Tropical North Queensland: adventure, culture, spirit
TROPICAL NORTH QUEENSLAND is among the most naturally diverse places in the world. This northern region of the sunshine state, from around Cardwell to the tip of Cape York, encompasses two World Heritage sites, the largest reef system in the world, ancient rainforest, and a playground for loads of outdoor activities.
There are so many world-class features to visit here that it will be difficult to narrow down your itinerary, especially if your time is limited.
To help you plan your trip, here are some of the top places to visit and things to do in TNQ:
1. Adventure in Daintree
The World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest is one of the last remnants of the lush tropical rainforest that once covered a large portion of Australia and is an important living record of the evolutionary processes of plants and mammals that have occurred since Gondwana times. This park is home to more than 3000 vascular plant species, of which 576 species are endemic; 107 mammal species including 11 endemic species; 368 bird species, of which 11 species are endemic; and 164 reptiles and amphibians species, including 46 of which are endemic.
Venture into the heart of this ancient rainforest on either short or longer hikes along one of the many tracks and boardwalks. For the most adventurous, Cape Tribulation gives you the opportunity to camp in the national park and lay your eyes on the Great Barrier Reef. This spot reveals a diversity of scents and colours, which you can take in during a walk on the beach, or for those who are also fond of marine encounters, by kayaking on the coastline. It’s here you can spot some of the most exotic species in Australia like the saltwater crocodile, the green tree frog, the southern cassowary, the azure kingfisher, or the Bennett’s tree kangaroo.
Some parts of the Daintree are only accessible by 4WD, but you can hire a vehicle to explore the some of the restricted trails, such as the Bloomfield Track, also known as the Coat Road, which links Cape Tribulation to Cooktown. For those experiences off-roaders, the rugged CREB track which links the Daintree to Wujal Wujal and the Burungu Aboriginal communities and is well worth the effort.
2. Kuranda: village in the Rainforest
A visit to Kuranda, in the heart of the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics, is a relaxed way to experience the rainforest without having to get your shoes too dirty. This town is only a 40-minute drive from Cairns, but is not the only way to get to this picturesque village. The Kuranda Scenic Railway offers a spectacular journey for those who are ready to step into the past and along the pathway of the pioneers of northern Queensland. This railway, which was constructed by hand more than 130 years ago, is a tremendous piece of engineering. This 1h 45m ride passes by fabulous views of the rainforest and the spectacular Barron Falls from old-style carriages.
On a return journey back to Cairns, you can fly instead of ride. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway offers a different point of view above the rainforest canopy and through the Barron Gorge National Park. It takes only 90 minutes to complete the 7.5km-long Skyrail journey, which leaves plenty of time to spot some of the 370 species of bird that live in the Wet Tropics.
3. Diving and snorkelling on the Outer Great Barrier Reef
Diving or snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef is an unforgettable experience. Known as the largest living organism on the planet, the GBR can be seen from space. The outer reef, less than two hours by boat from Cairns, is host to some of the most beautiful cays, reefs and marine inhabitants that the reef has to offer. Colourful corals and marine life thrive in these clear and warm tropical waters, which are accessible for all levels of divers and snorkelers. Hastings Reef, Agincourt Reef, Ribbon Reefs and Michaelmas Cay are some of the highlights.
4. Mission Beach: the Cassowary Coast
Mission Beach is a great way to spend your time relaxing on a tropical beach and enjoy the tranquillity of palm trees dancing in the ocean breeze. Situated only two hours south of Cairns, Mission Beach is at the heart of the Cassowary Coast and only few kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef. Wildlife encounters are common in this region, which is home to thousands of rainforest species, including the southern cassowary. This magnificent animal is one of the largest flightless birds in the world and is a keystone species vital for seed dispersal in the rainforest.
To catch a glimpse of this shy bird, take a walk on the Edmund Kennedy Memorial Walking Track or simply along the beach. And if you’re a history buff, step into the mind of an early Spanish dreamer who built the Paronella Park Castle in the middle of the rainforest, which has been open to the public since 1935. You can wander around the tranquil Mena Creek Falls, over stone bridges and tunnels covered by lush rainforests.
5. Mountain biking in the Atherton Tablelands
The Atherton Tablelands is a large elevated plateau of volcanic origins that provides a cooler climate than the rest of TNQ, and is located only an hour’s drive from Cairns. In addition to its rich volcanic soil, its distinctive location and topography makes it an ideal place for winemaking and dairy farming production, providing local restaurants and markets with fresh and gourmet food all year round. But it’s the mountain biking that attracts adventurers at heart. Cycling is considered as one of the best ways to explore these highlands and indeed, the Atherton Tablelands provides more than 40km of networked mountain biking trails for all levels of riders.
While you’re in the area, drop into the serene Millaa Milla Falls and the twin volcanic crater lakes of Barrine and Eacham, surprisingly refreshingly cold, even in the tropical heat.
