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Bundaberg, Queensland: Turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos Turtle Centre

Angela Saurine has her toes tickled by tiny turtles during a trip to Bundaberg — the gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef

A turtle hatchling at Mon Repos near Bundaberg. Image Tourism Australia
A turtle hatchling at Mon Repos near Bundaberg. Image: Tourism Australia

One by one they come — a frenzy of tiny flippers making their way over the grassy dune towards a torch a volunteer guide holds, directing them towards the ocean. Some accidentally flip over, and either right themselves or get picked up by a guide and set back on their path. Others veer slightly off course, before correcting themselves and heading towards the light. Whispered cries of, “oh they’re so cute!” can be heard from people around us. I couldn’t agree more.

Oliver enjoying the interactive exhibits at Mon Repos Turtle Centre 1
Oliver enjoying the interactive exhibits at Mon Repos Turtle Centre

Mon Repos Turtle Centre

We’d arrived at Mon Repos Turtle Centre, around 20 minutes’ drive north of Bundaberg, a couple of hours’ earlier for our Turtle Encounter tour. As this is nature, the exact timing of hatchings cannot be predicted. Fortunately, we were placed in the first group, and the state-of-the-art Centre offers plenty of immersive experiences to keep us entertained while we wait. My five-year-old son Oliver is chomping at the bit for his turn at each of the interactive exhibits. He excitedly dons a kid-sized researcher hat to measure a fake turtle egg and touches various screens to learn how far different species of turtle travel and see injuries they suffer from such things as boat strikes and ingesting fishing hooks. We learn that Mon Repos has the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the mainland of Australia’s east coast, and that female turtles have the ability to store sperm, so hatchlings coming from the same nest can have different fathers. We are just settling in for a talk in the outdoor theatre when a guide interrupts to say there has been some activity, and group one is asked to assemble on the boardwalk. “We’ve been told to get there quickly,” our guide Caroline enthuses.

Turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos near Bundaberg. Image Tourism Australia
Turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos near Bundaberg. Image: Tourism Australia

Seeing turtle hatchlings

When we arrive on the beach the first loggerhead turtle hatchlings are already emerging from their nest, which had been laid by their mother a couple of months earlier on the same beach on which she was born. They are placed in a cage until all hatchlings are out. We are instructed to stand in a circle while a volunteer brings two hatchlings around for us to see close-up. For once, my little chatterbox is speechless. Next, a few of us are asked to form a line with our legs apart, a bit like we are playing tunnel ball, and guide the turtles towards the ocean with a torch. They are then released from their cage. It’s a thrill to catch a glimpse of the first hatchling heading in our direction, covered in sand. Soon there are dozens coming towards us. They crawl over my sandals and tickle my toes. Once they are all through, we turn to watch them as they are swept away by a wave and start their life in the great big ocean. It’s sad to think only one in 1,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood as they face threats ranging from predators and boat strikes to ingesting plastic.

Angela and Oliver in their snorkel gear in front of Lady Musgrave Island

Lady Musgrave Experience

Mon Repos isn’t the only place to see turtles in these parts. The next day we embark on a journey with Lady Musgrave Experience, in the hope of seeing more of the reptiles and other wildlife. It takes around two hours to reach Lady Musgrave Island, which lies 50 nautical miles north-east in the Bunker group on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, but the time passes quickly as we sit back in comfortable seats with fold-out tray tables watching David Attenborough documentaries on a big screen.

