dark under a tree that I am told is carnivorous, I listen to Nick describing why earlier inhabitants of this small island were convinced that this part of it was haunted.

"Hear that?" he asks, and I become aware of an eerie groaning coming from the ground beneath my feet.

Suddenly, I feel something on my shoulder. It's wet, slimy and cold. Ectoplasm? No, it turns out to be something much more ordinary - although for 10 years from 1863 it produced a kind of goldrush to this island.
Guano: in the days before artificial fertilisers, bird poop was so valuable that in some parts of the world it was a magnet for pirates.

On Lady Elliot, a coral cay off the Queensland coast at the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef, the pillaging was environmental, involving the removal of all the vegetation and the top metre of the island, much of which was spread over New Zealand farmland.

Jump forward 137 years, and things couldn't be more different. Located in what is now the Green Zone of a World Heritage Area, no one is allowed to take away so much as a sea shell - not that I'm tempted, after our arrival lecture.

"This is a cone shell," says Shay, holding up an attractive tapered shell. "Don't touch! The snail inside can fire a little harpoon, and the venom ... well, it will affect you." We are left with no doubt that this is something to be avoided at all costs.

Though shell collecting is off the programme, there are plenty of other activities to keep us busy from the moment we fly in from Hervey Bay.

As we circle to land we see a round island bisected by the runway, no longer bare but green against the turquoise of its lagoon and the foam of white along the surrounding reef.

Bumping along the airstrip, we have a bow wave of birds - gulls and terns perched on the roofs and veranda rails of the resort buildings, in the trees and on chairbacks - too numerous to count, although Nick has a go.

"Oh, we've got about 30,000 here at the moment," he says. "But in the breeding season it's 10 times that."

It's hard to imagine. I'm already feeling like an extra in Hitchcock's The Birds.

The island has no predators so, as in Galapagos, the birds are bold and unafraid, moving out of the way only grudgingly as I pass close to them.

The noddies seem to spend a lot of time contemplating their webbed feet. "That's how they got their name," says Nick. "What they're doing is draining the salt out of their nostrils from the seawater they drink."

Birds with inbuilt desalination plants - how clever. But on a nature ramble round the island, Nick shows us a more sinister adaptation.

Of the original vegetation, only a small stand of pisonia trees remains, and Nick tells us how their sticky fruits trap the birds which fall to the ground, glued hopelessly where they die and rot, the nutrients from their bodies feeding the trees.

Now that I know they're effectively carnivores, the pisonias suddenly look much less attractive. "We rescue the birds here in the garden," Nick reassures us, "but elsewhere on the island we let nature take its course."

Protecting nature is paramount at this unpretentious but comfortable eco-resort, where the accommodation ranges from suites to safari tents and the main attraction is getting close not only to the wide range of birdlife but also manta rays, whales and nesting turtles.

Divers are especially well-catered for, but simple snorkellers like me find plenty of entertainment just metres from the beach and non-swimmers can wander straight out on to the reef with a viewing funnel. I make myself dizzy whirling around in circles chasing wrasse, damselfish, parrot fish, angelfish ...

There's one particular little barred wrasse, a vision in pink, turquoise and yellow, that's literally in my face. I try to capture him with my new underwater camera but the digital delay can't cope with his sudden spurts and when I check the photos later I find a comical series of empty shots with a blurred tail exiting the frame.

The birds are much more co-operative subjects - apart from what turn out to be mutton birds wailing like ghosts in tunnels under the ground - and I'm tempted to return in the nesting season for the spectacle of 300,000 white-capped noddies on one small island. In which case, the first thing I'll pack is my umbrella.


Getting there: The only access is by flying from Hervey Bay, Bundaberg (35 minutes), with Seair Pacific, Lady Elliot's own air service.

Where to stay: There is self-catering accommodation as well as a buffet restaurant and bar onsite. Children are welcome and there is a wide range of activities mostly centred on appreciating and learning about the environment and the wildlife.

Further information: For information about visiting Queensland see queenslandholidays.com.au.

Pamela Wade visited Lady Elliot Island on a Reef to Outback tour, courtesy of Tourism Queensland.