6. Island hopping and natural pools around Cairns
Cairns is the largest town in Tropical North Queensland, but it is also the closest gateway to two World Heritage-listed sites, the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforest. This unique location makes Cairns a lively base for those exploring activities in the region From here you can book a trip to Fitzroy or Green islands, located only 45 minutes from town, or you can choose to dive with minke whales in the outer reef.
If you want to explore the coastal head north of Cairns and you’ll find beautiful golden beaches such as Trinity and Ellis Beach, but if you prefer to swim in fresh water surrounded by rainforest, head south to the boulders of Babinda. This natural pool, also known as the Devil’s Pool, is part of an Aboriginal legend where a woman threw herself into the stream calling for her lover who was taken away by his tribe. The legend holds that the woman’s voice can still be heard calling for her lover and attracts young men in the water.
7. See the Northern tip of Australia by 4WD
Standing on the northern tip of the Australian mainland after an off-road trip up Cape York Peninsula is an unforgettable journey, often rated as one of the greatest 4WD experiences in Australia. There are two options to get to the Tip, either by using the unsealed bypass road, or the more challenging Old Telegraph track via Bamaga. However, it is recommended that you to travel in the dryer months from April to October, as the tracks flood during the wet season. This adventure can take between one and four weeks (return from Cairns), depending on how much you stop to enjoy the scenery. These red dirt tracks run by pristine waterfalls like the magnificent Fruit Bat Falls, Eliot Falls and Twin Falls; as well as areas of important Aboriginal rock art; World War II ruins; and locations such as Loyalty Beach and the Jardine River National Park, which are full with wildlife encounters.
8. Cook Town – History of Australia
There is much more than rainforest, waterfalls, crocodiles and amazing reefs near Cooktown. This town is of particular significance to the first voyage of Captain James Cook and his discovery of eastern Australia. Go back in time to learn about the adventures of Captain Cook, who entered the mouth of the Endeavour River in June 1770, in order to repair the hull of his ship, the Endeavour, severely damaged by the adjacent reefs. It is near this river, on Grassy Hill, that Cook first recorded sights of the intriguing animal that the local Aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr tribe called ‘gangurru’ (which developed into ‘kangaroo’). “Some – reported that they had seen an animal as large as a greyhound, of a slender make, a mouse-colour, and extremely swift”, said Cook in 1773.
Take the time to visit James Cook Museum, which details his adventures and stories about his exploration of the Australian continent. There is still much evidence about the old gold-mining days where Chinese, Aboriginal and European people came together to this once thriving town full of rich history. Centuries-old canons, monuments, statues, the botanic garden and the old railway building are some of the attractive features to be enjoyed in this lovely, relaxed town. And if you get the chance to visit Cooktown in June, it is also an enriching experience to attend the re-enactment ceremony of the landing of Captain Cook and his interaction with the indigenous Guugu Yimithirr people.
9. Indigenous experience and rock art in Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) National Park
Tropical North Queensland has a strong Aboriginal heritage. Just a 30min drive south from Cooktown is the Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) National Park, made of enormous volcanic rock and home to four sites of spiritual significance for Aboriginal people. Part of numerous Aboriginal and Western legends, this mysterious mountain was responsible for the loss of life of many men who disappeared amongst the multiple caves and deep crevices.
Two hours west of Cooktown the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre near Laura, is a good starting point to book a tour to one of Queensland’s barely known gems and one of the top 10 rock art areas in the world, as ranked by UNESCO. On these sites you can appreciate paintings, stencils and engravings of Quinkan rock art, dating between 15,000 and 30,000 years old. More recent paintings, such as the Giant Horse Gallery, shows a time of interaction between Aboriginal people and Westerner, who brought horses with them. It is recommended that you book an Aboriginal guided walk in order to fully gain understanding of local indigenous culture and of the stories associated with each site. However, most rock art speaks for itself, representing creatures and local spirits called Quinkan people who lived in the region at the time they were created.
Every two years near Laura, one of the largest gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia takes place. For a couple of days, communities pass down dances and songs to the new generation and share this event with the outside world.
10. Hiking the Thorsborne Trail on Hinchinbrook Island
There are very few places left in the world where wilderness and pristine landscapes are both as preserved and close to civilisation as Hinchinbrook Island. In the southern tip of the Wet Tropics, only few kilometres from the coast and the town of Cardwell is the wildest and largest island national park in Australia. Surrounded by one of the most diverse mangrove channels in northern Queensland, the island is made of Palaeozoic igneous rocks giving form to astonishing Jurassic and misty landscapes. The Thorsborne Trail takes you past eucalypt forest, freshwater swamps, heaths, mountain rocks, rainforest, waterfalls and pristine beaches. Though it’s close to the coast, Hinchinbook has neither hotels nor water facilities, and at any one time, only you and 39 other lucky hikers can have the opportunity to venture on a 32km walk from one tip of the island to the other.