6 of the best Queensland adventures
With underwater exploration of one of the world’s natural wonders, a remote island trek, world-class MTB trails, sublime climbing and epic 4WD touring, Queensland shows size can matter.
1. Trekking: The Thorsborne Trail
VIDEO: Footage by Drew Hopper | Editing by Alex Palmer
Hinchinbrook Island sits 8km off Queensland’s Cardwell coast (the small town of Cardwell is roughly midway between Cairns and Townsville) and is the physical embodiment of a Hollywood tropical island wonderland. Hinchinbrook is one of Australia’s largest island national parks – it covers 39.3sq.km – and it is on this wonderland that 40 hikers a day get to experience true tropical Queensland conditions when they tackle the four-day, 32km Thorsborne Trail.
This world-rated multiday hike starts in the island’s north, at Nina Bay, with hikers winding their way south to the finish point of George Point (it can be walked in both directions). Over the course of the four days of moderate to challenging walking, following a track that is rarely maintained and thus is quite rugged and rough in places, you will move through everything from mountainous areas and long, deserted beaches, to eucalypt forest and dense, lush tropical rainforest, peppered with waterfalls.
Reaching the start of the Thorsborne entails a 40-min boat trip from the small coastal town of Cardwell, traversing the narrow Hinchinbrook Channel that separates the mainland from the island. As you move across the channel you’ll see an abundance of mangrove. This plant thrives here; this channel is claimed to be one of the largest mangrove habitats in the tropical north. Marine animals, such as dugongs, dolphins and green sea turtles, are often seen here, with saltwater crocs also present.
Walkers can expect tropical forests, golden, sandy beaches, rocky headlands and bubbling creeks. The track itself is not graded and can be quite rough in parts so a good sense of balance, some multiday trek experience, and a sound level of trekking fitness are essentials for maximum enjoyment on the Thorsborne. The depth of the waterways will depend on the season; a big Wet Season dump of rain can cause creeks to rise dramatically, with the potential of leaving you stranded for a day or so, unable to cross, so it doesn’t hurt to allow for an extra day just in case, especially if you are walking the Thorsborne out of season.
As well as the main track, there are a number of detours, with the one-hour-return Nina Peak sidetrack worth the effort; you will nab great views of the island’s highest mountain – 1121m Mt Bowen – from this viewpoint.
The Thorsborne has seven campsites, with six of these near beaches. The standout campsite is the one at Mulligan Falls, toward the track’s southern section, where you camp under the rainforest canopy right near the waterfall itself.
The peak period is April to September, owing to cooler conditions. You must also be self-sufficient, carrying all food/supplies/equipment, and even though there are creeks on the island, they can run dry s, so it is advisable to take a minimum of 4L of water per person as a backup. Also pack water purification tablets (or a filter). It’s a great trek and, at four to five days, makes for brilliant hiking bang for your bucks in terms of both time and scenic rewards. – Justin Walker
Best time to go: April to September, but the Thorsborne can be walked all year. Just be aware that in the Wet Season, high rainfall can cause creek flooding on the track.
How to get there: Virgin and Qantas both offer flights to Cairns and Townsville.
2. Paddling: Whitsundays Ngaro Sea Trail
Image: Mark Watson/Alex Bortoli
Named after the traditional owners, the Ngaro Sea Trail is a five-day sea kayak journey that sees you paddle between Whitsunday, South Molle and Hook islands, and sample each of these island’s many walking tracks.
The beauty of the Ngaro Sea Trail is it can be as big or as small an adventure as you want it to be. Be conscious of your skill level when it comes to planning your journey as, even though the waters surrounding these islands can seem benign, the weather can change quickly. Being fit and prepared for all circumstances when it comes to weather – and being confident in your self-recovery technique, expedition skills and open water skill set – ensures a fantastic five days of paddling and camping in some of the best sites in Oz. If you’re not sure you’d be comfortable tackling the journey on your own, the alternative is to sign on to a guided paddle adventure. In some ways, this is the best option for the Ngaro Sea Trail as you’ll be both well looked after (read: safe) and also get more insight into the route’s culture and history.
Picturesque Shute Harbour, on the northeastern beachside border of Conway National Park, is your starting point. From here, your first night’s destination will depend on fitness levels but more heavily on the weather. The nearest island campsite is South Molle Island’s Paddle Bay – a great first-day option (only 8km) if the easterly winds are blowing. If it’s calmer, then either Henning Island, directly east of Shute Harbour, or Cid Island, to the northeast, are good options for the first paddle, with Henning Island around 19km from Shute Harbour.
