IT'S 7.30am on an ordinary Friday morning and I'm stuck in Brisbane traffic with stress levels rising. Rain clouds hang heavy and sodden ... it's a less than average start to my day.
It seems inconceivable then that just over an hour later I am flying high above a dappled sea, Facebooking my friends with aerial images of a white-rimmed coral cay, dotted with clusters of reef and washed by a lucid blue lagoon. "What's going on in your office today?" I tease.
Now it's morning tea and I'm joined by a chamber of turtles, blissfully unaware of the constant dinging of peeved social networking posts made by my working friends.
In the space of just over an hour, I have ditched the office and city life, trading it for a jaunt to Lady Elliot Island on the southern Great Barrier Reef in a 10-hour getaway that sees both my daughter and me opting for some outdoor life education in a day away from the desk.
Peter Gash, ecological crusader, wildlife warrior and co-owner of Lady Elliot Island, meets our one-hour-and-ten-minute Seair Pacific charter flight from Redcliffe, Brisbane, and promises to share with us a window into this secluded haven, a stone's throw from our city doorways, but an entire world away from suburban psyche.
"I just love to see the looks of joy on our guests' faces when they have visited Lady Elliot and experienced the pristine wilderness of such a beautiful place. I will have you home by sunset today but I can't guarantee you're going to be happy. You'll probably want to turn around and come back," he said.
In a world of tourism that strives to be bigger, bolder and more luxurious, Peter is a down-to-earth type of bloke who seems to get more enjoyment from watching us explore and snorkel in his backyard than taking over nature's wonders with swanky hotels in the bid for happiness.
Keeping the 150-bed eco-island facilities low-key, Peter has instead focused on the five-star environment and its preservation, taking the monumental steps to reduce the island's carbon footprint and restore it back to its natural glory.
"I feel humbled to have been entrusted with such a jewel and am determined to work tirelessly to be worthy of the task of looking after it," he said.
Our flight skimmed low over the Sunshine Coast and Glasshouse Mountains, following the sandy beaches, dunes and coastal bushlands to Double Island Point, Fraser Island, then onto Hervey Bay where 100km north we landed on a grassy airstrip in the middle of the reef.
After a short Island Discovery Tour everyone was kitted up to meet the locals - some 1200 of the Great Barrier Reef's 1500 species of fish can be found here, with the late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau labelling the southern Great Barrier Reef one of the world's premier dive destinations. It doesn't take long for us to discover why.
Some of the country's best diving and snorkelling can be accessed straight off the beach but as the tide is low we travel a few minutes by glass-bottom boat to deeper water.
Jumping from the boat I find myself part of a swirling, swarming mass of big-eye trevally. There are coral masses all around, teeming with life, but in the end it's the friendliness of the island's turtles that steals the day. As the sun streams through the crystal clear water, I cruise above a giant green turtle wallowing below.
She starts to ascend directly beside me, coming up for air as if wanting to meet me eye to eye. Dropping down once again we hang together, suspended in the deep blue.
In this intimate encounter I get to stroke her shell, study her patterned head, curious eyes and paddle-like flippers. After a casual buffet lunch we join a reef walk to meet some other distinctive stars. The bright blue linckia sea star, the New Caledonian sea star and a curious pincushion variety, all decorate the seabed.
My daughter picks up a sea cucumber, recoiling under her touch and stops to watch a soft-bodied marine snail, the nudibranch, one of the most colourful creatures on Earth, creep slowly across the coral.
Just before saying our goodbyes to the reef, our guide draws from the water a large plump and succulent looking creature glowing green and gold. It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen and quite a delicacy I'm told. Thankfully, Lady Elliot Island is within a Green Zone and the abalone is placed back in the shallows.
Our day, unfortunately, is now drawing to a close. Peter with his vivacious energy tries to extract us from the water and threaten us with flight departures but no-one seems to care. Clad in wetsuit and ruffled hair, I begin to wonder what really is behind his winning grin.
I fear he knows we go home tonight, back to the traffic, as he swims home amid crowds of fish.
But for today at least, we city dwellers have gone beyond the ordinary. We have traded life in the office for an extraordinary day on the southern Great Barrier Reef, Facebooking it to our jealous friends.
How to get there
- Lady Elliot Island can be accessed as a day trip from Brisbane or the Gold Coast with flights taking just over an hour
- Alternatively, flights also depart from Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. Day trip rates from Brisbane (Redcliffe) are $699 per adult and $399 per child
- Visit http://www.ladyelliot.com.au for further packages.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland and Lady Elliot Island.
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