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Magnetic Island

Home > Townsville > Animals and Wildlife | Beaches | Escape the City | Outdoor | Walks
by Roz Glazebrook (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane. I love bushwalking, kayaking, wildlife, history and travel.
Published August 1st 2018
Enjoy a relaxing visit to Magnetic Island
In the 1980's, I met an old man, Fred Bargent in Townsville, who told me about the early days of Magnetic Island. Fred's grandparents, William and Mary Ann Bright were some of the earliest settlers at Nelly Bay on the Island. They arrived on the Island from Bristol in England in 1882 and lived there until they died. I fell in love with the Island and recently went back for a visit. On this trip, I finally got to visit the Bright and Bargent family graves in the historic cemetery in Nelly Bay.

Beautiful Bay
Beautiful Bay


My Brisbane friends Bea and Gavin and I travelled across to the Island on one of the Sea Link Ferries. They are more luxurious than the old Hayles ferries we used to go across on. Back then the ferries mostly landed at Picnic Bay, before going on to Arcadia. Now they all land at a big terminal at Nelly Bay.

William Bright
William Bright


Lt James Cook named Magnetic Island in 1770 after he believed the magnetic compass on his ship, the Endeavour, was affected by the island. The Island is only eight kilometres off the coast from Townsville and just a short ferry ride. It is a suburb of Townsville and some people commute to work from the Island. The Island is part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and just over half of the island's 5,184 ha is protected national park.

Old Arcadia Jetty
Old Arcadia Jetty


We had booked into an Airbnb in Nelly Bay and caught a bus to the end of the street. It was a lovely old cottage surrounded by trees with bush stone-curlews in the garden. It reminded me of the old beach bungalow I lived in on one of the Northern Beaches when I lived in Townsville.

Our Nelly Bay AirBnB house
Our Nelly Bay AirBnB house


Rocks and Trees
Rocks and Trees


There is much fancier accommodation close to the ferry terminal at Bright Point on the headland at Nelly Bay, which is named after William Bright. It is now the site of One Bright Point, described on tourist websites as a secluded sanctuary set amongst landscaped grounds in one of the most spectacular locations in the South Pacific.

Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island


Over the next couple of days, we explored the Island by bus and on walks. We explored Arcadia, Nelly Bay, Horseshoe Bay, Alma Bay and Picnic Bay. When I lived in Townsville, I had been over to the island many times and had done a lot of the popular walks to the Forts, Balding Bay, Radical Bay and Florence Bay. I had also been lucky to visit the remoter parts of the Island by four-wheel drive to Cockle Bay and West Point.

Blue sea Magnetic Island
Blue sea Magnetic Island


The Forts complex, which is now a popular walking track with panoramic views and opportunity for koala spotting, was operated from 1943 until the end of the Pacific war.

Old holiday cabins on Magnetic Island
Old holiday cabins on Magnetic Island


This trip we did a bushwalk from Arcadia to Nelly Bay. The walk was very interesting and less crowded than the Forts walk. We had fantastic views from lookouts along the way. We only saw a couple of other people on the walk, compared to the masses getting on and off the bus at the Forts walk pickup point.

Alma Bay
Alma Bay


The walk was supposed to be only five kilometres, but the three of us thought it seemed much longer. It took us about three hours with lots of stops at lookouts to admire the beautiful views across the Island. We have heard of people who didn't take enough water because they believed some of the brochures, which described the walk as only taking one and a half hours. We read other information which said it takes two and a half hours.

Arcadia to Nelly Bay Walk in Rainforest
Arcadia to Nelly Bay Walk in Rainforest


It was getting dark by the time we arrived in Nelly Bay and we were hungry and tired. We stopped at the first restaurant we saw which turned out to be very good. Scallywags had wonderful food and there was even entertainment with a fire juggling and fire eating act which was very good.

Fire Eater at Scallywags
Fire Eater at Scallywags


The next morning we walked along the walking/bike track to Picnic Bay, passing by Hawkings Point. I remembered the story Fred had told me about William's brother.

Walking to Picnic Bay
On beach near Hawkings Point


Cattle were slaughtered at Nelly Bay to supply the Island with meat, and William Bright was a great butcher. When his brother was visiting, they killed a beast and a wild storm blew up. William decided to wait till the following morning to take the animal in his romroy, which was a large canvas canoe, around Hawkings Point to Picnic Bay. He went to sleep. His brother decided to go anyway and with the help of one of the Aboriginal boys loaded the beast aboard the romroy and set off around the point. The next morning when William woke up he asked where his brother was. He was told he had gone with the meat in the storm.

