Just when I think I already live in a remote part of Tropical North Queensland, I travel in a different direction to discover even more far-flung, yet equally picturesque places. And this Christmas was no exception. It’s my 8th one away from ‘home’ with just me and the Sailor, minus family or obligatory traditions, so I decided to send us off-grid for a while to visit the Atherton Tablelands, a remote hinterland just an hour away from Port Douglas.
Driving up some 1’000 meters of windy roads- with my new hiking book in hand & our near-new camping gear stuffed in the back- I was pumped for our 12-day adventure. Yet even after solely planning this trip to the minutest detail, I would still be totally amazed with what this region had to offer, and I’d soon discover a new found appreciation for toilets.
We started off near Mareeba which first grabbed my attention because of the rum distillery there, and being Christmas I wasn’t going to let that one slide. I booked a place around the corner called Granite Gorge which I found out was an area native to a small colony of endangered Rock Wallabies.
As we arrived a handful of wallabies bounced over to check us out whilst we unloaded our things, and it was one of those dreamy Aussie moments when you know you’re undeniably Down Under. To top it off, as I entered our cabin I found a beautiful peacock camping on our balcony, which must have been his favourite spot considering the poos he left on the deck! They all became regular visitors.
As the planner of this entire trip, it’s nice to know I’m getting better at it.
We were both blown away by how nature rich this area was, and it started off our holiday perfectly. After waking up to blissful views and birdsong, we explored the hiking track around the gorge, traversing over huge rocks & through low lying Eucalypt forest which was teeming with life. The only sounds were from the cicadas and kookaburras, and the walk was pleasantly flat. Usually we need to hike up some pretty epic steep trails near our home, so it was nice not sweating a bucket!
We bought a pack of dry food with us and regularly stopped to feed the wallabies along the way. They were generally really cute and well-kept, although a few older ones looked a bit worse for wear with scratches around their body. They were often the dominant alpha-males who got into scraps with the others in an effort to hog the food.
Approaching dusk each night, we perched up on a granite boulder with a stubby (that’s a beer for my non-Ozzie friends) and watched the sky turn from pink to purple and a rainbow of other colours. As we did, we got to hang out with our new furry mates a little more and they knew this was feeding hour as, one by one, they all followed each other over.
I emigrate often so haven’t had a pet for years, but I’ve really missed spending time with animals. It was awesome getting so close to these friendly marsupials and watching the joeys bobbing around in their mama’s pouch was beyond cute. It was such a detox being here, even for a spoilt gal that lives in Port Douglas! 😉
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Camping at Lake Tinaroo
Our next stop was camping at Lake Tinaroo, about 40k southeast of the Gorge.
Despite it’s name, Lake Tinaroo is not actually a lake at all. Officially it’s a man-made reservoir with 200 meters of shoreline, built in 1952 to supply water to nearby crops. But to call it a lake sounds much more serene.
Somewhere deep at the bottom is a small village called Kulara that got flooded during its inception, as well as the old railway line that occasionally makes an appearance when the water is low. There’s also a resident population of freshwater crocodiles in the lake, but I don’t think a lot of people know that!
The campground was set within the fringing forest so it was blissfully rural, with a rich ecosystem right on its doorstep. I carefully picked a campsite with unobstructed views of the dam, which sparkled majestically in the midday sun.
But because it was December and we were in Queensland, I severely underestimated the heat intensity and didn’t factor in the need for shade. So as we tried to put the tent up and pump up the bed in 35°C heat with pounding sunlight, we were roasting like a Christmas turkey!
I’m still quite new to this camping thing. In fact, this holiday I was trying to prove to the Sailor that I’m not just a 1-day camper, a nickname I inherited over 10 years ago because of this one time in Prague. So optimistically, I booked us in for 3-nights.
The wonderful thing about camping is that not only does it get you in touch with nature and back to your primitive roots, but it teaches you how to slum it and appreciate the little things in life we take for granted.
In particular, I discovered a new found appreciation for AC, and flushing toilets.
The toilets here were of the composting kind and were surprisingly cleaner and less smelly than I was expecting. When I got past the disturbing image of a whole heap of cockroaches scattering at the bottom of the pit when I opened the lid, going to pee wasn’t that bad. But doing anything else on a compost toilet is another kettle of fish entirely.
As if by coincidence, I’d earlier read an unlikely article in the November edition of ‘What’s On & Where To Go on the Tablelands‘ about Traveller’s Constipation. It was written by a Health Practitioner in Karunda who actually gives a lot of useful advice on ‘how to go’ on a trip, but none of it was well-suited to going in a drop hole.
