Magnetic Island: the ultimate backpackers guide

Magnetic Island: the ultimate backpackers guide

Just a 25-minute ferry journey from Townsville, Magnetic Island entices many a backpacker to its shore in search of their next island adventure.

A part of the Great Barrier Reef Marineland, Magnetic Island first got its name for the apparent ‘magnetic’ effect it had on Captain Cook’s compass. Maybe he was just trying to cover his tracks because he actually had acquired Captain Jack Sparrow’s compass?

Either way, this 52km² spit of land has become a popular destination for those looking to escape the mainland. At least for a while anyway.

If like me, you chose the typical backpacker path of giving yourself just a few days to explore this place then you’re probably wondering how best to spend your time?

Well, you could spend it sat at the bar of your hostel/on the beach and that would be perfectly acceptable. In fact, I know a few people who accidentally drank too much on their first night and ended up doing just that!

However, there is so much more to see and experience on Magnetic Island that it would be a crying shame to not venture out and explore.

So here’s the rundown on everything you need to know to plan your Magnetic Island adventure.

Getting There

It’s just a 20 min ferry ride from Townsville over to Magnetic Island. The ferry port is located literally next to the Greyhound Bus stop meaning you can get off your bus and catch the next ferry over.

Got your own car? Not to worry, there are also car ferries available should you wish to take your car with you to the island too (i’d definitely recommend this)

The ferry runs regularly from 5.30am until 11 pm Mon-Sat (6.30am until 10.30pm on Sundays. You can find the full timetable here). This means if you plan your journey right you can enjoy extra hours on the island!

Where to Stay

While there is a whole host of different accommodation options to suit every budget and group size, there are just 4 hostels catering to backpackers. The most popular 2 are the YHA and Base. Each has their own unique draws and ultimately it depends on what you’re after but there is pros for each.


  • Nestled in the middle of a national park
  • Just a 5min to Horseshoe Bay
  • Quieter and more chilled out than Base
  • Has the Koala sanctuary where you can cuddle a koala and get up close to other Aussie creatures!


  • Located on its own beach
  • You get a free welcome drink plus money off voucher for food
  • It is more of a Party hostel but with a chilled vibe too
  • Hosts Full Moon Parties

I stayed at the base and while I would not class myself as a party animal, it was easy to socialize with the nightly entertainment. However, when you choose to call it a night, the dorms are far enough away that the noise is a distant memory making it easy to get a good night’s sleep.

Base Hostel Magnetic island
The hostel dorms had me feeling like I was on an American summer camp or something

I also have to give a shout out to the kitchen. I chose not to cook for my time on Magnetic Island (mainly because I’m lazy and don’t like cooking) but the food at the hostel cafe was really tasty and affordable- even without the coupons.

Getting Around Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island isn’t a huge island but it is pretty undulating. While it is completely possible to walk to whichever part of the island you wish to explore, having some kind of wheeled transport is a far better option.

There is a bus service that operates around the island which, unless you have your own car, you will most likely need to make use of to get to whichever hostel you are staying at. It also makes stops at key points of interest around the island including the forts and horseshoe bay so having a car is not strictly necessary.

Having a car, is, however, the easiest and most convenient way to get around.

Not got your own? No problem. It’s really easy to hire one while you’re there. There are 2 main choices that most backpackers will opt for.

The first one is the Barbie car. Like an adult sized version of those little kids cars, the Barbie cars are bright pink (although other colours are available if that’s not your style), are topless (as in no roof. Not as in a reference to the driver’s attire) and take up to 4 people.

The other option and the one that I went for is the 4WD car. These were proper old school 4WD and looked it too. Again there was no roof and it seats up to 4 people. However, the 4WD element meant that you have the ability to explore some of the unsealed roads on the island. Something that the Barbie cars don’t allow.

The price to hire one of these on your own may seem a little steep but if you round a few friends up it soon becomes reasonable. Plus if you’re staying at Base there’s an on-site travel agent that will sort everything out for you. Making the whole process super easy!

There are over 23 bays and beaches on Magnetic Island

If you like beaches then Magnetic Island is definitely the place for you!

There are 4 main beaches that are easily accessible with plenty of parking nearby to park that car you just hired out.

Nelly Bay

This is the first bay you will come across as it is where the ferry terminal is.

It is also great for swimming, sailing and snorkelling.