Cross on Rocks at Hawkings Point
Cross on Rocks at Hawkings Point


They waited all day and when they hadn't returned William walked over the hill to Picnic Bay where he discovered his brother and the meat had never arrived. On the way back ,William found the romroy upside down on the rocks at Hawkins Point. Neither Mr Bright nor the Aboriginal boy was ever seen again. William hacked a cross into the rock with a coal chisel to mark the spot where his brother had drowned. Fred gave me a photo of the cross. It is probably still there on the rock.

Picnic Bay jetty
Picnic Bay jetty


Picnic Bay is fairly quiet these days, compared to previously. We met a young Japanese fisherman on the jetty. He had caught a large barramundi, but only kept it long enough to measure and photograph it. He then returned it alive into the sea. I asked him what he was using for bait and he said small fish he caught from the jetty.

Barramundi released Picnic Bay. Photo Gavin Blakey
Barramundi released Picnic Bay. Photo Gavin Blakey


I walked around to visit the Magnetic Island History and Craft Centre in the old Picnic Bay School in 11 15 Granite Street.

The centre is open daily from 10am-2pm, except Tuesdays. There is a large file there on William Bright and lots of other interesting information about the Island's history and characters who lived there, including Robert Hayles and Harry Butler.

William Bright with sailors
William Bright with sailors


Back in Nelly Bay, I found the Bright family graves. Fred and his mother, Fanny Louisa Bargent (Nee Bright) are buried there together with William, his wife Mary Ann and their Aboriginal companion Nellie. Fred Bargent told me after his mother grew up and moved across to Townsville to live, she would still row across to the Island in a canoe the Aborigines made for her. It was a light canoe measuring 18 foot long and 18 inches wide. Fred said it was carved out of a tree.

William died on July 30, 1926. His death notice in the Townsville paper read, "Death has removed one of the best known and most striking personalities in Magnetic Island. On Friday evening last, Mr William Bright of Nelly Bay died at his residence on the island aged 73 years. "No resident of the island was better known to Townsvillites with his black curling beard and hair always in a more or less matted or disarranged state.

"He had a stern and forbidding appearance and with the simple addition of a red handkerchief around his head could have made up as a perfect pirate of the Spanish Main, but he was not so fierce as he looked, and his calling was a peaceful one.

"Employed as a gardener in a country gentleman's estate near Bristol in the old country, he learned his trade well. Coming to Australia some 44 years ago he settled on Magnetic Island, being one of the early settlers. He was the first to take up cultivation at Nelly Bay where he made his home on the site of the present Mandalay property, which he later sold and went to live on an adjoining block.

"His training and inclination made him a clever gardener and orchardist, and was always happiest when carrying out experiments in the propagation of new varieties of tropical fruits, such as the mango, paw paw etc., and with these he obtained considerable success.''

William was popular with visiting sailing crews and shared his homemade pineapple wine with them. His wine was so good, he sold it to Parliament House in Brisbane.

The next day we caught the bus to Horseshoe Bay and had lunch and a walk along the beach. Horseshoe Bay is much busier than I remembered it. Most of the tourists seem to spend more time there now than Picnic Bay.

Old Horseshoe Bay Kiosk
Old Horseshoe Bay Kiosk

A Townsville tourist guide described Magnetic Island in 1924 as a "picnic resort, nestling in the bosom of Cleveland Bay where brain fog is quickly dispelled and highly-strung nerves are soothed".

I don't think I had brain fog or highly strung nerves before my recent visit, but I did feel very relaxed after my short stay. I love Maggie Island and hope to get back again one day.

Bright graves at Nelly Bay
Bright graves at Nelly Bay


Rest on track
Rest on track
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Why? A beautiful island to visit
When: Anytime
Where: Magnetic Island off coast from Townsville
Cost: Ferry, bus, and accommodation costs
Your Comment
Congrats on your competition win, Roz!
by Elaine (score: 3|5463) 33 days ago
Roz this is a great write up of history with lovely photos! You deserve the gold, well done.
by Kate Blake (score: 3|1285) 33 days ago
Very informative Roz and well done on winning the comp. x Marina
by Marina Marangos (score: 2|590) 33 days ago
Congratulations winning first prize.
by Bryony Harrison (score: 4|12011) 33 days ago
What an interesting story, thanks for sharing this Roz. A well-deserved win, congratulations.
by Marie - MPG Narratives (score: 2|718) 30 days ago
A very well research article Roz! Love the photo of the Japanese fisherman with the Barramundi. He looks so proud of his catch! Jenny
by jenny (score: 1|20) 47 days ago
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