One piece of guidance was ‘to make yourself comfortable’ and ‘consider raising your legs by placing books, or whatever you have on hand, to put you in a semi squat position’. I tried to imagine that for just a second, and pictured myself accidentally falling deeper into the dirt hole and getting my butt stuck whilst the cockroaches came to investigate. Needless to say, I didn’t take her advice.
Close to dusk on the first night, the sun was slowly setting over the horizon in a breathtaking manner, but we barely got to sit and enjoy it. We were still trying to set up the camp and everything felt much harder in the heat.
The Sailor also insisted that we cook dinner on an open fire rather than use the portable gas cooker for an “authentic camping experience”. So in the windless 32°C, we had logs of firewood blazing away whilst sporadic waves of smoke came to choke us out like bees. It reminded me a lot of that one time we camped in Prague!
Not content on making things easier for myself either, I decided to cook a campfire paella instead of simple snags. By the time the embers were ready, after an hour of sweating next to the fire, I discovered that they weren’t even hot enough to cook the food anyway! 🤦🏻♀️
I don’t think I’d last long on Survivor.
Once the sun bid farewell, the air finally started to cool and allow some respite. Feeling content after double serves of rice with chorizo, we sat having campfire conversations whilst the ground rustled away around us. There was an incredible amount of nocturnal animals in the area which I was unprepared for, with mammal species I’d never seen before.
We sighted small long-nosed bandicoots who are marsupials that look like cute rodents. Then a few pairs of possums- whose type I couldn’t identify, would casually stroll by as if we weren’t there. We also saw northern bettongs, which are also called ‘rat-kangaroos’ because they look more like rats than marsupials.
As they scuttled by we were also taken back by the stars, they were insane! I’ve always been mesmerised by them in Far North Queensland anyway as they shine brighter here than anywhere I’ve yet travelled to. But in this spot there were hundreds, and with no imposing lights from the city to overshadow them we could marvel at every single one. Our night experiences camping were my favourite moments at Lake Tinaroo.
The next day, despite the unrelenting heat, we moved our entire camp to a new site at the end of the lake for more shade. We also persisted with taking a hike at a nearby track called Torpedo Bay, which, like it’s name would suggest- was gruelling.
Unlike the easy stroll at Granite Gorge, this was one of those epically steep uphill struggles to the top with little shade from the blazing sun. It was also the 24th of December so it was the Sailor’s Christmas Day, and I don’t think he imagined the intensity of what I’d planned for him! We were dripping with sweat and our bodies were overheating from continual activity and overexposure to that flaming ball of gas. Merry bloody Christmas! I felt like a filthy animal.
For a moment I thought back to what it must have been like for all the first Europeans who came to Australia and had to lead expeditions through the baking bush. Life here in the sun without shade or even a whisper of wind can be punishing. Although I was developing a nice mahogany tan which was quite nice.
The next morning we decided to cut our losses and booked a stay in Yungaburra for a more comfortable night’s sleep on my X-mas Day, in favour of a flushing toilet and AC. You would have done it too, I’m sure of it!
The Sailor called it though, so now I call him a 2-day camper. 😉
Yungaburra is the prettiest town I’ve seen in rural North Queensland. Since it’s inception just over a century ago, it’s remained virtually untouched and has the most amount of heritage listed houses outside of regional centres in Queensland, a proud fact they like to write about.
Despite being one of the most popular towns in the Tablelands, today I learnt that the locals are also very serious about their Christmas holiday as *everywhere* was closed. It was like a ghost town.
Businesses in Yungaburra were slightly less conservative and only took a couple of days off, but in other towns I saw notices of two whole weeks.
The pavements were adorned with flowers and lined with artsy boutiques, country-style cafes and old bookstores, which I penciled in for when they reopened. Despite being eerily quiet, it was quite nice to casually walk around by ourselves and take pictures without feeling like we’re intruding.
We spotted a few other wandering souls floating about the platypus viewing platform, otherwise unsure of what to do with themselves in the deserted town. I hoped somehow they managed to find some food to eat as all the chefs were cooking their own feasts that night.
Fortunately we planned ahead and bought ingredients for a tuna salad the day before incase nowhere was open. Although it’s a peasant offering on Christmas day, every inch of it felt like luxury in our cottage.
And we were treated to a free measure of port on arrival, which nicely made up for the pub being closed.
South of the Atherton Tablelands
Although I got up to many more activities during my time here, for the fear of boring you half to death, I’m going to wrap up this article by taking you south of Yungaburra. It’s home to some of the most spectacular scenery in all the Tablelands, yet unfortunately it gets missed by most visitors.
