Life Is A Highway: Road Tripping Tropical North Queensland

23 April 2015
Read Time: 3.7 mins

A flock of magpie geese skims the water, settles on the surface and turns its attention to what lies below. A single white heron dips its head, unconcerned by their arrival or by ours as we settle quietly into the bird hide to watch.

Hasties Swamp National Park, on the outskirts of Atherton, is providing me with a glimpse of the rich variety of wildlife to be seen in Tropical North Queensland.

Beside me, wildlife photographer Sandy Carroll is pointing out the different birds in a hushed voice.

“I come here a lot and there’s always something to see,” says Sandy, who lives near the small town of Yungaburra, another stop on my week-long discovery of the Great Tropical Drive touring route.

From a base near Lake Eacham on the Atherton Tablelands, I’m intent on exploring as much of the region as I can, and the many self-drive routes that link the Great Tropical Drive make it easy to devise an itinerary to suit any timeframe or interest.

 Take the wheel in TNQ

The hard part is choosing one or more of the 13 driving routes linking the Tropical North’s many attractions but, once you do, you’re bound to see more than you expected.

Covering 2080 kilometres, the Great Tropical Drive takes in the coast route between Townsville and Cairns, as well as inland and Outback areas. It passes through six regions: Cooktown; Port Douglas and Daintree; Cairns and beaches; Mission Beach and the Cassowary Coast; Tropical Tablelands and Savannah Country; Townsville, Charters Towers and Hinchinbrook.

To do it all, you’d need at least 12 days (or more, depending on your pace).

I’ve ticked off some of the others on previous visits, so this time I’ve chosen to cruise just a few of the suggested routes.

Winding through the valleys and villages that dot the Atherton Tablelands, there are plenty of places to stop: the magnificent Curtain and Cathedral fig trees, (a legacy of the area’s gold rush days), the quirky Spy & Camera Museum and the historic village of Herberton, where restored buildings dating back to the 1870s are filled with memorabilia of times past.

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Early one morning, I join locals taking a dip in Lake Eacham, an invigorating start to another day of exploring. At Yungaburra, I discover the new Avenue of Honour, a memorial to Australia’s fallen soldiers in Afghanistan, and take time for a drink at the historic Lake Eacham Hotel.

At the Nerada tea plantation, the sight of tree kangaroos high in the branches is as welcome as the tea and scones served at the cafe.

Another day, we head to Innisfail, Australia’s Art Deco capital. This town of about 8000 people is brimming with beautifully kept and restored examples of Art Deco architecture. You can take a self-guided walk to explore them.

Innisfail sits at the junction of the North and South Johnstone Rivers, and we head through the hamlet of South Johnstone (dominated by a sugar mill) just as a sugar cane train rolls down the main street. It’s a reminder of the industry that is so important to this part of Queensland.

 Lush farmland in the Tropical North

But I’m intent on exploring another story. It’s the incredible tale of Spanish immigrant José Paronella, who in 1929 went about building a castle on the banks of Mena Creek, just outside South Johnstone. Now in ruins, surrounded by lush gardens and set on a lake with bridges and tunnels, Paronella Park has visitors flocking to see it.

A circuit of waterfalls on the Tablelands includes Millaa Millaa Falls – good for platypus-spotting – as well as Zillie and Ellinjaa Falls. At Malanda Falls, you might be lucky enough to spot an elusive Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo.

For those travelling further south, one of Australia’s most spectacular waterfalls is Wallaman Falls, in Girringun National Park, 50 kilometres northwest of Ingham in Hinchinbrook Shire. It is Australia’s longest single-drop waterfall, with water cascading almost 300 metres off a spectacular rock formation and into a large pool below.

Off the coast, Hinchinbrook Island is one of Australia’s largest island national parks. Transfers are available from the town of Lucinda, taking you across the calm waters of the Hinchinbrook Channel (keep a close watch for dugong).

A few days in Cairns opens up a different range of touring routes, including one through Kuranda that will allow you to explore the rainforest village’s many attractions (don’t miss the wonderful Australian Butterfly Sanctuary).

 Journey north to Palm Cove & Port Douglas

Most visitors to Cairns are there to experience one thing: the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef Fleet Terminal is bustling with tourists waiting for the boats that will take them to the outer reef, but we have wheels rather than water on our minds and are not to be seduced by the wonders of the reef on this visit.

First up is part of the Reef to Rainforest trail, taking us up the coast from Cairns, past the scalloped palm-fringed bays of the Northern Beaches. En route to Port Douglas by way of the Captain Cook Highway, we stop at Palm Cove for brunch. Once in Port Douglas, we explore the boutiques, bars and restaurants of this tourist town and take a walk on the long sweep of Four Mile Beach.

Beyond Port, as the locals call it, is the rainforest, water holes and Indigenous culture of Mossman Gorge, and across the Daintree River, the road leads to Cape Tribulation, the only place in the world where two World Heritage-listed sites meet.

“This is dinosaur country,” another traveller tells me as we take the cross-river car ferry, referring not to the saltwater crocodiles that live here but to the flightless cassowary bird we are all hoping to see. Since sightings are becoming as rare as they are, we are not lucky this time.

At Cape Tribulation, where the reef meets the rainforest, the sealed road ends. From here, the path north is the 4WD-only Bloomfield Track to Cooktown, an adventure in itself.

Tropical North Queensland is a place for the unexpected. Whether you are hugging the coast, touring the undulating Tablelands or striking out west to less-travelled places, you will find much to surprise you.


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Lee Mylne

Born in New Zealand, travel writer Lee Mylne has lived in England, Canada and the Middle East but has called Australia home for many years. Widely published in print and online, she is also the author of a dozen travel guides and anthologies.