The Lady Musgave Experience off the coast of Bundaberg. Image Tourism Australia
The Lady Musgave Experience off the coast of Bundaberg. Image: Tourism Australia

Exploring the Great Barrier Reef

Oliver smashing macadamia nuts open at Macadamias Australia.jpeg 1
Oliver smashing macadamia nuts open at Macadamias Australia

Best places to eat and drink with kids in Bundaberg

Bundaberg is a destination that punches above its weight when it comes to family-friendly dining experiences. At Macadamias Australia’s The Orchard Table restaurant, we sit on the terrace sipping rosé as we watch the kids crack open nuts on logs and frolic amongst the trees nearby. The venue has the look and feel of a winery, but offers a macadamia-inspired menu, with dishes such as as mango macadamia salad, a farmhouse quiche with house made macadamia short crust pastry and a steak sandwich with macadamia mayonnaise. We also enjoy a complimentary macadamia tasting, trying nuts roasted with local honey, salted and coated in chocolate.

Windmill Cafe in Bargara is a must, not just for the novelty factor, but also for fantastic food and service in pleasant surroundings. The windmill in which the award-winning eatery is housed was built by a Dutch couple and has served as a restaurant, store and artist’s studio over the years. The café’s owner Joey Caruana, a trained chef who has worked at top restaurants in the UK, has a passion for using local ingredients, with farmers often dropping produce off at the gate. Trees with overhanging branches, hanging plants and twinkling lights decorate the garden, and there’s a hive with native bees, a swinging chair and colourful foam blocks for kids to play. The menu has an international twist, with offerings such as poke, nasi goreng and banh mi, as well as waffles for breakfast and rainbow and bubble gum-flavoured gelato.

Tinaberries near Bundaberg Image Mark Lehn Tourism Australia
Tinaberries near Bundaberg. Image: Mark Lehn Tourism Australia

Tinaberries strawberry farm also offers delicious ice-cream, served in a rustic old timber cabin, with the chance to pick your own berries in early spring. Named after the farm’s co-owner Tina McPherson — because Bruce’s Berries didn’t sound as good — the venue is eclectically decorated with wine barrels, old farm equipment, lanterns and saddles, and pink petunias in hanging baskets. Oliver loves meeting the galah in the aviary, and playing games including pétanque, giant Jenga and checkers.

Where to stay

An aerial view of Kelly's Beach Resort at Bargara. Image Bundaberg Tourism

Kelly’s Beach Resort

Kelly’s Beach Resort at Bargara has more than 40 self-contained and stand-alone holiday units a block back from the beach, with pools, a games room, tennis court, barbecue areas, a licensed restaurant, kiosk and tour booking desk.

Book here

Manta Bargara Resort. Image Catalyst Directions

Manta Bargara Resort

Manta Bargara Resort has one, two and three-bedroom apartments with ocean or garden views. There’s also a fully-equipped gym, pool, jacuzzi, a tennis court and secure undercover parking. Complimentary high-speed WiFi and Foxtel are also available.

An aerial view of NRMA Mon Repos near Bundaberg

Turtle Sands

Turtle Sands is re-opening in September 2024 after a major makeover by its new owners, NRMA Parks & Resorts. It will offer guided nature tours of Mon Repos Conservation Park next door, glamping tents, eco-cabins, studio rooms and campsites, plus a new kiosk.

Book here

Bundaberg travel tips

Best time of year in Bundaberg 

February to March is the best time to see turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos. It’s also the hottest time of the year, with the mercury oscillating between around 20 to 30C. You can also see turtles nesting from November to January. Winter and early spring is a great time for whale watching, with September and early October also best for strawberry picking.

Oliver in front of Lady Musgrave Island off the coast of Bundaberg

How to get to Bundaberg 

Bundaberg is just over four hours’ drive north of Brisbane and three hours’ north of the Sunshine Coast. Qantas and Link Airways fly to Bundaberg Regional Airport.

More here

Bundaberg Turtle Centre

Bookings for turtle encounter tours at Mon Repos Turtle Centre open in September and the earlier you book the more chance you have of getting the first time slot of 6.30pm.

More here

See turtles swimming on the Lady Musgrave Experience off Bundaberg. Image Tourism Australia
See turtles swimming on the Lady Musgrave Experience off Bundaberg. Image: Tourism Australia

More information

The writer was a guest of Bundaberg Burnett Tourism

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