Cairns and Far North Queensland
The most northerly city of any size on Australia’s east coast, Cairns is the entrée to one of the most sensational parts of the island continent, the tropical wonders of far north Queensland.The showstopper in this part of the world is the Great Barrier Reef. Stretching along the Queensland coast for more than 1200 miles, the reef is one of nature’s most dazzling creations. The moment when you first put on a snorkel and face mask, plunge into the water and lie suspended on the surface as fish swarm around in a kaleidoscope of pin stripes, polka dots, rainbows and neons is one that you won’t forget in a hurry.
However what lies above the waterline in the Cairns region is just as marvellous. Set on the banks of the Barron River above Cairns, Kuranda is a fantastic collage of creepers, flowering trees, strangler figs, tree frogs, moss, giant butterflies and orchids. The way to get there is aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway, on a two-hour journey that takes you through lush rainforests, over deep gorges and past the spectacle of Barron Falls, and finally to Kuranda Station, submerged in tropical greenery and staghorn ferns,
Kuranda is also the gateway to the Atherton Tableland, a rich agricultural region endowed with banana, sugar cane, coffee and macadamia plantations, and home to waterfalls and the massive Curtain Fig Tree, a strangler fig that started life high in the forest canopy, and eventually swallowed its host tree as it grew into a swollen giant.
Located just north of Mareeba, the largest town in the tablelands, Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve is a series of man-made lagoons that filled in the late 1990s, and today the transformation from dry and dusty paddocks to teeming wetlands has been phenomenal. Close to 200 bird species have been recorded at the reserve, including brolgas, darters, jacanas, black cormorants, jabirus and sarus cranes, the world’s tallest flying bird. Just standing on the deck of the Visitor Centre offers exceptional birdwatching. Better still is the Sunset Reserve Safari, aboard an electric-powered boat which glides noiselessly through the snowflake lilies and lotus buds, allowing close approach to the wetland where the sarus cranes descend to roost in the evening.
Just over an hour’s drive north of Cairns, along a road shaded by giant mango trees, the rushing Mossman River has gouged a passage through the rainforest. A walking trail weaves along the banks of Mossman Gorge, between giant trees lassoed with strangler figs and anchored to the ground with vast buttress roots, past fern gardens, trickling creeks and a mossy, oozing understorey. Close to the gorge, the road passes a small community of the Kuku Yalanji people, the traditional owners. A recent addition here is the Mossman Gorge Cultural Centre, a window on this botanical treasure chest and an interpretative centre for the Kuku Yalanji, for whom this is a food and medicine resource as well as a powerful source of spiritual nourishment.
A short drive further north takes you to the car ferry across the Daintree River, and from tamed farmland into rioting forest. On the north bank is Cape Tribulation National Park, part of the Greater Daintree World Heritage area, a remnant of the forests in which flowering plants first appeared on the planet. The activities and accommodation base for the region is the tiny village close to Cape Tribulation.
This is another region steeped in indigenous culture, and the best way to experience it is with an Aboriginal guide on a Daintree Dreaming Day Tour, following the songlines through the traditional country of the Kuku Yalanji and Guugu Yimithirr peoples. Along the way, travellers sample bush food and medicine, try their hand at spear-fishing and explore rock art that offers an insight into Aboriginal concepts of society and spirituality.