Horseshoe Bay

On the opposite side of Magnetic Island is Horseshoe Bay. It is most popular for water sports including kayaking, SUP and jet skis. If watersports aren’t your thing then you can always go horse riding along the beach!

There are also many cafes and restaurants along the front for you relax and refuel in.

Picnic Bay

This area is great for a snorkel or a swim as there is abundant marine life and isn’t uncommon to see sea turtles. Dude!

Geoffrey Bay

Also great for a snorkel this bay is popular with divers although fishing is strictly off limits.

However, it’s the beaches that are only accessible by foot that are the most stunning.

Take a walk from Horseshoe Bay over to Balding bay and/or Radical bay. It’s not an easy walk. There’s a bit of a steep hill and some of the paths require clambering over rocks and boulders.

magnetic island beach path
just a taster of the path that awaits you

The reward for your efforts is totally worth it though. Plus, because it’s not easily accessible it is highly likely that you will have the beach all to yourself!

Looking for a swim?

Well, there are only 3 patrolled beaches on Magnetic Island. Arcadia, Horseshoe Bay and Picnic Bay. There are lots of snorkel spots outside of these 3 areas but it is important to remember to wear your stinger suits during stinger season (Nov-April)!

You can explore the remains of the WW2 fort

The port of Townsville was of strategic importance during the 2nd World War. It was the main supply depot for Allied troops in the southeast Pacific. As the Japanese forces moved southwards an Australian invasion was feared.

So to enhance the defences of the city fortifications were built on Magnetic Island. Acting almost like an early warning system for the mainland and forward operating base in terms of defence.

The fort was armed with French 155 millimetres (6.1 in) M3 guns on Panama carriage mounts. The guns can now be found atop the Jezzine barracks in Townsville. Just the mounts remain, although the lookouts from which the soldiers would spy incoming ships are still easily accessible and provide amazing panoramic views!

magnetic island forts panorama
The panoramic views from the forts were special

While many of the living and mess quarters are pretty much non-existent any more, there are a few of the lookout posts that are still well maintained.

Even if you’re not really into military history, the forts walk is worth it just for the views of the island it gives you.

It’s where the Koalas are at

One of the main reasons people visit Magnetic Island is the chance to see a Koala in the wild. Yes, you can go see and cuddle one at the Koala sanctuary at the YHA hostel but it’s not quite the same thing as seeing one in the wild is it?

Magnetic island just so happens to have the highest population of Koalas per square Km in the whole of Australia. So you’d think your chances of seeing one are quite high right?

One of their well-known hangouts just happens to be the fort. So if you’re after seeing a Koala that’s another good reason to check the fort out.

It’s not guaranteed though.

My friends and I went searching all over the Island in our hire 4WD and didn’t manage to spot a single Koala. Much to our disappointment.

You can make friends with the Wallabies

While I didn’t manage to see a wild Koala, I did get to make friends with a little rock wallaby. That made up for the lack of Koalas a little bit.

Calling Geoffrey Bay home, the rock wallabies can often be found hanging around the rocks. They are really friendly (especially when there is food involved) and don’t really mind you getting up close to them. If they are in a really good mood you can even pet them.

magnetic island wallabies
This guy was super friendly

Like all wild animals your not supposed to feed them (and we didn’t) but there were already people there who had taken them appropriate snacks. If you really do want to feed them then please stick to apple, sweet potato, carrot, papaw and rockmelon.

You can check out the waterfalls

Only really a wet season adventure, the waterfalls are supposedly worth visiting. Especially if you need to cool off on a hot afternoon.

I was there during the dry season so I didn’t get to see the waterfalls. If you get to experience them please do let me know what they are like.

Magnetic Island looks like someone just dropped a pile of rocks into the sea and just left it there. There are rocks and boulders everywhere! It is one of those lesser known spots on the east coast but is absolutely worth a few days of your time.

I hope you have as much fun as I did when you visit

Until next time

Keep Adventuring


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the ultimate backpacker guide to magnetic island





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2 thoughts on “Magnetic Island: the ultimate backpackers guide

  1. This has brought back so many memories!! Magnetic Island is such a beautiful place! I was the other way around – I saw koalas but not the rock wallabies! I also stayed at Base, such a great hostel. I loved the beach bungalows. 🙂 I could definitely spend more time on the island.

    1. I’m glad I could help you relive your time there! Yeah I know right, it was so much more than what I was expecting and like you I could go back there and explore some of the other beaches that I didn’t get to

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