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The Great Barrier Reef grabs the headlines, but travellers tracing their fingers on a map of Far North Queensland often forget there’s just as much natural beauty to discover inland.
It centres on a region stretching from Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands. This stunning sprawl is a place of dramatic geography, ancient rainforests and beautiful tropical rivers. From brilliant boat tours and surging wet-season waterfalls, to luxury lodge stays in old gold-mining townships, here’s what to check out when adventuring through this northern Australian paradise.
Touch Down in Cairns
Cairns isn’t a city you visit, but one you experience. Wedged between the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef in the east and the Atherton Tablelands in the west, it’s a jumping off point for once-in-a-lifetime cruises, snorkelling and rainforest tours. But Cairns is also a destination in its own right, with first-class restaurant, bars, hotels and attractions. Dine out at exceptional eateries such as Tamarind, Ochre and The Chambers, or make a day of it on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or a tour to nearby Fitzroy Island. And if you just want to check in to check out, head to the city’s secluded northern beaches for a night or two at Palm Cove, a poster-pretty seaside village where holidays slip by at a slightly slower pace.
Cruise through the rainforest on a Kuranda Riverboat Tour
Half an hour south-west of Cairns lies this brilliant river tour. Setting out from the Kuranda township, it takes you on a 45-minute commentated cruise through the world’s oldest living tropical rainforest. The river is home to an enormous variety of wildlife, such as freshwater crocodiles, turtles, snakes, water dragons, fish and more than 100 species of tropical birds, and you’ll also get in touch with the history of Kuranda itself. If you have time, take the cruise as part of a package with entry to Kuranda Koala Gardens and Birdworld Kuranda, and a guided rainforest walk.
Discover the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves
Parts of the Atherton Tablelands further west of Cairns aren’t just about lush rainforests and cascading waterfalls. Take a two-and-a-half-hour drive west through Mareeba and you’ll find yourself in what feels like the middle of the outback. This is Chillagoe, an old mining town now better known as the gateway to a series of breathtaking limestone caves. The Royal Arch Cave is one of the largest cave systems in the area, with 11 separate chambers to investigate, but the smaller Trezkinn is the iconic draw– its extraordinary “chandelier” stalactite formations need to be seen to be believed. The Donna, Trezkinn and Royal Arch caves can be self-toured, but you’re better off exploring them with a park ranger, who’ll talk you through their fascinating geology.
Stay at Mt Mulligan Lodge
This is where to head if you want to dwell in the outback a little bit longer. Perched beside a beautiful weir on a working cattle station, Mt Mulligan Lodge is a luxurious escape into Australian country life. There are old coal mines and goldfields to discover, and at the right time of year you can get your hands dirty with a spot of cattle mustering. Otherwise, it’s the kind of laid-back luxury you’d expect from an all-inclusive boutique resort: scenic helicopter flights, stargazing and twilight drinks looking out upon the rocky plateau that looms above the lodge. The accommodation itself is a beautiful central building winged by four spacious outback pavilions, which can be configured into different room types. It means you’ll only ever share this place with a maximum of 15 other people.
Explore the Waterfall Circuit
The tablelands boast a stack of spectacular waterfalls, which during the wet season tumble over the region’s dramatic landscape into Instagram-ready waterholes, rock pools and rivers. A neat way to round-up three of the very best is to explore the Waterfall Circuit, 90 minutes south-west of Cairns. A meandering route into the mountains takes you past Lake Barrine and through historic Yungaburra before you reach the circuit, just outside Millaa Millaa. Start at the 18-metre Millaa Millaa Waterfall – one of Far North Queensland’s most famous falls – before making the short drive to the viewing platform overlooking Zillie Falls, which is a great spot for a picnic lunch. Ellinjaa Falls is another two kilometres down the road. Here, a 200-metre-long walkway leads to a lagoon at the base of the falls – if you’re feeling adventurous, venture out into the water to a ledge hidden behind the cascade. It’s an easy drive back to Cairns, but those with time on their hands should instead stay the night in Yungaburra and explore this old timber town’s beautiful high street, with its heritage-listed restaurants, cafes and shops. If you can, time your visit for the last Saturday of the month to pick up some arts, crafts and produce at the popular Yungaburra Markets.
The Queensland government currently has restrictions on entry to the state, public gatherings and recommends minimal social contact to minimise the spread of coronavirus. Some tourist destinations may still be closed, or operating at reduced capacity. If you’re concerned about travel or visiting public spaces, or have questions about self-isolation and coronavirus testing, check out the latest from the Queensland Government.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism Australia. Whether you’re seeking a quick getaway, lazy holiday or epic trek, Australia is a land of endless adventures. There’s never been a better – or more important – time to get out and explore. Take a Holiday Here This Year.