Once you leave Henning Island head north and try to reach Sawmill Beach in the early afternoon before tackling the walking track up to Whitsunday Peak, a lofty 435m above the water. If it is a clear day, you’ll cop some amazing views out and across South Molle Island and back to where you started from on the mainland. The campsite near here is just around the bend, at Dugong Beach.
From here, you have two options for the next day. If it’s calm, we’d recommend sticking close to Whitsunday Island and paddling north, with the aim of reaching the Ngaro Cultural Site at the head of Hook Island’s Nara Inlet.
From Nara Inlet, the campsite of Curlew Beach (which you would have paddled past) is just a small paddle back out of the inlet and sets you up for either a return trip across Whitsunday Passage to the mainland or a continuation around the eastern coastline of Whitsunday Island, via Hook Passage, the narrow waterway that separates Hook Island from the tip of its larger southern sibling.
The paddle down Whitsunday Island’s eastern side can take from two to four days, depending on weather, but there are myriad campsites along that coast. So, if you have the time, take it; once you’re back on the island’s southern end, civilisation is only a day’s paddle away and, after a week in a kayaker’s paradise, you won’t want to rush it. – Justin Walker
Best time to go: April to September.
How to get there: Virgin and Qantas both offer flights to the Whitsundays, via Brisbane.
More info: For everything you need to know to plan your Whitsunday Ngaro Sea Trail adventure, see nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/whitsunday-ngaro-sea-trail/about.html.
Salty Dog Kayak offers guided trips on the Ngaro Sea Trail. See www.saltydog.com.au.
For all things Whitsunday Islands, see www.tourismwhitsundays.com.au.
3. MTB: Atherton Mountain Bike Park
Image: Mark Watson
Tropical North Queensland might seem like an unlikely mountain bike hotspot – after all, it’s a billion degrees and 100 per cent humidity half the time, and the jungles are seething with things that can kill you – but Cairns and the surrounding region has become a booming mountain biking destination.
A spate of investment and trail building has brought the domestic spotlight and international attention to Cairns in a huge way – the World Champs return to Cairns again in 2017, and there are trails proliferating like mould in a backpacker shower block. And it’s not just Cairns itself that’s flourishing, but the entire region, including the very special town of Atherton, perhaps one of the most underrated gems in Australian mountain biking.
You’ll find this cruisy township an hour’s drive inland from Cairns, up on the tablelands, 800m above sea level. As you head up the hill, the vegetation thins out and humidity drops off, and soon you’re surrounded by a lumpy volcanic landscape, banana plantations, cattle stations, and rambling wooden pubs.
Atherton itself has none of the glitz of Cairns – it’s just 7000 folk, keeping it low-key, and harbouring one of Australia’s most sensational trail networks in Australia, the Atherton Mountain Bike Park.
Atherton has the exact bones needed to build a successful mountain bike town: a great climate, sensational terrain, and an opportunity to plug a network of trails directly into the town itself. With the recent opening of a new trailhead (with change rooms and bike wash facilities) right on the main street, and a new link trail out to the network, the riding is more accessible than ever – roll from the coffee shop into the singletrack, and back out to the pub a few hours later, all on purpose built trail.
A mix of trail builders, including two of Australia’s most reputable trailsmiths, World Trail and Dirt Art, have contributed to Atherton’s staggering 55km-plus trail network. Most of the riding is absorbing flow trail, best suited to cross country or trail bikes – there’s nothing technical enough to require a long-travel bike, but the fast surface will keep you on your toes.
The easier trails all fall in the lowlands, and the intermediate trails cloverleaf off, taking you way out into the hills. It’s a smart layout that’s ideal for groups of mixed abilities – everyone gets in a good ride. The official trail maps are numbered and highlights include the bobsled descent of Trail 9 and the epic Trail 12, which loops off onto a life-changing descent and a scenic, gradual climb that takes you to the park’s highest point. For shorter loops, climb up to The Roundabout, and link up Trails 6 and 7.
All up, Atherton has more than enough riding to keep you knackered for at least a couple of days, especially if you whack in a day trip to the nearby trails of Davies Creek too. While the climate is generally milder than Cairns, summer is still a steamy affair (it is the far north after all), so be prepared for a bit of a sweatfest in the warmer months.