The whole region was formed by a sequence of intense volcanic activity from thousands of years ago, creating sizeable and striking countryside landscapes. On the way down we stopped at a series of awesome waterfalls, including Australia’s widest single-drop cascade- Millstream Falls, and had to regularly just stop the car to gawp excessively at the majestic views.
But down here would reveal more to me that just its beauty.
Apart from the unquestionable scenery- the waterfalls, the crater lakes and rainforests- I was yet to explore the region’s rich pioneering history, its very intriguing remote towns, and find out about its native and colonial ancestors.
As it turns out, Cairns and Port Douglas probably wouldn’t even exist as they do today if it wasn’t for the Tablelands.
Ravenshoe– Queensland’s highest town (with Queensland’s highest Hotel/pub) and Herberton– the oldest town in the Tablelands, are two superlative townships at the southern end that I found the most fascinating.
Initially I felt really out of place when I first arrived to both of them. They’re so remote and eerily quiet by a regular town’s standards- even with most businesses open- and have a population under 1’000.
There were also virtually no other tourists around and it was obvious we weren’t from around here.
I’m used to getting frequently eyeballed from my time in Southeast Asia, but it was the first time I’d experienced it in Australia. We’d walk into a cafe, which had all but one table at their busiest lunch hour, and conversations immediately stopped. Every singe set of eyes came to look at us, making me feel like I’d just parked my space ship outside and asked for moon dust or something. I’m telling you, we stood out quite a bit!
Herberton became quite endearing after we’d hung out for a while and got over the instant stopping of conversations whenever we entered somewhere.
Walking down its pretty time-warped high street, apart from the addition of a spy camera shop, it appears to have changed very little since it’s inception 145 years ago. Except for perhaps getting smaller. It had a charming and typically chilled-out Queensland air about, whilst offering pleasing rural views from it’s hilly disposition.
It’s hard to believe this was once a bustling centre with over eight thousand residents, 17 pubs, two local newspapers and a brewery. When early prospectors came looking for gold but instead found tin in 19875, it became the richest tin mining field in Australia during it’s heyday.
And if it weren’t for the successes of Herberton, founded after the Aborigines some 55’000 years later by Irishman James Venture Mulligan, then the likes of Cairns wouldn’t have developed into such an important trading hub and thus the city it is today.
Even my beautiful home of Port Douglas wouldn’t be the seaside town it is now. It wasn’t established until two years later when gold was discovered at the nearby Hodgkinson River, again by explorer James Mulligan. I have a lot to thank Herberton for.
And if we thought that the town itself had is stepping back in time, then we were about to go further.
Offering a piece of it’s bygone era, surprisingly Herberton houses one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. Even the sailor left saying, ‘well that was fu**ing awesome!’ And we’re not usually museum people.
Set across 16 acres, The Historic Village Herberton is wonderfully put together and emulates the town’s early pioneering days during the early 1900’s. As I walked over the creaky wooden floorboards in over 60 original buildings and sighted a ridiculous amount of antiques, it gave a fabulous insight into life here back then, and old life in general.
It was like I’d just stepped into a Tardis.
Meandering through the tin mining quarters, a miner’s working and living conditions looked horrific.
After days of heavy lifting and hard graft, they came back to such primitive conditions. I complained after just hiking for a mere 3 hours in the baking sun at Torpedo Bay and sleeping in a tent- but these guys had it rough!
Afterwards it was pretty cool hiking in the old minefields nearby, which gave a real sense of scale and realism. We traversed up to Mt Emerald using the original walking tracks blazed by miners alongside former mine shafts, and imagined the hundreds of workers ploughing away in the mineral-rich fields.
I was equally impressive with how well history has been preserved here. You can find restored buildings, original mullock heaps and abandoned shafts.
It vividly shows you how Far North Queensland was able to transform from an untouched native wilderness, into a colonised powerhouse that would grow into one of Australia’s most iconic tourist hotspots.
* * *
Stepping back outside the museum and walking down Herberton’s rather pretty high street felt like I was still inside the museum. But after finding out about its past, I strangely felt a deeper connection to its present, and no longer viewed it as somewhere foreign and unknown.
The Atherton Tablelands surprised me a lot this holiday. It was filled with boundless natural beauty, geological wonders and incredible native wildlife, but also had a strong sense of heritage and history. It’s one of those slightly magical places that makes a lasting impression on you for a long time to come.
Most tourists miss the remote southern end and stick to the main trail along the coast, but I’d highly recommend deviating a bit further off-grid to explore this bucolic hinterland.
Needless to say, I’ll be back.