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Just when I think I already live in a remote part of Tropical North Queensland, I travel in a different direction to find even more far-flung, yet equally picturesque places. And this Christmas was no exception.
The Sailor and I have come to bypass conventional celebrations over the years in favour of exploring somewhere new. With no family around for thousands of miles, Christmases have become a time for adventure, escaping into nature and investing in experiences over gifts. I guess that’s become our new tradition.
This year I arranged for us to visit the Atherton Tablelands, a vast and verdant hinterland just an hour’s drive from our home in Port Douglas. With 12 days to spare, we had 65’000 square kms to play with and six different stays. We don’t do things by halves.
Once we drove up 100 kilometres of windy roads, the air quickly cooled and the rainforest became deforested. Mango farms, banana plantations and other crops lined us either side and settlements were sparse. It reminded me a lot of the rolling English countryside, until the ground roared an outback red that’s so iconically Australian.
Our trip started off perfectly in Mareeba on the North-West tip of the Atherton Tablelands. The area first grabbed my attention because of the rum distillery there, and being Christmas I wasn’t going to let that slide!
I booked a place nearby called Granite Gorge which is an area native to a small colony of rock wallabies. We spent the first couple of days exploring the gorgeous Eucalypt forest surrounding the premises, winding-down into holiday mode and hanging with our new furry mates. I must say, I don’t think I could have planned a more enjoyable first stay.
After a quick taste of some local award-winning spirits at Mt Uncle and meeting their resident alpaca, our next stop was a little more adventurous. Located about 40k southeast of the Gorge, I’d arranged for us to go camping at Lake Tinaroo.
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 so we could wake up with a gorgeous views. So far, so good.
Then as we started assembling the tent and manually blowing up the mattress things started to slowly decline…
Before I go any further I’ve got to admit that I’m still quite new to this camping thing! I never went as a child and have only been a handful of times as an adult. Whilst I admire hardcore Aussie bush campers, I’m no way at that level yet!
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 downside to our particular site, I realised early on, is that that there were no trees around us for shade and we were already in the throes of Queensland’s summer. In pounding sunlight and roughly 35°C as we set up camp, it didn’t take long to begin roasting like a Christmas turkey. And I mean, drenched and dripping in sweat kind of heat!
We quickly became pretty groggy with each other in the process and the comforts at Granite Gorge felt far away.
I’d also arranged a campsite with compost toilets, then quickly regretted my decisions when I opened up the lid to find a whole heap of scattering cockroaches at the bottom of the pit. 🙈 Surprisingly though, it was less smelly than I was expecting.
When I got past the disturbing image of crawlies below me, going to pee wasn’t that bad. But I learnt that doing anything else on a compost toilet was 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, except 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. 🙈
Although tempting, I didn’t take her advice.
So whilst the sun was slowly setting over the horizon in a breathtaking manner, 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 open flames, I discovered that they weren’t even hot enough to cook the food anyway and had to use the gas cooker! 🤦🏻♀️
I don’t think I’d last long on Survivor.
I must say though, a major upside to camping here was the wildlife. When we finally chilled out at night, the ground rustled away around us with an incredible amount of nocturnal mammals, all of which 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 (above), which are also called ‘rat-kangaroos’ because they look more like rats than marsupials. It was like a free wildlife show!
I’d often wondered why we hadn’t seen many mammals in North Queensland and this experience taught me why. Most are shy and nocturnal, so experiences such as this are the best way to sight them without hours of searching.
Just to think that early settlers in Australia once contemplated bringing monkeys over- what a disaster that would have been for the natives.
The next morning we moved our entire camp to a new site at the end of the lake for more shade. I also thought it’s be a good opportunity to take 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 a steep uphill struggle to the summit with little protection from the blazing sun. It was also the 24th of December so it was the Sailor’s Christmas Day (he’s from Czech Republic) and I don’t think he imagined the intensity of what I had planned for him!
For about 2 hours we slogged away to the summit drenched in sweat whilst our supply of water quickly evaporated.
Despite being the only two crazy people hiking in the Atherton Tablelands that day, the area was really remote and beautiful. Whenever an opportunity arose, we stepped into a shady spot and admired views of the dam- it looked even better from above.
For a moment I couldn’t help but imagine what life must have been like for the region’s early settlers. Leading expeditions through the rugged bushland in intense heat must have been punishing, particularly when there’s no modern-day luxuries to retreat back to.
The next morning we decided to cut our losses and booked a stay in Yungaburra for a more comfortable night’s sleep for 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 Atherton 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 needing to wait for a clear shot.
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. Things are looking up again!
Whilst 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. 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 along the way to excessively gawp at the views.
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. With a population under 1’000 and virtually no other tourists around, it was quite 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.
In the first cafe we walked into, which had all but one table at their busiest lunch hour, conversations immediately stopped. Every 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.
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’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 which helped with the creation of Port Douglas and Cairns.
If we thought that Herberton’s dozing high street was like stepping back in time, then we were about to go even 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 was wonderfully put together and emulates the town during it’s pioneering days in 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 clearly 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 we took a hike in the former minefields which was seriously cool. We traversed up to Mt Emerald using the original walking tracks blazed by miners alongside forgotten shafts, and imagined the hundreds of workers ploughing away in the mineral-rich fields.
It was here that I was able to see the humble beginnings of Far North Queensland and how it was able to transform from an untouched wilderness into one of Australia’s most iconic tourist hotspots. At least, I mean Cairns and Port Douglas.
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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.