The whole Tropical North and Cairns region is undergoing a huge MTB resurgence at the moment, with more than 700km of trails now documented, and Atherton is just one gem in a superb region for riding. Maybe it’s time to migrate north for the winter and take a look? – Chris Southwood
Best time to go: All year is fine, but summer can be belting hot. The cooler months (April-September) are preferable. Plan for a week so you can fully explore all the trail options at Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park – plus sample some awesome TNQ hospitality.
How to get there: Virgin and Qantas both offer flights to Cairns.
More info: www.ridecairns.com
4. Snorkeling: Great Barrier Reef
Not many people could argue that there is a better place for snorkeling in Australia than the Great Barrier Reef. Consisting of more than 3000 individual reefs and 900 islands – all set in tropical waters that drop no lower than 21°C during the coldest months of the year – the reef is a snorkeler’s dream and ranks high on most adventure bucket lists.
Running almost the entire length of the state, from Cape York down through to Bundaburg, the reef is the largest living thing on Earth, spanning an impressive 2300km along the coastline. It can be divided into three main types of reef – fringing, platform, and ribbon – each with their own unique coral structures and diving depths, and each suited to different skill levels.
Fringing reefs are generally the most common seen by snorkelers and are found attached to the mainland, or to the continental islands dotted through the marine park. They are easily accessible and to see them you need only find a beach, chuck on your gear, and hit the water. Because they grow closer to shore they are often not very deep, and you are more likely to see the more brightly coloured soft corals and anemones, which are displayed in most aquariums and fish tanks.
Platform reefs (also known as patch reefs) are scattered in the calm, shallow waters between the mainland and edge of the continental shelf. They are usually round or oval patches and often tend to be broken up, and you’ll need a boat to reach one. Many ports along the coast offer day trips to these systems where you can snorkel directly off the boat, and most will even provide the snorkeling gear. They’re in a little deeper water so you’ll find more of the hard coral structures and bigger marine life like turtles, rays and even reef sharks, though some might find swimming against the offshore currents a little harder.
Ribbon reefs, while stunning, are harder to get to. They line the continental shelf and to get there you’ll not only need a boat, but one you can overnight on, as they’re located a minimum 65km off shore. These massive structures snake along the continental shelf and form “walls’ of coral that in some places can be over 20m tall. They form their own bomboras against incoming ocean currents and the waves and constant pull from the currents can be a little hard going – but the marine life here is as stunning as the coral with many of the larger species of reef fish and sharks living among coral as big as a VW Beetle.
Snorkeling is a great outdoor activity, and one suited to all ages (check out AG Outdoor’s snorkeling ‘How To’ in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue), and the Great Barrier Reef is without a doubt the best place for it. Just remember to always snorkel with a buddy, apply loads of sunscreen, and don’t touch or handle anything below the surface. – Jess Teideman
Best time to go: All year is fine, but watch out for stinger season from October to May. The cooler months (April-September) are preferable and the water is still the perfect temperature.
How to get there: Virgin and Qantas both offer flights to Cairns.
Coral Expeditions offers guided diving on the GBR.
More info: www.greatbarrierreef.org
5. Climb: Frog Buttress
Nestled at the top of Mt French and looking out over a verdant rural landscape, Frog Buttress – Queensland’s best cliff – sits 100km southwest of Brisbane in an idyllic location in Moogerah Peaks National Park. Just 400m long – small for a world-class cliff – what the crag lacks in size it makes up for in quality, as Frog’s orange and brown rhyolite rock has formed into distinctive columns that create an abundance of smooth-sided, parallel cracks, for which the crag is famous.
Discovered for climbers by Rick White and Chris Meadows in 1968, it didn’t take long before Frog was at the cutting-edge of Oz climbing, with climbers tackling the cliff’s cracks with a new technique, dubbed ‘jambing’. Jamming (as it is more commonly spelled these days) involves slotting an open hand into a crack, then forming a fist that jams in the crack and can then be pulled up on.
One early landmark ascent was the hand crack of Odin (19) in 1971 by Barry Overs and Rick White, while in 1975 visiting American rock star, Henry Barber (who climbed a remarkable 25 first ascents in three days), climbed Australia’s first 23, Deliverance. In the early ’80s, there were more impressive ascents, including Flange Desire (27), a hard and dangerous route that was climbed in good style by Victorian climber Kevin Lindorff, who did it ground-up and essentially onsight (without pre-inspection). The crag’s hardest route, Whistling Kite (32), fell in 1988 to visiting Pom, Paul Smith, and even today is rarely repeated.
