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Alice Springs On The Coast

The Age

Friday June 25, 1993

ROSEMARY WEST

Townsville, fighting for attention, is a bit like an over-anxious host, writes ROSEMARY WEST.

TIME and the tourist hordes seem to have bypassed Townsville, along with Qantas, which stopped flying into the city in 1991, opting instead for Cairns as its northern port of entry.

But if you don't care for the cosmopolitan glitz of Cairns, and you'd like a quiet holiday in a city with a decent beach and not too many tourists, this might be just the place, although there are signs that Townsville is trying to catch up with its northern rival.

Last October, Garuda started to fly to Townsville, which local tourism promoters hope will eventually bring an influx of tourists from Asia and Europe.

Townsville is a bit like an over-anxious host, going to a lot of trouble to please its guests in ways that you may wish it hadn't.

The bulldozers were busy as we drove into the city, trundling and crunching their way through the pale pink granite that once formed the lower slope of the towering Castle Hill, to flatten a space for development.

It was a jarring introduction. With the glowing pink face of Castle Hill towering over the city, set off by Magnetic Island, a dark blue across the turquoise bay, the landscape must be its principal attraction for tourists. I had been enchanted by it during a brief visit years ago and had gone back for a brief escape from Melbourne's drab winter.

Yet the city's planners seem strangely immune to its charms. It is not that they do not want tourists, but they seem to have difficulty working out what tourists want.

The city has invested in a new mall, but just like the tourist mall in Alice Springs, it is nearly empty most of the time and desolate by late afternoon.

The Sunday morning markets are more lively. I snacked on tropical fruit and mango icecream and listened to a jazz band while browsing among the art-and-craft stalls. More people might come if the mall were not dominated by a 20-storey motel tower. With its curved service block on top, it has been nicknamed the ``sugar shaker".

It is a pleasant stroll across the glassed-in Victoria Bridge where there are more arts and crafts. It leads to the city's south side, where there are backpacker hostels and a suburb of historic miners' cottages, built by retirees from the Charters Towers gold rush last century.

Beside the bridge, canvas umbrellas and pleasant little tables wait enticingly on the old riverbank boardwalk, where fishermen once tied up their boats and sold their catch.

The latest plan is for a chairlift to take visitors to the top of Castle Hill, which at present requires a steep climb up a road that encircles the peak. The chairlift is to be provided free of charge by the developers of a block of 20 luxury condominiums at the summit, as the price for their building permit. This provoked a vocal local opposition, but a majority of Townsvilleans sampled in a university survey supported the project, and so it is set to proceed.

Still, Townsville makes a pleasant contrast to Cairns. It is in a rain-shadow, with less rain and more sunshine than its rival. The desert landscape virtually reaches the shore and the outback begins a few kilometres out of town.

With its mall, sculptured hills, development-minded entrepreneurs, and a conservationist, cultured minority _ Townsville is like Alice Springs transplanted to the seaboard.

There seem to be two cities here. The townspeople had the sense to preserve many of their old buildings, some of which now house museums and art galleries, which can be enjoyed in peace and quiet. It has the air of a peaceful provincial centre of culture and refinement like Ballarat.

For outdoor relaxation there is a beautiful sandy beach backed by a wide lawn shaded by immense strangler fig trees. During the stinger season, from November until March, you can swim in a walled-in rockpool at one end of the beach.

Magnetic Island, 20 minutes away by ferry is even quieter, with its myriad little coves and beaches (one of them netted against stingers) and many walks of varying rigor through the forests of the national park. There are coral reefs to snorkel in, horses to ride, mokes to rent and an excellent bus service, which commutes from beach to beach.

Many visitors think Cairns is the only gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest, but Townsville also has the reef and rainforest.

A catamaran day trip to Kelso Reef allows you to experience the underwater glory of the outer reef, whether you snorkel, scuba dive or look through the glass bottom of a boat.

It takes longer to get there: two-and-a- half hours compared to just over an hour off Cairns or Port Douglas. Townsville's Pure Pleasure tour company also runs a one-day beginner scuba course: an experienced diving instructor takes you through the basics and then eight metres down to the ocean floor.

If you plan to dive it is wise to ask for a copy of the health questionnaire in advance, so that you can, if necessary, consult a doctor rather than risk being ruled out on fitness grounds.

If you want to see brilliant live coral and reef fish without leaving the shore, Townsville has what it claims is the world's largest living coral reef aquarium. You walk through a great glass tunnel, where reef sharks nudge the glass at your shoulder and the fish and coral species can be identified by labelled photographs.

SIXTY kilometres to the north in the rainforest at Paluma, we found a fascinating sensory trail in the rainforest. We closed our eyes and stumbled along the trail, guided by a handrail of climbing lawyer cane, discovering the nature of buttress roots and barbed-wire vines the hard way. This is designed for schoolchildren to follow blindfolded, but it could be fun for tourists, if more of them knew about it.

Paluma is not the Daintree, but there is little point in trying to rank rainforests. There are 27 classified kinds of rainforest in North Queensland, and for the forest giants, the 80-100-metre-high pines and cedars, you have to go to the Atherton Tableland.

Back in Townsville, the white-painted stick figure of `The Saint' (symbol of the TV series) painted on the face of Castle Hill years ago as a student prank has been retouched. It has recently been repainted by students, with official encouragement, we were told, as a tourist attraction.

© 1993 The Age

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