Don’t let the big numbers put you off. Frog Buttress has something for everyone. Easier classics include Witch’s Cauldron (12), Devil’s Wart (15) and Materialistic Prostitution (16). While not for everyone, a unique route is Satan’s Smokestack (16), which has a four-sided (enclosed chimney) that the claustrophobic will find terrifying.
Despite some great easy routes, the majority of Frog’s best cracks seem to fall into the range of grade 18 to 24, making it a mid-grade climber’s paradise. Some of the best include the perfect Infinity (19), Henry Barber’s endurance test-piece, Conquistador (21) and Impulse (24).
In a less popular style, Frog is also home to a number of ‘off-widths’ cracks. Because off-widths are larger than fist size and smaller than a chimney (where you can fit your body in), they are notoriously difficult and require all sorts of strange and often painful chicanery – arm-bars, stacked fists, leg jams – and not many climbers enjoy them, let alone can climb them. Some of Frog’s more notorious ‘man-eating’ off-widths include Sacrilege (18), Pollux (20) and Venom, possibly the world’s hardest grade 21.
Frog is no longer at the cutting-edge of climbing, and jamming is not a technique many modern climbers are fond of, but despite this it is still very popular, particularly with Queenslanders. While every winter (the best season for climbing), climbers from southern Australia flock north, visiting to soak up Queensland’s warmer temperatures and hone their jamming technique. – Ross Taylor
Best time to go: April-September offers more temperate conditions for climbing.
How to get there: Virgin and Qantas both offer flights to Cairns.
More info: www.thecrag.com
6. 4WD Touring: Cape Melville NP
Cape Melville is an isolated spot on the east coast of Cape York that is most easily reached from the vast Lakefield NP. From Kalpower Crossing, where the good dirt road ends, it’s just 77km on a reasonable dirt track to the old outstation of Wakooka. From here it takes between two and three hours to travel the 40km to the beach at Bathurst Bay and once there you have a wide choice of places to camp. There are a couple of designated camping areas spread along the beach towards Cape Melville, 12km to the north-east, although most people just pick a spot under the shady wongai trees that dot the low sand ridge back from the beach.
Turning left (west) here will take you a few kilometres to the mouth of the Muck River, which is a good fishing spot for barra and mangrove jack as well as a prime location to see an estuarine croc. These dangerous reptiles are extremely common throughout this whole area so make sure you are ‘croc wise’.
Turning up the beach for the run to Cape Melville itself can be tackled along the beach from where you first reach it, but there are a couple of larger creek crossings within the first two kilometres, which looked decidedly tricky when we were last there, so we opted to take the inland track which skirts these first few obstacles.
This inland track also gives access to the one and only source of freshwater in the nearby area – don’t pollute it! This route then drops down onto the beach proper about 5km north of the main access track and the beach here can be steep and soft. It’s a lot easier on the nerves if you are running this stretch at low tide as there are still a couple of smaller creeks to cross.
Further along the beach is a faint track junction, which leads a short distance inland from where you need to walk a few hundred metres to the Pearlers’ Monument. This memorial commemorates the lives that were lost in March 1899 when Cyclone Mahina swept ashore bringing with it winds of over 200km/h and a tidal wave. It washed around the rocks of the Cape to where the obelisk now stands. The storm sunk five pearling schooners and 54 luggers, while another 12 were washed ashore, all of which had been sheltering from the storm in the perceived safety of the Cape. An estimated 306 people were killed, while the tragedy remains the worst maritime disaster in Australian history.
The rocky headland where vehicle access ends has proved to be a treasure trove of new mammal and reptile species in recent years while the bay and the adjoining scrub and rocky hills also plays host to an array of birds and wildlife. It is a top spot for nature watching although the number of wild horses and even greater number of wild pigs may alarm you.
But for most people the area’s main attraction is its remoteness, the fine camping, its delightful beach and its fishing, whether you are flicking a line from the shore or dangling it from a boat. Long may it remain so! – Ron Moon
Best time to go: Rinyirru (Lakefield) NP is closed each Wet Season. Cape Melville NP is also closed over the Wet Season and generally open in late July/early August. For info and camping permits see www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/cape-melville/.
Nearest facilities/fuel to Lakefield or Cape Melville is Laura, or Musgrave.
More info: The best guide for the whole of Cape York is Ron and Viv Moon’s Cape York Travel & Adventure Guide. For details see www.guidebooks.com.au. The best map is Hema Maps’ Cape York.